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?

13 Comments:

Blogger گیلدا said...

I personally believe there is someone out there:) I have read some scatered articles every now and then, but I guess my prediction is more a feeling than sth that I can argue about:) I once saw a documantary in Iran about an UFO which some people had seen in some parts of the US, but nothing about it was published in the papers and stuff. I don't remember the details, but I'll see if my sister remembers. It was quite intersting and scary though;)

11/28/2004 6:30 PM  
Blogger Jamak said...

I've often wondered about life in other planets, especially having been a Star Trek fan for so many years. Certainly scientific data does suggest at times to the definite existance of beings in other planets and I wonder if some governments have already established communication with them. However, there is a similarity in questioning existence of extra terrestrial beings and existence of a higher power, aka God. Should we believe in things that are not visible to us? I think that is the fundemental question which has been puzzling human beings for centuries and aside from the generic answers offered by the different religions, the proof still remains a mystery.

11/28/2004 9:03 PM  
Blogger David said...

UFOs do make for a lot of interesting stories, Asemoon. :) I was a fan of "The X-Files", and that show pretty much ran the gamut of UFOlogy! Well, I'm not sure what to think about all these stories. I believe that there are thousands of professional astronomers around the world who would like nothing better than to discover that we do indeed have Visitors to our little oasis orbiting a very ordinary star near the outer rim of our galaxy. But, as far as I know, there have been no confirmed observations by any real scientists. Maybe some day...

Jamak, I salute you as a fellow Trekker! :) "Kaplah!", as the Klingons say. Maybe you are right and some governments are talking to extraterrestrials right now. I just hope that the aliens have better plans for us than becoming food for their young, as so many science fiction stories have suggested. :) Personally, I would not equate mythological beings with potential extraterrestrial ones. The various conceptions of God and gods that have evolved throughout human history invariably presume that this being or beings is/are somehow above and apart from the laws that govern nature. Thus the term "supernatural". If there are indeed other highly intelligent beings on other planets, I would presume that they evolved in accordance with the same biological laws that resulted in our own existence. Nevertheless, I agree that there are many mysteries yet to be deciphered.

11/30/2004 1:01 AM  
Blogger Ameer H. said...

I don't know if there is anyone out there. And I don't think it will make a difference in our life. :)

11/30/2004 4:03 AM  
Blogger Khodadad said...

David! I am certainly "out there" as far as beliefs are concerned! But other than joke, I totally understand what you are saying. Although I was never a fan of Star Trek, I was fascinated by the outlandish claims made by this Swiss writer called Erich von Daeniken (there you go, positive things about growing up in a country with only two TV channels!). He is and was interesting, despite the fact that he should be filed under pseudo-scientist!

Also, I am jealous of you sir! I have been writing for over two years now, and I have not had half as many as your readers! Says a lot about the state of my personal charm and charisma, eh?

11/30/2004 4:18 AM  
Blogger Ehsan said...

David, thanks for all the great info. You mentioned dolphins. Man, I feel so bad about the mysterious death of all those dolphins/whales yesterday. Poor things. As for who's out there, I must say I agree with you. Just a few months ago I was reading this article about the Hubble Ultra Deep Field (HUDF) telescope. "The HUDF field contains an estimated 10,000 galaxies in a patch of sky one-tenth the diameter of the full moon. Hubble took one million seconds to take the HUDF, which emerges in an area of the sky that appears largely empty if observed by ground-based instruments." 10,000 galaxies in a patch of sky 1/10 the diameter of the full-moon!!!! It’s insane. The universe is huge, and I really believe that we are mistaking if we think that it's just us out there. As you said, we have no solid proof of any UFO sighting (and there are plenty of imaginative people on this planet). Distances to even the closest galaxies are very very far, but maybe we'll visit them someday, or they'll visit us, depending on who's more intelligent ;)

11/30/2004 11:31 AM  
Blogger David said...

Khodadad, if you are "out there", then I am probably "out there", too! :) The name Erich von Daeniken was only vaguely familiar to me, so I looked him up. I have indeed heard of his book "Chariots of the Gods?". Amazon.com was kind enough to let me read some of the book. On page 3 he wrote, "There is no doubt about the existence of planets similar to the earth--with a similar mixture of atmospheric gases, similar gravity, similar flora, and possibly even similar fauna." This was a very bold statement in 1968. Personally, I think that there is doubt, however, this statement may well be proven true some day if human beings manage to explore beyond our solar system. I read a bit more of the book and I was impressed. As to his thesis that aliens have visited us and were perceived to be gods, who knows, perhaps it is true. A famous SiFi author, whose name escapes me, once said, "Sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic."

12/03/2004 2:13 AM  
Blogger David said...

Ehsan, you are welcome. I read about the beaching of the dolphins and pilot whales in Australia and New Zealand. It is sad, but this sort of thing does happen from time to time. I was glad that some of the beached animals were rescued and returned to the ocean. It is mysterious, and I hope that people are not contributing to the problem in some way.

I have seen the HUDF image. It is really quite amazing! I remember the first Hubble deep field picture, from some years ago. When I saw all the galaxies, with various different colors, some appearing near and many others very far, I was really struck by the enormity of the universe! I had a very strong emotional reaction to that picture. It was thrilling, and perhaps akin to what some people might describe as a "religious experience". Each tiny whirlpool in the picture was a galaxy like our own, perhaps with planets like ours, some of which might be inhabited by curious beings with a telescope pointed at us. :)

12/03/2004 2:34 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

To be honest, I didn't finish reading the post. But I 'm so happy about your weblog and I should say that I realy like the designe and layout. thanks for letting me know about the weblog, you can't imagine how busy I am. Don't even have enough time to think about myself. I just wake up , go to wotk, come back & sleep!
Wish you good luck in your new weblog, I'm sure you'll do it as complete as no one's ever done!
Golnessa

12/05/2004 2:30 PM  
Blogger David said...

Thank you Golnessa. Perhaps this post was a little too complete. :) Maybe I can tighten up the next one a bit. Thanks for visiting, please come again!

12/06/2004 1:28 AM  
Blogger Memah said...

Dear David,
I have been quite busy wrapping up work and thus not able to log on as frequently. I find the subjects of your blogs very interesting. I do believe that there is life out there, and that our resources are very limited as of now in finding out all the forms that exist.
In regards to your last post on recycling, I am ashamed to admit that I don't recycle as much as I should :( There are no excuses for it, however, and I will do my best to recycle more.
As far as my what it is that I specifically focus on in my NES major, I study both the history of the Middle East as well as current policy issues. Just to name a few examples, I have taken classes in "Contemporary Islamic Movements" and "Muslim and Jews" as well as classes in Contemporary Iran and "Ancient Egyptian Civilization". The major allows you to immerse yourself in a variety of historical and contemporary issues, realizing that our present history feeds off the past. It also prepares students for careers in acadamia and international affairs/policy making :0) I hope this helped.
Please continue to write though provoking posts, they are very interesting to read.
All the best.

12/07/2004 1:54 PM  
Blogger David said...

Dear Memah,
Thanks for your comment. I am glad that you find my posts interesting. :) I will try to keep them that way. Also, thank you for wanting to recycle more. I promise that once you start, it will become quite easy and will not be a chore at all. I am very interested in history, but I never studied it much when I was in school. Now, I mostly watch documentaries on TV, although, since I started blogging, I have made some friends who have encouraged me to read more. My friend Khodadad is studying the history and languages of ancient Persia for his Ph.D. I have learned some interesting things from him. If you have a little extra time, you might find his web site interesting: http://www.iranologie.com/.
I have always found ancient Egypt to be fascinating! One of the documentarys that I watched conjectured that the three large pyramids at Giza are positioned and proportioned relative to each other and to the nearby river Nile to serve as earth based representations of the constellation Orion's three bright stars (in his belt) relative to the Milky Way. A very interesting theory! But what really interests me is how a whole society could be organized around building these pyramids. It took tens of thousands of laborers and skilled artisans 20 or 30 years to build the largest one. Just keeping such a huge project going for such a long period is an amazing achievement! Recently, some archeologists, like Dr. Zahi Hawass of Egypt, have been excavating the dwellings of laborers near the pyramids. What they have found indicate that the workers were both willing and well treated. This is quite different from the long repeated idea that the builders of the pyramids were slaves. According to Dr. Hawass, it is probable that the laborers worked on the pyramids in fulfillment of a religious duty. This makes sense to me. Afterall, the monumental cathedrals of Europe were build by the willing hands of believers, as well.
It sounds like you are studying some very interesting things. I hope that you will write about some of them in your blog. As I recall, you can provoke some thoughts yourself. :)

12/09/2004 2:57 AM  
Blogger گیلدا said...

why don't you update? we are waiting:) btw, I have put three songs on my weblog, but I didn't wrote in English..see what you think:)

12/12/2004 11:03 PM  

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