paulgibby

er rat er from paul

Life “Out There”

As our view of the universe deepens and we become aware of more and more solar systems that could harbor some form of life, it seems more likely that one day earthlings will discover “life” — or life will discover us. I wonder what conditions would be required for the former, and what forms that life might take. If life is to discover us, or has already — I’m not ready to speculate on that yet. Hold that thought.

Astronomers have established that there may be between 11 and 40 billion solar systems with life-sustainable planets. I take this to mean general conditions — planets with a reasonable temperature, perhaps the possibility of an atmosphere — though I’m not really sure what constitutes “life-sustainable” in their studies. However, life takes many forms here on earth, and I recall reading that scientists have discovered bacteria living in volcanoes and also deep in the earth and in icy conditions on polar ice caps.

The forms of life are myriad and it seems for life to flourish there must be, in addition to good weather, food and some place to stretch out and live.

Do we take it that life also — to be life — requires some way to reproduce? I think so. We have many ways here on earth. So already for life to be “life” it has to have a certain complexity, adaptability, and self-interest — or whatever it is that causes living things to convert resources, e.g. food, into energy.

Thinking of the forms of life, bacteria, virus, slime molds, insects, plants, animals, others — roughly 9 billion — a key ability they have is to be able to adapt to the environment — or else perish as a species. This suggests that an important quality of life we know it is the genetic structure that changes, because of the environment, because of chance combinations of DNA during reproduction, and because of random changes in the structure.

This raises the question: how likely is it that these key component structures (DNA and RNA) would be found elsewhere? It seems to be a very complex and well-developed, chemically-dependent system. I can’t envision how even over billions of years something like this DNA and RNA could develop, because it seems that for a small building block, such as these, to be optimized, there has to be some feedback from the larger organisms they help create. By “feedback”, I mean there would have to be something on a larger scale than these viruses and molecules that was causing them to be constructed in the first place. E.g. God or life elsewhere that already exists.

DNA is no Lego block. It has code and it has an elegant scheme and set of rules for combining with other DNA to create new organisms. Although, I see this disturbing piece of software. I guess it is possible to tinker with and clone life. But the original engineering work can’t have just been chance. Perhaps I already answered the question, and “life” is just an experiment of some super intelligence. Or God.

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Chicken or Egg?

walkingrobot

“Which came first, the chicken or the egg?” is a question that stands for a whole class of paradoxical questions which we have agreed to let float, unsolved, in our collective consciousness. But I don’t think we should settle for that.

Plutarch was one of the first to wrestle with the question. In The Symposiacs Firmus argues the egg came first,  because it is less developed, and less developed things precede more-developed things. And Senecio then argues that only the more perfect can produce the less perfect — and not the other way around, therefore the chicken produced the egg.

Wikipedia records arguments from scientists that one particular bird had some DNA that caused a shell-like covering to surround a newborn. So technically the bird came first.

I am not ready to lay the question to rest, because it seems unlikely that any creature that was the “First” of it’s kind, could have the ability to reproduce for the first time. In other words, when was the last time you made something that could reproduce itself, or at least something like itself? Reproduction is one of the key qualities of a living thing — the ability to produce offspring. It is not easy to make something reproduceable. We can write software programs that do something like that. But compared to living things, these creations are extremely crude. Some living things can produce more than one offspring at a time — even humans can do this. The DNA is combined and off you go.

My feeling is that the existence of reproduction is just another indicator that life was placed on Earth, as an experiment, by some superior intelligence. We are currently experimenting with Artificial Intelligence, and have found, to our surprise, that some of the algorithms we have created have caused our robots to start learning things on their own that we didn’t anticipate. That is a crude twist and reflection on what we, as humans, are doing today. Originally I would say, we grew from the muck — the original chemical compounds and primary structures that some intelligence placed on earth. Now we are to the point of trying to create crude structures that approximate ourselves. Somewhere, someone is laughing at us.

I think time is something that is completely relative to the normal lifespan of the creature(s) experiencing time. For example, insects typically live from days to a few years. Their turnover is quick, and their DNA is likely to change faster than for a species like ours. For a superior intelligence that may have learned how to not decompose — age — time may be irrelevant. Perhaps the “experiment” of life on planet Earth is merely a term’s worth of a lab exercise. See what grows, what changes, what developments are made, what social structures evolve, and then shut the whole thing down.

Related links:

Cornell self-modeling robot that teaches itself to walk (depicted at top of article). This robot incidentally was found to have a neuron that recognized its scientists’ faces. Spooky.

The Backwards Human Entelechy

Entelechy is the animating force that turns life-less matter into a living thing. We are surrounded by substance and our bodies twitch and respond to impulses that afflict our senses of touch, smell, taste, hearing, vision. Our mind makes sense of these, sometimes automatically, sometimes with consciousness and sometimes without, as when we have an involuntary response touching a hot object.

The purpose of me writing this is to talk about an experience I have had several times when waking from a dream.

My dreams have a story, for want of a better word. There is some continuity and development. It may be about various situations. At some key point in the story, there is some type of sound, and then I wake up. The strange thing is that the sound has been coming from something in the “real” world. And it comes at the very end of the story, which appears to have been developing for some time before I wake up. The sound becomes the connection between the “real” world and the dream story I was having until I woke up.

For example, the other morning, I had my humidifier running. Periodically it makes a gurgling sound, perhaps once an hour, as water drains from the tank into the reservoir at the bottom. I was having a dream, and at a certain point, one of the characters in the dream started to talk in a herky jerky way, “It didn’t matter….etc.” The sound was just like this gurgling. In fact, as I woke up, I realized that gurgling humidifier was what I was hearing — the exact sound of the voice in my dream.

Other examples have been a loud explosion or the dropping of a heavy object outside my room, coming at the end of a dream in which after some development of a story line, I fall to the pavement off a tall building, or somebody throws a hand grenade.

The important thing is that the sound, linked to the outside world, is always the last thing that happens in the dream. So it seems as if the dream story is spontaneously created — either very very rapidly constructed in response to the noise, or actually created backwards, starting with the resultant noise, and then backing up into the story — as if writing a story from the last page first.

I wonder a few things about this.

a) is this the true nature of time? That we only are accustomed to seeing it one-way: cause then effect, but in reality it can flow the other way too?

b) If the brain can construct these “stories” instantaneously backwards, what else are we “perceiving” that is in reality (whatever “reality” means) something that starts with an effect, and then we construct the cause?

Here are some related links:

A Paper on Backwards Causation

Wikipedia “Retrocausality”

Junior Engineers

If I were to try to build a robot that could walk, or roll, around a room, avoiding objects, I might start with some type of model car chassis. I would need some electric motors, probably, or just one. Then I would have to make some type of sensor system, perhaps some tactile ones: plungers hooked up to electric switches from Radio Shack, or more ambitiously, a diode or viewing system  — a camera that would require a program, a computer and software, to recognize shapes and respond appropriately.

There would be a “master” program that would react to the events generated by the sensing system(s). Some kind of logic to control speed and direction — turning angles. The master program would have to “know” how to get out of a corner, or what to do when running into an object. Maybe backup, turn right 45 degrees and try again.

And how fast to go so it didn’t destroy itself.

If it was desired for this robot to be able to do anything useful, beyond reacting to things, it would be necessary to program for this, also. And perhaps attach useful machinery. For example, there already are vacuum machine robots that move around the living room carpet, cleaning as they go.

After some time the robot, if it were ever completed successfully, would break down, run out of batteries, or a part would break off, or it would fall down a staircase, or run into some horrible demise, unforeseen by its creator: thrown by a child, chewed by a dog, stepped on by a guest? And eventually it would be forgotten.

How different are living creations. 

There are more examples than I can cite, but one will suffice to make a point. The Paramecium (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Paramecium)

This is a microscopic, water-born, lozenge-shaped animal that motors around using cilia (hairs) attached to its elastic outer shell. The cilia act in an oar-like fashion, with a brisk forward “stroke”, and a gentle recovery backstroke to get ready for the next stroke. The numerous cilia “oars” work together in a wavelike fashion.

A Paramecium, when it runs into something, backs up, reversing the direction of its stroke. Then it retries the passage. It continues this attempt/retry until the object is passed. In the water things move around a lot, so apparently this strategy, encoded in its DNA, works well. 

A Paramecium has other smaller sets of cilia which sweep bacteria food into its mouth. It has a digestive system which uses enzymes that turn the bacteria into energy to keep it alive and moving. The food waste is propelled out the anal cavity. It has a system to regulate water intake and outflow, also. Apparently, merely by eating what it eats and being eaten by its predator, Didinium, Paramecium fulfills an important role in the food chain that helps keep life rolling along.

All of this, so far, represents a light-years advance on the robot I was considering building — and all in a package of 50 to 330 micrometers in length — much smaller than I am capable of bread-boarding.

But there is more. The Paramecium can reproduce itself in two ways: either on its own, spontaneously splitting into two; or by combining with another Paramecium of a similar type.

Needless to say, our human-designed machines are not programmed to reproduce and thus create a new generation of themselves. Cars, washing-machines, smart-phones. No. Fortunately.

Let all of us humans who build things, or use things other humans build, and think we live in an enlightened age of technological wonder, just take a step back and literally apologize in all humility to the Supreme Creator of Nature, the Master Engineer.

We should continue to study life, like the protozoologists Antoni van Leeuwenhoek and Christian Huygens did in the 17th century, when they discovered the Paramecium.

We’re not so smart.

River

Daily I walk my son’s dog, Remy, to the Little Miami River near me. It’s a past-time, a respite from her cage for Remy, and a bit of exercise for my arthritic knee.

It is always refreshing, and I realize, always new in some way. Gradually the weather has warmed up, and the once barren, cold (and frequently muddy) patches along the trail have become green. Buttercups erupted first. Now grass and weeds have grown up and the trail has nearly closed off with growth.

The river itself has varied from a brown torrent that came up over part of the path at one point, to a dry puddle in one of the forks. There was a tire stuck on an island one day. A few days later the rising waters buried it, or swept it away.

As I looked into the river one day I realized that I was looking at a concrete representation of an abstract idea: “change”. A river is change happening right in front of your eyes. At any given moment, it seems to be a constant, and in fact, when you reflect on a particular river, the Mississippi, the Little Miami, the Amazon, it is something that’s been around for a long, long time — longer than any one of us in fact. Yet, daily, it changes. In less than a day, it can change. Once dry, rocky channels become filled with fast-flowing, roiling, muddy water. Days later, a vibrant channel becomes a pond as that particular channel drops its level to  a point that it no longer flows back to the main stream. It becomes stagnant, putrid, fishy-smelling. Then just a rocky place again.

But the main stream itself flows constantly — before I and Remy arrive, and after we have left — all night carrying water from points north to the Ohio River, then to the Mississippi, then to the Gulf of Mexico. The river is a process. It is entropy in motion, water seeking a lower level.

And as the water moves, it carries bits of debris, natural and man-made. Concrete blocks somehow, apparently very slowly, roll downstream. Tires, clothes, water bottles, plastic strips. Some get deposited in trees that sprout up in the higher boundaries of the river. And they stay there. Tree limbs and snakes get washed downstream.

The stuff that sails past, animals and trash, that is just temporary — unless you are an animal or a canoeist or a piece of trash, or a bug on a floating limb — flotsam and jetsam.

But to behold change in action — that is a wonderful thing. In our lives, with our friends and loved ones, we are often so close that we don’t realize the changes of the rivers of our lives as they are happening. It’s only when we can’t visit for a long time, and then we renew an old friendship, or see someone after a long time that we can appreciate what time has wrought.

If we could only see the waters of our lives moving, right in front of our faces, how riveting and blessed — and perhaps scary — would that feel.

This Blog

This will be a place where I write some thoughts. My first will be about rivers. 

I searched for essays on rivers. I’ve been spending weekdays walking my son’s dog down by the Little Miami River, and have noticed how each day the river is somewhat different, somewhat the same.

When I have some more energy (it’s late now) I plan to talk about rivers — I suppose, generalizing somewhat from this recent experience.

So thanks WordPress developers for making it so easy to do a blog. I hope to be able to say something that someone can resonate to/with — with which someone can resonate. 🙂

–Paul