Brainy Quote of the Day

Friday, May 24, 2019

The Great Filter...

Image Source: Gizmodo and originally, Wait, But Why

Topics: Astrobiology, Carl Sagan, Climate Change, Drake Equation, Existentialism, Fermi Paradox, Nuclear Power

“The universe is a pretty big place. If it's just us, seems like an awful waste of space.” Carl Sagan

My First Contact scenario doesn't involve Vulcans, warp drive or impossible scenarios: it involves radio transmissions, as communication is a big part of the Drake Equation. Specifically audio, video and digital data (Internet?) of extraterrestrial origin as we would confirm before announcing to the world. Assuming the aliens developed their technology in an oxygen-nitrogen environment, the language we could hear might amount to a lot of "clicking" noises, that mathematicians - specifically specialists in cryptography, and linguists - would dive into deciphering. Eventually after coming up with a Rosetta Stone of syntax, we could translate what would amount to news, drama and sitcoms. Of specific interest might be their political climate and sectarian strife (if any). More particularly, did they successfully translate through their "Great Filter"...

...or, if they did not.


I'm a big fan of Jordon Peele's incarnation of The Twilight Zone, particularly the sixth episode: "Six Degrees of Freedom." It is unfortunate that popular show title describes our current political climate.

I won't give away the intriguing ending, but Peele has mastered the macabre plot twist of Rod Serling's writing style, and (my opinion) his surreal monologue delivery. It's streaming, so you may have to pay less than you would for a single movie ticket per month to view it. I've enjoyed it and other shows so far, and I get no monetary gain for the endorsement.

"The Great Filter, in the context of the Fermi paradox, is whatever prevents dead matter from undergoing abiogenesis, in time, to expanding lasting life as measured by the Kardashev scale.[1][2] The concept originates in Robin Hanson's argument that the failure to find any extraterrestrial civilizations in the observable universe implies the possibility something is wrong with one or more of the arguments from various scientific disciplines that the appearance of advanced intelligent life is probable; this observation is conceptualized in terms of a "Great Filter" which acts to reduce the great number of sites where intelligent life might arise to the tiny number of intelligent species with advanced civilizations actually observed (currently just one: human).[3] This probability threshold, which could lie behind us (in our past) or in front of us (in our future), might work as a barrier to the evolution of intelligent life, or as a high probability of self-destruction.[1][4] The main counter-intuitive conclusion of this observation is that the easier it was for life to evolve to our stage, the bleaker our future chances probably are.

The idea was first proposed in an online essay titled "The Great Filter - Are We Almost Past It?", written by economist Robin Hanson. The first version was written in August 1996 and the article was last updated on September 15, 1998. Since that time, Hanson's formulation has received recognition in several published sources discussing the Fermi paradox and its implications.

Using extinct civilizations such as Easter Island as models, a study conducted in 2018 posited that climate change induced by "energy intensive" civilizations may prevent sustainability within such civilizations, thus explaining the lack of evidence for intelligent extraterrestrial life.[5]" Source: Wikipedia/The Great Filter

The Great Filter is alluded to in science fiction with or without warp drive: Star Trek described global wars on Earth and the fictional Vulcan that involved their respective nuclear holocausts. For the Vulcans, recovery involved a relentless embrace of logic, or as I recall reading in a Trek novel, "reality-truth." For Earth, it essentially involved accepting help from the Vulcans after the human species was discovered warp capable through a singular genius with a funny name post self-induced Apocalypse, a Deus ex Machina plot device used since publicly performed Greek and Roman plays. We don't have warp drive, but we do have thermonuclear devices poised for Armageddon. We don't have Vulcans, but we once did have the Easter Islanders, just as once we had the Dodo.

I've often encapsulated The Great Filter in my own dictum: "intelligence is its own Entropy." I think when Carl Sagan was alive, the regressive forces we see now denying science, climate change; verifiable facts and reality were well engaged in his day of the original COSMOS. Slowly, shows like COSMOS lost their appeal to Game Shows cum Reality Shows, and as a country we reveled in our distractions, added as channels on cable and Internet multiplied like E. coli. and measles resurgence as well as our grasp of what is real and verifiable. In fact, we seek distractions in gadgets and online machinations in the constant need to fill "horror vacui."

In the east, nothing meant something, particularly in clarity of thought: Mu Shin No Shin - "the mind without mind" or more colloquially, "no mind." As translated from the martial battlefield to artists both martial and objective; and Zen philosophers, it offers a certain clarity that can be attained when not focused on minutiae detail, but accepted reality "as-is" after diligent practice. A practice like karate forms that takes years of repetition, dedication and study. That is the key to mastering anything, from martial arts to science to civics.

The stars are silent. Intelligence may be rare. Vulcans if existing may not be benevolent, and in the myopic attention span of the erect species of which I am member - "wise men"...fleeting in longevity.

We hope we're past The Great Filter. I'm not sure we are.

Related links:

The Great Filter Might Be What's Preventing Aliens from Reaching Us,
Joanie Faletto, Curiosity

The Reason We've Never Found Intelligent Life Might be Because We Are Already Going Extinct,
Climate change might be humanity’s "Great Filter." Karla Lant, Futurism

The Great Filter, a possible explanation for the Fermi Paradox – interview with Robin Hanson
Science, Technology, Future

Thursday, May 23, 2019

Strain, 2-D and Superconductivity...

Superconductors' never-ending flow of electrical current could provide new options for energy storage and superefficient electrical transmission and generation. But the signature zero electrical resistance of superconductors is reached only below a certain critical temperature and is very expensive to achieve. Physicists in Serbia believe they've found a way to manipulate superthin, waferlike monolayers of superconductors, thus changing the material's properties to create new artificial materials for future devices. This image shows a liquid phase graphene film deposited on PET substrate. Credit: Graphene Laboratory, University of Belgrade

Topics: Applied Physics, Superconductors, Thin Films

Superconductors' never-ending flow of electrical current could provide new options for energy storage and superefficient electrical transmission and generation, to name just a few benefits. But the signature zero electrical resistance of superconductors is reached only below a certain critical temperature, hundreds of degrees Celsius below freezing, and is very expensive to achieve.

Physicists from the University of Belgrade in Serbia believe they've found a way to manipulate superthin, waferlike monolayers of superconductors, such as graphene, a monolayer of carbon, thus changing the material's properties to create new artificial materials for future devices. The findings from the group's theoretical calculations and experimental approaches are published in the Journal of Applied Physics.

"The application of tensile biaxial strain leads to an increase of the critical temperature, implying that achieving high temperature superconductivity becomes easier under strain," said the study's first author from the University of Belgrade's LEX Laboratory, Vladan Celebonovic.

Strain enables new applications of 2-D materials,

Wednesday, May 22, 2019

Good Vibes...

Sounding off: theoretical force patterns for an underwater Chladni plate at two different frequencies. The force arrows illustrate why glass beads accumulate at the plate antinodes (shown in yellow and red). (Courtesy: K Latifi, H Wijaya and Q Zhou/Physical Review Letters)

Topics: Acoustic Physics, Applied Physics, Research

The behaviour of some particles on the vibrating surfaces of Chladni plates is reversed underwater, a new study reveals. The discovery was made by Kourosh Latifi, Harri Wijaya, and Quan Zhou at Aalto University in Finland. They observed that glass beads on a submerged vibrating plate move towards antinodes, where the plate’s amplitude of vibration is highest. The underwater effect could be useful in a variety of medical and biological applications, including the manipulation of living cells.

In 1787 the German physicist Ernst Chladni put sand on a vibrating plate and observed that the grains settle on the nodal lines where the plate’s amplitude of vibration is zero. In contrast, he observed that finer particles move towards the plate’s antinodes where the amplitude is a local maximum.

A century later, Michael Faraday explained both behaviours. He concluded that the vibrations cause the larger grains to move laterally across the plate until they reach a node – where they no longer get lateral kicks and therefore remain in place. As for why the smaller particles did the opposite, Faraday argued that air currents just above the plates tend to push the lighter particles towards the antinodes – an effect known as acoustic streaming.

Vibrations guide tiny glass beads through an underwater maze
Sam Jarman, Physics World

Tuesday, May 21, 2019

Twin Paradox...

Retired astronaut Mark Kelly (left) cracks a slight smile while posing with his identical twin brother, astronaut Scott Kelly (right). As part of NASA's Twins Study, Scott took a long trip to space, while Mark remained on Earth. Researchers then monitored how their bodies reacted to their differing environments. NASA

Topics: Astronaut, Astrophysics, Genetics, NASA, Spaceflight

Brothers compete. So in 2016, when astronaut Scott Kelly returned to Earth after spending a year in space, it must have really annoyed his identical twin brother — retired astronaut Mark Kelly — that Scott was two inches taller than when he left. However, Scott's temporary increase in height was not the only thing that changed during his trip.

As part of NASA's Twins Study, while Scott was in space, Mark went about his daily life on Earth. Over the course of the year-long mission, researchers tracked changes in both brothers' biological markers to pinpoint any variances. Because the twins share the same genetic code, researchers reasoned that any observed differences could tentatively — though not definitively — be linked to Scott's time aboard the International Space Station (ISS). This allowed them to take advantage of a unique opportunity and explore how an extended stay in space may impact the human body.

Based on their results, which were published this week in the journal Science, spaceflight can definitely trigger changes in the human body. But the vast majority of these changes disappear within just a few short months of returning to Earth.

Most notably, the researchers found that living in a microgravity environment can: damage DNA; impact the way thousands of individual genes are expressed; increase the length of telomeres (the shielding caps that protect the ends of our chromosomes); thicken artery walls; modify the microbiome; and increase inflammation — just to name a few.

"This is the dawn of human genomics in space," said Andrew Feinberg, a distinguished professor at Johns Hopkins University and one of the lead investigators for the Twins Study, in a press release. "We developed the methods for doing these types of human genomic studies, and we should be doing more research to draw conclusions about what happens to humans in space."

NASA's Twins Study: Spaceflight changes the human body, but only temporarily
Jake Parks, Astronomy

Monday, May 20, 2019

Our Shrinking Moon...

New surface features of the Moon have been discovered in a region called Mare Frigoris, outlined here in teal. NASA
Image: New Republic

Topics: Astrophysics, Geophysics, Moon, NASA, Planetary Science

The Moon is shrinking as its interior cools, getting more than about 150 feet (50 meters) skinnier over the last several hundred million years. Just as a grape wrinkles as it shrinks down to a raisin, the Moon gets wrinkles as it shrinks. Unlike the flexible skin on a grape, the Moon’s surface crust is brittle, so it breaks as the Moon shrinks, forming “thrust faults” where one section of crust is pushed up over a neighboring part.

“Our analysis gives the first evidence that these faults are still active and likely producing moonquakes today as the Moon continues to gradually cool and shrink,” said Thomas Watters, senior scientist in the Center for Earth and Planetary Studies at the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum in Washington. “Some of these quakes can be fairly strong, around five on the Richter scale.”

Watters is lead author of a study that analyzed data from four seismometers placed on the Moon by the Apollo astronauts using an algorithm, or mathematical program, developed to pinpoint quake locations detected by a sparse seismic network. The algorithm gave a better estimate of moonquake locations. Seismometers are instruments that measure the shaking produced by quakes, recording the arrival time and strength of various quake waves to get a location estimate, called an epicenter. The study was published May 13 in Nature Geoscience.

Shrinking Moon May Be Generating Moonquakes, NASA

Thursday, May 16, 2019

Relics of Entropy...

Topics: Biology, Existentialism, Futurism

I've passed all my courses and now have the task of putting my Thesis together. I'm anticipating a successful completion from a good start.

My granddaughter is as well, with a good family (I'm biased) surrounded by a support system of extended friends and close relatives.

I'm understandably concerned by headlines like these:

Up to one million plant and animal species face extinction, many within decades, because of human activities, says the most comprehensive report yet on the state of global ecosystems.

Without drastic action to conserve habitats, the rate of species extinction — already tens to hundreds of times higher than the average across the past ten million years — will only increase, says the analysis. The findings come from a United Nations-backed panel called the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES).

According to the report, agricultural activities have had the largest impact on ecosystems that people depend on for food, clean water and a stable climate. The loss of species and habitats poses as much a danger to life on Earth as climate change does, says a summary of the work, released on 6 May. [1]


Capitalism has generated massive wealth for some, but it’s devastated the planet and has failed to improve human well-being at scale.

Species are going extinct at a rate 1,000 times faster than that of the natural rate over the previous 65 million years (see Center for Health and the Global Environment at Harvard Medical School).

Since 2000, 6 million hectares of primary forest have been lost each year. That’s 14,826,322 acres, or just less than the entire state of West Virginia (see the 2010 assessment by the Food and Agricultural Organization of the UN).

Even in the U.S., 15% of the population lives below the poverty line. For children under the age of 18, that number increases to 20% (see U.S. Census).

 • The world’s population is expected to reach 10 billion by 2050 (see United Nations' projections).

By 2050, my granddaughter will be 31, and I likely a memory to her.

I came of age during the sixties when our Civil Rights leaders became Civil Rights icons and martyrs. I came of age when "duck and cover" drills were the order of the day. I came of age when post Civil Rights, we tried at least to act...civil. Forced busing gave way to De Facto desegregation in the public square in education - until the end of forced busing and re-segregation; malls, sports arenas (especially there) where some modicum of the old "control of black bodies" could be exercised with less bull whip and more paychecks and professional sports contracts.

The seventies would be the last time production kept pace with pay: we've been in a hamster wheel since then, and the gulf between the super rich and everyone else has become an un-crossable chasm. We're more oligarchy than democracy, and the owners would sooner than later transform us into a full dystopian fascistic hell scape than help solve the problems they've created.

The point is, despite all the challenges, I came of age. I lived. I loved. I laughed. I cried. I learned to drive. I married. I had children and they are starting to have children.

It would be lovely for my granddaughter to have a planet on which to have a tea.

Lovelier still for her parents (my children) to become grandparents in my absence on a planet still able to support life and a civilization that could support such an endeavor with minimal environmental impact.

Or...she and I could be relics of entropy, where our ashes will not be discernible from scientist to citizen, layman to philosopher, capitalist to socialist; black to white and prince to pauper. In a blink of an eye on the scale of cosmic time...we would all become irrelevant to an unfeeling universe.

I am again biased. I think my granddaughter (and yours), deserves a little more than that.

1. Humans are driving one million species to extinction, Jeff Tollefson, Nature
2. Unless It Changes, Capitalism Will Starve Humanity By 2050, Drew Hansen, Forbes

Wednesday, May 15, 2019


Copper free: two Münster researchers compare a prototype optical chip to a one-cent coin. (Courtesy: University of Münster)

Topics: Artificial Intelligence, Computer Engineering, Neuromorphic Devices

A prototype artificial neural network (ANN) that uses only light to function has been unveiled by researchers at the University of Münster in Germany and the University of Exeter and University of Oxford in the UK. Their system can learn how to recognize simple patterns and its all-optical design could someday be exploited to create ANNs that can process large amounts of information rapidly while consuming relatively small amounts of energy.

ANNs mimic the human brain by using artificial neurons and synapses. A neuron receives one or more input signals and then uses this information to decide whether to output its own signal to the network. Synapses are the connections between neurons and can be “weighted” to favor signal propagation between certain neurons. An ANN can be trained to perform a task such as recognizing a pattern by sending multiple examples of the target pattern through the ANN while tweaking the synaptic weights until all examples of the target pattern elicit the same output from the ANN.

Relatively simple ANNs can be implemented on a computer. However, the conventional computer architecture of having a separate processor and memory makes it very difficult to implement the large numbers of neurons and synapses required to perform practical tasks.

One alternative is to create an ANN in which signals flows in the form of light pulses through an optical network. This is attractive because unlike electronic signals in a silicon chip, large amounts of light-encoded data can move quickly through optical materials without generating much heat. Furthermore, large amounts of information can be sent through an optical system by multiplexing the data using several different colors of light.

All-optical network mimics the brain’s neurons and synapses
Hamish Johnston, Physics World