Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Q&A about extra-terrestrials

             Over break, I chatted with a cousin of mine and we reminisced about when we were kids and would read as well as watch Animorphs.  During my elementary days, I would spend my afternoons, summer days, summer evenings reading K.A. Applegate's series of books that reached 54 total volumes (not including the extra Megamorphs, chronicles...).  After reading my first book over a spring break in 5th grade, I was hooked for the next couple of years.

            The books are fascinating.  They involve common subjects, such as rebellion, destruction, fear, insanity, and offer a very dark dystopic image Earth, where 5 teenagers take on an entire race trying to take over the world infesting humans and controlling them with little slug-like Yeerks.  Over time, I started to use appeal to my literary side to recognize motifs and understand what these works of fiction say about ourselves.  Then my physics brain kicked back in, and questioned how realistic this scenario is.  Let's talk about that side.

First of all, do extra-terrestrials even exist?  
           I think so.  The Universe is so unbelievably large, and there are so many more planets than we really know about.  Consider this:  Each star has its own set of planets.  In order for life to exist, there needs to be a planet with an environment that can support living things.  One key ingredient comes to mind:  liquid water. 
           Since all living things depend on liquid water, it's only a matter of billions of years (not really a long time considering the life of the Universe) before life can form on its own.  All it takes is one star with a planet around 1 AU away, and voila!  We will have life.  In 1961, Frank Drake considered the projected number of stars, the likely number of planets for each star, and he constructed an equation depicting the probability of extra-terrestrial life, and it does not take an optimist to exceed 99%.  So yes, I think it is smart to say that extra-terrestrials exist.

So, where are these extraterrestrials, and why haven't they contacted us, yet?
           Enrico Fermi submitted this question in 1951 as the "Fermi Paradox" (which is not really a paradox), but it is an interesting question.  With so many possibilities for extraterrestrial life, one would expect some kind of contact with humans at some point, so where are they?
          There are a couple of answers to this question.  One answer is that they don't know about us, or don't have the technology to reach us.  Then you have to ask why they would even consider coming to Earth if they could.  Not only are we so far away from other stars in the galaxy, but what about Earth would entice anybody to visit us?  This planet might not have anything to offer that more local regions don't already have.  If aliens could visit this planet, they could probably access better resources elsewhere.

There has to be at least one extra-terrestrial species that could get to us easily, right?
          Conceptually, maybe.  This assumes that they are far more advanced than we are, but then you have to ask again why they would want to talk to us.  If you are outside listening to music, and you see a group of ants on a hill, do you rush over to the ants, and try to show them the wonders of your technology?  Probably not.  You don't care about ants because they can't learn anything from you, anyway.  You'd probably rather just smush them in the ground or spray them with Raid.  In the grand scheme of things, us humans might only be seen as ants in the universe.

What if they want to take over the world and enslave us?
          Not likely.  The problem is that in most movies, we portray aliens in our image.  Hollywood tells us that they walk upright on 2 legs, speak perfect English (and in the American accent), are power-hungry for dominance, and have the same psychological needs as us.  Talk about ego.  Think about the millions of species just on our own planet, and the differences between ourselves and the rest.  Cats don't think like us; nor do dogs.  There's nothing that says that aliens have to think like humans.  Imagine a mothership landing and out comes a furry 4-legged animal wanting to be petted and fed.  Not what Hollywood told you, but no less likely than a big-headed, bipedal sapient.
          More likely, an extra-terrestrial species will be something microscopic, like a bacteria or protist.  Very boring, and unexciting, but likely.  The evolution of animals and plants occurred only through some very lucky circumstances, and not all planets might have the temperate conditions for a large species to come about.

         It is overwhelmingly likely that aliens exist, and that they do not exist in ways that we might expect.  The reality of it is that we probably do not have to worry about a violent invasion.  When we do find extra-terrestrial life, many will probably be disappointed, as it will more likely be something small and insignificant, like a bacteria or algae, but it could pave the road for the future of humanity.  There's an entire ocean out there, and we're still stuck on the dock known as Earth.

Sunday, October 5, 2014

Is it possible for you to live forever?

All of us have heard that life contains 2 inevitable occurrences:  annual taxes and death.  My first encounter with taxes came several years ago when I started working; my first encounter with the idea of death occurred when my maternal grandfather was sadly taken away on a stretcher on a sunny morning during the summer of 1994, when I had just eaten some pancakes at my grandparents house, at the age of 5.  I was not really sad when I found out about death, as I did not really comprehend it, nor did I believe it would happen to me.  It took years before the depressing thought that I do not last forever.

Let's talk about death.  We all know that anybody who has ever walked on this planet has a maximum of about 120 years before they become a part of history.  This seems to make great sense, as every president before Nixon has long since passed away, no veterans remain from the Civil War, living members from our family tree can only be found within the last 100 years or so, and logically, it makes sense that there are so many things that could end a life, yet there are very few that could preserve it.

What if all of that was false?

You might wonder how that could even be possible.  With the immaculate quality of today's record keeping, the world would be strongly publicizing anybody who manages to live 150+ years, and the probability of surviving diseases and medical conditions to which the elder are susceptible is beyond slim, and of course, there ought to be many more supercentenarians than we see around us, so what gives?

The answer requires knowledge of the structure of the multiverse (or the model of many parallel universes).  An episode of family guy depicts Brian and Chris traveling through several different parallel universes.  A notable example is where they travel to one in which dogs are legally obligated to walk humans on leashes. You might wonder as to how many parallel universes there are around us.  The answer is basically... infinite.

Every time you make a decision, your world plays out to follow through with that decision, but other worlds simultaneously play out in which you decided otherwise; you simply don't experience them.  When you were conceived, and your gender was chosen, another world simultaneously ran (and continues to run) to play out your alternative gender.  Other universes are also created, in combination of alternatives for others and yourself.  For example, if we consider two twins, we have 4 possible combinations of universes.  If we expand the scope to include all the babies conceived on the same day, we have an extremely large number of universes created.  We only experience one.

What this means is that when something tragic happens, such as the death of a loved one, another universe simultaneously plays out in which that person does not die.  When it's your turn for a major illness, car accident, failed parachute... in theory, your consciousness will lead you into the universes in which you survive.

This is the idea proposed by both Hans Moravec (1987) and Bruno Marchal (1988), who coincidentally, independently, constructed the idea of "quantum suicide."  If you fight in a heavy battle in war, you will simultaneously survive and get killed at the same time, so somebody will be reading the sad story of your demise, but fear not, you will only experience victory!

According to the theory of many universes, you will always be led into paths that lead to life, and will become the oldest person in the universe, but we all end up conscious in different universes...

All right, so it sounds too good to be true, and it probably is.  What if the engine in your flight fails, or you are  trapped underwater through some extreme misfortune?  At what point are you led away from the universe?  It seems like it would be too late in these situations to have any probability for survival.  Is there some sort of manipulation to ensure that you are led out of these situations in the first place?  It seems that it would be too manipulated of a universe for you to always escape the clutches of the grim reaper.

I would not put my money on the idea of living forever, but if I did, I wouldn't lose it until my tragic demise.

 In short, don't make dumb decisions and assume that this idea will work out.  I don't want to be cited as an inspiration for unsafe behavior.

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

The Importance of Philosophy

This link will give you one of the most fascinating learning experiences for young 6-yr old children.  Children discuss very abstract thought that pertains to understanding big ideas about where feelings come from.  Perhaps the word choice is not yet developed, but as they grow and mature, it will certainly come.

We all learn philosophy, directly or indirectly.  We know that if it rains, you will get wet.  If you walked outside a building and did not get wet, then it is not raining.  We used a posteriori (experience driven) knowledge to draw this conclusion.

We know that the Sun will "rise" in the morning today, tomorrow, and every day for the rest of our lives.  We used a priori (rational) knowledge to predict this bold conclusion.

Every subject area follows rules of logic.  In math, you must know that when you add 2 objects to 2 other objects, you get 4 objects.  Of course, we know this is not always true.  If you add 1 raindrop to another, you get 1 bigger raindrop, but this is a relatively moot point.

Knowledge occurs either through experience or reason.  Everything you truly understand required one of those 2 conditions; often both.  You might think that you know that F= ma, but if you did not reason the meaning of the equation or experience a lab showing this, you do not really know it.

It amazes me that never in the pursuit of a high school diploma, does philosophy come up as an important subject area.  It is just as important as reading, writing and arithmetic.  Philosophy begs the question of why we take it for granted that 2+2 = 4, or that the Sun rises every morning.  Philosophy is the foundation for any real knowledge; it is also the common link for all Wikipedia articles.  Try clicking on the first link of any Wiki article, not including terms in parentheses or disambiguations.  Repeat this several times, and eventually you will find philosophy.

You cannot truly understand how we know that a scientific "fact" is true without understanding the roots behind it.  Everything you read in a science textbook was either derived mathematically (reason) or experimentally tested several times without failure (experience).  You must also understand that nothing you have learned in science is a true "fact."  The concept of force was created to make it easier to understand how to predict an object's motion.  Momentum was created to help predict collision results.  Energy was created to determine how fast an object could travel given certain parameters.

You cannot truly understand that 6 million Jews died in the Holocaust without understanding the writings of eyewitnesses who saw it happen (experience), or without understanding the mathematical analysis used to compute such number (reason).

You cannot truly understand that a sentence must contain a noun and a verb without understanding that a statement lacking such is useless (reason), or that writing would be difficult to understand without such components (experience and reason).  You also know that even with such parameters, a sentence can still be meaning less.  Ex:  Colorless green ideas sleep furiously (famously stated by Noam Chomsky).  Sure, there is a noun and verb but it is utterly meaningless.

Experience and reason are the key henchmen for philosophy; they enforce the creation of knowledge that we take for granted.  Any time you struggle to accomplish a learning goal, it is because you lack the appropriate knowledge or experience to fuel such knowledge.  Nothing you learn in school is "new" information; it is simply a reorganization of things you already understand.  You understand that waves exist because you hear them; you understand that the derivative of x^2 is 2x because you know what both equations look like and there was never a time in mathematics where the "correct" answer is not consistent with what you know (unless you are confused).

In order for more effective education, I firmly believe that philosophy should be of utmost importance to learners as young as Kindergarten and 1st grade.  It should be a core subject, for all real knowledge is built through understanding how knowledge is built.

Is the glass half empty or half full?  Neither.  It is twice the volume of the fluid inside.

The Insignificance of the Debate Between Bill Nye and Ken Ham

On February 4, 2014, Bill Nye [the Science Guy], formerly known for his television show that explains various principles of science, took part in a debate versus Ken Ham, the president of the Creation Museum. The questions pertained to whether or not our species was created by an intangible, abstract entity, or through a slow process that involved the natural selection of the environment's optimal species.  As expected, the scientist's views demonstrated stronger, more consistent, empirical and statistical evidence.

The question of how humanity started is ultimately a scientific question, not a religious one.  Here's why:

Science answers questions that we know we can answer.  The origin of humanity can be traced, and   although there may not be a perfectly determined "right" answer, there are clearly "wrong" answers.  Stating that we were created by falling out of a storm cloud is not supported through any experimental knowledge that scientists have generated.  Stating that it took millions of years is consistent with how other modern species developed, as well as the age of the fossils of our evolutionary ancestors.  Carbon dating has done wonders in showing a relatively accurate age of ancient rocks and fossils.  Our knowledge of plate tectonics shows that geological patterns occurred in the same time period as the species that correspond to the different parts of the planet.  Science has made amazing ground in answering a question that was once thought unanswerable.

Religion has no place in trying to trump the findings of science.  Religion, unlike science, cannot change and adapt views when a better theory is found.  Scientists, on the other hand, are eager to find a better explanation than they have already found.  Religious institutions generally fear such improvement.  Ham's argument seemed mostly focused on the idea that we are not capable of judging the interpretation of the data.  I feel like this is an evasive position that does not take charge of the consistency of found information.

Ham seemed to try to associate his faith within the realm of scientists.  He cited examples of notable scientists and inventors who believed in the 6,000 yr old planet.  I do not find this to be convincing because the world is a very large place, and there will always be a few PhD-caliber persons who believe something different than the majority of PhD caliber individuals.  My own physics advisor in college, I suspect, would side with Ham on this issue.  This does not mean that we as citizens cannot dispute such position.  Even peer reviewed journals will publish such ideas.  Although peer reviewed journals require an extensive process, it does not prevent any idea from being published (that would be censorship, to which I also oppose).  Of course, what about the solid majority of scientists who do not accept Creationism (99.9% according to Donald Prothero's Reality Check)?

Nye previously stated a couple of years before that "Creationism is not appropriate for children."  He is exactly right; the product is an instilled set of values that are not consistent with other worldly observations.  In 2nd grade, I looked at a world map and felt like I could put together all the continents like a jigsaw puzzle.  5 years later, I would find that this is one of the arguments for plate tectonics.  Kids should be focused on learning relatively factual information; information that is inductively/deductively proven.  They should be told the potential sources of error of such arguments.  The world is much safer when children learn self-consistent information that fosters future thinking about systems, and I think it is a generally fun process when what you learn is consistent with prior knowledge.

It may seem that I am trying to dismantle the entire institution of religion.  I do believe that religion has a place in society, but I think that place needs reformation.  Religion has every right to foster the development of interpersonal values.  In order for society to function cooperatively, social organization is of great necessity.

Religion should not focus on trying to concretely answer descriptive questions; it is instead the role of the institution to foster moral values, promote humanist, altruistic behavior, organize charities and promote love and peace.  There is no reason for the church to even have to answer a question that has been answered in a way upon which most scientists generally agree.

Ultimately, this debate does not close any gaps between science and religion.  It reminds us of the societal dysfunction that remains from furnishing descriptively inaccurate tales, and presenting them to young children, who in turn pass them along to future generations.  Ham will never concede his counter-factual claims, and generally, individuals who militantly defend the Bible will not open up to new information.  Science is what predicts and prevents natural disasters; science is what allows us to determine how increased carbon emissions affect global temperature.  Science is what makes up our bodies; science is what tells us how to live longer; science explains what we can confirm we know.