Notes from the Undermind

A collection of random ricochets around the pinball machine of my mind. Keep your eye on the ball ...

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I am the original Speaker to Managers, having earned the title working for Tektronix, Inc. in the 1980's and '90s. Accept no substitutes. I also worked for GemStone Systems, and am a member in good standing of the ex-GemStone Association.

I'm recently retired, and spending my time trying to decide how to spend my time. It will probably turn out to be some mix of photography, making mathematical art, and writing science fiction. Previously I was a professional software engineer, amateur photographer, and occasional poet and artist. I've been a soldier, a peace-marcher, an assembly-line worker, a video studio technician, and an apprentice integrated circuit designer. I've worked in a medical school, a large electronics company, and several high-tech startups. I've raised dogs and children (no success at all with tropical fish). I've never been a short order cook, but I was a lunch counter attendant for a day. I'm politically Left, technically Object-Oriented, religiously idiosyncratic, and geographically Left Coast. I know where the bodies are buried.

Wednesday, July 13, 2005

Well, maybe not. That's the question I wanted to talk about today: are there aliens or aren't there? And why do I care? Now, I'm not going to get into flying saucers and Grays, Men in Black (does anyone remember that they started as androids sent out by the Venusians?), abductions, or any of the rest of the tabloid fluff. I'm in the middle of reading an excellent book called "What Does a Martian Look Like?" by Jack Cohen, a reproductive biologist (yeah, he's got kids, but that's not what it means ...), and Ian Stewart, a mathematician. The book brings up all kinds of interesting questions about whether there is life on other worlds in the universe, whether some of that life is intelligent, and whether some of that intelligent life has developed technological civilization.

But the book explicitly doesn't ask whether any of that life looks like us, or acts or thinks like us. That's so unlikely that it's not worth worrying about. There are a lot of people, scientists included, who don't see the strength of the arguments in this book. Some think that life must be very improbable, perhaps so much so, that life on Earth is alone in the universe. Others think that there might be other life, but that, by definition, "life" must mean carbon-based oxygen/water metabolism with replication provided by DNA.

Cohen and Stewart don't agree with these views, which they call "parochial". I agree with them, for a lot of reasons, most of which are scientific. But I'm glad there's some reason on our side, because I want there to be other life in the universe, and I want some of it to be intellligent, and even technic. And that's what I want to talk about today.

Why does the existence of life matter to me? Part of the reason is esthetic: I just think the universe is more interesting place if it has lots of varieties of life in it. Part of it is a hope that I'll get to meet an alien, unlikely as that may be. It really doesn't take a great deal of imagination to realize that what we as humans perceive of the universe is a small part of what's out there, and I want to ask somebody else what they perceive.

Maybe most of all, it would be good to know we're not alone. The universe seems to be a vast and impersonal place; the more life there is, the less impersonal it may actually be.


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