Hubble Goes to the eXtreme to Assemble Farthest-Ever View of the Universe (Credit: NASA; ESA; G. Illingworth, D. Magee, and P. Oesch, University of California, Santa Cruz; R. Bouwens, Leiden University; and the HUDF09 Team)
This image, recently released by NASA, was captured by the orbiting Hubble telescope. Derived from hours of observation, it is the ultimate time exposure, featuring a tiny part of the sky, called the “Ultra Deep Field”, selected for its near-absence of visible light. If you held a pin at arm’s length in the right direction, the head of the pin would cover the entire area—and yet the image contains over five thousand galaxies, including the most distant ever imaged.
Those incredibly distant galaxies appear in the image as very small fuzzy dots with a bluish tinge. The reason for the blue is that most of the light is coming from highly energetic, super-giant stars, hundreds of times larger than our Sun. Those early stars were far too big to be stable and exploded as supernovae very quickly (cosmically speaking). You could say that those sky-shattering supernovae all those billions of years ago were the beginning of life in our universe, because they transformed the almost pure-hydrogen early universe into one containing the heavier elements, and particularly carbon, which is the principal building block of all life.
The light from those distant galaxies is so faint that it had to be amplified 10 billion times to be visible. Limited by the speed of light, it took 13.2 billion years to reach the Hubble telescope. Think about it. This is time travel on the grandest scale. We are seeing our Universe the way it was soon after the very first galaxies formed, in fact right around the time our own galaxy formed. One of those tiny blue specks could be a twin of our home galaxy. It’s like seeing a baby picture of your great, great (and lots more greats) grandfather.
When I showed the image to my next door neighbour, Ralph, and told him I was going to caption it “God’s face revealed”, he took a second, closer, look at the picture and said “I don’t see it… Is it a trick image?”
Ralph’s problem, I realized, was that he, like millions of others, visualises a human-like face (probably with a beard…) when he thinks of God’s image. Does that make sense? Let’s think about it.
The first question to consider is when did God come into being: before or after the birth of the Universe? The answer that makes sense to me, and I think to just about everybody who believes that there is a God, no matter what religion they connect with, is that God is the Creator, therefore He precedes everything…
But we are told with scientific certainty (a) that the universe began, with the Big Bang, 13.7 billion years ago, (b) our home galaxy formed ‘only’ about 500 million years later, (c) our solar system formed out of a giant gas/dust cloud about 4.6 billion years ago, (d) the first mammals larger than a small dog only evolved after the end of the dinosaur era 65 million years ago, and (e) our species, Homo Sapiens, first appeared on Earth about 150 thousand years ago. So does it make sense that God, the Creator, should look like a creature that only appears in His universe 13.7 billion years after creation? I don’t think so. No more than it seems likely that He chose a ragged bunch of nomadic herdsmen in a tiny country that is now called Israel to reveal Himself and chat to one of their number (Abraham)…
Why do so many believers persist in seeing God only through the lens of a book written three thousand years ago? Do they not see that God is so much more than those ignorant, homeless, people could even imagine? In those times Abraham and his circle thought the Earth was flat and the Sun and stars were just ornaments placed there for our enjoyment. Isn’t it time we accepted that we now know so much more?
Let’s face it. The God that created our universe is so much more than the God of the holy books. In fact, “God” (or “Jehovah”, “Eloha”, “Om”, etc.) is just a word that man invented to convey something that was far beyond man’s powers of comprehension—an awesome unknown.
It’s time we trashed our outdated, ignorant, institutionalised concepts of the Creator. Let’s begin by recognising that no word that we can invent will do justice to the imponderability of that entity. As the old saw goes “a picture is better than a thousand words”. Look at the image that prompted this article. That is where you will see God…
(third in a series of articles entitled “Will our species pass the BIG intelligence test?)
Ray Kurzweil said in his book The Singularity is Near, “A more intelligent process will inherently outcompete one that is less intelligent, making intelligence the most powerful force in the universe.” But what do we mean when we talk about human intelligence? The answer does a lot to explain the Wall Street Protests that are proliferating world wide.
In the context of these articles the term “human intelligence” refers to our collective intelligence which is the sum of all knowledge available to individuals as they confront the challenges of the present and future.
Our collective intelligence has grown exponentially over the last thousand years alone. The invention of writing was a gigantic step, allowing knowledge to be transferred great distances and across multiple generations. More recently, computers and the internet have made virtually all knowledge available to a large fraction of the world’s population—with ever more powerful search and computational tools.
But our willingness as individuals to specialize has also been a critically important part of the growth of our collective intelligence. Some scientists devote their entire working lives to a single, highly specialized subject. Those same scientists would be hopelessly lost if they had to depend on their own survival skills to feed and defend themselves—but they don’t have to be concerned about such matters because farmers farm, fishermen fish, soldiers fight… We are cooperating for mutual benefit.
We have come to the point… Our future (if there is to be a future of any cosmic consequence) depends on our ability to cooperate with one another—on a global (and eventually, when and if we become a space-faring species), universal scale. Cooperation is the key to the future.
So, if cooperation is the key, and we are cooperating successfully today, what is the problem?
The problem is that, today, most of our cooperation is founded on individual self-interest. Economists (and even some philosophers) see nothing wrong with this. After all, they would say, historically, it has worked.
It certainly worked in our earliest times, when cooperation was the only reason we survived as we competed with lions, tigers, bears and other predators that were faster, stronger and better armed with natural weapons—and outnumbered us by a large margin. And it worked, (more or less) when the agricultural revolution came, and again when the industrial revolution came. And, most would say, it worked with Keynesian economics. And it worked with democracy—more or less…
But there is our problem—and the root cause of the world-wide Wall Street protests. Cooperation that is founded on self-interest is inevitably a “more or less” thing. Some people get more and some people get less… And few are happy with their lot. As our numbers grow (the human population was about one billion in 1900, six billion in 2000 and projected to be nine billion in 2040) the unhappiness grows. The people on the “more” side of the equation are so few—and on the “less” side so many. And when less means tragic poverty and starvation, as it does in so many parts of Africa, we know in our hearts that there is something terribly wrong… And when I say “we” I don’t just mean those individuals that are on the extreme, life-threatening, side of the “less” equation. We ALL know that we cannot continue as we are—even those with “more”…
We see the signs. Teenage suicides on the rise; extremist rampages (religious and right wing); senseless mass murders like the Columbine massacre and, more recently, the Norwegian disaster. There is something fundamentally wrong with our “cooperation model”.
Of course knowing that something is wrong and knowing what to do about it are two entirely different things. The so-called Wall Street Protests illustrate our confusion. In my own home city, Toronto, the confusion is almost comic—and at the same time tragic. The protesters are agreed and “unified” by their certainty that there is something wrong—but a poll to define the “wrong” would find no unity at all. Nobody has the faintest idea what the solution is. The Toronto protesters could not even make up their minds where to march, let alone what their goals are. In Europe it seems to be all about “pain and gain” to deal with economic woes. Nobody wants to be on the pain side… And all over the world resentment grows that the power holders: the corporate executives, the billionaires, the banks and our duly elected representatives all seem to be Teflon-coated, invulnerable to the pain side of any solutions.
The solution, at least in concept, is simple. We have to come up with a new, better, cooperation model; one that is not driven by selfish forces like greed; one that does not promote consumerism to the point that people feel they must have objects that they can’t afford and don’t need; one that does not define success as having extravagantly more material things than anybody else…
The Wall Street protesters are right about one thing. We need unity. We are not going to survive as a civilization (perhaps, even, as a species) as a writhing, angry mass of nine billion self-centered individuals.
They have the core of the solution right. It is a two letter word. I used it twice in the last paragraph and twenty three times in this article, so far. It is the word “we”. Our outlook has to change from “me” to “we”. But when I say “we” I don’t mean the “we” of the politician.
In our democracies, when our politicians say “we” they are talking to the voters, reaching out for their emotional, and later, voting support. The politician says “we” in a scheming, self-interested way, calculated to show the voters that he/she understands the voters’ local conditions and (let’s face it, selfish) wants and needs. They are inciting the tribal “we” in all of us, making the world into an “us” and “them” place. That is not real democracy.
Real democracy is world democracy. Where “we” means us—all of us on this planet. And not just 2011’s population, future generations
How do we get to that nirvana, a real democracy of ALL the people? Bhutan, with its superior “Gross National Happiness” index has some of the answers. The difference between their outlook and the countries that view themselves as “advanced” can be simplistically summed up as “more spirituality, less materialism”.
Our species has always had, and will always have, leaders and followers. That is just the way it is—it recognizes that some are more fitting for certain tasks than others. Bhutan’s king fills a leadership role for BOTH spiritual and “political” purposes. So Bhutan has the advantage of an emotional unity that is extraordinary in our world.
But merging religion and state is NOT the answer. Just look at Islamic states and their pathetic versions of equality of the sexes. And we certainly don’t need elitist, tribalistic religions that consider all who don’t believe as they do to be inferior, even sub-human. But nor do we need atheism that cynically rejects all belief in a higher purpose for our existence.
What we need is a non-denominational Mahatma Gandhi with a world vision. A person who believes in the future of our species and sees that future as a responsibility for us to achieve—NOT a right. I wish I knew where such a person might come from. I can only pray to (a non-denominational) God that he will come… Then we may pass the BIG intelligence test. Then we may have a noble future.
(the second in a series entitle “Will our species pass the BIG intelligence test?)
It makes sense, when you think about it. There should be a test of worthiness before a wannabe spacefaring species takes flight. Think of what the colonizing Europeans did to the native peoples in Africa and North and South America; and those victims were members of our own species!
Have we shown that we are ready for membership in the BIG world (the universe out there that, surely, is teeming with life)? Definitely not…
On our planet there is a harmony in Nature—worms break up the soil to make it more fertile, bees pollinate plants, herbivore animals live off plants, carnivores feed off one another up the food chain… At the top of the food chain stands the current “king of the mountain”. There have been many, many such kings over the history of life on our planet. And none of them showed any concern for their underlings…
But none of them—until man ascended to the throne—had the ability to destroy the entire biosphere. With our technological capability we have, rightly or wrongly, given ourselves a position of dominance that makes the reign of the dinosaurs look like Sesame Street. And every day we demonstrate how much we care for our present and future fellow Earth-dwellers…
Many will say, “Who cares?” They know that interstellar space flight is far in the future. “Not in my lifetime!” they would say, dismissively. And they know that we are a very long way from solving the problems that plague us today. “What can I do, anyway,” would be their last word.
But the problem is that it is not just about turning our future into an episode from Star Trek. It is about our survival as a species…
The BIG intelligence test doesn’t have a “fail and forget it” option. Failure will bring the end of our civilization. In the best case that will involve a massive die-off, reducing the human population to the levels of two hundred years ago (about one billion people). In the worst case we will become extinct and so damage our ecosphere that it takes millions of years to recover—as happened after the Permian-Triassic (“P-Tr”) extinction event when massive releases of methane gas and global warming led to a significant reduction in oxygen and ozone levels. The P-Tr event is considered “the mother of all extinction events,” extinguishing over 90% of all marine species and 70% of terrestrial vertebrate species.
As each year passes, solving our problems becomes more urgent. Our population grows, stressing our infrastructure (particularly food production) and accentuating the horrific gap between the “haves” and the “have nots”. Our weapons get ever more lethal—and ever more likely to fall into the hands of an extremist or suicidal maniac, diseases become more exotic, more drug-resistant and more mobile… Real and imagined mental diseases proliferate. There is only one way out: we have to pass the BIG intelligence test.
Passing the test means growing up to become Future Man. It means accepting that we, as a species, have passed the point where our evolution is left to nature, or fate… It is in our hands. We, and only we, will decide what our future is to be. We can do it—by evolving into Future Man, Homo Sapiens Supernus…
There are two kinds of evolution. Biological and cultural. Biological (or for some, Darwinian) evolution is the process that took over three billion years to produce the first hominid, and another million years to produce modern man. Biological evolution will not help us deal with the BIG test. In fact, it is biological evolution that has got us into the mess we now find ourselves in. Think about it. Biological evolution actually selects for most of the bad qualities that we must, very soon, find a way to suppress. I mean all the “rugged individuality” traits that, heaven help us, we still admire (if only secretly).
Here is an example of what I mean. Let’s suppose there is a nice young man (NYM), a little old lady (LOL) and a self-centered middle aged man (SCAM) on a ship that is sinking. There is only room for one more on the life boat. The NYM looks at the LOL, smiles and says “, you go,” to the LOL. The SCAM elbows both aside and climbs into the life boat with a triumphant glare. Whose genes survive to create copies of this behavioral monster?
Biological evolution selects for self-centered, aggressive behavior. The biggest and the baddest survive. We have to use cultural evolution to become Future Man.
Cultural evolution is behavioral change in response to new information. An example of cultural evolution is the migration of many species of birds to escape the rigors of winter. The onset of winter was “the information”; the response (by a bird genius) was flight towards the equator. The survival of the birds making the trip meant that the “bird genius” gene multiplied in the population. The behavior eventually became hard-wired in the bird’s DNA.
In humans the most cited example of cultural evolution is the drinking of animal milk. It is, of course, natural for human babies to drink their mother’s milk. They are able to digest the milk by virtue of an enzyme called lactase that breaks down the lactose in the milk. In mammals, however, the production of lactase ceases as they grow up. Without lactase to help, milk becomes indigestible and causes unpleasant digestive problems.
About 8,000 years ago, however, it appears that adult humans experimented with cow’s milk and discovered that some adult humans were lactose tolerant (i.e., the lactase production gene had not been switched off after infanthood). As a life-fostering trait, this was favored by evolution, and now many adult humans can enjoy milk. Lactose intolerance is now relatively uncommon among Europeans—although it is still common among some cultures (e.g., Native Americans) whose ancestors did not domesticate cattle for their milk.
A much more recent example of cultural evolution is the dramatic decline in birth rates in many cultures (a good thing too…). The nearly universal presumption of the eternal availability of modern technology (such as the electricity, telephone, internet, personal transportation, etc.) is another increment of cultural evolution that, of course, we take for granted—but creates a gigantic vulnerability for our species…
Historically, say over the last two thousand years, cultural evolution has been mostly good. It has “civilized” us. It has given us a keener sense of right and wrong.
But my sense of it is that (bad) biological evolution is winning over good (cultural) evolution right now… We are going to have to make a big effort to change that before it’s too late. More on that in the next post…
(the first of a series of articles on this subject)
From the time man first realized the immensity of our universe, scientists have been wondering why we have not yet found any evidence of intelligent life somewhere out there.
As our telescopes and related technology have improved, the mystery has deepened—because the odds against our being alone keep growing. The current estimate of total star population in our universe is about 70 sextillion (7 followed by 22 zeroes!), and the current estimate of earth-like planets per star is about 20%. The probability of there NOT being intelligent life out there seems to be near zero. But where are they?
Efforts to detect the existence of alien intelligence have been focussed on radio transmissions. Our planet has been broadcasting radio signals (radio, TV, communications) for the last 100 years. Think of the signals as expanding circles, like ripples on a pond when a rock is thrown into it. The ripples are expanding at the speed of light. So far they have reached suns and planets within 100 light years of the solar system. A tiny portion of our galaxy, and an infinitesimally small micro dot in the universe… So far no aliens have indicated that they have heard our noise pollution.
But our universe has existed for 13.7 billion years, and it is probable that the potential for intelligent life has existed for at least 8 billion years. So, if there are sound ripples (i.e. radio waves) coming from ancient intelligent life, why have none been detected yet?
Many scientists say we just haven’t listened for long enough. “Listening” requires a focussed, extremely high gain, radio telescope. Until recently, only a tiny portion of the sky could be monitored per “listening day”. That is changing, however, and now relatively large sections of the sky are under scrutiny. If the silence continues for another decade, it will be reasonable for observers to conclude that there is, indeed, a strange shortage of detectable intelligent life.
Scientists and science writers have already begun speculating as to what could explain the shortage. The consensus is that it is to do with “intelligence windows”. Our window of opportunity is the time that we have been capable of detecting extraterrestrial life—which is only about 100 years. This is a tiny sliver of the time in relation to the 8 billion years that intelligent life could have existed. So any alien detecting our existence would have to be very lucky over the next few billion years to detect us… Realistically a future intelligent alien species would have to listen continuously for a very long time to stand a chance of learning of our existence. What are the chances that an intelligent species will endure for millions, if not billions of years?
Real intelligence gives a species the ability to survive catastrophes (asteroid impacts, supernovae, etc.) that would eliminate less intelligent life. For example the dinosaurs, whose reign of dominance exceeded 200 million years, were snuffed out by an asteroid impact. If intelligence produces a species capable of inter-stellar travel, theoretically it could live forever. But now we have to put intelligence under the microscope.
What kind of intelligence are we talking about? Is it the ability to invent and manufacture IPhones? Is it the ability to create a global economy that is dependent on an insatiable appetite for energy and other finite resources? Is it the ability to create lethal weapons capable of destroying all life on our planet? Is it the ability to create a runaway greenhouse effect that could produce a second Venus in our solar system?
No. We are going to have to achieve an altogether different—and better—version of intelligence if we are to have any chance of surviving to hear or be heard by any other intelligent life forms. In fact the difference between the truly intelligent, better version of us is so great that it amounts to a successor species—“future man”.
Now this is where we get a choice. We can either dismissively say to ourselves “that just isn’t going to happen”—and, by so doing, make it an inevitability (a self-fulfilling prophecy). Or, we can explore the possibility that it could happen—and actively work to make it happen.
If it is to happen it has to happen soon. The direction we are heading is going to see the end of us within a century or two. Again the sceptics might say “that is what evolution is all about, survival of the fittest”—and, “if we don’t have what it takes we should just accept nature’s verdict and make way for a more deserving species”…
But I am an optimist. I believe that we have, within us, the capacity to transform ourselves into what we must become if we are to have a future of consequence. In a word it is spirituality. And we discovered it in our very earliest days as Homo Sapiens.
The earliest evidence of Homo Sapiens existence in communities (over 50,000 years ago) show signs of a belief in a “higher power”. Just as fundamental, there is evidence that early man was “spiritual” in a more general respect, loving art and music etc. No other creature has discovered a spiritual dimension to its existence…
I believe that this is our one and only hope.
Now when I say spiritual, I don’t mean “religious”. Spirituality and religion are not the same thing. Religion, in fact, could literally be the death of us (think of religious extremism and the very real threat that it represents to our future)
Spirituality is so much more than religion. Spirituality means compassion. Spirituality means empathy with all of humanity (in fact all of life). Spirituality means believing that the existence of our universe has purpose—and that our existence has purpose (a purpose that will be realized by a concerted self-improvement effort). Spirituality means acceptance of a responsibility for the future…
That is the BIG intelligence test… Can we rediscover “pure” spirituality and have it unite us as a truly intelligent species. Only if we pass this test, will we have any chance of becoming a member of the universe’s community of truly intelligent species…
What do you think? Submit your comments…
Each of the species of life on our planet has been given a special advantage that has helped it survive. The chameleon has its camouflage, the turtle its shell, the bird its wings, the rose its thorns.
The lion has a whole array of advantages—speed, strength, teeth and claws, that place it near the top of life’s food chain.
But no creature comes even close to the dominance of the species that now rules, and abuses, earth’s ecosystem—man. Our advantage is our intelligence.
In the earliest days of man’s existence it seemed such a puny thing. A few thousand years ago the lion looked at us and licked its chops. A tasty treat he thought… Little did he know that he was looking at what would become the most dangerous animal on Earth.
It was our intelligence that made a weapon out of a hefty bone. Our intelligence led to pits dug in the ground, covered by leaves. Troops of our ancestors herded their prey into the trap. Later our intelligence produced the spear, then the arrow, then the gun and then…
In the beginning we used our intelligence to survive in evolution’s survival of the fittest contest. But soon it was no contest. Then we began to have choices about how we use our intelligence.
At first, the imperatives of survival, food and water drove all the choices. In the earliest days you were a hunter or a gatherer. Then the first human communities, small groups of cooperating people, created the opportunity to specialize. Choices grew. Soon man’s success in his competition with other species left only one serious threat—man. And the career choice of warrior was born.
Enough ceased to be enough. Greed was born. And envy. And fear—and distrust. And alpha behaviour such as power hunger, hoarding, extravagant displays of possessions…
Man did not invent these bad traits. They have always been there in nature. All life forms are inherently selfish. But our intelligence has given us the ability to carry self indulgence to obscene excess. Why? Because we can… and our role models, multi-million dollar earning entertainers and athletes smile at us.
And then there is our “defence” spending. At the same time as millions of “have nots” are dying from poverty, the “haves” are spending trillions of dollars on defence. Fear drives the spending, of course (but also the greed of those who profit by the spending). Fear of what? Are we afraid of an alien invasion? No. We spend trillions because we are afraid of ourselves. Does this make sense?
We all know that we cannot continue as we are. Our numbers are growing and our consumption of resources is growing even faster. Our “defence” weaponry is becoming increasingly lethal. Is enough to kill everybody on Earth not enough? Apparently not. Let us count the ways… There is fission, there is fusion, there are neutron bombs, there is chemical, there is biological, there is (coming soon) nanobots…
Or we could pollute ourselves to death. Or fry ourselves with global warming. There is no end to our ingenuity… We are such an intelligent species…
There is a word that sums it up. Eckhart Tolle (A New Earth and Power of Now) was not afraid to use it. Nor is Tom Shadyac, director of the documentary I am, now showing in movie theatres (but better known for producing comedic hits such as Bruce Almighty). The word is INSANITY.
The “civilization” that we enjoy (?) today will end. It’s just a matter of time. The big question is will there be any survivors? We are a hardy species, so I suspect that some of us will survive. Let’s suppose that some do.
There are two possible scenarios. The first is the good one. We magically use our intelligence to pull ourselves out of our death spiral and become future man, a truly mature version of humanity.
The second is the bad one. Our civilization collapses. The population is perforce decimated, because we just cannot feed today’s billions without all the “power tools” (such as fertilizers, insecticides, global economy, etc.). In all probability, poverty and starvation will ignite wars where the “haves” try desperately to hang on to their wealth, while the “have nots” with nothing to lose, fight for their lives.
Inevitably, the survivors will look back at our civilization. In the “good” scenario they will call our era “The Age of Insanity” or “The Chaos Era”. They will have learnt from it. They will go forward.
The survivors of the bad scenario will dig up the artefacts of our civilization—still shiny iPhones, the remains of jet aircraft, the carcasses of bridges and skyscrapers—and they will wonder. These people were Gods they will say in awe. And they will, eventually, repeat the same mistakes—and create a new insanity, and that civilization will come crashing down. And then…
Good or bad? Which will it be? Should we care?
Yes, we should care—because we are, above all, the custodians of the future of our species. We know this when we bring up our children.
And there is good in humanity too… There is hope, compassion, love…
And our intelligence is really not a curse. It’s a gift…
‘Tis the season… for stupidity. In one corner we have the legions of believers who hold their beliefs to be sacred (Xmas trees battling Menorahs, etc.). In the other corner we have the atheists that solicit donations to fund the “cause” of debunking the idea that there is a God.
It is difficult for a thinking person to decide which of these two camps is the more laughable. Is it the believers, each standing on his/her little patch of sacred soil, proclaiming that only their particular belief system is valid – and all others are false? Or is it the atheists who want people to take pride in paying for bumper stickers and bus ads that boldly state “There’s probably no God, now stop worrying and enjoy your life,” or “Millions of Americans are Good Without God.”
Meanwhile the cash register keeps playing its merry tune despite the hard financial times – even though so many of the dollars being spent will buy things that will not be valued, while millions of the really needy go hungry or without medical care.
I have a Xmas message to give. It is “Grow up people!”
I suggest that we use this season to take stock of our species future prospects.
How long do you think we can go on living our lives as we do today? We get up (too early), go to work (resenting all the other people that seem to think that their particular commute is more important than anybody else’s), spend most of our day carrying out tasks we are paid to perform (but hate), then come home (repeating the commute ordeal) – and finally get to spend some ‘quality time’ watching reality shows or sports on TV… Then it is bed (too late) to sleep to prepare for the next cycle…
That is the day of the “lucky people” – the ones with jobs. Then there are the unfortunates who are out of work, worrying where the next meal will come from.
Is that living?
For most adults today, the only really meaningful time expenditure is devoted to our children. We continue to believe that raising our children is the most important task that we will ever have. At least we‘ve got that right…
But what are we giving to our children? A future that has tribalistic groups of human beings (a.k.a. nations) competing for diminishing resources – and other tribalistic groups (a.k.a. religions) competing for our hearts, minds and wallets?
Imagine you are an extraterrestrial observer monitoring our planet and its bizarre “intelligent life”. What do you see? You see vast expenditures of resources (not the least of which is time) being spent to secure a quality of life that, for the vast majority of the people concerned, is pitiable.
Twenty thousand years ago we were hunter-gatherers. We used Stone Age tools – and yet the average “work day”, according to anthropologists was less than five hours. This was enough to provide all that was needed for the necessities of life. The rest of the day was available for life enrichment. Today we use productivity tools that make it possible for one person to achieve the production of hundreds of our hunter-gatherer ancestors. And yet our work day, including commute time, averages over ten hours a day.
If we were to focus only on providing the entire world’s human population with the necessities for a healthy well-rounded life that could give our species a noble future, we would all have work days that take up less than four hours! Instead, we choose to dance to the fiddle of consumerism, spending enormous amounts of time and critical natural resources producing things that will (deservedly) be demoted to the status of unwanted garbage by the time next Xmas comes.
Meanwhile there are people in third world countries such as the Congo, Sudan and Zimbabwe whose expected life spans are less than half of ours – because they are dying in poverty of hunger and untreated disease.
I repeat – it is time to grow up.
There is a God.
Not the “God of the tribes”. Not the God of the priesthoods that put a higher value on power and profit than sensible policies of birth control or casting out pedophiles from its ranks. Not the God that places half of the world’s population (women) in an inferior position. Not the God that shakes the silver plate for us to put money in – money that will be spent to build cathedrals that are monuments to the egos of the “faithful”. No, the God I refer to is the author of the Big Bang.
This God should really be called “x” because we have no idea what it is. This God created our universe – a universe governed by laws that made the formation of stars and planets inevitable – a universe that supplied all the ingredients for the onset of life. This God has a plan.
We, as the dominant intelligent life on our planet, are a potentially important part of God’s plan – but only if we make the effort.
Let’s use our fledgling intelligence to get to the next level – to become “future man”. It won’t be easy. We have so many bad habits to shed. But we owe it to our children to try.
Wishing you a thoughtful Xmas…
Imagine you are seventy years old and showing (and feeling) your age. The year is 2017.
You have money and/or friends in high places, so you get an appointment at the Return-to-Youth Clinic. After a brief stay in the waiting room, you are taken to the preparation room to lie on a hospital bed. An anaesthetist attaches an IV drip that delivers a mild sedative. You are told that you will remain conscious throughout the operation.
Fifteen minutes later you are wheeled into the OR. A nurse attaches an impressive number of electrodes to various parts of your body. Displays on the left wall show monitor readings that mean nothing to you. The nano-surgeon enters and greets you cheerfully. “It won’t be long now!” he says. Then he shows you a hypodermic. It doesn’t look special but he tells you that it contains trillions of nanobots, sub-microscopic robots that are going to be very busy once they enter your bloodstream.
You feel the prick as the needle penetrates your skin. The nano-surgeon says you should not feel anything as the nanobots are distributed by normal blood flow throughout your body. While travelling the bloodstream they will remove any unwanted material that is impeding blood flows. The process will take half an hour.
At the end of the half-hour the nano-surgeon returns to the OR, checks the displays and tells you that he is going to start the next phase with your heart. He takes an electronic device, holds it over the location of your heart and clicks a button. You feel nothing, but the nano-surgeon tells you that the nanobots in that area have been activated and are repairing damaged cells and removing the accumulated debris of age. The nano-surgeon checks the display monitoring your heart function and seems pleased. You feel nothing.
The nano-surgeon then activates the nanobots to work on each of the other internal organs, one at a time. Your head, including your brain, is the last. You are noticing that some of your aches and pains have disappeared.
An hour after injecting the nanobots the surgeon tells you he is all done. You now have the body of a twenty year old! The only bad news is that it will take a few days for your skin to reflect your restored youth. When you get off the hospital bed you feel lighter, stronger and more energetic. You had forgotten what youth feels like.
All of this is possible—even probable. The only real uncertainty is the timeframe. It could be 2027 before the technology is available.
Sounds good? Well, let’s think about it…
You might worry that this miracle will be only available to the wealthy. Well, that will certainly be true in the first few years of its availability, especially because the major corporations that hold the patents will want to maximize their profits. The irony is that, once the first legions of return-to-youth nanobots are produced, it will be quite inexpensive to manufacture them in sufficient quantities to treat the entire world’s human population—but that will never happen. Imagine a world where nobody dies! Do we stop having children?
The fact is that this miracle technology will only be made available to an elite few—and those few will live in fear that their immortality will become known, and attract the envious fury of those who will be ready to kill them. So they will try to keep it secret. They may even wear makeup and walk stiffly in public to disguise their new-found youth. Is that living?
But there are more serious issues with nanobots.
History tells us that when man develops new technology, the first drooling customers will be those who are interested in killing. Whether their interest is labelled ‘defence’, ‘war’ or ‘terrorism’ they will want to be the first to have the technology packaged as a weapon—and they have deep pockets.
We worried when gunpowder was invented—then dynamite. We shuddered when the atom was split and atomic weapons materialized. We were horrified when we learnt that nations had inventories of bio-weapons for ‘defence’. Now we should really start worrying…
The reality is that, technologically speaking, our species is too clever for its own good. Since our ancestor, Homo erectus, first evolved on this planet, we have shown a flair for discovery and invention that is quite remarkable. It was our means of survival when we used it to recognize bones and rocks as weapons. It became our means of domination on our planet when we used it to create tools and weapons of ever-growing sophistication.
But our technological cleverness has outpaced our development as a mature, truly-intelligent species, capable of using our powers wisely. We are, metaphorically speaking, monkeys holding sticks of dynamite in one hand and lighted matches in the other.
There is a tiny spark of hope. Tools, weapons and medical miracles are not our only discoveries. Over fifty thousand years ago we discovered spirituality. Our ancestors theorized that there was more to our world than the simple physical. They formed the concept that there was purpose to our existence. Using their fledgling intelligence they postulated an omnipotent higher being—and they called it God.
The first concepts of God, formulated in a laboratory of ignorance, were crude—but they gave the believers a reason for better behaviour, and eased the pain of seeing their elders die. Animist religions can still be found among aboriginals in various parts of the world and, although they are viewed as primitive by the ‘developed world’, they continue to do more good than harm. Sadly, the same cannot be said for most of the organized religions that have evolved in the modern world.
In recent times the image of organized religion has fallen into such disrepute that “new atheist” authors such as Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens and Sam Harris are selling large numbers of books telling us God belongs with Santa Claus as a feel-good fantasy that we must consign to the past where it belongs. Those authors, if they succeed in their mission, will destroy our last chance of avoiding extinction as a species.
Let’s undo our mistakes. Let’s rediscover an all-encompassing reason for our existence—and a reason to self-improve. There is a God. Not the tribal God of the organized religions that compete with one another as the ‘true faith’. Not the institutionalized God that gives its priesthood wealth and power. What I am talking about is the God that our intelligence tells us is the force behind our existence.
What we have to rediscover is the creator God that we cannot possibly put a face on—or dare to understand—but the God that we know has a plan; a plan that we can see outlined in the evolution of our universe to date, favouring life and, eventually, intelligent life. We are that, embryonic, intelligent life form on this planet. We have a duty to God to use the intelligence that he has given us to act like an intelligent species—before the bad actors among us use our technological marvels to kill us. If we cast out God we cast out hope.
Humanity has survived, and generally prospered, through various “ages” and “revolutions” over the last 10,000 years. They include the Agricultural Revolution, the Industrial Revolution and, most recently, the Information Age. We are now seeing the beginning of the GNR Revolution, standing for Genetics, Nanotechnology and Robotics.
The engine that is driving the GNR Revolution is the exponential growth in the power of our computers. Since 1958, Moore’s Law has successfully predicted that our computers will double in power (per square cm. and per dollar of cost) about every two years. In the 1990s it was thought that Moore’s Law would fail in the first decade of the new century. Scientists predicted that it would become impossible to fit more components onto a chip because of thermal noise. Human ingenuity has bypassed that obstacle, and now the “final” limit is a long way in the future – more than a decade away. Well before Moore’s Law “hits the wall”, our species will no longer be the highest intelligence on Earth. Our computers will have surpassed us. That fact alone gives us a lot to think about.
One, important, reason for the sustained success of the Moore’s Law prediction is that our computers have become the means of building better computers. In effect, our computers are self-improving. Not just faster – smaller.
Nanotechnology has become a reality. Using our ever-growing technical toolkit, and borrowing from Nature’s, we are on the threshold of creating the first “nanobots” ‒ tiny machines that are smaller than one micron (1,000 nanometers) in size. They could be smaller than a single living cell. The smallest could be smaller than the wavelength of light ‒ and therefore too small to be visible with the best optical microscopes.
Man has great hopes for nanobots. Enthusiasts like Ray Kurzweil, author of “The Singularity is Near”, foresee nanobots being injected into our bodies to target and destroy cancer cells. Further into the future nanobots could repair cell damage, including age-related damage. The road to immortality, even eternal youth, beckons.
But, as with all man’s inventions, there is a dark side. Over history, those concerned with killing have always been in the forefront when scientific breakthroughs have opened up new possibilities. Killer nanobots are a terrifyingly real possibility.
The biggest challenge in nanotechnology is mastering the techniques of production. It takes vast numbers of nanobots for them to have any consequence as a force for either good or evil. The experts agree that the only practical approach is to have nanobots make nanobots.
Self-replicating nanobots are coming…
The above text is from the introduction to my new book “The Nanobot Attack”. The book is a work of fiction, but its premise is very real. The setting is 2017, just seven years from the time of writing. Seven years has become a very long time when it comes to projecting technological change. Self-replicating nanobots may be here much sooner…
The storyline of the book has a lab in the Middle East, with connections to an Islamic extremist group, develop the ultimate WMD ‒ killer nanobots. On September 11, 2017 they launch an attack on multiple cities in the U.S.
That nanotechnology could produce sophisticated nanobots should not surprise anybody that has been following recent developments in that field ‒ and few would be surprised if such technology fell into the hands of Islamic extremists. Sadly, nobody would be surprised if the extremists were to rationalize that their God wanted them to use the weapon against the accursed infidels…
So “The Nanobot Attack “is not just a believable science fiction story, it is a commentary on the bizarre world that we live in, where the human population is divided into alienated religious “tribes” that, in extreme cases, can rationalize mass murder as something that will be approved by their God.
To dramatize the insanity of a world that makes such things possible, the book has the hero of the story, Luke Walker, escape the nanobot attack. His plane crashes off the shores of a remote Pacific island called Milao. On that island the hero discovers “another world”.
Luke Walker meets a beautiful islander (Gina) and falls in love. He says to Gina “I had no idea such a place could exist. If anybody had told me I wouldn’t have believed them. A place without cars, television, telephones or the internet – and yet a place that is, in the most important ways, a much better place to live. All those things that I was conditioned to think were necessities are revealed as not needed in your world.”
The island of Milao was colonized by a party of deists, fleeing religious persecution in Europe. The colonists assimilate with the Polynesian natives to form a community that flourishes without any of the material things that drive our world. Imagine a world without money!
But “reality” returns for Luke. The commander of a US nuclear submarine learns of his survival and Luke returns to the U.S. to fight the terrorist’s nanobots.
The rest of the story will be my secret for a while…. The book is due to be published early November, but interested readers can obtain a free copy (pdf file) of Part I of The Nanobot Attack by request (using the Comments feature at the foot of this article).
About a million years ago, our pre-human ancestors used their fledgling intelligence to conclude that all life, including their own, must eventually face death – and that the world would continue after their lives ended. So far as we know we are the only creatures on earth that have faced this sobering fact.
I sometimes envy the wild creatures that are blissfully unaware of the perils of the future. They live for the moment. Even the squirrel, who diligently stockpiles food to tide him over the winter, is only blindly following the instincts that evolution has programmed into its behaviour. By trial and error evolution has given non-sentient life forms the information needed to make decisions affecting their future – but this “knowledge” is hard-wired. There is no burden of worry.
Our species, on the other hand, is keenly aware that the future is something to wonder and worry about. Every day the obituaries remind us that fame and fortune are no defence against the grim reaper.
Evolution is an additive process. We are the “sum of the parts” of our past. We share a common ancestor with all life on our planet. If you drew a family tree of all life on Earth we would lie on a branch close to the chimpanzee. Further up the tree (‘up’ meaning further back in time) the primate branch evolved as a distinct family and further back the first amphibians emerged from what had been strictly water-dwelling life.
So self-absorbed, live-for-the-moment ways are hard-wired into us by our past. Being concerned about the future is a newly acquired facility – which may explain why many of us are not good at it.
I am sure you know some chronic worriers who always seem to fear that the worst is about to happen. Some are so obsessed with their fears that they forfeit happiness – even to the extreme of suicide. Some depend on chemicals to escape their gloomy view of the future. Others invest time searching for hope in astrological charts or the visions of self-proclaimed prophets. Many others escape into reality shows and identification with sports teams’ fates.
Our ability to contemplate the future is a beautiful thing – but, as the saying goes, beauty is in the eye of the beholder. The worriers see it is an unwanted burden – but that is a selfish view. If we step out of the shoes of our individual lives (‘our mortal span’) and take a species-wide view, our ability to contemplate our future is a precious gift that we should cherish.
Alone among all the creatures that have lived on our planet we have the ability to shape a future for our species that knows no limit. In the sphere of technology we are becoming blasé as waves of new and exciting consumer goods come ever quicker. The “GNR” revolution (genetics, nanotechnology and robotics) which is just getting into stride, will accelerate the pace of technological advances in all spheres, including medicine. The possibility of extending human life spans by decades and, one day, centuries is no longer far-fetched.
Our technology is close to giving us the capability to survive species-extinction-threatening events such as “NEO” impacts (“near earth objects” e.g. asteroids and comets). We will soon be able to engineer our planet’s climate. In the not too distant future we should have technology that will allow us to leave our planet and colonize others – de-coupling our species survival from that of our planet.
It is even possible that, one day, we could gain the ability to travel in time. The past, scientists are sure, will never be available to us – but travel to the future may be possible on a one-way ticket.
In this article I have been portraying our ability to shape the future as a blessing – a bonanza of yet-to-be realized potential. But a more mature way to view it is as a responsibility.
What we do today will shape the future for our children and their children ad infinitum. If we continue to see our intellectual potential and technological prowess as a cookie jar for our personal gratification we will, literally, be committing a “crime against humanity”. We must accept full responsibility for a future that goes far beyond our individual lives – even beyond our ability to imagine…
To get the right perspective on the issues involved, I ask you to imagine that you are a member of another species of life on this planet. Imagine you are a cat (perhaps your pet). Now put yourself in the cat’s (metaphorical) shoes as it watches you towering over it. You flip a little switch high over its head and incomprehensible light replaces the dark. You touch a button on a piece of plastic and a picture shows on a flat panel and sound comes out of some boxes. You turn a small dial and the environment becomes warmer. These giants are not mere animals – they are gods!
And your cat does not know the half of it… The “gods” that can make cat food appear for its benefit are also re-engineering the planet for their personal benefit – regardless of the cost to the rest of the ecosphere. They are the cause of mass extinctions rivalling the “K-T” event, 65 million years ago, when an asteroid collision eradicated about half of all animal species including all the dinosaurs.
With power comes responsibility. It is time for us to accept that responsibility. Einstein saw this truth over 50 years ago when he said –
“A human being is part of the whole called by us universe, a part limited in time and space. We experience ourselves, our thoughts and feelings as something separate from the rest. A kind of optical delusion of consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest to us. Our task must be to free ourselves from the prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty. The true value of a human being is determined by the measure and the sense in which they have obtained liberation from the self. We shall require a substantially new manner of thinking if humanity is to survive.” (Albert Einstein, 1954)
We are not children. We have to find our own way. We can’t look to our local politician to “see the light” and make laws that will oblige us to carry out our responsibilities. We, as individuals, are responsible for the future of our species.
Nature has a way of dealing with its (evolutionary) failures. Think about it…
Airport security is getting a lot of attention these days but suicide bombers come in many guises and those who program these human weapons are clever. It is time we confronted the root cause of the problem instead of its symptoms.
The road that led to religious terrorism began with the dawn of human intelligence.
Scientists today believe that the invention of oral language was the precursor of abstract thinking. As an experiment, I challenge you, the reader, to try deep thinking or, really, any kind of thinking, without forming words in your mind. Although our brains can react to events, such as a car rushing in our direction, on reflex, we have to silently verbalize our thoughts to process them in our wondering, reasoning, abstract thinking.
With the ability to engage in abstract thinking, Homo sapiens became “wondering man”.
About 50,000 years ago, wondering men in tribal groups all over the world gathered around campfires to contemplate the meaning of life and to entertain themselves with stories and theories. Typically the young men of the tribe were doing the wondering and asking, and the elders were the source of all wisdom and knowledge.
This led to man’s first religions. Most, if not all, of these religions incorporated the concept of a supernatural “something” to explain life. Many theologians and philosophers explain the process by saying that the concept of God arose out of a need to find meaning to life—and to deal with anxiety arising from man’s knowledge of his own certain death.
So the earliest religions came into existence, forged on an anvil of wonder but fashioned with the hammer of ignorance and tribal prejudice. Flawed from the beginning, man’s religions have evolved, like life itself, competing with one another in a struggle to survive in a changing world.
And so we have today’s insanity. Islam competes with Christianity in the major leagues; Judaism, which produced the Old Testament that is the foundation of both, is reviled by both. In the East, Hinduism, which is the oldest of man’s religions, has fathered a family of rivals including Buddhism and Sikhism. And a new religion, atheism, has come into being as the intellectual’s rejection of the lot.
All of this might be merely quaint and amusing if there were no priesthoods that, inevitably, include self-serving “leaders” who seduce their followers with a simple yet supremely effective formula that goes “we are the only true believers – all other gods are false – all who do not believe as we do are infidels”. Add one extra measure of hostile rhetoric and the “leader” is issuing a call to arms. The result is religious extremism.
All forms of extremism are, by definition, antisocial excesses – but religious extremism is the ultimate evil because those who kill in the name of their God believe that the highest court in the universe approves their cowardly acts.
The victims of 9/11 are testimony to the problem, and today they are joined by millions of air travelers suffering from the misguided efforts of governments that refuse to deal with the problem’s roots, preferring, in the name of “democracy”, to deal only with the symptoms of the disease.
Well, I say, “enough is enough”. It is time to put an end to this insanity. It is time for our species to grow up.
Now, I should make it clear that I am not joining the atheists in a disavowal of God. In fact, I believe in a creator God wholeheartedly and I see the amazing sequence of events that connect the dots from the Big Bang that began our universe to our arrival as an (almost) intelligent species as proof. No, what I am arguing for is an end to religion, or, more precisely, institutions that seek to differentiate their belief in God into elitist self-serving camps.
Islam is not being singled out in my attack on organized religion although it is a prime example of the syndrome. Christianity, like Islam, has its extremist, fundamentalist fanatics as well as its liberal followers – and, historically, Christian establishments (such as the Spanish Inquisition) have committed horrific crimes against their fellow men in the name of God. There are no religions of any substance that are exempt from this scourge.
It is time for us to use the intelligence that God gave us to reject the anachronistic concept of a tribalistic God that makes favorites. There is one God, period.
Our governments are doing us a great disservice by refusing to take a rational position on this subject. In the name of democracy they are condoning the enslavement of their constituents by modern-day snake oil salesmen who breed extremist passions in the hearts of the vulnerable. Not only do they permit these anachronisms, they promote them by giving tax exemption and allowing them to cultivate lobbying power to promote their self-interested goals.
Religious extremists have declared war on us. It is time to return the favor – not with suicide bombers but with a campaign of rationalism. Let us unite to tell our governments that we have had enough and that we call on them to end their meek acceptance of the perpetuation of the evils of organized religion with their elitist, divisive strategies.
With 7 billion human beings on our planet, projected to reach 9 billion by 2040, survival dictates that we see one another as a single species – not a patchwork of competing races and religions.
There is one God and God does not play favorites. There are no chosen people. State support for a competition among thousands of religions, denominations and sects that each proclaim themselves “true believers” (and therefore the rest of you are faithless) has to be consigned to the past where it belongs.