A Breath of (Extrasolar) Air

Yeah, I know, I’m supposed to be face-down in work.  And I am, I am.  But this is just too cool to let pass without pointing it out:  a team out of Santa Cruz and Carnegie have tagged a potentially habitable planet around Gliese 581.

And they did it with a good  old-fashioned ground-based telescope.  If they can get in the ballpark with that old tech, I bet there are shitloads of similar worlds out there.  Maybe this will convince the powers that be to take the Darwin and the Terrestrial Planet Finder programs out of limbo.

Anyway, that’s all I have time for now.  I do have something I’d like to run by you if I have another break over the next few days, though.  A neurological argument for the existence of God.

Yeah, you read that right.  But it’s my argument (as far as I know), not held by any legitimate authorities.  So don’t get your hopes up.

Stay warm.

This entry was written by Peter Watts , posted on Thursday September 30 2010at 04:09 am , filed under astronomy/cosmology, science . Bookmark the permalink . Post a comment below or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.

41 Responses to “A Breath of (Extrasolar) Air”

  1. I read about this yesterday, actually. Very interesting. Unfortunately, though, not exactly practical. It’ll be some time before we’re “out and about”, if you will.

    And, stay “warm”? It’s ninety degrees with 98% humidity here.

  2. Orbital period of only 37 days? I don’t want to live there, thanks.

  3. Dude, think of the up side: you’d get summer vacation every *month*!

    And it’s always balmy on the terminator…

  4. I’ve been reading this report all over and have a few thoughts. First, there’s this tidbit from the article:

    “To astronomers, a “potentially habitable” planet is one that could sustain life, not necessarily one that humans would consider a nice place to live. Habitability depends on many factors, but liquid water and an atmosphere are among the most important.”

    *Not necessarily one that humans would consider a nice place to live.* You’d think that they wouldn’t bury the lead like that. But hey, this is science writing, and they have to do anything they can to get the dim-witted public to even give a shit.

    Also, does it have a nickel-iron core? Without a magnetic field, I think we’re all in for a nice dose of rads from Gilese 581.

    Even if all of the factors were in balance, and conditions would allow us to exit the spacecraft in our finest resort-wear, who’s to say we’d survive the day?

    Neil deGrasse Tyson gives a funny presentation about all the things on our own planet that have evolved to kill us. Think about all of the plant toxins, animal poisons and natural phenomena that are utterly deadly to humans. That’s on the world that we evolved on (or were placed here by the benevolent god-creature of your choosing). Imagine how the human body would react to a world full of alien tree spores, fanged insects and sharks with fricken’ lasers on their heads.

    Seriously, you guys go ahead, I’ll just hang out here in the ship for a little while. Text me in a few days once you’ve found that village full of hot native girls.

  5. It would be intresting to see that argument _for_ the existence of God. Assuming the free will as His preference in humans, there should be no arguments for the existence of God whatsoever. Otherwise he is influencing humans. That’s one of the theories at least.

  6. @Ken–There’s a strong argument that extraterrestrial life would not interact with human physiology at all–that is, alien neurotoxins wouldn’t work on us, nor alien virii (at least for a couple of months), exactly because we weren’t around for them to coevolve with us. The flip side of that is that we wouldn’t be able to digest anything that grows there; it would either send us into anaphylactic shock or just pass through undigested, so there’d be nothing to eat that we didn’t bring with us. Likewise Earth plants wouldn’t be able to grow unless we imported Earth dirt for them to grow in…

  7. Neurological? God? Is consciousness– the exquisite binding of the “internal reality” and “external reality” (the universe)– somehow evidence
    of a higher power? I’d be tempted to go in the other direction.

  8. @ Flanders – Stupid Sexy Flanders! Always making reasonable arguments against my carefully thought-out rants!

    You do make a good point though. We might be safe for a while, until our immune systems catch up.

    I wonder what the Supreme Squid has to say about this. What are the realistic ramifications for one species to visit another world? The truth is, the state of this science is in such an infant stage, that all we can do is engage in conjecture. We might go out there and discover that all life has the same basis, letting us eat the local produce and distill delicious whiskey out of the alien mash.

    MMMM. Whiskey.

  9. @Mike: has anyone proven that the external world actually exists? No? I’ll go give myself a congratulatory stroke for carrying around a pugnacious biologist or two in my head then.

    Proof of God? That’s a slippery slope with a sharp drop-off into the land of hairy palms and guilt, sir.

  10. I look forward to that argument!

  11. @solipsist: he said argument, not proof, two very different things =)

  12. @Flanders As you say, viruses and bacteria (or their extraterrestrial equivalents) might not do much to us, but macrofauna could still “interact with our physiology” (there’s a good phrase: “Back off, buddy, or I’m gonna interact with your physiology”). Large critters could well snap at something without bothering themselves as to whether it’s ultimately tasty (look at the things you find in shark’s stomachs).

    I suspect that large animals are fairly few and far between in the cosmos, and ‘prokaryotic slime’ (to borrow Dr Watts’ own phrase) probably doesn’t pose much of a threat. Still, there’s an argument to be made that any exoplanet that offered us a shirtsleeve environment could still have things that, even if not compatible with us at the protein level, might have ingrained behaviors that would cause them to chomp on us or drill holes in us. Some would be discouraged by the fact that we didn’t smell right, but perhaps not all of them.

    Incidentally, Larry Niven was the first writer I read who addressed the question of incompatible biologies: his protagonist Louis Wu describes surviving an attack by a “Gummidgy reacher” only because the critter decides to swallow a chunk of his flesh before finishing him off, and succumbs to instant toxic shock. Real life would probably be less kind: a large predator could easily administer a killing bite before deciding that you tasted icky and vomiting up your remains.

  13. Well, I don’t disagree that the old charismatic megafauna can go chompy chomp p’chewy chomp on our squishy bits just as well as it can on those of co-evolved critters; I was talking more along the lines of a reverse “War-of-the-Worlds” type scenario (or, for that matter, a straight-up “War-of-the-Worlds” scenario). With a caveat:

    Most large predators coevolved with their prey animals, and preferentially target them and avoid humans (note that most “man-eaters” are animals that have either become accustomed to human contact, or are already sick or injured to the extent that they can’t catch their preferred prey animals)–note there was an interesting, if incredibly depressing, take on this in “the Sparrow” by Maria Doria Russell. Large predators on alien worlds are very likely to just ignore us. Unless they’re alien alligators. Those bastards’ll eat anything.

  14. @angusm

    yes, the concept of incompatible biologies is something Golden Age SF writers never seemed to think of. Probably because it made space colonies so much more problematic.

  15. @Peter: Newer ground-based telescopes aren’t so old-fashioned. For example:
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Large_Binocular_Telescope#First_Light_Adaptive_Optics_system_.28FLAO.29

    This is the one they used:
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/W._M._Keck_Observatory

  16. I am sure that it is an urban myth (oceanic myth?) that sharks don’t like the taste of humans. But I hear that their samplings are not too pleasant.

  17. It is not a myth, and it is “great whites”, not sharks in general. Great whites feed mostly on seals, which are incredibly fat by human (or any terrestrial mammal) standards. In captivity great whites had shown preference to fatty meat. And in just about every fatal attack by a great white, the victim was not consumed, but bled to death. It is pretty clearly the case of “bite, Ewww! spit”

    OTOH, bull sharks, tiger sharks and oceanic whitetips pretty clearly DO like how humans taste…

  18. Makos too, IIRC. I’m given to believe that a good number of “great white” attacks are actually mako shark attacks.

  19. A neurological argument for the existence of God.

    *perks up*

  20. Meh. I prefer conversations about whether or not alien megafauna will actually devour you or just spit you out after one lethal bite.

  21. Meh. I prefer conversations about whether or not alien megafauna will actually devour you or just spit you out after one lethal bite.

    I’m interested because I don’t think he can do it.

    But, yeah, alien megafauna spit > a theoichthiophobia center in the brain

  22. It’s just that, if God-the-creator-of-all-things exists, He (or She) has done such a good job covering Her (or His, or Its) tracks that maybe we should think about respecting Its (or His, or Her, or Their) obvious desire for privacy. They (or He, or She, or It), is probably doing just fine, whether we believe in Him (or Her, &c.) or not.

  23. I’m interested because I don’t think he can do it.

    If what’s past is prologue, it will be very interesting in any case.

  24. I’ve heard quite a few variations on neurological arguments for the existence of God from religious apologists—it’ll be interesting, though, to see one with a Wattsian spin.

  25. I hope it’s suitably depressing.

  26. I’m looking forward to it, but I don’t see how he’s going to get around Clark’s law.

  27. Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic?

  28. Also, may I say this: the sole point of an elegant theory is not correctness – the elegance is also an important consideration.

    Beauty of form, recursiveness, broad capability expressable in a compact form, or the obscure meaning that must be gotten through careful reading. Predictive ability. Symmetry. Layers of meaning. Connectedness to other disciplines. You get points for that, I feel.

    And.

    Wrestling with arcania is what man is built for; it’s one of the things that makes us great. It’s the whetstone on which our wits are sharpened.

  29. Peter Watts IS the neurological argument for the existence of God.

  30. H, yes, that’s Clark’s law, I’m sure there’s an agnostism corrolary. A sufficiently advanced physics experiment could trigger a universe. I’m not even convinced that the [spoiler] in Sagan’s book would count as proof.

    (aside, I’m in the choir. I’m not skeptical that he’ll do a bang up elegant job, I’m just skeptical that it will be foolproof.)

  31. Elmtree, ha!

    Flanders, Haha! “I respect its privacy.” (Gross Point Blank)

  32. if God uses Peter Watts as an argument for his existence, that’s going to be the biggest irony since, well, losing my religion at a fundamentalist law school.

  33. @Sheila: “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic” is actually Clarke’s law. Clark’s law is “Sufficiently advanced cluelessness is indistinguishable from malice.”

    Clarke’s Law is the third of a triplet of laws, one being “When a distinguished but elderly scientist states that something is possible, he is almost certainly right. When he states that something is impossible, he is probably wrong.” The other one is “If you’re working in a job that requires security clearance in 1950′s Britain and you’re gay, no matter how brilliant you are, you’re better off packing it in for Sri Lanka.”

  34. Although I am drawn towards any theology that takes Clark (no “e”)’s law into account. ;)

  35. I could sure use a breath of fresh air, extrasolar or otherwise…

    Hawai’i oceanic tiger sharks (mano) do eat humans and parts of humans…

  36. “Great whites feed mostly on seals, which are incredibly fat by human (or any terrestrial mammal) standards.”

    I’m not sure about that. Have you hung out around any McDonalds or KFCs lately? However, these people are not likely to be surfing, paddling, or doing anything else that requires exertion other than doing whatever it takes move a McNugget from the tray, to the dipping sauce, and then to the mouth..

  37. Actually, total fat content isn’t that much different between seals, dolphins, and people. Bottlenose dolphins can be around 20-30% blubber IIRC– harbour seals can be up to 40%. Belugas are real porkers, they can be over half blubber.

    But 20-30% fat isn’t all that uncommon in humans; the difference is, our fat is spread throughout the body (in intestinal mesentery, etc). Seals concentrate all their fat subcutaneously, for maximum insulation; their organ cores are really lean.

  38. And for some weird reason I read that as a ‘neurological argument with God.’ Huh…cool idea, but needs a greasy fighting ring and lotsa old fat guys huffing stogies.

  39. Very eenteresting. So people store fat internally because they need minimum insulation, or they need to insulate their organs more? Or is this not about insulation or heat dissipation in people. Anybody? Bueller?

    @Brycemeister: LaidEEZ and GENtleMEN.. Are you ready to RUMBLE! WWF proudly presents The Genesis 32 ALL-NITE SMACK DOWN!

  40. OT:
    You will be pleased author Chris Farnsworth (Blood Oath) just gave a shout-out to you and Blindsight in a Minnesota public radio discussion of vampire and zombie novels.

  41. Yes, the orbital period is just 37 days long, but the planet actually recieves a little less heat from its star than the Sun, because it is a faint red dwarf, so don’t get alarmed, this can be a truly habitable planet, however its existence along with planet f is unconfirmed yet.