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David Darling's Newsletter #23


July 18, 2004


1. Meanderings
2. Alien Intelligence
3. Bookends

1. Meanderings

I had a phone call a couple of weeks ago from Ted Rubenstein, a producer at CNN, which linked (in a roundabout sort of way) a couple of topics I wanted to touch upon in this newsletter — music and aliens. Ted is putting together a one-hour special, hosted by Miles O'Brien (the CNN news anchor, not Star Trek's chief engineer!), on the search for life and intelligence in space, to be aired this fall. He had some questions for me on SETI but then the conversation turned to the locations where they'd been shooting and the people they'd been interviewing for the show. One of these was Steve Squyres, much in the public eye recently as the principal investigator for the Mars Exploration Rovers. Ted said that one of their biggest regrets was that they hadn't been able to persuade Squyres to run off a few licks on the Fender electric that he keeps in his office. When I mentioned that I also had a Fender plugged in within arm's reach we got on to the subject of our favorite music, concerts, etc.

Music has always been important to me in my work. I play my guitar as a complete break from writing. Having started with an acoustic (a 12-string of all things) as a teenager, I moved on to classical, and now play electric through this amazing little gadget that lets you synthesize every guitar sound imaginable. It's tremendously therapeutic. Then, while I'm actually writing, I listen to a wide range of music depending on mood and what I'm actually doing. If it's highly original writing — like the first draft of a new book — then I can't do with any kind of organized sound: it's just too distracting. The music comes in when I'm redrafting, trying to make things flow better, or searching for another way to express myself. Then I use music almost as a thesaurus, to suggest alternatives or new possibilities, or to put me in a different frame of mind. One day it might be Pink Floyd, the next Samuel Barber or Stravinsky — I like a broad spectrum.

My first major book, Deep Time, was based partly on the projected future adventures of the Voyager 2 probe and so, appropriately, took its chapter titles from the names of pieces of music carried on the Voyager phonograph. You can read about the record here. After the book was published I was sent a couple of music CDs by none other than ... David Darling! One of my namesakes happens to be a superb improvisational cellist (he nabbed "www.daviddarling.com" before I became Net savvy!). I still listen to his albums while writing, and occasionally flash the disks in front of unsuspecting guests in a, usually futile, attempt to persuade them that I have hidden talents.

My next book, Equations of Eternity, has an even weirder musical connection because it inspired the lyrics for the song "From Dust to Life" by the heavy-metal band, Hell's Destiny. More on this, and the scary-looking band members, here. And still on the subject of heavy-metal, I was contacted by a UK concert organizer whose company goes the by the name of Neutronium (heavy metal — get it?). He pointed out a Star Trek reference to add to my encyclopedia page on neutronium and has a link to it from the company's site (as, incidentally, does Marathon Computers, which boasts that its desk mount for the Apple G5 can attach to any material - even neutronium! ).

Most bizarre of all, following my latest appearance on Coast to Coast AM, Charles Maxey, an experimental recording artist, got in touch to ask if he could use a 5-minute sample of my voice from the show on one of his new tracks. How this is going to turn out is anyone's guess. But speaking of alien concepts...

2. Alien Intelligence

In a recent newsletter on the new findings from Mars, I questioned how big an impact the discovery of simple life on another world would have. Of course, it would make headlines and create a lot of excitement for a while. But would it affect us deeply in the long run? I doubted whether it really would and used the seven-days wonder of the Martian "fossils" announcement by NASA scientists in 1996 as an example of how the impact might be short-lived. In response, Rob Schleifer wrote to me with some interesting and very valid observations. Said Rob:
If microbes are discovered on Mars, I don't think it will be anything like the ephemeral excitement over the alleged 1996 fossils. First of all, the fossil theory was challenged almost from the outset, and of course nothing was ever proved. So the initial reaction was a response to the POSSIBILITY of the fossils being genuine. But far more important, at best the fossils were an indication that life may have existed in the remote past on Mars, something that most people have difficulty relating to. [A]ctually finding (and seeing) living microbes TODAY on Mars is a completely different situation. . . If life is detected on Mars, college students at every university in the world will be talking about this for decades. . .; and everyone else . . . will also be overwhelmed by this. The implications will reach into every phase of life. And even when the initial headlines pass and people are not thinking specifically about this discovery, the knowledge will always be in the back of their minds that WE ARE NOT ALONE. And, unlike the fossils, every time people think about it . . . they will realize that at the very moment they are thinking about it, these microbes are reproducing and multiplying on another planet and, by extension, throughout the universe. The comparison, then, of finding fossils from a long lost eon to observing living creatures today is, in my opinion, a very distant comparison.
I'd love to hear other people's opinions on this. Would the confirmation of the existence of any kind of extraterrestrial life permanently change us? Obviously, it would revolutionize astrobiology. But would it affect us deeply - culturally, psychologically? I think Rob is right to argue that the fossils announcement wasn't a good test of this. (Was the Orson Welles broadcast of "War of the Worlds" in 1938 a good test of how we'd react to a "first contact" situation?) In any event, we'd better prepare ourselves mentally for the big announcement because it may be just around the corner. With the discovery of ammonia in the atmosphere of Mars, on top of the earlier news that methane had been found, it's getting more and more difficult (though not impossible) to find ways to explain these data that don't involve life. Personally, I think we're on the very eve of confronting the fact that we have cosmic neighbors — even if they are only microscopic.

But do we share the universe with other intelligence? I'm open to being persuaded that finding microbial life out there would alter us profoundly. I don't need any persuading that the discovery of alien minds and civilizations, especially if they were more advanced than us, would change us permanently and beyond recognition.
We may have a longer wait for this discovery. I think we'll know definitively about life on Mars, if it's there, by the end of the decade. (We may be 99% sure by the end of this year, the way things are going.) But high intelligence is bound to be rarer — perhaps very much rarer — than low life. And high intelligence will almost inevitably be many thousands or millions of years ahead of us. We've only had powered flight for a century, and radio for not much longer than that. We're already talking about such esoterica as quantum energy drives, quantum computers, antigravity, and so forth, that may alter science and technology beyond description. Five hundred years from now we'll have moved into a different technological phase that will make us seem like super beings by today's standards. A race even 10,000 years ahead of us will not, I would contend, be trying to communicate by electromagnetic signals or sub-light-speed probes. Their technology and means of comunication and travel will be essentially invisible to us, just as cell phone messages are undetectable to a primitive rainforest tribe. In fact, I'd argue — and I hope you'll argue back at me - that most intelligence in the universe will (a) not be interested in engaging us in a dialog (any more than we're interested in communicating with ants), and (b) intentionally avoid making their presence known to us (having adopted something like Star Trek's "prime directive"). I think we'd be overwhelmed and possibly destroyed by close contact with sufficiently advanced beings, however benign their intentions.

Having said this, being a scientist, I'm all for SETI, both in its conventional and unconventional forms. I applaud the work being done by the SETI Institute, the SETI League, and other groups around the world who are doing their darndest to seek out signs of alien intelligence and technology. I'm happy to be a participant in Alan Tough's "Welcome To ETI" project, which uses the Internet to open up an alternative line of communication for whoever might be out there. I think the proposals for searching the solar system for various types of alien probes and artifacts are particularly intriguing. And who knows? Perhaps we are being closely monitored by stealth probes. Perhaps alien anthropologists are mingling freely amongst us at this very moment, studying our customs and culture. (Any ideas for how we might spot them, if they are?) The fact is, none of us knows; we're all guessing, experts and layfolk alike. And the only way we can move any closer to understanding what varieties of life and mind populate the cosmos is to go out and look. My greatest optimism for rapid progress is with the bottom-up, astrobiological approach, where we look for life in general and then refine our notions of more complex life based on those findings. It's my belief that we'll identify Mars as being biologically active in the very near future. And I'd be surprised if our interferometric searches of other planetary systems don't turn up many more signs of extraterrestrial life within the next two decades. Beyond that I'm much less certain and perhaps less optimistic. There is intelligence beyond Earth, I'm convinced of it. But whether we'll be able — or allowed — to detect it, is another matter.

3. Bookends

Hitting the shelves next month will be the third of my encyclopedias for Wiley, The Universal Book of Mathematics. Read about it here. Check out the front page of my website for availability of my other books and for the latest events in the universe at large. In May 2005 comes my next book — Teleportation: The Impossible Leap. More on this in the weeks ahead.

Have a great summer everyone!
All the best,
David Darling