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Our future, our universe, and other weighty topics

Sunday, September 29, 2013

Futuristic Snag: A Science Fiction Story

Futuristic Snag: A Science Fiction Story It was a beautiful day in the year 2047 when young Hank Rolfin first saw lovely young Rita Andress sitting on a park bench in Central Park in New York City. Bob worked up the courage to sit on the bench with her, and start up a conversation. After twenty minutes of small talk, Hank asked Rita for a dinner date.

“Well, I guess I'm up for that because I haven't had dinner with anyone in a while,” said Rita. “But I'll give you fair warning, I'm not the kind of girl you would want to have a relationship with.”

“Let me be the judge of that,” said Hank.

Hank and Rita started dating. On their first date they went walking through Central Park, checking out the holographic statues that had been installed a few years back. The New York City government had replaced all of the old stone and metal statues with holographic statues that would stay perfectly still until a visitor approached, and would then start moving and interacting with the visitor. On another date Hank and Rita went to a 3D dome-shaped 360 degree movie theater in which the movie projected on all of the walls, the ceiling, and the floor.

Hank was struck by how different Rita was from all the ladies he had ever dated. It was hard to pin it down exactly, but Hank noticed some odd things about Rita. She seemed to have a huge amount of knowledge about a very wide set of topics: world history, science, politics, art, culture, and countless other things. Hank couldn't figure out how a woman so young could have learned so much about so many topics. But despite all her knowledge, Rita's mind would often seem to briefly stall. She would struggle for seconds to recall a common word or some bit of knowledge that anyone else her age might recall very quickly. At one time Rita seemed to struggle for seconds to recall Hank's name, even though she had used it many times before.

Despite these oddities, Hank found himself falling in love with Rita. The first time he kissed her, she acted rather strange. She closed her eyes tightly as he kissed her. From then on Hank noticed whenever he drew close to Rita, she would always close her eyes tightly, and not open them until he moved away from her face. It was as if she couldn't stand to see a man kiss her.

One day Hank maneuvered Rita to spend the night with him. When he made his advances suggesting an intimate encounter, Rita agreed, but only on the condition that the lights be turned off throughout the experience.

Hank decided that he wanted to marry Rita. He thought about how he might ask her to marry him. He decided he would ask her on the observation deck of a tall building overlooking New York City. Hank bought an engagement ring to give to Rita.

After bringing Rita to the observation deck, Hank nervously started to speak.

“Rita, I know we haven't known each other all that long, but the moments we've had together have been the best times of my life,” said Hank. “Your name is engraved on my heart. Darling, will you marry me?”

Hank took out the engagement ring, and offered it to Rita. But Rita seemed to recoil.

“Hank, I don't think this is going to work,” said Rita. “There's something about me that you don't know about.”

“Don't worry,” said Hank. “Whatever it is, it doesn't matter. All that matters is I love you.”

“I'm afraid I must tell you something very, very shocking about me,” said Rita.

“Go ahead,” said Hank. In his mind he thought: could it be that she used to be a prostitute?

“I am a protoplasmic proxy,” confessed Rita.

“A proto what?” said Hank.

“A protoplasmic proxy,” said Rita. “It's an exciting new development in medical science. Haven't you ever heard about protoplasmic proxies?”

“No, never,” said Hank. “What are they?”

Rita began to explain.

“In the world there are many very old rich people, who are living longer and longer because of medical advances,” said Rita. “But many of those people are so old that they can't move around much anymore. To help these people, the scientists invented protoplasmic proxies. A protoplasmic proxy is a body developed in a lab, which has all of the human parts except a brain. Instead of a brain, a protoplasmic proxy has a tiny radio transmitter that allows the proxy to be controlled by someone else, located elsewhere.”

Hank stared at Rita with a worried expression on his face.

“Whenever a protoplasmic proxy moves or speaks,” explained Rita, “the orders to do that don't come from a brain inside the proxy's own body. Instead, the order to move or speak comes from the brain of someone else located in some other place. The other person has a controller that allows him to control the proxy remotely through radio transmissions. The external person moves around the protoplasmic proxy kind of like a puppet master moves around a puppet.”

“That's fascinating,” said Hank. “But what does that have to do with you?”

“I am one of the protoplasmic proxies controlled by someone elsewhere,” confessed Rita. “I have no brain inside my head. All of my words and decisions come from a person located miles away from here.”

“And who is that person?” asked Hank nervously.

“It is an old person,” said Rita. “A very old person. The real me is some wrinkled old invalid lying on a bed. I probably won't live much longer. That's why it wouldn't be fair for me to marry you.”

“So let me get this straight,” said Hank. “Your body is just kind of like a remote control puppet that is controlled by some incredibly old lady who can hardly get out of her bed?”

“That's basically it,” said Rita. “Except that the real me is not a very old lady. The truth is...I'm a very old man.”

An old man?” said Hank.

“I'm sorry, Hank,” said Rita. “I never meant to deceive you. When I was lying incapacitated on my bed, the salesman offered me a choice between two models of protoplasmic proxies. The female model was cheaper.”

Hank put his fists to his forehead, as his face contorted with a horrified expression. Which person had he had sex with before – a man or a woman? He couldn't even figure it out now. It was all a swirling, agonizing, tangled, revolting, hideous futuristic mess that made his skin crawl.

Dropping the expensive ring on the observation deck floor, Hank fled the building alone.

Saturday, September 28, 2013

Was Our Universe Infected by a Viral Multiverse?

Numerous scientists have said in recent decades that our universe seems to be “just right” in terms of having laws, forces, and constants that allow for the evolution of intelligent life. We see in our universe numerous examples of fine-tuning where some number in nature improbably exists within a tiny range of values that are compatible with the existence of intelligent life. Scientists say that tiny changes in the fine structure constant, the vacuum energy density, the strong nuclear force, the gravitational constant, or the mass of quarks would throw things off so that creatures like us would never have appeared. We have one dramatic example of this fine-tuning in the fact that each proton has an electric charge exactly equal in magnitude (to 18 decimal places) to the electric charge of each electron, even though each proton is 1836 times more massive than each electron. This coincidence is unexplained by the standard model of physics, and if the equality did not exist, planets would not hold together. There is a similar dramatic coincidence involving the Higgs field, which (minus a floundering SUSY theory) seems to be fine-tuned to 30 decimal places, as discussed here, where a physicist says, "we need cancellation of all these different effects to one part in about 1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000." As if that wasn't enough, the vacuum energy density or cosmological constant is apparently between 1060 and 10120 times smaller than the value predicted by quantum field theory, suggesting some almost miraculous balancing act going on in the physics of our universe (as discussed here, where it is called the "worst problem of fine-tuning in physics"). These items and numerous similar items have been extensively discussed in recent decades by scientists, in pieces such as this one.

Now if there was not much substance to these indications of fine-tuning in our universe, they would have been brushed off and ignored by those who ponder the universe from a materialistic standpoint. Instead quite the opposite seems to have happened to a large degree. Rather than ignoring these indications of fine-tuning, many recent thinkers have let these indications drive them to a huge change in thinking: the assumption that there is a multiverse or ensemble of universes.

The idea behind the multiverse is that there are a huge collection of universes, presumably each with a random set of physical characteristics, laws, and physical constants. The person who advances such a concept uses it in an attempt to reduce the “miracle of habitability” of our incredibly improbable universe-- to make the ultimate “long shot” look like something that is likely to occur at least once. Assume that the chance of a random universe being compatible with the evolution of intelligent beings is only 1 in N, where N is some extremely high number. If we assume that there is a number of universes much greater than N (say N times 1000), than there might actually be a likelihood that some universe would purely by chance meet all of the requirements necessary for intelligent life.

Let us take a close look at this idea of a multiverse, and see whether it holds up to scrutiny, in terms of explaining anything. Before we can do that, we must carefully define some terms and principles.

When talking about probability, mathematicians use the term trials to mean something like an experiment in which different results can occur. A trial may or may not be a formal experiment. It might be something like a hand in a game of cards, a roll of the dice, a particular spin of a roulette wheel, or a particular swing of the bat while a baseball player is at bat. In talking about a possible ensemble of universes, then each different universe would be considered a trial.

Now let me define two important terms.

Term Definition
Number of successful trails The total number of successful trials in a series of random trials
trial success probability The chance that a random trial will be successful. When there are a large number of trials, the trial success probability tends to be equivalent to the ratio between the number of trials that are successful and the number of trials that are unsuccessful

Here are some examples to clarify the use of terms.

Example 1: If one thousand raffle tickets are sold in a raffle, and a winner is selected from a barrel containing the stubs of all of these raffle tickets, then the number of successful trials will be 1 and the trial success probability is 1 in 1000. The number of successful trials is exactly one because there is only one winning ticket chosen. The chance of any ticket holder winning or the trial success probability is 1 in 1000.

Example 2: If I make three bets on some position of a roulette wheel with 38 positions, each time betting on a particular spin of the roulette wheel, then the trial success probability is 1 in 38, because on each spin of the wheel there is one chance in 38 of winning. The number of successful trials depends on chance. It could be as high as 3 if I am very lucky, or it could be as low as 0 if I am unlucky.

Now, what general principles can we state about the relation between the number of successful trials and the trial success probability? They are as follows:

Principle 1: If the trial success probability is zero, the number of successful trials must be zero. This simply means that if there is no chance of one trial being successful, there must be no successful trials.

Principle 2: If the number of successful trials is zero, it does not necessarily mean that the trial success probability is zero. For example, in Example 2 above it is entirely possible that the number of successful trials might be zero, meaning the gambler loses on all three spins of the roulette wheel. But with each spin of the roulette wheel there is 1 chance in 38 of being successful; in other words the trial success probability is 1 in 38.

Principle 3: In some cases increasing the trial success probability will tend to increase the number of successful trials, but an increase in the trial success probability will not always mean an increase in the number of successful trials. For example, let us define a successful trial for a baseball hitter as hitting a home run. A hitter may improve his batting technique, thereby increasing the trial success probability, his chance of hitting a home run. That will tend to increase (over a long enough time) the batter's number of successful trials, or number of home runs, but is not guaranteed to do so during a particular number of trials.

Principle 4: For random trials that do not involve practice at a skill, increasing the number of trials tends to increase the number of successful trials or make it more likely to be at least one, but increasing the number of trials does not increase the trial success probability. For any random process such as the spin of a roulette wheel of the throw of a pair of dice, an increase in the number of trials or attempts may tend to increase the chance of one successful outcome (or increase the number of successful outcomes), but the number of trials or attempts does not tend to increase the chance of success on any random one of the trials, that is the trial success probability. The one exception to this principle is that when the trials involve a human practicing, the chance of success on one trial may actually increase, because of the tendency of a human to improve with practice.

Now let us look at how all of this is relevant to the theory of a multiverse. The theory of a multiverse is that there are multiple universes, each with a different random set of characteristics. Speaking in terms of probability theory, each of these universes may be considered a separate trial. The series of trials in this case is the entire ensemble of universes, or multiverse. The theory has been introduced to try to explain why a universe such as ours (which looks like an incredibly improbable long shot) might exist.

General Term Meaning in This Case Normal Thinking Multiverse Theory
Number of trials
Number of universes
1 (?)
Very many
Number of successful trials Number of habitable universes with life 1 (?) Many
trial success probability The chance of any one random universe being habitable Incredibly small number such as 1 in a billion trillion quadrillion Incredibly small number such as 1 in a billion trillion quadrillion

The last line in this table indicates why the multiverse theory (at least in its simple form) is a total bust, dud, and failure from an explanatory standpoint. Because of Principle 4 described above, the multiverse theory leaves us with a trial success probability that is not any higher than the incredibly low number we started out with. If the chance of our universe randomly being habitable is something like 1 in a billion trillion quadrillion before we think about a multiverse, then we have exactly the same incredibly small number after we adopt the multiverse theory.

In other words, the multiverse theory does nothing to make the “miracle of habitability” of our universe seem any less miraculous. It's the same type of “ten consecutive royal flushes in spades” type of unlikelihood, even after we adopt a multiverse. The longest of long shots of our universe being habitable is just as long a long shot even after we assume a multiverse.

To help clarify how great a weakness this is in the multiverse theory, let us look at a wildly speculative theory that would not suffer from such a defect (although it would suffer from a different problem). I can call this fanciful theory the viral multiverse theory. The theory can be fancifully expounded as follows:

Once upon a time there were a vast number of uncreated universes, each with a different random set of characteristics. Purely by chance, one of these universes was habitable for intelligent life. Then, through some weird strange process, that universe infected another universe with its favorable physics, making that universe habitable. Then the infected universe itself infected another universe with its favorable physics. Habitability thereby spread like a virus throughout all of the ensemble of universes. When this long infection period ended, every single universe in the vast ensemble of universes was habitable.

Now let's expand the previous table to include this fanciful theory.

Normal Thinking Multiverse Theory (Regular) Viral Multiverse Theory
Number of universes
1 (?)
Very many
Very many
Number of habitable universes with life 1 (?) Many Very many (all trials successful)
The chance of any one random universe being habitable (trial success probability) Incredibly small number such as 1 in a billion trillion quadrillion Incredibly small number such as 1 in a billion trillion quadrillion 100% (all universes end up habitable)

When we compare the regular multiverse theory to this viral multiverse theory, it helps clarify what an explanatory failure the regular multiverse theory is, and how lame the theory is from the standpoint of explaining anything. Fanciful and ridiculous as it may be, the viral multiverse theory leaves us with an explanation for why our universe is habitable, something which the regular multiverse theory completely fails to do (as the trial success probability does not change after we believe in a multiverse).

The believer in the viral multiverse theory can say, “Why of course our universe is habitable – all of the universes in the vast ensemble are habitable.” The believer in the regular multiverse theory can say no such thing, and in that theory our universe being habitable is still the longest of long shots.

So why can't we just adopt a theory like this viral multiverse theory? It's because the idea of one universe infecting another universe with favorable physics is absurd. No one has the slightest idea of how one universe could infect another universe, causing the second universe to have favorable physics like the physics of the first universe. Imagining such a thing seems like an invalid case of applying an idea from biology into the realm of physics where it has no business existing. No one even has any workable idea of how there could be any contact whatsoever between one universe and another universe. Plus there are cosmological reasons for thinking that our universe has had favorable physics from its earliest beginning. Numerous scientists have noted that if the Big Bang hadn't been just right, the universe would either have expanded too fast for galaxies to form, or the universe would have collapsed in on itself or collapsed into black holes. So we can't really imagine that our universe started out as “any old universe” and then got its favorable physics long after it originated.

The multiverse enthusiast therefore has a Hobson's choice, a choice between equally unattractive alternatives. He can choose a regular multiverse theory which has no explanatory power because it does not change the incredibly low chance of our universe being habitable, or he can choose some weird variation of the multiverse theory that might explain why our universe is habitable, but at the price of requiring you to believe in some crazy, laughable idea such as a multiverse-wide viral cross-pollination of universe physics (or some other equally ludicrous and byzantine piece of conceptual baggage).

So where does this leave the person who wishes to explain away the astonishing fine-tuning that our universe seems to have? That person is left in an uncomfortable place, stuck with a deep mystery (“the miracle of habitability”) he can't explain away with a plausible physical theory that gets the job done with explanatory rigor.

 Are the cosmic dice loaded?

Thursday, September 26, 2013

6 Signs of Overblown Hype in a Science-Related Article

The internet has a huge amount of hype, overstatement, and exaggeration. Web sites often have headlines that are misleading and overblown. The reason why is easy to understand. The metric of success for any web site is the number of visitors it gets, and the revenue generated by the site depends directly on the number of visitors. The more sensational a link title, the more likely a user is to click on it. For example, a news web site knows that it will get few web clicks if it accurately titles an article, “Man spots unidentified figure in woods,” but the web site knows that it will get lots of clicks if the article is entitled, “Mystery figure in woods: was it Bigfoot?”

But surely the hallowed realm of science is one that is not very subject to all this hype, overstatement, and exaggeration, right? Wrong. These days there seems to be about as much breathless overblown hype in science-related stories, as there is in any other type of stories. To help you detect this type of overblown hype, I will now list 6 warning signs that a science-based web article you are reading is overblown hype.

Sign #1: the story is not based on any new experiments, observations, or product developments

The most reliable type of science-based story is one that is based on new experiments, observations, or product developments. An example from today's new is the story “Most Crowded Galaxy Discovered, 54 Million Light Years Away.” This is based on actual observations done in a particular region of the sky.

If you, however, read a story that is based simply on some new analysis of old data, take it with one grain of salt. Additional grains may be added if any of the criteria below are met.

Sign #2: the story is based on the work of only one scientist (or one scientist and a few colleagues) in a little-known university or college

Another possible sign of overblown hype is when we see a science-based story that is based on the work of only one scientist or one scientist and a handful of other scientists working with him. An example is the recent paper in the Journal of Cosmology by Milton Wainwright and four colleagues (at the University of Buckingham and the University of Sheffeld), in which they make the extraordinary claim that traces of extraterrestrial life are floating around way up in the atmosphere. If the paper was made by a larger group of scientists working at more well-known universities, we might have more faith in them. Today important scientific discoveries are often announced in papers with as many as fifty co-authors.

Sign #3: the title of the story asks a question, or uses the word “may”

Web writers know that you can basically get away with the flimsiest and most speculative claims, as long as you add a question mark at the end of the title (or use a phrase such as “may be” or “may not”). So whenever you see a web story with a title such as “Our universe may be merely a simulation” or “Did Johnson arrange for assassination of Kennedy?” you should not expect that you're going to be getting a discussion that is more fact than speculation.

Sign #4: the story is rich in speculation, regardless of whether it is identified as speculation

Be suspicious of any story that it is based on speculation. The problem is that an internet story will typically use the terms hypothesis, theory, or model rather than use the plain word speculation, because it sounds more authoritative to use those words. However, the words "model" and "hypothesis" are just fancy words for guesswork or speculation. The term theory was once used only for speculations that are abundantly backed by evidence, but nowadays any old guess is referred to as a theory. Remember that almost all speculations do not match reality.

Sign #5: the story is contrary to a long-established scientific consensus

If we read a story entitled “Scientists propose new theory of dark energy,” that by itself does not raise much of a warning flag, because there is no scientific consensus about dark energy, which is a huge scientific mystery. But if a story is entitled “Sunspots may be the cause of global warming,” that should raise suspicions, because the story is contradicting a long-established scientific consensus that global warming is caused by man-made activities such as carbon dioxide pollution.

Sign #6: the story is based on scientific work-in-progress that hasn't actually been published in a scientific journal

When some work by scientists actually gets published in a peer-reviewed scientific journal, it has more credibility than some work-in-progress that has not yet been published by the journal. You never know whether such a scientific paper is going to be rejected for publication because it can't stand up to the scrutiny of the peer-review process.


Having listed these tips, I have some homework for you. You can practice looking for these warning signs by examining the the recent story “Did a Hyper-Black Hole Spawn the Universe ?” My homework question is: does this story display any of the warning signs I have listed? If it does, how many does it display? The answer is found below.

Answer to Homework Question:

The story above shows every one of the warning signs listed above. The story is not based on any new observations, evidence, or product developments (sign #1). The story is based on the work of only three scientists at lesser known institutions (sign #2). The title of the story asks a question (sign #3). The story is rich in speculation, and actually consists of nothing but speculation (sign #4). The story is contrary to a long-established consensus (sign #5), as it quotes someone suggesting the Big Bang is just a mirage. The story is based on a scientific paper that hadn't yet been published in a scientific journal when the story appeared (sign #6). In short, this story is an almost perfect example of breathless, overblown science-related hype.

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

The Day New York Drowned: A Science Fiction Story

The Day New York Drowned: A Science Fiction Story Scientists had long predicted that it might happen. In the Atlantic Ocean near the northeast tip of North Africa are the Canary Islands. Scientists knew that one side of the Cumbre Vieja volcano in one of the Canary Islands was unstable. The scientists warned that the next time the volcano erupted, that side of the volcano might collapse, sending 20 cubic kilometers of rock into the ocean. This, the scientists warned, would cause a huge tsunami that would travel all the way to the eastern cities of the United States, putting them underwater. But few people paid much attention to the warnings.

Then one day in the year 2025 the volcano in one of the Canary Islands started erupting. Warnings went out on the internet and television programs. Few of those in New York City paid much attention to the warnings. People went to work as usual.

Then the side of the volcano collapsed, sending 20 cubic kilometers of rock into the ocean. A gigantic tsunami was created, larger than any that had been seen in modern times. The gigantic wave headed for the eastern cities of the United States.

Within a half an hour the tsunami came into contact with an unlucky ocean liner in its path. The huge ship was snapped into two pieces like a piece of celery broken into two by a hungry teenager. Hundreds on board died.

It took several hours before the media started raising dire warnings about the approach of the tsunami. By the time word of the event started to sink in, the tsunami was only a few hours away from New York City.

On the 85th floor of the rebuilt World Trade Center, there was finally an announcement over loudspeakers about the approaching tsunami. The first reaction of securities analyst Michael Postel was to call an emergency meeting to discuss the market implications of the sudden event.

This could be a market maker,” said Postel. “Let's put our heads together to discuss our trading positions. This may be a good time to short the stock market.”

Screw the stock market!” said Linda Tsang. “Right now we've got to figure out how to save our own skins! If that tsunami hits us, we're toast.”

Postel looked out the window, down towards the PATH train entrance near the World Trade Center. He saw a huge throng of people at the entrance of the PATH. It looked like there was a sudden mass exodus of people trying to get out of Manhattan, to the safety of New Jersey, where they could get other trains far inland.

I'm leaving now to get the train to New Jersey,” said Linda.

I'm going to walk to the Brooklyn Bridge,” said Michael Postel. “I'll try and hustle over to Brooklyn Heights, which isn't too far. On that high ground, I might be safe.”

I'm going to stay here,” said Postel's boss Sam Peterson. “As long as this building doesn't fall, I should be okay.”

Michael and Linda used the building stairs to exit the World Trade Center. Michael began walking the half mile walk to the Brooklyn Bridge. He tried to hail a cab, but it seemed impossible to get one.

Linda faced a much different situation. The PATH train entrance was only about 150 yards from the World Trade Center, but the walkway was clogged by many thousands of people trying to get in to the train entrance at the same time.

Linda finally got into the PATH train entrance. There was a long delay before she could get a train. She finally was able to make it to the train station at Newark, New Jersey. She waited impatiently for a train that would take her further inland.

Michael made it to the Brooklyn Bridge. He found it clogged with thousands of pedestrians fleeing Manhattan. It was almost impossible to move. The bumper-to-bumper traffic was at a standstill. Finally Michael had an idea. He jumped on top of the bumper of a car, and climbed onto its roof. He then walked over the roof, onto to the hood of the car. From there, he jumped onto the rear bumper of the car ahead of that car. Repeating the same process, he began using car roofs and car hoods as a weird pathway to move forward on the car-jammed bridge. He had to jump between different lanes many times, but he was finally able to make it to the end of the bridge. He then began running the short distance to the high ground of Brooklyn Heights.

From his office in the World Trade Center, Sam watched in horror as the gigantic tsunami crashed into New York City. He saw many buildings submerged by the gigantic wave. He looked down at the crowd of people in front of the PATH train entrance, and saw them all buried by the gigantic wave. Sam saw some tall buildings snap in two when the tsunami hit.

From a spot in Brooklyn Heights, Michael watched as the tsunami submerged the Brooklyn Bridge. Thank God I didn't try to stay there, he thought.

At the train station in Newark, Linda waited impatiently for her train. She looked down the train tunnel, wondering when the train would arrive. At last she heard a distant rumble. Her heart was lifted. That must be my train, she thought, the one that will take me away from this danger. But then she looked at the tunnel again. Coming down the tunnel was not a train, but a gigantic surge of water. The low-lying city of Newark was being submerged by the tsunami. The merciless water drowned everyone in the train station, including Linda.

Sam and Michael survived. Sam thanked the engineers who designed the new World Trade Center. They had designed the building to be especially strong, so it would not fall in another terrorist attack. The same structural strength had allowed it to survive the tsunami. Many other buildings in Manhattan were toppled by the mighty wave.

After a few hours, the water levels began to drop, and in a few days the water was gone. When people began to walk down the streets of Manhattan again, they could not believe how it looked. The streets and buildings were are all coated in muddy, oily gunk. The streets were littered with thousands of upside-down cars, countless corpses, millions of papers, endless pieces of building wreckage, and every type of trash.

If we were to bus in every person in the United States,” said one observer, “it would take us a year to clean up this mess.” 

Author's note: the danger of a mega-tsunami hitting New York City is small but real. Google for 'Canary Islands mega-tsunami' for more information.  

Sunday, September 22, 2013

Things We Can Never Be Certain About

Humans do not like uncertainty, and people tend to feel they are certain about some things even though they really lack certainty about such things. Moreover, there is a large and important list of things that we can never be certain about, no matter what knowledge and experiences we may have in the future, before or after our deaths. Below are some of the more interesting items on this list.

cosmic ignorance

We can never be certain that we are alone in the universe

It is easy to imagine how we might have some experiences that would confirm that there is other intelligent life in the universe, such as the appearance of a giant spaceship in orbit around the Earth. But there are no experiences we could ever have that could justify certainty that man is alone in the universe. If the universe were small and easy to explore, we could imagine how we might have experiences that might justify certainty about our uniqueness in such a universe. You can imagine, for example, a ten-year spaceship voyage that might visit and explore all solar systems in such a tiny universe, verifying that none had intelligent life except Earth. But our universe is vastly too big for even one percent of it to be explored by a single planet in a million year time frame. Even if one imagines a vast fleet of space-warp starships that could travel instantaneously anywhere in the universe, it would take hundreds of millions of years or billions of years for such a fleet to explore all of the solar systems in our actual universe of billions of galaxies, most containing billions of stars (which gives you a totality of something like 100,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 stars capable of supporting life). By the time such a fleet returned to its home planet, it would then still not be certain that the home planet was the only planet with intelligent life, because there would still be the possibility that intelligent life had evolved on some planet during the millions of years that such a universe-spanning mission was undertaken.

We can never be certain that a being we encountered in this life or the next is the Supreme Being of the universe

It is entirely possible that we might one day encounter some mysterious Higher Power, a mind far greater than ours with supernatural power. Such a being might appear some day in the sky, or we might see such a being when we experienced some kind of life after death. For example, to follow a scenario suggested by near-death experiences, after you die you might travel through some tunnel and find yourself in some radiant heaven-like surroundings where you meet relatives you knew before they died. You might then see some glowing figure or light, and might be told by others that this being is God.

However, while you might be justifiably certain that such a being is some Higher Power with superhuman knowledge and power, you could not justifiably be certain that such a being was actually the Supreme Being of the universe. For there would always be the possibility that there existed some other being unobserved by you who had even more power and knowledge than this Higher Power you encountered, and who existed before that being.

Now you might think that you could gain certainty by talking to this Higher Power, and asking him if he was the Supreme Being of the universe. If such a Higher Power answered affirmatively, would that not justify certainty that this Higher Power was the Supreme Being of the universe?

No, it wouldn't. The reason is simply that there would always be a reasonable chance that this Higher Power was mistaken if it asserted that it was the Supreme Being of the universe. There might still be some higher, more powerful, and wiser being unknown to this Higher Power, and that being might be the Supreme Being of the universe.

We can never be certain that there does not exist some deity

Much as atheists might like to imagine some experiences that might prove there is no deity, there is no possibility of such experiences. We might conceivably find some evidence that might completely undermine faith in earthly revealed religions, but such evidence would at worst merely show that the most popular conceptions of God were in error. They could never disprove that some type of deity exists. Even if we were to explore the universe and find that it was an endless ocean of sorrow, pain, and confusion, we could never disprove the idea that it was created by some deity of limited power.

We can never be certain that matter exists independently of our perceptions

In his philosophical masterpiece A Treatise Concerning the Principles of Human Knowledge, the philosopher George Berkeley argued powerfully that all that really exists is perceptions, and that matter exists only to the extent that it is perceived by minds. We can never be certain that Berkeley wasn't correct. The only way to prove that matter can truly exist independently of mind would be to kill everyone in the universe, and then verify that the universe was still around. But that would be impossible, because if everyone in the universe died, there would be no one around to do such a verification.

We can never be certain that we will live forever, no matter what experiences we have in this life or a next life

You might think that once you survived death, you could be certain that you will live forever. For example, imagine if something like a near-death experience happens to you. After a tractor trailer flattens the car you were driving in, you find your soul drifting above your body, and you travel through a tunnel. You then find yourself in some radiant realm where you see relatives you know are dead. Would you not then be justified in believing with certainty that you are going to live forever?

No. You would then presumably be justified in concluding that you are going to survive much longer. But you still would not know whether the afterlife you had started would last for a finite length of time or an eternal length of time. Your soul, newly liberated from human flesh, might fizzle out after a million or a billion years. You could not be certain that you were going to live forever.

You might think that you could gain certainty of eternal life if you encountered some powerful godlike Higher Being who assured you that you were going to live forever. But there is a reason why you could not be certain about living forever, even in such a case. It would be entirely possible that in the eons of time ahead you might do some terrible thing or commit some bad sin that might make you unworthy of eternal life. In that case you might be spurned by some Higher Power, and your post-mortal existence might end up being only finite in length. Presumably no free moral agent can ever be certain that he will perform morally throughout eternity.

We can never be certain that we will not have an afterlife

Looking at one of the more extreme depictions of life after death advanced by conventional religion (such as the type of depictions imagined by the American preacher Jonathan Edwards), an astute moral critic might say that he is certain that such a scenario will never occur. But no one can ever be certain that he will not experience any type of life after death. It is always possible that some reasonable and fair type of afterlife does occur. As there is no way to experience a non-experience, there is no experience or knowledge you could acquire that would justify certainty about the non-existence of life after death.

We can never be absolutely certain that the universe is older than any one of us

This is a startling assertion, but it is easy to justify it. Let us consider the fact that an omnipotent God could create any type of universe that he wants, including universes other than universes which have that “just created” appearance. An omnipotent God could instantly create from nothing a universe exactly like the universe that existed in 1000 BC or 100 AD or 1000 AD or January 1, 2000. Consider if God wanted to create a universe exactly like the one that existed on midnight Eastern Standard Time at January 1, 2000. God would merely need to will into existence an expanding universe of billions of galaxies, a universe that would include at least one planet with billions of people. God could instantly will into existence those people existing at that date, having them suddenly come into existence with various memories and various states of motion (some walking, some driving, some sleeping, some celebrating the new year in Times Square). Under such a scenario, billions of people would suddenly come into existence, convinced they had lived for years. But they would actually just be recently created.

My point is that we cannot be certain that such a thing did not happen any length of time ago-- one hour ago, one day ago, one year ago, or one decade ago. Or perhaps one century ago or five hundred years ago. The fact that you may have memories of having lived for 20 years does not make it certain that you actually have lived for twenty years. You and everything else in the universe could have been created ten years ago.

About the only argument I can think of against such a possibility is the argument that if God were to instantly create a universe that included people with various ages and memories of the past, it would be rather like a deception (causing people to think they had existed for years when they had really been just recently created); and presumably God would not deceive us in that way. But I'm not sure this argument is very strong. According to conventional theology, earthly life gives us the impression that we are mortal beings with short lifespans, but we are really immortal souls. If a deity could create a universe in which there is such a mismatch between appearance and reality, he might also create a universe in which our memories of how old we are does not match the reality of how old we are.

I am not seriously suggesting that there is even a 1% possibility that the universe was only very recently created. I merely submit that we cannot be absolutely certain that the universe was not very recently created. My own guess about the age of the universe corresponds to the 13.8 billion year age postulated by modern science.

Friday, September 20, 2013

The Guy Who Turned On the Stars: A Science Fiction Story

The Guy Who Turned On the Stars: A Science Fiction Story On the planet where Corvo lived, very far from Earth, the sky always looked brown during the day. You could see the sun, but only as a blurry patch that was brighter than the rest of the sky. The brown haze of the sky blocked the sun so much that you could stare right at it without hurting your eyes. At night, nothing could be seen in the sky. In fact, in Corvo's language there was an expression “as empty as the night sky,” meaning something that was completely empty.

Most people on Corvo's planet just accepted this state of affairs without giving it any thought. But Corvo was a curious type of person, and he began wondering why the sky had always looked brown to those of his race. He studied the matter as part of his scientific studies. On Corvo's planet, science was not very advanced, and airplanes had been invented only thirty years ago. But there were tools for Corvo to pursue scientific investigations.

After a lengthy inquiry, Corvo was able to draw a conclusion about why the sky was brown. The sky was brown, he concluded, because of three great active volcanoes on his planet. Throughout the recorded history of his planet, the smoky volcanoes had been steadily spewing out tiny particles into the sky. The particles were mixed into the atmosphere by the planet's strong winds, which carried the particles all over the world. The result was a sky that was always brown, because of tiny suspended particles in the air.

Now most people would be content to have just come up with an explanation for the brownness of the sky, but Corvo was an audacious sort who took things further. After much thought, Corvo decided that it was not a good thing that the sky above him was always brown and opaque. It would be much better, Corvo concluded, if the sky was instead clear and transparent, for at least some of the time. But was there any way to change things so that the sky could become clear?

After years of study and thinking, Corvo came up with an audacious plan. He wrote up his plan into a document that began to circulate in the offices of his country's government. One day Corvo was called in by a government committee, and told to explain and defend his plan.

“The three huge volcanoes on our planet create two huge problems,” explained Corvo. “First, they send up so many particles that our air is filthy and polluted. My studies indicate that millions of people might be saved from respiratory diseases if we were to find a way to block the volcanoes. The other problem with the volcanoes is that they make it impossible for us to study anything beyond our atmosphere. There might be all kinds of interesting things outside of our planet, but we can't see any of them, because our naturally polluted sky blocks us from seeing into outer space.”

“I propose that we fix these problems in a simple way-- by blocking the three volcanoes,” said Corvo. “All that is required is a sufficient number of airplane flights. Every volcano has a tube-like vent, which is rather like a chimney. We can send in bomber planes to drop bombs down the vents of the volcanoes, to block them. Then we can send waves of planes to drop sand upon the volcanoes, to block them from emitting particles. If you drop a sufficient amount of sand on the top of the volcanoes, they will be permanently sealed.”

“How many plane flights would be required to block the three biggest volcanoes?” asked a government official.

“I estimate that to block each volcano, we will need to drop 500 plane loads of explosives,” said Corvo. “Then we would need to drop 2,000 plane loads of sand on top of each volcano. The cost would be very high, and the project would require one or two years to complete. But it would be worth it.”

Corvo's proposal was debated fiercely, but eventually the government agreed to fund the ambitious plan. The bomber planes began flying, dropping explosives down the vents of the planet's three great volcanoes. Then cargo planes began dropping sand on top of the volcanoes. After a total of 7500 plane flights, the tops of all three volcanoes were sealed.

At first there was no big change in the skies. The skies still looked brown, but just a little less brown.

“We spent so much on this project-- why isn't it working?” asked a government official.

“We're in a low-wind weather pattern,” ventured Corvo. “All those particles in the air are just hanging there in the atmosphere. Wait for a good storm, and it should flush things out, and the skies should clear.”

A while later there was one of the huge wind storms that were common on the planet. People went underground to shelter themselves. There were heavy winds and days of nonstop rain.

Finally when the storm ended, the weather changed abruptly, and people came out of their shelters.

Corvo went outside with his wife Jyna and looked up at the sky. It was late in the afternoon.

“I can't believe it!” exclaimed Jyna. “The sky – it's blue! Does that mean the sky is broken?”

“I had no idea what color it would be when the volcano dust cleared,” said Corvo. “Blue – what a beautiful color for a sky to be! Don't worry, the sky isn't broken. We've healed it!”

Jyna looked at the sun, and her eyes hurt.

“The sun – it's so much brighter!” said Jyna. “It will blind us!”

“No, no, it's not any brighter,” said Corvo. “Just don't look directly at the sun. We used to be able to look directly at it, but now that the sky is clear, we can't do that any more.”

Corvo and Jyna waited outside looking up at the sky with great excitement. An hour later the sky started to turn orange. It was the first sunset they had ever clearly seen. They could see the sun appear as an orange ball on the horizon.

“Now you can look at it,” explained Corvo. “But only when it's on the horizon.”

The couple watched the sun disappear under the horizon, and then they watched part of the sky turn purple. It was their first good look at twilight.

“That was the most beautiful thing I've ever seen,” said Jyna. “Nothing could ever top it.”

“But let's keep watching the sky,” said Corvo. “Maybe we'll just see blackness when night comes, but perhaps there might be something interesting to look at.”

Holding hands together, the couple looked up at the blackening sky with great excitement. One by one stars started to appear in the sky. It was the first time anyone on their planet had ever seen the stars.

“What are those lights appearing in the sky?” asked Jyna. “Some kind of bird or insect, perhaps?”

“No, they're not moving,” said Corvo. “I don't know what they are.”

Alternating between laughter and tears, Corvo and Jyna watched as thousands of stars became fully visible in the sky. As Corvo's planet was near a glorious star cluster, he saw far more stars than anyone can see from Earth.

“They're so beautiful, these lights in the sky,” said Jyna. “What shall we call these things?” Her language had no word for star, because no one had ever seen a star before.

“Perhaps for now we can call them sky jewels,” said Corvo.

“They will always be a mystery,” said Jyna. “We'll never know whether they are gods, or jewels, or animals.”

“Perhaps one day we can know,” suggested Corvo. “I have a strange idea for a new invention we could create to study these glorious things in the sky. You put two special pieces of glass at opposite ends of a long tube. I call this invention a telescope.”

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Why a Galactic Empire is Almost Impossible

Why a Galactic Empire is Almost Impossible Galactic empires have been a staple of science fiction. The first well-read series of books to postulate an empire spanning an entire galaxy was Isaac Asimov's Foundation series. More recently, the main fictional treatment of a galactic empire has been in the Star Wars series of movies.

Let us define a galactic empire as a political entity that encompasses at least a few percent of the habitable planets in our galaxy (not to be confused with an interstellar empire, which is one consisting simply of more than one solar system). What would be the chance of such a galactic empire arising? It would seem that there would be almost no chance of such a thing.

The main thing that would act against the creation of a galactic empire is simply a law of nature. According to Einstein's Special Theory of Relativity, nothing can travel faster than the speed of light. Such a limitation makes it virtually impossible for any planet to exert command and control over a region as large as even a thousandth (a tenth of a percent) of the size of a galaxy.

Consider the dimensions of our galaxy. It is between 100,000 and 120.000 light years in diameter, meaning that it takes between 100,000 and 120,000 years for light to travel from one end of the galaxy to the other end. To control even 1 percent of the galaxy, a galactic empire would have to control a unit of space at least a thousand light years in width.

Why would such a thing be most unlikely to occur? The reason is that when any planet started to make colonies on planets revolving around distant stars, the colonies would be too far away to be in the effective sphere of control of the parent planet.

Imagine if Earth were to create colonies on planets revolving around other stars. The nearest colony would be about 4.4 light years away. The colonists would know that if they went their own way and declared their independence, it would take 4.4 years for the news of such an announcement to reach Earth. It would then take at least another 4.4 years before a spaceship came from Earth to punish them for their disobedience (and probably many years longer, because of the near-impossibility of traveling at anything close to the speed of light). Such a colony would therefore not feel that it was under very strong political control by Earth.

Colonies that were farther away from Earth would feel even more free to do whatever they wanted. If an expedition from Earth established a colony on a planet revolving around a star that was fifty light years from Earth, then the inhabitants of that planet would know that they could declare their independence, and it would be at least 100 years before they would suffer any punishment – fifty years for the news to get to Earth, and at least fifty years for a punitive expedition to travel from Earth to the colony.

The farther the colony was from Earth, the more its inhabitants would feel that they could do whatever they wanted without suffering any ill effects. If a colony was established 500 light years from Earth, and then declared its independence, it would have no worries at all about some punishment from Earth that could not arrive in less than 1000 years (500 years for the independence announcement to reach Earth, and more than 500 years for a punitive expedition to travel from Earth).

I can illustrate this situation with a simple diagram, shown below.

The yellow dot at the center of this sphere represents the home solar system of a galactic empire, the center of imperial control (the dot has been enlarged from its actual size on this scale, to make the dot visible). The graph represents an area of space about 200 light-years wide. The different colors represent different degrees of control. There is no color indicating a strong level of control, because once a colony is established even 4 or 5 light years away from the home planet, the home planet's control over that colony would at best be only moderate. The farther you get from the home planet, the weaker the home planet's control. The home planet does not have any significant control over colonies established farther than 100 light years away from the home planet.

The rings and scale in this diagram are admittedly arbitrary, but I believe it is an accurate general depiction of the effective difficulties that any planet would have in maintaining control over distant colonies.

What about a galactic empire that holds together on a voluntary basis? The planets in the empire might be so persistently enthusiastic about maintaining the empire that it holds together, even though there is no practical way to sanction planets from ignoring the empire and going their own way.

There are cultural and historical factors that argue against such a possibility. Civilizations do not tend to stay in a fixed state for thousands of years. Below are some of the long-term factors that break up or change civilizations.

Cultural fission--the splitting up of one culture into two different cultures. An example is when the Roman Empire broke up into the Eastern and Western empires, with the Eastern Empire adopting a different ruler and a different religion. Another example is the American Revolution.

Cultural fusion – a case where one culture drastically changes after adopting characteristics of another culture, such as happened when the culture of Japan was radically changed after World War II.

Cultural adaption – a case when a culture radically changes because it adapts to its physical surroundings. An example might be the evolution of American cowboy and Wild West culture during the late 19th century.

Cultural dissipation – a case when a culture gradually loses interest or enthusiasm in some idea or tradition that once gripped it. An example might be the decline of Christianity in Western Europe, where church attendance has plummeted.

If a planet tried to establish a galactic empire, the planets that it colonized would be very subject to these cultural forces of fragmentation, particularly given the huge lengths of time needed for even a miniature galactic empire to form. Cultural fission would occur whenever a newly colonized planet split off from the empire to go its own way. Cultural fusion would occur when imperial colonizers came in contact with existing cultures in star systems they were trying to colonize. Cultural adaption would occur when imperial colonizers adapted their culture to be suitable for some strange new planet. Cultural dissipation would occur when distant colonies lost interest in the ideals or religion or traditions of some distant world that had originally tried to establish the galactic empire (and the farther the distance from the parent planet, the more cultural dissipation there would be).

Over the thousands of years needed to establish a galactic empire, these forces of fragmentation would act to split up an aspiring galactic empire into a smorgasbord of diverging cultures, diverging philosophies and religions, diverging interests, and diverging political systems. The collection of planets would end up being as divergent as the little fabric squares on a homemade quilt. It therefore would not be an empire in any cohesive sense.

The arguments above are based on the assumption that no ship can travel faster than the speed of light. There is always the possibility that nature has a gigantic gift waiting for us – some undiscovered twist of the laws of physics that may allow us to sidestep the speed limit set by the speed of light. Such a possibility is evoked by those who imagine warp drives and star gates allowing instantaneous travel. If it ever is possible to create a warp drive allowing faster than light travel, then the arguments above would not apply, and it would be much more likely for large-scale galactic empires to exist. But given the fact that warps drives and star gates are just speculative, we should for the time being assume that we will not be able to travel faster than the speed of light. If that is true, a large-scale galactic empire should be very unlikely to occur, for the reasons given above.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Slow Your Aging While You Help Save the Earth

Slow Your Aging While You Help Save the Earth Today's headlines are reporting a very interesting study reported in a scientific journal. Healthful Living May Improve Telomeres and Lifespans says one headline. Healthy Diet May Reverse Aging, Study Finds says another headline.

But it seems that the real headline should be: Stop Eating Meat and Slow Your Aging.

Telomeres are little cap-like structures on the ends of the chromosomes in your cells. As cells age, the telomeres grow shorter and shorter. Eventually when the telomeres in a cell grow short enough, the cell stops dividing, which results in cell death. The more of this cell death that occurs, the faster you age.

Chromosomes (gray) and telomeres (white)

The newest study (reported in Lancet Oncology) was done on a small group of men who adapted a vegan diet, increased exercise, and underwent an anti-stress program that included meditation and support groups. After five years on such a program, the men had telomeres that were 10% longer than at the beginning of the five years. The control group had telomeres that were 3% shorter than at the beginning of the five years.

A vegan diet is one that includes no meat, fish, or animal products such as cheese or milk. But we don't know exactly what causal factors played a part in the results. It might have been that the results would have been as good if the participants had merely followed a vegetarian diet, one which excludes meat but does not exclude fish, eggs, or cheese.

There was a previous study that compared diet and telomere length. Published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, this study involved 840 people, many times more than the small group studied by the study published in Lancet Oncology. The study analyzed a large variety of foods and drinks consumed by the 840 people, and found only one type of food that tended to shorten people's telomeres.

That type of food was processed meat.

In other words, the study found that sausages, hot dogs, salami, and similar food is making you age faster.

No one should be surprised that sausages and similar food makes you age faster. You never really know what is in a sausage. I'm reminded of a line from the song Master of the House in the musical Les Miserables, in which the inn keeper confesses that his sausages are made with the livers of horses and the kidneys of rats.

You should give up processed meat, and your best best for slowing your aging is to give up all red meat. If you do so, you will not merely be helping yourself, but our planet as well.

Meat consumption is one of the largest causes of global warming. Five years ago the United Nations produced a report called Livestock's Long Shadow, which estimated that raising livestock for food is causing 18 percent of global warming. Two environmental specialists for the World Bank produced a report arguing that raising livestock for food is causing 51 percent of the world's global warming. The exact percentage is a matter of debate, but there can be no doubt that a large amount of global warming could be prevented if we stopped eating meat, or greatly reduced our meat consumption, particularly the consumption of beef. Beef consumption is a particularly large factor in global warming, because cows abundantly produce methane, which speeds up global warming much more dramatically than carbon dioxide.

There is also the moral issue that if more gave up meat eating, there would be more food available. To make a pound of meat available, you have to feed an animal as much as 13 pounds of grain. If the world ate much less meat, there would be much more grain available, and we would not have a world where up to a billion people suffer from hunger.

Let me end this post by simply considering what is best for helping you slow your aging rate. I will list three options: an easy option, a more challenging option, and a most challenging option.

The easy option is for you to simply stop eating processed meat such as sausages. That will eliminate from your diet the one and only food product that the previously cited AJCN study found to be a telomere shortener (a food that accelerates your aging).

The more challenging option is to give up all red meat, or all meat. That might well help slow your aging rate, and will help reduce global warming and help increase the world food supply.

The most challenging option is to go vegan, and give up consumption of all animal products. While it might seem to be justified by the study recently published in Lancet Oncology (which showed the big telomere improvement for vegans), you might wait for a follow-up study before taking this most difficult step (as that study used only a small sample size).

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Implanted Recollection: A Science Fiction Story

Implanted Recollection: A Science Fiction Story In the year 2028 beautiful young Vanessa, age 23, awoke in a hospital bed with a bad headache. She asked herself immediately: how on earth did I get here? She tried hard to remember, but couldn't recall.

A doctor came into the hospital room, and gave an explanation.

“You had a bad fall down a stairway, and your skull split open,” said Dr. Pearson. “We had to do some surgery to patch you up. According to your chart, you were brought in by a friend of yours by the name of Jane Forsythe.”

Vanessa tried hard to remember. Finally there started to slowly come into her mind some memories of Jane Forsythe. She remembered that Jane was a college friend of hers, and that they had both gone to Georgetown University. She remembered that Jane had an apartment in Washington D.C. Vanessa remembered having tea up in Jane's apartment, and exchanging gossip.

Vanessa was released from the hospital, and went back to her apartment on Connecticut Avenue in Washington D.C. One day when she was bored, she said to yourself: why don't I go see my old friend Jane?

Vanessa checked through her smartphone, and found lots of phone numbers, but none of them listed a name of Jane. Thinking that was strange, Vanessa did a computer search for all of the Jane Forsythe names in Washington D.C. She found no one with that name in Washington D.C.

Now that is very strange, thought Vanessa. I'm quite sure that Jane lives here in Washington.

Vanessa got in touch with an alumni association of Georgetown University. She had done this before to get the current phone numbers of people she had gone to college with. The alumni association said that there was no record of a Jane Forsythe having attended Georgetown University.

Giving up on trying to find Jane's phone number, Vanessa thought to herself: I'll just walk to her place, and surprise her. She tried to recall how to get to Jane's apartment. She couldn't remember how to get there.

Vanessa asked herself: could I just be imagining that I had a friend named Jane? No, that wasn't possible, she thought. She remembered visiting Jane several times in her apartment, where they drank tea and chatted.

Probing her memories of Jane more deeply, Vanessa found that she actually had only one memory of Jane at college: a memory of the two of them sitting on the steps of the school library. Vanessa tried hard to remember any other colleges memories of Jane. She could not recall anything else.

It was as if, Vanessa thought, Jane had never really existed and the memory of her had just been planted in her head – not a deep memory richly entangled with other events of her life, but just a superficial memory consisting of only an image of Vanessa and Jane at the university library, and memories of Jane and Vanessa chatting at Jane's apartment while they sipped tea.

Her suspicions raised, Vanessa went back to the hospital. She demanded to see her medical records. After some delays, she finally got a copy of the records.

Looking through the pages of the records, she saw shocking details. Patient brought in on stretcher by agents of the US Secret Service. No signs of initial external injury. Memory replacement procedure. The details were buried within a thick forest of medical details that Vanessa couldn't understand.

Vanessa stormed into the office of Dr. Pearson, the doctor she had seen in her hospital room. She demanded an explanation. He confessed that she had not been injured when admitted, and that the operation done was an advanced neurological procedure on part of her brain.

“This was done on orders from the White House,” admitted Dr. Pearson. “The guy who ordered it was Sam Masonero.”

Vanessa contracted the office of Sam Masonero at the White House. He agreed to meet Vanessa outside of the White House. When the two met in front of the White House, Sam waved an electronic device to make sure that Vanessa didn't have a voice recorder.

“So, Sam, tell me what the hell is going on,” said Vanessa.

“Let's make a deal,” said Sam. “I'll tell you all about what happened if you promise not to tell anyone about what I tell you.”

Vanessa thought for a moment, and then said, “OK, it's a deal.”

“You were the mistress of the President of the United States,” said Sam. “You had sex with the President many times. But then things started to get really twisted and ugly between you and the President. He did some outrageous things that would ruin him politically if the story got out, things straight out of a novel by the Marquis de Sade. So we fixed the problem by arranging for you to have a memory alteration operation.”

Vanessa stared at Sam with an incredulous expression.

“And Jane – she never existed, right?” asked Vanessa.

“Correct,” said Sam. “We removed all your memories of having kinky sex with the President, and replaced them with pleasant memories of you having tea with Jane in her apartment.”

“When I promised not to tell anyone, I was just fooling,” said Vanessa, seething with anger.

“Better not risk that,” said Sam with a threatening expression. “Don't forget about that suspicious death of Marilyn Monroe.”

Friday, September 13, 2013

The Pros and Cons of 12 Future Technologies

When considering some future technology, we must be careful to consider not just the benefits that may come from the development of the technology, but also the drawbacks and downsides of introducing that technology. To help encourage this type of balanced thinking, let me introduce a concept that I will call the Net Upside. The Net Upside is a number that compares the benefits of a future technology with the potentials and drawbacks of the technology.

We can follow this simple method to compute the Net Upside of a technology.
  1. Rate the benefit of developing the technology, assigning an upside rating between 1 and 0 (1 meaning incredibly useful and beneficial, and 0 meaning absolutely useless).
  2. Rate the drawbacks of developing the technology, assigning a downside rating between 1 and 0 (1 meaning hugely dangerous, and 0 meaning absolutely safe and harmless).
  3. Subtract the second number from the first to get the Net Upside.
I will now make an attempt to compute the Net Upside of 12 future technologies. This will involve assigning numerical ratings that are admittedly somewhat arbitrary.

Pre-Singularity Robots

By “pre-singularity robots” I mean robots which have intelligence below those of humans, and which are not capable of any self-reproduction. Such robots require power from a human power grid, or by being resupplied with power or fuel, through the help of humans. Such robots are very useful for manufacturing and construction, and for helping humans avoid undesirable or tedious labor. So I would say that pre-singularity robots deserve an upside rating of .8. There is little downside except the fact that these types of robots may increase human unemployment. So I give pre-singularity robots a downside rating of .2. The Net Upside for this technology is .6, a fairly high number.

Robot Security Guard

Post-Singularity Robots

By “post-singularity robots” I mean robots which are capable of self-reproduction, which are not dependent on humans for power, and which have intelligence equal to or above that of humans. Such robots may have a strong upside to themselves (assuming they have some kind of self like the human self), but their benefits to human beings are rather unclear. However, such robots may present a huge risk to the continued existence or prosperity of human beings, because post-singularity robots may want to take over the planet for themselves. Accordingly, my estimate is that post-singularity robots should be given an upside rating of .4 and a downside rating of .7. The Net Upside for this technology is a troubling -.3. (Any Net Upside of less than 0 is an indication the technology may have risks exceeding the benefits.)

Expensive Anti-Aging Technology

By expensive anti-aging technology I mean any technology that increases the human lifespan, but can only be afforded by a relatively tiny part of the human population. An example is artificially grown organs meant to be surgically placed in a human through a transplant operation, a procedure that will probably always be very expensive. I assign an upside rating of .1 to this technology, partially because it will only affect a small portion of the human population, those who can afford it. I assign a downside rating of .1 to this technology (again, a low number because of the small number of people affected). Part of the downside might be that if the rich live super-long lives, it would tend to worsen one of the world's worst problems, the fact that wealth is being concentrated more and more in the hands of the few. The Net Upside for this technology is therefore 0.

Inexpensive Anti-Aging Technology

By inexpensive anti-aging technology I mean any technology that increases the human lifespan, and is so cheap that many hundreds of millions of people may use it. An example would be an inexpensive pill that prevents aging. I assign an upside rating of .4 to this technology. But there are very sizable drawbacks to such a technology. If the human lifespan is increased by decades, population growth might skyrocket, leading to an exacerbation of current environmental problems (plus the fact that it may make it much harder for us to feed everyone). So we can assign a downside rating of .2 to this technology. The Net Upside is only .2.

Virtual Reality

By virtual reality I mean some incredibly engrossing entertainment system in which you could put on wraparound goggles, and virtually walk around some vivid computer-generated world. I assign an upside rating of .2 to this technology, fairly low just because virtual reality would mainly be used for fun, and fun isn't as important as some other things. I assign a downside rating of .1 to this technology, to account for the fact that some people will waste too much time fooling around in virtual worlds, to the detriment of our world. The Net Upside for virtual reality is only .1.

3D Printing

3D printing is a technology allowing the manufacture of objects through a layer by layer approach. The 3D printer might be a desktop device, or a much larger device used in a factory. I assign an upside rating of .5 to this technology, because it may allow for the cheaper production of countless items, including possibly even body parts. I assign a downside rating of 0 to this technology, because I cannot think of any drawbacks in using it. The Net Upside is a healthy .5.

Self-Driving Cars

Google has been working for years on self-driving cars, cars that are driven by computers rather than people. I assign an upside rating of .2 to this technology, mainly because if adopted it would presumably reduce the number of people who die from auto accidents. I assign a downside rating of .1 to this technology, to account for the drawback that lots of people with jobs as drivers would lose their jobs if this technology became very popular. The Net Upside for self-driving cars is a marginal .1.

Nuclear Fusion Reactors

Nuclear fusion is a technology under development that may one day allow the production of almost limitless amounts of energy, by harnessing the same type of nuclear reactions used by the sun. If nuclear fusion is ever developed, it will be a huge boon to mankind, allowing us to create huge amounts of energy from ordinary seawater. So I assign an upside rating of 1 to this technology. Assuming that the technical claims of fusion proponents are correct, and that nuclear fusion would be as clean and safe as experts say it would be, I assign a downside rating of 0 to this technology. The Net Upside for nuclear fusion reactors is a 1, which is the maximum rating.

Asteroid Mining

Asteroid mining is a technology that may one day allow us to extract metals and minerals from asteroids, chunks of space rock that orbit in various places in the solar system. Given the real prospects of metal shortages in the coming decades, I will assign an upside rating of .6 to this technology. The downside with asteroid mining is related to the fact that asteroids that strike our planet have the potential to wipe out all human life. So the proliferation of a technology for mining asteroids would create the terrible possibility that a malevolent power might develop a technology for a doomsday device that would guide an asteroid toward Earth for the sake of destroying it (a risk that was pointed out by Carl Sagan). Because this possibility is fairly remote, I will assign asteroid mining a downside rating of only .3. The Net Upside for asteroid mining is .3.

An Asteroid Mining Mishap


If you believe Eric Drexler about nanotechnology, then we will be able to use it to achieve precise atomic manufacturing, something which would have earth-shaking results for manufacturing (and might create gigantic risks along the lines of 'gray goo' involving nanotechnology run amok). But I suspect that this is hype. Nobel Prize winner Richard Smalley thinks that Drexler is way off the mark, that it won't be possible to ever use nanotechnology for precise atomic manufacturing, and that there is no risk of nanotechnology running amok along the lines of the 'gray goo' scenario. Assuming that he's right, I give nanotechnology a relatively small upside rating of only .3, and a relatively small downside rating of only .1 (we have to assume a small risk because things may go wrong if we introduce nano-particles into the human body). This gives a Net Upside of only .2 for nanotechnology.

Genetic Engineering

Genetic engineering is the technology for manipulating the genes of organisms to change their characteristics. Genetic engineering offers the possibility of increasing crop yields, assuming people are willing to eat genetically modified food. Genetic engineering also offers the possibility of curing some human diseases and extending the human lifespan. So I assign an upside rating of .8 to genetic engineering However, there is a terrifying possibility that genetic engineering will one day be used to develop super-germs that might wipe out a huge portion of the human race. So I assign a downside rating of .4 to this techn.ology. The Net Upside for genetic engineering is a moderate .4.

Super-advanced Supercomputers

By super-advanced supercomputers I mean massive machines capable of processing data and crunching numbers with proficiency and speed vastly greater than anything available today. Think of something a thousand times better than the Watson machine that won against the top human Jeopardy competitors. I assign such a technology an upside rating of .5, because it could be used to help solve a huge number of human problems. I see no downside in such a machine. There would be no risk of it taking over our planet or nation, because we could just pull the plug any time we wanted. So I assume a downside rating of 0. The Net Upside for super-advanced supercomputers is .5.


Let me summarize the Net Upsides of these different technologies as I have estimated them. I'll list the technologies in descending order of their Net Upsides.

Nuclear Fusion 1
Pre-Singularity Robots .6
3D Printing .5
Super-advanced Supercomputers .5
Genetic Engineering .4
Asteroid Mining .3
Inexpensive Anti-Aging Technology .2
Nanotechnology .2
Self-Driving Cars .1
Virtual Reality .1
Expensive Anti-Aging Technology 0
Post-Singularity Robots -.3

The only item in this list that stands out as a net negative is the technology of post-singularity robots. The development of self-reproducing, super-intelligent, self-powered robots might seem good from the standpoint of some alien intelligence monitoring the technical progress of planet Earth, but the development of such a technology would seem to be a net negative from the standpoint of what is best for mankind. We are unlikely to benefit from building our successors.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

The Pleistocene Plague: A Science Fiction Story

The Pleistocene Plague: A Science Fiction Story “Insanely cold temperatures – check,” said scientist Russ Hamilton. “Danger of death by falling into freezing cold water – check. Absurdly difficult engineering task – check. This has got to be the worst job in history.”

Hamilton was standing on top of a frozen lake in Antarctica, with five engineers. They stood next to two large sleds containing various items of engineering equipment. The men were trying to accomplish the very difficult task of drilling through two meters of ice at the top of the lake, and then extracting sediments 100 meters below, at the bottom of the lake.

“Remind me again why we are freezing our nuts off trying this crazy task,” said engineer Terry Johnson.

“It's related to exobiology, the quest to find life on other planets,” explained Russ. “If we find life at the bottom of this frozen lake, it will prove that life can survive in incredibly hostile conditions. The discovery of life at the bottom of this lake would show us it's more likely that life exists on many other planets.”

The men struggled with the engineering task, which dragged on for several days, requiring multiple trips between their Antarctic scientific base and the frozen lake. After much difficult work, they were finally able to extract muddy sediments from the bottom of the lake.

The sediments were sealed in ten special containers, and taken to the snow-packed scientific base where dozens of scientists worked. Russ analyzed one of the containers using microscopes at the base.

“It's life!” said Russ. “Imagine that – living organisms at the bottom of a frozen lake which has been cut off from the rest of the planet for at least 100,000 years.”

Russ Hamilton took the other 9 sealed samples back to the biological laboratory at Plum Island on the eastern end of Long Island, about 100 miles east of New York City. The remote laboratory at Plum Island had long been used for research relating to diseases. Hamilton figured that if anything troublesome turned up in the Antarctic lake samples, it could be isolated and confined at this remote laboratory.

Hamilton then returned to his office in New York City. One day he attempted to contact the Plum Island laboratory to find out how the investigation of the Antarctic lake samples was going.

Hamilton got no answer from any of the phone numbers he tried. He then sent emails to people at Plum Island. There was also no response. He found on the web a list of twenty phone numbers and emails of people working on the island. There was no response from any of them.

Very alarmed, Hamilton quickly alerted the Emergency Response Unit of the Center for Disease Control. The CDC sent a team of four men by helicopter to Plum Island. The four men wore special white spacesuits that protected them from any biological contaminants.

Landing on Plum Island, the team of four men entered the main laboratory. Everyone inside was dead.

The men examined one of the dead bodies. There was blood oozing out of the mouth, and pus dripping from the eyes. The other bodies in the lab were found to be in the same condition.

The men reported back to the Center for Disease Control their findings. Hamilton spoke on a conference call with the experts at the CDC.

“When we were considering the risks of raising life forms that had been buried under the ice for at least 100,000 years, we considered a worst-case scenario,” conceded Hamilton. “We called the scenario Case Black. This was the case that some life forms from the Pleistocene era might have a virus that man was totally defenseless against, because it hadn't been around for many thousands of years. But we discounted that possibility. We judged that there was less than 1 chance in 1000 that Case Black would occur.”

“Looks like we have Case Black,” said the CDC director. “Black as in the Black Death plague. Or something almost as bad.”

The White House was notified immediately. An attempt was made to quarantine the entire eastern third of Long Island. The Long Island Expressway was shut down, and all other Long Island roads were blocked. The ferries between Long Island and Connecticut were canceled. The Coast Guard and US Navy were brought into Long Island, with instructions to destroy any boat or ship trying to enter or leave the eastern third of Long Island.

Helicopter flights revealed that the frightening plague had quickly spread miles west of the Plum Island research center. A helicopter flight over a huge water park not far from Plum Island showed hundreds of dead bodies floating in the water.

Over a period of several weeks, countless thousands died. Helicopter flights over the infected area showed many dead bodies in the streets. There was no sign of life in the Hamptons, which had been infected.

After a horrible period of many days, the President of the United States went on television to announce that the quarantine of eastern Long Island had succeeded, and that the terrifying disease had been entirely confined to the eastern third of Long Island. The quarantine would continue indefinitely, he announced.

The next day twelve birds mingled with other birds in a park in New London, Connecticut. The birds had flown the eight mile distance from Plum Island to New London, a medium sized city. The birds began to cough up blood, and there was pus in their eyes. The plague would soon spread throughout the city, and to many other cities where birds had flown from Long Island.

Note: this fictional story was inspired by a recent real-life discovery just announced here. Need we worry about a real-life Pleistocene Plague? 

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Our Austere and Happy Future

Our Austere and Happy Future Thesis 1: The next several decades will be a kind of Age of Enjoyment for people in the developed world. You will have a ridiculous variety of choices for stimulating entertainment, which will allow you to have huge amounts of fun throughout your hours outside of work. In addition, you will have options for experiencing consciousness and bliss beyond anything you've experienced so far. Twenty years from now, you will not envy the people living today.

Thesis 2: The next several decades will be ones of austerity, limits, and belt-tightening. Gigantic levels of government debt in the US, Great Britain, and Japan will lead to either anemic, tepid economic growth of only 1% or 2% per year, or frequent recessions in which Gross Domestic Product declines. Growing wealth inequality, rising oil prices, the specter of Peak Oil, and the need to reduce carbon dioxide outputs (because of global warming) will all lead to a landscape in which people have smaller houses and cars, spend less money, and take fewer trips.

Strangely enough, Thesis 1 and Thesis 2 are not mutually exclusive. In fact, there's a good chance that both will come to pass.

If you think that these two propositions are mutually exclusive, you may have given too much credence to some of the tenets of the Religion of Consumerism which almost all of us have been indoctrinated in since birth. You may have been indoctrinated in a monotheistic religion every Sunday, but the average American has also been indoctrinated in the Religion of Consumerism seven days a week, through media such as television and the internet. The high priests of the Religion of Consumerism work on Madison Avenue, and are abetted by leaders in Washington D.C, who foolishly regard Gross Domestic Product as if it were a good measure of national happiness.

Below are some of the hallowed tenets of the Religion of Consumerism:

  1. The way to become happy is to accumulate material possessions and consume goods and services.
  2. The larger and more expensive the material possessions you acquire, and the more goods and services you consume, the happier you will be.
  3. The way in which you obtain status in life is by conspicuously consuming and acquiring goods, possessions, and services, so that you provoke envy from your fellow consumers.

If these tenets were true, then there would be no hope that we might be happy in a future of stagnant or slightly declining Gross Domestic Product. But luckily these tenets are not true. The Religion of Consumerism is a false creed.

Let me cite a few quick facts to support this claim. A study has shown that lottery winners are not happier than non-winners. Another study shows that having an income over 75,000 dollars a year does nothing to increase your happiness. Apparently multi-millionaires aren't happier than a person who makes merely 75,000 a year. Another very revealing study  examined the effects on happiness of eight types of consumption (leisure, durables, charity, personal care, food, health care, vehicles, and housing), and found that only one of them (leisure) produced an increase in happiness.

Based on these findings, let us construct a counter-creed to the Religion of Consumerism, which we may call the doctrine of frugal happiness. It might go something like this:

  1. The main way to be happy is to engage in activities that you enjoy, either at work or at home (or ideally both).
  2. If you have lots of activities that provide pleasure to you, you can be happy while spending relatively little money, and without having much wealth.
  3. You should pay no attention to what others think about the quality or cost of goods and services that you consume, and should never pay more or buy more to impress other people.

Because this doctrine is valid, there is a large chance that you will be very happy in the future, even if future decades are ones of frugality, belt-tightening, and austerity.

Let's take a look at a plausible scenario for what life might be like for you in the future.

You and your friends don't drive much, because gas has gotten very expensive. You don't go on many vacations to places far away, because plane tickets have become very expensive. You haven't got as much money as you used to have, because the government has raised taxes to help cover the interest payments on the many trillions of dollars it borrowed. With the economy being weak, you don't work as many hours as you would like. But nonetheless you sure as heck aren't spending any time sadly staring into space. That's because you have countless low-cost opportunities for enjoyment and pleasure. You have a little gadget with the power of a 2013 supercomputer, which you bought without paying much money. You can download countless hour-long videos for free from many different web sites such as www.youtube.com, and you can read any of thousands of free illustrated e-books. You can video chat with your friends all over the world for free, or almost nothing. You have a choice of hundreds of insanely entertaining video games you can play on your video console using your wide-screen TV. The games have 3D graphics so realistic it's like watching a movie, and the artificial intelligence is so good that it's hard to believe you're not dealing with a human when you match wits with a computer character. You can go on interactive virtual tours of thousands of spots in the world, allowing you to do things like virtually walk along the rim of an active volcano, or virtually canoe down the Amazon river. If you ever want to talk with someone, and your friends are busy, you can talk with any of numerous software chatbots which look just like real people, and give answers and responses so realistic you can't believe that they're not humans. If you get tired of using your brain, you can try some marijuana, which was effectively decriminalized a few years back. Plus there are numerous opportunities for altered consciousness experiences, given a huge number of designer drugs, and electrode head caps providing various types of electrical brain stimulation. There are also countless opportunities for web-based erotic entertainment, which is becoming increasingly interactive. 


Now in such a world, are you going to look back with envy at the people in 1985 who had more car trips, plane trips, and bigger houses?

No, you will not.

Remember, the study cited above concluded that the only type of spending that increases happiness is leisure spending. So if the future gives us an ocean of super-entertaining leisure available for relatively little cost, the American of the future is likely to be a happy one, even if he drives less, flies less, shops less, and has a smaller car and house.