Science articles I've read over the last month

Since at least Arthur C. Clarke’s Against the Fall of Night the idea of mind taping has been knocking around in science fiction for decades. Some examples are William Gibson’s Dixie Flatline and Frederik Pohl’s heechee prayer fans. A particularly good portrayal of how this might be done is Rudy Rucker’s Software. When roboticist Hans Moravec speculated how it might be done in his book Mind Children, some people began to take the idea seriously, giving the concept the rather inaccurate name of “mind downloading.” (Which is silly because downloading and uploading merely mean to copy files to and from a local machine to machines on a network.)

So I’ve following developments in medical imaging technology closely for many years now.

Recent Developments in Brain Mapping

With each new technique, we are getting steadily better at mapping the brain. Computational neurologists at MIT and the Max Planck Institute have developed tools to speed up the mapping of brain tissue on the neuronal scale. The hope is that these tools will automate the process. With current techniques mapping one cortical column in the human brain takes 3 billion work years to complete. With these new tools it is hoped to cut this down to 2 work years. The ultimate goal is to quickly generate a complete, wiring diagram of any mammalian brain. This also has significant application to the Blue Brain Project.

Unfortunately for us science fiction buffs, these new tools still only work with dead brain tissue–it has to be microtomed and then exposed to highly focused electron beams. But perhaps, as fMRI and other noninvasive imaging tools improve in resolution, these automated mapping tricks can be used.

So why is this relevent? Well basically, assuming you can accept certain philosophical positions about the mind and brain, if you can capture a molecular resolution recording of a human brain, you’ve pretty much copied and stored that person’s mind. Using this snapshot you could then, for example, direct microscopic robots shape fresh brain tissue in a cloned body, thus bring a copy of person back from death.

It also can help immensely with the development of artificial intelligence. Current artificial intelligence research is a pathetic joke in comparison to the early predictions made back in the 1950s but, at least now workers in this field realize that it may be required to reverse engineer the mechanisms mammalian brains use to generate consciousness. These new imaging techniques will help us figure out how the tricks were done.

Recent Developments in Longevity Research

The other science fiction staple is rejuvenation and longevity drugs. One only has to the think of Larry Niven’s boosterspice.

It has been extensively documented for several decades that diets that ensure full nutrition but also significantly restrict calorie intake extend the lives of yeast, round worms, fruit flies, mice and now, perhaps even rhesus monkeys. These organisms, given diets like this, also seem to have a strong resistance to many illnesses associated with aging, cardiovascular breakdown, neurodegenerative diseases, cancer, etc. In the last twenty years, starting with Cynthia McKenyon’s ground breaking work, much has been learned about the genetics and biochemistry behind this phenomenon. There is still an enormous amount that we don’t know but things have matured to a point where there are now startup drug companies looking to build and sell drugs based around what we’ve learned about these metabolic pathways.

These are not being touted as longevity drugs. To do so would probably be marketing suicide as people would associate them with quackery. But these drugs will be developed and marketed as preventatives for neurodegeneration, cancer, heart disease, stroke and so on. If, decades down the road, we discover that these drugs also have life extending effects so much the sweeter.

Anyway, these developments combined with steady progress in biotech research–despite silly political pandering to extremes on both the left and right–means that if I take good care of myself, I might live a very long time indeed.

Recent Articles in Xenobiology

I recently read an article by Paul Davies in Scientific American about the possibility of the existence of microbial alien life somewhere on the Earth. The article was interesting for a several reasons. He posits at least four ways extraterrestrial life could be different from earthly life:

  • It could be composed of proteins, sugars, nucleic acids and other molecules that are isomers of Earth life. The molecules are composed of the same atoms as ours but their molecules are mirror images of ours. Right-handed as opposed to left-handed and so on.
  • Exotic life could using the same isomers but it could be using different amino acids from Earth life. There are at least 20 different kinds of amino acids used by all Earth life but chemists know of many more not found in organisms.
  • It could use arsenic as opposed to phosphorus. Arsenic is a deadly poison precisely because it mimics phosphorus so well. Alien life could have grown around arsenic instead of phosphorus. To this life phosphorus would be deadly poison.
  • Then there is the tired old cliche of silicon-based life. Silicon is nearly as flexible as carbon when it comes to bonding structure. Silicon is heavier but the molecules it can make are as complex.

Anyway, what interested me about this article was the idea of arsenic life. As a long time science fiction reader, I’ve never come across this. Not even Hal Clement wrote anything about it and Clement posited some really weird biologies.

The other thing the article mentioned was the idea of finding alien microbes somewhere in the biosphere of the Earth. It was weird to consider looking down instead of up to find alien organisms. I’ve had a vaguely similar idea myself a few years ago. I’ll explain this in a minute.

I read another article that covered older ground in the SETI debate. Many of you out there are probably familiar with the Fermi Paradox. To paraphrase–given the age of the universe, it’s possible that there could be some very sophisticated and ancient tool using civilizations out there. Why don’t we see evidence of them? Some have used this to suggest that intelligent tool building life is extremely rare in the universe for various astrophysical, geochemical, biological and ethological reasons.

This article was interesting to me because it quickly summed up just how hard it really is to detect undirected radio signals from nearby stars let along distant ones or distant galaxies.

This one particularly struck me because, despite being familiar with the inverse square law, I never really crunched the numbers on this. It turns out that the sky could be flooded with the feeble broadcasts of distant civilizations and we’d never know it because our antennae are too small. Even the mighty Arecibo and VLA dishes aren’t sensitive enough. Even linking these dishes in interferometry arrays isn’t sensitive enough. We’d have to put some big dishes on the Moon and then link them with ones on Earth to make a receiving array that’s big enough to sense the FM broadcasts of civilizations around even nearby stars.

SETI is counting on highly focused and powerful radio signals.

I knew SETI was hard but I really didn’t realize how hard until I saw the numbers.

On the plus side, this reminds me that proponents of the Rare Earth Hypothesis might be premature. We really don’t know one way or the other yet. SETI is basically an instrumentation problem.

Both these articles made me think of searching our biosphere for alien micro- and nanomachines. Evidence for alien tool users might literally be in the dust at our feet and we’d never know it. To search for these things would be at least as hard as trying to detect radio signals. If we could grind up the entire biosphere and sift though it making systematic counts of all the microbial life maybe we’d find some microscopic robots. The compilation of such a enormous microscopic catalog would be enormously slow and, in a sense, is already being done by our microbiologists anyway.

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