I Understand Quantum Mechanics

February 20, 2019 § 3 Comments

 “What I’m about to say will probably be interpreted as a joke. It isn’t. I’m not joking. I’ve been working with quantum mechanics for twenty years now, and I’ve always been uncertain – pardon the pun – whether I could accept the foundation of the very discipline that provided my livelihood. The dilemma bothered me deeply. It’s more than bothered me – it’s caused sleepless nights, nervous distress, made me go to a psychiatrist.” –Schrodinger’s Plague by  Greg Bear

“Ohh, spooky.” Professor Scherrer looked at the picture of the atom in quantum physics and turned back towards us, raising his eyebrows at us. We raised our eyebrows at him. Spooky, indeed.

Professor Scherrer had just finished explaining how quantum physics rests on the principle that one can never predict exactly what’s going to happen, that the laws of physics are random and unpredictable.

Random? Unpredictable??? Yikes.

But you know, I get it. In my ninth grade textbook, I first remember reading about how in the context of quantum physics, a ball of a uniform weight that is thrown from the same position, in the same way, and with the same intended trajectory as another ball of equal weight, could go in a different direction than the second ball. Honestly, I’m okay with that. When I throw things, I’m usually not sure where they’re going to land, whether that’s a M&M thrown into a friend’s mouth, or a ball of paper at someone’s shoulder, or a banana peel into a trashcan. Uncertainty is something I confront every day on a very small level. Also, on a bigger level. We’ll talk about mortality later, though. Let’s tread carefully. 

Professor Scherrer talked about a few theories of how this idea of “randomness” could happen: because the universe isn’t actually random and there are hidden variables or that there are many worlds in which choices can happen (ideas explored in the stories that we read in class).

Professor Scherrer followed these literally earth-shattering (in at least one world, probably) ideas with saying that the Hidden Variables Theory doesn’t stand up to proof and in most senses, the Many Worlds Hypothesis can’t be proven true (until it is). And that many things run on quantum mechanics, including our laptop computers. The very same computer that I’m writing this blog post on.

Can we put the cookies in the oven, get some tea and a blanket, and burrow down into a big couch for a moment? Let’s get comfortable with this idea that quantum mechanics is probably true.

It quantum mechanics is true, then something else is too. And that something else is that we’re not in control. We never were, but we’re sure not now. We just think that we are. 

Yikes again?

This idea that understanding yields the illusion of control hit me when I was in my pajamas this morning, feeling pretty comfortable as I pictured the quiche at Grins only about fifteen minutes’ walk away. In a deterministic world, we can have the illusion of being in control because we think that because we can understand things, we are able to control the outcomes. If we understand how graduate school admissions work, we can get into the best graduate school. If we understand how our friends think, we can get them to go to that goat yoga class even if they don’t like goats because we can play on their motivations. Understanding things can lead us to believe that we have control.

I’m not even going to surprise you when I tell you that understanding only gives us the illusion of control. Hm, are you surprised? Probably not. This hits us most when we don’t get into the grad school or the friend just decides she just doesn’t want to go. No reason, she just doesn’t want to. We’ve all been there.

In our class, we saw this illusion of control playing out. In “Ten Sigmas” by Paul Melko, the narrator is divided into different personalities, a proposition that is based off of quantum physics. Each choice that he makes creates another world (The “Many Worlds” hypothesis), a belief that makes one of his selves feel as if he is a god; he understands all the potential choices, he can make the best choice out of all the choices that he would have made. But the self that believes that he is a god does not last long, although the narrator doesn’t specify why. The narrator is almost able to believe that understanding gives him the illusion of control, but not quite: he cannot see into the future, and he cannot change the past. He only has a huge, million-view presence of the present.

Is the idea of uncertainty – of not knowing something, of never being able to fully understand something because it can’t be put into laws that you can understand – bother you? We’ve gotten better at predicting things. We can tell you that dependent upon your zip code where you’ll be educated, how you might end up in later life, how much money you’ll make. We can tell you that based on the amount of alcohol and red meat you consume what’s your risk of heart disease. We’re getting better at probabilities and risks (well, probably everyone is except for me #stats2821issad). But we’re still dealing with randomness. We’re just getting better at putting it off to the side, of saying “Eh, it’s unlikely.”

This idea of not being in control is closely linked with mortality, something most people don’t like to think about. Mankind always been living in a quantum mechanical world in flux with his own mortality, in a world where you could be alive one second and eaten by a lion the next. My Mathematical Modeling in Biology professor recently proposed that if you’re alone with a lion, you have a 100% chance of getting eaten — supposing, I guess, that the lion is indeed a carnivore and not a vegetarian. I for one believe that there’s always a chance that he might be a vegetarian and eat at Vanderbilt’s vegetarian restaurant Grins like the rest of us, but probably not. Probably. 

To get comfortable with randomness and really be able to curl up under the blanket of quantum mechanics, we should get comfortable with our own mortality. With the fact that even though deaths from heart disease and cancer are high, that we might get hit by a car (or worse, a Vandy van). With the idea that there are only probabilities and certainty doesn’t exist. With the ideas that we can only try to plan as best as possible for our future and whatever will happen, will happen.

But we shouldn’t get too comfortable with mortality that we forget the value of this crazy life. That’s what happened in Larry Niven’s “All the Myriad Ways.” The prospect of there being multiple lives in multiple worlds was too much for those who desired certainty, for those who chose a certain end (the narrator notes that very often, the victims would actually carry the suicide weapon with them) rather than the uncertainty that the choice that they were making was the worse one; depending on the number of choices, the worst.

So let’s take those metaphorical (or real – who am I kidding) cookies out of the oven and start thinking about our mortality. And randomness. And chance. And the idea that we’ll always be dealing with these things, and that they’re not going away any time soon.

In the meantime, you should definitely check out this video. Dr. BJ Miller is pretty much the living version of when life is hit by the reality of quantum mechanics. He’s also — and I can say this with complete certainty — one of the coolest people that I have ever had the fortune of meeting. Spending just four hours with him taught me a lot about mortality and uncertainty, of dealing with the uncertainty inherent in a quantum mechanical world on a day by day level.

Sophie Druffner

Sources:

Paul Melko’s “Ten Sigmas”

Larry Niven’s “All the Myriad Ways”

Greg Bear’s “Schrodinger’s Plague”

What Matters at the End of Life through Ted Talks

“I don’t want to go” BuzzFeed Motion Pictures

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The Fashion of the Future

February 19, 2019 § 2 Comments

Some of the most interesting things to examine when reading or watching Science Fiction are the differences between our world and the story’s world—I’m pretty sure that everyone can agree on that much. Most of the time, people focus on the differing technology or weird/alien social customs. However, not as many people talk about a difference that, on film at least, is right in front of them: fashion.

Bear with me. I get that in worlds full of space travel, robots, and laser guns, what so-and-so is wearing feels like a second priority. But, I feel like there’s a discrepancy between the fashion trends seen throughout history and the ideas being extrapolated for SF. Particularly in women’s fashion, clothing has evolved over the years to become more and more practical. People went from wearing tailcoats and ball gowns on the regular to simple pants and shirts.

Excerpt from The Met’s illustration of women’s fashion throughout history

However, many movies have suggested that in the future, fashion will go backward. A classic example of this is The Hunger Games. In the Capitol, everyone dresses in flashy (and in all likelihood uncomfortable) clothing. The main character herself repeatedly mentions how ridiculous the fashion in the Capitol seems, but nevertheless it’s the reality. Of course, people in the Capitol are far more wealthy than people in the districts, and fashion has always been a means through which people have expressed their money. But, today that is more often done by buying expensive things with expensive logos—the pieces themselves aren’t particularly complicated. With that as both a simple and effective option, I have a hard time believing people would revert back to wearing metal crinolines or top hats.

Nevertheless, the implications of people wearing impractical outfits could be worse. As far as we’re aware, the citizens of the Capitol don’t have much to do in the way of work—or at least, we never hear of any career apart from fashion designers and politicians. So, I guess it somewhat makes sense that they’d spend their time finding more and more extreme ways to style themselves since any impracticality they impose upon themselves doesn’t have particular consequences (aside from the fact that it probably hurts).

Elizabeth Banks as Effie Trinket in a dress from Alexander McQueen’s autumn/winter 2012 collection

Similar fashion choices can be seen in Star Wars, particularly in the prequels. Natalie Portman’s character Padmé is a prime example of this, with her iconic throne room getup. Yes, Padmé was royalty and so the writers had to find a way to distinguish her from the commoners—fine. But, today’s world leaders pretty much wear the same things as everyone else, only much more expensive versions. The only exception I can think of off the top of my head is the Pope, but I mean he’s always dressed like that. I don’t need to see Queen Elizabeth II in an all-around headdress to know she’s the queen—her Chanel suits do just fine.

Like in The Hunger Games, we see an attempt to “futurize” the world through a completely impractical aethstetic, but history just doesn’t indicate that that’s the most likely outcome. I know that I might get a few protests about the fact that Star Wars is actually set in the past and not the future, so the idea of what history indicates doesn’t necessarily fit, but the point is about what fashion we have come to expect in futuristic societies, not whether or not the societies themselves are actually futuristic. Similarly, one could argue that because Star Wars isn’t set on Earth, I can’t expect them to have had the same evolution of fashion. I would respond by saying that while Padmé wasn’t from Earth, the writers of the films most definitely were.

Natalie Portman as Padmé for Star Wars look-book

Now, I get that SF writers and directors want the worlds in their movies to feel foreign and different and evolved. Clothing is an awesome way to do that, because all you have to do to draw conclusions about it is look at it. I have no problem with that! All I’m saying is that maybe they should make everyone wear bright white pleather, or make every naked (I get that nudity isn’t necessarily practical in terms of weather or physical protection—I’m being extreme to highlight my point). Following current trends, things should be getting more and more skin tight and less and less conservative. I’m totally fine with the idea of a protagonist who fights evil in a crop top. I’m much less fine with the idea of a protagonist who fights evil in head-to-toe fur. Even with today’s experimental avant-garde fashion like this…

…or this…

…I have a hard time believing that it will become common enough to warrant how often in shows up in movies.

Admittedly, this is in no way a trope that applies to all SF. In worlds like Firefly, those living on rural and underdeveloped planets have reverted back to wild-west couture. In shows like Altered Carbon, almost everyone still just wears jeans and t-shirts. Likewise, even in worlds with the absurd fashion I’m talking about, those who boast it are often the hyper-rich. But, it’s something that comes up enough that everyone knows what I’m talking about. So much of the focus in SF is on getting the science right, and naturally so, but what about the historic trends? I know that developing technology is all about finding new ways to do things, but the point is to improve upon the old, not to effectively go back to it. I’m very glad that I don’t live in a society where I’m still expected to wear corset, and I’d like to think that my great-great-great-granddaughter won’t have to, either.

But, what if fashion in Science Fiction is a self-fulfilling prophecy? By associating the future with over-the-top outfits, SF has done a lot to influence the current high-fashion world. If a designer wants to produce something progressive and ahead of their time, they oftentimes draw inspiration from worlds that are meant to be exactly that.

Dior’s 1999 Haut Couture Show openly admitted to drawing heavy inspiration from The Matrix, released earlier that year.

Dior’s 1999 Haut Couture Show

More recently, Kanye was accused of (or more accurately teased about) having drawn inspiration for his second collection from Star Wars. Lots of memes were made, and while Kanye denied the accusations… well, you can decide for yourself.

Kanye’s second collection in partnership with Adidas

All jokes aside, the explosion of the SF genre over the last few decades really has impacted the contemporary world. It’s fun to laugh about people walking around in Neo’s clothing when it’s confined to the runway, but it’s another thing entirely to wear it yourself. But, ridiculous fashion choices in film are easy pickings for today’s designers, and it’s slowly becoming a reality. We’re doing it to ourselves, folks, and in my opinion it’s got to stop. Or at least, it’s got to stop after we can buy Marty McFly’s self-lacing sneakers from Back to the Future (they exist) for less than $50,000 .

By Jayne Cook

Pausing the Clock

February 17, 2019 § 12 Comments

               Death comes for all of us. It is the great equalizer across the human species, and life in general for that matter. All life must come to an end. But what if it did not have to be this way? What if humans could obtain biological immortality? What could we achieve if we could continually wind the clock of life? What would be the consequences of finally discovering the fabled “elixir?” [Note: biological immortality only refers to freedom from aging, one can still die from injury or disease]

die bye bye GIF by diejuliewierd
The Burden of Mortality

            Science fiction has long attempted to tackle this question. One of my favorite stories from childhood, Kurt Vonnegut’s “2 B R 0 2 B,” deals with the ramifications of a futuristic United States where biological immortality, and subsequent population control, are a norm of everyday life. In it, a man is forced to make the impossible choice to only choose one of his children to live, since he is having triplets. Under the rules of population control, there must be a death for each new life. With only the children’s grandfather volunteering for physician-assisted suicide, the man eventually succumbs to his inner turmoil, killing a doctor, a painter, and himself to make room for the children.

            This story hit me hard as a child, and still resonates with me today, exposing some of the potential pitfalls of an ageless society. The potential costs and negative outcomes of biological immortality are well-documented and discussed in science fiction, particularly in those works with dystopian themes. Who gets to be immortal if we do achieve biological immortality? [Potential for an even more pronounced divide between the “haves” and “have nots”] How do we control an ageless population? [Raises questions about the nature of our existence once reproduction is removed from the equation] Will our minds eventually break down from the collective stress of multiple lifetimes? [Endless psychosis—beyond terrifying]

            However, despite the countless warnings which science fiction provides at every turn, I still cannot help but dream and hope for a day (preferably WITHIN my lifetime) where I could be one of the lucky early-adopters of biological immortality. It is not as impossible as one might think. If scientists are able to harness and control telomerase activity, then we could potentially create ageless cells (although this will need to come after the cure for cancer, as high levels of telomerase activity are linked to cancer development). Further studies and inquiries into other organisms could also provide alternative solutions. Biological immortality already exists in nature (maybe that means human biological immortality would not be “unnatural”). Turritopsis Dohrnii, better known as the immortal jellyfish, is an organism which can endlessly reverse and restart its life cycle. The immortal jellyfish ages and de-ages forever, only succumbing to disease and predation (hence why the ocean is not overpopulated with a single variety of jellyfish).

Image result for immortal jellyfish
Life Cycle of Turritopsis Dohrnii: Biological Immortality in Nature

            While living through a lifetime only to catch a case of Benjamin Button disease may not be everyone’s ideal timeline, it seems to be an infinitely better solution than our current circumstances. We are born into a world only to die. This fundamental truth of our mortality has terrified me since the earliest days of my childhood (I was that kid whose “greatest wish” in elementary school was always, and I mean always, immortality). I know I cannot be alone in this. It is one of the main reasons why I cannot understand why more of the planet’s money, resources, and research is not poured into the pursuit of immortality. Think about it, what could we achieve, what could we do, with potentially infinite time? What if generations no longer had to pass the baton in the race of life? Where could we go if we could just keep running? How would this change our approach to life? Would students still run themselves into the ground for that six-figure salary if they knew they had infinite time? Would people still butcher one another over ludicrous and petty disputes if their frame of reference shifted from decades to infinity? Would we care so much about the trivial and banal details of everyday life?

            The prospect of an ageless society raises any number of possibilities. I am a personal believer that aggression would give way to passivity (think more followers of Dudeism, fewer religious zealots), and ambition would take on much more genuine quality. Without death to motivate a desperate accumulation of finite finances and resources, I think that people would be freed from the chains of mortality to truly pursue their innermost passions and desires. The harvest from these endeavors would yield much more tasteful fruit. Imagine if people like Albert Einstein, Rosalind Franklin, Carl Sagan, and Konstantin Tsiolkovsky had an endless number of lifetimes to build on their knowledge, experience, and expertise. The learning curve of the first couple of decades of life could be entirely eliminated. A life’s work would not die with the individual.

            I know death is not a subject anyone wants to talk about, much less likes to talk about. However, if we ever wish to change the realities of our lifetime, this is the dialogue that needs to happen. Science fiction loves to attach biological immortality to dystopias (just do a quick search on science fiction related to immortality), but I do not believe the two are necessarily joined at the hip. Are there potential issues and consequences with biological immortality? Absolutely. Should this deter us from pursuing it? Absolutely not.

Imagine it…Endless Time

            Everyday we waste time. It is crushingly depressing. Whether it is swiping through meaningless articles, photos, and pages on meaningless apps or websites, idling between courses, or spending time at a function we would rather not attend, we all waste minutes of our lives. We spend minutes doing things we would rather avoid so that maybe, just maybe, one day we will be able to do the things we want to do with our minutes. Some of us just waste minutes as a way of paradoxically avoiding the fact that we are wasting minutes. But we will never, ever, get those minutes back. Unless of course, we will.

-Cruz Castillo


Further Reading and Works Referenced:

https://best-sci-fi-books.com/21-best-immortality-science-fiction-books/

https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2018/02/180227142114.htm

https://www.abc.net.au/radionational/programs/greatmomentsinscience/the-strange-life-of-the-immortal-jellyfish-dr-karl-kruszelnicki/7666380

art?

February 13, 2019 § 3 Comments

Or more specifically, let’s talk about the intersection between art and science fiction, which seems to be an important intersection for sci-fi writers and fans in their desire to be “taken seriously” as a genre and, by extension, an art form. Before we start, it’s worth considering that maybe this desire and our preoccupation with this desire is total farce; that it’s been invented by the Casaubons of the 20th century so that the university hench-men and -women of the 21st century can hash and rehash this debate ad nauseam while the rest of the normal, functioning world carries on oblivious to or else disinterested in the designations between art and not, and honestly, who’s to say?

Well, questions of art and aestheticism govern not only the multi-billion dollar world of fine art, but also the similarly saturated advertising industry, not to mention pretty much all of pop culture and its web of production, media, print, development, and performance, so certainly someone is interested.

Plus, if all of these dazzling, beautiful, eye-catching, ~capitalist~ ramifications for art don’t compel you, there are whole volumes of scholarship on art and aestheticism that aren’t particularly concerned with the dollar value attached, but rather with what constitutes art and what doesn’t, among other questions.

but wait, it’s art if it makes you feel something, right? ugh. I challenge you to find absolutely anything in the entire universe that, when drawn to attention, doesn’t make someone feel something. (No seriously — if you made this sort of find, you could certainly put it in a museum and call it “The Void” or something similarly existential and you would make oodles of money from some art collector because the concept of true, universal nothingness is limited to death and maybe also the DMV.)

Okay, okay, yes, the definition of art as “inspiring the feeling of something” was critically important in the rebellion against the expectations and limitations inherent in canonical Western high art and, paradoxically, the continued development of that same canon, but we’re now living in a capitalist, post-modern, internet age in which art has been commodified and implicated in the very fabric of day-to-day human experience (thanks Uncle Andy, you rock). In consequence, “feeling something” just isn’t an appropriately nuanced answer to the increasingly nuanced, complicated, and important question of what precisely art is.

Exhausted yet? Me too. I’m not particular well-versed in the many opinions and theories circulating what is and is not art, as important as it is. It’s difficult and heady and complex, so I just want to bite off a tiny piece of it. To do that, let’s give ourselves some guiding assumptions:

1) art exists (rad)

2) for the purposes of this discussion, let’s limit our consideration of art to high visual art in the Western canon to see if and when science fiction intersects with that very particular, prevalent section of art (less rad, but alas, this canon is a close cousin of the canon in which the science fiction genre grew up).

3) I started this article hoping to discover a “science fiction visual art,” but as far as I can tell, it doesn’t exist given the limitations we’ve put on our definition of “art.” We have a lot of religious artwork, which can interact with questions of science and fictions (see Galileo before the Holy Office or “Christian painting of God creating the cosmos”), but so far, much of the canonical artwork that we have struggles to represent science fiction within the constraints of that canon and the limitations inherent in visual art. This may be because science fiction struggles to define itself against other genres like fantasy and speculative fiction, making the search for “science fiction art” vague, or it may be because the development of science fictions often requires scientific discourse (which is difficult to communicate aesthetically) and semi-complex plot structures (which require a kind of development that a single image resists). I want The Blue Marble to count, because it radically altered the human conception of ourselves in the universe and therefore informed so much of the dialogue critical to the science fiction genre, but it’s not a fiction, just a stark truth.

So what are the visual artworks that we’ve come to associate with science fiction? Well, movies.

Critic: Are movies even art?

Us: Boooooooooooooo

Us, but more reasonable: Let’s say yes, because it’s more interesting that way.

So, what’s in our canon of sci-fi scenes that exemplify or characterize the visual art of the genre? Well for one, the staircase scene in Gattaca. For me, this was one of the single, greatest scenes I’ve encountered in cinematic sci-fi — the crippled but genetically flawless anti-hero struggling to crawl up the helix of his own DNA. Yes, it’s on the nose. Yes, the person struggling is white and male. Yes, it’s basically every white man who’s ever struggled to unlock the secrets of the universe masturbating all over himself and his struggle. That being said, it is also an incredibly powerful image in the discourse on genetic determinism and manipulation, not to mention that the whiteness and maleness of the protagonist implicate themselves appropriately within that discourse.

Or take Planet of the Apes (1968) for example. In the final scene, our hero is riding a horse along the beach, reduced to the clothing we would associate with our primitive ancestors, and he discovers the remains of the Statue of Liberty. In reaction, he declares that he is home, but that his ancestors – us – were maniacs for destroying that home. All the while, the ocean tide rushes in and out, symbolizing the onslaught of time that is complicit in the destruction of the Statue of Liberty (and all that it represents) while simultaneously threatening to wash our hero away. Is the scene white and male, with gender politics that could make pretty much anyone a little sad? Yeah. Does it implicate that maleness and whiteness at least a little? Sort of, although probably only to a modern eye, because we have a better idea of what our primitive ancestors looked like and that they weren’t predominantly blonde-haired and blue-eyed. As a result, we can recognize that the hero doesn’t represent all of humanity, but maybe just the section responsible for it’s downfall. Similarly, the woman is covered in pretty tight clothes, which just isn’t representative of prehistoric women or even women in 1968. This means that this pair’s image as the inheritors of humanity doesn’t look quite right, therefore implicating the expectations of those who made the movie and the tastes and standards that they encourage.

Last, but not least, let’s talk about Ex Machina. In the second half of the movie, Ava, our AI maybe-heroine, discovers a closet full of the dismembered bodies of of her AI ancestors (all women), and must ultimately take their skin in order to recreate a normal appearance for her body. The discovery of this closet eerily reflects the story of Bluebeard, who marries over and over again with the only stipulation that the wife not go to the attic or whatever, and when she inevitably does, she discovers the dismembered bodies of his former wives who similarly disobeyed him. In reflecting this story within this scene, we as viewers are forced to consider not only the humanity of Ava, but our own, creating a really powerful image in a society that not only has to answer answer for the humanity of AI as we work tirelessly for its creation, but also must answer for the violence that has been enacted against women for most of human history and the ways that modern women must grapple with this violence against their ancestry every single day.

In this way, movies have actually created a language of complex images to communicate not only the preoccupations of science fiction, but also of our society at large (which, coincidentally, is usually what sci-fi aims to do). Are these images art? It’s hard to say. Given that so much of science fiction is a product of the 20th and 21st centuries, it seems that an artistic rendering may be tied up in a cinematic medium rather than more traditional mediums like drawing, painting, or sculpture. Alternatively, perhaps sci-fi is in need of a new genre of art to couple with its preoccupations, meaning that we could be on the brink of cutting edge artistic development. Even more possible, “sci-fi art” may already exist at the high art level, but has yet to be explicitly associated with the sci-fi genre, and with these images forwarded in cinematic sci-fi, meaning the conversation is about to get a lot more interesting. All in all, when we consider science fiction, it’s visual components certainly warrant consideration as high art, with the ramifications being not only a greater understanding of science fiction as an art form, but also perhaps a reimagining of the definition of high art.

-makbookpro30

Civilizations Beyond Earth: Possibilities

February 12, 2019 § 3 Comments

In many of the stories we’ve read this semester, humans (and/or aliens) create and inhabit settlements or civilizations beyond earth – either in massive spacecraft or on other planets. Are there common characteristics of these settlements? Are there certain physical traits that these settlements exhibit that are unique? Are there certain social structures that foster success in otherworldly civilizations? This blog post will certainly not answer these questions (and likely there are no concrete answers). But hopefully can start a discussion that we can continue on in the comments or beyond the blog.

The International Space Station – perhaps a spaceship settlement. Destroyed in Gravity (2013) 😦

A problem that plays into both the built environment of extraterrestrial settlement and social structures is the idea of scarcity. Not necessarily in a purely economic context, though. In space, we are constrained by either the resources we can take with us from Earth, or what we can generate and grow given inputs found either in space (solar rays, magnetic fields, etc.) or on another planet. (I’m operating under the assumption that our scenario would be occurring on a lush, earthlike planet with natural resources that we would know how to extract and utilize). Therefore, the natural tendency for an extraterrestrial civilization would tend to be one with pooled resources and strict hierarchies, controlling what is allocated to each individual, not unlike an autocratic, communist regime.

Space Communists

So how does this play out in some of the stories we have read? In “Universe” by Robert Heinlein, a civilization has been built on a ship adrift for so long that the passengers cease to remember that they are on a ship. Their civilization operates with a strict social hierarchy that relies on keeping that vast majority of the ship’s inhabitants ignorant. Similar themes emerge in Stephen Baxter’s “Mayflower II,” with a strict hierarchy between the ruling Elders and the rest of the ship’s inhabitants. However, in these cases, scarcity is not too much of an issue because the ships are able to self-sufficiently generate the necessities of life. However, they still attempt to rely on forms of social control to maintain some semblance of order, perhaps ineffectively. Even in Gravity, the members of the NASA mission are given orders by Lieutenant Kowalski (George Clooney) that they must abide by – in space, where things can go wrong in a moment’s notice, challenging authority is risky business.

In space, the constraining of resources calls for ascetic practices in living and unforgiving circumstances in the face of error. In the real world, astronauts have little privacy and room to roam aboard spacecraft and space stations. In Tom Godwin’s “The Cold Equations,” there is so little room for error (resources are so incredibly limited) that even one extra person aboard the ship leads to catastrophe. In “Mayflower II,” all surfaces must be cleaned impeccably to ensure that no contamination occurs that could harm the passengers. All of these reflect how the constraints of space affect the physical structure of these civilizations.

Not exactly Premium Economy
(but actually the interior of a Space Shuttle)

So, what better way to end a blog post than with…more questions?

Would a democratic form of governance be possible in an extraterrestrial settlement or civilization? What about a capitalist economic system? Are there other factors at play besides scarcity that I’ve missed? Is a strict hierarchy/chain of command necessary?

Some of these answers (or at least a scenario that could test some hypotheses) may come around sooner than we think. Elon Musk published fairly detail plans about traveling to and colonizing Mars in 2017 in the journal New Space [1]. According to him, flights to Mars could occur as soon as 2023. So perhaps, within our lifetime, we will witness the birth of humanity’s first true extraterrestrial civilization.

-Max B.

[1] Musk, E. (2017). Making Humans a Multi-Planetary Species. New Space, 5(2).

Consciousness and Personal Identity

February 11, 2019 § 1 Comment

A philosophical analysis of speculative fiction film Get Out

Get Out is a speculative fiction film I’m sure many of you have seen. The premise: a community of wealthy white individuals that kidnap black people, and insert their brains—and consciousnesses—into the “physically advantageous” black people’s bodies. The consciousnesses of the black people go into the “sunken place,” where they can see, hear, and experience everything that their bodies are going through, but with no real ability to take any action, except for after certain triggers. It’s quite grim. My goal for this blog post is to look at Get Outin the context of personal identity philosophy in a theoretical way, deconstructing the brain transplant aspect of the movie into a discussion of consciousness, identity, and free will. 

The late British philosopher Derek Parfit specialized in personal identity, rationality, and free will; I’m particularly interested in his 1984 work Reasons and Persons, in which he explores the importance of personal identity in different contexts. Parfit proposes an experiment in which Person A’s brain is transplanted into Person B’s body, such that the resulting person has the characteristics, dispositions, and memories belonging to the Person A. In the world of philosophy, it’s more or less universally agreed upon that the resulting person is Person A, despite the outward appearance of Person B. This is largely due to the new person’s consciousness being continuous with Person A. A more complex (and yet still completely theoretical) version of this experiment is when Person A’s brain is divided into two parts—one half being transplanted into Person B, and the other half being transplanted into Person C. The post-transplant bodies of Person B and C carry the memories, experiences, and values of Person A. Can two bodies hold the identity of Person A, post-transplant?

Derek Parfit (1942-2017), author of Reasons and Persons

To those readers who are skeptical of this entirely theoretical, not-realistic, and frankly absurd thought experiment, consider someone taking a math exam: the bridge between this person’s brain hemispheres is cut, and each hemisphere has a separate sphere of consciousness controlling one half of the person’s body. There are now two series of thoughts going through one brain and body; mental history can have separate streams. This example is relevant in the philosophical analysis of Get Out, as it seems that two streams of consciousnesses are housed in one, post-transplant body.

It would seem that the transplant experiments in Get Out align more closely with Parfit’s latter of the two examples, as the consciousness of the surrogate body still exists in the “sunken place,” as they are able to see, feel, and conceptualize everything that the body experiences, and the transplanted consciousness seems to be the active person that has agency to determine what the body does and how it acts. The question then arises: in Get Out, who does the identity of the post-transplant body belong to? These two consciousnesses coexist, although only one rises to the forefront at any given moment. 

Get Out, 2017

According to Parfit, when brains are fused into one, then the characteristics, desires, and dispositions of the two half-brains must be combined. Some traits are naturally compatible, and some are not. The compatible traits can coexist within the new person, but the incompatible traits can “cancel out.” In Get Out, both brains’ traits still exist within the new person, and sometimes they conflict. A (funny, depending on your sense of humor) example of this is when Logan (a post-transplant, black body) goes in to kiss his MUCH older wife. The dominan consciousness in his body—a very old, white man—may think this is normal, but the “sunken” consciousness—who is quite young—may have been repulsed by the age difference. 

Logan and wife in Get Out

The bottom line, and answer to the personal identity question in Get Out, comes down to how one defines identity. A bodily criterion of identity, dependent only on the physical appearance of the new person, would seem to contradict an approach based on psychological continuity. If Person A and Person B are considered to have the same personal identity, they are psychologically continuous, and there is no other person that is contemporary with either and psychologically continuous with the other. If this sounds like philosophical jargon to you, then maybe you’ll take the approach that brain fusion experiments constitute death of one or both people’s identities, because the resulting person is not wholly similar to either of the original people.

Personally, I am of the stance that personal identity and the survival of one’s personal identity has degrees, depending on how many traits of both people are lost in fusion, according to the compatible/incompatible trait theory above. In Get Out, white individuals have some control over their degrees of survival, as they can attempt to pick a compatible partner with as many compatible traits as possible. In short, I think that a brain transplant in Get Out does not necessarily preserve the personal identity of the white individual—according to the philosophy set forth in Reasons and Persons—as much as the movie presents. 

-AMW

Sources: Derek Parfit’s Reasons and Persons (1984) and Jordan Peel’s Get Out (2017)

Leave the Ethics at Home- It’s Superpower Time.

February 11, 2019 § 4 Comments

Growing up, I’m pretty sure we all asked each other the same question: If you could have any superpower, what would it be?

There’s always the go-to flight because, c’mon, who wouldn’t want to see the world on a non-stop roller coaster?!

Invisibility. Sneaking out just peaked.

Telepathy. Because reading minds and putting thoughts into someone else’s head without having to say anything would be quite interesting…

Shapeshifting. Imagine becoming whoever or whatever you want to be at ANY time- talk about being in someone else’s shoes. Ha.

Invulnerability and indestructibility? Enough said.

Time travel. Time pause. Time manipulation. Anything with time?! Okay NOW enough said. Count me in. Let’s go.

The list goes on and on and on. We rank them jokingly, yet half-heartedly serious and entirely curious. The crazy thing is that superpowers are completely within our reach. I’m not saying that we’ll all be running around invisible this week, or that you’ll be turning yourself into a dog to harass your cat at home, but gene editing is no new topic of discussion.

The answer is CRISPR (CRISPR-Cas9), four times as efficient than the previous best gene-editing tool TALENS.

CRISPR” stands for “clusters of regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats.” It is a specialized region of DNA with two distinct characteristics: the presence of nucleotide repeats and spacers. Repeated sequences of nucleotides – the building blocks of DNA – are distributed throughout a CRISPR region. Spacers are bits of DNA that are interspersed among these repeated sequences. (Thank you, LiveScience.)

Basically what Cas9 enzymes do^

Andddddd the attached enzyme Cas9 can cut DNA strands, etc, etc, etc. (Just some minor briefing because it was discussed in another blog.)

Basically, this thing’s good.

So… about those superpowers.

Telekinesis is already happening, but probably in a different way than you think. The Brain-Gate Neural Interface System (BGNIS) is a computer interface that allows the paralyzed to interact with their surroundings. It’s a sensor implant inserted into the cortex of the brain that controls motor movement. By detecting and intercepting the neural signals that the brain would send out to tell the body to move, it transfers them to a computer to decode the information, which is then transformed into a physical action. And before you ask, yep, this is FDA approved.

(You can watch some of Braingate’s videos here: https://www.braingate.org/braingate-in-the-media/# )

But no neural-device-technology-type insertion. That’s cheating, obviously. Back to all this genetic modification, so stay with me…

In theory, we can use CRISPR to insert “superpower” genes into human DNA. So, maybe you won’t be flying just yet, but would you mind becoming disease-immune, breaking the IQ scale, or having superhuman strength? No? Okay, cool.

The latter can even be accomplished right now. How? By removing myostatin, a gene that inhibits muscle cell growth and differentiation, which is really nothing too out-there. (We already saw this- by accident, let me clarify- with Liam Hoekstra, the world’s strongest toddler.)

I, however, am super curious about the power of eye. I’m talking about x-ray vision, night vision, heat vision, and other cool ocular techniques. Yeah, there are bionic contact lenses with internet-connecting capabilities and crazy zoom functions and blah blah blah, but altering the body is entirely different. It’s the difference between human and superhuman, not technologically-human.

For example, by injecting California volunteer Gabriel Licina with Chlorin e6, a chemical found in deep-sea fish, he was able to see 50 meters (164 feet) in front of him in absolute darkness. And that wasn’t technically gene-altering… Imagine what they could’ve done with some mixing and matching.

There are countless other examples of this kind of experimentation being successful- again, even without the aid of tools like CRISPR. We’re fearing an untapped resource for all the wrong reasons. Aside from the notion that with superheroes come supervillains, experimentation doesn’t seem like a bad thing. Ethicality is always discussed, but we’re not talking about anything involuntary here. We may potentially be friends with the pioneers of a new era about which we’ve only written sci-fi-fantasy screenplays and box office hits. Who knows?

What I’m trying to say is this: Although I’m not expecting a straight-up Marvel or DC scene to break out in the streets of Times Square, nor am I anticipating that I’ll catch the Fantastic Four on my way to class tomorrow, I think we’re holding back on something that has the potential to change everything, to make fantasy a reality.

Super curious to hear whether or not anyone thinks this is even remotely possible- if so, I’d love to know a few “powers” that you think could exist from modification with CRISPR!

-PA-

If you want some random- interesting, of COURSE- reads that I referenced, they’re below. (I didn’t touch on self-healing, but cell regeneration is pretty neat to research!)

http://www.braingate.org

http://www.livescience.com/58790-crispr-explained.html

http://www.scienceforthemasses.org/2015/03/25/a-review-on-night-enhancement-eyedrops-using-chlorin-e6/ 

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