April 28, 2010

On Stephen Hawking's Xenophobia

By now, everybody's probly tired of all this Hawking's xenophobia reverberating across the web and twittercosm. What Hawking said must've been brilliant. Its got the elements of good news and bad news and everything in between. Kinda like good cop, bad cop. He's both right and wrong and fuzzy so it got the buzz. I am glad he's getting in on the topic, except he got everybody thinking and chattering about xenocidal stuff.
Just for fun, let me join the blabbing fray.
I'll start with Hawking's fear that aliens might simply raid Earth for its resources and then move on. You see, there's so many planets out there. Billions of exoplanets, dammit! And earth's resources are almost sucked up by humans already. So implying that Aliens will kill us all to get the resources of our planet (or solar system) is a major fail.
But then again, the reasons that Aliens will kill us all depends on a lot of reasons. Or perhaps they won't kill us in the "kill" sense of the word. The prospect of merging or being usurped by an alien culture is a long and fuzzy romance.
But a major aspect, I think, is that it all depends on the timing. It has a bearing on how advanced the alien race is, and how advanced--or retarded we are--at the time of contact. For example, thousands of years from now, if by some lucky fluke, we somehow reach Kardashev Type 2 and the aliens are Type 3, they might consider us a threat to them, and vice-versa. War would ensue. But if the technological level is too far apart, as in our state right now (Type 0) versus their Type 3, then they might just leave us alone. If they suddenly arrive right now, I think our civilization would make a curious subject for highly-advanced galactic scholars and scientists. Or depending on their personalities, values and morals, they might just bet for fun and game about whether we'll destroy ourselves on our own.
It also depends on how cute we are. You see, it may also depend upon planetary affinity. If these advanced aliens evolved from an Earth-like world, then they might just find some kind of common ground with us. Perhaps deep within their "telluric" roots (as previous dwellers of a rocky planet), they might find us cute. That is, if the history of their planetary origin is still in their characteristics (or culture) even if they already evolved a space-faring biology. But if they evolved from an entirely different type of planet (for example a slushy dense planet) then they might find us revolting. The kind of response it would elicit from them might be similar to the disparity between one's reactions upon touching a cockroach or a puppy--splat or pat.
The parameters are so many, that we might as well create a Drake-like equation for xenosociological encounters. The aliens might destroy us, or they might not. Anything could happen. Or not happen. We do not know.
Perhaps the final verdict will depend on the quality of our existence and the footprints we leave in the Cosmos. There's plenty of reasons for us to remain quiet, as Hawking suggests. But its already too late. We've already sent signals and blown our cover. For example, our decades-old broadcasts are already speeding outwards to other stars (see the chart below). And our fate may entirely depend upon which of our TV programs they happen to see. Folks from Aldebaran might immediately obliterate us upon seeing our footages of World War II. While Mu Araens might simply enjoy our twilight zone episodes and leave us alone for a little while.

April 27, 2010

Mirror Planets

The universe--and the science we use to probe it, never ceases to amaze me. News just came out that gives more weight to the existence of "Mirror Matter" that possibly fills the universe. We all know that Dark Matter is that elusive missing matter that exerts certain influences on galaxies and cluster of galaxies. They exhibit tell-tale signs of their existence, but they are unseen.
In the race among physicists to produce direct evidence of Dark Matter, an Italian group announced that they have found signs of Dark Matter from their experiment called DAMA/LIBRA. Then, a US-based experiment called CoGent also found evidence of Dark Matter.
In an effort to reconcile the findings from the two experiments, Liam Fitzpatrick at Boston University suggested that a light, weakly interacting dark matter particle could explain both results. And now, Robert Foot from the University of Melbourne says that the existence of Mirror Matter could explain it better.
In a nutshell, Dark matter, which contains the "missing mass" that's needed to explain why galaxies stay together, could take any number of forms--and Mirror Matter could be one of them.
Most of these ideas are somewhat hypothetical as of yet. At this point I need to clarify that mirror matter is not anti-matter. Whereas anti-matter has more to do with particles of the opposite charge (i.e an electron with a positive charge, called a positron), mirror matter owes it's distinction to parity or chirality. To understand it better, let's use the analogy of left-handed molecules where chirality arises from geometry not composition.
Another difference between mirror matter and antimatter is that anti-matter plus ordinary matter is highly reactive and explosive--both will be annihilated in a burst of energy upon contact. But mirror matter and normal matter reacts so weakly, where the effect of gravity could be the only noticeable "symmetrical" interaction between the two.
Now that you have an idea of mirror matter, here's the mind-blowing aspect of it. The implications of the existence of mirror matter is astounding because when you consider the fact that in the observable universe alone, we already say that there are billions and billions of stars. How much more if there are additional mirror galaxies, mirror stars, and mirror planets? The observable universe that we infer, based on what we have "seen" thus far with our telescopes (like Hubble, Spitzer, etc.), only accounts for 4.6% of the whole universe. Dark matter accounts for 23%! (the rest is dark energy which is even harder to detect).
Even if only a certain percentage of Dark Matter is mirror matter, and if that is proven true--then it will be quite staggering to our imagination.
Think about mirror exoplanets. Think about the kind of life that might arise from planets made of Dark Matter. Think about lifeforms and advanced beings made up of mirror matter. What will happen if you shake hands with a "mirror alien"?
Truly, there is so much we don't know. Our imagination pales in comparison to the unknowns of the universe. And the journey of knowing, and speculating a bit, at each step--is simply a wonderful experience.

Mirror Matter

First evidence that Mirror Matter from Technology Review
Signs of Dark Matter... from Physorg

Image Credit:
The World is your Mirror from www.seanmantey.co.uk

April 9, 2010

Giantess: A Possibilian Tale

I came across the Possibilian from a tweet. The Neuroscientist, David Eagleman coined the term to describe someone who is actively open to different ideas. In a nutshell,

"Our ignorance of the cosmos is too vast to commit to atheism, and yet we know too much to commit to a particular religion. A third position, agnosticism, is often an uninteresting stance in which a person simply questions whether his traditional religious story (say, a man with a beard on a cloud) is true or not true. But with Possibilianism I'm hoping to define a new position -- one that emphasizes the exploration of new, unconsidered possibilities. Possibilianism is comfortable holding multiple ideas in mind; it is not interested in committing to any particular story."

The idea of "Possibilianism" appealed to me because it aligns quite well with my twitter manifesto regarding my stance about God (check the last portion of my twanifesto). So I dug deeper into this worldview, finding clues as to how this neuroscientist arrived at a similar view that I hold.
Apparently, David introduced this term during an interview about his book, Sum: Forty Tales from the Afterlives. I am now reading this book because I was curious as to the kind of work that a Possibilian would share to the world.
And so I found Sum quite enjoyable, being a collection of short metaphysical stories, it suited my reading style of digesting bite-sized portions, reading one story at a time.
And so I came across a story that gave me a reason to write about it on this blog. The story is called Giantess.
In a nutshell, the story illustrates emergence on a grand scale. An enormity that is expressed only via a metaphor using cellular biology wherein planets, ah yes, exoplanets are merely proteins within a cell we call "The Milky Way", which is one among billions of galaxies within an immeasurable living mass called the Giantess.
On this grand cosmic scale, our tiny solar system dont matter much to the uber-emergent entity, like how we casually wipe away a tiny drop of blood from a pinprick. Life on planets can be wiped away by a rain of asteroids, and entire galaxies would be devoured by blackholes, and the Giantess couldn't care less.
Here's some tidbits from the story to give you a feel of Eagleman's style of writing,

"To be clear," he says to you, "I am not your God. Instead, you and I are galactic neighbors; I am from a planet associated with the star you call Terzan Four..."

"For a long time, we have been studying our neighbors: You Earthlings and thirty seven other planets besides. We have developed highly accurate systems of equations to predict the future growth and social directions of your planets."

The common theme of the book revolves around hypothetical afterlife scenarios and the different playful manifestations of God. But collectively, the stories in Sum covers a wide range of topics that any enthusiast or scholar in many fields (Philosophy, Spirituality, Psychology, Theology, Computer Science, Physics and Metaphysics, Cosmology, etc) will find a 'connecting point' or their own metaphor, and a reason to write about it in their blogs, the same way I did for exoplanetology.
As I keep a close watch over the ongoing march of the Plurality of Worlds, the ever-growing discovery of exoplanets opens up a lot of possibilities, and synthesizes different fields--that the best way to tread is to simply maintain fresh eyes on fascinating wonders of new discoveries, and to keep an open mind to the challenges it would bring to long-held worldviews and beliefs.
Is there life out there? Are there intelligent, conscious beings on other worlds? How does their existence affect humanity's concept of God? How will it affect my Faith?
In light of those kinds of questions, the kind of attitude suggested by Eagleman's book is summed up by it's simple meta-message: We don't know...

David Eagleman 40 Afterlives
Exoplanetology Twitter Manifesto

Photo Credit:
The Final April Fools, Light & Illusion – Art by Randall Klopping

April 7, 2010

Science Fiction and The Exponential Discovery of Exoplanets

How does the exponential discovery of exoplanets impact the landscape of Science Fiction? Surely we are at a stage in history were new doors are being opened up by the accelerating rate of exoplanet discoveries. I wonder how it affects the human psyche. How does the growing knowledge of new worlds impact the human imagination?
Will a new breed of science fiction writers and film-makers create richer planetary settings with more elaborate world-building efforts?
Curiously, I decided to do some research and experiment on it. I started to compile a list of fictional planetary settings (check out the list at freebase). This is an ongoing experiment and anyone can participate by adding their own favorite fictional planet within freebase. If you notice that the planet setting in your favorite sci-fi novel is not listed, then by all means please add it in by signing up into freebase and contributing your knowledge.
Looking at the numbers so far, we currently have 443 known exoplanets compared to 200 fictional planets. Perhaps I am concluding prematurely, but it struck me how our human imagination is lagging behind scientific findings in terms of coming up with new worlds. As you can see from the chart, the rate of discovery of new planets is soaring at an exponential rate. What about new planets in science fiction? In literature?
I wonder whether there will come a time when some kind of growth spurt will occur in the number of new fictional worlds in sci-fi. And whether the ever-expanding knowledge about exoplanets will have something to do with it.
The 443 discovered exoplanets span from 1992, while the list of fictional planets span all the way back further than that. So we may not know yet whether the same exponential curve will happen to the number of new planetary settings being created in science fiction.
And this being an ongoing research, there are still some gray areas in this experiment that we need to iron out in due time. For example, some computer games actually have storylines that are set on fictional planets. Some of these in-game planets turn out to have adaptations onto comic books like Halo, Mass Effect and Gears of War. Some other games have massive numbers of planets, such as the case with Eve-Online which have thousands of planets--yet only a few are mentioned in the EVE novels. So it's definitely an open issue how a planet within a game jumps into the scifi landscape.
I do not know how this experiment will turn out, but one thing i'm sure is that it is fun to be there as it unfolds.

"We are at a crossroads in human history. Never before has there been a moment so simultaneously perilous and promising."
~Carl Sagan

April 1, 2010


And it had to come to this, that on April 1st, I had to call in sick due to severe grogginess caused by lack of sleep. After I snoozed my way to recovery, I then had to make a quick escape from the oncoming harrows of the waking life. I headed for the Liberty Science Center to see Hubble in the IMAX dome.

For my case, this short film turned out to be ok for a hurried schedule. For a mere 40 minutes, a lot of substance were crammed into it. It was short but sweet. But of course I would've enjoyed more if it had more of the spacey scenes.

The film tells a mini-story of how the brave astronaut heroes fixed Hubble on the last servicing mission. And it showed spectacular scenes of deep space, with all the galaxies and stars, gliding towards the Orion Nebula, and grazing at "tadpoles" in stellar nurseries, then zooming onto star formations.

The wonders that the Hubble telescope shares to us is already mesmerizing by way of its pictures of stars, nebulae, galaxies and so forth. Yet several times in the film, the narrator (Leonardo DeCaprio) mentioned the search for other worlds. And one of the Astronauts even mentioned how Hubble can study the atmosphere of other planets. Of course, that made my eyes grow wider than the gargantuan dome.

As the film reached its climax and ended with the view of earth, I knew that my little escape from the busy day was over. Yet I realized that even as mankind will always try to escape the planet's pull of gravity, a spacefarer will always look back. And when one scans the starry heavens in search for other earth-like planets, there's no escaping--it always points us back to our own home.