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Our future, our universe, and other weighty topics


Saturday, November 30, 2013

Give the Earth a Christmas Present by Giving Nobody a Christmas Present

Yesterday was Black Friday, the traditional first day of the Christmas shopping season. But before we rush to buy Christmas presents for our friends, we should consider: what is the environmental cost of our holiday habits?

One of the world's great environmental problems is overconsumption in developed countries. We in the United States consume at a wasteful and excessive rate that is causing various forms of environmental problems.  Among the problems of overconsumption are the following:
  1. Global warming. Almost every thing that we buy and consume requires energy use which contributes to global warming. It uses up energy to manufacture goods that you see stocked on department store shelves, and it requires energy for the items to be transported from the factory to the store. If you then send a package that travels quite a distance, that will require an additional energy expenditure. Since almost all energy in the United States is currently created by oil, gas, and coal, this energy use ends up contributing greenhouse gases to the atmosphere, which makes global warming worse.
  2. Trash accumulation. Americans generate an average of 4 pounds of trash per person per day. The accumulation of this trash is a horrendous environmental problem. Christmas gifts have a higher-than-average likelihood of being discarded, for the simple reason that so many gifts are just wild guesses about what a person wants. Even if you ask a person what he wants, he will often say, “Oh, I don't need anything.” Then you end up guessing about what the person wants. All too often the person getting the gift will just toss it out, thinking, “How could he have thought I wanted that thing?”
  3. Resource depletion. Resource depletion is a huge environmental problem on the same scale as global warming. We may soon reach peak oil (the point at which the global demand for oil exceeds the supply). Peak coal may occur within a few decades. Forget the old canard that we have hundreds of years of coal. More recent estimates are much gloomier, suggesting that production may plummet after a few decades, with one study suggesting US coal production may have already peaked. These facts are relevant because almost every thing you buy at a department store required the use of fossil fuels for it to be manufactured, and the supply situation for fossil fuels is troublesome. We should save our fossil fuels for things we really need (such as feeding and heating the world), rather than using them for some fancy Christmas gadget such as a waffle maker that someone will use only a few times. There is also the fact that within several decades we are expected to run out of several important metals. We should not be using up metals for gifts that people aren't likely to use much.
  4. Pollution. Besides global warming, there is the fact that the manufacture of goods helps to produce smog. Today a large fraction of the goods bought in the United States come from factories in China. But Chinese cities are facing horrible smog problems, partially because of all these factories. That shopping cart full of gifts may be helping to hurt the lungs of the Chinese.
This year, give the Earth a Christmas present by giving no one a Christmas present. Or, give Christmas presents only to small children. Adults don't need the items typically bought as Christmas presents. Adults need a healthy planet that offers clean skies, moderate temperatures, and ample supplies of energy and metals, rather than a smoggy, trash-filled, depleted planet that is running a fever.

But, you may ask, what can I put under my Christmas tree? There's a simple answer: don't buy one. When the planet needs every tree it can get to soak up our global warming pollution, there is no sense in the custom of cutting down a tree every year to put in your house for a month. This year rather than having a tree cut down so you can have it in your house, you should instead plant a tree. 

 Christmas trees are green, but Christmas usually isn't

Friday, November 29, 2013

Wind World: A Science Fiction Story

Young Cheros had never seen the sky, nor had any of his friends.

Cheros lived on the first planet of a distant solar system. The planet was tidally locked, which meant that the gravity of the nearby sun held the planet in a vise-like grip. The same side of the planet always faced the sun.

Defying incredibly long odds, intelligent life had arisen on this planet. But long ago the inhabitants of the planet had abandoned the surface, and moved underground. The reason was simple: the very high winds on the surface of the planet. Because one side of the planet was very hot, and the other side of the planet was cold, there were incredibly strong winds always rushing between the hot side and the cold side, as hot air followed its natural tendency to move into colder places.

After putting up with the continual annoyance and danger of the planet's high winds, the civilization on the planet had finally decided to move everyone underground. Great underground cities were built, along with vast hydroponic gardens. The cities were powered by geothermal energy.

There was only one legal way to see the sky, and Cheros wanted to take advantage of it.

“Let's go wait in line to use the periscope,” said Cheros to his lady love Luta. “I've never seen the sky before.” He was referring to a tube-like viewing apparatus that had been constructed to allow underground citizens to see the planet's surface, without risking their lives, like submarine captains looking at the surface of the water above them.

“We tried to do that last year,” complained Luta. “The lines take like...forever.”

Cheros finally persuaded Luta to wait in line with him in the long line to use one of the periscopes. Finally his turn arrived. He looked through the aperture of the long tube-like device, and was able to briefly look around the surface of the planet above him. But it only lasted a few seconds.

“Hurry up, it's my turn now!” said the next person in the long line.

“It was so beautiful!” enthused Cheros. “I saw the sun, the clouds, and the surface of the planet. I've got to see it again.”

“I'm not waiting in that line again,” said the lovely Luta. “It was too long.”

“No, I don't mean that,” said Cheros. “I mean, I want to actually go on to the surface.”

“You're crazy!” said Luta. “That's against the law.”

“Laws were meant to be broken,” said the adventurous Cheros.

Cheros thought long and hard about a plan to get to the surface. After exploring around, he finally found a metal tube that seemed to lead to the surface. There was a sign in front of the tube:

EMERGENCY SURFACE ACCESS TUBE
FOR USE ONLY IN CASE OF FIRE
UNAUTHORIZED USERS WILL BE JAILED

Cheros brought his lady love Luta to the tube.

“Let's go up that tube,” said Cheros. “It will be so wonderful when we get up to the surface. For once in our lives, we'll be able to breathe fresh air.”

“It's too dangerous,” protested Luta. “You know the winds on the surface gust too fast. That's why our whole culture moved underground.”

“Darling, you said I wasn't romantic enough,” said Cheros. “So now I'm being romantic. I want to take you to the surface, and give you a kiss underneath the sun and the sky. This is our only chance.”

Luta finally gave in, and they both climbed up the metal ladder in the steel tube. They opened a round access door above their heads, and climbed on to the surface of the planet. The wind was blowing furiously, but it was only a moderate annoyance.

The young lovers looked around, astounded by the beauty of the surface and the sky above them.

“You see that?” said Cheros, pointing to the sky. “That's a cloud! A real cloud. Isn't it beautiful?”

“And look at that round thing,” said Luta. “It's the sun! We're seeing it with our own eyes!”

The lovers gave each other a romantic kiss. They started to walk around a bit, to get some rocks that they could take back as souvenirs of their visit.

But then an enormous gust of wind arose, and lifted Cheros far up into the air, like a leaf being blown from the ground to far above the treetops. 

wind gust


Knocked over by the blast of wind, Luta looked up and saw Cheros for the last time. He disappeared, carried way up into the sky by the mighty wind. When Luta last saw him, she saw only a little speck high up in the vast sky. It was as if the clouds had sucked up Cheros, so that he could live among them.

“Farewell, my darling,” sobbed Luta. “Farewell forever.”

Weeping at her loss, Luta returned to the metal access chute, and sadly climbed down the ladder, back to her underground city. She vowed never to return to the dangerous planetary surface again.

Thursday, November 28, 2013

What Any Human Should Be Thankful For

As today is Thanksgiving, today's post will be brief. Let me list some things I am thankful for, and that any human should be thankful for.

I am thankful that there is Something rather than Nothing. After all, absolute eternal non-existence (no God, no particles, no universe) is the simplest imaginable state of existence (having zero details), so it's quite the mystery why that wasn't the case.

I am thankful that the Big Bang started out at just exactly the right rate, so that the universe didn't end up either collapsing into black holes or expanding too fast for galaxies to form.

I am thankful that the long series of physics coincidences described here came to pass, so that organisms like us humans could be around to enjoy a warm summer day.

I am thankful that we have not yet been destroyed by a wandering rogue planet, nuked by a nearby supernova, destroyed by a Yellowstone Park volcanic eruption, vaporized in a nuclear war, or destroyed by aliens, as described here.

I am thankful that somehow there arose on our planet thinking beings with inner selves, rather than mere philosophical zombies interested only in food, sex, and self-preservation.

I am thankful for the sun, that marvelous thing we all take for granted, but which could not exist (at least in its current form) if any of 5 or 10 cosmic physics dice had rolled ever so slightly different.

I am thankful that I live on a planet of moderate temperatures with plenty of greenery and water, rather than an ice planet, a water planet, an arid planet, a planet with crushing gravity, or a tidally locked planet, as discussed here.

I am thankful that the world has love, beautiful music, and beautiful colors, as very well exemplified in the high-definition youtube.com clip below.


Prize Song from Die Meistersinger von Nurnberg

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Darwinism Fails to Explain Man's Higher Faculties

The main principle behind Darwinian evolution is the principle that organisms tend to gradually evolve characteristics that give them a greater survival value in their environment. This principle allows us to explain many facets of humanity, particularly everything underneath our necks. We have arms and hands because we are descended from species that used to live in trees, and needed arms and hands to swing from branch to branch. We have legs capable of running fast, because we needed those to escape from predators. We have good vision because we needed that to find food and spot predators. All of these things can be explained through the principle of natural selection – survival of the fittest. Most characteristics of a species that make the individual members of a species more likely to survive (until they reproduce) can be explained by referring to natural selection and evolution.

However, there are some important aspects of human nature that seem to be difficult or impossible to adequately explain by using an explanation of evolution and natural selection. Humans have inner selves and personalities. Humans are great at language, and at formulating very abstract ideas. Humans are capable of wonder, joy, love, guilt, compassion, imagination, and spirituality. Humans can create art and literature, ponder their own deaths, wonder about the meaning of life and the nature of the universe, create and follow moral codes, and consider philosophical matters.

It is hard to explain any of this by evoking evolution or natural selection, because most of it has no survival value, from an evolutionary standpoint of making an organism more likely to survive until it reproduces. 50,000 years ago a human who felt wonder by looking at a sunset was not any more likely to survive than a human who did not (in fact, the sunset-appreciating human was actually less likely to survive, as he might let down his guard and be attacked by a predator while he was enjoying the sunset). We can't explain the origin of man's talents at art, philosophy, mathematics and literature by imagining that such talents evolved because people who had them were more likely to survive until reproduction.

Darwinism is bad at explaining these things.

Imagine you're a cave man 50,000 years ago. Life is pretty simple: find food, don't freeze to death, and don't get eaten by a predator. People at that time had no need for language, math, art, literature, planning abilities, or inner thoughts. Grunts and hand signals would have worked just fine to alert your fellow cave man when you see a predator. So how did man get all of his higher faculties that have allowed him to create art, novels, science, philosophy, and government?

At the John Templeton Foundation website, there is a page in which professors and experts attempt to answer the question, “Does evolution explain human nature?” The short answers given by a panel of professors and experts run the gamut:

Obviously, says the monkey.
Except where it matters.
Quite well.
Not entirely.
More fully by the day.
Not yet.
In part.
Yes.
Only up to a point.
Yes, but...
Totally, for a Martian.
Yes and no.


That's a spectrum of answers, but when we look at the answers in detail, things don't go too well for those trying to answer the “Does evolution explain human nature?” question affirmatively. The expert giving the answer “Obviously, says the monkey” loses his credibility by making the ridiculous claim that humans “have no basic wants or needs that cannot also be observed in our close relatives” such as chimpanzees. I guess this fellow has never heard of the desire to obtain truth or the need to make a lasting accomplishment or numerous other wants or needs that humans have and chimps don't have. His “man is just a chimp” reasoning fails to persuade.

Another expert who answers “Yes” to “Does evolution explain human nature?” then undermines his own answer by saying this: “Why there is subjective experience at all - is actually a mystery. Only a few Darwinian thinkers, such as Steven Pinker and the late John Maynard Smith, have appreciated this problem.” So if that's true, then it's not right to answer Yes to the question “Does evolution explain human nature.” This is the “hard problem of consciousness,” and there is a confession that “only a few Darwinian thinkers have appreciated the problem,” which sure doesn't sound like evolutionary theory has a real answer for it.

The typical evolutionary explanation involves random mutations and random variance plus survival of the fittest. For example, imagine a population of early humans. Because of random mutations and random variance, some of the population would by chance have longer, stronger legs. Then more of that population would survive because those organisms could run faster to escape predators. That works fine for explaining the evolution of certain physical characteristics of the human body, and also some parts of the brain involving human perception.

But the same type of explanation would seem to be impotent and useless for explaining some higher faculties of mankind – simply because we would not expect that any random mutations or random variance would ever cause some early humans to have a slightly higher amount of such faculties. It would not seem that random variance or random mutations could cause a certain number of early humans to be a little more capable of love, guilt, language, mathematics, self-introspection, philosophy, inner lives, spirituality, wonder, or advanced moral concepts. It almost seems to require a kind of quantum jump to go from an animal mind to a mind capable of such things. Can we really imagine that a random mutation or a random variance would cause an organism to have a little bit of an inner self when its parents had no inner self?

Evolution is a fact, and we know that man is very old and the universe is much, much older. But nevertheless we have a problem in explaining how evolution could have produced all of human faculties. Among the possible ways to explain this discrepancy are as follows:
  1. There might have been some extraterrestrial interference in human evolution which led us to develop some of our advanced faculties.  Our evolution could have been altered by visitors from another planet.
  2. Evolution might have been assisted by either a divine influence, or by some unknown insentient force of nature that we do not currently understand.
  3. There may be some philosophical explanation for the origin or existence of advanced human faculties, perhaps something along the lines of a philosophy that grants consciousness more of a central role rather than making it a mere by-product of unconscious natural processes. It could be that mind comes before matter, rather than the other way around.
I'm not sure what the answer is – perhaps one of these three, or perhaps something else. I do think that evolution is overall a fine theory that explains much. But champions of evolution may be hurting their own cause when they try to make it look as if evolution can explain the entire human mind. When advocates of a theory claim too much for it, they may make it more likely that someone will reject the theory altogether.

Rather then pretending we have most or all of the pieces of nature's jigsaw puzzle, we should admit that we have only a few, and that our knowledge of nature is only fragmentary.

Postscript: my theory of a programmed material universe (described here and here) may offer an additional possibility for explaining the origin of Mind. I noticed recently a web post that describes a position similar to that taken in this post. It refers to the book Mind & Cosmos by Thomas Nagel:
Nagel is an eminent philosopher and professor at NYU. In Mind & Cosmos, he shows with terse, meticulous thoroughness why mainstream thought on the workings of the mind is intellectually bankrupt. He explains why Darwinian evolution is insufficient to explain the emergence of consciousness—the capacity to feel or experience the world.

Monday, November 25, 2013

Reddit Science Wants an Echo Chamber Comfort Zone

Reddit.com is a hugely popular web site where users can submit links to articles and posts they see on the web. There are numerous different “subreddits,” each of which deals with some particular category such as Sports, Politics, or Science. If readers like a story, they can press an Up button that causes the story to get a higher ranking on the list of top stories listed by a particular subreddit. A very-liked story may rise to the top of the list on a particular subreddit.

One of the top subreddits is Reddit Science (www.reddit.com/r/science). There are some good articles, posts, and links. However, this subreddit has a very strange posting policy, which seems to be quite antithetical to the true spirit of science, besides also being offensive from the standpoint of simple common sense.

Below is the posting policy currently stated by Reddit Science:


Please ensure that your submission to r/science is :

  1. a direct link to or a summary of peer reviewed research with appropriate citations. If the article itself does not link to these sources, please include a link in a comment. Summaries of summaries are not allowed.
  2. based on recent scientific research. The research linked to should be within the past 6 months (or so).
  3. not editorialized, sensationalized, or biased. This includes both the submission and its title.

Each one of these guidelines is very inappropriate. I'll explain some reasons why.

The first requirement is inappropriate because it straight-jackets a person wishing to discuss science, by limiting him to merely making a “summary” of a paper by another scientist. In many cases, an appropriate response to a scientific paper is not to merely make a summary of it, but to challenge it, interpret it, or to point out that other scientific papers have reached contrary conclusions.

Below are some examples of some scientific papers that should not have been merely summarized, but which should have been criticized, discounted, interpreted, or otherwise handled.

A recent scientific paper claimed to have discovered evidence of extraterrestrial life in the upper atmosphere. Was it appropriate to merely summarize that sensational claim? Of course not.

Another scientific paper claimed that the genetic code used by earthly life “displays readily recognizable hallmarks of artificiality,” thereby implying that either God or extraterrestrials somehow tinkered with the genetic code. Was it appropriate to merely summarize that sensational claim? Of course not.

Every year there are numerous scientific papers reaching a conclusion that some type of food or other item used by humans causes some type of medical problem, whether it be heart disease, early death, cancer, or whatever. Should such a paper merely be summarized? Of course not. The reason is that in a large fraction of cases, there are conflicting scientific papers reaching the conclusion that there is no such causal relation between the food or other item and the medical problem in question. So it's entirely appropriate to criticize a study that reaches conclusions in conflict with other studies.

Every year cosmologists release many papers advancing all kinds of highly speculative theories, which are normally called models within the papers. The next time a cosmologist publishes such a paper, is it appropriate to merely summarize his speculations? It is is often better to call attention to how speculative the model is, and how other scientists have different theories.

I may also mention that an intelligent discussion of science requires "big picture" looking at the larger trends and wider implications of science, not just a narrow small-scale discussion of individual scientific papers.

So Reddit Science's first requirement (“summaries only”) is very inappropriate. What about Reddit Science's second requirement, that there should only be posts about research done in the past six months? That is also inappropriate. It encourages a mentality in which previous research is put on a hallowed pedestal and “set in stone,” no longer subject to dispute and debate. Why discourage someone from making a critique of research just because it appeared more than six months ago?

What about Reddit Science's third requirement, that posts about science should not be “editorialized”? This is also inappropriate. Part of the scientific process of discovering truth involves criticizing or discounting previous work. But that involves stating an opinion, and that's editorializing. If a scientist publishes a paper that is speculative, poorly supported, or in conflict with other papers, it is entirely appropriate that we should “editorialize” by criticizing that paper.

Let us also consider the fact that scientific research can sometimes lead to gigantic perils for the public. An example is the creation of thermonuclear bombs, which put the whole human race in danger of extinction in a nuclear holocaust. Another example is a recent real-life paper suggesting a new way to modify a pathogen to make it vastly more deadly, capable of killing very many millions of people. In both cases (and in many other cases) any responsible treatment of such items calls for “editorializing” about the need to limit the dangers. “Check your moral concerns at the door” is not how we should be dealing with science.

The Reddit Science submission policy is a prescription for an authoritarian “filter bubble” or “echo chamber” – an environment in which the original research or speculation by a scientist is repeated uncritically by writers afraid to challenge it or compare it or dissect it.

Below is a satirical statement of the impression created by the Reddit Science submission policy. It isn't quite their policy, but it sure sounds like it:


Click to expand parody

Sunday, November 24, 2013

The Apocalypse Couple: A Science Fiction Story

On the distant planet Noolon there was a civilization which had only recently developed atomic power and space travel. The civilization was making excellent technical progress, and the inhabitants of Noolon were becoming more and more prosperous. The nations of the planet had united to form a single world government. But one day scientists discovered a horrifying truth. A giant asteroid was heading for the planet. Scientists projected that in a short time the giant space rock would hit the planet, killing everyone.

The world president Oros Kuelos announced the startling fact, and also announced a plan for dealing with the threat.

“The rumors you have heard are true,” said Oros on television. “The giant asteroid is heading for our planet, and if we do nothing, we will all die. But I have developed a plan that will save all of us.”

“We will organize a giant world-wide 'prayathon' to beg the gods for their mercy against this threat,” said Oros. “We will also sacrifice 100 million large animals to appease the angry gods. Together these actions will cause the gods to divert the asteroid, so that it does not hit our planet.”

The servile world-wide press was almost unanimous in praising the president's plan. But a young man named Datus was very skeptical.

“We're doomed!” said Datus to his lady love, the beautiful Mora. “Giant space rocks can't understand prayers and sacrifices.”

“Maybe there's some way we can save ourselves,” said Mora. “Let's think of every possibility.”

The couple telephoned all their friends, asking for ideas. They eventually got a promising tip. There were rumors that a spacecraft was secretly being prepared at a remote location. Datus and Mora got in their vehicle and drove to near the rumored site.

They came to a road leading into the secret base, but were blocked by a locked gate guarded by a man with a weapon. The man refused them entrance.

“What do we do now?” asked Datus.

Mora pointed to an alternate way of getting into the base. The base was surrounded by a high fence, but there was a gap in the fence near the back, at a spot where a high cliff served as a natural barrier to entry.

“Let's wait until darkness,” said Mora. “Then we'll climb that cliff, and try to sneak into the base.”

The climb was very dangerous, but the plan worked. In the morning, the couple found themselves inside the base. They could see a huge rocket was being prepared there.

The couple was soon arrested by a security guard, who brought them into the base's headquarters.

“Please, let us go in the rocket,” pleaded Datus. “We're doomed if we're still here when that asteroid hits.”

“We are preparing a rocket that will take a small group of astronauts on a risky trip to the fourth planet in our solar system, to build a colony there,” explained an official at the base. “We regard this as the last chance of our race. But the payload of the rocket is limited. We can't add new new astronauts.”

Mora started weeping. The couple asked if they could at least stay and help the effort, and the base official agreed.

The giant asteroid came closer and closer to the planet. The day before the scheduled rocket launch, the base official called in Mora and Datus to his office.

“Something unexpected has happened,” said the official. “It turns out that one of our older astronauts has cancer, so we've excluded him from the space mission. Another of our older astronauts died of a heart attack, perhaps from all the stress and fear. I guess that asteroid is already starting to take its toll. So we have two empty seats in our rocket. You interested?”

Mora started laughing, but Datus was still worried. Perhaps the hastily prepared rocket was unreliable. Perhaps it would explode in flames at liftoff. But after a moment's indecision, both he and Mora agreed to go on the rocket.

The next day the rocket blasted off. It shook violently on liftoff, and the young lovers were almost convinced that they would die right then and there. But somehow the rocket made it into space.

The rocket went into orbit around the planet. On the same day the giant asteroid struck the planet. Mora and Datus watched the collision sadly from a window of the spacecraft. 



“That's all for the third planet,” said the captain of the spacecraft. “Now let's get going to the fourth planet. We know there's life and water there, so at least we have a chance.”

Mora and Datus held each other's hands, marveling at their unlikely escape.

“They say that when you fall in love, it's a whole new world,” said Datus, tenderly kissing Mora. “And that's what it's going to be for us literally – a whole new world.”

Saturday, November 23, 2013

Cosmic Fine-Tuning Visualized

The evolution of the cosmos is determined by initial conditions (such as the initial rate of expansion and the initial mass of matter), as well as by fifteen or so numbers called physical constants (such as the speed of the light and the mass of the electron). We have by now measured these physical constants with extremely high precision, but we have failed to come up with any theory explaining why they have their particular values. One of the most surprising discoveries of modern cosmology is the realization that the initial conditions and physical constants of the universe had to be adjusted with exquisite precision if they are to allow the emergence of conscious observers. This realization is referred to as the “anthropic principle”...Change the initial conditions and physical constants ever so slightly, and the universe would be empty and sterile; we would not be around to discuss it. The precision of this fine-tuning is nothing short of stunning. The initial rate of expansion of the universe, to take just one example, had to have been tweaked to a precision comparable to that of an archer trying to land an arrow in a 1-square-centimeter target located on the fringes of the universe, 15 billion light years away!
Chaos and Harmony” by Trinh Xuan Thuan, Professor of Astronomy, University of Virginia, p. 235 

The phrase cosmic fine-tuning is nowadays used in a theologically neutral sense to mean the universe's improbable fitness for life (the term may or may not imply the existence of a fine-tuner). One of the first books on the anthropic principle discussed above was Paul Davies' book The Accidental Universe, which had a cover showing a pair of dice and a galaxy.

But rather than imagining a dice-throwing Las Vegas crapshooter to visualize the idea of cosmic fine-tuning, we should perhaps imagine something else in Las Vegas: a slot machine. The slot machine that we need to imagine is one that has not one row that must consist of matching symbols for a win, but a slot machine with multiple rows, each of which must have matching symbols to win the jackpot. Each row represents one of the conditions for intelligent life that a successful universe must have. The chance of any one row having all matching symbols is very low, only about 1 in 1,000,000. To win the jackpot (which in this case is a universe that has the right conditions for intelligent life), each of the rows must be successful, consisting of all matching symbols. There are multiple possible combinations that allow for success (such as all apples on the first row, all pears on the second row, and all grapes on the other rows, or all 7's on the even rows and all oranges on the odd rows). But still the chance of overall success (each row being successful) is very, very low. The slot machine would look something like the slot machine shown below (click on the image to expand it).


anthropic principle


Now let's take a look at each of the rows on this slot machine, and discuss the habitability condition that the row represents, including a mention of why the chance of the condition being met is roughly as improbable as the chance of getting all matching symbols on the row when you pull the red slot machine lever in the slot machine I have depicted.

cosmic fine tuning


The word gravity in the visual refers to the universal gravitational constant of 6.6 X 10-11 N·(m/kg)2 which defines the degree to which matter attracts other matter through gravitational attraction. The existence of intelligent life in our universe requires the gravitational constant to exist within a narrow range of values. Cosmologists say that if the gravitational constant had been much greater, the expansion of the universe would have been stopped by the gravitational attraction between galaxies, and the universe would have collapsed in on itself before there was time for life to evolve. If the gravitational constant were much weaker, there would not have been enough gravitational attraction for galaxies to form. 

Referring to the short-lived stars known as blue giants (which don't last long enough to support planets where life evolves), and to the type of stars known as red dwarfs (generally regarded as being stars not as suitable for Earth-like planets as yellow stars like our sun), the physicist Paul Davies says on page 73 of The Accidental Universe: “If gravity were very slightly weaker, or electromagnetism very slightly stronger (or the electron slightly less massive relative to the proton), all stars would be red dwarfs. A correspondingly tiny change the other way, and they would all be blue giants.” So apparently our universe lucked out with its gravitational level, and this was at least as lucky or improbable as a row match on the slot machine I have visualized.



In our universe we have the remarkable coincidence that the proton (which has a mass 1836 times greater than an electron) has an electric charge identical to the charge of an electron, the only difference being that the proton charge is positive and the electron charge is negative. The charge of the proton is 1.60217657 ×1019 coulomb, and the charge of the electron is 1.60217657 ×1019 coulomb. This scientific paper is by a scientist who used a molecular beam deflection method to conclude that the proton charge and the electron charge have a magnitude differing by less than 5 parts in 10,000,000,000,000,000,000. 

The chemistry on which life depends could not exist if the magnitude of the charge on the electron did not match the magnitude of the charge on the proton. It would require only a small difference between the two to make planets unstable (not surprising because electromagnetism is a force more than a trillion trillion trillion times greater than the gravity that holds our planet together). 

In his book The Symbiotic Universe, astronomer George Greenstein (a professor emeritus at Amherst College) says this about the equality of the proton and electron charges:  "Relatively small things like stones, people, and the like would fly apart if the two charges differed by as little as one part in 100 billion. Large structures like the Earth and the Sun require for their existence a yet more perfect balance of one part in a billion billion." 

In any universe containing life, the electron could have any old charge, as long as the magnitude of the charge exactly matched the magnitude of the charge of the proton. The fact that both match exactly is unexplained by the Standard Model of Physics. So a habitable universe requires a lucky match of the proton and electron charges, which is at least as improbable as the likelihood of a match on the “Particle Charges” row on the slot machine I have depicted.




Entropy can be roughly defined as the amount of waste mass-energy in a system or universe, energy that is unavailable for work. Entropy is increased when the stars burns up their nuclear fuel to radiate energy into space, and it is also increased when matter gets trapped in black holes. It is a fundamental law of nature that entropy gradually increases as time passes, a principle known as the Second Law of Thermodynamics. Scientists say this law will eventually lead in the incredibly distant future to a “heat death” of the universe, in which there is no usable energy. We know roughly how much entropy is now in the universe, and if we “rewind the film” backward all the way back to the time of the Big Bang, we then have a universe that begins with very, very little entropy. The diagram below illustrates the point.



Roger Penrose (one of the most famous cosmologists) has emphasized the fantastic specialness of the low-entropy state of the early universe. In the video clip below, he discusses the issue.


At the end of this brief clip Penrose estimates that the chance of a random universe having entropy as low as the entropy in the early universe is some inconceivably small number such as 1 in 10N, where N is a number greater than the total number of particles in the observable universe. By comparison with such conclusions, the “entropy” slot on our cosmic slot machine is very modest, requiring luck of only about 1 in a million for this condition to be met. This is probably a great underestimation of the luck actually required for the initial entropy of a life-bearing universe, but at least it means we don't have to depict a slot machine with a row stretching on for many miles.



The expansion rate is the rate at which an expanding universe expands. Around 1975 cosmologists said there was a problem called the flatness problem, which is the fact that in order for the universe to be in its current state the initial expansion rate of the universe (at the time of the Big Bang) had to be fine-tuned to about 1 part in 1050. Then the theory of cosmic inflation was developed, which offered a mechanism that might explain why the universe had such a suitable initial expansion rate. But even with such a theory, it is still a very long shot for a universe to start out with an expansion rate suitable for habitability.

For one thing, lots of conditions have to be met for cosmic inflation to occur, and leave us with a universe like ours; so any inflation theory requires its own type of fine-tuning – perhaps not as much as 1 part in 1050 but still something on the order needed to win a huge lottery jackpot. In this paper Cal Tech professor Sean Carroll says, “When perturbations are taken into account, inflation only occurs in a negligibly small fraction of cosmological histories,” and then defines this fraction as a number much less than 1 in 1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000. Princeton professor Paul Steinhardt has recently raised many objections to the inflation theory in this paper, claiming that cosmic inflation requires fine-tuning to 15 decimal places (a 1 in 1,000,000,000,000,000 bit of luck). So without discounting the possibility that the theory of cosmic inflation is correct, we can say that with or without inflation, to have a universe begin by chance with an expansion rate suitable for intelligent life we need something to happen at least as lucky as about a 1 in a million long shot, which is about the luck requirement depicted in my slot machine visual for the “Expansion Rate” row.


Dark energy (basically the same as the cosmological constant) is one of the great unsolved mysteries of the universe. It's not simply that we don't know enough about it. The mystery is that dark energy in our universe is so small, even though quantum field theory suggests it should be so much larger. Scientists say that quantum uncertainty should cause an ordinary vacuum to be teeming with short-lived, fleeting particles called virtual particles. Those particles should give an ordinary vacuum a very high energy density. When scientists do the calculations, they come up with a number indicating that ordinary space should be filled with a vacuum energy density more than 10100 times greater (more than a million billion trillion quadrillion quintillion sextillion times greater) than the maximum value consistent with astronomical observations (a problem known as the "vacuum catastrophe"). The simplest explanation is that there is some lucky balancing by which negative contributions to the vacuum energy density cancel out positive contributions, resulting in a net value near zero. But such a lucky balancing is incredibly improbable (far more improbable than the chance that all of the money you earned in a particular decade matches to the penny, by coincidence, all the money that you spent or charged in that decade). Some think it actually required a 1 in 10100 long shot for dark energy to be so small, but in the “Dark Energy” line of my visual I merely imagine a requirement that has about a 1 in a million chance of occurring. 




In his book The Particle at the End of the Universe (page 145 to 146), Cal Tech physicist Sean Carroll says the following:

The size of atoms...is determined by...the mass of the electron. If that mass were less, atoms would be a lot larger. .. If the mass of the electron changed just a little bit, we would have things like 'molecules' and 'chemistry', but the specific rules that we know in the real world would change in important ways...Complicated molecules like DNA or proteins or living cells would be messed up beyond repair. To bring it home: Change the mass of the electron just a little bit, and all life would instantly end.

Besides the luck involved in the electron mass having a suitable value, our universe also had great luck in regard to the neutron mass having a suitable value. Physicist Paul Davies says that if the neutron mass were .998 of its actual value, protons would decay into neutrons, and there would be no atoms at all (The Accidental Universe, page 65). Conversely, if the neutron mass were slightly greater, it would mean there could be no long-lived stars like the sun.

So we can conclude that having electron and neutron masses with values compatible with life requires good luck on the same order as the luck needed for a match on the “Particle Masses” row of the slot machine I have visualized.



After the Big Bang, there was only hydrogen, helium, and a little lithium. All of the other elements were produced inside of stars. Advanced life requires lots of carbon, oxygen, and nitrogen. Having a civilization requires additional elements such as iron. Astronomers say that some of the elements originated in stars that did not blow up, and others originated in stars that did blow up in supernova explosions. A universe must meet many requirements to get all the needed elements in abundant amounts. For one thing, there has to be something like the weak nuclear force that exists in our universe, because that is needed for supernova explosions. Another thing needed are just the right nuclear resonances, which have to exist in the right way to assure the abundant production of carbon and oxygen by stars. In this paper  scientists conclude, “Thus, even with a minimal change of 0.4% in the strength of the N-N force, carbon-based life appears to be impossible, since all the stars then would produce either almost solely carbon or oxygen, but could not produce both elements.” So the total luck needed for you to have a universe with a distribution of elements suitable for the evolution of life (with abundant carbon and oxygen) would seem to be something like the luck required to get a match on the “Element Abundances” row of the slot machine I have visualized.



The two fundamental nuclear forces in our universe are the weak nuclear force (involved in radioactivity) and the strong nuclear force (which holds together the nucleus of an atom). The nucleus of atoms such as carbon consists of neutrons with no charge and protons with a positive charge. All particles with the same charge repel each other, particularly when they are very close together. So if it were not for the strong nuclear force, the nucleus of an atom such as carbon and oxygen could not exist for more than a second; the electromagnetic repulsion of the protons would cause the nucleus to fly apart.

In his book The Accidental Universe physicist Paul Davies says that if the strong nuclear force were 5 percent weaker, the deuteron (a nucleus consisting of a proton and a neutron) could not exist, making it “doubtful if stable, long-lived stars could exist at all.” He also notes that if the strong nuclear force were 2 percent stronger, a nucleus called a diproton (consisting of only two protons and no neutrons) would exist, making it doubtful that “any hydrogen would have survived beyond the hot primeval phase” near the time of the Big Bang (and also causing all kinds of problems for the existence of stars like the sun). So it seems that the strong nuclear force had to exist within a very small range of values. Since the strong nuclear force is roughly a million billion trillion trillion times stronger than gravitation, we can conclude that having the strong nuclear force fall within this narrow range required luck at least as great as the luck needed for a match on the “Nuclear Forces” row of the slot machine I have depicted.

--------

By now I have discussed each of the requirements depicted on my slot machine visual, and how each one represents a very unlikely long shot or coincidence. What is the overall probability of all of these eight long shots occurring? The conditions are all independent requirements, without any causal relation to each other. If one requirement is met, it does not make it more likely that another requirement will be met. The rules of probability indicate that to calculate the likelihood of a set of independent events occurring, you multiply together the likelihood of each separate event or condition occurring. The likelihood of success for each condition is no greater than 1 in a million, so to roughly calculate the chance of all of the conditions being met, we multiply 1 in a million by itself eight times. This gives us a probability of 1 chance in 1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000. That is the probability mentioned near the top of my slot machine visual, where it says, “1 winner every 1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 tries!”

If we imagine someone pulling the lever on this cosmic slot machine, we must imagine him pulling the lever over and over again for many, many centuries before success is finally reached, and each row on the machine consists of all the same symbols. A person pulling the red lever over and over again 24 hours a day would see one successful row every few days, a row consisting of all matching symbols (such as all apples). But that would only be one of the eight successful rows needed to win the jackpot, and it would be overwhelmingly probable that the same row would be unsuccessful the next time the person pulled the red lever. The person pulling the red lever over and over would probably need to pull the lever for many centuries before he saw that each of the rows consisted of all matching symbols, and the grand jackpot (a habitable universe) was won.

In conclusion, there is one sentence that summarizes what science suggests about the anthropic principle, cosmic fine-tuning, and also man's place in our vast universe:

You are an ordinary person living on an ordinary street in an ordinary city or town in an ordinary country on an ordinary continent on an ordinary planet in an ordinary solar system in an ordinary galaxy in an ordinary cluster of galaxies in a very, very special universe.

 

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Get Addicted and Get Rich: A Career for the Future

This is the time of year when millions of 17-year-olds are starting to send in their college applications. Many of them are wondering: what the hell should I do with my life? You don't have to decide that by the time you are 17, but it certainly helps to have an idea of your future career when you are considering which college to apply to.

In this post I will discuss what I think is a very sound career choice for the average 17-year old: the career of software development. I'll include some inside information that you won't get from the average career guide.



Software development is a career that can pay very well. If you live in a major city and have three to five years experience, you can easily make between 40 and 60 dollars an hour doing software development. But what is it really like to work as a software developer, how can you get into the field, and what kind of person will make a good software developer?

First, let's consider: what type of person makes a good software developer? Even though software development involves working almost constantly with computer languages, do not worry if you did poorly when studying languages in school. I worked for a long time as a software developer, and got abysmal grades when studying Latin and Spanish in high school. Computer languages are very different from natural languages such as English and German, and your skill with such languages has nothing to do with your probable success with computer languages.

It is also perfectly possible to be a successful software developer if you are poor in math. I flunked trigonometry in high school, but still worked a long time as a software developer. Nowadays almost all computer languages have “on the shelf” functionality that allows a computer programmer to perform almost any mathematical task more or less effortlessly. So even someone who is “all thumbs” in math can very easily do all kinds of mathematical tasks in a computer program he is writing.

What is the single greatest predictor of your ability to succeed as a software developer? The answer is: creativity. If you are a very creative person, you will probably enjoy being a software developer, and will probably succeed at the job. If I were a hiring manager hiring someone for a software developer job, I would be more likely to hire someone who had written a novel or a collection of short stories than I would be to hire someone who got A grades studying math or foreign languages.

Why is creativity so important in software development? Because when you write code you are again and again facing a blank page that you are supposed to fill in by using your own creativity. To some people that blank page is terrifying. But to other people, particularly creative people, that blank page is enthralling.

How can you get into the field of software development? Nowadays you will see almost all job specifications for software developers asking for a BS degree in Computer Science. However, my experience has been that almost no one cares where you may have got your degree in Computer Science, and probably a large fraction of hiring managers don't really care whether you have a major in Computer Science. There have been very many successful programmers who did not have bachelor's degrees, and very many successful programmers who majored in something other than Computer Science. You can probably get by with a minor in Computer Science or Information Science, although a major in Computer Science might give you the best chance of getting a job.

Hiring managers for software development jobs care about how much coding you have done, and how well you are able to answer technical questions about the details of the type of programming you are doing. They don't seem to care much about where you went to college. Therefore it may be a bad idea to borrow money to go to some prestigious college and study Computer Science. A person who goes to an unglamorous state college (and who knows a computer technology very, very well) may have a better chance of getting a job than someone who went to a prestigious university and does not know the technology very well.

How is it is that you can try out whether software development is a good career for you, before spending a large amount of money on a Computer Science degree? What you need to do is to start writing some computer programs. Try it and see whether you love it or hate it.

You can write simple computer programs very easily by using the fairly simple HTML and Javascript languages. You can just write a program in any text editor such as Notepad, and load the file in your web browser. Once you have tried that, you can move on to the bigger step of downloading an IDE (integrated development environment) that includes a compiler. 

After you try writing a few programs, one of two things may happen. You will either love the work you are doing, or you will hate it. It's pretty much that simple. If you love the task of creating computer programs, there is a good chance that you will get addicted to software development. That can be a very lucrative addiction.

What is it like to have a job developing software? It is a great job for introverts and shy people. A typical programmer spends 90% of his time working by himself, and a small fraction of his time attending meetings or talking on the phone. Many people love that type of ratio.

Developing software is basically a highly pleasurable activity. The best description I ever heard about the joy of software programming was one I heard uttered spontaneously many years ago by a programmer. He said, “Programming is a great job because every day it's make your own gadget.” That sums it up exactly. When you program, you are always making small changes in your program that add a little bit more functionality. You get a very pleasurable feeling of achievement when you try out your newly developed functionality, and see it working correctly.

Young software developers often have to work long hours, but they mostly don't mind. When you are in the middle of a software development project, it can often be the case that you would rather stay working for a few hours more than to go home at 5:00 PM. This is because of the addictive nature of software development. A stock analyst might be miserable working between 5:00 PM and 8:00 PM, but a software developer will typically be as happy as someone playing a video game late into the night.

About the only negative I can think of in regard to software development is that it is very much a young man's game. There is tremendous age discrimination that will tend to kick in when you reach the age of 50. But that's not much of a worry for a 17-year old considering a career, as it still leaves you decades of high-paying employment.

So my advice to a 17-year-old looking for a career is: if you are a creative person, try your hand at writing some computer programs. If you catch the programming addiction, you can get rich from that addiction.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Time Travel Hotline: A Science Fiction Story

It was the Model T of time machines.

In the 25th century, the Dextron 4000 was the first time machine that any moderately rich person could afford. It was a sphere the size of a car, with a dashboard containing controls that allowed you to transport yourself backward to any time in the past 200 million years. Before any buyer was allowed to use the machine, he or she had to sign a contract promising never to go back in time and make any substantial alteration that might alter the trajectory of the past, causing the present to be changed. That type of modification was called altering a time-line, and it was the ultimate sin of time travel.

Each buyer of the Dextron 4000 also had to attend a training course. The time machine included a communication device allowing the user to call a time travel hotline, to ask for advice on interacting with the past.

Roger Hopkins worked at the hotline, which occupied the fifth floor of a large skyscraper. The job of Roger and his co-workers was to take calls from Dextron 4000 users who might have transported back to any time in the past 200 million years.

Roger came to work one Monday, and goofed off for a while until he got his first call from a time traveler.

“Dextron 4000 hotline,” said Roger. “Roger here. How can I help you?”

“I've gone back to ancient times, and I see him,” said the caller. “Jesus Christ.”

“Sir, please don't swear,” said Roger.

“Who's swearing?” said the caller. “I mean I actually see him – the real Jesus Christ.”

“You'd better be careful,” warned Roger. “There is a high risk of altering time-lines if you interact with Jesus. I strongly advise you to just discreetly snap a photo or two, and stay well clear of him.”

Later in the hour Roger got a call from a Dextron 4000 user who had transported back to the time of the dinosaurs. The caller was very excited.

“I'm here right next to a giant dinosaur, and it's awesome,” said the user. “But I have to ask you something. Those big dinosaurs with the sharp teeth and the little tiny arms – those are just the plant eaters, right? They're not carnivores, are they?”



A few seconds later Roger heard the caller screaming.

“Guess he got his answer,” said Roger, and hung up.

Roger's next caller was from a man who had transported back to the time of ancient Greece. The man bragged about how he was breaking his contract and defying all time travel rules by actually telling the ancient Greeks about advanced science and technology.

Roger started to yell at the man, reading him the riot act.

“You're in deep trouble!” hollered Roger. “You're going to mess up the time-lines!”

But then Roger's boss interrupted, and informed Roger that this user's intervention was actually part of the existing time-line. Apparently it was the underlying explanation for why the ancient Greeks were so ahead of their time – because someone in the 25th century had gone back and given them so many advanced ideas.

Later in the afternoon Roger got a call from a man named Albert who had transported himself back to Nazi Germany. Albert was determined to kill Adolf Hitler, thereby preventing the loss of millions of lives.

It was a moral dilemma for Roger. The rules were that he had to tell Albert to stop, because it would alter the existing time-lines. But how could he tell Albert not to do something that might save up to 30 million lives? Roger remembered images he had seen of all the emaciated concentration camp victims.

After agonizing over the moral dilemma, Roger told Albert: “Do what you have to do.” Roger knew that he might lose his job if anyone found out, but he couldn't bring himself to stop Albert.

Albert later called back to tell Roger that he was about to be captured by the Nazis. His assassination attempt had failed.

“You don't have any thing on you that would prove you're a time traveler, do you?” asked Roger.

“I'm carrying a wrist encyclopedia,” confessed Albert. “The kind you can use just by pressing those little buttons.”

“Damn, no!” said Roger. “This is going to mess up the time-lines in the wrong way! The Nazis will find out all kinds of stuff that will help them win the Second World War!”

Roger felt dizzy, and everything seemed to go dark. He fell unconscious. Then he woke up, and looked around him. He was shocked by what he saw.

Everything was the same in the huge room, except for three things. There was now a giant swastika flag hanging on the wall. There were large portraits of Adolf Hitler on the wall. There were three men in the room wearing the black uniform of the SS.

“Workers,” hollered one of the SS men. “Continue to provide hotline support for the time travelers of the glorious Third Reich, now in its 524th year of magnificent existence.”

Monday, November 18, 2013

Spooky Round Electrons Zap Phantom Theory

There was once a young man who had a dream in which he saw a lovely young woman clad in shimmering clothes. The woman wore earrings, a necklace, and bracelets, and the colors she wore were perfectly balanced on the left and right side of her body. The man decided to call the woman Suzie. He thought of her again and again, until one night he had the same dream. He then decided to search throughout his city to find the woman in his dream. He searched high and low, but did not find her. Vowing not to give up, he got a job allowing him to travel through many cities. In every city he searched for Suzie, and he hoped to make her his bride. The years passed, and the man one day found himself old and still without any wife. He cursed the day he had ever fallen in love with Suzie, the phantom bride.

This fictional story bears a resemblance to something that has gone on in real life. The young man represents the physicists who have thought up and pursued for decades the theory called supersymmetry. This theory is called SUSY for short, and it involves a symmetry rather like the symmetry of the Suzie in this story. Sadly the long quest for SUSY has ended up being as much of a frustration as the young man's long fruitless quest for Suzie.

Supersymmetry is a theory that for each type of particle known to physicists, there is another type of particle called a superparticle – a particle that is very similar, except with a different spin. One of the main motivations for this theory has been to explain away some apparent fine-tuning in the Higgs field. Without the theory of supersymmetry, we are apparently left with a Higgs field that has to be fine-tuned to many decimal places (a problem known to physicists as the hierarchy problem). As one CERN scientist says
"In a quantum theory, the hierarchy implies a severe fine tuning of the fundamental parameters in more than 30 decimal places in order to keep the masses of elementary particles at their observed values.”
But if the theory of supersymmetry is correct, we might have a way to avoid the conclusion that the Higgs field is so very highly calibrated by chance.

Some scientists have also said that they like the theory of supersymmetry because of its beauty. Unfortunately, things have not gone well for the lovely theory of supersymmetry. The theory tends to predict the existence of particles which simply have not been found by the Large Hadron Collider, that huge scientific device in Europe which discovered the Higgs boson. Some physicists now say that the theory of supersymmetry is on life support.

Another blow to supersymmetry came last week, through a new measurement of the amazing roundness of the electron. In my previous blog post Four Insanely Eerie Things About the Electron, I noted the astonishing degree of roundness in this fundamental particle. What is called the “classical electron radius" is equal to .00000000000028 centimeter, but scientific measurements by 6 scientists showed that the electron had no deviations in roundness greater than .0000000000000000000000000001 centimeter. As Scientific American put it, “The electron is a perfect sphere, give or take barely one part in a million billion.” As the Guardian put it, “Were the electron scaled up to the size of the solar system, any deviation from its roundness would be smaller than the width of a human hair.” I noted that this degree of roundness is 100 million times greater than the roundest thing ever manufactured by human beings, a sphere that a scientist designed to be the roundest thing ever made.

Some readers may have thought that such a finding was perhaps just some misunderstanding, perhaps one of those scientific studies that doesn't hold up when other scientists try to reproduce it. But last week scientists announced a new measurement of the roundness of the electron from 18 scientists different from the 6 scientists who made the earlier measurement. These 18 scientists came up with the same result, except that they found that the electron was an additional ten times rounder than the previous study. In announcing the study, Scientific American says, “The electron appears to be spherical to within 0.00000000000000000000000000001 centimeter.”

Besides raising a few hairs on the back of our necks, this eerie finding is bad news for the supersymmetry theory, It seems that the supersymmetry theory tends to predict an electron that isn't so round. If there really were all those “superpartner” particles predicted by supersymmetry (SUSY), it seems that some of them would virtually cling to electrons, causing them not to appear so astonishingly round.

Alas the SUSY theory appears to be like the phantom bride Suzie in my story-- an insubstantial symmetrical beauty to be quested after but never found. 

cosmic phantom
A lovely cosmic phantom, like SUSY

Saturday, November 16, 2013

12 Things That Could Happen if Extraterrestrials Arrive

Our galaxy contains billions of stars capable of supporting planets. Using instruments such as the Kepler Space Telescope, scientists have identified more than 1000 planets revolving around stars other than the sun. A recent statistical study estimated that one out of five sun-like stars contains a planet like Earth, and there are billions of such stars in our galaxy. Our outgoing radio and television signals are reaching an expanding volume of cubic light-years that gradually includes more and more stars. So the arrival of an alien spaceship in our solar system would not be a very surprising event. But what might extraterrestrials do if they arrived in our solar system? Let us look at some of the possibilities.

Possibility 1: They Conquer Us

Given the fact that the universe is nearly 14 billion years old, aliens arriving in our solar system might be part of a civilization many thousands or millions of years older than our civilization. So it is quite possible that a single starship could have the power to conquer our entire planet. One can easily imagine various approaches that aliens might take. A few nuclear bombs could be exploded in the upper atmosphere of the world's largest countries, causing an electromagnetic pulse (EMP) that would wipe out most of the power system and electronics of major nations. A few super-advanced self-reproducing robots could be landed on our planet, and they could then start making copies of themselves, using as raw materials metals swiped from cars on the street. Before long there might be a huge army of such robots, ready to attack us. Or a specially designed biological plague could be used to terrorize the world into surrendering. A very advanced alien civilization might even have mind-control techniques that would destroy our will to resist them. The end result might be the forcible bringing of our planet into some kind of galactic empire that the aliens controlled. The conquest of our planet might be just another in a long series of conquests made by such extraterrestrials.


Possibility 2: They Enslave Us

This is like the previous possibility, but even more radical. Under this scenario, the aliens make everyone on Earth a slave. The aliens might do this if they wanted to colonize our planet, but regarded it as being a disgusting eyesore. They might then wish to make us all slaves so that we would get to work cleaning up the mess we have made here on Earth, making it into a place more suitable for their colonization. Perhaps they might want a lovely, unspoiled planet to colonize, and they might order us to begin dismantling all of the ugly strip malls and highway billboards and fast food restaurants. Or they might put us to work building the type of structures that they preferred to live in, which might use some strange alien architecture. This enslavement possibility does not seem to be very likely, because super-advanced aliens would presumably have mastered robotics, and could use robots to accomplish what they wanted on Earth without using human slaves.

Possibility 3: They Exterminate Us All

This is like the previous two possibilities, but even gloomier. Under this scenario, the extraterrestrials arriving in our solar system decide that there is no way that they can successfully share our planet with humans. So they decide to simply wipe us out altogether. They might be able to achieve this goal by introducing specially designed plagues designed to kill everyone. They might also make use of specially designed nuclear weapons designed to kill without leaving much long-lasting radiation (perhaps something like the neutron bomb envisioned in the 1980's).

After the aliens got rid of all humans, they might also decide to get rid of all of our buildings, which could be done by an army of robots. Or they might simply decide to make use of all of the structures we built. The latter case would lead to a very strange situation. Imagine a New York City of the future where no humans live but where thousands or millions of extraterrestrials live.

Possibility 4: They Absorb Us

This possibility could be called the Borg scenario. It could be that the beings arriving from another planet are united in a kind of group mind or collective consciousness. It might also be that they want to absorb us into this group mind. Once we become absorbed, we would think as they do, and feel as they do. We would then live only to serve the will of their group mind. This might be the most effective way for the extraterrestrials to accomplish the equivalent of the enslavement of humanity.

Possibility 5: They Eat Us

In a classic episode of the television series The Twilight Zone, aliens arrive from the stars, bearing a book entitled To Serve Man. It turns out the book is a cookbook, and the aliens are interested in serving man broiled, baked, or stir fried. This scenario made a great television episode, but isn't very likely in real life. An alien life form would probably have a genetic code entirely different from ours, and would be unlikely to be able to eat any people or any other mammal on our planet. It also seems that whatever type of meat they desired, they would be able to artificially synthesize it, rather than going to the trouble of getting it from earthly organisms.

Possibility 6: They Watch Us Protectively

In this scenario extraterrestrials arrive in our solar system, and then simply observe us discreetly. Perhaps their goal is to just watch us and make sure we don't destroy ourselves. Some UFO believers think that this scenario is now occurring, and that when UFOs are seen, people are seeing extraterrestrial vehicles.

Possibility 7: They Bless Us With Cosmic Gifts

Call this the Santa Clause scenario. In this scenario extraterrestrials arrive in our solar system, and make their presence known. Maybe they land a vehicle on the White House lawn very quickly. They then begin to share some of their godlike technology with us. Maybe they give us the cure to cancer, or maybe they give us the technology to reverse aging. The world then embraces the cosmic visitors as forces of benevolence.

Possibility 8: They Mate With Us

A scenario in which extraterrestrial visitors mate with humans seems to be very unlikely. As all life on Earth is based on a distinctive genetic code that would be unlikely to be repeated exactly on other planets, there would not seem to be any possibility that extraterrestrials would be successful if trying to breed with humanity. Nor does it seem that beings from some greatly superior species would have any interest in breeding with humans, which they would be likely to regard as a greatly inferior species. They would probably also have a physical appearance greatly different from ours, meaning that they would probably be repulsed by the idea of mating with humans, just as a human might be repulsed by the idea of mating with a very different type of species such as an octopus.

Possibility 9: They Want to Convert Us

Another strange scenario is that extraterrestrials might arrive and want to convert us to some cosmic religion that they were trying to spread to as many planets as possible. It is hard to convert anyone to a different religion, but aliens might have all kinds of mind-control techniques that might make it easy for them to convert us to their strange alien creed.

Possibility 10: They Want Us to Join Some Confederation or Empire

Another scenario is that extraterrestrials arrive and offer us some kind of membership in an interplanetary society or empire. Perhaps it might be an attractive offer to join a galactic confederation or galactic society similar to the United Federation of Planets depicted in Star Trek, or the galactic Republic depicted in some of the Star Wars movies. Or it might be a less attractive “make you an offer you can't refuse” type of offer to join a galactic empire, giving up much of our independence and freedom. In the latter case there might be various mind tricks to make us think that we are getting a good deal rather than being subjugated, like the arrangement where Hitler set up the Vichy France government in conquered France.

Possibility 11: They Come to Enlighten and Educate Us

Call this the “schoolmarm scenario.” Under this scenario the super-advanced extraterrestrials arrive, and take up the task of teaching us ignorant, silly humans the deep cosmic truths the aliens have acquired over the eons. This might be a slow process taking many years, and might require them to establish universities on our planet. This is an interesting possibility that I'm not sure has ever been explored in a science fiction story.

Possibility 12: They Ignore Us and Leave

This would be the most humbling of all scenarios. Extraterrestrials could arrive in our solar system, and decide that our puny little civilization is quite unworthy of their attention. They might then snap a few photos, take a few samples, and leave the solar system quickly. This would be an ego-deflating event for human hubris. It would slowly dawn on us that we are mere tadpoles in the great ocean of cosmic life.