Archive for July, 2010

Defining Self-Awareness

July 29, 2010

Anyone who has ever had to put up with the flippant attitude of a cat or the drooling devotion of a dog knows that these animals are self-aware. Each has such a distinct personality that we can’t question this fact. But defining what constitutes awareness of self has always been a terribly difficult issue. Naturally, my humble yet perfect opinion will clarify all that.

Self-awareness, I think, originates from our awareness that we need something, and then our desire to fulfill that need. You are hungry, you understand that you, not someone else is hungry, and you choose to mobilize the entity you think of as yourself (not someone else…although I have asked someone to get me a beer before) to fulfill this hunger. Self-awareness is mandatory for an animal to feed itself. It requires some planning to do this, and one might argue that the planning itself to perform the “getting food” process does not require self-awareness, although it does require an awareness of one’s external environment. I can’t argue that. However, first you have to know who it is that’s hungry (or horny, or tired, or whatever else constitutes the immediate need of your body). Personal needs mandate self-awareness.

Imagine, for a second, a bird that has no self-awareness. It senses hunger, but isn’t certain what it is that’s hungry. Is it a nearby cat? The gaping maws of its chicks? Itself? Of course, it can’t actually be confused, since that would imply an awareness that multiple options were available to its recognizable self that were confusing it. It sits motionless while its hunger kills it. Not a particularly favorable genetic mutation, I would say.

This can go pretty far down the evolutionary scale. Rats, well, certainly they have to be self aware if this argument is correct. Insects? Hmm. They get hungry, they know who it is that’s hungry, and they service that need. Self-awareness needn’t be complicated or full of emotional insight; it is just a veneer of human conceit that makes us believe only humans have souls, have an awareness of death, or feel pain or have self-awareness. Ridiculous.

So self-awareness might be as simple as a chemical reaction in a cell, or a computer program that recognizes a need and fulfills it, or maybe just a thermostat that triggers when it gets too cold. Self-awareness may be no more than a simple reaction to an internal change.

When humans speak of their own self-awareness, there are layers of contemplation and thought behind it, analyzing it, but it may be no more than a single digital toggle switch of need followed by gratification.  They add the recursive baggage of their awareness of their self-awareness. Why make it complicated?

VOTING – The Lack of Representation for Distributed Minorities

July 23, 2010

It’s an odd character of our politics that it’s possible for a 30% minority, a hundred million Americans, to have nobody in Congress to represent their interests.

Think about it. Say you’re in a group representing 15% of the US citizens. Now, you’d think in any sort of democracy with any sense to it, 15% of the folks representing us in Congress would have this same opinion. But that’s not the way it works, unless the members of this group all happen to live in the same state. A case in point is Humanists, or non-believers in general, who do actually make up about 15% of the US. But there’s only one Representative who professes to be a nonbeliever, and no Senators at all.

It’s easy to see how this happens. If every community in the US is 1% Buddhist, 2% Jewish, 15% Humanist, 1% Wiccan, 1% Moslem, and 80% Christian, then you’re going to have a Congress that consists of 100% Christians. Likewise, if 49% of every community were gun-owners, and everyone voted, they would have zero representation in Congress.

This goes for every minority opinion. In a perfectly mixed society, the minority will not have significant representation in Congress. This isn’t always the case, of course, since societies often segregate themselves based on their interests; the Deep South is chock-full of conservatives, and the east and west coasts are liberal. Different races tend to clump together, too. So people that stick together can get represented. But those minority-opinions that distribute themselves evenly throughout the population don’t.

How could a democracy that believes in voter representation allow this, or more importantly, how could we correct this?

First of all, we could toss out the concept of districts, and thus eliminate redistricting and gerrymandering. Then create a pool of eligible candidates that post their positions and opinions on-line. Make it fairly easy to get into this pool; you want a diverse group of individuals that represent a lot of opinions. Then, let everyone in the US vote for whomever they wish to represent them.

Currently each member of the House of Representatives represents, on average, about 750,000 people. So getting back to our hypothetical solution, when any person in the pool reaches 750,000 votes, Shazam! they’re an official Representative. You’d end up with the same number of Representatives, but hey, they’d actually be representing the people who voted for them. Wouldn’t that be unusual!

Naturally, this would have a couple of bugs to work out, like how to sidestep all the irate special interests and corporations who wouldn’t be able to control the voting anymore. That’d be tough.

But we still have to figure out how to deal with those idiots in the Senate.

Silicon Based Lifeforms vs Creationists

July 23, 2010

Ever since the ground-breaking experiments of Urey and Miller, who proved it was possible for amino acids to spontaneously arise out of a laboratory-controlled “primordial soup” of inorganic chemicals, scientists have been racing to take the next step and find out just how the amino acids can become self-replicating organic strings. The importance of this is obvious. This would give us a continuous lineage from rocks to humans. Evolution in a nutshell, a complete package end-to-end with which to torment creationists.

Unfortunately, lacking this final detail in the string of continuity, mutation, and speciation, creationists will cling to this last vestige of their delusion like a drowning man rubbing a rabbit’s foot. Of course, they will do that anyway, even with absolute proof that evolution can stand on its own, and continue to perpetuate the lie that evolution is still grounded in Lamarkian concepts. Anyone who’s ever been on the receiving end of a Jehovah’s Witness tract knows just what I’m talking about – their sum total knowledge of evolution comes from the latest theories of the 1880s and the rants from their apparently uneducated pastors.

Even if scientists complete the experimental foundations of the RNA World, there will still remain skeptics who will blame the results on contamination from external sources, unless, of course, the carbon-based replicating organism is completely alien to anything that currently exists. But the odds of that are considered low; carbon compounds like to react with other carbon compounds in very specific ways that restrict the options available.

But why go this route? Why not select a version of life that can’t possibly be contaminated by Earthly life forms? For example, silicon (versus carbon) based life? Something that will provide incontrovertible proof that life can arise spontaneously in some of the nastiest conditions the universe can lob at us.

I’ve read a bit about the possibility of silicon-based life forms. Most people don’t think it’s possible, usually based on speculation about how silicon bonds with oxygen and can’t properly build long, strong chains like carbon does (not completely true – look up polysilanes). Most of these articles assume certain things; that oxygen, carbon, hydrogen and other low-level atoms are still going to be around for silicon to bond with, and that the temperature of the silicon-based chemistry will have to be about the same as our own. Silicon doesn’t do well at this temperature. Too hard, too short a chain, blah, blah, blah.

But to create a true silicon analog of the carbon based world, we have to eliminate the whole top line of the periodic chart (barring lithium – we need that). This might seem to be a crazy task until we look at Venus, which at a mere 600 degrees C, and with the aid of ultraviolet rays, has lost most of its hydrogen and oxygen into space. It has very little water left. However, for a silicon analog to exist, with no carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, nitrogen or helium to pollute its atmosphere, we would need a fairly small planet with a surface temperature of over 1000 degrees C. Taking a look at the next row down on our periodic charts, we can see that the analog to H20 would be Li2S, oceans of dilithium sulfide (not to be confused with dilithium crystals, which are used in starships). This happens to melt at about 950 degrees C. The second row in the chart below nitrogen is phosphorus. P2 gas forms from P4 at over 800 C, which works just great for us as our analog to N2 in our own atmosphere. An atmosphere consisting mostly of phosphorus might be hard on us humans, but it’d likely be just fine for the siliconites. The analog to C02 would be SiS2, silicon sulfide.

I’m not sure how silicon would do as a chain at 1100 degrees if it was isolated from lower-level chemical elements. Probably not as well, after all, you are dealing with a valence shell that’s one shell further away from the nucleus than carbon. But once you eliminate all these reactive impurities, who’s to say?

What I’d love to do is build a nicely insulated ceramic chamber, dump a lot of these second-level elements into it, heat it up to 2000 degrees to vent off the light elements, then let it cook for a few years around 1100 degrees. Make a “freezing side” of the box at 900 degrees, and a hot side at 1150 to give it a nice thermal gradient. Add a spark-gap generator. Then watch and see what grows. Repeat Urey and Miller’s 1-week experiment, but on silicon. Would we get analog-silicon amino acids? I’d bet on it. Analog RNA? Analog life? Who knows? But it would sure be cool to find out.