Do Aliens Have Inalienable Rights?

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SELF-AWARE SEA LIFE?: Peter Godfrey-Smith has said that an octopus is “probably the closest we will come to meeting an intelligent alien.”Sylke Rohrlach / Wikipedia

What ET teaches us about our moral obligations.

Last January I was walking with my granddaughter along a beach near Melbourne when we noticed several people gathered around a rock pool, peering into the water. Wondering what had attracted their attention, we went over and saw that it was an octopus. If the spectators were interested in it, it also seemed interested in them. It came to the edge of the pool, one of its eyes directed at the people above, and stretched a tentacle out of the water, as if offering to shake hands. No one took up the offer but at least no one tried to capture the animal or turn it into calamari. That was pleasing because, as Peter Godfrey-Smith says in his recent book Other Minds: The Octopus, the Sea, and the Deep Origins of Consciousness, an octopus is “probably the closest we will come to meeting an intelligent alien.”

If we do ever meet an intelligent alien, even a tasty one, I hope we have sufficient ethical awareness to think of more than pleasing our palates or filling our stomachs. My view that this would be the wrong way to respond to such an encounter, however, leads to a deeper question: What moral status would extra-terrestrials have? Would we have obligations to them? Would they have rights? And would our answers depend on their intelligence?

These questions bring to mind Steven Spielberg’s celebrated 1982 movie E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial.  In case you haven’t seen the film, it features a friendly extraterrestrial who lands on Earth with some colleagues on a botanical research expedition and is accidentally left behind. E.T. is befriended by Elliott, a 10-year-old boy, and soon shows that he has a full range of human-like feelings, including homesickness. He also has greater compassion for other species than most humans do. In one memorable scene, Elliott, moved by feelings that come from E.T., liberates the frogs in his biology class.

I use E.T. as a thought-experiment to challenge students to reconsider their speciesism—the still widely held assumption that the boundary of our species is also the boundary of beings with rights, or with interests that we ought to take seriously. So far, the only nonhumans we have encountered are animals, plants, fungi, and microscopic living things such as protozoans, bacteria, algae, and spirochetes. When we consider the moral status of these organisms, our thinking is likely to be biased by our own interests in using them, especially as sources of food, or in avoiding being made ill by them.

This is clearest when we think about how we ought to treat nonhuman animals. We have deeply embedded customs of killing and eating animals and using their skins for fur and leather.  Many people can hardly imagine a meal without meat or other animal products. Religious and philosophical thinkers are as susceptible to bias as other people, and so most of them have justified this practice. In doing so, these thinkers have dug a broad gulf in our minds between ourselves and nonhuman animals. Even the term “nonhuman animals” sounds odd, because it implies that we are animals. It should not sound odd at all, because we have known, ever since Darwin, that we are animals. Yet we persist in thinking that we are a separate creation, that we alone are made in the image of God, or that we alone have an immortal soul.

It might be difficult to tell whether extraterrestrial life forms are capable of suffering or experiencing happiness.

E.T. challenges the moral significance of the species boundary both because we recognize in him a being with feelings very like ours, and because we have no prejudice against him based on a history of eating his kind, putting them in circuses for our amusement, or using them as beasts of burden. So if I ask my students, “Would it have been ethically permissible for scientists to kill E.T. and dissect him for the purposes of what would surely be extremely interesting scientific research?” they unanimously reject that idea. Some things that we could do to harm aliens, they concede, are wrong. If they accept that, then they must also accept that the sphere of proper ethical concern is not limited to members of the species Homo sapiens.

Accepting that it would be wrong to kill and dissect E.T. is a first step in exploring our ethical obligations to extraterrestrial life, but it does not take us very far. Perhaps we have ethical obligations only to beings who have a high level of intelligence, self-awareness, or communicative ability, and if we ever discover extraterrestrial life lacking in these qualities, we will have no obligations to them.

Once the species-barrier has been breached, however, it is not so easy to fall back on the requirement that a being pass some threshold for cognitive abilities in order to have rights. For then we have to consider human beings who fail that test—as both human infants, and humans with profound intellectual disability, do. Surely they have interests that need to be considered, whether or not they possess, or have the potential to develop, higher cognitive capacities…

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http://nautil.us/issue/47/consciousness/do-aliens-have-inalienable-rights

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Forget About Terraforming Mars. Here’s Why.

The Red Planet lacks a source of carbon dioxide that could transform its thin, cold atmosphere into something resembling conditions on Earth.

 https://www.seeker.com/space/planets/forget-about-terraforming-mars-heres-why
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Why does the universe smell so bad?

The universe: looks amazing, smells awful.
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The sight of the universe inspires wonder. The smell of it, though, might prompt other reactions.

Joel F. Hooper explains.

Smell is perhaps our most mysterious sense.

It can trigger memories and link us to specific times and places. It’s not surprising that we often wonder what distant and exotic places would smell like, from the frequent mention of odour in Gulliver’s Travels to Professor Farnsworth’s Smell-O-Scope in Futurama.

So, setting aside the practical problems of trying to take a lungful of vacuum, what would it be like to get a whiff of the sparse gases and particles that occupy deep space?

If we turn our nose to Sagittarius B2, a cloud of gas about 390 light years from the centre of the Milky Way, we would encounter a host of olfactory delights. Almost every chemical that has been detected in space can be found there.

Among the smellier components of Sagittarius B2 is hydrogen sulfide (H2S), often described as rotten-egg gas.

This chemical can be detected at around 10 billion molecules per cubic centimetre by the human nose, and can cause death in high concentrations. At its most dense, the Sagittarius cloud contains only about one million molecules per cubic centimetre, about 10,000 times beneath the human threshold.

We might also encounter hydrogen cyanide (HCN), another deadly gas, though this one smells of bitter almonds. Chemists in the early twentieth century used to smoke cigarettes while working with this chemical, because a release of hydrogen cyanide would change the flavour of the tobacco and act as an early warning sign of a leak.

There are also much more agreeable odours in space. Ethyl formate belongs to a class of molecules called esters, which often have sweet and fruity aromas. It is one of the chemicals responsible for the smell of raspberries.Space is also home to compounds called polyaromatic hydrocarbons, flat molecules made up of rings of carbon atoms. These chemicals were named “aromatic” by early chemists before their structure was known, due to the strong smells they produce.

Their fragrances range from faintly pleasant to the strong smell of coal tar. A study just published in The Astrophysical Journal found they are present in much higher concentrations than previously throught, especially in older galaxies.

The main difference between the gases of space and those in our own atmosphere is the abundance of oxygen on earth, meaning that many smelly chemicals based on sulfur or phosphorus exist here in their milder, oxidised forms. So taking a deep whiff of space gas would probably smell closest to rotting garbage, fish, or flatulence.

https://cosmosmagazine.com/space/why-does-the-universe-smell-so-bad

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Columbia Space Shuttle Disaster Explained (Infographic)

By Karl Tate, SPACE.com Infographics Artist

On Feb. 1, 2003, the shuttle Columbia was returning to Earth after a successful 16-day trip to orbit, where the crew conducted more than 80 science experiments ranging from biology to fluid physics. However, the seemingly healthy orbiter had suffered critical damage during its launch, when foam from the fuel tank’s insulation fell off and hit Columbia’s left wing, tearing a hole in it that later analysis suggested might have been as large as a dinner plate.

The damage occurred just after Columbia’s liftoff on Jan. 16, but went undetected. During re-entry, the hole in a heat-resistant reinforced carbon carbon panel on Columbia’s left wing leading edge allowed super-hot atmospheric gases into the orbiter’s wing, leading to its destruction.

Killed in the Columbia shuttle disaster were STS-107 mission commander Rick Husband and included pilot Willie McCool, mission specialists Kalpana Chawla, Laurel Clark and David Brown, payload commander Michael Anderson and payload specialist Ilan Ramon, Israel’s first astronaut. [Share Your Thoughts on Columbia]

Poll: Is Human Spaceflight Worth the Risk?

A subsequent inquiry by the Columbia Accident Investigation Board (CAIB) faulted NASA’s internal culture as much as the foam strike as causes of the shuttle disaster. The Columbia accident ultimately led then-President George W. Bush to announce plans to retire NASA’s space shuttle fleet (which was more than 20 years old at the time) once construction of the International Space Station was complete. A capsule-based spacecraft was planned to replace the shuttles. [Photos: The Columbia Space Shuttle Tragedy]

NASA’s space shuttle fleet resumed launches in July 2005, after spending more than two years developing safety improvements and repair tools and techniques to avoid a repeat of the Columbia disaster. In 2011, NASA launched the final space shuttle mission, STS-135, to complete the shuttle fleet’s role in space station construction.

Video: Remembering Columbia’s Crew – ‘In Their Own Words’

In 2012, NASA’s three remaining shuttles – Discovery, Atlantis and Endeavour – were delivered to museums in Washington, D.C., Florida and California, while the test shuttle Enterprise was delivered to New York City. Under President Barack Obama, NASA was directed to rely on private spacecraft to launch Americans to the International Space Station and return them to Earth. NASA, meanwhile, is developing a new giant rocket – the Space Launch System – and the Orion space capsule for future deep-space missions to an asteroid, the moon and Mars.

http://www.space.com/19526-columbia-shuttle-disaster-explained-infographic.html

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Whitey on Mars

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A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket is launched from Cape Canaveral. Photo by NASA

Elon Musk and the rise of Silicon Valley’s strange trickle-down science

Andrew Russell is Dean and Professor in the College of Arts & Sciences at SUNY Polytechnic Institute in Utica, New York. He is the author of Open Standards and the Digital Age (2014) and co-editor of Ada’s Legacy (2015). 

Lee Vinsel is an assistant professor of science and technology studies at the Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken, New Jersey. He is working on the book Taming the American Idol: Cars, Risks, and Regulations.

There are good reasons to worry about the future of humanity. Do we have a future, and if so, how much and what kind? For most people, it’s easier to feel these existential concerns for our species than it is to do something about them. But some are taking action. On 27 September 2016, the SpaceX founder Elon Musk made a bold, direct claim: that, in order to survive an inevitable extinction event, humans would need to ‘become a space-faring civilisation and a multi-planetary species’. Pulses raced and the media swooned. Headlines appeared in the business and technology press about Musk’s plan to save humanity. Experts and laypeople alike debated details of the rockets, spacecraft and fuel needed for Musk’s journey to Mars. The excitement was palpable, and it was evident at the press conference. During the Q&A that followed the announcement, Musk said that his goal was to inspire humanity. One audience member yelled: ‘[Musk] inspires the shit out of us!’ Another offered him a kiss.

Musk’s plan to colonise Mars is a sign of an older and recurring social problem. What happens when the rich and powerful isolate themselves from everyday concerns? Musk wants to innovate and leave Earth, rather than to take care of it, or fix it, and stay. Like so many of his peers in the innovating and disrupting classes, Musk prefers to dwell in fantasy and science fiction, safely removed from the world of here and now. Musk is a utopian, in the original Greek meaning: ‘no place’. Repulsed by the world we all share, he dreams of a place that does not exist.

His announcement parallels an earlier moment in the history of spaceflight, the Apollo missions of the 1960s to send American men to the Moon. Musk himself made the comparison, when he described the Apollo missions as ‘probably the greatest achievements of humanity’. The US space program got a major boost from Cold War competition with the Soviet Union, especially the Soviet launch of Sputnik in 1957. The extraordinary achievement of Sputnik pushed US scientists and political leaders to try to re-establish the country’s scientific and technological supremacy. The Apollo missions began a few years later, with President John F Kennedy’s bold declaration in 1961, and culminated with the manned Moon landing of Apollo 11 on 20 July 1969. The program captured the imagination of the nation, indeed the world, and remains an inspiring story of teamwork, wonder, technological achievement and ingenuity.

The lore of Apollo 11 as a Cold War triumph also serves to direct attention away from some of the less glorious aspects of the US at the time. Many contemporary Americans viewed the Apollo program with deep skepticism, and some were even morally critical. One such critic was the Reverend Ralph Abernathy, who became president of the Southern Christian Leadership Council after Martin Luther King’s assassination in April 1968.

Before his death, King had turned his political activism toward the problems of economic inequality and poverty. Abernathy stayed with this focus, and continued to organise people around addressing economic issues for black and white Americans. In July 1969, with the Apollo 11 launch, Abernathy saw an opportunity to keep economic justice on the nation’s conscience. He announced a march to Cape Canaveral in Florida, the rocket launch site. Accompanied by a few hundred people, Abernathy asked for a meeting with NASA. He wanted to win NASA’s support and technical expertise in the fight against poverty, hunger and social problems. Abernathy told NASA officials, as one of them recalled: ‘The money for the space program should be spent to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, tend the sick, and house the shelterless.’ To NASA’s credit, their historian and Smithsonian curator Roger Launius has documented and published on Abernathy’s protests and his dialogue with NASA.

Abernathy’s insight about the priorities of a country that could send men into space while millions of Americans lacked medical care, shelter and food found a new voice in Gil Scott-Heron. The poet and musician, who had cultivated a reputation for his socially charged spoken-word performances, debuted a new piece: ‘Whitey on the Moon’ (1970):

A rat done bit my sister Nell
(With Whitey on the Moon)
Her face and arms began to swell
(And Whitey’s on the Moon)
I can’t pay no doctor bill
(But Whitey’s on the Moon)
Ten years from now I’ll be paying still
(While Whitey’s on the Moon)

But neither Abernathy’s protest nor Scott-Heron’s anthem moved the country’s political priorities from space exploration to the provision of housing or health care. US adventures into outer space – white men in expensive, gleaming white spaceships – captivated popular attention and support in ways that urban poverty did not. Americans continued to send their tax revenues to the heavens…

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https://aeon.co/essays/is-a-mission-to-mars-morally-defensible-given-todays-real-needs

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How Would We Even Make First Contact with Aliens?

by Casey Chan

There are aliens out there (and if there aren’t any, it’s just more fun to believe that there are). But if they are out there, how do we find them? Once we find them, how do we contact them? And once we contact them, how do we actually communicate with them?

Wendover Productions made this captivating video that gives some ideas on how to find aliens (look at the stars) and what contacting them would mean (contact between different civilizations is historically, um, not good). But the video actually gets even more interesting when it takes a deeper look into our understanding of how our world works and how our languages work.

Figuring out how to contact aliens is a helluva brain exercise. The languages we speak on Earth all follow roughly the same rules no matter the language (noun and verb structure, word frequency etc.), but it might be silly to assume that aliens can understand our concept of language, since other animals on this planet already communicate differently (color, pheromones, etc.) And even if we could somehow figure out an alien language (like in Arrival), it’s hard to know what their words actually mean, because straight translations of foreign languages don’t always tell the full story without an understanding of their context. It’s hard to communicate without any sort of common ground.

Wendover Productions says maybe we should communicate with math, since math is universal as one plus one will always equals two. Establishing that we know math can help us reach some sort of understanding with them but there’s still just so much more to figure out. Watch the video below to find out more.

 

http://sploid.gizmodo.com/how-would-we-even-make-first-contact-with-aliens-1791310453

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Even Physicists Find the Multiverse Faintly Disturbing

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EVERYTHING THAT CAN HAPPEN, DOES: In the multiverse, possibility is actuality. Multiple-exposure photograph of ballerina Margot Fonteyn.

It’s not the immensity or inscrutability, but that it reduces physical law to happenstance.

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