Yesterday’s Sci-Fi is Tomorrow’s Technology

It is the end of 2011 and it has been an exciting year for science and technology.  Announcements about artificial life, earthlike worlds, faster-than-light particles, clones, teleportation, memory implants, and tractor beams have captured our imagination.  Most of these things would have been unthinkable just 30 years ago.

So, what better way to close out the year than to take stock of yesterday’s science fiction in light of today’s reality and tomorrow’s technology.  Here is my take:


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.

There is no “Now.” But there will be.

One of our long time Forum Members posted an excellent question: “Is there really a ‘now'”?  The mystics tell us that there is only NOW.  But I suspect they are referring to a state of reality or a state of consciousness that one only reaches when they die or if they sit on top of a mountain contemplating their naval for a dozen or so years and get really lucky.

Back in the reality that we all know and love, I got to thinking about the reality that we all know and love.  And came to the conclusion that there is no NOW.  Here’s why:

Our interpretation of the present is really based on our short term memory, which lasts some 30 seconds or so. If we had no short term memory, we would not be able to think, plan, procreate, remember to eat, etc. In short, we would perish.

However, what is in short term memory is not NOW, it is the past. Now can only be defined as an instant. Or, in mathematical terms, it is t=0, or the limit as “delta t” approaches zero at t=0. As an absolute, or an infinite concept, it could only exist in an infinite universe, which also must be continuous. As I “tend” to believe that our universe is not infinite and is bound by the attributes of the Program (see “The Universe – Solved!”), the smallest unit of time around the concept of NOW would be a clock cycle of the Program. If it is the Planck time, then it is 10E-43 seconds (although it could be other resolutions). In any case, it has a duration, so it can’t be instantaneous or absolute. Therefore, there is no NOW, only our PERCEPTION of now, which is our very short term memory.

That said, in the other realm, where consciousness “probably” goes after death, everything is NOW, as the mystics say. That is because there is no physical stuff, no brain, no short term memory, and therefore no need for time as a dimension. Hence, everything could only be NOW.

If so, no need to even fear the “five-point-palm-exploding-heart technique.”


Jim and Craig Venter Argue over Who is more Synthetic: Synthia or Us?

So Craig Venter created synthetic life.  How cool is that?  I mean, really, this has been sort of a biologists holy grail for as long as I can remember.  Of course, Dr. Venter’s detractors are quick to point out that Synthia, the name given to this synthetic organism, was not really built from scratch, but sort of assembled from sub-living components and injected into a cell where it could replicate.  Either way, it is a huge step in the direction of man-made life forms.  If I were to meet Dr. Venter, the conversation might go something like this:

Jim: So, Dr. Venter, help me understand how man-made your little creation really is.  I’ve read some articles that state that while your achievement is most impressive, the cytoplasm that the genome was transplanted to was not man made.

Craig: True dat, Jim.  But we all need an environment to live in, and a cell is no different.  The organism was certainly man made, even if its environment already existed.

Jim: But wait a minute.  Aren’t we all man-made?  Wasn’t that the message in those sex education classes I took in high school?

Craig: No, the difference is that this is effectively a new species, created synthetically.

Jim: So, how different is that from a clone?  Are they also created synthetically?

Craig: Sort of, but a clone isn’t a new species.

Jim: How about genetically modified organisms then?  New species created synthetically?

Craig: Yes, but they were a modification made to an existing living organism, not a synthetically created one.

Jim: What about that robot that cleans my floor?  Isn’t that a synthetically created organism?

Craig: Well, maybe, in some sense, but can it replicate itself?

Jim: Ah, but that is just a matter of programming.  Factory robots can build cars, why couldn’t they be programmed to build other factory robots?

Craig: That wouldn’t be biological replication, like cell division.

Jim: You mean, just because the robots are made of silicon instead of carbon?  Seems kind of arbitrary to me.

Craig: OK, you’re kind of getting on my nerves, robot-boy.  The point is that this is the first synthetically created biological organism.

Jim: Um, that’s really cool and all, but we can build all kinds of junk with nanotech, including synthetic meat, and little self-replicating machines.

Craig: Neither of which are alive.

Jim: Define alive.

Craig: Well, generally life is anything that exhibits growth, metabolism, motion, reproduction, and homeostasis.

Jim: So, a drone bee isn’t alive because it can’t reproduce?

Craig: Of course, there are exceptions.

Jim: What about fire, crystals, or the earth itself.  All of those exhibit your life-defining properties.  Are they alive?

Craig: Dude, we’re getting way off topic here.  Let’s get back to synthetic organisms.

Jim: OK, let’s take a different tack.  Physicist Paul Davies said that Google is smarter than any human on the planet.  Is Google alive?  What about computer networks that can reconfigure themselves intelligently.

Craig: Those items aren’t really alive because they have to be programmed.

Jim: Yeah, and what’s that little code in Synthia’s DNA?

Craig: Uhhh…

Jim: And how do you know that you aren’t synthetic?  Is it at all possible that your world and all of your perceptions could be completely under programmed control?

Craig: I suppose it could be possible.  But I highly doubt it.

Jim: Doubt based on what? All of your preconceived notions about reality?

Craig: OK, let’s say we are under programmed control.  So what?

Jim: Well, that implies a creator.  Which in turn implies that our bodies are a creation.  Which makes us just as synthetic as Synthia.  The only difference is that you created Synthia, while we might have been created by some highly advanced geek in an other reality.

Craig: Been watching a few Wachowski Brothers movies, Jim?

Jim: Guilty as charged, Craig.


DNA: Evidence of Intelligent Design or Byproduct of Evolution?

DNA is a self-replicating nucleic acid that supposedly encodes the instructions for building and maintaining cells of an organism.  With an ordered grouping of over a billion chemical base pairs which are identical for each cell in the organism, the unique DNA for a particular individual looks kind of like statements in a programming language.  This concept is not lost on Dr. Stephen Meyer (Ph.D., history and philosophy of science, Cambridge University), who posits that the source of information must be intelligent and therefore DNA, as information, is evidence of Intelligent Design.  He argues that all hypotheses that account for the development of this digital code, such as self-organization and RNA-first, have failed.  In a well publicized debate with Dr. Peter Atkins (Ph.D., theoretical chemistry, University of Leicester), a well known atheist and secular humanist, Atkins counters that information can come from natural mechanisms.  Sadly, Atkins resorts to insults and name calling, so the debate is kind of tainted, and he never got a chance to present his main argument in a methodical way because he let his anger get the best of him.  But it raised some very interesting questions, which I don’t think either side of the argument has really gotten to the bottom of.

ID’ers trot out the Second Law of Thermodynamics and state that the fact that simple molecules can’t self replicate without violating that Law proves Intelligent Design.  But it doesn’t really.  The Second Law applies to the whole system, including many instances of increased disorder weighed against the fewer instances of increased order.  Net net, disorder TENDs to increase, but that doesn’t mean that there can’t be isolated examples of increased order in the universe. That seems to leave the door open to the possibility that one such example might be the creation of self-replicating molecules.

Another point of contention is about the nature of information, such as DNA.  Meyer is wrong if he is making a blanket assertion that information can only come from intelligence.  I could argue that, given a long enough period of time, if you leave a typewriter outdoors, hailstones will ultimately hit the keys in an order that creates recognizable poetry.  So the question boils down to this – was there enough time and proper conditions for evolutionary processes to create the self-replicating DNA molecule from non-self replicating molecules necessary for creating the mechanism for life?

The math doesn’t look good for the atheists.  Dr. Robert L. Piccioni, Ph.D., Physics from Stanford says that the odds of 3 billion randomly arranged base-pairs matching human DNA is about the same as drawing the ace of spades one billion times in a row from randomly shuffled decks of cards.  Harold Morowitz, a renowned physicist from Yale University and author of Origin of Cellular Life  (1993), declared that the odds for any kind of spontaneous generation of life from a combination of the standard life building blocks is one chance in 10E100000000000 (you read that right, that’s 1 followed by 100,000,000,000 zeros).  Famed British Royal Astronomer Sir Fred Hoyle, proposed that such odds were one chance in 10E40000, or roughly “the same as the probability that a tornado sweeping through a junkyard could assemble a 747.”  By the way, scientists generally set their “Impossibility Standard” at one chance in 10E50 (1 in a 100,000 billion, billion, billion, billion, billion).  So, the likelihood that life formed via combinatorial chemical evolution (the only theory that scientists really have) is, for all intents and purposes, zero.

Atkins, Dawkins, and other secular humanists insist that materialism and naturalism are pre-supposed and that there is no argument for the introduction of the logic of intelligence into science.  That sounds to me to be pretty closed minded, and closes the door a priori on certain avenues of inquiry.  Imagine if that mentality were applied to string theory, a theory which has no experimental evidence to start with.  One has to wonder why science is so illogically selective with respect to the disciplines that it accepts into its closed little world.

My interest in this goes beyond this specific debate.  I have a hobby of collecting evidence that our reality is programmed.  I’m not sure yet whether DNA has a place in that collection yet.  It will definitely need a little more thought.



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.


Musings on the idea of Free Will

Think about what it means to make a decision.  The cashier gave you too much change – do you tell him/her?  It seems like you make your choice based on past events (your parents taught you that it was deceitful to take something that shouldn’t be yours) or the current state of your mind (the cashier is really cute, maybe I’ll get a few points by pointing out the mistake).  Upon further analysis, it really seems that the exact state of your brain (memories, neural pathways and triggers) and the state of external stimuli might be fully responsible for each decision and action.  However, one could make the same argument for a computer, which function is based on the concept of a finite state machine (each action is fully determined by the state of the machine and its inputs).  This idea essentially boils down to us being nothing more than robots.  Are you okay with that?

What about the following scenario:

Two kids with the same parents grow up in the same environment.  Why do they frequently have a completely different set of values?  One gives the money back to the cashier without question; one keeps the money without question.  Why?  It can’t be purely due to genetics.  And it can’t be purely due to upbringing.  Determinists would argue that slight differences in genetics or environment may have a domino effect on the value systems of the individual.  But, could it also be due to the possibility that these are two different souls, which have evolved differently?  Believers in reincarnation might say that the former has learned a universal lesson in a previous incarnation and is perhaps an older, or more experienced, soul.  It is therefore natural for that person to make such a decision, whereas the sibling’s soul has not yet learned that universal lesson.  We can’t be sure, but it does seem odd that people often talk of the deep personality differences between their children that are observable at such a young age that environmental differences are precluded.  This tends to lend support to the idea that there is a “ghost in the machine.”