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Our future, our universe, and other weighty topics

Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Males Prohibited: A Science Fiction Story

Males Prohibited: A Science Fiction Story

In the second half of the twenty-first century, the world underwent dozens of shattering upheavals. The great world powers were broken into tiny pieces by wars and revolutions. Two great genetically engineered epidemics killed a large fraction of the world's population. The world nearly ran out of the most convenient fossil fuels. There was a global economic collapse. Coastal cities were devastated by global warming. The world that emerged in the twenty-second century was a dark, disordered world almost unrecognizable from the world that existed a century earlier.

In the middle of the twenty-second century a group of four men lived in the land that was once known as the United States of America. Being miserable in this shattered society, the four men obtained a small boat, and set sail out into the Pacific Ocean. Their names were Bill, Carl, Walter, and Sam.

The men had only a compass and a map to guide them on their voyage. The GPS system had long since gone down. The men had heard that Hawaii was very beautiful, so they decided to navigate to that location, even though they had no knowledge of what type of society Hawaii had.

After a long voyage the men finally approached one of the islands of Hawaii. But a terrible storm arose as night fell. There was heavy rain, gale-force winds, and high waves.

“Let's guide the boat towards the shore,” said Walter. “If things get too rough, as a last resort we can take the raft to the shore.”

The men tried to bring the boat into a safe place where they could throw down their anchor. But being unable to see in the darkness, they struck a group of rocks near the shore. Water started to pour into the boat. The men tried to bale water from the boat, but it was a lost cause. The boat began to sink.

“Let's jump in our raft, and paddle for the shore!” said Carl.

The four men jumped in a rubber raft, and paddled to the shore, which they reached after being tossed around violently by the high waves. Exhausted but safe, they all made it to the dark beach. The men turned their rubber raft upside down, and used it to protect themselves from the heavy rain. Very tired, they all fell asleep.

The next morning they looked around at their location.

“This is fantastic,” said Bill. “It's as beautiful as I thought it would be.”

The men walked away from the beach, and began exploring.

men walking

They came to a hill which overlooked a village. The men looked down at the village. They saw dozens of people, but all of them were women.

“Looks like it should be real easy to get a date tonight,” laughed Bill. “Let's go down there.”

The men headed down to the village. Soon they attracted a crowd of onlookers. All in the crowd were women. Some of the females looked at them with fascination, but others looked at them as if they were circus freaks or monsters. Finally one of the women spoke.

“We know your type,” said the woman. “You are men. Men are forbidden on this island. You must leave immediately.”

“Men are forbidden?” said Bill. “You mean there are no men on this island?”

“None,” said the woman. “Our society has no men, and has had no men for fifty years.”

“We can't leave,” explained Carl. “We came by boat, but our boat sunk just before we got here.”

Two authorities arrived. They placed the men under arrest, and took them to the main town on the island.

“We must hold a hearing to decide what will be done with you,” said one of the authorities.

The hearing was held in a large room that was filled with 30 women. An official announced the arrival of an important person.

“All rise for her excellency the Island Ruler,” said the woman.

The Island Ruler entered the room, dressed in silver colored robes. Sitting on a special chair, she addressed the crowd.

“Fifty years ago when the Earth lay shattered by war and disasters, our special society was founded,” said the Island Ruler. “We recognized that the Aggressive Male is the main cause of wars that devastate our planet. We decided to put in place a purely female society, one that would be dedicated to peace. So we established the Supreme Law of our island – that no men should ever live on it. For fifty years we have forced all male visitors to leave, or face imprisonment.”

“Prisoners,” asked the Island Ruler, “do you have any boat or ship to leave our island?”

The men answered that their boat had been lost when they reached the island.

“Then you are sentenced to jail until such time as some other ship may come, a ship that would be willing to take you when it leaves our island,” said the Island Ruler.

The four men were thrown in the local jail. Upon being locked up, they had some questions for the jail guard.

“I've seen many young girls on this island,” said Carl. “If no men have lived here for fifty years, how were all these children conceived?”

“By artificial insemination, of course,” explained the female guard. “When we started our society, we obtained a large supply of frozen sperm. Each female who wishes to give birth has her ovum artificially fertilized in a lab. We have a way of assuring that only females are born.”

“And how long should it be until a ship comes to this island?” asked Carl.

“The world doesn't see much trade these days,” said the guard. “Our little island only gets a ship maybe once or twice a year.”

The four men sat in jail for four miserable months. Then one day there was a dramatic change in their fortune.

“You are free to go,” said the jail manager. “Her excellency the Island Ruler has decided that from now on men will be allowed to live and mate on our island.”

The men started laughing, and high fived each other.

“What made her change her mind?” asked Bill.

“We ran out of something that we consider an essential element in a happy all-female society,” said the jail manager.

“Ah, so you ran out of frozen sperm, right?” said Bill.

“No, we ran out of vibrator batteries,” said the jail manager.

Walking out of jail, the four men blissfully imagined their fortunate future as the only men on a beautiful Hawaiian island filled with women who would be happy to cavort with a male for the first time.

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Four Insanely Eerie Things About the Electron

Four Insanely Eerie Things About the Electron

The electron is one of the the three stable and massive particles of the universe, the other two being the proton and the neutron. The electron is also perhaps the strangest of all particles. Let us look at four aspects of the electron that are downright spooky.

1. Electrons are insanely round, more than 100 million times rounder than the roundest thing men  have ever made

Scientists at the Imperial College in London have done experiments to determine how round the electron is. Their results are astonishing. Their web site says: “So far we've checked the roundness of the electron to an incredible degree of precision: the equivalent would be measuring the diameter of the solar system to better than the width of one human hair. And so far, we've seen no evidence of non-roundness.”

Scientific American summarizes these results here by saying : “The electron is a perfect sphere, give or take barely one part in a million billion.”

In this article the Guardian summarizes these results as follows: “In the most exquisite measurements yet, researchers declared the particle to be a perfect sphere to within one billionth of a billionth of a billionth of a centimeter. 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, the team said.”

To get a feel for how remarkable this is, let's compare this degree of roundness to the degree of roundness of the roundest thing humans have ever manufactured.  This 2008 New Scientist story was entitled “Roundest Objects in the World Created.” It told the story of how some super-round spheres were created by a scientific team that included an optical engineer named Achim Leistner, using a slow, careful process that took months. Leistner said, “"If you were to blow up our spheres to the size of the Earth, you would see a small ripple in the smoothness of about 12 to 15 mm, and a variation of only 3 to 5 metres in the roundness."

roundest sphere
But electrons are 100,000,000 times rounder!

Now the solar system has a diameter about 10,000 times larger than the diameter of the Earth, and a human hair is about one ten thousandth (1 in 10,000) the size of 3 to 5 meters. So the previously mentioned degree of roundness in the electron is actually 100 million times greater than the degree of roundness in Leisnter's spheres (supposedly the roundest ever manufactured).

Think of it: each of the the electrons all around us is at least 100 million times rounder than the roundest thing man ever manufactured, when scientists were deliberately trying to make something as round as possible.

That is insanely eerie, and has no explanation under current theory.

2. All electrons have the same mass and charge

Scientists conclude that all electrons have a mass of 9.10938291 ×10−31 kilogram, and that all electrons have a charge of −1.60217657 ×10−19 coulomb. To someone who has long read about particle physics, this may not seem surprising or strange. Such a person may just think: that's just the way it is. But to someone who learns about this uniformity for the first time, it often can seem very strange. Why? Because it violates a law of observation that holds true for everything we see.

We might call this law the Law of Mass Variation, and state it like this: every type of natural thing comes in different sizes. We never observe any visible type of thing in nature that is always the same mass. For example, galaxies, stars, planets, rocks, trees and people each have a range of different masses. In fact, the rule that things of a particular type always vary in mass holds true for all natural objects in the universe from the size of galaxies all the way down to molecules and atoms. It is only when we get to the very end of the line size-wise (down to the level of subatomic particles) that the rule is broken. 

3. Electrons behave both as particles and as waves

You may have heard of the wave-particle duality of light, meaning that light can behave like a wave or like a particle. Scientists say that the electron displays the same duality. When electrons are inside an atom, they generally act as if they were waves (and indeed the chemistry needed for life wouldn't work unless electrons acted like waves). You may say: so what's so special about that; an electron is really just a wave. But eerily enough there is one important case when electrons act exactly like particles, not waves. That case is the photoelectric effect, the effect that makes solar energy possible. The photoelectric effect occurs when a special type of surface is exposed to light, and electrons are then ejected from the surface (at a rate proportional to the number of incoming photons of light). When that happens, electrons are behaving exactly like particles, and are not acting like waves. The electron seems to magically behave in whatever way is most convenient for us, a little like an employee who can speak English when handling an American customer, but also speak Chinese when handling a Chinese customer.

4. Even though each proton is 1836 times more massive than each electron, each electron has a charge that is the exact same magnitude as the charge of each proton

Here is an interesting experiment to try on any friend of yours who does not know very much about physics.

  1. Ask your friend: guess what is the ratio between the mass of a proton and the mass of an electron. After hearing an answer, tell your friend each proton is 1836 times more massive than each electron.
  2. Now ask your friend: guess what is the ratio between the electrical charge of a proton and the electrical charge of an electron.

I would think that the average person (having just heard that protons are 1836 times more massive than electrons) would guess that the electrical charge of a proton is much greater than the electrical charge of an electron – perhaps 1836 times larger. That would be a good “common sense” conclusion, since we almost uniformly observe larger things having larger electrical charges than smaller things.

But such a “common sense” conclusion would be false. The actual fact observed by scientists is that each proton has a charge that is exactly the same as each electron, but with an opposite sign. Each proton has a charge of +1.60217657 ×10−19 coulomb, and each electron has a charge of −1.60217657 ×10−19 coulomb.

An experiment done by J. G. King showed that the magnitude of the proton charge matches the magnitude of the electron charge to 1 part in 100,000,000,000,000,000,000. This scientific paper 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.

This amazing coincidence is unexplained by modern science. It is also a coincidence on which our existence depends. Scientists say that if the charge on the electron differed by only one part in a billion billion from the charge of the proton, our planet could not hold together,  and we would not be here.

To see why this is true, we need merely consider the following facts. Our planet is held together by gravity. Gravitation is one of the four fundamental forces in the universe, but it is roughly a billion billion billion billion (1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000) times weaker than the electromagnetic force, another of the four fundamental forces, the force between electric charges. Even changing the electron charge by 1 part in a billion billion (1 part in 1,000,000,000,000,000,000) would create electromagnetic repulsion effects that would be something very roughly like a billion billion times larger than the gravitational effects holding our planet together. The result is that our planet would fly apart in pieces.

This ends my discussion of 4 insanely eerie things about the electron. I could have discussed one other insanely eerie thing about the electron: its ability to do the ever-so-spooky trick called quantum entanglement, involving instantaneous action at a distance. But I'll save that for another post.

Sunday, July 28, 2013

The Church of the Future: A Science Fiction Story

In the early 2020's more and more of my friends started to join the Church of Mystical Bliss. The sect seemed to be opening up branches in every town, and it was gaining many millions of members all over the country. My friends kept urging me to go to one of the Sunday church services, so finally I agreed, mainly out of curiosity to see what was the big attraction.

My friend Alan took me to one of the local churches, and inside it looked pretty much like an ordinary church like I had attended as a boy. There were a bunch of people sitting in pews, and the front of the church had some nice-looking arches and stained glass. There were no religious symbols that I recognized.

The church service began with some electronic music. Then I saw something I had never seen before in a church. There was a burst of light at the front of the church, and then I saw a huge, glowing, floating head. The head began talking various soothing, mystical words for several minutes. 

church of the future

The floating head faded away, and another floating head appeared at the front of the church, speaking more soothing mystical words. This glowing head was the head of a male.

A robed person then came to the front of the church.

“It is time for us to partake in the mystical communion,” the robed person announced. 

People began to come up from the pews to the robed person, who had a container filled with small wafers. The robed figure put the wafers on the tongues of those who had come to the front of the church. It reminded me of a ceremony of the Catholic Church, although I would eventually find out this ceremony was very different.

“Can I try one of the communion wafers?” I asked my friend.

“No, you can only partake of communion if you have participated in Holy Confession first,” Alan explained. Alan then joined the line, and ate one of the wafers.

When Alan came back to his pew, he closed his eyes. I noticed that other people who had ate the communion wafers also closed their eyes, and seemed to be enthralled in some type of strange ecstasy.

After another half an hour, the service ended, and Alan and I left.

“That communion wafer seemed to have an odd effect on you,” I observed.

“When you partake of the mystical communion, it's like no experience you've ever had,” said Alan. “You close your eyes, and you can see all kinds of lights floating by. You feel like you are one with everyone, at one with the universe. It's like a river of bliss is pouring through your soul.”

I was intrigued by Alan's statement, so I went back to the church and asked what I needed to do to be able to try one of the communion wafers. I was told to go into a dark booth that was marked Confession Chamber.

When I went into the small dark room I heard a deep, pleasant voice.

“Confess your sins, my son,” said the voice.

“Uh...I stole a jelly roll from my co-worker's cubicle,” I said. I figured I could get by with confessing just one trivial sin.

“Please confess more,” said the voice. “Tell me about the worst sins you have ever committed.”

I told some more sins, but this still wasn't enough. The voice kept asking more and more questions. It asked if I had ever cheated on my wife. It asked if I had ever used software I hadn't paid for. It asked me if I had ever cheated on my income taxes.

Finally after I had answered many additional questions, and confessed to quite a few serious sins, the questions ended.

“Go in peace, and sin no more,” said the voice. I was given a ring I could wear to show I was ready to eat one of the communion wafers.

The next week I went back to the weekly church ceremony at the Church of Mystical Bliss. I stood in line to receive one of the communion wafers. They placed it on my tongue, and I went back to my place in the pew.

Suddenly I felt like I had never felt before. I closed my eyes, and saw all kinds of strange, beautiful lights swirling around. I felt a wonderful sense of union with everyone in the church. I felt like I wanted to hug everyone in the world, and everyone in the universe. My body also felt wonderful, as if I was sitting on the most comfortable beach chair on the most beautiful beach as the sun sank into the ocean and the sea gulls sang all around me.

After twenty minutes the strange feeling disappeared. Some robed figures came by and collected money from those in the pews, using a plate attached to the end of a long metal pole. The plate was placed in front of me, and I threw a few coins on the plate. The robed figure shook the plate in front of me, signaling that I needed to give more. I put a dollar on the plate. The robed figure again shook the plate, and wouldn't stop until I had put 40 dollars on the plate.

Finally I left the church. I went back home and told myself: that was worth trying one time, but I'm not really a church person, so I'm not going back.

But when it got to be Saturday night I felt a strange craving in my body. It was as if I desperately needed something. I sensed that what I needed was another one of the communion wafers.

So I went back to the Church of Mystical Bliss the next day. They gave me one of the communion wafers again, and immediately my craving went away. I enjoyed the same bliss as before, and felt no more craving for another six days. But the next Saturday night I felt the same urgent craving as before.

I kept coming back to the Church of Mystical Bliss week after week, always having the same blissful mystical communion on Sunday, and always feeling the same urgent cravings on Saturday, which I could end only by going back to the church on Sunday and consuming another communion wafer.

I finally became convinced there was something wrong about the Church of Mystical Bliss. I began doing research on it, and heard about a critic of the church named Russell Trent, who I arranged to meet.

“Let me tell you the truth about the Church of Mystical Bliss,” said Russell. “Let's start with the communion wafers. They contain a drug. It's a highly addictive drug. It's a derivative of opium. Some scientists invented it in a chemistry lab, using some very clever chemical engineering. The drug produces twenty minutes of bliss, kind of like the effects of the drug Ecstasy. Then if you haven't taken the drug in six days, you get the withdrawal effects. Your body starts craving the drug. That's how they get people to come back to their churches every week.”

“So I'm a drug addict?” I asked.

“You sure are,” said Russell.

“But I see those mysterious floating heads at their church services, so they must be in touch with some type of higher power,” I said.

“The floating heads are just holograms,” Russell said. “They project those using machinery at the front of each church. The Church of Mystical Bliss is basically just a big drug selling operation, kind of like your corner street pusher, but a lot more sophisticated. They give you the drugs in the communion wafers, and they make sure you pay for them by aggressively shaking their collection plates in front of you until you've paid 40 or 50 dollars each Sunday.”

Seeing the light, I was infuriated. “Why doesn't the government shut them down?” I asked.

“The government can't shut down a church or even regulate a church,” Russell explained. “They're protected by the First Amendment. The church even gets a huge tax break, the exemption from property taxes.”

I told Russell that I would go to the press and tell them all about what Russell had told me.

“Did you confess your sins?” said Russell. “Some serious sins?”

“Yes, I confessed some serious sins,” I admitted.

“That mysterious voice you hear in the Confession Chamber is a chat bot,” explained Russell. “It's computer software designed to get you to confess as many juicy sins as possible. Everything you said was recorded. If you try to publicly denounce the Church of Mystical Bliss, they will reveal that information to try to harm you. I've heard of people who confessed tax cheating, and then got audited, because the IRS got a tip on its tax cheating hotline.”

“So what can I do?” I asked.

“Forget about saving other people from this church,” said Russell. “Just work on fixing yourself. You'll have to go Cold Turkey to overcome your drug addiction. It will be a week of hell, but with my help you can do it.”

With Russell's help I went Cold Turkey. The first Sunday that I didn't go to the Church of Mystical Bliss, the craving was almost unbearable. The next five days were pure hell. But with Russell urging me on, I finally got to Saturday, and the cravings ended. I was done forever with the Church of Mystical Bliss.

Now when I want to get a blissful feeling of oneness with the universe, I just go hiking in the mountains, and look up at a clear sky ablaze with a thousand stars.

Saturday, July 27, 2013

The Problem with Mind Uploading

The Problem with Mind Uploading

Let us consider an interesting thought experiment, which may perhaps seem fanciful and irrelevant, but which technology may make very relevant in several decades.

Let us imagine a machine called Scan and Duplicate, that works on an atomic level. The machine scans the atoms in a person's body, from the tip of your toes to the top of your head. As it is scanning, the machine produces an exact duplicate of what it is scanning. The only problem is that in order to do this exact reading of the state of all atoms in your body, the machine must destroy each part of your body that it scans.

So as the machine scans your body from your toes to the top of your head, each layer of your body is destroyed: first your feet, then your shins, then your knees, then your thighs, then your thorax, and finally your head. But as each part of your body is destroyed, a duplicate body is being assembled next to yours.

Finally at the end of this process, your body is a charred, blackened mess, like a chicken that was left in the oven at 500 degrees for three hours. A blanket is placed over this burnt body, and the body is wheeled to the incinerator. However, the newly created body awakens and it claims to be you.

“Well, that all went very well,” says the freshly assembled person, and that person goes on living the rest of your life, remembering everything in your memory.

Now my question is: is this newly constructed person you? Or did you die when this operation is done, and is the surviving person merely a copy of you?

When I posed this question to my family, I got different answers from different family members. My answer is: the newly assembled person is not you, but is merely a copy of you. If this operation were to be done, you would die during the operation. There would be a newly created person that would act just like you, but it would merely be a copy of you; it would not be you.

This thought experiment is relevant because of a technological possibility that has been widely discussed: the possibility of uploading a human mind into a computer or robot.

Some technological enthusiasts imagine that in several decades we will be able to create computers or robots that have all of the capabilities of the human brain, with a great deal of additional memory and processing power. Such enthusiasts imagine that we might be able to scan a person's brain and transfer a person's consciousness to a robot body or a computer. Such a technique has been promoted as a way of achieving immortality through technology.

There are two types of mind uploading that can be imagined: destructive uploading (in which the original brain of the person is destroyed) and non-destructive uploading (in which the original brain and body of the person is preserved).

Let us imagine non-destructive uploading to a robot body that resembles your body. Your mind is copied to a robot body, and now two people are walking around with your memories and personality. 

In this case, it is fairly obvious that the newly created mind (with all your same memories) would not really be you. Because in this case, your original body and mind would be preserved. So the real you would be the original you, not the new entity that looked like you and had your personality.

What is a little less obvious, but still something very likely, is that even in the case of destructive uploading the newly created entity would not be you. If your body is destroyed at the same time that a new biological or robot entity is created with all your memories and personality, it would really mean that you had died, even though a newly created person would continue to act like you and remember what you had remembered. If a doctor performed such an operation, he would actually be guilty of murder.

You might argue that it would not be murder for the doctor to perform such an operation, because even though your original body had been destroyed, there would be a new life, so the net number of living persons would be unchanged. But we don't exonerate someone for killing just because he created a new life at the same time he ended another life. “I impregnated my wife at the time of the murder” is not a successful defense in court against a charge of murder.

Because of considerations such as these, you should take no comfort in stories about the possibility of mind uploading. Mind uploading wouldn't really extend your lifespan; at best it would mean additional years for someone or something that was a copy of you. If you want to entertain the prospect of living far beyond the human lifespan, you can consider possibilities such as biological life extension or replacing your body below the neck with a robot body or the possibility that near death experiences suggest a chance of spiritual immortality. I don't believe mind uploading is going to save anyone from the Grim Reaper.

For an excellent blog post considering other problems with the idea of mind uploading, check the blog post here.

Friday, July 26, 2013

The First Superintelligent Boy: A Science Fiction Story

The First Superintelligent Boy: A Science Fiction Story

“Hey freak!” yelled David. “Yeah, I'm talking to you, pickle head.”

Alexander, age 10, knew that he was the object of the boy's taunts. He had been the target of teasing and bullying for years. Many of the boys at his school were merciless in bullying and taunting anyone who was a little different. Alexander was different in a way that anyone could notice. He had a brain much larger than the normal human brain.

This was all because Alexander's parents had agreed to participate in a trial program in genetic engineering. Back in the year 2030, scientists had discovered ways to genetically enhance an embryo so that a child could be born with a much larger brain, and a much greater number of brain cells. The technique was carefully tested on chimpanzees, and the result was a chimp that was smart enough to learn a simple language like Esperanto.

Scientists decided to move very cautiously in using the technique on human beings. They did not know whether the brain enhancement technique might result in side effects such as an early death. So they decided to use the technique on just one child in North America, one child in Europe, and one child in China. The three children would be carefully monitored until they reached the age of twenty. If no problems were detected, the genetic brain enhancement technique could then be used on a much larger set of people.

Alexander's parents had signed up to participate in the program. An ovum or egg cell of Alexander's mother had been surgically removed, and had been genetically enhanced in the laboratory. The ovum was then connected with the genetic material of Alexander's father, through the process of artificial insemination. The fertilized ovum was then surgically implanted back in Alexander's mother. The resulting pregnancy and childbirth were a little more difficult than normal for the mother, but young Alexander had been born very healthy.

The young child was a very quick learner, and learned to read by the age of two. Alexander's parents wanted to put the child in a special school for geniuses. But the scientists in charge of Alexander's program wanted him to attend the regular local school. They said it was important to test how well a superintelligent child could fit in with ordinary children.

But Alexander did not fit in well with the other children. Quite a few of the children made fun of Alexander's strange appearance. Other children resented having such a genius among them. They said it made them feel stupid. David was the child who bullied Alexander the most.

“So, freak, fork over your lunch money, so I can have some extra dessert for lunch,” demanded David near the entrance of the school.

“I feel a tinge of revulsion contemplating the notion of yielding to such intimidation, as I find it to be redolent of extortion,” said Alexander.

“As usual, I can't understand what the hell you are talking about,” said David. “All I know is you better fork over that lunch money, or you're gonna be eating grass.”

Alexander gave him the money. Within a minute Alexander thought of three ways he could raise the missing money from his fellow school children before lunch time.

When lunchtime came at the school cafeteria, Alexander felt uncomfortable as he often did. The cafeteria was a place where someone felt comfortable if he or she had fit into one of the school's social cliques. If you were an athlete, you ate at the jock table. If you were one of the popular kids you ate at a table with the other popular kids. But an oddball like Alexander had no group to fit into. At lunchtime he usually sat by himself, eating as he read.

But the other students would often taunt Alexander at lunchtime, and today the bullying was particularly bad. Some of the children whispered to themselves, and then started to make a little food sculpture. Seven boys each contributed some of their food, and one of them sculpted the food into a strange looking blob. Then a boy named Adam took the food blob over to where Alexander was sitting.

“We have a gift for you,” said Adam loudly. “It's some of the weird food from that strange planet you come from.” Laughter erupted from many of the cafeteria tables. 

“Why don't you go back to that strange alien planet you came from, freak,” said Adam, his words lashing like a whip.

“Actually, I was born in Hoboken, New Jersey,” said Alexander. He endured the bullying and taunting for the rest of the day. He was glad it was the last day of the school year.

When his mother came back from work, Alexander told her about the bullying and taunting.

“I can't stand to be in that school for another year,” said Alexander. “Besides the endless psychological tribulations, the academic payoff for me is miniscule. You've got to switch me to home schooling.”

“But you can't do home schooling,” said Mom. “Your Dad and I have to work during the day.”

Alexander came up with a solution to the problem, and began implementing it over the summer, when his school was closed for summer vacation. Alexander spent long hours in his garage. His mother heard strange noises coming from the garage, and asked Alexander about them. Alexander said it was his surprise, and that he would soon reveal the secret.

One day late in August when his mother came home from work, she saw several robots in her living room.

“Mom, I'd like to introduce you to some hard workers,” said Alexander, pointing with his fingers. “Over there is Mr. Walker, my new math teacher. He just taught me some fascinating calculus theorems. Over there is Miss Feinberg, my new literature teacher. She just helped me get a clearer understanding of the dark depths of Dostoyevsky's novels. Over there is my physics teacher, Mr. Nagel. He's helped me understand some equations I'm using for a paper I'm doing on general relativity. Then finally there's Miss Tooley, whose keen insights on world history are leading me to develop a new theory about cultural cycles.”

Mom stood for a moment, dumbfounded.

“Don't you see, Mom?” asked Alexander. “With these robots I can do home schooling, and stay away from that soul-numbing vale of tears known as P.S. 139.”

“Alexander, how did you think we can pay for these expensive robots?” asked Mom. “These type of robots cost a fortune.”

“Don't worry, Mom,” said Alexander. “They hardly cost anything, because I assembled them from spare parts that I bought quite cheaply. Most of the cost of robots is the software, and we don't have to pay that, because I did myself all the computer programming for their minds.”

“It's quite simple, Mom,” explained the superintelligent Alexander. “I've invented my own teachers.”

Thursday, July 25, 2013

Visualizing Your Place in the Universe

Visualizing Your Place in the Universe

A few days ago the Cassini space probe orbiting Saturn took an astonishing photograph showing the Earth as a tiny blue dot underneath the rings of Saturn. The photo is shown below.

Photo: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute

Some people have remarked that the image really helps us to keep our little planet in perspective, as it shows Saturn as very large, and our planet as very small. But to get a much better perspective, we must travel much further out in space.

Let's imagine how it would look if you were on a spaceship traveling far, far away from Earth. Let's imagine you are some type of immortal being on a spaceship capable of traveling at 80% of the speed of light.

After twenty or thirty years of travel, you would look out the window of your spacecraft and see something like the image below, assuming you were not looking at the plane of our galaxy. 

You would know that one of those stars was Earth's sun, but you would not be able to detect which star was our sun without checking a computer or an astronomical reference. Our sun would look just like any star in the sky.

The view out your window would look the same way for many hundreds of years. But after thousands of years of travel away from the plane of the Milky Way galaxy, you would eventually be able to see some of the outline of one of the galactic arms of our galaxy. 

Photo: NASA

After finally traveling for tens of thousands of years, you would be able to see our spiral galaxy the Milky Way in all its glory. You might for a moment think of trying to find our sun amidst all of the stars in the Milky Way, but would quickly realize that there was no chance of doing such a thing. Because the galaxy you would see would consist of hundreds of billions of stars, the Sun would be far too small to pick out, as hard as picking out a grain of sand from a giant sand box. 

spiral galaxy
 Photo: NASA

As your lonely voyage reached a length of millions of years, you would be able to see about 54 other galaxies, each a collection of billions or hundreds of millions of stars. These would be the galaxies in the Local Group of galaxies. As you looked out the window, you would see two other spiral galaxies, in addition to the Milky Way: the Andromeda Galaxy and the Triangulum Galaxy. The Andromeda Galaxy would look larger than our Milky Way.

Photo: NASA

Eventually millions of years later the entire Local Group of 54 galaxies would take up only a small part of what you would see in your window. You would also be able to see many other groups of galaxies. 

As your spaceship kept traveling for many millions of years, your ship would pass through countless other clusters of galaxies. You might try to keep track of where your home galaxy the Milky Way was in the sky, but eventually it would become a speck too small to see.

As the length of time of your journey stretched on to hundreds of millions of years, you would wonder: when will I stop seeing galaxy after galaxy? You would remember your own galaxy as the first of millions of galaxies you saw from your window.

Having taken this imaginary trip into space, you may have a clearer idea of how small and microscopic our planet is in the grand cosmic scheme. Our planet Earth is like a mere drop of water in a vast ocean. You and I and the rest of the human race are like bacteria swimming around in that drop of water.

Therefore in all of your thinking, be very, very humble.

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Border Jumpers 2090: A Science Fiction Story

Border Jumpers 2090: A Science Fiction Story
“We're going to get over that border or die trying,” said Pablo to the five people who had come with him to the fenced border: Angelo, Maria, Carlos, Eduardo, and Jose. The date was January 21, 2090.

“Damn right,” said Carlos. “I'm sick of our poor, dry, dusty country. Across that fence lies the green land of plenty.”

The seven of them were looking at a metal fence that stretched in both directions, as far as the eye could see. The fence stretched on for thousands of miles. On the top of the fence was barbed wire.

“Now the first thing we have to do is get through the mine field in front of the fence,” said Pablo. “Let's stick with the plan we agreed on. We'll have two people walk out single file, in a straight line, one person thirty feet in front of the other. If the first person gets blown up my a mine, the other one keeps walking. There is never more than one mine in a single spot.”

The six drew sticks to determine who would be the first two across the mine field. Eduardo picked the shortest stick, meaning he would go first across the mine field. Jose picked the second shortest stick, meaning he would follow Eduardo.

The two men grimly crossed the mine field, walking toward the fence, Jose following thirty feet behind Eduardo. Eduardo stepped on a mine that exploded, killing him.

“Keep going toward the fence!” cried Pablo. “Just walk in the same line. There won't be more than one mine.”

Jose sobbed as he walked past Eduardo's fallen body. Jose made it to the fence that stretched endlessly in both directions. He began climbing the fence. He was carrying wire cutters he intended to use to cut the barbed wire at the top of the fence.

But by the time Jose had climbed halfway up the fence, his body heat had activated infrared sensors on the fence. The sensors triggered a mechanism on the fence designed to electrify anyone who was climbing over it.

The electricity surged through Jose's body. He fell to the bottom of the metal fence, dead.

“Damn, I was afraid of this,” said Pablo. “But don't worry; I came prepared. I'm going to block the electricity going to that gate.”

Pablo got out of his suitcase a large spray can. He went up to the metal fence, and sprayed a gooey black line going from the bottom of the fence to the top of the fence. He then walked down a few feet and sprayed another gooey black line from the bottom of the fence to the top of the fence.

“What are you doing?” asked Maria.

“I'm spraying on liquid rubber,” explained Pablo. “Rubber blocks the flow of electricity. Now we have a safe little patch where we can climb up the fence. The electricity will come to these two black lines, but the rubber will stop it.”

Pablo then began climbing up the fence. His body heat triggered infrared sensors, which again sent a jolt of electricity into the fence. As Pablo had predicted, the two lines of liquid rubber stopped the flow of electricity. Pablo felt nothing.

But as Pablo started to climb toward the top of the fence, another deadly hazard appeared. It was a small drone. The drone was a special drone designed to kill anyone climbing over the fence. It was a shredder drone.

The shredder drone was a disk-shaped flying robot one meter in width. The outer part of the drone was a circular blade which spun around twenty times every second. The shredder drone had infrared sensors, which helped it to find anyone who was climbing on the fence.

The shredder drone came into contact with Pablo, and a second later he had a giant gash in his stomach. He fell to the bottom of the fence, and bled to death.

“That's it,” said Maria. “I've had enough. I'm going home.”

“Do you want to go back to some city where the drug lords are killing so many people?” asked Angelo. “We can still get through. We just have to figure out a way to beat that damn drone.”

Angelo, Maria and Carlos argued about what to do next. Finally they decided on a simple plan. They would each take with them a steel pipe. They had brought along three steel pipes to fend off any guards who tried to arrest them.

“When the drone comes near you, swing at it with your pipe,” said Angelo. “Pretend the drone is the last pitch of the World Series, and you're trying to knock it out of the ballpark. Then keep swinging at it.”

The three approached the long steel fence. They waited for the flying shredder drone to appear. When it approached them, they all began swinging at it with their steel pipes. They aimed at the blades.

After a few seconds of their swings, the blades of the shredder drone were bent and ruined, and the blades stopped spinning. The drone was now impotent.

“We did it!” cried Angelo. “Now let's climb over the fence.”

The three climbed to the top of the fence, and used their wire cutters to cut the barbed wire at the top. They climbed down the other side of the fence.

“We're in a new country now!” said Maria. They started to run away from the fence.

But there was one last obstacle to overcome. On the other side of the fence were also land mines. Carlos stepped on one of the land mines, and was killed when it exploded.

But Angelo and Maria made it through the final mine field, and ran off to safety in a wooded area away from the fence. “I'm so sad that all the others died,” said Maria. “But at least we two made it.”

Now the two illegal immigrants had a chance for a new life. No longer would they have to live in the dry, dusty, drought-plagued land where they were born, the land that had been devastated by global warming during the 2080's, and had fallen under the shadow of drug cartels. They now had a hope of a new life in the green land of plenty with the pleasant climate, the land that had not long ago become the new bread basket of the world.

They had just crossed the northern border of the United States of America, and had now entered Canada.

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Ethical Dilemmas of the Future

Ethical Dilemmas of the Future
A few years back I used to play a verbal game called “Moral Choice” with my children. I would imagine some type of moral dilemma, and ask one of my kids what they would do in such a situation. For example, I might ask them: if you and your friend were drifting on a raft in the middle of the ocean, and you both were thirsty, but only had half a bottle of water, would you drink it all?

Progress in technology is likely to create numerous new types of ethical dilemmas. So let's play a futuristic version of the “Moral Choice” game.

At age 85 you have enough money to pay for either a life extension operation that will extend the life of yourself, or an operation that will extend your aged spouse's life. Which do you pick?

It is easy to imagine an operation of this type. Maybe scientists have figured out a way to grow an artificial heart in a lab using stem cells or 3D printing. Perhaps if you have a heart transplant with such a heart, you will get ten years of additional life. Such an operation is likely to be very expensive, and it is unlikely to be covered by public health insurance such as Medicare. What if you can afford such an operation for you or your spouse, but not both? Do you flip a coin to decide who will get the operation? Or do you both decide to skip the operation?

At age 85 you can use your last money on a therapy or operation to extend your life, or you can skip it and leave an inheritance to your poor, needy children. Which do you pick?

This is an ethical dilemma that will be all too common if they develop expensive therapies or operations to extend the human life span. Such therapies might be organ replacements or something like nanobot injections, with the nanobots cruising around in your body repairing cell damage caused by aging. Such therapies are likely to be very expensive, and it is unlikely that they will be covered by public health insurance such as Medicare (particularly since Medicare already has financial problems that cause many people to wonder whether it will be able to cover ordinary health operations). Given the problems we are facing with rising student debt, horrendous income inequality, and unemployment caused by automation, the number of financially insecure young people (and middle aged people) may grow much larger. So many millions of people may face a choice late in life between using their last remaining funds for a life extension operation, or skipping the operation and leaving the money for their financially needy children to inherit.

You are a doctor, and two of your patients request a genetic modification for their newly conceived child, to make their child smarter or faster or more creative. Do you make the modification, knowing that it may backfire?

This dilemma is one reason why the appearance of superhuman persons may not come until long after the technology is first available to produce such persons. Even if doctors are 95% sure that a particular genetic enhancement may result in a smarter or faster or more creative child, they may decide not to make such an enhancement because they are worried about a 1% chance that the child may end up worse off than if the genetic enhancement had not been done.

Do you make heavy use of your air conditioner, if you are convinced that using the air conditioner will hasten the day when we run short of fossil fuels, causing energy shortages for future people?

Some people think that Peak Coal may come in the next few decades. Imagine that it is the year 2040, and scientists have concluded that production of coal is going to steadily decline. But by that year the world's need for energy will have greatly increased. Besides mere population growth, one reason may be that global warming may have made the planet hotter, and people are using air conditioning more and more. If you live in such a world, you may believe that every time you turn on the air conditioner, you are increasing the energy shortage problem, and are increasing the likelihood that some future person may not have any energy to cool his hot house or heat his cold house.

Do you use technology to extend your life at a time when many people are hungry, meaning someone will be more likely to starve because they won't have the food you are eating in your extended life?

It will be great if we have a future of 150-year life spans and abundance for all. But given all the problems on the horizon relating to overpopulation, resource depletion, global warming, environmental degradation, and energy shortages, it seems more likely that life extension technologies will be introduced to a world in which a significant fraction of the world's people are hungry, a situation we have today. Indeed, there may at that time be an even larger fraction of people who are hungry. So if you are 85, and want to use some life-extension technology that will give you an additional thirty years of life, you may in effect be taking food from the mouths of hungry people who need that food just to live to the age of 50.

Is there any way out of this dilemma? Perhaps you could live on a farm and grow your own food. But the modern person is almost addicted to foods from around the globe, so this would be very difficult.

If you have a tiny gadget allowing you to spy on your spouse or child, should you use it?

In the near future we will have incredible spying devices, such a pen-sized video recorder you can leave in your car or house to spy on what your spouse or child is doing when you are not there. You could pick up the pen-sized video recorder, connect it to your computer, and then fast forward through video footage showing everything that had happened in your home while you were not there. That would be a good way to catch a spouse or child doing something you disapproved of (such as a husband carrying on an affair with a co-worker, or a child using drugs or cigarettes). But would it be ethical to use such a device, seeing that it would violate the privacy of your family member?

spying mom

To achieve life extension, would you accept a transplant of an organ from a pig?

This question may seem frivolous, but it is not. It turns out that the internal organs of some breeds of pigs are very similar to human organs. Some companies are working on developing breeds of pigs that could be used as a source of organs for human transplantation. In his book Challenging Nature, Princeton professor Lee M. Silver says, “Eventually, pigs could be engineered with heart, liver, lungs, pancreas, kidneys, colons, and more that are not just equivalent to but better than human body parts.” If you were very old and a company were offering organ transplants from a special breed of pig, and you thought it would extend your life, would you take such a transplant? Or would you find the idea of being part human, part pig too revolting?

To achieve life extension, would you raise a headless human clone of your own body?

If you accept a transplant of an organ from a pig or another human, there is always the risk of organ rejection. The safest way to get a transplant would be from a clone of your own body. You could raise a clone of yourself as you would raise a child, but then you probably couldn't bear to tell the clone that it was time to give up its organs. But what about the idea of raising a headless clone of yourself, who receives nutrition from tubes or injections? This idea has been seriously considered. Some have argued that since a headless clone would not have any consciousness, the headless body would not be a real person, so no one should have any ethical qualms about using it as you wish. Others argue that such a practice would be highly unethical.

Here are my own personal thoughts on some of these ethical dilemmas. If the sunniest projections of the most optimistic technological enthusiasts turn out to be true, and we end up seeing a future world of superabundance and life extension, I might consider some kind of life extension therapy for myself, if I thought that there was abundant availability of medical treatment, and I thought my children were wealthy enough to not need any inheritance from me. But if 25 years from now we have a world suffering huge problems from energy shortages, hunger, resource depletion, global warming and overpopulation, or a world in which tens of millions in the US don't have adequate medical care, my inclination will be to avoid any type of very elaborate and expensive medical treatment to extend my own life so I have a lifespan in excess of the average lifespan. I tend to believe that in any world in which there are far too many people to match the available resources, the average old person should just live a natural lifespan, and then die in a natural way to make room for somebody else, rather than consuming huge amounts of resources in a frantic effort to live a few more years.

Monday, July 22, 2013

The Boy Who Had Not Seen the Sky: A Science Fiction Story

The Boy Who Had Not Seen the Sky: A Science Fiction Story
“Tell me about the planet Cyton we're heading to,” said Ted, age 9.

“It's the most beautiful planet in the galaxy,” said Ted's Dad. “It's full of gorgeous waterfalls and incredible canyons and stunning cliffs and astonishingly beautiful mountains. There are all these great ponds you can swim in, with clear pure water that is the temperature of bathwater. There are three moons in the sky, and two suns in the sky, and you'll see the most glorious double sunsets.”

“What's a sunset, Dad?” asked Ted.

“It's like – oh, I should just show it to you on our video screen,” said Dad. He showed the child a picture of a sunset.

“Wow, that's beautiful,” said Ted.

Ted had lived all his life in five rooms. The smallest room was called the Sleeping Quarters. The second room was called the Command Center. The third room, containing a kitchen area and an eating table, was called the Galley. The fourth room, which included a type of sofa, was called the General Quarters. The fifth room was called Ship's Storage, and stored food supplies. This room had a locked door that Ted had never opened. The door was marked Huge Storage Area.

Ted lived in these rooms with his father and his mother. Like every small child, the young boy had many questions for his parents. One day Ted asked his father a question.

“Dad, how come our spaceship doesn't have a window that lets us look out at the stars?” said Ted.

“That's because of cosmic rays,” said Dad. “Cosmic rays are harmful radiation that give people cancer, and we don't want that bad stuff getting through the window. But you can see the view from our spaceship on the video screen, like I showed you before.”

Another day Ted had a question for his mother. 

“Mom, why did they pick our family to go on this spaceship to the planet Cyton?” asked Ted.

“Well, uh, that's...that's...quite an interesting story,” said Mom. “It all happened like this. They had a great big contest back on planet Earth. Yes, that's what it was... a contest. They had many families participate in the contest all over the world. It didn't involve pure luck, I'll have you know. We had to do things. We had to dive deep in the water, and jump through hoops of flame, and run real fast, and climb way up trees. Now, your father and I did better at the contest than anyone else. So we won the contest. And the prize was: a trip on this space ship to the most beautiful planet in the galaxy. But because the spaceship was very small, we were the only ones who could go on it. So your Dad and I blasted off in the spaceship, and while we were traveling through space, I became pregnant with you.”

Mom and son on spaceship

“When we get to the planet, will life be very hard?” asked Ted.

“No, it's going to be very easy,” said Mom. “That's because of all the great stuff we have in the Huge Storage Area that you've never seen. If you open that locked door that goes to the Huge Storage Area, you will go to this gigantic area all filled with all this great stuff that will make it real easy for us when we land on the planet. But they didn't want us fooling around with any of that stuff before we land on the planet, so the door to the Huge Storage Area is locked.”

“Do you have the key, Mom?” asked Ted.

“Uh... um... it's voice activated, which means I just have to say the password, and it will open up,” said Mom. “But don't worry, I won't forget the password. Now I've been there inside the Huge Storage Area, and you wouldn't believe the things they have inside there. There's a self-assembling house in a box. We just have to press a button when we get to the planet, and we'll watch the house build itself. It will be a great big beautiful house for us all to live in.”

“What other things do they have in that Huge Storage Area, Mom?” asked Ted.

“Why you wouldn't believe it, they have a self-assembling swimming pool,” said Mom. “When we get to the planet, we'll just a press a button, and the swimming pool will assemble itself. Then there's an antigravity device you'll be able to strap on your back like a backpack. Once you have that on you, you'll be able to fly around like a bird. Then there's a big shiny truck we can use to drive all around the planet very conveniently.”

“What kind of animals do they have on the planet, Mom?” asked Ted.

“Mostly animals like the ones you've seen in your picture books,” said Mom. “Lots of horses and dogs and fluffy rabbits and adorable cuddly panda bears. They're all very gentle, and you'll have a great time playing with them.”

“Wow, I'm gonna have so much fun when we get to that planet,” said Ted.

The boy drifted off to sleep.

“You were laying it on pretty thick,” said Ted's Dad.

“I could have told him something very different,” said Mom. “I could have told him that there really is no Huge Storage Area. I could have told him that he's not really on a spaceship. I could have told him that he's on planet Earth, 100 meters underground. I could have told him that he and his father and his mother are the last people left on Earth, because everyone else died when an asteroid hit the planet, and made the surface uninhabitable. I could have told him that we rigged up this underground shelter to look like a spaceship, to hide his young mind from the sad facts. I could have told him that we'll run out of food in six months, and that then we're all going to die. But when a little kid has only six months left to live, why ruin his short remaining time by giving him a lousy, rotten, stinking thing like the truth?”