Tuesday, March 05, 2013

Rockin' science. A comet aimed at Mars? Telepathic rats. And more….

Quick announcement: Join me at the Tucson Festival of Books  this Saturday and Sunday. My panels include: “Gender Roles in Sci Fi and Fantasy” on Sat at 2:30 pm. “Where’s my hoverboard? Pop Culture in the Sci Fi Lanscape” on Sat 4-5 pm. “Worldbuilding in fiction” on Sunday 11:30 am.

Then, on Monday March 11 see me in Chicago at Bucket o' Blood Books:  7 pm at 2307 N. Milwaukee Ave., Chicago 60647. BYO Books to be signed.

== NEW Sciences ==

MendelspodScience and the Great Delusion: Watch a video of my interview on Mendelspod.com - a regular podcast about biological sciences and the future. But you know me… I soon veer into society, history, anthropology, the scientific process and so on!

"Quantum Biology?" "Neuroparasitology?" "Recombinant memetics?" Read about Eleven New Sciences (beat that Galileo!) in a survey by George Dvorsky. Heh.  I have used them all in stories, some going back thirty years.  Where were you guys!

 == Heavens above ==

2013's first naked eye comet:  This month, March 9-15 have a look just above the horizon where the sun has set for Comet PANSTARRS. A  great show isn't guaranteed… many comets fizzle! (I studied em for my doctorate.) But we're overdue for a gaudy one. Another possibility… Comet ISON… will blaze this November through December.

MarsPanoramaThe Mars panoramas just get better and better. Curiosity's self portrait amid the walls and plains and central mountain of Gale Crater is simply wonderful.

Now let's combine topics: Comets and Mars! It looks like Mars may actually get hit by a comet in 2014. As it stands right now, the chance of a direct impact are small, but it’s likely Mars will get pelted by the debris associated with the comet. Phil Plait calculates that if (not too likely) an impact actually happens, it would have an explosive yield of roughly one billion megatons: That’s a million billion tons of TNT exploding. Or, if you prefer, an explosion about 25 million times larger than the largest nuclear weapon ever tested on Earth. There is an immature part of me that soooooo wants to see that! It could even re-awaken the red planet, a bit.

Speaking of re-awakenings... White Dwarf stars are elderly, having burnt out their early, gaudy phases (like our own sun) and shrunk to little larger than the Earth.  They were never thought likely places to find candidates for life, having probably cindered any former solar system during a red giant phase. Only now… Infrared observations have revealed disks of dust surrounding some white dwarfs, which could be the birthplace of a new generation of planets. Moreover, such planets could orbit VERY close in and be within a very very close "goldilocks zone." Moreover, one that transits-eclipses the White Dwarf star would not be swamped out (since the WD is so dim).  Rather, the planet's atmosphere would be subject to transmission spectroscopy by the new James Webb Telescope. Cool!  (Sorta.)

VenusSaturnSpeaking of eclipsing transits... see awesome first view of the Moon as a smaller thing passing in front of the Earth.   And a spectacular view of Venus glimpsed through the rings of Saturn -- as seen by NASA's Cassini spacecraft.

New Dimension: Nebulas are even more amazing in 3-D!  Finnish astrophotographer J-P Metsavainio has animated these space images in 3-D for a stunning effect.

And getting cosmic. Astronomers have directly measured the spin of a black hole for the first time by detecting the mind-bending relativistic effects that warp space-time at the very edge of its event horizon -- the point of no return, beyond which even light cannot escape.

GravitysEnginesBlack holes can apparently pulsate bubbles of inaudible sound through the surrounding galactic cloud, "57 octaves below B flat above middle C," notes astrobiologist Caleb Scharf in Gravity's Engines: How Bubble-blowing Black Holes Rule Galaxies, Stars and Life in the Cosmos -- a new look at how black holes may profoundly influence the evolution of the cosmos... and ultimately the appearance of life.

== And let's include time! ==

Scientists have discovered a 200-kilometre-wide (125-mile-wide) impact zone in the Australian outback they believe was caused by a massive asteroid smashing into Earth more than 300 million years ago.  That's about the same size as the crater remnant found in the Yucatan, from the rock that killed the dinosaurs 65 million years ago.

PaleofantasyA fascinating new book by Marlene Zuk, Paleofantasy: What Evolution Really Tells Us About Sex, Diet and How We Live,  dissects the romantic-nostalgic notion that infests both the left and the right… that humans were and remain better suited and adapted to the ways of life experienced by our ancestors, than we are for the crowded, stressful, and complex requirements of modern existence. "Recognizing the continuity of evolution also makes clear the futility of selecting any particular time for human harmony," when we were perfectly adapted to our environment, writes Zuk. Certainly the nostalgists have a point; there are challenges that we must rise up to meet, and some of us are better at coping and thriving in a modern world than others.  But there is very strong evidence that we are not the same, genetically and in many other ways, as our forbears who hunted across the savannah. We have changed. Are changing. And will change more in the future.

Turning to the future… I've received many messages from folks intrigued by my mention (in Existence) of a "phosphorus crisis" in the 2040s.  For many, the novel was the first they'd heard of this, but the problem has been visible on the distant horizon for some time.  Phosphorus is the rarest element in chemical life and ready reserves are being mined-out. A time will come when we all use PhosUrinals (or PUs) to reclaim as much as we can. Here's one more article you might find interesting: Should you be worried about your meat's phosphorous footprint?

== Bold endeavors ==

00619e628e2Looking toward the next big thing in physics: Seven experiments that could rock the paradigm in physics: The LHC, the Planck probe, LIGO, LISA Pathfinder, Dark matter searches via DAMA/LIBRA, nuSTORM Neutrino factories, and quantum transmissions.

The next Genome style project? "The Obama administration is planning a decade-long scientific effort to examine the workings of the human brain and build a comprehensive map of its activity, seeking to do for the brain what the Human Genome Project did for genetics."  BHO mentioned sci & tech in his SOTU more times than any other president, even Clinton.

India is testing out an idea that marries solar panels with irrigation canals. A 1 MW project has been built over nearly half a mile of the Narmada Canal in the state of Gujarat in India, and it will not only produce electricity but also conserve land and water by putting solar panels over a waterway rather than over fertile ground. It also should reduce evaporation of the canal water by an estimated 237,750 gallons of water each year. And why aren't we doing this in California?

One of the technologies we are looking at in NASA's NIAC program is robotic construction of lunar habitats.  Both candidate methods envision a site in Shackleton Crater at the moon's south pole… a little harder to get to but there may be water ice below the surface and a solar power station erected on the crater rim would get sunlight all month long instead of only 2 weeks at a stretch.  One technology (see a cool video) would sinter lunar dust into rigid walls, one of the few methods that would need no binding agent carried up from Earth and no (or little) use of the precious water that may be needed for other purposes.

== Making Porfirio - more leaps for rat-kind ==

Duke University researchers imbed an implant that gives Lab rats a sixth sense -- to detect infrared light -- by sending a sensor's signals to a part of the brain assigned to touch. "It could be magnetic fields, radio waves, or ultrasound. We chose infrared initially because it didn't interfere with our electrophysiological recordings."  One key finding was that enlisting the touch cortex to detect infrared light did not reduce its ability to process touch signals.

How-to-Create-a-Mind-cover-347x512The Brain is Not Computable: One of the researchers who created the infrared-detecting mice has also taken on the whole notion that Moore's Law will soon empower us to mimic human brains (and then better) in silicon - a core tenet of belief among "singularity-transhumanists." Miguel Nicolelis, a top neuroscientist at Duke University, says computers will never replicate the human brain and that the technological Singularity is “a bunch of hot air.” The neuroscientist instead thinks that humans will increasingly subsume machines (an idea, incidentally, that’s also part of Ray Kurzweil’s transhumanist predictions).

It had to happen. A Duke neuroscientist was able to link two rats' brains—using electrode implants—so that they could communicate through their minds, even solve puzzles. See how far this might be pushed, with parrots in a scene in Existence.

Will my rat-forecast from Existence come true sooner than expected?

== Cool Tech ==

Clay tablets infused with copper or silver molded into cheap filters can purify water for six months. Made with clay and sawdust… firing burns off the sawdust, leaving a ceramic with very fine pores. The filter is then painted with a thin solution of silver or copper nanoparticles that serve as a highly effective disinfectant for waterborne pathogens.

Graphene supercapacitors could make batteries obsolete.

The coming of "drone journalism"… now in real life, though portrayed down the road a bit, and controlled by Smart Mobs in Existence.

An oddly hypnotic wave pendulum. Watch the video.

Making music with gloves… quite interesting & “futuristic”….. Skip the 1st 7 minutes.

== Our friends in sea and time ==

A Megapod:  Thousands of dolphins spanning across seven miles of ocean were sighted off the coast of San Diego.

Have you seen this about a 19th-century human-whale "treaty"?  Australian whalers had an agreement with a local pod of Orcas known as “The Law of the Tongue.” The Orcas would herd baleen whales close to the shore of the Port of Eden, blocking their escape routes, at which point harpoon boats would set upon – and kill – the whales. The tongues of the baleen whales would be cut off by the whalers and delivered to the orcas as a food tribute. The humans and orcas would cooperate in other ways as well.

austAnd finally...Scientists from the Senckenberg Research Institute reconstructed these models of nearly-alien faces of our hominid ancestors based upon skulls, bone and teeth fragments gathered from around the globe.

==See more of my articles about Space: Where are we headed?

29 comments:

Dan said...

So, if Mars does get that petaton-equivalent impact, what does that bode for Curiosity? Obviously, if it's at ground-zero, we'll get some very brief but impressive images. But if it's at the far side, it is likely to survive the after-effects?

Care to make some wild speculations about what Mars might be like after such an impact?

matthew said...

I don't think that it is immature to hope mars gets creamed with an ice cream sundae (maybe on a tuesdae, we could hope). While we would most likely lose Curiosity, the resulting show would spark conversations all over our planet about the risks of such an impact. And we would learn a lot.
As for rampant speculation about what would happen on mars after an impact, I predict a brief return of surface water, with all the attendant peroxide chemical reactions going wild. A marginally thicker atmosphere for a while. And the presence of living organisms, hatched like eons-gestated cicadas from long dormant eggs, coming fourth to quickly court and breed, before laying eggs to sit dormant waiting for the next cometary impact.

Robert said...

Curiosity would best survive if it was beyond the horizon... but not on the opposite side of the planet. Because if a comet smacks right into Mars? I'd be willing to bet volcanic activity on the opposite side of the planet would start up.

In fact, the best-case scenario would be for Curiosity to be "sheltered" by the mountain in the Gale Crater. We likely would not hear anything from Curiosity for a couple of years at least, however, at least until we either had a powerful satellite in Martian orbit to pick up radio signals through the still-dusty-atmosphere... or the dust diminishes sufficiently.

BTW, Dr. Brin... if Mars DOES get whacked by a comet... that might be a good sign that we are in a simulation. After all, wouldn't little "tweaks" like that be of interest to an experimenter?

Rob H.

David Brin said...

I agree that if Mars gets smacked it would be very suspicious timing!

I'm not sure it would take out all three of the current orbiters. But debris from either a near passage or an impact might do that. In fact we might LOS science if the comet merely passes close by and takes them out. But good views till then.

Greg Byshenk said...

I submit that the "camp that thinks that human consciousness [...] simply can’t be replicated in silicon" is just as unfounded as Kurzweilian over-optimism. It may turn out to be true, but the evidence isn't there one way or the other, and the arguments are bad ones.

Yes, it may be that one cannot model a brain/mind using anything less complex than the brain. But that just means that you can't replicate a human brain until you have something sufficiently powerful -- not that it is impossible.

Nicolelis's analogy to the stock market is a bad one. One can compute the stock market. One cannot predict the stock market, but that is because doing so would require a model much, much more complex than the stock market itself, because trading decisions can be influenced by... well, just about anything. But modeling (or computing) the brain (or the neural syste) is not plainly impossible in principle.

O. Pagan said...

I am cautiously pessimistic about a true computer simulation of a brain. The brain is much more than its connections. There is a lot of extrasynaptic events that influence neurotransmission, including but not limited to neurotransmitter spillover and the influence of glial cells which somehow I have never seen accounted for in any proposed brain simulation... My two cents.

Tony Fisk said...

Read 'The Killers of Eden' which is an account of the Eden whale company. The relationship lasted at least two generations. It ended when all the pod members died. No real account of how it started, though.

The skeleton of orca pod leader 'Old Tom', is on display at the Eden museum.
He used to give the whalers rides by pulling on the harpoon lines.
You can see how this wore through his teeth. how it staryed, though.
Doesn't really go into how the pact came into existence, though.

Tony Fisk said...

...Writing longish spiels on mobile is fraught with pitfalls!

David Brin said...

Even if the brain is calculable, it may be many more Moore's Law doublings further downstream than Ray K thinks. He was not happy when I raised the possibility of INTRACELLULAR COMPUTING... that perhaps many hundreds or more "calculations" take place inside neurons and other brain cells, for every neuron that actually flashes.

If so, then we are even more marvelous... and even harder to replicate. And plans to freeze heads in order to recreate the "connectome" of synapses may only render a rough approximation.

mark hayes said...

I think Mars taking a comet shot would be a boon for the possibility of terraforming Mars. In the future, we may harvest comets to re-hydrate the red planet.

Robert said...

Amusingly, O, I was abstracting The Economist earlier today and one of the articles was about research into developing a three-dimensional model of neural connections within the brain. There are various methods of doing this, including embedding a brain in plastic, taking microscopic slices, and imaging it with electron microscopes... and tracking water molecules along neural pathways.

In short: in ten years? We may have a proper three-dimensional map of the brain and thus start gaining a better understanding of it.

(And in an another article I found out there's a full-size model of a whale fossil being printed through three-dimensional printing that will be hopefully on display at the Smithsonian Institution. It'll be the largest 3D printed object to date.)

Rob H.

Tim H. said...

A Martian comet strike would seem natural material for Kim Stanley Robinson, "If we take this hit, it may kill half of us, but the survivors will have more breathable air.".

David Brin said...

I have become worried that a near miss by the comet may harm the three orbiters...

locumranch said...

Arguing backwards you are.

Ideas like Continuous Evolution, Incremental Improvement, Biological Progress, Singularity and Humane Transhumanism are merely the teleological equivalent of Intelligent Design. Evolutionary genetic "improvement" simply does not work in such a focused, forward-looking or predetermined fashion.

Instead, 'Evolution' is replete with an excess of extinctions, lurches, false starts, uncertain victories and irreversible dead-ends. It is 'backwards-looking' in the sense that evolution prepares biological life for conditions which have already occurred (fait accompli).

It only appears to represent progressive 'teleological inevitability' in retrospect, much in the same way that tired old technologies like ceramic water filters, galvanic neuro-stimulation, intracellular ion channel-based computing and making music with your hands (gloved or ungloved) appear to be the future BECAUSE they represent a known past quantity.

Expectation only equals Occurrence in retrospect:

Evolution does not and cannot be said to prepare life for an unknown future. To argue otherwise is to perpetuate irrational nonsense, the equivalent of discussing the unthinkably 'unexpected' nature of the future when such a discussion presupposes all manner of expectation, precognition and forethought.

In the same vein: Screw the orbiters and bring on the comet. The Martian environment can't be more inhospitable; a comet-strike can only improve it from the human perspective; and our technology should be allowed to succeed or fail based on its own merits.



Best.

locumranch said...

Rather than making a bad philosophical point, I am making my philosophical point badly. In 'Everything is Obvious, Once You Know the Answer ...', author Duncan J. Watts made this point better by explaining that the popularity of the Mona Lisa is an illusion:

“We claim to be saying that the Mona Lisa is the most famous painting in the world because it has attributes X, Y and Z. But really what we’re saying is that the Mona Lisa is famous because it’s more like the Mona Lisa than anything else.”

In other words, he is saying that inevitable occurrences or obvious truths only appear inevitable or obvious in the retrospective rear-view mirror. The same analogy holds true for commonly held truths like Climate Change or the Triumph of Capitalism which are only true because they have all ready happened.

These things (the Mona Lisa, CC, the victory of capitalism, etc) are 'fait accompli'. They represent the PAST in actuality because they have already happened and they can only be said to represent the FUTURE in the sense that 'an object in motion tends to remain in motion', a truism also known as 'history repeats itself'.

But this is the problem with all types of predictive simulation. They assume that what has happened will continue to happen; they expect the expected; and they cannot expect the unexpected which is why most of us, even great 'Futurists' like DB, are future fearful when an unexpected comet appears and threatens everything that is known, inevitable or obvious.

Best.

sociotard said...

If the Comet did hit, could there be a chance of Phobos and Deimos getting a little brother from debris kicked up from the surface?

David Brin said...

A hit on Mars would be spectacular and probably worth (science) the inevitable damage to our orbiters and difficulty sending more through the debris.

Alas, more likely is a near miss, which could destroy the orbiters with rocky stuff

Alfred Differ said...

Explanation creates the illusion of purpose on a purposeless universe.

Evolution is not a thing that can have purpose. Creating diversity just happens to be a successful method for surviving the unexpected and unpredictable. There is more upside than downside potential to error in many situations, so the ratchet turns one way and catches the other way... not that there is 'a' way, though. The appearance of 'a way' is an explanation. 8)

Ian said...

A cometary impact on Mars would not be in the dinosaur-killing category but the climactic effects would likely be a couple of orders of magnitude greater than the Toba eruption that caused the Year without a winter.

You'd probably have a couple of decades at least of severe volcanism, marsquakes and wild climactic swings.

It'd probably kill any realistic prospect of a human mission ot Mars or all our lifetimes.

Paul451 said...

Even if computers are, for some arbitrary reason, never able to replicate the function of the brain, it's clear that brain cells can.

And judging by the encephalization index, most of any animal's brain is concerned with running its body. So replicating only the parts required for intelligence may only require small specialist artificially grown or printed brains.

I mean, a parrot or corvid's brain isn't large to start with. Strip out the parts that monitor/control its body, and how much is left.

So even if we can't replicate the brain in silicon, it doesn't mean we can't understand certain brain functions enough to extract them and replicate them in specialist pseudo-brains.

sociotard said...

Even if it is possible to make a sapient computer, it remains to be seen how exactly like a human's mind it can be without a body.

We're only just now starting to realize how much of the 'mind' is not the brain. For example, if your heart takes longer to come down from an elevated rate, it will be harder to calm down when you are angry. Or, they have also found that your gut flora can affect the way your mind works. Atttempts to just copy over a brain would miss those nuances.

Robert said...

Which makes you wonder: Just how powerful would a computer need to be in order to replicate all of the aspects that are behind human intelligence? Including the influence of parasites, viruses, symbiotes, and environment? And now replicate this on a large scale. And then add into this the billions of trillions of life forms on the planet (from the smallest virus to the largest whale)... planetary mechanics, stellar mechanics, interstellar mechanics, galactic mechanics... you are talking a level of complexity here that I'm not sure a quantum computer the size of a planet could replicate (especially if you consider the larger the computer, the longer it takes light to move from one area to the next, resulting in lag... and quantum entanglement likely would not be of use on a huge scale due to the possibility widescale entanglement ends up snarling into a quantum knot).

In short... how can you simulate a universe? We do not even understand how our own bodies function fully (note that we're just now realizing the appendix may not be unnecessary after how long of believing otherwise? Next up, tonsils!) so how do we go on to simulate a world down to the subatomic level?

Simulations of humanity would likely be on a small scale. I could see scientists simulating astronauts on an interstellar mission as you have a limited environment and a limited number of subjects. But once you grow to a certain level I'm not sure even the most powerful of computers could keep up.

Which of course leads to my belief that we should not go around trying to poke holes in imaginary simulations to "prove" otherwise as that just encourages people to try and destroy the simulation... and destructive behavior is not good for society or this planet.

Rob H.

Douglas Fenton said...


Hello Dr. Brin. First of all let me say that I have been reading your books since I can across The Uplift War back in 1987. It just blew me away to say the least and I have followed you ever since. I could go on for a long time about how it made me think and influenced me greatly but I am sure you have heard it all before. I will just say keep up the great work. My life is richer because of your writings. Now I will get to the reason I am commenting on your article.
There have been more studies lately about the possibility that a complicated nervous system uses quantum tunneling to perform some of its everyday functions. There is some evidence that the olfactory system uses quantum tunneling vastly increase its sensitivity in differencing similar molecules. I find this fascinating. What if this is just the tip of the iceberg? What if the brain uses quantum processes in many more ways? What if as one researcher said “. It’s quantum all the way down”! Instead of just a collection of chemical processes life then becomes much deeper phenomenon. Even primitive nervous system could be “wired into” a quantum substrate. It would be ironic if we find that intelligence is even more involved in the quantum world. AI might just be much further away than previously thought. If our brains are actually very sophisticated quantum computers then perhaps an earthworm has more computing power than the brightest computers now. If we are quantum creatures then the door is wide open for speculations not only in science but also in philosophy, religion, morality, and ethics. After all if we are intimately meshed with the quantum world then we open up a whole new existence. It is going to be so fun!

Douglas Fenton said...

Hello Dr. Brin. First of all let me say that I have been reading your books since I can across The Uplift War back in 1987. It just blew me away to say the least and I have followed you ever since. I could go on for a long time about how it made me think and influenced me greatly but I am sure you have heard it all before. I will just say keep up the great work. My life is richer because of your writings. Now I will get to the reason I am commenting on your article.
There have been more studies lately about the possibility that a complicated nervous system uses quantum tunneling to perform some of its everyday functions. There is some evidence that the olfactory system uses quantum tunneling vastly increase its sensitivity in differencing similar molecules. I find this fascinating. What if this is just the tip of the iceberg? What if the brain uses quantum processes in many more ways? What if as one researcher said “. It’s quantum all the way down”! Instead of just a collection of chemical processes life then becomes much deeper phenomenon. Even primitive nervous system could be “wired into” a quantum substrate. It would be ironic if we find that intelligence is even more involved in the quantum world. AI might just be much further away than previously thought. If our brains are actually very sophisticated quantum computers then perhaps an earthworm has more computing power than the brightest computers now. If we are quantum creatures then the door is wide open for speculations not only in science but also in philosophy, religion, morality, and ethics. After all if we are intimately meshed with the quantum world then we open up a whole new existence. It is going to be so fun!

locumranch said...

Simulating the average human intellect is well within our current technical capabilities.

First, we start with a factory standard Mac or IBM-compatible laptop and jury-rig some sort of automatic sensory apparatus so it can accumulate data independently;

Second, we direct it to exhibit an overwhelming sense of self-importance, self-interest & selfishness so it will make personal survival its #1 priority;

Third, we program it with any number of arbitrary belief systems along the lines of racism, classism, social entitlement, quantum mechanics, economic theory, predestination, universal paternalism & immateriality;

Fourth, we instruct it to ignore and/or reject any sensory data that contradicts its pre-programmed arbitrary belief systems, leaving us with a rationalizing machine capable of self-deception; and

Abracadabra !! We have simulated the human intellectual capacity of the average GOP conservative.

Not so optimistic, btw, as to our ability to create an AI of above human intellectual capacity. Also suspicious that we would be unable to recognize such a super-human intellect even if we succeeded in creating one.

Best.

Alfred Differ said...

I'm not sure why we would bother ditching the work of simulating the parts of the brain that manage motor functions. I suspect those will be easier to grasp than the more complex features. We won't have to ditch them if the goal is simplificaton of a tough problem because we will already understand them.

I also don't see what there is to worry about when it comes to calculations done inside a neuron. If that turns out to be the case, the simulations that don't correctly model it will fail to immitate us. When that day arrives, we diversify our exploration paths and try again. It might take longer than expected if we have to model more detail, but that changes the estimated arrive of the 'future' by one or more Moore periods. It doesn't eliminate that possible future.

Robert said...

Just as an aside, here's a fascinating video interview of the President of Iceland, who suggests that the reason the Eurozone is doing poorly is they keep bailing out their banks. And I have to say, there may be some merit to that... and I wonder how much better the U.S. economy would be if we'd just let the Too Big to Fail banks... fail. And then paid off the maximum for each account according to the federal insurance on the accounts.

Rob H.

David Brin said...

I love Iceland. The men left their fishing boats to launch banks, leveraged to Andromeda and called themselves geniuses... then collapse... and the women stepped in and took over everything and sent the men back to sea!

Paul451 said...

Rob H,
Or nationalised them while they are cheap.

(Buy low, sell high :)