Sunday, August 2, 2015

Faith, Fear, and Flying Saucers

During the 1950s, space aliens in the movies came in two basic models.

Some were invaders — "Plan 9 from Outer Space," "Earth vs. the Flying Saucers," and "Invaders from Mars."

The title character in "The Thing from Another World" acted like an invader. But I think the Thing's bad attitude might have come from being shot after the humans blew up his ship, and that's another topic.

Then there's Klaatu, in "The Day the Earth Stood Still," who stopped just short of walking on water.

Between Klaatu, movies like "Prometheus," and folks who believe space aliens are angels, I'm not surprised that some Christians don't like the idea that we may have neighbors on other planets.

As I keep saying, I don't believe that life exists elsewhere in this universe: or that it does not. We don't know, not yet.

If we meet folks whose ancestors developed on another planet, I think Brother Guy Consolmago is right: they'll be so much like us, basically, that they'll be more like cousins than "aliens." (July 31, 2015)

That doesn't mean I think that space aliens look like Michale Rennie.

Scala Naturae: The Ladder of Nature

Fast-forwarding from Plato's forms, Aristotle's taxonomy, and Medieval Neoplatonism — the scala naturae, or ladder of nature, is a pretty good illustration of what I'm trying to say.

Since then we've learned a great deal, so these days we divide living creatures into domains and kingdoms, two of which are plants and animals; but I think the "ladder" model is good enough for this.

Humans are animals, living creatures with a material body. But we're not just animals. We can reason and have free will. We can decide what we do or do not do. (Genesis 1:27; Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1951, 1700-1706, 1730)

It's being rational creatures that makes us "in the image of God." Catechism, 1730)

We're not angels, and never will be. Angels, like us, are intelligent and have/had free will; but they don't have bodies. They're pure spirit, not material. (Catechism, 328-330)

As I said three weeks back, verb tense gets awkward when describing creatures who live/exist outside time, and that's yet another topic. (July 12, 2015)

Getting back to the "ladder," we're material creatures. In that way, we're like rocks, plants, and animals. We're also people: which makes us like angels and God.

If we meet folks who aren't human, intelligent creatures made from the stuff of this universe, they'll be on the same 'rung' of the ladder. That's the way I see it.

First Contact

Let's imagine that first contact with folks from another world happens within the next few years — and that it's not as ambiguous as the scenario in "Contact." (1997)

Just to make it interesting, I'm assuming that it's the space aliens who "discover" us, not the other way around.

A few days after their ship settles into orbit around our moon, landers touch down near most major cities, and the fun begins.

I'm pretty sure that no matter how cute and cuddly the space aliens looked, some folks here would panic.

Others would probably assume that the space aliens were benevolent missionaries, sent to save humanity from ourselves — or start worshiping them as gods. That would be a very bad idea. (Catechism, 2112-2114)

I'd be surprised — astounded — if con artists didn't start collecting donations for 'non-profit' groups with names like "Earth Defense League" and "Seekers of Celestial Enlightenment." (November 7, 2014)

The 'religion is against science' pony would be trotted out, and I talked about that on Friday. (July 31, 2015)

Predictions and Policies

Over the last few decades, contact with extraterrestrial civilizations has moved out of pulp science fiction and into serious debate.

I think the discussions are interesting, and may be useful. I also think the various proposed post-detection policies are funny.

Don't get me wrong: planning ahead is generally a good idea, and bureaucracies need rules and regulations.

But my guess is that if we get visitors, or pick up a signal from elsewhere, we'll be making up policies and protocols as we go: occasionally learning from our mistakes.

If we learn that we're not alone by finding physical evidence, like the alien analog of a 50-gallon oil drum: maybe some government or organization will 'manage' the knowledge for a while.

I'm pretty sure that a few folks will greet the aliens the way some other primates do when startled, frightened, or angry: by screaming and throwing stuff.1 Embarrassing as that might be for both sides, it could be a first step in establishing "meaningful dialog."

The good news, as I see it, is that some "impact assessments" reflect an understanding that we probably won't experience a replay of European colonization of the Americas.

On the other hand, quite a few "experts" don't seem to realize that space aliens may not be human: or have Western civilization's current preoccupations.

Sure, well-meaning space aliens might try forcing us to play nice: by their standards. That might include multilateral nuclear disarmament, universal adoption of chartreuse headbands, learning to write with our left hands: or something completely different.

Or maybe the newcomers would be more like Kūruš and Dārayava(h)uš, and leave us alone; as long as we didn't make trouble.

Right now, we don't know if we have neighbors in the universe: much less what they'd be like. I think many discussions of 'first contact' are like Rorschach test ink blots: telling us more about the participants, than the discussion topic.

That won't stop me from doing my own speculation, though.

Hands, Eyes, and Speculation

Most animals our size are bilaterally symmetrical: with two eyes, two pairs of limbs, and a tentacle inside the mouth. Maybe that's the only possible pattern, or maybe we're just one variation on a theme.

My guess is that mobility generally demands left/right symmetry. Animals with radial symmetry don't move much, or move slowly.

If nearly everybody in the universe has distinct left and right sides, that still leaves room for variety. A half-billion years, back, for example, critters caught in the Burgess Shale didn't look quite like anything alive today.

Yohoia and Leanchoilia were too small to have much in the way of a brain: and today's arthropods aren't particularly bright. But if things had been different: a half-billion years of development might end with critters like that having big brains to go along with their hands. (August 1, 2014)

If our neighbors looked like another Burgess Shale critter, Opabinia, they might think we have too many arms: and too few eyes.

Non-human people who look more-or-less like us, with the same number and arrangement of eyes and limbs, might not think like we do, though.

If the space aliens had more in common, psychologically, with cats than chimps — that might explain why we haven't been contacted, actually.

Cats don't have pack or herd behavior. They're smart enough, and social in their own way: but cats don't "act collectively without centralized direction." (Wikipedia)

Humans do, although we can also act as individuals.

There's the matter of age, too. Our neighbors might have learned how to use fire and build computers within a few thousand years of our passing those milestones.

But if they invented wireless telegraphy when we were making the first Oldowan tools, and develop new tech about as fast as we do: by now they'll be using whatever we'll invent 2,600,000 years from now.

The difference between our 'ages' in that case would be less than 1/1000th Earth's age. This universe is huge and ancient, on a literally cosmic scale. (June 19, 2015; July 15, 2014)

There's the matter of intelligence, too. Maybe we're as smart as people can be: or not. I'm guessing "not," but like I said before, this is all speculation.

However: I think odds that we'll eventually find life, and maybe people, on other planets are looking better.

God's Decision, Not Mine

(From NASA/JPL-CalTech/R. Hurt, used w/o permission.)
(Comparison of the Kepler-186, Kepler-452, and Solar systems.The green area in each is the star's habitable zone, where liquid water could exist on an Earth-like planet.)

(From NASA Ames/W. Stenzel, used w/o permission.)
(From the seventh Kepler planet candidate catalog: Planets less than twice the size of Earth, orbiting in or near their stars' habitable zone. The dark green area shows an optimistic estimate for the habitable zone, the light green area is a more conservative estimate.)
"Twelve New Small Kepler Habitable Zone Candidates"
Michele Johnson, NASA (Last updated August 2, 2015)

"...Open yellow circles show new planet candidates in the seventh catalog. Open blue circles show candidates from previous catalogs. Filled-in circles represent candidates that have been confirmed as planets due to follow-up observations. Note that the new candidates tend to be around stars more similar to the sun, representing progress in finding planets that are similar to the Earth in size and temperature that orbit sun-like stars."
As I said Friday, Kepler-452b isn't the first roughly Earth-size planet found in its star's habitable zone. What makes it special is that its star is so much like our sun.

Kepler-186f, discovered last year, is roughly 11 percent wider than Earth. It may or may not be a rocky planet, like ours; and there's a 50 percent chance that it's tidally locked, with one side always facing its star.

Kepler-186 is smaller and cooler than our sun, and a BY Draconis variable — which doesn't make life on Kepler-186f an impossibility, as far as we know.

What's at least as exciting as "Earth 2.0" is HIP 11915b's discovery. This planet's orbit and mass are almost exactly the same as Jupiter's. HIP 11915 is a very close match to our star.

This is the first, and so far only, time we've found a planetary system that's similar to ours.

(From ESO/IAU and Sky & Telescope, used w/o permission.)
(HIP 11915's position in our sky, marked by a red circle.)

As I keep saying, my faith doesn't depend on ignoring what we've learned over the last two dozen or so centuries — and thinking is not a sin. Using the brains God gave us is part of being human. (Wisdom 7:17; Catechism, 35, 159, 1730-1738)

Scientific discoveries are opportunities for "even greater admiration" of God's greatness. (Catechism, 283)

We're designed with a thirst for truth and for God — created by God from the stuff of this world — and made "in the image of God," creatures who are matter and spirit. With our senses and reason, we can observe the world's order and beauty: learning something of God in the process. (Genesis 1:26, 2:7; Catechism, 27, 31-35, 282-289, 355-361)

As for whether or not we have neighbors in the universe? I don't make that decision. God's God, I'm not; and I'm okay with that.

My take on:

1 Throwing stuff is a very human thing to do, but it's not uniquely human behavior. (Very) recently, scientists have started studying this behavior:

"Researches find poop-throwing by chimps is a sign of intelligence"
Bob Yirka, (November 30, 2011)

"A lot of people who have gone to the zoo have become the targets of feces thrown by apes or monkeys, and left no doubt wondering about the so-called intellectual capacity of a beast that would resort to such foul play. Now however, researchers studying such behavior have come to the conclusion that throwing feces, or any object really, is actually a sign of high ordered behavior. Bill Hopkins of Emory University and his colleagues have been studying the whole process behind throwing and the impact it has on brain development, and have published their results in Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B.

"Hopkins and his team have focused their research on chimpanzees, mainly due they say, to the fact that chimps are our closet living relative and that they are the only other species besides humans that regularly throw things with a clear target in mind. He and his team have been watching chimps in action for several years and comparing their actions with scans of their brains to see if there were any correlations between those chimps that threw a lot, and those that didn’t or whether they’re accuracy held any deeper meaning. Surprisingly, they found that chimps that both threw more and were more likely to hit their targets showed heightened development in the motor cortex, and more connections between it and the Broca’s area, which they say is an important part of speech in humans. The better chimp throwers, in other words, had more highly developed left brain hemispheres, which is also, non-coincidently, where speech processing occurs in people.

"Such findings led the term to suggest that the ability to throw is, or was, a precursor to speech development in human beings.

"After making their discovery regarding the parts of the brain that appear to be involved in better throwing in chimps, the team tested the chimps and found that those that could throw better also appeared to be better communicators within their group, giving credence to their idea that speech and throwing are related. Interestingly, they also found that the better throwing chimps didn’t appear to posses any more physical prowess than other chimps, which the researchers suggest means that throwing didn’t develop as a means of hunting, but as a form of communication within groups, i.e. throwing stuff at someone else became a form of self expression, which is clearly evident to anyone who has ever been targeted by a chimp locked up in a zoo...."

"The neural and cognitive correlates of aimed throwing in chimpanzees: a magnetic resonance image and behavioural study on a unique form of social tool use"
William D. Hopkins, Jamie L. Russell, Jennifer A. Schaeffer; Philosophical Transactions B, The Royal Society (November 21, 2011)

"It has been hypothesized that neurological adaptations associated with evolutionary selection for throwing may have served as a precursor for the emergence of language and speech in early hominins. Although there are reports of individual differences in aimed throwing in wild and captive apes, to date there has not been a single study that has examined the potential neuroanatomical correlates of this very unique tool-use behaviour in non-human primates. In this study, we examined whether differences in the ratio of white (WM) to grey matter (GM) were evident in the homologue to Broca's area as well as the motor-hand area of the precentral gyrus (termed the KNOB) in chimpanzees that reliably throw compared with those that do not....

"...Visitors to the zoo are sometimes treated to the sight of chimpanzees throwing objects (often faeces or wet chow) at each other or at them. What most zoo visitors do not appreciate is the rarity with which throwing occurs in non-human animals. Save for a few unsystematic and anecdotal reports of throwing in monkeys and great apes [1–9], there is little evidence that throwing occurs in other animals [10]. Thus, throwing appears to have come under positive selection pressure in hominins. From an evolutionary standpoint, some have suggested that throwing may have offered many advantages to early hominins such as the ability to kill larger prey without putting oneself at risk of being wounded or killed [11]...."

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What's That Doing in a Nice Catholic Blog?

From time to time, a service that I use will display links to - odd - services and retailers.

I block a few of the more obvious dubious advertisers.

For example: psychic anything, numerology, mediums, and related practices are on the no-no list for Catholics. It has to do with the Church's stand on divination. I try to block those ads.

Sometime regrettable advertisements get through, anyway.

Bottom line? What that service displays reflects the local culture's norms, - not Catholic teaching.