NASA’s big announcement yesterday makes me hopeful for the future. They found 7 rocky, roughly Earth-sized planets orbiting in (or close enough to with the correct percentage of greenhouse gases in their atmosphere) the Goldilocks Zone, orbiting a single Red Dwarf star. The seven planet’s orbits are spaced very closely together in order to achieve this, but aligned very evenly, and where a star like the Sun has a lifetime of 10 billion years, a Red Dwarf star has a lifetime measured between 1 trillion and 10 trillion years. If I was a Type II civilization, that’s the kind of stellar environment I would want to park my habitable planets in, and looking at TRAPPIST-1 it looks suspiciously like that’s what might be going on there. The range of size and temperature environments each planet is subject to would work particularly well for a multi-species civilization who’s members evolved on different planets.
How will we find out if that is what’s going on here? Without a wildly improbable series of breakthroughs in physics with the associated applied engineering needed to build Warp Drive Starships, or a visit to our solar system by someone who has already done that, we probably won’t find out for sure in our lifetimes. But next year the James Webb Telescope goes into orbit, with a full sensor suite specifically designed to tell us more about everything from the planets of our local solar system, to exoplanets, to distant galaxies. You can believe TRAPPIST-1 has been put high on it’s priority list of the things they want it to examine first. The spectrum’s from each of those planets will tell the tale; if the ones closer in have almost no greenhouse gases, the ones farther out have a lot, and they all show traces of oxygen and organic compounds like Methane, we may have neighbors. Which would pretty much mark this week as the most important one of any of our lives.
If you didn’t recognize the reference to Type II Civilizations, in 1964, Nikolai Kardashev came up with the Kardashev Scale which measured a Civilization by the amount of energy it could utilize, which would in part be a function of its level of technology. On that scale, we are technically a Type 0, although Carl Sagan refined it a bit and considered us a Type 0.7, possibly making it to Type 1 within a hundred years or so, assuming we survive that long. You can learn more about it at David Darling’s Kardashev civilizations or Guillermo A. Lemarchand’s Detectability of Extraterrestrial Technological Activities from way back in 1992 (which explains why the web site looks so primitive). I am also including a video from physicist Michio Kaku that explains it rather well.
The folks at Blitab have created a tablet with a touch screen to search and select with, but it is not the main display. Instead it translates text from the Web and other digital sources into Braille at about 65 words per display (depending on what you are reading). There have been Braille display devices for a while, but they have been limited to a single line which can only hold about 5 words on average by moving rigid pins up and down to form each letter. They also cost thousands of dollars. The Blitab Braille display uses layers of fluids and a special proprietary membrane they aren’t talking about to form an entire screen’s worth of words, and when they finish refining it they plan to put it on sale in the fall for around $500. Using it 8 hours a day to read will give you a battery life of 5 days, a discharge rate I wish my own tablet could match. This has the potential to open up a lot of the online world and its resources to the visually impaired at an affordable price in a way that has never been available to them before. There is a similar project in development at the University of Michigan, but so far it is mostly in the research stage. Thanks to the MIT Technology Review for the heads up on this one.
This weekend you can swing by the UK’s National Space Centre for an out of this world experience featuring the Science of the Time Lords exhibit. On the 28th and 29th they will be doing a presentation about the science behind the UK’s most popular TV franchise, Doctor Who. Each year they set up a fun family weekend where they look at the fact behind the fiction of this iconic program, and this time they are focusing on the core concept of the show: Time Travel and the ultimate Time Lord vehicle, the TARDIS! The schedule includes workshops, competitions, challenges, talks, exhibitions, and so much more. The exhibits I would most like to see in person include the fully realized recreation of the 1978 TARDIS Control Room from the Tom Baker era, and the Members of the UK 15th Cyber Legion showing off their costumes and detailing how you can create your own. From my perspective, the only down side to these events are the fact that they will be happening on a continent different from the one I live on. I intend to do my best to attend next year, though!
Picturehouse teamed up with the Science Museum in the UK to give away 10 pairs of tickets to the Robots exhibition. Why is this important enough to mention, even though the odds of my stopping by before it closes are slim to zip? Because I wish I could be there, and if I mention it you might manage to actually make it. This isn’t a collection of metal boxes with faces painted on them; it is the 500-year-old story of humanoid robots and what it means to be human. The presentation is set in five different periods and places, with over 100 robots, 15 of which still work today. If you are one of the luck few that manage to attend this display, I would be grateful if you could take a few pictures and send them my way, so I could post them here. The exhibition will be running from from February 8th to the 3rd of September 2017, so you have a bit of time to catch it.
The scariest part of this movie is that we have already successfully completed the initial experiments that will give us this technology. Mindgamers is about what could happen once you can hack the human mind, remotely or otherwise, focusing on just two (out of 200 or so choices we might decide to explore) of the potential uses. The first use is controlling the action of another human remotely through a neural connection network, and that was accomplished in the real world about 5 years ago. The second is recording the total gestalt needed to embed a given skill set to another human by playing it back directly into their brain. I am in favor of that when the new skill set I will be learning is how to fly a jet or play the violin. I am not so enthusiastic when it might be used to convince me who to vote for, pray to, or buy from. We don’t have that technology yet, but my best guestimate is we are only 5 years out from making it work. The first video is the MindGamer Movie trailer, and it looks like it is going to be a not-to-be-missed monster on the big screen.
My favorite of the earlier movies exploring this topic was 1983’s Brainstorm, starring Christopher Walken, Natalie Wood, Louise Fletcher and Cliff Robertson. It is the second video here, and considers the consequences of being able to record what one person experiences, and play it back so someone else can also directly experience it. Brainstorm memory storage was based on Beta tape recording media, state of the art tech for that time and the only option for storage density compact enough to save everything they implied to be included. The film inspired 1984’s Dreamscape and a handful of others, none of which understood how it could actually be made to happen, but each of them took one aspect of the implications and explored them. Most of them have some very scary stories to relate to us, a lot less positive than Brainstorm itself.
The third video included here is the real world success report on one person controlling another remotely through a brain-to-brain interface that can be built from $100 worth of parts slaved to a power supply, a couple of antennas, and a few RF/Neural Link interfaces. I am sure it will be no comfort when I tell you that you can do the same job for a third of the cost and half the parts these days, since the technology has advanced that much. The only good news is that if you learn to recognize the gear and processes used, you run a much better chance of avoiding becoming a victim yourself!
Today would have been Carl Sagan’s 82nd birthday, a man who was one of my primary inspirations (along with Albert Einstein, Robert A Heinlein, and Nikola Tesla). He brought an appreciation of astronomy and the cosmos to the masses, he co-founded the Planetary Society, and he wrote some amazing books and articles. Want to put the recent political news on Earth in perspective? Watch his famous presentation Pale Blue Dot: