Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Biological Singularity?

If there is a "Technological Singularity" where computers "evolve" in complexity and capability that one day they become self-aware, is there a "Biological Singularity" where organic compounds evolved in complexity and capability that one day they became self-aware, became Life?

In a previous post, Amoebic Intelligence, it was reported that amoebas were showing rudimentary intelligence, sentience. How far down does this go? Are viruses alive? Do they have rudimentary intelligence, or are they purely organic compounds following blindly, without sentience, without intelligence, the rules of chemical reactions? A crystal grows, and is, to an extent, self organizing. But not alive. So some argue a virus is not alive either. But it does raise the question, at what point does organic chemistry become complicated enough that sentience, even the most rudimentary level, arises?

Why is this question important? The answer may show that intelligence is a logical outcome of life, and thus, intelligence may be common among alien life (whether high level sentient intelligence is common is another matter).


Schewe, Phillip F. and Jason S. Bardi. "Amoebas Anticipate Climate Change." The American Institute of Physics Bulletin of Physics News. Number 852. 3 Jan. 2008 . Web. 3 Jan. 2008. <>.

Saturday, August 23, 2008

Size Does Matter for Life? Did it Matter for the Dinosaurs?

Vishnu or Shiva?

Several articles this year discuss the role that gas giants (like Jupiter and Saturn) play in the rise and evolution of life on Earth, and how this may apply to other solar systems.

On one hand, gas giants clear out a lot of solar system debris early in a solar system's history, sweeping up many asteroids. This is, of course, because of the massive gravitational pull a gas giant has. In this manner, Jupiter and Saturn, but especially Jupiter, act as body guards for the Earth. George Musser, in his article, "Jovian Protector" in the September 2008 issue of Scientific American, reports that two researchers, Jonathan Horner and Barrie Jones of the Open University in England, suggest that if Jupiter was 80% smaller the Earth would've had 400% more asteroid strikes. Making it much more difficult for intelligent life to have evolved, since intelligence evolves slowly as discussed in my 25 November 2007 post, "Sentient Life:"
It seems the more complex the sentient mind, the slower it evolves. Apparently this is because the genes in the complex mind code for proteins that have complex interaction with other molecules in the body: "change a gene too much and it will be unable to continue its existing functions" (Barone, Par. 2). Thus, the more a brain evolves, the slower its evolution becomes. Though some postulate that the recent information revolution, with its explosion of information and rapid technological change may add extra evolutionary pressure on our brains.
However, on the other hand gas giants also fling asteroids into the inner portion of their solar system. Horner and Jones state that a much smaller Jupiter (even smaller than 80%) would have flung fewer asteroids toward the inner solar system.

Another factor to consider is that despite Jupiter's great size, it is still small compared to the sun and to the diameter of its orbit. If it is a shield, it is a moving shield - most of the time it is not between us and an incoming asteroid (likewise, most of the time it will not be deflecting asteroids toward us).

Jupiter, Ice Ages, and the Dinosaurs

What is left unanswered is which wins out? Did Jupiter clear out more asteroids than it flung in toward us, or did it fling more toward us than it cleared out? If Jupiter was smaller, would Earth have actually been more protected, and, as the author of the Scientific American article wonders, would, then, the dinosaurs still be alive?

Some scientists feel that a change in global climate unrelated to the meteor strike was already working to kill off the dinosaurs - the meteor strike just greatly sped up the process. Would the dinosaurs have survived the climate changes? That is, would the dinosaurs, if they were not finished off by the meteor, had a chance to survive the ice ages?

Fewer meteor collisions could have given them just enough time that some could evolved enough to adapt to changing weather conditions.

Changing weather is not an overnight catastrophe like a large meteor. Especially if the dinosaur species that began to develop higher sentience was a smaller creature - the ice ages killed off many of the incredibly large mammals due largely to the fact that large animals need a lot more food to survive than smaller ones. With food becoming scarce, animals that need to constantly eat, or eat large volumes of food, found it increasing harder to survive. A smaller dinosaur, especially an omnivorous one (which can get food from a wider range of sources than a strict carnivore or herbivore), would have a chance to survive. This is one of the reasons why humans survived the last ice ages when many other species did not - in addition to their evolving intelligence, they were smaller, and not strict carnivores.

Also, the death of large predators would also make life easier for the smaller evolving omnivore; after the weather improves the smaller creature can now be much more free to multiply and command the land. Because of the ice ages prehistoric humans no longer had to contend with saber tooth tigers, giant cave bears, and other huge, powerful predators.

And so, in this scenario of fewer meteor strikes, the dinosaurs may very well have developed an intelligent, sentient mind before the mammals (and, thus, before humans) having such a head start (no pun intended - well, not consciously).

Does Orbital Distance Matter?

However, as mentioned earlier, gas giants like Jupiter also sweep up many asteroids - asteroids that otherwise may have struck the Earth. Would having two or three Jupiter sized - or larger - gas giants in the outer solar system protect the Earth more? Or if Jupiter was larger would it have cleared away even more meteors, or would it have flung even more of them toward the Earth?

If Jupiter was in Mercury's orbit, would it fling less meteors toward the Earth and would that counter the fact that it is not able to sweep away as many meteors? Though it could end up sweeping away more of the meteors and comets that have elliptical orbits that bring them close to the Sun - as they come close to the Sun they would run the risk of being diverted in toward the Sun by Jupiter or being drawn into Jupiter itself.

If Jupiter was much further out, say in the orbit of Neptune, would it be too far away to sweep away meteors as well as be less likely to fling one toward the Earth? In a configuration where more meteors strike the inner terrestrial planet, could it having a very large moon help counter this increase? Are there even better solar system configurations, then, than ours for life to form and evolve in? If there are many configurations which can allow for life to form and evolve in, does this mean that life is not rare in the Universe?

These are questions that the exoplanetary science will help answer.


Comets are made of ice, rock, and organic compounds. They can be as large as several miles in diameter.

Asteroids are generally made of rock with some containing metal (usually nickel and iron). They can be as small as boulders or the size of mountains (hundreds of miles in diameter).


Barone, Jennifer. "Not So Fast, Einstein." Data. Discover. October 2007. 12. Print.

"Frequently Asked Questions." Near Earth Object Program. NASA/JPL. 23 Aug. 2008. Web. 23 Aug. 2008. <>

Saturday, August 16, 2008

Alien Superiority Complex

In the last post I mentioned the Popular Science article "Could Robot Aliens Exist." In it, NASA astrophysicist Steven Dick wonders if postbiological aliens, in their superior advanced bodies and computer minds, would not be interested in us because either our minds may be too primitive for them to be able to communicate with us, or " they might consider meatheads like us too primitive to warrant their attention" (83).

Maybe. But I still think they would be interested in us.

On our planet, there are many primitive minded creatures that we do, on a limited basis, communicate with. Our pet dogs understand commands and have been shown recently the ability to map language, which is something that was thought to belong only to the province of humans. Chimpanzees and apes have shown the ability to communicate by sign language. Sure, we can't debate philosophical questions with Fido or Koko, but it is technically communication nonetheless. Not all humans care about this. Likewise, there may be some, even only a few, of the superior aliens who may be fascinated in just how much communication can occur between them and humans. And maybe they will be a little surprised at how much communication can occur.

However, I wonder if it is a fair analogy to begin with. While dogs and apes are self-aware, like humans, they re not aware that the area the live in is but a small part of a planet which is circling a sun in a galaxy that is in a universe with many dimensions, and are not increasing their awareness. However, we are aware. And, as a species overall, are continually increasing our awareness. Sure, we don't understand - yet - the nature of it all, and continually find more questions than answers, but that doesn't mean that we are to the aliens like apes, dogs, or ants are to us. We have the capacity to understand much more than we do at the moment - and we will understand more than we do at the moment. That they are ahead of us in knowledge and experience does not make us impossible to communicate with.

Even if they are aware of something that is as beyond the universe as the universe is beyond the local awareness of an ape - the earlier analogy still does not work. We know the ape cannot be made to understand that there is an awareness beyond their local awareness. But we can be made to understand. We can work with analogies and the abstractions and can be told by advanced aliens that there is yet a greater awareness beyond what we are cognizant of. We may not, at present, be able to wrap our heads around that greater awareness, but we may be able to wrap our heads around the fact that there is a greater awareness beyond what we are presently capable of. And as we head toward the Technology Singularity we may, sooner rather or later, be capable of wrapping our heads around that greater awareness (Some predict the Technology Singularity will arrive as soon as 2040, others by 3000).

And even without the Technological Singularity, human beings of today are aware of and working to wrap their heads around, incredible concepts (11 dimensions any one?) that human beings of 10,000 years ago were not even remotely aware of. Our brains, as primitive to postbiological creatures as they may be, are still remarkable organs - they can be rewired, they can make new connections, and they can achieve greater awareness. Plus, our brains may not be static - there are evolutionary pressures on our brains to evolve further as we advance technologically and culturally (though the latter seems to lag behind the former). There are limits to how far the brain can evolve on its own - thus the need for the Technological Singularity and postbiological life (or technology enhanced biological life).

So the analogy of "aliens are to us like we are to dogs" such that the aliens just won't be able to communicate with us is not an appropriate analogy. Dogs do not have anywhere near the same potential to increase their awareness as we do (if we give them a few million years to evolve further, maybe then).

I think a more appropriate analogy would be modern human to a Neanderthal or Cro-magnon. The aliens would most likely have to greatly oversimplify the smilies used to teach us, or introduce the idea of, advanced concepts, and thus would definitely have to skip the details, but some limited communication regarding the advanced awareness could occur. Communication may be slow, difficult and, at times, frustrating for both parties, and details will have to be left out, but they would be able to communicate with us. And we would strive to increase our understanding. OK, not all of us individually, but overall, as a species, enough would be.

OK, so say they can, with difficulty, communicate with us. But are we still "meatheads" and thus too primitive to warrant their attention? Why? Are sentient species only interested in what is at their level? I doubt they got to their level by that kind of narrow thinking. Exploring the universe, gathering knowledge and experience, discovering new aspects and new questions along with finding the occasional answer is what will most likely drive a species to push their intellectual evolution in the first place.

If humanoid sentient creatures like Earthlings are common or if not common, then at least common enough that they've already encountered beings rather similar to us at least once before, the aliens may not believe we warrant their attention.

But let us say that Earthling like creatures are not common. There is probably one large rainbow of possibilities for life, including sentient life, in the universe. We may warrant attention because they've never seen anything like us. One of yet another unique worlds in the galaxy, adding new data, new knowledge, and, possibly, new questions for the aliens to consider. And one way to learn about these wacky Earthlings, besides observation, is to communicate with them - even if it is an everyday level of communication, or alien kindergarten level of communication.

Also, keep in mind that we are growing, we are working our way toward their level. And that alone may warrant curious, or cautionary, attention from the aliens.


"Could Robot Aliens Exist?"
Popular Science. Sept. 2008: 83. Print.

Kurzweil, Ray.
The Singularity Is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology. New York: Penguin, 2006. Print.

Vinge, Vernor. "The Coming Technological Singularity: How to Survive in the Post-Human Era." San Diego State University. 1993. Web. 16 Aug. 2008. <>.

Robot Aliens, The Tecnological Singularity, and Where did I leave my Borg party body?

In this month's Popular Science is an interesting article "Could Robot Aliens Exist?" The question is posed to the NASA astrophysicist Steven Dick, chief historian for NASA and astrobiology and postbiological universe specialist.

Mr Stevens postulates that there is a 50/50 chance that robotic, or postbiological, sentient aliens do exist. On Earth we have supercomputers that are faster than human brains. In a few decades, some scientists predict, the Technological Singularity event will be reached where computers will not only achieve sentience, but will be smarter than their human creators (Skynet anyone?).

Thus, some feel that it may not be long (just a few decades) before the once science fiction concept of downloading one's brain into a computer becomes an actuality. There are limits to biological systems (which could be thought of as biological machines) that advanced robots could overcome. Biological sentient races may want to evolve themselves into postbiological beings - robots. There will be people vying for this - a chance to live forever (or at least a very long time). As the robotic body gets too worn out to be effectively repaired, one just uploads to a new (and maybe improved) model. Or one could switch bodies as situations warrant:
"See you later dear!"

"Jane, did you forget?


"You're still in your party body. You're working on the space platform today."

"Oh! Right! I need to download to my astrobody! I guess I just love being in my party body too much; I overlooked -"

"On purpose."

"- that I was still in it."

"Yeah, yeah, we know where your "heart" really is!"

Jane, laughing, goes to her closet to switch bodies...
In a few decades, shall some of us become Cylons?

Speaking of working on space platforms, the case can be made for robots to explore inhabited planets since, as mentioned in my 11 Aug. 2008 post, Blog in Space III: The Beatles' "Across the Universe", robots make a very pragmatic choice for traveling long interstellar distances (if no faster than light speed travel exists), and for exploring planets that may be extremely hostile to our biological systems due to attacks by alien viruses and predators, as well as surviving a n alien atmosphere hostile to human life. They don't need space suits, or to carry large stores of food. Thus, it is probably easier and safer for sentient robots to explore alien planets.

Some argue, though, that are advantages to an organic brain that trumps speed (intuitive leaps, imaginative creativity). However, a few days ago (13 Aug. 2008) it was reported by the BBC News that researchers had created a robot that was largely controlled by a group of 300,000 living rat brain cells. It is a project to study how memory is laid down as the robot learns how to navigate around objects. Maybe the new human will be a blend of biological and postbiological systems. In a few decades, maybe just call us the Borg...


"Could Robot Aliens Exist?" Popular Science. Sept. 2008: 83. Print.

Kurzweil, Ray. The Singularity Is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology. New York: Penguin, 2006. Print.

"Rat-brain robot aids memory study." BBC News. 13 Aug. 2008. Web 16 Aug. 2008. <>.

Vinge, Vernor. "The Coming Technological Singularity: How to Survive in the Post-Human Era." San Diego State University. 1993. Web. 16 Aug. 2008. <>.


Them! © 1954 Warner Bros. Pictures.
While I am a fan of B science fiction films ("open your mind to the possibility that they are not bad movies, just misunderstood" - Mr. Lobo, Cinema Insomnia), those with giant insects tend to be science fantasy at best. Insects are not designed to be big. All this talk about how an ant can lift 10 times its weight is fine as long as the ant remains tiny. But enlarge it to the size in the movie Them, and they wouldn't be able to walk.

Many of the reasons why insects are small were discussed in my February 13 post: Life on large planets (Are Earth sized planets not the best size for life? II). I mainly discussed the surface to volume ratio problem that insects have - as surface area doubles, volume triples. Smaller creatures have a greater surface area to volume ratio, which means that small creatures have greater water and heat loss compared to large creatures (This is why children can dehydrate and become hypothermic much easier than adults). This is why insects have exoskeletons - the outer shell helps insulate and "waterproof" them. But this shell also slows down their growth - all growth has to occur within the shell before the shell is shed and, as quickly as possible, replaced

However, there is another reason for their small size which I didn't cover in the post mentioned above: their respiratory mechanism. Without going into great detail, because of their exoskeleton, and their need for all their organs to help restrict water loss, their respiratory system is separate from their circulatory system - all air that enters their respiratory system must be able to diffuse to every cell in the body; thus insects have a network of air tubes. They also tend to have air sacs which can contain an extra supply of air so that in dry environments they can close their spiracles (openings in their exoskeleton through which air passes) to help reduce water loss. Such a respiratory system works well for small creatures, but not for large ones - it would be difficult for air to diffuse to every cell in a large creature, unless it was riddled with air tubes, and even then, it would be difficult to ventilate the tubes so that air would flow through them.

Ah, but insects were large - no, huge! - in prehistoric eras. One large monster bug, which lived around 286 to 360 million years ago, was the giant dragonfly (Meganeura monyi) which had a 27 inch wingspan! As reported in this month's Science Illustrated magazine, "Scientists think an oxygen-rich atmosphere helped boost their size" (p. 29). What probably helped too is that the Earth was particularly hot and humid at that time - heat loss and water loss being less of a problem.

Thus, for a sentient alien race to be insectile, like the insectoid Xindi from Star Trek: Enterprise, or the large insects threatening the Earth in Starship Troopers, it looks like they need to evolve on a small (low gravity) planet that has a hot, humid, and very oxygen rich atmosphere.

And maybe it wouldn't hurt if the planet was largely a water planet as insects are evolved from crustaceans and being in water helps with buoyancy (thus can grow larger) and no need to worry about water loss (though may need to worry about salt content - creatures adapted to fresh water tend not to survive in salt water and vice versa). The large, dry, rocky bug home world in Starship Troopers just isn't a hospitable planet for large sentient insectile creatures.

Of course, insectile creatures on other planets are not destined to be exactly like Earth insects or crustacea. Universal biology will allow for a great range of diversity - insectile creatures on other planets may have some similarities to Earth insects, but they will have differences, especially if they were able to evolve to high level (i.e., technological using) sentience.

Yet more can be said on this subject, but 'tis way past my bedtime.


"How did insects evolve?" Ask Us.
Science Illustrated. Sept/Oct. 2008: 29. Print.

Myer, Dr. John R. "Insect Physiology: Respiratory System." General Entomology - ENT 425. North Carolina State University. 1 Nov. 2006. Web. 16 Aug. 2008. <>.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008


A new feature will be a new poll every quarter (I teach at a university that is on the quarter system). The poll results will be archived in this post. At the end of each quarter, I will update this post with the results. You will be able to get to this post by clicking on the "Polls" link in the "Topics categories" listing" in the blog's right sidebar.

Direct link:

Archived Polls:

1. Should we purposefully beam messages to the stars? (Ended 30 November. 2008)

6 (85%)
1 (14%)
0 (0%)
Total votes: 7

2. Will we detect / discover an alien civilization in the next 20 years? (Ended 7 March 2009)

Yes, advances in technology will allow us to.
4 (50%)
No, While the technology is advancing rapidly, 20 years is too optimistic.
2 (25%)
No. There are no other civilizations to find in our section of the galaxy.
0 (0%)
No. There are no other civilizations to find anywhere.
0 (0%)
We already have (covered up by governments).
2 (25%)
Total votes: 8

Monday, August 11, 2008

Blog in Space III: The Beatles' "Across the Universe"

"Nothing's going to change my world..."

Beatles in Space

At 7 pm on 4 February 2008, NASA beamed the Beatles' song "Across the Universe" toward Polaris (the North Star) 431 light years away via NASA's Deep Space Network. This was done to celebrate several anniversaries that occurred in the first week of February 2008:
  • 5oth anniversary of the founding of NASA
  • 50th anniversary of the founding of the Beatles
  • 50th anniversary of the launch of the first U.S. satellite, Explorer I
  • 45th anniversary of the founding of the Deep Space Network
  • 40th anniversary of the production of the first version of the Beatles "Across the Universe" by George Martin.
For NASA to pick "Across the Universe" to beam makes sense, from the shared anniversaries, to the title of the song itself. However, for NASA to beam the song in the first place may not make as much sense.

A Moot Question?

As mentioned in an earlier post, on one hand the question whether we should or should not send a message into space for aliens to detect may be a moot point as we've been leaking radio and TV signals into space for over 60 years now. And the amount of signals we're leaking out into space has increased. However, weakly leaking out man-made radiation isn't the same as purposely beaming out a strong focused signal into deep space.

The chance that there is, or will be by the time the signal reaches it, a technologically advanced sentient alien race who are not only able to detect the signal and understand that it is artificially produced, but who also just happen to be listening with their electronic ears pointed toward our region of space at the right moment to pick up our one "Across the Universe" transmission is rather minute.

Possibly decreasing the chances even further is the nature of Polaris. It is a Cepheid variable star in a triple-star system. A Cepheid variable is a star 5 - 20 times the mass of the Sun that regularly cycles between expanding and contracting in size. This may impact the stability of the habitable zone for the star system.

Finally, the chance of an alien space probe (not necessarily from Polaris) happening across our transmission beam, or for another sentient race around a star beyond Polaris detecting the beam is also rather minute (even astronomically minute).

The Problem of Blasting Music toward Your Neighbors 

So what's the problem with introducing the Beatles to the Polarians, and whoever else may hear it after them?

We do not know the nature of the Polarians, or of any alien that may intercept our message. We do not know how they will react to it. Too often on Earth, when a technologically advanced civilization meets (or "discovers") a less advanced civilization, it usually ends up disastrously for the less advanced one. This does not mean that the aliens would behave the same way, but it does point to the distinct possibility that they could. If we can, others can - I seriously doubt that there is a universal natural law that only one arrogantly aggressive sentient race can exist in a galaxy.

The aliens may be xenophobic because they were invaded once themselves by an alien race, and their leader(s) decide that it is better to do preemptive strikes. Or maybe their world leader is a megalomaniac who isn't satisfied with ruling just one planet. Is it impossible for someone to want to try to rule the galaxy, even if that is a deluded desire? Or the aliens may have a religious reason to attack, one that we can not fathom. The aliens may misinterpret our message as one of aggression or of grave insult to their faith, leader, or way of life.

Or they may want to come and "help us" - parent us. They may feel it is their inherent right to do so. Some imperialistic nations in Earth's history had that philosophy - they conquered other nations to help them. They may see us as uneducated, lost heathens who need to be shown the light, and they know, from experience with other planets or their own history, that heathens won't listen unless you use "tough love" on them.

Technological advances do not always come with the appropriate advances in culture or society. A technologically advanced alien race does not have to be morally advanced as well (though one sentient species morality may not be the same as another's).

Yes, there is also the chance that the aliens that happen to hear our transmission will respect our sovereignty in all aspects of our world. They may be merely knowledge seekers, explorers, curious to learn more about us, and nothing more.

Or the aliens may even be rather indifferent to us, like the aliens in Dan Abnett's short story "Point of Contact" (found in The Solaris Book of New Science Fiction, Volume Two, edited by George Mann).

We just do not know. Is it worth the risk to announce ourselves?

Ah, but, you may say, at 431 light years away are we not safe?

Vast Distances, Like Fences, Good Neighbors Make?

It would be if the speed of light is the fastest any one can travel, and the aliens are short lived as we are and are adversed to multi-generational space journeys. Recent research over the last 15 years shows that "warp drives" may be possible one day after all. A more technologically advanced civilization than ours may have figured out warp drives.

Such an advance in spaceflight technology could make moot another related barrier - long interstellar distances can, with sub light spaceships, take many generations to traverse. This, of course, assumes that an alien race has short life spans like ours. With great medical advances, and their own different biology that may allow longer life spans to begin with, it is not inconceivable that an alien race could live long enough to make the trip to Earth and back in one generation or less. Of course they would have to be able to deal with being cooped up in the small (compared to the open air or water of their home planet) spaceship, as well as be able to produce enough sustenance and breathable atmosphere. But again, faster than light travel would take care of most of those problems.

Another barrier to traveling interstellar distances is the danger of cosmic radiation. It is difficult to shield from it. Our atmosphere is thick enough (60 miles) to protect us, but out in space, travelers just have the skin of their spacecraft. Though researchers are looking into creating magnetic bubbles around spacecraft to protect the humans within it from cosmic radiation. So that is probably not a problem for a more technologically advanced space faring civilization.

They, Robot

However, even if an alien race is too far away to send some of their own out to travel to Earth, they could send robots in their place. Sending robots solves many problems - no need to grow food, maintain a breathable atmosphere, or worry about the trip taking generations. Robots would also be able to explore a greater variety of planets as they would be able to tolerate a far wider range of physical environments as well as be essentially immune to any alien virus or bacteria. They could even be more resistant to attack from many biological creatures. This is one reason why some ufologists believe that the aliens known as "Grays" are actually advanced robots.

The robots would need to have sufficiently sophisticated AI (Artificial Intelligence) though, so that they can operate mostly on their own due to a 862 year round trip for any communications - unless the aliens are able to develop something akin to subspace communications like in Star Trek (would such robots be sentient?). Of course, if their mission is simple, like "observe from a distance, take notes and report" or "destroy all humans," there wouldn't be a great need for two way communication. Just sending reports updating on their progress (either to the home planet, or to a second wave of robots coming after them so that they can adjust their game plan if need be before arriving at Earth).

"Nothing's going to change my world..."


The irony of it is, the song could change our entire world by its being beamed into space by a radio telescope. Yes, I know that what John Lennon means is that when you achieve a pristine state of consciousness, you are in a mental and spiritual state where you are free of worldly distractions: "Nothing's going to change my world..." However, if, and it is a big if, the song does get the attention of aliens, most of us will find our worlds changing as most of us haven't reached the mental and spiritual state sung about in the song.

What do you think about this?

Some additional information about the Polaris star system

Like most triple star systems, the Polaris system contains a close binary with a more distant star circling the binary.

In the Polaris system, the central binary pair is made up of Polaris A, the giant Cepheid (somewhere between 4.3 to 5.4 times the mass of the Sun), and Polaris Ab, a dwarf star (1.4 solar mass).

Polaris A is the brightest Cepheid as seen from Earth. Polaris Ab circles Polaris A in a highly eccentric orbit, with the distance between it and Polaris A varying from 27 AU to 6.7 AU, taking over 29 years to orbit Polaris A (about the time it takes Saturn to orbit the Sun).

Comparing those distances to our solar system, Pluto's closest approach to the Sun is 29.7 AU, and Jupiter's furthest distance from the Sun is 5.5 AU. By the way, recall that while Pluto is further away than Neptune, on average, it has a much more eccentric orbit than Neptune and thus actually can be closer to the Sun than Neptune.

The third companion, Polaris B, is a main sequence Sun-like star (1.1 to 1.25 solar masses) which orbits some 2400 AUs from the center binary pair, or 60.8 times the distance from our Sun to Pluto (at its furthest point in its orbit). It takes Polaris B 29,000 years to orbit Polaris A.


"About the Deep Space Network." Deep Space Network Home Page. NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory. 20 Mar. 2008. Web. 11 Aug. 2008. <>.

Borland, John. "Physicists Do the Math on Warp Drive Science."
Wired Science. Wired News. 14 Dec. 2007. Web. 11 Aug. 2008. <>.

"Cepheid Variables - Introduction."
Imagine The Universe! NASA Goddard Space Flight Center. Web. 11 Aug. 2008. <>.

Kaler, Jim. "Polaris." Stars. University of Illinois. Web. 11 Aug. 2008. <>.

Knight, Will. "Repelling cosmic rays with magnetic bubbles." New news service. 19 Nov. 2004. Web. 11 Aug. 2008. <>.

"NASA Beams Beatles' 'Across the Universe' Into Space." NASA. 5 Feb. 2008. Web. 11 Aug. 2008. <>.

Nave, Carl R. "Solar System Data." HyperPhysics. Georgia State University. 2006. Web. 11 Aug. 2008. <>.

Tytell, David. "Probing Polaris."
News from Sky and Telescope. Sky and Telescope. 10 Jan. 2006. Web. 11 Aug. 2008. <>.

"Warp Drive, When?" NASA. 17 Mar. 2006. Web 11 Aug. 2008. <>.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Introduction Updated

The introduction has been updated, and a link to it placed prominently on the right side bar to make it easier to find for newcomers.

Saturday, August 9, 2008

Blog in Space IIb: Receiving difficulties addendum - the Wow! Signal

Before I move on to Blog in Space III: Across the Universe, I want to briefly touch upon the Wow! Signal. The Wow! Signal is the most famous signal in the history of the SETI program - a still unexplained signal that appears to be a non-terrestrial (non Earth) artificial signal received for 72 seconds on 15 August 1977.

However, it was a one time event - no radio telescope has ever been able to pick up the signal again. Some feel that indicates it is not a signal from an alien sentient race after all.

But why can't an alien signal sometimes be a one time transmission?

There is one good terrestrial example I will discuss in the upcoming Blog in Space III post: the one time transmission of the Beatles song "Across the Universe" into space. This transmission was aimed at Polaris - it was not a omni directional transmission, nor was it a continuous transmission. Any listener on Polaris over 43o years from now will have a small window of opportunity to catch the signal. If the Polarians tried to pick up the signal again, they'll be out of luck, scratching their heads, or whatever it is Polarians scratch when they are puzzled - if they scratch when puzzle, as they debate the signal's nature.

The Wow! Signal could be a one time signal sent out by a sentient race, their "hello, we are here" signal. Why don't they keep sending out their hello? Why didn't we keep sending "Across the Universe"? Their own SETI program could be nascent like ours, with their radio telescopes mostly tied up with other scientific research, not leaving much time for broadcasting signals into deep space.

The Wow! Signal could also be an errant communication transmission to a moving target - say, oh, I don't know, an interplanetary or interstellar space ship or deep space probe. Such communication transmissions would most likely not be a continuous stream. They could be repeated at regular intervals, but since we don't know what the intervals are, and since we do not have radio telescopes constantly trained on the Wow! Locale (the area of the sky the Wow! Signal came from), it would be a great stroke of luck to hear another signal from the Wow! Locale on one of the short sporadic times we are listening for it.

The Wow! Signal could be a transmission from aliens to one of their deep space probes - a signal that is sent out very infrequently, only when needed for course corrections, turning on or off a science instrument or experiment, or to transmit program updates to fix a problem the probe developed.

Another thing to consider is if this was an alien transmission that was not aimed at us but at a moving space craft or space probe, the likelihood that the space craft or probe is on a direct line between the aliens and our solar system is rather minute. Most likely the space craft or probe is moving at an angle to us, especially for a craft or probe within their own system. The probe may flyby other planets to get a gravity assist to help boost its velocity, or the probe may flyby other planets as part of its long term mission. The chances for the alien's probe to happen to line up between the aliens and Earth right when they are transmitting a signal to the probe (or, conversely, for the alien's planet to line up between the Earth and the probe which is transmitting a signal to the alien's planet) are minute at best.

But wait, there's more! Another complication is that our planet is circling our sun which is itself moving through space while the alien's planet is circling a star which is also moving through space. Think about a probe circling Mars. As Mars travels in its orbit, and we in ours, the angle of the transmission beam between the Earth and Mars changes, due to the fact that each planet's orbit is different in size and each planet travels at a different speed around the Sun. Sometimes the Earth and Mars are on the same side of the Sun, and other times on opposite sides of the Sun. Because of this, the background stars change as well.

And even if the alien's space craft or probe was sent toward our Sun, because of their planet's orbit, the transmission signals sent to the craft would be sent from varying angles. This would be, of course, most pronounced early in the craft's journey to our Sun as the angular distance would be the greatest. Only occasionally would the alien planet, their space craft, and the Earth line up. As the craft nears the Sun, the angular distance would decrease (compare how the distance between the rails of a train track appear close up to the distance between the rails appear at the horizon). In that case, we would actually be in some luck (unless the craft is an invading alien army) - as the craft gets closer, our chances of relocating their transmission signals increases.

Don't count the Wow! Signal out as an alien signal just because we detected it only once.


Alexander, Amir. "The "Wow!" Signal Still Eludes Detection." Planetary News: SETI. 17 January, 2001. Web. 10 August 2008. <>.

"A Gravity Assist Primer." Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Web. 10 August 2008. <>.

Kawa, Barry. "The Wow! Signal." Big Ear Radio Observatory. 6 September 2006. Web. 10 August 2008. <>. Reprinted from the Cleveland Plain Dealer Sunday Magazine section, 18 September 1994.

Friday, August 8, 2008

Blog template tweaks

I am tweaking the blog template to allow me to have a table of contents; I'm playing with different solutions to see which one I can live with, thus the table of contents will work off and on for the next half hour.

UPDATE: The Table of Contents is now functioning within normal parameters (OK, so I watch Star Trek, which I am sure few will be surprised by).

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Blog in Space II: Receiving difficulties

The question of whether we should be announcing ourselves to the Universe may be a moot point to an extent. We've been leaking man-made electromagnetic radiation for quite some time now. So the "cat's out of the bag," any way, right?

Well, not so fast.

Every planet have a vast night sky in which to search for signals. The further away they are from our solar system, the harder it will be for them to pick up a signal; not only will most have to have their finely tuned directional electronic ears pointed right at us, but their equipment will need to be able to receive the frequencies that we are radiating out into space with as well as be free from possible local interference. It is possible the aliens could dismiss, at first, our signals as noise.

The aliens will only have a small window to detect the signal as their planet rotates on its axis (unless they have space based radio telescopes). Interstellar dust could attenuate some, or all, of the signals. And finally, if they pointed their radio telescope to the Earth a couple of hundred years ago they would've not heard anything and may take some time to come back and listen again; or they may discover artificial (unnatural) signals from one or more other star systems and that may be enough to preoccupy them, delaying them from continuing their search, or from their going over previous searched sections of the sky. So even if the cat is out of the bag, we may have time to put it back in.

So, we need an alien race close enough to pick up the signals we've been leaking, with the technology to pick up the signals and to recognize them as non-local artificial signals, and the will to take the time to dedicate equipment for meticulous searches of the vast sky looking for alien signals.

Even if they did find our signals, they would have to then figure out what they are. Radio and television signals are not simple signals - they are signals which are modulated onto carrier signals. They will need a receiver that is capable of distinguishing signals from each other, able to remove the carrier to retrieve the information being sent, and then process it so that it can be used by a speaker, or TV screen. However, the original signals are meant for human ears and eyes, not an aliens', which could further complicate their ability to receive, and perceive, the signals.

If they are able to figure out the signals, and are able to get the information out in audible and/or visual form by adapting it to their own hearing and/or visual range, they would still need to interpret what they are seeing. Being that our culture and theirs will be very alien to each other, it may be profoundly difficult for them to make sense of what they hear or see. They may not perceive music as we do. They may not even be able to hear, communicating instead through scents (like ants), or touch, or light. How would such aliens make sense out of a audio broadcast? Will they have a sense of humor or be able to understand ours? Will they mistaken a TV show as a historical document (like the Thermians in Galaxy Quest)? Will they be offended by what they see either because of cultural differences or because of misinterpretation. It's hard to interpret a truly foreign language, especially the context, thousands of light-years away.

(I have to pause for another humorous aside, this one from Futurama - will they become addicted like Lrrr, the ruler of Omicron Persei 8, to a 1,000 year old TV series and demand the last episode be shown or the Earth is destroyed?)

But it may be enough that they detect the signal, and realize it is artificial - they would be able to figure out where they came from. If the speed of light is the ultimate speed limit, and there are no "tricks" to get around it (warp engines, worm holes), there's not much to worry about - physically (theologically and psychologically we may have something to worry about, as mentioned in earlier posts on alien contact).

Anyway, while the amount of signals we're leaking out into space has increased (cellphones, space probes, GPS, for example), weakly leaking out man-made radiation isn't the same as beaming out a strong focused signal on purpose for aliens to... oh, wait, we've done that. Ooops. it looks like we not only let that cat out, but we sent it running, meowing all the way.

More on that in the next post.


"Character bios: Lrrr." Can't get enough Futurama. 6 August 2008. <>.

"Galaxy Quest (1999)." Internet Movie Database. 6 August 2008. <>

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Blog In Space I: Introduction

There is a blog, "Blog In Space" (by, which will beam your blog into space because, according to their unsupported (at least as far as I know!) claim, "Aliens Love Blogs Too!"

If aliens did get your blog, they would have to know how to figure how to translate correctly the electronic signal so that they can see and hear your text, images, sound files, and/or video in the proper format (do aliens have the same HTML, CSS, and image standards?). Then they would need to understand your language (including the nuances only known by understanding the cultural context of the language).

But maybe they don't need to understand anything beyond the fact that some fool sentient species is purposely broadcasting their presence into outer space. Someone - or something - may indeed hear you. But it may not a welcomed guest...

More tomorrow.

Saturday, August 2, 2008

PhD position at Leiden Observatory on extrasolar planets

PhD position at Leiden Observatory on extrasolar planets

A 4-year PhD position is available at Leiden Observatory in the field of extrasolar planets. The student will search for and characterise planets transiting cool red dwarf stars. Planet transits have proven to give unique and extraordinary insights into the physical and atmospheric properties of hot, gaseous giant planets. Transits of much smaller, potentially rocky planets (such as the Earth) can be studied towards red dwarf stars. This is possible due to the significantly smaller size of these cool dwarfs compared to stars of solar type. Several planets have recently been discovered around red dwarfs, including a Super-Earth (possibly within the star's habitable zone), and one transiting hot Neptune. Now is the time to specifically target red dwarfs for transits, and utilise the full potential of the transit method. The student will mainly be working on analysis and follow-up of the WFCAM M-dwarf Transit Survey, which has been awarded 200 nights of observing time on the 4m UKIRT telescope to our international team.

For this project we seek excellent and enthusiastic candidates, who are highly interested in observational astronomy. The astronomy department at Leiden is internationally oriented and hosts about 40 graduate students of several nationalities. Further information about the department can be found at

Applicants should contact Dr. Snellen at the address below for further information. Applicants should have, or soon obtain, a masters degree in astronomy or in physics with a strong astronomy component. Complete applications, including curriculum vitae (with a list of courses and grades), two letters of reference, and a letter explaining your interest in the project, should be sent by the 8st of September 2008 to:

Dr. Ignas Snellen,
Sterrewacht Leiden, PO Box 9512, 2300 RA Leiden, The Netherlands
tel: +31 71 527 5838;
fax: +31 71 527 5819

Posted with permission from Dr. Snellen