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Technosignatures: Enter the ‘Dataome’

I sometimes rely on nudges from my software to remind me of directions I’ve been meaning to take in a Centauri Dreams article. Seeing that Caleb Scharf has a new book out (The Ascent of Information), I was setting about ordering it when I noticed how many notes I had on my hard disk related to Scharf’s work, a reminder of how provocative I find his writings. That took me back to a 2018 article called The Selfish Dataome, and also to the recent article The Origin of Technosignatures, which appeared a few days ago in Scientific American.

Scharf (Columbia University) has the habit of asking questions no one else seems to have thought of. So let’s kick this around a bit. The notion of a ‘dataome’ is about external things that a species generates. Scharf defines it as:

a deeper way to quantify intelligent life, based on the external information that a species generates, utilizes, propagates and encodes in what we call technology—everything from cave paintings and books to flash drives and cloud servers and the structures sustaining them.

Here we go beyond biology to ask why technology comes to exist in the first place. But this gets into some deep philosophizing that is beyond my pay grade, so I’ll pause to look at the numbers in our current dataome, which are staggering. They inspire in me that punchy effect I can feel when contemplating galaxies full of stars and planets. In 2018, according to Scharf, we generated 2.5 quintillion bytes of data a day or — I like this — a billion billion bytes for every planetary rotation. Much of that data hangs around in our daily lives.

Think of YouTube’s holdings, for example, or the GIFs you occasionally get from your friends, the scientific papers we keep talking about in these pages, the emails that pester your bulging mailbox, the albums of photos of the kids in the family room, the collection of black and white movies on ancient VCR tapes (well, that’s my collection, but I assume you have something similar). This is all folded into a dataome, which to Scharf is analogous to a genome, and one that may, as per Richard Dawkins, somehow perpetuate itself. What compels us, in other words, to keep all these things?

To address the question in his older article, Scharf in 2018 looked at the writings of William Shakespeare. You’d think these would be easy to define: The gorgeous sonnets, the 37 plays, the 835,997 words comprising the complete works (with a small handful whose authorship is disputed). But the question is how all this has propagated over the centuries. Two to four billion physical copies, by Scharf’s estimates, of the works, meaning hundreds of billions of sheets of paper covered by more than a quadrillion letters, have been produced. All of this involves energy production, even in reading.

Thus Scharf on energy use:

Across time these billions of volumes have been physically lifted and transported, dropped and picked up, held by hand, or hoisted onto bookshelves. Each individual motion has involved a small expenditure of energy, maybe a few Joules. But that has added up across the centuries. It’s possible that altogether the simple act of human arms raising and lowering copies of Shakespeare’s writings has expended well over 4 trillion Joules of energy. That’s equivalent to combusting several hundred thousand kilograms of coal.

And that’s just for the physical production of the actual Shakepearean canon. Add this:

Additional energy has been utilized every time a human has read some of those 835,997 words and had their neurons fire. Or spoken them to a rapt audience, or spent tens of millions of dollars to make a film of them, or turned on a TV to watch one of the plays performed, or driven to a Shakespeare festival. Or for that matter bought a tacky bust of “the immortal bard” and hauled it onto a mantelpiece. Add in the energy expenditure of the manufacture of paper, books, and their transport and the numbers only grow and grow.

I have a lot of Shakespeare in the house myself. In addition to the various printed editions of his works I’ve accumulated since grad school, I also keep the Oxford and the recent Modern Library editions on my ebook readers (a Kindle Oasis and a Kobo Aura One). I like to think I’m saving a few trees: Scharf points out that given US paper production statistics (based on 2006 data), 28,000 Joules of energy were used per gram of final material. US paper production ran to 99.5 million tons of pulp and paper that year.

Here again the question of why we keep things: I read a lot of library books downloaded onto my e-readers. Talking this over with a bookish friend, he told me that wouldn’t work for him. He had to have a physical object on his shelf that he owned. Why?

If you think of this in terms of symbiosis, we are creating a burden of energy use to feed our dataome that continues to grow, and it’s a reasonable question to ask whether we are drawing the kind of benefit from it that we might. What are all those Facebook posts worth? But unlike our situation with the ‘selfish gene,’ this human-dataome symbiosis is something we can manage, even if we haven’t really examined its evolution or analyzed its function in the overall growth of the species. I assume this is what Scharf will be doing in his new book, which I will be discussing here later.

In the more recent article, though, Scharf questions whether these concepts have value in how we deal with technosignatures and the ongoing expansion of SETI toward artifacts and technologies. I’ve often thought in terms of the Drake Equation that the L factor — the longevity of a technological civilization — is embedded in the question of whether technology actually offers an evolutionary advantage. In the short term, the answer seems obvious, but not if the inevitable outcome of burgeoning high tech is putting tools of species destruction in the hands of an ever larger number of people.

Scharf argues that a search for technosignatures can be considered more broadly a search for extraterrestrial dataomes, for the former grow out of the latter. He suggests that we consider something like a Dyson sphere as a consequence of a process that is itself Darwinian:

…the arrival of a dataome on a world represents an origin event. Just as the origin of biological life is, we presume, represented by the successful encoding of self-propagating, evolving information in a substrate of organic molecules. A dataome is the successful encoding of self-propagating, evolving information into a different substrate, and with a seemingly different spatial and temporal distribution— routing much of its function through a biological system like us. And like other major origin events it involves the wholesale restructuring of the planetary environment, from the utilization of energy to fundamental chemical changes in atmospheres or oceans.

This plays into our plans to examine planetary atmospheres for environmental factors that could be the consequences of these kinds of energy transformations. Thus it would behoove us to consider the relationship between the dataome we move in and the biological life — ourselves — that interacts with it, questioning in what ways the interests of the two are aligned and where they may be coming out of joint. (Sorry, I had to get Hamlet in there, what with all this talk about Shakespeare: “The time is out of joint. O cursed spite, that I was born to set it right!” The Bard is timeless).

I’m not sure how we examine a balance like this in Darwinian terms, but we wrestle daily with consequences like social networks changing discourse and affecting public policy, or the widespread propagation of cultural memes via cable and streaming TV. Scharf sees carbon emissions as one consequence of the dataome’s insatiable demand for energy, so industrial pollution is an inevitable offshoot. I think we need to ask whether the idea of a dataome can offer us anything predictive about what another species might do as it encodes and propagates its own information.

Scharf asks the question in these essays but it’s clear we are only at the beginning of what may be a long conversation. I’m having trouble seeing how parsing the growth of data this way gives us tools beyond the factors we’re already using to search for technosignatures, but the key may be in the idea that a dataome resembles a living rather than an inert system. If genes can be selfish, can data be the same? Just how much control do we have over a dataome when it reaches planetary dimensions?

As we ourselves don’t know the outcomes of such growth, its manifestations in a technosignature will be hard to imagine. Let’s see where Scharf goes with this next.


Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Harold Shaw July 7, 2021, 12:44

    I accept the immutable symbiosis shared by persons, a people and the dataome. Hard to ignore the possibility the dataome has an agenda. Impossible to ignore how persons and people leverage the dataome for increased agency.

    The properties of a dataome may eliminate the demand for large scale virtual environments such as Jupiter or Batrioshka brains. Persons, people and the dataome would be in direct competition for resources. As a habitat for people, I think they would hit their Malthusian threshold quickly and the threshold would have to be defended from the dataome.

    Would the dataome of a people destroyed by their dataome be inherently dangerous?

    • Henry Cordova July 7, 2021, 19:42

      “Hard to ignore the possibility the dataome has an agenda.”

      A very perceptive observation, Harold. The history of civilization runs parallel to, but independent of, the automation of bureaucracy. And that does not necessarily depend on technology. The necessity to collect, maintain, store, back up, organize and access data has been taking an increasingly heavy load on our civilization since the Sumerians filled warehouses with cuneiform on clay tablets. Sure, record keeping returns dividends, but we have to keep track of all those records we will never look at as well as the ones we need to administer our future activities.

      And of course, every time the technology changes (read: morphs into some more profitable mode) half of that information is lost because we have no real justification to invest in properly archiving it. We can still read cuneiform, but we routinely throw our 8-tracks and floppies away regardless of what forgotten treasures may still be recorded there.

      And of course, the tyranny of the market ensures that whatever advantage we gain by our modern communications and data processing technology is sacrificed by our obsession in eliminating the expensive human labor required to actually make decisions and take action based on all that data.

      Who are all those people talking into their cell phones actually communicating with? Every time I call someone I get a recorded message, or a robot clerk that cannot handle my emergency. Have you tried calling your doctor lately? I find it faster to just hop in my car and drive to his office and get my questions answered.

      Our civilizations obsession with “data” will not survive much longer. Sooner or later, it will be exposed as being driven by financial greed, not engineering efficiency. Or we will collapse under the weight of administering all.

      “Listen carefully, because our options have changed.”

      • Harold Shaw July 7, 2021, 22:09

        I would gladly keep the compliment but that is the not the direction I intended with the comment. Agenda was the wrong choice of word. Auto-catalysing or self-sustaining.

        I would argue civilization depends upon being obsessed with data. I struggle with communication and social interaction. I benefit from your obstacles. It may be too easy to see the Darwinian implications of the dataome.

  • henry cordova July 7, 2021, 12:49

    “Your swords are now too massy for your strengths”
    –The Tempest, Act 3, Scene 3

    The ability to generate data, indeed, the ability to accumulate information, knowledge, or even wisdom, may be, in the long run, counter-productive. You can’t quench your thirst from a fire hose (or a glacier or steam line, for that matter). A library full of truth is useless without a card catalog, and a librarian to manage it.

    Every complex system must devote an increasingly significant portion of its own resources for its own management and maintenance. My first cell phone was the size of a matchbox, but the instruction manual (which I had to download off the internet because the manufacturer had not provided it), was 75 pages long.

    Or to put it another way; “Every man needs to clean out his wallet every now and then.”

    • kph July 8, 2021, 17:30

      Agree. Most pages are links, duplicates, overhead rather than novel content. Even actual papers, published content are often citations of previous citations and literature surveys. Rather than labor saving, technology becomes labor generating. Internet faucet of our current dataome is far from a global expansion of mind or praiseworthy collaboration.

      • Alex Tolley July 8, 2021, 19:39

        Quality content is curated to exclude the junk. Libraries continue to maintain stacks of the better books, both fiction and non-fiction. STEM textbooks are distillations of quality material.

        If one ignored the popular presses, social media, and just had access to the content of libraries, textbooks, and the top science magazines, I think one would be mostly protected from information pollution. I appreciate that it may not help if one is in a sanity bubble while civilization around one is losing its collective head. But we know such things have happened on more local scales in the past. I just hope sanity can reassert itself as it has done periodically after bouts of insanity. We don’t want the same fate as those on Lagash/Kalgash in Asimov’s Nightfall.

  • Alex Tolley July 7, 2021, 13:24

    What Scharf calls the dataome seems to me to be a subset of what Dawkins called the “extended phenotype”. More practically, artifacts and information act as cognitive prostheses, reducing the cognitive load for memorization and creating affordances to the world.

    My personal preference for dead tree books over electronic include these reasons;

    1. DRM’d electronic books are not owned and can be taken away at the press of a button.
    2. Paper books are likely to far outlast electronic books and are going to be far more resilient to obsolescent technology and file formats, “bit rot”, etc.
    3. My electronic books are hidden behind a Kindle icon and slip out of mind. My physical books sit on a “to be read” shelf as a constant reminder to eventually read them, and my library is a constant reminder of content I can refer to.
    4. Lastly, like many, I just like the feel of dead tree books. I like place physical bookmarks to mark my place, and seeing where I am in the content. A book can be disposable if it is holiday reading and need not be tied to a valuable electronic device that may get lost, or be unable to be recharged.

    Sadly space is finite and some books have to be disposed of, so pruning the library has to be done.

    Ideally, I would like all my books mirrored as searchable electronic copies.

    But ask yourself, should artworks be kept purely as electronic files rather than physical objects to delight the eye or enhance a living space? Bruce Sterling had once suggested just photographing objects of [sentimental] value and disposing of the physical object. I couldn’t even contemplate this unless I was made a refugee and had to flee without my possessions. I certainly keep a lot of images on my computer, but unless I print them out and mount them on the wall, I rarely see them.

    As regards technology (rather than just the dataome) influencing us, I believe it does. It shapes us and becomes symbiotic. Some technology drives us to use more of it, just as a “selfish gene” “wants to replicate” via the phenotype. Readers want more books. Music lovers more music. Car enthusiasts want to experience more cars, etc, etc. This drives demand to create more, and so the cycle continues. Using various technologies shapes how one sees the environment and what one does. There are consequences. Books result in more paper, mills, deforestation, and water pollution. Cars result in more combustion and roads, and a way of life that suits car ownership or use. Houses have garages, and suburban houses are spaced out too much to walk anywhere.
    But as Kevin Kelly has written, technologies generally have a small net benefit which continues to accumulate as technology evolves and proliferates. I don’t think we are anywhere near the benefit limits, although some technologies are starting to pose existential threats due to proliferation.

  • Gary Wilson July 7, 2021, 14:03

    Data is only as useful as the purposes we put it to. There is an enormous quantity of useless data out there. The various social media for example. In fact as has already been alluded to, a dataome is increasingly dangerous as it becomes filled with lies and misinformation. We have enormous quantities of misleading information out there now and it is being rapidly spread to confuse and corrupt various systems. A global watchdog for facts and data is badly needed. There are many, many unscrupulous people using and contributing to our already corrupted dataome. I can think of one such person who is now apparently beginning lawsuits of the various online media alleging they have wrongfully removed him from their sites.

    • Randomengineer July 8, 2021, 9:33

      You’re calling, Winston Smith style, for a Ministry of Trvth.

      Last week I read an article wherein the thrust was that scientists were saying that hey, regarding some previously dismissed grandma home remedy, that actually there appeared to be something to it after all. In the ministry world you’re calling for, grandmas remedy would have been disappeared as being non-factual. Rediscovery is a valid thing, and perceptions (and knowledge) change.

      In recent news Trump questions about the potential lab origin of Covid were memory holed as lies in early 2020, but considered valid a year later and “not lies.” I tend to doubt a watchdog Ministry would be useful in the least, it being inevitably dominated by the twists in the political winds. Because humans do human things.

      In today’s science discourse, the very act of questioning the politically acceptable consensus gets one labeled as a denier (a heretic!) even if the questioning is not disputing an accepted concept but rather the degree of effect. The Ministry would exacerbate this, not relieve it: science itself could become undone.

      Even this site seems to be prone to being overrun by correct thoughts and echo chamber groupthink. Clearly any such Ministry would need to be god level AI so as to gently guide and channel the humans to prevent premature permanent dismissal of unpopular or unfashionable thoughts.

      • Alex Tolley July 8, 2021, 11:58

        Have you even read Orwell’s 1984?

        Propaganda and deliberate mis- and disinformation is rampant. Probably always has been, but now can be spread rapidly with social media.

        No one has suggested that Grandma’s remedy that may or may not work is to be removed. What is suggested is that deliberate falsehoods and even FUD be policed. Your example of the source of Covid is pretty fatuous, to say the least. The last POTUS was spewing more lies to bolster his electoral standing and had nothing to do with any actual findings or finding truth. The science and medical community found sufficient evidence of the outbreak coming from the wet market, similar to other respiratory outbreaks in the past. I put the “lab leak” on a par with the Bush II administration pushing outright, evidence-free disinformation about Iraqi weapons of mass destruction. Arguably Covid-19 deaths that were unnecessary in the US vastly exceed the deaths of US soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan in the futile and expensive 20 years of war, although perhaps not the collateral civilian deaths in these lands.
        It has become a Sisyphean task to counteract the interests spreading lies to maintain their agenda and interests, and it is those interests that want to whitewash the past as the US is seeing first hand today.

        • Hamilton1 July 8, 2021, 15:30

          This site should practice what it preaches by being ’emphatically not a soapbox for political views’. Even if the authoritarian powers of censorship are hell-bent on self-destruction.

      • Ron S. July 8, 2021, 11:58

        “Even this site seems to be prone to being overrun by correct thoughts and echo chamber groupthink.”

        How fortunate for us that you’re here to set us straight.

      • henry cordova July 8, 2021, 14:14

        Any society or culture which embraces entrepreneurial activity and capitalistic competition as the ultimate virtue will not be too eager to promote any policy which is critical of the propaganda of commerce: advertising. The same mentality which gave us PT Barnum, Madison Avenue, and the pseudo-science of “Marketing” should not be too surprised when those same techniques are mobilized for political purposes.

        If “corporations are people too” and anonymous funding of political campaigns is constitutionally protected “free speech”, then it is clear that the Ministry of Truth has already been in session for quite some time.

      • Gary Wilson July 8, 2021, 15:25

        Would thousands of Trump statements via the social media outlets survive even the most elementary and straightforward vetting? These lies have now propagated themselves throughout the US and in fact the world. If we have no control whatsoever over the validity of statements made and entered in various websites and no attempt is made to ensure they don’t begin to be incorporated as fact in various books, educational texts and other types of media such as documentaries either broadcast on TV or online then really we will have failed in protecting everyone from lies of all kinds. Vetting is an arduous task and unfortunately many are ill-equipped to attempt it, thanks to low incomes and poor educations and sometimes unfortunately impaired intellects of various kinds (i.e. through no fault of their own).

  • Ron S. July 7, 2021, 14:10

    “If genes can be selfish, can data be the same?”

    Yes. Memes, as coined by Dawkins.

  • orion E July 7, 2021, 17:21

    I’m not sure bytes are the right way to measure ‘the external information a species generates’.

  • Robin Datta July 7, 2021, 19:27

    The genotype acts through cellular molecular machinery and environmental guides at all levels from the microscopic to the astronomical to manifest the phenotype. The phenotype in turn controls future genotypes through numbers of copies that survive in the gene pool. Mutual adaptation of the genotypes of multiple species to each other through their phenotypes can also occur as in flowers and their pollinators.

    Datasets not carried by genomes have the freedom of diverging from the originating genome but also the absence of a guaranteed form of carriage. “Symbiosis”, synergy, inhibition, emergence and extinction may all be features of such datasets, and the emergence of post-biological machine intelligence will free them from biological constraints.

    Among wheat and chaff, chaff is also information, but it has been customary for 10+ millennia to keep the wheat and discard the chaff.

  • Jeff Wright July 8, 2021, 3:08

    I wonder if Oklo was made to service a repository…warm…germ free?

    • Alex Tolley July 9, 2021, 8:06

      I would have thought that this would have been a good site for an experiment to look at radiolysis as an energy source.

      There are mine workings providing access. There is sandstone above the uranium seam that should be sufficiently porous to allow bacteria to receive water and hydrogen.

      Experiments (vs distance from fission sites) might include:
      Cell density
      Radioloysis products
      Bacterial species counts
      Unusual/new species given the age of this natural reactor

      [Alien artifacts indicating artificial seeding ;) ]

  • wdk July 8, 2021, 12:23

    This is a truly interesting perspective as we examine the possibility of sentience beyond the Earth amid the stars. Much to muse on and perhaps one or two conjectures will lead somewhere…

    As spoken of in “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance” by Robert Pirsig decades ago, it (the dataome) is an analytical knife, a systematization- yet not necessarily one which will reveal “the rule”. For example, if we compare our cities and their contents with those of termites, we would find the dataome absent. Now if we apply the same criterion in the case of an exoplanet with life abodes similar to such structures, can we judge it with this tool?

    We don’t know.

    Still, thinking in such a manner, scales from one’s eyes do seem to be removed, maybe if only for a moment. So much of recorded history does seem like propagation of various books, some in opposition to each other. And then, decades ago, advertiser Marshall McLuhan spoke of “the medium is the message”. Many contemplating that idea for a while experienced existential anguishes: e.g., those of my friends back in the NE who strove to go to Ivy League or related colleges, did so, went out to get jobs, establish families, raise children to do the same…. Were they simply a way that these institutions renewed themselves? Same with genes? And now “the message” is making a comeback. It was lurking out their without form, but sentience and its tools give it “medium”!

    Another: landing approaches to many cities’ airports, staring out the window, much like an alien from space could as well, looking for signs of life on the streets, parks and sidewalks… What I mainly see are cars. Elsewhere we have covered the issue of interstellar travel being the domain of AI… Might a first physical contact be between such an ET and a self driving truck?

    Does this still have anything to do with dataome? Perhaps. Because the self driving truck, well enough that it has a passenger/driver, is a product of code. Code is very much related to the printed word. It has grammar, definitions, and other structures. Similar to Shakespeare’s plays because it enables “acts” or actions. Thus, to an alien examining the truck or car with a passenger or driver, we could be mis-identified as cargo or valuables for trade. While Goethe’s Faust struggled in the poem to find translation for “Logos” in John’s gospel, I have been tempted by the above…

    More soberly, I am also inclined to think about dataome as a body: Because now and then we have lost large segments of that which had grown in antiquity – or our civilization’s relative youth. It would be nice to think that someone out there had stopped by to collect some of it and perhaps to bring it back. We have lost more libraries than we know with little idea of what they contained. Of Roman historian Livy, for example, we can guess ( More Horatios at other bridges), but today perhaps a couple dozen of his “books” remain in a work that constituted about 140. The ancients did not have printing press, but they did circulate manuscripts enough that accounts of their existence have been passed on to us. For the near term the best we can expect is something like eventual CAT scans of wrapped scrolls, say, from the remains of Pompeiian libraries public or private.

    These days, beside hard copies crumbling, we can well imagine other threats to our intellectual dataome – such as a rogue electromagnetic pulse explosion by a very dissatisfied co inhabitant of our globe. But we also face the mounting storage crisis. Even certain data files could be targeted by an unswerving system administrator for the Polonius operating System. ” Please remove file with contents: 835,997 words. “Words, words, [mere] words…”

  • Michael Fidler July 8, 2021, 15:05

    Words are a very bad way to store information, the language if you could call it that, in the movie Arrival seems much better at condencing time. Like the video codecs such as H 265 or Av1 which compress the data to very high efficiency without distorting it.

  • Paul Gilster July 8, 2021, 16:06

    At this point a reminder that politics is off-topic here. There are plenty of things to discuss with regard to Dr. Scharf’s ideas, but let’s get off the political trail and return to topic.

    • Michael Fidler July 8, 2021, 21:20

      Rhetoric – language designed to have a persuasive or impressive effect, but which is often regarded as lacking in sincerity or meaningful content.

      I once listen to a politician talk on TV for ten minutes without having any idea of what he was talking about! ( I missed the first 30 seconds!) ;-}

  • ljk July 9, 2021, 11:19



    JULY 06, 2021 06:07 AM

    There is something strange happening around Boyajian’s star.

    Something very strange. The Sun-sized star is located nearly 1,500 light years from Earth in the Cygnus constellation and in 2015, a team of astronomers and citizen scientists discovered irregular dimming in the light from the star. The team was pouring over data from NASA’s Kepler telescope, which was designed to find exoplanets by looking for the periodic decreases in starlight that occur when a planet passes in front of its host star during orbit. But the light profiles from Boyajian’s star didn’t look like an exoplanet at all.

    In fact, it didn’t look like anything they’d ever seen.

    The universe is massive, and the odds of discovering a truly unique astrophysical phenomenon are low. When astronomers find something they can’t explain, such as a fast radio burst or the dimming of Boyajian’s star, there’s a very good chance that it is merely the first example of a widespread, but previously unknown, natural phenomenon.

    But often these apparently singular astronomical discoveries lend themselves to speculation—that intelligent alien life might have something to do with it—and Boyajian’s star is no exception.

    When the irregular dimming of Boyajian’s star was first discovered, some astronomers suggested it might be evidence of an extraterrestrial megastructure. Perhaps aliens had built a massive artificial habitat or a so-called Dyson sphere to harvest energy from their host star or had assembled a fleet of spacecraft for some unknown purpose. Today most astronomers concede that its weird characteristics are almost certainly not due to aliens. More likely it has something to do with fragments of rock—a cloud of dust, a group of exocomets, or perhaps the pieces of a shattered moon—orbiting the star. But until astronomers can find other examples that behave like Boyajian’s star, the extraterrestrial hypothesis is fair game, however unlikely it may be.

    “We don’t think Boyajian’s star is aliens, but it’s still weird,” says Steve Croft, a radio astronomer at the Berkeley SETI Research Center. “People are still sort of scratching their head. There are some models out there, but nobody is entirely satisfied that they know what’s going on in that system.”

    Ann Marie Cody is a scientist at NASA’s Ames Research Center, whose research focuses on how a star’s local environment affects the way starlight is seen from Earth. Cody specializes in the evolution of young stars, and the turbulent period in the birth of a solar system when clouds of dust, rock, and gas swirling around their host star can create strange light patterns in astronomical data.

    Full article here:


  • Gary Wilson July 10, 2021, 15:34

    Seriously, how do we keep our dataome as error free as possible? As long as opinions are clearly identified as opinions, that would be a good start. Oversight is difficult as people begin to worry about Big Brother. Improving educational standards would go a long way to allowing all people to do their own vetting. In general, it’s much more difficult to mislead a well educated society and I mean all of the society. That means uniform education standards and infrastructure for everyone. A decent education should be a right because it leads to wise choices and a much greater utilization of all the intellectual talent out there.

    • Alex Tolley July 10, 2021, 21:16

      I don’t think education is sufficient. A good outcome requires people to use that education in good faith. But we know educated people don’t do that. Politicians with Ivy League educations don’t discuss affairs in good faith. Educated executives will argue in bad faith to maintain their income. Even scientists can be corrupted by money.

      Education is a necessary ingredient. However it requires more than this.

      In Stephenson’s “Anathem”, the protagonist only searches for information with a high trust rating. But how to build that trust? As we have seen with social media, that is difficult, as groups with agendas will pile on to rate information based on their POV.

      Authoritarian governments cannot fix this either, as they use propaganda and censorship to create a consensus, and history has shown the futility of a getting a good outcome based on that approach.

      IDK how to solve this, but it requires a certain outlook where reaching truth is a common goal, and where wealth and power cannot corrupt the process. I don’t know if that is possible for our evolved, ancestral primate, hierarchical society where achieving status is an important goal. It can work for groups with an ethos that values truth above status, but not for society as a whole.

  • ljk July 21, 2021, 13:49


    What Really Happened at the Arecibo Telescope?

    July 20, 2021

    Practical Engineering

    On the morning of December 1st, 2020, one of the most iconic astronomical instruments in the world collapsed. The Arecibo Telescope was not only one of the largest radio telescopes in the world, it was also a fascinating problem in structural engineering. Its loss was felt across the world.

    This video provides a quick lesson on radio telescopes, a summary of the failure, and some discussion about the engineering lessons learned in the wake of the event.

    I hope that eventually, they can replace the telescope with an instrument as futuristic and forward-looking as the Arecibo telescope was when first conceived. It was an ambitious and inspiring structure, and we sure will miss it.

    Practical Engineering is a YouTube channel about infrastructure and the human-made world around us. It is hosted, written, and produced by Grady Hillhouse. We have new videos posted regularly, so please subscribe for updates. If you enjoyed the video, hit that ‘like’ button, give us a comment, or watch another of our videos!

  • ljk July 21, 2021, 15:21

    JULY 20, 2021

    With the HUMANS project, a message that space is for everyone

    by Sara Cody, Massachusetts Institute of Technology

    When the Voyager 1 and Voyager 2 spacecraft launched in 1977, they each carried a Golden Record, a special project spearheaded by astrophysicist Carl Sagan, in addition to the scientific instruments necessary for their mission to explore the outer reaches of our solar system. Part time capsule, part symbolic ambassador of goodwill, the Golden Record comprises sounds, images, music, and greetings in 59 languages, providing a snapshot of life on Earth for the edification of any intelligent extraterrestrial beings the spacecraft might encounter.

    Today, while Voyager 1 and 2 hurtle on through interstellar space more than 14 billion and 12 billion miles away, respectively, the Golden Record and the iconic etching on its cover has inspired a new student-run initiative, the Humanity United with MIT Art and Nanotechnology in Space (HUMANS) project, which aims to send a message that hits a little closer to home: that space is for everyone.

    “We want to invite the world to submit a message to our project website—either text or audio, or both!—sharing what space means to them and to humanity in their native languages,” says project co-founder Maya Nasr, a graduate student in the Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics. “Our goal is to use art and nanotechnology to create a symbol of unity that promotes global representation in space and brings awareness to the need for expanded access to the space sector worldwide.”

    Nasr and her fellow HUMANS project co-founder Lihui Lydia Zhang ’21, a graduate of MIT’s Technology Policy Program, are collecting submissions this summer into the fall semester via a submission portal on their website, humans.mit.edu. Taking inspiration from One.MIT, a project to etch more than 270,000 names from the MIT community on a 6-inch wafer, they have partnered with MIT.nano to etch both text and audio waveforms onto a 6-inch disk.

    Finally, in collaboration with the Space Exploration Initiative (SEI) at the MIT Media Lab, this new “record of our voices” will travel to the International Space Station (ISS) on a future mission.

    For both Nasr and Zhang, the philosophy “space for all” is personal. The two bonded over their shared experience as international students whose own passion for space brought them to MIT: Nasr grew up in Lebanon, while Zhang grew up in China. In their journeys in the space sector, they have both faced constant challenges and struggles that limited them from fully contributing their learning and passion.

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    To quote:

    “The International Space Station is one of the few avenues that represents international cooperation in space, but there are still so many countries around the world that aren’t included in that representation,” says Zhang. “The HUMANS project won’t solve this problem, but we hope it will be a small step forward to help us advocate for expanding global access to space.”

    In addition to Nasr and Zhang, HUMANS project collaborators include faculty advisor Jeffrey Hoffman, professor of the practice in aeronautics and astronautics; advisor Ariel Ekblaw, director of SEI; website developer and rising senior Claire Cheng; Xin Lu and Sean Auffinger from SEI; Professor Craig Carter from the Department of Materials Science and Engineering (DMSE); and Georgios Varnavides, a graduate student in DMSE.

    To participate in the HUMANS project, visit http://humans.mit.edu to submit a text and/or audio message. Messages must follow project guidelines to be included on the final disk that will be sent into space.