Friday, November 30, 2012

Saving the world: Some billionaires try. Now see your lazy-effective way!

You don't have to be reminded. Forward looking folks know this time of year is when we re-assess our annual donations and find ways to help tilt the scales toward a more favorable tomorrow. But is there an aspect of ultimate self-interest?

Consider. What criteria will future generations use, when they decide which people from our era to up/down/in-load or simulate or whatever tech-apotheosis you yearn for them to provide? Won't they factor in not only how interesting you would be to have around, but also how hard you tried to be - in the words of Jonas Salk - a good ancestor?

tpslogoOf course what I'm describing is eerily similar to the deal offered to our grandparents and their grandparents... redemption through good thoughts and good works. Only now we're talking about a process that will be both palpable and propelled by physical law.

(Ironic, huh? Still, whether you are placating a judgmental deity, or earning cred with our future, godlike descendants, it does boil down to the same thing. Help make things better. And maybe there'll be a prize to go along with the satisfaction.)

I've long promoted what I think is the most effective means for a modern, busy person to invest in improving the world... a method that makes efficient use of your time and money, and in ways that those future folk may notice. That method is called Proxy Power. It consists of buying subscriptions to groups and orgs and NGOs who pool their members' dues and influence to support full time activists, who then take action to make a better world on your behalf!

Organizations like the Sierra ClubOxfam, the Red Cross or the ACLU are the great equalizers of our new civilization. They are how millions of smalltimers or average folk can together hire lawyers on a par with oligarchs, or fill a ship with food and schoolbooks, or stop whalers, or preserve an aquifer, or free a whistleblower, or replenish the blood supply, or lobby for a simpler tax code, or help poor girls in Pakistan go to school or...

EFF-logoDo read my old appeal on this matter. Not only in a spirit of philanthropy - perhaps inspired by the season - or to help your children or save your nation and world, but also out of enlightened self-interest and desire to help convince those who hold the keys of heaven -- or a future heavenly simulation -- to smile and admit that you were one of the okay ones.  (Also, at year end you can assess your tax situation and still squeeze a few deductions into 2012.)

== Quirky choices ==

Mix and match organizations who cover the bases you want covered! Say for example: one for hunger (Oxfam? or the Heifer Project?) and two for freedom (ACLU and/or Electronic Frontier Foundation and/or Project Witness)  Followed by one agitator environmental organization (Greenpeace) and one eco-negotiator (the Sierra Club). One that goes directly to helping real people, one or two at a time (e.g. Doctors Without Borders or Habitat for Humanity). Throw in your local library or PBS station, Planned Parenthood and the Libertarian Party or The Planetary Society and The Skeptic Society.... you get the drift. (BTW: I don't send money to all of these, every year.)

skepticOkay, okay. I figure a couple of your choices may differ, or even cancel some of mine! So? We're all winners through lively and informed debate.  And the passionate geeks and attorneys we hire with our proxy dues will be passionately, geekily informed debaters on our behalf!

sierraclub-logoOh, and let me admit that some of my own choices may seem quirky. Every year since 1979, for example, I've sent a small check to a little Treasury Dept. office in Parkersburg West Virginia, to be applied against the U.S. national debt. That's beyond my regular taxes. Sometimes (in lean years) the donation is very small, sometimes larger. Call it a statement in my own mind of how grateful I am, not to live in the 99% of human cultures that would have burned or garroted or skewered or drowned a guy like me before I was sixteen. A society that instead pays and honors me to be like this. So no, I won't commit the churlish, vile sin of ingratitude. No, not that sin.  Others, but not that one.

== And more reasons to believe... ==

Of course, all of this bears upon the notion that cynicism is getting tiresome. Below, I will show evidence that folks are fighting back, ranging from several famous billionaires to a quoted passage from Charles Stross to recent endeavors by Neal Stephenson, Greg Bear, Vernor Vinge, Bruce Sterling and myself, persuading science fiction authors to return to the great old can-do spirit.  But first...

A cute "Tree Lobsters" cartoon lays down that same fundamental problem mentioned above... faced by all of those who have bought expensive cryonics contracts, in hope of being revived in some future age.  Why would future folk want you?  By now you know how to answer that. Make a pact with tomorrow.

Or, for a much deeper immersion into the concepts behind all this, watch Jaan Tallin (founder of Skype and venture capitalist) give an amazing Singularity talk about your hope of being a featured simulation.

Speaking of folks worthy of uploading/reviving/whatever? Did any of you see Jon Stewart interview Warren Buffett and his biographer?  The Oracle of Omaha, indeed.  Got rich by being smart. Smart and trustwortthy. Even smart enough to know what it all is really about, and why solipsism is for dopes. Go Warren! (More on good billionaires below.)

Will it work? Mind Meld asks authors, including Brenda Cooper and Charles Stross -- and yours truly -- about optimistic scenarios for our future world. Why they are rare amid waves of dystopias. And how hope really matters.

Of course, at the opposite extreme are the scrooges. See this older posting of mine that lays down the conflict before us. The Relevance of an Old Nemesis - as Even Older Ones Return.

Ponder doing your gift shopping at Costco - where workers earn 45% above industry standard and get profit sharing - versus Walmart, whose employees desperately take in an average of $500,000 in food stamps and other public support, per store.

... and then we come to...

== The Era of the Nerds? ==

Uber nerd Nate Silver on talk shows is such a geek!  But that is so "in" now... that I figure Silver is fielding embarrassing calls from sperm banks.  Here's something only a sci fi author would extrapolate. Watch  the kindergartens for 200 miles surrounding his present digs, 6 years from now. Oh, this will have repercussions for centuries to come.

Speaking of uber-nerds. Sergey Brin asks the election winner to quit his own party.  Not a bad idea.  Related to my Stipulation proposal. Worth pondering.

Aw heck, let's make this whole section about my billionaire acquaintances, Sterling examples of give-back moguls who earned their wealth with brilliant goods and services, but haven't forgotten the context of it all.

Take Elon Musk. Elon's at it again.  Pushing at us to be all that we can be. I sat in his living room one evening and heard about his plans to get a human colony on Mars... must be a decade ago. Now you get to read all about it. How big a statue at the base of Olympus Mons do you think he'll deserve, if this comes true?

Standing next to Elon on Mars? Amazon's Jeff Bezos: the ultimate disrupter - a fascinating look at an American original. One of the transforming figures of our time... and a really nice guy.

All right, in Existence I make it plain, the billionaires will matter, especially if the good ones join us in staving off the depredations of bad oligarchs.  Still, go back to my appeal at the top of this missive. We will matter far more, over the long run.

... and if you need more convincing...

== Back to investing in Optimism ==

There's this, from the fellow who coined the phrase the rapture of the nerds... Charles Stross offers reasons to be cheerful.

"...we're close to exterminating polio and dracunculiasis (aka guinea worm disease) in the wild. (Two extinctions I won't be shedding any tears over.)

'In other news of improvements, both China and India underwent annual economic growth averaging around 10% per year throughout the decade. The sheer scale of it is mind-numbing; it's as if the entire population of the USA and the EU combined had gone from third-world poverty to first-world standards of living. (There are still a lot of dirt-poor peasants left behind in villages, and a lot of economic — never mind political — problems with both India and China's developed urban sectors, but overall, life is vastly better today than it was a decade ago for around a billion people.)

'The number of people living in poverty and with unsafe water supplies world-wide today is about the same as it was in 1970. Only difference is, there were 3 billion of us back then and today we're nearer to 7 billion. Upshot: the proportion of us humans on this planet who are living in third world poverty (unable to afford enough food, water, clothing and shelter) has actually been halved."

Hm... as we've seen this time, there are guarded reasons for tense, tentative hope.

We're navigating harsh shoals but fair harbors are in sight. That's exactly the time when all hands are needed at the sails and tiller and sounding lines, bringing to action every tool of heart and mind!

Cynicism is for saps and indignation junkies and traitors to hope. It is an excuse for laziness, leaving to others the grown-up task of study and research and negotiation and hard work and innovating and saving the world.

We can get there. I just showed you how easy, simple and cheap it is to do at least the minimum, choosing half a dozen groups to save the world for you! And thus you can go on record as one of the good guys.  One of those who helped to make a dazzling future for our godlike heirs.


Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Ocean fertilization? Other palliative measures... and more science!

solve"It's not true that we can't solve big problems through technology; we can. We must. But all these elements must be present: political leaders and the public must care to solve a problem, our institutions must support its solution, it must really be a technological problem, and we must understand it," writes Jason Pontin in Why We Can't Solve Big Problems.

Of course, this resonates with what the great historian Arnold Toynbee said about why some civilizations thrive and others fail. After a lifetime studying societies spanning 6000 years and five continents, Toynbee wrote that the one common thread appeared to be whether both leaders and the people chose stodgy obstinacy or agile flexibility, whenever challenges loomed.  And especially whether they gave support, invested resources, and enthusiastically backed-up their creative minorities.

And hence, this time we'll peruse a potpourri of science marvels showing that agility and scientific creativity have not become endangered species -- despite the efforts of some at both political extremes. Indeed, we're still displaying an eagerness for pragmatic problem-solving may yet help us to thrive.

Let's start with this interesting news. GM has demonstrated an energy storage system built from five used Chevy Volt batteries, which would be capable of providing two hours of backup power for three to five average homes. As the companies note, while they're no longer suitable for use in an electric vehicle, the average end-of-life battery still retains about 30 percent of its charge, which can go a long way in other applications (especially when a few of them are linked together). Of course, this is all still just at the demonstration stage, but I am already interested!  I'd love to have a cheap version to charge with a used solar panel... just enough to keep my fridge running for a few days of blackout. There's a real commercial potential there.  Hey GM, need a celebrity spokesman? 

==Geosciences and the Earth==

First some very mixed good news. The boom in availability of natural gas in the U.S. from shale formations is not without (fracking) controversy.  But it means the North American price of methane is less than half of what it is in Europe. In a boost to the U.S. economy, manufacturers have plans to invest as much as $80 billion in U.S. chemical, fertilizer, steel, aluminum, tire and plastics plants, according to Dow Chemical. And the main reason, said George J. Biltz, Dow Chemical’s vice president for energy and climate change, “comes back to the massive competitive advantage the United States has with natural gas today.  One can hope that economic recovery will then allow calm people to start picking more carefully which areas to subject to these new processes and carefully supervise the professionalism of the frackers... and choose to protect sensitive realms that they must avoid.

These changes will also be geo-political, as U.S. imports of oil from the Middle-East have actually started to decline, reducing American dependence and...perhaps shifting our security focus. This in turn may affect political balances... and it will undermine the grip that coal has on the current economy. Since methane procuses half as much atmospheric carbon per unit of energy as coal, and much less of the ancillary poisons, this is guardedly good news, providing we not let this slow down our drive to research even better methods. Speaking of which...

Next year, when the California Ivanpah desert solar plant flips the on switch, it will nearly double the amount of solar thermal energy produced in the United States. According to Dr. Steven Koonin (my old Caltech classmate and recently under secretary of the U.S. Energy Department) solar thermal is the most under-rated sustainable energy system around, with great near-term potential for profitability, even despite cost pressures from the plummeting cost of natural gas.

The World's largest offshore wind farm is coming online.  The U.S. could have been the world leader by now, if the first decade of the 21st had not been wasted.  But yay for this. And it's not too late.

Now let's swing toward the energetic... but weird!  It's possible that, at the microbial level, the deep seafloor is humming with current. Danish researchers have found bacteria that conduct electricity along microfilaments from the sea bottom's surface to many centimeters down beneath. With so much electricity being transferred, are other organisms tapping the lines? Might the Desulfobulbaceae be a power source for entire as-yet-unappreciated deep-sea microbial ecologies, which in turn shape some of the planet's fundamental biogeochemical processes? Hm... did I hint at this in EARTH?

== Ocean Fertilization: Right idea... wrong guy ==

 In July, a rogue entrepreneur named Russ George dumped 100 tons of powdered iron into currents off British Columbia. The intent: to trigger plankton growth and aid in the recovery of salmon fishing, while also removing CO2 from the atmosphere. Marine scientists have termed his action “unscientific, irresponsible and probably in violation of international agreements.” A foolish stunt, indeed!

Yet, some of the outrage went too far. In Testing the Waters, Naomi Klein rails against any form of geo-engineering experiments, even those that mimic totally natural phenomena, the same phenomena that create the world's great fisheries that feed a third of the planet. (70% of the oceans are mostly-dead deserts. But fertilizing updrafts off the Grand Banks, Chile, Antarctica etc create fecund, oceanic oases.)  As an equal opportunity contrarian, I call on the left to back off a bit. Most of what Ms. Klein says is true... yet I find her polemical reflex is unhelpful and possibly toxic to our future.

That kneejerk reflex is to assume that technology-based solutions are automatically suspect, possibly evil, and that any palliation of the thing they are complaining about will reduce the need or desire or imperative to eliminate the problem at its source. That is illogical, self-righteous and lazy thinking, in the extreme. We need to be examining and dispassionately studying palliative measures both because they may be our last resort... and because they may help us transition, even if we apply our main efforts to doing the wise thing and stop befouling our planet.

In other words... I support limited, small scale ocean fertilization experiments that mimic natural phenomena by expanding the realm of life. They are, in essence, no different than irrigation that we do on land. Rife with potential problems, but a winning scenario, if done carefully.

Having said that, let me add that in the specific case in question, I think it was a doltish, oafish stunt, in the wrong place and the wrong time.  And illegal to boot.  But you can expect more such experiments in the future, under the protection and auspices of countries like Nauru that are threatened by rising oceans.  And, if I lived in such a place, I would be investing in better versions of the idea -- like wave-powered bottom stirrers to bring up natural sediments, more closely imitating the natural updrafts off Chile and the Grand Banks. (I depicted the method in my 1989 novel EARTH.)  And I would tell Ms. Klein to go turn her ire on Fox and the Kochs, but practice a little humility and patience toward those who agree with her that the world needs to be saved!  They just want a backup option.  A Plan B.

==Biosciences & Medical Advances==

In 1773, when Benjamin Franklin's work had moved from printing to science and politics, he corresponded with a French scientist, Jacques Barbeu-Dubourg, on the subject of preserving the dead for later revival by more advanced scientific methods, writing:

I should prefer to an ordinary death, being immersed with a few friends in a cask of Madeira, until that time, then to be recalled to life by the solar warmth of my dear country! But in all probability, we live in a century too little advanced, and too near the infancy of science, to see such an art brought in our time to its perfection. (Extended excerpt also online. [133])

Wow... what a guy. Preserved in Madeira?  Okay.  Unlikely, but a pretty great image.

== The future is fun! The future is Fair! ==

Did anyone notice the "More Science" part of this posting's title?  I recently had the good fortune to meet Phil Proctor of the Firesign Theater. Brought back memories of Bozos and Nick Danger and... more science!

Which somehow segues into this: neuroscientists identify how zebrafish regenerate brains and other organs after trauma. (Yeah, back in the 1960s I often needed brain regeneration!)

And more! Yay science!  German brain researchers have successfully induced Tourette's syndrome symptoms in healthy people for the first time, using powerful magnetic pulses.  Oh yeah? Well f#@k ain't that f#@king great?

== And it's Science Miscellany time! ==

A prototype ultra-sensitive sensor would enable doctors to detect the early stages of diseases and viruses with the naked eye.


The protein folding problem has been a Grail of biology some time.  Now a team claims they can predict how one will loop and fold, in advance.  A big deal.

And some health advice: Cool your palms and build muscles and lose weight?  Heads up to keep an eye on this.  Exercise does more for you if you cool your palms and the soles of your feet?  Huh. Some of you write in and tell your results.

Oh and I hear that healthy young adults ages 18–25 can improve their working memory by increasing their Omega-3 fatty acid intake.

What we die of: A graphical look at the primary causes of death in 2011.

Germany is set to advance a bill Wednesday imposing a spate of new rules on high-frequency trading, escalating Europe’s sweeping response to concerns that speedy traders have brought instability to the markets. As I have said, this may be more important than anyone as yet knows.

This is kinda neat. The BioLite stove burns regular wood or twigs etc to cook with... but also generates electricity for a charging unit. Volunteers took several into areas blacked out by Hurricane Sandy and made so many friends their sales are booked into next year. Great for the next disaster…or that unforeseen Zombie Apocalypse.

==Technology==

Rollable-foldable electronic devices!  As predicted in EARTH (1989) and in EXISTENCE!

Tentacled robot mimics the movement and capabilities of a soft-armed octopus.

A small but growing cadre of savvy technologists argue that, at least in measured doses, encounters with imaginary worlds and futuristic devices could have a decisive influence on innovation. David Brian Johnson, Intel’s staff futurist, even insists in a recent book, Science Fiction Prototyping, that by writing stories about future products, engineers can do a better job of actually making them.

It will likely take a decade, but improvements to lithium-ion batteries could lead to much cheaper electric vehicles.
A new approach to create panoramas from live camera feed on mobile phones.

==Physics Miscellany!==

A whopping 100,000 entangled photons have been detected for the first time, beating the previous record of just 12. The technique for spotting this delicate quantum link among so many photons could prove useful for safely sharing keys used in encrypted communications.

The Counter-electronics High-powered Microwave Advanced Missile Project (CHAMP) renders electronic targets useless, a “non-kinetic alternative to traditional explosive weapons that use the energy of motion to defeat a target,” CHAMP emits bursts of high-powered energy, effectively knocking out the target’s data and electronic subsystems. Most press reports have incorrectly described this as an electromagnetic pulse (EMP) weapon. High power microwave (HPM) is a different technology that uses a microwave beam that can be focused tightly to hit designated short-range targets.

How cool is this?  Reminds me of George Gamow's Mr. Tompkins in WonderlandMIT video game lets you play with relativity, changing speed of light.

==Science and Society==

The U.S. used to by far have the highest ratio of college grads, but that is hard to maintain while absorbing half of the world's immigrants.  Funny thing though, the country that is now number one, with 51% of adults having a degree is the other great land of immigration, Canada.  The US is still a very respectable 4th place.  Actually pretty amazing, all considered.

Especially after hearing that science literacy is actually improving and apparently because of those sappy "breadth requirement" science survey courses that non-science majors are required to take in U.S. universities (but not, apparently, in most European or Asian colleges.). In fact, because of those few college breadth requirements, the US scored first in adult science literacy!  Of course, one could argue whether this applies to all the different Americas, red or blue or...

Still. Take that you cynics. As for the rest of you, keep plugging for more science!

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Are We Alone in the Cosmos, cursed by Fermi's Paradox?

And now the news from Alpha Centauri

(Oh, I’ve waited for so long to utter those words! News. From Alpha Centauri. Wow!)

ALONECOSMOSAfter an incredible decade, in which the number of planets known beyond our solar system increased from zero to several hundred, with a couple of thousand potential "hits" still to verify, astronomers have now detected a roughly Earth-sized world orbiting between the two stars nearest to our system, Alpha Centauri A and Alpha Centauri B.  Much too hot to sustain life, it nevertheless will help in narrowing down the search space for others.  Moreover, now we have a target for the first interstellar probes, which are already under discussion.  Indeed, the youngest of you readers may live to see them launched.

Ah, but this raises the perennial question.  If planets are more common than we ever thought, then what about life-worlds? And even alien intelligences?

I have been involved in this topic all my life, having grown up in Southern California, the part of human civilization least rooted in the familiar, traditional or... perhaps... sane.  I am best-known today as an author of novels and stories about our many possible-plausible futures, including some that explore a wide range of possible extraterrestrial civilizations. My scientific career, ranging from optics to astrophysics, led to papers about SETI in the 1980s that include what is still the only full review article in the field, compiling all then public theories for what I called The Great Silence, but that is now more widely known as the Fermi Paradox. 

(See a collection of articles and speculations about the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI).)

Today, we'll dive into the Fermi Paradox, in some detail. But first a little background.

The first time I witnessed the subject of extraterrestrial intelligence brought up in a scientific setting was at a Caltech physics colloquium in 1968, when I was just seventeen. The speaker remarked on the remote possibility that pulsars -- recently discovered radio sources that emitted bursts in perfect rhythm -- might turn out to be beacons of an advanced civilization. They were, after all, several thousand times more regular in their repetitive "beepings" than any other astronomical radio source ever discovered.

The speaker was only partly serious, though pulsars to this day are listed in catalogues with the prefix LGM -- a smiling reference to "Little Green Man." Despite that whimsy,  sides were quickly taken, and it was soon very clear that most of those with tenure didn't like this kind of talk at all.

But attitudes were changing rapidly during that decade -- the exciting era of Apollo moon landings and stunning pop music. A few years later some of those who seemed angriest in 1968 applauded loudly when Carl Sagan unveiled the gold plaque that was to be placed upon Pioneer 10, the first human artifact launched on a trajectory that would take it out of the solar system.

Today that plaque is famous, along with "messages" that followed on Pioneer 11 and the Voyager probes. They depict the nude figures of a woman and a man, an arm raised in greeting, a schematic of the planets of our system, and a rayed pattern of lines and binary dots representing the most prominent pulsars detectable from Earth. The pulsar map should enable any distant beings who recover the spacecraft to trace its point of origin within a light-year in space, and its launch date to within six months.  Oh, and the Voyager probes famously carry disks with recorded sounds and images of Earth. In fact, no scientist expects the messages to be recovered by aliens, though our own speedy descendants may collect Voyager for a museum.

Ever since the 1960s another, related project went through many ups and downs.  SETI programs (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) prospered and withered under public excitement and ridicule, a cycle that continues even today... and that we may discuss another time. But let's stay focused.

Of course other-worlds and their inhabitants had already long been the topic of stories -- some great and others dismal -- on the pages of science fiction pulps of the thirties and forties, then more insightful thought experiments by Arthur C. Clarke, Ray Bradbury Robert Heinlein and others.  A tradition that extends through authors like C.J. Cherryh, Greg Bear and Dan Simmons all the way to more recent speculations about alien thought processes by Ken MacLeod and Iain Banks.

In fact, this tradition goes back much farther, to wanderers' tales like Journey to the West and the Odyssey. The expansion of our horizons of interest may be among the most human of all activities, as we stretch our gaze and curiosity beyond the mere present, the mere town, nation or even planet.  If we ever do encounter the alien, it can be hoped that the vast literature of science fiction gedankenexperiments (thought experiments) about contact will be consulted by our wisest sages, who will be amazed and enlightened by the vast range of possibilities we humans have already imagined.

== The Essential Questions About Alien Life ==

The Fermi Paradox refers to a question posed by the great physicist Enrico Fermi in the 1940s, demanding: "If it seems so likely the universe may host other life forms, how come we haven't seen any signs?"  Not just of radio beacons, but of mighty structures that our own descendants might someday build out there in space. Or leakage from chatty commerce between civilizations.  Or indeed, any trace that the Earth was visited during the 2 billion years that it was "prime real estate" with an oxygen atmosphere, but nothing higher than slime molds to defend it.

It is a fascinating topic... perhaps the fascinating topic.  For it takes you from pondering the birth and death of stars and planets to the dynamics of atmospheres and the potential origins or life... to intelligence (what is it and how many varieties can it come in?)... all the way to the stark possibility that few technological species survive their tense adolescence, attempting to cross a minefield of potentially lethal errors, from nuclear war or designer plagues to ecological devastation or cultural stagnation...

... all of which I talk about in my most recent novel, EXISTENCE.   In ways that I hope readers find both fascinating and thrilling, embedded in an exciting, near-future plot  There's a new idea on almost every page.  And why not? I've been cataloguing the possibilities for what feels like eons.

== The Drake Equation ==

The most common tool that folks use, in appraising the Great Silence is a little gem called the Drake Equation (D.E.), concocted by the early SETI pioneer Frank Drake when he was at the Arecibo National Radio Observatory. It remains the most widely accepted tool for xenological speculation.

Let N = the current number of technological civilizations in the galaxy. Then,

N = R P n(e) f(1) f(i) f(c) L

Here R is the average rate of production of suitable stars since the formation of the galaxy, approximately one per year. (The current rate is slower. R is an average that includes the burst of star creation early in the galaxy's history.)  f(s) is the fraction of stars that are accompanied by stably orbiting planets. Factor n(e) is the average number of planets per system that have the requisite conditions to support life.

The other factors include f(1), the fraction of these congenial planets on which life actually occurs; f(i), the fraction of these on which "intelligence" appears; f(c), the fraction of intelligent species that attain technological civilizations, and L, the average lifespan of each species.

The D.E. certainly seems to line up the varied factors involved in bringing sapient life to prominence in our galaxy.  All the terms on the far left of the D.E. have to do with the prevalence of stable, reliable stars... and then how many have planets. There are plenty of stable, long-lived G-type dwarf stars like the Sun out there... about 6 percent of the galaxy's several hundred billion stars. Are there planets circling many of them? (We astronomers were always sure there were, for reasons of angular momentum that I won't go into here. We've grown a lot more confident in recent years! Though mysteries still abound.)

== The likelihood of life ==

What are the chances of life erupting spontaneously on isolated worlds? It appeared to do so swiftly on Earth, almost as soon as the planet cooled enough for oceans to form. Three scientific discoveries and one useful philosophical tool gave researchers the courage to make crude estimates about the distribution of life among the stars.

The first discovery came when it was found almost ridiculously easy to make amino acids, and other precursors to living matter, from abundant molecules such as methane, ammonia and cyanogen. Stanley Miller subjected a water solution of these substances to electrical discharge and ultraviolet radiation and got an organic "soup" in short order. Leslie Orgel of the Salk Institute accomplished the same thing by a freezing process. The high pressures of ice formation not only gave up amino acids, but the purine adenine as well. (Adenine is one of the four building blocks of DNA, and is the core of ATP, adenosine tri-phosphate, which controls the energy economy of the living cell.

So many mechanisms have been found that can change crude precursors into "biological" molecules that today organic activity seems almost an automatic consequence of the distribution of chemical elements in the universe.

The second major discovery supports this point of view. During the last two decades, radio astronomers -- listening to narrow emission lines from interstellar space -- have discovered great clouds of complex molecules: ethylene, formaldehyde, ethyl alcohol; some even claim evidence for -- you guessed it -- adenine. (Astronomer and science fiction author Sir Fred Hoyle, looking at starlight scattered from interstellar dust, even thought that the dust itself might actually be something akin to bacteria... living cells about a micron in size, in diffuse colonies spanning light-years and outmassing suns. It's an extravagant speculation, but fun to think about.)

It's clear, then, from basic chemistry and radio astronomy, that the basic materials for life are out there. What about the right environments? We have to assume, until we have reason to think otherwise, that complex life must grow and evolve to intelligence on planets orbiting stable stars. Are there other "nursery worlds" like the Earth? Or might ecosystems more likely be found under the ice coverings of "roofed worlds" like Europa and Enceledus, where life-giving heat rises from below and any denizens would never see the stars?

== The Role of Sapience ==

Assuming planets are common and life is not rare, then how do we explain the Fermi Paradox?  Well, some hold that the factor that's small -- that keeps the numbers down --if f(l), the likelihood that a planet will create an intelligent species.  After all, it appears to have happened just once in 4.5 billion years on Earth... though some question whether it has happened yet, on this planet, at all!

What about dolphins, apes, sea lions, crows, parrots... even prairie dogs and octopus, who now show signs of some linguistic ability and problem solving savvy?  They all seem to crowd under a "glass ceiling" that none has ever broken through (except us).  Could that represent some kind of law of nature, and might we be a fluke?

A separate question, that I explore in EXISTENCE and also in my Uplift Series of novels – (now being re-released in the UK in beautiful omnibus editions by Orbit Books) -- is whether we should start to help other species burst through that glass ceiling and join us, as fully sapient fellow citizens of a much broader and more diverse Earthly culture.  The end result, that I portray in Startide Rising and The Uplift War (both won the Hugo Award for best novel), is a much richer and wiser civilization.

But oh, the pain of the two centuries it might take, to get there.  Are we willing – and sure enough of our skill and compassion – to embark on such a journey? Would it be the height of hubris and arrogance? Or would it be the ultimate act of selfishness to reject this challenge? To say to such species “we made it to the level of art and literature and ideas and science… and we refuse to offer anybody else a hand!”

== The Minefield Ahead of Us ==

All of the factors in the Drake Equation that we've discussed so far are ones that might explain the Fermi Paradox by keeping down the numbers of intelligent beings who reach our level.  If any of those factors were responsible for the Great Silence, then that means the Big Filter lies behind us.  We are rare... but the galaxy lies open before us and nothing stands in our way!

Then come the grouches who insist that life and intelligence and good planets and all that must be abundant, but that the Filter lies ahead of us.  Remember the minefield of possible mistakes that a “smart” race might make, from nuclear war to eco-devastation? (I explore a much longer list in EXISTENCE.) With that long litany of potential failure modes in mind, these folks ask how long any technological species can survive that endless expanse of snake pits, quicksand and possible ways to commit suicide. All of which falls into the Drake Equation factor “L” or how long such a species can survive.

(As it turns out, Drake left out several possible factors, but I'll leave it as an exercise for the fanatics among you to read my astrophysical article about this.)

Suffice it to say that these two sides -- those who think the Filter lies behind us and those who cry "look out!" -- are in furious debate to this day.  And it may surprise you that the "grouches" include many in the SETI community, those looking the hardest with radio telescopes, who openly admit that they are searching for the exceptions who do not kill themselves.

Again, there is no topic like this one, so rife with mind-blowing possibilities... and so free of any data about actual alien life! And yet so prone to sudden, premature conclusions, in which smart people declare "I know the answer!" without a shred of supporting evidence.

And why not?  This is, after all, the greatest Rorsach Test... a mirror or ink blot on which we project our personalities and notions and worries about our own species... our own selves. (And if so, what does it say about me, that I am one of the few saying "wait! We don't know enough yet. Don't jettison any of the possibilities too soon. The universe may yet surprise us.)

Perhaps the most painless and entertaining way to learn more is probably on the pages of my novel (I promise).  But I'll supply plenty of other links for those who relish our most precious human gift ---

-- The wonder of curiosity.  The insatiable thirst to know about what we know... and to speculate about what we don't and to explore this vast realm. A topic we all find fascinating... and as-yet we understand so poorly.


David Brin
Twitter                Facebook