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This week’s big science news is that researchers have finally sequenced the gene for a cephalopod– the California two-spot octopus, Octopus bimaculoides. Geneticists and molecular biologists from the University of Chicago and Berkley worked together to unravel the entire gene—which turned out to be nearly as large as the human genome and did not contain any mass data duplication (which some vertebrate-centric scientists had thought might account for the size and complexity). To quote Business Insider, “The work will allow scientists to study the genetic factors that give way to the octopus’ odd physical traits, and may reveal novel insights not only about the unique biology of cephalopods, but also about the evolution of traits that give rise to a complex nervous system and adaptive camouflage.”

An octopus solving a puzzle

An octopus solving a puzzle

There are already some fascinating initial discoveries from the octopus gene sequence data. Not surprisingly, the scientists discovered completely unique genomic sequences for reflectins (which allow the octopus to change color instantly). Even more intriguingly, the researchers discovered a huge suffusion of protocadherins—which facilitate the interaction between neurons. Octopus seem to have many more of these neural development genes than expected–and indeed the eight legged sea creatures have twice as many protocadherins as more familiar mammalian creatures like humans. However the majority of the data requires additional study. Scientists also hope to contextualize the somewhat abstract genes by sequencing other cephalopods (particularly cuttlefish—which a different team is working on).

Why is this octopus wearing a hat? I don't get it.

Why is this octopus wearing a hat? I don’t get it.

Unfortunately I am not a geneticist and the niceties of jumping genes are somewhat lost on me. I am however greatly interested in finding out more about the biology and evolutionary history of cephalopods. This class of organisms has attained a shockingly high degree of intelligence through a very different evolutionary path than the most intelligent vertebrates (like primates, proboscideans, cetaceans, and parrots). The clever mollusks are capable of solving difficult puzzles in unexpected ways and their donut shaped brains have long perplexed and intrigued neurologists. Perhaps further details of their genetic makeup will yield the seed for tomorrow’s transgenically created superbrains! Barring that, it would be good to understand the mechanisms of diverse neural systems and grasp more about the development of these beautiful yet unfamiliar creatures.

Sallei-magic-font-b-octopus-b-font-music-font-b-intelligent-b-font-sensor-educational-toys

This week’s posts [concerning translucent sea slugs, wasps named for a crazy pop star, an elusive Indochinese cousin of the cow, and whole sunless ecoystems] have all been about finding new life-forms.  There is, of course, only one place such a topic can ultimately wind up—far beyond the living jungles, azure seas, and swirling clouds of our beautiful home planet, out in the immensity of space where the greatest question of all waits like a magic golden apple spinning in darkness.

Is there life elsewhere?

Unfortunately the current answer is incomplete: all known life–in all of its ineffable variety–is Earth-based…yet the universe is vast beyond comprehension.  So I’m going to mark this down as “probably.”

Chang E and the Lunarians

Many ancient societies reckoned that other worlds existed.  The Norse had their nine worlds joined together by the great ash tree Yggrdasil.  The Chinese had myths about Chang’e and the Jade rabbit on the moon. Even the stolid Christians believe in heaven & hell, which are places filled with intelligent beings that are not on earth (ergo, alien realms somewhere out there in the multiverse).  William Herschel, great astronomer of the Enlightenment, believed that life was everwhere—particularly everywhere in the solar system.

Sigh–those were simpler times…

When humankind entered space age, we used our burgeoning technology to examine the solar system for signs of Sir William’s spacefolk.  Although we did not find the Venusian space hotties we were looking for (dammit), we did discover that among our neighboring planets, there are several other possible homes for earthlike living things.  The cloud tops of Venus are inviting and could host bacteria-like life (although I hope not, since I want us to build a second home there).  For centuries, scientists and fabulists speculated about life of Mars.  We now know that the Martian magnetosphere died and the planet’s atmosphere was swept away, but perhaps there are some hardy extremophile bacteria living in the Martian rocks somewhere.  It’s a sad scenario to imagine them on their dying world—like little kids left in a bathtub going cold.  Certain moons of Jupiter & Saturn seem to be the real best bet for life in the solar system.  The Jovian moons Europa, Ganymede, and Callisto are all believed to have extensive liquid oceans beneath their crust.  Likewise the Saturn moons Titan and Enceladus are believed to have subsurface water. The discovery of life on Earth which did not directly require photosynthesis (like the cold seeps from yesterday’s post) has given scientists hope that bacterial mats—or maybe something even more advanced–exists on one of these moons.

So maybe there are some bacteria analogs or conodont-like creatures squiggling around in some cranny of the solar system.  Perhaps life takes on an unknown form and we already flew over a clever, good-hearted ammonia-based life form on Enceladus (which NASA analysts then promptly dismissed as a snowbank), but I doubt it.  The true answers to the questions about life lie out there among the stars.  Exoplanets are being discovered at a tremendous rate and everyone hopes that some of the more earthlike examples harbor life.  Unfortunately our technology is nowhere close to being able to spot the planets themselves and gauge whether life is there by means of spectrograph.  We are stuck waiting for peers who are either broadcasting radio signals or screwing around with the fundamental nature of existence in such a way that would bring them to our attention.  Indeed as humankind’s technological savvy grows, scientists are looking for more sophisticated signs of advanced life such as black holes of less than 3.5 solar masses or sophisticated particle radiation which could only be created (or detected) by civilizations of huge sophistication.  All we can say right now is that, after a hundred years of looking, we have not found a lot of radio chatter in our neck of the galaxy—which is an answer of sorts itself.

Perhaps we are among the first sentient beings in this area of space (or anywhere, for that matter).  The first generation of stars had to live and die before there were any raw materials for chemically based life. It took billions of years to get where we are, and, despite a few perilous missteps and accidents, life on Earth has been lucky.  In my opinion some of those planets we are discovering are almost certainly covered with microbial life, but not many have little green scientists in many-armed lab coats firing up their radio telescopes (or forging little suits of chain mail a few hundred years behind us).

The Arecibo message as sent 1974 from the Arecibo Observatory.

In writing about the Curiosity rover, I humorously mentioned how much it looked like the aliens from golden age science fiction. It seems we are also broadcasting retro style messages to the stars.  Above is the print-out version of the Arecibo message—one of the loudest broadcasts we have sent.  It’s like a macramé knitted by Dr. Zoidberg’s great aunt or a valentine from Atari’s space invaders! Imagine if you pointed your radio telescope at the heavens and received a message like that!  Maybe the aliens are scared of us or maybe they don’t want to talk to a species with such homespun tastes!

Some day in the future (artist’s interpretation)

So, after the whole post we are no closer to knowing if there is life in the cosmos, but what did you expect?  Did you think I would tell you some secret here before you saw it blaring out of every news station on the planet? [If you did think that, then thank you so much!]  I believe that extraterrestrial life is out there.  I even believe that intelligent extraterrestrials are out there, but the universe really is ridiculously, ridiculously vast.  It’s going to take a while to find our fellow living beings.  In the mean time have faith (which is not advice I thought I would be giving) and keep looking up at the cold distant heavens.

The great astronomer, Sir Frederick William Herschel fundamentally remade humanity’s perception of the universe with his scientific discoveries.  In addition to intelligence, diligence, and acuity, he possessed substantial personal creativity and boundless energy–as exemplified by his remarkable musical career.  His wildly outre convictions about extraterrestrial life, however, would embarrass even a hardened UFO nut.  As a scientist, Herschel could not prove his speculations about life beyond earth–and therefore he did not publish such ideas in scientific journals.  His philosophical essays and his personal correspondences (the latter of which only fully came to light in 1912), however show how keenly he believed in extraterrestrial life and civilization and how tirelessly he looked for aliens.

William Herschel and his sister (and collaborator) Caroline Herschel

Since the moon is the closest celestial body to earth and the most easily observed with a telescope, it was a natural place for Herschel to begin his search for extraterrestrials.  In a letter to a friend, Herschel described how he believed the craters of the moon were Lunarian cities and dwellings (laid out like the Roman “circus” meaning a large ring):

As upon the Earth several Alterations have been, and are daily, made of a size sufficient to be seen by the inhabitants of the Moon, such as building Towns, cutting canals for Navigation, making turnpike roads &c: may we not expect something of a similar Nature on the Moon? – There is a reason to be assigned for circular-Buildings on the Moon, which is that, as the Atmosphere there is much rarer than ours and of consequence not so capable of refracting and (by means of clouds shining therein) reflecting the light of the sun, it is natural enough to suppose that a Circus will remedy this deficiency, For in that shape of Building one half will have the directed light and the other half the reflected light of the Sun.  Perhaps, then on the Moon every town is one very large Circus?…Should this be true ought we not to watch the erection of any new small Circus as the Lunarians may the Building of a new Town on the Earth….By reflecting a little on the subject I am almost convinced that those numberless small Circuses we see on the Moon are the works of the Lunarians and may be called their Towns….Now if we could discover any new erection it is evident an exact list of those Towns that are already built will be necessary.  But this is no easy undertaking to make out, and will require the observation of many a careful Astronomer and the most capital Instruments that can be had.  However this is what I will begin.

Of course this spectacular misapprehension becomes more comprehensible considering how long it took humanity to understand the nature of craters (it wasn’t until the 1960’s that work by astrogeologist Gene Shoemaker, brought about widespread scientific consensus that craters were caused by impacts).  Yet Herschel was so devoted to his Lunarians that he came perilously close to inventing findings. As he carefully scrutinized the moon for other living things night after night, imperfect optics and his yearning for alien life sometimes got the best of him.  Here is a drawing of a shadow which he perceived might be a forest.

Herschel did not believe that the moon was the only other sphere to support life–he believed that life could be found on all heavenly bodies which are spherical from self-gravitation.  And Herschel really meant all such bodies: in the Royal Society’s Philosophical Transactions in 1795 he speculated about beings living on the sun,

The sun…appears to be nothing else than a very eminent, large, and lucid planet, evidently the first, or in strictness of speaking, the only primary one of our system….Its similarity to the other globes of the solar system …leads us to suppose that it is most probably inhabited …by beings whose organs are adapted to the peculiar circumstances of that vast globe.

Hershel thought that all of the stars in the universe were like the sun—densely habited and supporting an orbiting network of habited worlds. He wrote “since stars appear to be suns, and suns, according to the common opinion, are bodies that serve to enlighten, warm, and sustain a system of planets, we may have an idea of numberless globes that serve for the habitation of living creatures.” Additionally, Herschel believed that the nebula he observed were other “universes” like our own, each containing innumerable stars—all of which were habited.  He was wrong in his interpretation of the particular gaseous nebulae he was looking at, but he was quite right about the existence and nature of other galaxies (although this idea was not proved or accepted until the work of Edwin Hubble).

The Rosette nebula, a stellar nursery about 5,000 light-years from Earth in the Unicorn constellation (photographed by the Herschel Space Observatory, ESA)

Poor Herschel’s hunches about extraterrestrial life seem quaint to us now. Couched in boyish exuberance and 18th century idioms, they almost seem risible. Yet Herschel was right about exoplanets and about galaxies beyond our own.  He seems to have been the only person of his time to begin to apprehend how vast the universe really is.  Thanks to the work of many scientists and explorers we can write off life on the moon and (almost certainly) the sun.  However, even with our robot probes and our telescopes, the solar system is shockingly unknown.  And beyond the solar system, the large exoplanets we currently know about are strange hot giants we did not expect. The preliminary results of the Kepler mission are beginning to trickle in, and they hint at a profusion of planets (and other things) much more heterogeneous and odd than cosmic uniformitarians might expect.   If blogging has taught me one thing, it is not to underestimate Sir Frederick William Herschel (a conclusion I hardly anticipated).  So while I chuckle about the perfectly circular cities of the lunarians, I am also keeping an open mind about the immense number of unknown worlds.

NGC 7331, a spiral galaxy discovered by Herschel which he mistakenly believed was a nebula(which he mistakenly thought were like galaxies)

Also (as I suspect Sir William felt), I am sad about how many things are simply unknowable.

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