May 18, 2014

Homo sapiens vs. the Cosmos

Cosmos "A Spacetime Odyssey"
Life on Earth exists at the end of a delicate chain of DNA molecules stretching back through billions of years. We humans only discovered DNA's role as the genetic molecule back in the 1940s. Just in this century we have begun to chart what makes our genome distinctly human. Will our knowledge of the molecular basis of life provide us with god-like power to transform our biological nature? Will we transcend our biology, will our billion year genetic chains be snapped by we humans?

Episode 11: The Immortals
Can we humans do better than DNA? DNA is unreliable. Changing one chemical bond among millions in a DNA strand can be lethal. Why shouldn't we transform ourselves in artificial lifeforms, new forms of life that would not be subject to the whims of random mutation?

The commercials that were used during the leadup to Episode 11 included images of "artificial DNA", a CGI fantasy of the genetic material looking like a ladder of pixie dust. Here I've shown the DNA ladder as being strong enough to support Dr. Tyson, but how many times in the history of Earth has the long evolutionary chain of DNA been snapped by bursts of cosmic rays and storms of stellar radiation?

Has Earth periodically been subjected to cleansing blasts of radiation that reset the pattern of evolution? But here we are. We survived it all. Only to self-destruct? Are we, with our technological grandiosity, initiating the most devastating mass extinction ever?

Earth becomes engulfed by a red giant: video
In Dhalgren, an angry red sun appears, prompting readers to imagine the ultimate fate of our species. Through my whole life I've been amused by people who display angst over the fact that the Sun will not last forever, who fret about the chances that humans will be able to escape from Earth before it is baked by the Sun.

Does anyone really expect we humans to be around 5 billion years from now? In his novel The End of Eternity, Asimov imagined that we humans could create an artificial environment in which our biological evolution would stop. How likely is that? I suspect that we are at the start of a new era for life on Earth, an era for rapid development of artificial life.

Prelands: human 2.0
How are we to think about our future and our growing power to transform ourselves as a species? That transformation has been going on for millions of years already. When our primate ancestors became tool users who could pass tool-using skills from generation to generation we created our own evolutionary environment and began a process of auto-domestication.We have guided our own evolution. The human species is an artificial construct generated by artificial selection.

I'm a science fiction fan and I enjoy imaginary tales about aliens who visit Earth. For the Exode Trilogy, I imagine that aliens helped create the human species. Those aliens who guided our evolution have moved on and created other primate species. In particular, on worlds of the Galactic Core, the Prelands already exist as the planned replacement for we primitive humans.

Science fiction stories provide entertaining ways to stimulate thought about how technology will impact Humanity. I don't take seriously the idea that aliens have guided human evolution.  As far as I can tell, we humans are alone here on Earth. One solution to the Fermi Paradox is that soon after a biological species becomes a tool-using creator of technology, it will learn how to alter its own genes and transform itself into new forms of its own imaginings. It might not be all that hard to self-evolve into artificial life forms with interests and concerns that are quite different from those of we primitive humans. It is probably far easier for species to transform themselves into artificial lifeforms than it is to traverse the vast distances of interstellar space.

Bright eyes, burning like fire
How can the light that burned so brightly
Suddenly burn so pale? 
(apologies to Mike Batt and Art Garfunkel)

Isn't life a flux of change, death, rebirth? Can immortality be achieved by living creatures? In the Exode Trilogy I imagine that the Huaoshy long ago transcended their biological existence and became a form of artificial life residing within the Sedronic Domain. During the course of the story, humans are force to confront the possible ways by which technology can confer immortality.

The human condition?
Immortality is a popular theme in science fiction. A fundamental question is if immortality is compatible with the human condition. We might find a technological means of achieving immortality, but would the application of that technology necessarily put an end to our humanity? An important issue in Exode is if an immortal alien intelligence can have meaningful and constructive interactions with we humans.

May 25, 2014
Apparently car racing is more important than the Cosmos. Burn, baby, burn!

Episode 12: The World Set Free
Can we Earthlings break our addiction to fossil fuels or will we push Earth through global warming and catastrophic sea level rise?

In Episode 12 of Cosmos, differences between the atmospheres of Earth and Venus are discussed. Without oceans and biological/geological processes that can convert atmospheric carbon into rock deposits, Venus is crushed under a stifling atmosphere that traps heat.

On Earth, we have little carbon dioxide in our atmosphere. How much can our  use of fossil fuels drive up atmospheric carbon levels before we over-heat this planet?

Dr. Tyson went through an historical account of scientists who for the past 100 years have explained the role of atmospheric carbon dioxide in trapping heat and warming Earth. Recently, with dramatic warming in the Arctic Ocean, permafrost is being lost and another greenhouse gas, methane, is being released into the atmosphere. Another positive feedback process has begun: less arctic ice means more sun light is absorbed rather than being reflected away from Earth.

In Exode, Clu'ten'iun is a Venus-like planet, well suited for the Fru'wu. Clu'ten'iun was the origin world for the one Fru'wu individual who appears in the Exode Trilogy. The Fru'wu are a type of artificial life form that originated from a biological species: the Fruthwa. The Fruthwa civilization triggered runaway global warming on their home world (originally called Clustence), making it uninhabitable. The Fru'wu are a "bionic" artificial life form that was crafted after the Fruthwa could no longer breath the atmosphere of Clustence.

The Nereids and the Fru'wu share a secret: it was the Nereids who intervened in the development of Fruthwa civilization and "liberated" the Fruthwa from their pek Overseers. Standard pek protocols would have suppressed any development of a technological civilization by the Fruthwa, allowing Clustence to remain a Garden World inherited by the Fruthwanian Prelands.

Episode 13. Dark matter.
In this episode, Dr. Tyson uses the Spaceship of the Imagination to follow the two Voyager spacecraft out into the galaxy. What are the forces that give shape and organization to the galaxies? Gravity from "conventional matter" alone does not seem to account for the observed distribution of stars. What unseen "dark matter" adds additional gravitational force to galaxies?

In the Exode Trilogy, I imagine that there are whole as-yet-unknown families of fundamental particles. What great unanswered questions about the Cosmos remain? Does our civilization have "the right stuff" to push back the boundary of the unknown?

How do we compare to other civilizations? Like Carl Sagan in the original Cosmos, Dr. Tyson uses the ancient library in Alexandria, Egypt, as an example of how a culture can value knowledge and learning.

For the past 15 years, our civilization has known that Dark Energy is accelerating the expansion of the universe. This mysterious force of expansion seems to dominate the energetics of our universe.

Dr. Tyson explains Dark Energy.
What other features of the Cosmos will we discover if we can keep pushing at the frontiers of knowledge?
Episodes 7-10
episodes 3-6
episodes 1 and 2

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