An Interview With Clifford Pickover
If you aren’t familiar with the books and website of Clifford Pickover yet I recommend you drop whatever you’re doing and go check them out for a intelligence boost, as the quick scan of the latest horrifying and stupid news websites I just did while eating my Subway sub hammered the point home yet again that this planet needs more and better ideas now, and the more people stretching their minds the better.
Cliff chatted to us via email about some of the topics in his fascinating tome Sex, Drugs, Einstein and Elves, a veritable smörgåsbord of far-out ideas (I mean, just check out the table of contents …) We talked about creating optimized languages, parallel universes, alien religions, DMT and Carl Jung. What’s not to love ..?
Jason Lubyk: You state in Sex, Drugs, Einstein and Elves that “if certain computer languages are more suited for modularity, size, speed or ease of use, could certain human languages be optimized for human growth potential, creativity, memorability, or for communicating one thoughts and emotions.” Have you ever speculated what forms these languages would take, what would differentiate them from our existing languages?
Clifford Pickover: If language and words do shape our thoughts and tickle our neuronal circuits in interesting ways, I sometimes wonder how a child would develop if reared using an “invented” language that was somehow optimized for mind-expansion, emotion, logic, or some other attribute. Perhaps our current language, which evolved chaotically through the millennia, may not be the most “optimal” language for thinking big thoughts or reasoning beyond the limits of our own intuition.
I am not certain what form these special languages would take. However, such languages would probably be most effective if introduced when a child is young – at a time when language acquisition seems to take place more efficiently and effectively. This is a fascinating area of contemplation, given that debates still take place as to whether the biological contribution to our language abilities includes language-specific capacities, such as a universal grammar, which may constrain us. I also wonder if we would need different languages for the differing purposes of memorabilty, creativity, empathy and so forth. Incidentally, we already know that mathematical “languages” can help us reason more clearly – at least for some kinds of mathematical contemplations — than traditional languages.
Because adults will not be fluent in this new language, they might not be good teachers of the language to children. Perhaps artificial entities will be required for the teaching task.
JL: You talk about future-life progression and the experiences of those who undergo them. Have you ever come across people who have undergone the same experiences with their other selves in parallel universes? Parallel universe therapy or whatever you want to call it? Is this within the realms of the possible?
CP: I remain skeptical about future-life progression until scientists are able to rigorously verify that this approach can be used to recover actual information from the future. You did ask about parallel universes. Some scientists today feel that the interference pattern produced by single photons, as they go through one or another side-by-side slit, is due to the interference with a photon in a parallel universe. I don’t know about “parallel universe therapy,” but isn’t it wild to speculate about what it would be like if there were some kind of subtle interactions between ourselves in this universe and in neighboring ones?
JL: There are many ruminations and investigations into religion in the book, as well as what can be described for better for worse as “aliens.” Do you think aliens have what could be described as religions? Any ideas on what form they would take? Could we be the source of their adoration, in the same way the some cultures think certain animals divine?
CP: If highly intelligent, space-faring creatures exist, they would have tried to make sense out of the senseless and to find meaning and patterns during their evolution over long periods of time. This would have led them to something like religion.
Let’s consider brown dwarf priests and the religions that might evolve on a brown dwarf. As background, stars are not necessary to support life or produce light. For example, light may be emitted by chemical processes on a planet far away from a sun. A more intriguing idea is the possibility of life on brown dwarfs — warm planet-like objects far away from suns and therefore without sunlight.
A brown dwarf is an astronomical object intermediate between a planet and a star. Brown dwarfs have a mass less than eight one-hundredths the sun’s mass, and their surface temperatures are below 2,200 degrees Celsius. Sometimes described as failed stars, brown dwarfs probably form like stars when interstellar clouds contract into smaller, denser clouds. Unlike stars, however, brown dwarfs do not have sufficient mass to generate the internal heat that in stars ignites hydrogen and creates thermonuclear fusion reactions, the source of stellar powerhouses. Though they generate some heat and some light, brown dwarfs also cool rapidly and shrink. Brown dwarfs look like high-mass planets and may be may be distinguishable from planets only in their formation mechanism. A brown dwarf is formed directly from a collapsing gas cloud — a stellar process — rather than from the accretion of dust and gas that gives birth to planets.
How could life evolve and survive on bodies with no sunlight? Earthly life can be quite happy without light, and how the first life forms on Earth may not have needed light at all. However, although there is no “visible” light available to life on brown dwarfs, warm dwarfs glow brightly in the deep infrared, and this might be exploited by organisms, both for vision and photosynthesis — the manufacture of carbohydrates by plants. While photosynthesis as we know it would be impossible without sunlight, a different form of energy capture could take place in the absence of sunlight. Moreover, lightning discharges that may have played a role in chemical evolution on Earth would be present on brown dwarfs to provide an abundant energy source.
The nearest life beyond the solar system may not be on a planet orbiting a star but on one of these lonely bodies not married to any sun. Scattered throughout the universe are probably countless bodies of this sort, possibly with water, and ripe for some form of life. It’s difficult for astronomers on Earth to detect brown dwarfs because they are intrinsically faint objects. However, in 1995, a cool brown dwarf named Glise 229B was discovered by scientists using the 60-inch Palomar telescope specially fitted with a coronagraph, a device usually used to study stars. Tiede 1, a dim object in the Pleiades star cluster, is also generally accepted to be a young brown dwarf. Numerous other possible brown dwarfs have been discovered since then. A dwarf 10 times the size of Jupiter would produce the right amount of heat for liquid water.
What strange biologies and strange religions might develop in the absence of the light in the violet-to-red range on brown dwarfs or other dark worlds? Creatures could “see” using vibration and electrical sensors such as exhibited by the electric eel and mormyrids — elephant fish that have a larger brain per body weight than man. Creatures in the dark might also sense pressure differentials. As an example, consider the fishes that live in caves on Earth. They can orient themselves, like most other fishes, by their lateral line sense, moderated by the organ that runs along their sides and registers the surrounding environment by sensitivity to its differential pressures.
The lateral line organs of fishes function as distance receptors. Bundles of nerves in these grooves register the differential pressures of the surrounding water and thus enable the fish to perceive objects within a certain range. This kind of sensory organ might also serve a creature that lives on land or in the atmosphere by registering differential air pressures. Perhaps these creatures would also evolve some kind of communication by controlling ambient air pressure, for example by shooting puffs of air at different velocities. Sophisticated communication by tactile means is also possible. For example, consider the case of author Helen Keller who learned to interpret human messages normally conveyed through sight, sound, and speech through a system of direct touch. Although, Braille is a typical example of Earthly communication through finger touch, we can easily imagine our letters of the alphabet conveyed through 26 touch points on the body.
Aliens on dark worlds might develop a very keen sense of temperature and use this for both communication and exploring their environment. While humans can sense gross changes in temperature, some animals on Earth posses thermal sensors far finer than ours. For example, the mosquito can register differences of as little as one five-hundredths of a degree centigrade at a distance of 1 centimeter. Some fish such as the sole respond to temperature changes in the water of as little as 0.03 degrees Centigrade. The bedbug can crawl along a wall of a bedroom, sense a tiny area of exposed skin, and jump to it.
Humans sense relative temperatures. We know that one glass of tea is hotter than another. But we can’t tell say precisely how hot it is. Other creatures on Earth sense absolute temperature. For example, some fish can be trained to recognize a particular temperature within 1 degree of accuracy irrespective of whether the fish came out of a previously warmer or colder environment. Some birds have the ability to maintain their nests at a precise temperature and make small alterations to the nest if it becomes a degree too hot or cold.
To better understand possible alien worlds, consider the analogy of a painting. When we see a painting we see many different hues not seen by a color-blind animal. (Incidentally, many mammals are color blind.) In the same way we see reds, greens, blues and all the shades in between, aliens on dark worlds may “see” the world with distinct temperatures. An alien with this ability would perceive and give names to 100, 101 and 102 degrees in the same way we perceive different colors and name them red, purple, and maroon. Their Leonardo da Vinci might hang a plate with different temperature regions conjuring up the same emotions as our Leonardo does with his Mona Lisa. Their traffic lights might be hot, warm, and cold instead of red, yellow, and green. Their sexy magazines might arouse inhabitants with thermal profiles in the same way that a Marilyn Monroe photo in Playboy can excite and titillate. Their holy books may contain thermal profiles of their gods.
What would happen if we could visit aliens on a dark world and shine an ordinary flashlight at them? Perhaps the aliens would fear a bright light, if they could perceive it, making light a symbol of great evil or holiness. If they could not perceive it, might they still wonder about other modes of perception? Do brown-dwarf priests dream of white light in the same way theologians conjure indescribable visions of God? Can creatures dream of things beyond their sensory capacity? Whatever their God is like, it is probably formed in their own image.
JL: You quote Rick Strassman M.D. as stating that “if indeed we made more
DMT in the past, this may have to do with the increase in artificial
light that has come upon us in the past 1000 years or so.” Do you
think this could be a factor why many UFO, paranormal, or just plain
weird experiences happen in the dead of night? Any connection?
CP: Researchers have discovered similarities between alien abductions and sleep paralysis. The majority of the abduction experiences occur at night, and almost 60% of the most intense reports seemed to be sleep related. Of the intense experiences, 25% involved symptoms similar to sleep paralysis. Thus, some scientists suggest that the abduction experience somehow grows from the experience of sleep paralysis.
My colleagues point out that we have always feared the night because our sense of sight is diminished, and real dangers have lurked in the night since the dawn of humans. We don’t want to be eaten. It’s also possible that during the night, when one’s sense of sight is diminished, various false patterns emerge. We are pattern-creating machines, sometimes apt to create patterns when none exist to fill the gaps in our sensorium.
JL: You do mention Jung in passing, but I can’t recall if you have ever discussed his theory of the archetypes. What do you think of the theory? Any advantage from an evolutionary standpoint? Any biological
CP: Let us assume for the moment that some kind of collective unconscious could be present in most people. If this is so, it is also possible that it has had adaptive value for our humans during the course of evolution. Some have speculated that if we subconsciously knew how to relate to other people and social types, this kind of knowledge would help us adapt to the complex cultural milieu, Thus, archetypes and “collective memories” could in principle reduce misunderstandings and fatal aggressive acts due to our shared memory vault – our treasure chest of ideas and emotional responses.