Independence Day has one of my most favorite hero duos of all time: Will Smith and Jeff Goldblum. Brawn and brains, flyboy and nerd, working together to take out the baddies. It all comes down to one flash of insight on behalf of a drunk Goldblum after being chastised by his father. Cliché eureka! moments like Goldblum’s realization that he can give the mothership a “cold” are great until you realize one thing: if Goldblum hadn’t been as smart as he was, the movie would have ended much differently. No one in the film was even close to figuring out how to defeat the aliens. Will Smith was in a distant second place and he had only discovered that they are vulnerable to face punches. The hillbilly who flew his jet fighter into the alien destruct-o-beam doesn’t count, because he needed a force-field-free spaceship for his trick to work. If Jeff Goldblum hadn’t been a super-genius, humanity would have been annihilated.
Every apocalyptic film seems to trade on the idea that there will be some lone super-genius to figure out the problem. In The Day The Earth Stood Still (both versions) Professor Barnhardt manages to convince Klaatu to give humanity a second look. Cleese’s version of the character had a particularly moving “this is our moment” speech. Though it’s eventually the love between a mother and child that triggers Klaatu’s mercy, Barnhardt is the one who opens Klaatu to the possibility. Over and over we see the lone super-genius helping to save the world.
Shouldn’t we want, oh, I don’t know, at least more than one super-genius per global catastrophe? I’d like to think so. And where might we get some more geniuses? you may ask. We make them.
America’s current plans for human space exploration seem horribly slow, considering we won’t leave Earth’s orbit until 2025 and won’t reach Mars until 2035. Worse than that, solar radiation spikes could keep us grounded for decades more.
The Sun emits a steady stream of potentially deadly cosmic radiation. As long as humans remain within the Earth’s atmosphere, the threat posed by this radiation is practically nil, but any extended trips into deep space require careful shielding to protect astronauts from the threat of radiation sickness or cancer. The exact levels of radiation vary depending on the severity of solar activity, which falls into a number of predictable cycles.
That’s where the problem starts, according to a new study by NASA scientist John Norbury. We already know about the Schwabe cycle, which shows sunspot activity reaches its peak, known as the solar maximum, every 11 years. When this occurs, there’s a big increase in solar flares and coronal mass ejections, which together spread deadly radiation throughout the solar system. The last solar maximum was reached in 2002, so we’re headed for more in 2013, 2024, and 2035. Those last two dates are worrying, considering the current “2025 out of orbit/2035 to Mars” plans of the United States.
Remember in E.T. where the government finds E.T. and decides they should do all sorts of crazy awful experiments on him? Or how about in District 9 where an entire alien race is subjected to squalor, neglect, and vivisection? Or maybe in The Day the Earth Stood Still when Klaatu takes a round in the shoulder from some nervous infantrymen? What all of these movies have in common is that on present-day Earth, aliens have no rights. Despite a demonstration of equal or superior intelligence, a capacity for moral reasoning, complex culture, and peaceful intentions, aliens are regularly mistreated.
“Why should I care?” you might ask, gesturing with your cigarette holder and adjusting your pashmina scarf. You should care because either we are going to find aliens on an earth-like planet, like Gliese 581g, or they’ll find us first—and soon. We’ve got time, but not much, before we’ll be looking at some living something from another world.
Well why should aliens have rights? Because, as I’ve argued before, they have personhood. (Quick refresher: personhood is the idea that rights stem from aspects of an entity’s mind. For example, a sentient creature has the right not to suffer, and a self-aware creature has the right to self-determine. It doesn’t matter if the mind is in a robo-power suit, an ethereal protoplasm, distributed among a living swarm, or at the center of a writhing mass of tentacles. If a sentient, rational, and moral mind is present, it has personhood.)
If an alien can suffer, can reason, and can tell right from wrong, then it has rights and responsibilities. But what are they?
The whole discussion about what we’ll find immoral in the future got me thinking about that little group often described as our collective “future”: children. We often hear about children as our future when someone says, “Think of the children!” or “We shouldn’t leave this problem for our children to solve!” Children of Men, Ender’s Game, and A Wrinkle In Time, to name a few sci-fi classics, all place the symbolic future in the hands of either children or a specific child. If children are our “future” then who gets to have and raise children in the future will probably be pretty important.
Why then are we so cavalier about who we let have and raise them? As technology enables more people to reproduce, environmental pressures make each new life a bigger burden, and our understanding of child psychology improves, it’ll become more and more evident that just because a person can have kids doesn’t mean they should have kids. My guess is that, decades down the road, future generations will require a license to reproduce and start a family. That sounds like a pretty good idea to me.
The thing is, we already have sort of a “family license” system. It’s called adoption. If you are adopting, or trying to use an assisted reproductive technique (ART), then you have to meet some requirements. Adoptive parents must meet not just minimal standards like “no history of violence” but also quite high standards of stability, concern for the child’s welfare, wealth, and other characteristics reviewed through applications and interviews. Those who would use ARTs are often given more than an eyebrow raise by their physicians if they’re over a certain age or have a given lifestyle choice. Regardless of what criteria must be met, the point is they are always stricter than the criteria a couple must meet to be able to reproduce in the, uh, standard fashion, because there are no criteria (besides the reproductive biology) for being able to have kids unassisted.
Ronald Bailey over at Reason Magazine has noticed a trend. When a new technology comes out, particularly if it impacts birth or death, people have a very powerful initial reaction: “Yuck!” However, within a few years, that “yuck” quickly shifts to “yippie!” A perfect example is Robert Edwards accepting the Nobel Prize in Physiology for developing the first successful in-vitro fertilization (IVF) techniques with his colleague, Patrick Steptoe, in 1978. Everyone knew IVF was a huge breakthrough at the time; everyone also freaked out at the idea. The scientific community took another 30 years after the birth of Louise Joy Brown to approve of IVF enough to award Edwards and Steptoe with the prize they so clearly deserved.
In an unrelated, but completely relevant article, the Washington Post’s Kwame Anthony Appiah triggered a debate over moral progress and history with his recent “What will future generations condemn us for?” His guesses are that our prison system, the industrial meat complex, elderly care, and environmental damage will bring the most intense “how could they do that?” from history students. Will Wilkinson adds that nation-states dividing up the world with their borders, tariffs, and limits on freedom of movement will look pretty awful to citizens of the next century. Tyler Cowen (who teaches at my alma matter) tried to figure out what we might condemn future generations for, worrying that torture, pre-emptive war, and anti-gay sentiment may make a comeback. What is going to help determine whether we’re moving towards utopia or dystopia?
Eye-scanning technology, voice-print security, palm prints: Biometric security has almost become one of the basic signifers of existing in the future, like clean white walls and rounded surfaces. In Minority Report the biometrics extended to the point that Tom Cruise’s character, John Anderton, was easily identified by animated advertisements as he walked through a mall, and later on he had to actually replace his own eyeballs so he could avoid detection.
Ickiness aside, biometrics have become less futuristic and more now-istic. The entire town of León, in central Mexico, contracted with Global Rainmakers, Inc., to install iris scanning technology throughout the town. Locals will be able to use iris scanning to get on the bus, use ATMs, and get hospital care.
But the people of Leon might want to consider a report (free with registration) from the National Research Council before they go too far down that road, because there are some significant problems with going all biometric, all the time.
Planets and moons do not give up their secrets willingly or easily — they make us work for every clue we get. That seems particularly true when it comes to the search for extraterrestrial life. Even then, some bodies in the Solar System make us work harder than others.
Take Titan, for example. Two weeks ago, I wrote that observations of Titan from Cassini have been interpreted by some as possible signs of life, in particular:
Now it turns out that computer simulations based upon Cassini observations, simulations which hint at depletions of various chemical species at Titan’s surface may again hint at the possibility of life on Titan. The results are very preliminary, but fascinating nevertheless.
It’s highly unlikely that we’ll ever be able to make a positive determination if there’s life on Titan based upon Cassini data alone. Cassini is, after all, an orbiter, and its observations of Titan’s surface come from hundreds, even thousands, of kilometers away–limited to those that can be attained during flybys. To ascertain the presence of life, we’ll need what scientists in the field of remote sensing call “ground truth”–we’ll have to wait until we are able to send a followup probe to the surface of Titan. Perhaps we’ll send a probe to Titan similar to Tiny–the Titan rover who has guest-starred in episodes of this season’s Eureka.
Even then it could turn out that, unless NASA’s version of Tiny returns samples to Earth for human examination, the results could remain ambiguous and leave scientists scratching their heads. That is what’s happening with Mars.
Titan hides its secrets beneath a thick photochemical haze, but when it comes to planets that jealously guard their secrets, Mars is the champion. The Great Galactic Ghoul of Mars destroys our spacecraft. Mars throws us curve balls; Mars lies to us. Mars even laughs at the spacecraft it does allow to explore it.
To think scientifically is to think dangerously. Scientists, from Copernicus to Galileo to Darwin, are among the many “Great spirits [who] have often encountered violent opposition from weak minds,” as Einstein so eloquently put it. Daniel Dennett, a prominent New Atheist and philosopher of science, aptly named one of his tomes on evolution Darwin’s Dangerous Idea. Constantly challenging the status quo, science is the engine of the future. Science generates the ideas and science fiction gives us whole universes in which to explore them. Science fiction classics like Brave New World, Nineteen Eighty-four, Slaughterhouse-Five, and A Wrinkle in Time are oft challenged on the premise that they are dangerous or harmful to the impressionable minds reading them. So science and sci-fi push the envelope, but among all of the guesses, theories, and what-ifs, is there an idea most dangerous?
This August, Big Think tried to answer the question with their “Month of Thinking Dangerously.” Max Miller did his best to offend his loyal readers, investigating ideas that are an affront to the common perspective – disband NATO? Control the weather? Cut special-ed? Max! for shame! Though many of the dangerous ideas were political, the preponderance of topics trended towards science of the future: eugenics, space colonization, selling organs, memory erasing, synthetic biology, and drug legalization, to name a few. As such, I was expecting one topic in particular to cap the list at the end of the month. Instead, the editors of Big Think invited their readers to “propose your own dangerous idea.”
So I thought, and considered, and pondered, and then remembered that the idea I’ve spent the past two years obsessing over always manages to raise ire and eyebrows. Thus, Big Think, I submit to you the most dangerous idea in the world:
As part of DISCOVER’s 30th anniversary celebration, the magazine invited 11 eminent scientists to look forward and share their predictions and hopes for the next three decades. But we also want to turn this over to Science Not Fiction’s readers: How do you think science will improve the world by 2040?
Below are short excerpts of the guest scientists’ responses, with links to the full versions:
If the oceans eventually become too acidified to sustain most marine life and the jellyfish take over, we can at least take solace in the fact that we’ll have an abundant source of renewable energy. GFP (Green Fluorescent Protein), the same protein isolated in Aequorea victoria that earned three researchers the Nobel Prize in chemistry in 2008, has found a new lease of life in solar and fuel cells being developed by Zackary Chiragwandi at the Chalmers University of Technology in Sweden. Much like the dye found in cutting-edge dye-sensitized solar cells, GFP absorbs a specific wavelength of sunlight—in this case, ultraviolet light—to excite electrons that are shuttled off to an aluminum electrode to generate a current. After giving up their energy, the electrons are then returned to the GFP molecules, where they are ready for another round of stimulation (so to speak).
The cell’s design is simple: two aluminum electrodes are placed onto a thin layer of silicon dioxide, which helps to optimize light capture and energy conversion efficiency, and a single drop of GFP is deposited between them. Without prodding, the protein then self-assembles into strands to connect the electrodes and form a tiny circuit. While cheaper than conventional solar cells, dye-sensitized cells still require some costly materials and are hard to build, making these bio-inspired cells potentially a much more alluring proposition down the line. And because slightly different versions of GFP are found in a number of other marine species, there is the potential for an entire array of more finely tuned GFP cells. Read More