exoplanets, GMO, intelligence, space, transgenic organisms, Whither Homo sapiens?

Where Is Everybody?

Nassim Nicholas Taleb on the Fermi Paradox and the Hubris Hypothesis, which add up to the theory that the reason we haven’t met anyone from another planet is that advanced life forms, full of themselves and their new powers, tend to destroy themselves before they are advanced enough to launch forth—if they are anything like us, that is.

The Fermi Paradox and the Hubris Hypothesis.
The great Enrico Fermi proposed the following paradox. Given the size of the universe and evidence of intelligent life on Earth making it non-zero probability for intelligent life elsewhere, how come have we not been visited by alliens? “Where is everybody?”, he asked. No matter how minute the probability of such life, the size should bring the probability to 1. (In fact we should have been visited a high number of times: see the Kolmogorov and Borel zero-one laws.)
Plenty of reasons have been offered; a hypothesis is that:
+ With intelligence comes hubris in risk-taking hence intelligent life leads to extinction.
+ As technology increases, misunderstanding of ruin by a small segment of the population is sufficient to guarantee ruin.
Think how close humanity was to extinction in the 1960s with several near-misses of nuclear holocausts. Think of humans as intelligent enough to do genetic modifications of the environment with GMOs but not intelligent enough to realize that we do not understand complex causal links. Many like Steven Pinker are intelligent enough to write a grammatical sentence but not intelligent enough to distinguish between absence of evidence and evidence of absence. We are intelligent enough to conceive of political and legal systems but let lobbyists run them. Humans are like children intelligent enough to unscrew a computer but not enough to avoid damaging it. And we are intelligent enough to produce information but unable to use it and get chronically fooled by randomness in some domain (even when aware of it in other domains). +
Acknowledgments: I thank Alessandro Riolo.

A Facebook commenter adds:

  • Fredrik Sveen Maybe this could be simplified a bit. What if travelling at light speed or beyond is simply impossible? The closest galaxy is approx 26k light years away… it doesn’t matter how intelligent other life out there may be if they can’t get here.
    Nassim Nicholas Taleb One of the proposed explanations.
exoplanets, origins of life, reviews, space, the universe, Whither Homo sapiens?

Cosmos, Epi 1: Epic Fail

What a disappointment.

What did I expect? It’s television. And with rare exceptions (Downton Abbey), I don’t watch television. And when I do, I’m reminded why I don’t.

Cosmos is, so far, overproduced and underimagined. It’s a mixture of David Attenborough–type tramping through motivational-poster vistas, gee-whiz CGI (which, in brazenly assuming it can depict the unimaginable, brutally diminishes it), Classics Illustrated animation, and textbookish narration, which fails to fuse into a whole, to enthrall, or to inform. In space, the tour of the Solar System is chaotic and disjointed. (The subsequent zoom-out to the galaxy, the Local Group, the Virgo Cluster, and the Observable Universe is one of the few powerful and effective moments in the episode, but the show’s hyper, ADD pace does not let it be suitably dwelt on.) In time, the textbookish narration of the “cosmic calendar” zips by way too fast and corresponds to nothing seen on the screen except a lot of generic zooming and swirling. When the dinosaur-killing asteroid hits, Neil Tyson sticks his fingers in his ears and the giant redwood trees shake a little, and that’s all; the fire and darkness that enveloped the planet and wiped out whole orders of life are neither mentioned nor so much as visually alluded to. There’s way too much reliance on Neil’s charm, which is undeniable; but his voice drops to inaudibility at the ends of sentences (do we just need a better sound system?), he hardly varies his speaking rhythm, the script he’s given is at once superficial and pedantic, and the whole thing feels rushed, as if the public had to be ooh-ahh snowed rather than trusted to have either real interest in or real comprehension of the science. And it’s all accompanied by awful, too-loud, faux-Mahler music that drowns out the narration.

The result is a creation myth for our time that seems at least as preposterous as the cosmology of Gilgamesh, and a lot less dramatic. Then there are the commercials, interrupting every 10 minutes or less with clips from equally overblown CGI movies alternating with the banality of screaming car salesmen. After a purported journey to the Big Bang you’d think there’d be some shame, or humility, or irony, about giving equal sound and fury to the latest from Samsung or Subaru.

But this is the language of our time. This is what the producers think people expect, the mainstream way they are entertained and impressed. I’ll be an old fart now and say I feel sorry for people who’ve only ever experienced this smothering of the imagination by cheap technological humbug. We are much too infatuated with our new toys and we think they render good writing obsolete. This is an era of decadent Roman excess in infotainment that has to be waited out. Oh for the sweetness of a new Dark Age. Somebody pull the plug.

In the meantime, if you want your imagination to be ravished by the new cosmology, and you’d even like to understand it just a little bit, READ BOOKS. Read Lee Billings, Caleb Scharf, Ray Jayawardhana. Read by and about the prescient visionary Giordano Bruno. whom Cosmos at least covers, but as a cartoon character.

My parents slept through most of this episode. We’ll continue watching (on the NatGeo channel next time, to see if the commercials are as bad), to see whether the microscopic world is portrayed any better than the macroscopic one.

(Apologies for the slapdash pan. It was written on stolen time, throwing good time after bad, as it were.)

exoplanets, origins of life, space, the universe

Five Billion Years of Solitude, by Lee Billings

“This is the best book I have read about exoplanets, and one of the few whose language approaches the grandeur of a quest that is practically as old as our genes.”  ~ Dennis Overbye, The New York Times

Read the review.

Then read the book.

I had the thrill of reading this book early, because I copyedited it. I absolutely love it. I’ve never before read anything that so captured the yearning and the melancholy that comes with beginning to glimpse our true place in a universe of such dimensions, which at once calls to and turns a cold shoulder to the very thing that uniquely makes us what we are: the urge to reach out and to go forth.