Saturday, July 27, 2013

Galactic Self-Reproducing Probes? (Plus tweet-ready miscellany!)

HideBigBrotherCropFirst a note: my op-editorial, If You Can't Hide From Big Brother, Adapt was syndicated around the world in the New York Times, International Herald Tribune and a longer version, Snooping vs. Privacy: Lessons for an Age of Transparency in the Christian Science Monitor, among other venues, offering a little wisdom about the value of calm pragmatism in the defense of liberty and safety in the Information Age.

Oh, and regarding a matter that's "completely different": In The Immortality Debate"Decision theorist Eliezer Yudkowsky, biologist PZ Myers, author David Brin and moderator Eneasz Brodski discuss the potential pitfalls and implications of human immortality - both biological and socio-political. Disagreement on the desirability of indefinite lifespans leads to a fascinating conversation."  

== Are alien probes already in our solar system? ==

It's Easier for Aliens to Visit than previously thought: George Dvorsky lately reported - on the ever-brash io9 site - about recent calculations suggesting that "Von Neumann" self-replicating probes, (which I've put into my fiction since 1983) might be able to "fill the galaxy" -- leaving one copy at every star in the Milky Way -- within just 10 million years after the first such probe was launched into space.

That is a mere eyeblink, in comparison to the Milky Way's 10-to-12 billion year age, or its 220 million year rotation rate (at our distance from galactic center.) This new calculation is based on a number of assumptions.  First that Einstein rules. Sorry, no warp drive or even traveling faster than 10% of the speed of light.  In other words, it's a robotic mission.  (Though, as I show in Existence, that doesn't mean it can't be 'human.")

Second, while the traditional Von Neumann probe would decelerate into the next star system, then use asteroidal resources to make and launch its copies, the recent paper by Nicholson and Forgan, offers a unique version, based on a speculative notion: that probes might gather enough raw material (and energy) to copy themselves while hurtling across the cold, black near-emptiness between stars. By building its daughters out of interstellar atoms -- not having to stop and mine asteroids -- a mother probe might drop one into a system that it passes and toss others at varied angles past the new sun, using a slingshot effect to hurl them in varied directions with great efficiency.

I'm rather skeptical of the core assumption -- building robot copies extirely from collected interstellar atoms… but I'm willing to ponder it, maybe in a future story!

OpenLetterAlienLurkersIn fact, I have been working at this general topic -- both as a scientist and as a science fiction author -- ever since I attended the Los Alamos conference on Interstellar Migration around 1983, when Jones and Finney first analyzed the rate at which such "Von Neumann probes" might be able to set a daughter in place around every star in the galaxy.  By the way, they calculated a figure even lower than Nicholson and Forgan.

Of course, the question of why we haven't yet encountered such probes in our solar system is provocative.  It makes the already puzzling problem of the "Fermi Paradox" or Great Silence even more daunting. Folks can read a dozen reasons why such probes - lurking in our solar system - might choose not to respond, even to earnest entreaties that have been made already, by radio and internet. Or else, read more about SETI.

I chose to make this quandary, in fact, the core element of Existence.

That is less a "plug" than simply a followup and offer to those of you who wish to follow up this teaser with scads and skeins of threads leading in new directions. There are many quirky aspects to this one idea, and the number of possible variations can be mind boggling. Even (especially) to the voraciously curious!

== Amazing Miscellany ==

It can be difficult to know what's real and what's fake when it comes to digital art these days. But don't torture yourself worrying about it now: Here are some of the most photorealistic 3D renderings on the web.

Bites from a voracious tick known as the Lone Star are leaving some suddenly allergic to red meat.  Unlike most food allergies, the symptoms typically set in three to six hours after an affected person eats beef, pork or lamb—often in the middle of the night. The bite that seems to precipitate it may occur weeks or months before, often making it difficult for people to make the link. Geez one could come up with a dozen sci fi scenarios behind this one. Hm. Villainous PETA conspirators… honey, call agent!

Daily closing of India and Pakistan Border crossing -- a terrific show. Almost a Monty Python comedy skit, but actually kind of encouraging as it is choreographed and sure beats use of nuclear weapons!

== TWEETable Highlights! ==

Bowing to the inevitable, I have decided to do my latest dump of amazing miscelklany in handy, tweetable bits, for your convenience! That means both linking and displaying the web URLs.  We'll see if folks like this.

How the Tesla Model S is made -- Behind the scenes: a wonderful video.

adriftRivers and tides of fog and clouds and air, flowing around the bridges of San Francisco.  A gorgeous video homage - Adrift by Simon Christen.

xkcd offers perspective on the changing pace of modern life. Still… Twitter lobotomizes.

Forty websites that will make you cleverer right now!

Gorgeous view of America's waterways...Zoomable map highlights extensive #USGS data 

New life for hobbled planet-hunter #Kepler? Microlensing could allow continued search for #exoplanets 

Quirky Quark Quartet…First particle containing four quarks is confirmed 

We need a Fixer not just a #Maker Movement

The difference between Geeks & Nerds -- based on Twitter Research:

This Robotics Dad makes me feel wholly inadequate as a father!

Chinese anti-pervert stockings. Girls wear these hairy panty hose to deter men with inappropriate intentions.

Ten epochal inventors who did not get rich.

Existential Star Wars: If Sartre had co-written StarWars!

Here's what Elon Musk's new project may look like:

Like Synthpop electronic music?  Try "Drunken Saucer Attack" and others by Talin.

The great Pitch Drop experiment.  Since 1927, only eight droplets of the decade-slow goo have plummeted from funnel to cup.  Finally, caught in the act!

All right, this is fascinating. Why are testicles kept in a vulnerable dangling sac? It’s not why you think.

or follow more tweets on


Acacia H. said...

Dr. Brin, have you ever considered that perhaps the intergalactic void has enough particles in it to render high-speed travel infeasible without some form of ablative shield (which would increase mass and thus need extra propulsion)? And if you don't accelerate to a high enough speed, then a probe may very well run out of power before reaching another star?

Power is the big thing. You need a power source potent enough to keep running for hundreds of years at least to travel between stars... but compact enough that it won't impact on acceleration and deceleration. Nor are solar sails necessarily the best method of reducing speed because the larger the object, the more likely debris will hit it and reduce its effectiveness.

Finally... the solar system is vast. Earth is a small rocky planet. Once the probe reaches Sol... it has to find a way into the habitable zone of the star to find a planet that may or may not exist while slowing with an unknown mechanism... it may very well be that we've not seen any probes because they've not reached us, or were so damaged so as not to last very long once they did reach here.

Rob H.

Ian Gould said...

About all those jobs the US exported:

Tacitus said...

Actually I have seen the India/Pak border show once turned up on a Michael Palin travel show from a few years back. (2004)

So it was Python in more than just theme.

Lotta foot stomping going on there.


Anonymous said...

Dude, when are you writing if you are surfing the web the whole day?

Acacia H. said...

While the number of people employed has gone up, if you remove the outlier of the top 1% and the bottom 1% to determine just how much people make while working and compare it to similar results over the last 50 years I'd be willing to bet it would be declining. I mean, when people need to work three jobs a week in order to make rent and have barely enough to eat... then there's something wrong with those jobs. And yes, this is still a problem these days.

Rob H.

Alex Tolley said...

The simplest explanation may be correct - there are no alien probes.

I recall James Benford made a comment at a SETI meeting that we have not, not could we, search the solar system for probes using current technology. At best we could look for bus sized probes within the vicinity of cis-lunar space. A large probe, even not camouflaged, would be not be locatable unless it signaled us. There could be many dead probes out there, and we wouldn't know it.

Finally, just how many variants of X replicating probes will fill the galaxy in T years which is a tiny fraction F of the life of the galaxy do we need? It's been done to death. Enough already!

Without touting "Existence", the idea that there were a large number of small probes in the solar system and on earth was the most original idea in this vein that I have heard for a long time. We could take it even further and suggest that galactic civs have been spreading knowledge in grains of dust coded at the atomic level. Our rocks could contain libraries if only we could find and decode those grains.

Ian said...

Taken from:

Real wages for production workers bottomed in 1995 (after the 1992 recession) and have risen since.

Over the period since 1968, the average hourly wage for a production worker has risen around 5%.

If you look at the data over time you'll notice that's very little consistency to the trend - average wages fall during and immediately after recessions and rise during expansions.

It's also worth noting that hourly wages for essentially every demographic group except white males (still the largest single demographic group) have risen by 10% or more over that period.

That's what you'd expect if discrimination against women and non-whites in the labor market were declining allowed them to compete more effectively with white men.

And yes the data set includes part-time workers an workers in those despised service industries

Ian said...

Oh and there's also no consistent long-term decline in the median household income either:

Jumper said...

Is income of zero counted as income?

Ian said...

Do you know of anyone working and earning an income of zero?

Acacia H. said...

Interns. Except now that's illegal. But it had been done until last year.

Alex Tolley said...

@Ian - so real wages have been essentially flat since 1969. Nice to see productivity increases distributed to the workers.

Alex Tolley said...

To follow Roberts point. It isn't just hourly wages that you need to track. It is hours worked, cost of living - e.g. housing, medical care, etc etc. Then there is how steady those wages are.

Everyone except the top few percent are being squeezed in the US. Household debt has spiraled upwards to maintain living standards.

Most egregious to my mind is the huge levels of education debt that graduates who need school loans incur. Whatever happened to society benefiting from an educated workforce? Now you need a degree to get a job, it's expensive so you need a job and you cannot discharge it even through bankruptcy. And good luck getting a decent paying job to pay the loan down. Modern serfs.

Hank Roberts said...


Ian said...

To be blunt, there's no great mystery as to why inequality is growing in America and how to fix it - but to be perfectly honest I don't know that most Americans would accept it.

You need to reduce corporate power which fundamentally means reducing the power of corporations to jurisdiction-hunt for the states with the mot favorable laws.

I don't see how you're going to achieve that without uniform laws in a range of areas that have traditional been under State control: corporations law and industrial relations law for starters.

Or you can ignore all that or say it's too hard and go back to blaming those darn Chinese which won;t actually achieve anything but may be mroe emotionally satisfying.

Alex Tolley said...

"You need to reduce corporate power which fundamentally means reducing the power of corporations to jurisdiction-hunt for the states with the mot favorable laws"

The Citizens United case defines federal law. Favorable tax treatments and labor laws for some or all corporations are due to Congressional legislators.

While it is true that large corporations can play off one state or municipality off against another for favorable taxes and subsidies, corporate power is much more determined by other factors - favorable legal systems, favorable labor laws by legislators (follow the money), etc. etc.

Look at what happens in other countries and see where there are common problems despite the lack of local government to be played.

While there is no single cause, money in politics is a big part of the problem everywhere. Its corrupting influence is an age old problem.

Jumper said...

My point was, that when "average income" is reported for statistics, I am never sure if it encompasses the people not working, or whether it is the average income of people with jobs.

Jumper said...

Also, btw, state laws on who can record whom vary, in the U.S. My state allows me to secretly record a conversation if I am part of it, but not if I am not participating and am an eavesdropper.

I had a real liar for a boss once, and pondered a pocket recorder to stop him from blaming me for things, a record of which, had I one, would have stopped him.

Alex Tolley said...

Re: The Immortality Debate. I enjoyed the hour of debate. However it seemed to me that there was little debate, mostly different positions being stated and participants talking past each other, rarely addressing the core issue. Maybe we know so little about the consequences that it is just going to be an experiment (assuming such longevity can be done).

Alfred Differ said...

Heh. It is already an experiment. 200+ years ago no nation on Earth had an average life expectancy north of 42 years. Now they all do. Even something so simple as having live grandparents to share the burdens can change the amount of time a mother can devote to educating her kids... and it has along with all the other changes industrialization helped produce.

We don't know where this goes, but it is obvious it goes somewhere other than where we were. 8)

sociotard said...

Speaking of India:

India military believes it was tracking Chinese spy drones over Ladakh. Astronmer explains those were Jupiter and Venus.

David Brin said...

The social consequences in China of 8 grandparents and four parents watching nervously as a pair of newlyweds make one child... One has to wonder... and wish it had happened in India (sort of).

LarryHart said...

Going off-topic for a bit because the comments in an earlier post pushed me to re-read "Childhood's End".

I had kinda forgotten all the concepts this book opened me up to at age 16 when it was the first sci-fi novel I ever read. Even though I have since read sci-fi novels that were much better--even some others by Clarke--I'll always have a soft spot for "Childhood's End" for that reason.

Absolutely the best few lines in the book, and not a sentiment that a 16-year-old me could fully appreciate back then:

"I've only one more question," he said. "What shall we do about our children?"

"Enjoy them while you may," answered Rashaverak gently. "They will not be yours for long."

It was advice that might have been given to any parent in any age: but now it contained a threat and a terror it had never held before.

rewinn said...

Ian's point about corporate power is well-taken although it doesn't counteract the equally valid point that American family income isn't keeping up with our increasing productivity.
Perhaps one way to deal with the problem is simply to use 3-D printers to create our own cheap cr@p right at home; according to one study (which may be wrong) and much to my surprise "Household 3D printers pay for themselves in short order"

locumranch said...

How's this for a story idea?

The median age of various countries increases rapidly, exceeding 45+ in Canada, Europe & the Old Soviet and approaching 40 in Australia, China & the USA, leading to a worldwide geriatric population explosion (1), the resurgence of Oldy-garchy (2), unprecedented social stability (3), global economic stagnation (4) & the death of the science fiction genre (5).

We could call it 'The Aging of Enlightenment' and we could sell it in the non-fiction section.







rewinn said...

"... the death of the science fiction genre..."

I submit that the SF genre has become so normalized that it won't die so much as become mainstream. Most videogames, a huge proportion of movies, and an awful lot of popular fiction are either SF or fantasy.

I bow to the greater knowledge of the actual authors here as to whether that is a likely thing and/or a good thing, but perhaps there's a novel in which a ragged band of Western and Regency authors quest to overthrow the entrenched power of SFWA.

Paul451 said...

I assume LR's point was that the idea of "progress" will fade as society stabilises/stagnates due to ageing.

Hence, morality tales will be based around fantasy, not speculation. (Any remaining SF would be just another branch of fantasy. As many already treat it.)

You already see it on TV, where most soaps are based around oligarch families. Even TV superheroes must now be "princes" of oligarch families. And most of the episodes revolving around the politics of the family, and the villains part of the royal court (usually the plotting of the evil queen.)

Duncan Cairncross said...


Age is irrelevant

Especially average age which is mostly increased by the changes in the numbers of young children

"Growing Old is mandatory
Growing Up is optional"

Tony Fisk said...

Well, speaking as someone on the far side of 50, I suppose the notion of progress fading isn't intrinsically wrong... so long as the level attained is considered acceptable. However, I think we have a lo-ong ways to go yet before resting on our laurels is an option. (Also, I have children...!)

I regard all speculative fiction as 'fantasy' (see Clarke III. Also, how do you propose to conjure up a warp drive?) Good 'Science Fiction' distinguishes itself by asking serious 'what if' questions that might have a chance of happening.

TV showing oligarchic family epics and evil queens (*kof!* Westor *kof!* os!*kof!*). Actually, I think the biggest problem that particular TV adaptation has is that all the (living) commoner extras look so *healthy*! Martin's writing evokes a strong sense that your average Wildling is an emaciated wretch suffering from numerous nutritional diseases, and who expends all their energy just keeping warm. The Watch aren't much better, and the rest of the country is about to be placed in the same position thanks to a ruinous autumn civil war waged by the upper 1%.

In short, a great place to read about, but not necessarily somewhere to retire to in one's aged dotage.

Paul451 said...

I specifically wasn't referring to Game of Thrones. I meant contemporary US dramas and soaps seem to increasingly revolve around the internal politics of a wealthy family.

[Australia seems to favour suburban and small town families, or inner-city twenty-somethings.]

locumranch said...

Whereas I am speaking literally when I discuss the societal implications of an aging population, Duncan is speaking metaphorically because the topic of aging is not as "irrelevant" as he claims.

Our society is aging with all of the attendant age-related implications thereof (caution, wisdom, maturity, fatigue, infirmity, grouchiness, self-involvement & incapacity to name a few), and it is this 'aging' that fuels our current socioeconomic trend back toward oligarchy with its emphasis on 'old money' or inherited wealth & power.

Likewise, any 'Game of Thrones' fan can tell you that 'Growing Old' is NOT mandatory', only our eventual and/or sudden death is, and 'Growing Up' (aka 'maturing') is certainly not optional in the face of consequence-laden real life experience.

The concept of an inanimate self-replicating machine is as oxymoronic as that of an independent tool. Knowing that I will laugh my *ss off if you say 'soul', explain to me why a self-replicating Von Neumann machine is not considered to be 'alive' and how, exactly, does it differ from a similarly self- replicating biological mechanism?


Jumper said...

Well, it's an interesting thesis that old people won't support science fiction. I doubt it, though.

More interesting to me is the evolution of the idea of progress. I think one aspect of the suggestion that progress is a cultural fantasy is the recent work to popularize the idea that evolution is not directed towards improvement or even increases in complexity. That's valid, but progress is not really identical with evolution. Yes, progress is a cultural construct, but it's not a logical error to evaluate change if we acknowledge the lens we are using is incomplete. It's not as if progress becomes a primal metric, it's a reporting tool based on value systems.

Unrelated, our rather constant discussion of Where Are They has me reflecting again on suspended animation. Any intelligent species which can master that would likely consider one-way emigrations. If they had an urge to reproduce, and limited resources. Both of which don't seem unlikely.

Paul451 said...

You've missed a point in your list of the consequences of an ageing society. With small populations, the proportion of children who are the first-child increases. Studies have shown that first born and only children are more conservative, less rebellious, less creative, on average, than later born children. (The later in the birth order, the more rebellious, restless, and willing experiment. For reasons that should be evolutionarily obvious.)

That means that the few young that an ageing society produces are perfectly suited to the stratifying conservative society that you predict.


This one, otoh, should be struck off your list. Studies have also shown that people become more even tempered as they become older.

Duncan Cairncross said...

"Likewise, any 'Game of Thrones' fan can tell you that 'Growing Old' is NOT mandatory', only our eventual and/or sudden death is, and 'Growing Up' (aka 'maturing') is certainly not optional in the face of consequence-laden real life experience."

Which is all very well for those unfortunate to live in that world,

Here on Earth the situation is different, those of us fortunate enough to live in the civilized world in this century are not faced with enough "consequence-laden real life experience" as to force us to "Grow Up"

For which I am eternally grateful!

David Brin said...

Geez. 90% of the Chinese population are first or only children. I guess that suggests no new revolutions in their offing?

Onward to next posting.