Tag Archives: Carl Sagan

This 1985 video of Carl Sagan warning Congress about climate is just as sobering now

In 1985, when Carl Sagan went to Congress, global warming seemed like a distant problem. Granted, the likes of Exxon, Shell, and other fossil fuel companies were well aware that their actions were causing climate change, and they did their best to hide this fact from the public — but to most regular folks, climate change wasn’t a concern at the time.

Sagan, known for his work both as a scientist and as a science communicator, went to Congress to “underscore that this is a real phenomenon.” In his trademark simple and elegant style, he presented the causes of climate change, how we know it is happening, and what we can do about it.

“The power of human beings to affect and control and change the environment is growing as our technology grows and at present time, we clearly have reached the stage where we are capable (both intentionally and inadvertently) to make significant changes in the global climate and in the global ecosystem. We’ve probably been doing things like that, on a smaller scale, for a very long period of time,” Sagan said.

Unfortunately, more than 30 years ago, Sagan also seemed to predict the main reason why mankind would be so slow to act on climate change.

“Because the effects occupy more than a human generation, there is a tendency to say that they are not our problem — of course, then they are nobody’s problem.” Then, like now, many people wrongly believed climate change is something for future generations to act on.

But, as Sagan points out, “if you don’t worry about it now, it’s too late later on. [..]We are passing down extremely grave problems for our children, when the time to solve the problems is now.”

Unfortunately, despite technological progress, our society seems to have one foot stuck in the same mentality that Sagan spoke of in 1985. Because climate change acts on such a long timescale and because humans (and especially politicians) think in much shorter timescales, climate change remains insufficiently addressed.

Sagan’s speech is worth listening to now just as much as it was then. Since 1985, we’ve gathered even more irrefutable evidence that climate change is happening, we are causing it, and we will suffer if we don’t address it quickly. We can’t say we’ve not been warned. Whether or not we will act in time to avoid catastrophic, planetary damage is still unclear.

Why Stephen Hawking Was Afraid of Aliens

Young Stephen Hawking.

Professor Stephen Hawking, the theoretical physicist hailed as one of the most brilliant scientists of the modern age, had genuine anxieties. Thus, intelligence does not necessarily reject fear. Hawking had one fear in particular which deserves noting, namely humanity’s encounter with advanced alien life.

Several of the late physicist’s theories have been shown to be quite accurate and are widely accepted in the scientific community. When he spoke (through his speech synthesizer) people gave ear and were attentive. Like any man, he too had his faults both public and personal. But simply because the man has passed away, does not mean we should disregard what he did and said during his time on Earth.

He made numerous predictions about the present and future problems that the human race faces, involving issues such as overpopulation and artificial intelligence. Perhaps one of his most intriguing and logically-stated beliefs was a concern for detrimental interaction between human beings and extraterrestrial beings.

Unlike astrophysicist Carl Sagan, who was rather optimistic about extraterrestrial contact, Hawking worried about the effects such contact might have on our race, even though the Professor assisted in founding projects to seek intelligent alien organisms. Some may fear aliens as they are depicted in sci-fi and horror stories: ugly creatures capable of taking over human beings and using them as their hosts.

The physical appearance of hypothetical aliens is not what alarmed Stephen Hawking. It was something a bit more sinister. In short, he apparently was cautious of entertaining alien contact because of the possibility that intelligent alien civilizations may want to dominate our race. They might do this either by enslaving people or slaughtering them, or both.

He has related these concerns publicly as early as 2010. In 2016, he speculated that if Earth received a signal of alien origins “we should be wary of answering back.” He further argued this point by employing historical references. “Meeting an advanced civilization could be like Native Americans encountering Columbus,” he said. “That didn’t turn out so well.” Sometime in the future, if we’re not cautious in the search for alien life, humans might rue ignoring Stephen Hawking’s worries about extraterrestrials.

The Search for Alien Life: We Have Been Looking in the Wrong Places

SETI Initiative. Source: Traces Online.

Humanity has pondered the existence of alien life for centuries. However, it has been in just the past 100 years or so that modern science has backed some of this thinking. Scientists of the late 1800’s and early 1900’s believed that objects appearing on the surface of Mars were canals constructed by aliens. Particularly, astronomer Percival Lowell believed this concept and promoted it in works such as the book Mars As the Abode of Life (1908).

This belief in the scientific community led to a huge amount of pop culture based around the concept of extraterrestrials. This has resulted in some people even believing in the existence of aliens like the ones in the movies. Who knows? They could be out there. But some wonder how probable their existence is.

With aliens constantly being depicted in entertainment, even after the Martian alien canal hypothesis was busted, scientists considered communicating with otherworldly life forms. The first scientists looking for a close encounter believed the best bet was to use radio waves as the communication medium. The first of such proposed experiments was conducted in 1960 by astronomer Frank Drake.

One of the most eye-opening quotes about extraterrestrial alien life comes from the book Time for the Stars by Alan Lightman. The author states, “Are we alone in the universe? Few questions are more profound… Extraterrestrial contact would forever change the way we view our place in the cosmos” (Lightman 21).

Drake would definitely not be the last scientist to attempt to summon a response from an alien. But this was the first modern example of tests which would now be referred to as part of SETI, the search for extraterrestrial intelligence. In 1980, to bring more of a public interest to SETI, the legendary astrophysicist, astronomer, and astrobiologist Carl Sagan and several others formed The Planetary Society. In more recent years, other programs with goals similar to SETI’s have been established such as METI, messaging extraterrestrial intelligence.

Apart from radio waves, humans have tried other ways of communicating with hypothetical aliens. One example is a plaque which was attached to the Pioneer 10 probe in 1972. This plaque would be a unique kind of “message in a bottle,” except the ocean it was doomed to drift in was far more vast than any sea on Earth. It was inquired of Carl Sagan about sending such a message several months before the scheduled departure of the craft. So Sagan went to work, and assisting him with this undertaking was none other than Frank Drake, the man who had conducted the first modern SETI tests in 1960. The fruit of numerous labors and laborers, the Pioneer 10 plaque that was sent into space depicted a man and a woman and several objects. Through the imagery, the scientists were trying to give any aliens who might see this plaque an idea of what humans are like and where Earth is located.

This could be the first big mistaken researchers are making. They are looking to make contact. They are putting their faith in a sci-fi movie concept. What these scientists are attempting to do is call up and have a conversation with an alien or, better yet, a race of aliens. This is not to say that SETI is pointless, but it might not be the most opportune method for seeking alien life.

Perhaps scientists should strive to discover life in its simpler forms. As Lee Billings of Scientific American states in a recent article, if you were able to travel to another planet it is likely “you would find a planet dominated by microbes rather than charismatic megafauna.” Many scientists are now suggesting microscopic organisms could be more plentiful throughout the cosmos than macroscopic creatures.

Microbes Are a Realistic Form of Alien Life. Source: Joi Ito’s PubPub.

A specific search for such minuscule life forms is not a new practice. Bacteria are, of course, microbes. Astrobiologists like Richard Hoover and Dave McKay have examined certain meteorites. Some of the microscopic structures found embedded in or on the space relics resemble bacteria. They have released their findings in past years. They have admitted that even though the fossilized structures appear to be remnants of bacteria there is still some skepticism as to whether those structures are alien in origin. This is because bacteria from Earth could have been attached to the meteorites once they entered our atmosphere.

So how do scientists narrow down the search for alien life even further? Billings’ piece may give us the best idea available at the moment. He informs his readers that one of oxygen’s properties is that it tends to descend from an atmosphere in the form of mineral oxides. It does not remain in its gaseous phase for long. Because of its nature, in an atmosphere such as Earth’s, the oxygen has to be reinstituted on a regular basis.

Astrobiologists have to accept oxygen may be one of the least familiar elements they come upon when studying potential life-supporting bodies. For example, atmospheric chemist David Catling has said the atmosphere of a world dominated by microscopic life could be largely comprised of methane and carbon dioxide gases. Keeping this in mind, this will hopefully narrow down the most likely planet candidates for life.

solar sail

Carl Sagans’ solar sail will be put to the test next week: our shot at interplanetary travel

In 1976, Carl Sagan went on the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson along with a strange contraption, that looked like a tinfoil square. In all likelihood it was probably tin foil, since it was only a model for what Sagan termed as a solar sail – a simple, but effective spacecraft that harnesses the solar winds to generate power, much like a sail uses the wind to move a ship here on Earth. On May 20th, a tiny satellite the size of a loaf of bread will be blasted into Earth’s orbit from an Atlas V rocket that will test Sagan’s design.

solar sail

Image: LightSail

Called LightSail, the project is ran by the Planetary Society, a non-profit organization founded by Sagan himself and now coordinated by Bill Nye. In orbit, LightSail will not only measure solar particles, but also deploy the sail and test the actual mechanism. Hopefully, everything should run smoothly this time, considering a similar attempt was made ten years ago. The first version however never made into orbit since the Russian craft it used to piggyback failed and crashed.

The LightSail is extremely simply designed and looks very much like a kite. The sail is made out of thin Mylar and when stretched out measures 345 square feet.

Nearly 400 years ago, when much of the world thought reaching North America was a pretty solid achievement, Johannes Kepler proposed the idea of exploring the galaxy using sails. The great astronomer thought the tails of the comets he was observing were actually blown away by some kind of solar breeze, so naturally this sort of idea of using a solar sail came to mind. This is obviously false, since there’s no wind in space, but we do know that sunlight can exert enough pressure to move objects.

NASA researchers have found that at 1 astronomical unit (AU), which is the distance from the sun to Earth, equal to 93 million miles (150 million km), sunlight can produce about 1.4 kilowatts (kw) of power. If you take 1.4 kw and divide it by the speed of light, you would find that the force exerted by the sun is about 9 newtons (N)/square mile (i.e., 2 lb/km2 or .78 lb/mi2). In comparison, a space shuttle main engine can produce 1.67 million N of force during liftoff and 2.1 million N of thrust in a vacuum. So… that doesn’t seem like much. However, the solar pressure exerts a continuous acceleration and the longer the sail travels the faster it will become. Eventually, it could reach speeds five times faster than the fastest rockets available today. Because it doesn’t need any fuel, a light powered spacecraft could travel to distant planets and beam back valuable information.

NASA  and JAXA have already successfully tested solar sail technology, but with the  Planetary Society’s latest efforts solar sails might actually come back into interest. If the LightSail demonstrates solar particle powered propulsion is feasible, then maybe NASA and the European Space Agency (ESA) would finally commit serious money for solar sail research and space missions.

Greek and Armenian orphan refugees experience the sea for the first time, Marathon, Greece.

The ‘Last Pictures’ project: a time capsule set to orbit Earth, built to outlive the human race by billions of years

Glimpses of America, American National Exhibition, Moscow World's Fair, 1959.

Glimpses of America, American National Exhibition, Moscow World’s Fair, 1959.

Do you remember Carl Sagan’s Voyager Golden Records? When the now iconic first  Voyager spacecraft launched in 1977, a series of phonograph records containing 116 sounds and images selected to portray the diversity of life and culture on Earth were also attached onboard. These were inserted with the idea in mind that some alien race or possibly even an other human civilization that lost its roots might find it and explore the planet Earth of that time. Currently, Voyager-1 is slated to become the first man-made object to leave our solar system.

Most likely drawing inspiration from Sagan’s work, a recent project called Last Pictures seeks to put a time capsule in Earth’s orbit, harboring exactly 100 images that represent the human race. The idea is that billion of years from now the human race would cease to exist, at least in the current form, and thus such a time capsule would offer the possibility to an alien explorer to browse through the lives of what was once the dominant species on planet Earth.

Greek and Armenian orphan refugees experience the sea for the first time, Marathon, Greece.

Greek and Armenian orphan refugees experience the sea for the first time, Marathon, Greece.

Two huge problems surfaced for Trevor Paglen and colleagues. First of all, the logistics are difficult to come by, especially for an unfunded project such as this. The photos would have to last for millions of years, after of course they wind up in space…somehow. Secondly, how to choose the perfect 100 images that portray our race?

“Any group of people would come up with 100 totally different images, but that is part of the fun. It’s an impossible project. Part of it was to engage peoples’ imaginations,” says artist Trevor Paglen,

Eventually, the team whittled down the image selection from 100,000, then to 10,000 and lastly to 100. These were then arranged in a tiny 10-by-10 nanogrid, etched on a single silicon disk. This highly important part of the project was undertook by MIT scientists, Brian Wardle, associate professor at MIT’s Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics and director of the Nano-Engineered Composite aerospace Structures (NECST) Consortium, and his colleague  Professor Karl Berggren, a quantum nano-structures expert. Their greatest challenge was to make the nano-etched disk stand the test of time.

The Artifact is a ten-by-ten grid of 100 nano-etched images.

The Artifact is a ten-by-ten grid of 100 nano-etched images.

Diffusion causes molecules to move away over the course of time, which is why very old photographs look pale, lose their sharpness and so on. The scientists surpassed this problem, and made the time capsule diffusion free for millions of years ahead.

“By using a single material, Silicon, and etching physical features in that material, the Artifact will maximally resist diffusion. Usually the ‘sands of time’ erase writings through erosion, but in this case we used sand/Silicon against time to resist its effect,” says Wardle.

The last and final challenge of the project was getting the time capsule in orbit. After many failed attempts, they eventually managed to convince EchoStar Corporation, a Colorado-based telecommunications company responsible for maintaining Dish Network’s satellite fleet, to let them hitch a ride. So, on November 20th the Last Pictures time capsule will be launched into orbit, attached to the  6,600 kilograms EchoStar XVI. The host satellite will only broadcast signal and orbit Earth for 15 years. In 2027, at the end of its mission, the satellite is scheduled to retire in a safe orbit, just beyond the Clarke Belt. Hopefully space junk or meteorites won’t impact the satellite, despite over the course of millions of years this becomes a rather sound possibility.

Like the project founders themselves admit, this is a highly subjective list of images. Anyone else in the world would each pick a set of different images, still I get the felling this is more of an artsy project than an actually practical time capsule. See more images on Wired, and comment below this post with your opinion.


The symphony of science

I was quite stunned to stumble across this video. As the name says, it’s a… well it’s not quite a symphony, but it’s definitely musical, and you can definitely learn a lot of things, or re-hear them in an unique way, if you already know them. Did I mention it’s featuring Carl Sagan, Richard Feynman, Neil deGrasse Tyson & Bill Nye?


This following video was published just a few hours ago and… it’s even better than the first one!