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Intelligent Life in the Universe and Steve Jobs

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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[Every so often Life, Unbounded allows itself a little more speculative leeway, a little bit of armchair musing, this post is very much in that vein, and yes, it was written on a Mac]

Exhibit A

Like many scientists of my generation the first time I experienced Steve Jobs was through the almost magical interaction with a mouse, a crisply black and white screen, and Mathematica.

As a budding astronomer back in the early 1990′s most of my computational needs were taken care of by a hulking great machine called a VAX. Working with this was not unlike working in the cloud with a netbook, except the netbook was a green screen terminal and the cloud was just a couple of doors away, humming in monotone within an air-conditioned room. It performed just fine, and the sensation of logging into this virtual world was mildly thrilling (one could even see who else was online, an excellent way to keep track of friends and to send live messages on the command line. Many a pub outing was arranged by little ASCII notes.) But every so often there was a need to get some extra leverage on a tricky calculation, a bit of algebraic assistance, and that usually meant a trip to the promised land, a session with the Apple Mac running Wolfram’s marvelous Mathematica.

The contrast couldn’t have been greater. Here was a single small machine operating for your sole benefit, its internal disk making satisfying clunking noises as it spun up and down, and that silky massage of mouse, menu, and musical alerts lulling you into a sense of security and comfort. It was like finding an alien artifact that was willing to serve you with its superior technology. Solving integrals was never so satisfying. But time went by and Apple dipped into a dismal cycle of repetition and missed opportunity, and only the diehard scientists kept their Powerbooks clutched to their hearts, occasionally letting the rest of us have a go. Then, in a stroke of genius, Apple (with Steve Jobs again at the helm, drawing on his NeXT computer system as inspiration) made Macs built on the Unix operating system. Suddenly OSX gave scientists their hearts desire – a recognizable command line, the ability to easily compile and run their codes, and still receive the sweet, sweet caress of a user-friendly graphical interface. Put it inside a titanium laptop and who could possibly resist?

It may sound a bit trite, but I don’t think one should underestimate the impact that these pieces of technology have had on basic, raw, scientific progress. The same Mac oil that has lubricated writers and other creators has also lubricated countless scientists – we may like our hardware and software hardcore, but we are so much more productive when we don’t have to think about the little things, from typing up a letter to making a glorious slide show for a presentation. Communication and creativity greatly benefit from the right tools.

All of which leads me on to something else, something very much to do with our efforts to study the universe around us. In astrobiology it’s an issue that comes up again and again because it’s truly the biggest of all. Is there intelligent life elsewhere in the universe? It’s both a good and a bad question – it’s good because, well, because we’d all like to know whether there are other beings, other consciousnesses out ‘there’ that are recognizably like us in any way. It’s also a bad question because the more you pick at it the trickier it gets. What, after all, do we mean by intelligence? While we may have some ways of defining human styles of cognitive behavior (abstraction, modeling, morality) these are far from fully agreed upon and may be very far from being applicable to anything but the limited set of multi-cellular life that currently roams the Earth, in the tiny sliver of time that rests upon the deep multi-billion year history of this world.

The truth is that any meaningful, practical, search for evidence of ‘intelligent’ life is really a search for technology produced by life, whether it’s in use or remains as an artifact. This is the basis of modern SETI; we’re not looking for evidence of altruism among the stars, or for stanzas of poetry written in the cool hydrogen gas of distant nebula (although of course that would be awfully nice). We’re looking for deliberate or inadvertent signs of technology, from structured radio transmissions to high bandwidth optical flashes and perhaps even the tell-tale evidence of industrial pollutants in the atmospheric spectrum of some unfortunate terrestrial-type world. 

This may sound awfully Earth-centric, there are a lot of assumptions about social order and the progress of knowledge and technology in these statements. But there are many ‘rules’ that emerge spontaneously from complex systems, like biological evolution and cooperative behavior. It is not unreasonable to think that the terms of engagement of a species with its surroundings are more to do with the nature of physical laws and mathematics in our universe than the specifics of chemistry and chance here on our world. They might not apply everywhere, but there’s a good chance they apply in more than one place.

It may also be that the deeper truth to what we are looking for is not even a technological civilization, yes that’s the outward signature, but if our world is anything to go by then the root cause may often be the influence of individual units of a species, like Steve Jobs. Someone like him may not be able to operate in a vacuum, they may also not be the most scientifically brilliant (with due respect, I never heard Jobs mention his latest weekend efforts in quantum field theory), but they become a focal point – an aggregator – and an enabler. Some may argue that not all technological societies require these individuals, take the former Soviet Union as an example. But while it didn’t operate according to the ‘laws’ of the free market and opportunity (which doubtless meant that there would never have been an Apple Mac with a ‘Made in the USSR’ stamp) it still – despite the socialist ideals – owed a huge debt to individuals. If you took away the Sakharov’s and the Zel’dovich’s and many others then the net technological and scientific might of a society would be greatly lessened.

Obviously no individual, no matter how brilliant, persuasive, exasperating or tyrannical, operates in a vacuum. But I think there is also pretty good evidence that without these individuals, who for whatever reason (genius, luck, tenacity) serve to explore the outer edges of creativity, a species as a whole is going to be limited. They are, in some senses, the mutations that allow a system to jump across to a new part of the landscape of possibilities, and that may mean that they represent part of a universal pattern for any life in the cosmos – if it’s out there.

Thus, if there comes a day when we find ourselves deciphering a clearly structured radio signal from perhaps one of the Kepler exoplanets or puzzling over the polluted atmosphere of a small terrestrial-type planet a few dozen light years away, we may in fact be witnessing the direct influence of a single individual on those worlds. We may be detecting the existence of a Michael Faraday, a James Clerk Maxwell, a Robert Stephenson, a Marie Curie, a Guglielmo Marconi, or indeed a Steve Jobs.





Caleb A. Scharf About the Author: Caleb Scharf is the director of Columbia University's multidisciplinary Astrobiology Center. He has worked in the fields of observational cosmology, X-ray astronomy, and more recently exoplanetary science. His books include Gravity's Engines (2012) and The Copernicus Complex (2014) (both from Scientific American / Farrar, Straus and Giroux.) Follow on Twitter @caleb_scharf.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. dregstudios 12:13 pm 10/26/2011

    Visionaries like Steve Jobs reveal the true secret to the Universe in that nothing is impossible with time, perseverance, and positive visualization. Such a passion for furthering human communication inspires. His legacy will survive generations with names like Edison, Tesla as the greatest inventors and visionaries of all time. As an artist, I draw from these inspirations and advancements in my work and you may enjoy my recent portrait of Mr. Jobs, now In Memoriam at

    Link to this
  2. 2. Cognosium 7:06 am 10/27/2011

    Certainly, Caleb, the indicators of “intelligent” (I prefer to use the neologism “imaginatory”" life are its technological artifacts.

    However we have to be careful not to too lightly attribute their existence to individuals.

    If we shake off our very natural anthropocentric biases it becomes clear that, except in a very trivial sense there are no inventors, no designers.

    We do, of course have discoverers, those who happen to be the right types, in the right place at the right time who pick the low-hanging fruit.

    But objectively, we have to interpret science and technology as evolving autonomously within the collective imagination of our species. A stochastic process given directionality by the dynamically changing prevailing conditions.

    If you happen to find this notion hard to swallow, as most, at present, do, let me turn the last part of your comment around:

    Do you honestly believe that without Faraday we would have no electric motors or transformers”, no mathematical understanding of the electromagnetic field without Maxwell, no steam engines without Stephenson, without Marie Curie we would know nothing of radium, we would have no radio without Marconi?

    Or that without Steve Jobs we would not have computers with GUIs and pointing devices and other gross features not too far removed fro the Apple Mac?

    The broad evolutionary model which accommodates such considerations is very informally presented in “The Goldilocks Effect: What Has Serendipity Ever Done For Us?” (free download in e-book formats from my “Unusual Perspectives” website)

    Link to this

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