Dienstag, 29. Dezember 2009

over extended

Mankind is imprisoned by the limitations of his senses. Until he has the opportunity to acquire information gleaned by someone who may have seen different things, or seen things differently, the individual is confined to his horizons. Yet even the collective mind reaches only as far as the furthest step taken, and even the collective mind is limited by the boundaries of its most imaginative protagonists.

So when we probe, we use what we know. We look, we listen, we smell, we prod. Our universe is constructed from basic perception. And when we can see no further or hear no more we don't search for a new tool, we buy the upgrade. We extend our boundaries rather than shifting them. That makes sense.

Since the very beginning we have gazed out into the depths of space, and our regular ocular upgrades are a good milestone for this sensory extension. With that comes the new horizon, the new perspective. Just as Copernicus and his telescopes gave us a heliocentric universe, modern instruments have helped visualise our new centre. Witness Sagittarius A*, the black hole at the centre of the Milky Way.

The vision doesn't end there. An article in this month's National Geographic brings us up to date on developments in our single greatest mission, our true integral quest: the search for new Earths. Huge orbital telescopes, such as the Keplar satellite (a 95-megapixel digital camera that captures 100,000 stars in one go - highly sought after by many paparrazi), detect the slightest dimming in distant stars. This often signals the passing of a planet. Like a moth flying past the moon. Another method is the Doppler technique, where starlight is analysed for evidence of a wobble. This again would suggest the presence of another heavenly body, exerting its gravitational pull. Like a squirrel shaking a tree.

Both techniques represent real progress, the ultimate extension of our feeble natural eyes into subspectral light-sensing superdetectors capable of measuring minute change in stars which are thousands of light years away. Both are totally insane. To be fair, NASA and their pals have so far discovered 370 'exoplanets'. Most of these are larger than Jupiter and sound totally inhospitable. They "circle their sun in 3 days", or "blast off their atmosphere" like a comet. Some, about a dozen, have been labelled 'possible terrestrial planets'. The closest is 15 light years away.

If we are looking for other planets, we're doing alright. I seem to remember when I first read about the Doppler technique some years ago, we had found a few dozen exoplanets. Now there are almost 400. If however we are looking for new Earths, alien life and extraterrestrial resources, then this is silly. Pushing our eyesight to the absolute limit is not going to help us make first contact. Even if we discover an earthlike planet - the right size, the right build up and the right distance from the right kind of sun - and even if we design the telescopes which can detect its 'red edge', or other bio-signatures, to make absolutely sure they harbour life, that still won't help us communicate with them. Let alone reach them. The image of two stranded castaways, gazing at each other from their desert islands springs to mind. It would be an interstellar tragedy.

Extension isn't always the right attitude. It's inevitable, but not necessarily successful. Whilst we use the collective mind to great effect to focus our efforts, we continue to rely on individual limitations. Focus may be the main road towards progress, but sometimes the answer lies in the periphery.

The paradigm shift is often an accidental consequence. Just think of Columbus. The discovery wasn't in the distance, it was in the inbetween.

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