Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Blue light in the darkness

I came across an article in the French press about an ingenious device that apparently prevents night-time drivers from falling asleep at the wheel. It's simply a blue LED lamp fixed inside the vehicle, in the vicinity of the rear-view mirror, so that it shines into the driver's eyes.

                                         — photo CNRS/Université Bordeaux Segalen

Researchers at the CNRS (French national scientific organization) and the university of Bordeaux explain that the blue light of their embedded anti-drowsiness device acts upon the driver's biological clock by inhibiting the secretion of the melatonin hormone, which is responsible for inducing drowsiness. [For an in-depth presentation of this hormone, look up melatonin in Wikipedia.] According to its inventors, tests of the blue-light technique demonstrate that it's more efficient than coffee in the prevention of drowsiness... which is the main cause of mortal accidents on French autoroutes (highways). They add nevertheless that 17 per cent of their subjects were unable to complete the tests because the blue lamp shining in their faces made it totally impossible for them to drive at all.

Everybody agrees nevertheless that it's preferable to sleep well during the week that precedes any night-time driving, and to pull over for a 15-minute nap as soon as the first signs of drowsiness appear. That explanation about the advantages of sleep as a remedy for drowsiness is a bit like saying that there's no better remedy for hunger than food.

The idea of a life-saving blue light in the darkness reminds me of one of the loveliest short videos I've ever seen, created by the US cosmologist and science author Carl Sagan [1934-1996].

Sagan's origins were Russian, and he started his prestigious career as a popularizer of science by coauthoring a book with the Soviet astrophysicist Iosef Shmuelovich Shklovskii [1916-1985], Intelligent Life in the Universe (1966).

This was in fact the first serious English-language book ever published on this exciting theme, and it fascinated me at the time, in the late 1960s. Unfortunately, it's the kind of book that has dated rapidly and considerably, and the writing style and didactic content hardly match up to the brilliance of today's great authors of popular books on physics such as Brian Greene (The Hidden Reality, 2011), David Deutsch (The Beginning of Infinity, 2011) and Lawrence Krauss (A Universe from Nothing, 2012). Often, when I'm reading, I underline fragments that have impressed me greatly. In the book by Shklovskii and Sagan, I notice that I underlined the following words: (on page 248):
For all our feelings of self-importance, we are only a kind of biological rust, clinging to the surface of our small planet, and weighing far less than the invisible air that surrounds us.
I realize that I've always been attracted to sentiments that downplay human vanity. Be that as it may, here's Sagan's video on the pale blue dot in the middle of the sky:

Talking of extraterrestrial creatures, I would imagine that most of my readers have met up with the marvelous short story by the US science-fiction writer Terry Bisson entitled They're made out of meat. You can find it on the web by clicking here. It's so short that I've taken the liberty of including a copy here:

"They're made out of meat."


"Meat. They're made out of meat."


"There's no doubt about it. We picked up several from different parts of the planet, took them aboard our recon vessels, and probed them all the way through. They're completely meat."

"That's impossible. What about the radio signals? The messages to the stars?"

"They use the radio waves to talk, but the signals don't come from them. The signals come from machines."

"So who made the machines? That's who we want to contact."

"They made the machines. That's what I'm trying to tell you. Meat made the machines."

"That's ridiculous. How can meat make a machine? You're asking me to believe in sentient meat."

"I'm not asking you, I'm telling you. These creatures are the only sentient race in that sector and they're made out of meat."

"Maybe they're like the orfolei. You know, a carbon-based intelligence that goes through a meat stage."

"Nope. They're born meat and they die meat. We studied them for several of their life spans, which didn't take long. Do you have any idea what's the life span of meat?"

"Spare me. Okay, maybe they're only part meat. You know, like the weddilei. A meat head with an electron plasma brain inside."

"Nope. We thought of that, since they do have meat heads, like the weddilei. But I told you, we probed them. They're meat all the way through."

"No brain?"

"Oh, there's a brain all right. It's just that the brain is made out of meat! That's what I've been trying to tell you."

"So ... what does the thinking?"

"You're not understanding, are you? You're refusing to deal with what I'm telling you. The brain does the thinking. The meat."

"Thinking meat! You're asking me to believe in thinking meat!"

"Yes, thinking meat! Conscious meat! Loving meat. Dreaming meat. The meat is the whole deal!  Are you beginning to get the picture or do I have to start all over?"

"Omigod. You're serious then. They're made out of meat."

"Thank you. Finally. Yes. They are indeed made out of meat. And they've been trying to get in touch with us for almost a hundred of their years."

"Omigod. So what does this meat have in mind?"

"First it wants to talk to us. Then I imagine it wants to explore the Universe, contact other sentiences, swap ideas and information. The usual."

"We're supposed to talk to meat."

"That's the idea. That's the message they're sending out by radio. 'Hello. Anyone out there. Anybody home.' That sort of thing."

"They actually do talk, then. They use words, ideas, concepts?"

"Oh, yes. Except they do it with meat."

"I thought you just told me they used radio."

"They do, but what do you think is on the radio? Meat sounds. You know how when you slap or flap meat, it makes a noise? They talk by flapping their meat at each other. They can even sing by squirting air through their meat."

"Omigod. Singing meat. This is altogether too much. So what do you advise?"

"Officially or unofficially?"


"Officially, we are required to contact, welcome and log in any and all sentient races or multibeings in this quadrant of the Universe, without prejudice, fear or favor. Unofficially, I advise that we erase the records and forget the whole thing."

"I was hoping you would say that."

"It seems harsh, but there is a limit. Do we really want to make contact with meat?"

"I agree one hundred percent. What's there to say? 'Hello, meat. How's it going?' But will this work? How many planets are we dealing with here?"

"Just one. They can travel to other planets in special meat containers, but they can't live on them. And being meat, they can only travel through C space. Which limits them to the speed of light and makes the possibility of their ever making contact pretty slim. Infinitesimal, in fact."

"So we just pretend there's no one home in the Universe."

"That's it."

"Cruel. But you said it yourself, who wants to meet meat? And the ones who have been aboard our vessels, the ones you probed? You're sure they won't remember?"

"They'll be considered crackpots if they do. We went into their heads and smoothed out their meat so that we're just a dream to them."

"A dream to meat! How strangely appropriate, that we should be meat's dream."

"And we marked the entire sector unoccupied."

"Good. Agreed, officially and unofficially. Case closed. Any others? Anyone interesting on that side of the galaxy?"

"Yes, a rather shy but sweet hydrogen core cluster intelligence in a class nine star in G445 zone. Was in contact two galactic rotations ago, wants to be friendly again."

"They always come around."

"And why not? Imagine how unbearably, how unutterably cold the Universe would be if one were all alone ..."

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