Thursday, October 1, 2015

S.Hawking thinks nomadic ETs may conquer our world... Well, not if they're too old to care.

Are we exercising for cosmic conquests? Yeah, you bet!
Fantasies about "colonial conquests" may reveal more about our youthful and barbaric past than about our future. After all, western nations only dismantled their colonial empires a short 60 years ago. When they conquered the colonies in the 19th century, western median ages were very low. 

What will we want collectively when our society reaches median age 64? We don't know because historically we have never had such a society. Given the current aging trend, we will find out soon enough. Then we might know, 2 billion light year from us, what the old aliens really want. Just some quiet Tai-chi in the morning, perhaps.

Now, in his latest dire warning, the physicist claims that if AI doesn't conquer humanity, an advanced alien civilisation may do so instead.
'If aliens visit us, the outcome could be much like when Columbus landed in America, which didn't turn out well for the Native Americans,' Professor Hawking said in a recent interview.
'Such advanced aliens would perhaps become nomads, looking to conquer and colonise whatever planets they can reach,' Hawking told El Pais.
'To my mathematical brain, the numbers alone make thinking about aliens perfectly rational,' said Hawking.
'The real challenge is to work out what aliens might actually be like.'
But Hawking says if aliens don't kill off the human race, then climate change or AI could do so instead.
'I think the survival of the human race will depend on its ability to find new homes elsewhere in the universe, because there's an increasing risk that a disaster will destroy Earth,' he said.

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

More Earth-like planets across the universe than grains of sand on Earth's beaches?

Earth as a grain of sand
We used to think of Earth as the center of the universe, with the Sun circling around it... Turned out it's the other way around, the solar system has 7 other planets beside ours. 30 years ago, we knew no other star with planets apart from our Sun. Now we have identified hundreds in just a tiny corner of our Milky Way galaxy. Given the estimated size of the observable universe - 200 billion galaxies times 200 billion stars per galaxy, it's possible that there might be more Earthy planets out there than sands on our beaches. Could we really be alone?

A new study combines exoplanet data from the Kepler Space Telescope with a new version of a 250-year-old method for determining orbital periods and positions of planets. The research calculates that in our galaxy alone, there could be billions of planets hosting liquid water, habitable conditions and perhaps even life.
Digging deeper into the data, the researchers looked at how many planets were likely to be in the habitable zone where conditions to support liquid water and life might exist. They found an average of one to three planets in the habitable zone in each planetary system. Extrapolate those calculations further, and you arrive at the conclusion that if the math holds, there may be billions of habitable planets in the Milky Way, which is itself just one of billions of galaxies.
Should these calculations hold up -- and the researchers behind them encourage astronomers to check to see whether the planets they predict are actually there to help bolster their case -- it means that the chances of our planet being the universe's only potentially habitable rock that actually hosts life would be not one in a million, one in a billion or even one in a trillion -- but one in a sextillion. (In case this is your first time seeing that word, a sextillion is a one with 21 zeroes behind it.)

Actually, if the estimates of 40 billion Earth-sized planets in habitable zones of sun-like or red dwarf stars in the Milky Way and the estimate of the 100 billion to 200 billion galaxies in the universe are accurate -- and if the average galaxy has roughly the same number of Earth cousins as the Milky Way, then the chances that we are the only planet with life are more like one in 6 sextillion.
Jason Marshall, aka "The Math Dude," has calculated that there are roughly 5 sextillion grains of sand on all our planet's beaches combined. So take every grain of sand on every beach on Earth and you can begin to be able to actually visualize how many planets we're talking about.

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Sex education in Denmark will teach kids how to have babies, not avoiding them

Empty and sophisticated, a Viking land no more
According to the World Happiness Report from the United Nations, Denmark was ranked as the world's happiest country for 2013. The rich and generous Danes also have one of the best child-welfare systems in the world. Their birthrate, however, has been stuck around 1.7 for a long time. There could be two reasons to explain this apparent paradox:

1. Governments can help a lot with the raising of an already existing child, by giving his/her parents more free time, convenient childcare facilities or monthly checks. Yet, there's not much a democratic government can do, in the first place, to push fertile-age people to settle down earlier or stay in stable couples. Unlike other mammals, most humans, for now, are still born into steady unions of two parents, married or not. The majority of early-formed and stable couples also tends to have more than one baby. As people settle down late in life, and their unions are less stable than their parents', the chance is now much lower that they will have, at the end of their fecund years, more than one child. The root cause of sub-replacement fertility is our modern lifestyle, not a lack of material aids for born children.

2. Regarding lifestyle choices, democratic governments are not supposed to tell voters how to live their own life. Presidents and prime ministers cannot force their citizens, who are by definition the owners and masters of the state, to settle down earlier or to avoid divorces. As respected celebrities, they can always give advice, but that may cost them votes. You don't want to tell your bosses how to live his/her life, especially when you're spending their tax money. When able-minded adults prefer parties/research/procrastination to an early marriage, that's their choice. The country and the government are theirs too, after all.

Governments around the world are increasing aid to parents in the hope to reverse low fertility. Those measures will certainly help, but only to a degree, for the two reasons listed above. The Scandinavian countries have had the best welfare systems for decades, yet their fertility rates are always below replacement. Taking out the input of the recently arrived and still prolific immigrants, and the natives' birthrate will be even lower than the averages. Immigrants will gradually become locals, with local habits... which means their outsized contribution won't be long-lasting. 

Lastly, the fact that the Danes have fewer than 2.1 kids and can still be the happiest country in the world shows that these two things are not mutually exclusive: a country with few children can still be a happy one.

Sex education in Denmark is about to shift focus after fertility rates dropped to the lowest in almost three decades.

After years of teaching kids how to use contraceptives, Sex and Society, the Nordic country’s biggest provider of sex education materials for schools, has changed its curriculum to encourage having babies under the rubric: “This is how you have children!”

Infertility is considered “an epidemic” in Denmark, said Bjarne Christensen, secretary general of the Copenhagen-based organization. “We see more and more couples needing to get assisted fertility treatment. We see a lot of people who don’t succeed in having children.”
“We have for many years addressed the very important issues of how to avoid becoming pregnant, how to avoid sexual diseases, how they have a right to their own bodies, but we totally forgot to tell the kids that we cannot have children forever,” Soeren Ziebe, head of Copenhagen University Hospital’s fertility clinic, said by phone. “There is a biological limit.”

Part of the problem lies in the message sent to young adults to get advanced degrees and delay starting a family until they’ve finished their studies, Ziebe said. In the meantime, a woman’s fertility diminishes as her eggs, present since birth, “have tasted every cigarette and every glass of wine that she’s ever had,” he said.

Ziebe also says men need to know that “if they want to party till they’re 45, they’re going to miss the train, because when they wake up and want a family, their wives will no longer be able to conceive.”
“We hope to raise a discussion in society about how to advise young people,” said Christensen, whose group helps organize an annual Sex Week to focus schools’ attention on the subject. “It’s a problem that fertility in Denmark is reduced.”

Sex and Society’s new focus, unveiled on Sunday, includes information for school children explaining what fertility is, when the best times to have children may be, and what the effects of aging are.
Health and sex ed are mandatory subjects in Denmark, with schools teaching children about puberty, gender roles and contraception from the sixth grade. Basic instruction can start at kindergarten level.

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Pope Francis, child-free himself, calls other child-free people selfish

Do as I say, not as I do
Being a father myself, I think having children is beautiful (pope Francis said as much), yet choosing not to have any is also a respectable option. They are just different states of equilibrium. The pope's words are, therefore, kind of beyond me. How could someone who deliberately decide not to have kids call other people who make the same decision selfish? Does he consider himself superior, somehow? A quick Google search will show that many Catholic popes fathered children in history, before and even during their priesthood. As other Christian denominations can attest, clerical celibacy was not imposed by a divine authority or Jesus himself (who might or might not have been married and sired children). It was one of those things followers agreed, centuries later, to apply on themselves. What were just human conventions can always be undone by humans of a new era. Go have some kids yourself, dear Mr. Pope!

VATICAN CITY — Less than a month after sparking controversy for saying Catholics don't have to multiply "like rabbits," Pope Francis has once again praised big families, telling a gathering in St. Peter's Square on Wednesday that having more children is not "an irresponsible choice."
A society that "views children above all as a worry, a burden, a risk, is a depressed society," Francis said.

Citing European countries where the fertility rate is especially low, the pope said "they are depressed societies because they don't want children. They don't have children. The birth rate doesn't even reach 1%."

He once again praised the 1968 encyclical of Pope Paul VI, Humanae Vitae, that reiterated the ban against artificial contraception while enjoining Catholics to practice "responsible parenthood" by spacing out births as necessary.

Francis added, however, that "to have more children cannot automatically become an irresponsible choice."

"Not to have children is a selfish choice," he said. "Life rejuvenates and acquires energy when it multiplies: It is enriched, not impoverished!"

Thursday, January 29, 2015

Life in the universe may be very old, as rocky planets existed much earlier than thought

Did they enjoy that summer 4.6 billion years ago?
Kepler 444, a newly discovered star, and its five rocky planets are 11.2 billion years old. For comparison, the Universe was born at the Big Bang 13.8 billion years ago while our Sun and Earth are around 4.6 billion years old. The solid planets orbiting Kepler 444 are proof that this type of planets were already there in the very early days of the universe. Extraterrestrial life may, therefore, be much more ancient as it had more time to try to emerge and evolve on suitable planets. Consequently, civilizations might have already existed billions of years before our species' appearance in East Africa 200,000 years ago. Where will humanity be in another 200,000 years? In 11.2 billion years...?

The Old Ones were already ancient when the Earth was born. Five small planets orbit an 11.2 billion-year-old star, making them about 80 per cent as old as the universe itself. That means our galaxy started building rocky planets earlier than we thought.

"Now that we know that these planets can be twice as old as Earth, this opens the possibility for the existence of ancient life in the galaxy," says Tiago Campante at the University of Birmingham in the UK.

NASA's Kepler space telescope spotted the planets around an orange dwarf star called Kepler 444, which is 117 light years away and about 25 per cent smaller than the sun.

Orange dwarfs are considered good candidates for hosting alien life because they can stay stable for up to 30 billion years, compared to the sun's 10 billion years, the time it takes these stars to consume all their hydrogen. For context, the universe is currently 13.8 billion years old.
"These planets mean it only took the universe a couple billion years to figure out how to build rocky planets, and they've been around for a really long time," says Travis Metcalfe at the Space Science Institute in Boulder, Colorado. While Kepler 444's planets are too hot for life, its age suggests there might be cooler, older worlds elsewhere. "If life needs a long time to develop or lots of places to try to develop, having rocky planets this early in the history of the galaxy means planets with advanced civilisations should be everywhere."

"These are all little bits of good news," says Andrew Howard at the University of Hawaii at Manoa. "There are still a lot of other hurdles life would have to overcome, but now we're seeing evidence that small planets are common, and here we have one from when the Milky Way was a kid and it was already forming probably rocky planets."

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Aging and declining population will make us richer more slowly, said McKinsey research

Wish I were at the mall to raise GDP!
Because of population decline, economic growth in the world's 20 largest economies will be reduced by 40% over the next 50 years. Does that mean that those societies will see their living standards falling dramatically, as the alarmists imagine the aging future? The answer is no. GDP per head will keep rising higher, aka people will still be getting richer every year, only more slowly than without population aging. What if that's exactly what they want: a comfortable but slower life? Who cares about GDP if there will be more time at the park?

"Declining population growth that shrinks the pool of available labor over the next 50 years will reduce by 40% the rate of growth in global economic output for the world’s 20 largest economies compared to the past 50 years, according to a new study.
Among the 20 nations studied, only Nigeria will see employment growth and GDP growth increase over the coming 50 years, based on recent demographic patterns, says McKinsey. (On a per capita basis, Turkey, Argentina and South Africa will see GDP growth increase.) Several nations will see outright declines in employment, including Japan, Germany, Russia, Italy and China.
What’s the practical impact of a 40% decline in global growth? It means the global standard of living would rise 2.3 times in the next 50 years, down from 2.8 times over the past 50 years

Thursday, January 8, 2015

The Mexicans are not coming anymore, as fewer of them are made every year

Head north for the parties!
Remember all the talks about how an exploding Mexican population will reclaim the territories lost to the USA in 1848? It turns out very soon they will have the same sub-replacement birthrate south of the border. Humans will act the same everywhere when their conditions converge.

From the USA Today: "What Mexican immigration problem?"

"President Obama's executive action on immigration enraged Republicans, but has also widened the split between two camps within the GOP.
Underlying this debate is at least one shared assumption: There are — and always will be — millions of Mexicans ready to move permanently to the United States. What if that assumption is now completely wrong?
But in 2001, the number of new residents (based on U.S. Census Bureau data) started to drop. In 2005, it began to plunge, bottoming out at 140,000 in 2010 and has flat lined since then. Most analysts attribute the steep drop of the last decade to the collapse of the U.S. housing market in 2006 and the lingering recession following the financial crisis in 2008.

But a bigger factor has been at work in Mexico that will drive net migration numbers to very low levels — close to zero — for at least the next one or two generations and probably much longer. Mexico, known for massive and rapid population growth for most of the 20th century, is now on the same downward demographic spiral as the rest of the developed world, including most of Latin America.

In the early 1960's, the total fertility rate for Mexican women was around seven children. By 2013, the rate was down to 2.2, just above the replacement rate of 2.1. The absolute number of live births in Mexico has fallen every year since 1994, and a UN population analysis projects that Mexico will sink below the replacement rate around 2025. Once countries go below the magic fertility number of 2.1 it isn't long — about 30 years — before their population growth completely halts and then starts to shrink.

In the meantime, those steep fertility declines already have shown up in the falling immigration numbers, as the pool of Mexican 15-39 year olds — the prime age to migrate — grows smaller and smaller year after year.

Meet Kepler 438b, the most Earth-like exo-planet discovered so far

And they are looking too?
Exo-planets are very new to humans. The first one ever found by mankind, 51 Pegasi b, was only declared in 1995. Two decades later, we have discovered more than 1000 verified planets orbiting other stars. The more we look, the more we find planets that increasingly resemble our Earth: small-sized, rocky, similar distances to their respective stars as Earth is to the Sun, same temperature range... Are we getting closer to finding the first signs of primitive life on those distant worlds? The trend looks promising as for all the newly learnt knowledge, humans have just searched a super-minuscule area of this galaxy, which is likely made up of 200 billion stars. And there might be 200 billion other galaxies in our observable universe. Could life be exclusive to Earth?

The small size of Kepler 438b makes it likely to be a rocky world, while its proximity to its star puts it in the “Goldilocks” or habitable zone where the temperature is just right for liquid water to flow.

A rocky surface and flowing water are two of the most important factors scientists look for when assessing a planet’s chances of being hospitable to life.
The scientists do not know if the planets have atmospheres, but if they are cloaked in insulating layers of gas, the mean temperatures of Kepler 438b and 442b are expected to be about 60 and zero degrees Celsius respectively.
In the meantime, scientists plan to look for other, indirect signs, that a planet may be well-suited for life. Kipping is searching through the Kepler data for hints that some planets have moons, which can improve their odds of being habitable. Our own moon stabilises Earth’s tilt, making the temperatures far less erratic than they would be otherwise. Alien planets that share a solar system with a gas giant like Jupiter are also interesting, because the vast size of the planet acts as a shield against devastating asteroid and comet impacts.