Search for Extraterrestrial Life

For decades now we have been actively searching for evidence of life not of Earthly origin. Our motivation is curiosity, both scientific and otherwise. As tools and techniques have improved, we are getting much closer to our goal, although failure to find life elsewhere would not be probative. It might mean that we aren’t looking in the right place or even that we haven’t recognized the signature of life because we are blinded by our preconceptions.

What is lagging in this effort is a serious analysis of the potential consequences of success. Scientific curiosity has ethical and practical limits. The search itself is probably harmless and is at worst a questionable investment of time and resources. But what if we find life, not just fossils of primordial life but actual living beings? It is very unlikely, some would say virtually impossible, that we would discover intelligent life where we have the current capacity to investigate. Anywhere within our solar system is within practical range, but none of the candidates seem likely habitats for evolved life. Beyond that the immensity of space and sparsity of viable habitats greatly limit feasible investigations. At best we might detect recognizable signatures of life, like the presence of free oxygen on a planet in the habitable zone. This would be intriguing but hardly definitive.

But our solar system harbors several candidates for simple life forms, most notably amongst Jupiter’s moons and even conceivably in subsurface Mars.

Europa

We could, and mostly likely will, mount unmanned probes to test these possibilities in the not too distant future. So, back to the question at hand. What if we find life? If we do, it will likely resemble familiar Earthly life in most respects. Why? Because that’s what we would be seeking. Sufficiently foreign life forms would be unrecognizable unless they walked up to our probe and knocked on its door. So, what would be likely consequences to us back on Earth?

Initially, I expect denial and outrage amongst some in the non-scientific community. Life elsewhere challenges many religious beliefs. Personally, I find that odd because surely God could create life anywhere and even divinely inspired scripture could have been deliberately tailored to the intellectual limitations of its receivers. Even for the non-religious, the existence of alien life can be frightening, even if it takes only simple forms. For one thing, we know that simple forms can evolve and that evolution may have occurred beyond our current detection capabilities. Is this a threat, if not now perhaps in the foreseeable future? A special concern is if our probe is sufficiently versatile that it can return samples to Earth for detailed investigation. Should we do this even if we can? What are the risks and are they acceptable for the benefit derived?

My point is that scientific investigation has a life of its own. Once it progresses sufficiently down a path with some evidence of success, stopping it may be very hard. So we should make a serious attempt to answer the questions now. I am no Luddite, but I do harbor concerns that we may not have yet evolved sufficiently to react sensibly to discovery of extraterrestrial life.

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The Overprotected Child

cottonwoolkidsA new study shows that early exposure of children to peanuts makes it less likely that peanut allergy will develop later. This completely reverses current medical practice where children are protected from exposure until they are at least 3 years old. But isn’t it obvious? The way infants develop protective defenses is precisely by controlled exposure, either through inoculations or through diet. If you put an infant in a bubble it will grow into a defenseless adult.

The way that researchers came to perform the study was due to an interesting observation of Jewish children. In Israel, for dietary reasons I don’t understand, early exposure is the norm. But for Israeli Jews who have migrated to the UK where that is apparently not the practice, their children have far greater incidence of peanut allergy. Now these researchers have done a large and well-regarded clinical trial that confirms this effect is not confined to Jews. They are currently extending this to other types of food allergies.

Anecdotally, I have noticed that children of previous generations seem to have far fewer food allergies than is now common in the U.S. They were not protected from potentially adverse exposures because their parents weren’t warned that it was necessary.

I suspect that this is not the only way in which well-meaning protection has unanticipated adverse consequences. Both physical and psychological problems may result from the way we often restrain children’s play and interactions.

A Coronation Walk?

unopposedWhat if no one challenges Hillary for the nomination? These are early times, but running for President requires a long-term commitment to build the infrastructure, staff and commitments of people and money. The door for a serious contender will be open for no more than a few months, if that. So far, only a handful of weak opponents have timidly raised their hands, former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I, VT), and former Virginia Sen. Jim Webb. The other obvious possibilities are Vice-President Joe Biden, Secretary of State and 2004 nominee John Kerry, and the great liberal hope, Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren. None seems to be making serious moves. So, it could happen.

The consequences are interesting. There would be no debates leading toward the nomination, unless Hillary decides to pull a Clint Eastwood and addresses an empty chair. Debates are big audience draws and give candidates an unequaled opportunity to make their case to the undecided and rally the troops This would be a sharp contrast to the Republicans who have the complete opposite problem, a plethora of hopefuls. Indeed they face real problems in organizing workable debates without appearing to have picked sides. The national news will predictably be filled with Republican events together with comments and speculations about their horse race. Hillary will have to fight just to be heard.

A tough primary season has contradictory consequences for the eventual winner. On the one hand, debating skills are honed, messages are sharpened, and there is time for recovery from the inevitable missteps. On the other, the candidate carries scars from the fight and reveals vulnerabilities to the opposition, while it is physically exhausting. Thus a coronation walk to the nomination is a mixed blessing. Moreover having only one target greatly simplifies the task of Republican candidates, who can tailor their message during the primary season toward the election to come.

A minor advantage is that Hillary would have the time and energy to pick her running mate very carefully. This has often not been the case for harried candidates and campaign staff, with the result being no help, at best, and quite possibly disaster. Who can forget George McGovern’s choice of Sen. Thomas Eagleton in 1972? That lasted only 17 days before revelation of his depression problems forced the DNC to replace him with Sargent Shriver. Probably nothing could have helped McGovern anyway, but this mess surely didn’t.

One big advantage for Hillary would be finances. By all reports her campaign will be overflowing anyway, but not having to fight through tough primaries will preserve resources for the real fight to come. It is quite possible that her Republican opponent will be scraping the bottom of the barrel by then and have to spend scarce resources of time and energy rebuilding his bank account.

Homeland Insecurity

The recent incursion on the Capital lawn by an old gent flying a gyrocopter raises a troubling question. Was it handled properly and, if not, what should have been done? My underlying concern is beautifully captured by this cartoon.

Gyrocopter

An official involved admits that this reveals a hole in our defenses, but he hastened to add that their rules of engagement wouldn’t allow use of deadly force to prevent this kind of event. He pointed out that anyone could see that this was “just an old man” and that there was no visible evidence that he was carrying explosives or other ordnance. Further, he added, what if we shot him down and he really had explosives and blew up some nice tourist lady from Bakersfield?

angry_manTo say the least, this response troubles me! Osama bin Laden was an old man, and in fact he looked a bit like this pilot. Moreover, hiding bars of Semtex explosive or even a rocket launcher isn’t very hard. But not to worry, there was no sign on the gyrocopter saying “Death to America”. I think we are entirely too squeamish for our own good. Fear of hurting some deranged geriatric is no excuse for lax protection of our vital interests. And in any case, the next deranged geriatric might not be so inoffensive.

If IGTs (Islamic Gyrocopter Terrorists) still don’t concern you, how about small, undetectable drones? If I were an ISIS commander I would be ordering my minions to bone up on this technology pronto. Joking aside, this is going to happen. And we better hope that the first attack is on a small scale so that we can get serious about the electronic jamming technology that could be an effective defense.

Airline Cattle Class

SqueezedThis is an actual picture of what we will shortly face on the big air carriers. They have already pared down the leg room. Now they plan to reduce seat width enough to add one more seat per row in a wide-body jet. This shows a normal-sized man. Well not really, since obesity is rampant, so use your imagination. Actually this lucky traveler has nabbed the prized exit aisle seat. At least he can stretch his legs and no one is compressing him from the front by reclining his seat back. But look at how thin the seat arms are. I suppose the first one seated get the armrest, such as it is.

On second glance, perhaps this is actually an upgraded class. Those nice pillows are almost certainly not provided in cattle class, at least not for free.

suitslaughingTo cap this off, the new seating arrangement is mainly being deployed on the really large aircraft that are used for long distance flights. So this is what the victims will endure for hours and hours. I am trying to visualize the board of directors as they considered this change. Are they just good businessmen making necessary changes to maintain profitability or are they actually sadists? I think the jury is out on this one.

Teaching The Underprivileged

student_desk_booksWe know that the underprivileged are badly served by their schools, and that this contributes significantly to their inability to rise in society. This wasn’t always true. In big city slums during the great influx of migrants during the early 20th century, the schools were often far better than their counterparts today. Not that they were lavishly appointed or funded, but that they were served wonderfully by many skilled and dedicated teachers.

Upgrading the teaching cadre for those who need their help so badly is crucial. One part of this is devoting more money and using these scarce resources more effectively to attract and retain skilled teachers. But that challenging problem is for another discussion. First we must acknowledge that hiding behind this barrier is a real conundrum that has never been fully acknowledged.

Teaching involves more than skill and subject matter mastery. It also involves being able to connect with the students on a personal level. This is usually interpreted as requiring a cultural and historical affinity. That leads to the belief that we must have mostly black teachers in predominately black schools, and the equivalent rule for mostly Hispanic schools. For mixtures of minorities, the rule is unclear, but in any case whites are deemed fundamentally incapable of making the necessary connection. There is some dispute about this analysis amongst academicians but this remains the prevailing view at present.

But here’s the rub. Where are you going to get the skilled and motivated teachers? There are pockets of excellence in academia where these are available, but at least now they are overwhelmingly white. This is a “chicken and egg” problem. Without the flow of minorities through good schools into good teacher training, there will never be the kind of cadre that is needed.

There was an alternative that was tried and found wanting for many reasons. We hoped that busing students to break the effects of housing segregation patterns would solve this problem. This would put minority children in schools environments that obviously served white children better. While well-meaning, this is in direct opposition to the whole idea of cultural affinity. Both concepts can’t be simultaneously valid.

The Dismal Science At Work

babinbudget-thumb-633x467-14415Devising sensible budgets is hard work. Whether it’s legislators considering the national budget or an average person working out her household budget, there are two major considerations. You  determine what you want to do and then you calculate how much that will cost and see if it is affordable. None of that is easy, especially at the national level. Let’s set aside the policy issues for the moment. How do legislators determine the cost of their proposals? Their best resource at present is the scoring developed by the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office (CBO).

The CBO does a pretty good job, meaning that no one likes their output. Policy proponents don’t like to hear how expensive their ideas are, and opponents think that CBO doesn’t account for all the negative impacts. This has led to ideas for how to “improve” CBO estimates, the latest of which is dynamic scoring. Superficially this seems like a fine idea. In essence it means that CBO estimates must account for consequential macro-economic effects. Presently, using static scoring, they only account for direct effects.

An example makes the difference easy to understand. Suppose you raise the excise tax on tobacco products. Using static scoring, you account for the increase in revenue, assuming no effects on habits or policies of users and producers. Using dynamic scoring, you would estimate the negative impact on tobacco sales, the impact of farmers switching to more lucrative products, etc. How far you take this is limited only by your schedule and imagination. Makes sense doesn’t it?

The problem is that the experts don’t know how to do this with any accuracy, so they place big error bands around their projections. Legislators either don’t understand them, or far worse, they choose the outer estimate that they like best. Clearly this is nonsense and that is precisely what the experts are telling legislators.

The kicker is that the House of Representatives just passed a rule that dynamic scoring must be used for any bill so designated by the responsible committee chairman. Nothing good is going to come of this.

There is a nuance. Dynamic analysis does make sense and is doable, so say the experts. This merely discusses the overall macro-economic impacts and generally indicates how they may impact budgets. Legislators could use this to get a basic idea of whether they are getting into deep waters or not. The next step, dynamic scoring, is flawed. It takes this analysis and plugs in numbers that are largely plucked out of the air.