SMBC on the brain

By Phil Plait | August 10, 2011 10:14 am

I was on travel yesterday and didn’t get a chance to link to the Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal web comic, leading to approximately a metric ton of emails and notes on Twitter telling me about it. I know, the sample I have extracted below doesn’t give you a hint why people would be telling me about this particular strip, but click it to get the whole picture.

OK, spoilers below the fold! Don’t read until you’ve looked at the comic!

Yes, that’s me, and yes, that’s Neil Tyson. Normally, I’d be concerned (if not outright repulsed) by being involved in the life cycle of a parasitic organism, but since (SMBC artist) Zach’s wife, Kelly, studies those things, I have to face the fact that he does this out of love. Also, the cercariae in Zach’s brain make him create comics that he knows will get put into my blog, so who’s the parasite and who’s the host now, huh?

[NB: Zach is now selling his SMBC book. You may also recognize his fashion model at the bottom of that page. Time to update my resumé!]


Related posts:

- Save Yourself, Mammal!
- Zach Weiner, destroyer of homophobes
- SMBC gets it right, as usual
- Comic Con 2: SMBC and me
- SMBC gets the finger

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Astronomy, Humor, Science

Comments (37)

  1. Keith Bowden

    I got Save Yourself, Mammal! a few weeks ago – and it got passed around the office for a few days before I could take it home to enjoy it for myself! The cycle continues, shiny. :)

  2. Brian

    It vaguely reminds me of one or two of Isaac Asimov’s short stories … “Each an Explorer”, I believe is the one that applies here, and maybe “Does a Bee Care?”

  3. Adam

    I read the comic and thought, “hey that looks like Neil Tyson and Phil Plait.” Then I clicked to read more and I was confirmed correct.

    I am truly a dork.

  4. Matt

    Sorry to let you know, but humans ARE involved in one of these ridiculous parasite lifecycles.

    Behold Toxoplasma Gondii. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Toxoplasma_gondii

    Infects all kinds of organisms, including humans (potentially having behavioral effects on our brains). It will infect mice, making them enjoy the smell of cat urine, which makes it easier for cats to eat them and get infected.

    A very large number of people (especially cat owners) are carriers and don’t even know it.

  5. Josie

    He should have included Stephen Hawking in the background with a disdainful stare –given his attitude on the likelihood that the aliens will be not so friendly

  6. Bill

    With all due respect to Mr. Dr. Tyson and all…shouldn’t that be Seth Shostak standing next to you?
    :)

  7. Joseph G

    #@4;What exactly is Dr. Hawking’s attitude on friendly aliens? I could google it, but i’m lazy :-P

    Epic comic, though. I’m glad I’m not the only one with serious misgivings about active SETI.

    /prudence isn’t paranoia

  8. Jen

    #3 Adam – i thought the SAME thing!! I love this blog, brings out my geeky goodness!!

  9. 4th Dimension

    @7 His opinion is that friendly alliens are as likely as a snowflake in hell. And that we should be VERRY afraid of first contact, where they are the ones possesing space travel ability, and could harvest our planet with impunity.

  10. Draa

    If I had one person I could meet and spend a day with it would most certainly be Phil Plait. The man fascinates me and I hope he’s coming to North Florida sometime soon because I’d sure like to hear him speak. We need more people like him.

  11. Hugo Schmidt

    Very neat. Does anyone know what Neil DeGrasse Tyson thinks about SMBC?

  12. Thameron

    When the aliens arrive we will know two things about them.

    1) They have acquired (by whatever means) the technology to travel between the stars.

    2) They had the motivation to make the journey.

    The very idea of harvesting resources in another stellar system is beyond ludicrous. Can you imagine the shipping costs? So if they come they won’t be coming for that.
    Any guess about friendliness at this juncture, is just that – a guess, no matter who is guessing. Guesses don’t get any more wild than ones done with zero data points. Hawking should stick to physics and eschew the guessing games. We are still waiting on fusion power, it isn’t like there is no work to be done for physicists.

  13. frankenstein monster

    only astrophysicists ? what if the entire sentience/civilization thing is just more of the same. The parasite lands, infects some critters, causes them to become unnaturally intelligent, build cities clearly visible from space, and sometimes even broadcasting radio waves to make them even more visible to the predators. predators come, eat the entire biosphere, and then fly off spreading their parasite ridden poop all across the universe… :)

  14. frankenstein monster

    The very idea of harvesting resources in another stellar system is beyond ludicrous. Can you imagine the shipping costs? So if they come they won’t be coming for that.

    good. Another shovelful of reasoning to plug the bottomless hole of xenophobic paranoia. Unfortunately, because it is bottomless, you will need another infinity, or two, of arguments to fill it.

  15. Nuclear_Chris

    So awesome, I feel a nod should go to Carl Zimmer’s “Parasite Rex”

  16. BruceGee

    Unfortunately, I’m afraid that hostile aliens are one of the most reasonable solutions for the Fermi paradox. How come we haven’t picked up any signals from extraterrestrials? Because whenever a culture gets to the point where it can start broadcasting, someone or something comes along a short time later (and in galactic terms a hundred years is an eyeblink) and makes them stop.

    Why would they do such a thing? I dunno, but if we use ourselves as a model, my guess would be religion — their god finds all other sentient species to be repugnant in its sight. If they used self-replicating robots to do their dirty work, it wouldn’t even cost them very much. The robots would use each conquered star system to replicate themselves and start scanning for their next target. They could outlast their makers and live for millenia.

  17. frankenstein monster

    The robots would use each conquered star system to replicate themselves and start scanning for their next target. They could outlast their makers and live for millenia.

    Leaving an easy to detect trail of destruction all over the galaxy. That is no solution to the fermi paradox because we don’t detect swarms of robots eating whole star systems, either.

  18. CB

    The “solution” to the Fermi “paradox” is in that key phrase “we don’t detect”, which is only a conundrum if you were to make the bizarre assumption that our vision is perfect and if we don’t see evidence then evidence does not exist.

    Like we’d even be able to tell if the planetary systems we actually know about were being eaten by self-replicating robot swarms right while we were looking at them! We wouldn’t notice until the planet’s mass was reduced enough to measurably impact its star’s wobble or the amount of light occluded.

  19. Dutch Railroader

    @CB and others…

    The Fermi Paradox is not concerned with *detecting* alien civilizations, but being visited by them. The presumption is that a long-lived civilization will diffuse through the galaxy. The part nearly always missed by all attempts to rebut the FP is that any excuse must apply with > (N-1)/N likelihood as the presumed number of civilizations, N, in the galaxy increases. (Or more generally, ALL excuses must multiply so that the probability of failure is > (N-1)/N.) If, for example, you say that interstellar flight is hard, then it must be so, so hard that *no one* ever does it no matter how many civilizations you have. The only good solution is that alien civilizations are very, very rare…

  20. Sawdust Sam

    Kurt Vonnegut: The Sirens of Titan (1959) – Salo, the Tralfamadorian explorer’s space ship breaks while he is in our solar system. From their home planet the Tralfamadorians manipulate human development so that they can create parts for his broken spaceship. Humans also build monuments (Stonehenge, the Great Wall of China and the Kremlin) that are messages in the Tralfamadorian language telling Salo of the progress of the repair.

    Salo also plants a hallucination in the main human character’s mind so that he experiences death as a pleasant event.

    There’s nothing new under the sun – it’s all out there somewhere . . .

  21. Immortalized in cartoon: now Phil belongs to the ages.

  22. CB

    @ Dutch Railroader:

    If you’re concerned with Star Trek: First Contact-style visits, then just multiply all the other probabilities involved by the chances that any given galactic colonizers will immediately come down and say “Hi, welcome to the galaxy!”, as opposed to watching us from a gigantic observatory orbiting Pluto that would be invisible to us, but would allow them to study us for a few thousand years before deciding whether to take a chance. After hundreds of thousands or millions of years of travel, what would be the rush?

    The most important point to make here though is how you’re looking at the probabilities wrong. You’re saying that the final probability for visitation (inverting from chance of not-visiting*), has to be < 1/N, so that when you multiply by the number of civilizations N, you get an expected value of < 1.

    That's simply not the case. The expected value of heads for two fair coin tosses is one, but you don't conclude anything profound if the actual experiment doesn't come out that way. In truth, the probabilities only need to multiply out so that it isn't exceedingly unlikely that the observed lack of Vulcan visitation is due to random chance alone. An expected value of 1 with an observed value of 0 doesn’t come close to that threshold; if it did, we’d have already declared the Higgs Boson found.

    There are very realistic scenarios where there are hundreds of thousands of alien civilizations in the galaxy right now, yet none are currently within 1,000 light years of Sol, and then you would be concluding there non-existence based on our lack of observation. Certainly you can’t tell me that the probability of visitation is so high that we have 5-sigma confidence that it can’t be due to chance that we haven’t been visited — not when all it takes is a single assumption being wrong, and a lot of those assumptions involve alien sociology and psychology!

    The Fermi Paradox is not a paradox at all.

    About the only thing it implies is that if advanced alien civilizations are common, then FTL is probably either literally or practically impossible.

    Though I’m still not sure this would put the probabilities high enough that we could definitively conclude this from the lack of alien visitation. Still too many assumptions required.

    * Which is actually a very different thing than chance of ‘failure’. You have to multiply in every probability, including those that aren’t failure but rather deliberate choices. E.g. since there are no shortage of star systems in the galaxy, maybe they choose to ignore systems that already contain inhabited worlds.

  23. CB

    @ Sawdust Sam

    Loved that book, but did you have to give the whole thing away? :P

  24. Dutch Railroader

    @CB

    If you have N civilizations and no one’s come by, then you must concoct a set of reasons such that when you put them all together, you credibly make a case that this is the most likely outcome. By “failure,” I’m already including your “deliberate choices,” and everything else. As N gets large, then it becomes harder and harder to make sure that all your excuses are covering the complete ensemble. If N=10, say, then sure, it’s easy to concoct reasons for no visitation. But for N=10^5, it’s much harder to make a convincing argument that allows for no leakage. Sure, some don’t like space travel, some don’t figure it out, some blow themselves up, some think it’s best to leave us alone, and so on. But when you’re all done *no one* has ever stopped by? In making these excuses so ironclad you fall into making blanket universal assumptions about unknown and likely diverse alien sociology and psychology. A classic example of this is a standard Fermi excuse – an advanced civilization would leave us alone. For say 99% of the civilizations it might be true, but it’s that 1% when N is large enough that going to be the ones who ignore the Prime Directive. I have no idea at all what the ethics of an alien civilization would be – there’s no rational basis that allows me to a priori assume that they’ll all behave well or even a majority of them. Same thing for the desire to explore or not, the likelihood that they’ll destroy themselves or not, and so on. It’s when N gets large that I’m more and more forced to adopt blanket assumptions about the unknown…

  25. Michael Suttkus, II

    Isaac Asimov also wrote a story with a similar theme to the comic, though I can’t remember the title right off, just that all of civilization turned out to be an alien manipulating life on Earth so that we would develop the technology he needed to get home.

    I’ve always found the idea that aliens might come here for our resources rather ludicrous. The universe is full of stuff on planets that don’t have local residents. The aliens in V come here for our water. Dumb. Just park a scoop in Saturn’s rings or start picking up comets from the Ooort cloud. All the water you could want without having to deal with Earth’s gravity well or residents. Pretty much any mineral resource you might want is more abundant elsewhere with less trouble. Our non-mineral resources can’t really inspire much mass exploitation because if they have the technology to get here, they don’t need us for slave labor (they can build robots) or biological exploitation (a la Torchwood, Children of Earth) because they will have cloning technology, both things that, ultimately, look easier to do than building rapid interstellar ships. MAYBE they might want Earth for living space, but I’m not convinced that makes much sense either.

    No, there are only two reasons I can think of for aliens to come here: curiosity or hostility. So, you know, we can at least rest easy knowing that we won’t be invaded by venture capitalists.

  26. BruceGee

    Actually, there’s one other resource that an alien might find valuable in this star system: DNA. I’m assuming that self-replicating chemistry (in other words “life”) is rare enough that each solution to the problem is going to have unique aspects. So every species on a planet is essentially the evolutionary computer cranking for a few million years to solve a specific problem. Assuming our visitors would be as inconvenienced for waiting for a few million years to see how an experiment turns out as we would be, that makes our stuff useful. Even if you’re already a good cloner, the more patterns you have to work with, the more useful or artistic or deadly or whatever you’re looking for will be the life forms you can create.

    Fortunately, that would be a more benign cause for visitation then some.

  27. James

    The only logical solution to the Fermi paradox is that they are already here and secretly controlling us

    (Hint: Anyone denying this is an alien)

    I think Hawking’s position on this one is based on a fairly unsentimental look at the only sample of technological life available: Homo Sapiens. Let’s face it, we don’t have the best track record when it comes to getting on with our neighbours. Even a friendly/non-hostile advanced race might well wipe us out by accident rather than design.

  28. realta fuar

    Dutch Railroader makes a very good case. Niven and Pournelle essentially reduced the argument to the “crazy Eddy” hypothesis: no matter how unlikely interstellar travel is, some civilization, somewhere has done it. @BruceGee That’s a very good idea!
    I just hope the hostile aliens have the good sense to FIRST eat (enslave, mutate, probe, etc. etc.) those astrophysicists and others stupid enough to say, HEY, LOOK HERE, PICK ME!

  29. ggremlin

    One of my favorite stories is David Brin’s short “The Giving Plague”.
    A virus that that causes altruist levels in the human race to raise via blood transfusions (method of transfer), we get all the ways to Mars. Then we run into a alien life-form that just loves us, to death.

  30. Dunc

    About the only thing it implies is that if advanced alien civilizations are common, then FTL is probably either literally or practically impossible.

    I’m perfectly happy to resolve the Fermi “paradox” with the reasoning that “advanced” alien civilisations are probably very rare, and FTL travel is literally impossible.

  31. kennypo65

    Perhaps the aliens are leaving us alone because, after studying us for the last 1000 years, they have determined that we are so violent and primitive in our thinking, they fear what we may do to them.

  32. j.jonah.jansen

    @26 /BruceGee

    You should read Octavia Butler’s ‘Lilith’s Brood’ trilogy for an extremely interesting take on your premise.

  33. CB

    If you have N civilizations and no one’s come by, then you must concoct a set of reasons such that when you put them all together, you credibly make a case that this is the most likely outcome.

    No, you don’t! It does not have to be more likely that aliens wouldn’t/couldn’t visit us than they would. It only has to be likely enough that you can’t reject the possibility. For concluding that alien civilizations don’t exist or are exceedingly rare, I’d say you’d need at the very least a 95% confidence interval, and there’s no way you or anyone else can put forward figures solid enough to do that.

    Concluding that alien civilizations must be rare based on the evidence that none have made themselves apparent to us yet is simply an unsupported conclusion.

    If N=10, say, then sure, it’s easy to concoct reasons for no visitation. But for N=10^5, it’s much harder to make a convincing argument that allows for no leakage. Sure, some don’t like space travel, some don’t figure it out, some blow themselves up, some think it’s best to leave us alone, and so on. But when you’re all done *no one* has ever stopped by?

    Okay, I was wondering what you thought of as “very, very rare”. But if just 10,000 civilizations in a galaxy 100,000 light years across with several hundred billion stars counts as “not exceptionally rare” (and I’d tend to agree) then this is hardly a mystery at all. In this case, I’m sure it could be shown that the current state of affairs is not improbable even assuming that every alien race could and would exponentially explore the galaxy and say “Hi” to every sentient race they meet.

    Here, all you need is the probability that an arbitrary species based on location and the time since they began their expansion and estimated rate of expansion that they would have reach earth before now, and also reached earth after there were humans sophisticated enough to understand what was happening and record it. “No one has ever stopped by” (emphasis mine) is just an unsubstantiated assumption.

    It could easily take millions of years for a species to cross a significant portion of the galaxy, and this fact alone makes it quite likely that alien explorers either haven’t reached us yet, or they did reach us, came down to say “hi”, but there was nobody but primitive humans to greet them, who recorded the event in cave paintings as a god descending from the sky. Or they were greeted by dinosaurs. Compared to the time span of the endeavor, the window in which aliens
    would have to have come by for us to be certain today that they did visit is very, very small.

    Multiply in the odds for every other factor that could get in the way, and even with millions of civilizations I don’t think there’s anything particularly surprising about the apparent non-existence of aliens.

    It’s when N gets large that I’m more and more forced to adopt blanket assumptions about the unknown…

    Well, that’s the problem, you have to make assumptions one way or another to show that the odds of visitation are so high that the only conclusion we can make is that they don’t exist to come visit.

    To draw no such conclusion requires no assumptions.

    The Fermi Paradox is only a paradox if you make a bunch of bad assumptions.

  34. CB

    Dutch Railroader makes a very good case. Niven and Pournelle essentially reduced the argument to the “crazy Eddy” hypothesis: no matter how unlikely interstellar travel is, some civilization, somewhere has done it.

    Yes, but that civilization is only 50,000 years old, located 20,000 light years away, and even at a brisk pace of 2% of the speed of light isn’t going to reach us for another 950,000 years.

    Or they were only 10,000 light years away, and they swung by Sol 500,000 years ago, and are currently 10,000 light years past us, which is how long it will take for them to see our radio signals and realize Earth now is home to a civilization of its own.

    The universe is very big. “Okay but at least one civilization must be exploring the galaxy” does not justify the “no or very few aliens” interpretation of the Fermi Paradox.

  35. BruceGee

    Something that people seem to overlook is that there are two solutions to interstellar travel. FTL is one; functional immortality is the other. If your individual lifespan is in the thousands or tens of thousands, suddenly building a spaceship that takes 800 years to get to the next star system starts looking a lot more reasonable. Personally, I think that’s the barrier we’re likely to break first, either through genetics or through building self-repairing intelligent robots.

  36. Gary Ansorge

    Or, as my Son thinks, they’re all perfectly happy to stay at home, hanging out in their virtual realities. Why travel decades, thru hard radiation, etc, just to say “Hi. We’re your new neighbors.”

    The only reason I can think of to travel to another solar system(in person) would be to escape intolerable conditions at home(which is the main reason people left europe for the Americas). Even if all we wanted was to ensure the propagation of our species in a distributed environment, we would only need to send DNA patterns and a few clonable cells and raise them via computer/robotic tending. As long as our “perfect” virtual reality holds out, there would be no need for US to go in person.

    On the other hand, I am insatiably nosy, so if I had an unlimited lifespan and lots of money, I’d go,,,

    ,,,and here’s a sample of a planet that might be an example of a world sized, virtual reality generating computer. It absorbs nearly all incident light. Perfect for powering the darned thing.

    http://io9.com/5830089/strange-alien-planet-is-impossibly-black

    GAry 7

  37. @#4 Matt
    The theory of Toxoplasma gondii infecting “cat people” is, as far as I know, an urban legend pushed by cat haters. It’s pure specuation based on the fact that the parasite alters the behavior of infected RODENTS (which makes sense for its lifecycle), but the alternation is very specific. There are no studies done (tho some superficial correlations have been made) for similar effects in humans and there’s no causal benefit, anyway. Cats are a highly successful species in the wild and animal domestication is quite new on an evolutionary scale, so there’s no logic to the idea that a parasite needs to re-program humans. The known effects of toxoplasmosis in humans are hardly asymptomatic; they include schizophrenia. The “documented” behavior changes in humans have been shown. . . in infected mice.

    I think a more credible hypothesis would be if certain STDs induce promiscuity in humans, as that would make a hell of a lot more sense.

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