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David Darling's Newsletter #27


December 3, 2004


1. Meanderings
2. Titan the Search for Life
3. Bookends

1. Meanderings

Greetings — and happy holidays to you all!

Last time, if you remember, we were talking about teleportation — the idea of beaming things and (someday perhaps) people around as in Star Trek. Several people wrote to me with ideas and comments on this theme. One of the questions I asked was, Would you feel happy about being disassembled and all your old atoms thrown away, then a particle-perfect copy of you formed an instant later? If not, why not? Jeremy Ellis had this to say:

"Honestly, I would never step into a transporter as such. You would die. Itís as simple as that. There is a continuity of existence which is irreplaceable. Being deconstructed by a teleporter would effectively kill you and result in a very perfect copy of yourself. The problem with this method is that your molecular (possibly your quantum?) continuity of existence would end. The new copy would think he/she was you and escaped completely unharmed, but this wouldnít be the case. I'm not saying that there is a soul which isn't transported, I'm just saying that there is something very important about the 'string of events' with respect to your consciousness.

Let me give an example why itís important not to get into the teleporter. Imagine for a moment that the 'no-cloning' rule could be violated in certain circumstances. You could create copies of people and things at will as long as you 'deconstructí them at a later date. So, you decide to make a copy of your friend (letís call him Bob). You put Bob in room A with no windows, no doors, which is an exact copy of another room, B. Bob is sitting in room A when you suddenly teleport/make a copy of him in room B. If teleportation truly doesínt make any difference, then both Bob-A and Bob-B should behave exactly the same. Would they truly behave the same over the next minute, hour, day? I'm not sure, but I wouldn't bet on it. Finally, does Bob-A's (the first Bob) consciousness transfer to the new copy? No, it would not. From Bob-A's perspective he would still be the same Bob as yesterday, but Bob-B would think he was truly Bob-A; however Bob-A's 'mind' would not have transferred. Now let's say that you told Bob-A that you had to deconstruct him so Bob-B could go on and live his life. I can assure you that Bob-A would not be too happy about that. Now, for quantum-based teleportation devices, you just need to shorten the time where there would be no overlap between copies. Would you jump into an entanglement teleporter if you knew that all your atoms would be discarded and a copy would take your place? Like it or not, but there is something important about your body, your cells, and possibly even your atoms which lends continuity to your perceived mental life. It is what defines your mind."

Andy Crayston, from Lancaster, England — now a near-neighbor of mine — had some interesting thoughts about the possible use of teleportation for interstellar travel. (Incidentally, a variation on Andyís star-hopping scheme was described by the U. of Washington physicist John Cramer and appears in my forthcoming book, ďTeleportation: The Impossible LeapĒ). Andy said:

ďI canít see it being a practical method of transport for the masses, but then again if you wanted to go to Jupiter or further afield you could perhaps send your entangled particles on the 10-year trip to wherever youíre going, say Alpha Centauri, and then when they have arrived, and itís known that conditions are safe, activate the transfer. That way you could be getting on with your everyday life until everything is ready for you and you could use much more powerful engines, etc, and not have to worry about G forces and atmospheres until you got there.... What would happen if you died before you got to where you where going, could you still destroy the original particles and pop up alive and well at the other end?! Could you make an entanglement of yourself and then reappear every time you die? You could perhaps only lose a few hours over thousands of lifetimes if a new set of entanglements were made every time you where reconstructed !?. . . Perhaps the process would work in reverse as an instant escape pod. Say you need to go into a nuclear reactor, you entangle yourself before you go in, then if things get a bit hot — bang youíre back where you started!. . . Then thereís the whole idea of who are you after the transfer. Will you close your eyes and open them aware that you are you, or will it just be the copy knowing everything you know and existing in its self from that point. I don't know if I want to find out unless itís really necessary. Even the testimony of someone who went through the process and survived would only prove that the information survived. If it was to resurrect me that might be a different proposition, If I know that when I awake as a copy my original has had a fair stab at surviving and failed it may make it easier to cope with but if I, as a copy, was only brought into existence at the expense of the original if might be harder to cope with - Iíd never know if I was the same person. Then again, am I the same person I was last night when I wake up in the morning? Objectively, I would not be the same person (after a teleport — I'm quite happy that I am me after a good nights sleep!); subjectively I might.Ē

Keep your thoughts coming on this subject. Iíll soon be setting up a part of my website devoted to teleportation and other Star Trek technologies and hope to include some of your contributions.

2. Titan: The Search for Life

Our knowledge of Saturn and its many rings and moons is being revolutionized by the findings of the joint NASA-ESA Cassini-Huygens spacecraft, which has been orbiting the second largest planet in the solar system since July. All eyes are now on Saturnís biggest moon Titan — the only natural satellite known to have a dense atmosphere. On December 24 the Huygens probe will separate from the Cassini mothership and on January 14 will parachute down through the clouds of Titan to touchdown, or possibly splashdown, on the surface below. What awaits it? Astrobiologists are on the edge of their seats with curiosity because Titan has long been considered to be of vital interest in the quest for the origins of life. We expect some interesting organic chemistry. We hope, in time, to uncover some of the early steps on the road to biology. But is it possible we might eventually find life itself on this mysterious, cloud-covered world?

Bigger than the planets Mercury and Pluto, Titan was discovered in 1655 by Danish astronomer Christian Huygens — hence the name of the European Space Agency's descent probe. Itís the second-largest moon in the solar system, after Jupiter's Ganymede. And itís very, very cold — about minus 179 C (-290 F)! Could any kind of life survive in such a deep freeze? Cassini has made two pretty close passes of Titan since going into orbit around Saturn; 43 more are planned over the next four years. Already itís transformed our knowledge of this strange world. A radar onboard the spacecraft has taken images of a strip of the moon, covering 1% of the surface, which have revealed dark patches. The dark regions are where the radarís radio waves have been absorbed, suggesting some kind of a liquid. Scientists think the best bet is that these patches are oily lakes, possibly of liquid methane or ethane. The images also show streaky areas of the surface that might have been caused by winds. During its first flyby, Cassini found that Titan seems to have very few sizable impact craters, implying that its topography is relatively young and dynamic. Taken together, these observations strongly suggest that Titan is geologically alive. But is it also biologically alive?

Three ingredients are considered essential for the origin of life as we know it: liquid water, carbon chemicals, and a suitable energy source to spark organic reactions. We know Titan has the carbon: its atmosphere is dominated by nitrogen and carbon-based compounds. Weíre also pretty sure that Titan gets regular injections of energy simply because of where it is. It orbits a miniature solar system, including a giant planet, more than 30 moons, and a gargantuan collection of rings, which is full of activity. There are plenty of gravitational forces at work and lots of rock and ice fragments careening around the neighborhood looking for a nice target to smack into. These two factors — gravitational tides and impacts — could provide enough geothermal heat to keep parts of Titanís surface warm enough to liquefy water, at least periodically. Given the thickness of the atmosphere, some researchers think a collision with a good-sized meteorite could keep ice melted for perhaps hundreds of years at a time — longer if thereĎs ammonia on the surface to act as a low-temperature antifreeze. Add to this the fact that thereĎs probably a steady drizzle of pretty complex carbon chemicals falling from the sky and you have an intriguing prospect. Among these chemicals are organic polymers called tholins, which have already been spotted by astronomers in Titan's upper atmosphere. Tholins dissolve in liquid water to produce amino acids, the building blocks of life. Thereís also a mysterious cloud positioned over Titanís south pole that contains complex molecules of an unknown composition.

Cassini is carrying a couple of spectrometers that will sniff the atmosphere and map the surface to learn more about the chemical makeup. But we already know that thereís methane in Titanís gassy envelope — and thatís very interesting, especially in the light of the big debate thatís going on into the origin of the methane recently found in the Martian atmosphere. Methane canít survive long in an atmosphere because sunlight breaks it down. So any atmospheric methane present has to be constantly replenished. Perhaps Titanís methane comes from methane lakes on the surface. But maybe, just maybe, it comes from living organisms, as it does for the most part on Earth. Thereís even a chance that Titan harbors life thatís totally different from any weíre familiar with.

One fact stands out, if there is life on Titan, itís almost bound to be independent of anything thatís happened here. In the case of Mars and Earth, thereís always a chance that organisms could have hopped from one world to the other, having hitched a ride on a meteorite. But Titanís so far away — more than 800 million miles distant — that thereís hardly any possibility of such cross-fertilization. Also, the discovery of any Titanians, surviving in such a harsh regime, would point to life being far more common and persistent throughout the cosmos than we dared hope. Get ready for a wild ride on January 14!

3. Bookends

Copies of my next book, Teleportation: The Impossible Leap, to be published in April, can now be pre-ordered from Amazon.com. To find out more about this and all my other books, visit the front page of my website.

I hope you have a joyous holiday season and a peaceful and prosperous 2005.

Best wishes,
David Darling and family