The Long View 2002-06-02

Parkes 64m Radio TelescopeJohn was interested in Fortean phenomena. While this subject provides plenty of opportunity to poke fun at the credulous, every so often fish and frogs really do rain from the sky. One might also note that the spectacular electrical phenomena known as sprites and blue jets have been observed for over a century by pilots, but such reports were widely dismissed until someone managed to catch one on camera.

Cold fusion and reactionless thrusters keep disappointing everyone, but there is a big enough payoff in these things that federal agencies with no sense of humor keep funding small experiments in the hope of a breakthrough.

I am disinclined to dismiss data out of hand. I am also disinclined to give an n of 1 more weight than it deserves. I think John understood this pretty well.



Apropos of nothing in particular, here are some science stories I have been following. They are not quite fringe science. All they have in common is that, if they have substance, the world will never be the same again.

Talking to Extraterrestrials: I have my own, rather convoluted ideas about the likelihood of detecting extraterrestrial intelligence with radio telescopes. The fact is, though, this is one of those questions about which almost all speculation is equally ill-founded. The matter is bound up with fashions in evolutionary theory and often driven by bad metaphysics. There really is no way to settle these issues other than by experiment; that is, to just search.

Let us assume that signals are detected, and the source is near enough for an exchange of messages. This leaves us with the problem of communicating with a non-human intelligence. The difficulties in this connection may have been underestimated. The philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein went so far as to say that, if a lion spoke, we could not understand it. The idea is that understanding language is as dependent on the nature of the hearer as on the structure and use of the language. Even creatures as closely related as a human being and a lion experience the world so differently that they could not be expected to devise a common code.

Scientists often skip over this problem by asserting that "mathematics is a universal language." This position is known as Mathematical Platonism. It is one of the perennials of philosophy, but so is the position that mathematics is just another arbitrary language. John Barrow, in his wonderful book Pi in the Sky, considered whether and to what degree mathematics is culturally conditioned. He even considered the possibility that we might contact extraterrestrials who have no concept of a "theorem." He came down, grudgingly, on the side of Platonism, though he admitted he had no answer for the old objection that there is no obvious way to connect the Platonic world to this one.

I write about this now because I recently came across some research from Yale that might cast light on the matter. The study concerned the way that autistic people watch movies. Both the autistic subjects and the normal control group were highly intelligent and verbal. Nonetheless, the researchers found that the two groups watched movie dialogue differently. The normals watched the eyes of the characters, while the autistic people watched the mouths.

As with so much else about autism, probably we are just seeing an extreme manifestation of ordinary behavior. If you watch a film in a language you do not know well, for instance, you might find yourself looking at the mouths, too. In any case, what seemed to be happening was that the normals assembled what they saw on the screen into the integral Gestalt we call a person. The autistic people were processing information, without integrating the behaviors they saw into persons. Autistic people can do that, of course, but it takes work.

This could be the kind of problem we might have with extraterrestrials, and they with us. We might be able to mirror signals that refer to the same physical events, but we would not see what the events meant, or indeed that they meant anything. At least initially, the flow of data would not suggest mind or consciousness. We would be lucky to spot the flow as artificial. At that point, we might do well to send for special education teachers.

Black Light: I fell for Cold Fusion from the time when the claims to have produced it first surfaced in 1989. There were so many other wonders in that year; the discovery of a perpetual source of virtually free power seemed to be natural. I was inclined to attribute the early skepticism about the discovery to malice and jealousy on the part of the skeptics. The subject still makes me grumpy.

I still think that, if I wait long enough, some table-top physics will come along to change life as we know it. The best contender at the moment is "black light," ultraviolet radiation produced by an excited plasma. Black Light Power, a New Jersey company, has already built some interesting batteries and generators using proprietary Black Light technology. Even more interesting, NASA has invested some money to pursue Black Light. The technology's proponents say they can make a hydrogen plasma rocket engine that will work in the atmosphere.

The problem is that the technology may require ripping up 20th-century physics. The Black Light people say they have found classical solutions for quantum phenomena. They say they are getting energy from hydrogen atoms below the ground state. They have peer-reviewed articles documenting some novel effects. I don't understand the claims well enough to say whether the hair-raising physics has to be correct for the technology to work.

As we say in New Jersey, it's nice work if you can get it.

Lost Civilizations: When people claim to have found a lost civilization, they are usually either (1) lying; (2) failing to recognize the remains of some known culture; or (3) mistaking natural formations for artificial ones. I was thus somewhat surprised that last year's reports about submerged megalithic structures off western Cuba's Guanahacabibes Peninsula have not gone away. The observations were made by a Cuban-Canadian partnership looking for sunken treasure ships. What they found, using sonar and robot submersibles, looks like an extensive area of roads, walls, and pyramids. A sunken city is not by itself so remarkable. The problem is that this one is 2,000 feet down.

Even in the geologically unstable Caribbean, there is no obvious way this could have happened. The region in question probably once connected Cuba with Central America, but that was on the order of 50,000 years ago. At that time, there were no civilizations. There were some barely human hominids in the eastern hemisphere, but no one in the west.

The odds are still strong that the find will turn out to be natural structures after all. If they are not, then no doubt special explanations will be found to fit the subsidence into known history. Huge, submarine landslides are not unheard of: a ridge might have slid into the sea just a few thousand years ago, raising a great tsunami in the process. To discover that such a thing had happened would be wonder enough.

The alternative is too disconcerting to be wonderful. We would not be talking about Atlantis anymore, but of a city out of Lovecraft.

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