Tag Archives: imagination

Cosmos 2: One Voice in the Cosmic Fugue

by Shane L. Larson

imaginationHumanity is simultaneously blessed and cursed with one of the most ingenious creations of Nature: our imaginations.  Our brains have developed not just to run our bodies, and not just to absorb sensory data from the world. They store all the vast myriad of experiences we have and then, at a later time, recall that data for the express purpose of inventing ideas that may or may not have anything to do with reality.

An excellent example of how your brain works can be found in a simple game my daughter and I play at restaurants while we’re waiting for our food.  We call it “The Napkin Game.”  One person draws a simple line doodle, without lifting the pen, then the other person takes that doodle, looks at it from all angles, then adds more lines to turn it into a picture. When you draw a doodle for your partner, you don’t a priori know what it will be turned into.  That’s the magic of brains! Any random doodle could be Batman’s cowl, or a Wonka Bar, or a turtle. Your brain takes a little bit of visual input, maps it onto one of the trillions of neural connections in your mind, and makes something new!

An example of the Napkin Game. One person draws a simple line doodle, and the other person adds to it to make a picture.

An example of the Napkin Game. One person draws a simple line doodle, and the other person adds to it to make a picture.

One of the most important things your imagination does, is it extrapolates into the future.  Sometimes it makes up extrapolations out of whole cloth that likely have little bearing on reality (though they may be perfectly entertaining, if not desirable, daydreams).  I count among such extrapolations imagined futures where zombies have taken over the world, Apple Slice has made a comeback, or I am close personal friends with Queen Elsa of Arendelle.  But very often, the extrapolations are really simulations — attempts to divine a realistic future. This is the origin of wonder, of anticipation and excitement, and also of fear (particularly fear of the unknown). Imagination uses both of these extrapolations in the game we call science.

The most remarkable thing about imagination is that it knows no boundaries. T-rex flying a fighter jet? No problem. I’m really Walter Mitty, a member of MI:6 who cleans up after Bond?  Duh. Every kind of particle we have ever seen maybe has an undetected and completely made up “super-symmetric” partner particle?  Sure, that sounds cool to think about! 

Examples of imagination, possibly run amok. (L) Dinosaurs flying fighter jets [Lego model; dino added by S. Larson]. (C) The Standard model of particle physics. (R) The "SuperSymmetric" addition to particle physics, imagined by some physicists.

Examples of imagination, possibly run amok. (L) Dinosaurs flying fighter jets [Lego model; dino added by S. Larson]. (C) The Standard model of particle physics. (R) The “SuperSymmetric” addition to particle physics, imagined by some physicists.

Unfettered by physical limitations or abstract societal rules, our imaginations can stray from the possible to the impossible, from the real to the unreal, and from the mundane to the extreme. The most powerful aspect of this ability is that it allows us to ask questions about things of which we currently are completely ignorant.

Consider the question of life in the Cosmos.  Is there life elsewhere? Are we a singular instance of life, or is there a vast froth of life-filled worlds filling the deep, deep dark of the Universe?

One dish in the Very Large Array (VLA) near Socorro, NM. [image by S. Larson]

One lonely dish in the Very Large Array (VLA) near Socorro, NM, staring out into the Cosmos. [image by S. Larson]

It is a deep and through provoking question that has profound implications for our philosophical and cultural identities. We can ponder such questions precisely because our brains can take the question and push it to the extreme boundaries, which are:

(1) The Earth is unique. We are a singular instance of the music we call life, a lone voice shouting vainly into the vast, dark cathedral of the stars.

(2) The Cosmos is teeming with life, a vast ecosystem of atoms that have organized into patterns capable of replicating and contemplating their own existence.

Arthur C ClarkArthur C. Clarke once famously summarized these extremes, saying “Two possibilities exist: either we are alone in the Universe or we are not. Both are equally terrifying.”  The amount we are terrified by this thought is the fault of our imaginations.  We are inherently social creatures — we thrive on contact, discussion, and shared common experience. All of us have, at some point in our lives, experienced profound loneliness — being lost, being trapped, being left out by our peers. When we imagine being alone in the Cosmos, our brain magnifies that sense of loneliness a trillion-fold.  What gets simulated is not the Earth all alone, but ourselves all alone — what if I were alone in the Cosmos, lost in the vast dark? We anthropomorphize the entire human race, mapping our own personal feelings onto 7 billion other souls.

In the opposite case, our imagination proposes a Cosmos completely contrary to the normal hubris that humanity wields.  Despite our proclaimed belief in the fundamental tenets of Copernican astronomy, where the Earth is not the Center of All That Is, we certainly don’t lead our lives that way. Humanity, as a rule, does not pretend to be anything other than the Center of Everything!  But it could be that we inhabit a Cosmos with other intelligences, some perhaps vastly greater than our own, some perhaps implacable and as unaware of us as we might be of ants or bacteria.  Such musings are disquieting because they challenge the central tenet of our perceived existence as the premiere lifeform, on planet Earth or anywhere else.

The question of whether the Cosmos harbors life elsewhere is a compelling one from the perspective of our psychology, but also because there is an apparent conflict between two eminently reasonably scientific viewpoints.  The first of these viewpoints is the so called “Principle of Mediocrity.”  This is the no-holds barred manifestation of the Copernican Principle — there is nothing special about the Earth.  The Cosmos seems to be filled with planets (the latest count, as of today, 9 Dec 2013 is 1051 known planets (visit the Exoplanet Encyclopedia Catalog), with some 3000 candidates from the Kepler mission.  Our deepest probes of the Cosmos (the Hubble Extreme Deep Field) suggests there could be as many as 600 billion galaxies. If each galaxy has 300 billion stars, and every star has at least 1 planet (probably more) then there are a staggering number of possible worlds on which life could have arose. There is nothing special about Earth, so if life arose here, there should be no impediment to life arising on any of the trillions and trillions of other worlds that fill the Cosmos.

The Hubble Extreme Deep Field (XDF). [Credit: NASA; ESA; G. Illingworth, D. Magee, and P. Oesch, University of California, Santa Cruz; R. Bouwens, Leiden University; and the HUDF09 Team]

The Hubble Extreme Deep Field (XDF). [Credit: NASA; ESA; G. Illingworth, D. Magee, and P. Oesch, University of California, Santa Cruz; R. Bouwens, Leiden University; and the HUDF09 Team]

Enrico FermiThe opposing viewpoint is something called “The Fermi Paradox.”  It was originally proposed by Enrico Fermi, and can succinctly be summarized as, “Where are they?”  What Fermi wondered was why has the Earth, or any world in the solar system, not been visited by self-replicating robotic explorers of some distant alien race?  His point was that if we really want to explore the galaxy, the most efficient way to do that would be to send a robotic probe out to the nearest star.  It won’t get there in a human lifetime, but it will get there in a time substantially shorter than the age of the galaxy.  When the robot gets to a star system, it pokes around a bit, then builds 10 copies of itself using the natural resources it can find, and sends those copies out to the next 10 closest stars.  If every robot successfully makes 10 copies of itself, it only takes 11 replication cycles before there is 1 robot for every star in the galaxy.  But really, why would they stop there? They would just keep replicating until there are a whole lot of robots in the galaxy.  But we haven’t seen one yet!  Why not? One’s immediate gut reaction might be to think, “Well humans are just the first species to have such a crazy idea. The galaxy is not full of self-replicating robots because we haven’t built them yet!”  But if we apply the Copernican Principle to Earth and humanity in particular, there is no reason to believe we are the first instantiation of intelligent life; some civilization should have preceeded us, and built the fleet of galaxy filling robots.  But there are no robots, and the chance that we are the first civilization in the entire galaxy is vanishingly small.  The fact that there are no robots means that we are alone in the Cosmos. 

Why has our solar system not been visited by alien robots, sailing through to see what the galaxy is full of? This is the central tenet of the Fermi Paradox. [Model by S. Larson]

Why has our solar system not been visited by alien robots, sailing through to see what the galaxy is full of? This is the central tenet of the Fermi Paradox. [Model by S. Larson]

The space in between these two possibilities is a matter of intense debate among aficionados of the search for extraterrestrial life, as well as professional scientists who spend their careers thinking about this. There are as many facets of the debate as there are persons engaged in the discussion!  In the absence of true, reliable knowledge, our imaginations have free reign. We imagine every idea we can, then argue about whether the idea is plausible or even possible.  One of the most intriguing ideas in this space is that perhaps no civilization ever survives to build a self-replicating army of robots to explore the galaxy. Maybe the Cosmic fugue of life never grows beyond the initial swelling notes of the song.

The dinosaurs haven't (didn't?) go exploring the galaxy. [Image from Captain Raptor and the Moon Mystery, by O'Malley and O'Brien]

The dinosaurs haven’t gone (didn’t go?) exploring the galaxy. [Image from Captain Raptor and the Moon Mystery, by O’Malley and O’Brien]

This is not an unreasonable idea. Even if we confine our considerations to the history of life on Earth, we’ve seen “civilizations” that persist for long periods of time. The dinosaurs existed on Earth for 160 Million years, and never developed a single bit of technology (so far as we know), let alone build a self-replicating robot to proclaim their existence to the Cosmos. In the end, the dinosaurs were completely obliterated, wiped off the face of the Earth by an asteroid. Today, their closest living descendants are the birds, but no chicken has reached out to explore the Cosmos either. 

But we don’t even have to think about lifeforms long gone. Even among our own species, entire civilizations have utterly vanished from the world.  Five thousand years ago, the Indus Valley Civilization (IVC) was comprised of 5 million persons, fully 10% of the entire world population at that time. It stretched all along the Indus River valley, in what is today the borderlands between modern India, Afghanistan and Pakistan. The preeminent civilization of the era, the IVC developed the first system of weights and measures; quantitative measure is the foundation of all technology and science.  But they did not colonize the galaxy. The civilization survived for almost two millennia, until the cities were mysteriously abandoned and the civilization collapsed, never having once cast their voice out into the Cosmos. Before they had the ability to build a robot, drought and shifting economics with other, nearby civilizations destroyed the greatest civilization the world had known to that time.

If I were to take these two examples at face value, and use my imagination to extrapolate to other worlds, I might imagine that life is common throughout the Universe, but perhaps it is far too fragile a form of matter to survive. Perhaps it is always obliterated, by the abusive hand of the Cosmos or through ignorance and self-destruction. Obliterated before it can send its seed, robotic messengers, out into the Cosmos.  That would be a depressing thought, with terrifying implications for our future on this world. But it is not inconceivable (even knowing what that word means); even in my lifetime, the spectre of the destruction of our world has constantly loomed, though it has been an evolving chorus of spectres, each sharing the lead.  As a child growing up in the 1980s, the possibility of nuclear annihilation was real and forefront in our minds, even as children. The threat is perhaps no less real today, but the end of the Cold War has reduced the threat in people’s imaginations. Today, the fragility of our climate and environment plays a more prominent role in considerations of what our future may be. Now, as in The Cold War, the conversation is driven by ideology and arguments built around emotional viewpoints rather than scientific considerations. It is not clear we will survive to build a robot army that will explore the galaxy. 

The Earth as seen from Saturn.  Can you tell there might be life there from this picture?

The Earth as seen from Saturn. Can you tell there might be life there from this picture?

Another possibility is that maybe it is just too hard to find other life.  Maybe it is out there, but detecting it is far more difficult than finding the proverbial needle in a haystack.  We are not even sure if there is life elsewhere in the solar system, and we live here! What would an alien robot sailing into the solar system find?  There are almost 100 known worlds in the solar system that are at least large enough to be round (say larger than 200km; list at Wikipedia). Would a robot explore all of them, or simply gaze from afar?  Consider what the Earth looks like from beyond Saturn.  Can you tell there is life here?  Look at the Earth from the Moon.  Can you tell there is life here, especially compared to a picture of Titan from roughly the same distance?  What if the probe never came in this close, landing on the first world it encountered, say Neptune’s enigmatic moon Nereid? 

The Earth (L) and Titan (R), each viewed by a spacecraft from roughly the same distance.  Can you tell if either harbors life?

The Earth (L) and Titan (R), each viewed by a spacecraft from roughly the same distance. Can you tell if either harbors life?

Despite all the difficulties, real and imagined, of searching for life elsewhere, we continue to do it, both by sifting the surfaces of worlds near Earth, as well as plumbing the depths of interstellar space looking for messages from other beings.  The idea of there being life elsewhere is one that is hard to let go of, because the alternative is far too depressing — that we truly are alone. It is a staggering thought, which we are constantly reminded of.

There is a very famous picture of Earth, taken by Michael Collins during the Apollo 11 flight.  As the ascent stage of the Lunar Module Eagle returned to dock with Collins aboard the Columbia in lunar orbit, he snapped a picture showing the Eagle (containing Aldrin and Amrstrong) hanging in front of the magnificent desolation of the Moon, with the partially illuminated Earth in the background.  Collins later remarked,  “I remember most vividly the picture of the lunar horizon and then the LEM ascent stage in the foreground with these two guys in it, and then the Earth popping up at that instant… You’ve got 3 billion people over there, two people here and that’s it.” 

A picture from Apollo 11 of every human being, alive or dead, except for Michael Collins (the photographer).  [NASA Image AS11-44-6642]

A picture from Apollo 11 of every human being, alive or dead, except for Michael Collins (the photographer). [NASA Image AS11-44-6642]

It is perhaps one of the most poignant images of the lonely Cosmos ever taken — every member of the human race, alive or dead, except the photographer. If indeed we are alone in the Cosmos, then that was everything, captured in a single frame, at a single moment in time.  Every voice in the Cosmic fugue, the chorus of life.

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This post is part of an ongoing series, celebrating the forthcoming science series, Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey by revisiting the themes of Carl Sagan’s classic series, Cosmos: A Personal Voyage.  The introductory post of the series, with links to all other posts may be found here:  http://wp.me/p19G0g-dE

Imagination, Zombies & the Trappings of Science

by Shane L. Larson

I am often asked by worried parents and struggling students what is the most important quality in a successful scientist — stunning math ability? frightening intelligence? inscrutable intuition?  I usually go with the old classic, “Imagination.”  Einstein himself famously thought the same thing, having told the Saturday Evening Post in 1929, “Imagination is more important than knowledge. For knowledge is limited to all we now know and understand, while imagination embraces the entire world, and all there ever will be to know and understand.”

As a scientist, I find imagination is an essential tool for problem solving.  When faced with a puzzling conundrum posed by an interesting experiment, it is the imaginative side of my brain that makes connections to the stew of scientific knowledge that has been poured into my brain as part of my continuing education.  In astronomy, imagination is among the most powerful tools a scientist can use to understand the Cosmos.  Why?  Because the size and scale of the Cosmos are, for the most part, on scales that are beyond our everyday experience and challenge the limits of ordinary human comprehension.

Imagine you and I wanted to embark on a voyage of discovery.  We agree to meet next Saturday in Salt Lake City, and plan to drive to the Florida Everglades to collect the most exquisite flower we can find.  We take your 1963 Dodge Dart to insure we obey the speed limit.  The Everglades are 2570 miles away from Salt Lake City, so if we average 60 miles per hour on our journey, it will take us 86 hours to journey to that far-away place and return home to tell the tale.  The following week we decide to embark on another grand voyage of discovery, this time to bring a rock back from the Moon.  As the astronomer Fred Hoyle once noted, “Space is only an hour away, if you could drive straight up.”  And indeed it is; the boundaries of the fragile skin of air that covers the Earth, the shores of the Cosmic Ocean, are just sixty miles over our heads.  The Moon is our closest cosmic companion, but it is still much farther away.  To drive there at 60 mph (in your magic flying Dodge Dart) would take us 166 days one way.  To reach the Sun, 93 million miles away, would take 177 years.  And the stars are farther away still.

There are few places in the Cosmos that we can visit.  Our contemplations of the Cosmos are in many ways limited to what we can imagine, informed by what we can observe.  All we can do is observe the Universe around us, and then imagine how what we have seen can be explained by the laws of Nature.  The mysteries of what we see challenge the limits of what we understand, but over time more observations reveal Nature’s grand design and our knowledge grows by a small measure, expanding the legacy of our curious species.

My imagination works in other ways as well.  For instance, I suffer from a well known academic malady known as “impostor syndrome.” If you have this affliction, you imagine that you are unworthy of the job, position or status that you hold.  You have convinced yourself that you are an intellectual fraud, and that you have put on the smarmiest used-car salesman schtick imaginable to arrive at your position in life today.  The smallest piece of data reinforces the conviction of your impostor status: a colleague or department head fails to return an email, a grant proposal is rejected, on your teaching evaluations you only score 3.5/6.0 on the question “Professor remembers to wear matching socks.”  As a consequence, you try work your ass off for fear of being discovered for the fraud and joker that you are.  This makes your more frazzled and likely to be discovered, and on your next teaching evaluations you score 2.5/6.0 on the question “Professor lectured on physics not social justice in pre-revolutionary France.”

It is this destructive form of imagination that is perhaps the most interesting.  Imagine that while on our long voyage in your Dodge Dart we decide to watch movies to pass the time. Many scientists have difficulty watching movies that ignore fundamental scientific tenets, or have logic holes in the plot.  I do not suffer from these difficulties; I am perfectly happy to suspend my disbelief and watch any movie you want to watch (except “Beaches”).  Curiously, however, some movies freak me out, and others don’t.  I can totally watch zombie movies without worry and when I’m done, turn out the lights and sleep peacefully.  However if you plunk me down in front of a Wes Craven nightmare movie, then I think harder about the wisdom of turning any light in the house off, and make sure the blankets are securely tucked up around my neck to protect my jugular from any bloodthirsty beasts from the Abyss that might be invisibly roaming around my house.

What gives?  Why don’t zombies freak me out, but ghosts plunge me into a paroxysm of fear?  Because there is an ostensible “scientific” explanation for the emergence of the zombie apocalypse — typically a virus, an identifiable biological agent discovered by scientists.  In the current vogue, zombies are a consequence of something real and understandable.  But consider a movie like Dracula.  Count Dracula has crazy supernatural powers; he can fly, he casts no reflection in mirrors, he can turn into mist or into a bat.  This is crazy stuff well outside the boundaries of science — “supernatural.”  That scares the crap out of me because I can’t understand it.  In the absence of the solid foundation of science, imagination runs away on its own and degenerates into fear and superstition.

Of course, the real observation here is this: there are some damn imaginative people out there, making up all these stories about zombies and ghosts and vampires.  People with stunning imaginations.  And their audiences love these movies because they have robust and healthy imaginations that they love to set free, to wander far from the confines of everyday life.  This reveals a lovely conundrum: why is science literacy today widely regarded (by scientists, and a few economists) as one of the pre-eminent problems of our time?  If imagination is one of the most valuable tools in science, how can such vast segments of our highly imaginative society be scientifically illiterate?  Science is also a doorway to wonder, escapism and distant vistas crying to be explored.  But it doesn’t grip the world the way movies and novels do.  Why?  Perhaps it is because we have failed to imbue science with a deep connection to the core of the human psyche; perhaps it is because we’ve distilled science down into the five points of the scientific method and beakers full of polysyllabic organic compounds and mathematical formalism.  We hide behind the trappings of science, pretending to be dispassionate observers and all-knowing skeptics.  But at night, when no one is looking, we secretly listen to Bill Nye the Science Guy, and read Timothy Ferris, and watch reruns of Carl Sagan.  When we’re alone, we revisit the reasons we all became scientists in the first place: because science is full of adventures that dazzle us and tickle our imaginations into wondering what secrets Nature might hold.

If we want the world to be more science literate, we should revisit why each of us became scientists in the first place.  Scientists are born problem solvers — we should be able to imagine solutions to the problems of science literacy.  Many do, and have somehow touched that innermost part of our psychology that makes something important to beings such as we.  There are exceptional books like Craig Bohren’s “Clouds in a Glass of Beer,”  Richard Muller’s “Physics for Future Presidents” and Robert Banks’ “Towing Icebergs;” there are fantastic outreach programs, and citizen science programs like Protein Folding @Home and GalaxyZoo.  These are prominent and successful efforts, but they are not the norm and only engage the smallest fraction of our society.  As a whole, our community does not participate broadly enough in an activity which frankly we are the most qualified to do: using our imaginations to engage society in science.

Of course identifying a problem is one thing, but to imagine a solution one has to imagine what we want the world to be like on the far end.  This is the crux of the whole “science literacy” problem — we know we want more science literacy, but we don’t really have a uniformly agreed upon definition of what that means.  For the community of scientists as a whole, we recognize science literacy (or more likely, science illiteracy) when we see it.  For me, I propose the following personal goal for science literacy: I want non-scientists to enjoy indulging their curiosity about the world around them, and appreciate the fact that it is possible to figure things out.  I don’t care if people can actually do a calculation with the Universal Law of Gravitation — if you’re a dentist, I hope you can appreciate the way science works, but don’t care if you know the inner workings.  If you could compute the delta-v needed to make the transfer orbit from Earth to Mars, you’d be an astrophysicist not a dentist!

How do we encourage science literacy?  We imagine solutions!  Solutions that each of us as individual practitioners in science or education could implement, expand upon, and teach others to do.  Solutions that are simple, grass roots movements that are infectious by their simplicity and “fun factor”, which are casually introduced to the world around us and then spread like a vast plague, unleashing the science zombie in everyone.  There is only one global solution for science illiteracy: scientists must actively work outside their laboratories and classrooms to improve the understanding of science.  There is no silver bullet to save our society from the pit of ignorance.  The only solution is the sum of thousands of small solutions, built up by each one of us in our own sphere of influence — educating our neighbors, the post office employees, the night shift at Taco Bell, the city council, the president of the University.  For more than 30 years, we have bemoaned the state of science literacy in the United States.  If anything science illiteracy is getting worse as it becomes fashionable and (for some) politically correct to be science illiterate.  How can we possibly imagine that?