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From Titan to the Encyclopedia Galactica

Space artist Jon Lomberg, whose work illustrated yesterday’s entry on the white dwarf star GD 362, wrote recently with a comment on Centauri Dreams‘ September 8 story on Titan. The story discussed new theories on Titan as an abode for life, citing a presentation at the recent Division of Planetary Sciences meeting in Cambridge and quoting Southwest Research Institute scientist David Grinspoon on the possibilities inherent in Titan’s abundant hydrocarbons and acetylene, which might help power a metabolism.

Titan, of course, is a very cold place, which would seem to inhibit the needed chemistry. But Lomberg points out a way around the problem:

“Consider the organic superconductor dimethyltetra-thiofulvalene tetracyano-quinodimethane. Discovered in the 1970s, this was the first organic superconductor found, and it remains superconductive at [relatively] high temperatures. More have been discovered since. When Carl Sagan and I were working on my Encyclopedia Galactica series of paintings, he liked my speculation that such substances might provide a way to circumvent the slow pace of low-temperature chemical reactions. We were thinking specifically of planets around cool stars, but certainly Titan is a closer candidate worth considering in this regard. Carl suggested changing the …..quinodimethane to….quinodimethanic acid and listing it as the genetic base for low temperature organisms…”

Organic superconductors as a way around the low temperature problem — ingenious! You can find a description of a civilization based on such chemistry on p. 313 of COSMOS (I’m using the Random House 1980 hardcover edition, but later editions follow this pagination). The summary, written by both Sagan and Lomberg, is a hypothetical entry from the Encyclopedia Galactica that Sagan speculated might one day become available through interstellar radio contact.

As for the Encyclopedia itself, ponder as Sagan did what might be found in a radio message from another star. Perhaps its contents will be something like a palimpsest, whereon ancient writers reused papyrus by writing new material over old. A primer teaching the language of interstellar discourse could surround the real message. “Radio technology permits that message to be inconceivably rich,” Sagan writes. “Perhaps when we tuned in, we would find ourselves in the midst of Volume 3,267 of the Encyclopedia Galactica.” (p. 314).

And as Sagan goes on to say:

“…with our newly acquired information sorted into a computer memory, we would be able to see which sort of civilization lived where in the Galaxy. Imagine a huge galactic computer, a repository, more or less up-to-date, of information on the nature and activities of all the civilizations in the Milky Way Galaxy, a great library of life in the Cosmos. Perhaps among the contents of the Encyclopedia Galactica will be a set of summaries of such civilizations, the information enigmatic, evocative — even after we succeed in translating it.”

It’s a long way from Titan to a galactic civilization, but living processes there would imply that life takes hold in remarkably varied environments. Some introductory information on organic superconductors can be found here. A sample of Lomberg’s Encyclopedia Galactica paintings can be found at his Web site.

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  • ljk April 22, 2008, 12:12

    Babelfish – Universal Translator Will Allow ET to Speak English

    Since 1966 people have been pointing at Star Trek and asking “How come all the aliens speak English?” They go on to point out the impossibility of a universal translator, make fun of the show and basically prove that they couldn’t have missed the point any harder if it was on the asteroid of Pluto. Of course, the reason a magic device can let everyone talk to each other is that forty-five minutes of people saying “I’m sorry, what?” is terrible television. But recent advances at the University of California might show that those nit-pickers aren’t just petty-minded pedants, but flat-out wrong.

    Professor Terrence Deacon believes that all languages must have a common universal structure. While there may be an infinite variety of means to communicate, there are only a finite number of things communication tries to do – the most fundamental of which is attempting to describe the physical world. By homing in on this fundamental goal any two languages must have in common, Professor Deacon believes it should be able to decode any xenoliguistics, be they communicated by sounds, scents, numbers or phllggQQ’arns.

    Full article here: