May 3, 2011

To Never Come Back

As a young boy, I cried whenever my balloon slipped out of my hands. With arms outstretched, and in tears, I hopelessly watched my balloon disappear into the clouds, wishing it would come back to me.

But now I was amazed when I saw my son intentionally let go of his balloons one by one, overjoyed by each launch. He giggles in joy as he watches them fly ever higher. And then he stands in silence as they fly out of sight in the blue expanse of the sky, imagining all the places it would go.

This striking contrast of attitude between two young boys a whole generation apart has dug up the concept of Interstellar Cyclers which I have read some time ago.

Interstellar Cyclers are starships that travel around in wide circles, lightyears in diameter, spanning multiple stars, that eventually comes back to their starting point for another round trip. This idea was fueled by the contention that "accelerating a starship, only to decelerate it again, is pure lunacy" as Karl Schroeder puts it in his essay. Thus he proposed what he unambiguously called 'Schroeder Cyclers', a starship that is "initially accelerated from the Earth or a colony star to some percentage of lightspeed, and then eventually serve as a way-station for travellers, who embark and disembark at star systems it passes along its route."

I was interested in the idea at first (which is a good idea in its own right), but later realized that I personally would prefer that the whole thing rather not go back. After I witnessed the scene of my little boy staring at his balloon disappearing into the clouds--the idea of accelerating a starship only to come back at its starting point became unthinkable. I realized that it was more evocative to see a starship leave, and know outright that it will never come back. It would go in a straight line, using all it's energy to accelerate ever faster, further, and farther into the great unknown.

It can, and will, still serve as a way-station, after accomplishing its cargo drop-off missions during flybys near other star systems. Among other things, it will also serve as a Subluminal Research Lab, but ultimately it will become a relic to be visited by future generations who would have, by then, developed more advanced technology to catch up with it, upgrade and maintain it, and then overtake it to continue the process of pushing the boundaries of space exploration.

That, to me is a true 'generation starship', a symbol of that spirit of exploration that will endlessly inspire the next generation to continue pushing onwards to the edge of the great unknown.

A New Kind of Starship
Cyclers: Transportation Network Among the Stars

May 2, 2011

Exoplanets, Extremophiles and other Kinds of Minds

Just a few days after I wrote a highly-speculative post outlining the relationship of lifeforms and planets, and the intriguing link between what other kinds of minds are possible for specific characteristics of planets--along comes these findings of bacteria that feel at home with hypergravity.

In the experiment, researchers spun E. coli and other bacteria in an ultacentrifuge and revved it up to its fastest speed, amounting up to something like 400,000 Gs. The bacteria not only lived through the "hypergravity" experience, they even reproduced.

So, on planetary scales, I can say that these bacteria can survive on the surface of a white dwarf with the same spherical size as earth but with the mass equivalent to the sun. The gravitational force on its surface is somewhere around 300,000 G.

So if I was beamed down (a la Star Trek) onto the surface of a cool white dwarf, upon materializing I would immmediately be crushed into a pancake-shaped goo. But some of the bacteria inhabiting my body will still survive the crushing gravity! And if some other conditions permitted (let's be generous by adding oxygen into the atmosphere, aside from temperate other imaginings), they will feed on my jello'ed body and who knows what will evolve from that mass of goo? Let’s settle on “flat” beings for now, by virtue of the flattening gravity of a white dwarf.

Now, “flat” beings with 2.5-dimensional brains wouldn’t evolve much cognitive capacity compared with other brains whose neurons utilize the 3 dimensions of space to connect and communicate with other neurons. Each of our brain’s neurons has an average of 7,000 synaptic connections with other neurons. Clearly, a flat-brained creature on a white dwarf would have a disadvantage over it’s counterparts from earth. But not so if it’s neurons are utilizing wi-fi! Yes, its still highly speculative but there’s been a study outlining the possibility of some bacteria-signaling via radio frequency. If this biomechanism works on another planet, the 7,000 synaptic "wired" connections of a human brain would pale in comparison with a creature whose 'neurons' work in wireless mode to process information collectively with other neurons. What kind of thoughts would it have?

Now, these two possible characteristics of microbial life--hypergravity survival and radio wave communications--that I've mentioned in this post are completely unrelated. I’ve simply fused them in a hypothetical scenario in a playful attempt to mash-up planetary characteristics with extreme-life biomechanisms to speculate on expanding the possibilities of life on other worlds. Rev up your imagination and try it yourself. It's actually fun!

With all the new findings on extremophiles, which comes at a perfect timing with new exoplanet discoveries, we are opening up a lot of incredible possibilities for the mind to speculate about life in other parts of the universe.

Alien Bacteria can Breed in Extreme Hypergravity
Electromagnetic Signals from Bacterial DNA (PDF)
From Planets To Consciousness: Other Kinds of Minds