Saturday, August 13, 2016

Gazing into the cosmos -- Galaxies and Black Holes and SETI and METI (again)

Yes, events in our tiny corner of space and time... the Olympics and spreading viruses and momentous elections... transfix us.  So it's even more important to lift our heads! And thus to recall that we are members of a truly wonderful human civilization.  As you ponder the miracles below - just a sampler out of so many - remember that your people are doing this right now.  You, your neighbors and fellow taxpayers.

We aren't at War with Science.  We are the scientific civilization, and any truly worthy Father (or Mother) would be proud. And nothing is beyond us.

== Cool overhead! ==

Having arrived at Jupiter, NASA's Juno spacecraft has sent its first in-orbit images! 

Astronomers have discovered a new dwarf planet orbiting beyond Neptune; this icy world 2015RR245 is about 700 km in size, and has a hugely elliptical orbit, which takes it far beyond the Kuiper Belt.

This is boss... The largest three dimensional map of the universe, to date: a new 3D map plots the locations of 1.2  million galaxies -- a quarter of the sky. Created by scientists at the Baryon Oscillation Spectroscopic Survey (BOSS), part of the Sloan Digital Sky Survey, the data will help scientists understand the nature of dark energy and dark matter in shaping the cosmos, and driving cosmic expansion. The image shows just a slice through the 3D map; each point not a star, but a galaxy.  And we've only just begun...

1300 new galaxies were just discovered by South African astronomers, in the first phase of the Square Kilometer Array (SKA) -- which will be the largest telescope ever built, consisting of thousands of radio antennas covering over a square kilometer in South Africa and Australia. The image resolution is expected to exceed that of the Hubble Space Telescope by a factor of fifty. Besides galaxies, it will survey for dark energy, dark matter and perform tests of general relativity.

For big perspectives on the nature of the cosmos, see Caltech professor and science popularizer Sean Carroll’s latest book, The Big Picture: On the Origins of Life, Meaning, and the Universe Itself -- a title grandiose enough to hint at the scale he is tackling, weaving together diverse concepts from physics, evolution, neuroscience and philosophy to get at the essence of the cosmos itself. 

Carroll writes,What we believe about the fundamental nature of reality affects how we look at the world and how we choose to live our lives. We should work to get it right.” 

== The Goldilocks zone ==

An abrupt outburst from the young star V883 Orionis gave astronomers their first view of a water 'snowline' in a protoplanetary disk -- the region around a star where temperature and pressure allow the formation of water ice -- a key feature in the development of life.

It appears that crowded stellar neighborhoods affect planet formation in interesting ways.  The denser environment in a cluster causes more frequent interactions between planets and nearby stars, which may explain the excess of hot Jupiters observed.  

Michaël Gillon, of the University of Liège, says “I’ve always been focused on extraterrestrial life.”  His TRAPPIST transit planet-finding scope focuses on ultra small “ultracool” dwarf stars and has found planets orbiting one of them in its goldilocks zone, though tidally locked so water could only settle as liquid along the Twilight Zone. Also that region would have some shelter from frequent red-dwarf flares. Even the too-hot sun-facing hemisphere would be dim… life could only subsist on infrared.

== Primordial Black Holes ==

Science fiction and adventure novelist John Ringo (most recently author of Black Tide Rising) and I recently shared thoughts on “Primordial Black Holes” or PBH – massive singularities that might have been created in the very process of the Big Bang and most of which might be with us still, today.  Indeed, some believe these might explain some of the mysterious Dark Matter. A potential resurrection of the MACHO alternative explanation for dark matter - now currently favoring WIMPS.

Getting a bit technical here: Various approaches to detecting PBH are on the table.  For example, small ones in the mass range of E11 grams may be expiring to Hawking Radiation about now and thus possibly detectable as bright explosions. At a larger scale, the fact that LIGO detected two mergings of intermediate size BH (in the range of 20-100 solar masses, we think) within just a few months of each other suggests that this is happening all over the cosmos pretty regularly!  If that bears out, then it really puts the PBH scenario in play!

Moreover, if we detect these things in scads, then it will let us derive a rough power law for their size range.  Once you have such a power law, then it's traditional to extend it beyond what you can observe, giving us a hint whether there are mega-scads of much smaller BH. (Which of course leads one to ponder the initial scenario in EARTH.)

It does appear obvious that if there were scads of PBH - after the Big Bang - then those at the larger end of the power law distribution in size would act as nucleation sites for galaxies.

The mind wanders to macro cosmological maunderings, like the way some guys like Lee Smolin envisioned that big BH in our universe may seed Bangs elsewhere and elsewhen. Indeed a medium sized BH might engender a new universe vastly larger than the mass it contains. I have a short story "What Continues..." about Smolin's implication... that Our cosmos was born from a BH in a mother universe and our BH engenders daughters... and that the traits of such descendants might "evolve" in ways to maximize BH (or egg) production, and that might explain why our universe seems "fine-tuned" for life.... Phew!

For more about black holes and big picture thinking: Mapping the Heavens: The Radical Scientific Ideas that Reveal the Cosmos. Yale astronomy professor Priyamvada Natarajan provides historical perspective and an insider's insight into the revolutionary research that has shaped our understanding of the universe, from dark matter to dark energy, from black holes to quasars and an ever-growing list of exoplanets.   

== Again with the yoohoo screamers? ==

The METI - SETI debate develops.  Dr. Doug Vakoch held up the let’s-shout-yoohoo side amiably at Toronto’s terrific IdeaCity conference (much better than TED)… while I skyped in to represent the let’s-learn-more-before-hollering position. 

I like Doug and he fights fair. And a fair debate over this matter is all that most of us METI-dissenters have been demanding. Some true due-diligence and extended-ecumenical, broad exposure of the ideas to critical peer review and public comment, outside a narrow clique of peremptory zealots. You can watch the brief debate here, odownload the mp4 file.

The IdeaCity audience was buzzing about it afterwards. They took a poll - who do you think had the edge? immediately following my debate with Doug – the caution approach won with 64%.  Note that this always happens

Modern, liberal audiences always poll way in favor of METI at first. 
Only then, once they learn more, they lean the other way, toward wanting to engage the complex issue and share open argument, first.  Which is why The SETI Institute's top METI zealot, Dr. Seth Shostak tries always (inexplicably) to control which ideas his audiences are exposed to.

== They do keep trying ==

One more silly METI stunt - (Message to ET) - by arrogant twits who declare "we know exactly what the cosmic situation is, and anyone who disagrees can be dismissed out of hand. We assume there's nothing to discuss with anyone, so we'll just alter our planet's observable parameters (a kind of pollution) without bothering to consult anyone else, do an environmental impact report or address the concerns of colleagues." 

Of course we understand the attention-seeking value of such stunts. But if any of you are actually interested in what actual astronomers have to say about the argument, I posted my own paper objecting to METI. Most of the widely held assumptions - like "aliens can already watch our TV" are simply flat out and extremely wrong.

Oh... as we are about to post... and now the METI zealots are at it again!  With a new kickstarter campaign now they want YOUR money in order to find stunts that will not advance science an iota, or achieve first contact, but that might have a slim but real chance of endangering our world.  (See the flaws in this mindset illustrated by Liu Cixin's fantastic novel - winner of last year's Hugo Award - The Three Body Problem.)

meti, seti

Sure, by posting this link I just drew some folks to look at the METI guy's sales pitch and maybe give them a buck or two.  

A far better kickstarter would be to fund a new science show getting many of the world's top minds on-camera discussing SETI and METI, exploring implications that you never imagined! And figuring out how to get past cliches... perhaps polling the people of this planet whether or not they want a small team of zealots precipitately screaming into the cosmos on our behalf, without so much as an impact report in advance. 

Now that would be a worthy kickstarter! Get the whole planet discussing the parameters of the Drake Equation and the Fermi Paradox and real science! A fascinating exploration and discussion that might even lead to a win-win compromise - as often happens when scientists and the public argue like grownups - and possibly even find a middle ground! Maybe charting a way to do this responsibly and well.

Again, my own response on METI is here

== The real lesson? ==

Let's do most things in the open. Argue fairly. And stay scientific! (Remember this, during the elections!)

But above all, pause every now and then to wade through the hip-deep river of wonders that are pouring forth from curious and disciplined minds... assisted by folks like you who eagerly ask questions and willingly help to pay for it all!  

And as you pause, ponder this too:

I am a member of a civilization that does stuff like this!


dennisd said...

My life's work is focused on visualizing and presenting the big picture perspective of the universe. Thank you David for this post. At this moment I'm at a Trump rally in Fairfield, CT. As a life-long Democrat I believe it's important to try to understand the opposition. Hence my presence here in Trumpland. While this crowd howls for Clinton's lynching I'll be imagining these new images of our larger universe.

Robert said...

Probably the best bet for a habitable planet around a red dwarf star would be a double planet, where two bodies orbit each other even as they travel around their star. Of course, the stability of such a system is questionable, seeing that while the two planets (one of which is likely smaller and "just" a moon, though either large or close enough that their orbital point is outside the crust of the other planet) would orbit each other, what influence would their star have? Would gravitational influences from the star trying to tidally lock the planets end up flinging them apart?

Of course, there's also the fact that the goldilocks zone is further out with the higher levels of greenhouse gases - and not just carbon dioxide. A methane-rich atmosphere would trap heat at a further distance out. So planets could in theory exist outside what would normally be considered that star's goldilocks zone. And for that matter, iceball worlds can melt during times of intense solar/flare activity from a red dwarf, and that could result in any life existing under the ice evolving toward a state that could result in sentience and even technological advancements.

Rob H.

David Brin said...

dennisd, wow. It certainly is a memorable phenomenon. My father infiltrated the German-American Bund in Chicago, during the 1930s and reported on their activities. AT minimum it will certainly be - for you - an experience.

Tim W said...

Excellent post David, thank you for that - the BOSS photo is awesome. One of those pictures that makes me feel like the ground is dropping away beneath me. Is there a word to describe the sensation of awe arising from exposure to the scale of the cosmos? Univer...tigo, perhaps...? (Sorry, I'll get my coat).

Good luck dennisd, it'll be interesting to see your thoughts after the event. There are hopeful signs that Trump is on the decline now: but the scary part about it all is his followers. Those feelings they express aren't going to evaporate assuming he does lose. Over here in the UK the Brexit thing has unleashed a distinctly ugly side of our society, with the number of racist and xenophobic incidents reported significantly up. Depressing stuff.

I suppose the only hope is to just keep chipping away at them, slowly trying to bring them over to the sane side of society. Engaging debates about scientific questions like SETI/METI could perhaps form part of that. (How would a Christian Fundamentalist approach such a question...?)

Regarding the last thread conversation: I agree with the sentiment that much of gaming is violent soul-less nonsense (unsavoury was the word Tacitus used). But not all of it is. You'd be forgiven for checking the cinema listings and deciding movies are worthless because they all seem to be about superheroes, or of walking past the SF section in a bookshop and saying "science fiction these days is just Star Wars novels". But obviously you'd be missing out on the good stuff by doing that.

On to the key discussion points raised by this blog post though:

Do you have a link to the hundred+ explanations for the Fermi Paradox, David? I know the basics, and I read around the subject a fair amount, but I think if I were to start listing them I'd be running dry after about twenty or thirty.

Your various counters to why the honeypot explanation is incomplete do make sense, but I wonder: immersive VR could be an awfully powerful attractor state. Would we really still have Hell's Angels if they could do all those Hell's Angels-y things with no fear of consequence and the gasoline and... motorbikes were all free...? I don't really know what I'm talking about here (is denim and leather a significant operating expense for a Hell's Angel?). My point is interstellar communication (let alone travel) is always going to be challenging, expensive, and very time consuming (of the hurry up and wait variety). Inner spaces created by artificial realities are not. I remember a great short story by some author called David Brin(?), about a guy whose VR exercise room kept him healthy and active by letting him immerse himself in the role of a paleolithic hunter gatherer for an hour a day. Shut up and take my money.

The attraction of immersive artificial reality could be so powerful that it truly is only the far extreme end of the bell curve that remains in Realspacetime - even if they are encouraged to "keep an eye on things", while mainstream galactic culture sublimes away into their own imaginations.

But still - if the only aliens we are likely to encounter are at the Hell's Angels end of the spectrum, that might explain the whole UFO "what-exactly-do-they-think-they-are-doing?!" aspect. Do Hell's Angels like probing rednecks...? All I know is my heart says "maybe".

However as I mentioned a few blog posts ago: my big money is on the idea that ETI's are just not as obvious as we might think. Their tech is likely to be subtle, efficient, and possibly utilises some means we haven't even imagined yet. Plus (as the BOSS photo shows) - even if ETI's are common - that's an awfully big haystack. But at the same time it's inconceivable that they are not out there somewhere.

I'm sure you've seen this before, but we can always trust Randall Munroe to summarise these issues in the wittiest and pithiest ways possible:

Tim W said...

PS Sorry about the long comment - I wanted to include a joke about "brevity not being a skill I possess" but I ran out of characters.....

Quick final thought and then I'll leave you in peace: the obvious other explanation for the Eerie Silence is the Matrix one. We could already be living in a simulation (statistical arguments favour it in fact), and the guy running the program couldn't be bothered to include ETIs. Maybe everything we see outside the solar system is just a big procedurally generated screensaver.

But after all my rambling on about artificial worlds being fun places to live, I still find reality-is-a-simulation to be one of the more depressing explanations. Terrifying even if we're just software entities in that simulation. A happier truth would be if we're all immortal beings, spending our vacation time in a perma-death immersive world with our memories of the really real suppressed to keep things interesting. I'm a little alarmed we decided to include so much mundane horror in with the cool stuff, but it's better than the notion that we could just be switched off sooner or later.

And it seems some idiot decided to press the Invoke Trump button to shake things up a bit.

greg byshenk said...

Under the last post, Duncan Cairncross said...

On "Estate Taxes" or Death Taxes - I agree we make it far too complex

What we should do is simple Tax it as INCOME - that is what it is after all
Why should "earned money" be taxed and "found money" be tax free??

Any money transfer should be taxed - probably want a threshold just to make it easy - say $200,000 per year?

Part of the reason that estate taxes are complicated is that the situations can be complicated.

For many smaller estates, the bulk of the value of the estate is in the form of a house, a farm, a small business, or something similar. In many these cases, finding money to pay any "income" tax would be very difficult for the inheritors, and would require selling the house or other asset. Basically, the money raised by the tax would be quite small (in relation to tax payments overall), but could be an extreme hardship for the inheritors.

This is why the minimum at which estate taxes come into force is set relatively high (approximately $5M in the US). One could argue about whether this is the correct limit, but just saying 'tax it as income' seems a bit too simple.

Ioan said...

To reply to PaulSB from the last post.

I'm sorry, but even excluding the commercial flights, the scenario you outlines is less likely than getting killed by a cow or getting eaten by a shark. From the brief Google search I've done, it's been at a rate of 1 incident a year. Since 1 person dies by shark attack every 2 years, it is more dangerous than getting killed by a shark. However, since there are 19 shark attacks each year, it is far less likely than getting attacked by a shark.

In my opinion people who advocate for AR based on a civilian having to take over from an incapacitated pilot are fundamentally using an appeal to paranoia. I know you were simply trying to demonstrate a beneficial use for AR. However, arguments based on low-probability events have a tendency of increasing background-level paranoia within a population. This is the same effect as the media focusing on every serial killer, kidnapping, or terrorist attacks.

The thing is, I don't even know if it actually sells anyone on the benefits of AR. Most people will just conclude that AR is irrelevant to their lives, since they are unlikely to be in a situation where a talk down aircraft landing has been attempted. In other words, you have convinced them that AR is a waste of their money. It's not going to be enough to convince them to go to Walmart, Best Buy, or Amazon and purchase an AR headset; or download an AR app.

Duncan Cairncross said...

Hi Greg

"For many smaller estates, the bulk of the value of the estate is in the form of a house, a farm, a small business, or something similar. In many these cases, finding money to pay any "income" tax would be very difficult for the inheritors,"

But I could say the same about my wages - I don't get a lot so finding the money to pay my taxes is difficult

Why should somebody who gets something without working for it get a better tax treatment than somebody who works for the money???

It's not really complicated at all unless you want to treat the recipients of a free gift much much better than somebody who worked for it

The "inheritors" are getting something - why shouldn't they pay taxes on that???

Ioan said...


"I suppose the only hope is to just keep chipping away at them, slowly trying to bring them over to the sane side of society. Engaging debates about scientific questions like SETI/METI could perhaps form part of that."

I wonder how that advice would work with a British leave voter?

Don't get me wrong, I think that the UK leaving the EU would destabilize the world and delay much-needed reforms to global governance. Especially since I don't think the world can really wait for those reforms.

In the spirit of being a contrarian, I'm glad in a way that Brexit has won. I've met a few British people from N England and the Southwest countryside. As early as 2007, they were dissatisfied that the government and wider society "was treating them like they didn't matter". My friends from London first heard those complaints from me, and shrugged it off to just "a few unsatisfied nut balls". I'm glad that this referendum is now forcing both sides to talk to each other, however much each may dislike it

PS: As for my pro-Brexit friends, I can't really counter their logic that the EU's treatment of Greece was a crime against humanity

Tim W said...

Ioan, my apologies for not being clearer; my "sane side of society" comment was aimed specifically at the racists and xenophobes: if they would perhaps engage in a debate about SETI (and to METI or not), and thereby started to think about how truly strange minds might operate... surely the degree of fear they have for fellow humans with different skin tones or beliefs in slightly different versions of this or that god might diminish.

But in the spirit of being a contrarian to your contrarian, the idea that Brexit might happen because a significant fraction of the UK was disgruntled with the establishment is annoying. It means they weren't even voting on the issue put before them.

And while the EU has some issues that need addressing, no question, you can't solve a problem by running away from it.

Paul SB said...

Okay Ioan, I get you point. I need to think my examples though more clearly. Can you think of a better example where AR might be useful in an emergency? How about firefighters using them to navigate through burning, smoke-filled buildings, assuming the floorpans are available digitally? But emergency use was only a secondary argument. My main point was educational.

However, I will say that your assessment of rare example to drive up paranoia levels is very sound. It would be really useful if there were a banner running underneath TV broadcasts of political speeches that fairly assessed the probabilities of statements made, like Trump's claim that Clinton will repeal the Second Amendment. If there were a banner running underneath that showed exactly what the US Constitution requires for an amendment to be repealed, people would know right away that he was full of it. Those watching it on TV, anyway.

Paul SB said...

I seem to be missing some plural /s/s in my last post.

Hello Tim W. (are there those that would call you Tim?),

You wrote:

"(unsavoury was the word Tacitus used). But not all of it is. You'd be forgiven for checking the cinema listings and deciding movies are worthless because they all seem to be about superheroes, or of walking past the SF section in a bookshop and saying "science fiction these days is just Star Wars novels". But obviously you'd be missing out on the good stuff by doing that."

Good, educational games that are not soul-less shout-'em-ups (in Grand Theft Auto you get points for running over old ladies crossing the street, so it isn't ALL shooting) are out there, but you have to dig for them, or have cool friends who point them out to you. Like educational television, most people just pass it by because it doesn't activate the epinephrine the way games that present you with virtual danger do. I think it's really the danger more so than the violence that attracts the mind, but what is more dangerous than fighting off alien zombie chicken parasites? A game in which you balance on a high wire or try to perform a trapeze act might appeal for a little while.

But is there a solution to all this drivel, or are we just stuck with it? I don't want to do the liberal knee-jerk response, which is to regulate anything you don't like (though that respond his equally knee-jerk among social conservatives, especially of the religious variety, but they refuse to be painted with the same brush). Markets aren't producing a lot of the more savory stuff, though, when blast-'em games snag an audience's attention so much better. Perhaps we will have to wait for the era of genetic engineering to fix this.

I wonder what people think here of the 2 arguments that get thrown out about this, as well as violent sports. On one side they say that violent pastimes "desensitize" people to violence, making them more likely to commit violent acts themselves. The other argument is that they allow people to express their "natural" violent urges in socially acceptable ways, preventing them from committing real acts of violence. Both arguments sound like simplistic rationalizations, at best, and I know of little to support either, except that they are so often repeated (Argumentum ad nauseam fallacy).

Paul SB said...

Autocorrect is really toying with me today! "Shout-'em-ups"? They make video games of political rallies? Now there's a thought! Would you get points for ad hominem attacks, or lose points?

Ioan said...


No problem. The firefighter example is good. Here are a few more examples

1. If you're in a car accident, paramedics can use the phone and camera option in your AR headset to see your condition. How badly are you hurt, where is everyone located

2. An aid for driving

3. If you have to follow police instructions, it can give you arrows (although this one is also rare and fails my own test).

4. Identify which plants in the woods are safe to eat and which are poisonous. Same for snakes.

5. For a more advanced version, find out where on snow it is safe to step?

6. Find out where it is safe to step if you are elderly

LarryHart said...


In my opinion people who advocate for AR based on a civilian having to take over from an incapacitated pilot are fundamentally using an appeal to paranoia.

I'm not sure why this particular scenario is such a pet peeve of yours. My sense was that Paul was using the airplane thing as an example of many possible situations where a civilian might need to jump into an ongoing situation quickly. The need to give CPR comes to mind. The probability of the particular scenario he chose as an example isn't the point.

If you're old enough to remember Monty Python, then "It's not meant to be taken lit'rally. It refers to any...manufactuer of...dairy products."

LarryHart said...


PS: As for my pro-Brexit friends, I can't really counter their logic that the EU's treatment of Greece was a crime against humanity

It sounds as if Europe nurses the same double standard that we do here in the States. Disrupting someone economically from the right (i.e., forced austerity) is just fine and natural. Disrupting someone economically from the left (i.e., letting foreigners into the system) is a cause for outrage that can escalate to violence if necessary.

Ioan said...

Tim W,

I understand your argument, but sadly I don't think pointing out METI would have the effect you're looking for. The argument comes from the idea that people ignore their differences and come together when there's a threat going on. This comes from the postwar of WWII when

a. Before the war, the primary identities were WASP, Irish, Italian, Pole, etc. After the war, the primary identity in the US was white

b. After the war, people in Europe thought more in terms of Westerners/everyone else instead of their nation/everyone else

The thing is, both a and b had little to do with the war in my opinion. I don't have much evidence on me, but I think that both of those were arguably happening already. In fact, WWII probably slowed them down.

Pointing out METI will just result in them thinking the following
"Scientists share my fear, it's just that it's acceptable to talk about aliens instead of [insert group]. It's true that society shares my beliefs. Now if only I could show them that the anti-METI arguments work when applied to [insert group]".

Ioan said...


I understand what PaulSB was doing. Perhaps I should have made my post more clear. I thought that although his example was sound for what he wanted to demonstrate, from my own experience in talking to non-techies, using a rare situation to illustrate your point makes you seem paranoid, and people begin to shut you off.

I was just pointing out that using a rare occurrence as an example is (IMO) lazy. It also doesn't sell the benefits of the product. The CPR example would have worked much better (although I'm not sure of its rarity).

Ioan said...


To give credit to my pro-Brexit friends, most hated austerity from the beginning. They uniformly hated the austerity the EU placed on the Med countries (hence the crimes against humanity accusation). Further, most also hated the austerity the UK implemented at home. They were Labor voters, not conservative voters.

The one who favored austerity favored it because he believed that foreign creditors could use foreign debt to influence UK domestic policy. He wanted the debt paid off so that the government "wouldn't be subject to blackmail"

LarryHart said...

Duncan Cairncross:

But I could say the same about my wages - I don't get a lot so finding the money to pay my taxes is difficult.

Why should somebody who gets something without working for it get a better tax treatment than somebody who works for the money???

When people pay capital gains tax--say on a stock sale--they pay only on the profit above and beyond what they bought the stock for. The cost of buying is a "basis" below which the sale is not taxed because that money is not part of the net profit. I have often maintained that there should be a "basis" for wage income as well, related to the value of the time given up in exchange for those wages. I'm not sure of the details on how such a basis would be calculated, but it seems a fundamental flaw to treat every penny of wage income as a taxable "gain" for the recipient, while only the profit on a stock sale is treated as a gain.

It's not really complicated at all unless you want to treat the recipients of a free gift much much better than somebody who worked for it

The "inheritors" are getting something - why shouldn't they pay taxes on that???

Because there's nothing to pay taxes with unless one gives up the gift entirely. You may say that the recipient should sell the estate for cash and still ends up with a profit, but what about when the "gift" is something like a tuition waver scholarship to a prestigious, expensive college? Is it really desirable to require students to turn down such a scholarship because they can't afford the tax on the value of the gift? It's not as if you can sell the scholarship and pay taxes with part of the money.

It's complicated precisely because we blur the lines between the monetary value of a non-monetary gift and money itself. If someone inherits a million dollar home, we say he "gained" a million dollars, yet the taxes can't be paid by turning over part of the parcel of land to the government. Taxes must be paid in cash, but the recipients of a gift do not always have the ability to monetize the gift in order to raise the cash.

Could the whole estate tax issue be end-run by treating an estate as a corporation? Instead of thinking of it the estate as income passing from one owner to another, think of the estate itself as a corporate entity which survives the originator, and whose succession of ownership is laid out in advance. Now, you're not talking about income. Rather, the function of the estate tax would be served by a corporate tax on property, much as you or I pay property tax on a house we own.

greg byshenk said...

Duncan Cairncross said:

But I could say the same about my wages - I don't get a lot so finding the money to pay my taxes is difficult.

But that's a different issue, at least in part. The issue relating to estate taxes is that the benifit (income for the state) is small relative to the burden on the person to be taxed. Yes, for those in lower tax brackets, each individual payment is small, but the total contribution is large. For estates, the benefit to the state of extra income is small, because there just aren't that many valuable estates that even could be taxable (and larger estates are taxed).

Why should somebody who gets something without working for it get a better tax treatment than somebody who works for the money???

At least in this case, because society has decided that the costs to society of things like forcing the sale of a family business or home outweigh the benefits of additional tax revenue. At least in the US, there are many such things in the tax code. One can disagree, of course, but there is reason behind it.

Jonathan Sills said...

Re: AR for education:

If someone were to come out with a good, sturdy AR headset with a plugin for a Hayes auto repair manual, I'd happily plunk down the cash for it. It'd sure beat getting brake-fluid handprints all over my dead tree edition while trying to figure out if the grease-encrusted thing in my hand is or is not Part A-12 as illustrated in the black-and-white picture, and how exactly the hose is supposed to firmly connect to it if it is.

Re: "shoot-em-ups":

Unless there's something going on in GTA5 (which I haven't played), I contest the claim you "get points for running over old ladies in Grand Theft Auto". In point of fact, that will not only not give you "points" (the game doesn't even operate on a point system, except in Player-vs-Player for GTA4, in which you get points only for taking down your opponents), killing random passers-by is liable to attract the attention of the police - which starts with one or two patrol cars and cops with pistols, and tops out with your facing down against tanks and armed helicopters. You get cash for accomplishing missions, which can require killing certain people - but it's not a random-mass-slaying simulator. (Sorry, this has become a bit of a sore point for me; it's not really different in type from the "satanic D&D" panic of the '80s, and I really don't want another of my hobbies to have to go through that.)

LarryHart said...

@Dr Brin,

I've made it abundantly clear that I'm into "Hamilton" at the moment. In the context of the play and my subsequent readings about the history of Aaron Burr, I wanted to refresh my memory about what your fictional Nathan Holn had "written" about Burr in the pages of "The Postman". With a bit of searching, I found the bit in Chapter 13 of the third book of that novel. LOST EMPIRE by Nathan Holn

It's both amazing and scary how much of Nathan Holn's ranting could have been written today, and that such a treatise was a believable extension of separatist writings in the 1980s, before FOX News and Rush Limbaugh. It's also, as I have said before, a testament to your writing that your villains are so three-dimensional that you go so far as to have Nathan Holn himself starting from the premise that the "hoary Left-Right axis" is a fallacy.

Paul SB said...


I was one of those D&D "satanists" back in the day (though I found Traveller much more satisfying, to be honest - more into sci-fi than fantasy), so I see where you are coming from. I've never played any version of GTA (though my favorite band did the soundtrack for V), so I was going from something I heard from a 5th grade teacher whose students he said looked sheepish when he said it. I'll defer to your greater knowledge here. I tried a quick GooGoo search, but it turned out to be more reading than I am willing to do on a subject of little interest to me on my last day off. And anyway, I would be far more interested in engaging in a conversation about the social effects of these things, keeping in mind that how one person is affected by something is not necessarily how others are affected. I try to think like the CDC, in terms of populations and variations, statistics and probabilities. It seems like a more useful approach when thinking about large-scale issues.

Paul SB said...


I knew a lot of people who saw the left/right axis as a false dichotomy before the era of Limbaugh and Fox News. They were quite radical, anti-government extremists, who saw the right wing as not going nearly far enough, essentially as "in bed with" them damn liberals. It's the same mentality that inspired the Oklahoma City bombers, who foolishly believed that every "sensible" person would rise up in arms against Satan's government if they just had a signal. It doesn't surprise me that a keen observer would write about that sort of thing back in those days.

LarryHart said...

@Paul SB,

I was commenting on two separate things. One was that Nathan Holn's screed, which sounded extreme in the 1980s, but was a believable extension of right-wing screeds of the time, was still relevant today. A separate thing was that even the villains of the piece, including Nathan Holn, were not just cackling one-dimensional Dr Evil types, but had believable, rational thought behind their actions.

David Brin said...

Tim W. univertigo … ooog. Pretty good, actually.

Re the Fermi paradox. Arguments rage on and on about the so-called "Fermi Paradox" or "The Great Silence"... the puzzling fact that we see no signs of advanced civilizations among the stars. Nor evidence that Earth was ever even visited, during the two billion years that it has been prime real estate, with an oxygen-rich atmosphere. Many theories have been offered fervently by very smart people, each of them convinced that he or she has the aha-answer! But way back in 1983 I published what is still - to this day - the only major review article about alien contact, surveying almost a hundred different hypotheses and ranking them according to plausibility. Surprisingly, there have been almost no new ideas since then, though plenty of heated opinion! Quarterly Journal of Royal Astronomical Society, fall1983, v.24, pp283-309
About whether altruism rules the cosmos:

"Lifeboat" article about METI:

Re Hells Angels in space (1) One can envision a race wanting to breed VR resistant versions (or servants) who would keep an eye on objective reality for them. In a few millennia, they would spread.

Non-obvious aliens? That works if there are only a few types. E.g. if gazillions of them out there live in Oort comet clouds around stars. See HEART OF THE COMET. It does not work if life is plentiful or does what life does, spreading into all niches.

XKCD is great. But the statistics for number of ant colonies are much more vast than even the highest estimate of the number of new sapient races that might appear in a galaxy, per year, which is pretty much a maximum of one. Now add this. What if ant scientists could cheaply send a gazillion little robots to study each ant colony on Earth?

The clues we live in a simulation iclude – lack of aliens, speed limit, vast spaces between stars, quantum limits to observation and so on. All save massively on processing the simulation.

David Brin said...

Estate taxes. I don’t think the threshold whould be 5 million. From $1million to $10M you get a graduated tax that can be paid off across 20 years. Pleanty of time to make the family farm or business work.

Ioan: "Scientists share my fear, it's just that it's acceptable to talk about aliens instead of [insert group]. It's true that society shares my beliefs. Now if only I could show them that the anti-METI arguments work when applied to [insert group]".

Not. The anti-METI guys are asking for a broad scientific conversation. The very opposite.

LArryHart re The Postman and Holnists. Yeah, some things just seemed obvious then. And scarily plausible now. You got a page number on that LOST EMPIRE bit?

Deuxglass said...

When it comes to the Fermi Paradox, maybe advanced civilizations just don’t care about contacting us. Maybe they are tired of non-spacefaring races asking them for tech freebees all the time and who are not capable of giving anything in return. Hello! By the way, can you help us with fusion reactors? Do you have any old blueprints of a space drive lying around that you aren’t using? As the Elder Civilization, why don’t you solve all our problems for us so we can bitch about you afterward. Any advanced civilization that broadcasts their existence would be deluged by requests from lower ones who just want to use them for free R&D and offer trinkets in exchange (unless they develop a passion for whale songs). Being constantly pestered for information would get old quickly for the Elder Civilization. They would conclude that we are not worth the hassle. Star Trek was right. A civilization only becomes possibly interesting when it invents Warp Drive and we haven’t done that yet so let’s face it. We are on our own and no one is going to save us from ourselves. To them, we are not worth the effort.

Jumper said...

Jonathan Sills, I like this idea!... Except for Hayes' habit of using awful photography.

I just found this on inheritance taxes. Different from proposed estate taxes. Interesting. (If you inherit someone's unspent 401K you pay tax, but if you inherit $10 million in cash, you don't.)

Jumper said...

Deuxglass said...

Dr. Brin,

In your last post you talked about Bio Tech insights. As a former microbiologist I keep up with new developments and I would like to point out recent findings by Kenneth Nealson at USC concerning bacteria that eat and breath electricity. I am sure you know him since he did work a lot at the JPl heading the astrobiology group. I am excited by their work and it fits well with the idea that intracellular computing is ubiquitous.

I won’t go into details because it is complicated but for those who would be interested an article can be found here:

The title is typical journalistic clickbait but he does explain it well. An hour-long in-depth talk by Nealson titled “Extracellular Electron Transport” is fascinating and can be found here:

David Brin said...

Deuxglass interesting link. As for your theory -- you assume a lot of uniformity out there, when it will be easy for advanced races to make all sorts of variations of themselves or deputies or sub-entities, and those will flow into any niche. Including niches that are interested in newcomers or lower races. And those lower races will NOT be innumerable or as easily shrugged off as ant colonies. The scales are very different. Any new tech race is “news.”

I’m not saying you are wrong. It just presumes a limitation on dispersal - by geography, eco-niche and sub-types - that would then require an explanation of its own. As to why there isn’t enough variety to make exceptions to the rule.

Deuxglass said...

Dr. Brin,
I gave a "tongue in cheek" theory mainly to pop our human-centric bubble that assumes that we, as a sentient species, have worth to the Universe in general. Why should we assume that we are unique and that advanced civilizations would welcome us? Perhaps planet-bound civilizations like ours are a dime a dozen and literally not worth writing home about.

Why haven’t we found evidence of civilizations passing through our solar system in the past is an intriguing question. My guess is that advanced civilizations are very efficient and recycle everything back into something useful and then take it with them when they leave. They essentially clean up their litter leaving no trace of their presence. It could be that most life arises in ice-covered water worlds and their civilizations would have no interest in a world like Earth but instead visit worlds like Europa and such. The traces they have left would be under its ice and any installations on the surface would have been erased by moving ice long ago. We couldn’t see anything of them with what we have now.

LarryHart said...

Dr Brin:

You got a page number on that LOST EMPIRE bit?

Well, in my 1980s-era paperback, it's page 252. I wasn't sure page numbers are the same in all additions, which is why I cited Chapter 13 of book 3 ("Cincinnatus").

BTW, your having the character read a book written by Nathan Holn reminded me of Winston's reading the book by Goldstein in "1984". IIRC, Winston was even asked if he had ever actually read Emmanuel Goldstein before he was given the book in phrasing similar to when Gordon was asked if he had ever read Nathan Holn. Was the homage intentional?

LarryHart said...

that's...the same in all editions


David Brin said...

Thanks LH.

Deuxglass, Earth was prime real estate with a partly oxygen atmosphere for 2 billion years with only crude bacteria and archaea in the seas and nothing on land. ONE alien toilet flush and all would have changed, Visible in our rocks.

See my story about this in INSISTENCE OF VISION!

Duncan Cairncross said...

Hi Guys
Larry immediately identified the problem with taxing inheritance as income,
"Because there's nothing to pay taxes with unless one gives up the gift entirely"

And then Dr Brin found the solution
"tax that can be paid off across 20 years. Plenty of time to make the family farm or business work"
That would apply to a house you inherit as well - you are getting a major benefit in a free house so it is reasonable that you should be taxed on it

Duncan Cairncross said...

Re - AR
As somebody who tinkers and fixes things (mostly) the Hayes manuals have been very very useful but YouTube is even more useful
(manuals are very very difficult to write!!)
So AR should take us to the next stage - I don't know if it will be a big step up or a small one
I expected YouTube to be a small increment but I have found it to be a large improvement over a paper manual

DR Montgomery said...

Interesting read. Interesting lesson. Take the good with the bad, and never forget either. Go science!

Frankly I prefer focusing on all the interesting things you're talking about (and many others in the many fields of futurology), as opposed to the more mundane aspects of geo-politics. Unfortunately it's damnably hard to get away from the constant drone of news feeds dedicated to re-hashing the same tired information. Then again, awareness is always better than ignorance, no matter the subject.

I'm somewhat intrigued by how others balance their innate desire to know with the constant stream of distractions flying our way. Perhaps our collective consciousness can come up with a few filtering guidelines, eh?

David Brin said...

Dang. Forgot that entire scene, LarryHart. That younger me was pretty sharp! ;-)

Ioan said...

Dr. Brin,

I wasn't arguing either side of the METI debate. Tim had said that perhaps introducing the METI debate would moderate Trump and Brexit supporters, and I responded no. You're right on the actual motives of both sides, but I was arguing perception here, not reality. Truth be told, I don't think the neo Confederates care about the METI debate either way.

David Brin said...

Didn't know I connected the two. Musta been a reflex.

Paul SB said...

"Dang. Forgot that entire scene, LarryHart. That younger me was pretty sharp! ;-)"

- Sounds like you are regretting that last regeneration...

Tim H. said...

There might actually be interstellar communication going on that is simply undetectable with current technology, for example, if David Sarnoff could receive a few hours of NBC's 2016 programming in 1949, would he recognize it as such? Or even notice it at all?
BTW, on the subject of METI, I'm for keeping our mouth shut and ears open.

Paul SB said...

Here's a brief but good little article on how far our radio signals have traveled since the days of Marconi, with a good graphic that makes the point very well. The author ends by mentioning signal attenuation, though not in any quantifiable way, given that any alien technology to receive such signals would be a total unknown, should any happen to live within that tiny bubble.

LarryHart said...

Dr Brin:

Dang. Forgot that entire scene, LarryHart. That younger me was pretty sharp! ;-)

Funny, I always presume that an author knows his own work better than I do. It doesn't really sink in that you might have put the book behind you in 1985, whereas I've read it several times in the interim.

Tony Fisk said...

"BTW, on the subject of METI, I'm for keeping our mouth shut and ears open."

The logical conclusion being the scenario I call the 'Earie Silence' ("Great Scott! Is that...tinnitus?")

Alfred Differ said... are getting a major benefit in a free house so it is reasonable that you should be taxed on it

What?! No.

I'm losing my last parent to get that house. There is nothing reasonable about you all getting a share.

Sorry. It is only income because that is how the IRS defines it. It isn't income, though. It is assignment of family assets assuming a parent chooses to treat their property as family property.

This is fundamental stuff, people. Family is an ancient human structure. There are people who do not recognize the boundary between individuals the way Randians do and they object on moral grounds when property exchange within a family is treated like property exchange between families or unattached individuals. You can pretend such exchanges are income, but they won't and they WILL respond in some way you are unlikely to foresee and are unlikely to like.

Alfred Differ said...

@Paul SB: The AR emergency use that popped into my mind was the aid we would all need to clear a building or campus when active shooters start firing upon us.

So-called "2nd amendment people" might want to extend the aid to know who to shoot back at, but I'd be wary of people who think they can deal accurately with misinformation when the lead is flying.

@tacitus2: The argument for keeping our attention in the real world was lost at least 70,000 years ago when our languages developed into more modern forms. Most humans live in their heads and only rarely peek at the so-called objective reality for confirmation. The best evidence of this is how badly they react when confirmation fails. 8)

Tim W said...

@Ioan and @David Brin:

Yeah, I was wondering if engaging the more closed minded humans on these bigger questions might start to act as something of a lock pick...

The idea that a common threat would pull us together is one interpretation, Ioan, but my actual thinking was that discussing how to positively communicate and build a productive future relationship with ETIs would be a better angle. I agree that just adding more things to be scared of to brains that spend most of their days pickling in their own adrenaline would be non-productive. Just adds fuel to the fire.

So the question is not "how do we avoid getting destroyed by ET?" but "how do we make friends with ET (without getting destroyed)?"

I dunno. I'm flailing around a bit to try and find solutions to our current problems. If there is genuinely no way to start to build a bridge with the racists and xenophobes that are holding us all back, then unfortunately we are left with waiting for them to grow old and die out, and hope their kids turn out to be more moderate.

But I don't think it is as bleak as that: we already see the spread of moderation and progressive thought just by giving people free access to the internet. This is not just in Western society, but in fact is more striking when you look at the rest of the world. Exposure to strange and new ideas can have a powerful effect on people. Fear is not the only response.

Thanks for the links to your papers btw, David - looks good. I'll enjoy those. But for now, sigh, time to go to work.

Paul SB said...

there will always be a percentage of the population who let negativity bias, segmentary opposition and a host of other simplifications go to their heads. At some points in history they are 3 deviations from the mean, at others they are only 1 (the young people I work with, for all their immaturity, give me some hope that we are moving into a time when the racist xenophobes will be 3 deviations from the mean - what Clint Eastwood calls the "Pussy Generation"). It is doubtful we will ever be completely rid of these people. The trick would be keeping them from embarrassing us in front of interstellar society, should we ever actually meet one.

sounds like no Pygmalion Effect on Dr. Brin's part. We can read his novels over and over and love every minute of it, while he has other things to do.

A.F. Rey said...

Off-tangent, but have you seen this article from the New Republic on the Republican war on higher education?

It documents how Republicans in a few states have been cutting university budgets, primarily (it contends) because of supposed ideological differences. Which pretty much explains why there are so very few Republican professors.

(Credit: I stumbled upon it in one of P.Z. Myers' blog posts.)

Jumper said...
We evolved large brains to process our own social economy, the article claims.
I would hesitate to put in comparison tool use as only a minor, smaller evolutionary spur, but I have long thought that primate social psychology underlies a lot more of our intellect than we realize. We categorize everything by rank, it seems, and rank is our specialty.

Deuxglass said...


We have the same edition of the Postman. I looked up the pages and there was Nathan Holn. It is a good example of the Big Lie because everything in it was wrong yet it could appeal to those who want to believe that they are truly men. It’s strange that they see themselves as lords and warriors when in reality they would be the new peasants of those with brains.

Dr; Brin, I bought my copy of The Postman at Brentano's at Paris in the 80’s. Since Brentano's is one of only two places to buy American science fiction at that time in Paris, I wonder if you went there to buy your books. If so then we could have crossed paths since I went there a lot.

David Brin said...

Deuxglass we were in Paris 1990 & 1991 and yes I knew the ladies at Brentanos and shopped there!

now onward


Ricardo Montachio said...

The scary thing about METI is that any civilizations that are actively paying attention very carefully for transmissions like these is the kind of civilization that's we probably don't want to find us.

In other words, predators.