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Notes & Queries 10/23/09

On Perfect Mornings

Stan Getz’ version of ‘Early Autumn’ is to me the definitive take on this standard, though so many fine musicians have attempted it that I’m sure to draw an argument from jazz buffs. But every year when the leaves have just begun to turn, the Getz interpretation runs through my mind on my morning walk, as it did today. A fine breeze was in the air and it carried the scent of approaching rain. The leaves wrapped the scene in muted gold and vermilion, not as bright as in some years, but lovely just the same.

So perfect was the moment that it called up a quote from J.B Priestley that I only imperfectly remembered. When I got back to my desk, I looked up the exact wording:

I have always been delighted at the prospect of a new day, a fresh try, one more start, with perhaps a bit of magic waiting somewhere behind the morning.

Early CoRoT Results Available

Early results from CoRoT are now appearing in a special issue of Astronomy & Astrophysics (Vol. 506 No. 1), running this week with over fifty papers made available online. Launched in late 2006, CoRoT has detected seven planets that have been confirmed by ground-based follow-up observations, a challenging process that has produced such interesting places as CoRoT-7b, whose discovery is recounted and mass discussed in these papers (Didier Queloz and team calculate the mass at about five times that of Earth).

Based on density calculations, CoRoT-7b should be a rocky planet, the first confirmed to date, and it was subsequently joined by a second planet in the same system, a super-Earth of about eight Earth masses. The range of papers here extends beyond exoplanet hunting to astroseismology, a primary goal of mission planners. Detecting and quantifying oscillations in red giants and other stellar types shows how complicated these processes can be. It’s heartening to note that CoRoT is slated to operate until 2013.

The Mind in the Machine

Wouldn’t a human brain translated somehow into a computer environment simply go mad, being a consciousness evolved for an environment so radically different in terms of its inputs that adaptation outside a physical body would be impossible? Athena Andreadis considers the matter in Ghost in the Shell: Why Our Brains Will Never Live in the Matrix, published last week at h+ Magazine. Her essay is an elegant reminder that biological systems and engineered technologies are not necessarily compatible:

A human is not born as a tabula rasa, but with a brain that’s already wired and functioning as a mind. Furthermore, the brain forms as the embryo develops. It cannot be inserted after the fact, like an engine in a car chassis or software programs in an empty computer box.

An uploaded brain could, the thinking goes, cope with the immense times and distances involved in interstellar travel, thus opening up the stars to our electronically adapted selves. But while we may be able to tweak the brain to stay sharp beyond the conventional human lifespan, Athena will have none of the notion that uploading a consciousness will be the way to immortality.

Large portions of the brain process and interpret signals from the body and the environment. Without a body, these functions will flail around and can result in the brain… well, losing its mind. Without corrective “pingbacks” from the environment that are filtered by the body, the brain can easily misjudge to the point of hallucination, as seen in phenomena like phantom limb pain or fibromyalgia. Additionally, processing at light speed will probably result in madness, as everything will appear to happen simultaneously or will change order arbitrarily.

Just as seriously, the University of Massachusetts biologist speculates that without the physical context, we are endangering our sense of empathy, without which we are “at best idiot savants, at worst psychotic killers.” Andreadis considers the mind an emergent property, an artifact of its brain. Transferring it demands the brain that houses it, without which continuity of consciousness is lost. No immortality there — the original mind still faces death no matter what the uploaded one does.

But what about replacing a brain in a living person, renewing our minds even as we rebuild our 100 billion neuronal processors? Even using embryonic stem cells, the take here is that cell replacement will be slow and small-scale in order to make continuous consciousness possible and to preserve existing neuronal and synaptic networks. Thus renewing a single human brain could be such a lengthy process that it never catches up with the aging of the body. Such efforts, though, may well pay off in specific areas, such as the treatment of neurodegenerative diseases.

Long lifespans could lead to long-term crewed space expeditions, but this essay notes we’ll need tools to repair mutations caused by cosmic radiation if we plan to spend long periods in environments outside the Solar System. Andreadis doesn’t rule out keeping a brain functional for periods longer than our current lifespan, but her doubts about mind transfers are pungent reading for those pondering a Matrix-like future inside the machine.

Re-Experiencing Spacetime

Have a look at the Pleiades the next time viewing conditions are good. When the light you’re seeing left these stars, Copernicus had just published De revolutionibus orbium caelestium (1543), giving the Sun rather than the Earth primacy of place in the universe. Now look at the Orion Nebula, whose light left as the Roman Empire was crumbling. Each astronomical vista takes us on a chronological journey, as SEED Magazine shows us in a slide show based on Michael Benson’s new book Far Out: A Space-Time Chronicle (Abrams, 2009).

The images are lovely, and by the time you’ve worked through to the Hercules Cluster, you’re dealing with light that left when the most complex life Earth had to offer was the trilobite. That would be 485,000,000 years ago, and the connection of Earthly chronology with celestial spectacle refreshes our perception of time and space as entwined. That’s something we take intellectually for granted but sometimes need to experience in new ways. Like the dazzling departure from the Solar System in the film version of Contact, these images give the jaded a much needed ‘sense of wonder’ boost.

Rosetta Swingby in November

Keep an eye on the Rosetta Blog as the ESA comet-investigating spacecraft swings by the Earth to gain a gravity assist that will begin the final leg of its ten-year journey to comet 67/P Churyumov-Gerasimenko. This is the last of Rosetta’s four gravity assists and the third Earth swingby, during which Rosetta will study the Earth-Moon system from its unusual perspective. Closest approach is 0745 UTC on November 13, with a trajectory correction burn just completed. More on the Rosetta mission site.


Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Zen Blade October 29, 2009, 17:44

    Good stuff on the future of evolution for mankind (and its descendants). However, no one should believe that we have stopped evolving. The evolution of man has continued (perhaps at a faster pace) in recent generations. The difference between modern day evolution and past evolution is the nature of what parts of humanity are being evolved. You could argue that observable physical traits/phenotypes (height, muscle, speed, coloring) had been selected for in the past… and this continues today. However, today (I believe) the strongest selections, the strongest directions of evolution are cultural and mental. By mental, I include things such as neurological disorders (heritable ones), all sorts of mental illness (depression, etc…), as well as cognitive ability. These are also physical traits, but not necessarily as observable as what we normally think of as physical traits.

    Examples: Numerous individuals with medical problems (including horrible diseases) freely choose not to have children. This is a new development that did not occur a generation ago. Now that we trace disease from one generation to the next, individuals who saw their grandparents and parents suffer, willing fore go having offspring because they do not wish to pass on the undesirable trait.

    Numerous individuals who do not wish to have children (that’s a cultural value), do not have children. This is a selection that goes against a particular cultural value…. This selection had better damn well win out, otherwise we are in trouble as a species.

    It is not clear to me how common individual suicide as a result of depression was in the past (distinguish from ritual), but this is clearly an issue that our society deals with today. Individuals who remove themselves from the general population in their teens and 20’s effectively perform a selection for people who do not suffer from these horrible maladies.

    Additionally, modern medicine has allowed for more and more people (thankfully) to live with more and more medical conditions. This in turn has a high financial cost, but allows for an increasingly diverse genome among humans. I am not a geneticist or a specialist in population dynamics, so I do not know if this will be good or bad in the long run, but in the short term, increased genetic variation is a good thing.
    *** An interesting note along these lines…. Individuals who suffer from a particular disease tend to gather and often have children together (think support groups, locations of hospitals, etc… my understanding is that this is true of sickle-cell anemia for example)… this is an interesting observation.

    Anyways, I realize this is posted way at the bottom of an already long thread… so this might not get read at all.
    -Zen Blade

  • Zen Blade October 29, 2009, 17:49


    Regarding the Singularity, I thought that video was a good introduction into the skepticism… I forget the speaker’s name, but I completely agree with the whole… “scientists don’t read this stuff”. Mainly because the stuff is essentially like Star Wars (make believe), only the Singularity supporters claim that the event to end all other events will happen really soon….

    This is not to say independent AI will not be developed, only that the science does not support a lot of what they contend. And a lot of their contentions would not be put forth if the authors were more familiar with where science is in many of the fields they attempt to speak about.

    -Zen Blade

  • Ronald October 30, 2009, 4:16

    “we’re lousy at terraforming even Earth, let alone an unknown planet.”
    Well, we’ve been doing it for about eight thousand years now, called agriculture, with the result that we are now feeding almost 7 billion of us. Not a bad result ;-)

    “The time scales and required resources are radically different for the two enterprises, with genetic engineering having a decisive advantage.”
    True for a species or a few species, but the situation changes when we are talking about whole assemblages of many thousands of species.

    “Finally, terraforming a planet is a failure of the imagination: it’s like insisting on eating hamburgers while visiting Paris.”
    Not necessarily: I was not talking about introducing a hamburger but rather all of New York or even the US ;-)

    Genetic engineering can do a lot, but not everything, we are also dealing with basic charactersitics of biological (carbon-based) life, the biochemical limitations. Earthly life adapted to different climates yes, but earthly (higher) life adapted to thrive on liquid methane and ammoniak?

    Besides, if organisms are changed very drastically, it may be ‘beyond recognition’ and their ‘creators’ may consider that undesirable. For instance , humans and their favored animals and plants might no longer be recognizable as such. I think that ethics and estethics, and the issues of identity, recognition and creator’s preference, all play a role here.

    But again, it will probably be a combination of both;

    Biological life, particularly higher lifeforms need a certain temperature range, water and a favorable atmosphere, that seems like a reasonable minimum requirement. An oxygen rich atmosphere is also very handy. Therefore, planets that don’t meet these minimum requirements, but are potentially very suitable (for instance in a primordial state) may need some terraforming or ‘helping in the right direction’.

    As you are indicating, this tinkering with planets will probably be mainly limited, in most cases, to atmospheric and (resulting) temperature modifications to bring them within the range of what we could call ‘earthlike’. Then genetic modification and engineering may do the rest. It will still result in a wide variety of biospheres and evolutionary pathways, beyond imagination.

  • Ronald October 30, 2009, 4:41

    A little bit further on my previous post;

    The reason why I imagine a future of both genetic and planetary engineering is, besides the above-mentioned biochemical limitations and requirements of (higher) biological life, the following issue;

    I thought, Athena, that we both imagine a future of human descendants ‘seeding’, disseminating, the galaxy’s planets with (adapted) lifeforms of (inevitably) earthly origin. And that such life will then run its own evolutionary course of adaptation. After all, even with all out genetic capabilities, there is no adaptation like evolution, both at the molecular and at the organism level.

    Well, I think that also largely sets the requirements of the stage: earthly origin life (in a broad sense) probably has the the best chances in a more or less earthly environment (in a broad sense). If life is seeded in an *extremely* different environment, even though we may be able to do a lot of genetic tinkering to start something new, the evolutionary success (survival, adaptation, diversification) would still become a lot more uncertain.