## Little Green Men

SETI is short for “Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence”, or in other words, a search for the “Little Green Men”. The main thrust of SETI is to examine the light from other stars for signs of intelligent life, often on well known wavelengths such as wavelengths near the “water hole“,  a section of the electromagnetic spectrum associated with hydrogen and hydroxyl ions emissions lines. Hydrogen and hydroxyl together make water and water is supposedly necessary for life, so the thinking is that technically advanced life would possibly use this frequency to initiate contact with other civilisations.

The trouble is that this is just a guess and there are many possible frequencies that might seem plausible to technically advanced civilisations. If the little green men are not made of water, as we essentially are, they might pick a different frequency band to search. XKCD, my favourite web site has a cartoon which makes this point:

Suppose a remote civilisation did decide to broadcast in that waveband. If they are just announcing their presence, they would need to broadcast their signal in all directions, or they would need to pick out some likely looking star systems and send a directed signal in just a few directions.

If they broadcast in all directions, the power that they would require would be huge. The problem is that in any average stellar neighbourhood, there aren’t many stars. In the sun’s neighbourhood there is an average of 0.004 stars in a cubic light year. So the probability of finding a star one light year from a star in a neighbourhood like the sun’s is four in 1,000. If you look two light years out from the star, you will enclose a volume of eight times the volume of the search area up to one light year, meaning that the probability of finding a star in that volume is 0.032. You would need to look further than five light years out for there to be a fifty-fifty chance of finding a star in that volume, which would be 125 time the size of the original volume of one cubic light year. At 15 lightyears, there would likely be at least 10 stars within the search area.

That’s all very well, but most if not all of these stars will be of the wrong type to support planets of the type that will have free water on them. In fact it is extremely unlikely that a suitable star with suitable planets can be found within, say 200 light years of our hypothetical advanced civilisation. (That’s an out and out guess, but see later).

The trouble is that the signal gets weaker and weaker the further it travels. If you use the signal strength at one light year as the yardstick, the strength is reduced to one quarter at two light years, one ninth at three light years and one sixteenth at four light years and so on because the signal is spread over an area proportional to the square of the distance from the source.  So if the signal strength at 200 light years will be 1/40,000th of the strength of the signal at one light year. If the signal has to travel further it will be correspondingly weaker.

So likely systems are rare and the signal strength will be weak at the distance of a suitable system. This means that the signal needs to be very strong to be detectable.  Very strong means lots of energy. To broadcast to the Universe at large the civilisation would have to expend a considerable amount of its available energy to only potentially contact another civilisation. Imagine trying to get a project like into the planetary budget!

So the hypothetical civilisation is probably desperate to make contact. That may be because either they are in trouble themselves, or they want to warn all local civilisations about something. They are unlikely to do it on a whim, as they must know that the chances of success are pretty close to zero. There’s a faint possibility of a sort of “vampire civilisation” that must prey on other civilisations and so chooses to broadcast in the hope of finding a new victim. I consider that highly unlikely, since as I said the chances of success are nearly zero, and such a civilisation would need to find a new host in a relatively short period of time, astronomically speaking.

If a broadcast signal is very unlikely to find a receiver, how about a directional signal, maybe driven by a laser. The spread of a laser signal is much less than a broadcast signal, but the signal does spread. An advanced civilisation would still have to divert significant resources into sending the signal but it might be possible.

The civilisation would have an issue, though. If they wanted to get a signal to us and they used a ground based laser, their ground station would be in line with us once each local day, and our receiver would be in line with them once in every day too. Since it is unlikely that the day lengths would match, so the window for transmission would be short, even down to a minute or less.

The hypothetical aliens would most likely opt for an orbital laser. That could be pointed in our direction all the time, for every hour of every alien day, unless some local object got in the way. However we have a problem now. We would need to detect that a signal is coming from a point in space, in spite of all the extraneous noise that might mask it, and then we would need to concentrate our resources looking in that direction for a length of time. The hard part would probably be convincing ourselves that a signal is from LGM (little green men).

There’s an equation that purports to estimate the possible frequency of extraterrestrial civilisations, called the “Drake Equation”. It’s the sort of “equation” that gives mathematicians the heebie-jeebies, since it is derived from nothing and nothing is derivable from it. XKCD cruelly lampoons the equation, and while I don’t much like the sentiment expressed, I can understand why the Drake equation raises his ire – it is ad hoc, probabalistic, and presents as constants things which are fundamentally unknown. In other words, your guess is as good as mine, and both will fit comfortably in the Drake equation. I may return to the equation in a later post.

## The Psi thing

I read a book recently, a real paper book, which was called “brain wars” and was written by Mario Beauregard, who is a neuroscience professor at the University of Montreal. The book amounts to an attack on materialist philosophy, arguing that the materialist philosophy cannot explain everything, especially the phenomenon of consciousness and “psi” phenomena.

One of the cornerstones of his argument is based around the dualist notion that mind and brain are separate “things”, and indeed one key section from the text, quoted in the blurb on the dust cover as follows:

The brain can be weighed, measured, scanned, dissected, and studied. The mind that we conceive to be generated by the brain, however, remains a mystery. It has no mass, no volume, and no shape and it cannot be measured in space and time. Yet it is as real as neurons, neurotransmitters, and synaptic junctions. It is also very powerful.

A little later he poses the question that the opponents of Decartes posed : “How, they asked, can an immaterial, mental substance act upon the material brain?”

Beauregard later quotes Minsky’s statement “The brain is just a computer made out of meat”. For reasons that he goes into in depth later he states that quantum mechanics “has effectively smashed the scientific materialist worldview.” He then complacently concludes that “(m)aterialistic theories, despite their stubborn persistence in the scientific community, cannot solve the mind-brain problem”.

This despite the fact that Quantum Mechanics is completely materialistic and rational!

I believe that Minsky’s view is closer to true than the view that there is more to reality than the materialistic view allows. Beauregard is not a computer scientist so he would not know, in detail, how computers work, under the covers. At a basic level running computer is all about signals. These signals flow through the computer like signals flow through the brain’s network of neurons. (Caveat: I’m not a neuroscientist like Beauregard so I may be misrepresenting his field.)

At a slightly higher level, a computer runs an operating system. This is program that runs all the time on the computer, running the programs that the user requires, handling the users input by running other little pieces of code, and handling all the bits of equipment (peripherals) that are connected to the computer. Crucially, the operating system can make the peripherals do things, like print the letter “A” on a sheet of paper, or spit out the sheet from the printer. Special purpose computers are the core of the robots that build cars or assemble toasters and pack them  and label them. They can even sort letters, reading ordinary human writing, much of the time accurately.

Interestingly people don’t think of robots as mobile computers that can interact with physical objects. The computers in robots run an operating system like your ordinary laptop or desktop, but they are often special versions called “embedded” operating systems.

Open up a computer though, and boot it up. Although you can point to various named parts, like the CPU, or the memory chips, you can’t point to the operating system. It essentially just a pattern impressed on the memory and the various registers and the CPU, and it changes over time. As Beauregard said about the mind, “it has no mass, no volume, and no shape, and it cannot be measured in space and time”. Yet it can influence things, print a letter or paint a car chassis.

It seems that the computer, with its operating system and subsidiary programs, is a good analogy for the brain/mind duality. A big caution here, in that this analogy is just analogy, but it could form the basis of a model of the way that the mind and brain work together. It doesn’t, per se, explain consciousness, but I think that I have, above, provided an explanation of how the supposedly immaterial mind can, through the brain, affect the body, so that we can think above moving a limb, and it happens.

Beauregard fastens on “quantum physics” as a possible enabler of psi phenomena, arguing that in quantum physics there is no separation between the mental and the physical. He bases this on what he calls the observer effect : “particles being observed and the observer are linked, and the results of the observation are influenced by the observer’s conscious attempt”.

Hmm. Wikipedia defines the “observer effect” as follows :

In science, the term observer effect refers to changes that the act of observation will make on a phenomenon being observed. This is often the result of instruments that, by necessity, alter the state of what they measure in some manner. A commonplace example is checking the pressure in an automobile tire; this is difficult to do without letting out some of the air, thus changing the pressure. This effect can be observed in many domains of physics.

This is a purely physical effect of measurement – the measuring photon knocks the observed particle slightly off course. Nothing to do with the observer. (A related effect, the Heisenberg principle puts limits on the accuracy with which we can know both the original values of a pair related properties and the subsequent values – roughly speaking).

I think that Beauregard is actually referring to is an interpretation of quantum mechanics known as the “Copenhagen Interpretation” otherwise known as the “Collapse of the Waveform”. As such he interprets it as saying that the act of observation affects the result of the observation. This is fundamentally not true, because what really happens is that the act of observation merely determines which of probabilities is true. As Wikipedia says :

What collapses in this interpretation is the knowledge of the observer and not an “objective” wavefunction.

In no way does the observer influence the results of the experiment except as a result of the real “observer effect” above, so there is no room there for psi effects.

You may think that I didn’t enjoy the book, but I did! There are unexplained and challenging events described in the book, but I don’t think that it goes anywhere near challenging the materialistic philosophy of science. The only part that I have issue with is when Beauregard challenges what he calls “pseudoskeptics”, those who profess to be skeptics and who are unwilling to look at the evidence for psi phenomenon.

In fact these so called pseudoskeptics have probably looked into psi phenomenon at some stage and decided that further consideration is pointless given the diffuse and dubious nature of some evidence and the lack of any information about how this could tie in to or extend in some logical way existing materialistic physics.

On 12 March 1989 Tim Berners-Lee wrote a proposal for what would become the “World Wide Web”, now enshrined in the “www” that is part of the name of many websites. This is often now voiced as “dub, dub, dub”, causing many people to cringe. Through 1990 and into 1991 Tim’s idea was refined until the idea was announced publicly on 7 August 1991.

Granny would have about 30 at the time, or maybe younger.

It’s worth remembering that the Internet had been around for a decade or so, in rudimentary form, so the chances are that Granny might have come into contact with it if she was working in it at the time, maybe at a university. It’s far more likely though that Granny’s first contact with computing would have come from working at a large firm where they had a mainframe computer.

Maybe she sat at an IBM 3270 screen and typed accounting data into it, or maybe she was one of the people who loaded punched cards into a reader or tended the huge printers  that spat out piles of paper with horizontal green stripes and sprocket holes down the edge. Or maybe she loaded magnetic tape reels into one of the tape reader machines which for some reason came to signify “computing” in many films of the era.

The Internet started as a linked network of computers, running online databases, using names such as “Archie” and “Gopher”. Everything was text based and there was no linking. That had to wait for Tim Berners-Lee’s insight. Universities embraced the new medium and most databases were held on University servers.

When you blithely click on link to visit a web page a number of things happen. Firstly your computer recognises that you want to do something. A program on your computer called the browser (Firefox, or Chrome or Internet Explorer) analyses your input and decides what you want it to do.

This may involve sending a request to a remote server, but your computer doesn’t know where the server, so it needs to find out. This is done by sending a message to yet another server which has information about where the requested server is on the Internet, or knows how to find out.

In the early days of the Internet, when Granny may have first come into contact with it, this system did not exist, so every computer on the Internet was required to know the whereabouts of every other computer on the Internet. As you can imagine, updating the address information became a tedious chore and that is why the system that I sketchily outlined above was invented.

Once Granny found a document whose title looked interesting, she would have to download it. Today we click on a link and the document appears on our screen. But Granny would have had to tediously search likely sources for the document, then she would transfer it to the server that she was connected to, and finally she would be able to print it on a printer. If she was lucky the printer would be nearby and it would actually have some paper in it. Granny’s document would be printed in a fixed width font on striped paper by a printer with a ribbon and little hammers, like a glorified typewriter.

Granny would have been around 20 when IBM introduced the first “IBM Personal Computer” in 1981, but she might have first come into contact with something like a Commodore 64 or Sinclair ZX 81 or Spectrum. She might have played games loaded tedious by command line commands from cassette tape. It’s possible that she was amazed by the blocky coloured graphics and the clunky game play, considering that the next best thing around was “Pong”, a primitive tennis game on a fixed device, sometimes set into a tabletop, or maybe “Space Invaders”, also hosted on a single purpose device.

If Granny had anything to do with computers in the early days of personal computers she would have had to deal with machines that by default booted into BASIC. That’s pretty much a fall-back as usually would have inserted a floppy disk with some version of DOS into the machine. Then she would have had to have loaded whatever program she wanted to run by using another floppy disk.

She would have had to become familiar with the DOS command line, including such quirks as the A: and B: drive referring to the same device. Most of the time. She might even have edited configuration files by hand.

When she got her first hard disk she would have installed DOS or even Windows on it from maybe three or four floppy disks. The first Windows versions ran as a shell on top of DOS, so she would have still needed to have a knowledge of DOS.

In addition she would have had to handle the dreaded device drivers. These were (and still are) small programs that handled interactions with specific installed hardware. Which in the early days of DOS and Windows meant just about any piece of hardware.

When Granny installed her new scanner she would have received a disk with it containing the drivers. She would know from prior experience that installing a driver could possibly make her system crash and be unbootable. But she would have still installed it and most probably (eventually) come out on top of it.

In addition before Granny got broadband she would have experienced the doubtful pleasures of using a dial-up modem, and would be familiar with the weird little song it sings to itself when it is handshaking with the remote modem. And she would certainly be familiar with waiting for half an hour to download a megabyte file and Grandad picking up the phone one minute before the end and breaking the connection.

So, now Granny has bought an iPad. Don’t be surprised if she takes to it like a duck to water. After all, she probably has decades more experience with computers and networks, the Internet and downloading than you have. You weren’t born when she started!

## The beginning of things and the ending of things.

The origin of the Universe, the start of everything, including time. That’s a grand concept. In our usual view of the Universe, we define any event by three space dimensions and one time dimension, but mathematics can deal with any number of dimensions. Some physical models of the Universe use many more than four dimensions, sometimes 10 or 11, and even an infinite number of dimensions.

Normally the space dimensions are depicted as being measured along three orthogonal axes, otherwise known as a Cartesian coordinate system. However there are alternate ways of specifying three space dimensions.

For instance, on the Earth’s we specify locations by latitude and longitude, which gives us two dimensions. Astronomical objects are specified by Right Ascension and Declination, again resulting in two dimensions. In both cases the third space dimension can be specified as distance, in the first case from the centre of the earth, and in the second case from the observer, but in the general case, the origin can be any arbitrary point.

This second method of specifying the position of an object is known as a Polar coordinate system, and there are many other ways that the position of an object can be specified. Of course, these positioning schemes only really work locally. If the origin of the coordinate system were on Mars for example then the coordinates of, say Jupiter, would differ from the coordinates of Jupiter as measured on Earth.

If we add time into the picture, we have four dimension to cater for. Since we live in a Universe where there appear to be three space dimensions we have difficulty in considering time to be a dimension like the three space dimensions.

A four dimensional Cartesian coordinate system seems to us to be impossible to conceive, but mathematicians don’t have any problems with the concept, and some have expended time and effort to be able to mentally conceive of four dimensional spaces.

I wish them luck but I don’t see that it is necessary. The equations have four variable, hence four dimensions, end of story. There is no need to imagine four Cartesian dimensions.

Some people might consider time to be different in nature to space. It is after all measured in seconds, and space is measured in millimetres. That’s a valid point, but consider that in a Polar coordinate system the distance dimension is different to the other two dimensions. The distance is measured in millimetres and the other two in degrees or radians.

It seems that it all depends on your point of view, and indeed we can measure distances in seconds too. All that we have to do is to say that the distance coordinate of an object is the number of seconds that it takes light to travel that distance. Essentially to convert from millimetres to seconds we divide by the speed of light, which, as we all learned in school is a constant.

So we have four or more dimensions in our Universe and all events in the Universe can be plotted in a space of four or more dimensions. I don’t think that it follows that every point in that space represent an event in our Universe – there may exist points in that space which don’t represent points in the space-time history of our Universe.

Consider for example a space with dimension two, which corresponds to the points on the surface of the earth (ignoring the altitude variation which corresponds the distance of the point on the surface of the earth from the centre of the earth). Every point on the surface of the earth could be plotted on Cartesian axes.

It would be a weird map with the origin representing the point on the earth which is on the equator and due South of Greenwich, the opposite side of the earth appearing at both -180 degrees and +180 degrees and the poles spread into a line at +90 degrees and -90 degrees.

However, no point on the earth’s surface would have a longitude coordinate that is greater than +180 or a latitude coordinate that is greater than +90. Those points just don’t represent a point on the earth’s surface. OK, the map could repeat, I guess, an infinite number of times, but I’m arbitrarily going to rule out that suggestion, as each point would not have a unique pair of coordinates.

This issue only arises because I am suggesting a mapping of Polar coordinates onto a Cartesian grid. Now I’m going to consider the four main dimensions of our Universe in a similar light.

As time is traced backwards, according to the Big Bang theory, the Universe is seen to be smaller. The further back we go, the smaller it is, until at some point the past, the whole Universe shrinks to a point. Some questioners of this theory ask “What happened before that point in time?”.

OK, let’s for the moment ignore two of the space dimensions. Let’s just consider time and, let’s say, a dimension that I’ll call width, as in the width of the Universe. We can then plot the changing width of the Universe as the vertical axis and time as the horizontal axis on a set of Cartesian axes.

Arbitrarily setting the origin at now, and the width as the current width of the Universe, let’s consider what happens as we trace the graph to the left. The width, shown on the vertical axis reduces until it eventually reaches the time axis and, pop, the Universe disappears. Or appears, if we trace from left to right in the normally accepted direction of the flow of time.

“What happened one second before that point?” asks the sceptic. The answer is that the question doesn’t make sense. In the analogy above, of the latitude/longitude map, it is like asking “What is 181 degrees West of Greenwich?”, to which the answer is “There is no 181 degrees West of Greenwich.” Similarly there is no Big Bang – 1 second.

You will note that in that latitude/longitude example above, the map can be said to “wrap around” and if one sails 181 degrees West of Greenwich, one finds oneself at 179 degrees East of Greenwich. A similar wrap around in the case of the Universe would be for someone who somehow managed to get to Big Bang – 1 second to find that they had arrived at one second before the end of time.

However I do not know if the theories of the Big Bang allow for this possibility. Certainly the concept makes a sort of sense if the Universe is destined to collapse into a “Big Crunch”, like a Big Bang in reverse, but if the Universe is destined to expand without limit, then there is no analogy to “181 degrees West of Greenwich”.

In any case the problem likely only arises because the Cartesian coordinate system in inadequate for plotting the origin of the Universe.

## Consciousness, in mice and men and flatworms

Of all emergent phenomena consciousness is the most mysterious, probably because we don’t seem to have a handle on the concept. We don’t understand how it arises and probably not much about what it comprises and how it works. We know that it, apparently, can be switched on and off, as when we go to sleep or are sedated or knocked out by some accident or other.

It is only marginally under our control. In general terms we can be conscious or awake, but not conscious of anything specific. We can be in a reverie or day dream, or we can be doing something semi-automatically, like driving. But we can “snap to” and be conscious of something specific, as when some event happens while driving that needs our full attention. Or the door bell snaps us out of our reverie, or we notice a cloud that looks like a dog, or cat, or, more likely, a sheep!

Even when we are fully awake and concentrating on the idiot who just pulled out in front of us, we perform actions of which we are not fully aware, such as change down a gear or put on the brakes. We are aware of these actions to some extent as they are not fully automatic, like the movement of our legs when we walk, but we don’t have to think about which pedal to press or how to move the gear lever to change gear, as we did when we were learning to drive.

I might have said before, in a previous post, that I don’t think that it is feasible that consciousness is only found in mankind. Chimpanzees share 98.8% of our genes, so it reasonable that they share many of our abilities and they can certainly use tools and reason. It is unlikely that consciousness is an expression of something in the 1.2% of the genes that are unique to humans. Chimpanzees show fear and happiness , they sulk, they get angry and show other emotions. While the expression of emotions doesn’t prove that they are conscious, I find it hard to imagine a conscious entity would not express its consciousness through emotions, and that a non-conscious entity would show any emotions.

If chimpanzees are conscious animals as we are, then it follows that other animals are conscious entities to some extent or other. Some people believe that it has been demonstrated that most animals have consciousness, but I consider to be very likely, but not yet proved. Even a mouse, a “Wee, sleekit, cow’rin, tim’rous beastie” as Robert Burns put it, demonstrates its fear, and with its own species, anger. It is unlikely that a mouse is *as* aware as a human or even a chimpanzee, and it would be very difficult to find self consciousness in a flatworm though.

But then again, consciousness is related to mind and to the brain, and the brain is the major part of the “Central Nervous System” in mammals. It is possible that the more complicated a brain the more consciousness a animal possesses. Even a flatworm possesses a very simple brain-like structure called a ganglion. So, maybe, a flatworm posses a spark of consciousness, an atom of awareness of the most rudimentary sort.

Or there may be some threshold below which consciousness is impossible. A simple eyespot, such as flatworms possess cannot form an image. To form an image a much more complicated eye structure is required, so there must some limit of animal complexity at which vision can be said to be possible. A fuzzy limit, maybe, but a limit nevertheless.

If consciousness is truly an emergent phenomenon of the brain, the what properties of the brain could enable consciousness? Just as the chemical and electrical properties of water molecules are what enable the emergent property of wetness, some features of the brain and its shadow partner, the mind, must lead in some way to the phenomenon of consciousness.

The most obvious characteristic of the brain that really differentiates the brain from other organs is the concentration of neurons, billions of them, each connected to thousands of others by synapses. The number of connections is immense, but sheer complexity in itself does not imply consciousness.

In the case of emergent phenomena in general, it seems to me that it is easier to work from the top down as it were, the macro and consider what micro properties could feasibly cause the phenomenon. If we look at the wetness of water and consider that water is made up of molecules with physical, chemical and electrical characteristics we can at least speculate that the wetness of water is at least partly caused by the way that the molecules stick to and move across other molecules in a surface such as the skin. The water molecules are able to stick and let go and move over other molecules in a way that wets a surface, and forms a concave meniscus in a tube in a characteristic way.

In  comparison mercury atoms have different electrical chemical and physical characteristics. They don’t form molecules in the same way, and while they slide over one another, they don’t stick to other molecules and let go in the way that water molecules do. Consequently mercury atoms don’t wet surfaces like water molecules do and a mercury meniscus is convex not concave.

So, we can work out, in rough terms, why water is wet, by comparing water and mercury, and noting their micro-properties. Can we achieve the same with the phenomenon of consciousness? Well, the brain is a computation engine of sorts, and so maybe we can compare it to a computer. Computers are not (yet) conscious and brains contain minds which are conscious. Can we make any guesses based on that?

You can probably tell from the questioning way that I am discussing this topic that I don’t have any firm opinions on the matter. There are a couple of differences that I will point out though.

Computers are highly organised and computational functions and memory functions are completely separate, physically and computationally. A computer is also clock driven, with each operation taking up exactly the same number of “clock ticks” each time it is performed. In contrast, while a brain does have areas in which functions seem to reside, and a particular area may “light up” every time one raises a finger for example, memory seems to be more diffuse in its location, as compared to a computer.

Secondly, a brain’s “architecture” changes over time, whereas a computer’s does not. A brain may make new connections (which may have something to do with memory), while a computer stays as it was when built.

Thirdly, a brain is enormously more complex than any computer yet built, at least in terms of the number of interconnections in it and its ability to re-wire itself with new connections.

I don’t know if these differences are significant in terms of explaining the problem of consciousness. I suspect that they are at the root of the problem, but I could be totally wrong. It may be the “programs” that run in the brain and computer that make the difference, but that just moves the issue to another arena.

And I’ve run out of space. I could touch on the “android” question, but I’ll leave that for now.