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Marvels of Space and Time…


Marvels of Space and Time…

[David Brin is an astrophysicist, futurist, best-selling author, tech-consultant, and speaker. David's international best-selling novels include The Postman, Earth, and Existence. To read more of David's blog posts, novels, and short stories, visit the Contrary Brin blog and David's website.]

Courtesy of David BrinContrary Brin

Let's take a break from the absurd reality show that is Earthly politics, and look instead skyward where — it seems every week, sometimes daily — we keep seeing fantastic evidence of what human civilization can do. Seriously, you readers who express fascination and pride, as you scan the wonders below… do you ever ask how you can be of the same species as our neighbors who spew hatred of science? Whose hearts have been hardened to such awe and beauty?

Even on the level of theology these things blare out what greatness we're beginning to achieve, and how blessed we are to be apprentices, understanding and learning  and now practicing the craft of Creation.

Proselytize. I mean it. Make your neighbors lift their heads. Help them to see.


Jupiter: Juno Perijove 06 from Sean Doran on Vimeo.

Simply stunning. An unprecedented video stitched together from Junocam pictures as our probe's ellipse takes it diving toward one pole of Jupiter to skate over the cloud tops and race by the other pole, almost touching the stormy vortex before plunging back out again.  The embellished addition… "Atmospheres" from 2001 a Space Odyssey… adds to the awe.

The Solar Probe Plus (SPP) mission will dive into the Sun’s atmosphere. Dive… into the sun. The first ever mission to get near the sun, is set to launch by summer 2018. The spacecraft will go into orbit within 4 million miles of the surface of the sun. Behind a carbon composite heat shield, the solar powered mission will pump heat to radiators… conceptually related to the technique that I wrote about in… Sundiver.

In October 2022, as a binary pair of asteroids makes an approach near Earth, NASA will launch a refrigerator-sized spacecraft to strike Didymos Bat 3.7 miles per second. Scientists will study the impact and the effect is has on Didymos B’s orbit around Didymos A, to determine whether this technique is a feasible method for saving the planet from asteroids that could otherwise have devastating impacts.  Doing this near Earth allows precise radar measurements. Still…

Born as twins? New evidence suggests that most star systems probably begin as binaries that then either draw together or drift apart.

A galaxy with two – count em – two supermassive black holes orbiting each other.  Long predicted, and now discovered. Wow. 

Astrophysicist and author Ethan Siegel offers up a brief essay on Forbes about our need, in less than a billion years, to start moving the Earth outward, to keep it habitable at the Sun continues to warm.  Ethan describes the energetics problem fairly well… but doesn’t offer even a smidgeon of an idea of how this mighty feat might be accomplished.  Fortunately… I do.

There may be 10,000 hypervelocity blue stars that escaped from the Large Magellanic Cloud (LMC) when their binary companions exploded. That velocity, added to the speed of the LMC itself, could account for their blazing sprints, and why we spot them along a general line leading from the LMC to the constellations of Leo and Sextans.  Since blue stars only have short lives, this means there may be up to a million of their remnants — neutron stars or black holes — speeding along the same general path.

Ohy, but our dreams will face obstacles and challenges to overcome. It seems increasingly likely that the surface of Mars is rife with perchlorates, which, when heated or exposed to UV, are really harsh on living organisms. “The Martian” would need a lot more water, just to clean his soil.

METI, SETI and more
In Greetings ET: Please Don't Murder Us: Stephen Johnson offers an excellent and thoughtful review of the METI [Messages to Extra Terrestrial Intelligence] argument — which appeared in the New York Times Magazine in June, 2017.  My one carp is that the author did not cover how humanity has already been learning how to deal with “unusual risks,” through mature methods like the Asilomar Process and NASA’s Planetary Protection Office, which have pioneered ways to reduce both real and moral hazards, while ultimately enhancing, rather than suppressing, humanity’s bold, exploratory spirit.
Thus, asking for Pre-Discussion — before beaming messages to space — is not a zero-sum thing. Such worldwide consultations would be lively, informative, entertaining and ethically just. They would also – very likely – lead to a better (perhaps compromise) decision than leaving all of human destiny up to a narrow cult of over-eager zealots. Seriously, don't leap to a blithe, simplistic opinion on METI!  Start with my paper laying out the pros and cons and the vexing stuff you'll read about nowhere else!

Okay so it pays to wear a variety of hats. In my role as a chief cataloger of hypotheses to explain the “Fermi Paradox” (the puzzling absence of any clear sign of extraterrestrial intelligent life, or ETI), I hadn’t registered on my list the “aestivation hypothesis” – that a sapient species might choose to shut down and hibernate for billions of years, until the cosmos has cooled sufficiently for optimized computational efficiency. 

This notion – offered up by three brainy dudes I know well: Anders SandbergStuart Armstrong and Milan M. Cirkovic – posits that most ETI would care about little else than optimizing computational ability, and hence would nearly all make this choice, rather than while away during the inferno heat of today’s epoch. That’s our current … um… 2.7 degrees Kelvin of the cosmic background radiation temperature, less than three degrees above absolute zero. See their explanation FAQ. And George Dvorsky’s excellent Gizmodo summary.

The value system this requires has been called “dataism” by – among others – Yuval Harari, who claims that humanity is about to make the same shift. Data-ist fetishists – according to Harari – view the entire human race as a complex info-processing system. Human history distills down to a story of improving the system’s efficiency, by increasing the number of processors (humans), increasing the variety of processors (through human specialization and diversity), and improving the connections between the processors (through trade and communication). 

Now our computerized sharing and processing systems are on the verge of a new, exponential leap. If Dataists are right about this then, according to Harari, "homo sapiens is an obsolete algorithm," — as discussed in his latest book Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow.
And yes, if Data-ism is the monolithic religion that our (presumably machine) heirs cherish above all else, then moving to a time and place with more efficient heat sinks might seem nerdishly attractive. To some. (I’ll be posting more about Harari, soon.)
Still, this concept has several flaws, some logical and others that might (I don’t know yet) arise from physics.

1) In his epic tome The Physics of Immortality,  the brilliant Tulane physicist Frank Tipler offered a stunning, baroque, complex and enticing (and Hugo Award-worthy) view of a far distant era when (hypothetically) the entire known universe comes back together into a Big Crunch. (This notion of an Big Anti-Bang, which for a decade had been thought extinct, is now being revived in new versions of the Cyclical Universe. Really?  My head spins.) 
Tipler posited that during the last few million years before the final crunch, all the sapient races in the universe would combine knowledge and have available near infinite computational power that would let them simulate any degree of subjective reality. Literally any degree, offering virtual immortality and the resurrection (by simulation) of most of their ancestors. (That last bit would require tens of pages for me to explain; trust me, it’s amazing.)
All of which is pertinent to the notion offered by Anders, Stuart and Milan in one way… because Tipler posited infinite computability in the very hot, collapsing universe, not in the very cold expanding one.  I await clarification of this dichotomy.
2) The aestivation hypothesis is another version of the Delay Paradox for interstellar travel (illustrated in my story “The Avalon Probes,” in INSISTENCE OF VISION.  If you are getting better at launching ever faster ships, that can out-race last year’s models, when does it make sense to actually launch one?  Likewise, while you may get better at computation in a colder universe, you are foregoing all the computation that you might accomplish, if you just kept cranking away during the warmer times. (See my short story “The Warm Space,” in OTHERNESS.)
3) Then there is the Danger Problem.  If you ignore the physical world in favor of dataism, you may be surprised by something that erupts in objective reality and bites you, while you slept in search of better (computational) times. Billions of years, during which some upstart NON-dataist race goes booming across the galaxy, building and delving and mining and making both love and war. Can you be sure they won’t find your aestivation chamber and… well.. at-best wake you up?  Or at-worst…
Not to say this isn’t clever! A number of the sub-concepts can be seen in Liu Cixin’s wonderful novel The Three Body Problem, including a species that aestivates through hard times.

Naturally, I have a story about that

I mentioned wearing many hats. Well, as an astrophysicist and SETI scholar, I had not considered the aestivation possibility.  On the other hand, here’s an extract from my (Hugo winning) 1985 short story “The Crystal Spheres" (from The River of Time):

Better, by far, to stay young until the universe finally becomes a fun place to enjoy!
To wait for that day, the races who came before us sleep at the edge of their time-stretched black hole. Within, they abide to welcome us; and we shall sit out, together, the barren early years of the galaxies.
Ah, well, sometimes art precedes science!

And more wonders?
WOW SIGNAL solved? Forty years ago, astronomer Jerry Ehman using Ohio State University's Big Ear radio telescope, pointed at a group of stars called Chi Sagittarii in the constellation Sagittarius and captured a 72 second burst of radio that has puzzled SETI searchers. Now Antonio Paris, of St Petersburg College, claims to have an explanation. A pair of comets were in that general part of sky. At the time, 266P/Christensen and 335P/Gibbs, were emitting clouds of ionized hydrogen gas millions of kilometers in diameter. Paris claims this led to the radio signal.
Alas, this “explanation” is an amateur speculation by someone who doesn’t seem to have much understanding of radio astronomy.  Or of comets. This caustic response of one RA fellow (on reddit) casts plenty of shade.

I’m not quite so quick to utterly dismiss the idea. The ionized tails of comets are pretty fierce and occasionally do emit noteworthy radio. Still, radio astronomer and SETI pioneer Dan Werthimer says: “the wow signal was almost certainly RFI (Radio Frequency Interference from man-made sources) modulated in power that happens to be close to the beam pattern response of the telescope. We see these signals all the time.” 

 In other words, this widely circulated “paper” offers an initially cool idea that fails to rise to the “5% plausible” test.  Experts aren’t always right and minority-impudent theories are fun, even occasionally correct. I concoct plenty of em! But this is one that bears lots more burden of proof than is being met.

And finally

On June 3, 2017, a mysterious U.S. spy satellite did a close flyby of the International Space Station.

And finally… ah, sci fi. This is tasty cover art (by Steve Stone) for The Winds of Dune by Brian Herbert and Kevin J. Anderson. But argh, can we think a little? Commenter Mike Gannis asks:

(1) Look at the woman's shadow. Look at the illumination of the moons. Where the hell is the sun?

(2) The moons might last as long as five or six orbits before one either is ejected or crashes into the planet.

Still, there's a level where you answer… who cares? It sure is pretty.

Visit David Brin's Contrary Brin blog, website, biography, books/novels, and short stories. David Brin's nonfiction book about the information age –The Transparent Society – won the Freedom of Speech Award of the American Library Association. Check out his stories and books.

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