Saturday, March 29, 2008


What is the most Earth like environment in the Solar System outside of Earth itself? That is the million dollar(or trillion dollar if space probe building costs are what you are looking at) question for many ETI researchers. The answer is probably Titan, Saturn's largest satellite and the second largest satellite in the Solar System after Ganymede. Now why is Titan so interesting? One thing known for sure about the satellite is that surface temperatures are around -180 degrees celsius, cold even for that distance from the sun; surely not Earth-like right? Something that is also known about Titan and is interesting is the fact that it has an atmosphere. Titan is the only known satellite in the Solar System that has one. Now, an atmosphere is not a cosmic trinket which every heavenly body worth its salt must possess. Mercury, for instance has no atmosphere to speak of; Mars has an atmosphere that is looking for a quick planetary divorce; Pluto has a tenuous atmosphere that freezes and falls to the ground every time it approaches aphelion. What is even more fascinating about Titan's atmosphere is its sheer density; it's so dense that surface pressures are nearly one and a half times Earth-pressure. The second thing about Titan's atmosphere is that it is predominantly nitrogen- again the only object in the solar system besides Earth to have such a feature. People who have seen pictures of Titan would have observed its orange-brown colour; it is believed that complex organic molecules called tholins are responsible for this colouring. Tholins are immensely large and complicated carbon based molecules that, you may argue, rival DNA for pure complexity! It is likely that Titan's atmosphere, together with Saturn's gravitational influence( and the sun's of course)
will produce seasons similar to Earth; it may have a rainy season too- only it'll rain liquid methane! Hydrocarbon lakes have been observed on Titan by the Cassini probe, again the only other evidence of stable liquid bodies in the Solar System, outside of the Earth. Titan also has extensive hill systems, probably made of water ice( just to compare, Earth's hills can be said to be made up of silicates). Pictures taken both by the Cassini orbiter and the Huygens lander probes have shown that Titan has vast plains that look something like Earthly deserts, with regular dunes a prominant feature. The dunes are caused by mild and directed winds.

Earth dunes and Titan dunes

The picture above shows the surface of Titan as viewed from the Huygens probe which landed on Titan in 2004. Notice the striking similarity to a beach on Earth; a sandy surface(believed to be hydrocarbon ash rained down) with many rounded liquid-eroded pebbles. However for all its similarities to Earth, its temperature is too low to sustain Earth-like life. Also, absence of oxygen means that any life that evolves there must be methanogenic( methane-breathing). However the temperature issue may be resolved, if only at a distant point in the future. About four-five billion years from now, the sun's nuclear fuel will get exhausted and the sun will expand into a red giant. It is possible that then, Titan's temperature will rise enough to sustain liquid water seas( Titan has plenty of water trapped as ice). Even oxygen may be produced as a by-product of a reaction catalysed by the climbing temperatures. Then Titan will become truly homo sapiens habitable. And if humans can indeed survive till then, it will be necessary to shift base, because the Earth will have been roasted dry by the bloating sun. It is unfortunate however that Titan's habitability will last only for a few million years; a cosmic blink of an eye.

On the other hand, even the question of present day life on Titan isn't a closed chapter yet. Cryogenic methanogenic bacteria,for instance are quite a good possibility. The Huygens probe did not carry powerful bio-analytical equipment; so our speculation cannot be disproved( or proved) just yet. Methane based organisms are not too much of an imaginative leap too; sulphur eating bacteria, for example, abound on good old planet Earth! Further probes have been planned to answer these very questions. So for now, we can safely stick with Titan as ETI possibility number 1.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

the importance of being earnest

One thing i have wondered about, at least fifty times everyday for the last nineteen years( for everyone perplexed by the numbers read my previous post) is how everyone in the world is so fake . I mean i have lost track of the number of times i have scoffed at my parents for being cloyingly polite with (supposed) family friends, then coming backing home and doing a verbal autopsy of their shortcomings. I told them, it's an adult thing - i will never ever, not even on my dying breath stoop to such levels. I faithfully believed in my pristine perfection till Soumyadeep pointed out one day, 'hey we are bitching aren't we?', during a confidential discussion. Sidenote 1: bitching is a common, if unfortunate, vulgarism to refer to this phenomenon. Then my carefully constructed image of myself came crashing down( i think it would have challenged WTC for sheer collapse velocity). My justification is- white lies are essential for civilization. Imagine if everyone told everyone else how bad they smelt, or how poor they actually were at cartooning, or how egregious their dress sense really was. Sidenote 2: This might actually be an effective solution to the problem of uncontrolled population growth. Think about it: its cost effective( techspeak for free) and is easy to implement. Sidenote 3: I watched fight club yesterday- and its interesting premise regarding latent human violence is an important step in implementing the plan in sidenote 2 Sidenote 4: Does anyone know the WHO's correspondence number? Returning to the point of earnesty, why is it actually not employed? Is it because people are afraid of offending their friends? Which brings us to other major talking point( yes you are right, i watch the EPL), why do people get offended in the first place? My Freudian sidey(refer footnote for further information) would talk about the indomitable entity called ego, but that doesnt explain why people take offence to women wearing trousers, for instance. Whatever the reason might be, it is not all-powerful ,thank the higher power for that. Then we would have no women in trousers( imagine the sacrilege). Maybe it's just that we are evolutionarily programmed to be stubborn. Maybe if we changed our world-view everytime something seemed not to fit it, there would be no world-view, and that's the basis of sentience right? On the other hand, pure white-lying is also a biological fact. I know from experience that it is possible to not have an unchangeably pessimistic world-view. It is actually not hard SF to think well of other people. Earnesty or pure white-lying? Both seem like a brilliant algorithm for worldwide stability( even if the equilibria are on opposite ends of the peace/war spectrum)- only time and evolution( if my abundant theories on human speciation are correct; again if perplexed, refer to my previous post) will tell.

Footnote 2006a7ps060

A tribute to hyperbole ( and homo humorensis)

Considering the fact that it's been years since i last posted on my blog, it's time i think, to publish a eulogy to the greatness of hyperbole. Now, exaggeration is not merely a childish whim of the little-minded( obviously I wouldn't say that)- it has several profound and far-reaching applications. Consider for instance, its entertainment value. Before i embark on a pathbreaking defence to this argument, let us spare a moment to analyse the inexplicable enigma called humour( human humour that is, not dogs for instance, my dogs only laugh when they smell a tasty snippet or when i fall down the stairs). Why does someone laugh if, when he asks you how far you have come with your studying, your acerbic riposte goes something like- i am into my fifth backward revision, didn't you know? Or when waxing lyrically about your long and arduous journey to the library to fetch a book for your friend, you accidentally mix up your orders of magnitude, and speak of the thousands of kilometres you voyage to help needy friends. Sidenote number 1: If you have never done such a thing, or if you are wondering if i need medical help, you have either not met me( my inherent good nature glossing over your weaknesses here), or you are a part of the greatest coverup in history- the existence of another species of humans. I have imaginatively coined the name homo dehumorensis to describe that species. This species definition actually holds up to strong biological scrutiny- have you heard of a successful relationship where one partner has a sense of humour but the other doesnt? Returning to hyperbole- it is actually a major cryptographical phenomenon- imagine an entire race of humans that speaks in light years to refer to the distance between your bed and the computer table; or millions of years to refer to the time you spent in your MT2 labs. Hyperbole is the reason why astronomy arose in the first place; maybe some frustrated king, in some obscure kingdom told his court scientists, who despite his desperate pleas against it would refuse to study anything beyond the motes of dust in the royal chamber, something like 'You are light years off the mark, you fools! Why don't you get it? You've spent thousands of years analysing the finer points of regal dust spectrometry; isn't it time to do something else?' Now the poor scientists, afraid to face the royal guillotine ( or maybe they were just homo dehumorensis ) probably took his words at face value and tried to look light years away. Byproduct- astronomy! Now the same king, lets respectfully call him hi-puh boll, could have used hyperbole for state security too. Just imagine that hyperbolism can spread through the air( looking at the number of acquaintances who are catching it- it might just be able to) and all of the people of exaggeron are infected. Now a neighbouring king, who's a slightly more ambitious homo dehumorensis, decides to invade exaggeron. This king, for all his faults, is not dumb- he decides to send spies into the nearby land to gather information about the true military power of the kingdom first. The spy asks an exaggerite, in a carefully casual tone- 'so how strong do you think the army is?' The chronic hyperbolic replies in a sickly and equally casual tone- 'oh we have millions of foot soldiers, and hundreds of times that many archers; and don't forget the billions of horse riders. Nothing to worry don't you think?' 'Oh yes' the spy splutters. Now the ambitious king is not dismayed; he has immense reserves of devious cunning to fall back upon after all. His next ingenious plan is to ascertain the true geographical extent of exaggeron.. this time he asks the spy to ask a scientist- surely they will be more sensible, wont they? The spy, after much calculated obsequiousness becomes friendly with a court scientist. One day he casually asks- 'So how big do you think exaggeron really is?'The court scientist adopts a suitably pedantic tone and begins, 'Well, we are not that big really. At its narrowest end, the land is only about thousands of kilometres across. It is another matter, that in the north, it can be light years wide but...' His carefully articulated sermon is rudely interrupted when he notices that the questioner is lying on the floor in a dead faint.

For all those who have not yet been convinced about the virtues of hyperbole, i have medicinal facts to back me up. It is a firmly established biological fact that people who exaggerate casually at least twice daily, live upto 1.5 times longer than non-hyperbolics. There is plenty of literature to suggest that hyperbolism can reduce your blood pressure, risk of heart disease and even your cancer risk. Sidenote 2: This is not as crazy as you think. Haven't you all read about the medicinal virtues of laughter? Sidenote 3: If you are still reading you are probably a victim already- happy exaggeration!

Tuesday, March 25, 2008


I often say, only half humorously, that the only thing that differentiates human beings from other species is not rationality, not sentience, not language, not art, but wonder. I usually follow up this enlightening revelation with another statement which goes something like, what's life without wonder?

Now i am sure, my (non-existent?) readers are now experiencing an elevated state of wonder( i like intriguing buildups, you know). So, i'll get to the point- astronomy. Astronomy has been a fascination since, well, as far back as i can recall. Maybe it's the thought that we are all actually starstuff- the uplifting idea that all the rich variety of life seen on Earth has its origins in a distant supernova. Or maybe it's the thought of extraterrestrial life populating all of known space- yeah i know, thinking of alien civilizations which in all likelihood, will not be discovered in the next few eons does not help the millions of starving, dying, killing people of the world but you can't repress wonder can you? I often wonder, why scientists try to find earth-like conditions for life in the universe. OK, i'll concede that DNA may be necessary, but the DNA may not be carbon based, it may be silicon based, for instance. On an interesting sidenote, silicon-based lifeforms are probably the second most dominant species on the planet right now( no points for identification). Even if the DNA is carbon based( not as farfetched as all you anthroponarcissists may believe, amino acids have been discovered in nebulae), the life form may not be an oxygen based organism. Recently, i discovered celestia panoramas(found them on TB- check footnote for further information) of the atmospheres of the gas giants- jupiter, uranus, neptune and saturn. While all of these are predominantly hydrogen-helium gas giants, uranus and neptune have traces of methane. Now, i strongly believe that methane is as good as oxygen as an energy source: it's easily oxidized and simple to assemble too. Any moderately hawk-eyed reader must have noticed the word trace with reference to methane; firstly a trace of methane on a planet the size of uranus would still be enough to satisfy all the bovine flatulence on planet Earth. And secondly, oxygen was a trace element in the early earth's atmosphere. Oxygen-excreting algae actually dominated early earth. And yes there is strength in numbers- oxygen levels rose quickly( in a few million years, to be precise) and reached the present 21 percent. Is it that hard to imagine an organism that feeds on methane and lives in the atmosphere of uranus? Yes, it can have wings to stay afloat and may live closer to the core to avoid the extreme cold. What kind of mechanism can it have for processing methane? Perhaps such organisms will have huge mouths, like scoops, kilometres wide to ingest the required quantities of methane and oxygen. The oxygen can be used to counter the reducing effects of hydrogen. I'll call this hypothetical organism a uranid.

Yes, i have plenty more fascinating titbits to offer on this topic, but considering the number of readers who fell asleep reading my first post, i've decided to defer my ramblings to a later time.

Footnote: TB refers to the Techie Bible, also called the Digit Magazine by the technologically uninitiated

Sunday, March 2, 2008

Qualia and Consciousness

Philosophers have called it the greatest unsolved mystery in science; Divine intervention cannot be done away with here, they told scientists triumphantly. Most scientists scoffed at the notion, others called it the question that really wasn't and the more mundane ones actually sat down to get an empirical hold on the concept.

The concept is called qualia, at least by puritan philosophers; others call it subjective sensation. The concept is quite simple in truth and can be illustrated by simle questions like 'What do i mean when i say i see red?', or taking another example, 'what exactly do i mean when i say i am happy, or in love, or feeling amorous?'. Perhaps a dour-faced neurologist would rudely interrupt your flights of fancy and say - 'happiness? It is just x hormone released in response to an instruction from the brain region y, which in turn is a response to an external stimulus z' . But philosophers cannot be repressed by merely obfuscated biological jargon. 'Yes, that is quite fine, thank you. But it begs the question- what is the phenomenon that causes me to perceive happiness, the intangible concept that is understood by everyone but resistant to definition even with the most arcane of words?'

Now there are three possible responses to this question, at least the way i see it. One candidate would be a blustering rant to the tune of -'Yes all faithless ones, it is the hand of god'. This solution is one that does not quite appeal to my blasphemous self, keeping in mind the staggering rate of atrophy, the previously all encompassing hand of god has seen in the age of science and questioning. The second would be the well known translation argument, which blames the inherent incompatibility of the two languages in question- the rigid chemical synaptic language of the neurons of the brain and a capricious verbal language used for communication, like english for the seeming inexplicability of subjective sensations. For instance, if you say that the apple is red, you are seeing reflected light of wavelength 700 nm, that stimulates higher visual processing centres of the brain which in turn identify the apple as a red one and prompt your language processing centres to say something equivalent in english. This technique also addresses another philosophers' conundrum, concerning a hypothetical blind man who recovers his sight miraculously. Will he, if he sees the same red apple, feel the same sensations that sighted people normally feel? Now suppose neurology has advanced to such a stage that you can directly implant equipment in the brain that stimulates the higher visual centres, bypassing the faulty optic system in the eye. Will the blind man feel the sensation of seeing a red apple, just as we do? Definitely, say neurologists propagating this school of thought.

Present day neurology suggests that while the older question of subjective sensations concerning replicability may have been answered, others concerning consciousness and choice remain. Dr Ramachandran, a world renowned neurologist hypothesizes that the nature of conscious behaviour that differentiates us from other seemingly premeditated behaviour observed throughout the animal world, like the dance of the bees and the mating rituals of the quetzal is the notion of choice. Choice is not universally applicable. We do not any choice as to the nature of our sensory inputs, for instance we cannot change our mind about out subjective sensations as this would vastly simplify the amount of computing that the sensory processing centres of the brain need to do. If we were allowed to change our mind about the perceived sensations(qualia) every time, the inherently fickle and uncontrollable nature of imagination would ensure that we hardly take any decisions at all and go into mental stasis, resulting in a evolutionarily untenable model. On the other hand, we do have a choice, as to what we classify the perception as, or in taking responsive actions. For example, if we see the tap open and water spilling out, we see what we see; we cannot claim that we did not see the water spilling out ( children excepted). On the other hand, we can ( and we usually do ) choose to ignore it and continue watching TV.

Many people find it incredibly hard to believe that a mass of cells, even if a staggeringly complicated bunch of them, cannot come together to provide the assortment of sensations that comprise consciousness. A famous thought experiment goes like this, 'if you have the technology to compile atoms and molecules the same way as they are organized in the human body, would you produce a living, breathing and conscious human. Definitely not, announce the propounders indignantly and proclaim this as an obvious failure of science. But if you look at the same experiment more carefully, you realize that you do not need to reproduce a human body exactly, a good degree of accuracy would suffice, or we would all have been communists. The second thing is, thought experiments are highly dubious and limited; i personally believe that despite their endearing simplicity, they can be explained away as the result of years of culture training and experience. Today's human can easily imagine an object moving faster than the speed of light, and the same human fails miserably when asked to grasp the elusive concept of quantum uncertainty. But will it be the same a few generations down the line? If a neanderthal of ten thousand years ago, understood to have as big a cranial case as the modern day homo sapiens, is somehow ( or perhaps with the assistance of Dr Who) transported into modern day India, would he intuitively grasp concepts like gravity and optics? I personally find the idea ridiculous.

The other thing about consciousness, is that it isn't all that it is touted to be. Not only is it incomplete and quite rigid, it does not even encompass the workings of the human body. Most of the processes that drive the immensely complicated machine called the human body are carried on by unconscious sections of the human brain ( the zombie brain if you will). Consciousness is merely the surface view of a bottomless ocean with the occasional pits of incomprehension. Perhaps that is why, neurology has not hit upon a definitive mechanism to explain this phenomenon- it cannot see the bigger picture. Study of a single neuron, the dominant paradigm in neurology cannot explain massively multiplayer[:-)] phenomena like consciousness.

Or perhaps, as many people will have it, i am an incorrigible materialist who simply cannot feel the divine force permeating all of spacetime. But then, why religiously (no pun intended) avoid explaining something, when you can actually set out to empirically study it? 'If it ain't broke then don't fix it?'. Nah.. 'If it ain't known (this includes information regarding the state of breakage of the various objects in the world) then try to answer it'