Tuesday, 25 May 2010

Bioships, replicating spacecraft and the exploration of exoplanets

We were talking the other day about the inaccessibility of exoplanets (they can't even be captured by imaging because of their obscurity), and this drove home the point as to why the "generation starship" concept is being supplemented or displaced by scientists and sci fi authors alike. The practical problems are how to sustain life and the energy required to power a ship across such vast distances over really long periods of time.

Here we see the biotech focus of this blog coming into alignment with a number of fascinating possibilities. For some background on exoplanets, it is useful to pay a visit to the Planetary Society. And here is the quote by Freeman Dyson that really caught my attention:

"Any affordable program of manned exploration must be centered in biology, and its time frame tied to the time frame of biotechnology; a hundred years, roughly the time it will take us to learn to grow warm-blooded plants, is probably reasonable".[21]

However, Dyson is not solely preoccupied with manned exploration, as anyone who Googles "astrochicken" will quickly discover. Here we have Dyson, along with other scientists, applying the concept of "self replicating machines" to the development of spacecraft. As you can see from this link, the replicating spacecraft has also become a staple of science fiction. Unsurprisingly, while it offers in theory a means of exploring further and quicker than manned flights, there are concerns about whether replication could be controlled. If not, according to the "berserker" model, replicating probes would regard the existence of other lifeforms as competition, and would therefore seek to exterminate them. A more benign spin on the theme is the "seeder"/embryo space colonisation model, whereby genetic patterns from the homeworld are stored in readiness for the terraforming of habitable exoplanets. A degree of automation would circumvent the need for sustaining the living, breathing crew, associated with generation starships.

Of particular interest to this blog, Alien appears suggestive of the possibility of catastrophe arising from an admixture of berserker and embryo space colonisation. The sequence of events is not clear at this stage, as we await release of the [two] prequel (s), but one possibility would be that the automation process became corrupted during either the flight or upon contact with the exoplanet Acheron, with the xenomorphs subsequently emerging as a berserker species.

One of the more interesting pieces I have read of late discusses the derelict in terms of its being a bioship.
Let me return to Freeman Dyson though, given the lecture I've watched online of him advocating the need for "heretical thinking" in science. Furthermore, the Research Channel featured a video of author Ann Finkbeiner naming Dyson as a member of "the Jasons", "a self-selecting cadre of scientists independent of the government who evaluate military technologies at the frontier of physical feasibility". If such claims bear closer scrutiny, Alien may one day prove extremely prescient, given how the Weyland Utani Corporation was likewise interested in acquiring the lifeform for military purposes. Here, I mean to suggest that "heretical thinking" in science can easily translate to "the ends justify the means".

Although I am not charging Dyson with guilt by mere association, I do share Finkbeiner's concerns, which are raised as well in sci fi such as Alien: what role should the government play in scientific research? At what point is the inventor accountable for the hazards of the invention? The sheer vastness of "the final frontier" reminds us of the inherent difficulty of regulating any applied biotechnological research in such a context.

Please note that Dyson enthusiastically endorses biotech in the first part of this talk, before moving on to the theme of what kind of life might exist on Europa, and how we might go about finding it. In the final part, around 16:00, he connects biotech to space exploration, arguing that if we cannot find life out there, we should create it for ourselves to populate the universe, thereby making it a much richer, more interesting place. Hence it will not just be us moving from Earth into the universe, but living things in general. These proposals are obviously fraught with potential benefits and hazards, but the latter are not addressed in Dyson's talk:

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