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Alien Communication

Nanelia: The Sonar Tank. They’re wearing sound baffles in case they get in front of it. Even if we plug our ears, we can’t get any closer.
Cowboy: [to the nearby Kelvin, who are trying to get his attention] Will you two radiators stand back? It’s hard enough to think!
Nestor 1: It seems they’re volunteering.
Cowboy: Yeah, what can THEY do?
Nestor 1: Well, for one thing, the Kelvin have no ears.

Battle Beyond the Stars

Science fiction is full of unique ways alien species communicate. In the 1980 Roger Corman movie, Battle Beyond the Stars, the Kelvin have no ears because they communicate by radiating body heat. In China Mieville’s Embassytown, a race of insectoid creatures communicate using two mouths and a language that is utterly inhuman in its construction. And in the film and book Close Encounters of the Third Kind. scientists use Solresol, a language based on musical tones.

In real life, communication even within species can occur in a number of ways. Humans communicate verbally (though language, accent, tone of voice, habitual voice quality, etc.) and nonverbally (communication other than through than speech, including facial expressions, hand and arm gestures, postures, positions, and various movements of the body or the legs and feet).

Other primates communicate through vocal behavior (functional reference, call combinations, and vocal learning), olfactory signals to mark territories, screams to recruit help while fighting, gestures to request food and facial expressions to initiate play. Some fish can communicate using noises that include grunts, chirps and pops.

Even plants have been shown to be able to communicate. When bugs chew leaves, studies have shown they release volatile chemicals through their leaves and roots when damaged by herbivores that other plants can perceive and respond by increasing production of chemical weapons or other defense mechanisms. But now a unique method of communication has been discovered between a parasitic plant and it’s hosts.

Jim Westwood, a professor of plant pathology, physiology, and weed science in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences at Virginia Tech in a study published August 15th in Science found that plants may also communicate on a molecular level. Westwood examined the relationship between a parasitic plant called a dodder, and two host plants, Arabidopsis (small flowering plants related to cabbage and mustard) and tomatoes.

The dodder wraps itself around its host, then uses an appendage called a haustorium (think of a vampire’s fangs) to penetrate the plant and suck the moisture and nutrients out of the host plants. Professor Westwood had previously shown that during this parasitic interaction, there’s a transfer of information using RNA between the dodder and it’s host. But the new study expands on that, finding that a surprising amount of messenger RNA (mRNA) is constantly being exchanged between both plants during the parasitic relationship.

Dodder attacking a sugar beet

Dodder attacking a sugar beet. Credit: Virginia Tech College of Agriculture and Life Sceinces

Westwood believes the dodder may be telling the host plant what to do, such as lowering its defenses so that the parasitic plant can more easily attack it. “The discovery of this novel form of inter-organism communication shows that this is happening a lot more than any one has previously realized,” Westwood said in a recent release. “Now that we have found that they are sharing all this information, the next question is, ‘What exactly are they telling each other?’”

Of course, creating an alien language involves more than just determining the method of communication. There’s the sentence pattern (for English, that’s Subject/Verb/Object, while in Japanese it’s Object/(particle)/Subject/Verb), vocabulary, and grammar. And you need to think outside of whatever your cultural norm is. For example, Marc Orkand, a former linguistics professor who created the Klingon language, notes in the introduction to The Klingon Dictionary:

…there are no words for greetings, such as hello, how are you, good morning, and so on. It seems apparent that such words and phrases simply do not exist in Klingon. When two Klingons meet each other (except in cases where military protocol determines behavior), if anything of an introductory nature is said, it is an expression that can best be translated as What do you want? Unlike most speakers of English, who begin conversations with greetings, inquiries about the state of health of the conversants, and remarks about the weather, Klingons tend to begin conversations by simply stating the main points.

But coming up with a unique method of communication is a good start.

References

Liebal, Katja, Waller, Bridget M., and Burrows, Anne M. 2013. Primate Communication: A Multimodal Approach. 2013, Cambridge, MA: Cambridge University Press.

Okrand, Marc. The Klingon Dictionary. 1992, New York, NY: Pocket Books

Close Encounters Of The Sexual Kind

A good bit of imagination has gone into attempts to represent close encounters of a sexual kind. Major authors, such as Ursula K. Le Guin, Philip Jose Farmer, and Octavia Butler, have written critically-acclaimed novels in which deep emotional, intimate, and sexual relations between humans and aliens form the central narrative. Significant episodes of the various Star Trek series have also shown intimate relations among aliens — sometimes between humans and aliens, sometimes among different alien species (such as the relationship between the Klingon Whorf and the Trill Jadzia Dax in Deep Space Nine). Star Trek’s own Mr. Spock was the product of a marriage between a human female and a male alien from the fictional planet Vulcan.

The human/alien sex trope typically assumes that an alien species would reproduce in a manner that’s compatible with how humans reproduce, but that can be a dangerous assumption, judging by the way many species on earth reproduce. The male of the deep sea anglerfish, for example, attaches to the female permanently, fusing with her blood stream and gradually atrophying until they are just a pair of gonads that release sperm into the female in response to hormonal cues in her blood, a process known as sexual parasitism. Other species, such as the New Mexico whiptail, are an all-female species. Adult female New Mexico whiptails reproduce solely through parthenogenesis (a type of asexual reproduction in which a female gamete or egg cell develops into an individual without fertilization), laying unfertilized eggs that develop into other female whiptails.

There are organisms without distinctive male and female forms. The black mold Rhizopus nigricans, displays an unusual form of reproduction known as “heterothallism.” This species of fungus requires two organisms are for fertilization and replication to take place. However, the two sexes are physically indistinguishable. There are no constant differences between members of opposite mating groups other than their reciprocal behavior when crossed. Thus, it is impossible to designate one form of the black mold as male and the other as female. Customarily the complementary groups are labeled merely “+” and “-” for convenience during experiments.

If some species have no distinctive examples of male and female forms, others have more than two sexes. Some species have one female and two male genders include red deer who have two male morphs (distinct forms of an organism or species), one with antlers and one without, known as hummels or notts, as well as several species of fish such as plainfin midshipman fish and coho salmon. Others have one female and three male genders, including bluegills, where four distinct size and color classes exhibit different social and reproductive behaviors, the spotted European wrasse (Symphodus ocellatus), the Oreochromis mossambicus cichlid, and the ornate tree lizard (Urosaurus ornatus).1 Slime mold has thirteen sexes, while the fungus Schizophyllum commune has over 28,000 sexes.

Other organisms lack specific maleness and femaleness, but exhibit an alternating or intermediate condition. For example, simultaneous hermaphrodites possess at once both female and male sex organs. Ovaries and testes are present together in the same individual. Matings occur in pairs, with each partner serving both sexual roles at the same time. Planarians, earthworms, sponges and snails fall into this category, as well as a few among more highly evolved vertebrates are known, such as the belted flamefish (Serranus subltgarius). Some simultaneous hermaphrodites form harems, in which a single male supervises a school of females. If the male is killed, the dominant female in the harem transitions and takes his place. In such harems, the male is usually responsible for defending the school from invaders and protecting his territory to ensure that his flock does not wander astray or encounter potential dangers.

There are also species where individuals start life as one sex and finish it as another, called sequential hermaphrodites. There are two types of sequential hermaphrodites. Animals which are born male with the ability to become female exhibit a trait of protandry. Protogyny, on the other hand, is a trait in which animals are born as females, with the ability to become males later in life. Depending on the species, simultaneous hermaphrodites may change sex only once, or they may be able to flip back and forth between genders several times. Oysters, for example, are born as males, then spend the rest of their lives switching back and forth between male and female in irregular cycles a few months long.

Given these tremendous potential biological differences, would or could copulation be possible at all between humans and extraterrestrials?

Maybe.

There are well-documented cases of attempted and successful sex between different species. These include dolphins and humans. seals and penguins, otters and seals, sheep and deer, orangutans and humans, and humans with various farm animals. This suggests that, if humans were to mingle socially with alien races, interspecies sexual contacts are at least possible.

Even if such activity were possible, how likely would it be? Could humankind and an alien race derive sexual pleasure from mutual physical encounters?

Suppose, for example, we discovered an alien race that is sequential hermaphroditic. In this society, individuals spend their early life neither male or female, then attain puberty and enter their first sexually active phase as functioning males. After a certain amount of time, latent ovaries within them ripen into maturity, and the individual, now considered an adult, spends the remainder of its life as a female.

In such a society, monogamous marriage as we know it would be impossible. Husbands would change into wives, and males would be too immature psychologically to be treated as anything other than young lovers. Since all fertile middle-aged females in a family in theory could mate with any or all male children, it’s likely there would be complex incest prohibitions. To offset the negative effects of inbreeding, exchanges of matriarchs would occur between families. Love as humans understand it probably would not exist. In such a society, females would likely have strong affective and familial non-sexual ties with other females. Human concepts of male/female romantic relationships would be quite incomprehensible to them. Even if their sexual organs were compatible with those of a human, and neither species found the physical appearance of the other repellant, the sensitivities of the alien race would likely be such that there wouldn’t be any desire on their part to have any type of sexual contact with humans.

Footnotes

1. See Roughgarden, Joan (2004). Evolution’s Rainbow: Diversity, Gender, and Sexuality in Nature and People. University of California Press. ISBN 0-520-24073-1 Especially chapter 6, Multiple Gender Families, pp. 75–105.

Further Reading

The Sex Is Out of This World: Essays on the Carnal Side of Science Fiction, edited by Sherry Ginn, Michael G. Cornelius, Donald E. Palumbo, and C.W. Sullivan III

Alien Sex: From Ming the Merciless to “The Lovers, David Lumb and Jonathan Alexander, Los Angeles Review of Books

Alien Sex Acts in Feminist Science Fiction: Heuristic Models for Thinking a Feminist Future of Desire“. Alcena Madeline Davis Rogan, PMLA, Vol. 119, No. 3, Special Topic: Science Fiction and Literary Studies: The Next Millennium (May, 2004), pp. 442-456

Things we don’t know

This is over a year old, but I just ran into it: alien-seeming life forms right here at home. By which I mean 5000 feet below the surface of the ocean, which is an alien environment anyway.

But see for yourself. This video was taken alongside the leg of a drilling platform.

This image of the seamonster came from a NPR blog about how the creature was identified. The picture is neat enough, but watching the thing move is fascinating.

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But what is it? After some puzzlement, experts believe it’s a giant jellyfish with the lovely name of Deepstaria reticulum. How could they tell? One sharp deepsea expert spotted and recognized its gonads. (it’s all about sex, as usual.)

I can envision something just like that floating through the dense atmosphere of a gas giant planet, or undersea on an ocean planet far from here. Physics and chemistry are the same everywhere: some aspects of biology must also be familiar, or no more unfamiliar that something that lives so close to us, but nearly unreachably far.

A Question of Culture

I’ve been in quite a few museums in the last few weeks, and of all types: art, science, history, natural history.

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Looking at the exhibits and watching the way that people respond to them got me thinking about science fiction, of course. How do people choose what to preserve and display, whether it be paintings, fossils, historic objects, or military technologies?

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How do others react to those exhibits, and what does it say about them as individuals and as members of the exhibiting or a different culture?

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On an alien planet, would the fossils follow similar stages? How does the evolutionary history of an entirely different world shape the way humans respond to it, and how is that response reflected in what we choose to present?

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Not every science fiction novel needs an explicit museum, but I think it’s a good world-building exercise for the writer. Character-building too, potentially.

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If you had an alien museum, in a world of your own creation or one you enjoy, what would be in it? Why? Would people come on their vacations? For school trips? Happily or not?

(Photos, from top to bottom: Smithsonian Institute; Sackler Gallery, Washington DC; Chicago Institute of Art; Korean War Memorial; Field Museum, Chicago; Natural History Museum, Washington DC.)

Just eat it, or something

In the US, many of us are thinking about eating and digestion right now, after a holiday devoted to food. We usually think about digestion the way we do it, with food going in the mouth and into the gut, where the nutrients are extracted, and the waste products coming out the other end: a big tube, essentially. But we don’t have to resort to science fiction to come up with other ways to obtain nutrients: there are lots of options right here on Earth. Some of those methods might even inspire your next aliens.

Some very simple animals don’t have digestive systems at all. The single-celled Paramecium scoops in food particles and surrounds them with a membrane forming a vacuole, a space sealed off from the rest of the Paramecium cell. That separation is needed so the enzymes that break down the food particles don’t also digest the Paramecium.

Many sponges and other aquatic organisms do something similar, filtering food out of the water and getting the nutrients out without a distinct digestive system. This system doesn’t work if the animal doesn’t live in the water, or is big enough that all its cells aren’t directly immersed. Bigger, terrestrial, and faster animals (being active requires taking in more resources) had to come up with more efficient solutions.

Some of those solutions are pretty weird, at least from our perspective.

How about external digestion? Fungi do this, and spiders. Release digestive enzymes into the environment, let them do their thing, slurp up the predigested food. Fungi are unspecific about it, digesting all or most organic matter in the general area (decomposers, very important!). Spiders are more selective: they inject the enzymes into their prey and wait. That’s why a spider bite can be such a horrid experience: your flesh is being digested while you’re still using it.

Or how about coprophagy? Feces eating can be a normal part of the digestive process, not just a disgusting habit of your pet dog. Grasses are very hard to digest, since vertebrates can’t break down cellulose, so they need help from microbes that can break it down. Coprophagy is one method for making this system work. Rabbits partially digest their food, then excrete it. They eat the partially digested pellets and finish the digestive process. The feces after the second digestion is really a waste product, not an intermediate step, and isn’t eaten.

Ruminants such as cows took the opposite approach to having multiple digestions. They eat grass and start to digest it, then regurgitate the cud and chew on it for a while to further break it down. The second time it’s swallowed, it’s thoroughly digested and the nutrients extracted.

So which alien would you rather sit down to a diplomatic dinner with: a ruminant or a coprophage? And what would they find disgusting about our eating and digestion?

I don’t think a filter feeder is likely to evolve intelligence, but how about trying to design a system where that works. Nonsentient aliens with different digestions could be helpful or harmful to people trying to colonize a planet.

Twittering with Aliens

One of the staples of television and movie science fiction is the universal translator that allows humans and aliens to communicate fairly easily. But the reality is that we aren’t even currently able to automatically translate all human languages reliably. If we do someday run into an alien race, will we be able to communicate?

The difficulty of conversing with aliens isn’t limited to learning vocabulary, grammar, and body language. We humans all can (on average) produce and hear the same range of sounds. If the aliens we end up meeting use sounds or visual cues outside the human range of perception, we would be entirely dependent on computers to help us communicate.

Fortunately, scientists are currently studying the language of some of the aliens already among us. I’m not talking about extraterrestrials, but rather non-human animals like whales, elephants and birds. Parrots have been a popular focus of study, since it’s long been known by scientists and pirates alike that parrots can imitate human speech.

Three Birds on a Boardwalk

Are they talking about us?

But observing how parrots mimic human speech patterns doesn’t tell us how they normally communicate.

U.C. Berkeley ecologist Steve Beissinger and his colleagues have been studying a single population of Green-rumped Parrotlets (small parrots) in Venezuela for 26 years. In a project lead by Cornell ornithologists Jack Bradbury and Karl Berg, analysis of data collected from carefully placed video and audio recorders have allowed them to observe how wild parrotlets learn their “names” and socially interact with each other.

It turns out that young parrotlets learn their contact call – the sounds that serve as a personal identifier or “name” – from their parents. The call is modified a bit by individual chicks so that each has a “name” that is both unique and related to their parents’ own “names”.

But this isn’t a language that humans can imitate. The sounds are actually much too fast for us to follow. As Berg describes it, the fairly simple peeps we can hear are actually much more complex sounds :

“The parents can make 20 contact calls in the time it takes you to sneeze.” When slowed down for our ears, a parrotlet’s single peep sounds more like eh-ehhh-gehhhlll-grrr-whoeeeeee. [. . . ] “You can’t make sense of their vocalizations just by listening. You can’t imitate their calls like you can whistle a songbird’s tune,” Berg says. “The only way we can study them is by converting their calls to spectrograms, then running these through computer programs” that search for subtle similarities [. . . ]“

This video has the calls first in normal time, then slowed down so human ears can detect the difference between different contact calls so you can hear the difference for yourself:

Nestling Vocal Signatures from Karl Berg on Vimeo.

Berg and colleagues have suggested that their research may provide insight into human language acquisition during infancy. But it seems to me that their methodology could be used to help decipher the “talk” of non-terrestrial species as well. How could they neglect to mention that?

While their parrot communication research has taken years, I would think that it would go much faster with a species that is both more intelligent than a parrot and interested in helping us to learn to understand them.

And I’m wondering if there will come a time when we are able to use our translation devices to talk to Earthly non-humans in their own tongue, rather than “uplifting” them so that they speak in ours.

More information:

For more about the research on Venezuelan parrotlets, listen to the 22 July 2011 Science Podcast or read the podcast transcript.

There is also a video of cute parrotlet nestlings being fed by their father, who uses contact call “names” to greet them.

You can download software – Raven and XBAT – developed by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology Bioacoustics Research program for the analysis of acoustic signals.

Original articles:

Morell V. “Why Do Parrots Talk? Venezuelan Site Offers Clues.” Science 22 July 2011: 398-400. doi:10.1126/science.333.6041.398 (subscription required)

Berg KS et al. “Vertical transmission of learned signatures in a wild parrot, Proc. R. Soc. B. 13 Jul 2011 doi: 10.1098/rspb.2011.0932 (subscription required)

Top image: Three Birds on a Boardwalk by LancerE, on Flickr

Bottom image: Body parts I – What are you looking at? by Sami__, on Flickr

Cowboys, Aliens, and Consistent Science

I expected a couple hours of entertainment in the summer blockbuster vein when I went to Cowboys and Aliens, and that’s exactly what I got—manly men, explosions, a token love interest, and poor science. Not just poor science, because with Hollywood I’ll accept just about anything if it works with the story, but inconsistent science. When writers don’t even bother to think the cool thingamabobs through or combine sci-fi elements believably, I get annoyed.

What do I mean by inconsistent science and not thinking things through? Read on! But be warned: if you read any further, you will be spoiled!

Really, if you haven’t seen the film and don’t like spoilers, STOP READING NOW.

I mean it.

Let’s start with the alien ships. Actually, no. Let’s start with the premise: An Old West town is attacked by gold-mining aliens. A posse lead by a rancher and a stage robber with a laser gun on his wrist must follow the aliens to rescue the townsfolk the aliens have abducted. Sounds like cinematic gold, and no, that isn’t entirely sarcasm.

Back to the alien ships. They come in two shapes and sizes—small, nimble scouts, and the long, ponderous mothership. The scouts aren’t big enough to fit the alien pilots unless the pilots are scrunched up, and why would you build a vehicle that wasn’t comfortable? The scout ships also lack an obvious propulsion mechanism, so for lack of anything better, I’m going to say they use antigravity. It’s a trope and these are Hollywood aliens, so why not? However, the mothership appears to use chemical rockets, and probably not enough based on its mass. Why use two different mechanisms for the same goal?

Speaking of the mothership: it’s sunk deep into the ground for better access to a lode of gold. When it takes off, the earth shakes as if there was an earthquake, which is what I’d expect. I’d like to know how the ship got into the ground without bucking and churning the land around it though, because there’s no evidence to support anything other than that the ship entered the earth without resistance. The valley’s flat, not even broken up around the base of the ship. I can’t think of a way to leave the land intact yet have a hard time extracting the ship later, unless the aliens tunneled through from the opposite side of the planet. Even then, there should’ve been signs that the ship broke through the surface.

Let’s push aside the fact that the aliens are humanoid again, and ask more important questions like: Why do aliens with energy weapons frequently use teeth and claws in battle, when they can disintegrate their enemies at a distance? Why do aliens capable of interstellar travel need to land on a planet to get gold, instead of just creating gold in a lab? And why don’t aliens living on a ship full of molten gold not wear more protective clothing? Bullets and spears can pierce their skin, so surely there’s all kinds of equipment on the ship that can do so as well. Not to mention the molten gold.

Of course, those first two questions can be answered fairly neatly. The aliens could be a warrior race that still values bodily contact; and it takes an enormous amount of energy to create even one atom of gold. Even with how much energy it takes to launch and maintain a ship and a mining operation, and even though a civilization that travels the stars has to be using the energy of their whole planet or sun, the aliens could well be saving money by choosing this route over a particle accelerator. Why weren’t we shown that? The explanation could’ve been a couple words, or a camera shot. We wouldn’t even know there’d been questions to ask, and the story would’ve felt tighter.

The third question, on the other hand…. Have the aliens really grown so complacent in their use of technology that they don’t even think it might malfunction and hurt them? Do they really have so many people that they can afford not to have safety procedures? I find it hard to believe the answers are yes, though maybe they are. Still, I would’ve liked to have seen the explanation even in a byplay.

This feels like as good a time as any to note that I’ve always been skeptical of aliens who say, “I’ve taken this form to talk to you.” I’d love to know what they really look like and how they’re able to fit into a human body without any bulges or awkward movements (see Men In Black for a counter-example). Where do they get the body? Are they shapeshifters? Are they using a holographic projection? In the case of Cowboys and Aliens, I’d also like to know why the alien chose a waif-like woman over a man, especially an authority figure of some kind. I’d imagine it would’ve had better luck in a male-driven society if it were also male.

Two last flaws in the science: 1) Unless the Apache foreman had a chance to practice his language after being taken into the white community, he shouldn’t be as fluent at translation as he was. Language atrophies if you don’t practice. 2) At one point, the posse of protagonists comes across a steamboat in the middle of scrub, far from water. We’re left to assume that the aliens put it there. My first question is why the aliens would do that. My second is, the aliens must have some kind of tractor beam, so why are their scouts lassoing people?

This isn’t to suggest that all the science in the movie was in error. Cowboys and Aliens had some intriguing technology that I couldn’t find flaws in, though that’s partly due to not knowing enough about the disciplines in question. The aliens have mind-controlled energy weapons, though how they access the nervous system I can’t tell. They have forcefields (which follow from the weapons, by the way; if you can control matter in one way, why not a related one?). The passages in the mothership have ridges all the way around, which allow the aliens to move several at a time and probably come in quite handy during zero gravity—not that they ever experience that, because as I mentioned with their scout ships earlier, the aliens have likely mastered gravity control. I’m also intrigued by how the aliens are able to isolate, melt, and suck gold out of the earth without melting any other element nearby. Do gold atoms have a particular resonant frequency that the machines pick up? If I’m remembering high school science correctly, gold isn’t particularly magnetic, so I doubt it’s that….

And there’s one small moment of praiseworthy science. The aliens have a second pair of hands in their chests, you see. These hands are more dextrous than the claws at the ends of their normal arms, and seem almost to have great touch-sensitivity as well. Both those features would come in handy in any number of situations, so I can understand why these arms evolved. However, these hands also look quite fragile compared to the rest of the aliens’ bodies, so they’d need protection, which they also get. A piece of the aliens’ skin moves aside to expose the arm cavity. Whoever thought the aliens through enough to question the logistics of these hidden arms, go them!

Cowboys and Aliens uses a lot of standard SF tropes which aren’t exactly good science, but are science fiction anyway—but the writers (or director, or whoever) didn’t think them through. To be truly good sci-fi, the aliens would need reasons to look and act as they do, and their technology should be standardized from scene to scene, element to element. Writers should question every bit of their science. Why does the alien look that way? How does weather control work? What is the purpose of the robot’s plunger? The science and sci-fi tropes need to work together as well, in case the writers accidentally suggest that FTL drives can exist with 20th-century technology or that forcefields can exist without any kind of energy manipulation.

This lesson shouldn’t just be applied to Hollywood. It’s equally relevant for books, video games, and other sci-fi/fantasy media. Consistent science means better writing, tighter stories, unexpected outcomes, and fewer propagations of scientific myths. It’s not that hard, even: a judicious sentence or byplay would’ve improved the Cowboys and Aliens science immeasurably. Plus, consistent science is the first step to accurate science, and where would science fiction be without that?

The True Nature of Santa

From deviantART

Every December I get this one email. You know the one. It’s supposedly written by a physicist, and states that Santa would have to travel so quickly he’d burn up, no reindeer team could possibly lift a sleigh carrying one doll for every Christian/secular/Christmas-celebrating child in the world, the sleigh would have to be impossibly strong to carry all that weight, etc, etc. I’m always left with a nagging feeling that somebody’s using physics to further their anti-Santa agenda, and that the facts in that email cannot be the whole story.

Fortunately, the internet provides. Here are not one, but two refutations! (You’ll need to scroll down to the second item on that last link.) That’s an awful lot of reading, I agree, so I’ll summarize the key suggestions for you, and explain what they tell us about Santa. Nice of me, no?

• Santa uses an ion shield so he doesn’t burn up. As we currently do not have widely available ion shield technology, this leaves us with four options. 1) Santa has stolen and elaborated on state-of-the-art, possibly classified technology. 2) Santa is secretly a physicist. 3) Santa comes from a civilization that has perfected the ion shield, i.e. Santa is an alien, or 3a) Santa is a time-traveling philanthropist.

• Santa uses the frictionless environment of space to improve his travel time. Santa’s sleigh is equipped with artificial gravity strong enough to maintain an atmosphere, or Santa and his reindeer all wear spacesuits and carry oxygen tanks. If artificial gravity, see the ion shield explanations.

• Santa makes use of more than four dimensions. Again, this suggests Santa is an alien or a time traveller, as we currently have no way of accessing more than four dimensions (consistently, at least. Who knows what the LHC is really capable of?). Alternatively, Santa can do magic, a fact supported by Christmas folklore and literature, and by the fact that he routinely employs elves. The use of 5+ dimensions may also explain why Santa’s workshop is invisible.

• Santa is Einstein. See: time-traveling philanthropist; physicist.

• Santa causes global warming. Unfortunately, this is an argument against Philanthropist Santa. Perhaps he’s trying to make the North Pole warm enough he can save on the heating costs?

• Santa uses wool hats as thought-monitoring devices. This is evidence of a massively advanced technology, as there is nothing about wool that makes it useful for monitoring thoughts. Additionally, there would need to be a way to transmit the information over massive distances (such as radio waves) and again, there’s no evidence of a transmitter in any wool hat I’ve ever seen. Not even the pompoms. See: time traveller; alien.

• Santa’s reindeer use vacuum energy to fly. Further advanced technology. Possibly evidence of a) mutant reindeer or b) alien lifeforms that bear a strong resemblance to Earth reindeer.

• Santa’s reindeer are a new species. This is entirely possible, given that we’re still discovering new species, but is made less plausible by the extent of exploration that’s taken place in the world’s arctic regions, the reindeer’s natural habitat. Perhaps Santa uses the North Pole as a wildlife preserve. These reindeer may have evolved to resemble robots (strong skin, flight, ability to withstand massive heat, weights, and speeds, as well as vacuum). Possibly they are, in fact, robots (or cyborgs).

• Santa’s faster-than-light travel slows down time. This presupposes that Santa can travel faster than light. Since he can’t be teleporting (there’s documented evidence of him and his sleigh flying, landing on roofs, etc.), he must be using advanced technology again.

• There are multiple Santa Clauses. Cloning! Or the theory from the archive, that there’s actually a family of Clauses. This would mean that there are multiple teams of reindeer, which would give support to the wildlife preserve idea.

• Santa realizes all possible quantum states, or exists as one “particle” spread over a great distance. a) alien b) magical c) Schroedinger’s Santa. There’s no other way he’d be able to reestablish himself in one place, at one time, without one of the above. As various people in the archive point out, this also accounts for his invisibility while visiting houses.

• Santa uses guided-missile type technology to drop presents down chimneys without landing. I personally don’t believe this, because there’s too much documented evidence of him going down the chimneys too. However, if you want to go with this idea, think about what parameters Santa would need to key the homing tech to, to land the gifts under the tree without hitting anything? Does the technology lock onto anything green, big, and triangular? Do we even have the ability to guide missiles without using a heat signature as the target? I call advanced technology again.

• Rudolph’s nose is actually red-shifted during flight. Plausible, given the speeds he’d be moving at.

• Santa is dosing his reindeer. Perhaps it’s the hour I’m writing this, but I’d say this is possible. Not particularly nice of Santa in the long run, though. The reindeer would have massive burnout or withdrawal symptoms come Boxing Day. Continuing the routine year after year would also likely shorten their lifespans. This seems to be an argument against the wildlife preserve idea.

• Santa’s reindeer fly in the same way that Arthur Dent flies, i.e., they just forget to hit the ground. This is so silly it has to be true.

• Santa’s workshop is situated at a wormhole nexus. If so, what else is coming through? And how can we make use of this remarkable resource?

I would also like to add that Santa may have a personal cloaking device, a larger one for his sleigh and reindeer, and an even larger one for his workshop, to account of his invisibility. Alternatively, Santa has a TARDIS, which would let him do faster-than-light travel, get into any building, and possibly be in multiple places at once.

Most of these points and suggestions make the case for Santa being either a time-traveller or an alien. However, time travel is pretty much impossible and a civilization that could achieve it on such a scale would be so far in the future I can’t imagine any of their citizens bothering with us folks in our historical backwater. Therefore, Santa must be an alien.

Anyone wishing to track his UFO tonight should go here.

Alien Psychology by Diet

Editor’s note: This post was scheduled for last Friday, but something mysterious happened in the technology that we didn’t become aware of right away. Please forgive the delay!

When we expand into outer space, we may contact other sapient species, and it can be guaranteed that they will think differently than us. But we may be able to predict their behavior by their diet. Something that Larry Niven touched on with the carnivorous Kzinti and the herbivorous Puppeteers.

Carnivores: The first thing you should remember is that predators are opportunists, they always take the route that is least expensive. If they get to colonizing other planets I would expect them to have the capability to adapt considering their need for complex ecosystems that would be a hassle to terraform from scratch. Due to their opportunistic natures I doubt that they might go to the trouble of eating other sapient species like us humans, though if there is a massive technological difference they might enslave or domesticate the less advanced species. Relations with humanity would probably be neutral or even allies, we might colonize and terraform dead worlds while they adapt to living ones. However they would likely be very territorial. If we found them as primitives they would probably try eating the explorers, but once that failed would leave them alone unless they managed to communicate, in which case they might end up domesticated (which might make uplifting easier).

Herbivores: To an herbivore, any other animal is a potential enemy, a predator or a competitor. I expect that their planets would be ecological disasters devoid of any other animal species except in the most extreme regions they never got around to colonizing. Since their supporting ecosystems would be comparatively simple they would probably terraform their colonies. Because of that I expect that they would use a lot of weapons of mass destruction in inter-species wars. In addition the fact that extreme paranoia would have been a survival trait in their early history (more than humans anyway) would make diplomacy with them very difficult. If contacted before spaceflight they would inevitably hide or attack, depending on how advanced they were we might have to conquer them or at least quarantine their homeworld, if they haven’t exterminated all their predators yet we might convince them we’re on their side by helping them.

Omnivores: Would probably be closest to humans psychologically, as we are omnivores ourselves. Kind of a wild card, they might terraform, they might adapt, they might exterminate, they might enslave. They might even join forces with us and form the galactic federation, or not. Fortunately (or unfortunately) trends on earth make it seem like most sapient species will be omnivorous.

Plants: I don’t see any reason for plants to become sapient, but maybe a machine civilization would be similar. In short, they wouldn’t care about consumers unless we got in their way. Will definitely be capable of space travel.

Reprinted with permission.

Goldilocks Is Nothing (But Noise)

Remember Gliese 581g? That recently discovered planet that had some scientists, and other hopeful stargazers, claiming certain knowledge that we are not alone in the universe? Well, Athena Andreadis gave us a gentle reality check last week, and this week we’ve been given a swift kick with the reality boot. The ‘Goldilocks Planet’ isn’t just unlikely to sustain life as we know it, the planet itself may not even exist except as ‘noise’ in its discoverers’ data.

So we should remain skeptical about claims that we’ve detected a signal from somewhere in the vicinity of Gliese 581g. But even if ET isn’t phoning our home, it’s still fun and wise to question our own significance in the universe.