Constructive Creativity

Sunday, November 28, 2004

Is There Anybody Out There?

One of my most engaging hobbies since I was about 11 years old has been reading science fiction stories. For me, one of the most interesting subjects of science fiction is speculation about forms of life that may live on other planets, either within our own solar system or on planets orbiting some distant star. I am especially interested in the possibility of intelligent life that human beings might someday encounter. As you might imagine, I have long been a fan of the original Star Trek series, its various sequels, and movies. However, I have often been amused by the aliens who invariably look human, with minor differences in ears, eyebrows, skin color, etc. There was the occasional alien who looked like an animated rock, a gaseous cloud, or a bright light, but these were rare. Gene Roddenberry, the creator of Star Trek, did address this issue. The problem was in part a lack of money for special effects. However, a more important issue for him was that he wanted the audience to be able to readily identify with alien characters. An animated rock or a gaseous cloud could not convey emotions.

It has been obvious to me for a very long time that an alien life form need not look like a human or humanoid to possess intelligence. There are indeed highly intelligent life forms on our own island in space that bear little outward resemblance to human beings. Whales and dolphins are excellent examples. Dolphins, due to their smaller size, are the easiest to maintain in an artificial environment where their behavior can be observed and studied in detail. It is difficult to assess the intelligence of a dolphin, however, researchers are making the attempt. It has been well established for years that dolphins communicate with each other. They "speak" in very complex patterns of clicks and whistles. They hunt for food in groups, using patterns of behavior that appear to require some degree of planning and forethought. Also, they are extremely curious, and they can learn new behaviors very quickly. I do not presume to posit that dolphins are as intelligent as human beings, however, I do not think that the limits of their intelligence have been established yet. It is an open question that will require a great deal of future research.

Now, lets consider a creature that is vastly different from a human being or a dolphin, both of which are vertebrates and mammals. The octopus is indeed a very different sort of creature. It is a mollusk, an invertebrate whose close relatives include oysters, clams, snails, and slugs. Yet unlike its relatives, the octopus is a very intelligent creature. They possess the ability to nearly instantaneously change their color, either uniformly or in complex patterns, to match their surroundings, enabling them to hide from potential predators. Octopi also appear to communicate with each other by flashing rapid changes of color in territorial struggles or to facilitate mating. This ability requires very good eyesight, as well as, a very complex brain and nervous system. Another aspect of octopus intelligence involves their ability to interact with their environment and solve problems. Each of the eight arms of an octopus can be controlled with very high dexterity. They can move heavy rocks or gently manipulate tiny objects. I have seen a documentary of an octopus that was presented with a glass jar with a screwed on lid. Inside the jar was a live crab, which was a favorite food of this particular species of octopus. The octopus spent several minutes turning the jar over and trying to get to the crab. The octopus seemed to be trying to figure out the problem. After a while, the octopus somehow got the notion to rotate the lid. Perhaps this was just dumb luck, but that octopus finally got the lid off that jar and ate the crab. I was astonished! As proof that the octopus had the ability to learn and remember, the same diver returned the next day and found the same octopus in its lair under a rock. The diver presented the octopus with another sealed jar containing a crab. This time, the octopus immediately grasped the jar, unscrewed the lid, and ate the crab. It had indeed learned and it did remember!

Well, the point of this exercise was to establish the reality of intelligent creatures having an appearance very different from a human being. Accordingly, if we ever do encounter an intelligent extraterrestrial life form, I would not expect it to look like us. Speculation about intelligence elsewhere in the universe is intriguing. However, a more practical pursuit for the near future is to attempt to answer a far more basic question. Is there reason to believe that any live exists beyond our planet? My intuition says yes, but as yet, there is no proof. The next few decades will be very interesting in terms of probes searching for signs of life within our solar system. A probe currently orbiting Mars has recently detected methane in the Martian atmosphere. Methane can only exist as an atmospheric gas for a few years. After that, it is broken down by solar radiation into simpler molecules. A major source of methane on Earth occurs as a byproduct of cellular metabolism of various microbial fauna. Methane can also be released by volcanoes, however, Mars is, by all indications, a geologically dead world. There has not been an active volcano on Mars for millions of years as demonstrated by the high number of large and intact meteor impact craters present on the extinct Martian volcanoes. Geologically recent volcanism would have covered over these features. Thus, the Martian atmospheric methane may be an indication that Mars currently supports, at least, microbial life!

What of other solar system bodies? Some scientists believe that the Jovian (Jupiter) moon Europa may be a likely candidate for some form of life. The entire surface of Europa is covered by ice that has a thickness of several miles. This was apparently determined by radar scans of the moon by the Galileo Probe. There is some evidence that a liquid ocean may exist beneath this ice. The Jovian moon Io, the closest to Jupiter of its four major moons, is very hot and volcanically active from Jupiter's radiation and from gravity induced tidal flexing caused by its proximity to Jupiter. It is most likely unsuitable for any form of life. Europa is farther away from Jupiter, but it may have enough energy imparted to it by its giant companion to allow for liquid water beneath its icy surface. On Earth, there are very complex ecosystems that surround hot water vents located in the oceans far below the depth that sunlight penetrates. These vents have been found along the mid-oceanic ridges in the Atlantic that mark the place where the continents are spreading apart. Along these ridges, new oceanic floor is slowly being formed on either side, as the continents move apart, and the Atlantic ocean widens. This new ocean floor begins as molten rock that is extruded from the Earth's mantle. The heat from this molten rock powers the vents. Along with hot water, the vents pour out a rich chemical mixture, some of which can be harnessed by bacteria as food. This forms the basis for a food chain that is independent of photosynthesis. A similar food chain could theoretically exist in the ocean of Europa.

If we can find life elsewhere in our solar system, the possibility of life in the neighborhood of other stars becomes much more likely. If this is the case, there may well be somebody out there. What do you think?

Tuesday, November 23, 2004

Every Little Bit

One of the things that I am passionate about is environmental conservation. I am not an activist in the sense of people who gather together and march with signs and slogans. I prefer a lower key approach. For years now, I have recycled everything that I can. I started recycling glass bottles when I was a child. However, my motives were not that altruistic at that age. My motive was the acquisition of candy at the store! Back then, anyone could return soft drink bottles to a grocery store and receive five cents per bottle. The bottles would be washed by the soda companies and reused. On a good day of scavenging my little friends and I might each find ten or fifteen bottles that had been thrown behind some bush or into a creek. We would haul our booty to the store, get our cash, and buy a delicious candy bar or maybe a honey bun. Later in life, when reusable glass bottles had been replaced by disposable plastic, and after my consciousness of the limited supply of energy and natural resources that our planet could provide had been raised by several orders of magnitude, I decided that in order to facilitate a more morally justifiable existence for myself, I would have to try and be a less wasteful person. I started with aluminum cans. Recycling an aluminum can takes only a few percent of the energy needed to produce one from aluminum containing bauxite ore, so it was quite logical, from a purely economic standpoint, for aluminum recycling programs to lead the way. As community recycling programs became more comprehensive, I began to recycle more. Number one and number two plastic, glass, steel cans, newspaper, and cardboard. Recently, I found a place where I could recycle junk mail! Every little bit that I save from the landfill means that a tree might remain standing, or a bit of oil needn't be burned to power a generator to make new products from unrefined materials. What if everyone recycled? Well, at this time, practically speaking, there just isn't a market for everyone's recycled waste. It would gather in mountain sized heaps and mostly sit unused for many years to come. But, given time, maybe companies would spring up with innovative uses for all these nearly free materials. The main costs of recycling are in the sorting of combined materials and the transportation of those materials to a reuse facility. Recycling in mass actually occurred for a few years in America. During WWII, nearly everyone in America participated in recycling. It was a patriotic duty to recycle everything possible so that it could be efficiently converted into war materials. My mother was a "Block Buster", which was in some ways similar to being a girl scout, I suppose. Anyway, it was her job to walk around her neighborhood with her little Block Buster hat on and collect any recyclable materials that her neighbors might have. This sort of thing was repeated all over the country. It was really quite amazing, and it worked! Mass recycling is possible, and it can happen if enough people want it too. Do you recycle? Please remember, every little bit helps!

Friday, November 19, 2004

A Humble Beginning

I have nothing earth shattering to discuss in this first little foray into internet publication. As you probably already know, I have been contributing my two or three cents worth here and there in the blogosphere, either regularly or sporadically, for quite a few months now. To those of you who have been kind enough to respond to my comments and engage me in discussion within your own blog, or as one visitor to another, I would like to say thank you very much and I hope that you will allow me the pleasure of returning the favor to you.

So, what shall I discuss in my blog? Well, I think that just about anything that I find interesting will be fair game. It so happens that I find a great many things to be interesting. So consider yourself to have been fairly warned.

Why have I titled my blog "Constructive Creativity"? Well, a number of years ago I thought that some day I might like to start a business where by I would apply my creativity, through the use my hands and my tools, to make things that hopefully some people would be willing to pay for. I haven't exactly realized that fancy of my imagination, but I have taken some steps in that direction in the past few years. Nevertheless, I remain a creative person and there are many ways to constructively apply my skills. Writing was an avocation of mine from an early age, and although I wrote very little for a number of years, I have, in the past year, rediscovered that a glowing ember of my former passion for this pastime yet remained, and it has since rekindled into a steady flame.

I invite you to visit and participate in my humble little abode of discussion and exploration. Please excuse the sparseness of the accommodations, I have only just begun.