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Friday, January 26, 2018

BE SMART ABOUT HUMANITY

This is the third in my series to try to make you smarter, and by the end of today, also insignificant.  I end this effort tomorrow with BE SMART ABOUT HEALTH.  Both are puns, well, maybe more double entendres, with no risqué alternative.  Then on Sunday, I'm off for Kyushu, Japan, and become a travelogue for a week.

Again, first the facts, or, at least the current state-of-science.  Let me start with the origin of water, for life as we know it can only spring from this liquid.  There are two schools of thought.  One, it was already in the material creating our planet.  Two, from comets and meteors.  University of Hawaii scientists shared the latest evidence that the water was already here.  This from measuring the ratio between normal water and heavy water. In any case our oceans could have appeared as long as 4.41 billion years ago.  Remember, Planet Earth formed 4.54 billion years ago.

Yesterday I introduced this subject by hinting that life was first created only 440 million years after Planet Earth formed.  How do scientists know?  Researchers studied molten rock from western Australia dated to 4.1 billion years ago, and in fragments of zircon found specks of graphite, where the carbon had a high ratio of carbon-12 to carbon-13, evidence of photosynthesis.  But, then, a hydrothermal vent in Canada showed evidence of microorganisms as old as 4.28 billion years.  Amazing how soon after the creation, life appeared.

These could have been biotic life (which can mean almost anything, and maybe even RNA life) and/or  procaryotes (unicellular DNA life), but they are surmised to have developed only 3.9 billion years ago, and there are two types, archaea and bacteria.  The former probably came first, being linked to thermal and salty springs, plus they produce methane in swamps.  But you ask, where do viruses and prions fit in the tree of life?  They are not alive.  So they don't...at least for now.

For the longest time biologists only classified living things as plant or animal.  However, a half a century ago, they created Five Kingdoms.  To the shock of many, in the late 1970's Carl Woese and his colleagues forced the field to add something called archaea.  Something so simple as this remains a rapidly changing very amorphous field.  Eukaryotes are things like us, but, you ask, what are CPR and DPANN?  Go check yourself.  So how many kingdoms are there now?  Depends on your country.  No kidding.

Three billion years ago photosynthesizing cyanobacteria evolved, producing oxygen, causing the extinction of most bacteria as the Great Oxygenation Event.  The Moon then was closer to our globe and induced 1000 foot tides.  These were turbulent times.  Life has been a wild experiment, for it is estimated that more than five billion species have lived, with 99% gone forever.  There have been more than 20 extinction events, but the three most prominent were:
  • Permian-Triassic, 252 million years ago, where 96% of all marine and 70% of land species disappeared. The causes were three-fold:  meteors, volcanism and the release of methane from the seafloor, causing a runaway greenhouse effect (this is my Venus Syndrome, induced by our energy use, my first novel to come).  Called the Great Dying, reptiles then became prominent.
  • Triassic-Jurassic, 201 million years ago, again by those same three impacts, killing up to 75% of all species, leaving dinosaurs as dominant.
  • Cretaceous-Paleocene, 66 million years ago, by an asteroid of 6-9 miles size, eliminating 75% of living creatures, allowing mammals and birds to thrive.
Then came Homo sapiens:


The first Homo species appeared around 400,000 years ago, leading to us, now about 50,000 years old, although there are those who consider that "we" were there from the beginning, 400,000 years ago.  Key developments (years ago):
  • 400,000+  fire
  •     10,000  agriculture
  •       6,000  wheel
  •       5,500  end of Stone Age
  •       5,000  earliest known writing
  •       5,000  first cities--Mesopotamia (now Iraq) and in Egypt
  •       2,500  democracy and Greece
  •       2,000  Jesus Christ
Other inventions:
  • 750BC  optics in Assyria (now Turkey/Iran/Syria)
  • 100BC  paper in China
  • 1430     printing press in Europe
  • 1879     electricity (Can you believe that Benjamin Franklin is credited as the founder in 1872, although just the previous month, Thomas-Francois Dalibard of France beat him to this experiment?)
  • 1928     penicillin
  • 1946     semi-conductor
  • 1990     internet
So much for facts about our past.  What about our future?
...over the past 10,000 years humans have evolved as much as 100 times faster than at any other time since the split of the earliest hominid from the ancestors of modern chimpanzees.
  • While the evolution of humans is but a tiny part of the whole chain of life, we loom as the crucial entity to affect the future of the Universe.
  • I last night attended a talk by Sara Seager of MIT on "Is There Life Out There."  Here I am with her and another Friend of the Institute for Astronomy:
  • Her presentation focused on signs of conditions where life might spring.  Thus, their search, and the follow-up Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS) will not actually prove that there is life up there.  Ultimately finding life would be monumental, but what about intelligent life?  If such a civilization exists, the only possible contact, for incoming signals could be from millions of light years away, would be to search for them.  She indicated that Russian billionaire Yuri Milner (guy on the left) has committed $100 million to Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence.
  • Back to Planet Earth, we have genetic techniques developing to significantly alter what we are and will become.  Countries with high moral principles will regress for a while until it becomes obviously evident that to retard "progress" is equivalent to surrendering.
  • But that could be trivial, for theories abound that Artificial Intelligence (AI) will overtake Homo sapiens X.  I even went so far as to speculate that early AI will be able to bring about World Peace, something beyond the capability of  human society.  Doesn't matter, for pure logic suggests we will soon become expendable.
Planet Earth will still be around a billion years from now.  Humanity as we know it almost surely won't.  But what will life be, and, what is life?  Any physical encounter with aliens will be with super intelligent robots.  Will Planet Earth have smarter AI on this momentous occasion?  Will it matter?

The Dow Jones Industrial Average again broke its all-time high, up 224 to 26,617:



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