April 26th, 2010


[OBSCURA] Uncle Lynx, "Deco entrance to the Palais Royale Dancehall (1922), Toronto"

The Palais Royale by Roncesvalles and Lake Ontario's a rather nice building. "Originally a dancehall on the second floor of a manufacturer of canoes, Dean's Pleasure Boats. In 1932 with new owners, it became "the dancehall" to hear big bands like Duke Ellington and Count Basie. Underwent controversial "renovations" in 2000. Architect: Alfred Chapman."

[LINK] "China's map leaps over the moon"

Over at Asia Times, Peter Brown's article takes a look at the recent discovery of the exact location on the Moon of the 1973 Soviet Lunokhod-2 unmanned rover. The state of the art in lunar mapping is advancing just barely more rapidly than the desire of interested Terrans to find things on the Moon's surface.

In March, Phil Stooke, a Canadian professor at the University of Western Ontario's Center for Planetary Science and Exploration, solved the mystery that began in June 1973 when all communications between Lunokhod-2 and its Soviet controllers back on Earth ceased, after completing several months of work on the lunar surface. Stooke pinpointed its location using data and imagery generated by US National Aeronautics and Space Administration's (NASA) Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO).

Stooke is one of the world's leading experts on lunar geography and the author of The International Atlas of Lunar Exploration, published in 2007. He made his discovery on the evening of March 15 after spending a few hours examining pictures of the moon taken by the LRO.

"The idea that the rover was lost for 37 years, as is often reported, is a bit exaggerated - its position was known approximately, just not exactly," said Stooke. "I regard what I did as finding the rover in an image, rather than finding it on the moon."

[. . .]

With the LRO imagery in hand, Stooke could easily observe such things as where Lunokhod-2's operator in Russia drove it back and forth in order to allow it to carry out its detailed measurement of the moon's magnetic field. And the small crater where Lunokhod-2's radiator became covered in dust was easily spotted, too. It was that dust that triggered an overheating of the rover and soon terminated the Lunokhod-2 mission as a result.

"Lunokhod-2 was easy to find - I knew roughly where to look and as soon as I did its tracks stood out easily. That's in stark contrast with the first rover, Lunokhod - 1, whose tracks were almost invisible. The Russians found that one. I probably would not have found it," said Stooke.

[BLOG-LIKE POSTING] On what to do about those aliens

Most of you have already read about Stephen Hawking's fears that, if we humans of Earth are ever contacted by extraterrestrials, we'll become as one with the Neanderthals.

According to a new documentary series he has made for the Discovery Channel : "If aliens visit us, the outcome would be much as when Columbus landed in America, which didn't turn out well for the Native Americans."

Hawking believes we would be well-advised to keep the volume down on our intergalactic chatter and do all we can to prevent any "nomadic" aliens moseying our way to take a look-see. Should they find us here tucked away in the inner reaches of the solar system, chances are they'd zap us all and pillage any resources they could get their hands on. Our own history, says Hawking, proves that first encounters very rarely begin: "Do take a seat. I'll pop the kettle on. Milk? Sugar?"

"Such advanced aliens would perhaps become nomads, looking to conquer and colonise whatever planets they can reach," says the theoretical physicist in Into the Universe with Stephen Hawking. "To my mathematical brain, the numbers alone make thinking about aliens perfectly rational. The real challenge is to work out what aliens might actually be like."

Any alien who manages to reach Earth is, by definition, going to be far more advanced than us. Contrary to the claims of our own alien abductees, Hawking thinks it unlikely aliens will come all this way just to prod and poke us, take some samples, and pop back home in time for Show and Tell. Logic dictates that we will be the Stoke to their Chelsea.

The general theme of my blogged postings here concerning the likelihood of extraterrestrial life has been my hope that plenty of life's out there but there isn't much intelligent life--or, at least, that there aren't many technology-using intelligent species out there, at least not in our neighbourhood. GNXP's Razib Khan shares in my general concern. Whether a civilization would be as explicitly malevolent as the one featured in Greg Bear's 1987 The Forge of God or emotionally distanced as our use of chimpanzees as pets, laboratory animals, or food sources, a vastly more capable civilization could easily annihilate us.

Is there hope for us if we've been found? In his post "How do you say "realpolitik" in Klingon? ", Daniel Drezner suspects so, wondering if Hawking's recommended policy of hiding makes all that much sense. Yes, people have already started to try to make contact with extraterrestrial species, but they've done so not knowing anything. Mightn't it make sense to try to find out who, if anyone, is out there?

In space, does anybody understand the security dilemma? In international relations, there is at least full information about who the other actors are and where they are located. Clearly, we lack this kind of information about the known universe.

What Hawking is suggesting, however, is that efforts to collect such information would in and of themselves be dangerous, because they would announce our presence to others. He might be right. But shoiuldn't that risk be weighed against the cost of possessing a less robust early warning system? Isn't it in Earth's interests to enhance its intelligence-gathering activities?

And, if anyone out there is at an at all comparable level of productive capacity, mightn't we be able to exert a certain amount of agency? (The Romulans had their happy client planets, I'm sure. "And I, for one ...")

Centauri Dreams' perspective is the most hopeful in the classical optimistic sense.

My guess is that if there are other civilizations in the galaxy at the present time and if we at some point do encounter them, we’ll have a lot of trouble figuring out what they’re after, where they’re going, or what their motives are. Let’s hope such an encounter would be benign enough for us to learn, ponder and muse about the unfathomability of intelligence that has evolved elsewhere. Maybe we would be able to communicate enough to acquire deep knowledge, but I suspect the idea that there is an Encyclopedia Galactica out there to be studied is a chimera. The real Encyclopedia Galactica is more likely to be the one we build with science, one whose entries we refine with new observation and experiment.

A 2002 Roper poll taken in the US found that most Americans are ‘comfortable with and even excited about’ the discovery of an extraterrestrial culture. If the poll is accurate, Hawking’s ideas will probably strike most of its respondents as alarmist in tone, and reminiscent of a particular kind of bad science fiction movie. The problem is that we have only one example to work with, our own. We can see what has happened in the history of our species to cultures that have met superior technologies, but when it comes to encounters with entirely different beings, we have no template to fall back upon.

That leaves us guessing, a pleasurable human activity that is a long way from science. I think alien nomads in massive starships are a lot less likely than alien bacteria, but we press on with the search for both kinds of life and anything that may exist in between.

I prefer Centauri Dreams' vision.

[BLOG-LIKE POSTING] On Edmond Perrier, La Vie dans les planètes, and exobiology

Bad Astronomy's Phil Plait recently linked to the first entry in one David Friedman's new blog, Sunday Magazine. There, every Friday, Friedman will "post the most interesting articles from the New York Times Sunday Magazine that was published exactly 100 years ago that weekend." What caught Bad Astronomy's attention was Friedman's linking and reproduction of an 24 March 1912 New York Times Sunday Magazine article "French Savant Tells of Life on Venus and Mars," describing French biologist Edmond Perrier's speculations on the alterations of basically Earth-type life to the then-believed conditions on Venus and Mars.

"FRENCH SAVANT TELLS OF LIFE ON VENUS AND MARS: Conditions Resemble Those on the Earth"

The article is drawn from La Vie dans les planètes, a 1911 tome written by one Edmond Perrier. Perrier was a leading French biologist (or "zoologist") of Third Republic France, a grand systematizer of systems whose The Philosophy of Zoology Before Darwin), translated into English and republished in 2009, is representative of his general project of giving structure to the intellectual universe of humanity. (There's a school named after him in his native Limousin, actually.)

There's a certain novelty value to Perrier's predictions, yes, but looking over the summary it's actually a fairly respectable attempt to imagine what living organisms and ecosystems would be like on other worlds. Life on Earth fits a system, therefore life on Earth's sister worlds must share this system.

Life must begin under the same conditions on all the planets. Made up of infinitesimal atoms it must have appeared throughout the planets wherever the necessary atoms could be brought together. The sun and the planets being in realiyt but one body these atoms must behave everywhere in the same manner, and wherever similar conditions ar efound there will be similar results. Where conditions are dissimila results will differ in a manner that we can perhaps calculate.

The gas giants are too cool and low-density to support life, these worlds' moons aren't considered at all, while of the four inner worlds Mercury is too dense and hot. Venus and Mars, thankfully, lie within the ecosphere of Sol, at the inner and outer edges respectively. Venus, a world of perpetual heat and humidity, with habitable poles and desert equatorial lands, is predicted as having the sort of very stable environment that would slow down evolution, with complexity coming about organizations of social insects like bees rather than complex animals like human beings. Mars, with its lower mass, lower global temperature, and a climate prone to greater extremes than Earth's, would be a world where evolution advanced rapidly, where warm-blooded and furred animals would flourish and Martians would build their advanced civilizations. Yes, they would be pale-skinned and narrow-jawed and broad-chested and slender-legged, there would be "small beauty about them, to our way of thinking, except for the intelligence of their expression," but these evolved beings would have built a civilization of peace and plenty. As Venus would be Earth's past, so would Earth be Mars'.

Perrier was wrong about the characteristics of Venus and Earth. Venus orbits Sol too closely to escape a supereffective greenhouse effect, and besides has a day much too long (243 Earth days versus its year of 224.7 Earth days) to produce an environment as Earth-like as Perrier predicted, while Mars would only be as Earth-like as Perrier had hoped it would be if it was a denser world able to hold on to a dense atmosphere. By the time that La Vie dans les planètes was published, the first signs that Perrier's predictions would be proven false might have already come with the spectrographs of the atmospheres of Venus and Mars revealing atmospheres made up mostly of carbon dioxide, not the oxygen necessary for animal life.

But still, Perrier's predictions don't strike me as as being all that unreasonable, not judged by the knowledge of the time and not necessarily all that much by the knowledge of ours. Stable environments might well diminish evolutionary pressures; cold inhospitable ones might well encourage warm-bloodedness and the development of fur and other like traits. And if, as one might expect, the same evolutionary pressures in the same environments would produce similar technology-using intelligent species, one might naturally expect that the species with the older history would be the wiser. These are all assumptions, but again, they're not inherently unreasonable ones. If Venus was in the right sort of orbit (and quicker-turning) and Mars was more massive, Perrier might well be a famous prophet. As is, I feel a bit sad that I hadn't heard of the man before now.