should we intentionally seed life on other planets?

Some bacteria have been found surviving on the outside of the International Space Station. Tardigrades are an even hardier form of microbe that can supposedly survive even close to absolute zero. They can essentially go dormant in a state very, very near death, then bounce back if and when they find themselves in suitable conditions later on. There is even speculation that life on Earth could have arrived from space in a form like this, and/or life forms originating on Earth could be living on other planets right now.

Space dust collisions as a planetary escape mechanism (In press Astrobiology, 2017)

Hypervelocity space dust is a unique entity in planetary systems like our Solar System, which is able to go past and enter the atmosphere of planets, collect samples of those planets and deposit samples of other planets. The entire system of fast space dust in a planetary system thus contains the atoms, molecules and possibly even microbial life, from all the planets and provides a means to mix them up amongst the different planets. For collecting atoms and molecules that form atmospheres, the mechanism proposed in this paper is fairly straightforward. For collecting life and life related molecules this mechanism has interesting features, but many detailed issues would still need to be studied. The violent collisions involved in this mechanism could make it difficult for life to remain intact. There are several possible collision scenarios that would all need to be explored to get a definitive answer to this problem. But even if life itself does not remain intact, it could still permit the complex molecules associated with life to get propelled into space, and that is also interesting for the panspermia process. Since space dust is ubiquitous all over the Solar System and is believed to exist in interstellar and probably intergalactic space, the mechanism proposed in this paper for propelling small particles into space could provide a universal mechanism both for the exchange of the atomic and molecular constituents between distant planetary atmospheres and for initiating the first step of the panspermia process.

According to Wikipedia, panspermia is “the hypothesis that life exists throughout the Universe, distributed by meteoroidsasteroidscomets,[1] planetoids,[2] and also by spacecraft in the form of unintended contamination by microorganisms.”

Of course there is still the Fermi Paradox – if life is so common, why haven’t we been able to find any evidence of it, anywhere, even once? There are ethical implications of all this. We would like to perpetuate our human species and current form of civilization, of course, and that means getting into space eventually. But if we don’t manage to pull that off, and all life on Earth is wiped out for one reason or another, panspermia means that life exists elsewhere, and somewhere, sometime, intelligent life will evolve again if it hasn’t already. But if there is absolutely no life anywhere else in the universe, the loss of it on Earth would mean the end of all life forever. That would be too heavy a burden to bear, and would mean we have a strong ethical obligation to get some self-sustaining human colonies out into space as an insurance policy. But there could be a cheaper form of insurance policy – intentionally contaminate space and nearby planets with hardy germs from Earth, and in a few billion years something will survive and evolve, somewhere, into something. Do this enough and again, eventually you will have intelligent life somewhere. But finally, if it turns out there is life on other nearby planets, even very primitive life, then intentionally contaminating them with our germs would not seem like such an ethical thing to do after all.

Goering on Propaganda

An article on History News Network has this disturbing quote from Hermann Goering:

The Nazis fundamentally understood that public opinion was merely something that could be manufactured: propaganda would make people believe anything the regime wanted them to. As Reichsmarshal Goering told the Nuremberg Tribunal: “it is always a simple matter to drag the people along, whether it is a democracy, or a fascist dictatorship, or a parliament, or a communist dictatorship. Voice or no voice, the people can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders. That is easy. All you have to do is to tell them they are being attacked, and denounce the pacifists for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger. It works the same in every country.”

Blame the Jews, the Communists, the Mexicans, the Muslims, the Koreans, the Chinese, the Russians, the atheists, anything to avoid looking internally for real causes of and real solutions to complex probems.

ice apocalypse

So will it be fire or ice that gets us. Eric Holthaus, writing in Grist, says ice.

The glaciers of Pine Island Bay are two of the largest and fastest-melting in Antarctica. (A Rolling Stone feature earlier this year dubbed Thwaites “The Doomsday Glacier.”) Together, they act as a plug holding back enough ice to pour 11 feet of sea-level rise into the world’s oceans — an amount that would submerge every coastal city on the planet. For that reason, finding out how fast these glaciers will collapse is one of the most important scientific questions in the world today…

In the past few years, scientists have identified marine ice-cliff instability as a feedback loop that could kickstart the disintegration of the entire West Antarctic ice sheet this century — much more quickly than previously thought.

Minute-by-minute, huge skyscraper-sized shards of ice cliffs would crumble into the sea, as tall as the Statue of Liberty and as deep underwater as the height of the Empire State Building. The result: a global catastrophe the likes of which we’ve never seen.

I enjoy Eric’s writing. He employs some hyperbole, but always links to original sources you can drill into if you want to. Regarding the hyperbole though, here is some criticism of him in the Guardian:

I was particularly concerned about some of the implied time scales and impacts. That ‘slowly burying every shoreline…creating hundreds of millions of climate refugees…could play out in a mere 20 to 50 years’ (it could begin then, but would take far longer). That ‘the full 11 feet’ could be unlocked by 2100 (Rob and Dave predicted the middle of next century). That cities will be ‘wiped off the map’ (we will adapt, because the costs of protecting coastlines are predicted to be far less than those of flooding). We absolutely should be concerned about climate risks, and reduce them. But black-and-white thinking and over-simplification don’t help with risk management, they hinder.

Is “the entire scientific community [in] emergency mode”? We are cautious, and trying to learn more. Climate prediction is a strange game. It takes decades to test our predictions, so society must make decisions with the best evidence but always under uncertainty. I understand why a US-based climate scientist would feel particularly pessimistic. But we have to take care not to talk about the apocalypse as if it were inevitable.

Maybe, but if the cost of protecting cities is less than the cost of flooding, perhaps our U.S. politicians could get to work on that instead of continuing to bury their heads in the sand and pretend science doesn’t exist, even if the time frame is uncertain. Remember the serious scientists are arguing here over whether the most likely scenario is the one that has been presented over the past few years, or something worse. They are not arguing that it might actually be better than they thought.

North Korea and biological weapons

Harvard Kennedy School has a new report on North Korea and biological weapons. It is not as alarming as it maybe could be. They almost certainly have the ability to produce them, as does any country, company, or institution with modern agricultural technology. There is no clear evidence that they have made a large-scale attempt to weaponize or deploy them.

buy or rent?

This academic study says that people who own houses are richer on average than people who do not. But generally, renting costs less per month than buying, so the answer must be the build-up of home equity and price appreciation, right? Well, one conclusion of this paper is that theoretically, if you rented a house for a long period of time, and invested the amount of money you saved compared to paying a mortgage diligently every month, you would come out ahead in the long term over most periods of recent U.S. history. But this doesn’t happen, so maybe the answer is that the type of people who rent homes are not the type who invest, on average, and vice versa.

I wonder if they factored in my mortgage and property tax deductions, which I am hoping do not go away. I’ve always wondered – if two friends bought equally priced houses, rented them to each other, and paid taxes as landlords rather than homeowners, would they come out ahead or behind? As a landlord you can deduct all your maintenance and repair costs, plus depreciation which is just a weird thing that only exists on paper. Would there be anything illegal about this? Could family members do it? If so, why don’t they?

I’ve owned, and rented, and been a landlord and a tenant at the same time, because I’ve moved around and been in some weird situations with a growing family and that was the easiest thing to do. The best thing about renting is how easy it is. If you want to rent a place and really put some effort into it, you can live there just a few days later. I did that once although I had to clean it myself when I got there. The best thing about owning a place is you can mess with it if you want to. Especially the yard if that is your thing. And if that is your thing, it’s a little hard to put a financial price on.

Financially speaking, the man puts money in one of your pockets and takes it out of the other, as far as I can tell, and if you play it just right you have a few pennies left to save for a rainy day. Then you eat, sleep, shit, and do it again, and that is how the financial part of the world works, so it is best to look for meaning in other parts of the world.

browser extensions to get cheaper stuff

This blog is not about how to get more stuff. It’s not about how to get cheaper stuff. For the most part, I am almost totally against stuff and the idea that life is about getting more of it.

But there is in fact some stuff I need and even some I want. So I might occasionally mention a story about browser extensions that help us get more stuff cheaper. But we have to be disciplined! Just because we can get cheaper stuff does not mean we should get more of it. Try to get used stuff if you can, and try to get rid of some when you get some new stuff. But if there is a thing you are absolutely going to buy new, no matter what, whether you have any of these browser extensions are not, then go ahead and see if they will help you get it cheaper.

why start a war?

Why do governments start wars when they kind of know that long, drawn-out wars end up being bad for all sides. A new book by Lawrence Freedman suggests it is because they think they can deliver an early knockout blow and achieve some limited objective. Technology tends to aid and abet that belief.

Freedman — an emeritus professor at King’s College London, one of Britain’s pre-eminent strategic thinkers and a former member of its official Iraq war inquiry — argues that the prognosticators often expect to limit the destructiveness of the next war through a surprise knockout blow. But they tend to overlook what happens if that first salvo doesn’t win a quick victory, underestimating the salience of demographics and economic capacity while overestimating citizens’ willingness to keep on fighting and dying in a prolonged struggle. Bloody stalemates at the front can spark revolutions, mutinies or civil wars at home…

There’s an important Asian case in point, mentioned only briefly here, that strongly supports Freedman’s warnings against delusions of knockout battles: Japan in World War II. Plotting their surprise attack on Pearl Harbor, Japanese militarists hoped to win some quick victories and then negotiate peace on more favorable terms…

Today the allure of a swift victory comes packaged in new military technologies combining information with more accurate targeting from afar, killing enemies without endangering American soldiers. Freedman is unbeguiled by our current tech obsession. While studies of the evolution of warfare have often concentrated on newfangled weaponry like machine guns, nuclear submarines or artificial intelligence, he spurns the “constant temptation to believe that there were technical fixes for what were essentially political problems.”

Saudi Arabia’s motives for war

I was musing recently about what possible motive Saudi Arabia could have for provoking war with Iran. Joschka Fischer suggests one answer:

As part of his agenda, MBS has also launched an aggressive new foreign policy, particularly toward Iran. The modernizers around MBS know that the revolution’s success will require breaking the power of Wahhabism by replacing it with Saudi nationalism. And in order to do that, they need a compelling enemy. Shia Iran, with which the Kingdom is competing for regional hegemony, is the ideal foil.

These domestic considerations help to explain why Saudi Arabia has thrown down the gauntlet and escalated tensions with Iran in recent months. Of course, from the Saudis’ perspective, they are merely picking up the gauntlet that Iran already threw down by interfering in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Bahrain, Qatar, Yemen, and other countries.

So far, the battle for regional hegemony between Saudi Arabia and Iran has been limited to proxy wars in Syria and Yemen, with disastrous humanitarian consequences. Neither side, it seems, wants a direct military conflict. And yet that outcome can hardly be ruled out, given recent developments. In the Middle East, a cold war can turn hot rather quickly.

Large Igneous Provinces and mass extinction

Ars Technica has an article on Large Igneous Provinces, which are volcanic eruptions so large (occurring every 15 million years or so on average) they are thought to be the main culprit behind most mass extinctions. Lava and toxic gas can be bad but are not enough to explain mass extinction. They can actually cause large-scale global cooling on a short time scale (a decade or so) due to particulate emissions, but that effect also is not enough to explain mass extinction. The way they are thought to cause global mass extinction this is by burning underground fossil fuels on an enormous scale, causing catastrophic climate change that species cannot adapt to (including global warming, sea level rise, and ocean acidification, which kick in after the shorter-term cooling effect has run its course, and last a lot longer).

I was also wondering about volcanic activity versus comet and asteroid strikes. The article addresses that too:

Debate over what caused these factory resets of life has raged ever since Cuvier’s time. He considered them to be caused by environmental catastrophes that rearranged the oceans and continents. Since then, a host of explanations have been proposed, including diseasesgalactic gamma raysdark matter, and even methane from microbes. But since the 1970s, most scientists have considered the likely root cause to be either asteroid impacts, massive volcanic eruptions, or a combination of both.

Those asteroid (or comet) impacts have captured the public imagination ever since 1980, when Luis and Walter Alvarez found global traces of iridium, which they inferred to be extraterrestrial, at the geological boundary that marked the disappearance of the dinosaurs. The identification of the Chicxulub impact crater in Mexico soon after sealed the deal. Impacts have been proposed to explain other mass extinctions, but there’s very little actual evidence to support those links. In the words of researchers David Bond and Stephen Grasby, who reviewed the evidence in 2016: “Despite much searching, there remains only one confirmed example of a bolide impact coinciding with an extinction event…”

Volcanism, on the other hand, has coincided with most, if not all, mass extinctions—it looks suspiciously like a serial killer, if you like.

According to the article, the rate of fossil fuel burning is similar to what humans are doing now. So it follows that natural ecosystems could collapse this time too. That would be a catastrophe in itself, but how resilient can our species and food production systems be compared to all the others that have come and gone before us?