Abiotic Oil or Panspermia – Take Your Pick

Astronomers from the University of Hong Kong investigated infrared emissions from deep space and everywhere they look they find signatures of complex organic matter.

You read that right.  Complex organic molecules; the kind that are the building blocks of life!

How they are created in the stellar infernos is a complete mystery.  The chemical structure of these molecules is similar to that of coal or oil, which, according to mainstream science, come from ancient biological material.

So, there seem to be only two explanations, each of which has astounding implications.

One possibility is that the molecules responsible for these spectral signatures are truly organic, in the biological “earth life” sense of the world.  I don’t think I have to point out the significance of that possibility.  It would certainly give new credence to the panspermia theory, suggesting that we are but distant relatives or descendents of life forms that permeate the universe.  ETs are our brothers.

The other possibility is that these molecules are organic but not of biological origin.  Instead, they are somehow created within the star itself.  Given that they resemble organic molecules in coal and oil, it would seem to indicate that if such molecules can be generated non-biologically in stars, and the earth was created from the same protoplanetary disk that formed our sun, oil and coal are probably also not created from biological organic material.

In other words, this discovery seems to lend a lot of support to the abiotic oil theory.

That or we have evidence that we are not alone.

Either way, a significant find.

Buried in the news.

Things We Can Never Comprehend

Have you ever wondered what we don’t know?  Or, to put it another way, how many mysteries of the universe are still to be discovered?

To take this thought a step further, have you ever considered that there may be things that we CAN’T understand, no matter how hard we try?

This idea may be shocking to some, especially to those scientists who believe that we are nearing the “Grand Unified Theory”, or “Theory of Everything” that will provide a simple and elegant solution to all forces, particles, and concepts in science.  Throughout history, the brightest of minds have been predicting the end of scientific inquiry.  In 1871, James Clerk Maxwell lamented the sentiment of the day which he represented by the statement “in a few years, all great physical constants will have been approximately estimated, and that the only occupation which will be left to men of science will be to carry these measurements to another place of decimals.”

Yet, why does it always seem like the closer we get to the answers, the more monkey wrenches get thrown in the way?  In today’s world, these include strange particles that don’t fit the model.  And dark matter.  And unusual gravitational aberrations in distant galaxies.

Perhaps we need a dose of humility.  Perhaps the universe, or multiverse, or whatever term is being used these days to denote “everything that is out there” is just too far beyond our intellectual capacity.  Before you call me out on this heretical thought, consider…

The UK’s Astronomer Royal Sir Martin Rees points out that “a chimpanzee can’t understand quantum mechanics.”  Despite the fact that Richard Feynman claimed that nobody understands quantum mechanics, as Michael Brooks points out in his recent article “The limits of knowledge: Things we’ll never understand”, no matter how hard they might try, the comprehension of something like Quantum Mechanics is simply beyond the capacity of certain species of animals.  Faced with this realization and the fact that anthropologists estimate that the most recent common ancestor of both humans and chimps (aka CHLCA) was about 6 million years ago, we can draw a startling conclusion:

There are certainly things about our universe and reality that are completely beyond our ability to comprehend!

My reasoning is as follows. Chimps are certainly at least more intelligent than the CHLCA; otherwise evolution would be working in reverse.  As an upper bound of intelligence, let’s say that CHLCA and chimps are equivalent.  Then, CHLCA was certainly not able to comprehend QM (nor relativity, nor even Newtonian physics), but upon evolving into humans over 8 million years, our new species was able to comprehend these things.  8 million years represents 0.06% of the entire age of the universe (according to what we think we know).  That means that for 99.94% of the total time that the universe and life was evolving up to the current point in time, the most advanced creature on earth was incapable of understand the most rudimentary concepts about the workings of reality and the universe.  And yet, are we to suppose that in the last 0.06% of the time, a species has evolved that can understand everything?  I’m sure you see how unlikely that is.

What if our universe was intelligently designed?  The same argument would probably hold.  For some entity to be capable of creating a universe that continues to baffle us no matter how much we think we understand, that entity must be far beyond our intelligence, and therefore has utilized, in the design, concepts that we can’t hope to understand.

Our only chance for being supremely capable of understanding our world would lie in the programmed reality model.  If the creator of our simulation was us, or even an entity a little more advanced than us, it could lead us along a path of exploration and knowledge discovery that just always seems to be on slightly beyond our grasp.  Doesn’t that idea feel familiar?

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Why Worry about ET, Stephen Hawking?

Famous astrophysicist, Stephen Hawking, made the news recently when he called for us to stop attempting to contact ET.  No offense to Dr. Hawking and other scientists who have similar points of view, but I find the whole argument about dangerous ET’s, to use a Vulcan phrase, “highly illogical.”

First of all, there is the whole issue around the ability to contact ET.  As I showed in my post “Could Gliesians be Watching Baywatch“, it is virtually impossible to communicate with any extraterrestrial civilization beyond our solar system without significant power and antenna gain.  The world’s most powerful radio astronomy dish at Arecibo has a gain of 60 dB, which means that it could barely detect a 100 kilowatt non-directional signal generated from a planet 20 light years away, such as Gliese 581g, but only if it were pointed right at it.  More to the point, what are the odds that such a civilization would be at the right level of technology to be communicating with us, using a technique that overlaps what we know?

Using the famous Drake equation, N=R*·fp·ne·fl·fi·fc·L, with the following best estimates for parameters: R*= 10/year, fp= .5, ne= 2, fl= .5, fi= .001 (highly speculative), fc= .01, L=50 (duration in years of the radio transmitting period of a civilization), we get .0025 overlapping radio wave civilizations per galaxy.  But if you then factor in the (im)probabilities of reaching those star systems (I used a megawatt of power into an Arecibo-sized radio telescope), the likelihood of another “advanced technology” civilization even developing radio waves, the odds that we happen to be  pointing our radio telescope arrays at each other at the same time, and the odds that we are using the same frequency, we get a probability of 1.25E-22.  For those who don’t like scientific notation, how about .0000000000000000000000125.  (Details will be in a forthcoming paper that I will post on this site.  I’ll replace this text with the link once it is up)

So why is Stephen Hawking worried about us sending a message that gets intercepted by ET?  Didn’t anyone do the math?

But there is a second science/sci-fi meme that I also find highly illogical.  And that is that malevolent ETs may want to mine our dear old earth for some sort of mineral.  Really?  Are we to believe that ET has figured out how to transcend relativity, exceed the speed of light, power a ship across the galaxy using technology far beyond our understanding, but still have an inability to master the control of the elements?  We have been transmuting elements for 70 years.  Even gold was artificially created by bombarding mercury atoms with neutrons as far back as 1941.  Gold could be created in an accelerator or nuclear reactor at any time, although to be practical from an economic standpoint, we may need a few years.  However, if gold, or any particular element, was important enough to be willing to fly across the galaxy and repress another civilization for, then economics should not be an issue.  Simple nuclear technology can create gold far easier than it can power a spaceship at near light speeds through space.

Even if our space traveling friends need something on Earth that can’t possibly be obtained through technology, would they really be likely to be so imperialistic as to invade and steal our resources?  From the viewpoint of human evolution, as technology and knowledge has developed, so have our ethical sensibilities and social behavior.  Of course, there is still “Jersey Shore” and “Jackass,” but by and large we have advanced our ethical values along with our technological advances and there is no reason to think that these wouldn’t also go hand in hand with any other civilization.

So while I get that science fiction needs to have a compelling rationale for ET invasion because it is a good story, I fail to understand the fear that some scientists have that extraterrestrials will actually get all Genghis Khan on us.


Could Gliesians be Watching Baywatch?

[Note: Click here for a more thorough treament of the viability of SETI and the (high) likelihood of extraterrestrial intelligence]

Gliese 581g is an earthlike planet orbiting the star Gliese 581, 20.3 light years away from us.  Discovered just last week by astronomer Steven Vogt, he announced that the odds of life on this exosolar planet are 100%.  That’s a pretty bold statement, even for a planet thought to be in a habitable zone of a star a little smaller and cooler than our sun.  Most astronomers are attributing his statement to being a little overexcited with his discovery.  But it got me wondering – if there were technologically advanced lifeforms on this planet, is it possible that they would be able to receive our radio or TV transmissions?  And, remember that when Gliese 581g might be receiving from us today is what we broadcast 20.3 years ago, such as episodes of Baywatch.  Alternatively, can we hear them, as SETI has been attempting to do for the past 30 or so years?

As it turns out, there isn’t much to worry about, unless we decide to send a very high-powered narrow directional message to a planet that just happens to be at the perfect level of technology which also just happens to have outpaced their social evolution dramatically.  Not likely there either, for reasons that I will discuss in an upcoming post (sorry, Stephen Hawking).

Here’s the deal.  Let’s take a typical TV broadcasting station operating 50000 watts on Channel 2.  Because radio waves attenuate proportional to the square of the distance from the transmitter, this signal will be pretty miniscule by the time it gets to the edge of our solar system.  In fact, by the time this 6 MHz wide signal at 60 MHz gets about 1.4E+11 km away, its power density will be at the same level as the corresponding power density of the cosmic microwave background (CMB) radiation in that frequency band (feel free to check my math – it’s a little rusty).  In addition, the signal will be an indecipherable mess because it will be intermixed with all of the other TV stations broadcasting on Channel 2.  So how far out exactly is 1.4E+11 km?  Turns out this is past Pluto, but barely the beginning of the Oort cloud in our own Solar system, or .015 light years.  That is .00075 of the distance to Gliese 581, across which distance the signal will be attenuated by a further factor of 1.8 million and CMB background noise will completely swamp out the signal.

So, zero chance of Gliesians kicking back and enjoying an interstellar episode of Baywatch.  And not much chance of us hearing accidental radio waves generated from their planet, even assuming they followed a similar technological evolution at the exact same time as us.  Sorry, SETI.
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Your Universe is Different than Mine

We used to be taught that the universe was everything there is.  But, over the past few years, it is beginning to have a new meaning.  The universe is now meant to be everything that we can possibly see or experience.  Let me illustrate with a story.  Imagine our protagonist Jack happily living in his little universe.  His astronomer buddies have used their most advanced equipment to peer into the deepest depths of space and have detected things a few billion light years away in all directions.  There could be things beyond that “practical observational horizon”, but we are limited by the state of the art of equipment in the year 2010.

However, there is another horizon beyond “a” which denotes the point at which it would be impossible to see beyond, due to the speed of light.  The light from objects at that distance has been traveling toward us since the beginning of the big bang.  This is our theoretical horizon, beyond which we can never see or detect anything no matter how advanced our equipment becomes.  It should be noted, that this statement presumes that nothing travels faster than the speed of light and even if it did, we would not be able to detect it.  Despite a century of hard evidence supporting Einstein’s famous assumption regarding the limitations of the speed of light, there are a number of physicists who don’t rule out the possibility that this barrier could someday be broken.  But that’s a topic for another post.  Setting such arguments aside, there is then a “theoretical observational horizon,” also known as the Hubble Volume, which is generally accepted to be about 42 billion light years in diameter.  But that doesn’t mean there’s nothing beyond the Hubble Volume.  In fact, the inflationary theory of the big bang allows for quite a bit of the material from the big bang to exist beyond that horizon because the inflationary period was superluminal. (We were just saying…?)  But, for all practical purposes, the Hubble Volume contains all that you can ever know about.  By convention, astronomers call that “The Universe.”

By definition, a Universe depends on what is identified to be its center.  So, for example, Jill, standing on a planet 1 light year away from Jack, actually lives in a slightly different Universe.  One which has one horizon one light year further away from Jack’s in the opposite direction and another horizon one light year closer than Jack’s in the direction toward Jack.  So Jack has some stuff in his Universe that Jill doesn’t have and vice versa.


The choice of a light year between Jack and Jill’s positions was arbitrary.  They could be standing next to each other and still have slightly different Hubble Volumes.  In fact, when you get down to it, we all live in different Universes.

Royal Astronomers Figure Out What Sci-Fi Writers Have Known for Years

Last month, Lord Martin Rees, the president of Britain’s Royal Society and “astronomer to the Queen of England”, hosted the National Science Academy’s first conference on the possibility of extraterrestrial life, which was attended by such scientific illuminaries as physicist Paul Davies, SETI founder and astrophysicist extraordinaire Frank Drake.  And the resulting sound bite of the week is “World-Leading Physicist Says ‘They Could Exist in Forms We Can’t Conceive'”?

Really?  That’s it?  That’s news?  That’s what we get from the world’s leading thinkers on cosmology?

Sorry for my tone, but it’s about time these guys got caught up with science fiction writers from 50 years ago.  Check out a 1959 movie called “Invisible Invaders.”  Or at a minimum, take Carl Sagan’s brainchild from the late 70’s, “Contact” (film treatment in 1979, book in 1985, and movie in 1997) featuring a highly advanced extraterrestrial race who can appear to us in any form they want.  I’m sure there were many other writers who considered that a civilization advanced enough to cross millions of light years of space, might be advanced enough to learn how to cloak.  I certainly pondered that idea as a kid.

No doubt, these guys are a bright bunch.  But not necessarily seeing the forest for the trees.  Take SETI, for example.

We tend to assign attributes of our own civilization and our own values to other potential civilizations.  But there is really no reason to assume that once life forms on a particular planet that it will evolve into a life form that is eager to communicate.  One could argue that the intelligence of dolphins, elephants, and humans are roughly equivalent (turn the clock back 50,000 years and look at what we assume about the behavior of each species; is there much difference?)  We don’t see dolphins building SETI dishes.  Using Drake’s own equation for counting the number of ET civilizations that we might be able to communicate with, we need to consider the duration of a civilization communicating with electromagnetic radiation in the radio spectrum.  One can make the assumption that it might be similar to ours and in the range of 50-100 years.  But this is a big assumption.  Maybe ET modulates magnetic fields, or seismic waves, maybe they got fully wired for broadband internet before discovering radio wave propagation, maybe they communicate via telepathy, or entanglement, or some form of communication that is completely unknown to us.  Expecting them to have a period of radio wave technology that just happens to overlap ours is probably quite unlikely.  When I made reasonable assumptions for the factors in the Drake Equation in my book “The Universe – Solved!“, I got the result of .08 overlapping radio wave civilizations per galaxy, making it unlikely that SETI will find anything before funding dries up.

On the other hand, modifying the Drake Equation to estimate the likelihood of ET visitation, I came to the following conclusion: If 50% of intelligent life forms can make it to Type III status, there should be thousands of migrating/colonizing/traveling species in our neighborhood.  On the other hand, would they even care about us?  When we take a walk through a field, do we attempt to communicate with the ants in an anthill?  If the field is ready to be leveled in order to make room for a housing development, do we attempt to save the ants?  No.  Why not?  Because they are so far beneath our intellect level or our perceived level of net worth, that such endeavors are simply not worth our time.  Now imagine what a Type II or III civilization might be like.  Consider how far we have progressed (some might say, regressed) as a society since the hunter/gatherer stage of human evolution 10,000 years ago.  Further, consider that we are accelerating in this progression exponentially.  So, for all practical purposes, it is impossible to even imagine where we might be in 10,000 years.  Telepathic communication, control of time and space, simultaneous access to parallel universes, full merge with AI?  Some futurists predict these things in hundreds of years, not 10,000.  Furthermore, since 100 million years represents less than 1% of the lifetime of our galaxy, it is not unrealistic to assume that Type III civilizations may be 100’s of millions of years advanced compared to our own society.  Given the foregoing discussion, it is easy to make an argument that it is highly unlikely that ETs are zipping about in our atmosphere in vehicles that appear to be no more than 50 years ahead of our technology (they supposedly crash, after all).  The only possible “True ET” explanation is that extremely advanced species either intentionally appear in a form that makes us realize that they are here (not unlike the father figure in the Carl Sagan movie “Contact”) or they don’t appear to us at all.  The above section was taken from my book and written in 2007.

Lord Martin Rees, you should have saved yourself the expense of a conference and picked up a copy of “Contact” and “The Universe – Solved!


Entropy and Puppies, like a Hand and a Glove

Ah yes, the good old 2nd Law of Thermodynamics. The idea that the total disorder of a system, e.g. the universe, always increases.  Or that heat always flows from hot to cold.  It’s why coffee always gets cold, why money seems to dissipate at a casino, why time flows forward, why Murphy had a law, why cats and dogs don’t tend to clean up the house.

Ultimately, due to this rather depressing physical law, the universe will die by “heat death,” where it reaches a state of absolute zero, no more heat, no motion of particles.  Don’t worry, that’s not predicted for another 10^100 (or, a Googol) years.  But, I always wondered, is it always always the case, or can entropy decrease in certain circumstances?

Got a spare fortnight? Google “violations of the second law of thermodynamics.”  Personally, I rather like Maxwell’s idea that it is a statistical argument, not an absolute one. “Maxwell’s Demon” is that hypothetical device that funnels hot molecules in one directions and cold ones in the opposite, thereby reversing the normal flow of heat.  Could a nanotech device do that some day?  Yes, I know that there has to be energy put into the system for the device to do its work, thereby increasing the size of the system upon which the 2nd law holds.  But, even without the demon, aren’t there statistical instances of 2nd Law violation in a closed system?  Not unlike the infinitesimal probability that someone’s constituent atoms suddenly line up in such a manner that they can walk through a door (see recent blog topic), so could a system become more coherent as time moves to the future.

What about lowering temperature to the point where superconductivity occurs?  Isn’t that less random than non-superconductivity.  One might argue that the energy that it takes to become superconductive exceeds the resulting decrease in entropy.  However, I would argue that since the transition from conductive to superconductive occurs abruptly, there must be a time period, arbitrarily small, during which you would watch entropy decrease.

There are those who cite life and evolution as examples of building order out of chaos.  Sounds reasonable to me, and the arguments against the idea sound circular and defensive.  However, it all seems to net out in the end.  Take a puppy, for instance.  Evolutionary processes worked for millions of years to create the domestic dog.  Entropy-decreasing processes seem to responsible for the formation of a puppy from its original constituents, sperm and an egg.  But then the puppy spends years ripping up your carpet, chewing the legs of the furniture and ripping your favorite magazines into little pieces; in short, increasing the disorder of the universe.  Net effect?  Zero.