July 29th, 2010

[BLOG] Some Thursday links

  • At Beyond the Beyond, Bruce Sterling blogs about Russian spy Anna Chapman's surprisingly high post-arrest profile. Cheesecake photos and spies mix!

  • Eastern approaches examines the need to modernize Poland's railways.

  • Joe. My. God. writes about the deputy mayor of Jerusalem, who responded to that city's impending gay pride march by promising to organize a donkey pride march. (No, he's not queer-friendly. You needed to ask?)

  • Language Hat blogs about one American student's encounter with language chauvinism in Central Asia, here, on an Uzbek promoter's hostility to a supposedly impoverished Persian.

  • Language Log explores the Mad Men writers' commitment to using period-appropriate language in their scripts, and examines the use of English script to write Taiwanese morphemes.

  • At Marginal Revolution, Tyler Cowen makes an argument that private space exploration could receive heavy funding based on precedents of private funding of astronomical observatories.

  • Strange Maps' Frank Jacobs blogs the several proposals for a greater Switzerland, expanding from its Alpine base regardless of Qadaffi's hostility.

[BRIEF NOTE] Where is everyone? (Maybe we didn't install the new memory card yet.)

80 Beats' Andrew Moseman linked to a recent suggestion by physicist and science fiction writer Gregory Benford

Assuming that aliens would strive to optimize costs, limit waste and make their signaling technology more efficient, Benford and his twin, James — a fellow physicist who specializes in high-powered microwave technology — suggest the signals would not be steadily blasted out in all directions. Extraterrestrials would be more likely to send narrow "searchlight" beams delivered in pulses.

"This approach is more like Twitter and less like 'War and Peace,'" said James Benford, founder and president of Microwave Sciences Inc., in Lafayette, Calif. The Benford twins, along with James' son Dominic, a NASA scientist, detailed their findings in two studies appearing in the June issue of the journal Astrobiology.

The Benfords suggest a continuous signal blared at thousands of stars would simply cost too much energy. They say aliens might use short bursts — say, anywhere from a second to an hour long — and point these signals in narrow beams at one star and then another in a cycle involving up to thousands of stars that repeats over days or years.

For civilizations that constantly watch the skies, the bursts would convey enough data to be recognized as undeniably artificial. As observant civilizations concentrated on this simple beacon, other beacons could broadcast more complex data at lower power (assuming the aliens were still pursuing a frugal strategy).

It would be reasonably simple to build such a beacon--for various only moderately eccentric definitions of "reasonably simple"--but then, where is everyone else. Fermi's paradox comes into play, as Charlie Stross noted in a blog posting of his own titled "Mediocrity": "There are plenty of stars old enough that, if intelligent space-going life has a non-zero probability of emerging, our galaxy should long since have been overrun. And if not, why do we detect no signs of extraterrestrial intelligence?" After discussing the possibility that interstellar expansion might be impossible because aspiring colonists simply have to take too much too far from home to build a functioning society, Stross brings up last night's simulation argument again.

Loosely stated, the simulation argument runs thuswise (pace wikipedia): it is taken as axiomatic that consciousness is an emergent property of physics (i.e. there's no ghost in the machine), and that we can simulate physical systems. Thus, it is possible in principle to construct a software simulation of a world inhabited by intelligent beings who will perceive that world as real. It then follows that either no civilization will ever reach a technological level capable of constructing such simulations, or that every civilization capable of doing so will choose not to do so for some reason, or ... we're probably living in a simulation (because any civilization capable of running a civ-sim is liable to do so many, many times; so the number of sim-civilizations will vastly outnumber the number of authentic ones, and by the principle of mediocrity we are not exceptional).

heteromeles' suggestions is somewhat disturbing.

That's the problem with the simulation paradox: the system crashes when there are too many entities within it interacting. This would make a great disaster for a novel: the heroes are in a world which will crash, say in 2012, because the simulation will break down. At that point, most of the population will be destroyed by the system tools who are trying to do a new build to get reality up and running again. Our heavenly sysop may have to declare an apocalypse, and once things are working again, he may have to monitor it for quite a while to make sure it doesn't crash again.....


[BRIEF NOTE] On a new model exploring extraterrestrial civilization

Back at Charlie Stross' "Mediocrity," commenter Rick York pointed to an interesting new approach to the question of where extraterrestrial civilizations are, in the arXiv-hosted paper "Where is everybody? -- Wait a moment ... New approach to the Fermi paradox".

[T]here is another take on the problem thanks to a new approach by Igor Bezsudnov and Andrey Snarskii at the National Technical University of Ukraine.

Their approach is to imagine that civilisations form at a certain rate, grow to fill a certain volume of space and then collapse and die. They even go as far as to suggest that civilisations have a characteristic life time, which limits how big they can become.

In certain circumstances, however, when civilisations are close enough together in time and space, they can come into contact and when this happens the cross-fertilisation of ideas and cultures allows them both to flourish in a way that increases their combined lifespan.

Bezsudnov and Snarskii point out that this process of spreading into space can be easily modelled using a cellular automaton. And they've gone ahead and created their own universe using a 10,000 x 10,000 cell automaton running over 320,000 steps.

The parameters that govern the evolution of this universe are simple: the probability of a civilisation forming, the usual lifespan of such a civilisation and the extra bonus time civilisations get when they meet.

The result gives a new insight into the Fermi Paradox. Bezsudnov and Snarskii say that for certain values of these parameters, the universe undergoes a phase change from one in which civilisations tend not to meet and spread into one in which the entire universe tends to become civilised as different groups meet and spread.

Bezsudnov and Snarskii even derive an inequality that a universe must satisfy to become civilised. This, they say, is analogous to the famous Drake equation which attempts to quantify the number of other contactable civilisations in the universe right now.

The Drake equation is a famous equation developed by physicist Frank Drake to define the parameters governing the possibility of communicative extraterrestrial civilizations. See below for the cut and paste from Wikipedia.

The Drake equation states that:

N = R* * fp * ne * fl * fi * fc * L


N = the number of civilizations in our galaxy with which communication might be possible;


R* = the average rate of star formation per year in our galaxy
fp = the fraction of those stars that have planets
ne = the average number of planets that can potentially support life per star that has planets
fℓ = the fraction of the above that actually go on to develop life at some point
fi = the fraction of the above that actually go on to develop intelligent life
fc = the fraction of civilizations that develop a technology that releases detectable signs of their existence into space
L = the length of time such civilizations release detectable signals into space

Bezsudnov and Snarskii present their modification to the Drake equation in this way.

Civilizations are born with the probability n and have the initial life time (time of expansion) T0 set in advance after which they die (disappear or cease to show itself). Contact of developing Civilizations increases actual life time for everyone contacted on a certain extra time, named further a time bonus Tb . We will refer to this model as a Bonus Stimulated model (BS-model).

Further we will use terminology adapted for discussion of Fermi paradox even though the offered model can describe and another phenomena. It is possible to offer the analogy to economy, and in this instance the initial lifetime 0 T is a seed capital of the new formed company. Also this capital defines time of company’s independent life, while association process of this company with other companies stimulate the further development, increasing stability of existence of association by b T value etc.

Arguably, the Bezsudnov-Snarskii thesis is hopeful: we might just have to wait. (Definitions of "we" have to vary.)

Modern, certainly, not indisputable, estimations for N are the values of an order of 1, (more precisely (10) from 0.05 to 5000). The same estimation is also true for any other Civilization in our Universe, hence, Intellect should extend on all of the Universe. While this fact did not happened yet, unfortunately, or to be more precise we are not included yet in this global process which, probably, already going on!

[. . .]

Fermi paradox: proposed and investigated BS-model is moderately optimistic. It is shown that there exists a scenario when at the given moment almost all Civilizations are lonely– «there is nothing», however after some, sufficiently prolong time Civilizations will get into a contact and the Universe as a whole becomes civilized. Conclusion is that it is necessary to wait!

This thesis appeals to my liking for non-zero sum solutions.

[LINK] "Kepler’s Early Results Suggest Earth-Like Planets Are Dime-a-Dozen"

Continuing today's theme of "What's out there?", the ever-useful 80 Beats some time ago linked to the news that NASA's Kepler planet-hunting missions is finding more than enough small Earth-sized planets to give us reason to believe that worlds like Earth are quite, quite common.

Sasselov did say that what Kepler has learned so far about extrasolar planets offers tantalizing hints that our planet may not be unusual.

Among the hundreds of candidate planets, a large percentage of them appear to be Earth-like – that is, small and rocky, rather than large and gassy, like Jupiter.

"Even before we have confirmed the planets among these hundreds of candidates, we can see statistically that the smaller-sized planets will be more common than the large-sized (Jupiter- and Saturn-like ones) in the sample," Sasselov explained.

That's good news for scientists who hope to one day detect life on another planet. Since life as we know it is thought to require water and Earth-like conditions, planets that look a lot like ours could be habitable.

To date, using a variety of methods, astronomers have confirmed almost 500 planets beyond our solar system, Sasselov said. So far, most of these definitive planet finds have been of the gas giant variety, but that's because they're easier to spot than planets like Earth.

Earth-sized isn't Earth-like, not necessarily, but it does offer up that potential.