Sunday, May 3, 2015

Cultural Diversity: A Problem for Extraterrestrial Contact

What is the wisest method to approach an extraterrestrial civilization?

C U L T U R A L    C O N V E R G E N CE

If convergent evolution on Earth is an indication of what we might find in planets with conditions like ours, we can predict the existence of a species on a twin Earth with metacognition (self-awareness), an analog to the prefrontal cortex and manual dexterity. This article tries to predict how would an alien,"warp-capable" civilisation approach humanity if they found us. As it turns out, supposing they were not all that similar to us or possessed different kinds of intellect, all life as we know it, shares something primordial: the survival instinct, and intelligent life, most likely, survival logic. This last one is fundamental for the hypotheses presented here.

W H E N   W I L L  W E   '' P H I S I C A L L Y ''   M E E T   T H E M ?

Are we centuries or millennia away from building a ''faster'' than light spaceship? Consider the recent announcement made by Sonny White from NASA revealing a new design for the Alcubirre drive (the real warp drive), in a paper entitled ''Warp Field Mechanics 101'' that reduces the energy requirement of the theoretical drive from the total mass-energy of a planet the size of Jupiter, down to the mass-energy of Voyager-1 (700 kilograms). Some years ago this technology was eons away; just think about scooping a Jupiter and squeezing it into a reaction chamber. Today the problem is no longer the amount of energy but the type it requires: a different kind called negative vacuum energy that we currently have no technology to harvest.  But scientific progress comes with breakthroughs; if not, check this article from Engage! Warp Drive Could Become Reality with Quantum-Thruster Physics

On the contrary, others argue that beings capable of traveling faster than light could have only learnt to do so at such an advanced state of technological and scientific development when they become super intelligent and uninterested in something as primitive as humanity. But how certain can we be about this supposition? What if FTL travel, as the previous paragraph argues, doesn't really require us becoming a type II or type III civilization in the Kardashev Scale? Will FTL travel turn out to be something like the discovery of nuclear fission, completely changing our history?

So let's assume that "superluminal" travel is possible, that with the right mathematical equation a loophole exists in the forbidding amounts of energy  that would otherwise be required for warp travel and that more than a couple civilizations have developed it and know of our existence. How would they approach humanity?

A P P R O A C H I N G   T H E   Q U E S T I O N 

Obviously it is more difficult to speculate about the very different ones shaped by environments radically different to our own than predicting the behavior of our ''convergent'' extraterrestrials, since we are our only point of reference. By convergent I don't mean human looking aliens but let's just say a convergence on our ability to reason and understand reality. Nevertheless, the question more honestly becomes how would we deal with them, were we the aliens? This is an anthropocentric perspective and you can say limited because we can't be certain that those who will find us first will be anything like man. Yet, paradoxically, we can assume that those more keen on approaching humanity would be more willing to shake a hand like theirs than the tentacles one star system away.

Not to say that of the tentacle beings, who would find it harder to empathize with creepy looking creatures like humans,  we might only meet the dust of annihilation. On a side note, actually we might not, isn't it illogical to think that an extraterrestrial civilization capable of FTL travel would find it convenient to take away Earth's resources, when they abundantly exist elsewhere. Aren't we made of stardust?

For the next thought experiment we become the aliens. Does this have any merit? It does. As mentioned at the beginning, a synonym of "intelligent" life, in the different forms it could take, is probably "survival logic" and this is what drives us in the scenario below.

T H E   T H O U G H T   E X P E R I M E N T:  U S  A P P R O A C H I N G  T H E M

So to begin, let's imagine that the quantum thrusters mentioned earlier become a reality by 2050. By 2060 we have the first FTL interstellar probe. This changes our place in the universe, for ever.

We can reach Alpha Centauri in two weeks. So we set out on several missions to look for habitable planets and extraterrestrial civilizations. The ones we locate within 40 light years are ''primitive'' except one: an advanced civilization in Tau Ceti living on a planet very similar to the Earth. They have started colonization of their planet's two satellites and have small settlements in two of their neighboring planets but they are not superluminal yet; they use chemical rockets for propulsion and their interplanetary transit is small. They could be just decades behind us living in a retro version of space expansion (in the 70's), that on Earth didn't come to be.  If you think about it, it's a bit frightening; they could already have the atom bomb. How dangerous would they be with a "warp ship" carrying nuclear missiles? I don't think we would choose to go down and have a cultural and scientific exchange without observing them first and assessing the situation. Right? Even though we would want to find every reason to do so, given the eagerness for contact,  it wouldn't be wise or prudent.

The mission is instructed not to contact a planet where intelligent life is detected immediately but to return to the Earth to asses their situation here.

So here are some of the questions that arise at the United Nations (just think it possible for our world leaders to discuss the subject openly not wanting to plan secret agendas):


First how do they look like? Let's assume they are humanoid-looking mammals, living on a convergent Earth, a planet born under conditions identical to ours. This would be an important question because if they look like us, they would better be able relate to humanity. We think cats, dogs, dolphins and monkeys are cute, they are mammals like we are. For the majority of humans it is more difficult to be fond of beings with scales or eight legs. How would we find out, without being noticed? We could first try to observe them at isolated areas, perhaps a small island or an arctic region where small communities live, we have to be as discrete as possible. We launch a small drone to take pictures at night or early in the morning (if they sleep). It is wise for our ship to be constantly on the move. We don't want to be shot down for airspace invasion.

We find ourselves with a multicultural world, very much like our own. We need only see how different their cities look from above, they could be from different planets. We used to think of contacting aliens as contacting one people, this is far from reality.

What is the state of their world? Peace or global conflict? Do we observe something that would resemble military bases? With our warp drive we can move from place to place almost instantly, leaving little trail behind us.

The most logical next step, is an effort to tap into their communications network or their version of the internet. Observation continues over the years. Back on Earth everyone is talking about them. Is contact wise? Extraterrestrial anthropology is born.

 What do they believe in? That's an important question.

Are there different ethnicities down there? Do we happen to be just slightly more similar to one in particular? (Think of the holocaust) By any chance, do we share characteristics with the representations of their gods or demons? Or does evil come from the heavens in their holy books? (Think of religious fundamentalists.) Trust me, you don't want to be a horned alien on Earth.

Have they discovered nuclear fission yet? Could we foresee a time in the near future, when a fraction of this warring world in development, gone interstellar could become a direct threat to the Earth? Because we realize that it doesn't take their whole planet to pose a threat to humanity but a few thinking us sinful or dangerous. We don't necessarily have to think about a war for resources. What about ideological conflicts, their extremist groups? What if an alien violent militant sect decides to build a warp ship underground to deliver us from evil, from ourselves? 

Who is the global power and who could be in power soon? We cannot expect everyone in a multicultural world to like us. It would be even worse to choose to contact them without disclosing the science behind our warp spaceships. Wouldn't they become suspicious of humanity's motives?

There's more than meets the eye. If they live in a state of global conflict, could they be covertly developing technologies and weapons that could change the course of their history and ours? 

What deadly viruses or bacteria could they carry?

If we did choose to make contact, would we send a global message or choose one country to contact first? As mentioned, We think of an extraterrestrial civilization as a unit but just look at the Earth.

T H E   R E S O L U T I O N

So if the missions to this world could be in fact regulated and nothing kept secret, if the subject could be discussed with transparency at the UN. Would everyone agree with a resolution of no contact? Think of the military industrial complex. Do you think it likely for them to, secretly, choose different for their own interest?

Here comes the interesting part...

If the military industrial complex, secretly chose to approach them or if the UN eventually chose to send ambassadors. This would probably be most appropriate course of action: Wouldn't it be easier to set our own terms of negotiation for cultural exchange, to expose ourselves, by first contacting and befriending power, in secret? Power has access to resources and information, all we wanted to know.


Wouldn't that be the intelligence and military industrial complex of the country or countries in ''control''? And this does sound like the alien conspiracy theory, but surprisingly it happens to make more sense than thinking they would show up in front of everyone and tell us everything about them. 

''If you want my loyalty then you have to offer yours in return''

Could that be the galactic process for planetary contact? Ally with power and after global unification has been achieved then reveal yourself to the rest or risk a multitude of unexpected and uncontrollable responses to your presence.

It is that or wiping us/them out.

What do you think?

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

The Fascinating Worlds of the Milky Way

With over 100 billion Earth-like planets now thought to exist in the Milky Way, the possibilities for worlds that escape our imagination seem endless. These are some of the fascinating, naturally occurring and physically possible habitable worlds of our galaxy, some of which writers have imagined and others which scientists have predicted:

1. Rocheworlds

Two planets so close together they share a common atmosphere.

The idea comes from the novel of the same name:
Rocheworld (first published as The Flight of the Dragonfly), in which mankind's first interstellar mission, set to reach Barnard's Star,finds this unimaginable place.

How? Ever seen that scene from The Time Machine movie (2002) in which the lunar demolitions set our Moon off orbit and is it approaches the Earth it starts breaking up? It disintegrates as a result of having reached the Roche limit: the point in which the Moon's gravity (83.3% less than Earth's) is no longer sufficient to make it hold itself together due our planet's stronger gravity exceeding that of the Moon, ripping it off.

Secene from the The Time Machine (2002)

However, in theory, if you had two planets with roughly the same gravity (same mass and density), their Roche limit would be sufficiently small for both to be close enough to share a common atmosphere. Their mutual gravitational influence would also make them slightly egg-shaped.

Artist's impression of a contact binary star. Source: Astrobites

Astronomers know of the existence of contact binary stars, orbs so close together that they touch each other or have merged their gaseous envelopes; when it comes planets, also massive bodies, they are subject to the same gravitational forces. Among the billions of habitable worlds thought to be in our galaxy, one or more, out there, could be a Rocheworld. 

2. Naturally Occurring Habitable Rings

The notion of a habitable gas torus is presented by Larry Niven in the "The Integral Trees" and its sequel "The Smoke Ring"; this remarkable environment consists of a gas torus, one million km thick, around an old neutron star. The torus is created from the captured atmosphere of a gas giant which orbits the star just outside the Roche limit. Most of it is too thin to be habitable but its central part has enough pressure to support life.

The torus contains numerous globs of water and tidally locked, radially oriented "integral trees" which are up to 100 km long. The leafy tuft ends of the trees, subject to gale-force winds curve into the shape of an integral symbol ∫ (see illustration below). These wind forces also push water and nutrients into the tufts. Being there no up or down, the animals of the torus posses trilateral symmetry allowing them to see in all directions. 

Neutron stars are supernova remnants, so how did a gas giant survive a supernova? Perhaps, it formed after the stellar explosion or was later captured by the star. A habitable gas torus is an incredible idea, indeed, but if life is widespread in the universe, it could end adapting itself to unexpected places. 

Don't worry, those are human colonists and not mermaid like aliens.

Source: Strip Generator

Illustration of an integral tree. Voy is an abbreviation for Levoy's Star, 
the neutron star around which Larry Niven's habitable smoke ring orbits.
Credit: Wikimedia Commons

3. Super-Habitable Worlds

How habitable is our planet when you consider its hot and cold deserts that cover 1/3rd of its land surface area? On our Terra the diversity of life increases at the tropics, as you get closer to the equator.  Now imagine a world with tropical zones extending higher in latitude: a warmer and larger Earth with shallower waters in-between fractionate continents and archipelagos. 

Shallow oceans would give birth to immense coral reef systems. In contrast, little sunlight reaches the average depth of Earth's seabed, poor in food resources, where large populations of big animals are not supported. Smaller and more evenly distributed continents would be more habitable whilst large land masses have large inhospitable areas in their interiors. The former would produce a greater variety of lifeforms and probably of tropical paradisaical beaches; in other words what could be called Eden worlds. 

The World artificial archipelago in Dubai helps illustrate the idea.


Source: Wikimedia Commons

4. Double Habitable Planets 

Think of replacing our moon with a Mars-sized or Earth-sized planet and spacing them so that they orbit a common center of gravity that lies outside the Earth. You'd probably get two stable habitable worlds. If we lived in such a system the first lunar landing would've been a lot more interesting and hopefully peaceful, if intelligent life had convergently evolved at both sides. During early asteroid collisions, life from one planet could migrate to the other by the process of panspermia. 

Two habitable planets, which might be common in our galaxy,
rotating around their common center of gravity.
Credit: Wikimedia Commons

For humans, direct contact with alien life is light years away but for many extraterrestrials civilizations out there it could be at the distance of one Apollo mission. How likely are these type of worlds? Researchers simulated how would two Earth-sized planets orbiting a star interact once they got close enough to each other. In one third of the simulations they formed binary systems, looming extraordinarily close to one other (separated by half the diameter of each of the worlds!). These binary formations can persist for billions of years: Binary Earth-Size Planets Possible Around Distant Stars

In the fictional universe of the critically acclaimed re-imagined Battlestar Galactica TV series (2004) and miniseries (2003), the capital world Caprica forms a double habitable planet with its twin Gemenon. Credit: Battlestar Wiki

5. Super-Habitable Solar Systems

How many stable habitable planets could be packed in a single solar system? According to astrophysicist Sean of the Bordeaux Observatory, up to 60, if you include a pair of binary stars, warm gas giants with multiple habitable moons and habitable double planets.

"I admit that it would be extremely fortuitous for nature to produce a system that was so spectacular," says Raymond. "Still, each piece of the system is plausible and even expected from simulations of planetary formation."

We heard of the detection of three habitable planets around Gliese 667 C. How many more could naturally occur around stars? Humans are only left with the option of terraformation but perhaps somewhere in our galaxy, an extraterrestrial civilization lives in a super-habitable solar system traveling between a dozen of culturally diverse worlds. The twelve colonies of Kobol or the Firefly 'Verse could be out there.

And perhaps, systems with a single habitable planet, like ours, are uncommon, the exception to the rule. 

Read more: Ultimate solar system could contain 60 Earths

The three Super-Earths of Gliese 667C. Image Credit: ESO

6. Eyeball Earths

Most of the stars in our galaxy are red dwarfs. This cooler stars have their habitable zones closer in; this increased proximity would make planets in this area tidally locked. One of their hemispheres would be dry and bathed in eternal sunlight and the other eternally dark and frozen. In between, a ring, friendly to life, could exist. Colder Eyeball-Earths, closer to the outer end of the habitable zone, would be white frozen water worlds with a pool of blue liquid water on the starlit side, making them look even more like eyeballs.

Image Credit: Beau.TheConsortium

7. Tatooine-like Worlds

We knew they could exist but just now, we've found out that they are likely common in our Milky Way. Gas giants had already been spotted orbiting binary stars but it was thought that the gravitational forces around these pairs would make it too chaotic for Earth-like planets to orbit them; however, a new study led by author Ben Bromley, of the University of Utah, suggests otherwise. From the results of computer simulations the author said that "It is just as easy to make an Earth-like planet around a binary star as it is [to do so] around a single star like our sun,"

Image Credit: Ben Bromley, University of Utah

8. Earth-like planets with eccentric orbits

Think of Earth's seasons taken to the extreme. Worlds, with eccentric elliptical orbits where life goes into hibernation for years to be reawakened when the planet passes close to the star. You are in trouble, if you find yourself stranded in such a world at the beginning of spring, just before its giant deadly creatures revive.

File:Eccentric Habitable Zones.jpg
Image Credit: NASA

9. Habitable Exomoons

They couldn't be missing. These are moons of Jupiter-like worlds sheltering closer in the warmth of their incandescent source of life. Gas giants in the habitable zone were liquid water could flow on their moons. Worlds with night skies brightly lit by their Jupiters and their satellites or by the surely breathtaking rings of their Saturns.

Source: Wikimedia Commons

Pandora by seyrii
Pandora from the movie Avatar by seyrii. Source: Deviantart 

What other odd worlds will we soon envision if not soon confirm? What revelations await us? Hopefully once SETI tunes into that galactic internet, Frank Drake believes advanced civilizations have created, we will know more.

10 - 100,000,000,000 ?