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Archive for March, 2011

This issue of the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society is over a month old. I was holding it for a post but got side-tracked on other items. Several of the articles relate to the question of the impact of ET life on religion. I have screen-captured the table of contents for the issue below.  If you go to the link, you can hover over the article title and an abstract will pop up. The articles were available for free for a while, but I don’t think they are any longer. I downloaded several to blog about. Here they are (with abstracts), with a link to the last one to read and chat about first:

Simon Conway Morris, Predicting what extra-terrestrials will be like: and preparing for the worst, Phil. Trans. R. Soc. A February 13, 2011 369:555-571

Abstract: It is difficult to imagine evolution in alien biospheres operating in any manner other than Darwinian. Yet, it is also widely assumed that alien life-forms will be just that: strange, un-nerving and probably repulsive. There are two reasons for this view. First, it is assumed that the range of habitable environments available to extra-terrestrial life is far wider than on Earth. I suggest, however, that terrestrial life is close to the physical and chemical limits of life anywhere. Second, it is a neo-Darwinian orthodoxy that evolution lacks predictability; imagining what extra-terrestrial life would look like in any detail is a futile exercise. To the contrary, I suggest that the outcomes of evolution are remarkably predictable. This, however, leads us to consider two opposites, both of which should make our blood run cold. The first, and actually extremely unlikely, is that alien biospheres will be strikingly similar to our terrestrial equivalent and that in such biospheres intelligence will inevitably emerge. The reasons for this revolve around the ubiquity of evolutionary convergence, the determinate structure of the Tree of Life and molecular inherency. But if something like a human is an inevitability, why do I also claim that the first possibility is ‘extremely unlikely’? Simply because the other possibility is actually the correct answer. Paradoxically, we and our biosphere are completely alone. So which is worse? Meeting ourselves or meeting nobody?

Malcolm Fridlund, Extra-terrestrial life in the European Space Agency’s Cosmic Vision plan and beyond, Phil. Trans. R. Soc. A February 13, 2011 369:582-593

Abstract: Our exciting time allows us to contemplate the moment in the not-too-distant future when we can detect the presence of life on worlds orbiting stars other than our Sun. It will not be easy and will require the development and use of the very latest technologies. It also very probably demands deployment in space of relevant instrumentation in order to carry out these investigations. The European Space Agency has been involved in the studies and development of the required technologies for more than a decade and is currently formulating a roadmap for how to achieve the ultimate detection of signs of life as we know it on terrestrial exoplanets. The major elements of the roadmap consist of the following. First, the search for and detection of terrestrial exoplanets. Here, some progress has been made recently and is reported in this paper. Second, the more and more detailed study of the physical characteristics of such exoplanets. Finally, the search for biomarkers—indicators of biological activity—that can be observed at interstellar distances. The last is probably one of the most difficult problems ever contemplated by observational astronomy.

Christopher P. McKay, The search for life in our Solar System and the implications for science and society, Phil. Trans. R. Soc. A February 13, 2011 369:594-606

Abstract: The search for another type of life in the Solar System addresses the fundamental question of life in the Universe. To determine if life forms we discover represent a second genesis, we must find biological material that would allow us to compare that life to the Earth’s phylogenetic tree of life. An organism would be alien if, and only if, it did not link to our tree of life. In our Solar System, the worlds of interest for a search for life are Mars, Europa, Enceladus and, for biochemistry based on a liquid other than water, Titan. If we find evidence for a second genesis of life, we will certainly learn from the comparative study of the biochemistry, organismal biology and ecology of the alien life. The discovery of alien life, if alive or revivable, will pose fundamentally new questions in environmental ethics. We should plan our exploration strategy such that we conduct biologically reversible exploration. In the long term we would do well, ethically and scientifically, to strive to support any alien life discovered as part of an overall commitment to enhancing the richness and diversity of life in the Universe.

Frank Drake, The search for extra-terrestrial intelligence, Phil. Trans. R. Soc. A February 13, 2011 369:633-643

Abstract: Modern history of the search for extra-terrestrial intelligence is reviewed. The history of radio searches is discussed, as well as the major advances that have occurred in radio searches and prospects for new instruments and search strategies. Recent recognition that searches for optical and infrared signals make sense, and the reasons for this are described, as well as the equipment and special detection methods used in optical searches. The long-range future of the search for extra-terrestrial intelligence (SETI) is discussed in the context of the history of rapid change, on the cosmic and even the human time scale, of the paradigms guiding SETI searches. This suggests that SETI searches be conducted with a very open mind.

Ted Peters, The implications of the discovery of extra-terrestrial life for religion, Phil. Trans. R. Soc. A February 13, 2011 369:644-655

Abstract: This paper asks about the future of religion: (i) Will confirmation of extra-terrestrial intelligence (ETI) cause terrestrial religion to collapse? ‘No’ is the answer based upon a summary of the ‘Peters ETI Religious Crisis Survey’. Then the paper examines four specific challenges to traditional doctrinal belief likely to be raised at the detection of ETI: (ii) What is the scope of God’s creation? (iii) What can we expect regarding the moral character of ETI? (iv) Is one earthly incarnation in Jesus Christ enough for the entire cosmos, or should we expect multiple incarnations on multiple planets? (v) Will contact with more advanced ETI diminish human dignity? More than probable contact with extra-terrestrial intelligence will expand the Bible’s vision so that all of creation—including the 13.7 billion year history of the universe replete with all of God’s creatures—will be seen as the gift of a loving and gracious God.

Albert A. Harrison, Fear, pandemonium, equanimity and delight: human responses to extra-terrestrial life, Phil. Trans. R. Soc. A February 13, 2011 369:656-668

Abstract: How will people respond to the discovery of extra-terrestrial life? Potentially useful resources for addressing this question include historical prototypes, disaster studies and survey research. Reactions will depend on the interplay of the characteristics of the newly found life, the unfolding of the discovery, the context and content of the message and human information processing as shaped by biology, culture and psychology. Pre-existing images of extra-terrestrials as god-like, demonic, or artificial will influence first impressions that may prove highly resistant to change. Most probably people will develop comprehensive images based on minimal information and assess extra-terrestrials in the same ways that they assess one another. Although it is easy to develop frightening scenarios, finding microbial life in our Solar System or intercepting a microwave transmission from many light years away are less likely to be met with adverse reactions such as fear and pandemonium than with positive reactions such as equanimity and delight.

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I’m going to try and get away to see the film this week. I’ve been reading reviews. This one is terrific, and captures my own sense of Hollywood at large and some other reviews I’ve read. Had to share it.

This is my third and final response to the UFO Iconoclast post opposed to the idea of man-made UFOs. (See Part 1 and Part 2). I just finished the new book by Vallee and Aubeck and will be writing a lengthy review of it.

My responses are at “MSH” and blocked off. I think you will see that these arguments lack persuasive power and can be turned back to anyone who makes them in such as a way as to demonstrate their un-compelling nature.

On the very face of it there are very fundamental reasons why such fantastic craft cannot be our own. If we have had such aerial abilities for so many decades:

1) Why do they fly in full view of civilian populations or within commercial air routes?

With all of the hundreds of thousands of square miles of Area 51′s and other such places, why fly publicly? It may test the “reaction” of the populace, but it would at the same time unnecessarily expose the technology and performance capabilities to enemy powers. In reality, security would never be compromised in that way.

MSH: I don’t find this at all persuasive. It compels us to believe that a sighting ranging from a few seconds to a couple of minutes will yield technological information. Unless observers have X-Ray vision, I don’t see how that is the case. Most of the best sightings are at high altitude, and so chances of detection are themselves minimal, and all the observer really knows is that “I’ve never seen one of those before,” or “we aint’ got one like that as far as I know.” Big deal. Now, the argument would be much better if there were USA-AF decals on the craft. THEN it would make sense to not fly these things anywhere they could be seen, because then you actually ARE risking sensitive information (like, “hey, this UFO is ours”). But without that, all a sighting does is perpetuate a mystery (or a convenient mythology; see below).

MSH: This argument can be reversed as follows: “Since civilians and other people, including commerical pilots, see UFOs, that means they cannot be man-made. Does that *really* make sense?

2) Why don’t we use this technology to transport our astronauts into space?

It makes no sense that if such UFO-like capabilities are man-made that they would not be applied in the exploration of the cosmos. Why continue to use “outdated” technology that relies on conventional combustion and thrust technologies, with extremely limited range and with significant safety issues?

MSH: This presumes speed is all one would need for space flight. There may very well be other technologically-related safety issues. It’s easy to presume there aren’t if one a priori assumes such craft are ET and are used to travel in deep space, but we don’t actually know that. At any rate, let’s assume they can do that. Then we are asked to believe that ineptitude on the part of the military is a reason to consider the craft extraterrestrial. Last time I checked, things like government waste, bureaucratic rivalry, and plain short-sighted stupidity are alive and well in the military and most other corporate entities. A bad decision does not an ET vehicle make. We also have to consider that, if these are man-made and there is some internal reason (comprehensible or sensible or not) for maintaining secrecy, that alone would be enough reason for whoever is in charge to remain using the old technology when it can get the job done.

MSH: Reversal: Since *we* are NOT using UFO technology to send people to space, that must mean *we* aren’t behind UFO technology. Say what?

3) Why is the technology not used in warfare?

If such things have been developed by our government, why have they not been applied in national defense? It would have instantly ended conflicts in past decades in Korea, Vietnam and Iraq. If another country has been the developer of UFO-like technology, why have they not exercised such amazing aerial superiority during conflict?

MSH: See my response above; it applies here as well. One could add that the reasoning might be the same as why we don’t just whip out an atomic bomb to end conflicts quickly and decisively. It may be too destructive. But my bet is on the fact that wars are inescapably political. Take the war on terror. We could end it in a day if we just nuked everybody, or if we took the handcuffs off our forces and allowed them to actually use the other weapons we have. But we don’t do that, and haven’t, since WWII.

Reversal: Since *we* are NOT using UFO technology for military purposes, that must mean *we* aren’t behind UFO technology. Ditto on “say what?”

4) Why don’t we use this technology in commercial air flight?

Such navigation and propulsion breakthroughs would revolutionize the flight of people and parcel. Billions would stand to be made- and everyone would appreciate shortened flights!

MSH: This is a better question, but still not very persuasive for simple reasons. So, we give our UFO technology to Boeing or Delta and then the technology is as close to falling into the hands of our enemies as a hijacking. Right. Good idea. Did Dilbert’s boss think of that plan?  I don’t think it is at all unreasonable to suggest that, if the military industrial complex is behind UFO technology we ought to expect it a reasonable thing to do would be share it with commerical entities. If the military industrial complex thought such technology gave us a military edge, they would withhold it from such public use, since that would invariably mean more porous security.

MSH: Reversal: Since *we* are NOT using UFO technology for commercial flight, that must mean *we* aren’t behind UFO technology. Really?  Is it that simple?

5) Why hasn’t the aerial technology been used to take over the world?

If the “controllers” of such technology are of nefarious intent (i.e. former Nazis, the Illuminati or even an enemy country) why have they not openly displayed their terror technology and by now have commanded the world’s allegiance?

MSH: This is also a better question, but one that presumes certain things in relation to the man-made argument it is targeting. For instance, one could take the targeted view and say something like, “since this technology derives from Nazi science, and since members of the teams who worked on projects that are related to exotic flight (see Farrell’s books here, e.g.), then it is possible that this technology may be in mutliple hands (U.S. included) or at least suspected of being in multiple hands.” In other words, one could apply the MAD logic to this question (Mutually Assured Destruction — anyone remember the Cold War?). But that’s guesswork. It also presupposes that anyone holding this technology is interested in world domination. Maybe they aren’t. Maybe they are content with their own little invisible empire that’s puttering along just fine while the rest of the known geo-political entities implode just fine on their own. But maybe they are interested in world domination and don’t think they can pull it off. Would 100 UFOs do that?  Last time I checked, all a UFO was really good for was SPEED. I don’t recall much in the way of any reports that UFOs were weaponized (they “are for peace, always,” right?). Let’s say some entity has 100 or 1000 of these craft. Now what? All one would need to do is find out where they are an nuke them. They aren’t indestructible (can we say “UFO crash”?). My point is that, since we are using our imaginations, if I had a UFO squadron I’d be pretty scared about anyone knowing about them, because they are quite destructible, and the facilities I have to make them and house them are also quite destructible. Hey, one piece of imagination is as good as another.

MSH: This one has another problem. It can be reversed very easily on the ET view: “If UFOs are ET vehicles, why isn’t ET using them to take over the world?” Hmmm.  Maybe they don’t want to.  And maybe the humans who might have them don’t want to, either. Oh, I forgot, ET is far more enlightened than we are. He told us so. If he exists. Or there’s this reversal: Since no single human group has taken over the world yet, none such group can be behind UFO technology. That one has some serious gaps of thought.

6) Why haven’t other scientists anywhere in the world “stumbled upon” such aerial breakthroughs in intervening decades?

It is inconceivable that only a very few working within deep black programs (or who were WWII Germans scientists, secret Tesla disciples or the like) could alone have discovered the secret to such propulsion without any other scientists or physicists in private or university employ ever having envisioned these same technologies after all of these years.

MSH: No, it isn’t inconceivable at all. My guess is that a reasonable number of people (working within the controlled sphere where it’s happening) would know about the technology. If it was at the highest level of security, the burden of proof is on the other side to tell us WHY it would become known to others — or that it has not become known. So let’s play with this one. Let’s say the US developed UFOs after WWII and no one else did. They were able to protect this knowledge for a couple of decades but, as espionage would have it, the secret leaked out to the Russians. What would the Russians do?  Tell the world? Aside from the fact that they’d expose their access to us by doing so, what good would it do? How would they prove themselves trustworthy without compromising the intelligence apparatus that allowed them to gain such closely-guarded secrets? They’d probably want MORE information, like how to take that piece of knowledge and make it their own reality. They’d already be decades behind, and losing their intelligence conduit would mean getting no further. And if they developed one, by the time they did, we’d be a few models ahead. And if they did tell tje world at any point, it would just be denied.

Frankly, this isn’t a coherent objection because the ETH defenders would want to build part of their case on secret information about aliens escaping the screcy placed upon it.  But then that undermines this very argument — about others stumbling upon the technology.  It’s further shown to be weak by the simple counter-assertion that man-made UFO technology *has* broken out, but there is still uncertainty about whether it is man-made. This is actually where find ourselves. We have had a number of insiders come forward and say “I saw this and that technology and I think it might be alien, but I’m not sure.” Great. So the fact that the technology has become known or exposed can’t tell us the point of origin in any regard. Let me illustrate:

* Credible people have witnessed UFO technology up close (or “stumbled upon it”) but it can’t tell us if it’s alien.
* Credible people have witnessed UFO technology up close (or “stumbled upon it”) and believe that it’s alien.
* Credible people have witnessed UFO technology up close (or “stumbled upon it”) and believe that it is man-made.

Question: HOW do any of these statements actually solve the riddle?  They don’t. Piont: allowing for such disclosures don’t compel any position; you need an actual alien to make that case. Otherwise, you are assuming what you are trying to prove. The UFOI argument is that it is unreasonable to think that such knowledge could be maintained with complete security forever. I agree — but how does that help or compel a conclusion? It doesn’t.

The rest of the UFOI post aims to convince us that it is a lie that the U.S. Government wants us to believe in ETs for some internal purpose. On what basis is the claim made? Well, the post pokes fun at some attempts to articulate that conspiracy, and that’s pretty much it. I’d poke fun at some of what I saw there, too. But that isn’t a compelling answer or rebuttal. What I want to see is the UFOI group systematically show, by virtue of a systematic critique of Joe Farrell’s work and W. A. Harbinson’s non-fiction work, that a group of scientists, mostly attached to Nazi scientific teams, lacked the knowledge, funding, and wherewithal to keep working on these ideas. I would suggest that they had all three, but that of course doesn’t prove the man-made view.  As I said at the end of my second post on all this:

Instead of taking the human answer off the table, given what we know human scientists were working on since the 1940s (questions, goals, and strategies for overcoming gravity or its effects), we ought to be seriously asking if they found solutions. The kinds of technologies that would produce these effects are *not* beyond the human MIND. That much is quite verifiable. The only question is whether they are still beyond human ACHIEVEMENT. Maybe they are. Maybe they aren’t. But there is no reason at all to take the man-made view off the table. Since we know humans exist, and are not at all sure aliens actually exist, as things stand right now, I know which way Occam’s razor is cutting.

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I post this not because it has anything directly to do with UFO Religions, but it does bear peripherally on our discussions.

Many alien life enthusiasts (not to mention intelligent design critics in general) are fond of appealing to the assured results of evolutionary biology in their presumption that life in space would = intelligent life on other worlds. It’s a non-sequitur, as any clear-thinking person would know. Existence and cause & effect are two entirely different matters. But now one of the most credentialed geneticists we’re likely ever to see has abandoned common descent — the lynchpin of current evolutionary biology’s consensus for explaining human evolution. Who’s the scientist? Craig Venter. If you follow news on human genetics at all he needs no introduction. Venter bluntly tells us that he doesn’t believe in common ancestry. Nice.

The best part of the link is that Venter says this to Richard Dawkins, the arch-atheist who has made it his business to do his part for Big Brother Science. I wonder when he’ll send the scientific thought police to Venter’s house.

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If you have a pulse and care about such things, you no doubt have heard about the alleged claim of proof for alien life forms put forth by NASA scientist Richard Hoover in a recent journal article. The picture below purports to be a fossilized bacterium from a rare meteor. I naturally have some thoughts.

For starters, it’s a bit surprising, perhaps even suspicious, that there was no huge press conference for this, as was the case with the arseno-DNA event that was roundly criticized within the science community (kudos to Dr. Todd Wood for that reminder). That could mean NASA is being overly cautious about this one, or that they are simply testing the waters. At any rate, such off-the-radar handling of this issue at least says that the interpretation of the data offered to the eager public is far from certain. I hope one item about the whole claim does not escape logic.  These are *fossil* bacteria, not living bacteria.  If the science is valid, then what it proves is that at one time there was bacterial life elsewhere. It does not prove that (a) it exists now, though that would seem reasonable; or (b) that it ever evolved into anything intelligent (for you evolution devotees, evolution is not self directing (!) — it must factor in environment, and no two environments or set of such conditions (like earth’s) is identical. But, it’s sad to say, the people who’d want this to be true for religious reasons (the ancient astronaut religion) will likely throw logic (and the need for actual data) to the wind.  Another case of “this idea is in my head so that must mean it’s real” thinking, for which the UFO community is famous.

It’s hard to disagree with P. Z. Meyers’ assessment of the journal’s site (I have been on it and through it).  But we shouldn’t judge a book by its cover. I don’t expect scientists to know much about web design or aesthetics. The people whose work populates the site are credentialed, And they are doing the right thing by soliciting the review of other experts and scientists.  That’s how it’s supposed to work. But the editorial standards are apparently not very good. As one scientist from the University of British Columbia notes:

The journal proudly announces that it is obtaining and will publish 100 post-publication reviews.  But did it bother getting any pre-publication reviews?  It will be shutting down in a few months, after only two years of on-line publication (the 13 ‘volumes’ are really just 13 issues).  Its presentation standards are pretty bad – there doesn’t seem to have been any effort at copy-editing or formatting the text for publication (not even any page numbers).

Chandra Wickramasinghe is the journal’s Executive Editor for Astrobiology, and presumably is the Editor responsible for this article.  I heard him give a talk pushing panspermia about 10 years ago (the audience was an undergraduate science society at Oxford).  The talk was very slick but dreadfully bad as science.  The evidence he cited to support his arguments wasn’t actually untrue, but he twisted everything to make his arguments seem stronger than they were.  He argued like a lawyer – his only goal seemed to be convincing the audience that his conclusion was correct, regardless of the contrary evidence that an unbiased consideration of the evidence would provide.  Thus I wouldn’t trust his scientific judgment about anything concerning astrobiology.

Ouch. Take note of that, panspermia enthusiasts. (Wickramasinghe is basically the patron saint of panspermia theory).

Scientists have already weighed in (and of course to much less fanfare). Aside from the comments above about the journal, the same UBC scientist has this as her bottom line (click here for her analysis and reasons):

The Ivuna meteorite sample showed a couple of micron-scale squiggles, one of which contained about 2.5-fold more carbon than the background.  One of the five Orguil samples had at least one patch of clustered fibers; these contained more sulfur and magnesium than the background, and less silicon.  As evidence for life this is pathetic, no better than that presented by McKay’s group for the ALH84001 Martian meteorite in 1996.

Ouch again; that one might leave a mark.

Phil Plait of Bad Astronomy has a balanced piece over at Discover Magazine online on the article. Here is a notable section:

Hoover makes several claims to show that a non-biotic origin for these structures is very unlikely. I am not an expert and won’t cast my vote either way here. This is not the first time Hoover has made such claims; he gave a similar presentation in 2007. There have also been many similar claims in the past. In fact, in the second episode of “Bad Universe” I interviewed NASA astrobiologist Dave McKay, who has also found very interesting features in a Mars meteorite that look a lot like bacteria. However, definitive proof is another matter. McKay’s opinion is that what he found was once alive, but he also was clear that scientifically he could not be sure (I found his skepticism to be well-grounded and at the right level, to be honest).

Probably the biggest bump in the road for showing these things are life-forms is to show they are not the result of Earthly bacteria getting inside the meteorite after it hit. This is very tough to do, though Hoover says this in his paper:

Many of the filaments shown in the figures are clearly embedded in the meteorite rock matrix. Consequently, it is concluded that the Orgueil filaments cannot logically be interpreted as representing filamentous cyanobacteria that invaded the meteorite after its arrival. They are therefore interpreted as the indigenous remains of microfossils that were present in the meteorite rock matrix when the meteorite entered the Earth’s atmosphere.

Clearly, Hoover thinks terrestrial contamination is unlikely. However, contamination, no matter how unlikely, is a more mundane explanation than extraterrestrial life, and Occam’s Razor will always shave very closely here. We have to be very, very clear that contamination was impossible before seriously entertaining the idea that these structures are space-borne life.

I for one appreciate the comment about the *need* to prove that such bacteria are not actually earthly bacteria. I noted that among some other problems for panspermia in my own essay on the subject (it dealt with defining various views of panspermia and the implications for Judeo-Christian theology).

So let’s wait and see, but to this point, we don’t have any real reason to think this will pass muster. Time will tell.

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