Wondrous Worlds of the Imagination

In this last week, we have been shown Pluto’s heart, and have been offered a tantalising hint of a possible ‘sister Earth’ 1400 or so light years distant. The recent announcement of Breakthrough Listena massive search initiative from Russian tycoon, Yuri Milner, to detect radio signals from extra-terrestrial intelligence, seems synchronous.

IMG_4138Astronomers have now discovered almost  2000 exoplanets, but most are not remotely habitable by humans. The ‘new’ exoplanet, Kepler 452b, is about 1.5 billion years older than Earth,  in the habitable zone of a G-type star like our own, but maybe entering the later stages of habitability as the star heats up as it progresses through its evolution. It is considered that the new exoplanet could be a rocky world, rather larger than Earth – about 5 times the mass with a diameter 1.6 times that of Earth, and a surface gravity of about 2g.

Detection and classification of exoplanets has advanced remarkably in the last few years, and will continue to improve as technology improves. Greater numbers of smaller planets closer to the size of Earth may be found around stars like our own.  So far, the message is, perhaps, that  planets in the happy state of our own are not common-or-garden. Maybe we should  think of ourselves in the ‘Eden’ stage of planetary development.  A couple of billion years or so down the line, as our sun ages and gets hotter, our planet will  become less hospitable to life as we know it.

What happens beyond this frame is conjecture, and interesting if you don’t mind the thought that human life on the surface of Earth may no longer be possible, not without technological support or modification of our species and its ecosystem. (I am being very anthropocentric – humans will continue to evolve, and adapt, maybe into things we would not think of as human-like.) And there comes a time when the sun will become a red giant, making that moot.  If humans – or future people of whatever kind –  haven’t found a home off-planet by then, then it is bye-bye everyone. Whether this matters or not so very much in the cosmological scheme of things is a matter of perspective and a deeper understanding than mine of science. But this is all a happy-go-lucky thought experiment (irony trigger warning). The wheels of the cosmos grind on a much longer scale than human civilisations.

Astronomer Royal, Martin Rees, who chairs the Breakthrough Listen committee, recently pointed out that ancient civilisations may have left behind machines.  There is a chance then, that searching for intelligent life that may or may not be extant in biological form could require us to consider some other options for its whereabouts. Machines may not need ‘habitable’ planets. Whether we should worry about advanced civilisations is something to keep on the back-burner (or the front-burner if you are really worried). We have only the experience of our own planet, and know that all living creatures have defence mechanisms. It is a balance of resources for reproduction and growth versus fighting off others. Life is the process of responding to challenge,  but humans are perhaps more trigger-happy and territorial than they need to be, possibly as a consequence of technology, and our ability to imagine what others may do. The universe is very big. Although, once, we thought Earth was very big, too, but suddenly we are up against the walls with our fellow humans  and various reactive processes are happening. (I am sure this is the part of the game where we should cue some wise and philanthropic advisers, but they seem a little thin on the ground.)

It is likely that the next few decades will see the rise of human-technological hybrids of some form. We have long used technology to enhance our senses and capabilities, from our first walking stick, spectacles for our poor vision, telescopes to spy on our enemies and see the stars. Now we have hearing  implants and the beginnings of devices to help the visually impaired see, all using computer technology. We have closer interfaces with our computers than ever before. Even Windows 10 is taking me a little closer to being a cyborg, part of a hive mind or supervised by Big Sister. It takes a modest imaginative leap to consider other ways in which we will incorporate technology into ourselves to compensate for weaknesses or to enhance our abilities. With advances in medical and biotechnology, these things will become more sophisticated and invasive – depending upon perspectives. Modified humans could well be necessary for living in hostile environments in space, for instance. Undoubtedly, we will need to have even closer interfaces to computers. It could be the way humans can survive in the future if the planet becomes less hospitable at our own hand or for natural reasons. There are surely many challenges of this technology to how humans identify and co-exist.

Martin Rees has voiced concerns about the rise of artificial intelligence on our planet, and Stephen Hawking the possibility of hostile aliens, based upon the aggressive behaviour of humans.

And a human-framed artificial intelligence may well be something we should worry about wherever it is! It is possible that an ‘artificial’ intelligence is a natural development of a species such as ours. But, perhaps a more grown-up artificial intelligence will have its own agenda and may not be bothered by humans, unless they annoy it, or threaten it. So I don’t necessarily consider aliens, organic, artificial or otherwise,  likely to waste time and energy in being combative, but that is just my optimism. If they have star-spanning technology – they will surely not covet a small planet or wish to enslave a bunch of scrapping apes. They would be able to make themselves wonderful new habitats and employ machines to do the drudgery far more efficiently. However, I am thinking like a human.

As Jane Citizen, there is plenty of stuff on my ‘to worry about’ list, all to do with people. World leaders and authoritarian regimes, extremism, climate damage, overpopulation, corporate greed, weapons of various kinds, dangerous industries, virulent micro-organisms (in the hands of unbalanced people) …

I do hope that technology will help humans transcend the irrational struggles, poverty and greed. Our primitive drivers are part of us quite fundamentally and will perhaps be with us in some way until we are no longer truly human. An awareness of the scales of the universe will certainly change the way we think about ‘territory’ and ‘threat’. That we might one  day be able to exercise self-control rather better is of itself an exercise in human values.

This little ramble is a way of helping me work through what I think, and how to view the desire to know what is out there, in terms of finding other  planets, and in contacting other civilisations. Those who have read some of my earlier blogs will know that this is a subject that has interested me for many years. As a young teenager, I’d hunt the library shelves for books by Carl Sagan, who made the ideas accessible to one yet to receive a serious education in science.  His partner, Ann Druyan, is part of the Breakthough venture.

We can be afraid of everything and anything.  Fear of the unknown is natural, as is fear of the known. Knowledge may bring its own causes for fear, but also much else that is good in the advancement of our understanding.

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