Thursday, April 15, 2010

“Reflections on the Free Public Forum in the Physics Building”

Burke reference in the title there. This is a write-up from the Astrobiology forum that I went to a few weeks back on the 3rd. I turned it in as just that, but it felt more like a blog post. Then again, it is a bit restrained as such, so I guess I'd place it as a bit of a hybrid model. And so:

The formatting of the event worked quite well, I thought. Because of the planned Q&A, it could start with some “simple” questions on astrobiology from the discussion leader, which helped set the stage for the audience. I know from my own experiences with the subject that “Life in the Universe” can appear quite daunting to consider, so I thought the opening could function quite well in quelling any initial qualms in the audience. Even if this were not the case, the discussion clearly led into some very interesting queries in the open question and answer.

I found the issues of the “definition of life” quite entertaining. There seemed to be two questions being asked: (1) “how can we define life, broadly speaking?” and (2) “what is the best way to find life if we wish to find it?” Of course, the combative issue to debate is that you cannot create an answer to the secondary response that narrows the first question to some sort of Earth-life mirror, because we are, in fact, changing, ourselves. Dr. Benner pointed out the joke that Darwinian evolution cannot be regarded as a necessity to life, because there is not much doubt that we’ll be able to change our own genome relatively soon, and then our very evolution will be “Lamarckian” (probably causing Trofim Lysenko to roll in his grave. I found this joke most interesting, because I question whether we can count cultural evolution within the Darwinian idea—lactose tolerance, for example, appears to have formed from pure prevalence of milk-drinking societies. When we look to Darwin’s theory (encapsulated by Spencer as “survival of the fittest”) we see some sort of hierarchy, which is not a particularly useful way of studying humanity and its own history. (In fact, it appears that it is this sort of logic that leads to pseudoscience, scientific racism, and the other horrors of the nineteenth century. A caution that I see reflected in the fears of some anthropologists and archaeologists against genetics. As Christopher Fennell put it (I’m paraphrasing), “This sort of research makes me somewhat uneasy, but my scientist friends say it isn’t going that way, so I guess I’m bound to believe them.”)

An interesting derivative of this debate was also mentioned by Benner, “What do we call Q?” or more intriguingly “What do we call Data?” It seems an interesting side note to follow: from the Turing Test to the Cylons we have to face the question of the robot/human line in our culture every day, whether it be through somewhat philosophical musings on what makes us human (Alan Turing’s answer to the computer question is essentially Schrödinger’s in response to the cat: the reason that we have to call what we cannot perceive as “inhuman” human is because we are not willing to open the box and see the computer there responding to our questions, or, in other circumstances, the dead cat.*) to fictional creations of our future selves. A question then arises—if we find intelligent computers, replicants of some alien civilization on some Philip K. Dick world, and we do not find their creators, are we left with only a “bio-signature” as Benner puts it? Or can we say we have found life? A connecting thought would be whether or not archaeologists would have enough credibility to speak about life on other planets so as to be able to look at the remains of an advanced civilization and tell the scientists, “we have found life”—would they be believed.

Moving on to another topic, interesting questions regarding scale also came as a result of the audience participation. Here we are essentially still dealing with the same issue of defining life. We have to draw lines somewhere and say “this is not life” when what we are really saying is that “we could not find life if it was there, in this state, etc.” I found the ideas about comparative space-time very interesting—the idea that life could be sustained on various other means of energy gathering. This, however, is at the present, I believe, delegated to an intellectual ivory tower, since we can’t expect to simply run into societies cropping up and falling on neutron stars every fifteen minutes.*

The boundaries, then, must be drawn. It is essentially beneficial to search for “Earths” when we search for life. It is also useful to “follow the water,” although, ironically, finding oxygen in the atmosphere would incline us more towards the potential for biological activity than simply water alone. The one that is to be remembered, as we construct this exclusive definition for the type of life that we are looking for is the statistics: our discussion leader smartly dropped the numbers and everyone’s mind was at least temporarily puzzled by all those zeroes. Clearly ruling pretty much anything completely out could be seen as counterproductive.

These are my professor's notes on my paper--
*"[N]ote that Schrödinger's cat paradox can be solved (most uncomfortably) by assuming the reality of multiuniverses. Each possible wave state occupies its own universe. Thus there are two realities one in which the cat dies and one in which the cat lives. Solves the quantum mechanics problem. Turing's test is as you say, but what if the machine/person is on a space ship so we cannot open the door and peek into the room. The question remains open and Turing would say if the astronaut satisfies all the conditions for being human, then human he/she is."
*"neutron star civilizations [would most likely] rise and fall in much less than 1 sec"

"Don't forget the suggestion that aliens live in another dimension -- like ghosts. I may have left Benner speechless with the suggestion that simple life exists in the interstellar medium, but life in the 5th dimension or beyond is over the top, suitable for Hollywood." (from professor)

All of the extra dimension stuff sort of makes my head spin. The question asked was whether we could continue down in magnitude and find new civilizations or whether we could expand outward and realize that our universe is inside of a cell or an egg or something. This seems more philosophic to me, but the physicists have their theories, and I'm bound to follow them. Over all, however, I would agree with Professor Gottesman: the idea that ghosts and such are simply extradimensional beings does not seem to hold water. Not to say that such life could not exist, but that it probably would not be projected to us in that way. But what do I know? I'm sure any serious debate of this topic would also lead to talk of universes, which Warren Ellis inevitably puts up articles on every now and then. So I'll leave talks on that subject to "those who know what they are talking about," as my Caribbean professor would put it.