Friday, August 20, 2010

Assault of Thoughts - Speculative Edition - 8/20/2010

"Words ought to be a little wild, for they are the assault of thoughts on the unthinking" - JMK

- Tyler Cowen discusses and extensively links the prospects of a helium crisis. He quotes Robert Richardson who says "There is no chemical means to make helium. The supplies we have on Earth come from radioactive alpha decay in rocks. Right now it's not commercially viable to recover helium from the air, so we have to rely on extracting it from rocks. But if we do run out altogether, we will have to recover helium from the air and it will cost 10,000 times what it does today." Tyler frames it as an economist: "The marginal cost curve stands between plenty and scarcity."

- Seven well thought out reasons why a zombie apocalypse would be over very shortly after it began (HT - Evan).

- SpaceX is looking into using nuclear fission rocket to Mars. This is why it's so important to boost the private sector's role in space exploration. This is technology that the government abandoned decades ago in the space program (the author of the post asserts that "If the Nixon administration hadn’t killed the [nuclear rocket] R&D effort in 1970, we could be walking on Mars today"). If the incentives aren't right, I certainly think the government has a role in space colonization, setting goals, and funding, etc.. But that doesn't change the fact that the private sector is by far the best provisioned to get the job done (which isn't to say NASA didn't do an impressive job for such a novel mission - but we're past that now).

- OK, so here's the really speculative one (well, except for the zombie one I guess). Matt Yglesias blogs on the crazy things that a lot of the public believes, contrasting it with these new numbers that even more people think Obama is a Muslim. His point is we shouldn't be surprised by the existence goofballs. I'm glad aliens didn't go on his list, but I was a little curious at the fact that he listed things like ESP and telepathy on here. That's not to say that I believe in ESP or telepathy, it's just something that I kind of feel compelled to be agnostic on. Despite all the controversy and conspiracy theories which almost certainly trump up the reality, we know the U.S. government put at least some money into checking it out (granted, many reports just say it was brainwashing rather than ESP). Why? What does ESP or telepathy really take? The transmission of thoughts through space. What are thoughts? Electrical impulses and chemical reactions. Waves and stimuli. I'm no neuroscientist, but it just seems like signal conduction, right? How is that so implausible? Now, what's more implausible is that people actually have a natural ability to send out or pick up on these signals and make use of them. But one day could we perhaps enhance signal transmission, reception, and interpretation? Why not!

As for MKULTRA and the secret government projects, I think it's always dangerous to assume you know what the most connected, most advanced people in the world are doing. It's highly unlikely that any dazzling technology we see in the movies (set in present times, of course), doesn't already exist or is in development in a lab somewhere. Is it practical? Will it come to market? Does it pass testing? That's all up in the air but there's absolutely no good reason to think that what the general public considers to be plausible is actually what's plausible. That doesn't leave us with anything definitive - just a great big question mark - but I found it intereseting that Yglesias threw ESP and telepathy in with ghosts and astrology. ESP, regardless of whether it is real or not, is clearly a material phenomenon. That should still leave us as skeptics, but hopefully not scoffers.


  1. There have been numerous efforts to test ESP ... and they have always come up short. Besides, ESP would require us to fundamentally change our notion of what physics says about the universe. Which brings up the question, what is the mechanism of the transfer of this information?

    Anyway, if you are interested in government funding of ESP research, the more on point effort is probably SRI and its efforts to demonstrate "remote viewing" (see also the Stargate Project). If you are interested in a book on the subject, see "The Men Who Stare At Goats."

    The Skeptic's Dictionary on the subject of "Remote Viewing":

    Oh, and I put aliens on the crazy list.

  2. Jon Ronson on Colbert:

  3. Sure, sure. I was trying to be careful how I phrased all that. My reaction to Yglesias was more "this doesn't seem like it fits with the other things he listed" than anything else. If anything like ESP occurs I imagine it's going to be heavily mechanized. In other words, I don't think the leap is in the physics - I think it's probably in the neuroscience and the interpretation of whatever we can transmit with the aid of machines.

  4. Aliens on the crazy list?!?!?!?!

    Naaah. ESP is on the "who the hell knows what's possible" list for me. With aliens, I'd put people on the crazy list who didn't think they were out there somewhere. I suppose "irrational" is probably fairer than "crazy".

  5. Sure, aliens are likely out there...

    But aliens normally means that they've visited and are "probing" people.

    As much as I love Star Trek, I find the physics behind intra-solar travel to be rather daunting.

    Aliens in other words, are just modern day faeries, goblins, etc.

  6. Oh, I was just talking about the existence of aliens.

    Hard to say of course. It's daunting for people who just emerged from scratching an existence out of the soil and who still have a lot they don't understand about their own planet.

    The universe is a very old place. If we suppose a species of alien that started its ascent from bare survival a million years ago, I don't see any obvious reason why we should simply assume its daunting for them. Particularly if we jettison the assumption that they live on a planet. If their existences if conducted in a shuttle of some sort, then there's no reason to think that millenia of "space travel" is much of an issue for them.

    And this is all assuming lifespans comparable to ours too.

    Through human eyes it is daunting. The prospect of us visiting worlds populated by aliens short of some technological miracle is daunting. But if we accept that probability that the universe is populated by things other than humans we shouldn't have much trouble expecting that what we find daunting may be different from what they find daunting.

    Traveling from my apartment to my office is daunting to an ant, but I think nothing of it.

  7. True, though, the idea that some other species at about our level of development has come here and visited us is pretty ridiculous. I suppose they could have some bunker on a planet in this solar system that we haven't identified and that might make it plausible, but overall I agree with you on that. I think that's a limiting way of looking at the issue, though.

  8. "Through human eyes it is daunting."

    We have a fairly good understanding of the laws of physics in this arena - it is daunting because it is daunting.

    "If anything like ESP occurs I imagine it's going to be heavily mechanized."

    Well, ESP is defined as as perception outside of our normal physical perceptions - if you are adding a machine that allows brains to talk to one another (or view something at a distance) then all that is doing is adding like another arm to our body.

  9. "We have a fairly good understanding of the laws of physics in this arena - it is daunting because it is daunting."

    1. Ya, Newton thought that too.

    2. Sure we have a good understanding of physics, but you're missing my point. What if aliens are technologically a million years ahead of us and have mastered travel through wormholes or warp drive - both technologies that are entirely consistent with our understanding of physics - just out of reach of our engineering.

    3. And again - you're looking at this from a human perspective as someone who has lived on Earth all his life. What if aliens are galactic nomads in enormous ships? Maybe generations of aliens won't see the Earth over the course of the trip, but that doesn't mean they would be dissuaded from making the trip if their home is a ship rather than a planet.

  10. No, I am looking at it from a naturalistic perspective. It is a bit like people who claim that they see ghosts. I've seen dead people. I've never seen a ghost and no one has ever demonstrated that they exist with anything like good evidence.

    The same is true of alien visitation, etc. It is a nutty idea for that very reason. The same is true about claims regarding God and a whole host of other absurdities.

  11. I thought we established several comments back that I wasn't talking about alien visitation.

    I don't think there's zero chance that it's happened, but I pretty much assume it hasn't.

  12. Then I don't really know what you are on about.

    "What if aliens are galactic nomads in enormous ships?"

    What if they are like 17th century pirates?

    There is a reason why SETI, etc. are looking for signals from space - because the notion of spaceships is just not a reasonable expectation.

  13. "Then I don't really know what you are on about."

    Should be pretty clear - I've been talking about the same thing the whole time.

    As for SETI... any ships would be sending signals "from space" just like civilizations on planets would be sending signals "from space". I'm not sure what your point is.

  14. Actually, SETI assumes that they would be coming for a planet orbiting a star - they don't point the radio telescopes are random points in the sky.

    "Should be pretty clear..."

    You are making a claim about civilizations far in advance of ours making interstellar journeys. The claim doesn't stand up to the universe that we live in.

  15. "You are making a claim about civilizations far in advance of ours making interstellar journeys. The claim doesn't stand up to the universe that we live in."

    Quite the opposite - I'm just highlighting a possibility and pointing out how short-sighted it is to make claims about what civilizations we can't even conceive of could or could not do. You're basing your conspicuously confident claims on your imperfect understanding of the full extent of human knowledge about the universe (I'm assuming you're not a world renowned physicist), human knowledge which itself - even at its most brilliant - is still quite basic and immature relative to what it will be several millenia hence.

    And even then, your primary challenges (as I've pointed out several times so far) are really more along the lines of our engineering prowess and the ability of the human species to endure various trials and tribulations. We have even less reason to believe that those things will be a constraint on other civilizations.

  16. "...I'm just highlighting a possibility and pointing out how short-sighted it is to make claims about what civilizations we can't even conceive of could or could not do."

    It isn't shortsighted; it is the universe that we live in.

    You can postulate all the bullshit you want to; it remains bullshit. You can fantasize all you want to; it is highly unlikely that we'll physically contact any alien species for a number of very sound scientific reasons.

    "We have even less reason to believe that those things will be a constraint on other civilizations."

    Because of a claim which boiled down to states that they just have had a lot longer time to work on the problem.

  17. Anyway, by all means, waste your money on this project ... just don't expect me to chip in.

  18. Waste my money on what project?


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