Tuesday 14 February 2012

Doing It With an Alien Babe, and Other Things that Will Not Occur

I recently accessed my brain, and looked up whether aliens exist.

The answer is that aliens do exist, but human beings will never come into contact with them.

The Brainster and I felt that this was fairly interesting, and decided to elaborate with the following explanation.

Just one example of an alien babe you will not be doing.
The processes that led to reproducing organisms (‘life’) on earth were fairly remarkable, but by all accounts the universe is quite large.

At last count there are about 300 sextillion (believe it or not I didn’t make up that number!  It’s 3 with 23 zeros after it) stars in the universe, and most stars have planets orbiting them.

Not all planets are capable of creating or even sustaining life, but if just 1 in every 100 billion planets has the right conditions to create life, that could leave us with more than 3 trillion viable planets in the universe.

If you consider that that our sun has about 8 planets and at least 20 moons, the number of planets in the universe might be 10 times as high as the number of stars. 

In any case, there’s a butt-load of systems out there and it’s very likely that some of them have life forms.

However, the likelihood that humans will make contact with another species of intelligent, alien life is, in my humble opinion, exceptionally slim.

The first problem is attitude.

If you think aliens look like this, you are a moron.
As a species, over many years, we have come to accept that an alien probably won’t speak English.
Some of us have even been able to make the mental leap that aliens are not likely to look exactly like a human with large eyes and Michael Jackson's nose.

Take moss; the kind that grows on rocks.
Humans and moss come from the same planet, they live in the same environment, breathe the same air, live off very similar nutrients.  They’re made of almost exactly the same materials and have very similar blueprints, yet we tend to think of ourselves as massively different to moss.

It was only within the last 200 years that humans have been able to accept that we’re actually part of the animal kingdom.

An alien won’t live in our environment, breathe our air or eat our food.  It probably won’t be constructed from a base of carbon by a DNA blueprint. 
So we can reasonably expect that the minute differences between humans and moss will be as nothing compared to the vast differences between ourselves and alien life.

It’s easy to ridicule outdated perceptions that ‘little green men’ are the most outrageous alien life we can expect from the universe, but there may be other ways in which we are just as impaired (the technical term is chauvinistic) in our understanding.

Why are these aliens just standing around?
As far as I know, everyone who believes in the existence of aliens automatically makes the assumption that aliens will wish to make some kind of contact with us. 

We cannot seem to imagine a universe where we aren’t the coolest kids on the block.

This is what I disagree with.

Humans look for aliens because we want to understand and have knowledge of the universe, but is this a natural condition of intelligent life? 
Can we expect aliens to act in this way?

We want to know things so that we can feel like we’re in control, because we fear the unknown. 
For millennia our ancestors have gained knowledge to help them overcome problems of survival.  We thirst for knowledge in order to get fed, get sheltered and get laid.  It’s the fear of not being able to meet these needs that drives us towards discovery.  But what happens when survival is assured? Or more likely, what happens a thousand generations after all the needs of humanity are automatically met?

Searching for life in the universe requires a lot of effort, and the reason that we undertake it is because of our fear and our malcontent for our current level of power.  When intelligent life does not need to fight to survive, it will no longer yearn for greater power.  It will no longer need to encapsulate the universe in its understanding before it can stop worrying.

I believe that our current level of curiosity is not an inevitable product of intelligence, and nor is it an end point in the evolution of life on our planet.  I think that an advanced form of intelligent life would be more likely to display a contented disinterest in the rest of the universe, than a driving thirst for more knowledge.

But what if there were a species that were keen to make contact with us?  The next big problem would be in communication.

We seem to think that our senses are fundamental; that aliens are bound to see, hear, smell, taste or touch.  All of our communication between each other is based, at some level, on our senses and the data that they send to our brain.
But even in our own animal kingdom there is a myriad of senses that we have no experience of.
Dolphins, whales and bats visualise by using sonar.  Turtles ‘see’ earth’s magnetic field.  Snakes see infrared.  Bees see ultraviolet light.  Fish feel water pressure and some even see with an electrical field.
Those are all examples of animals that are more closely related to us than moss is!
Why should we believe that we will have any comprehension of the senses, let alone the thought processes, of alien life?

In fact humans are fantastically inept at interspecies communication.  Whales and humans are so closely related that they’re both mammals.  Whales are intelligent and use vocal language to communicate, yet how many of us can speak Whale?

We are remarkably uninterested in communicating with species less intelligent than our own, yet we believe that a highly developed alien species is going to be super-keen to have a chat with us.  There are probably intelligences out there that make our intellects look like that of an ant.  How many times a day do you attempt to pass your knowledge onto an ant? 
And you’re often pretty close to an ant. 
Aliens coming to earth to pass on their wisdom would be like me walking across the Sahara in order to communicate with an ant mound.

People just aren’t into that sort of thing, so I see no reason why aliens should be.

In fact, why should aliens need to use senses in the first place? 

If humans developed their mental presence, rather than focusing entirely on their physical presence, they could get to the point where their minds could create a perfectly functioning dreamworld.  Perhaps they would be interconnected, perhaps they wouldn’t need to be.  They could get rid of the clumsy, inefficient human body and live forever in their thoughts.

Why should an alien bother with the hassle of interstellar travel when it could access a universe in its own mind?  The very idea that aliens would require any sort of physical presence might be completely misguided.

Okay, so it’s unlikely that we’d be able to understand any alien communication, and even more unlikely that they would attempt communication in the first place, but what if they were inclined and we could understand them?

The last problem is time.

The universe is about 13 billion years old.  The earth is about 4 billion years old.  Humans are about 200,000 years old.  And only in the last 4000 years or so have we been interested in communicating with aliens. 
It’s wrong to imagine that the human race has reached the end of its development.  No eco system or species could stop developing unless it reached an unbelievable level of balance and contentment, and the first thing that this would exclude is any interest in alien life.  After all, how could you stop changing whilst continuing to search the heavens for new and exciting things?  Humanity a hundred generations from now will be unrecognisably different from the lives we currently lead, and there’s no indication that we, let alone our curiosity would continue on forever.

Say we survive and continue to care about space exploration for the next 8000 years.  That’s a pretty optimistic extent of time, particularly as the robots (with or without the human brain being involved) are already poised to take the reigns.

Say, also, that there’s an identical species of humans somewhere in our galaxy, and not only that, but our worlds are so close together that they are within 1% of our galaxy. 

I'd be sad too if I looked exaclty like a human with a small neck.

The first problem is that we’d probably miss each other.  If we live out the next 8000 years that would still mean that we’ve only been searching for aliens for 0.0003% of the history of our planet, and 0.00009% of the history of the universe.
Even if their society lasted a million years, the chances that our lifetimes would coincide are similar to the chances that you will give me $10,000.  (Just try and prove me wrong.)

But what if we did happen to hear from them tomorrow?

1% of the galaxy is at least 500 light years across (see previous post for what a light year is, or just google it, you dork).  So if we received a transmission today we could broadcast one back tomorrow, then 500 years later they’ll actually receive that transmission.  If they immediately reply, then that’ll be another 500 years to get the pleasantries out of the road.  By the time we got a dialogue going our 8000 years will be well over.  If they set out to reach us as soon as they got our message then that’s still an absolute minimum round trip of 1000 years. 

Humanity 1000 years from now will be so different that they might as well be aliens to us at this point.

Even in the best circumstances, communicating across the vastness of space would be like stretching a single conversation over the course of your life.  You’d start out with a gurgle, mention Ninja Turtles, then boobs, then government equities, then couches, then young people on your lawn, then you die. 
Even if the responses were unbelievably interesting, it’s easier just to talk to whatever dork you happen to live next to.

So that’s my thoughts on aliens; there’s probably a bunch of them out there but there’s too much time and space in the way and they probably couldn’t give a toss about us anyway.

If you’re interested in this stuff you should look out for books by Carl Sagan, Arthur C Clark, Paul Davies, Stephen Hawking and Isaac Asimov.

You don’t need to read them; just put them in your house.  Their presence will make you feel wise.

Sunday 12 February 2012

SuperCollider? I just met her.

I like Science Fiction.  It’s fun to read, write, watch and wear, particularly in hat format.

This impartiality has led me to conduct various sessions of low-quality research on the subject of cool space facts. 

Here’s some stuff I’ve picked up; hopefully there’s a thing or two in there that you didn’t know.

Part 1. Space n’stuff.

So space is curved.  huh?
It’s like this: If I throw a ball up in the air, it goes up for a while and then curves back down towards the earth.  The ball doesn’t turn a corner in the air; it travels in a straight line within curved space.
The gravity of the earth curves the space around it.

Everything that has mass (weight) has its own gravity.  You and I have our own gravity.  But the more mass you have the more gravity you have.  So our own gravity is completely overpowered by the earth. 

Imagine you had a big squashy floor, (like a really fat sheet of rubber or something) and you put a bunch of rocks on it.  Heavy rocks would make big depressions in the floor, while smaller rocks would make smaller dents.  This is a bit like space.  Heavy planets have more gravity.

Now imagine that you rolled a marble across the floor.  It would roll down the depressions and kind of get sucked towards the rocks.  This is how moving through space works; it’s just like a curved surface, except in three dimensions.

Another part of curved space is the concept of spacetime. 
Imagine we’re standing a short distance apart and I throw a ball to you.  If I lob it up in the air it might take two seconds to reach you, and if I throw it straight at you it might take half a second. 

What I can’t do is lob it up in the air in such a way that it only takes half a second to reach you, and equally I can’t throw it straight at you and make it take two seconds. 

This is because time is all wrapped up with the geometry of space.

Now, if we go back to rolling the marble across the bumpy floor, not only does the intrepid marble get sucked towards a heavy object, as it gets closer it also increases velocity (speed).  It’s like if you roll a marble down the side of a bowl, it picks up speed as it gets closer to the centre, and there’s a weird thing about this force.

If you’re in a car and you accelerate you feel g-force.  The car starts travelling faster than you, so it presses into your back which presses into your front and you get slightly compressed.  This is fairly mild in a car, but a car doesn’t travel that quickly. 

Too much g-force is bad.  This is the force that makes crashing your car unpleasant.  If it wasn’t for the g-forces involved you would just immediately come to a complete stop.

This was taken by Voyager.  The dot is Earth.
The satellite known as ‘Voyager’ is currently leaving the solar system at 61,200km per hour.  If you wanted to accelerate to that speed without suffering greater g-forces than what you experience normally in your car it would take about 50 minutes of accelerating.  But there’s a way to reach that speed almost instantly without any kind of g-force.

If you’re in an elevator and it suddenly goes upwards at 10 times the normal speed it would probably injure your legs.  But if the elevator suddenly falls downwards you immediately start accelerating towards the earth at high speed, but you don’t feel any g-force, in fact you’d be weightless.  That is, until it lands.

The reason that falling doesn’t involve g-force is that nothing is being compressed.  Gravity is pulling the elevator and all the different parts of your body downwards at the same speed. 

Now the earth isn’t that heavy, so its gravity is not that strong.  If you were free-falling on Jupiter you’d be accelerating 2.5 times as fast as you were on earth, but it would feel exactly the same. 

This is how Voyager came to be travelling at 61,200 km/h.  It travelled close by to Jupiter (the largest planet in our Solar System), it started falling down towards the planet and accelerating, then it just missed hitting the planet and got slingshot out the other side.

This is a good way to accelerate in space, but you have to already be going fairly fast if you want to avoid crashing into the planet.  It’s like skating on a half pipe.  If you want to fly off into the air you can’t just stand on the edge and roll down, you have to create some momentum that will fling you out the other side.

So how do you initially accelerate in space?
If you’re swimming in water you can accelerate by kicking your legs.  In effect you push against the water and that propels you forward.  But how do you accelerate in a vacuum? There’s nothing to push against.
The only current technique we have is by using rockets, which basically are forced to push off against their own exhaust.  The down side is that you have to be carrying enough fuel to leave a big trail of exhaust through space.  The up side is there’s very little resistance in space, so once you’ve accelerated you can just coast forever.

So that’s the basics of geometry in space.  Here’s where things start getting really strange.

Part 2.  Time is not constant.

Acceleration makes several strange things happen.
If I throw a ruler like a javelin, it will actually be slightly shorter while it’s accelerating.
Not only that but it will have slightly more mass (weight).
And here’s the weird one, it will experience slightly less time passing.

You heard me.

If I have two clocks set to exactly the same time and I throw one of them to you, the one that has travelled faster will be slightly behind the other one.

Of course at such low speeds the difference is almost completely negligible, but the effect becomes much more noticeable at high speeds.

If you have two twins and one of them gets in a spacecraft and travels at high speed for a while, when they get back to earth they will be younger than their twin.  Less time will have passed for them.

There is a limit to how fast you can go.  Light travels at about 1billion km per hour, and nothing that has mass can travel faster than that.  This was explained by Einstein with the famous equation E=MC^2. 
Basically as you go faster you gain more mass, and as you approach the speed of light the amount of mass shoots sharply upwards.  To be at the speed of light you need to have either no mass (like light) or infinite mass (which as far as I’m aware is not possible).

1b km/h is still pretty fast, but the universe is quite large.  The nearest star to earth (aside from the sun, obviously) is called Alpha Proxima, and it’s about 4 light years away.  (One light year is the distance that light travels in one year – roughly 10 trillion kilometres.)
This means that no matter how fast you go, it will always take more than 4 years to reach this star from earth.  To reach the centre of our galaxy (The Milky Way) will always take more than 27,000 years.  To get to the nearest galaxy will take more than 250,000 years.

So you see that there’s a bit of a problem getting around the cosmos, but fascinatingly you could still get there within a lifetime.
When you travel quickly, your time passes more slowly.  If you travel at just under the speed of light you could actually circumnavigate the entire observable universe (some 46 billion light years) in under, say, 30 years.
The only problem is that when you got back to earth you’d find that more than 92 billion years had passed there, and it would no longer exist. 

If you did go on this journey I wonder what you would see if you looked out your window.  I assume you would see the universe sped up 1.5 billion times its normal speed. 

Part 3.  Gone fission.

It’s currently believed that the universe began with a Big Bang.  The bang spread out a vast cloud of hydrogen.  Under the forces of gravity, portions of hydrogen started to coalesce into dense clouds, and then into blobs.  As there was so much gas in these blobs their combined weight was massive, which means that they had an equally massive amount of gravity which pulled them ever denser.  The pressures inside rose so high that they became extremely hot and bright.  They were the first stars. 
Inside the stars the heat and pressure were high enough for the hydrogen to undergo nuclear fission, turning into helium.  This is what our sun does.

In the biggest stars the pressures and heat would grow even higher, causing the helium to form into heavier elements like iron and carbon.
When a star runs out of fuel it sort of collapses in on itself and then explodes away most of its matter.  The iron and carbon that got sprayed out would sometimes form into big rocks that would get caught in orbit around another star.  This is what happened to the earth.

Sometimes after a star explodes away a bunch of its matter the heaviest elements remain.  Their gravity is so high that the elements keep compacting and their gravity becomes more concentrated until you have a sphere that is close to infinitely dense. 

This would be like compacting the entire earth down to the size of a grain of sand.

Strangely enough, light is affected by gravity.  Light is pulled towards heavy objects in the same way that matter is.  When a star has compacted enough, its gravity reaches a point where it is so strong that light can’t escape from it, forming what we call a black hole.

Light is bent by the gravity of a black hole
I’d always assumed that this compacted sphere known as a black hole would be very dark, but in fact it would probably be sending off an incredible amount of light, except that as soon as the light was expelled it would bend around and fall backwards.

Some people believe that a black hole curves space so much that it tears, meaning that you could pass through the tear into some other place or time.  The biggest problem is that there would inevitably be another black hole on the other side of the tear and you would then have to escape from the gravity, which is something that not even light can do. 
You’d also have to deal with the inconvenience of being instantly compacted into a microscopic point.

If you’ve read this far than my hat’s off to you.  Hopefully there was something in there that caused you a micron of interest.

If you noticed anything grievously erroneous in the above generalisations please leave a correctional comment.

I think next time I’ll write about aliens.  Stay tuned.

Sunday 5 February 2012

God, Science and Logical Masturbation

Up until about seven years ago, I believed in God.  The reason that it took me sixteen years to decide that God wasn’t real was because I didn’t know one absolutely vital piece of information.  I always felt Christianity was based on some fairly precarious logic, but there was a pearl of wisdom that I lacked, which is this:

It’s okay to not believe in God.

Post-enlightenment, it seems a bit strange that all the reason in the world isn’t able to break through that barrier, but there it is. 
As a Christian child you are trained to fear the very thought that deep down you don’t believe.
It’s not the fear of going to hell (although, what the fuck is with that shit?!), or even the fear that once you strip away the fantasy it will leave a gaping hole in your reality. 
It’s the fear that your doubts will separate you from others.

There’s probably plenty of people out there who shrugged off their childhood Christianity with ease.  Perhaps their family wasn’t as pious, perhaps they had a broader community, perhaps they didn’t have such a crushing need to be loved.  All I know is that without the above key I wouldn’t have a hope of making it out.

If I gave up God at 16, it was many more years before I was able to believe that religion is immoral. 

Here’s some stuff in a list format:

1.       Forcing a child to censor their own development of logic is as dumb as a butt.
2.       Cultivating neurosis as a form of discipline is a jerkish manoeuvre.
3.       I’ve written the word manoeuvre a hundred times but I still have no idea how to spell it. What the fuck is going on with the vowels in that shit?
4.       Teaching people not to question established practice will never result in a better world.  
5.       Forcing a child to spend 50% of their weekend going to a more boring version of school is a terrible, terrible thing.
6.       Teaching a child a bunch of facts that turn out to be false is a gigantic waste of time and effort.  Seriously, the other day someone started reading a random verse from the bible, and not only did I know how it went, I actually knew the chapter and verse! (it was Psalm 103 v1, so kind of a famous one, but it was genuinely random) If I had’ve been learning to recite actual history or something maybe I wouldn’t have wound up at art school. -  A chilling lesson for the parents of the world.
7.       Why not teach people the real reasons to value morality? Why does it have to be “Because I said so”? That wasn’t an answer when I was five; it’s not an answer now.
8.       Teaching people to fear change is a good way to aggravate every single global problem.
9.       Teaching people to fear being unsure is just as bad.  Think about it – How many agnostics of any vareity do you see picking fights?
10.   Science is such a wonderful alternative.

Often times religious people will refer to a devotion to the principals of science as nothing more than an alternative set of beliefs.  There’s a fundamental difference, however, between science and religion.  Which is this:

Science is never really sure.

Science is always changing, always adapting to new evidence.  If you argue against science, and your argument turns out to be found fundamentally correct, then your argument becomes science. 

Science can be understood as a collection of all the views that have been proven to make sense.
That’s why it’s so strange to oppose science.  If in your mind there is evidence against science, then you must believe in science, because using evidence to support an idea is what science is.

Plus science actually produces things. 
Sure, God knows everything, so why do you need Google? Why are you googling, Christians? Why don’t you ask God?

Why do Christians hire babysitters? 

Is God not up to the task of looking after a child? 
And if something bad would have happened to your child in the absence of a babysitter, surely God orchestrated this, and therefore wants something bad to happen to your child. 

How is an underpaid teenager going to prevent God from unleashing his wrath upon your child?

Do Christians even believe in quantum physics? How could they turn on their computer in order to hire a babysitter to fight against the wrath of God without the use of quantum physics?

There is something that religion provides that science does not provide: Community.
This is the real reason behind all the robe wearing, scripture murmuring, evangelizing and so on.

People need to feel part of a team.  But there are so many alternatives out there.

What about a chess club?
“Ah” I hear you say, “But I’m not good at chess.”
A few weeks ago I would’ve agreed that this would inhibit your enjoyment of a chess club, however I have since been enlightened.

Most people who play chess in clubs or online are at a beginner level. 

The captain of the online chess team that I belong to is a 32yr old truck driver from Minnesota.  He’s played over 1000 games of chess on the site, and he’s rated lower than 98% of the 34,500 people on the site. 
Isn’t that fantastic?

In fact the majority of people on the site are rated at or below a beginner level.

I just scrape into the top 10% on the site, and when I look at his games against other low-rated players I can’t believe the level of absurdity in the moves being made.  But the wonderful thing about chess is that when a Master looks at my games they would appear just as ridiculous.  And when a computer looks at a Master’s games they’d also look ridiculous. 
The fact is that actual skill level is meaningless.  There’s always someone else on your level, so you play against them.  You win some and you lose some, what does it matter how you rank against the rest of the world?

Anyway, I found that really inspirational.

Here’s some things I like about chess:

1.  The mental exercise is probably good for your smarts.

2.  Chess is an ideological debate where one person will objectively win.

3.  “Chess is the way life should be; on the chessboard it’s not who you know, but what you
     know.” RIP GM Larry Evans.

4.  You can’t make excuses on the chessboard, not even to yourself.  You have to take

5.  Chess is an argument without words, only thoughts.

6.  Chess is the only sport in which the highest rated woman has beaten the male world 

7.  Chess has absolutely no relevance to the greater questions and equations of life.  Its 
     just masturbation for your brain.  Hurray!

8.  Chess is really old! Far older than Christianity.  Plus a lot of old people play it, and they 
     have funny faces.

9.  Chess pieces can be passed down through the generations.  I have my Hungarian 
     Grandfather’s pieces. They don’t wear out very fast.

10.  And some other 10th thing.

So anyway, that’s a post about three different things that I wanted to write about. 
Praise the Lord for segues.

(apparently that’s how you spell ‘segways’. WHAT?!)