A Long, Long Time Ago Very Soon

 

New_Planet

Two weeks ago, astronomers made a huge discovery: for the first time in human history, we are able to witness the birth of a planet. The new planet, named PDS 70 b, is about 370 light years from earth. That means it is so far away, that what we’re seeing today actually happened 370 years ago, long before the foundation of the United States, before the birth of Johann Sebastian Bach. Centuries of human history transpired in that time. And yet, it will be billions of years before that planet is fully formed.

Scientists have discovered more than 1,000 of planets outside our solar system. Most of them orbit bizarrely close to their star. Others are super gas giants, many times the size of Jupiter. The methods used to discover these planets might explain why we have almost no found worlds that are potentially hospitable to human life. Eventually, we may have the ability to locate more planets outside our solar system, ones that are more like earth, with similar gravity. Perhaps someday we can determine whether a planet has a breathable atmosphere and similar diurnal cycle. Getting there is another issue altogether.

Assuming we could travel to the stars, as Carl Sagan hoped, we might decide to plant colonists on those worlds. Humans are fairly adaptable, so we could adjust to a different planetary rotation, where a day is 30 hours or 15 hours. The gravity could be weaker, like on Mars, or stronger. There might not be seasons. For the most part, those varying conditions occur on earth (except for the gravity bit). Residents north of the Arctic Circle experience long periods of daylight and darkness, depending on the season. People in tropical regions experience summer all year. People living in Nepal and Bolivia breathe thinner air than most of us.

With the turmoil of our current world, it’s easy to feel like we can’t possibly survive long enough to find our way out there. Some might question why we should even bother, with all the problems we’re facing here. We can’t seem to resolve our own conflicts without killing each other, not to mention that there are people literally dying to find a better life for themselves and their families. Refugees are turned away. Families are separated. Humanity isn’t looking like it’s worth saving.

But we could start over. Travel across the galaxy to a new world. Do it right this time, we’ll tell ourselves. This world will possess none of the negative things we left behind on earth. How will we overcome our human nature? Will we have rid ourselves of our greed, our need for revenge, our taste for violence? How will we end bigotry and xenophobia? How will we rid ourselves of the worst parts of our nature?

It seems that the only way we can make it to this bright future is that we evolve. Traveling outside our solar system will require collaboration on a global scale. We will have to overcome many obstacles that currently plague humanity. Until we conquer these negative aspects, we are grounded. Our best chance is to work together. Human development has a long way to go. It might be thousands of years before we are capable of achieving this.

In the meantime, we’re stuck with each other. We will see changes in our world that would stupefy our ancestors, and our grandchildren will come to accept things that would leave us speechless. Our world will change dramatically in that time, a thousand generations from now. Languages will shift (modern English is less than 1000 years old), attitudes will change, cultural norms will be unrecognizable. A thousand generations ago, humans had just migrated to North America. The Great Pyramid would not be built for millennia. So much can change in that time. Everything will change.

Really, the thing I am concerned about is not whether we blow ourselves up. I am more concerned about a stray asteroid or a mutated virus. If we can survive these things, I’m sure we can travel to the stars. When we get there, I’m not sure we will still be human.

Advertisements

Resting, Period

IMG_1487.jpg

I Googled “are Americans sleep-deprived?” and there were so many results, that I couldn’t decide which one to link, so I’ll just let the reader do the work. Many articles confirmed my suspicion – something I’ve known about myself for years – that about 35% of Americans are not getting enough sleep. Many doctors, including mine, as well as researchers at the CDC, recommend adults get at least seven hours of sleep regularly. The thing is, sleeping through the night is not that easy, and, when you look at human history, it may not have been possible, at least for some groups. People who followed herds across vast plains may have needed to pick up and move at a moment’s notice. Also, the threat of lurking predators might have required sleeping with one eye open. A modern study was conducted on present-day hunter-gatherer groups, all in the equatorial area or in the southern hemisphere. It found that those groups’ sleep patterns were very much like those of industrialized cultures. These modern hunter-gatherers live somewhat cut off from other societies, with no electricity. The thought was that they would closely resemble our ancestors going back about 10,000 years (granted, they couldn’t reproduce every facet of the environment). So, if we are to accept the findings, all our electric lights, smartphones, monitors and screens of every kind, they are not necessarily to blame for the general sleep-deprived state of about a third of us. So why are we so exhausted all the time?

Everyone is different. I have a friend who really only needs about 5.5 hours of sleep every night. As for me, I am useless with less than 8. Lately I have found myself getting very sleepy, in spite of sitting in front of my computer, around 10:30. What I discovered is that since I have been working out more, especially training on hills, I’ve found I need more sleep. Apparently there is some science to this, but I was only getting results from body building sites when I Googled it. But I can say that after an intense workout (intense for me, a middle-aged office worker) I get sleepy earlier than usual, and I sleep “harder”. What I mean by this is my sleep is more resilient, more sound. My dreams tend to be more vivid, and I wake up with no soreness now. It seems that healing is among the benefits of sleep. The morning after a workout, if I’ve had enough sleep, I do not feel any pain I might have experienced while exercising, not that I’m pushing myself that hard, I’m just clawing my way back to a semblance of fitness, and I have a way to go.

About 15 years ago I decided to perform an experiment. I went without the use of any kind of alarm clock. I started this while I was on vacation, as it were, so I didn’t have to risk being super late for work if it went awry. The first morning was interesting. I woke up a little earlier than usual. I spent my day doing stay-cation kinds of things. That night, as I had pledged to do, I went to bed when I was sleepy. The next morning, I woke up, completely alert, at 5:25 am. That night, I was in bed around 9:45. I mean, I was out. That’s the thing about me: I have never had trouble falling to sleep. I just like to find things to do to keep my mind occupied. I continued living without an alarm clock for several months. That lasted until my job changed and I needed to work nights from time to time.

Sleep is kind of a waste of time. If we are to get 8 hours of sleep each night, that’s a significant portion of our time. Sure, we have artificially divided the day up into blocks of 60 minutes, regardless of how much daylight there is. 24 hours is non-negotiable in our society. So if I need more sleep than someone else, I feel cheated. Given the difference, I might waste the extra time. Maybe not. I’m guessing that the researchers who compiled the sleep data on those hunter-gatherers probably lost some sleep, working overtime. I hope they got paid well.

The Universe Fits in my Pocket and Other Paradoxes

Watching Rick and Morty has made me realize that people are now more accepting of the plausibility of a microverse and of a multiverse. There’s no actual proof of the existence of a parallel universe or infinite parallel dimensions, but we enjoy – or are terrified by – the idea that there is another us who made different choices, the right decisions, or went down the wrong path, or never existed.

Some theories suggest the existence of daughter universes, where every decision, a left turn rather than a right turn, leads to the creation of a whole new universe, one where you did turn left. Without getting into the theory of quantum mechanics, we can imagine that there are infinite probabilities. In Douglas Adams’ The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy a space ship was powered by an “infinite improbability drive” which employed the Brownian motion observed in the surface of a cup of hot tea, for example.

It is impossible to catalog every possibility. But outcomes can be predicted, within a given framework. For instance, meteorologists can predict when it is going to rain, with the help of software and measuring equipment. But the computer models lose their ability to accurately forecast the weather after about 24 hours. And in some places, like Central Oklahoma, April through June offer some of the most unpredictable scenarios. The probability of a tornado is very high in the Texas Panhandle. Storm chasers know what to look for, and sometimes capture amazing video like this one:

Theoretically, there is another world where this tornado did not form, if you believe we live in a multiverse. Do all these possibilities simultaneously exist?

Every week there are lotto drawings across the US and other countries. Many people buy one or more tickets (I routinely buy one, just in case). The paradox of the lottery is that everyone believes in the probability that at least one ticket will win the jackpot. Sometimes there are multiple winners. However, it is possible that no ticket will match the numbers, and thus no one wins. In fact, this happens often. The result is that more people are interested in the inflated payout and begin to purchase tickets. This makes the probability of a winner more likely. It was not reasonable to assume that no one would win, even though that result was possible for any given lotto drawing.

I love a good paradox, like saying “I always lie,” or a sign that reads, “free beer tomorrow”. The idea that there is another me, or infinite me’s, is unsettling. Is my life in the universe where I’m currently writing this post worse off than the one where I wrote this a year ago? Is it better than the universe where I haven’t written it? What about the one where I was born in the 18th century, or where humans currently live on Mars? Infinite possibility theory will blow your mind if you linger.

Somewhere there is a universe where I won the lottery. Maybe it’s this one, but it hasn’t happened yet. I’ll let you know when it does.

 

Is Telekinesis Real?

I think I’ve been considering whether telekinesis was a real thing ever since I saw “Escape to Witch Mountain”, which came out in 1975. In the movie, two children who possess remarkable mental powers are pursued by nefarious grown-ups who probably want to dissect them, for science. The children can move objects with their minds, thus defeating the bad guys, as I remember it. But the question shouldn’t be whether telekinesis is real; rather, we should ask if it is at least possible. It may not be scientifically responsible, but I’m going with it.

The popular basis for such powers is in that they come from the mind, from brain waves. This has been consistently and repeatedly disproven as the source of any Yoda-like power to move objects using only thought or “the force”. Purely brain-based manipulation does not appear to be at work here, if it’s really happening at all. So far, there’s no real evidence.

The Ted presentation in the first link above made a strong case for the non-existence of psycho-kinetic ability in humans. There is simply no real evidence that it’s real. But maybe it’s possible. The reason I say this is we are just now beginning to unravel the mystery of the human brain. This complicated organ has been beyond the realm of understanding for most of human history. Only recently has any real progress been made toward a breakthrough; yet we still aren’t sure what’s behind diseases like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s.

The brain is certainly amazing and misunderstood. But the probability for the human mind to have control over objects, as with telekinesis, is not likely. Brain waves have not proven to be able to extend beyond the human body. But what if it’s not the brain at work here? Well, at least not directly. In the way we can draw a connection that leads to brain activity, from the taste of an orange, the ability to tell when milk is sour, and the subtleties of textures like parchment paper or a worn out dollar bill, many of these senses are transmitted via nerve endings on fingertips, olfactory tissues, and tastebuds. But, yes, the brain deciphers the input. What sends these signals? It’s electrons.

We are all powered by electricity. Our brains, nerves, muscles, everything – they all receive electrochemical signals, which are essentially electrons moving through the body. We are made up of atoms, and the electrons are the tiny particles that move around the universe. Actually, according to quantum theory, and something proposed by Albert Einstein,  you can be in two places at once. Naturally, this sounds like science fiction, but a team of physicists recently proved Einstein was right. Therefore, if it is possible for part of your physical being to travel beyond your immediate perimeter, that is, farther than your reach, why then is it so unlikely that telekinesis and psychokinesis could be a reality?

If such a thing is truly possible, how would we control it? This is where the idea of mental ability comes in. Quantum states are not likely regulated by brain waves, but perhaps there are things we do not yet understand about how the brain works. We’ve already accepted this when it comes to diseases. And mental illness is not only misunderstood, but its treatment is still in the dark ages, relatively speaking.

A study in the 1980’s did confirm that Tibetan monks were capable of controlling their body temperatures.  Was this the result of disciplined manipulation of the blood vessels? If that’s all (and that’s no small feat), it could be possible to control other physical aspects, like how much electrical energy emanates from the body. Far-fetched though this may be, we simply do not know what we are not capable of at this point in our evolution. And isn’t that a wonderful and terrifying place to be?

I think the most exciting part of this quest is the unknown. A hundred years ago, transmitting images via microwaves was unthinkable. Now, television is starting to become obsolete. Change is fast and unpredictable. We’re making new discoveries frequently, and they often shatter our preconceptions about what we thought we knew.

Okay, sleep well.

 

 

I Know You’re Out There

I’d been wanting a telescope for a while. I had one when I was a kid. Later, my parents bought one for me and my brother, a reflector. It was small, but we were able to see the rings of Saturn and some of Jupiter’s moons. It was so cool to be able to see such things with my own eyes, that is, not in photographs, but looking at the actual planets and nebulae. We spent many hours in the back yard, late at night, looking to the skies.

I’ve read a lot of science fiction, and I’ve seen every episode of Star Trek TNG and Voyager. So, I’ve given the idea of extraterrestrial intelligence a lot of thought. I suppose most people don’t think about this much, and many don’t believe E.T. even exists. That might be true, but the universe is huge, and there’s bound to be at least one more world like ours out there. And scientists are discovering new planets every day. It’s a very exciting time to be alive. Within my lifetime, I believe we will send humans to Mars and further. I’m certain there is no limit to what we can accomplish.

If there are intelligent forms of life elsewhere in the universe, I wonder what they must think of us. We as a species make a lot of noise. We have been sending out radio and television transmissions for decades, now, and anyone with the most basic radio equipment could surely have picked up something by now. But do we really want Jerry Springer or Honey Boo-boo representing us to the galaxy. When some alien race does intercept our signals, they will see that we worship money, are highly fixated on the ideal human body; and we say we want to eat healthier food, and yet we continue to fill our bodies with poison.

If I were watching, I would seriously question the wisdom of visiting earth. The Arthur C. Clarke novel, Childhood’s End, portrayed this notion. Extra-terrestrial visitors were justifiably cautious about showing themselves (for good reason, as you will learn about halfway in). And human beings are, even to this day, decidedly superstitious and xenophobic. We hardly trust someone who doesn’t speak our language. In my country I am an outcast for promoting the metric system. Why do we believe we would not demonstrate our worst behaviour the moment first contact is initiated? Some of us will probably launch missiles. Others will panic and destroy themselves. Actually, we’re on our way to self-destruction without anyone’s help.

Well, this got depressing very quickly. My apologies. But while I appear to have absolutely no faith in humanity at this point in time, it should be noted that there is a lot of good in this world. Just listen to the works of Thomas Tallis, or contemplate the paintings of Van Gogh. I like to people watch. It’s a strange little game I play. I did it the other day, watching humans coming and going in a busy shopping area. It was fascinating to see people of all types, different shapes and sizes, clothing and hairstyle choices, the distinguished and the ludicrous, the ostentatious and the mundane. Oh, the humanity! But there were all are. We’re not easily dismissed, and you can’t put anyone into a single classification. Some of us are joyful, while others are contemplative and melancholy. Some are left-handed. Some of us are more creative than others. Some cannot discern red or green. Some of us are anxious. All of us are mortal.

If you are out there, here we are. We’re special, but we’re not remarkable, just like the stars in the sky. Some of them really shine. But there are so many that don’t even get a name. They have a number. But they’re all unique, like every human being. But I hope someday we will make contact. I hope we will be worthy of it. I hope that whoever represents the human race will not be a total embarrassment.

 

Is it Safe?

I was in a restaurant the other day when I caught a whiff of ammonia as one of the employees was spraying Windex liberally on tables and other surfaces to clean them after diners left. The whole place smelled of ammonia, and the fumes irritated my eyes and my throat. I mentioned it to a friend who told me it wasn’t such a big deal, and they needed to disinfect the tables after people ate there. I reminded my friend that you can disinfect using distilled vinegar. He said he didn’t like the smell. Okay, but the “smell” is not a toxic compound produced the chemical giants like P&G or Dow. White or distilled vinegar, among other varieties, are not only nontoxic, but you can actually ingest them in small quantities without any harmful reaction. The fact is, I make glass cleaner from an ingredient I could use in salad dressing. And it has been shown to be an effective disinfectant. Plus, it’s cheaper.

Chlorine is also widely used in restaurants as a cheap disinfectant. I admit it is quite effective in preventing the spread of bacteria like salmonella. For the kitchen and restrooms this is perfectly acceptable in protecting the public from harmful pathogens, and restaurant staff should take such measures after the establishment is closed for the night. Exposing patrons to ammonia or chlorine is potentially problematic, but if these chemicals are combined, the results can be quite toxic, and the combination should be avoided in all circumstances. I think it’s fine to mop the kitchen and dining room with a bleach water solution after closing time. A little chlorine goes a long way. Ammonia as a glass cleaner is not absolutely necessary. See this California Childcare Health Program article for more information.

I routinely clean my house with non-toxic solutions. I make a glass and surface cleaner from a mixture of distilled vinegar, water, and a drop or two of mild dish soap. This is surprisingly effective in cleaning dirt and residue from surfaces. I use other less-toxic solutions for disinfecting, and I use chlorine-based cleaners for sanitizing the bathroom fixtures and the kitchen sink. I’m kind of a stickler about what can be called “clean”. I eat off dishes that I consider clean, and I generally do not use bleach to get to that level of cleanliness. But if I were to eat mac & cheese off my kitchen floor, you’d better believe I’m going to scrub that son of a bitch down. Is it largely psychological, the fact that my dishes are not nearly as clean as my floor, and yet I find it repugnant to eat off the floor? Yes, I’m sure of it. I will not be dining dal pavimento anytime soon.

In the meantime, I’m comfortable cleaning with my vinegar solution. Ammonia is overkill, and it makes my eyes and throat sting. Oh, did I mention that my wife has multiple chemical sensitivity? Some people don’t believe this is real, but besides any doubt many people have, there is no denying that chemicals are used in increasing quantities and concentrations. The unfortunate side effect to the public is becoming desensitized to these harmful agents, except for the growing number who for unexplained reasons become more sensitive to them. Living in a toxin-free environment (or as close to one as I can be in the 21st century) has made me more aware of the onslaught of chemicals encountered in the supermarket. I think I was not aware how noxious the detergent aisle was until recently. Meanwhile, vinegar doesn’t bother me at all.

Some of my ancestors lived beyond 105 years. And that was before anyone knew about microorganisms. They did not have modern cleaning products in the 18th century, and yet they lived ostensibly healthy lives. Of course this is not to say that people in the 18th century didn’t contract illnesses due to bacterial infections. But maybe people had higher resistance to germs because they didn’t use hand sanitizer every fifteen minutes. I think we are so afraid of getting sick, we are in danger of making ourselves more guarded against the bug. Perhaps we can embrace it. Just don’t get too complacent.

So for the time-being, I hope restaurants would at least stop exposing people who are trying to eat to harmful chemicals. You can still douse the tables and booths with super-concentrated Clorox after everyone has left. Just use the buddy system in case you get a little too much of a good thing. Or better yet, think of alternative cleaning methods.

 

An Arm and a Leg

A report published by the National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine this week has received less attention than perhaps it deserves. The report, titled “Human Genome Editing: Science, Ethics, and Governance” explores the emerging reality of the not-so-distant future of addressing certain human diseases by editing specific genes in human embryos, egg and sperm cells. This level of medicine has heretofore been left to the imaginations of science fiction writers. But now, it looks like we are peering over the edge of that boundary between imagination and what looks to be a stark reality, and our notions of what is ethical and “right” might get shaken up just a bit.

What’s truly significant here is not only the ethical consideration, but more so the vision we procure from our daydreams and projections of our own future, like the distorted albeit detailed view through the peephole in the front door. Predictions may or may not come to fruition but will surely fuel the debate about humanity’s path, if not solely for the benefit of fleshing out our nightmares. The first thing one might conjure up is basically the plot of the 1997 film Gattaca, in which we see a future where designer babies can be ordered like you would a pizza, customizing your offspring to be taller, smarter, and stronger. This is the primary concern of some who believe we are looking in the face of pure eugenics, a pseudo-scientific study intent on reshaping the human race, or segments of it, into an ideal species, one not only disease-free, but perhaps also free of any tendencies toward obesity or depression. A “perfect” human, if you will.

If scientists were to, say, focus their energy on eliminating AIDS and malaria, populations in Africa would be the first to benefit. But something tells me altruism will lose out to economics, and companies will work to attract the rich, who will be more than willing to pay any amount to “build” a new generation of super-humans. With the rich now being relatively free of diseases like cancer and Parkinson’s – which used to be more of an equalizer – now only the poor will get sick. Optimists among you might see possibilities, but this new world where you can guarantee your children and their children will never suffer from devastating diseases is sure to render a class society, where now you can identify the second-class by their raspy cough or their hair loss due to chemotherapy.

Because, you see, if only poor people are the ones to suffer from human frailty, then where is the incentive for drug companies to do anything about their plight? Indeed today even the wealthy can suffer from schizophrenia or rheumatoid arthritis. But pharma can make a pill for what ails you, and people like Martin Skreli can capitalize on the remedy, marking up the price for a life-saving drug by 5000%. Not only are the poor going to be further marginalized, but even non-GMO humans who are not sick could still be discriminated against. Since nearsightedness could be eliminated, the world might become harder to navigate for the normal-sighted as text becomes smaller, and sight requirements become more stringent. Could we design a dynasty of athletes? Is tweaking some genes that control memory like cheating on a test?

The gene or gene-cluster that is responsible for addictive tendencies might be switched off in a family with a history of alcoholism. That is not to say that no one would develop a drinking habit, but we don’t know enough at this stage. The medical ethics community strongly emphasized that genetic manipulation would only be okay for preventing devastating and untreatable illness, as a quality of life issue, or for humanitarian interests. The ability to pick and choose the attributes of future generations is strongly frowned upon, but who polices the world of genetic research?

I fear for a future where someone like me, myopic with a slight attention problem, would be shunned by society, now having to exist in this Island of Misfit Toys we call “normal”. But if you were to eliminate aberrations in the future gene pool, the Stephen Hawkingses and Franklin Roosevelts of the world might never materialize. Some of the greatest examples of humanity have been flawed, frail individuals. Should we abandon that possibility for the hope of eliminating those frailties? Doesn’t my nearsightedness and my ADHD make me a better person because of those flaws? What sort of character would I possess if I never had to struggle?

Editing genes might look very attractive when you are faced with the seemingly insurmountable hurdle of finding a cure for cancer. Don’t get me wrong; I would be the first to congratulate the scientist who announces that he or she has accomplished that. Get rid of heart disease and diabetes, by all means. But take it one step at a time. Once we have “cured” something, let us take stock of it and all its ramifications. Maybe start with AIDS. Then cancer, followed by heart disease. (Some would argue that heart disease kills more people, but it is preventable in most cases.) It worries me that gene editing to prevent something might make a super-infectious pathogen possible. I expect there have been many lab trials, and any human trials might be quarantined just to be safe. In any case, it’s scary as hell, but people are dying. And this is not so far in our future. I predict within the next ten years a child will be born who possesses altered genes. This person will look like any one of us, maybe a little closer to perfect. Then it begins.

Read the NPR story for more