Posts Tagged science

Quantum mechanics

Google has tech talks, which can be pretty cool. Today I went to a talk about quantum mechanics, which seemed a little overwrought and too complex for one hour. Still, the core message was fairly clear and very enlightening: observation and entanglement are the same thing! That actually makes a lot of sense–if a particle is observed, then its state and the observer’s state become related. As I recall, the definition of quantum mechanical “observation” was never clear to me, but this makes sense at last.

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All the cool kids are made of arsenic

Nasa has found bacteria in Mono Lake that don’t just tolerate arsenic, but actually use it in place of phosphorus!

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En-ringed

Last night, at the Academy of Science’s “Nightlife” event, I saw Saturn with my own eyes. They were telescope-assisted eyes, but with actual Saturn photons hitting my actual retinas, making an actual ringed-planet shape.

I can’t quite imagine being the first person to see the rings of Saturn. I mean, the sky has all these star things, and you aim your newly-made telescope at one of them, and it’s a BALL WITH GODDAMN RINGS! Would that not blow your mind? Like looking at cells under a microscope, and … wait, this one’s wearing shoes!

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Singular vegetarians

The strongest argument for vegetarianism and animal rights I’ve ever heard comes from Vernor Vinge, the sci-fi author. He thinks that within about a generation, we’ll produce superhuman intelligence, by AI or biology or some other trick. How, he wonders, will those people treat us? Will they consider us as we consider animals? If we want them to treat us well, should we not treat animals well?

This argument works on me because it points at a clear similarity between humans and animals: neither of us is the next step, and what happens to both of us will depend on how we raise our heirs. So let us now found a belief that we should treat our inferiors as well as we’d like our superiors to treat us.

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Futurology

It’s official–we live in the future. The Hitchhiker’s Guide has been created, and selection of (some of) your children’s traits is now possible.

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Life is hard

Slashdot linked to this article, an interesting take on the possibility of finding life on Mars by Nick Bostrom. What I’m most struck by is that his thinking is much like mine, but he takes the reasoning another step. An AI researcher would be proud, though: he uses good, probabilistic reasoning.

His main point is that because SETI has never found any signs of intelligent life, there’s probably some evolutionary step that’s improbable. Not just unlikely, but so terribly unlikely that it’s got only a one-in-a-billion chance of happening on any given planet. With odds like that, it would be easy to see why there are no other civilizations broadcasting radio waves into space–we were simply outrageously lucky to be here at all. He calls this unlikely event the “Great Filter”.

Nick puts forward the two obvious candidates for his Great Filter: the two evolutionary advances that took the longest time to occur. They are the origin of the first unicellular life (which admittedly sounds unlikely, right?) and the transition from prokaryotes (cells like bacteria, which don’t have all the complicated structure ours do, such as nuclei and mitochondria) to eukaryotes (which are much like ours). Eukaryotes took about 1.8 billion years to evolve–that’s an outrageously long time. But it happening even that fast might be unlikely. What if the average time that step takes to happen is a trillion years? Then we’re very lucky, and we’re unlikely to have neighbors.

So, that’s the sort of thing that had already occurred to me (and indeed, that I pontificated on to Megan not so long ago). But Nick takes that reasoning farther than I did–you should read the article to find out how.

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