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Friday, September 18, 2015

Science Fiction Can Make You Smarter

It is no secret that many people find scientific concepts hard to understand. If you say “alternate reality” or “wormhole” or “gravitational time dilation,” they will shake their heads and throw up their hands because those concepts are entirely alien to them. On the other hand, science fiction fans can easily pick up on these ideas because they have seen some kind of representation of them in science fiction.

Take the Stargate SG-1 episode, A Matter of Time, where the stargate connects to a planet falling into a black hole, and the black hole’s gravity comes through the gate to earth. The details of what happens in the episode aren’t physically accurate, but it used the general idea of time dilation such that someone could spend hours outside the base while only a few minutes would pass inside. Now suppose I was explaining to someone who had seen A Matter of Time how our GPS satellites need clocks that run a tiny bit slower than the clocks on earth, because time passes a little bit slower on the surface of the earth than in orbit. The other person can ask, “like in Stargate?” to which I’d reply with a nod and a grin, “like in Stargate.”

Unfortunately, the fiction does not always get it right. In fact, most of the time popular science fiction gets something so utterly, fundamentally wrong that it is obvious that the writers did little to no research, nor did they consult an expert. One of the most common examples of this is using the word “dimension” to mean another universe of some kind. But a dimension is a direction, not a place. We do not live in a dimension, but in four: up-down, left-right, fore-back, and past-future. If we want to get to another universe, we might travel through another dimension or two—just like I travel through the fore-back and left-right dimensions to go between my home and school—but not to another dimension.

The counter to problems like this is to keep in mind that fiction is by definition not real. If one wants to know the actual theories of reality, one must look to science fact. To my great satisfaction, there are many scientifically knowledgeable people who counter sci-fi’s many mistakes by discussing the actual science behind the concepts. These discussions can be found in books like The Physics of Star Trek and Physics of the Impossible, and documentaries like BBC’s The Science of Doctor Who and Stargate SG-1: True Science. There is also a growing unification of geekdom and science on youtube, including channels like SciShow Space and PBS Space Time. These people have recognized that science fiction can be used as a learning gateway for science, and are taking advantage of the fact.

I chose to pursue a career in astrophysics because of science fiction. I have little trouble understanding concepts like relativistic time dilation, the various multiverse hypotheses, quantum tunneling, higher dimensions, and so many more. I believe this is in part due to how much science fiction I have seen and read, and the examples of these and similar concepts described and shown in these stories. There is a common conception that nerds are smart, and I, for one, believe it is no accident.

Friday, September 11, 2015

Those Not Like Us

Post-Note: This discussion was intended to delve into how intelligent life could be very different from us as human beings. Instead, its focus drifted to social commentary. The updated version can be found here.

Photograph by Bill Curtsinger, National Geographic

It has been a constant black mark on the record of humanity. Always present, from the moment self-awareness emerged in us and brought us to a new state of life above the animals. It comes in every form imaginable, an unnatural hatred for those from enemy tribes, those who worship different gods, those with different skin tone, or body shape, or sexual organs, or gender identity, or body markings, or clothing choice; those who don’t look like we do, or talk like we do, or think like we do, or believe what we do.

Prejudice: Fear and judgment of those we do not understand, of Those Not Like Us.

We are fortunate to live in a time and place where learning is praised, and when we look to history to avoid the mistakes of the past. More and more we value education, the information needed to understand and accept others increasingly available for people to find. Countless stories have been written addressing the wrongness of prejudice, exposing it as the ugly demon beast it is. Little by little, moment by agonizingly slow moment, prejudice is lessening its strangle-hold on humanity. But there is one more group of Those Not Like Us, one which could be vastly more different from us than any two groups of humans have ever been. One group that could revitalize the black flame of hatred as hot and consuming as ever: aliens.

Yet it is not fair to call aliens one group. The word “alien” originally meant another human from a far-off land. As more of the world became known, the people who fell under the label of “alien” became fewer and fewer. Eventually, advances in biology confirmed that humans are more similar than different, and “alien” was redefined to mean someone not from Earth. Now it is almost certain that intelligent life beyond Earth is mind-bogglingly vaster and more varied than humanity, so why on earth would we lump the entirety of the intelligent universe except ourselves into one group? Though the precise definition of the word has changed over time, its meaning has not; “alien” is a label for Those Not Like Us.

Common across humanity, there are physical traits, emotions, and ways of dealing with things. We take these things for granted, because although they vary from person to person, culture to culture, they share many key aspects. But intelligent aliens, having evolved completely independently from us or anything else on earth, might feel entirely different emotions, think entirely different kinds of thoughts, and view the world in entirely different ways. Music, which brings us amazing emotional connection and expression, might sound like garbage noise to them. They might not be able to make sense of TV and computer screens, which take advantage of our eyes’ ability to mix colors. They almost certainly will not be able to recognize or interpret human facial expressions. Aliens may have completely different senses and communication methods, such as light or magnetic field patterns. Because of the mind-boggling variability of DNA, as well as the possibility of other means of genetic coding like RNA or PNA, there is unimaginable potential for what life could be like. The possibilities of difference are, simply put, astounding.

Heck, we may, in doing something that we always do without thinking, offend aliens we meet. For example, if there is a race that communicates by pheromones, we humans could be unwittingly and uncontrollably giving them the equivalent of the middle finger just by our body odors.

Rose: "What's the emergency?"
Doctor: "It's mauve. The universally recognised colour for danger."
Rose: "What happened to red?"
Doctor: "That's just humans. By everyone else's standards, red's camp.
           Oh, the misunderstandings. All those red alerts, all that dancing.
Or imagine it the other way around; imagine creatures with appendages shaped like swastikas, or defining marks shaped like pentagrams. Considering humanity’s fear of the unknown and tendency to make associations, in such a case the masses would be crying out for blood, seeing these creatures as hordes of evil. Take, for example, Young-Earth Creationist Ken Ham, who claims that intelligent aliens don’t exist. His argument goes roughly as follows:

Premise: If intelligent aliens exist, they have no chance for salvation through Jesus Christ.
Conclusion: Therefore, intelligent aliens don’t exist.

You can read his actual words and response to criticism here.

Post-Note: I realize I have been unfair to Ken Ham and a large number of people who follow his influence. Previously, there was a paragraph here targeting Ken Ham and his followers, claiming that they are primed for alien racism. There is a big difference between believing someone will go to Hell and wanting them to go to Hell. From what I have seen of Ken Ham, he is a polite, decent man who honestly wishes the best for people. If he were to meet an alien face to face, I expect he would be as cordial as he is toward anyone. I am generally against editing what I have said in previous posts, but this was inappropriate. My intent was not to attack anyone, but to caution that humanity is not ready to meet people from another planet.

     "God bless the cactuses!"                          "That's 'cacti.'"                                 "That's racist."
This is where the speculative power of fiction comes into play. Fiction introduces new ideas to its characters, who interpret and react to these ideas in similar ways to how real people would. Consider Ender’s game (spoilers), by Orson Scott Card. The main character is born into a world reeling from an invasion by an insectoid race. The creatures, which humanity pejoratively calls the Buggers, swooped down to Earth and killed hundreds of thousands of humans. The entirety of human civilization from that moment on was focused on taking revenge and wiping out the Buggers before they returned to destroy the rest of humanity. In the end, however, it is revealed that the Buggers’ invasion was a misunderstanding. Bugger colonies are one organism with a collective consciousness centered at its queen. Killing a few bugger drones is as harmless to the creature as cutting a human’s hair, or clipping one’s fingernails. The Bugger queen who invaded Earth thought that humans were the same as she, and so killing a few would be no big deal. She had no intention of starting a war; she only wanted to make contact.
End spoilers.

In all likelihood, our first contact with aliens will be much less catastrophic than the Buggers’ attack. Still, it is inevitable that some subset of humanity will succumb to fear and cry out for blood, hoping that the creatures will be eradicated and forgotten so that we can go back to the old days of wondering if we are alone in the universe. Others will judge our newfound neighbors in different ways, and to varying degrees. We cannot change the fact that this will happen, but we can soften the shock by preparing now to receive our first discovery of alien brothers, sisters, and whatever else they may be, with a spirit of curiosity and forgiveness. Indeed, history and fiction already are full of contact scenarios to learn from and improve upon. We have the tools we need. If we ready ourselves now to seek understanding above all else, we may avoid the larger conflict later on, allowing us to freely share our knowledge with each other and move on together to a new level of civilization that neither of us could have achieved alone. Let us learn from our past and put aside our fear of the unknown, so that when we discover new life and new civilizations, we may with open arms welcome Those Not Like Us.