Friday, December 11, 2009

What NOT to buy at Staples

Staples is my favorite office supply store. They have everything, at good prices. However, there are some desk essentials you should not buy there: paper clips and staples. Why? Because they slap their brand label on everything.

Every time I am low on refill staples, I check the shelf under the printer, and what do I see? Sure enough, there is a large box labeled “Staples.” So I figure, no problem, I am well supplied. But actually, it is paper clips, and I am out of staples.

Once in a while I remember this little conundrum and so I explicitly put “staples” on my shopping list. However, once at the store, I inevitably buy paper clips, because they are easier to find and they say “Staples” on the box.

I am chronically “long” on paper clips because I am always buying them when I am out of staples. Also, when I run low on paper clips at my desk, I look on the shelf, and see only boxes labeled “staples.” So naturally, next time I am out, I buy paper clips.

So forget Staples for your paper clips, too. If you need paper clips, call me, I have plenty.

Finally, I should just mention these related perplexities: 1. Why do you always run out of staples right when you need one? The stapler goes empty at the exact moment when you are squeezing finality to that critical report. Click! Out of staples. That is infuriating. The stapler never goes empty in the middle of the night when no one would be bothered. No. Only when it matters most.

And 2: Where do paper clips go? Why do we have to buy them at all? I always save and re-use them, unless they are badly distorted. Most people do the same. So why is there inevitably a net shortage of paper clips? Is there some undocumented law of paper clip entropy?

Sunday, November 01, 2009

New Look at Dream Interpretation

I had a waking up dream that involved an assemblage of musical notations: black quarter notes, in three dimensions. They were intertwined as the twigs in a bird’s nest to make structures such as a straight-backed wooden chair.

I realized I had seen these things before including the chair-like structure. It had been the previous night during a falling asleep dream, while listening to quiet jazz on the radio. I did not hear music, but in the dream I examined the note structures as if they were perfectly reasonable objects that one might study scientifically.

This sequence of two dreams reveals some interesting points about the nature of dreams and their interpretation:

1. Usually when you recall a dream, the things you dreamed about are bizarre, and you realize your thought processes were bizarre because you accepted the bizarre goings-on of the dream as a real reality.

In a lucid dream (in which you are aware that you are dreaming), you might think, “How odd, horses normally cannot fly,” but you accept that this dream horse can. So your consciousness, though more lucid, is still delusional.

If you recalled a dream that was completely reasonable, you would not call it a dream, you would call it a thought. You would just be remembering a thought that you had.

2. Dreams cannot be turned on and off like imagination. Once you are “awake” in reality mode, that is the grounding for other variations in mental state. But if you return to dreaming, you must give up your wakeful reality testing. You can’t voluntarily suspend all reality-testing and remain awake. Dreams and wakefulness are thus as incompatible as oil and water.

3. Dreams are identified in retrospect, from the point of view of awake consciousness, and from which all conversation and communication flow. In a dream, the dream is the reality. There is no other point of view from which to critique that reality.

I am not worried that I might actually be a butterfly dreaming I am a person because wakeful consciousness is known to itself. Dream consciousness is not. (In lucid dreaming, only the lucid consciousness is known to itself.)

Within a dream, there is no question about the reality status of the experience, because literally that question does not come up. Reality testing is only a question that can be raised from the point of view of lucid consciousness. So if you dream you are a butterfly, you are a butterfly within the context of that dream, because there is no other context from which to question that reality. Only later, when awake and lucid, can you say, “Man, that was crazy!”

I had a dream of a straight-backed chair made out of giant, three-dimensional quarter notes. Within the dream, that was real, by definition. But in what way was it real?

4. What if dream images corresponded to activation of certain brain structures? A quarter note has a shape not entirely dissimilar from that of a neuron. A networked cluster of quarter notes would not be too different from a cluster of neurons. If the dream images were in some way shadows of actual brain structures, that could be one sense in which the dream structures were real.

But what kind of a “shadow” of the brain could the dream structures be? There is no known or even imagined causal linkage between brain physiology and mentality. We know there is a correlation, but we have no idea what kind of relationship it is. From the Penfield and Roberts (1959) studies we learned that electrical stimulation of the cerebral cortex in a live, conscious human was followed by spontaneous reports of episodic memories of extraordinary vividness, but we cannot explain that association.

There is no way, according to the laws of physics, for a change in a brain neuron to cause a mental experience. If that were to happen, it would violate the law of conservation of energy because memory is non-physical. Memory cannot be measured in space and time. It has no no width, no mass, no volume; it conducts no electricity and absorbs no light. Memory does not meet criteria for physicality.

To insist that memory is actually a physical circuit in the brain, is to say that electrical stimulation of one part of the brain causes neurological activity in another part of the brain. We would then have no use for the term “memory” since it would not refer to anything. So if we are going to use the term “memory”, it refers to the nonphysical mental phenomenon. How a brain circuit is related to a memory, exactly, is an unsolved mystery.

5. What are we aware of when we have a toothache? We experience a mental state we have learned to call “pain.” I hypothesize that the mental state is correlated to activation of a network of brain cells that include some neurons in the somatosensory cortex, which is what enables us to locate the pain in the mouth and not the toes, for example. If true, we can say that the mental experience of toothache is a “reading” of a certain brain state, in the same way that the mental experience of having a full bladder is a “reading” of a different neurological condition of the body.

In a similar way then, the dream of the quarter-note chair was a mental reading of a certain brain condition, albeit not one that is readily interpreted as some condition of the body.

Under this interpretation, one can speculate that the quarter note chair might have been a mental conceptualization of activity in the right temporal cortex, which is active when we hear music. Since I was listening to music before the first dream, that is a plausible assumption. The dream could have been my mental “reading” of residual brain activity.

6. In a typical dream, in which horses fly and rivers flow with melted cheese, it is difficult to speculate how the mental images might be readings of brain activity. However, if one wakes up from a dream with a full bladder, it is often the case that the dream images involved water, swimming, and the like, so there is a plausible relationship between the dream image and the “reading” of the bodily state.

Physicians and brain physiologists should have dream images that are more easily associated with bodily conditions than would be true for other people, because they have more detailed, ready-made social-linguistic conceptualizations of those bodily conditions to draw upon.

7. It also follows from this line of thinking that Freud’s method of dream interpretation by free-association has nothing to do with the meaning of dreams. Of course it is possible to free-associate to the ideas and images in a dream report, just as it is possible to free-associate to something that happened yesterday. The dream report is just a kind of short story, no different in principle from one plucked from a published anthology.

Free-associating to its elements may be a fruitful way to start a conversation about previously unconceptualized feelings and ideas, but it is no way an “interpretation” of that dream. The correct interpretation of any dream is that it is a mental conceptualization of brain events occurring during Phase I REM sleep.

8. In the future there will be a downloadable iPod application that will allow real-time fMRI monitoring of brain activity so you can see what your brain is doing while you type, eat, walk, fantasize, and listen to music.

Over time people will learn to conceptualize and control the brain’s activity as well as athletes do their muscular activity today. Most dreams then would cease to be bizarre and would be more like descriptions because the correlation between brain activity and socio-linguistic conceptualization would be stronger.

People will inevitably communicate by reference to commonly identified brain images, the way we now maintain the social fabric by reference to commonly understood activities, as in, “How ‘bout them Yankees?”

In the future people will refer to numbered and idealized fMRI sequences correlated to common experience. They will talk about a fMRI 42a followed by a 197-3 then ask, “What do you think of that?”

Too bad I’ll miss it.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Crazy-ass Bombers

In September, a 24-year old Afghan immigrant, was arrested for planning to blow up a New York Building. A week before, a 29-year old fry cook who likes to be called Talib Islam, was charged with attempting to blow up a federal courthouse in Springfield, Illinois. A day later, a 19 year old Jordanian national was arrested for attempting to detonate a car bomb in Dallas. According to the Heritage Foundation, 23 known terrorist plots have been foiled in the last eight years (

What is up with these people? I’m wondering if my wife is right, a tax on all males between 15 and 50 would finance most law enforcement and national security. Assuming these nutcases are not actually psychotic, what motivates them (other than 72 heavenly raisins)? The Islamists are attacking the infidel, they believe, a righteous battle in the name of God. But why do they believe that, and what do they hope to accomplish?

The proximal issue is education. The terrorists uniformly are not well educated, by Western standards. They know only the Koran. They know nothing of secular history, science, philosophy, or the principles of critical thinking. I’m sure that is a point of pride for most of them, but an extremely narrow world view does not leave much room for getting along with other people.

Presumably, Islamists get along fine with their own people, and that’s all that matters to them. They want the esteem of their imagined peers, not of the infidel. If they broadened their sense of community beyond the cult, they would quickly realize that they would take a serious hit on the esteem front from pluralism. So there is a built-in defense against consideration for outsiders.

“Islam” means peace, submission, obedience. Submission to what or whom? Not modern law, not community standards, not philosophical principles. It means only submission to God as defined in the Koran and often interpreted by extremist nuts. But in the beginning the term referred to the principle of submitting your personal ego to the good of the tribe. That was a huge innovation in early Arab tribalism. If each individual was utterly subservient to the tribe, you had a fighting machine with replaceable parts as good as any modern army. The “sword of Islam” would have been demonstrably superior in warfare.

Why would an individual want to submit his individual will, either to the will of the tribe or later, to the will of Allah? What’s to gain from loss of self? Immortality. Or, at least the fantasy illusion of immortality. If you are not an individual, you cannot die, because the tribe lives on. We know that for a fact because as members of the tribe we see individuals die all the time, but the tribe continues. So if you abrogate individual intentionality and responsibility to the will of the tribe, you too will continue indefinitely. The core motivation for adherence to Islam is fear of death.

Many Islamists deny that and boast of their love of death. However, that is a reaction formation, a defense against death anxiety. What they long for is immortality, not personal annihilation. That’s why suicide car bombers have their hands taped to the wheel, and why they are only ready to serve after intensive indoctrination. If Islamists really loved death so much, suicide would suffice. For example, public self-immolation can make a powerful political or religious statement, and still accomplish death, if that were the goal. Instead the goal of killing a flock of infidels reveals a more pedestrian motivation to achieve the esteem of peers (“martyrdom”) through distinction in tribal warfare.

All the religions have fairy stories to alleviate death anxiety. That is the main service provided by religion. In Christianity, good works (or arbitrary grace) will get you to heaven, where you will sit at the right hand of God forever, which is presumably a good thing. That promise is supposed to reduce your death anxiety. Coming out of a tradition of tribal warfare, Islam emphasized instead that the key to immortality is to support your tribe in fighting other tribes, or at least, for moderates, to abjure completely the ways and ideas of tribal outsiders. The Islamic promise of immortality is no less fantastic than those of other religions.

Dealing with death anxiety is not easy for anyone. The idea that you will cease to exist while everything goes on without you, is almost unthinkable. We deeply need an alternate story, and religion supplies it. But religions come in all flavors, and unfortunately for us, Islam is one whose solution to the problem was interpreted as xenophobic warfare. The only thing that is ever going to change that is a modified system of Islamic education.

Sunday, September 06, 2009

My Bedroom Fan

I spend a lot of time contemplating the fan that spins over my bed. This is a picture of it. That’s approximately how it looks to me most of the time. But that’s not how it really is. In reality the fan is a hub and spoke system with five blades. But when the blades are spinning, they cannot be discriminated and the fan looks more like a solid wheel.

Why is that? Why can I not see the fan as it really is? Why do I see a false image, of a wheel that is not actually there? Am I hallucinating? No matter how carefully I stare, I cannot see actual fan blades. What am I seeing, if not reality? This should shake my confidence in the veracity of vision. Except for tricks and special situations, we generally believe that “seeing is believing.” In other words, what we see is what is there.

But this is a clear case of seeing what is not there, and not seeing what is there. And it is not a trick or special situation. Apparently, the mechanics of my eye cannot resolve the details of the blades as they spin. In order to fixate an image of something on the retina, the image must be still, for a moment at least, about a fifth of a second. That’s the only way we can see something.

What about things that are moving? We can see those under normal circumstances because the eyes take successive “snapshots” of the scene and integrate them over time to communicate movement to the brain, much as the rapid succession of snapshots in a film appears to us as a moving picture (another delusional visual experience). We do not actually see motion. We infer motion.

But in the case of my fan, the movement of the blades is faster than the snapshot rate of my eyes, so I cannot get a fixed image of the blades. The eyes are always moving, jerking around in a process called the visual nystagmus. They vibrate at least 20 times a second, sometimes faster, fixating here, there, everywhere, taking snapshots. It seems like the visual world is stable and that we just look at it and see it as it is, but that is not true. The eyes get at least 20 snapshots per second, no one of them taking in the whole scene. Each snapshot is with the eyes focused on a restricted detail of the scene. Then you synthesize the overall scene in your brain, based on the snapshots. The nice stable scene you think you see is a total fiction. You never saw it. You only saw dozens and dozens of tiny snapshots.

So I thought I would try to beat the visual system and my bedroom fan. I moved my eyes in a fast counter-clockwise motion around the hub, to see if I could make my eyes catch up with the fan blades. And it worked! Every few seconds, I would get a brief image of the individual blades of the fan. That’s because the muscles and nerves for voluntary eye movements are different from the ones used in the visual nystagmus. By adding the two eye movements together, I gave the nystagmus a chance to make a fixation on the blades.

It seemed to work randomly. Whenever there was an eye fixation that happened to hit a blade and not the space between blades, I would see an individual fan blade. Why this did not occur more often, I am not sure. Perhaps I also needed to catch a moment when the blurred motion signals to my brain were calm enough to let an individually fixated image through. Or perhaps my voluntary, circular eye movements were not really very circular, but most often erratic. It is impossible for me to know that.

Anyway, the demonstration proved visually that the blurred circular image I normally see is a complete illusion, not the reality of what is there. The fact that I could force the visual system to apprehend the true reality of the individual blades confirmed the presence of the illusion. So it makes me wonder, what else am I seeing that is illusory? How can I trust that what I see is really there if I know for a fact that sometimes I am seeing it wrong?

Descartes asked this same question in 1640 and came up with this answer: God is good, and God would not deceive you (most of the time). Therefore, you can be reasonably confident that what you see is what is there. Well, that answer doesn’t work for me. In the first place, it is not entirely clear that God is good. Biblical and contemporary evidence would speak to the contrary.

Secondly, my experience with my bedroom fan proved that Descartes’ answer is wrong in this case. What I see most of the time is clearly illusion. Should I assume that God deceived me because God is a malicious trickster?

And finally, Descartes had no evidence to support his claim. It is merely what he believed, because he had been told as much by the Church. I can’t assume his answer is correct if he just made it up or parroted what he had been told. It seems just as likely that the correct answer is that you cannot and should not believe that what you see is what is there. What’s wrong with that answer?

Sunday, August 09, 2009

Turing Test Redux

A recent article in The Economist (“Diagnosing Comas: Unlucky for Some” July 25th, 2009) pointed out that distinguishing between different types of comas is difficult even for specially trained physicians. If someone is in a “persistent vegetative state” they show no signs of consciousness at all. It may be merciful, and legal, to cut off their food and water and let them go.

Other coma patients are in what’s called a “minimally conscious state,” meaning they can sometimes communicate by blinking or moving their eyes in response to questions. That communicative consciousness may be intermittent, displayed only for a few minutes in a month, but it is enough to make a large moral and compassionate difference between the two coma states.

A recent study in Britain found that 40% of patients diagnosed as being vegetative were actually not. Careful and detailed screening tests for communication can show up the difference, but most doctors do not use these tests, preferring to rely on “clinical experience.” This replicates a similar finding from a decade ago.

Unsettling as the finding is, one interesting aspect is the use of what amounts to a Turing Test as the definition of consciousness. In 1950, computer scientist Alan Turing proposed a way to tell if a person (or a computer, for that matter) is conscious. In the now-famous “Turing Test,” you have a conversation with a robot, and a person, both hidden from you by a curtain. If you cannot tell which is which, the robot passes the test and you must, to avoid inconsistency, admit that it is conscious. So the ultimate criterion of consciousness is meaningful communication.

Unknowingly, the researchers whose work was reported in The Economist article were using a variant of the Turing Test to determine if a coma patient is conscious or not. If the patient can communicate, they are conscious. If not, they are “vegetative.”

Is that a criterion we are comfortable with? Are we quite sure that vegetables have no consciousness? Are we perfectly clear on what constitutes “communication?” If I ask a tree how it is feeling and it suddenly bends way over in the wind, has it answered me? Who is to say?

The Turing test has been hotly debated among cognitive psychologists and A.I. researchers for half a century and is by no means universally accepted. It seems odd that the pinnacle of neurophysiological practice would now strive to depend on it.

Friday, April 24, 2009

Dogs Don't Know What Dreams Are

What do dogs dream about? Chasing rabbits, or something similar, we assume. Dog brainwaves during sleep show rhythms similar to ours, including REM periods during which dreams occur. So it is a reasonable guess that dogs have dreams.

I saw a video clip of a dog having a dream. It is embedded in this inane “news” report (as of 4/21/09):

The dog is asleep, lying on its side, when its feet start twitching. The feet and legs move faster, and become increasingly energetic until the dog looks like it is running full stride about as fast as it can. The forepaws reach out and the back legs push off powerfully. This is a dog in full pursuit!

Then the dog gets up on all fours, and still asleep, or mostly asleep, barks, and bounds headlong into a wall. The dog falls down, gets up again and looks around dazed and confused. It’s a humorous video.

But the interesting part is that dogs don’t know what dreams are. They have limited conceptual capacity, certainly nothing that would enable them to understand the difference between dreaming and wakefulness. Children may have the same problem until caregivers instruct them on the difference. “Don’t be afraid, it was only a dream; It wasn’t real.” Nobody tells the dog that.

From the dog’s point of view it was, for all psychological purposes, actually in pursuit of some prey when suddenly a solid wall intervened. What kind of world is that to live in? That’s a world that makes no sense. Yet what can the dog do but accept it? That is just the reality of the dog’s experience.

Normally, during REM sleep (dream sleep), the musculature of the body is paralyzed (REM atonia). Signals from the somatosensory cortex are damped so we do not act out our dreams. In abnormal cases, a person might partially act out a dream, such as by sleepwalking or sleep talking. But normally, the brain inhibits the action signals so that doesn’t happen.

This video showed what looked like an older dog, and it is likely that his brain was not functioning properly, not inhibiting his bodily action during REM sleep. A few twitches might be normal, but such vigorous acting out of a dream is an abnormal occurrence.

Even for us, from inside the dream, the activity of the somatosensory cortex is the same as it would be in waking experience, so the dream seems “real.” It IS real, as far as it goes, because the same brain circuits are being used as would be used in waking life. But without feedback from the body, those action signals don’t have normal consequences, so you might find yourself flying through the air or walking through walls. As far as the brain is concerned, it is just another experience.

Why dream? There are theories that say the dreamer needs to work through psychic conflicts, express subliminal id impulses, and so on. The dream therefore serves a psychic need. But it seems implausible that a dog has repressed sexual urges or familial tensions. It is more likely that the dog’s dreams (and our own) are simply attempts to interpret the brain’s REM-phase activity as waking experience.

The dog does not think, “Aha! Rabbit! Must catch!” The meaning is automatic. Dogs chase rabbits; that's it.

For the dog, there is no difference between chasing a dream rabbit and chasing a real rabbit. In the dream, joyfully chasing the rabbit over hills and vales, that is just as valid and real as any other experience in the dog’s life.

After waking, the dog does not think, “I wonder why I feel tired and sore, when just a few minutes ago I was chasing that rabbit all over creation.” The dog cannot think like that and is oblivious to the question. The dog does not think, “Hey, what happened to that beautiful field I was just in? How did I get into this dingy, stuffy room?” Again, ignorance is bliss . Dream and reality are not even alternate kinds of experience for the dog. They are just two experiences that happened. Nothing is reasonable or unreasonable for a dog.

Why isn’t it that way for us? We are extremely keen on making a distinction between what is real and what is only a dream. It doesn’t matter to the dog. Why does it matter for us?

Monday, March 23, 2009

Real Memory?

Scientists at Tel Aviv University claim to have created neuronal memories on a silicon chip. Live neurons were put on a silicon chip that had electrodes for reading electrical activity. Every time scientists put a nerve-stimulating chemical at the same spot, they saw the same pattern of electrical activity come out of the electrodes, then die down. After several repetitions, the pattern continued without further chemical stimulus. The researchers believed the neurons learned to anticipate the chemical and claimed that the neuron group had formed a memory.

But there are two things wrong with the analogy and the conclusion. First, there was no conditioned stimulus, the equivalent of Pavlov’s bell (he actually used a buzzer, but the idea of a bell has become fixed in folklore). Pavlov paired the bell and the food many times, then found that the dog would salivate to the bell alone. (Pavolv's Nobel Prize acceptance speech about this topic was scorned as "too mental," not scientific).

In the neural cell assembly scenario, the neurons had nothing to anticipate. There was no bell (and neurons can't hear anyway). They merely perseverated their previous activity. A plucked guitar string will continue to sound a tone for a while, but that does not demonstrate learning or memory, at least not in the cognitive sense of memory.

The second problem is with this study's conclusion. The authors assume that memory is a certain pattern of neural activity. But that definition plays on a semantic ambiguity. An alarm clock has memory, but that is a functional use of the term. If we mean cognitive memory, as humans have, then the alarm clock doesn't have it, and neither do the cells on a chip. A cognitive memory is a re-experience.

My memory of last night’s dinner includes lemon, risotto, and Syrah. It does not have any quality of a cell assembly,which is not an explanation adequate to the phenomenon. Pointing out a neural correlate to memory is helpful, but naming cell activity, literally, “a memory,” is thoughtless or malicious misdirection.

Overall then, the interpretation of this study is utterly confused. It has nothing to do with memory. Don't believe everything you read!

D.C. (2007). This is your brain on a chip. Science News, 171, (April 21), 253.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Why Accept Your Name?

Why do we accept the name assigned to us before we were born?

At maturity we should choose another. People try to adjust their given name: Margaret becomes Maggie, Marge Madge. Elizabeth morphs to Beth, Betty, Lissa, Liza, Elisa, Elspeth.
(Dan Pirarro

But these are minor variations on the inherited moniker. Why not choose Pixie or Pyrgopolynices? Few people do. I always thought Boutros-Boutros was a nice first name.

Some cultures assign you a new name at maturity, such as Dances With Wolves. But that’s still not your own choice.

We name our pets Jingles, Boots, Spot, and the like. The pets don’t mind. Most will respond to their given name. We have the right of naming because we own the pet.

Do your parents own you? Are you the equivalent of a pet? If you are your own person, why not choose your own name?

Thursday, February 05, 2009

Time Travel in a Box

Here is the plan for a simple time machine. Consider the drawing at left.

A projector, at the lower left corner of the box, shines a light up to a mirror, on path “a” where it is reflected down to the detector at the lower right along path “b”. The total distance the beam of light travels is thus a+b.

Now suppose the box moves so fast that it is able to complete a journey during the time that the beam of light is traveling from the projector to the detector. In the drawing below, the middle position shows the box at a time exactly in the middle of its journey, just as the beam of light strikes the mirror. On the right we see the box at t3, the end of its journey. Now we ask, how far did the beam of light travel? Was it not the distance e+f?

It must be, because when the journey started at t1, the projector was in the leftmost position, and in order for the beam of light to be detected at all, it had to arrive at the far right position at time t3, where the detector ended up.

How could the beam of light travel the whole distance e+f in the same time it took to travel the shorter distance a+b when the box was stationary? This should not be possible because the speed of light never changes. In the laws of physics, it is a constant, known as c.

To travel a longer distance in the same amount of time, the only possibility is that time slowed down while the box was moving, giving the light more time to make the longer journey at a constant speed. Thus the box is now displaced in time with respect to the rest of the world, literally “living in the past.”

Perform that same sequence again, and the box falls even farther back in time. Cycle the experiment rapidly, and the box steadily recedes farther and farther back in time.

Put an easy chair in the box between the projector and the detector, settle into it, and you could take a ride into the past, as far back as you wanted to go. Unfortunately, you could never return to the present, so take a sandwich and a beer.

With suitable controls, you could stop the machine and get out of the box anytime you liked. After exploring that period of history, you could get back in and go even farther back into the past.

It’s so simple, you could build it in your garage!

Wednesday, January 07, 2009

Thinking is the Best Way to Travel

A recent science article reported that the first earthlike extrasolar planet has been found. An exoplanet is one that orbits a star other than our sun. All exoplanets found up to now have been giant gas balls like Jupiter. This new one, Gliese 436b, is rocky, like earth, and could possibly have water, like earth. Those two criteria make it “earthlike” under an extremely generous interpretation.

We need to identify earthlike planets rather soon, since it will become necessary for us to find a new planet if the species is to survive. Current plans call for us to colonize the moon, then Mars. But those are extremely harsh environments, not likely to be long-term bolt-holes for our species. Wouldn’t it be nice to find another planet, rather like Earth, where you did not have to wear a pressurized radiation suit and could play baseball outdoors? Gliese could be the “New Earth.”

The trouble is, Gliese is 20 light years away. If we could travel at the speed of light, some 386,000 miles each second, it would take 20 years to get there. Unfortunately we can travel only about 5 miles a second in spacecraft like the Shuttle (18,000 mph). So it would take us over 200,000 years at top speed to reach Gliese.

Even allowing for improvements in transportation technology, it seems doubtful that humans will ever travel at a speed sufficient to reach the extrasolar stars. It would be great if someone could just command, “Warp factor five, Mr. Sulu,” but there is no warp factor.

How frustrating it is, to be facing our demise on this planet, to discover an Earth-like planet where we could be comfortable, and yet have no way to cross the great ocean of space!

I thought of four ways to attempt the journey.

1. The Colony
One way would be to go in a flying colony like the space station, only much larger. During the voyage, everyone who left earth would die, but their children would continue the voyage, and after many thousands of generations, the distant descendants of the original crew would land on Gliese.

The constancy of the spacecraft would prevent natural selection from morphing the travelers into some other kind of animal. Inbreeding would become severe however, so there would have to be enough genetic technology on board to maintain the genetic mix and to tamp down harmful mutations.

But psychology is a bigger problem. In order for each generation of voyagers to grow up with a normal human mind, they would need the social infrastructure necessary for socialization, from teachers to police, from doctors and farmers to entertainers and politicians. It would never work. It’s just barely working now, on our spaceship planet of 6 billion people. It is unimaginable that a band of twenty, or even a few hundred space travelers could survive in a metal can for a hundred thousand generations.

A possible fix for the psychology problem would be to plug everyone into virtual reality environments for all that time. We do not know exactly what would be needed for the virtual reality, but maybe someday we will. However, body functions would still have to be bodily, not virtual, especially reproduction, birth and death. It would be complicated.

2. Cryogenics
The second idea is cryogenics. Could the travelers simply be put into suspended animation for the duration of the trip? That is not possible today, but it is a conceivable technology. However, from what we know of modern technology, the probability that an autonomous life support system would function properly for a continuous quarter of a billion years is essentially nil. So forget that idea.

3. Robots
What about robots? If we could make robots that could survive a journey of 200,000 years, that would be quite an achievement, but what would be the reward for us? We’d all be dead long before any robot got even a fraction of the way to Gliese. If global warming or nuclear war didn’t get us, then reversal of the magnetosphere surely would. Surviving cockroaches, if they eventually evolved the intelligence to think of it, would not even know we had ever sent robots. There would be no mental connection between the robotic voyagers and any humans. The robots might survive, but who would care? Not the robots.

4. Return-Only Travel
The limiting factor in space travel is the human body; its mortality and its frailty. There is no way to overcome those limitations for the very great times and distances required, so don’t even try. The only way to travel those vast distances is without any sort of body, robotic or biologic. We have to broaden what it means “to travel.” It must involve something other than moving meat through space.

We could think our way to Gliese. We would need a new mode of cognition for that, one in which we recede from the intellect and the imagination to a primordial consciousness prior to individual personality, call it Groupcon-1

Our bodies make us individuals because no two physical things can be in the same place at the same time. That guarantees psychological individuality. But Groupcon-1 is not an individual consciousness, so it requires no body. Death becomes irrelevant, as does life, because those are biological concepts. In Groupcon-1 you exist in a state prior to biology. You are immortal, but you don’t know that, since you have no individual consciousness.

Is there actually such a mental state as Groupcon-1? There might be. In normal consciousness we are aware of phenomena like deep empathy, in which we temporarily lose our individual consciousness while we inhabit another’s. Something similar happens while watching a movie or reading a good novel. You temporarily forget yourself, lose yourself and your body, inhabit some fictional world and fictional characters created by the author. During those moments, the reality of your physical body and the physical world around you are temporarily nonexistent, from your own point of view.

So the trick is to understand the state of Groupcon-1 until it can be sustained for long periods of time. There are mental techniques for doing that now but they work only for a few hours. Still, it is not inconceivable that Groupcon-1 could become one’s main state of consciousness rather than just a mental curiosity. Anyone who could do it would be free of the body and physical distances.

But how would Groupcon-1 get us to Gliese? It wouldn’t, because when you are in Groupcon-1, you are located exactly nowhere because you have no body and no individual mind. It would be necessary to become skilled at moving between Groupcon-1 and individual, embodied consciousness in order to enjoy the benefits of being located in space and time with an individual consciousness. Since we are coming from nothing and nowhere, into somewhere, we would be free, in principle, to specify the somewhere into which we arrive.

So let the specification of the new somewhere be Gliese 436b, modified as necessary to be compatible with our individual bodies and lifestyles. In essence then, one never travels to Gliese, but rather, one only returns to Gliese as if one had been away. We return to Gliese from Groupcon-1.

So that is how we will get to Gliese, not in a spaceship, not through a wormhole, not with a warp drive engine, but by return-only travel.