Friday, July 24, 2015

What's all this about?

This blog is to be a repository for the thoughts and analysis I've accrued over the years on the topic of astrobiology, and the place of life and intelligence in the universe.  All my life I've been pulled to the very large and the very small.  Life has always struck me as the single most interesting thing on Earth, with its incredibly fine structure and vast, amazing history and fantastic abilities.  At the same time, the vast majority of what exists is NOT on Earth.  Going up in size from human-scale by the same number of orders of magnitude as you go down through to get to a hydrogen atom, you get just about to Venus at its closest approach to Earth - or one billionth the distance to the nearest star.  The large is much larger than the small is small.  On top of this, we now know that the universe as we know it is much older than life on Earth.  And we know so little of the vast majority of the universe.

There's a strong tendency towards specialization in the sciences.  These days, there pretty much has to be for anybody to get anywhere.  Much of the great foundational work of physics was done on tabletops, and the law of gravitation was derived from data on the motions of the planets taken without the benefit of so much as a telescope.  All the low-hanging fruit has been picked.  To continue to further knowledge of the universe, huge instruments and vast energies are put to bear in astronomy and physics.  Biology is arguably a bit different, but the very complexity that makes living systems so successful and so fascinating to study means that there is so much to study that any one person is often only looking at a very small problem.

This has distinct drawbacks.  The universe does not care for our abstract labels of fields and disciplines - it simply is, at all scales simultaneously at all times and in all places.  When people focus narrowly on their subject of interest, it can prevent them from realizing the implications of their findings on problems usually considered a different field.

It is one of my hopes to try to bridge some gaps between biology and astronomy here.  I very nearly double-majored in biology and astronomy in college; the only thing that prevented this (leading to an astronomy minor) was a bad attitude towards calculus.  As is, I am a graduate student studying basic cell biology at a major research university, who nonetheless keeps in touch with a number of astronomer friends and keeps up with the field as much as possible.  I quite often find that what I hear and read about has strong implications for questions of life elsewhere in the universe, but see so few of these implications actually get publicly discussed. All kinds of information shedding light on our position in space and time, the origins of life, the habitability of large chunks of the universe, the course that biospheres take, and the possible trajectories of intelligences seem to me to be out there unremarked.

It is another of my hopes to try, as much as is humanly possible, to take a step back from the usual narratives about extraterrestrial life and instead focus from something closer to first principles.  What we actually have observed and have not, what we can observe and what we cannot, and what this leaves open, likely, or unlikely.  In my study of the history of the ideas of extraterrestrial life and extraterrestrial intelligence, all too often these take a back seat to popular narratives of the day.  In the 16th century the notion that the Earth moved in a similar way to the planets gained currency and lead to the suppositions that they might be made of similar stuff and that the planets might even be inhabited.  The hot question was, of course, if their inhabitants would be Christians and their relationship with God given the anthropocentric biblical creation stories.  In the late 19th and early 20th century, Lowell's illusory canals on Mars were advanced as evidence for a Martian socialist utopia.  In the 1970s, Carl Sagan waxed philosophical on the notion that contacting old civilizations might teach us how to save ourselves from nuclear warfare.  Today, many people focus on the Fermi paradox - the apparent contradiction that since much of the universe is quite old, extraterrestrials experiencing continuing technological progress and growth should have colonized and remade it in their image long ago and yet we see no evidence of this.  I move that all of these notions have a similar root - inflating the hot concerns and topics of the day to cosmic significance and letting them obscure the actual, scientific questions that can be asked and answered.

Life and intelligence in the universe is a topic worth careful consideration, from as many angles as possible.  Let's get started.

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