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Billions Of Life Bearing Planets? March 30, 2012

Posted by Metabiological in Beyond Earth.
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Could the universe be saturated with life?  Is our galaxy filled with literally billions of worlds harboring that most precious of gifts, that strange and wonderful collection of matter and processes we call life?  According to a new study by astronomers that may very well be the case.

A new result from ESO’s HARPS planet finder shows that rocky planets not much bigger than Earth are very common in the habitable zones around faint red stars. The international team estimates that there are tens of billions of such planets in the Milky Way galaxy alone, and probably about one hundred in the Sun’s immediate neighbourhood. This is the first direct measurement of the frequency of super-Earths around red dwarfs, which account for 80% of the stars in the Milky Way.

“Our new observations with HARPS mean that about 40% of all red dwarf stars have a super-Earth orbiting in the habitable zone where liquid water can exist on the surface of the planet,” says Xavier Bonfils (IPAG, Observatoire des Sciences de l’Univers de Grenoble, France), the leader of the team. “Because red dwarfs are so common — there are about 160 billion of them in the Milky Way — this leads us to the astonishing result that there are tens of billions of these planets in our galaxy alone.”

While this doesn’t prove anything conclusively it’s still very interesting for a few reasons.  One, the novel approach of looking in a historically undervalued area (Red dwarf stars).  Considering the sheer number of them that we apparently knew were out there it’s somewhat surprising it took someone this long to actually estimate the number of planets around them.  Second is how conditions around Red Dwarfs differ from those we are used to around stars like are own.  According to the researchers in addition to the obvious difference of being smaller and dimmer (thus allowing the Goldilocks zone to be closer to the planet) Red Dwarfs appear to lack large Jupiter sized worlds and are subject to stellar eruptions.  Jupiter worlds may be important for protecting smaller rocky planets from life-destroying comets and meteors while solar flares are known to release potentially deadly radiation.  Both of these factors could make the researcher’s estimates of life too generous.

But whatever.  Putting practical considerations aside if true this is amazing news.  The idea of a universe filled with life, variegated in all the forms evolution can dream up but connected by virtue of our shared status as reflections of Life itself, is the kind of idea that got me into the sciences in the first place.  The kind of idea that fills me with a wonder and amazement at the unfathomable beauty of the cosmos.  Sorry for waxing poetic there for a moment.  I hope you’ll forgive a young man his optimism and bright-eyed enthusiasm.

P.S. Nobody mention the Fermi Paradox.  I’m in too good a mood to worry about the Fermi Paradox.

Mike Treder Is Missing *UPDATE* March 19, 2012

Posted by Metabiological in Transhumanism.
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Hi everyone, just trying to get the word out on this.  According to the IEET website Mike Treder, transhumanist and IEET fellow, has gone missing.  He was apparently in Detroit for a conference and has not been heard from since last Wednesday.  While there is not much those of us outside the Detroit area can do please try to get the word out.  The more people who know the faster we can find him.

*UPDATE*  Per the IEET website the search has been called off for Mike.  Apparently the police have evidence that he crossed the border into Canada with no evidence of danger or foul play.  As such the family has decided to respect his seeming desire to disappear and has ended the search.

Best wishes Mike.

Transhumanism As A Solution To Climate Change March 19, 2012

Posted by Metabiological in Transhumanism.
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Well I must admit this is  new one on me.  An interview of philosopher  S. Matthew Liao published recently in the Atlantic focuses on a new and controversial paper he and his colleagues have put forward.  The paper in question asks whether or not anthropogenic climate change can be solved or at the very least mitigated through enhancement of humans with traits which lower our carbon footprint.  In short rather then changing our society or economy why don’t we just change ourselves.

Now I’ve heard all sorts of crazy ideas to fix the climate.  I’ve heard seemingly practical ideas unfortunately turn out to not actually work due to unforeseen realities (iron fertilization, corn ethanol), I’ve heard great-on-paper ideas that would never fly in the real world (get people to voluntarily slash their energy consumption), I’ve hear batshit crazy ideas that sound like the plot of a bad Sci-Fi channel movie (giant space mirrors to reflect the sun’s rays).  But this is the first time I’ve heard someone seriously consider the idea having humans adapt themselves not simply in order to survive climate change but actually to reverse it.  If nothing else, it’s a new avenue of thought.

The enhancements chosen as examples range from the fairly mainstream (by transhumanist standards) to the rather out there.  Suggestions like giving people who want to give up meat but lack the necessary willpower drugs which induce nausea whenever they chow down on a steak are fairly practical even with today’s technology.  As others have noted considering the sheer amount of carbon released by animal husbandry and the meat industry helping a substantial number of people turn vegetarian would put a serious dent in our carbon output.  Other ideas are also based on solid foundations but are probably less likely to take hold.  Making humans smaller to reduce the amount of resources they require would probably work but are unlikely to catch on given the immense importance our society places on height as a marker of social standing.

Of course my favorite example has to be the suggestion of engineering humans with cat eyes, and thus great night vision, in order to reduce the amount of energy needed for lighting.  Stuff like this is the best part of transhumanism; outlandish, seemingly insane ideas that upon reflection reveal themselves to be nothing more then the kind of outside the box thinking that pushes science and the bounds of human knowledge onwards.  Also, who among you wouldn’t want to a pair of cat’s eyes (I know I would). It’s such a cool idea that it makes me wonder why the authors didn’t mention what seems to me to be the most obvious and wonderfully cool human enhancement for drawing down carbon levels: photosynthetic humans.  Imagine the combined effects of 7 billion human beings drawing CO2 out of the atmosphere, in addition to the reductions brought about through decreased agriculture and meat production as people eat less and less.  It would also put a whole new twist on “It’s not easy being green.”

Now before anyone points out the obvious I am well aware that many of these ideas are not practical.  That’s besides the point.  As the authors point out the purpose of this paper specifically and philosophical inquiry in general is not to be practical.  It’s about taking an idea and stretching it to it’s breaking point, tearing it apart bit by bit, putting it back together again and seeing if it still works correctly, and in that respect they did a magnificent job.

Needless to say the article has attracted the usual frenzy of ill-informed commentators that make the internet such a wonderful place to hang out.  I’m not going to spend any time on them since quite frankly you can go read the comments yourself if you’re really interested but the level of ignorance displayed is shocking even by the standards of the internet.  It got so bad the the authors actually took part in a rebuttal interview explaining their positions and pointing out misconceptions about what they believed.

Transhumanist Conference In San Diego March 12, 2012

Posted by Metabiological in Transhumanism.
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Anyone in the San Diego area should keep there ears open about Envisioning Transhumanism, a conference held in association with the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies.  While I don’t know the exact date yet (still being decided apparently) the conference will be held at UCSD.  Several speakers have already signed up including everyone’s favorite Abolitionist David Pearce who will presumably be speaking about the end of suffering and the Hedonistic Imperative (really looking forward to that.)

Other information will be posted as it comes up but if you want to stay up to date join the San Diego Transhumanist group on facebook for info on this and other upcoming events.  Hope to see lots of people there!