Aliens are a mirror to humanity
Aliens symbolize the best and worst of humanity. When we dream of aliens, we are pondering our future selves.
Marcelo Gleiser is a professor of natural philosophy, physics, and astronomy at Dartmouth College. He is a Fellow of the American Physical Society, a recipient of the Presidential Faculty Fellows Award from the White House and NSF, and was awarded the 2019 Templeton Prize. Gleiser has authored five books and is the co-founder of 13.8, where he writes about science and culture with physicist Adam Frank.
- Scientists explored the possibility of extraterrestrial life long before aliens became a fascination in popular culture.
- Aliens serve as a mirror to our species. They represent the creativity and promise — as well as the destruction and terror — of being human.
- Our conception of aliens can teach us about our fragility and the need to grow up as a species if we are to avoid one of the dystopian scenarios of our human-made alien tales.
Few topics are as fascinating to the human imagination as aliens. They are good, they are evil; they are divine, they are devilish; they are invasive, inspiring, advisors, predators. The strangeness that European explorers attributed to the creatures beyond the confines of (their) known world — exotic life forms that filled their cabinets of curiosities — has been expanded to the vastness of outer space. "Here be dragons," became "There be aliens."
Scientists were the first to imagine aliens
Even before Galileo pointed his telescope to the heavens to conclude that Earth was a mere planet like Mars or Jupiter, some dared to conceive of other worlds with other creatures, possibly human, possibly not. Giordano Bruno, in the late 1500s, proposed that stars are other suns, with planets circling around them, pregnant with creatures capable of sin or virtue, and hence in need of a savior like us. In 1608, Johannes Kepler wrote "Somnium" (Dream), a short story of an imaginary trip to the moon, where the traveler finds the most remarkable creatures, anticipating some of Darwin's ideas of natural selection and adaptation. In Cosmotheoros, from 1698, Christian Huygens, one of the greatest scientists of the 17th century, wrote with confidence that the Mercurians, "tho they live so much nearer the Sun, the Fountain of Life and Vigour, are much more airy and ingenious than we." The first to imagine aliens were not novelists or artists but scientists.
The big lesson here is that we are telling alien stories that could save us from ourselves if only we care to pay attention.
The expectation of finding alien life has only expanded since then, accelerated by spectacular advances in astronomy and space exploration, as we inch closer to finding answers to the question we all have — namely, whether we are the exception or the rule, whether we are alone or not. The excitement is palpable and often explosive in the media. In 1996, President Bill Clinton made a speech on the possible discovery of primitive life on Mars, albeit stressing that the potential discovery of a biosignature on the meteorite found in Antarctica still needed more serious scrutiny.
As I wrote two weeks ago, the interstellar traveler 'Oumuamua has been deemed by serious scientists as a potential alien spying device, keen on figuring out details of the inner solar system, including us. As I explained, most of the scientific community denies that this is a valid conjecture. Not long ago, more excitement bubbled up about the possible discovery of phosphine in the atmosphere of Venus as a potential signal for biochemical activity. (Recent reanalysis decreased the strength of the signal but didn't eliminate it.) However, attributing phosphine unequivocally to life is a very large step.
Aliens are a mirror on the human condition
Adding the countless books, movies, plays, short stories, and videocasts about extraterrestrial life, we see a coming together of scientific and popular culture that is quite rare in other disciplines. Only genetic engineering and artificial intelligence come close, although still a distant second and third place. Why? What is it about the possibility of life elsewhere that is so seductive to humans?
The portraits of aliens in fiction can help us, as can the earlier speculation of alien life from the scientific pioneers of the Renaissance. We have met the aliens, and they are us. They represent a mirror we use to see ourselves, the good and the evil of humanity, the utopian and dystopian views of our future. As we speculate about what they could be — and I'm here referring mostly to intelligent life forms, not the much more likely microbial life forms — we see a projection of the promise and perils of having self-awareness and a capacity to build technologies that can enhance and destroy life as we know it. Aliens are a sort of moral compass of the scientific age, their existence and fate serving as something like rehearsals of what could become of us.
Aliens also relate directly to the state of our scientific knowledge, often pushing the boundaries of what is possible. In what became known as Arthur C. Clarke's Third Law — that is, "any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic" — aliens represent what could become the norm in our future. I think of my father's puzzlement looking at a VCR in the 1970s and see my teenage son's disdain as he watches me puzzling over the explosion of social media platforms. "Who needs yet another one?" "You really don't get it dad, do you?" Aliens have the inventions of tomorrow, and for that, they serve to push our collective imagination to catch up with them. Or not, if they represent a dystopian future.
In War of the Worlds, H.G. Wells used the latest biological science, natural selection, and the discovery that microbial pathogens transmit diseases, to both save us from very evil invaders that were dying of thirst on their home planet and to show how our inventions were pitiful in comparison with theirs. It is colonialism reversed: if colonialist Europeans killed countless natives by infecting them with diseases, in Wells' novel, Mother Earth saved humanity using the same microbes on alien invaders. As the threat in the novel is from alien invaders to the whole of humankind, colonialism goes global. It's them vs. us since we are all victims and vulnerable to their attack. Wells' twist is brilliant: despite their technological superiority, the invaders were also vulnerable, without the immune defenses to protect themselves from our terrestrial bugs. You can't fool nature.
The big lesson here is that we are telling alien stories that could save us from ourselves if only we care to pay attention, less by looking up to the skies and more by looking at each other.
What Alien Life Could Teach Us About Humanity www.youtube.com
Maybe eyes really are windows into the soul — or at least into the brain, as a new study finds.
- Researchers find a correlation between pupil size and differences in cognitive ability.
- The larger the pupil, the higher the intelligence.
- The explanation for why this happens lies within the brain, but more research is needed.
What can you tell by looking into someone's eyes? You can spot a glint of humor, signs of tiredness, or maybe that they don't like something or someone.
But outside of assessing an emotional state, a person's eyes may also provide clues about their intelligence, suggests new research. A study carried out at the Georgia Institute of Technology shows that pupil size is "closely related" to differences in intelligence between individuals.
The scientists found that larger pupils may be connected to higher intelligence, as demonstrated by tests that gauged reasoning skills, memory, and attention. In fact, the researchers claim that the relationship of intelligence to pupil size is so pronounced, that it came across their previous two studies as well and can be spotted just with your naked eyes, without any additional scientific instruments. You should be able to tell who scored the highest or the lowest on the cognitive tests just by looking at them, say the researchers.
The pupil-IQ link
The connection was first noticed across memory tasks, looking at pupil dilations as signs of mental effort. The studies involved more than 500 people aged 18 to 35 from the Atlanta area. The subjects' pupil sizes were measured by eye trackers, which use a camera and a computer to capture light reflecting off the pupil and cornea. As the scientists explained in Scientific American, pupil diameters range from two to eight millimeters. To determine average pupil size, they took measurements of the pupils at rest when the participants were staring at a blank screen for a few minutes.
Another part of the experiment involved having the subjects take a series of cognitive tests that evaluated "fluid intelligence" (the ability to reason when confronted with new problems), "working memory capacity" (how well people could remember information over time), and "attention control" (the ability to keep focusing attention even while being distracted). An example of the latter involves a test that attempts to divert a person's focus on a disappearing letter by showing a flickering asterisk on another part of the screen. If a person pays too much attention to the asterisk, they might miss the letter.
The conclusions of the research were that having a larger baseline pupil size was related to greater fluid intelligence, having more attention control, and even greater working memory capacity, although to a smaller extent. In an email exchange with Big Think, author Jason Tsukahara pointed out, "It is important to consider that what we find is a correlation — which should not be confused with causation."
The researchers also found that pupil size seemed to decrease with age. Older people had more constricted pupils but when the scientists standardized for age, the pupil-size-to-intelligence connection still remained.
Why are pupils linked to intelligence?
The connection between pupil size and IQ likely resides within the brain. Pupil size has been previously connected to the locus coeruleus, a part of the brain that's responsible for synthesizing the hormone and neurotransmitter norepinephrine (noradrenaline), which mobilizes the brain and body for action. Activity in the locus coeruleus affects our perception, attention, memory, and learning processes.
As the authors explain, this region of the brain "also helps maintain a healthy organization of brain activity so that distant brain regions can work together to accomplish challenging tasks and goals." Because it is so important, loss of function in the locus coeruleus has been linked to conditions like Alzheimer's disease, Parkinson's, clinical depression, and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).
The researchers hypothesize that people who have larger pupils while in a restful state, like staring at a blank computer screen, have "greater regulation of activity by the locus coeruleus." This leads to better cognitive performance. More research is necessary, however, to truly understand why having larger pupils is related to higher intelligence.
In an email to Big Think, Tsukahara shared, "If I had to speculate, I would say that it is people with greater fluid intelligence that develop larger pupils, but again at this point we only have correlational data."
Do other scientists believe this?
As the scientists point out in the beginning of their paper, their conclusions are controversial and, so far, other researchers haven't been able to duplicate their results. The research team addresses this criticism by explaining that other studies had methodological issues and examined only memory capacity but not fluid intelligence, which is what they measured.
In each of our minds, we draw a demarcation line between beliefs that are reasonable and those that are nonsense. Where do you draw your line?
- Conspiracy theories exist on a spectrum, from plausible and mainstream to fringe and unpopular.
- It's very rare to find someone who only believes in one conspiracy theory. They generally believe in every conspiracy theory that's less extreme than their favorite one.
- To some extent, we are all conspiracy theorists.
The following is an excerpt from the book Escaping the Rabbit Hole by Mick West. It is reprinted with permission from the author.
If you want to understand how people fall for conspiracy theories, and if you want to help them, then you have to understand the conspiracy universe. More specifically, you need to know where their favorite theories are on the broader spectrum of conspiracies.
What type of person falls for conspiracy theories? What type of person would think that the World Trade Center was a controlled demolition, or that planes are secretly spraying chemicals to modify the climate, or that nobody died at Sandy Hook, or that the Earth is flat? Are these people crazy? Are they just incredibly gullible? Are they young and impressionable? No, in fact the range of people who believe in conspiracy theories is simply a random slice of the general population.
There's a conspiracy theory for everyone, and hence very few people are immune.
Many dismiss conspiracy theorists as a bunch of crazy people, or a bunch of stupid people, or a bunch of crazy stupid people. Yet in many ways the belief in a conspiracy theory is as American as apple pie, and like apple pie it comes in all kinds of varieties, and all kinds of normal people like to consume it.
My neighbor down the road is a conspiracy theorist. Yet he's also an engineer, retired after a successful career. I've had dinner at his house, and yet he's a believer in chemtrails, and I'm a chemtrail debunker. It's odd; he even told me after a few glasses of wine that he thinks I'm being paid to debunk chemtrails. He thought this because he googled my name and found some pages that said I was a paid shill. Since he's a conspiracy theorist he tends to trust conspiracy sources more than mainstream sources, so he went with that.
I've met all kinds of conspiracy theorists. At a chemtrails convention I attended there was pretty much the full spectrum. There were sensible and intelligent older people who had discovered their conspiracy anything from a few months ago to several decades ago. There were highly eccentric people of all ages, including one old gentleman with a pyramid attached to his bike. There were people who channeled aliens, and there were people who were angry that the alien-channeling people were allowed in. There were young people itching for a revolution. There were well-read intellectuals who thought there was a subtle system of persuasion going on in the evening news, and there were people who genuinely thought they were living in a computer simulation.
There's such a wide spectrum of people who believe in conspiracy theories because the spectrum of conspiracy theories itself is very wide. There's a conspiracy theory for everyone, and hence very few people are immune.
The Mainstream and the Fringe
One unfortunate problem with the term "conspiracy theory" is that it paints with a broad brush. It's tempting to simply divide people up into "conspiracy theorists" and "regular people" — to have tinfoil-hat-wearing paranoids on one side and sensible folk on the other. But the reality is that we are all conspiracy theorists, one way or another. We all know that conspiracies exist; we all suspect people in power of being involved in many kinds of conspiracies, even if it's only something as banal as accepting campaign contributions to vote a certain way on certain types of legislation.
It's also tempting to simply label conspiracy theories as either "mainstream" or "fringe." Journalist Paul Musgrave referenced this dichotomy when he wrote in the Washington Post:
Less than two months into the administration, the danger is no longer that Trump will make conspiracy thinking mainstream. That has already come to pass.
Musgrave obviously does not mean that shape-shifting lizard overlords have become mainstream. Nor does he mean that flat Earth, chemtrails, or even 9/11 truth are mainstream. What he's really talking about is a fairly small shift in a dividing line on the conspiracy spectrum. Most fringe conspiracy theories remain fringe, most mainstream theories remain mainstream. But, Musgrave argues, there's been a shift that's allowed the bottom part of the fringe to enter into the mainstream. Obama being a Kenyan was thought by many to be a silly conspiracy theory, something on the fringe. But if the president of the United States (Trump) keeps bringing it up, then it moves more towards the mainstream.
Both conspiracy theories and conspiracy theorists exist on a spectrum. If we are to communicate effectively with a conspiracy-minded friend we need to get some perspective on the full range of that spectrum, and where our friend's personal blend of theories fit into it.
It's very rare to find someone who only believes in one conspiracy theory. They generally believe in every conspiracy theory that's less extreme than their favorite one.
There are several ways we can classify a conspiracy theory: how scientific is it? How many people believe in it? How plausible is? But one I'm going use is a somewhat subjective measure of how extreme the theory is. I'm going to rank them from 1 to 10, with 1 being entirely mainstream to 10 being the most obscure extreme fringe theory you can fathom.
This extremeness spectrum is not simply a spectrum of reasonableness or scientific plausibility. Being extreme is being on the fringe, and fringe simply denotes the fact that it's an unusual interpretation and is restricted to a small number of people. A belief in religious supernatural occurrences (like miracles) is a scientifically implausible belief, and yet it is not considered particularly fringe.
Let's start with a simple list of actual conspiracy theories. These are ranked by extremeness in their most typical manifestation, but in reality, the following represent topics that can span several points on the scale, or even the entire scale.
- Big Pharma: The theory that pharmaceutical companies conspire to maximize profit by selling drugs that people do not actually need
- Global Warming Hoax: The theory that climate change is not caused by man-made carbon emissions, and that there's some other motive for claiming this
- JFK: The theory that people in addition to Lee Harvey Oswald were involved in the assassination of John F. Kennedy
- 9/11 Inside Job: The theory that the events of 9/11 were arranged by elements within the US government
- Chemtrails: The theory that the trails left behind aircraft are part of a secret spraying program
- False Flag Shootings: The theory that shootings like Sandy Hook and Las Vegas either never happened or were arranged by people in power
- Moon Landing Hoax: The theory that the Moon landings were faked in a movie studio
- UFO Cover-Up: The theory that the US government has contact with aliens or crashed alien crafts and is keeping it secret
- Flat Earth: The theory that the Earth is flat, but governments, business, and scientists all pretend it is a globe
- Reptile Overlords: The theory that the ruling classes are a race of shape-shifting trans-dimensional reptiles
If your friend subscribes to one of these theories you should not assume they believe in the most extreme version. They could be anywhere within a range. The categories are both rough and complex, and while some are quite narrow and specific, others encapsulate a wide range of variants of the theory that might go nearly all the way from a 1 to a 10. The position on the fringe conspiracy spectrum instead gives us a rough reference point for the center of the extent of the conspiracy belief.
Credit: "Escaping the Rabbit Hole" by Mick West
Figure 3 is an illustration (again, somewhat subjective) of the extents of extremeness of the conspiracy theories listed. For some of them the ranges are quite small. Flat Earth and Reptile Overlords are examples of theories that exist only at the far end of the spectrum. It's simply impossible to have a sensible version of the Flat Earth theory due to the fact that the Earth is actually round.
Similarly, there exist theories at the lower end of the spectrum that are fairly narrow in scope. A plot by pharmaceutical companies to maximize profits is hard (but not impossible) to make into a more extreme version.
Other theories are broader in scope. The 9/11 Inside Job theory is the classic example where the various theories go all the way from "they lowered their guard to allow some attack to happen," to "the planes were holograms; the towers were demolished with nuclear bombs." The chemtrail theory also has a wide range, from "additives to the fuel are making contrails last longer" to "nano-machines are being sprayed to decimate the population."
There's also overlapping relationships between the theories. chemtrails might be spraying poison to help big pharma sell more drugs. JFK might have been killed because he was going to reveal that UFOs were real. Fake shootings might have been arranged to distract people from any of the other theories. The conspiracy theory spectrum is continuous and multi-dimensional.
Don't immediately pigeonhole your friend if they express some skepticism about some aspect of the broader theories. For example, having some doubts about a few pieces from a Moon-landing video does not necessarily mean that they think we never went to the Moon, it could just mean that they think a few bits of the footage were mocked up for propaganda purposes. Likewise, if they say we should question the events of 9/11, it does not necessarily mean that they think the Twin Towers were destroyed with explosives, it could just mean they think elements within the CIA helped the hijackers somehow.
Understanding where your friend is on the conspiracy spectrum is not about which topics he is interested in, it's about where he draws the line.
The Demarcation Line
While conspiracy theorists might individually focus on one particular theory, like 9/11 or chemtrails, it's very rare to find someone who only believes in one conspiracy theory. They generally believe in every conspiracy theory that's less extreme than their favorite one.
In practical terms this means that if someone believes in the chemtrail theory they will also believe that 9/11 was an inside job involving controlled demolition, that Lee Harvey Oswald was just one of several gunmen, and that global warming is a big scam.
The general conspiracy spectrum is complex, with individual theory categories spread out in multiple ways. But for your friend, an individual, they have an internal version of this scale, one that is much less complex. For the individual the conspiracy spectrum breaks down into two sets of beliefs — the reasonable and the ridiculous. Conspiracists, especially those who have been doing it for a while, make increasingly precise distinctions about where they draw the line.
The drawing of such dividing lines is called "demarcation." In philosophy there's a classical problem called the "demarcation problem," which is basically where you draw the line between science and non-science. Conspiracists have a demarcation line on their own personal version of the conspiracy spectrum. On one side of the line there's science and reasonable theories they feel are probably correct. On the other side of the line there's non-science, gibberish, propaganda, lies, and disinformation.
Credit: "Escaping the Rabbit Hole" by Mick West
I have a line of demarcation (probably around 1.5), you have one, your friend has a line. We all draw the line in different places.
That's as fast as a bullet train in Japan.
The way an elephant manipulates its trunk to eat and drink could lead to better robots, researchers say.
Elephants dilate their nostrils to create more space in their trunks, allowing them to store up to 5.5 liters (1.45 gallons) of water, according to their new study.
They can also suck up three liters (0.79 gallons) per second—a speed 30 times faster than a human sneeze (150 meters per second/330 mph), the researchers found.
The researchers wanted to better understand the physics of how elephants use their trunks to move and manipulate air, water, food, and other objects. They also wanted to learn if the mechanics could inspire the creation of more efficient robots that use air motion to hold and move things.
Photo by David Clode on Unsplash
While octopuses use jets of water to propel themselves and archer fish shoot water above the surface to catch insects, elephants are the only animals able to use suction both on land and underwater.
"An elephant eats about 400 pounds of food a day, but very little is known about how they use their trunks to pick up lightweight food and water for 18 hours, every day," says lead author Andrew Schulz, a mechanical engineering PhD student at the Georgia Institute of Technology. "It turns out their trunks act like suitcases, capable of expanding when necessary."
Sucking up tortilla chips without breaking them
Schulz and his colleagues worked with veterinarians at Zoo Atlanta, studying elephants as they ate various foods. For large rutabaga cubes, for example, the animal grabbed and collected them. It sucked up smaller cubes and made a loud vacuuming sound, like the sound of a person slurping noodles, before transferring the vegetables to its mouth.
To learn more about suction, the researchers gave elephants a tortilla chip and measured the applied force. Sometimes the animal pressed down on the chip and breathed in, suspending the chip on the tip of its trunk without breaking it, similar to a person inhaling a piece of paper onto their mouth. Other times the elephant applied suction from a distance, drawing the chip to the edge of its trunk.
Elephants inhale at speeds comparable to Japan's 300 mph bullet trains.
"An elephant uses its trunk like a Swiss Army knife," says David Hu, Schulz's advisor and a professor in Georgia Tech's School of Mechanical Engineering. "It can detect scents and grab things. Other times it blows objects away like a leaf blower or sniffs them in like a vacuum."
By watching elephants inhale liquid from an aquarium, the team was able to time the durations and measure volume. In just 1.5 seconds, the trunk sucked up 3.7 liters (just shy of 1 gallon), the equivalent of 20 toilets flushing simultaneously.
Soft robots and elephant conservation
The researchers used an ultrasonic probe to take trunk wall measurements and see how the trunk's inner muscles work. By contracting those muscles, the animal dilates its nostrils up to 30%. This decreases the thickness of the walls and expands nasal volume by 64%.
"At first it didn't make sense: an elephant's nasal passage is relatively small and it was inhaling more water than it should," Schulz says. "It wasn't until we saw the ultrasonographic images and watched the nostrils expand that we realized how they did it. Air makes the walls open, and the animal can store far more water than we originally estimated."
Based on the pressures applied, Schulz and the team suggest that elephants inhale at speeds comparable to Japan's 300-mph bullet trains.
"By investigating the mechanics and physics behind trunk muscle movements, we can apply the physical mechanisms—combinations of suction and grasping—to find new ways to build robots," Schulz says.
"In the meantime, the African elephant is now listed as endangered because of poaching and loss of habitat. Its trunk makes it a unique species to study. By learning more about them, we can learn how to better conserve elephants in the wild."
The paper appears in the Journal of the Royal Society Interface. The US Army Research Laboratory and the US Army Research Oﬃce 294 Mechanical Sciences Division, Complex Dynamics and Systems Program, funded the work. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the view of the sponsoring agency.
Source: Georgia Tech
Original Study DOI: 10.1098/rsif.2021.0215
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