Sunday, July 16, 2017

More Alien Weirdness?

Not to get weird, because that ship sailed long ago, but as I was surfing the YouTube channels Sunday afternoon one of the guys I watch on a regular basis posted an interesting and out of the blue video. Turns out that the giant Arecibo radio telescope has detected an "odd" signal that seems to be coming from Ross 128, a red dwarf star about 11 light-years away.

Abel Méndez, an astrobiologist from the University of Puerto Rico said the star was observed for ten minutes, during which time the signal was detected and that it seemed "almost periodic". Méndez admitted that the signal could have originated from a communications satellite, since they often transmit on the frequencies observed but that the radio burst was "very peculiar". The video you will find below does suggest that if the signal was from a communication satellite it would have to be quite a bit farther out from Earth than is normal.

My first thought after hearing that was the signal might be from a spy satellite. Over the last several decades the United States and the Soviet Union have launched numerous secret payloads into space and I've heard a lot of crazy theories that some of them are in weird orbits in an effort to go undetected. There is also a chance that the signal came from the star Ross 128 itself, since red dwarfs often produce massive flares.

Recent speculation about that habitability of red dwarf star systems tends run either hot or cold. On the plus side, those stars live far longer that our sun, thus allowing a lot of time for life and intelligence to evolve, but those massive flares probably sterilize any planets orbiting close enough to be in their Goldilocks zone. Whatever the case, the guys and gals at Arecibo will be trying to tune in on Ross 128 in an effort to pick the signal up again.

Sunday, July 9, 2017

Busy Aliens?--An Examination of Przybylski's Star

Curiosity can be a dangerous thing leading to the discovery of all sorts of facts that either challenge existing beliefs, or for some open the door to knowledge showing the spectacular and bizarre nature of the universe. Since the European Renaissance, scientific inquiry has done just that, we've gone from believing our world is the center to the universe to understanding that our planet circles an average yellow-star which is on the outskirts of a boring spiral galaxy lost among trillions of others.

The last real item separating us from the rest of the cosmos is that we have no idea if both intelligence life and simpler organisms exist anywhere else. The probes we've sent out into the solar system strongly suggest the presence of liquid water underneath the surface of several moons of Jupiter and Saturn allowing for the possibility of things like bacteria and other single cell organisms. Many scientists hold out the hope that similar conditions might exist underneath the surface of Mars, sort of like underground reservoirs of liquid water protected from the near vacuum of the surface and the unfiltered UV light coming from the sun. Long story short, while no respectable scientist will go out and say he or she is certain we share the solar system with simple organisms, but they would love to have a more robust space program that would determine that fact. From what I've read and seen on videos, unless humans get real stupid and wreck the planet or commit mass suicide we should know whether or not other life exists in our solar system within fifty years.

It is the search for intelligence life where we have little chance of answering that question barring the interception of radio signals from interstellar or intergalactic space. Yes, there is a more than zero chance that an alien starship might just happen to see our little planet and decide to stop by and say hello. But that “more than zero chance” is so infinitely small it would be better for the average person to plan on winning the lotto than expecting such an event from ever happening. Astrophysicists and other astronomers have made some curious observations about other stars in the galaxy that right now they can't readily explain with existing theories causing a few to hesitatingly suggest the presence of advanced alien civilizations.

The first example is KIC 8462852, which stirred up the media when it was found something was causing that star to periodically dim up to twenty-five percent suggesting something really big was orbiting it. Ideas of why it was dimming an unusual amount ranged from an asteroid field, a cluster of comets, to debris leftover from the collision of two planets. None of them really satisfied the observations leaving someone to jokingly suggest some really industrious aliens were building a Dyson sphere around the star to collect all that easy solar energy.

With curiosity running at warp speeds, the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) guys and gals began scanning the star looking for radio communications between all those busy aliens working to enclose the star. None were detected, but fuel was further added to the possible alien fire when astronomers looked at the data collected over the last hundred years or so of observing that star suggesting the dimming has has grown over that time. The actual nature of this dimming is still unknown leaving KIC 8462852 to be the subject of continued intense investigation, although recent ideas put forward squarely put the cause back into the non-alien induced reasons.

Then there is Przybylski's Star, located roughly 370 light-years away, is showing seriously bizarre characteristics that suggest the presence of elements unknown to Earth or maybe aliens dumping heavy substances into it as a way to reveal their existence.

From Wikipedia:

In normal-sized stars like our sun, as it ages and runs low on hydrogen it gets hotter until it starts fusing its remaining fuel into iron. While the sun is even now slowly getting hotter when it fuses iron that when it goes seriously old age and does the expansion out beyond the orbit of our planet. No real worries though, without humans screwing things up, we've got about a billion years before the increasing temperature makes Earth too hot for liquid water and about another three billion before it gets incinerated.

When larger stars run out of fuel they go super nova, the temperatures and pressure involved in those explosions forge all the heavier elements like silver, gold, and many of the heavy elements being detected in Przybylski's Star. So, long story short with Przybylski being one classification bigger than our sun, and because it clearly hasn't exploded, why it contains those types of elements is quite bizarre.

The going non-alien explanation is that there is some source, like a nearby neutron star, feeding the elements into hot plasma that makes up the star. Another, almost as wild possibility as aliens, is that Przybylski's Star somehow contains a as yet unknown on Earth heavy element that is simply decaying into the ones listed above. Once again, how this unknown element was created without any nearby super nova remnants is a big mystery.

Just because when you eliminate all the other possibilities whatever is left, no matter how improbable, must be considered. The one explanation half jokingly suggested is that aliens are producing mass quantities of heavy elements and then feeding them into Przybylski's Star in an attempt to get noticed by other intelligent species. A seriously fascinating idea but although, like Carl Sagan once said, extraordinary claims must come with extraordinary evidence. This method does seem crazy, but who can tell what another species with technology far more advanced than our own might consider a good idea.

Realistically, there is probably a far more reasonable explanation as to why Przybylski's Star has those wacky elements circulating in its plasma. For a short time scientists entertained the idea that pulsars, rapidly rotating neutron stars, might be navigational beacons for aliens cruising around in their starships. But for me Przybylski's Star and the curious nature of KIC 8462852 are enough to keep hope alive that the SETI guys and gals might just have an exciting announcement to share with the world one day.

Sunday, July 2, 2017

For a More Perfect Union...

With the Fourth of July upon us, and with me marooned in my suburban hell because of traffic issues going down to the coast, now seems a good time for some wild speculation on how to build a more perfect union or society. Given the degree of economic inequality we face in this country, along with the rampant societal issues, and the near collapse of our government due to ignorance, incompetence, and ideological demagoguery, reforming or even scrapping the whole shebang is a circumstance that might need to be pondered.

Unfortunately, even reforming a society with so many special interests and entrenched powers is no easy feat. Yeah lets be clear for a moment, no group is without sin in this area. By definition any group that wants to protect their position is a special interest, which could be as noble as environmentalists wanting to protect vital ecosystems that cleanse our waters and air, or as reckless and irresponsible as corporations that knowingly sell defective or dangerous products. And yes, just to be fair you could easily reverse those two comparisons with radical extremist environmentalists being the bad guys and, at least in theory, a corporation playing the part of the hurt and damaged entity just trying to make a buck and employ people.

Now some might say we've already walked down this path with the Founding Fathers, that they lead the thirteen colonies to victory against the oppressive Great Britain and its crazy ass king. With them a few years later writing up the Constitution and the Bill of Rights and BOOM, we have the most awesome and kick-ass nation ever to existed. Yeah, well something like that but if you look a little closer things aren't that simple.

First of all there's slavery, an economic practice many of the Found Fathers depended on to keep them in powered wings and those seriously weird looking socks and shoes. It's easy to say “all men are created equal,” but its meaning gets lost when you have people in permanent bondage working your tobacco and cotton fields. George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and James Monroe—all slave owners-- were exceptional and enlightened men for the 18th century but they were not saints. When something close to the barbaric notion of kings being appointed “divine rights” by God was still a serious thing in Europe and the rest of the world the Founding Fathers decided they would set America on a different but not entirely new path. But their accomplishment is still sullied by the fact that slavery was enshrined in the Constitution with black people being counted as three-fifths of a person.

The Founding Fathers also screwed up with their treatment of Native Americans and of women. The former being treated in ways that some actually use the word genocide and the latter being little better than property up until the twentieth century. Yes, all three of those issues were addressed in time, but you can't honestly say they were successful efforts with African-Americans, Native Americans, and women now seamlessly part of our society. Racism, institutional poverty, economic injustice, and blatant sexism are still wildly prevalent today, and because of certain people who play on fear and hate as well as economic trends, it's getting worse.

The long and the short of it that while the Founding Father were great guys for their time, the society they helped form was centered around rich, white, property owning guys. If you were not a member of that club your standing fell almost exponentially to the point it really didn't make a difference if the ultimate leader was a president or some king. What ultimately saved our experiment was the vast continent that allowed those property-less souls to move westward. And like the proverbial vicious circle that leads back to the Native Americans being slaughtered, ethically cleansed in such things like Jackson's Trail of Tears, and finally herded onto reservations. Sorry for being such a buzz kill, but when you look beyond the warm and fuzzy propaganda, history can be a real bitch.

The bright side in all this is that the United States did slowly and imperfectly reform itself to the point that we have expanded the definition of human rights and liberty to the point the Founding Fathers, those crazy radical 18th century liberals, would run off screaming into the night. The one exception I believe would be Ben Franklin, if you bring one of them forward I believe that old magnificent goat would understand the path we've tried to take.

Unfortunately, from a high point of around the early 1970's the United States has started on a downward spiral. With the frontier long since closed, it was a growing economy that provided the safety valve on the worst aspects of our society. The problem is that technology and simple rules of economics has eliminated many good paying jobs that allowed a man or woman to buy a house, send their kids to college, and later retire. Technological innovation, the thing that raised our lifestyles, is now making many jobs go the way of blacksmiths and switchboard operators. Throw in corporations trying to raise profits by shipping other jobs overseas where pay is insanely less and you have a recipe for societal unrest.

To borrow a phrase from one of my favorite movies, our success is becoming our undoing. With an expanding economy it was easy to start including other segments of our society into the American Dream. There was significant opposition, but when you considered the economic lifeboat was being lifted almost constantly, it only made sense to bring aboard those folks who were in the water hanging on the railing.

Now with the middle class shrinking and the working class folks not so slowly being engulfed in poverty the “Kumbaya” feeling most Americans enjoyed is being replaced with divisiveness and rancor. The worst thing in all this is that everyone knows the economic shit is going sideways but no one really wants to do anything about it. The Democrats spout platitudes about how bad things are while the Republican answer is to apply more tax cuts for the wealthy and deregulation. Yes, this is a purely partisan statement but of the two the Democrats at least recognize the problem. But because they are tied to a system where campaigns require huge sums of outside money, they are hamstrung at instituting any real reforms. A fact made worse when a huge chunk of the middle and working class feel any reforms are socialistic in nature thereby giving their hard earned money to lazy ass (insert your idea here).

The Republicans live in a wondrous world of utter delusion where they believe rich elites give a damn about common folks. Sure, once again there are exceptions but the fact that when innovation didn't make a job obsolete, the majority of corporations used their tax breaks to ship jobs overseas to countries free of nasty labor unions and decent pay. Throw in the libertarian/Ayn Rand branch of the Republican party who blatantly say they have their pile of nice things and the rest of the country can go screw themselves and you have a political party perfectly set up to use a convenient dipshit with just enough charisma to promise to Make America Great Again.

Now I'm painting a dismal picture of a United States unable or unwilling to change, something that history suggests isn't true. One of our truest strengths is that we eventually face our problems and work hard to try and correct them. Honestly, I believe our current situation isn't hopeless and in fact I see the beginnings of a realization on the part of the nation as a whole that our current mindsets are outdated. But for wild speculation sake lets ponder what we might be able to do if shit doesn't get better, just how would a more perfect society be built in the face of numerous special interests.

Enter the late John Rawls, who was a moral and political philosopher at Harvard University. In his book A Theory of Justice he attempted to solve the problem of creating a more equal society. Grossly paraphrasing, Rawls understood that any designers hoping to create a new society will by human nature engineer it to their benefit. The only hope of getting around that obstacle was that everyone decides what principles are instituted from behind a Veil of Ignorance.

This group of founders would know nothing of their own positions, themselves, nor history. The only exceptions would be knowledge about human biology, psychology, our values, and various theories of justice. This veil of ignorance would in theory allow the benefits and burdens of social cooperation to be appropriately distributed. Before anyone flies off the handle, while this concept is new to me it is not the recent creation of some wild eyed college professor with nothing better to do. Heavy philosophical hitters like Immanuel Kant, Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, Jean Jacques Rousseau, and even Thomas Jefferson have played with the idea.

It was be supremely easy to get lost in the complex nature of Rawls' proposal, needless to say that is the beyond the scope of this post and not really the point I am trying to make. Although, Rawls' thoughts on justice can be summed up along these lines:

"First Principle: Each person is to have an equal right to the most extensive total system of equal basic liberties compatible with a similar system of liberty for all.

Second Principle: Social and economic inequalities are to be arranged so that they are both: (a) to the greatest benefit of the least advantaged, consistent with the just savings principle, and (b) attached to offices and positions open to all under conditions of fair equality of opportunity.”

My take on this is the impossible nature of finding anyone who could realistically serve on any type of committee under such an all encompassing ignorance of their own agendas. Speaking strictly hypothetically if Americans, or any other people, decided to reboot their societies it would be impossible to not feel the weight of history much less ignore centuries old grudges and biases. Both the French and the Russians attempted societal reboots but failed miserably with it taking the former centuries to develop a free society and the latter even now engulfed in an authoritarian regime as birthrates and gross domestic product fall along with the only thing of value they can sell on the world market being oil.

There is one possible, totally hypothetical solution to the quandary, and that is computer-based artificial intelligence (AI). The scenario I've played with while thinking about the fate of the human race, the true nature of existence and reality, along with just what makes up belly button lint is that an AI program is the only possible entity that could realistically judge a situation without any of the inherent biases or prejudices all human beings possess. A tall order, not just because such technology has not yet been developed but because getting everyone to agree to having an AI reboot (redesign) society would almost be as impossible as finding a group of humans without all those preconceived notions that cloud our judgment.

Let's face it, one of the reasons basic reforms are damn next to impossible is that we have too many special interest groups who all feel their scared cows should come first. The rich elites are first on that list, namely because they have the money to make their influence felt far beyond their actual numbers. Their special considerations have grown so out of proportion to their actual worth to the nation that some in that group have suggested they be given more votes, as opposed to the common folks.

But other special interest groups are often just as obnoxious, especially since their positions are often justified by superstition or ancient prejudices. In all honesty, while I am on friendlier terms with religion these days, quite frankly churches need to pay taxes on what they gather from members. There are simply way too many rich preachers running around in two-thousand dollar suites, living in forty room mansions, and flying off to tropical vacations in their personal jet aircraft. As for prejudices, a great majority of Americans would be well served if they had access to mental health counseling concerning how they act to people outside the scope of their understanding.

An AI could in theory be programmed to make rational decisions on just who would get access to resources and level the political playing field in such a way as to prevent gerrymandering and basic demagoguery. As I've already written, I'm just doing some wild speculating because I've got nothing better to do. If such a technology was developed the circumstances that would force people to rely on artificial intelligence to guide them to a more just society falls strictly in the realm of science fiction.

That places us back at the start of our problem. Our society is grossly unfair and getting worse. I guess everything can be summed up to apathy and political polarization. Beyond token efforts, most people really do not give a rip about the their fellow citizens, much less about some poor soul in Africa starving to death. And as far as polarization is concerned, it's easy to blame the situation on politicians, but the nasty truth is that they only reflect the people that vote for them.

The only real way to change the direction of our society will have to come from the realization that there is no saviors or any real quick fixes. We'll have to start electing leaders instead of dead weight whose only real accomplishment is being born rich, but that is only the first step. The next will be rational experimentation with plans that might span the political spectrum, and then be adapted as situations change. This would preclude ideological A-holes who can't think beyond some static party platform. In simpler terms, that might mean taxes have to be raised occasionally and that some guy or gal with a new invention or idea shouldn't be stifled because they might get rich over their creation.

Our destiny as a nation, and the world, is ultimately up to us. Hunkering down and not getting involved is truthfully a suicidal move because the world is constantly changing. Personally, I'm cynical enough that I actually like the idea of an AI taking charge of the government, even if there is a chance such an entity might go all Skynet on us. Given the troll living in the White House right now murderous software bent on world domination doesn't seem that much different.