Ross Andersen

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When we talk of finding life on other planets, we often tend to think, narcissistically, of something that at least vaguely resembles us, or the Earth’s animals, plants and microscopic organisms. The real mindblower, though, would be if we discover something Other, life that reminds us of nothing we’ve known, not contained in our books or brains. So much more will become possible then.

In a smart Atlantic essay, Ross Andersen writes of accompanying astronomer Lisa Kaltenegger to Colorado’s majestic Maroon Bells mountains and coming to understand how small they might actually be when we learn more about our neighbors in space. An excerpt:

As we stood admiring the Maroon Bells, I asked Kaltenegger whether she thought there were scenes like this all across the cosmos. “No,” she said, before explaining that Earth was but a single, limited expression of nature’s raw creative power. Just as our planet contains many habitats with many ecologies, each with its own diverse creatures, other planets may play host to living worlds that look nothing like our own.

“Take mountains,” she said. “Earth’s crust is quite thin, which means its mountains can only reach so high.” This seemed ungrateful, surrounded as we were by jagged, vertical rock faces, studded with dense pine stands. “If Earth’s crust were thicker, the mountains could be much larger,” she said.

On some distant planet, there might be peaks that tower more than 100,000 feet above an alien sea. These extraterrestrial peaks might be forested, or they might be coated in an alien form of vegetation, or something beyond the reach of our current imagination.•

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Somehow missed the Atlantic interview from a couple weeks ago that Ross Andersen conducted with Russian billionaire Yuri Milner, who’s dedicated $100 million to speed tiny probes to Alpha Centauri in just 20 years time. This article is better and deeper by far than anything else I’ve read on the subject, revealing how and why the entrepreneur, named for Gagarin and raised on Asimov, believes he can accomplish his mission and explaining the smaller details (e.g., ground-based laser beams vs. space-based). 

An excerpt about the desert power station that is planned to propel the crafts:

Milner told me that a ground-based laser could run off a giant power plant devoted solely to the mission. It could be a solar array in the Atacama desert, given how much sunlight pours onto its stark landscape. To make it work, the array would have to stretch for tens of miles, and it would need a battery large enough to store fodder for the daily firing of the world’s most powerful laser cannon.

The laser team would need to time its daily blast carefully, to avoid destroying the satellites and planes that pass overhead. When fired, the beam would shoot up through the atmosphere, and slam into the disc-like probe, sending it hurtling toward the edge of the solar system. After only a few minutes, the probe would be traveling at a significant fraction of the speed of light. It would pass Mars in less than an hour. The next day, it would streak by Pluto. (New Horizons took 9 years to achieve this feat.) As the probe headed deeper into the Kuiper belt’s recesses, another one would pop out from the mothership, and float into the laser’s line of sight.

“If you have a reasonable sized battery, and a reasonable sized array, and a reasonable sized power station, you probably can do one shot a day,” Milner told me. “And then you recharge and shoot again. You can launch one per day for a year and then you have hundreds on the way.”

By sending a whole stream of probes, you get more data, and also redundancy. Any encounter with interstellar dust would be fatal for a thin, flimsy disc traveling at cosmic speeds. A few hundred probes would probably be enough to guarantee that one slipped through—although it’s not a certainty.

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Here are 50 ungated pieces of wonderful journalism from 2015, alphabetized by author name, which made me consider something new or reconsider old beliefs or just delighted me. (Some selections are from gated publications that allow a number of free articles per month.) If your excellent work isn’t on the list, that’s more my fault than yours.

  • Who Runs the Streets of New Orleans?” (David Amsden, The New York Times Magazine) As private and public sector missions increasingly overlap, here’s an engaging look at the privatization of some policing in the French Quarter.
  • In the Beginning” (Ross Andersen, Aeon) A bold and epic essay about the elusive search for the origins of the universe.
  • Ask Me Anything (Anonymous, Reddit) A 92-year-old German woman who was born into Nazism (and participated in it) sadly absolves herself of all blame while answering questions about that horrible time.
  • Rethinking Extinction” (Stewart Brand, Aeon) The Whole Earth Catalog founder thinks the chance of climate-change catastrophe overrated, arguing we should utilize biotech to repopulate dwindling species.
  • Anchorman: The Legend of Don Lemon” (Taffy Brodesser-Akner, GQ) A deeply entertaining look into the perplexing facehole of Jeff Zucker’s most gormless word-sayer and, by extension, the larger cable-news zeitgeist.
  • How Social Media Is Ruining Politics(Nicholas Carr, Politico) A lament that our shiny new tools have provided provocative trolls far more credibility than a centralized media ever allowed for.
  • Clans of the Cathode” (Tom Carson, The Baffler) One of our best culture critics looks at the meaning of various American sitcom families through the medium’s history.
  • The Black Family in the Age of Mass Incarceration” (Ta-Nehisi Coates, The Atlantic) The author examines the tragedy of the African-American community being turned into a penal colony, explaining the origins of the catastrophic policy failure.
  • Perfect Genetic Knowledge” (Dawn Field, Aeon) The essayist thinks about a future in which we’ve achieved “perfect knowledge” of whole-planet genetics.
  • A Strangely Funny Russian Genius” (Ian Frazier, The New York Review of Books) Daniil Kharms was a very funny writer, if you appreciate slapstick that ends in a body count.
  • Tomorrow’s Advance Man” (Tad Friend, The New Yorker) Profile of Silicon Valley strongman Marc Andreessen and his milieu, an enchanted land in which adults dream of riding unicorns.
  • Build-a-Brain” (Michael Graziano, Aeon) The neuroscientist’s ambitious thought experiment about machine intelligence is a piece I thought about continuously throughout the year.
  • Ask Me Anything (Stephen Hawking, Reddit) Among other things, the physicist warns that the real threat of superintelligent machines isn’t malice but relentless competence.
  • Engineering Humans for War” (Annie Jacobsen, The Atlantic) War is inhuman, it’s been said, and the Pentagon wants to make it more so by employing bleeding-edge biology and technology to create super soldiers.
  • The Wrong Head” (Mike Jay, London Review of Books) A look at insanity in 1840s France, which demonstrates that mental illness is often expressed in terms of the era in which it’s experienced.
  • Death Is Optional” (Daniel Kahneman and Noah Yuval Harari, Edge) Two of my favorite big thinkers discuss the road ahead, a highly automated tomorrow in which medicine, even mortality, may not be an egalitarian affair.
  • Where the Bodies Are Buried,” (Patrick Radden Keefe, The New Yorker) Ceasefires, even treaties, don’t completely conclude wars, as evidenced by this haunting revisitation of the heartbreaking IRA era.
  • Porntopia” (Molly Lambert, Grantland) The annual Adult Video News Awards in Las Vegas, the Oscars of oral, allows the writer to look into a funhouse-mirror reflection of America.
  • The Robots Are Coming” (John Lanchester, London Review of Books) A remarkably lucid explanation of how quickly AI may remake our lives and labor in the coming decades.
  • Last Girl in Larchmont” (Emily Nussbaum, The New Yorker) The great TV critic provides a postmortem of Joan Rivers and her singular (and sometimes disquieting) brand of feminism.
  • “President Obama & Marilynne Robinson: A Conversation, Part 1 & Part 2” (Barack Obama and Marilynne Robinson, New York Review of Books) Two monumental Americans discuss the state of the novel and the state of the union.
  • Ask Me Anything (Elizabeth Parrish, Reddit) The CEO of BioViva announces she’s patient zero for the company’s experimental age-reversing gene therapies. Strangest thing I read all year.
  • Why Alien Life Will Be Robotic” (Sir Martin Rees, Nautilus) The astronomer argues that ETs in our inhospitable universe have likely already transitioned into conscious machines.
  • Ask Me Anything (Anders Sandberg, Reddit) Heady conversation about existential risks, Transhumanism, economics, space travel and future technologies conducted by the Oxford researcher. 
  • Alien Rights” (Lizzie Wade, Aeon) Manifest Destiny will, sooner or later, became a space odyssey. What ethics should govern exploration of the final frontier?
  • Peeling Back the Layers of a Born Salesman’s Life” (Michael Wilson, The New York Times) The paper’s gifted crime writer pens a posthumous profile of a protean con man, a Zelig on the make who crossed paths with Abbie Hoffman, Otto Preminger and Annie Leibovitz, among others.
  • The Pop Star and the Prophet” (Sam York, BBC Magazine) Philosopher Jacques Attali, who predicted, back in the ’70s, the downfall of the music business, tells the writer he now foresees similar turbulence for manufacturing.

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We’re clever enough to kill ourselves en masse, that much we know, but are we adequately creative to save our species from a human-made disaster that seems more and more likely to visit devastation upon us? Can the collateral damage caused by our intelligence be undone with more intelligence?

In an Atlantic post, Ross Andersen interviews Oliver Morton, author of The Planet Remade, and wonders if we need to be more aggressively redesigning our environment. As he writes, “the geoengineers offer us a third way,” one beyond status quo as we attempt to worm our way through the Anthropocene, and immediately abandoning the fossil fuels we heavily rely upon.

Even the seemingly outré proposals bandied about by scientists and technologists don’t seem theoretically impossible, but most aren’t feasible in the near future, and they certainly will have their own unintended consequences. I would think geoengineering is certainly a piece of the answer as we move forward, but a dedicated effort to change the way we go about business better accompany it.

An excerpt:

Ross Andersen:

In your book, you argue that it would be impossible to transition away from fossil fuels quickly, because our current global-energy infrastructure simply can’t be replaced within a single generation. Can you give me a sense of the scale of that infrastructure? What would need replacing?

Oliver Morton:

Well, you have to remember that over 80 percent of the world’s energy comes from fossil fuels—and the world uses a lot of energy, and will be using even more energy soon. There are, after all, a large number of people who still don’t have access to modern energy services. In the beginning of the 20th century, no one lived the sort of life that well-off people in developing countries live or aspire to. Now about 1.6 to 2 billion people live that kind of life. And that’s great, but there are 5 billion people who aren’t leading that kind of life. They are going to use a lot of energy.

At the end of this century there will be 9 or 10 billion people on the face of the planet. You would kind of hope that in a century’s time, they would all have the access to energy that you and I enjoy. That would mean going from 2 billion people with access to 10 billion, a much larger increase than we saw during the 20th century.

Of course, there’s a huge amount that we can do with better energy technology over the course of the 21st century. But as the world develops, I think there’s still going to be an awful lot of fossil fuels burned. I think it’s a fundamental mistake to think that with just a bit more political will, you can suddenly go to a zero-carbon world.•

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There’s a shocking possibility that an enigmatic array of debris neighboring a distant star may be a large-scale structure built by alien intelligence, perhaps to collect solar energy. Or maybe not. It doesn’t seem explainable as a natural phenomenon, but whatever is it is that citizen astronomers detected when crowdsourcing the Northern Hemisphere skies, the find is awakening in scientists and non-scientists alike the suspicion that something could be out there. In an Atlantic article, Ross Andersen introduced the baffling scenario to a wider audience. An excerpt:

We know that something strange is going on out there.

When I spoke to [Yale’s astronomy postdoc Tabetha] Boyajian on the phone, she explained that her recent paper only reviews “natural” scenarios. “But,” she said, there were “other scenarios” she was considering.

Jason Wright, an astronomer from Penn State University, is set to publish an alternative interpretation of the light pattern. SETI researchers have long suggested that we might be able to detect distant extraterrestrial civilizations, by looking for enormous technological artifacts orbiting other stars. Wright and his co-authors say the unusual star’s light pattern is consistent with a “swarm of megastructures,” perhaps stellar-light collectors, technology designed to catch energy from the star.

“When [Boyajian] showed me the data, I was fascinated by how crazy it looked,” Wright told me. “Aliens should always be the very last hypothesis you consider, but this looked like something you would expect an alien civilization to build.”•

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The excellent Ross Anderson, formerly Deputy Editor at Aeon, is now a Senior Editor at the Atlantic, in charge of the new stand-alone Science section. Definitely worth bookmarking. From his introductory letter:

We live in an age that may come to be regarded as a second enlightenment, a time when science supplies us with discovery after discovery, each more wondrous than the last. Scientists have measured the temperature of the Big Bang’s afterglow out to ten decimal places. They have mapped a decent chunk of the observable universe, in detail so granular, it astonishes. They are predicting events that will take place one trillion years from now.

Scientists are slinging drones out to Pluto, to image its icy peaks. They are bringing distant earths into focus. They are beginning to understand how this Earth’s physical, biological, ecological, technological, and cultural systems interact, across vast time scales, and with important consequences for our future. They are sequencing and reshuffling genomes. They are starting to get a grip on the brain, the most complicated phenomenon in the known universe.

And yet, many mysteries remain. What does it mean that human beings emerged only a geological moment ago, lone survivors among a larger family of hominins? Charles Darwin may have explained the origin of species, but what about the origin of life? Or the nature of quantum reality, which appears to be indeterminate, in some deep sense? What does that mean? And how has this tiny, teeming world given rise to consciousness, a phenomenon that seems to belong to its own metaphysical category? Will we ever be able to reverse engineer consciousness? Or in this, as with so many other questions, are we now reaching the limits of science? How are we making sense of all these questions, each one of us, in our distinctive human cultures?•

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At Aeon, the site’s Deputy Editor Ross Andersen has published “In the Beginning,” one of his bold and epic essays about the staggering mysteries of existence, this piece about the elusive search for origins of the universe, a quest that is science’s 1 or 1a depending on your view of the hard problem of consciousness. It’s questionable whether we’ll ever be able to peer the past prior to the Big Bang, however, as the field seems stymied by the gargantuan task. Andersen moves nimbly from cutting-edge (and highly disputed) cosmological investigations to considerations of ancient readings of the cosmos, from science to philosophy, from modest telescopes to computer simulations, from Palo Alto to Antarctica.

An excerpt about a Harvard astrophysicist at far-flung locale, seeking answers flung exponentially further:

Last October, John Kovac boarded an 18-hour flight from the United States to New Zealand, as he has every year since 1990. After touching down in Christchurch, he drove to a large warehouse, to be fitted with a fluffy red parka, military-grade snow boots, mittens, goggles and other extreme-cold weather gear. The next morning, he crossed the Southern Ocean in a military transport plane, before landing at McMurdo research station on the coast of Antarctica. The Southern Ocean is the violent, iceberg-strewn moat that encircles Antarctica. It is the only latitudinal band on Earth where there is no land to stop ocean winds from whipping furiously around the planet, stirring up storms as they go. These storms had waylaid Kovac at McMurdo before, but this year the weather was mild. He was cleared to leave the next morning, to complete the last leg of his trip. …

One Friday last November, Kovac called me from South Pole Station, where it was 3am. I asked him how the night sky looked. I’d heard that the Milky Way was something to behold from Antarctica, especially when the auroras were dancing. Kovac gently reminded me that there is only one ‘night’ at the South Pole, and that it begins in February and ends in September. He stayed over at the Pole for one of these winter stretches, back in the 1990s, before he had kids. Winter temperatures on the plateau are too frigid for planes to fly, meaning there is no traffic in or out during the dark months. ‘It was like being on a submarine,’ Kovac told me. ‘Once was enough for me.’

Kovac did his winter stint back when he was a graduate student, when he was beginning to distinguish himself as a skilled designer of observatories. Instrument design is in Kovac’s blood. His late father Michael was dean of the engineering school at the University of Southern Florida. When John was 12, a teacher at his school gave him his first telescope. He set it up in his backyard, but quickly grew tired of using it. Gazing at celestial objects that others had already seen bored him, especially when he could see spectacular photos of those same objects in books. ‘But I was fascinated by the technology,’ he said. ‘I wanted to know everything about the construction of the telescope itself, and how it focused light.’

Kovac called me from a conference room that overlooks the main runway at South Pole Station. There wasn’t much action outside at that hour. He could see clear across the landing strip to the Dark Sector, a special zone where electromagnetic radiation is forbidden. Some of the world’s most sophisticated telescopes have been hauled down to the Dark Sector at great expense, because it’s one of the best places on this planet to do astronomy. If you’re at the bottom of the Earth, the view into the Universe doesn’t change much as the planet moves around in its orbit. You can train your telescope on the same celestial objects for months at a time, and you have a clear view, because Antarctica is a desert. Any mist that manages to levitate from its surface quickly freezes into ice crystals that free-fall back to Earth. If you think of our planet as an eyeball, the Antarctic plateau is its iris, and the Dark Sector its pupil. At its centre, Kovac had installed an exquisite telescope, and with it, he hoped to peer deeper into time than any human being in history.

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Ross Andersen, Deputy Editor of Aeon, appearing on Tony Dokoupil’s MSNBC show, Greenhouse, to discuss existential risks to humanity and a potential colony being established on Mars by Elon Musk and SpaceX, a topic he covered at length in an excellent 2014 article.

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Here are 25 pieces of journalism from this year, alphabetized by author name, which made me consider something new or reconsider old beliefs or just delighted me.

  • Exodus” (Ross Andersen, Aeon) A brilliant longform piece that lifts off with Elon Musk’s mission to Mars and veers in deep and mysterious directions.
  • Barack Obama, Ferguson, and the Evidence of Things Unsaid” (Ta-Nehisi Coates, The Atlantic) Nobody speaks truth to race in America quite like Coates, and the outrage of Ferguson was the impetus for this spot-on piece about the deeply institutionalized prejudice of government, national and local, in the U.S.
  • The Golden Age of Journalism?” (Tom Engelhardt, TomDispatch) The landscape has never been more brutal for news nor more promising. The author luxuriates in the richness destabilization has wrought.
  • Amazon Must Be Stopped” (Franklin Foer, The New Republic) Before things went completely haywire at the company, Foer returned some sanity to the publication in the post-Peretz period. This lucid article argues that Amazon isn’t becoming a monopoly but already qualifies as one.
  • America in Decay” (Francis Fukuyama, Foreign Affairs) Strong argument that the U.S. public sector is so dysfunctional because of a betrayal of meritocracy in favor of special interests and lobbyists. The writer’s idea of what constitutes a merit-based system seems flawed, but he offers many powerful ideas.
  • What’s the Matter With Russia?” (Keith Gessen, Foreign Affairs) An insightful meditation about Putin’s people, who opt to to live in a fairy tale despite knowing such a thing can never have a happy ending.
  • The Dying Russians(Masha Gessen, New York Review of Books) Analysis of Russia’s high mortality rate suggests that the root cause is not alcohol, guns or politics, but simply hopelessness.  
  • Soak the Rich” (David Graeber, Thomas Piketty) Great in-depth exchange between two thinkers who believe capitalism has run amok, but only one of whom thinks it’s run its course.
  • The First Smile(Michael Graziano, Aeon) The Princeton psychology and neuroscience professor attempts to explain why facial expressions appear to be natural and universal.
  • The Creepy New Wave of the Internet” (Sue Halpern, New York Review of Books) The author meditates on the Internet of Things, which may make the world much better and much worse, quantifying us like never before.
  • Super-Intelligent Humans Are Coming” (Stephen Hsu, Nautilus) A brisk walk through the process of genetic modification, which would lead to heretofore unknown brain power.
  • All Dressed Up For Mars and Nowhere to Go” (Elmo Keep, Matter) A sprawling look at the seeming futility of the MarsOne project ultimately gets at a more profound pointlessness–pursuing escape in a dying universe.
  • The Myth of AI” (Jaron Lanier, Edge) Among other things, this entry draws a neat comparison between the religionist’s End of Days and the technologist’s Singularity, the Four Horseman supposedly arriving in driverless cars.
  • The Disruption Machine” (Jill Lepore, The New Yorker) The “D” word, its chief promulgator, Clayton M. Christensen, and its circuitous narratives, receive some disruption of their own.
  • The Longevity Gap(Linda Marsa, Aeon) A severely dystopian thought experiment: Will the parallels of widening income disparity and innovations in medicine lead to two very different lifespans for the haves and have-nots?
  • The Genetics Epidemic” (Jamie F. Metzl, Foreign Affairs) Genetic modification studied from an uncommon angle, that of national-security concerns.
  • My Captivity(Theo Padnos, The New York Times Magazine) A harrowing autobiographical account of an American journalist’s hostage ordeal in the belly of the beast in Syria.
  • We Are a Camera” (Nick Paumgarten, The New Yorker) In a time of cheap, ubiquitous cameras, the image, merely an imitation, is ascendant, and any event unrecorded seemingly has less currency. The writer examines the strangeness of life in the GoPro flow.
  • A Goddamn Death Dedication” (Alex Pappademas, Grantland) A knowing postmortem about Casey Kasem, America’s deejay when the world was hi-fi but before it became sci-fi.
  • In Conversation: Chris Rock” (Frank Rich, New York) The exchange about “black progress” is an example of what comedy does at its best: It points out an obvious truth that so many have missed.
  • The Mammoth Cometh” (Nathaniel Rich, The New York Times Magazine) A piece which points out that de-extinct animals won’t be exactly like their forebears, nor will augmented humans of the future be just like us. It’s progress, probably.
  • Hello, My Name Is Stephen Glass, and I’m Sorry(Hanna Rosin, The New Republic) Before the implosion of the publication, the writer wondered what it would mean to forgive her former coworker, an inveterate fabulist and liar, and what it would mean if she could not forgive.
  • Gilbert Gottfried: New York Punk” (Jay Ruttenberg, The Lowbrow Reader) Written by the only person on the list whom I know personally, but no cronyism is necessary for the inclusion of this excellent analysis of the polarizing comic, who’s likely more comfortable when at his most alienating.

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That excellent Ross Andersen is back with a new Aeon essay, this one a look at the grand hedge being made by Elon Musk who seeks to populate Mars in case of human extinction on Earth. The technologist estimates it will take a million “Martians” to ensure the species’ survival in event of famine or plague or technological apocalypse on our home planet. But should we be rushing into the unknown while we’re still in our technological infancy, driven to haste by irritation over NASA’s perplexing dormancy? Or is it already very late? As is usual in Andersen’s explorations, the subject heads off in deep and mysterious directions. An excerpt:

“Musk told me he often thinks about the mysterious absence of intelligent life in the observable Universe. Humans have yet to undertake an exhaustive, or even vigorous, search for extraterrestrial intelligence, of course. But we have gone a great deal further than a casual glance skyward. For more than 50 years, we have trained radio telescopes on nearby stars, hoping to detect an electromagnetic signal, a beacon beamed across the abyss. We have searched for sentry probes in our solar system, and we have examined local stars for evidence of alien engineering. Soon, we will begin looking for synthetic pollutants in the atmospheres of distant planets, and asteroid belts with missing metals, which might suggest mining activity.

The failure of these searches is mysterious, because human intelligence should not be special. Ever since the age of Copernicus, we have been told that we occupy a uniform Universe, a weblike structure stretching for tens of billions of light years, its every strand studded with starry discs, rich with planets and moons made from the same material as us. If nature obeys identical laws everywhere, then surely these vast reaches contain many cauldrons where energy is stirred into water and rock, until the three mix magically into life. And surely some of these places nurture those first fragile cells, until they evolve into intelligent creatures that band together to form civilisations, with the foresight and staying power to build starships.

‘At our current rate of technological growth, humanity is on a path to be godlike in its capabilities,’ Musk told me. ‘You could bicycle to Alpha Centauri in a few hundred thousand years, and that’s nothing on an evolutionary scale. If an advanced civilisation existed at any place in this galaxy, at any point in the past 13.8 billion years, why isn’t it everywhere? Even if it moved slowly, it would only need something like .01 per cent of the Universe’s lifespan to be everywhere. So why isn’t it?’

Life’s early emergence on Earth, only half a billion years after the planet coalesced and cooled, suggests that microbes will arise wherever Earthlike conditions obtain. But even if every rocky planet were slick with unicellular slime, it wouldn’t follow that intelligent life is ubiquitous. Evolution is endlessly inventive, but it seems to feel its way toward certain features, like wings and eyes, which evolved independently on several branches of life’s tree. So far, technological intelligence has sprouted only from one twig. It’s possible that we are merely the first in a great wave of species that will take up tool-making and language. But it’s also possible that intelligence just isn’t one of natural selection’s preferred modules. We might think of ourselves as nature’s pinnacle, the inevitable endpoint of evolution, but beings like us could be too rare to ever encounter one another. Or we could be the ultimate cosmic outliers, lone minds in a Universe that stretches to infinity.

Musk has a more sinister theory. ‘The absence of any noticeable life may be an argument in favour of us being in a simulation,’ he told me. ‘Like when you’re playing an adventure game, and you can see the stars in the background, but you can’t ever get there. If it’s not a simulation, then maybe we’re in a lab and there’s some advanced alien civilisation that’s just watching how we develop, out of curiosity, like mould in a petri dish.’ Musk flipped through a few more possibilities, each packing a deeper existential chill than the last, until finally he came around to the import of it all. ‘If you look at our current technology level, something strange has to happen to civilisations, and I mean strange in a bad way,’ he said. ‘And it could be that there are a whole lot of dead, one-planet civilisations.’”

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I’ve mentioned before how much I love the Internet magazine Aeon, one of the smartest things anywhere. All praise to the site’s co-founders Paul and Bridget Hains, their Deputy Editors Ed Lake and Ross Andersen (who’s also written some of the periodical’s best pieces) and the entire staff.

One excellent new essay is Greg Klerkx’s “Outer Limits,” which points out that “space” has never truly been defined. The opening:

“Any time we embark upon a journey, be it a morning commute or a leisurely day trip, we engage in transition. We are a travelling species, which means transitions are commonplace for us, mundane even. But there are some trips that can still fire the human imagination, and none more so than the journey, experienced only by a lucky few, from the surface of Earth to the beginning of space.

On his 108-minute flight in 1961, the Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin, the first human being in space, reached a peak altitude of 327 kilometres (203 miles), after blasting off the planet atop a mighty Vostok rocket. After launch shook his tiny capsule violently, Gagarin experienced the feeling of weightlessness, and saw the curvature of the Earth first-hand. By all accounts, he crossed the mysterious border between the Earth and space. Or did he? It has been more than half a century since Gagarin’s historic journey, but there is still no universally accepted definition of where space begins.

There is general agreement that ‘space’ starts where the Earth’s physical influence ends or is significantly displaced, but no consensus as to where that line actually lies. Does space begin where the Earth’s atmosphere ends? That would seem sensible, except the atmosphere extends some 800 kilometres above the planet. That would exclude Gagarin’s flight, and the International Space Station (ISS) whose orbit around the Earth is only 400 kilometres high. Earth’s gravity might well seem like another natural candidate for ‘edge of space’ status, but you have to travel 21 million kilometres before our planet’s gravity loses out to other forces, and that’s roughly halfway to Venus.

The International Astronautical Federation marks the beginning of space, for aviation purposes, at the 100-kilometre mark, where the Earth’s atmosphere is so negligible that conventional aircraft cannot travel fast enough to generate aerodynamic lift. There are other, more arbitrary numbers. In the 1960s, 8 US pilots earned their astronaut wings by flying the arrow-shaped X-15 rocket plane above 80 kilometres. In the US, this standard still applies, meaning that any American who flies on one of Virgin Galactic’s private spacecraft will officially become an astronaut.

Recent scientific discoveries have further muddled our terrestrial-celestial border confusion. In 2009, an instrument called the Suprathermal Ion Imager (SII) pinpointed 118 kilometres as the point at which charged particles from space begin to overwhelm the relatively mild particle flow of the Earth’s upper atmosphere. That was the point, researchers argued, where space really begins. Headlines hailing the discovery of the ‘edge of space’ briefly splashed across the media, but the attendant stories were hesitant, bracketing any notions of finality with alternative edge-of-space definitions.”

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At Practical Ethics, Rebecca Roache, one of the interview subjects in Ross Andersen’s excellent Aeon piece about criminal punishment during a time of radical life extension, answers some of the more overheated criticism her philosophical musings received. An excerpt:

“Even if technology is harnessed to devise new punishment methods, it might not be clear how the new methods compare to old methods. Radical lifespan enhancement might enable us to send people to prison for hundreds of years, but would this be a more severe punishment than current life sentences, or a less severe one? On the one hand, longer prison sentences are more severe punishments than shorter prison sentences, so a 300-year sentence would be a more severe punishment than a 30-year one. On the other hand, consider that many prisoners sentenced to death in the US appeal to have their death sentences converted to life sentences. This suggests that a longer sentence is viewed by prisoners who are sentenced to death as less severe than a shorter sentence (followed by execution). I made this point in the Aeon interview, and some people took me to be rejecting the idea of technologically-extended life sentences on the ground that this would be too lenient, and therefore bad. In fact, my point was that it might not always be obvious how technologically-induced changes in a punishment affect its severity.”

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No publication birthed on the Internet is better than Aeon, a provocative stream of essays about technology, consciousness, nature, the deep future, the deep past and other fundamental concerns of life on Earth. In a world of brief tweets and easy access, the site asks the long and hard questions. Two great recent examples: Michael Belfiore’s “The Robots Are Coming,” a look at society when our silicon sisters no longer have an OFF switch; and Ross Andersen’s “Hell on Earth,” an examination of how infinite life extension will impact the justice system. (And if you’ve never read Andersen’s work about philosopher Nick Bostrom, go here and here.) Excerpts from these essays follow.

From “The Robots Are Coming”:

“Robots in the real world usually look nothing like us. On Earth they perform such mundane chores as putting car parts together in factories, picking up our online orders in warehouses, vacuuming our homes and mowing our lawns. Farther afield, flying robots land on other planets and conduct aerial warfare by remote control.

More recently, we’ve seen driverless cars take to our roads. Here, finally, the machines veer toward traditional R U R territory. Which makes most people, it seems, uncomfortable. A Harris Interactive poll sponsored by Seapine Software, for example, announced this February that 88 per cent of Americans do not like the idea of their cars driving themselves, citing fear of losing control over their vehicles as the chief concern.

The main difference between robots that have gone before and the newer variety is autonomy. Whether by direct manipulation (as when we wield power tools, or grip the wheel of a car) or via remote control (as with a multitude of cars and airplanes), machines have in the past remained firmly under human control at all times. That’s no longer true and now autonomous robots have even begun to look like us.

I got a good, long look at the future of robotics at an event run by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (known as the DARPA Robotics Challenge, or DRC Trials), outside Miami in December. What I saw by turns delighted, amused, and spooked me. My overriding sense was that, very soon, DARPA’s work will shift the technological ground beneath our feet yet again.”

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From “Hell on Earth”:

“It is hard to avoid the conclusion that Hitler got off easy, given the scope and viciousness of his crimes. We might have moved beyond the Code of Hammurabi and ‘an eye for an eye’, but most of us still feel that a killer of millions deserves something sterner than a quick and painless suicide. But does anyone ever deserve hell?

That used to be a question for theologians, but in the age of human enhancement, a new set of thinkers is taking it up. As biotech companies pour billions into life extension technologies, some have suggested that our cruelest criminals could be kept alive indefinitely, to serve sentences spanning millennia or longer. Even without life extension, private prison firms could one day develop drugs that make time pass more slowly, so that an inmate’s 10-year sentence feels like an eternity. One way or another, humans could soon be in a position to create an artificial hell.

At the University of Oxford, a team of scholars led by the philosopher Rebecca Roache has begun thinking about the ways futuristic technologies might transform punishment. In January, I spoke with Roache and her colleagues Anders Sandberg and Hannah Maslen about emotional enhancement, ‘supercrimes’, and the ethics of eternal damnation. What follows is a condensed and edited transcript of our conversation.

Ross Andersen:

Suppose we develop the ability to radically expand the human lifespan, so that people are regularly living for more than 500 years. Would that allow judges to fit punishments to crimes more precisely?

Rebecca Roache:

When I began researching this topic, I was thinking a lot about Daniel Pelka, a four-year-old boy who was starved and beaten to death [in 2012] by his mother and stepfather here in the UK. I had wondered whether the best way to achieve justice in cases like that was to prolong death as long as possible. Some crimes are so bad they require a really long period of punishment, and a lot of people seem to get out of that punishment by dying. And so I thought, why not make prison sentences for particularly odious criminals worse by extending their lives?

But I soon realised it’s not that simple. In the US, for instance, the vast majority of people on death row appeal to have their sentences reduced to life imprisonment. That suggests that a quick stint in prison followed by death is seen as a worse fate than a long prison sentence. And so, if you extend the life of a prisoner to give them a longer sentence, you might end up giving them a more lenient punishment.

The life-extension scenario may sound futuristic, but if you look closely you can already see it in action, as people begin to live longer lives than before. If you look at the enormous prison population in the US, you find an astronomical number of elderly prisoners, including quite a few with pacemakers. When I went digging around in medical journals, I found all these interesting papers about the treatment of pacemaker patients in prison.”

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Here, in no particular order, are this year’s 20 selections. These pieces, which made me think or reconsider my opinions or just delighted me, are limited to ungated material that’s only a click away. (I included work from publications such as the New York Times which allow a certain amount of free articles per month.)

  • The Reality Show” (Mike Jay, Aeon) Brilliant essay that points out that the manifestations of mental illness are heavily influenced by the prevailing culture. In our case: ubiquitous technology.
  • Invisible Child–Girl in the Shadows: Dasani’s Homeless Life (Andrea Elliott, New York Times) A tale of two cities in present-day New York told through the story of a talented grade-school girl trying to make it through the hard knocks of class divisions. What’s expressed tacitly is that if the best and brightest homeless children only have a so-so shot at success, those less gifted have almost none. 
  • The Robots Are Here” (Tyler Cowen, Politico Magazine): The best distillation yet of the economist’s ideas about where the technological disruption will lead us as a society. I’m not completely on board with his forecasting, but this article is smart and provocative.
  • In Conversation: Antonin Scalia(Jennifer Senior, New York) Amazing interview with the Supreme Court Justice which reveals him to a stunning, and frightening, extent.
  • Return of the Oppressed (Peter Turchin, Aeon) The father of Cliodynanics forecasts a dark future for humanity thanks to spiraling wealth inequality.
  • Omens (Ross Andersen, Aeon) With a focus on philosopher Nick Bostrom, the writer wonders whether humans will survive into the deep future.
  • Thanksgiving in Mongolia(Ariel Levy, The New Yorker) Heartrending story of a reporter’s loss in a far-flung place is personal journalism at its finest.
  • Blockbuster Video: 1985-2013 (Alex Pappademas, Grantland): A master of the postmortem lays to rest not a person but a way of life which is disappearing brick by brick and mortar by mortar. 
  • The Corporate Mystique” (Judith Shulevitz, The New Republic) A reminder that a female CEO is not a replacement for a women’s movement.
  • The Global Swarm” (P.W. Singer, Foreign Policy) The author considers privacy as drones get smaller, smarter and seemingly unstoppable.
  • The Master” (Marc Fisher, The New Yorker) A profile of a predatory teacher is most interesting as an extreme psychological portrait of the cult mentality.
  • Why the World Faces Climate Chaos” (Martin Wolf, Financial Times) An attempt to understand why we cling to systems that doom us, that could make us the new dinosaurs.
  • The Hollywood Fast Life of Stalker Sarah” (Molly Knight, New York Times Magazine) Thoughtful article about celebrity in our age of decentralized media, in which fame has entered its long-tail phase, seemingly available to everyone and worth less than ever. 
  • Academy Fight Song(Thomas Frank, The Baffler) The author plays the role of designated mourner for common sense in U.S. higher education, which costs more now and returns less.
  • The Wastefulness of Automation(Frances Coppola, Pieria) A smart consideration of the disconnect of free-market societies that are also highly automated ones.

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Ross Andersen, excellent writer and Aeon Senior Editor, spent a night at Star Axis, artist Charles Ross’ secretive and still-to-be-completed desert installation and observatory in New Mexico. FromEmbracing the Void“:

“I followed Ross and [Jill] O’Bryan in my car, down to the desert floor and then to the top of an adjacent mesa. We parked in front of their makeshift ranch house and headed inside, being careful to step around a six-foot rattlesnake that was sunbathing a few feet from the front door. O’Bryan showed me the bathroom, and explained how to work the manual pump toilet — hold the flush lever down for 20 seconds, then do it again — while Ross went to look for a book he wanted to show me, a collection of essays about quantum mechanics. He returned with the book, and the two of us flipped through it while he gave me a tour of his studio. Ross keeps a close eye on new research in physics, and sometimes enlists astronomers to help him at Star Axis. In the 1990s, Leroy Doggett of the US Naval Observatory measured the staircase’s first and last steps. And the week before I arrived, Ross had an astronomer out from the University of Washington to do the others. I asked him if these encounters with scientists enriched his work.

My interest in science is related to how mysterious it is,’ he told me. ‘I have found that if you get astronomers and physicists drunk enough, you can get them to admit that what’s going on in the quantum field is not a hair’s breadth from metaphysics. That tells me the world is not getting easier to decipher. The deeper they go with this stuff, the more mysterious it gets.’ “

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From “Omens,” Ross Andersen’s excellent new Aeon essay which, with the help of philosopher Nick Bostrom, wonders whether humans will survive in the long run:

“Bostrom isn’t too concerned about extinction risks from nature. Not even cosmic risks worry him much, which is surprising, because our starry universe is a dangerous place. Every 50 years or so, one of the Milky Way’s stars explodes into a supernova, its detonation the latest gong note in the drumbeat of deep time. If one of our local stars were to go supernova, it could irradiate Earth, or blow away its thin, life-sustaining atmosphere. Worse still, a passerby star could swing too close to the Sun, and slingshot its planets into frigid, intergalactic space. Lucky for us, the Sun is well-placed to avoid these catastrophes. Its orbit threads through the sparse galactic suburbs, far from the dense core of the Milky Way, where the air is thick with the shrapnel of exploding stars. None of our neighbours look likely to blow before the Sun swallows Earth in four billion years. And, so far as we can tell, no planet-stripping stars lie in our orbital path. Our solar system sits in an enviable bubble of space and time.

But as the dinosaurs discovered, our solar system has its own dangers, like the giant space rocks that spin all around it, splitting off moons and scarring surfaces with craters. In her youth, Earth suffered a series of brutal bombardments and celestial collisions, but she is safer now. There are far fewer asteroids flying through her orbit than in epochs past. And she has sprouted a radical new form of planetary protection, a species of night watchmen that track asteroids with telescopes.

‘If we detect a large object that’s on a collision course with Earth, we would likely launch an all-out Manhattan project to deflect it,’ Bostrom told me. Nuclear weapons were once our asteroid-deflecting technology of choice, but not anymore. A nuclear detonation might scatter an asteroid into a radioactive rain of gravel, a shotgun blast headed straight for Earth. Fortunately, there are other ideas afoot. Some would orbit dangerous asteroids with small satellites, in order to drag them into friendlier trajectories. Others would paint asteroids white, so the Sun’s photons bounce off them more forcefully, subtly pushing them off course. Who knows what clever tricks of celestial mechanics would emerge if Earth were truly in peril.”

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A bunch of my favorite articles from 2012. (A couple of pieces from December 2011 are included since I do these lists before the absolute end of the year.) All ungated and free.

  • Pedestrian Mania(Brian Phillips, Grantland): Beautiful piece about world-famous 1870s long-distance walking champion Edward Payson Weston, subject of the book, A Man in a Hurry.
  • Brains Plus Brawn(Daniel Lieberman, Edge) Incredibly fun article about endurance, which points out, among many other things, that as quick as Usain Bolt may seem, your average sheep or goat can run twice as fast.
  • A New Birth of Reason” (Susan Jacoby, The American Scholar): Great essay about Robert Ingersoll, the largely forgotten secularist who was a major force in 19th-century America, taken from the writer’s forthcoming book, The Great Agnostic.
  • One’s a Crowd” (Eric Kleinberg, The New York Times): Great Op-Ed piece about the increasing number of people living alone.
  • How the U.S. Lost Out on iPhone Work” (Charles Duhigg and Keith Bradsher, The New York Times): A deep and penetrating explanation of the complicated forces at play in job outsourcing.
  • The Power of Habit“ (Charles Duhigg, Slate): An excerpt from the author’s bestseller of the same name which explains how Pepsodent became omnipresent.
  • We’re Underestimating the Risk of Extinction (Ross Andersen, The Atlantic): I didn’t necessarily agree with the premise (or conclusions) of this interview with philosopher Nick Bostrom, but I enjoyed its intelligence immensely.
  • Hustling the Cloud” (Steven Boone, Capital New York): Wonderful piece about a bleary-eyed, middle-of-the-night search for free Wi-Fi–and anything else that would seem to make sense–in a time of dire economic straits.
  • Craig Venter’s Bugs Might Save the World (Wil S. Hylton, The New York Times Magazine): Fascinating examination of the titular biologist, who wants to make breathing bots that will cure the world’s ills.
  • The Machine and the Ghost(Christine Rosen, The New Republic): The author riffs on how the rise of smart, quantified gizmos and cities necessitates a new “morality of things.”

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Dendrochronology, not to be confused with Dendrophilia, is the science of tree rings. The opening of Ross Andersen’s new Aeon piece on the topic of ring-related research, which compares the past century of fervent deforestation with the burning of another set of valuable leaves, the Library of Alexandria:

“No event, however momentous, leaves an everlasting imprint on the world. Take the cosmic background radiation, the faint electromagnetic afterglow of the Big Bang. It hangs, reassuringly, in every corner of our skies, the firmest evidence we have for the giant explosion that created our universe. But it won’t be there forever. In a trillion years’ time it is going to slip beyond what astronomers call the cosmic light horizon, the outer edge of the observable universe. The universe’s expansion will have stretched its wavelength so wide that it will be undetectable to any observer, anywhere. Time will have erased its own beginning.

On Earth, the past is even quicker to vanish. To study geology is to be astonished at how hastily time reorders our planet’s surface, filling its craters, smoothing its mountains and covering its continents in seawater. Life is often the fastest to disintegrate in this constant churn of water and rock. The speed of biological decomposition ensures that only the most geologically fortunate of organisms freeze into stone and become fossils. The rest dissolve into sediment, leaving the thinnest of molecular traces behind.

Part of what separates humans from nature is our striving to preserve the past, but we too have proved adept at its erasure. It was humans, after all, who set fire to the ancient Library of Alexandria, whose hundreds of thousands of scrolls contained a sizable fraction of classical learning. The loss of knowledge at Alexandria was said to be so profound that it set Western civilisation back 1,000 years. Indeed, some have described the library’s burning as an event horizon, a boundary in time across which information cannot flow.

The burning of books and libraries has perhaps fallen out of fashion, but if you look closely, you will find its spirit survives in another distinctly human activity, one as old as civilisation itself: the destruction of forests. Trees and forests are repositories of time; to destroy them is to destroy an irreplaceable record of the Earth’s past. Over this past century of unprecendented deforestation, a tiny cadre of scientists has roamed the world’s remaining woodlands, searching for trees with long memories, trees that promise science a new window into antiquity. To find a tree’s memories, you have to look past its leaves and even its bark; you have to go deep into its trunk, where the chronicles of its long life lie, secreted away like a library’s lost scrolls. This spring, I journeyed to the high, dry mountains of California to visit an ancient forest, a place as dense with history as Alexandria. A place where the heat of a dangerous fire is starting to rise.”

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From a recent Atlantic article by Ross Andersen about video artist Jason Silva, a passage recalling a meeting between Marshall McLuhan and Timothy Leary, when the latter was imprisoned:

“When Timothy Leary was in prison he was visited by Marshall McLuhan, who told Leary ‘you can’t stay way out on the fringes if you want to compete in the marketplace of ideas—if your ideas are going to resonate, you need to refine your packaging.’ And so they taught Leary to smile, and they taught him about charisma and aesthetic packaging, and ultimately Leary came to appreciate the power of media packaging for his work. According to the article, this is where Timothy Leary the performance philosopher was born, and when he came out of jail all of the sudden he was on all these talk shows, and he was waxing philosophical about virtual reality, and downloading our minds, and moving into cyberspace. All of these ideas became associated with this extremely charismatic guy who was considered equal parts rock star, poet and guru scientist—and that to me suggests the true power of media communications, because these guys were able to take these intergalactic sized ideas and spread them with the tools of media.”

••••••••••

Leary in Folsom prison, 1978:

A sample of Silva’s work:

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A bunch of my favorite articles from the first half of 2012. All available for free.

  • How to Survive the End of the Universe,” (Andrew Grant, Discover): Fascinating account of how humans can escape oblivion as our solar system changes over the next few billion years.
  • Was Frankenstein Really About Childbirth?“ (Ruth Franklin, The New Republic): Provocative piece that makes a strong case that the dread of childbirth was a major impetus for Mary Shelley’s classic.
  • One’s a Crowd” (Eric Kleinberg, The New York Times): Great Op-Ed piece about the increasing number of people living alone.
  • How the U.S. Lost Out on iPhone Work (Charles Duhigg and Keith Bradsher, The New York Times): A deep and penetrating explanation of the complicated forces at play in job outsourcing.
  • The Power of Habit“ (Charles Duhigg, Slate): An excerpt from the author’s bestseller of the same name which explains how Pepsodent became omnipresent.
  • We’re Underestimating the Risk of Extinction” (Ross Andersen, The Atlantic): I didn’t necessarily agree with the premise (or conclusions) of this interview with philosopher Nick Bostrom, but I enjoyed its intelligence immensely.
  • Hustling the Cloud” (Steven Boone, Capital New York): Wonderful piece about a bleary-eyed, middle-of-the-night search for free Wi-Fi–and anything else that would seem to make sense–in a time of dire economic straits.
  • Craig Venter’s Bugs Might Save the World” (Wil S. Hylton, The New York Times Magazine): Fascinating examination of the titular biologist, who wants to make breathing bots that will cure the world’s ills.

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In his new Atlantic piece, “We’re Underestimating the Risk of Human Extinction,” Ross Andersen conducts a smart interview with Oxford’s Professor Nick Bostrom about the possibility of a global Easter Island, in which all of humanity vanishes from Earth. The conversation focuses on the threats we face not from our stars but from ourselves. I think Bostrom’s attitude is too dire, but he only has to be right once, of course. An excerpt:

What technology, or potential technology, worries you the most?

Bostrom: Well, I can mention a few. In the nearer term I think various developments in biotechnology and synthetic biology are quite disconcerting. We are gaining the ability to create designer pathogens and there are these blueprints of various disease organisms that are in the public domain—you can download the gene sequence for smallpox or the 1918 flu virus from the Internet. So far the ordinary person will only have a digital representation of it on their computer screen, but we’re also developing better and better DNA synthesis machines, which are machines that can take one of these digital blueprints as an input, and then print out the actual RNA string or DNA string. Soon they will become powerful enough that they can actually print out these kinds of viruses. So already there you have a kind of predictable risk, and then once you can start modifying these organisms in certain kinds of ways, there is a whole additional frontier of danger that you can foresee.

In the longer run, I think artificial intelligence—once it gains human and then superhuman capabilities—will present us with a major risk area. There are also different kinds of population control that worry me, things like surveillance and psychological manipulation pharmaceuticals.”

Read also:

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