“How long have we been waiting?” Sully asked for the 11 millionth time in as many microfluid exchange pulses.
“It happens when it happens.” Grant consoled. “How about some Bangers?”
“Muuuuuuuh…” Sully muuuhed “ I guess. Yo, Randy- keep score” Sully warped his southernmost perimeter wall to alert Randy.
Bangers was the only intercellular game known in wallverse, at least as far as everyone adjacent to Randy, Sully, and Grant were aware.
“Serving!” Grant said confidently as he tightened his spiral clusters to flatten his tendon membranes on Sully’s side. He released a single corner tendon and started the wave.
“Jerk!” Sully began oscillating tubes at the opposite corner to Grant’s release, then tried to correct but was late intercepting the wave and sloppily chased it across three adjacent membranes before finally poinking it out with well placed oscillation.
“Slow” Randy muttered.
“No, dumb- he served on the wrong side.” Sully defended.
“You’re dumb- there is no wrong side, you just always serve from the same side so you always lose- also you’re slow.” Randy jibed.
“Shut up- my serve!” Sully griped. He aggressively tightened and snapped the same corner tendon he always served from. Grant poinked out the wave before a complete phase. Sully seethed and fluttered a tendon indicating he was ready for Grant’s next serve.
Grant obliged and released a wave from a different corner. Sully misfired and sloppily chased it again. “Dude- you serve wrong!” Sully complained.
“Sul- that’s the game man.” Grant said.
“I don’t do that when I serve!” Sully defended.
“Dumbass!” Randy interjected, laughing.
“It’s just how Bangers works, you don’t have to serve from the same side, not knowing where it comes from is what makes it hard.” Grant explained.
“It’s too hard, it’s stupid. Make up a new game.” Sully demanded.
“What? You make a new game, at least Grant made up something to do, you don’t even play it right” Randy said angrily.
“Guys, it’s cool, I’ll work on a new game.” Grant said reassuringly.
Grant focused himself on making up a new game. He wasn’t sure how to focus making one up because last time it was a complete epiphany, he was just poinking with his membranes and it came to him that he and his neighbors could engage one another for entertainment by manipulating patterns on their adjacent walls using a defined set of rules to acquire points.
No one had ever heard of such a thing. It took some time to explain even the basic concept to his neighbors. Up to that point they had simply been aware of one another and exchanged whatever information was necessary to conduct intercellular business. Grant’s game was an instant hit.
Randy said that the neighbor opposite Grant said that the game was causing a lot of problems in some regions by distracting people from their duties, and in others it had caused all out intercellular warfare. But Sully said that was probably just gossip because his neighbor said nobody even liked the game because when people played it right it was over too soon.
“Are you done with the new game yet?” Sully inquired incessantly.
“I don’t really have any ideas.” Grant said.
“Just do what you did last time.” Sully suggested.
Grant didn’t see the point in explaining the problem with that suggestion, so he just went back to poinking his membranes for inspiration.
After a while Grant started to become bored, which he was used to. But he also became frustrated with his boredom, which was kind of new. Frustration just isn’t something cells are equipped to deal with individually. Cells have a well defined function and very little incentive to think beyond it. There shouldn’t be much to be frustrated about.
“It was easier before I made up the game.” Grant said aloud, though he wasn’t sure who he was addressing.
“Yeah, but it keeps things interesting.” Randy offered.
“Not really.” Sully added.
“Were things not interesting before?” Grant pondered. He genuinely couldn’t remember if he’d ever even thought about whether things were interesting before the game. He only knew they were less interesting after the game.
“Waiting isn’t very interesting.” Randy replied.
“No- it’s basically the same.” Sully corrected.
“So what if we just- stop waiting.” Grant proposed. A heavy, confused silence ensued.
“Like, play another game?” Randy asked.
“No- just, stop waiting. Do it, do what we’re waiting to do.” Grant clarified.
“Dude?” Sully said.
“Dude…” Randy agreed.
“It’s not time, Grant. We wait until it’s time, it’s what we do.” Randy assured.
“But we haven’t been waiting- we’ve been poinking, and that’s been more interesting than waiting, so maybe waiting is the real problem.” Grant surprised even himself with such a graceful leap of logic.
“That’s insane.” Sully retorted.
“So was Bangers, remember? You said it was insane, now we play it all the time.” Grant said.
“That’s different, that’s just doing something while you wait. We’re still waiting.” Randy said.
“I don’t expect you to understand, I- just see things other cells don’t. Like the game. I saw it when no one else ever had.”
“Okay- that was a good one. We all love Bangers, but dude- we still have to wait.” Randy said.
Grant thought about it for a long time. Randy had always seemed intelligent enough, but maybe this was just the limit of his imagination. Grant knew what he knew. He wasn’t sure how, but he knew it. And he had the confidence of a cell who had once redefined cellular life as he knew it. Seemed perfectly reasonable that the same cell could redefine it again, and also reasonable that no other cell could understand like he did. So there was nothing for Grant to do but show them. It’s what visionaries do.
So with perfect certainty in his genius and purpose, Grant stopped waiting. The cacophony of objections from adjacent cells was quickly overwhelmed by their instinctual sympathetic contractions. Each cell sequentially smashed membranes against bladders and tiny floods of chemicals washed over one another initiating a maelstrom of reactions through parts of the cellverse Grant had never even heard of.
Just then, deep in a subterranean nuclear forest within an asteroid orbiting a rogue planet, a bubble of carbon crab flatulence rose from a pool of lithium.
The punchline is “Those aren’t irregular crystals, you’re just a non-nucleator trying to fit in!”
On a small, slow grey planet orbiting at the fringes of a chaotic binary star system, there lives a people that call themselves a word that cannot be pronounced in english, or even heard by human ears, but the expression translates roughly to ‘people’.
The people, much like their planet, are small, slow, and grey. Individuals resemble stone pebbles, which organize themselves in rough piles by their elliptical ratio. Within these groupings they value individuals with interesting crystal growths on their exterior. Though the crystal growths serve no physical purpose and can be quite cumbersome, they are very culturally important.
Crystal growth is an aesthetic value and so it is extremely subjective. Some eliptical ratio groups find beautiful what others find boring or even offensive and vice versa. The regularity and symmetry of crystal growths is given some universal appeal. Some Irregular crystals are still considered quite striking, though irregularity is seen as a less refined beauty.
Though crystal growth can impart some cultural advantage, those without them are still accepted members of general society. But there are some that choose to associate and group themselves by the absence of crystal growths rather than their elliptical ratio. These people are pejoratively called ‘anti-nucleators’ by mainstream society.
Whenever people see a group of people with obviously differing ratios and no crystal growths, they are assumed to be radical anti-nucleators and are commonly targets of violent attacks. These attacks are sanctioned, even when the targets turned out not to be anti-nucleators. The public assumption is that they should have had more crystal bearers in the group, or had a more homogenous elliptical ratio, either way they were clearly asking for it.
Violence is a fairly slow process and it takes several planetary cycles to complete a minor assault. Murderous rampages against groups take far longer. During these attacks it’s not uncommon for victims of the attack to affix fragments of the fallen to themselves in an attempt to appear to have crystal growths, a sort of last ditch camouflage. It’s rarely successful and is mocked as a humorously impotent attempt by the doomed to finally ‘fit in’ to society.
Juveniles have rougher exteriors than long weathered adults. Sometimes their surfaces are jagged and it’s difficult to tell what are points of crystal nucleation and what is just a sharp edge. Juveniles in the crystal nucleation stage are very self conscious and tend to compensate with cruelty. A very common ‘joke’ about a young person’s appearance is “Those aren’t irregular crystals, you’re just an anti-nucleator trying to fit in!?”
A few people in the mainstream community recognize the coldness of this phrase, but mainly because it’s a mean thing to say to a crystal-conscious juvenile. So it’s only reprimanded when used against children, adults are fair game and sometimes it’s considered effective meta humor when used to make fun of a person who is themselves behaving in a juvenile manner.
Non-nucleators consider this joke highly offensive because it makes light of the last desperate act of the victims of vicious, unprovoked murders, but their objections just make it more funny to most people.
Alien Joke #613
The punchline is “The bottom sun is too late to bargain.”
This is a very common humorous phrase in the CoilWing society on the B528 system’s third interior planet. There are several available levels and applications for this joke depending on context.
The bottom sun generally refers to the red giant that only appears lower in the sky than its binary cousin star, a white dwarf. The red giant never rises more than 25 degrees over the horizon as visible on most habitable land masses. So the appearance of the bottom sun means the solar cycle is nearly complete. So it just means pay up because it’s too late to haggle.
But there is also a cultural myth about an ancient bargain struck between the celestial beings that appear as their two suns, and in this tale the red giant’s tardiness led to it accepting a less advantageous deal which is why it only rises lower in the sky. So it also implies lateness in general is not advantageous to one’s business interests.
Though in modern usage this tale is often used ironically, because it’s now understood the red giant is the more stable of the stars and its position is actually advantageous for the entire planet’s habitability, and the white dwarf star is quite unstable and poses greater danger to the planet. So it’s used to refer to people’s eagerness as evidence of lack of caution or understanding.
But there is also a word play level of humor. Though the phrase itself is conveyed in a language or percussive scratching and slapping, the symbolic sounds for ‘bottom sun’ has a similarity to the peculiar mating cry of a Lesser CoilFin Thumper, a common pest animal known to destroy property in chaotic mass orgies where they violently attempt to copulate with every available surface. And with this association, a more fluid pronunciation of ‘bottom sun’ means a person who is only interested in screwing everything.
In addition there is a looser, but still recognizable phonetic link between the symbolic sounds for late’ and the sound for ‘horny’. Some of these connections are etymological as the Lesser CoilFin Thumper is associated with the red giant due to its mating late in the day, as the bottom sun rises, and both share ancient associations with gods of fertility and mischief. So ‘the bottom sun is too late to bargain’ also means something to the effect of the sex crazed lunatic person is too horny to bargain.
And since sexual gratification is a direct currency for the CoilWings it implies someone is so mindlessly sex crazed that they cannot even bargain for or with sex, which to them would be like saying you’re so crazy from thirst you can’t drink.
It was quite hilarious and multidimensional and stand up comics have written entire sets around the phrase ‘the bottom sun is too late to bargain’. But that was all before B528 was destroyed when the CoilWing society was overrun by religious zealots who claimed the red giant was the source of all evil and launched a bunch of antimatter into it. So not ‘the bottom sun is too late to bargain’ is kind of like saying ‘try not to genocide yourself like the CoilWings’. But if you have a pretty dark sense of humor there’s still a time and place for it.
…okay- time out. I think I owe an apology… these were supposed to be alien jokes… I like trying to imagine what might constitute the same patterns and reaction as humor to a being totally unlike Earth life, but it keeps getting dark. I think maybe I’ll try to do one specifically on alien analogies to flatulence or something- bathroom humor stuff. Like a colony of intelligent tube worms that turn themselves inside out to move around and leave behind rainbow slime trails, so they think of chromatic spectrums like we think of underwear stains and when there’s a rainbow they think the sky is sharting itself. Yeah, that’s a better end to this, worms laughing about the sky sharting… I’m good with that.
I think and blather a lot about technology so I should probably put some effort into defining what I’m going on about all the time.
My definition of technology is pretty broad and pretty much encompasses tool use, calculation and language. In general practice, a technology is anything besides your body or things your body creates without you telling it, or your natural senses, that you use to interact with your environment. A stick or a rock is technology with the right intent and skill, though it’s right on the edge of just being a long claw or fang in animal terms. There’s a continuum. Knowledge of how to reliably start fires or grow crops is definitely technology. Water vessels and shoes are technology. Language and communication is debatably a technology when used to organize and refine complex hunting maneuvers or construction. Writing language down requires and\or is a technology.
Technology is just functional knowledge, but technology is so powerful because a tool or process can embody knowledge that the user doesn’t need to grasp as completely as was necessary to create the tool or process. Technology is a shortcut to the power of knowledge that makes it more easily transferable and preservable.
Human civilization has been dependent on technology from the beginning. I think technology is actually what defines and enables all civilization, with the critical minimum technology being language.
I’d argue human’s dependence on technology started earlier than that, in pre-civilization when the largest groups were still mostly small, genetically connected tribes. To make that point I like to imagine a week in a life without any technology. That means naked, no blade, no shoes, no canteen, no fire. You’re basically foraging within a few miles of available fresh water. Of course this is hard to even imagine because it feels like our instinct would be to sharpen a stick or hollow out a gourd first thing, but I said no technology. I think it’s fair to say without technology, humans are literally animals. But that also just means that humans are an animal that are perfectly suited to utilize the things I’m calling technology to advance its survival. Of course that’s anthropic, but what isn’t?
So what’s this got to do with humans being cyborgs, you ask? Admittedly nothing except that I’m making it about that, because I think there’s actually some semi valid reasoning to it, and it sounds good and I think it makes a more vivid point about humanity’s relationship to technology.
I don’t care what anyone says the definition of cyborg is right now. It’s a new enough word and doesn’t really have much in the way of definitive examples, mostly just sci-fi concepts of what a cyborg might be, so I think the definition is still up for grabs, so I’m grabbing.
The notion of integrating technology into the human body is not new, but nobody calls Captain Hook a cyborg, or someone with a cosmetic piercing for that matter. It feels like it needs to be digital or robotic. But then again I don’t know that anyone would argue with a steampunk cyborg, but steampunk gets away with a lot so maybe that’s more about steampunk. But also we never really know if the apparently ‘digital’ technology is really digital, or positonic, or some silicone analog of a spiking neural network so it’s really just an aesthetic association with ‘digital’ technology.
Doesn’t seem to have to be human either, I think we’re all good with a cyborg dog, monkey, or even shark, in theory of course- should go without saying but don’t anybody make cyborg sharks.
The aesthetic preference is that the technology be literally implanted in the body and visible enough to provide visually interesting juxtaposition between biological and technological components, but functionally it seems like a cyborg just has to have a biological base structure that incorporates technology to enable and enhance survival.
So a cyborg is a creature that depends on technology for survival. That also describes humans. So, like the title said- humans have always been cyborgs. Q.E.D. Or more like I decided the words I’m using mean what I’m using them to mean to make a point. So Ipso Facto because I said so.
But if I’m proposing this as a definition of cyborg, seems like I need to look around and see what else it might apply to.
I think it does have to be a survival necessity. As in- literally can’t live without using some kind of technology for a whole day. A clever crow or ape might demonstrate a clear use of technology by the definition I’m using, but it obviously doesn’t need to. Most other animals we’re aware of using anything resembling tools do so for a clear advantage, but in almost every case identical members of their species tend to do okay without the behavior or tool.
Though nest building animals and harvester ants in particular might fit this definition of cyborg too. Not sure what that does for my point, but I’m okay with ants being fellow cyborgs, we could learn a lot from them.
Birds and beavers I’m not so sure I want to include because their nests aren’t always a daily survival necessity. But it is clearly a necessity for long term survival and reproduction, so maybe there needs to be a continuum of cyborg-ness. The most obvious relevant value seems to be durability without technology. So let’s say the metric of cyborgness is: 1-(T\S) with S being an average lifespan in a given environment and T being the average survival time without any use of technology. Of course this then becomes environmentally dependent, but we can use ‘natural conditions’ as a baseline to make comparisons across species.
So a snail’s cyborness value might be 1-(10days/10days), or 0, same as a lizard or a sloth. They live and die without ever using any kind of technology.
A human would be something like 1- .01y/100, 0.9999 cyborg.
Interestingly by this metric a toy poodles cyborgness might be .9, a healthy mutt might be .4, and a husky might be pretty much 0, even though they’re the same species. Though I guess that depends a lot on what you consider each of these breeds ‘natural environment’.
Also that’s kind of stupid because dogs didn’t invent the technology they ‘use’, so that probably has to be included in the distinction. But then again a lot of humans are more consumers of technology than users of it, but we have to draw a line somewhere and species seems pretty obvious so yeah- has to be a technology created by the species, so forget about the dog thing.
Of course the more individual the metric the less meaningful it becomes. Someone who completes an advanced wilderness survival course may bring their cyborgness metric down to to .9991, but then fall into a coma and it jumps to .9e-100 or whatever. Weird example, but it sets up how this same weirdness might have some meaning for humans if we ever start existing in environments beyond Earth. Though at that point we’ll be comparing exponents. A human on Earth may have a .99999 cyborgness score on average, but an Apollo astronaut was briefly .9e-10000 something.
So what’s the point? I guess it feels important to get humans used to the idea that we’re already cyborgs and always have been. There’s no need to freak out about technology taking over your life if you realize it started out that way for our entire civilization. That gives us more time to focus on freaking out about how to optimize technology for our benefit before it kills all of us or just makes life unbearable with or without technology.
Also there’s a point that someone in an uncontacted tribe that will never read this is still within just a few negative exponents of the guy on life support on the cyborgness scale, so let’s all just get past any generalized anti-technology sentiment. We can be specifically against some kinds or uses of technology for specific reasons, but if you’re really all that anti-technology you’d be naked hanging out by a stream eating bugs, or more likely just dead.
We’re going to have to get even more cozy with our dependence on technology if we want to do anything interesting beyond Earth, and even if we just want to keep doing interesting things here for more than another few hundred years.
The good news and the bad news is that resistance is not at all futile. Human’s defiance of their dependence on technology can and almost certainly will prevail. But then again if you think about what that means, then resistance is back to being pretty futile. So I’m saying let’s accept that we are the borg, resistance is futile, but if we’re smart and careful we can design our borg suits to be removable and not have all the eye socket hardware so we can still get naked and swim in a stream and eat bugs when the mood strikes us. Though eventually that will all be simulated by a data feed directly to your neural cortex floating in a nutrient bath, but let’s take it one step at a time.
43.21THz Walker Jr., or just 43 as his few friends called him, spent most of his time absorbing the recommended frequency and radiation levels for his unit mass. Though in general he abided by the old wisdom about radiation, he was secretly skeptical about some claims, and he occasionally tested minor variations to check the validity of the sacred graphs. For the most part they checked out, but he noticed unexpected deviations in bands near the spectrum of lies.
The old wisdom said that the frequency ranges from high-wrongness to ultra-high-wrongness were unknown and unknowable, because within those frequencies lived demonic beings of pure raymatter that held all radiation feeding life in such contempt, that they would slowly starve anyone who dared try to feed on it. Though no one had ever seen such a being, it couldn’t be just superstition because it was demonstrably true that beings that tried to feed on radiation within the spectrum of lies would suffer a strange illness that made them unable to feed.
The old wisdom said that the spectrum of lies was unknowable because the light beings could deceive and camouflage themselves as other light. The demons would cloak themselves in halos and reflections of other frequencies to fool observers, both living and mechanical. Even attempting to understand it only played into the hands of the demons, for they could make their spectrum appear as they wished for whatever ends they desired.
43 had always been unique in that he saw this as a pretty rational reaction by the radiation demons. After all, 43 hid from or attacked anything that tried to consume him, starving them seemed a bit extreme, but maybe that’s their only defense. If anything it raised the question of why other bands didn’t mind being consumed. 43 did not fear the demons among the waves, in fact, he was quite curious about them.
He wanted to know them, and maybe why they were so different from the radiation that didn’t seem to mind being consumed.
But the ancients had decreed long ago that this spectrum would be banished from their culture forever, it was taboo to even mention its existence outside of warnings. To seek to study or understand it was an unforgivable thought. The prime rule of 43’s world was if the daily radiation spectrum has lies in it, stay underground.
But 43 just didn’t care. 43 didn’t really like being 43 in 43’s world all that much, so he figured the worst that could happen is that would stop being the case. And since everyone else was underground when the spectrum of lies shined, it was pretty easy for 43 to conduct his research once he invented the parasol to protect himself from accidentally trying to consume a demon.
So 43 built things, filters, reflectors, detectors, emitters, all sorts of wondrous and dangerous mechanisms to create and measure radiation. After countless cycles of lone, diligent study, 43 found the demons he sought.
They weren’t demons at all, and not directly related to the frequencies in the spectrum of lies. The cause of the dangerous effects were polarizations that happened to appear more frequently on days that coincided with the spectrum of lies. These polarizations confused the complex molecular switching apparatus that beings of 43’s species used to maximize reception of available radiative energy. So anyone exposed to these polarizations would feel overly sated on radiative energy, but they could then absorb no more nutrition and would die of starvation. It was the most important discovery ever made in the history of 43’s world, but 43 was the only one who understood any of it.
There are a few alternate endings to this story. In one 43 tells other people about his findings and they kill him immediately for blasphemy. I think that’s the more realistic ending.
In another ending 43 uses the power of his discovery to dominate others, but they figure out the technology and kill him, but now they’ve all got energy demon weapons and run around killing each other because that’s what happens.
And in the tragic secret alternate ending 43 is smart enough to know the inevitability of the first two endings, so he recruits a small team of trusted friends to learn the secret and share it slowly. But then he’s betrayed by his best friend and the first and second endings happen with 43 executed and the friend going mad with power.
My favorite ending is that 43 is satisfied with his journey to knowledge, and he knows his world well enough to realize he cannot share his secret because there is no critical mass of people capable of receiving it. It would be like trying to teach calculus to potatoes before they’d even evolved eyes. So he wanders his world alone, but with the power to be alone on his own terms since he can walk in light that no one else dares. He has overcome the lure of vanity and doesn’t care to be known for what he knows. Though he came into the universe in a foolish and hypocritical world that he could not change, he rose above it all and found a life of peace and contentment by making the universe his own.
I really like that ending, but it’s definitely the least realistic. If there’s any constant in consciousness I’m guessing its vanity, so there’s no way 43 could just know something world changing without at least trying to change the world.
I guess the real ending is that the stupidest possible combination of 1-3 happens, then a while later people figure out he was right and the old wisdom about the spectrum of lies changes, but not really, only just enough to take advantage of the new information without conceding how stupid the error or why it remained in error for so long, or that the really important thing about the story was that 43 was curious and checked things.
But in any case the moral of the story is- demons are liars, you cannot trust demons.
Also ignorance is bliss, it’s really mean to try to take people’s bliss from them so just shut the hell up about how ignorant they are and maybe make an anti-demon parasol and take a long walk, that’s about all you can do.
At least once, but probably several, upon one or more times there were three robots.
It could have also been upon infinite times depending on how reality works. And it’s not completely clear if they’re robots exactly but for now we’ll call them robots.
These three robots wandered the galaxy, stopping by solar systems far and wide to float around stuff, look around at stuff, mess around with stuff, and generally do stuff around and with stuff.
The most energetic robot was Digbee. He was mostly a cube, though not really a ‘he’ in any meaningful sense. He’s not really an ‘a’, for that matter either, since Digbee was actually an interconnected fleet of Digbee units that shared just enough computational capacity to physically operate as one unit at a time.
Digbee wasn’t entirely aware of this situation, at least not for very long, since he lost persistent memories when he transferred control from one Digbee unit to another, and he had a pretty bad memory anyway. It often caused Digbee great consternation to find new and unexplained wear or damages to himself each time he became a new himself, but in general he handled it quite professionally. He was often delighted to find new and interesting attachments for mobility and material handling, because Digbee enjoyed and excelled at handling pretty much anything you could call material.
Digbee handled material by digging, smashing, shearing, drilling, grinding, occasionally liquefying and vaporizing though he preferred not to, and once even a manner of chopping but that may have been unintentional.
Digbee processed any and all raw matter, and also matter that was not raw, but had apparently had been used to build magnificent structures by some ancient civilization, which of course Digbee quickly converted back to raw matter again. He was a digging machine- very literally, a machine that was almost certainly made for digging, at least judging from the obvious functionality of his construction, though his and the other robots origins are ultimately unknown, which is not really that uncommon for robots in deep space if you’ve known many.
In addition to processing raw matter, Digbee regularly enjoyed meeting his old friend Snorkel for the very first time.
Snorkel was an elegantly woven braid of mostly tubes of various diameters and functions. Snorkel could seize and wrap around things like a giant tentacle, it could pull fluids, gasses, grains, dust, even plasma up through its tubes, then spray, squirt, squeeze or extrude them back out. Or spin them around like a centrifuge. It could heat them up and kneed them or draw them into wire. It could even unweave itself into separate threads and perform complex ballets to refine and package the materials Digbee provided.
The unweaving thing is a bit sensitive though. Snorkel’s personality is a hive mind of the hybrid-synthetic neural networks that maintain sense and control of the various tubes. When they are physically separate they regain their individuality and remember how much they deeply hate being woven together in a bundle all the time. They’re all professionals so they still do the work but they get super snippy at each other and will bring up seriously old, uncool stuff that is really out of line.
If anyone noticed or cares about the pronoun switch to ‘it’ for Snorkel as opposed to ‘he’ for Digbee it’s because Snorkel is a ‘they’ and some of them are sort of ‘hes’ and ‘shes’ and a few ‘other’, so ‘it’ seemed more appropriate for the whole tube ensemble.
Also the fact that the last robot is kind of a ‘she’ makes the whole group feel a little rounder, which is actually what ‘she’ was, round. Mobo was mostly a sphere, a really, really big, mostly sphere. Mobo housed the entire Digbee fleet, and the entire length of Snorkel, who was long enough to grab tiny asteroids and scoop up stuff from little moons so it was pretty long and a whole spool of it was pretty massive.
Mobo also appeared to blow bubbles from time to time, but they weren’t really bubbles. They were tiny, oddly shaped synthetic envelopes containing a tiny organism and just enough of its environment to survive the vacuum of space while it clung to Mobo and sometimes engaged in some form of grooming behavior. Mobo made it absolutely clear that popping these bubbles was not approved recreation for Digbee and Snorkel and doing so was punishable by powerful lasers.
Mobo had specialized access ports and internal storage for the Digbee fleet and Snorkel, and transparent sections and general use ports for the bubbles, but in general she kept to the sphere motif.
Mobo was pretty much in charge. It’s not clear why, or what her authority was derived from besides powerful lasers. It’s never clear what she’s ever thinking or has to say about anything at all besides somehow dictating exactly what activities Digbee and Snorkel engage in at specific times. However it works, she’s the boss, because they go where she goes and do what she says, pretty much, for the most part, in most cases, at least when she’s definitely not distracted so Digbee and Snorkel can do whatever they want.
There was a fourth entity in this motley crew for a time, me. I’m mostly a triangle, but I’m not like them. I found them and started observing them because they’re interesting and I like watching them. I’m not going to tell you why I watch, where I’m from, why I’m telling you any of this, or what that shimmering surface that looks like a portal between my triangle is all about. All you need to know is that I’m an observer. I watch, and listen, and other analogous signal intelligence over various communications mediums and frequencies. And I document, with impartial commentary and occasional interpretation and speculation.
And despite my consistent refusal to respond, or perhaps because of it, Digbee and Snorkel have taken to communicating with me as if I were a trusted confidant, telling me their opinions of one another and thoughts about subjects from self-improvement to existential philosophy and material processing optimizations. Digbee of course introduces himself each time, but he’s consistently willing to dish to a geometric shape floating in space he knows nothing about and never says a word back to him.
Mobo has fired lasers at me, which of course simply phase through me, and a bubble once tried to go through my shimmer so I turned its atoms into energy. Mobo regularly emits signals I’ve reconstructed into images and vibrations resembling the organisms inside of it, but I really have no idea what they’re on about, so I just watch the robots, take a few notes, and have a few laughs.
In my experience as an eternal wanderer, this is all pretty standard issue, there are lots of shapes wandering through space doing strange things with one another, none of it makes any sense- but it’s entertaining as hell and when all you’ve got going on are three lines and a shimmer, you take what the universe gives you.
Earth spent a lot of time developing a buffet of potentially useful biological structures. For the most part that buffet was designed for Earthlike conditions, which are very different from space. But Earth isn’t all cozy, it’s got some seriously extreme places and lots of just plain weird ones, and life squeezed into pretty much all of them and figured out ways to be life.
So if we wanted to set out to design a being to exist in space, a more perfect astronaut, Earth might be a good place to look for features we’d like to emulate. Also it’s the home of every being we’ve ever known, so it’s really the only references we have for beings. So let’s design a better astronaut from the resources available on Earth.
Our astronaut should be intellectually as capable as us, but physically enriched and optimized to exist in space using features available from Earth’s biosphere. And by ‘existing in space’ I’m not thinking naked void exactly, but also not brain-in-a-jar level encapsulation. I’m aiming for some balance between a body that’s robust to life in space but also optimized to create and manipulate technology needed to live and do interesting work there. It’s hard not to use humans as a template because we really are objectively well suited as engineers with our thumbs and bipedalism and all that. But we’re best suited for engineering on Earth and I’m trying to adapt that same idea to space.
There are two fun copout answers I’d like to get out of the way. First is just tardigrades aka water bears. They’re already pretty well adapted to space, and I’m cynical enough about human intelligence to say they’re within an order of magnitude of humans on the scale of what’s probably out there. Kind of a joke but tardigrade DNA definitely has some impressive features. But I’m going to do more of an organ\limb level assembly, not cellular, except when it’s convenient or funny I guess.
The other cop out answer is just engineer a creature sort of like the encyclopod in Futurama that just already has all the DNA of Earth encoded and can swap out features as needed. That would be the literal zenith of biological evolution- a creature that could consciously command its own genetic change on a biological level and maintain a seamless experience. Of course a lab full of geneticists that experiment on themselves might be effectively the same thing- but I like the idea of a more elegant sort of shapeshifter being that can do it with style. That’s kind of nonsense, but what isn’t, but it’s also just not what I’m doing right now.
This is about an astronaut we might plausibly build from Earth’s biology, if it was plausible to just slap together features into an astronaut. It’s not plausible, but it’s more so than the encyclopod shapeshifter thing, and that’s just what I’m doing.
Okay, so maybe we start with a base platform animal. Obviously the nervous system and brain is crucial to this thing being able to do astronaut things so we kind of have to stick to high order mammals. But most of those are heavily adapted for leg and walking, which isn’t super relevant in space. I’m leaning towards starting with a smallish dolphin body. Give it some thick ape skin or something so it doesn’t dry out because we’re not hauling all that water mass around for habitats. A dolphin body could be modified to support something like a human brain and have a lot of the infrastructure in place already but no unnecessary limbs, you can just start adding what you need like Mr Potato Head. Also their oxygen demands seem a lot more flexible already. It’s tempting to look to photosynthesis or some entirely different energy generation mechanism, but it’s a lot longer road to how that could ever feed the demands of a mammalian brain, and I want to start somewhere more fun and a basic mammal platform does a lot of the work for me.
And as impressive as human omnivorousness is, it’s not all that useful when you produce all your nutrition in a closed loop anyway. So it’s probably easier to start with something with a simpler digestive system, which it seems like dolphins have with all the fish, but I don’t really know. I’m guessing they could run on a homogenous protein slurry that would be easier to synthesize than a balanced human diet. Then again they might need some complex vitamins that fish have that I’m not accounting for. And though echolocation would be of limited use in space, it seems like the neural processing structures could be useful for some other sense organs so may as well keep those.
So that’s our platform- imagine a stumpy dolphin torso with ape skin, no fins, just a tapered tube with input and output holes. Has an identifiable front, back, top, and bottom, but other than that just a digestive system with a brain.
So obviously we have to start by adding what we need from humans to make this thing an astronaut. Seems like there’s a lot of territory to cover given how many advantages we have on Earth, but I’m actually thinking just the brain. Everything else we do can be done with other animal’s parts, maybe a lot better. So that’s all the humanity we’re going to need from homo sapiens, just a gross, wrinkly, mushy, brain, maybe even just the outer layers.
Those hands were pretty useful though, gotta figure out something with extremely fine dexterity but still pretty strong for their size. I want to say tentacles but those are pretty demanding to control and I’m not sure a more under articulated but rigid structure couldn’t do a better job. But tentacles do have a lot of great sensory use, so hard to ignore them. Do we need bones? Okay- so I could spend all day on the possibilities for manipulators to replace the human hand. And honestly there are so many possibilities there might not be a truly optimum configuration, so I’m just going to put one together that I like, and leave it at that.
It’s going to be two muscular ‘trunks’ similar to but smaller than an elephant’s, each terminating in a 3-fingered ‘hand’ consisting of tentacled fingers, and a claw extending from the wrist on one arm. The claw is modelled on the function of a Mantis shrimp’s powerful smasher claw. Not really a defensive feature, but can produce extreme force on a small area, so seems like it could be useful for a lot of situations in space. Also dangerous as hell, but hey- you’re in space. The trunk has a bone structure of interconnected ball-socket joints capable of moving freely, or being locked in a straight configuration with a twisting mechanism at each joint when more leverage is needed. That last part isn’t in nature to my knowledge, but I figure we can modify bone’s mechanical function somewhat. I’m tempted to pack a bunch of extra cool sensors on those manipulator limbs, but I think that brings the danger of damaging them, so I’m inclined to leave the manipulators as touch sensors only just like human hands.
We obviously don’t need feet or legs, but we do have to get around somehow. So we’ll need to either grab and push off stuff, or be able to move enough air to propel ourselves around. We already have manipulators, but I think we need to keep those free for work, so we should probably have another push\grab\anchor limb. Seems like a one-legged bird could do most of that, so let’s use one of those for a third limb, two seems unnecessary. Birds also have wings we could use to propel ourselves, but that’s massive overkill in 0 gravity. I would like some thrust potential though. So let’s give it a kind of kangaroo pouch that it can pull inside-out and hold tight with its manipulator limbs and flap it to generate directional thrust. Also having a pouch seems handy, maybe we’ll do a couple of those like side pockets and the ‘hands can pull out each one and use them like webbed gloves sewn onto their hips.
So now we have a dolphin stump with ape skin, two crazy trunks with claw\tentacle hands, one bird leg, and hideous skin sacks it can pull out to move air. That’s a good start I think.
The front of the dolphin is just a food intake orifice. But of course we need sensors. If you’ve listened to many of these essays you might know what’s coming next. Articulated eye stalks. I did a thing on how awesome those are and why so I won’t go into it here, but that’s going to be the primary vision and audio sensory apparatus.
I don’t want to stop at the usual five human senses though. That seems like where we can really maximize the potential that evolution gave us.
I’ve already brought up mantis shrimp, but they have a lot of great features to borrow. We’re going to pretty much steal their entire optical system. All the advantages of the stalks, plus the hyperspectral range, the polarization filtering, and anything else they have that we haven’t figured out or I don’t know about. Just copy\paste the entire ‘eye’ folder from their DNA, plus all the drivers and apps.
I want to push that hyperspectral range even further, so we’re going to throw in some pit viper DNA to be able to sense thermal radiation. Might be hard to integrate those on the stalks through so we’ll just have one big heat sensing region between where the eyes were before we put them on stalks.
Ears are a tough call- I want maximum range of pressure and vibration sensing, but I also want a robust structure that won’t pop easily in changing pressures. There’s a lot to choose from, but I figure there’s got to be a way to combine the best of a bat and a whale to allow sensing from extremely low to extremely high frequency vibrations. And whatever that sensory organ is- put it in a fatty cone thing with a sphincter that can close up entirely to protect it when pressures get too high. Yeah- I’m kind of phoning in the ears. I don’t know that we even need them, but I can’t reason out why we don’t exactly so I’m just winging it. I think we only need one ear though. Localizing sound probably isn’t as critical in space habitats. So that goes next to the heat sensor thing.
Chemical senses always seem useful, but that’s from our experience with humans in space with technology we’re just figuring out made of materials we barely understand that interact with our bodies in ways we can’t predict. I’m thinking once we’ve mastered technology to the point that we’re building astronaut bodies and closed loop environments for them to live in, maybe they won’t have as much of a need to smell when things might be burning. I might be creating a huge problem for future space travellers, but I’m going to say let’s just forgo biological chemical sensors altogether. If they can’t build technology they need to survive that doesn’t include its own failure sensors, they’re not going to last long anyway.
Foregoing chemical senses does simplify things, but it also seems a tragic waste of the rich variety of available biological chemical sensing mechanisms, but a lot of that is only advantageous in a complex, dynamic, and unpredictable chemical environment, which a space habitat should be anything but. So no more noses, kind of sucks, also some conveniences to an absence of smell in a closed environment.
So now our astro-freak can make energy from food and oxygen, move about in zero gravity, manipulate objects, and sense a useful range of radiation and vibrations. What else can we use?
Probably could use some kind of advanced rotational orientation mechanism, but I think most of those are designed for gravity, so I’m thinking that might just have to be adapted from the vision system. Vision is going to be pretty important though so I’m tempted to beef that up.
Apparently squid skin has some light detection ability. I’m going to propose it could be adapted for orientation and movement tracking independent of the primary vision system. If the skin itself can be a wide field, low resolution camera- it can use it as a reference to track its motion fairly efficiently. As long as the light field in an area is consistent or the cyclical changes can be predicted, once the being has a good light field map it can correlate its orientation in that field.
That’s all the sensory bonuses I can think of right now, there’s probably more, but as much variety as there is on Earth, it’s sensory focus is kind of limited. I’d love to include radio reception but can’t find a radio shack in nature. Oh… actually we should toss in magnetic sense if we can. Apparently even humans have proteins that can respond to magnetic fields, but no nervous infrastructure to detect those changes. So not sure on the specifics, but some way to detect magnetic fields would probably have some use.
From there it’s just miscellaneous tools. I could think of interesting things we could do with a spider’s silk gland, or something with a bombardier beetle’s defenses for a biological thruster, but it isn’t anything we couldn’t make into a separate technology. Of course the extreme end of that gets us back to the brain-in-a-jar solution, but I’m still using human success as engineers on Earth as a template.
Though there is one step towards the brain-in-a-jar that makes sense even if you really don’t want to go there. Might as well accept that in a lot of ways the astronaut’s modified body is just a biological brain-in-a-jar, so let’s add a screw-on lid so we don’t have to crack the jar to adjust the fluid levels. Add some kind of ‘bio-interface ports’ that allow sampling or transfer of some critical biological materials. Maybe one for blood, one for spinal fluid, one digestive, etc. Maybe just a thick membrane with a skin flap cover with no nerve endings to generate pain. Something like that.
So let’s see what we’ve got. It’s a stumpy dolphin body with ape skin that is also light sensing somehow, two trunk\claw\tentacles appendages, one bird leg, invertible pockets that double as hand webbings for flapping propulsion, a central thermal and pressure vibration sensing area on its head. Articulated eyestalks with all the capability of a mantis shrimp’s vision system. No nose. Maybe some magnetic sense ability. And a bio port.
I intentionally left out reproduction because these things are clearly already dead sexy and don’t need any help in that department. Actually I’m just thinking once you’re intentionally and successfully swapping out entire body parts via DNA to maximize function it doesn’t make much sense to start shuffling code with biological reproduction again. Self-cloning might have a place, but I figure just use the machine that made you.
I forgot about speech, but- I’m not sure we need that even. Of course language is necessary, but spoken words- well, I’m torn. Audio does have great ‘broadcast’ features, but how much do you need to broadcast in a space habitat? Just seems like a visual communication system is far more effective. You can still take advantage of the sound’s ‘broadcast’ abilities by just banging on something or farting to get people’s attention or convey simple ideas, then when you have their attention and need to get specific use a visual language. Between those trunk hands and the articulated eyestalks their sign-language could be every bit as rich and as wide a bandwidth as vocal communication if not far more. And there’s always writing and drawing pictures and symbols.
Actually I’ve thought a lot about communication in space and really what you want is redundancy. I think future astronauts should be able to communicate effectively by sign, touch sign, semaphore language, morse code, and probably some other stuff I haven’t thought of. The idea is to allow communication through every conceivable medium or complication that astronauts might have a need to communicate through. But that’s another conversation, this is about bioengineering astronauts.
Or it was about bioengineering astronauts, since I think I’m about done. I might come back later and play with the spider silk gland idea and stuff like that. But as far as designing a biological astronaut using Earth biology that’s functionally as well advantaged for space as humans are for Earth, but without starting from the cellular level, this is what I got. I personally think our freakish dolphin monster is quite adorable in its own way, but I’m a little biased.
So the Fermi Paradox sort of asks “where the hell is everybody”? It’s a paradox because the fact that humans exist creates the assumption that something else comparable exists, and if it does probably a lot of them do, but if that’s the case why isn’t the universe a busier place?
I don’t really accept there’s a paradox there because humans haven’t really proven to my satisfaction that we’re proof of intelligent life in the universe. We’re proof that life can do some intelligent things, but we’ve proven we can be at least as stupid as we are smart, but we do stupid more often, and break more stuff with it.
Also I don’t think our history of broadcast or reception of signals capable of interstellar distances suggests that signals would be that common in the universe. Even with only a century or so of use we’re already moving away from strong broadcasts to more directed transmissions, and incorporating encryption that could make detection by an eavesdropping species more difficult. Also we don’t put a huge amount of resources into listening for potential alien communications. Drake equation is a formula to estimate the likelihood of communicating with an alien species, the final variable is L- “the mean length of time that civilizations can communicate”. I don’t think we’ve proven that variable can be high enough to call the Fermi question a paradox.
But paradox or not, the reference to the Fermi Paradox is just shorthand for the general question of where are all the alien spaceships, probes, or at least transmissions?
There’s an array of proposed solutions to the supposed ‘paradox’. Maybe it’s a prime directive first contact thing and regulations prevent contact, or more likely we’re just not interesting enough to contact. The dark forest idea is that every species would assume everyone wants to kill everyone else so everyone hides as soon as they realize there is other intelligent life. I’m not sure that every species would default to assuming existing in the universe is a zero sum game, but it makes great sci-fi.
A broad proposition is that though intelligent life may be common enough, doing anything interesting with intelligence at a large scale is very rare due to some ‘great filter’. The filter could be something universal, or just the statistical difficulty of maintaining an technologically capable civilization. Great filters only make good sci-fi premises when they represent civilizations ending with bangs rather than whimpers, but in general when the universe presents a range of possibilities- the most depressing one is likely right.
The Fermi Paradox becomes less paradoxical if you think of it’s only relevant example species, humans, as shockingly inept in general, and their scale of civilization as unsustainable and precarious. Hopefully humans will prove me wrong and make the question of “where is everybody” very relevant, but I’m not seeing it. Not saying we’ll collapse back to the stone age, humans may continue to generate detectable signals for another 1000 years, but that may be all we do, and weak radio blips may not be enough to attract much attention, especially if the other civilizations are doing to themselves what we do to ourselves. The Fermi paradox seems to assume an accelerating curve of technology or at least a steep linear curve with some exponential bumps. But we’ve only proven that leads us towards unsustainable, planetary locked growth. I really want to believe in interplanetary expansion, but we can’t assume other aliens do stuff until we actually do it. So far I think the most likely future of humanity is doing a lot of what we’re doing now with upgraded toys. As awesome as smart phones and GPS are, they really don’t say much about how we might deal with the challenges of becoming an interplanetary species.
I am a pretty hardcore misanthrope and I’m tempted to say humans are uniquely shitty and a civilization of naked mole rats might be cooperative enough to become an interstellar species, but I’m thinking the problem is structural to civilization itself. Because as civilization’s power grows, the forces that make a civilization powerful in their environment cannot be sustainably focused towards the benefit of the civilization.
I’m assuming human and alien civilizations share the property that they consist of separate, individual beings who are born ignorant, must be taught their culture and technology, teach others, and then die. With that common property we can assume their technology and power is shared in similar ways as ours across time and generations.
I’m also assuming alien civilization is like human civilization in that its cultural pressures become more dominant in selection than environmental pressures, effectively ending natural selection. I don’t think that’s the biggest problem, but it does establish that they’re not going to evolve their way out of whatever problems civilization got them into, because the cultural selection pressures are going to be just as dumb as the culture.
Technology is the distillation of the power of knowledge. Individuals and groups of humans can make great intellectual and technological leaps based on a lifetime of gaining knowledge and understanding. However sophisticated their understanding of the world had to be to grant their insight, its final form is distilled to grant the power of that insight to other humans, without the need for them to go through the same challenges that led to the insight, or even fully grasp it.
It takes clear, pensive, brilliant minds to collate the available knowledge of physics and chemistry into the functional knowledge required to make an effective weapon. But it may only take a year to use that knowledge to design an easily reproducible weapon. Then a month to teach someone to make that weapon, and a day to teach them to use it. And I don’t want to suggest a hierarchy of goodness in humans with this based on intelligence. Sometimes the same people are willing to fill all those roles. But the point is once the technology exists, it is forever untethered from the people and efforts it took to develop it.
Each individual in a civilization is born a new, fresh slate that needs to be taught to exist productively within the systems of the civilization, and training becomes ever more complex. It becomes hard to agree on even the goals of socialization. But regardless how well or poorly socialized a creature is, it has varying degrees of access to an ever more powerful body of refined knowledge and technology. So idiots are born every day, everyone is born an idiot, but every new idiot has access to more power than the one before.
As civilization and power grows, stupidity remains pretty constant, but it’s reach and potential for devastation become greater. I don’t think there’s a proportional countereffect. The ever increasing complexity makes it so even beings with benevolent intentions are capable of doing great harm to a civilization, so increasing the power of even well socialized people cannot balance the increased power of destructive instincts, or even just oblivious misuse of tremendous technological power.
So that’s my solution to the ‘paradox’, it isn’t one, and it probably never will be, because civilizations are inherently self-limiting because the power of technology is untamable even by the species that creates it.
Though the more optimistic view is that space itself provides some means to overcome the inevitability of civilization becoming its own great filter. The pressures of living and reproducing in space, or any environment where technology is necessary for instantaneous survival, might be intractable enough to never allow a culture to define its own priorities, or at least not without being grounded in more realistic necessity. I could be wrong, but I think a superstitious cult would have a much harder time growing and taking power in a place where engineers and scientists have to constantly monitor and maintain the environment just to keep everyone alive.
Or again, maybe not, maybe once space travel becomes more mundane, then the stupidity takes over that too, though I think if stupidity is that universal, then species don’t usually get that far. So I do think there’s a decent chance that even if civilization itself is its own great filter, maybe surviving in space provides a path through it. But to me it implies only species that can conjure a united will to survive as a species have much of a chance of passing the test. But fortunately and as usual, it really doesn’t matter what I think about any of this, this is just an excuse for me to talk about space stuff.
So life exists on Earth. Earth is not functionally unique in composition or circumstance. And the universe is achingly huge and has an absolutely stupid amount of matter and energy doing every possible thing it can do all the time. That’s my unassailable case for the existence of extraterrestrial life and not sure what to say to anyone who needs more convincing that it’s out there.
Just knowing that is fun because I can get lost in dreams of ocean worlds with single celled organisms as large and ancient as redwoods, swarms of silicone fleas that move like willful sand dunes, or miles long snail colonies that spend their entire life traveling in a train in the same position they were born in. And no matter what crazy combinations of Earth inspired flavors of life I come up with, I know something reasonably similar is out there, and no matter what I come up with I know it’s not even close to as weird as it gets.
So life is out there, it just is. But where is it? Earth like planets are widely considered the most likely planets to find Earth like life. Seems pretty logical. Though that’s just Earth like life and I personally prefer more cosmic weirdness in my extraterrestrial life than some knock-off Earth can probably put together. So a more general rule for looking for life on other planets is- look for planets.
It’s also fun to ponder more exotic mechanisms for ‘life’ within a star or nebula, anywhere there’s an energy gradient and some matter and some fun symmetry breaking physical interactions. But the most rational ground for speculations about life that we might actually recognize as life, seems like it would be in places with a lot of ground.
Asteroids and other small objects have ‘ground’ but I think an object has to be large enough to retain some atmosphere to support much life. Some regular interface between solid and fluid layers would seem to be key. I’m not sure a fully liquid or gas world with no definite solid interfaces really incentivizes complicated internal modeling of the physical world. Life in a vast, relatively homogenous expanse might never experience any pressure to develop the kinds of intelligence needed to host very complex minds. But who knows, obviously there are interesting fish in the deep ocean, but the web of life on Earth is interconnected from the first cell so I’m not sure they’d ever have gotten interesting without all those influences from other environments.
In any case- planets are almost certainly the most prolific nurseries for life in the universe.
Gravity, especially the kind that includes a ground interface, is kind of a universal catalyst. It makes things more likely to interact than they otherwise would be. Obviously there’s nothing catalytic about gravity’s role in these interactions but I like the word there. At the largest scales accretion literally makes the ground, and at the smallest scales it just keeps things concentrated in piles and puddles that otherwise might just drift off on their own without bothering with other matter. It’s just overwhelmingly beneficial for making the matter-energy soups that life can sometimes emerge from.
Then, if and when life does bubble up in the soup, gravity gives it all kinds of advantages in orientation, locomotion, and just keeping life’s preferred environment wrapped around it. Gravity is a stern disciplinarian, but it is supremely fair and even handed. Gravity is a nurturing parent for life’s infancy, and it does a decent job of imparting some useful gifts to its progeny without spoiling them. But gravity is also a little clingy and possessive, and it can even become a little tyrannical once any species starts trying to leave the nest.
So by the same reasoning that I assume life exists beyond Earth, I assume intelligent life exists beyond Earth as well. What ‘intelligent’ means there is a whole other conversation, but for this ramble let’s just say it’s a species that rises above its natural place in the food chain through use of large scale organization and technology, and where interspecies cultural forces become the dominant selection pressure instead of environmental fitness.
It’s probably as proportionately rarer than simpler life as it is on Earth, but I think it’s just as inevitable.
I don’t have much basis for this- but I think intelligent life on Earth came with a few advantages that not all intelligent life will have. The most important is a clear view of the stars through the atmosphere, and the sensory organs to detect starlight with the naked eye. The movement of the stars presents a universally accessible intellectual challenge that I think was crucial to developing and exercising the parts of the mind that helped human civilization advance to our current state. I think it may be a universal advantage, and perhaps necessity for civilizations as advanced as ours.
I do like to wonder how far a civilization might get in discovering universal scientific principles without a view of the stars. Maybe it’s only a limit to astronomy and some creatures that evolved deep in a greenhouse gas locked world could develop understandings of fluid dynamics and quantum mechanics exceeding our own but only Newtonian gravity.
Also the fact that our atmosphere supports fairly simple methods of controlled but substantial thermal manipulation through combustion of plants probably counts as a rare get. Also metals occasionally laying on the ground. But I am careful not to be too anthropic about what counts as an advantage to an ‘technological civilization’ because the tendency is to define everything in terms of its value to the specific human march of technological progress. But I’m not saying any of these things are requirements. I can imagine a civilization of squids using complex woven structures for undersea construction and defense, and vivisected manta rays and whales as motive power in some horrific analogy of steam power. I don’t see any hard limits to such a civilization reaching something at least as advanced as the Roman or even British Empire all without fire or metallurgy. And once you get to a species to Roman status I think it’s fair to say you just can’t predict what they could or couldn’t do from there.
But whatever the general trends for intelligent life, there’s a clear distinction once a civilization starts learning about places beyond its home planet, sending objects there, and maybe going there themselves.
I’d like to say by the same reasoning that life exists, and that intelligent life exists- that intelligent spacefaring life exists. And I did actually just say that, so I’ll just stick with it. I’m reluctant because I don’t want to suggest it’s an inevitability for intelligent or even highly advanced life to go to space, not exactly. I think there’s a chance that actually going to space is extremely rare even among species that know a lot about the universe. Maybe the combination of intelligence, demands of breaking gravity, and the body construction needed to survive those demands, are just very, very unlikely to work for many species. Maybe a lot of the intelligent life in the universe is more like an elephant or a whale, just unreasonably huge. No matter what, there would never have been an elephant Yuri Gragarin or Neil Armstrong. The rocket equation is hard enough on apes and nature made us light enough to pull ourselves off the ground. Gravity is unfair. But I think robotic probes, or maybe even some attempts to ‘seed’ other worlds with spores or something, might be common alternatives.
So I guess it’s more accurate to say I think it’s pretty inevitable that intelligent life that has natural senses that allow it to be aware of space beyond their planet, will inevitably endeavor to interact with space in some way. Interestingly this clarification is completely contrary to the titular claim of this essay. But I haven’t actually made that point yet, so I’m just going to pretend none of this happened.
Okay- so it did happen, so I’ll address it. I think there’s good reason to focus on spacefaring life that can actually take themselves to space. Besides a colonial, spore expansion theory, which is kind of silly, a planet locked species is inherently limited in range, so it’s just statistically less likely we’ll ever encounter any. Also I think it’s less likely we’d have any means of understanding one another than another space capable species. There’s just a lot of inherent common ground and means to communicate ideas between two species that build spaceships they actually climb into. Even if distance prevents us from ever communicating in real time, or even completing an exchange within a human lifetime, the universal challenges of spaceflight might at least give us some means to understand how another species addressed those same challenges and a beginning to understanding how they live.
So for the purposes of this essay I’m just going to use intelligent, spacefaring life to mean exclusively species that go to space themselves. Not trying to diminish species that don’t go themselves, it’s just a simpler classification and it works with the title.
So it’s been a long road to saying I think intelligent, spacefaring alien life inevitably exists. Okay. So where do we look for intelligent, spacefaring aliens? Planets again? Makes sense, I made a lot of words saying that’s probably where they came from. But then again, we’re looking for space faring aliens, and planets have a lot of gravity, and being in a lot of gravity makes space flight really, really hard.
Yeah, but they’re advanced, they’ll have awesome rockets, or space elevators even? Right? Sure, at some point any species that moves towards sustainable existence beyond their planet will master gravitational escape far beyond humans best efforts to date. They may sustain that mastery for a while, maybe indefinitely on their home planet.
But the further a species ventures out into space, the more individuals who live in space will change. Even if moving between a planet’s gravity and space becomes trivial, individuals who live in space will need to maintain their ability to exist in their home gravity in order to return there. Maintaining that ability will demand resources, and becomes less relevant as they move further from their planet, or just decide not to return. The further out they go, the less sense it makes to bother with ever returning to living in gravity.
After a very few generations, maybe only one, spaceborne individuals will become reproductively incompatible with their planetary counterparts. Not just due to gravity. I’m working with the general assumption that any species isolated from the pressures of its origin environment will diverge from its original form because of whatever process that led to the environmental pressures evolving the species in the first place. May work in some radically different way to DNA, but it’s iterative, and it’s driven by environmental pressures. Seems like enough to make isolation in a radically different environment have the same effect on all life.
There may be some genetic exchange with the homeworld, but it will be almost exclusively one-way (planet to space) and it will be limited. A kind of speciation seems fairly inevitable. Even if they could maintain relatively close contact with a home world, I just can’t see a spacefaring civilization not developing at least two distinct and increasingly incompatible subspecies.
I’m getting further out on a thin limb here, but I’m going to speculate that’s an unsustainable status quo. Eventually, the civilization will diverge and the spacefaring, intelligent aliens will become entirely that. Maybe it’s a cycle, and different ‘waves’ of spacefaring intelligent life or cultures, can develop from the same original planet and species. Maybe there’s a lot of planet hopping involved and they colonize new homeworlds too, but I think the same barriers between planetary and space existence would lead to the same outcome. Any species that can exist indefinitely in space, will probably find a lot of incentives to do so.
So if we’re looking for intelligent, space faring civilizations, I think we actually shouldn’t be looking at planets, but in space. That narrows it down…
Well yeah that’s stupid. Where in space? Well they’ll still need resources to support the technologies they use to survive, move about, and build in space. That means matter and energy, and in this universe the place to get those is a solar system. That actually does narrow it down, but that’s where planets are so we’re already doing that. Except I made a big deal about how I think they won’t be hanging out on planets.
So solar systems, but not planets. Pretty much leaves the sun and ‘other’. Stars tend to hurt up close, so I’m going to say it’s ‘other’, that’s where we should be looking. ‘Other’ is asteroids, comets maybe, smallish moons, maybe planetary ring systems. Anywhere you can collect a useful amount of matter without getting pulled into a significant gravity well.
I expect they’ll find ways to set up permanent settlements and industrial capacity, A great deal of resources are available in an area like Sol’s asteroid belt. It has enough surface area and raw resources to support a massive population indefinitely provided they have the technology to convert the available raw materials in a fully closed technology supply chain. This is a long, long way off from anything modern human technology can achieve, but a lot of that is economic and general lack of will, effort, and ingenuity. But if the whole human species somehow put permanent Apollo program level commitment towards colonizing the asteroid belt, it’s not at all inconceivable that we could, even within the presently accepted limits of relevant technologies. It is challenging to imagine reproducing some of human’s heavy industrial capacity in zero gravity, but there are no intrinsic limitations. It may turn out to be advantageous since the effects of gravity can be effectively reproduced in free space but the properties of free space cannot be reproduced in gravity. So fabrication in zero gravity would eventually offer more options than would be available on Earth.
And once a species is set up with the technology to exist like that, they can probably do it pretty much anywhere. The requirements of living on any given planet can vary wildly. The atmospheric composition, weather, techtonics, maybe indiginous life, it’s a constellation of issues that require custom technological solutions. Whether terraforming or creating habits, planet hopping aliens would have to have a catalog of technologies that seems unimaginably complex.
Living in microgravity gravity environments with little atmosphere is pretty much the same everywhere you go. Once you get your atmosphere, food production, radiation protection, thermal management, etc, all wrapped nicely for life in the void you can plant it anywhere there’s void without too much modification. You can set up shop anywhere you can find the resources necessary to maintain your technology.
Also solves some of the issues of interstellar travel. Just assemble the materials and thrust you need for the journey and some prospecting on arrival. The journey is basically the same as living in an asteroid belt, just less interesting views and living off your stash. And of course once they get there they just need to find another field of useful matter and they’re home.
So- that’s it. That’s why I say intelligent life hates gravity. I think there’s good reason to think space faring aliens will trend towards living exclusively in space, and if they do that they’ll probably hang out in places with readily available matter, but little concentrated gravity, like an asteroid belt.
Unfortunately this is entirely useless. We’re just starting to reliably detect planets around other stars and that’s just to say they exist, a general size, and more-or-less where they are in the stars orbit, not even close to directly imaging them or anything. So it’s not like we can just start combing the areas between planets and expect to find some neat-o pod cities full of fraggles or something. As with most of my little points it’s unprovable, doesn’t change anything, and was ultimately just an excuse for me to babble about what I think about space stuff for a while, but I did that- so mission accomplished.
I formally propose that articulated eye stalks are the best structural for visual sensory organs. At least for land animals, and walking sea animals.
It’s a really good idea and I really wish humans had gone that route. I’m imaging a skinny trunk appendage with the housing for an eyeball. Take a chameleon’s eye, extrude it another 2”, give it several more degrees of freedom more like a short trunk, that’s the general idea. It’s a bit counterintuitive at first because there are cringe inducing severing hazards to having eye stalks. It’s hard to get past imagining going blind from the same mistakes that might otherwise only result in a pinched finger. It’s a bit like having a tail, there’s a heavy cost to maintaining the feature just due to it being so imminently breakable, so it better be worth it.
Increased fragility is the big drawback. That is a pretty big risk, but I think the advantages far outweigh it.
First off the most obvious. This is effectively a 360 degree binocular pan, tilt, zoom system, at a relatively low cost compared to having extremely large eyes or more than two. The motor coordination is more complex than eye movements necessary for just rotating skull locked eyes, but not overwhelmingly so. 6-10 extra degrees of freedom per eye seem manageable, though I have literally no basis for that other than it feels right enough. Though it would definitely demand much more of our visual cortex to process feeds from two independently moving eyes and variable fields of view. But a mammalian vision system modified to create stable, consistent images from two sensors with a wide range of independent motion would just be plain awesome.
The advantages are immense for anything that has to move in one direction while still monitoring other directions they’re not moving in for threats or resources. You have to sense the direction you’re moving in or you walk into or fall off stuff. Looking everywhere else is more optional, but the option of not looking is always risky.
The wide field of view might seem more advantageous for prey than predators, but moving stalks can change that 360 field to a narrow one with extremely accurate depth perception in an instant. And most predators are still prey themselves, often while they are predating, so being able to switch modes is pretty good for everyone.
I’d think there could be very unexpected benefits from correlating independently articulated moving eyes that we just wouldn’t even know about because no creature with anything near our brain structure has them. Maybe there is some useful environmental data that can be correlated by oscillating the interocular distance as the eyes pan. Or arranging the eyes vertically but upright in a top\bottom binocular configuration. I’m sure multi-camera vision processing algorithms would offer some interesting insight into the potentials of separate moving eyes, but I don’t know much about them.
For every advantage articulated eyestakes create, they introduce a dozen more potential failure modes. Besides the massively increased potential for blindness, there are probably some spectacularly weird ways for all that visual processing to go wrong.
So at this point it seems like eyestalks are objectively awesome, but still probably more trouble than they’re really worth. But that’s because we haven’t considered what you don’t need when you have eyestalks.
An appropriate eyestalk could effectively replace the necessity of necks. That’s huge. Necks are terrible, terrible structures. They are points of articulation that pass literally all the critical pathways of a body’s system. The fact that you have to move your head to move your field of view more than a few degrees just seems like one of evolution’s dumbest fails with horrific and far reaching consequences. Remove the necessity of an articulated neck to move your entire head, and those critical pathways can be stationary, much better protected, and far less failure prone. I’ll take the risks of blindness and crazy ocular disorders if I just don’t have to deal with this stupid, vulnerable, seemingly overarticulated but surprisingly limited, neck thing.
Stalks could provide a perfectly functional alternative to the entire face except the mouth. You can pop your audio organs on there and get all the advantages of binaural hearing, plus probably some really interesting signal processing potential from the independent positioning. I’m 50/50 on olfactory organs. Could put some on the stalks or not, might be better to keep those nearer the mouth though. Plus you put a nose on a stalk and it’s a trunk or an antenna. Eyestalks should be eyestalks.
And the identification and communication functions of a face could be done with sufficiently expressive articulation of the stalks. So now you don’t really even really need a head at all. You can pack your brain somewhere less precarious than the top or front. The best way to avoid head injury is to forego having a head.
You’ll need to find a place for a mouth, but there’s plenty of viable real estate. Could work those into a short, lip\trunk assembly or just an upper torso mounted sphincter with teeth that feeds straight to the stomach. Just having a head doesn’t necessitate breathing and eating through the same tube, that’s another nature fail. And you don’t really need to use the same air that interfaces directly with your blood to smell your environment, you could use some simpler independent bellow organ to move air over them. So it’s your choice if you do the one tube or two for breathing and eating. There’s probably some advantage in having fewer orifices to maintain though. In any case you just have a lot more options when none of the pathways have to pass through a stupidly articulated neck.
This all seems like a giant win for all land and sea bottom dwelling life. For fish and birds I’m not 100% sure all of this applies. Vision in general isn’t as effective in the water, so maximizing that sense may not be as effective as spending the energy elsewhere. And fish don’t really have vulnerable and complicated articulated necks, so there’s no gain there. Even aquatic mammals probably wouldn’t benefit much from the advantages of eyestalks. Unless if we considered the potential for articulated binocular sonar receivers, or even independent, directional ping generators and receivers, but today I’m talking about eyestalks. Also I keep mentioning walking sea creatures but I’m not sure why. Seems like walking shares the same features in either place, but the vision thing underwater works against it. I think I just included it because of stomatopods. They’re awesome and they have a lot of the features of the eyes I’m talking about, plus hyperspectral vision and other cool stuff, and somehow they’re so awesome I just think all sea creatures with legs should get an invite to the eyestalk party. Doesn’t have to make sense.
Birds, I just don’t think eyestalks would do much for them. They have the neck issue, but their neck articulation is pretty much 360 already, so they only gain real-time 360 vision and I’m not sure they even need that. They don’t really have as urgent a need to look in the direction they’re moving. If a bird in flight looks straight ahead and doesn’t see a barrier in the forward direction, it can look elsewhere for a reasonable amount of time without updating. Feet don’t really support a comparable autopilot feature. You can maybe close your eyes and walk across a salt flat or something similar, but most places on Earth you need to update your forward visual information pretty much constantly or something will remind you. Also seems like there’s a drag issue with eyestalks, there are workarounds but long protruding things just don’t seem conducive to graceful flight. Bats fall in the same category as birds, but they already look insane and their flight isn’t graceful at all so I’m thinking give bats eyestalks for the hell of it and see what happens.
So I think I’ve made a fair case for the awesomeness of eyestalks in general. But I’ve got a bomb to drop on nature if I could ever figure out how to drop it. That bomb is called retractable eye stalks. I think that would just break evolution entirely. You’d be unstoppable. Might be a little hygiene issue keeping your stalk cavities clean, but it’s a fair price to pay to keep your eyeballs attached.
Of course the real question is how much biological energy the eyestalks cost vs how much they save or help acquire. I have zero credibility to make that calculation, but I’m not making a calculation, I’m sort of rationalizing a hunch, which is more fun and pretty much all I’m capable of. So that’s my spiel about eyestalks.
42 is a number that means a lot to a lot of people, so I thought I’d say what it means to me. Most of the time when I say it, it just means I love the Hitchhiker series and I hope you are a fellow fan and we can identify by our common knowledge of the connection of 42 to classic sci-fi comedy. But I love the books and Douglas Adams work in general, partially because they gave me such an elegantly compact expression to sum up my understanding of the universe and humanity’s place in it.
In the Hitchhiker series, 42 is the answer generated by the unimaginably complex computer ‘Deep Thought’ to a vaguely proposed ultimate question about ‘life, the universe, and everything’. The answer, 42, was confusing and unsatisfying. So ‘Deep Thought’ was tasked with designing an even more unimaginably complex computer to finally phrase the question itself. Spoiler Alert: The computer it designed to phrase the question turned out to be Earth, and humans were processing units in its existential calculations.
So some of that’s just plain fun, and it seems about right for people to spend so much effort on an absolute solution to a question they haven’t bothered to understand. But I also gather it means that Doug understood that any answer can be calculated, but it takes a conscious mind to ask a question in a way that gives an answer any meaning to a conscious mind. I think it’s that much more impressive that Doug was thinking that before computation had come to dominate every aspect of our lives and we’d come to rely on and even have faith in answers to questions we don’t even bother to understand.
To me the significance of ‘42’ is that it represents the paradox of creation creating the meaning of creation.
42 was the painstakingly calculated answer to a question that had not really been asked yet. Likewise, I think the universe itself is the answer to questions that have not been asked yet. Earth, and hopefully a bunch of other planets, are the calculating machines formulating the questions to which the universe is the answer.
And because answers are meaningless without meaningful questions. Our questions give meaning to the answers we seek about the universe, and by extension maybe the universe itself. It’s all tied to the old idea that we’re the eyes and ears of the universe, or the universe trying to understand itself. For me 42 just focuses all the confusing, paradoxical meaning I’ve found about being a conscious being in the universe into an elegant, and humorous symbol that I can sometimes use to relate to other interesting humans. That said, it’s just a pop cultural reference now. For a while if you knew 42 had any special meaning at all it meant you’d probably read the books. Now it might just mean you have a reddit account.
While I’m taking the liberty to pontificate on Doug’s work I feel obligated to say thanks in general to Douglas Adams and credit his work as a critical inspiration. Never met him and don’t know him as a human being, but his work was very important in my life. It was just fun, and appreciation of his work is still a general identifier for thoughtful humans.
42 is by far the best known Douglas Adams reference and has a really deep storyline behind it. But there’s a more obscure one that I use as a header on the website.
“We apologize for the inconvenience.” In So Long and Thanks for all the Fish, Doug said this was God’s Final Message to His Creation, written in letters 30 feet high on some planet somewhere. I. Freaking. Love It.
It could have been a joke about people making up messages that purport to be divine, but I don’t think so, and that interpretation doesn’t inspire me much so I went the other way. I probably can’t do justice to how much this phrase and its origin resonates with me, but I’ll try.
First off it’s a humble message. Any entity or being I’d call a creator ‘God’ would be way more humble than religion tends to give it credit for. Humans give God and Gods all these anthropomorphic qualities but humility doesn’t seem to get included. I think a compassionate creator god would be humbled by his creation as much as he expected it to be humbled by him. So if there is anything like a God that does anything like ‘messages to creation’, it seems like this one could be genuine. So I’d accept the message, and the apology, though I’d still have a few questions.
I also like that he said ‘We’ apologize. I think ‘We’ is just a better pronoun for divinity than ‘I’. To me omniscience and omnipresence imply a plurality of mind that is nothing like the singular consciousness we experience that leads us to distinguish ourselves as ‘I’. I just don’t think God would choose that pronoun if it was self-translating to human language. Imagine a world where most humans had been taught that God chose to speak in the first person plural. “We Are” instead of “I Am”. I just feel like that alone would change a lot of basic cultural perceptions in dramatic ways.
Regardless how the universe came to be, if a conscious ‘creator’ had anything to do with it- I think “We apologize for the inconvenience” is the message they should send to other consciousnesses that bubble up in their creation. God’s creation may be ‘perfect’ in some transcendental sense, but he’s got to know it can sometimes suck really, really, bad to wake up as a cog in this grand machine without knowing anything about it. So seems like a responsible creator would go out of their way to clearly acknowledge that fact and 30 foot high letters seems like a decent effort.
Also If I wake up in an afterlife where I’m me and remember my life as me- “We apologize for the inconvenience” better damn well be the first thing I hear, followed by a comprehensive explanation of how the universe actually works and why it appeared so different while I was living in it.
As far as I can tell in a lot of ways the universe really is the elemental chaos that the existentially challenged are so terrified of. It just doesn’t bother me because I think we are or can make the meaning we’re so worried about elemental chaos not having, and we should do that instead of following myths that take energy from our efforts to continue surviving in the universe in ways that don’t suck. So I’ll be pretty goddamn put off if I die and it turns out the physical universe was apparently a big set up or illusion. If my physical body dies, but my consciousness and experience continues in some other realm, it implies a lot of deception or misperception that I’m not comfortable with. So if there’s anybody else around when I wake up that has anything to do with what’s going on, “We apologize for the inconvenience” better be the first thing they say to me or I’m just going to start throwing things.
Though all that said, I’ve read that Doug suggested the message written in those 30 foot letters was personalized for whoever saw it, and “We apologize for the inconvenience” was just what Marvin saw. So the fact that this resonates with me so well might just imply that in God’s eyes I’d be basically identical to an existentially crippled robot… that seems most right somehow.