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Category: Humans

Proof of Life
It won’t be long now. If you have been waiting for proof that life — perhaps even intelligent life — exists elsewhere in the universe, your patience may soon be rewarded.

You probably heard all the hubbub about finding running water on Mars. That’s still not the proof we’re waiting for, but the discovery of water puts us very close to the last step in our quest: direct physical evidence. There is even a possibility that we’ll find confirmation of the theory that life here on Earth originated on Mars. Some believe that an ancient asteroid hit Mars eons ago and spattered some of its native protoplasm as far away as Earth. Those seeds eventually took root here, and voila! We’re all Martians.

There is some other news from space as well, from far beyond our solar system. The possibilities around this story are even more exciting than finding a few single-cell Martian relatives. KIC 8462852, a distant star not even visible to the naked eye, has recently been confounding astronomers using the Kepler Space Telescope. Since 2009, they’ve been scanning that small patch of the heavens that includes this star, looking for any unusual occultations. Occultations are what happen when objects pass between the viewer and another object, causing dips and peaks in the light coming from the second object. A solar eclipse is a classic example of occultation, with the moon getting in the way of (occulting) our view of the sun.

KIC 8462852, it seems, is a kaleidoscope of whacky occultation. The variations in dimming are wildly irregular. The jumps in light intensity are random, indicating complex subtleties in the sizes and orbital inclinations of whatever objects are blocking the star’s light. There’s a lot going on around KIC 8462852, in other words, but no one can figure out exactly what it is.

A number of explanations for these anomalies have been suggested, and most are rooted in the normal activities of heavenly bodies: asteroid debris, a young star still in the throes of birth, a cosmic collision. Scientists, however, have dismissed all of these possibilities as “implausible” (not to mention boring).

Also included on that list of implausible causes is one non-boring candidate: little green men. Under this theory, some highly developed alien race is moving big objects around in the space adjacent to KIC 8462852 — really big objects, that is, structures that could produce those wild occultations. One such structure, for instance, might be a Dyson Sphere. A Dyson Sphere is a hypothetical, titanic globe built around a star and lined with solar panels. Any super alien race worth its salt would need something like it as a source of renewable energy. Perhaps, it is suggested, the odd light variations we see are evidence of the ongoing construction of such a globe.

I do like the idea of alien races out there. It’s exciting to imagine what forms such life might take and what their civilizations might look like. I do want to be clear, however, that as much as I hope that these little green men exist, I do not hope to meet one. Ever. Like Stephen Hawking, I am not convinced that extraterrestrials would be as adorable and non-threatening as the star of E.T. Stephen Spielberg would have us believe that creatures who are that intelligent (smart enough to get here) must be filled with love and an overwhelming reverence for life. Maybe, but let me just say that I have known some really smart people who turned out to be complete assholes.

Fortunately, neither of these stories poses a threat of alien contact. At this point, we’re probably not going to find anything still living on Mars, and even if we did, it’s not likely to be a threat to human civilization. Furthermore, let me point out that KIC 8462852 is 1480 light years from Earth. In other words, if high-tech aliens built a Dyson Sphere or some other huge thingamajig in their immediate space, they did it 1480 years ago, and we are just now seeing it happen. That’s how long it has taken for those the puzzling light gyrations to travel to Earth. Those aliens have, no doubt, long since blown themselves to oblivion.

We can feel free, then, to let our excitement run wild about these discoveries. If we find little green men on Mars, they will be long dead. If we learn that there were aliens around KIC 8462852 1480 years ago, they’d have to do the impossible (travel faster than the speed of light) to get here any time soon. So we’re probably safe. Unless…

Unless, like E.T., they figured out how to do the impossible. And how to avoid blowing themselves up. And cared enough to pay us a visit. Come to think of it, maybe we should be on the safe side and not talk to any strangers.
Hell Niño?
There was an event during the late summer of 1985 that we in the western U.S. might do well to remember right now. At the time, Hurricane Gloria was bearing down on the mid-Atlantic states and seemed set to deliver a knock-out blow to the good people of that region.

Enter televangelist Pat Robertson, star of the 700 Club, one-time presidential hopeful, and spiritual leader to thousands of Southern Baptists in Virginia and across the nation. Robertson was not content to sit idly by while chaos and ruin threatened his people. Taking to the airwaves, he called upon his flock to pray as one to steer Gloria away from the Old Dominion, sending it north along the Eastern seaboard — presumably to rain Hell on the less devout denizens of New England.

And darned if the storm did change course, sparing the faithful and their lucky neighbors. Robertson was quick to claim credit for this turn of events, pointing to it as indisputable proof of the power of prayer.

We don’t have to contend with hurricanes here, but do have our own weather challenges. I’m talking about the drought, and about what could be, might be, maybe possibly is the solution to it: El Niño. Thanks to the mysterious effects of the huge band of warm ocean water that accompanies this phenomenon, experts are saying that this could be a big winter in the West, and that is generally thought to be a very good thing. Unfortunately, it could well turn out to be too much of a good thing. There could be floods, landslides, massive dislocation, and suffering. The question is: what can we do about it?

The example of Gloria’s change of direction notwithstanding, I don’t think prayer is going to do it. Here on the shores of the Pacific we have a less fundamentalist tradition of expressing our spirituality than the members of the 700 Club. I won’t say that we are godless, but for us such expressions tend to be more diverse and less, well, tight-assed. We might pray, or we might not.

What, then, should we do? One option, I would argue, is to hope. It’s just as honorable as praying, only it’s non-denominational. More suited to our laid-back life here in the West. After all, even atheists can hope.

So here is my proposal: let’s all hope that El Niño delivers the goods. We need the water, and we need a lot of it. As long as we’re at it, though (and in the spirit of Pat Robertson’s fine tuning of specific weather phenomena), why don’t we hope for three-eighths of an inch each day…no more, no less? And let’s also hope that it falls between 2 a.m. and 4 a.m. each night. That would be about perfect, I think — plenty of water, but not all at once and with a minimum of disruption of our lives.

If you’re going to hope, why think small?
Human Eror
Like most people, I like robots. And why not? Before they became real, functioning, nuts-and-bolts things, they did enjoy a pretty positive image as imaginary characters. Take Robby the Robot. His 1957 portrayal of a good-guy robot in Forbidden Planet set the tone for multiple generations of fictional robots. Their unshakable mission was always to faithfully serve and protect their human charges.

Robby went on to build an impressive Hollywood career, essentially playing the same role over and over. Mechanical, certainly, but not cold and uncaring. R2D2, C3PO, and a host of other lovable contraptions are carrying on this honorable tradition.

So robots are nice. Sweet, even. That’s why the recent story out of the VW plant in Baunatal, Germany brought me up short. It was there, about the same time as the release of the movie Terminator Genisys, that an incident was reported of a robot killing a human. Witnesses said that a worker had been “grabbed and crushed” by the machine. A full report has yet to be released, but if it includes pictures, I think I’ll pass. They have listed the cause of the mishap, it should be noted, as “human error.”

This story has forced me re-examine my affection for robots. Have I been naïve? Have I been seduced by their dorky cuteness and led astray? Have I been blind to their sinister, soulless machinations?

I say no. Oh, there have certainly been some bad robots, but I don’t think any of them pretended to be nice. The Terminator, Colussus, Ultron, and their ilk are all so transparently evil that there’s simply no way they could pull the steel wool over anyone’s eyes.

So, no. I trust my own ability to spot a phony robot when I see one, so I feel safe keeping a warm place in my heart for all those good robots out there. I will not forsake them just because one robot did the unthinkable. Investigators didn’t say what the “human error” was in the case of the car-making robot. I’ll bet, however, that it wasn’t blindly trusting robots not to kill you. More likely, the error was blindly trusting some other human not to kill you accidentally using a robot.

Yes, I still like robots. Until it is proven otherwise, I will assume they are all good guy robots like Robby. I will, however, continue to keep a wary eye out for the treachery of my fellow humans. It would be human error not to.
The Truth
The truth is out there, so they say, but it’s hard to be sure. We set up so many filters and checkpoints and bullshit meters, it’s a wonder anything reliable can get through.

Maybe the only truths we can be sure of are the ones inside our own heads. We can know what we feel, what our emotions are, but even those truths require effort to recognize. Some people don’t even try. I could tell you what mine are, at least some of them, but you’ve probably got your own to worry about.

Besides, you’d be crazy to believe anything I say.
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Trump supporters are people who know what they believe.
~ JC, Bonny Doon