Monthly Archives: May 2018

What Should You Do In A Simulated World? The Ethics Of A Dream

simulation universe ethics

Ethics are tricky in the real world, but there is a surprising amount of evidence that we may actually be living in a simulation. If that is indeed true, we can only speculate on the creator and the motive behind such a complex and compelling trick. Who are they? Are we an experiment or entertainment? What would it mean to them if we figured it out? Do we risk being ‘turned off’ if we were break the proverbial ‘fourth wall?’ And perhaps an equally poignant question, does this change our code of ethics? Join us in the first of several thought experiments into a simulated Universe. Press ‘Save’ now.

Deep into that darkness peering, long I stood there, wondering, fearing, doubting, dreaming dreams no mortal ever dared to dream before. – Edgar Allen Poe.

Simulated Worlds And Real Ethics

Ethics are not simple. The Declaration of Human Rights sets out legally bound rules for what is considered reasonable behaviour, and for the most part it has led to a better world. The basic premise of these rules is that most people would agree with them in order to be fair to others. Legal systems, which differ by country, may interpret these rules differently (and some come up against the United Nations,) but the overall premise of law is the same; to hold everyone to an equal ethical standard where possible. Religions often run foul of these rules, but that’s for another day and a ballsier writer (or after some whisky.) We are all familiar with ethical dilemmas too, for example the famous philosophical question of ‘The Trolley Problem.’

 

 

The crux of The Trolley Problem is quite simple, when does murder become ethically permissible? Would you sacrifice one to save many others? Depending on your individual view it may never be okay to kill, but in a study by VSauce it found that most participants would not kill one to save many, even if they would claim otherwise. There are also multiple philosophical schools or ethics, including Utilitarianism which dictates that we must also provide for the majority even at the expense of the few. We consider such conundrums and hypotheses in a world of consequence, but what if suddenly those consequences seem to disappear? What might be ethical in a simulated world?

Ethics For Entertainment

If we are just a television show, such as the one experienced by Truman Burbank, then it may be wise to consider our audience. And like George reasoned in his discussion of a simulated universe, we may best judge their wants as reflective of our own. And when one of the top rated shows on television at the moment is Game Of Thrones , this is a little unsettling. Humans love drama, action, intrigue, love, hate, violence and explosions in our films. Jerry Bruckheimer makes a living from explosions. So, as economist Robin Hanson says, we should be as ‘entertaining as we can.’ Now here is the problem. If we assume that being ‘boring’ risks our continued survival, then commonly accepted ethics could be argued as an impediment. A progressive world full of love and communication is a worthy goal, but probably wouldn’t make good television. Earth would be ‘cancelled.’

ethics simulation alien television

What would be entertaining to an alien may be integral to our survival.

One could reason that our actions should be as dramatic and entertaining as possible to a lay watcher. Unfortunately this raises many questions, and if the world was suddenly to learn its best chance of existing was violence, drama and explosions, the result would likely fly in the face of common ethics. War would be entertainment, crime pay-per-view. and Alien minds could pay an extra season pass price to follow a criminal from sentencing to execution (but only after the cosmic watershed.) Although this is discussed jovially, it does cause pause for thought. What do you think Truman would have done if there was no door in the sea wall? And sadly, a utilitarian ethos would support mass war as long as more survived than died.

Fortunately there is an alternative explanation for a simulation, experiment. But, even then, we must be careful.

‘It’s the sad thing about entertainment, it’s not always about who is the best.’ – Jake Roberts.

Ethics For Experiment

First off, if an alien species were to create a simulation for their entertainment it wouldn’t be very ethical. Unless, at death, our code was transported to an eternal databank akin to an Abrahamic heaven. So we would have to assume an ‘ethical’ justification for our simulation experiment. So we can work with two extremes, either the creator’s ethics are like ours (or a better version,) or they are very different. You could even argue that, like The Purge, we could be a form of stress relief in a violent extraterrestrial society (so to speak.) So lets assume these greater beings have what we would call ‘good ethics.’

In this case the best we could do, in a rather Nietzsche perspective, is be the best we can in tune with what we perceive as ‘the ultimate good.’ Immanuel Kant proposed the ‘categorical imperative‘ to explain an inherent code of morality within humans that we must adhere to. Wouldn’t be much of an experiment if the creators loaded the dice like that. So lets assume we have a choice to extol or ignore these virtuous ideas, then run the simulation for a few billion years. You can see how making changes to the environment (such as drought or plague) and the insertion of strong beliefs (such as religion or cults,) would make for an interesting test. How would a large, diverse population respond. How would they change? What would be the outcome? The takeaway for the creators is clear, they have a working predictive model of anthropology, politics, psychology and social interaction by which to run their own species.

experiment ethics simulation

If we are an experiment, then how would we act to be valuable?

In this case, we may want to stay around as long as possible. To be useful to the experimenters (but this assumes having an inkling of their hypothesis..)  But that if that means ‘being aware’ of the experiment, it is immediately faulty. We walk on a tightrope.

‘To assume all the powers is not good for anybody. Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. All those experiments have a bad ending.’ – Rafael Correa

So What Do You Do?

So, in this potentially highly hypothetical situation with contrasting variables and contradicting endpoints, how do you live ethically in a simulation? My personal thoughts would be, if we are alive now, then we have fulfilled either the ‘entertainment’ or ‘experiment’ role. So you could just say ‘carry on.’ But when ‘just carry on’ means continue jihad, crime and war, our own ethics come into question. So I will propose a compromise, go with Neitszche. Do the best you can for the most you can, but be true to yourself. And in the end, there is a saving grace. Catharsis is stronger than division, and our alien viewers may like a happy ending. And our experimenters would probably find it worth learning from anyway… maybe.

Next time; If we could prove this is a simulation, should we?

What’s Next?

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The opinions expressed in this article are those of  Dr Janaway alone and may not represent those of his affiliates.

Note: The arguments and assumptions presented here are in no means comprehensive. For example we have not considered the outcome of a simulation experiment, the role of bias, or indeed something as simple as its hypothesis. Furthermore we have not considered the full scope of ethical standpoints that an alien or creator species would have, what they may find entertaining. Each assertion is anthropocentric, and therefore is limited, and the causal nature of each premise based on plausibility rather than induction. This article is not designed to examine all these alternatives, but perhaps a book down the line could. Some of these subjects will be touched in the following articles, but I would wager more questions  would be raised than answered in such a short format. In essence, this article is designed to inspire you to pose your own answer to the riddle.

Media credits

  1. The Trolley Problem, provided courtesy of BBC Radio 4
  2. Featured image courtesy of Flickr
  3. Alien courtesy of Flickr
  4. Petri Dish courtesy of Flickr

 

 

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Hopes For Childhood Cancer Prevention As Doctor’s Focus In On Immune System

Acute Lymphoblastic Leukaemia (ALL) is a cancer of blood primarily affecting children. And currently kills around 1400 people a year in the USA alone. It is often a devastating disease, presenting with non-specific symptoms and can be advanced at the time of diagnosis. Treatment is usually chemotherapy, a collection of chemicals designed to wipe out cancer cells but often doing damage to other systems. For the longest time myriad causes have been used to explain the disease. But in a landmark article published in Nature Reviews Cancerit may be that  unifying cause has been found. And with it, new avenues for the prevention of this deadly disease.

A New Hypothesis

In his work, Professor Greaves reviewed 30 years of evidence, including studies on leukaemia ‘epidemics’ in the wake of infections, to come to the novel conclusion that ALL may be due to an ‘untrained immune system.’ He also noted that the rise of the disease in affluent societies (primarily western,) may be accounted for by this explanation. But to explain this new theory, we must first understand a little about the immune system.

leukaemia prevention greaves

White Blood Cells become unregulated and destructive in Leukaemia

The human immune system exists to identify, memorize and attack threats. These include viruses, bacteria and often atypical cells that could become cancer. In immunodeficient states, such as HIV, the immune system is rendered incapable of performing its tasks and people get sick with infections that otherwise would be harmless. You can be born with a faulty immune system, or it can become compromised later through disease, cancer or different therapies (chemotherapy, for example, can damage multiple systems including the immune.)

But a working immune system relies on exposure to a pathogen, like a virus, to be able to identify it, build up ways of fighting back and then, ultimately, attacking and destroying it. Failure at any part of this system creates problems. This is where ALL may be a problem.  In his new Unified Theory, Greaves claims that the development of leukaemia happens like this:

  1. A genetic mutation occurs in the womb that increases the risk of developing a ‘pre-leukaemic’ clone cell.
  2. A lack of exposure to pathogens in the first year of development means that the immune system does not learn how to recognize and deal with threats.
  3. Exposure to infection later in childhood causes an immune misfire leading to leukaemia.

To put things simply, in a target population genetically predisposed to a higher risk of leukemia, reduced exposure to normal infections increases the risk of developing leukemia.

A Disease Of Affluence

leukaemia infection greaves prevention

Greave’s work may help to explain why modern societies have a role In increasing Leukaemia risk

This all may sound fairly straightforward, but you may wonder why western societies are at risk. Along with other hypotheses linking disease with sanitation, the Unified Theory suggests that our penchant for cleanliness may be a factor in creating disease. Often children in the western world, growing up in cities and with justifiably cautious parents, are simply not exposed to the same diseases that used to be commonplace. And then after an epidemic of a disease later, this means that the untrained immune system is prone to malfunction. It is a bold hypothesis but readily accounts for a disease that has a significant risk.  As reported by the BBC, he said;

“The research strongly suggests that acute lymphoblastic leukaemia has a clear biological cause and is triggered by a variety of infections in predisposed children whose immune systems have not been properly primed.

But Greaves is quick to point out that there is no blame for parents, but that the disease more likely reflects society in general. He says it is not as simple as exposing your child to ‘dirt’, but that encouraging normal interactions with other children may be beneficial in early years. He also states categorically that more research is needed to establish how the disease can be prevented. And charity Bloodwise have been quick and sensible to reassure parents that nothing could have been done to prevent current cases based on Greave’s early findings. They said;

“While developing a strong immune system early in life may slightly further reduce risk, there is nothing that can be currently done to definitively prevent childhood leukaemia.”

Exposure and the Future

Whilst Greaves hypothesis may shed light on why ALL develops, it is just the start. For some kind of preventative measure to work we must first research further just what exactly is protective, and whether this can be delivered in a safe and reliable form. Something like a ‘live yoghurt’ has potential, but in a disease of such severity, we must be sure. This will take time. So although the research may provide new avenues, we must be patient to ensure that any new intervention will be effective.

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The opinions expressed in this article are those of  Dr Janaway alone and may not represent those of his affiliates. If you are concerned about your health please see your local healthcare provider. Images courtesy of Flickr.

Image credits

  1. White Blood Cells 
  2. Cityscape 

 

 

 

 

In Reality Just A Dream? (You Will Need A Cup Of Coffee For This One!)

You can’t leave the park if you stay on the rides boy. Stop being a tourist and take a look behind the curtain.”

The idea that everything we know ‘is a lie’ and we have been dreaming all of this time pervades culture en masse; From Plato to the Wachowskis, the possibility that we are all collectively experiencing a simulated reality is a juicy subject for discussion. But there is something to this idea. If we are in a simulation, how would we know? How might we begin to prove this? Defining a hyperobject (or a hyper-hyperobject), such as reality itself, is difficult. We come up like the fish searching for water. It is everything to the fish,  so where do we even begin with being?

A Philosophical Dream

The human mind is not equipped to answer the big questions very well. In fact, our very logic is based on very restrictive parameters.  Our understanding of distances, time and flying things is limited to what we see day to day. This is why we are easily tricked by the massive or very small, our brains aren’t evolved to make sense of the information. Or indeed, there has been no demand to do so that restricts our survival as a species. And answering whether our Universe is in fact ‘real’ isn’t a question that would have vexed our ancestors, so its little wonder we have trouble with it. Today’s big questions confuse yesterdays brain.

Questioning the nature of reality is one of those big questions. Take optic illusions and hallucinations for example, or the auditory hysteresis as best demonstrated by ‘Laurel’ or ‘Yanny‘. We have a limited number of sensory cues which we can attach to our environment. When we try to cut corners, our brains attempt to fill the gap and make mistakes. Our brain will attempt to make sense of ambiguity by pushing previous experience on to it. VSauce has a great video explaining how and why this can happen, so take a look. So knowing this, where do we know where objective reality stops, and our own shortcuts begin? What is truly real outside of our own interpretation?

simulation reality descartes science physics philosophy dream

Rene Descartes – Philosopher and Pioneer 

This idea a, that reality is not ‘real’ is not so foreign to us as it may seem. The first consideration of this with which most people are familiar is perhaps the cogito ergo sum of René Descartes: ‘I think, therefore I am‘. This simple statement was the basic building block Descartes used to establish his metaphysical philosophy. He reasoned that, as we know the senses can be misleading, everything which he perceives may be the illusion of a clever and malign demon. If this is the case, he would have difficulty in establishing which percepts were real and which were not, as each one might be designed to fool him. Although this touches on the idea of a ‘false reality’, it appears to appeal to some higher power ‘tricking us.’

Although a powerful idea, it doesn’t answer the question objectively but actually throws another layer of faith on the issue.

Descartes’ response to this unusual problem was to throw the whole thing out; he only knew that he was thinking. Thus, Descartes knew that he existed but about the rest, he could not sure. This was a logical move, as he realized that objective realities would be consistent regardless of who perceived them, only the inferred reality (a very personal one,) would be his alone. Obviously, we can all infer the same when seeing an apple (and tend to, its red, hard, tasty,) so there is something consistent. But even then, the ‘essence’ of the object considered may be inferred differently by everyone, and you would never know quite how (i.e is my red your red?)

This was termed methodic doubt or Cartesian scepticism. The take-home message is that seeing is not believing. The extension of this, Solipsism, is the belief that you are the only aware rational agent (agent meaning one capable of observing and influencing.) From a simulation perspective, it means that you are the only ‘real’ person. Of course, our video games are populated by Non-Player Characters (Cortana in Halo, Navi in Zelda.) If we are in a simulation, it is more likely that you are not ‘real’. Why would a simulation be built for us alone?

Of course, this is a basis for a line of thought, not an encouragement to live your life in this way. People still look both ways before crossing the street. An NPC is not benevolent and doesn’t exist to help you by nature (i.e any character who attacks you in a game.) Solipsism, as understood by Karl Popper, is not a falsifiable hypothesis. Traditional scientific method seeks to disprove ideas via a null hypothesis (the chance that the association between X and Y is due to chance). Solipsism cannot meaningfully be disproved in this way (the death of the main agent ends the argument, one way or the other). This doesn’t mean that it isn’t true, but that solipsism is in the hands of philosophy over science.

Which is an uncomfortable position to be in. If you can’t objectively prove it, or at least reliably disprove it, nothing can be concluded. Popper himself is aware of this and forms the basis of his work.

We can approach this problem from the other direction; that is to say, by considering the ethics of simulation after the fact. As software becomes more advanced and hardware becomes more capable, our simulations or the possibility of any simulation becomes more sophisticated. The simulated minds we might develop could be more complex and we have every reason to suppose that we might pursue this. The map might start to look more and more like the territory.

science popper simulation descartes dream

Karl Popper – Father of Falsificationism and proponent of reasoning

These sim people (sims?) would have behavior like ours, they might even have thoughts like ours. At some point, they might become indistinguishable from us and there are ethical considerations to running this. We do not consider the ethics of running a sim, thus any advanced civilization is unlikely to do this either. The economist Robin Hanson recommended that anyone living in a simulation better be as entertaining as they can, otherwise they might get switched off. An uncomfortable thought. So if we are simply lines of code, it makes sense for that code to be useful. Although we can see that ‘bad humans’ (Hitler as a prime example,) seemed to operate for years before ‘termination.’

Clearly, either this isn’t true, or Hitler’s suicide was a programmed termination carried out as volitional. We couldn’t be certain either way. Popper once again becomes very relevant, as we have no way of proving any hypothesis of even this one act.

These sim people would be ‘p-zombies’ or philosophical zombies. A p-zombie is not a horror movie villain. They look like people (or sims) and we cannot tell them apart, even from their reactions. If you tickle them, they laugh and if you pinch them, they would cry. However, they do not feel that indescribable sensation (‘qualia’). At some point, surely this becomes indistinguishable also? A simulant human such as found in Blade Runner was virtually human, and Robin William’s Bicentennial Man was actually declared human as ‘he’ became ethically synonymous with his organic peers.

bicentennial man williams science dream plato descartes

Robin William’s Bicentennial Man achieved human status through consciousness.

So we have established a reasonable proposal that these simulations are possible (although not provable only within philosophy.) We have now a frame of understanding with which to appreciate this issue. Next, we must turn theory into practice. How do we find the proof?

 

A ‘Physical’ Dream

The best way to analyse the problem of our potential simulation is to look at how we would do it. We need to examine how we build simulations and models. What limits do we put on them and how does that map onto what we have observed in the universe? After all, we have built simulations to model economic or anthropological behavior and VR goggles encourage us to leap into cyberworlds, is it that unrealistic that these might become more sophisticated and take on lives of their own? And what would reassure us that we weren’t indeed sentient ‘code’? Are we virtual reality convinced of physicality because of that same programming?

This prospect is not that unrealistic according to Hans Moravec, an Austrian futurist. Eventually, a civilization of some sort or another will become highly technologically advanced. This civilisation will be able to mass produce self-contained virtual simulations. They might do this for entertainment purposes or to model certain situations, as we do. These widespread simulated realities may become so numerous that any thinking entity has a greater chance of being inside one than out. Simply put, if the code can perceive and experience, how would it know if it was real or code? And if most of the ‘entities’ in a given universe are code, statistically you are more likely to be one of them.

Nobel Prize-winning physicist, George Smoot, encourages us to examine the basic physical constants which govern the universe. In his opinion, the fact that our environment is quantized (‘fuzzy on a small scale’, think of it as pixellation) so that physics works differently on a large scale compared to a small one may be a way of saving space an computational power. This discrete-ness is our binary. Basically, the way the Universe works, the rules it plays by, aren’t there by chance. They are created by a programmer, and that the base levels of ‘reality’ such as quantum physics, are an example of this.

dream plato science simulation

In physics our universe is quantised. 10 points to Gryffindor if you get the joke

Its just data, and since the small doesn’t reliably approximate to the big (i.e no one has developed a Unified Theory of quantum vs classical physics, it might be because a programmer has made a subroutine to relate the two to save data.) He also points to entangled states as another ‘simulation memory’-saving device. Other people take the computer science element a little further and examine Planck lengths, absolute zero and the speed of light. These unbending limitations could also better enable such a simulation to run smoothly.

So what we know about writing code, the concessions we make for ‘functionality’ may be present in the Universe itself. This is disconcerting because it speaks of ‘design.’ And we can see it. Its like Halo’s Master Chief realizing that the loading screens are actually real.

Tying The Physical To The Philosophical – A Dream Becomes Real

Back to philosophy again with the anthropic principle; the idea that the universe is meant for conscious minds to inhabit and observe it. There are two variants to this idea: the weak and the strong. The weak anthropic principle posits that we are only able to observe our universe because of the presets producing its formation. If the big bang never happened, or the earth was too far away from the sun, our civilization would never have arisen. Thus it is easy to say ‘of course the universe was made for us’, if it wasn’t, we wouldn’t be here to make that observation. A million other universes with different laws of physics or other presets might exist, but we’d never know because we are unable to observe them.

The strong variant of this argument goes similarly. It states that the scale of time and place in the universe is such that life must arise within it somewhere. Given how many billions of years and how large it is, there is a strong probability that intelligent life will come about and begin asking questions. However, this is a circular argument, suggesting that the proof in the pudding is that since we can question, the universe exists for it to be so questioned. Once again we are visited by the idea of a simulation.

IYou can consider further what the anthropic principles might mean for our position in the grand scheme of things. At this point we might speculate that if simulations are powerful and advanced enough, we could have sims running simulations and circles within circles. I don’t want to linger on who or what would do this; that takes the frame of this discussion from the strange into solipsism and mental illness. But if we are to entertain the philosophical argument for simulation, and note that physics may give it strength, we are met with an uncomfortable ‘reality’.

Or at least, we may be programmed to.

What’s Next?

  • Even if you are in a simulation, it doesn’t matter because the universe is out to get you.
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The opinions expressed in this article are those of Dr George Aitch and Dr Janaway alone and may not represent those of their affiliates.  Article written by Dr Aitch and embellished and edited by Dr Janaway (But the vast majority goes to Dr Aitch!!) Images courtesy of flickr.

Sources

  1. Hyperobjects by Timothy Morton (2013) University of Minnesota Press
  2. The Meditations on First Philosophy by René Descartes (1641)
  3. Mind Children by Hans Moravec (1995) Harvard University Press
  4. You are a Simulation & Physics Can Prove It: George Smoot at TEDxSalford (watch here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Chfoo9NBEow)
  5. https://www.simulation-argument.com
  6. Image of Rene Descartes
  7. Image of Karl Popper
  8. Image of Robin Williams
  9. Image of Halloween costume (Walter White.)

Researchers just created a Robot ‘Mini-Organ’ Nursery, and the implications are astounding.

nursery robot disease freedman

Robots are an increasing part of our day to day lives. From simple assistants like Siri to complex quadripedal automatons like Spotmini, robotic technology is rapidly becoming common. And although some may seem novelties, a revolution in robotics has been pioneering medical treatments for a while now. And researchers at UW School of Medicine have just taken the next step into a future that seems all too magical. For the first time, robots are growing human tissue that functions just like our own organs.  What does this mean for the future? And just how are they doing it?

Robot Nurseries

In a statement released by UWSOM, Professor Benjamin Freedman hailed the new technology as a ‘secret weapon’ in the fight against disease. He and his team utilized pluripotent stem cells to create miniature versions of human organs to test new medicines and disease treatments. These particular types of stem cells are special because they can be influenced to become any type of cell, and as such are already an exciting prospect for degenerative diseases. And although stem cell medicine has been around for a while, its integration with automation makes widespread research all the more likely.

One of the barriers to influencing and maintaining these cells is time, and the other is difficulty. A researcher may take a day to set up an experiment and have to keep a very close eye on things. The spectrum of error is large. But by using a robotic, high precision and automated system, the research team has been able to repeat the process in as little as 20 minutes. Furthermore, since the system cannot ‘get tired’ or ‘lose concentration’ it is able to experiment for as long as necessary, with a level of precision and reliability far beyond human scope. By creating these robot nurseries, Freedman has turned stem cell research into a superhighway.

Mini Organs by Robot

The science is complicated, but essentially tiny versions of human organs are made for experimentation. This allows researchers to test new treatments in a far more realistic and contained setting. And with automation, means that experiments can be done en masse in a short time. As reported by IFL Science in their wonderful article, the team was able to produce ‘diseased’ miniature kidneys, and discover new pathways that could be used to treat human disease. This is just one example of how this technology is already yielding incredible results.

So whats to be excited about? Simply put, by using robotic technology to automate stem cell research we can better understand disease and treat it, and in faster times. In a world with a growing population, efficient and cheap treatment is all the more valuable. Many warn against the use of robotics across different sectors, but this is one clear example of just how useful they can be. Summarising the significance of the new technology humbly, Freedman says;

“The value of this high-throughput platform is that we can now alter our procedure at any point, in many different ways, and quickly see which of these changes produces a better result.”

Are Robots Medicine’s Future?

With robotic technology already commonplace in medicine (i.e in surgery,) and improving every day, there is no doubt that it provides an excellent means of care. Greater accuracy, learning and control are granted to doctors and researchers through the use of adjuvant robotic tools. Freedman’s work is miraculous because it may overturn the major sticking points of one of the worlds most promising research avenues. By speeding up the process and increasing its efficacy, the lag between need and treatment may shrink substantially. So watch this space, because who knows what will come next.

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The opinions expressed in this article are those of  Dr Janaway alone and may not represent those of his affiliates. Images courtesy of Flickr.

 

 

 

Voices from the Distant Stars – The Story of a Pulsar

In space no one can hear you scream, or can they? Actually, we hear a lot from space.  We just need the right set of ears. And for a long time we have listened to the stars, and every once in a while, we hear something that might just be something special. A regular pattern that suggests an alien intelligence, or shadows on a sun suggesting a giant structure. Here are some of the great space oddities that have given us pause to reconsider our place in the Universe. One such ‘oddity’ is a Pulsar.

Voices of Little Green Men

In 1967, astrophysicist Jocelyn Bell Burnell was astonished to observe regular radio pulses of 1.33 seconds in the Vulpecula constellation. The Cambridge researchers were so taken with the idea that this was some sort of interstellar beacon, a voice from distant stars, that they nicknamed the mysterious source LGM-1; “little green men 1”. In fact, the radio bursts they were receiving came from the first pulsar which was given the much more cumbersome designation ‘PSR B1919+21’. So what is a pulsar, and why do they sound like aliens?

Pulsars are neutron stars, superdense structures which may only be a few miles in diameter but pack enough mass to rival our own sun. As a result of this amount of matter existing in such a compact space, some pretty strange things start to happen. For a start, the entire star is rapidly spinning (sometimes at hundreds of times per second). This combined with its two beams of energy produces its pulse as the spinning beams move in and out of view, like a lighthouse. And we see this information as regular ‘pulses’, enough to trick us into thinking a being is looking to talk to us. But how did we discover them?

Pulsars were discovered through interplanetary scintillation (IPS), a technique in radio astronomy, which was implemented in the sixties to scan the skies for quasars: large interstellar objects emitting vast amounts of energy across a variety of frequencies. As these signals pass through space, they encounter obstacles and diffract. This effect produces a characteristic twinkle, or scintillation which can be analysed and reveal the position of such objects as pulsars. The discovery would lead to the first Nobel Prize in physics to be given to an astronomer. So even though we didn’t find aliens, we learned a lot.

What we know about Pulsars

We now understand that neutron stars are the finished product of dead stars, when all that’s left has burnt out. The end of a star is a hostile environment; these neutron stars are incredibly hot, incredibly radioactive and as I said before, they are incredibly dense. The surface would be hard and smooth, though it is unlikely that any of us would be able to set foot on one. As the dying star collapses, its rotational speed increases. Imagine that you’re spinning on an office chair and you draw in your arms and legs. You speed up, so would the pulsar. The pulses which these star remnants emit are how we’ve discovered most neutron stars.

Since the initial discovery, we’ve found over two thousand pulsars. Merely collecting them isn’t their sole reason of interest. Recently we’ve been able to confirm the existence of another type of cosmic phenomenon; gravitational waves. As the universe expands, it does not does so uniformly. Ripples in space occur as part of this hodgepodge process as well as due to galaxies colliding. As these colossal clusters approach each other, the black holes in the centre release gravitational waves. Pulsars play a part in this, due to their regularity, which is altered by the distortion of merging black holes.

The Future of Pulsars

Pulsars were originally mistaken as the beacons or lighthouses of little green men. This is the reputation which history has afforded them, though that’s not to rule out their being put to a similar use in the future. Although pulsar signals do eventually slow down as they lose spin, this takes a long time and they are relatively stable points. Future deep space travellers will have the potential to navigate via triangulation of the pulsars in 3-D space.

Present space travellers are even able to do this. In 1972, the Pioneer 10 spacecraft was launched to explore Jupiter and beyond. In 1983 it left the solar system to enter deep space. Finally, in 2003 we lost its signal. As well as numerous scientific instruments on board, the spacecraft carried an engraving depicting humans, earth and the solar system. The latter featured as a sort of map, showing its location between the relative periods of 14 pulsars to enable any visitors from beyond the stars to say hello. Alongside the Arecibo message, the Pioneer engraving will give any civilisations out there a clue that there is something else trying to make contact.

We have come full circle, as many pulsars do. From being mistaken for communications beyond the stars, we have come to use them as our own messages to what might be out there. Pulsars are certainly one of most bizarre interstellar objects which we’ve detected. Certainly, we have a lot to learn from their structure and exotic matter. In the matter of aliens versus pulsars, perhaps the truth is stranger than fiction.

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The opinions expressed in this article are those of Dr George Aitch and Dr Janaway alone and may not represent those of their affiliates. Images courtesy of flickr.

Sources

  1. Burnell, S. Jocelyn Bell “Little Green Men, White Dwarfs or Pulsars?” Cosmic Search Magazine. (1977)
  2. https://www.space.com/32661-pulsars.html
  3. https://drbenjanaway.com/2018/03/18/are-we-alone-in-the-universe/
  4. https://phys.org/news/2017-10-neutron-stars.html
  5. http://web2.uwindsor.ca/courses/physics/high_schools/2013/Pulsars/pulsars02.html
  6. https://www.nasa.gov/feature/goddard/2017/nasa-continues-to-study-pulsars-50-years-after-their-chance-discovery/
  7. https://www.nasa.gov/feature/jpl/listening-for-gravitational-waves-using-pulsars
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