Top Video of 2016 #1: Penn Jillette on Libertarianism, Taxes, Trump, Clinton and Weed
Take a deep breath, you're in for a ride. Here is Penn Jillette on Libertarianism, taxes, Trump, Clinton, Sanders, Gary Johnson, sex, drugs and Kurt Cobain.
Penn Jillette is a cultural phenomenon as a solo personality and as half of the world-famous Emmy Award-winning magic duo Penn & Teller. In the mid-'80s, Penn & Teller went from playing the tiki lounges at various Ramada Inns to being one of the most popular, big-budget, death-defying, nightclub acts in the country. After killing it in movies and SNL appearances, the duo went on to have their own Showtime series where they attempted to debunk everything from male enhancement pills to UFO sightings. Penn has independently produced the stand up comedy tribute film, The Aristocrats, and hosts a successful podcast with Ace Broadcasting, Penn's Sunday School. Penn & Teller: Fool Us, a current CW series, began its first season in London and now it has just begun its seventh, under the dazzling lights of Las Vegas.
Penn Jillette: Let me lay on you what Libertarianism is to me. Once again I’m speaking for myself which is about as Libertarian as you can get. I do not believe I know what’s best for other people. I also don’t believe that other people know what’s best for other people. I can barely make decisions for myself. I do my best to make decisions for my family. Should my ten-year-old son take music lessons? That’s a hard question for our family. Do you want to push him into it or wait until he really wants it? Those are hard decisions. I have trouble making those for my family so making the decision of what someone else’s job in healthcare should be like who is in another part of the country who I’ve never met is not something I’m qualified or desirous to do. That’s Libertarianism. Libertarianism is taking a right on money and your first left on sex and looking for utopia straight ahead. To me the way I was brought up in western Massachusetts, kind of a New England philosophy. We believed in responsibility and keeping your nose out of other people’s business. We believed in live and let live I think to a fault. My mom and dad were older parents too. My mom was 45 when I was born so I was raised by another generation. You see my mom would be whatever – 120 now or 115 now. A whole other generation.
My mom was born – now you’re going to see that my math is wrong. My mom was born in 1909. She’s dead now. So it’s a whole different generation. And my mom’s feeling about absolutely everything was who cares. Her whole feeling on the gay rights movement was who cares who they want to get together with. It doesn’t matter to me. Her whole feeling on drugs. I have never had a sip of alcohol or any recreational drug in my life. That was true for my mother, true for my father, true for my sister. I don’t know how many generations it goes back but never. And yet my mom always thought that sure, any drug should be legal. If you’re living in a free country do whatever you want. Take responsibility for it. When you tell people about Libertarianism you just tell them we think you should take as little from other people by force as possible. And you should be able to do whatever you think is right. Now that’s a pretty heavy thing I’m saying. Because I’m saying that if there’s an 18-year-old girl who is the greatest math whiz that we have in this country, let’s say she’s the smartest person in math we have anywhere. And let’s say we give her a full scholarship to go to whatever school she wants to go to – Stanford, MIT, wherever she wants to go. And she decides she wants to work at McDonald’s and get pregnant at the age of 19. That’s her decision.
Jim Morrison – did he have a worse life because he did an awful lot of drugs and died at 28? I don’t know. I’ve already lived a lot longer than Jim Morrison but were his choices worse than mine? I don’t know. I know I would not have liked to have lived like Jim Morrison although I’d like to look that good in leather pants. But Kurt Cobain. Did I want to live like that? No, not even slightly. Prince? I don’t want to live like that. But they probably don’t want to live like me either. Libertarianism is the strongest sense of please do what you want, try not to hurt me.
Our government has a monopoly on force, they have a monopoly on force. The government is the only organization that is supposed to be able to use force. The government is supposed to be a government of us which means in my thinking, my morality, the government should only use force for things I’m willing to use force for. The government are the only ones that are allowed to use guns to hurt another person or threaten another person legally. So the question becomes what would I use a gun to do? Now I’m a coward and I have no skills with guns or with violence. I’ve never hit a person in anger in my life. I’ve been hit. I never hit back. So this is hypothetical. But if I were not a coward would I use a gun to stop someone from being killed? Yes. Would I use a gun to stop someone from being raped? Yes. Would I use a gun to build a library? Would I take money from someone to build a library? Well I’d certainly give my money. I’d certainly work. I’d certainly beg you for money to build a library. Libraries really matter to me. I was born in 55. I’m from a small town. Without a library I would have known nothing. I had to drive to – I had to ride my bike to the library to learn about Lenny Bruce, Franz Kafka.
I got Stravinsky records from the library. It meant everything to me. Libraries matter. But that’s the Libertarian question. Now taking care of people. Would you use a gun to take care of others? That’s a hard one. Because taxation is using violence. Now people try to say taxation is voluntary. It’s not. If you don’t pay your taxes eventually somewhere down the line someone with a gun will show up. They just will. At some point if you don’t do that. What do we do with our taxes? Would we use a gun to defend our country? Yeah I guess we’ve got to, right. Would we use a gun for everything we use for taxes? So when I see the government doing something I ask myself would I use a gun to do that. Now all of that being said that is the high level, the theoretical part of Libertarianism to me. In a nuts and bolts level it becomes much, much simpler. It is one of the cases where the reality is simpler than the theory. When someone is worried about Libertarianism they worry about what happens to public schools, what happens to welfare, what happens to roads. Those are the first three questions they ask. And those are the hardest questions. I will give you public schools. I will give you welfare. I will give you infrastructure. I will not give you the government using a gun to take money from poor people and giving it to rich people.
The biggest issue in Libertarianism is stopping corporate welfare. What we give in welfare to the poor, we give in government money to the roads. We give government money to the schools is nothing compared to the money we give to rich people. The best way to stop crony capitalism, the best way to stop graft, the best way to stop all sorts of bad stuff in government is to make government small enough. The way you stop corruption is make it small enough that corruption doesn’t pay. Give the government little enough and there’s not a lot to steal from them. But government is buoying up the rich corporations. The rich corporations love the government. They’ve gained the system in a way an individual never can. Any big corporation has a team of the best lawyers to figure out how they cannot pay taxes. No middle class person has that. They have regulations set to keep other people out of the business, right. Even the manicure shops, you know. They want to license, register everything so that other people can’t get in. It’s limiting. If you had a true free market you would not have the big mega corporations.
Libertarianism is not about rich white people getting a lot of money from corporations and leaving everybody else to whistle. Libertarianism is let’s not use the government to take money from poor people and middle class people and give it to rich people. Because really that’s all that’s ever happened. That’s all that’s ever happened. In our present climate we have somebody running for president who we know for a fact lied. Lied a lot less than other people. We know for a fact she lied. And we know for a fact that she is an insider and that knows the way to play all the games. We also know that she knows what’s better for other people. And we know that she says and claims and brags that she will do a lot of killing of people overseas. We also know that she is essentially – even after I’ve called her a liar, she’s essentially a good, honest person. She essentially has a good heart. She also has a 65 percent disapproval rating or higher. That’s Hillary Clinton. There are two things that I always believed about modern politics. One was that everyone who had ever run for a major office was smarter than me. And the second thing was there was no one worse than Hillary Clinton.
Both of those things have been disproven by Donald Trump. Donald Trump, all the good qualities I mentioned about Hillary Clinton, Donald Trump does not share. He’s not skilled. He does not have as far as I can tell any compassion. And he does not have very much knowledge. He does have a weird kind of charisma that I cannot understand myself. It doesn’t seem to work on me. But certainly demonstrative that he has charisma that works for some people. And he’s willing to give easy answers. And being willing to give easy answers which in his case aren’t answers, they’re just I will fix it. We’ve got this problem, I’ll fix it. Well no, you don’t get to say that. You have to demonstrate how you’re doing it. But both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump are very interested in getting a lot of power for themselves. I believe Hillary Clinton wants that power because she thinks she knows what’s best for other people. Let’s refer back to me saying I don’t know what’s best for other people. I also don’t think she does either but she believes that. And I believe her heart’s in the right place. I don’t think Donald Trump knows there are other people to be concerned about.
I don’t think he even knows that. You’ve got those two. And neither one of them – this is not fair to Hillary Clinton. Donald Trump is giving no theoretical policy ideas for how government should run. Hillary Clinton is not giving enough for my taste. Here’s the debate I want to see. Now I know that my buddy Gary, Gary Johnson, I know we were trying to get him to do the debates that if he gets 15 percent he’ll be in the debates and that’s wonderful. We should all work for that. Even people who don’t like Gary want to see someone else on stage talking. I don’t see why you wouldn’t want him involved in the conversation. If Hillary Clinton really is great, let her talk to Gary in public. Well there’s nobody that entertains that Donald Trump really is great. If you thought that for a moment, why not have Gary Johnson talk. Here’s the conversation I want to have. I want to have this debate. I don’t even want to call it a debate. I want it to be a simple conversation. Bernie Sanders, Gary Johnson. Put them side by side. Two good people. Two paragons, you know.
Here’s the debate I want to see. It’s not even a debate, a conversation, a public conversation in front of as much of America as wants to watch it. Bernie Sanders, Gary Johnson. Both paragons, both virtuous, both honest, both smart, both concerned about other people, both with experience in government. And I want to hear Bernie Sanders say, you know, a lot of people in this country have trouble taking care of themselves. We need a strong infrastructure for business to thrive. We need to protect our country, to protect the people around us. We need a big strong government with a good solid safety net that can take care of people and treat them with compassion and make better choices than some individuals will make. We need a government where more qualified people can take care of those that aren’t and where we can keep corporations at bay and where we can keep some money out of politics. That’s what we need. And here’s some examples of how we can get there from where we are. Here are the checks and balances we want to put in place on corporations. Here’s what we want to do with campaign finance. Here’s what we want to do with schools. Here’s some of my ideas. But I want Gary Johnson to say, you know, all those things are problems. But I think that maybe a little more freedom as opposed to a little more control from the government might give us a lot of that.
I want individuals to have a little more money in their pockets and use that for charity and use that for building. And I think instead of putting up tariffs to keep foreign businesses out we can actually make America more competitive, less taxes and let them have more power that way and be more successful. There would be more money all over the place. We can take care of people. I think that’ll work pretty well and while we’re at it we’ll stop the corporations by not having a big government that flows money to them. And then Bernie Sanders says back, you know, that sounds really good Gary. It really does. But there are some people who just plain are going to be left out. They’re not going to make it. They’re just not going to make it in your dog each dog free market economy. You’re just willing to throw them away? And then Gary says, you know, maybe a subsistence amount of money for everybody. Maybe just get paid. Just give them that money. Because you know compared to what we’re paying for food stamps and all of that stuff just writing them a check is much easier. So maybe we can do that. And Bernie says, you know what you’re saying about keeping businesses over here kind of makes sense Gary. Maybe we can do a few less tariffs and a little lower taxes to help our corporations and maybe that’ll help a little bit. And they go back and forth and they come up with an impasse where they don’t agree.
And then the American people say, you know, let’s try it Bernie’s way for a while. Let’s give it four years of Bernie because it seems like he’s got some ideas. Let’s go four years with Bernie. You know Gary you’re a good guy. You’ve thought about this really hard and you made a really good case and we know you’re a good guy. We like you. We trust you. But we’re going with Bernie now. And we try that for a while. And as Bernie’s doing this there’s other people in the government that go what about this and he pulls back on this and he adjusts and he does that. And then he comes, you know, four years go by and the country goes let’s hear that debate again. Maybe it’s someone else in place but whatever. They do the debate again and they go, you know, we tried. We don’t really feel your burn. Now feel my Johnson. We’ll have Gary Johnson take over for four years and see how that goes. And you go back and forth and you have a discussion of what we want to do as a country between two good, honest, hard thinking human beings. And please let’s get one of them to be a woman by the next time we do this. Please. And let’s get someone to be of color please. Let’s just do that.
We’ve got plenty of people on both sides that aren’t just white guys. But for right now my example of Bernie and Gary and we go back and forth like that. Why aren’t we doing that? Why do we have two people that all they agree on is that they should have power. Two psychotic, power hungry, hated, unpleasant people clawing and scratching to take power over other people’s lives. Why not two people who are actually having a discussion about what direction our country should go in. And by the way we’re never going to go all the way Bernie. We’re never going to go all the way Gary. But that’s the discussion we have and let that go. So that is what I think about modern politics and that’s what I think about Libertarianism. Yeah, maybe someday in the future we should go to anarcho-capitalism. Maybe someday in the future we should go to full out socialism. But for right now can we just do what every mother fucking American believes which is stop giving so much money to the corporations, let the people have more control, let them smoke dope, let them put what they want into their bodies, let them have sex with whoever they want as long as there’s consent. And let them do that in every state. Let them love who they want and enjoy life the way they want. Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Is that a nut position?
It would probably be a shorter article if we mentioned what does Penn Jillette does not cover in this video, but let’s give it the old college try and do it right.
Welcome to 18 glorious minutes of Penn Jillette (magician, comedian, author and passionate Libertarian) laying his view of modern politics on us – with the disclaimer that he doesn’t know what’s best for others, and he doesn’t pretend to.
Jillette was raised in a home where the philosophy was ‘live and let live’. Neither he nor his parents have had a drop of alcohol or an ounce of illicit drugs, but they respect other people’s choice to do so. Men want to marry men? Who cares. If a genius wants to throw their life away, who cares. If a woman wants to have a baby or not, who cares. You have to respect people enough to make their own decisions.
In explaining his view of libertarianism, Jillette boils it down to a question that can be applied to any government decision: Would I use a gun to do that? Let’s rewind. First he states that the US government is the only organization that is supposed to be able to use force. He continues: "The government is supposed to be a government of us which means – in my thinking, my morality – the government should only use force for things I’m willing to use force for. So the question becomes what would I use a gun to do?" The tricky part would be reaching a consensus of what we would and wouldn’t use violence for. Stopping a murder – yes. Stopping a rape – yes. Defending our country – yes, we have to. What about building a library? Huh?
Jillette frames taxation as a form of government violence. "Now people try to say taxation is voluntary. It’s not. If you don’t pay your taxes eventually somewhere down the line, someone with a gun will show up. They just will." Taxes take money from poor and middle class people and channels it into public schools, roads and social welfare – which is great – but a large chunk of it is used to buoy big corporations. Corporate welfare is the biggest issue in Libertarianism.
Jillette suggests avoiding this kind of corruption and the deeply troubling rich-poor divide by reducing the size of the government. Make it so small that corruption doesn’t pay. Let the free market actually be free.
Of course you can’t talk politics without discussing Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, so he tackles both of those and for good measure throws in an imagined debate between Bernie Sanders and Gary Johnson as a model to show that while we may not be ready for total Libertarianism, or total socialism, total anarcho-capitalism, or total anything right now, the debate and compromises that would come from two candidates with a broader social conscience and less of a thirst for power would steer the country away from the rocks.
Changing taxation and shrinking the government may sound nuts, but hear Jillette out: "… For right now can we just do what every mother*cking American believes which is stop giving so much money to the corporations, let the people have more control, let them smoke dope, let them put what they want into their bodies, let them have sex with whoever they want as long as there’s consent. And let them do that in every state. Let them love who they want and enjoy life the way they want. Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Is that a nut position?"
Penn Jillette's most recent book is Presto! How I Made Over 100 Pounds Disappear and Other Magical Tales.
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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.