Contact Conference

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The Contact Conference describes itself as "a unique interdisciplinary conference which brings together some of the foremost international social and space scientists, science fiction writers and artists to exchange ideas, stimulate new perspectives and encourage serious, creative speculation about humanity's future." At the 2012 event, I (Ben) got to meet the three best-known SETI researchers and a leading science fiction writer, as well as listening to a number of other fascinating speakers, and seeing some amazing futuristic art on display. But much of the time I was distracted from thinking about humanity's future, because I was busy working out the future of an alien "species" along with several other participants in the conference's most exciting component, Cultures of the Imagination.



The following notes are just from the talks I attended. The full schedule is here, speaker bios are here (except for Frank Drake's, which is here), and abstracts for the talks are here.

Robert McCann - "Kepler Report - Habitable Planets"

After almost three years of mission time, the Kepler Space Telescope has found a large number of planets circling some of the 167,000 nearby stars found in a small chunk of the sky. So far, the smallest planet it's found that is in the "habitable zone," where liquid oceans can exist, is about 2.3 times the mass of Earth. Kepler's current targets are all K-type red dwarf stars, whose planetary systems are closer to the star and which vary in brightness much less than G-type yellow dwarfs like Sol, which is important because Kepler's detection mechanism involves the slight drop in solar intensity when a planet passes between us and its parent star. Based on statistical analysis of the data so far, Dr. McCann believes we can expect Kepler to find about nine Earthlike worlds if allowed to complete their survey of those 167,000 stars. The mission was set to expire this November, but was granted an extension through 2016 shortly after the Contact Conference ended.

Jill Tarter - "Getting Earthlings on this World to Help with our Searches of the Kepler Worlds"

Pointing out that 61 of Kepler's planets have been confirmed using ground-based astronomy, including over 40 habitable-zone worlds, Dr. Tarter called for all types of astronomers to participate and urges them not to clean up their data, lest they lose something interesting that looks like noise at first glance. She also cited crowdsourcing projects more interactive than the SETI@home screensaver (which "was too easy to just install and forget"), such as the crowd funding of part of the Allen Telescope Array, and an online signal recognition game that helps SETI astronomers keep up with the vast number of potential alien signals coming in (almost all of which have proved to be of Earthly origin so far). Projects like these can help change people's perspective on their place in the Universe, which brings us to Dr. Tarter's closing challenge to the audience: "The first description of yourself on any online profile should be 'Earthling.'"

Gerald Nordley - "Interstellar Commerce"

Nordley began with a brief lesson in relativity, demonstrating that faster-than-light travel between two stars that are moving away from one another could violate causality, which explains why he prefers to limit his speculation to interstellar trade taking place at the speed of light or slower. The details of what kinds of trade goods would make sense to move between the stars, whether in physical form or as data transmissions, weren't very memorable, though I did ask a question at the end and got an interesting response: we could already be involved in interstellar commerce without knowing it, if someone is collecting our TV signals and rebroadcasting them, for a fee, as entertainment to the rest of the galaxy. My favorite part of the presentation was discovering this lovely painting (from the cover of sci-fi novel A Second Chance at Eden) in one of Nordley's PowerPoint slides.

Donna Duerk - "Concepts for Moon Habitats"

Duerk admitted to being a fan rather than a participant in the NASA studies that produced the technical concepts she showed us. They included Moon habitats shaped like a sausage, a tuna can, or a donut, with the latter two including some inflatable-wall living space. Other new concepts included using enclosed lunar rovers as living space, "suit ports" consisting of a spacesuit embedded in the habitat wall with its back open to the inside until you climb in and close it up, and a large six-wheeled robot called ATHLETE.

Bruce Damer - "The EvoGrid and ChemoGrid: Genesis Engines Driving to a New Origin of Life"

Damer described the motivation for his research as "learning to evolve versions of ourselves better suited for space exploration." The EvoGrid is a concept where the origin of life is simulated in a computer model, while the ChemoGrid uses actual chemicals. There is some potential overlap: Damer presented a fanciful 3D animation describing the notion that eventually 3D printers could be used to bring the results of the computer simulation into the real world. More details on this will be found in Damer's forthcoming book, Genesis Engines.

Randall Hayes - "Preview of Alife 13"

This talk mainly consisted of a brief advertisement for Randall's podcast about evolution, an evolution simulation program called Avida, and the Artificial Life 13 conference itself. Sadly, Randall (I can't call him by his last name, having worked with him so closely on the COTI project) did not have time to fulfill the description of his talk, "review[ing] some highlights of this work [predictive, quantitative mathematical modeling on the evolution of cooperation] for its implications to increasing cooperation in future human cultures." He did answer my question about how cooperation evolved in general terms: it helped groups of cooperators to compete with one another. For example, multicellular organisms evolved as a defense against single-celled predators, which then had to become multicellular themselves.

Kathryn Denning - "If You Love This Solar System"

This was the most interesting talk in my opinion, and certainly the most controversial. Dr. Denning critiqued the economics and engineering approach to justifying a human expansion into space, which leads to bizarre descriptions of "Earth as a single point of failure" and "humans as technical problems," as well as glorification of the lawlessness of the "frontier." She focused particularly on this attitude as it was expressed at the 100 Year Starship Symposium, which I and other SolSeed members had attended, and where explorers like Magellan and Sir Francis Drake were put forth as role models, despite their involvement in exploitation of natives, slavery, etc (and the fact that Magellan himself didn't survive the trip around the world). More generally, Denning wanted to inform the audience that most of the world doesn't buy the idea of America's absolute right to use the resources of the Solar System in its quest to continue the dominant expansionist paradigm of libertarian capitalism. Rather than taking this approach to space endeavors, Denning urged the audience to adopt an expanded version of the emotional response to Apollo photos of Earth that helped inspire the first Earth Day -- hence the name of her talk.

Seth Shostak - "Broadcasting Into Space: Recipe for Catastrophe?"

Dr. Shostak's thesis was that no one should worry about deliberate messages to aliens bringing down the wrath of any highly advanced but hostile alien race -- not because such races don't exist, but because if they have spent any effort to look at our solar system, they already know we're here. He pointed out that using a typical star as a gravitational lens makes it easy to detect our radio and television signals from many light-years away. Any species powerful enough to pose a threat to us would have mastered this trick long ago.

Penny Boston - "The Persistence of Microbial Life in Geological Materials: Implications for Evolutionary Biology on Earth and Astrobiology"

Dr. Boston described microbes as the dominant force in geochemistry, and hypothesizes that they may be found in fissures in the crust as much as ten kilometers beneath our feet. They certainly do exist in the subsurface layers in great diversity, which may help to explain how life recolonizes barren land created by disasters on the surface, such as the eruption of Mt. St. Helens in 1980. Boston participated in the exploration of a cave in Mexico with crystal formations that have to be seen to be believed; it was opened by mining and had no prior link to the surface. Among the diverse microbes collected by Boston's team was one species capable of surviving the process of being studied under an electron microscope, which involves hard vacuum, coating with a layer of gold and palladium, and then getting zapped with high-powered electron beams. This helps to demonstrate that microbes could probably survive in the depths of space.

David Morrison - "The 2012 doomsday prophesy"

Dr. Morrison's talk discussed two potential threats to civilization, one real but largely ignored, the other wholly fictitious but with vast numbers of believers. The first threat, that of large meteor impacts, is one I've read about so many times that I don't feel like describing it in detail here. The second threat, that of the fictional planet Nibiru, is mainly interesting because of the way people talk about it: believers commonly claim that NASA has provided support for the existence of Nibiru and its supposed upcoming close encounter with Earth, coinciding with the date of the "Mayan apocalypse."

Melanie Swan - "Human Body 2.0: Redesign, Democracy, and Next- Generation Intelligence"

This talk didn't delve nearly enough into the idea of redesigning the human body; in fact, the closest Swan came to discussing it was mentioning that DNA sequencing technology is getting ten times cheaper every year, and expressing the belief that this and other technologies will enable people to become more responsible for their own health. As for "next-generation intelligence," Swan did briefly discuss the history of artificial intelligence, which has moved from simple flowchart models to simulations of neural networks, and is now moving into the era of "Big Data," as epitomized by the Google search algorithm and IBM's game-playing computers, Deep Blue and Watson.

Bill Clancey - "Belief Systems and Cross-Cultural Communication"

My notes from this talk are too fragmentary to assemble into a coherent narrative. Here they are as bullet points, for whatever it may be worth:

  • Cognitive science ignored emotions and belief systems, or viewed them as distortions of cognition.
  • People also assume all brains are similar, like Intel processors.
  • Authority is essential when you can't work out a story from knowledge on your own.

Roberta Goodman - "Learning Cetacean Languages"

This talk was more about dolphin behavior than dolphin language. Goodman described her work with dolphins at Marine World, learning approaches to interacting with them that have also worked in the wild. Some of the behaviors Goodman described and showed video of definitely looked pretty intelligent, although the book on dolphin intelligence she mentioned, In Defense of Dolphins by Thomas White, hopefully has more than just that kind of anecdotal evidence.

Frank Drake - keynote

I took no notes during the keynote, much to my regret. I remember that Dr. Drake discussed the history of SETI, the radio frequencies where SETI searches have been focused (based on a chart of galactic radiation noise that may well have been shown to countless audiences of various species living all over the Milky Way), and the potential future in which we harness the technology Seth Shostak discussed earlier, getting a telescope far enough out into the outer solar system so it can use the Sun's gravity to bring signals from behind it into incredibly sharp focus.

Cultures of the Imagination

Participants on my team

  • Randall Hayes
  • Michelle Merrill
  • Chad Rohrbacher
  • Ben Sibelman
  • Anthony Weston
  • Mara Williams


We were given a semi-fictional triple-star system to play with, designed by engineer and science-fiction author Gerald Nordley. With one noted exception, all quotes below are from the packet describing this system. The stars, Gliese 667A, B, and C, are real, and there are known planets around star C. However, both teams ended up focusing on the fictional planetary systems around stars A and B.

The other team, which consisted of students from a nearby high school, ended up on a Mercury-sized tide-locked planet orbiting star B (though our team didn't know that, or anything else about the other team's aliens, until the last day of the conference). My team decided that its organisms would originate on the third moon of a gas giant orbiting star A. Nordley described this smallish moon as having "a subterranean ocean under a deep ice crust," presumably kept liquid by tidal stresses from the gas giant.

Details of my team's aliens

What follows is a fairly brief summary; more details can be found in Anthony's epic poem, Graxes Rock, to which I contributed a few sections. The pictures we drew to illustrate our aliens can be found here.


Our alien microbes evolved in a tidally heated ocean, but a few of them ended up adapting to the harsh conditions on the airless surface. We decided the third moon was similar enough to Saturn's moon Enceladus that we could postulate geysers that would periodically launch some of our microbes into orbit.

These organisms, already able to survive in hard vacuum, ended up colonizing the first two moons of the gas giant, both of which were described as having surface oceans. We chose to focus most of our story on the second moon, a tidally locked "warm Titan" most of whose dry land area "is the rim of a huge impact crater," which gave us two separate oceans to play with, one inside the crater and one outside. This, in addition to the occasional impact of more spaceborne microbes from the third moon throughout the following eons, gave us the rationale for our evolutionary story.


Randall, our team biologist, wanted to try a thought experiment in group selection, a controversial theory in which evolutionary fitness may be determined by the ability of a group of organisms to survive and reproduce. Even more controversially, we decided to blur the concepts of "organism" and "species" by having multiple distantly-related colonies of cells form alliances in which they would physically join together into a larger entity, which would have the abilities of all its component "species."

The mechanism for the formation of these alliances can be summarized as "evolution through indigestion." Because aquatic organisms in the two oceans (actually three, if you count the third moon) would evolve on radically divergent paths, when organisms from different oceans were somehow thrown together, they might well not have the ability to eat each other due to using different types of proteins or amino acids. If organism A swallows organism B but fails to digest it, we hypothesized that A might have to find a different way to relate to B, specifically forming an alliance. A real-world example of this, described to me by Kathryn Denning, is the way some sea slugs on Earth consume algae and then use their chloroplasts to gain the benefits of photosynthesis.

We borrowed a term with a rather dubious source to describe this. Astrologer Caroline Casey wrote on "Guest Voices" at that "'Grax' is a biological term that, according to Rupert Sheldrake, describes the action of individual bacteria, or slime mold or anything coming together as an intelligent community to address a challenge that cannot be resolved alone." So without endorsing the worldviews of Casey or Sheldrake, we decided "Graxians" would be a reasonable name for our composite alien beings.

Anatomy and technology

As colonies of cells form alliances and exchange genetic material, they gradually learn all kinds of tricks that can be performed by changing the overall shape of a colony. In other words, Graxians are shapeshifters, and form tools out of their own substance rather than directly manipulating materials in the environment. But since we were tasked with drawing a picture of a typical Graxian, we decided that a fractal body plan would dominate, consisting of "modules" of various sizes with three tentacles each. Shapeshifted appendages would appear on the ends of some of these tentacles, while others would simply link to the hubs of smaller fractal modules.

Given the Graxians' diverse evolutionary heritage, we also added a second, fernlike fractal structure, which would appear in some Graxians before the advent of intelligence and astronomy. But once they start studying the skies, Graxians quickly decide that the bilateral symmetry of the fern structure makes it profane and destroy most of those structures in a kind of religious war.

The religion of Three

From the surface of the second moon, now known as Grax, there appear to be six particularly interesting objects in the sky: the other three moons, the gas giant they orbit, and the two nearby stars. Three moons orbiting a central planet seem to the Graxians to match the structure of their own trilateral modules pretty well. Then, as their shapeshifted telescope organs improve, the Graxians realize that the gas giant exists as one corner of an equilateral triangle with other planets at the other two points, and Gliese 667A at the center -- an even closer match to the Graxians' own fractal structure. (This was all in the description we got from Mr. Nordley.) Finally they discover the nature of the more distant companion star, Gliese 667C, and although they can't see anything at the barycenter of the triple-star system, they nevertheless conclude that fractal hierarchies with three entities orbiting a larger central entity must form a basic organizing principle of the universe -- leading to the decision to destroy all bilateral fractals.

Even discovering that they live on a moon themselves, bringing the parent gas giant's moon count to four, doesn't seriously challenge the Graxians' faith, as science quickly verifies that the fourth moon, a small "irregular satellite in a loose retrograde orbit," is just an interloper captured from the local equivalent of the Kuiper belt and therefore doesn't really count. It doesn't even have any life, in contrast to the other three moons, which the Graxians study in detail, even sending an expedition to the first moon using a simple launch tube to "spitball" a small hard-shelled Graxian out of the second moon's weak gravity.

The other team's aliens

The aliens based on the tide-locked planet, as we eventually learned, are reptile-like beings known as Luters. They have two legs, four arms, and a heavy tail, and their primary means of perception is echolocation. Their language consists of the same kind of high-pitched sounds they use for building up a sonar map of their surroundings, interpreted via rows of earholes along the sides of their heads. Their society used to be patriarchal, but this led to overly aggressive behavior including wars and overhunting, using up the scarce resources of the habitable belt between the planet's sunlit and shadowed hemispheres, so they ended up transitioning to a more peaceful matriarchal culture. One unusual aspect of this culture, resulting from the scarcity of resources, is that when a Luter dies, all parts of its body are put to use, including consumption of the edible tissues.

The contact scenario

We were asked to create characters to play in the contact scenario, so five of the six team members invented cultures to represent. Randall and Mara chose to be land-based, with Randall on the crater rim and Mara on an island on the opposite side of Grax. Michelle and Anthony chose to inhabit surface waters, Michelle in the intertidal zone on the outer shore of the crater, Anthony in the open water inside the crater. My character comes from a culture based around a cluster of hydrothermal vents on the ocean floor.

Anthony's and Randall's cultures had built radio receivers to search for the "music of the spheres," while Mara's culture specialized mainly in light-based astronomy (largely infrared, since visible light likely wouldn't penetrate the cloud cover on a "warm Titan" like Grax). The COTI organizer, Israel Zuckerman, told us that the radio receivers were getting a signal from a planet orbiting star B, so Anthony and Randall got to establish initial communication, with some help from Mara (since the signal would be hidden from the crater side of Grax half the time). After an initial interplanetary "jam session," we got down to business and worked out a way to send encoded images, allowing us to receive images of the other team's aliens (in reality this involved Israel carrying drawings from one room to the other).

Next we had to describe the process of developing the technology and plans for a space mission, since the other team's aliens weren't advanced enough to attempt one. We had Mara's culture develop rocketry to enable the flight across a distance of somewhere around a billion miles, and packed the small vessel with "seeds" capable of reproducing individual Graxians from each of the five cultures we had invented. This is what we did, after landing our probe in a remote area of the tide-locked planet close to the sunward edge of the habitable zone.

This is where we went on stage and started role-playing for the larger audience of conference attendees. First we formed a circle to act out the process of rolling across the land as a tumbleweed-like ball. Then we apparently rolled onto a Luter ranch and encountered its owners, played by four high school students. At this point, naturally enough, things got very confused. We offered bits of ourselves (represented by different colored M&Ms) to the Luters to eat, based on the our principle of "evolution by indigestion," but the bits never reported back. We made a brief effort to decode their language but failed. We tried the time-honored shapeshifters' strategy of forming a simulacrum of the Luters' physical form, but this didn't go far toward establishing mutual understanding. Finally, in desperation, we reached through one of the Luters' ear holes and grabbed a piece of its brain, which didn't help either since the piece of brain wasn't capable of independent life (as any part of a Graxian would be).

At this point we decided to give up on the group of Luters represented by the high school students, and headed off toward one of the Luter cities where their radio broadcasts had originated. Israel declared this to be beyond the scope of the exercise and closed out the performance. Although this wasn't a very satisfying conclusion, contact of a sort had certainly occurred.

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