unseen podcast

I have participated in several episodes of The Unseen Podcast, a podcast organized and moderated by Paul Carr. Below are links to each of the episodes in which I appear, and a discussion of some of the content of the episdoes.

Theoretical Physicist and Mathematician Dr. Ben Tippett.

Theoretical Physicist and Mathematician Dr. Ben Tippett.

This was the inaugural episode of Paul Carr’s new channel, The Unseen Podcast. For some time Paul Carr has been broadcasting The Wow Signal Podcast (I posted a link to this previously when Heath Rezabek was featured on Season 2 Episode 3), and he has a blog, Dream of the Open Channel. (Here is a direct link to the show.)

The guest for the first Unseen Podcast was physicist Benjamin Tippett, and I was member of the panel who asked questions of professor Tippett, along with Marsha Barnhart and Ciro Villa. We had a conversation ranging over the greatest imaginable extent of the universe, and touched on topics related to Tippett’s recent paper, Closest Safe Approach to an Accreting Black Hole.


Where do civilizations come from? On Earth, they ultimately came from stromatolites. Perhaps elsewhere in the universe the transition from stromatolites to civilization didn't happen, or it didn't happen like it happened here.

Where do civilizations come from? On Earth, they ultimately came from stromatolites. Perhaps elsewhere in the universe the transition from stromatolites to civilization didn’t happen, or it didn’t happen like it happened here.

Episode 2 of The Unseen Podcast had the same panel as last time, with Ciro Villa and Marsha Barnhart and myself, along with our esteemed moderator Paul Carr. The planned agenda for the evening was to be a discussion of Bitcoin and crypto-currencies, but a misunderstanding resulted in that episode being delayed, so anyone available was asked to join in, and that happened to be the same folks as the inaugural Unseen Podcast, minus physicist Ben Tippett.

I was given a chance to talk extemporaneously about my most recent blog post, Thinking About Civilization, and I’m not sure that I gave a good account of this, but it did serve as a gateway to a variety of questions and queries, and by the end of the episode we came nearly full circle and returned to the topics with which we began.

We were joined late in the episode by Patrick Festa, when we were discussing astrobiology and life in the universe. Mr. Festa asserted his certainty that there is other life in the universe, and if we had had time I would have questioned this, as anything we say about life at this point in time is based on extrapolation from a single data point — viz. Earth — and we have yet to see any biochemistry other than our own.

This is precisely why, earlier in the same episode, I noted how tantalizing the prospect was of looking for life in the oceans of the moons of Jupiter and Saturn. In this context I mentioned a passage from Carl Sagan’s Cosmos, which, however I could not quote off the top of my head. So here is the quote now:

“The study of a single instance of extraterrestrial life, no matter how humble, will deprovincialize biology. For the first time, the biologists will know what other kinds of life are possible. When we say the search for life elsewhere is important, we are not guaranteeing that it will be easy to find – only that it is very much worth seeking.” (end of Chap. II)

Biology has yet to be deprovincialized, and that deprovincialization could take the form of demonstrating that it was the origin of life itself that was the Great Filter (which I have followed more recently with Is encephalization the Great Filter?), in which case we will not find life elsewhere.

I do not necessarily think this is the case, much less do I inevitably think this to be the case — on Centauri Dreams I speculated that we may well live in a universe of stromatolites, which is a view of the abundance of life not too distant from that given voice by Patrick Festa — but until we possess further evidence we must abstain from non-scientific pronouncements of the inevitability of life. This is something that we do not yet know.


A megaengineering structure like a Dyson sphere would produce detectable infrared radiation as a signature.

A megaengineering structure like a Dyson sphere would produce detectable infrared radiation as a signature.

This time for The Unseen Podcast we talked about a subject that is close to my heart: Kardashev’s typology of civilizations, which I previously wrote about in What Kardashev Really Said on Centauri Dreams.

The pretext for a discussion of Kardashev supercivilizations is the recent publication of a scientific paper that has attempted to search for galaxy-spanning supercivilizations (Kardashev Type III) by looking for the infrared signatures that would presumably accompany such a large-scale use of energy — one might even say an astronomical use of energy, detectable by the methods of astrophysics, thus making SETI an experimental science.

While it is the most recent paper that has gotten a lot of attention, because it gives the results of the study, the recent paper is the third of three papers, and to fully understand and appreciate the results presented in the third paper, you really need to read the theoretical framework provided in the first paper and the details of how the study was approached in the second paper.

Here are links to all three papers:

The Ĝ Infrared Search for Extraterrestrial Civilizations with Large Energy Supplies. I. Background and Justification by J. T. Wright, B. Mullan, S. Sigurðsson, and M. S. Povich

The Ĝ Infrared Search for Extraterrestrial Civilizations with Large Energy Supplies. II. Framework, Strategy, and First Result by J. T. Wright, R. Griffith, S. Sigurðsson, M. S. Povich, and B. Mullan

The Ĝ Infrared Search for Extraterrestrial Civilizations with Large Energy Supplies. III. The Reddest Extended Sources in WISE by Roger L. Griffith, Jason T. Wright, Jessica Maldonado, Matthew S. Povich, Steinn Sigurdsson, and Brendan Mullan

The Ĝ Search for Extraterrestrial Civilizations with Large Energy Supplies. IV. The Signatures and Information Content of Transiting Megastructures by Jason T. Wright, Kimberly M. S. Cartier, Ming Zhao, Daniel Jontof-Hutter, and Eric B. Ford

Paul Gilster has posted a good summary of some of this research in G-HAT: Searching For Kardashev Type III.

The search for infrared signs of high energy usage could be the search for trace heat from a Dyson sphere, something that Dyson suggested several decades ago, and Kardashev also urged as a SETI strategy, but it could also simply be the waste heat inevitably generated by energy usage on the scale of galactic megaengineering, or astroengineering, if you prefer. As I noted in the podcast, the idea of finding a Dyson sphere is very exotic, but it tends to distract from the overall SETI task of formulating and then searching for the thermodynamic profiles of extraterrestrial civilizations, and this in turn is part of the larger effort to arrive at detection signatures for ETI and alien life.


'The James Webb Space Telescope will offer unprecedented resolution and sensitivity from long-wavelength visible to the mid-infrared, and is a successor instrument to the Hubble Space Telescope and the Spitzer Space Telescope.' (from Wikipedia)

‘The James Webb Space Telescope will offer unprecedented resolution and sensitivity from long-wavelength visible to the mid-infrared, and is a successor instrument to the Hubble Space Telescope and the Spitzer Space Telescope.’ (from Wikipedia)

In Episode 8 of The Unseen Podcast along with Mike Bohler, James Garrison, and David Grigg we spent some time discussing the mysterious bright spots on Ceres, typical design parameters of NASA missions, the Hubble Space Telescope, the James Webb Space Telescope, the relative merits of ground-based telescopes vs. orbital telescopes, and the relative merits of robotic science as distinct from human science.

We all know that it is extremely expensive to send human beings in space, and this has limited the human space program to a handful of astronauts. Our robotic probes have gone much farther afield. In fact, the Voyager probe has left the solar system and has embarked on an interstellar journey. Even as our human space effort has retrenched from the ambitions of the Apollo program, and we seem nowhere close to returning to the moon or getting to Mars, robotic science has gone from triumph to triumph, expanding our knowledge of cosmology and space science exponentially.

Under these circumstances, the obvious question is why we bother with a human space program at all. Many have asked this question, including scientists who feel that the human space program is mere anthropocentric vanity with no science payoff. During the early triumphs of the human space program, Bertrand Russell was especially contemptuous of the whole affair, which he saw exclusively in terms of superpower competition. Russell was right that money was flowing into the space programs of Russia and America for political reasons, but Russell remained blind to the end to the scientific, technological, and engineering accomplishments of the space program, and the ultimate benefit of these to humanity.

We have, at present, the space program that political considerations afford us; going into space remains too expensive for any but a few nation-states and large private enterprises. This space program we have today is largely a space program of robotic exploration, because this is the biggest payoff we can obtain at present for the investment into space science. In time this will change, and we will realize that we have been asking the wrong questions.

It is not a question of robotic exploration vs. human exploration in a zero sum game of space science. All kinds of science, including that conducted by the individual human hand, have value. When we can afford (or, rather, when we choose to afford) robust programs of both robotic and human space exploration, the payoff in scientific knowledge (and the consequent boost to scientific civilization) will be proportionate to the investment.


“In the threatening situation of the world today, when people are beginning to see that everything is at stake, the projection-creating fantasy soars beyond the realm of earthly organizations and powers into the heavens, into interstellar space, where the rulers of human fate, the gods, once had their abode in the planets.... Even people who would never have thought that a religious problem could be a serious matter that concerned them personally are beginning to ask themselves fundamental questions. Under these circumstances it would not be at all surprising if those sections of the community who ask themselves nothing were visited by `visions,' by a widespread myth seriously believed in by some and rejected as absurd by others.” C. G. Jung

“In the threatening situation of the world today, when people are beginning to see that everything is at stake, the projection-creating fantasy soars beyond the realm of earthly organizations and powers into the heavens, into interstellar space, where the rulers of human fate, the gods, once had their abode in the planets…. Even people who would never have thought that a religious problem could be a serious matter that concerned them personally are beginning to ask themselves fundamental questions. Under these circumstances it would not be at all surprising if those sections of the community who ask themselves nothing were visited by `visions,’ by a widespread myth seriously believed in by some and rejected as absurd by others.” C. G. Jung

This episode of The Unseen Podcast began with a discussion of the rich vein of conspiracy theories surrounding NASA, which attracts some of the more exotic conspiracy theories because of its involvement in space exploration. It is not difficult to construct an elaborate modern mythology around bright spots on Ceres or the “face” on Mars, much as Carl Jung identified UFO sightings as a modern mythology (a view that I share).

Given the echo chamber of the internet, facilitating worldwide collaboration of those who promote these stories, the idea picks up depth and detail as it develops and takes on a life of its own. When the story is regurgitated from a thousand different sources it is often viewed from the perspective that, “where there’s smoke, there’s fire,” meaning that, deep down, there must be something to it – as though popularity could confer validity.

In the course of talking about conspiracy theories more generally I mentioned by own experience of attending a UFO convention, related in my post Token Skeptic, and my recent blog post The Appeal to Embargoed Evidence, in which I identify a particular mode of fallacious argumentation common among those who float highly unlikely stories involving complex mechanisms of secrecy and extraordinary claims that ought to be backed by extraordinary evidence.

If your argument spectacularly fails to meet the basic tests of science – the principle of parsimony, methodological naturalism, repeatability of experiments and their results, accessibility of evidence, etc. – you can simply claim that there is evidence, but that evidence is unavailable for any number of reasons. This is what I call the appeal to embargoed evidence or the appeal to sequestered evidence.

In the course of the episode I urged the importance of making a distinction between pseudo-science and non-mainstream science that employs legitimate scientific method to investigate unusual phenomenon that are not typically studied in science. It is entirely possible to make a scientific study of UFOs or parapsychic phenomena. The real problem is that most studies of this kind are not real scientific studies, but pseudo-science that seeks to present itself as closely as possible to resembling the real thing without ever seriously challenging the assumptions of the investigators. As I noted (I think more than once) it is usually pretty obvious when people veer off into junk science or pseudo-science. The only ones convinced by such work are those who want to believe or need to believe so badly that they are willing to overlook the obvious flaws in reasoning and methodology.

It would be easy to dismiss the scientific investigation of odd and marginal subject matter as “pseudo-science,” but we must, in the same interests of scientific method, acknowledge at least the possibility of legitimate science (usually returning negative results, which almost no one wants to publish) of topics outside the scientific mainstream. Some of the most interesting discoveries derive from such legitimate scientific pursuits. The term “pseudo-science” should be reserved for the appearance of science without the reality of science (and so I conclude my brief defense of the scientific method with a metaphysical flourish).



Niccolò Machiavelli made a distinction between armed and unarmed prophets. Unarmed prophets usually come to no good end.

Niccolò Machiavelli made a distinction between armed and unarmed prophets. Unarmed prophets usually come to no good end.

As I happened to be available at the moment that the recording happened to occur at a different time that is usually the case, I had the pleasure of participating in another episode of The Unseen Podcast — the result of a series of historical accidents. And when I joined the podcast I did not realize that the recording had already started, so I kept waiting for the real thing to begin without realizing that our informal chat was the real thing. Oh well. It is officially billed as “unscripted, uncensored” and it certainly is that. Usually I make some kind of effort to organize my thoughts and have at least one idea ready with a coherent exposition, but not today.

In the course of the conversation about The Elders I mentioned Machiavelli’s distinction between armed and unarmed prophets (perhaps this sounded a little cynical). Here is the passage from Machiavelli to which I referred (and which I previously cited in Armed Prophets of Revolution):

“It is necessary, therefore, if we desire to discuss this matter thoroughly, to inquire whether these innovators can rely on themselves or have to depend on others: that is to say, whether, to consummate their enterprise, have they to use prayers or can they use force? In the first instance they always succeed badly, and never compass anything; but when they can rely on themselves and use force, then they are rarely endangered. Hence it is that all armed prophets have conquered, and the unarmed ones have been destroyed. Besides the reasons mentioned, the nature of the people is variable, and whilst it is easy to persuade them, it is difficult to fix them in that persuasion. And thus it is necessary to take such measures that, when they believe no longer, it may be possible to make them believe by force.” (Machiavelli, The Prince, Chapter VI)

When Machiavelli wrote his classic (and admirably short) treatise on statecraft he was hard-headedly pragmatic, realistic, and naturalistic at a time when social and political thought was subject to the medieval equivalent of political correctness. Machiavelli cut through the daintiness of political discussion and got down to the nitty gritty. As a result, he was treated as the devil incarnate for at least a hundred years after he died, and perhaps longer.

Do we need another Machiavelli today, now that public social and political debates are more and more captive to the narrative of the technocratic elite? Whom do you trust? Machiavelli or The Elders?

Breakthrough Initiatives has announced a major funding initiative for SETI.

Breakthrough Initiatives has announced a major funding initiative for SETI.

I participated in another episode of Paul Carr’s The Unseen Podcast — episode 17, in which we discussed a “Breakthrough Initiative” called Breakthrough Listen that will inject $100,000,000.00 into SETI research. This is perhaps the biggest investment in SETI ever made, and will potentially transform the field. It may even turn SETI into “big science.” Whether the funds go to new telescopes, new processing power, or to hire additional scientists, this is a welcome boost for SETI programs, and regardless of the success of the SETI enterprise, much will be learned by scanning the sky in such detail.

We also discussed a recent paper by Adam Stevens, Duncan Forgan, and Jack O’Malley James, Observational Signatures of Self Destructive Civilisations, which seeks to take up the last term of the Drake equation – the longevity if technical civilizations – by looking for signatures of civilizations that have destroyed themselves. I find this to be a very innovative approach to the question of seeking signature for ETI.

The authors consider four scenarios that could result in the complete extinction of an advanced civilization:

i) complete nuclear, mutually assured destruction
ii) a biological or chemical agent designed to kill either the human species, all animals, all eukaryotes, or all living things
iii) a technological disaster such as the “grey goo” scenario, or
iv) excessive pollution of the star, planet or interplanetary environment

Taking up each of these scenarios in turn, the authors inquire as to how gamma ray detection, transit spectroscopy, photometry, asteroseismology, stellar abundance studies, and disk debris imaging could reveal signatures of these events.

In addition to signatures of destructive events, the end of a technical civilization would leave other relics, and one of these relics would be the structure of the electromagnetic signals generated by a civilization, which would begin with those signals most easily produced by early radio technologies, move on to signals of greater complexity and sophistication, and then the signals would cease. I have called such structures of EM signatures The Halos of Vanished Civilizations, and it is possible that if technical civilizations are common, or relatively common, but also short-lived, the signals SETI researchers seek would have the structure of a number of overlapping bubbles, and we could ourselves be inside a bubble (or halo) that we cannot detect at present.

Only the ability to travel in interstellar space and to sample EM spectrum signals throughout a large volume of space would allow us to reconstruct these halos. As our technologies exponentially improve, I can imagine a time when fleets of drones with the ability to sense very subtle EM signatures depart from our solar system in all directions in an attempt to map any halos that might exist, like a ghostly remnant of civilizations long past.


The Green Bank Radio Telescope in West Virginia -- a radio telescope with an uncertain future.

The Green Bank Radio Telescope in West Virginia — a radio telescope with an uncertain future.

In this episode of The Unseen Podcast Paul invited me to talk about a recent blog post, Folk Concepts and Scientific Progress, which I described. Since finishing this episode, I finished a sequel to that post, Folk Concepts of Scientific Civilization. I have already thought of another angle on folk concepts that I hope to write about soon.

The idea of folk concepts has its origins in Daniel Dennett’s use of the term “folk psychology,” but has been widely elaborated since that time, with expositions of folk biology, folk physics, and so on. In this episode I suggested that some of our previous Unseen Podcast episodes involve folk astrophysics, which illustrates the point I made in my most recent post, Folk Concepts of Scientific Civilization, in which I noted that the newest sciences that emerge involve an overlapping of folk concepts and scientific concepts.

But new folk concepts are not the same as folk concepts from much earlier in the history of civilization. Scientific progress has meant that our intuitions have changed, evolved, and progressed. This may sound strange to say, as we tend to think of intuition as a native endowment of the mind, probably unchangeable, but I have come to think of intuition as a dynamic function of the mind, changing as we experience personal development and even as our entire civilization changes.

Scientific concepts have worked their way into ordinary language and ordinary thought, but not completely. But enough that our intuitions have become much more sophisticated, and our newer sciences are conceived in terms of these more advanced intuitions to which we had no conceptual access in the past. So the folk concepts of astrophysics are sophisticated, much more sophisticated than the folk concepts with which astronomy began in the classical antiquity, or the folk concepts with which physics began in the early modern era, but we are a long way from a fully formalized astrophysics.

There is much more to say on the topic. As I said previously, I have only scratched the surface in the exposition of scientific civilization, and it is important to understand the role of folk concepts in our scientific civilization. There is a surviving strain of positivism – what I have called post-positivism – in the replacement model of scientific thought, in which all folk concepts are replaced by scientific concepts. This model is too simple, and we need to reach an adequate understanding of scientific civilization, or we are liable to lose it.


Starship Congress 2015 at Drexel University in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

Starship Congress 2015 at Drexel University in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

After a busy full first day of the Icarus Interstellar Starship Congress at Drexel University in Philadelphia, I joined Paul Carr and several other guests on The Unseen Podcast, to talk about experiences at the Starship Congress and to expatiate at some length on issues arising therefore. During the course of the podcast Mike Mongo, Andreas Tziolas, and Rachel Armstrong — all of Icarus Interstellar — joined the discussion, connected live by smart phone from a restaurant.

'Helping scientists validate their work by facilitating replication through the Science Exchange network.'

‘Helping scientists validate their work by facilitating replication through the Science Exchange network.’

I was not able to be present for the entire length of Episode 23 of The Unseen Podcast, but I participated in the initial discussion. The discussion was primarily about recent studies calling into question the reproducibility of scientific results, as a recent paper in the journal Science,  Estimating the Reproducibility of Psychological Science (cf. also Challenges in Irreproducible Research, Enhancing Reproducibility). These challenges to reproducibility have in particular called psychological studies into question. In this connection I mentioned Wittgenstein’s critique of psychology from the final section of his Philosophical Investigations:

“The confusion and barrenness of psychology is not to be explained by its being a ‘young science’; its state is not comparable with that of physics, for instance, in its beginnings. (Rather, with that of certain branches of mathematics. Set theory.) For in psychology, there are experimental methods and conceptual confusion. (As in the other case, conceptual confusion and methods of proof.)” (Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations, Blackwell, 2003, p. 197e; I have previously quoted this passage in Radical Rigor.)

Wittgenstein put considerable work into the philosophy of psychology (see the two posthumously published volumes of Remarks on the Philosophy of Psychology), and made that branch of philosophy briefly fashionably in the middle of the twentieth century. Panelist Adam “Synergy” Smith noted that psychology had come a long way since Wittgenstein wrote this, and cited in particular the emergence of cognitive science.

Wittgenstein may well have had in mind the behaviorist-driven psychology of the mid-twentieth century when he wrote the above passage (though Wittgenstein does not mention Skinner and does not explicitly discuss behaviorism), and certainly contemporary cognitive science is much more sophisticated (and much less confused) than behaviorist psychology, which resolutely refuses to acknowledge subjective states of awareness. While cognitive science is much more open to talk about minds and their states, we are seeing today, with the rise of physicalist and eliminativist views, a de facto return to what might be called neo-behaviorism. Thus if behaviorism is what Wittgenstein was criticizing, this critique ought to have a fresh relevance today.

But the larger question of the reproducibility of scientific results is unaffected by this Wittgensteinian digression. We discussed how the results of studies can be skewed by the fame of a given researcher, the fame of a educational institution promoting the research, or the fame of the results. Famous results of psychological studies (I mentioned as instances the Calhoun “rat utopia” studies and the notorious Stanford prison experiment) pique the public interest and are much more likely to be the subject of further research. Additionally, there is an incentive to do new research and to publish new results as compared to the desultory business of checking someone else’s results.

It was observed that psychological studies and other studies in the social sciences often drive policies, so that the fact that you might be better off relying on the coin toss than on a published studies calls not only science into question, but also public policy that presents itself as being based on science.

This is certainly an area of thought that invites further inquiry, both because of its profound policy implications and its calling into question the basis of research in the social sciences. A serious effort would be required to do justice to this topic.

Above is the rapidly-disseminated photograph of Pluto, backlit by the sun and looking much more inviting as a planet than we perhaps expected of Pluto, from Pluto’s Majestic Mountains, Frozen Plains and Foggy Hazes (http://pluto.jhuapl.edu/Multimedia/Science-Photos/pics/Pluto-Wide-FINAL-9-17-15.jpg)

Above is the rapidly-disseminated photograph of Pluto, backlit by the sun and looking much more inviting as a planet than we perhaps expected of Pluto, from Pluto’s Majestic Mountains, Frozen Plains and Foggy Hazes (http://pluto.jhuapl.edu/Multimedia/Science-Photos/pics/Pluto-Wide-FINAL-9-17-15.jpg)

In this episode of The Unseen Podcast we mostly talked about exoplanets — the kinds of exoplanets that have been found, how exoplanets have been found, how they might be found in the future, and what the future of exoplanet research might look like.

Adam “Synergy” Smith discussed in some detail some recently published research about potentially habitable planets tidally locked to red dwarf stars (cf. Rocky planets may be habitable depending on their ‘air conditioning system’ and Connecting the dots – II. Phase changes in the climate dynamics of tidally locked terrestrial exoplanets; also cf. the papers on the preprint site Connecting the dots: A versatile model for the atmospheres of tidally locked Super-Earths and Connecting the dots II: Phase changes in the climate dynamics of tidally locked terrestrial exoplanets, both by Ludmila Carone, Rony Keppens, and Leen Decin). Such stars and their planets are of great interest because there are so many red dwarf stars—many more than there are sun-like stars—and the habitable zone of these dim, cool stars is so close to the star (something like the orbit of Mercury in our own system of planets) that any planet in this habitable zone would almost certainly be tidally locked to its star, which means that one side of the planet would be hellishly hot while the side facing away from the star would be extremely cold.

But that’s not the end of the story. Any planet like this with an atmosphere would experience perhaps violent winds as air heated on the hot side circulated to the cold side, resulting in a planetary atmospheric flow. There might possibly be a living “ring” around the planet, a meridian at which conditions were “just right”—the “Goldilocks zone” realized on one portion of a planet, the other parts of which are uninhabitable (or nearly so).

A planet like this was discussed in the NOVA episode Alien Planets Revealed. I suggested that the presence of an ocean would (in addition to the atmospheric flows) further distribute heat around such a tidally locked planet, although an ocean would again be limited to the habitable ring around the planet. It would be interesting to model oceanic currents in addition to atmospheric flows for such a planet. I also suggested that the permanent “night” side of the planet need not be absolutely dark, as a moon orbiting the planet could provide some reflected light to the surface of the far side.

Paul Carr said that we are living in the “Golden Age” of exoplanet discovery (the website for Alien Planets Revealed also says that, “It’s a golden age for planet hunters”). In the future we will know much more about exoplanets—and indeed even about our own planetary system—but today feels like the Golden Age of this research because we are so near the beginnings, all the discoveries are unprecedented and therefore interesting, and the promise of further and future discoveries is both a tantalizing prospect and a very real,  palpably real, possibility.


I participated in another episode of The Unseen Podcast, this time with Adam “Synergy” Smith and Patrick Festa, and the topic was the exploration of the solar system. At several points I think I expressed myself rather poorly, so I will take this opportunity to try to clarify just one of the points I wanted to make.

I mentioned that, in an earlier episode of The Unseen Podcast, Paul Carr had implied the likelihood that any life in the inner solar system is likely connected, given the exchange of mass between the planets of the inner solar system over billions of years, whereas if life is found in the outer solar system, say in the subsurface oceans of Europa or Enceladus, it is much more likely to be of independent origin, unrelated to the life of the inner solar system. The exchange of mass between the inner solar system and the outer solar system is much less than between the planets of the inner solar system alone, so that if life originated independently in the inner and outer solar systems these independent geneses are unlikely to have contaminated each other.

Once again I quoted a line from Carl Sagan that I have quoted on several occasions:

“The study of a single instance of extraterrestrial life, no matter how humble, will deprovincialize biology. For the first time, the biologists will know what other kinds of life are possible.”

Multiple sample return missions from multiple possible sources of life in the outer solar system would deprovincialize biology by orders of magnitude, if there is any biology to be found beyond Earth. If sample return missions are not feasible in the near future, I suggested that a suitable science package might make a partial analysis of samples possible remotely.

We touched on the philosophical problem of recognizing life as we do not know it: if life in the outer solar system is to be found, and it is significantly different from life of the inner solar system, how do we recognize it as life? How different is different? It is easy to imagine life that is different in detail from terrestrial life, but, for all intents and purposes, the same thing.

What do I mean by this? Think of terrestrial DNA and its base paring of adenine with thymine, and cytosine with guanine: the related but distinct RNA molecule uses uracil instead of thymine for a slightly different biochemistry. Could something like DNA form with G-U-A-C instead of G-T-A-C? Well, if we can consider RNA as being “something like” DNA, then the answer is yes, but beyond that I know too little of biochemistry to elaborate. As several theories of the origins of life on Earth posit the appearance of RNA before DNA, the question becomes whether the “RNA world” of early life on Earth might have also been the origin of life elsewhere, and whether that RNA world matured into something other than the DNA world of terrestrial life.

From such subtle changes in the molecular structure of life we could work our way through more and greater permutations on known biochemistry, until we can no longer distinguish the line between chemistry and biochemistry and we come to the philosophical problem of distinguishing the animate and inanimate. From life that is chemically different in detail, but virtually indistinguishable in all other respects, to exotic forms of life — weird life — and all stages in between the two possibilities, there may be a spectrum of life represented within our own solar system. Or not. We do not yet know. But the possibility of a spectrum of life, related to a greater or lesser degree based on the degree of isolation of any given instance of life suggests that we may have to revise our conception of a circumstellar habitable zone (CHZ), conceived as it is to narrow in on the possibility of Earth-like life.

To return to the theme of the independent origin of any life found in the outer solar system, it may be necessary someday to make a finer distinction than that between the CHZ and everything outside the CHZ: we could posit multiple zones of life within each life-bearing solar system, which would be a function of the disposition of mass within a given solar system, i.e., its planets, asteroids, comets, and so on. According to a model of multiple life zones, life on an Earth-like planet in the Goldilocks zone of a star does not exhaust the CHZ, but is only one niche for life within that zone. There may also be extremophile niches at the outer edge of the conventional CHZ (the arid deserts of Mars may shelter subsurface microbes), another niche in subsurface oceans of icy moons, another niche for large moons of gas giants, and other niches or other biochemistries.

Depending, again, on the particular structure of a given solar system, these differing life zones within the CHZ may experience more or less transfer of matter (hence also traces of life), making life within these zone more or less interrelated, depending upon the degree of interchange. All of this, it should be observed, is an extrapolation to astrobiology and origins of life research of the familiar idea of allopatric speciation. We might speak of the origins of speciation in this context rather than the origin of species.


Episode 30 of The Unseen Podcast included a special guest on the topic of transhumanism, Tim Shank, active in the TwinCities+ community, and who is, as it were, a practicing transhumanist. Mr. Shank has had sub-dermal implants of electronic devices (cf. Why Are There Computer Chips In Tim Shank’s Hands?), makes use of transcranial direct-current stimulation, and ingests a variety of supplements (such as modafinil) for cognitive enhancement. This is what transhumanism is today, which was host Paul Carr’s focus.

Tim Shank started out the episode with a nice summary of transhumanism: he stated that post-humanism is what we become when we are no longer human, and that transhumanism is a transitional stage between the human and the post-human. I hadn’t heard this before, but it is an elegantly simple way to distinguish transhumanism and post-humanism – two terms that are frequently confused and conflated.

All of these are issues of great interest to me that I have addressed in previous blog posts. I wrote a blog post about transcranial direct-current stimulation and related cognitive enhancement technologies, and in response to an interesting blog post on the use of nootropics (supplements intended for cognitive enhancement), Put down the smart drugs – cognitive enhancement is ethically risky business, by Nicole A Vincent and Emma A. Jane, I wrote Talking the Talk and Walking and Walk. I also wrote my longest Centauri Dreams contribution on transhumanism: Transhumanism and Adaptive Radiation. My views on transhumanism range out into the indeterminate future, but it was interesting to see transhumanism of the present. If there is a future for transhumanism, it is because there are early adopters like Tim Shank who are experimenting with transhumanism by experimenting with themselves.


On 22 January 2016, on the eve of a blizzard along the Eastern Seaboard, I joined another panel discussion on The Unseen Podcast, which began without any agenda, and so became a very wide ranging discussion of cosmology, astrophysics, dark matter, KIC 8462852 (AKA “Tabby’s star), and the hypothesis that a distant planet (a “superearth” larger than Earth but smaller than Neptune) far out in our solar system may explain the perturbation of trans-Neptunian objects (AKA TNOs).

The discussion began with Paul Carr bringing up a new paper from Milan M. Ćirković, Kardashev’s Classification at 50+: A Fine Vehicle with Room for Improvement. I’m sorry to say that, although I had heard of the paper, I have not yet had a chance to read it, but discussions of Kardashev are of great interest to me, so I plunged ahead regardless. I have often said that the Kardashev scale is like a Rorschach test, because people tend to read into it whatever they would like find in it. I don’t expect this, however, from this paper by Ćirković, as I have the greatest respect for Ćirković‘s scholarship, and I have enjoyed many of his earlier papers. I expect I will enjoy his paper on Kardashev also, when I get around to reading it.

I wrote a post about the Kardashev scale that appeared some time ago on Centauri Dreams, What Kardeshev Really Said, in which criticized some of the more imaginative readings of Kardashev’s paper. Since that time I have found problem with my own exposition, and I have started another post in which I will again discuss Kardashev’s 1964 paper, which has been the occasion of so much comment that it is unlikely that anything I have to say will be noted by anyone. But now I know that I will also have to take into account this new paper on Kardashev by Ćirković. A translation of Kardashev’s 1964 paper, in which he introduced his classifications of Type I, II, and III for technological civilizations, “Transmission of information by extraterrestrial civilizations,” is available online.

James Hutton was among the founders of scientific geology and among the first to conceive of time on a geological scale.

James Hutton was among the founders of scientific geology and among the first to conceive of time on a geological scale.

Starting with a discussion of “deep time,” our conversation passed from scales of time to scales of space, and the possibility of a human future within this vast scope of time and space.

A lot of ideas came up in this conversation that were not fully developed (as is the nature of a freely flowing conversation). For example, Paul Carr’s insistence that any large scale settlement of the universe could not be a top-down endeavor, and then comparing this to the behavior of swarms, made me realize that the familiar distinction between the kind of intelligence that human beings possess on the one hand, and on the other hand what is sometimes called “swarm intelligence” (or “hive intelligence” or “crowd intelligence”) is not necessarily a exhaustive dichotomy.

Seen on the largest scale, the spread of a civilization into its home galaxy and then beyond would constitute a synthesis of individual intelligence and swarm intelligence, with each individual agent of an expanding community possessing its own intelligence, but there also being a discernible intelligence in the behavior of the expansion, even if that expansion is not directed in a top-down, non-constructive manner. In order for a species to begin the process of extraplanetary settlement it must possess something like human intelligence – individualistic technological intelligence – but in order for this expansion wave to exceed the boundaries of communication dictated by the speed of light, the expansion wave would have to exhibit the intelligence of swarms.

This might be one way to think about what S. Jay Olson has called “aggressively expanding civilizations” in his paper “Homogeneous cosmology with aggressively expanding civilizations,” which paper was my recommendation at the end of the podcast. It may be that aggressively expanding civilizations are those civilizations that possess individual intelligence and swarm intelligence in equal measure, or perhaps are more weighted to the latter, while those civilizations that expand aggressively inward – one way to characterize John Smart’s transcension hypothesis, which I also mentioned in the podcast – are those civilizations the progenitors of which have intelligence weighted to the individualistic side of the equation.

March for Science, discussed in this episode.

I’ve participated in another episode of The Unseen Podcast, with moderator Paul Carr and other frequent panelists Patrick Festa and Buck Field (a sincere thank you to all of them for the opportunity to join the discussion). The general topic was science in the wake of the Trump administration. When the podcast was in the planning stages I suggested that the upcoming March for Science would be a topical and current subject for the podcast, and, while we did touch upon the March for Science, we didn’t really get into the pros and cons of whether the march would help or harm the progress of science, which still is, I think, something worth debating, and something worth thinking about.

When I suggested this topic I wrote:

“Well, one obvious topic would be the upcoming science march: will it make a difference? Will it do any good? Will it do any harm? What is the public’s responsibility to science, and what is science’s responsibility to the public? This ties into questions that have been prevalent since the role of scientists in building atomic weapons, and will continue to grow in importance as we converge on a scientific civilization (if we do).”

If you asked me if I am interested in the politics of science I would probably say “no,” but I have been thinking about this and related matters a lot recently, and I guess it could be characterized as the politics of science, though I would prefer to characterize it as the economics of science, and, especially, the problem of the economics of big science.

The more I think about this, the more I come to think that this is a crucial future problem. Big science (because it is so expensive) can only be funded by billionaires, corporations, foundations, or nation-states. How might science be funded in the future? If some mechanism cannot be found to fund big science (and even bigger science, which in a recent blog post I called “megastructure science”), scientific knowledge will stall (something predicted by Nicholas Rescher), and scientific civilization, such as it is, will permanently stagnate. Thus the question of the funding of future scientific research is an existential risk question.

At some point I hope to delve into a detailed examination of how science is funded at present, how science might be funded in the future, and what the bridge will be between the present and future socioeconomic standing of science, as I also hope to consider together the two questions, “What is the responsibility of science to the public in a democratic society?” and, “What is the responsibility to science by the public in a democratic society? I think that these questions are much more difficult to answer (i.e., to answer them honestly and rigorously) than they first appear.

One clarifying question that occurred to me in the course of the discussion is the simple question, “Is science a public good?” I made a first attempt to discuss this question in What is, or what ought to be, the relationship between science and society? I plan to return to this question as I am able clarify my ideas. This is something worth thinking about.

The TRAPPIST-1 planetary system with seven Earth-sized planets within the habitable zone of an ultracool dwarf star.

Along with host Paul Carr and fellow panelists David Grigg, Patrick Festa, and Buck Field, I participated in an episode of The Unseen Podcast in which we focused on the recent announcement of seven planets in the habitable zone of the ultracool dwarf star TRAPPIST-1, and branched out from there to consider the nature of dwarf stars and their planetary systems and the possibility of life on the planets of such a planetary system.

After the initial announcements of the latest exoplanet finds at TRAPPIST-1 I posted More is Different, in which I suggested that multiple planetary biospheres in such close proximity could result in forms of emergent complexity — namely, an ecosystem unified across multiple biospheres — that are not possible under conditions such as obtain on Earth, which is an isolated biosphere. We know that, by way of lithopanspermia, that there has been a steady transfer of small amounts of matter between the inner planets of our solar system ever since these planets were formed, but in the case of the TRAPPIST-1 exoplanets one would expect that the interplanetary transfer of matter would be much greater, and extremophiles riding this sweepstakes dispersion vector would be exposed to the harsh conditions of space for a shorter period of time that, for example, rocks that have traveled from Mars to Earth or vice versa.

Overall, however, the episode didn’t focus all that much on conditions for life and interesting ecosystems at TRAPPIST-1, and we engaged in our usual numerous tangents away from the central topic.

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