Science & Nature Archive

Friday, February 19, 2016

What Would Technologically Advanced Aliens Be Like

Alien Clip ArtRecently, I came across various versions of the question that's the title of this post, such as this Popular Mechanics article, What Would Aliens Actually Look Like? We Asked 7 Experts, and multiple Quora questions (Would aliens look humanoid and if so, why?, What are the odds that if aliens exist, they would look like how they are portrayed in science fiction?, What might alien life look like?, Is it possible that aliens look like humans?, and What do aliens look like?). People's responses range from thoughtful to idiotic (even in the Popular Mechanics article among so called experts). But, it's an intriguing question, so I thought I'd give it a go at an answer.

First of all, I'm focusing specifically on intelligent, technological alien life. Just a look at all the varied life forms that exist and have existed on this planet shows all the crazy paths life can take, from giant sequoias to mantis shrimp to sponges to pterodactyls to clams to flying fish to dolphins to snakes to bombardier beetles to mushrooms to ants to Venus fly traps to amoebas to orchids to cuttlefish... There are seemingly endless ways to go about the business of survival and reproduction. But the type of intelligence and body that can produce technology is something a bit more specific, and perhaps something where I can conjecture a bit more constructively.

Venus Fly Trap Cuttlefish Amoeba Mantis Shrimp
Click any image to embiggen. All above images from Wikimedia Commons.

To be clear, I'm not saying it's likely that we'll ever discover technologically advanced aliens. In fact, I think it's distinctly unlikely. Life existed on this planet as solely single-celled life for billions of years. And even after multicellular life appeared, it was nearly another billion years before us humans evolved with our technologically advanced civilization. And our civilization has only been around for mere thousands of years - note even a drop in the bucket compared to the total history of life on this planet. This entry is looking at the prerequisites to developing technologically advanced life.

One thing to keep in mind is that, just like on Earth, aliens, or at least their original natural form if they've entered into a realm of genetic engineering or artificial intelligence, are going to be the products of evolution, just like us. And we know from the way evolution works here, that it doesn't produce anything miraculous. Sure, there are very, very interesting forms that have evolved. But evolution is limited by contingency, and every feature of an organism is a tradeoff between advantages and disadvantages, not least of which is the nutrition needed to grow and maintain that feature. And everything everywhere is still governed by the same natural laws - physics, chemistry, etc. So we shouldn't expect aliens to have any 'superpowers' relative to what's seen on this planet - no magic levitation abilities, no telekinesis, no telepathy, no absurdly strong muscles, etc. And we shouldn't expect features that are nearly impossible to imagine evolving in a stepwise manner, like wheeled axles. Aliens will be organisms that evolved naturally to fit a niche.

With the caveats out of the way, let's start at the most basic level, first. Aliens will most likely use carbon based chemistry. Carbon simply offers the richest chemistry of any element in the periodic table. To quote Wikipedia, "The most important characteristics of carbon as a basis for the chemistry of life are, that it has four valence bonds, that the energy required to make or break a bond is at an appropriate level for building molecules, which are stable and reactive. Because carbon atoms bond readily to other carbon atoms allows for the building of arbitrarily long complex molecules and polymers." In fact, many of the building blocks of life, such amino acids, have been found naturally occurring in non-biological conditions, such as in comets. The fact that these basic building blocks will spontaneously form given the right conditions certainly suggests that they could be present in some primordial body of water and, given further appropriate conditions, give rise to life. About the only other element with a chance of being the basis for life is silicon, but its chemistry isn't as rich as carbon's, and nobody has yet found the type of naturally occurring large molecules and polymers with silicon as what occurs with carbon.

Alien life will more than likely have some type of long chain molecule (a polymer) similar to DNA. There can be lots of interesting chemistry without this type of molecule, but probably not to the same complexity, and not with the same basis for duplication with slight mutations that's the foundation of evolution. But that DNA like molecule need not necessarily be DNA. In an interview for the Guardian article, DNA alternative created by scientists, Phillip Holliger, who's studied alternatives to DNA, stated, "There is nothing Goldilocks about DNA and RNA. There is no overwhelming functional imperative for genetic systems or biology to be based on these two nucleic acids." Holliger has created and studied alternative polymers, collectively known as XNAs. Perhaps one of these would be the basis for alien life.

Moving past the basic level, I'm going to jump quite a bit ahead in the aliens' evolution. They'll almost surely be terrestrial. As I said before, keep in mind that we're focusing on technologically advanced, not just intelligent. You can certainly have intelligent animals evolve in any environment (e.g. dolphins). But it's hard to imagine how advanced technology could develop in an aquatic habitat. For one thing, so much of our technological development has hinged on fire, from cooking, to smelting metals, to combustion engines, etc. Without fire as an energy source, it's hard to see how many of those technologies could have been developed. Then there's materials science and chemistry. In a terrestrial environment, it's easy to isolate solids and liquids in different containers, allowing chemistry to get started. How do you isolate liquids when you're underwater.

The overall size of the aliens would probably be in the ballpark of us, but would depend an awful lot on the specifics of the planet they're from. As a first cut, we can probably say that they wouldn't be much smaller than us. Being smart takes a certain amount of raw brain power, and brain power that can be devoted to general intelligence, not just the normal 'housekeeping' chores of processing nerve impulses or controlling organs. There's no telling just how exactly an alien brain would work, but assuming that it's about as efficient as the brains that have evolved on this planet, it will be proportionately sized to the organism. For example, a spider will never be as smart as a person, because it's just too small to have a brain big enough to do the job. To have a brain big enough to have a high level of intelligence, the aliens will have to be reasonably sized. As far as an upper limit on size, that's probably going to be very specific to the planet and the organisms' physiology. On this planet, gravity and the square cube law place upper limits on how big terrestrial organisms can get. If aliens came from a planet with lower gravity, they could probably grow larger. But even on this planet, humans are nowhere near the upper limit for how big terrestrial animals can get. The largest land mammals ever probably weighed around 20 tons, while the largest dinosaurs were probably around 70 tons. Moreover, ancient elephants are contenders for largest land mammal, and they also happen to be among the smartest mammals. So, I think about the best range I can estimate is from a low end of several dozen pounds to a high end of several tons, or even larger if the planet has lower gravity.

Big Animals Compared to a Person
Click image to embiggen. I got that from a forum - not sure of actual original source.

It's hard to predict what type of skeleton aliens would have (not even getting into the chemistry of it, just the basic structure), but we can narrow it down somewhat. There are four types of structural support that animals on this planet use - endoskeletons (like us), exoskeletons (like insects), hydrostatic skeletons (like earthworms or starfish), and muscular hydrostats (like octopus and squid). Considering that we've already narrowed down our technological aliens to terrestrial organisms, I think we can rule out those latter two types of support. While they're sometimes used in certain structures of large terrestrial animals on this planet (like our tongues or an elephant's trunk), the only terrestrial animals we know of that use them for their entire structure are rather small. It seems that to support large bodies, some type of hard skeleton is required (assuming that gravity isn't drastically lower on their planet). But whether aliens would use endo- or exo- skeletons is tougher to answer. The largest known terrestrial animal from this planet to use an exoskeleton was Arthropleura, an 8 ft long millipede that weighed several hundred pounds (one site I saw said 1000 lbs). So, it doesn't appear that an exoskeleton is necessarily a limit to growing large. In fact, most of the articles I've seen describing why insects don't grow larger explain that it's mainly due to how they breathe. They rely on small tubes and diffusion, rather than lungs (e.g. Why can't insects grow much bigger?). If an organism had an exoskeleton AND lungs, it might just be able to grow to much larger sizes than current insects. So, I'm going to say that we can't narrow this down any further.

I've already discussed that the aliens would require a certain sized brain, but there's another aspect about brains worth considering - they take a lot of energy. Now, perhaps alien evolution would strike on a nervous system that was more efficient than ours, but I think chances are that naturally evolved biological computers will always take a lot of energy, especially if the organisms are using those brains full-time to think about things. And that type of energy means the organisms will probably be warm-blooded - chemical reactions and metabolism can be much more efficient when they're operating at a consistent warm temperature. And the vast, vast majority of warm blooded terrestrial animals on this planet have some type of insulation for a body covering - hair or fur in practically all mammals, feathers in birds and other dinosaurs, and pycnofibers in pterosaurs. Humans are one of the rare exceptions to this pattern. So, more likely than not, intelligent aliens will have something similar to fur or feathers covering their bodies for insulation.

Speaking of energy requirements, one of the reasons we can have such energetic metabolisms is oxygen. Oxygen is very reactive. That's very clear from watching a fire burn. The metabolism that takes place within our cells is a more controlled version of those types of reactions. So, in order to have the metabolisms to support those energy intensive brains, technological aliens will probably be living on a planet with lots of free oxygen in the atmosphere, which also goes back to what I mentioned before about the importance of fire for driving technological development. (And as an interesting aside, this also tells us something about the other life on that planet - go read about the Great Oxygenation Event to see how Earth got its oxygenated atmosphere.) And to get that oxygen distributed throughout their bodies, aliens are going to need some type of circulatory system (and some type of respiratory system, as well). And a circulatory system needs blood. But what type of blood? Here's an article discussing different types of blood in creatures on this planet, Crabs have blue blood; why don't we?. In short, iron and copper appear to be the best suited elements for transporting oxygen, and so intelligent aliens would probably have blood based on one of those elements. Though the article also mentions vanadium based blood, so I suppose there's a small chance their blood could use some other element.

Aliens will have various sensory organs. From physics, many will probably be similar in function to ours - touch, taste, and smell as very obvious senses, interacting directly with the matter in their environment. Hearing to detect sound is also pretty likely, seeing as how that has evolved in many lineages of animals on Earth (insects use a tympanal organ). Sight also seems very likely, considering how many animals on this planet have eyes. But what type of eyes would aliens have? Eyes have evolved numerous times on Earth, but almost all fall into two camps simply because of the constraints of physics - compound eyes and camera-type eyes. In fact, as complex as camera-type eyes may seem, even they have evolved multiple times, in both us and molluscs. And while camera-type eyes may offer potentially higher resolutions, both camera and compound eyes are effective means of forming an image. There is a third possibility that we know of from telescopes, and that I just learned is actually used in scallops - a reflector eye. But, out of all the eyes in the animal kingdom, reflector eyes seem to be pretty rare, so I think we can narrow down our aliens to either compound or camera-type eyes, but no further than that.

Cuttlefish Eye Dragonfly Eye Cat Eye Trilobite Eye
Click any image to embiggen. All above images from Wikimedia Commons.

Aliens will need mouths of some sort. They're going to need to eat, and a mouth, by definition, is the orifice that gets food into the digestive tract. But from there, who knows what those mouths might look like. Chances are decent it will have some type of hinge to facilitate biting, but even that's not a given. Really, just take a look at a small sampling of the mouths from organisms on Earth.

Horseshoe Crab Mouth Starfish Mouth Butterfly Mouth Ant Mouth
All of those images are available in their full glory on the websites I stole them from just by clicking on the thumbnails. And while they're all good, you really, really have to click on that fourth one.

These aliens are going to have some types of limbs or appendages, if only for the reason that they'll need something to manipulate their environment very finely to be able to develop and build their technology (again, because we're looking at prerequisites to technologically advanced aliens, not that there's any inherent reason why this type of feature would necessarily evolve on an alien planet). We have hands. Elephants have trunks, and it's very easy to imagine that if they had two trunks, they'd be building things. Squids have tentacles that they're very adept at using. And while it's conceivable these aliens could be slug-like with muscular tentacles, since we've previously determined that they're probably going to be warm-blooded, energy hungry organisms, they'll probably be more active and need to get around faster than what slugs can do. So, at least some of their limbs are probably going to be for locomotion. So, how many limbs will they have? For an interesting discussion of limb evolution on Earth, check out this article, A Tale of Three Arms. It discusses the independent evolution of limbs in vertebrates like us, arthropods (including insects), and molluscs. A lot of the reason life looks they way it does now is because of those evolutionary histories and contingencies. We have four limbs because our lobe-finned fish ancestors had four fins. If they'd had six fins, we'd likely have six limbs. And if they'd had segmented bodies like millipedes, we might have a hundred limbs. To set a minimum, I'd say terrestrial animals will almost always have at least four limbs. It's the minimum required to make walking easy for the first organisms to venture onto land. Above that, there's no telling. If their manipulatory limbs were modified from locomotion limbs like us, they could still have as few as four limbs. If they evolved from six- or eight- or ten-limbed ancestors, they'd probably retain that number. And if they had so many limbs, there's no reason to think they'd only be limited to two manipulatory limbs. Or, like I already hinted at above, their manipulatory limbs might have evolved from something other than locomotion limbs, similar to an elephant's trunk.

As far as behavior, they'll almost certainly be social. Developing technology depends on building on the knowledge from others that came before you. And you can't share that knowledge effectively without being social and interacting with others. And that sharing will require some type of language - not necessarily spoken with sound waves, but some way to transfer concrete and abstract ideas from one individual to another.

So to summarize, my best guess is that if any intelligent technologically advanced aliens have evolved, they will probably be carbon based, with some type of polymer genetic chemical, though not necessarily DNA, terrestrial, either similar in size to us or much larger, have some type of hard skeleton, either internal or external, warm-blooded with some type of fur or feather like insulation covering their bodies, oxygen-breathing with iron or copper based blood, with various sensory organs similar to ours and either compound or camera-type eyes with a slim possibility of reflector eyes, mouths that we can only narrow down to being some type of orifice to take in food though a hinge of some sort is possible, have at least four limbs if not more, and will be social with language. Now, take all that and try to imagine what it would look like coming together, and there's a near limitless number of possibilities.

Title Image Source: Wikimedia Commons

Updated 2017-11-07: Add paragraph about technologically advanced alien life being unlikely, along with related caveat in final paragraph.

Friday, February 12, 2016

Happy Darwin Day 2016

Darwin's BirthdayToday is Darwin Day, the 207th anniversary of Charles Darwin's birth. To quote one of my previous Darwin Day posts, Charles Darwin was "the man who presented evolution in such a way and with sufficient evidence that it became obvious that it was the explanation for how life developed on this planet. Others had ideas of transmutation before Darwin, and Alfred Russel Wallace even came up with a theory of natural selection very similar to Darwin's at around the same time, so it's apparent that humanity would have eventually recognized how evolution works. But Darwin's genius in presenting all the evidence for evolution in the way he did certainly gave the field a huge head start."

If you want to see if there's anything specific going on in your neck of the woods, you can check out the list of events at I couldn't find anything for Wichita Falls, this year. Maybe I can talk my family into watching Inherit the Wind.

To celebrate Darwin Day on this site, I'm going to provide links to a few of my previous entries. This first set of links is entirely to entries specifically relevant to Darwin or written just for Darwin Day.

And while I write way too much about evolution to list all of my evolution entries, here are a few highlights since the previous Darwin Day:

Thursday, January 21, 2016

Science and Engineering Indicators 2016

NSB LogoThe NSF has released their Science and Engineering Indicators report for 2016. It's a great report put out every two years documenting many aspects of Americans' relationship to science and engineering. For the past several reports (2004, 2006, 2008, 2010, 2012, & 2014), I've made it a habit to examine one specific aspect - public understanding of science. In particular, I've examined the data on how many questions people can correctly answer on a short quiz of basic scientific questions, how that has changed over the years, and how the U.S. fares against other countries on those (mostly the) same questions.

For all of the tables I'm about to publish, note that I copied the data and notes from the NSF report, but I've formatted the tables to fit onto this blog. I made the graphs myself to help visualize the data, as these particular graphs weren't in the report.

First, here's the table showing how Americans fared on a question by question basis on some basic scientific facts. The table includes data from 1988 on up to the most recent poll in 2014.


Those results aren't particularly encouraging. I point this out nearly every time I cover this report, but around 1 in 4 Americans don't know that the Earth orbits the Sun, and around half of Americans don't know that electrons are smaller than atoms! Those are simple, basic, scientific facts.

To help visualize that data, especially the trends on how it changes over time, here it is plotted on a graph by year.


Americans' knowledge has remained largely steady over the past decade and a half, though there were a few changes. Americans' knowledge on antibiotics improved the most, but has kind of plateaued since around 2006. There does appear to be a recent trend of improvement on the questions concerning the Big Bang and human evolution. Hopefully that trend is real and continues on into the future.

Next, here's the table showing how the U.S. compared to other countries.


I played around with different ways of plotting that data, but there's just so much that it's too confusing to put it all on one graph. If you're interested in seeing a graph for each individual question, you can click on the thumbnail below to embiggen* the graphs.

Click to embiggen

However, I did come up with a way to do a comparison of sorts - I took an average of the percentage of people that correctly answered questions. As an example, if it was only two questions, and 100% of people answered the first question correctly, while only 50% answered the second question correctly, the average would by 75%. I did this average three ways - overall, the physical science questions, and the biological science questions. If a country didn't pose a certain question, it wasn't included in that country's average. I admit that this is a very rough way to do a comparison, but here's how each country fared.


The U.S. actually does rather well in this comparison. It's not number 1, but it's not too far off.

I also suspected that America's over-religiosity might be affecting those questions that contradict a literal young earth creationism interpretation of the Bible, so I redid all those averages exluding the Big Bang and evolution questions.


As suspected, this did improve America's performance. This is heartening, that creationism hasn't caused huge damage to Americans' scientific understanding overall.

One lesson from this that I've pointed out before, is to keep these results in mind every time you see a poll showing people's attitudes towards anything scientific. For example, every time you see a poll showing that the majority or plurality favor teaching creationism in public schools, or a poll showing high levels of skepticism towards global warming, remember that this is the same public where a quarter of all people think the Sun orbits the Earth, and where half of all people don't realize electrons are subatomic particles. How informed can they be on scientific issues when they don't even know such simple facts?

The other major lesson is that we need to do a lot better job of teaching science. When you live in a democracy and everyone has a say in the government (at least by way of voting for representatives), you really need a well educated populace for it to work effectively. This is especially true of science in the modern age, when so many pressing issues require accurate understanding of science.

I suppose that on the plus side, as much as alarmists decry the falling quality of American education, at least in this one area, the data shows that Americans' knowledge has stayed largely the same. There's definitely room for improvement, but at least we haven't gone backwards.

*'Embiggen' is a perfectly cromulent word.

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Weird Engineering Unit - The Slinch

Standard MassTechnical fields are full of units that most non-technical people have never heard of. It gets even weirder with customary U.S. units, given the history of how these units came about. The most obscure unit I've ever actually used for real practical applications is the slinch.

If you're not involved in a technical field, you may not be familiar with the idea of coherent or consistent units. Basically, it's the idea that you shouldn't need any fudge factors in an equation because of the units you're using. For example, power can be calculated as a force times a speed, or P=F*V. Using consistent U.S. units gives an answer in ft-lb/sec, while using metric units gives an answer in N-m/sec (also known as Watts). A non-consistent unit of power that most people are familiar with is horsepower. If you multiply force times speed, you then have to divide by a fudge factor of 550 to get your answer in horsepower, or HP=F*V/550. And the fudge factors only work if the inputs are the units you're expecting. If people wanted to use mph instead of ft/s for the velocity, then you'd need another fudge factor on top of that, HP=F*Vmph*(5280/3600)/550. Equations can get pretty messy if you're not using consistent units, having to multiply all those fudge factors together.

In the standard units used for engineering in the U.S., pounds are a measure of force, not mass (this is already a distinction some people are unfamiliar with, confusing weight and mass). The unit for mass, which most non-technical people would already consider an obscure unit, is the slug. But trust me, I use slugs on a nearly daily basis as an engineer. On Earth, a slug weighs approximately 32 lbs (i.e. F=mg). Or for you metric people, it's equivalent to about 14.6 kg (which measure mass, not weight).

But the engineers who do stress calculations don't always use the normal FPS (foot-pound-second) system, because everyone's used to seeing stresses reported in lbs/in², or psi. And if you were using the normal FPS system, your stresses would come out in lb/ft², and you'd have to do a conversion at the end of your calculations to put the results in the psi that most people are used to seeing*. That's not a huge deal for spreadsheets or hand calcs, but it does make it more difficult for certain finite element programs. So, the stress guys sometimes use a different set of units based on pounds and inches, with the mass unit being the slinch. A slinch is 1/12 of a slug (i.e. the ratio between feet and inches). On Earth, a slinch weighs approximately 32/12 lbs, or 2.7 lbs.

Of course, a lot of these weird units could be simplified if all the engineers in the U.S. started using the metric system like the rest of the world, but that's not the way it is right now, so I've got to use units that other U.S. engineers are familiar with. And if Wikipedia is to be trusted, the metric stress guys have their own weird mass unit of glugs in the centimeter-gram-second system.

* Speaking of weird stress units, I remember working with a foreign engineer one time who gave me her results in Pascals, which is the normal metric way to do it. When I asked her to convert her results to U.S. units, she gave them to me in N/ft².

Image Source: Wikimedia Commons, slightly Photoshopped to remove a dead fly

Note that this entry was adapted from a response I left on Quora.

Saturday, October 31, 2015

A Response to Ben Carson's Creation vs. Evolution Video

Note: for a list of all my Carson related entries, go here.

Ben CarsonThis is my third entry inspired by a speech Carson gave a few years ago, but was just posted to YouTube in June of this year. The first entry was Ben Carson Being Noticed by Popular Science Writers, where I mostly described popular science writers' reactions to the video. Then next entry was Yet Another Look at Ben Carson's Views on Evolution - His Creation vs. Evolution Speech, where I mostly explained why this speech made Carson unfit for the presidency. But I didn't really rebut Carson's misinformation in either of those entries. I merely stated how wrong he was, without demonstrating it. That actually was on purpose, since as I wrote in that second entry, "I'm tempted to go into a point by point refutation of Carson, but there are so many falsehoods and misunderstandings, it would make this post extremely long." But, since I know not everybody studies evolution as much as I like to, I realize that not everybody might understand just how wrong Carson is in this video, so I have decided to do a more detailed rebuttal to his claims. Even ignoring politics, this is an opportunity to educate people on some common creationist misconceptions. Like I expected, this has made for a very long post.

First, just to repeat a theme I've written in both of those previous entries, the aspect of this video that's so damning of Carson isn't merely his ignorance of evolutionary theory, but that he was unable to recognize his own ignorance on the issue, and that despite this ignorance, he was arrogant enough to give a prepared lecture to a crowd of people. As I wrote in the second entry, "Most of us are ignorant about a whole range of issues, but we don't go around giving speeches about those issues." How can we trust Carson to recognize his own limitations?

I know this is a long entry. In fact, some individual answers could stand as their own entries. But I decided to address Carson's mistakes on evolution comprehensively, and he had so many mistakes. On the plus side, many of these mistakes are common creationist mistakes not limited to Carson, so addressing them comprehensively does offer an opportunity to educate others. But, if you want to just skim over this entry and only read the portions that catch your eye, that's understandable.

To keep this entry from growing even longer than it is, I mostly limited myself to discussing evolution, even though Carson discussed a few more topics. However, a few of his statements on those other topics were just too tempting to pass up, so they're discussed here, too.

Continue reading "A Response to Ben Carson's Creation vs. Evolution Video" »


Selling Out