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Carina Nebula (courtesy NASA). Click to enlarge

Does anyone recall the scene in the movie “Independence Day”, when Will Smith discovered an alien spacecraft that worked and behaved exactly like a modern fighter jet? Perhaps you remember the scene in Star Wars where aircraft marshallers, used internationally recognised signals to bring the rebel craft to a halt? Clichés dominate most blockbuster science-fiction. How many times have we seen cargo ramps, flashing lights, handheld heat sensors and all the other standard accoutrements of “alien” technology? How many times have aliens been depicted as immature humanoids with long arms, wide eyes and oversized heads? The recent movie Avatar*, portrays alien creatures so similar to us they would easily beat our close genetic cousins, the chimpanzees, into a distant second place. All of this indicates that we have very limited set of ideas of what aliens might really look like.

To understand what alien contact might resemble, it is worth considering the cargo cults that popped up in the more remote regions of the South Pacific during the 1940’s. American servicemen landed on the islands in order to create airfields to help in the war effort. The local tribespeople had never before encountered modern civilisation. They were thus hurled from the stone age to the 21st Century in a matter of moments. They had no language to describe guns, airplanes, bombs and helicopters, chocolate, radios or uniforms. Long after the airmen left, the natives would cut out clearings, set up mock landing strips out of wood and whatever material they could muster, in order to usher back the sky gods who provided them with all this weird and wonderful cargo.

It is likely therefore that no words in any language could properly describe a real alien visitation. We would be dealing with something beyond the limits of our imagination. A thousand assumptions about extraterrestrials would be blown away instantly. This would be especially the case if we were dealing with a civilization thousands, even millions, of years more advanced than us.

The likelihood of aliens looking anything like us is, in my opinion, vanishingly small. We humans are products of planet Earth: its dynamics, its chemical processes, its biology and its history. It’s important to realise this when considering the possible differences between Earth and an alien world. There would be differences in temperatures and temperature ranges, ages, rotational periods, revolutionary periods, planet sizes, atmospheric compositions, atmospheric pressures, solar strengths, orbital eccentricities, axial inclinations and wind speeds, to name but a few factors. Complicating this even further would be the biological systems on another living planet. Different lifeforms would compete remorselessly, creating a diversity of biological forms that would be perfectly matched to niches suitable to their home planet’s environment. Other elements such as the frequency of mass-extinctions or climate change events would also drive the eventual form of life on this planet.

The resulting differences might be enormous. Our alien counterparts could be kilometers wide or smaller than a mite. They might live their lives over a period of millennia or merely a few seconds.  The alien “mind” might be a single entity, or distributed across multiple independent units. Emotions might not exist. Language might not exist. Empathy might not exist. Consciousness might exist on a completely different level to our own. They might be receptive to a completely different part of the electromagnetic spectrum – infrared, ultraviolet or radio waves. Suffice to say that Star Trek, with it’s bumpy headed, American accented aliens, is not the template we should choose.

Of course there are people who believe that intelligent life would, by necessity, converge on the human form. Processes such as convergent evolution might drive creatures to behave and look similarly to creatures on our planet. Others would say that intelligent life could only possibly exist on a world almost identical to our own. These are possibilities certainly, but my feelings are that, in order to thrive, life does not require perfection, just sufficient conditions for survival. After that it’s anyone’s guess what the path of development might be.

So we are left with a real conundrum. There may not be intelligent aliens out there at all, but if there were and if they were capable of making their way across the vast distances between the stars to meet us, it may not be possible to relate to them in any practical way. If SETI ever discovers anomalous signals, or if they show up unannounced on our front door some day, we are in for quite a treat, but it’s unlikely we will understand them when they ask us to take them to our leader.

* To be fair to James Cameron, making his creatures humanoid was deliberate. Falling in love with a jellyfish like creature** does not, after all, make for great cinema.

** I know, I know. Galaxy Quest. Shhh!

Ooh, ooh, ooh! I just had to do this, even if they don’t actually have a country called Ireland listed… I had to sign myself in as a Brit to do this! Generations of my ancestors are already spinning in their graves no doubt..

Here’s the finished product: what’s yours?

Murphy McCloud

Here’s where you need to go.

(Via Friendly Atheist)

Shrek the Third

Just before I left Canada, I went to see “Shrek the Third” with my son and nephew.

Let me ask this – why do sequels (and, in this case, sequels of sequels) always become so lame? I mean, the characters of Shrek, Fiona and Donkey are well developed enough for a hundred Shrek movies, but the plot – AAAARGH. It’s now becoming a question of “how long can we string together enough one-liners to make a full movie?”.

Not that the one-liners or humorous scenes were particularly bad – they were often quite good – especially Puss in Boots’ helpful advice to Shrek on him realising that Fiona was pregnant (and no – I haven’t spoilt it yet – what did you expect after Shrek II? A divorce? Wait ’til Shrek IV..), it’s just that the story was so flimsy it could have been invented by a five-year old. Hmmm. Maybe that’s why my movie companions enjoyed it a bit more that me..

What I particularly enjoyed about the first Shrek was the black humour. Who can forget the scene with the exploding bird? Nothing of the sort sullies this screenplay, so we are left with a rather “safe” movie that the whole family can enjoy – aaaah. In this movie all the bad guys are seen as misunderstood and more interested in gardening than being evil. Oh diddums.

I’m beginning to think that Pixar have it right. Produce a kick-ass animated movie like Monsters Inc., or The Incredibles and then leave it alone! If you really want to extend the franchise with lame plots and one-liners, then TV’s your only man.

I’ve gone on far too long. I have. This is the reason I wrote it. I’ll finish now.

Flikr image by 3water. Reproduced under Creative Commons license

A new cinema is opening in my home-town today, and one movie I really want to see is the Al Gore documentary “An Inconvenient Truth“. I’m sure I’ve got a fairly good idea of the content already without knowing much about it: things are looking bad, here’s one piece of evidence, here’s another, here’s another (oh no), here’s another (enough already), here’s another (oh please, please), here’s another (aah – where’s the razor blades?), here’s what we are doing about it at the moment (not very much), here’s what the major powers are doing about it (climate change, what climate change?), here’s what it all means if we continue to ignore it (death, and doom and destruction and lots of awful yucky things), and finally the inevitable “here’s what we can all do about it”.

Now it’s the last bit that intrigues me the most. What can we do about something like this?

The stock answer is simple. We all get together and co-operate to make things better. Simple in principle. Devilishly complicated in practice.

When I was a kid, the priest at Mass would exhort us to be better people – to reach out to poor people who were less well off than us. They used to plead to people about making changes in their lives to create a more just society. And do you think people listened? Did they heck…

Arguments and exhortations to change are just not very effective. Treaties and agreements are often short term in nature, breaking down when the circumstances change. There are around 200 countries in the world, and do you think they can agree on anything? Not particularly. The Kyoto protocol, itself a badly watered down compromise, is already practically irrelevant. Indeed, even the Universal Declaration on Human Rights, a common-sense corner-stone of how people should be treated, is blissfully ignored by many governments around the world. The same is the case with the Geneva Convention on prisoners of war, along with many other international agreements that are gathering dust as a result of governmental inaction. It’s not just governments who do not co-operate to make things better. On an individual level, SUV sales have never been so brisk, obesity levels are going through the roof, and none of the major tobacco companies have yet gone bankrupt. It’s the price we pay for having high levels of freedom. We co-operate when we see a personal (often short-term) advantage in doing so, otherwise we are perfectly free to opt out.

Long term agreements to co-operate are ineffective because they often go against very fundamental dynamics in our society. Free co-operation is difficult to achieve, because all you need is one defector to upset the apple-cart. The desire to compete for personal gain and to protect what is ours practically define us as humans. Co-operation often makes sense within this context, but when circumstances change and the effect of co-operation becomes self-defeating, the parties to the agreement quickly start looking for a way out.

The only way long-term co-operation seems to work is when it is imposed from a higher authority. The higher authority says “this is how you must behave”, and if you defect, the higher authority imposes strict penalties against you. To meet the challenge of global change in this context, it seems to me you would need a single world government, and a pretty dictatorial one at that. I’m not sure if too many people would be very happy with this. I certainly wouldn’t be.

Is there an alternative to this? Whatever the answer, it needs to comply with social dynamic models – how humans as a group behave in a relatively free environment. Otherwise, it’s probably a failure from the start. For a solution to be effective in the long term, it needs to be economically valid as well as environmentally valid. Economics will always win if there is a conflict. I think there is an alternative, an incomplete and potentially unjust one, but nevertheless quite an effective one.

Human nature is not that prone to major change, but there is one thing in society that changes at breakneck speed. Because of it, each generation often experiences very different and often improved circumstances, compared to the preceding one. The phenomenon is technology: our ability to bend the natural environment to do our bidding – arguably one of the few core competences that sets us apart from other animals in this world.

Technology is an interesting phenomenon in this context because it changes rapidly, it changes the world rapidly, and most particularly because it fits in with human social dynamics. It thrives in conditions of competition and collaboration and it meets a very basic need within us all – the need to make things better. The advances in computing, genetic engineering, space-science, communications, food-science, medicine and materials science are bewildering and beyond the ken of even the greatest 1930’s science fiction writer. We have achieved massive quality of life improvements in our society in just a few generations by letting the tinkerers free to build on ideas from their peers and fore-runners. Why not see how this impressive intellectual capability could be applied against the greatest threat we face to our existence?

Of course, technology has both good and bad aspects to it. It could be argued that the climate change problem itself is a result of technology in the first place. If we had not discovered the industrial potential of coal and oil, things might be very different today. But, if it has caused the problem, then it’s probably a good starting point for finding some solutions too. Technology already has had a huge effect in changing the environment for the better. We have lower emissions from cars and planes, much more efficient fuel consumption, lower levels of industrial pollution, and many alternatives to oil are already available. Compare, for example, the huge coal-burning industries of the start of the century to the much more efficient modern factories of today.

I’m not saying that we should support technology as a solution to our problems because it is the ideal answer, but because it is probably the most effective answer. Technology has a potential to improve societies that can afford it, while ignoring those that are too poor to do anything about it. It also can make very small numbers of people fabulously wealthy, while huge inequalities exist around the world. It’s not perfect, but what it does have the potential to do is to achieve change rapidly. Technology, combined with a degree of governance, can help to quell some of the excesses.
Where governments and powerful organisations fit in is in helping to create the context within which research into these technologies can be fostered. In normal circumstances, this should have happened already, but the current US administration, in its refusal to accept the dire warnings of the IPCC, has put back the effort by a decade. Vital years have now been wasted that could have been productively spent researching and testing technological solutions and alternatives. The reason I single out the US is because of its position of prominence in world economic thinking. When the US commits itself to a goal, other countries swiftly follow suit, particularly if they sense an opportunity to make money.

So, to meet the challenge of rising sea levels and desertification and all the bad things that are predicted, we need to start thinking about economically valid solutions to the problems we face. I think that these solutions can be found, not through ineffective exhortations to cooperate, but through an environment that gives technologists the resources and freedoms to address the problems of the future.

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