Big Think Interview With Nicholas Negroponte
Nicholas Negroponte is the co-founder (with Jerome B. Wiesner) of the MIT Media Lab (1985), which he directed for its first 20 years. A graduate of MIT, Negroponte was a pioneer in the field of computer-aided design and has been a member of the MIT faculty since 1966. He gave the first TED talk in 1984, as well as 13 since. He is author of the 1995 best seller, Being Digital, which has been translated into more than 40 languages. In 2005 he founded the non-profit One Laptop per Child, which deployed $1 billion of laptops for primary education in the developing world. In the private sector, Negroponte served on the board of directors of Motorola (for 15 years) and was general partner in a venture capital firm specializing in digital technologies for information and entertainment. He has personally provided start-up funds for more than 40 companies, including Zagats and Wired magazine.
Question: How did One Laptop Per Child get started?\r\n
Nicholas Negroponte: Well, One Laptop Per Child is based on the theories of constructionism and those were founded originally by Jean Piaget in Geneva and more contemporaneously with us, at least, by a man named Seymour Papert who was also at MIT. Seymour made an observation in 1968 that was very simple, but very profound, and that is, if a child writes a computer program, that child is engaged in the closest approximation we can come to thinking about thinking. And what is sort of even more important, is that when you write a computer program, it never works the first time, so you have to go through a stage called debugging. The process of debugging, going an correcting the program and then looking at the behavior, and then correcting it again, and finally iteratively getting it to a working program, is in fact, very close to learning about learning. And what Seymour observed back in the late '60's, and early '70's, was that we didn't really teach thinking, we taught subjects and that we went through school learning particular bodies of knowledge, but we never learned learning itself. And that was the real influence for One Laptop Per Child because, in the '70's, we started to work with computers with children in New York and other places and very poor districts. This wasn't just in fancy private schools.\r\n
Then in the early '80's, we were doing this in Africa and Asia and South America in very remote, rural parts of the world. That was the beginning and it all started with constructionism. It started with learning learning and children being active agents in their own education.\r\n
Question: How did you design a laptop specially tailored to children’s needs?\r\n
Nicholas Negroponte: Well, the laptop is designed to be child-centric in a number of very important ways. First of all, there are some simple properties because when we say child, we mean six to 12 years old. We really mean primary education. And as soon as you have that age group, you have to make it pretty indestructible, you've got to be able to drop it from six or seven feet; it's going to be stepped on, it's going to be carried in the rain, and so, it gets subjected to treatment that's more like military equipment than it is office equipment. So, that's one aspect of it, which is a bit mundane, but is certainly true.\r\n
Another aspect is, you want it to work in the sunlight. When kids are outdoors, you want them to be able to read books on it, you want them -- it doesn't mean they have to be in the baking sun, but your laptop and my laptop really don't work outdoors because the screen technology just is not reflective screen, it is transmitted and it gets washed out very easily, so we had to do some again very pragmatic things; make the display, what we call a dual mode that it works both reflective and transmissive.\r\n
And then there are other aspects of it that have more to do with the emphasis on collaboration, so these laptops talked to the neighboring laptops. And so there are these cute little ears on them that are the antennas for WiFi, but they are also antennas that if you had a room full, or a neighborhood full of let's say 50 laptops, each one could talk to the other and they can actually relay messages. So, you could sort of daisy-chain to connect all of these laptops together. And the interface shows what other kids are using it, a little bit like a cell phone, or some of the so-called, social media that we have today, where you're buddy lists and things like that, are embedded in our laptops. So, it's not a diminutive office machine, it is really a children's machine, and it was designed as one from the very beginning.\r\n
Question: Do you worry about the laptops growing rapidly obsolete?\r\n
Nicholas Negroponte: Well, in the world of computers and just devices in general, the lifespan, or the shelf life, is relatively short just because technology moves so fast and the costs drop so quickly and the power, whether it's computing power or memory rises very, very quickly. On the other hand, the shelf life isn't quite as short as advertisers and companies would want you to believe. There's a lot of life in these machines that is beyond what is advertised. So, we designed them for a five-year lifespan. And that five years drives us to do things, which again, normal manufactures don't do, namely you can charge and discharge our battery about five to 10 times more often than you can a normal battery because we expect them to be used a lot longer.\r\n
The evidence that this could be true can be seen in automobiles. You go to developing countries today and you'll find automobiles that you haven't seen since you're childhood and that's because they really are valuable, they're taken care of, they're repaired, and when something breaks, they just don't buy a new one, they actually fix it. And if the product is no longer on the market, they make it. And we think these laptops will be treated that way as well because the ones that we have out at the moment, the kids really take care of them. They love them dearly and they sleep with them in almost every case. We have about 1.5 million of them in the field today in 31 countries, and I would guess that 50% of the kids that have them, sleep with their laptops and little boys get their sisters to make bags, and there's a whole ownership and a sort of a feeling towards these machines, which, yes, in five years they should get another one, and it will be more advanced then, but one doesn't wait.\r\n
Question: What evidence is there that One Laptop Per Child is working?\r\n
Nicholas Negroponte: Well perhaps the most compelling piece of evidence that I have found that this program is working, is that everywhere we go, truancy drops to zero and we go into some places where it's as high as 30% of the kids, and suddenly it's zero. And we have been doing experiments, before the actual laptop existed, for eight or nine years. And by that, I mean, kids with laptops in remote parts of the world, as best we can tell, all of those kids are in school still today, eight years, nine years later. And that's important because there is a belief that children drop out of school because they're needed by their families to work, or the little girls are needed to take care of younger siblings. It turns out that's not really true. Kids drop out of school mostly because school is boring and not particularly relevant, so, just the statistics on truancy and how long kids stay in school, to me, is very, very good evidence.\r\n
Then we have other things happening that are again, somewhat surprising. For example, in Peru, as many at 50% of the kids because they are in remote rural villages in the case of Peru are teaching their parents how to read and write. That is such a game changer in the sense, the role of the child is very different. It's not looking as a child as a recipient for whom you have some curriculum that you've figured out what they should learn and they digest it and then you test them to see if they've digested it, this is really actually children being the agents of change, and the self-esteem that children get from this, the joy that the parents get from it, the whole sort of village changes. Life changes in a very fundamental way. And so, we see that kind of think happening, time and time again. There are now so many machines out there in so many different places, there are 30 anecdotes a day.\r\n
But they all come back to basically showing one thing and that is the passion that children have for learning. And when we go to school, very often, we don't see that passion because the way school is run, the disciplinary nature of it and the rote learning are so, sort of, offensive actually, that children sort of lose that passion more often than not. And so, one of the things that I think this laptop will do is be the death of rote learning because rote learning is a killer for most of us and for some people, it really excludes them.\r\n
Question: How can teachers and students make the most out of a new laptop?\r\n
Nicholas Negroponte: Well, let me do it from both perspectives. In the case of a teacher, what we have to do; now "we," whether it's One Laptop Per Child as an organization, or the in-country parent of the project, is give the teacher enough preparation to have self-confidence enough to let the child show them how to use it.\r\n
In the case of the child, you don't have to do very much for a child to get started. A lot of people told me at the beginning of this project that, you know, you can't just give a kid a laptop and walk away. Well, you know, you sort of can, actually. You really can, it's quite amazing. You can hand a closed box to a child that's never seen a computer, or doesn't use an automobile, or doesn't have electricity at home or at school, and they'll open that box and they’ll have that laptop working pretty quickly.\r\n
Now, obviously some guided experience is going to benefit everybody and you prefer that, but what we see is the teachers are very often very apprehensive and then very quickly realize that this is the best teaching that they've ever done in their life. And so, I can give you -- let me give you one anecdote. In Uruguay, the President of the country announced that this would be his legacy, "One laptop per child." That he would do every single child within two years and as an aside, they completed that a couple of months ago. So, every child in Uruguay has a little green laptop.\r\n
When he made that announcement, a teacher, who had been teaching for 30 years, went to the Social Security office and asked for early retirement. "I'm not going to be able to teach in this new environment, so I'd like early retirement." They told her to come back in six weeks. And during the intervening period, the laptops arrived in her classroom. Everybody was unpacking them, the kids are using -- within two days; she went back to the Social Security office and asked for late retirement. It just took her two days.\r\n
We get five comments we get from most every teacher that's involved. The first comment is that discipline problems go down in the classroom. The second comment is they've never loved teaching so much. The third comment is that they've never had parents so deeply involved with school, which is really very, very interesting. The next comment is that is almost universal is not just that truancy drops to zero, but that the energy level in the classroom is just undeniably different. And the last comment, which is perhaps the only negative one from their point of view, is that they just get swamped by emails from the kids. And since these laptops can exchange information, whether or not there's a cell phone grid or some other telecommunications, the teacher's suddenly gets lots of questions. Very often kids don't ask questions in class because they don't want to be seen asking a question, in either sense. Either they are embarrassed to ask it, or they don't want their colleagues to think that they're sort of goodie goodies. But at the privacy of your keyboard, you can ask a question and suddenly the role of the teacher changes and becomes much more active on an individual basis than it had been before.\r\n
Question: How do you respond to critics who say, “Students should read books, not play with computers?”\r\n
Nicholas Negroponte: Well, that's a silly remark because the difference between a book and the computer is basically zero in the sense that physical books are going to disappear, they're going to become screens within a very short period of time because of all sorts of reasons, the economics of it, the environmental impact of it, and just the sheer access. When we ship our laptop, we ship 1.6 million books with it. You can access free, 1.6 million books and embedded in the laptop are 100 books per laptop of the choosing of the country, but what's important about that is, when you ship 100 laptops into a village, there are 100 different books on each of the laptops, so the village now has 10,000 books in the village and 1.6 million accessible. That's -- that is really, really different.\r\n
So, to compare books to computers, I mean, computers are the way to get books. That is the medium for distributing text because it doesn't require paper, it doesn't -- you know, it's editable. Nothing goes out of date, nothing goes out of print, it can be refreshed and updated.\r\n
Usually when somebody makes a remark like that, what they're doing is they are observing that kids in a classroom are playing with their laptops because what is actually going on is pretty boring and if you have an environment where somebody is not engaging the kids, not using the laptops as part of the ethos, if you will, of the particular lessons and material going on, this is certainly going to happen. It's a little bit like people using cell phones in the middle of class because they're bored and they're sending messages to each other. That's not because the cell phone is innately bad, it's because the class is boring. And we don't find this situation when we go out into villages, but what we will find because the kids take the laptops home, is of course they're going to use them for games and for music and for movies, and they should. And that's very important. In fact, we require the country to allow the kids to take it home because otherwise, it's not a seamless part of their life, it's part of just this thing called school and something that is just not part of their normal life.\r\n
And you have to also keep in mind that most children in the world go to schools that is two shifts, there's a morning shift and an afternoon shift. If you look at two-shift schools, and you count the number of hours that a child spends in class, it's a number like 12 to 14 per week. Now, if you make the classroom experience absolutely perfect, it's still only 14 hours per week; there are a lot of other hours. So, we really look at the whole day of the child and want to influence that whole period. So, that's a very, very big difference again.\r\n
Question: What will be the equivalent of the “Negroponte switch” in the next 20 years?\r\n
Nicholas Negroponte: Well, what you're referring to is a phenomenon that 20 years ago was evident, but not quite as obvious as it is today, and that is that most of the information that you got through the ground, through wires and physically, would in fact come through the air, and most of the things we got through the air, like television, would come through the ground. That there would be this switch between the sort of wired and wireless worlds in terms of what was traveling where. It's even hard for people to imagine today that telephones were wired, and they certainly were and you went to the end of a wire to make a phone call.\r\n
That switch was very fundamental, as was the sort of natural convergence that happens when things are digital. When things are digital, they're all 1's and zero's, and so they commingle in ways we didn't anticipate and you could do things that were not like publishing or television, or computers, but were some intersection of those and that got known to be convergence, so between the switching, or trading of places and the convergence, you have today's media.\r\n
Now, what is the analogue today, that 20 years from now we're going to look back and say, "Well, yes, that was evident today and is a very profound change." And while I can't say it in ten words or less, but I can assure you that it has to do with this space between biology and silicone. The things that are part of the natural sciences and the physical sciences, where the two meet, and whether that's manifest in embedded computers that are embedded in us as human beings, whether it's using biology to create energy that is attached to a chip that does things, but it's that intersection of the natural and synthetic world that will certainly be the major change going forward and we will be doing things and wearing things and eating things and you know, synthetic beef will be part of it, and in it will be some of the computing devices that, when they're in your stomach make sure that everything is okay in your stomach and report back when they're out of your stomach.\r\n
Question: What are the most radical technologies forthcoming from the MIT Media Lab?\r\n
Nicholas Negroponte: Well, probably the most radical work done that still has not seen the light of day is the work of a man named Joe Jacobsen, where he was communicating wirelessly, directly with cells in the human body and that's pretty interesting if you can sort of communicate directly with cells in the body. That probably will have some pretty big effects 10 or 15 years from now.\r\n
By chance, the same person, 15, almost 20 years ago, invented electronic ink, which is the display medium used for every e-book distributed so far and that had a pretty profound effect, that you could display medium that used no power once the image was on it and reflected and was more paper-like than your laptop.\r\n
Question: Should people “unplug” more to avoid media oversaturation?\r\n
Nicholas Negroponte: Well, it's interesting because unplugging is an expression we use and in fact, I find that unplugging is in fact for many people, including me, an uncomfortable state. And that what you do is you get to spend more time doing the things you love because you've used the interstices of time. I remember when I would come back from a trip and have to log in and do all my email and get a download and upload, and so on and so forth. Now, it's all done, not only on the airplane, but in the car back home, or to the airport. And suddenly you've used that otherwise wasted time and you can really use prime time for prime time. We are not quite a forced as we were before to, in the case of overload, to just cram everything out of one's life and I think we're seeing in young people a much more mixed existence where I'd like to describe a sort of life 20 years ago as being a fried egg. There was a yolk and a white and the white was maybe work, and the yolk was life. Today, it's more of an omelet. It's more mixed and it's more interspersed and I think that that's a more interesting state of being and for some people, they'll say well I want the crisp, fried egg approach to life. Well, I think life's turning into an omelet and people will just have to live with that.\r\n
Question: Following the battle between newspapers and Google, will walls between media increase?\r\n
Nicholas Negroponte: We're in a period of transition, and transition is always hard, and there is this dilemma between the sort of paid directly versus indirectly. I grew up with free television. Now, it wasn't free, there was these commercials, and so the economic model was driven through commercials and through advertising. That same model, in fact is what drives Google. And Google has a very powerful and new advertising model that, for them, prints money.\r\n
Some of the other media companies, and I call Google a media company because they really are one, charge more directly. Now, whether it's through a combination of advertising and subscription, there is a much more direct, in the sense that it is a subscription piece, and people would like their customers to pay. I'm not against paying at all. What I'm against is the complexity of paying. And you very often go to a website and you try to click on something and sometimes it will even say it's free, but you have to fill out this form. I'd much prefer to pay and not fill out the form. I mean, the time is to me far more inconvenient than paying for it. And I think that we'll see a world that will get easier to use and a lot more information will be free. A lot of people will contribute. The notion of collective contribution, like the Wikipedia, is a very powerful one. It's not the only one, but it's a powerful one. And so we'll see that grow.\r\n
Question: Which of the projects in your career has been the most difficult?\r\n
Nicholas Negroponte: It's hard to compare them. One Laptop per Child had the most difficulty and frustration in the sense that it included aspects that I was no good at doing that had to be done. But more important than that, it included things that I didn't anticipate, like the commercial interests fighting against us. I entered the project thinking we had this Mother Theresa shield around us because we're a humanitarian project, we're a non-profit, I don't draw a salary. I mean, I thought that that would isolate us from the normal battlefield of the commercial world and we found that that wasn't the case. I mean, people might wear gloves in public, but they certainly took them off in private and did things behind our backs that were quite frustrating, and I found that difficult.\r\n
Media Lab was different. The Media Lab was really amplifying the work of other people. And my job was to make it possible for them to do their research. It was not a management issue, I wasn't running their research, I wasn't even trying to determine it. What I was doing was trying to enable it and that could be making the environment, whether it was physical environment, economical environment, or social environment for those things to happen. So, there were very different challenges and very different periods in one's life.\r\n
In the case of the laptop, I had come to a stage in life where I didn't need to earn an income, I didn't need to earn a reputation, I didn't need fame, I didn't need any of the things you might want in your early career. And I knew a lot of people and had certain credibility because of MIT and the Media Lab, so it seemed like we were the right people to do something like the "One Laptop per Child," and sort of break the spell that had been created by companies adding more hardware features that then had more software, that then had more hardware, that then had more software, and the thing sort of gets to this obese state where, I'm going to use laptops in this case, were all like SUV's, they required more fuel to move the vehicle than the passenger. And how could you break that spell? How could you make something child-centric?\r\n
Well, one of the ways you could do that is if you had nothing to lose. If you had no other interests and that was our case. And it allowed us to do what then led to the so-called Netbook, and Netbooks today represent 30% of the work market of laptops. And that's a rather interesting change because it's as if I had come to you five years ago and said, "I think we should build an electric car," and I built an electric car and then today, one-third of all cars are electric, I'd feel pretty good about that. They don't happen to be my electric cars in those cases, but they are still, nonetheless electric in that example. And the same thing has happened with One Laptop per Child, that it gave birth to something that then had these other effects that now people can enjoy pretty good computing power, smaller machines, lighter machines, very inexpensive machines. And some of those will migrate to kids in Africa, and it's not just ours.
Recorded on December 4, 2009
Interviewed by Austin Allen
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This spring, a U.S. and Chinese team announced that it had successfully grown, for the first time, embryos that included both human and monkey cells.
In the novel, technicians in charge of the hatcheries manipulate the nutrients they give the fetuses to make the newborns fit the desires of society. Two recent scientific developments suggest that Huxley's imagined world of functionally manufactured people is no longer far-fetched.
On March 17, 2021, an Israeli team announced that it had grown mouse embryos for 11 days – about half of the gestation period – in artificial wombs that were essentially bottles. Until this experiment, no one had grown a mammal embryo outside a womb this far into pregnancy. Then, on April 15, 2021, a U.S. and Chinese team announced that it had successfully grown, for the first time, embryos that included both human and monkey cells in plates to a stage where organs began to form.
As both a philosopher and a biologist I cannot help but ask how far researchers should take this work. While creating chimeras – the name for creatures that are a mix of organisms – might seem like the more ethically fraught of these two advances, ethicists think the medical benefits far outweigh the ethical risks. However, ectogenesis could have far-reaching impacts on individuals and society, and the prospect of babies grown in a lab has not been put under nearly the same scrutiny as chimeras.
Mouse embryos were grown in an artificial womb for 11 days, and organs had begun to develop.
Growing in an artificial womb
When in vitro fertilization first emerged in the late 1970s, the press called IVF embryos “test-tube babies," though they are nothing of the sort. These embryos are implanted into the uterus within a day or two after doctors fertilize an egg in a petri dish.
Before the Israeli experiment, researchers had not been able to grow mouse embryos outside the womb for more than four days – providing the embryos with enough oxygen had been too hard. The team spent seven years creating a system of slowly spinning glass bottles and controlled atmospheric pressure that simulates the placenta and provides oxygen.
This development is a major step toward ectogenesis, and scientists expect that it will be possible to extend mouse development further, possibly to full term outside the womb. This will likely require new techniques, but at this point it is a problem of scale – being able to accommodate a larger fetus. This appears to be a simpler challenge to overcome than figuring out something totally new like supporting organ formation.
The Israeli team plans to deploy its techniques on human embryos. Since mice and humans have similar developmental processes, it is likely that the team will succeed in growing human embryos in artificial wombs.
To do so, though, members of the team need permission from their ethics board.
CRISPR – a technology that can cut and paste genes – already allows scientists to manipulate an embryo's genes after fertilization. Once fetuses can be grown outside the womb, as in Huxley's world, researchers will also be able to modify their growing environments to further influence what physical and behavioral qualities these parentless babies exhibit. Science still has a way to go before fetus development and births outside of a uterus become a reality, but researchers are getting closer. The question now is how far humanity should go down this path.
Chimeras evoke images of mythological creatures of multiple species – like this 15th-century drawing of a griffin – but the medical reality is much more sober. (Martin Schongauer/WikimediaCommons)
Human–monkey hybrids might seem to be a much scarier prospect than babies born from artificial wombs. But in fact, the recent research is more a step toward an important medical development than an ethical minefield.
If scientists can grow human cells in monkeys or other animals, it should be possible to grow human organs too. This would solve the problem of organ shortages around the world for people needing transplants.
But keeping human cells alive in the embryos of other animals for any length of time has proved to be extremely difficult. In the human-monkey chimera experiment, a team of researchers implanted 25 human stem cells into embryos of crab-eating macaques – a type of monkey. The researchers then grew these embryos for 20 days in petri dishes.
After 15 days, the human stem cells had disappeared from most of the embryos. But at the end of the 20-day experiment, three embryos still contained human cells that had grown as part of the region of the embryo where they were embedded. For scientists, the challenge now is to figure out how to maintain human cells in chimeric embryos for longer.
Regulating these technologies
Some ethicists have begun to worry that researchers are rushing into a future of chimeras without adequate preparation. Their main concern is the ethical status of chimeras that contain human and nonhuman cells – especially if the human cells integrate into sensitive regions such as a monkey's brain. What rights would such creatures have?
However, there seems to be an emerging consensus that the potential medical benefits justify a step-by-step extension of this research. Many ethicists are urging public discussion of appropriate regulation to determine how close to viability these embryos should be grown. One proposed solution is to limit growth of these embryos to the first trimester of pregnancy. Given that researchers don't plan to grow these embryos beyond the stage when they can harvest rudimentary organs, I don't believe chimeras are ethically problematic compared with the true test–tube babies of Huxley's world.
Few ethicists have broached the problems posed by the ability to use ectogenesis to engineer human beings to fit societal desires. Researchers have yet to conduct experiments on human ectogenesis, and for now, scientists lack the techniques to bring the embryos to full term. However, without regulation, I believe researchers are likely to try these techniques on human embryos – just as the now-infamous He Jiankui used CRISPR to edit human babies without properly assessing safety and desirability. Technologically, it is a matter of time before mammal embryos can be brought to term outside the body.
While people may be uncomfortable with ectogenesis today, this discomfort could pass into familiarity as happened with IVF. But scientists and regulators would do well to reflect on the wisdom of permitting a process that could allow someone to engineer human beings without parents. As critics have warned in the context of CRISPR-based genetic enhancement, pressure to change future generations to meet societal desires will be unavoidable and dangerous, regardless of whether that pressure comes from an authoritative state or cultural expectations. In Huxley's imagination, hatcheries run by the state grew a large numbers of identical individuals as needed. That would be a very different world from today.
Sahotra Sarkar, Professor of Philosophy and Integrative Biology, The University of Texas at Austin College of Liberal Arts
Scientists should be cautious when expressing an opinion based on little more than speculation.
- In October 2017, a strange celestial object was detected, soon to be declared our first recognized interstellar visitor.
- The press exploded when a leading Harvard astronomer suggested the object to have been engineered by an alien civilization.
- This is an extraordinary conclusion that was based on a faulty line of scientific reasoning. Ruling out competing hypotheses doesn't make your hypothesis right.
Sometimes, when you are looking for something ordinary, you find the unexpected. This is definitely the case with the strange 'Oumuamua, which made international headlines as a potential interstellar visitor. Its true identity remained obscure for a while, as scientists proposed different explanations for its puzzling behavior. This is the usual scientific approach of testing hypotheses to make sense of a new discovery.
What captured the popular imagination was the claim that the object was no piece of rock or comet, but an alien artifact, designed by a superior intelligence.
Do you remember the black monolith tumbling through space in the classic Stanley Kubrick movie 2001: A Space Odyssey? The one that "inspired" our ape-like ancestors to develop technology and followed humanity and its development since then? What made this claim amazing is that it wasn't coming from the usual UFO enthusiasts but from a respected astrophysicist from Harvard University, Avi Loeb, and his collaborator Shmuel Bialy. Does their claim really hold water? Were we really visited by an alien artifact? How would we know?
A mystery at 200,000 miles per hour
Before we dive into the controversy, let's examine some history. 'Oumuamua was discovered accidentally by Canadian astronomer Robert Weryk while he was routinely reviewing images captured by the telescope Pan-STARRS1 (Panoramic Survey and Rapid Response System 1), situated atop the ten-thousand-foot Haleakala volcanic peak on the Hawaiian island of Maui. The telescope scans the skies in search of near-Earth objects, mostly asteroids and possibly comets that come close to Earth. The idea is to monitor the solar system to learn more about such objects and their orbits and, of course, to sound the alarm in case of a potential collision course with Earth. Contrary to the objects Weryk was used to seeing, mostly moving at about 40,000 miles per hour, this one was moving almost five times as fast — nearly 200,000 miles per hour, definitely an anomaly.
Intrigued, astronomers tracked the visitor while it was visible, concluding that it indeed must have come from outside our solar system, the first recognized interstellar visitor. Contrary to most known asteroids that move in elliptical orbits around the sun, 'Oumuamua had a bizarre path, mostly straight. Also, its brightness varied by a factor of ten as it tumbled across space, a very unusual property that could be caused either by an elongated cigar shape or by it being flat, like a CD, one side with a different reflectivity than the other. The object, 1I/2017 U1, became popularly known as 'Oumuamua, from the Hawaiian for "scout."
In their paper, Loeb and Bialy argue that the only way the object could be accelerated to the speeds observed was if it were extremely thin and very large, like a sail. They estimated that its thickness had to be between 0.3 to 0.9 millimeters, which is extremely thin. After confirming that such an object is robust enough to withstand the hardships of interstellar travel (e.g., collision with gas particles and dust grains, tensile stresses, rotation, and tidal forces), Loeb and Bialy conclude that it couldn't possibly be a solar system object like an asteroid or comet. Being thus of interstellar origin, the question is whether it is a natural or artificial object. This is where the paper ventures into interesting but far-fetched speculation.
I'm not saying it was aliens, but it was aliens
First, the authors consider that it might be garbage "floating in interstellar space as debris from advanced technological equipment," ejected from its own stellar system due to its non-functionality; essentially, alien space junk. Then, they suggest that a "more exotic scenario is that 'Oumuamua may be a fully operational probe sent intentionally to Earth vicinity by an alien civilization," [italicized as in the original] concluding that a "survey for lightsails as technosignatures in the solar system is warranted, irrespective of whether 'Oumuamua is one of them."
You can shoot down as many hypotheses as you want to vindicate yours, but this doesn't prove yours is the right one.
I have known Avi Loeb for decades and consider him a serious and extremely talented astrophysicist. His 2018 paper includes a suggestive interpretation of strange data that obviously sparks the popular imagination. Theoretical physicists routinely suggest the existence of traversable wormholes, multiverses, and parallel quantum universes. Not surprisingly, Loeb was highly in demand by the press to fill in the details of his idea. A book followed, Extraterrestrial: The First Sign of Intelligent Life Beyond Earth, and its description tells all: "There was only one conceivable explanation: the object was a piece of advanced technology created by a distant alien civilization."
This is where most of the scientific establishment began to cringe. One thing is to discuss the properties of a strange natural phenomenon and rule out more prosaic hypotheses while suggesting a daring one. Another is to declare to the public that the only conceivable explanation is one that is also speculative. An outsider will conclude that a reliable scientist has confirmed not only the existence of extraterrestrial life but of intelligent and technologically sophisticated extraterrestrial life with an interest in our solar system. I wonder if Loeb considered the impact of his words and how they reflect on the scientific community as a whole.
This is why aliens won't talk to us
Earlier this year, in a live public lecture hosted by the Catholic University of Chile, Avi Loeb locked horns with Jill Tarter, the scientist that is perhaps most identifiable as someone who spent her career looking for signs of extraterrestrial intelligence. (Coincidentally, I was the speaker that followed Loeb the next week in the same seminar series and was cautioned — along with the other panelists — to behave myself to avoid another showdown. I smiled, knowing that my topic was pretty tame in comparison. I mean, how can the limits of human knowledge compare with alien surveillance?)
The Loeb-Tarter exchange was awful and, it being a public debate, was picked up by the press. Academics can be rough like anyone else. But the issue goes deeper.
What scientists say matters. When should a scientist make public declarations about a cutting-edge topic with absolute certainty? I'd say never. There is no clear-cut certainty in cutting-edge science. There are hypotheses that should be tested more until there is community consensus. Even then, consensus is not guaranteed proof. The history of science is full of examples where leading scientists were convinced of something, only to be proven wrong later.
The epistemological mistake Loeb committed was to make an assertion that publicly amounted to certainty by using a process of elimination of other competing hypotheses. You can shoot down as many hypotheses as you want to vindicate yours, but this doesn't prove yours is the right one. It only means that the other hypotheses are wrong. I do, however, agree with Loeb when he says that 'Oumuamua should be the trigger for an increase in funding for the search for technosignatures, a way of detecting intelligent extraterrestrial life.
Scientists discover what our human ancestors were making inside the Wonderwerk Cave in South Africa 1.8 million years ago.
- Researchers find evidence of early tool-making and fire use inside the Wonderwerk Cave in Africa.
- The scientists date the human activity in the cave to 1.8 million years ago.
- The evidence is the earliest found yet and advances our understanding of human evolution.
One of the oldest activities carried out by humans has been identified in a cave in South Africa. A team of geologists and archaeologists found evidence that our ancestors were making fire and tools in the Wonderwerk Cave in the country's Kalahari Desert some 1.8 million years ago.
A new study published in the journal Quaternary Science Reviews from researchers at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and the University of Toronto proposes that Wonderwerk — which means "miracle" in Afrikaans — contains the oldest evidence of human activity discovered.
"We can now say with confidence that our human ancestors were making simple Oldowan stone tools inside the Wonderwerk Cave 1.8 million years ago," shared the study's lead author Professor Ron Shaar from Hebrew University.
Oldowan stone tools are the earliest type of tools that date as far back as 2.6 million years ago. An Oldowan tool, which was useful for chopping, was made by chipping flakes off of one stone by hitting it with another stone.
An Oldowan stone toolCredit: Wikimedia / Public domain
Professor Shaar explained that Wonderwerk is different from other ancient sites where tool shards have been found because it is a cave and not in the open air, where sample origins are harder to pinpoint and contamination is possible.
Studying the cave, the researchers were able to pinpoint the time over one million years ago when a shift from Oldowan tools to the earliest handaxes could be observed. Investigating deeper in the cave, the scientists also established that a purposeful use of fire could be dated to one million years back.
This is significant because examples of early fire use usually come from sites in the open air, where there is the possibility that they resulted from wildfires. The remnants of ancient fires in a cave — including burned bones, ash, and tools — contain clear clues as to their purpose.
To precisely date their discovery, the researchers relied on paleomagnetism and burial dating to measure magnetic signals from the remains hidden within a sedimentary rock layer that was 2.5 meters thick. Prehistoric clay particles that settled on the cave floor exhibit magnetization and can show the direction of the ancient earth's magnetic field. Knowing the dates of magnetic field reversals allowed the scientists to narrow down the date range of the cave layers.
The Kalahari desert Wonderwerk CaveCredit: Michael Chazan / Hebrew University of Jerusalem
Professor Ari Matmon of Hebrew University used another dating method to solidify their conclusions, focusing on isotopes within quartz particles in the sand that "have a built-in geological clock that starts ticking when they enter a cave." He elaborated that in their lab, the scientists were "able to measure the concentrations of specific isotopes in those particles and deduce how much time had passed since those grains of sand entered the cave."
Finding the exact dates of human activity in the Wonderwerk Cave could lead to a better understanding of human evolution in Africa as well as the way of life of our early ancestors.
Even with six months' notice, we can't stop an incoming asteroid.
- At an international space conference, attendees took part in an exercise that imagined an asteroid crashing into Earth.
- With the object first spotted six months before impact, attendees concluded that there was insufficient time for a meaningful response.
- There are an estimated 25,000 near-Earth objects potentially threatening our planet.
The asteroid 2021 PDC was first spotted on April 19, 2021 by the Pan-STARRS project at the University of Hawaii. By May 2, astronomers were 100% certain it was going to strike Earth somewhere in Europe or northern Africa. On October 20, 2021, the asteroid plowed into Europe, taking countless lives.
There was absolutely nothing anyone could do to deflect it from its deadly course. Experts could only warn a panicking population to get out of the way as soon as possible, if it was possible.
The above scenario is the result of a recently concluded NASA thought experiment.
The question the agency sought to answer was this: If we discovered a potentially deadly asteroid destined to hit Earth in six months, was there anything we could do to prevent a horrifying catastrophe? The disturbing answer is "no," not with currently available technology.
While Europe can breathe easy for now, the simulation conducted by NASA/JPL's Center for Near Earth Object Studies and presented at the 7th IAA Planetary Defense Conference is troubling. Space agencies spot "near-Earth objects" (NEOs) all the time. Many are larger than 140 meters in size, which means they're potentially deadly.
Credit: ImageBank4U / Adobe Stock
"The level [at] which we're finding the 140-meter and larger asteroids remains pretty stable, at about 500 a year. Our projection of the number of these objects out there is about 25,000, and we've only found a little over one-third of those so far, maybe 38% or so," NASA's Planetary Defense Office Lindley Johnson tells Space.com.
With our current technology, spotting an NEO comes down to whether we just happen to have a telescope pointing in its direction. To remove humanity's blind spot, the Planetary Society — the same organization that deployed Earth's first light sails — is developing the NEO Surveyor spacecraft, which they plan to deploy in 2025. According to the Planetary Society, it will be able to detect 90 percent of NEOs of 140 meters or larger, a vast improvement.
How to move an asteroid
The DART spacecraft will attempt to deflect an asteroid.Credit: NASA
The NASA/JPL exercise made clear that six months is just not enough time with our current technology to prepare and launch a mission in time to nudge an NEO off its course. (Small course adjustments become significant over great distances, which is why "nudging" an asteroid is a potential strategy.)
What would such a mission look like? Hollywood aside — remember Armageddon?— we know of no good way to redirect an NEO headed our way. Experts believe that shooting laser beams at an incoming rock, exciting as it might look, is not a realistic possibility. Targeted nuclear blasts might work, but forget about landing Bruce Willis, Ben Affleck, and Liv Tyler on an asteroid to set off a course-altering bomb, especially just a month after its discovery (as was the case in the movie).
Another thing that might work is crashing a spacecraft into an NEO hard enough to shift its course. That's the idea behind NASA's Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART). This mission will shoot a spacecraft at the (non-threatening) asteroid Dimorphos in the fall of 2022 in the hope of changing its trajectory.
The deadly asteroid's journey
The asteroid "2021 PDC" hit Europe in NASA's simulation.Credit: NASA/JPL
The harrowing "tabletop exercise," as NASA/JPL called it, took place across four days at the conference:
- Day 1, "April 19" — The asteroid named "2021 PDC" is discovered 35 million miles away. Scientists calculate it has a 1-in-20 chance of striking Earth.
- Day 2, "May 2" — Now certain that 2021 PDC will hit Earth, space mission designers attempt to dream up a response. They conclude that with less than six months to impact, there's not enough time to realistically mount a mission to disrupt the NEO's course.
- Day 3, "June 30" — Images from the world's four largest telescopes reveal the area in Europe that will be hit. Space-based infrared measurements narrow the object's size to between 35 and 700 meters. This would pack a similar punch as a 1.2-megaton nuclear bomb.
- Day 4, "October 14" — Six days before impact, the asteroid is just 6.3 million km from Earth. Finally, the Goldstone Solar System Radar has been able to assess the size of 2021 PDC. Scientists calculate the blast from the asteroid will be primarily confined to the border region between Germany, Czechia, Austria, Slovenia, and Croatia. Disaster response experts develop plans for addressing the human toll.
"Each time we participate in an exercise of this nature," says Johnson, "we learn more about who the key players are in a disaster event, and who needs to know what information, and when."
Practically speaking, little can be done to hurry technological development along other than budgeting more money toward that goal. Maybe we should have Bruce Willis on call, just in case.