Monday, July 3, 2017


Thargleb looked out from his perch at the radiation of the universe surrounding him. He was the last of his kind and he could look back over a long, proud history of prosperous civilization. Not that he could remember it all himself, of course. His personal life had lasted only few hundred Oscillations, a minuscule fragment of the total stretch of time that his culture had lasted, from its original rise from the chaos of unconsciousness over two trillion Oscillations ago.

It had taken 1.2 trillion Oscillations of the Element for lifeforms of his type to auto-organize out of the chaos of radiation around the tiny rock on which they lived and become self-aware. Of course, then their technology took off and very quickly they had learned to control and manipulate radiation generated by exciting atoms of the simplest element, which they also named the commonest element. They had generated such organized radiation for almost the last trillion Oscillations. He had access to the stories and songs, speculations and science of his people in the memory device he kept always with him.

They had wondered, and some had worried, whether the radiation they produced and released would ever be perceived by other consciousnesses on some other world. Would such others be friendly or hostile? On the one digit, since the universe seemed such a forbidding place, dangerous and unforgiving, there seemed little reason to assume that such strangers would be friendly. On the other digit, other consciousnesses confronting the same danger and indifference would surely have similar thoughts and realize that wherever and however it arose, all consciousnesses had to share a kinship and bear each other at least a measure of sympathy.

They had listened carefully through the long Oscillations but no response had ever been detected, or if it was detected, understood. There didn't seem to be any consciousness or culture anywhere else, and soon even this one would be over, ending with Thargleb's life since he was the last. He calmed his mind with reflections on the 55 protons of the Life Element and how they held existence together. Other elements did exist, to be sure, but none were crucial to life and awareness as the Life Element was. He waited for the end, his awareness full of a bittersweet blend of gratitude at the beauty, curiosity, and excitement of living awareness and sorrow at its impending extinction.


Jerry opened the packet containing the latest output from the SETI project at the Big Ear radio observatory and sat down to study it. The signal jumped out at him almost immediately. It was a strong signal in a narrow band near the frequency of hydrogen's characteristic absorption lines in the electromagnetic spectrum. Looking at the intensity characters carefully, he could see how it rose from near zero to a strong signal, then fell off to near zero again. 

It had the hallmarks predicted by Cocconi and Morrison for a signal produced by an extraterrestrial intelligence: a narrowband signal close to the frequency of hydrogen much stronger than the background radiation it had to compete with.

He circled the signal and wrote "Wow!" in the margin.

Over the years, the "Wow!" signal became famous and many scientists and observatories hunted for a repetition, not realizing that that one 72 second burst of energy represented the complete electronic output of an entire civilization that had lasted about a trillion oscillations of a cesium atom -- a period of time a human would count as about 100 seconds.

By the time the humans responded, Thargleb and his people had not existed for several times longer than the period of their flourishing.


Morglat took the new data and began examining it. It was from the HADA, the Hunt After Distant Awareness. 

Morglat's kind had only recently evolved as interactions among the material bodies near the center of their galaxy. They had begun to understand some of the sorts of radiation through which they floated. They were looking for other awarenesses. The theory was that if there were other awarenesses somewhere, they would produce radiation near the frequency of the most common element and that such structured radiation could be detected.

Morglat and his sibs hoped that such distant awareness would be friendly, naive, and tasty. They were hungry. So they waited and watched. 

Each entity survived for several galactic years. Morglat himself had endured for five galactic years now and he was considered an old man. He could still find a pattern, though, and the strong signal reflected in the data made him howl with joy.

Of course, the others wanted to know what he had found. He told them, but when they looked there was nothing there. The human race had produced a few thousand years worth of electronic radiation over the course of their civilization before they had ruined their world and driven themselves into extinction. To Morglat and his ilk, one thousand terrestrial years represented a subjective time period that a human would have called a minute. The humanity signal was over before Morglat could start thinking about what it meant and of course it was never repeated.

Monday, October 7, 2013

Secret Project 0

Date: May 17, 2098
To: Commanding Officer, DARPA R&D
Re: Project Proposal - Autonomous Cooperating Nannite Weapon System

The proposed system will consist of approximately one trillion (10^12) potentially self-replicating microscopic robotic devices with communication and cooperative capabilities.

It is theorized that a critical mass of about 300 billion (3 x 10^11) communicating nodes will produce a high level consciousness that can provide system level command and control for the overall system. Experimental data thus far shows that around 50 billion (5 x 10^10) simple nodes cause the spontaneous emergence of a simple animal awareness that 1) seeks self-preservation, and 2) learns from and responds to its environment.

A basic nanotech computer/robot with communication capability has been developed which can replicate itself from the environment. Replication requires between five minutes and an hour, depending on the richness of resources in the local environment. By creating a single such nannite and allowing it to reproduce itself, a 50 billion count network of nannites is generated in between three hours and three days. Up to now, the nannites have been initialized with a maximum count of 5 x 10^10 so when that limit is reached, they stop reproducing.

A simple enhancement of the current system is to raise the limit on the number of nodes in the system. Current scientific understanding indicates that the average human brain contains about 8.5 x 10^10 neurons. Currently available nannites are not as sophisticated as a human neuron, but it is believed that a larger number of nodes can yield a similar level of consciousness and intelligence.

Authorization is requested to increase the current limit in steps from 50 billion to 200 billion as a test. This should allow assessment of the rate at which consciousness increases relative to the increment in the number of nodes in the network.

Friday, September 20, 2013


He glanced down. Bad idea. Five hundred feet of empty space yawned beneath his bootheels. Dizzy, he quickly pulled his eyes away from the swaying spruce trees so far below.

He looked up, assessing the strength of the vines in his hands. They had slipped a bit when he went over the edge, then had tightened up and held his weight... so far. His grip and arms were strong. He could hold on for hours if he had to. The real question was how well the vines were anchored in the trees above.

He knew he could climb back up, hand over hand, as long as doing so didn't dislodge a vine from its anchor point and drop him into the canyon. And as long as the grizzly that had chased him over the edge wasn't still bearing a grudge. As if to answer his question, a set of claws appeared at the edge of the cliff, followed by the bear's snout. The bear regarded him sourly for a long moment, as if to say, "No fair!"

Looking at the cliff in front of him, he wondered if he could climb down the cliff-face to the bottom. Now the bear was reaching out over the abyss, trying to reach the bundle of vines to reel him in. "Quit that!" he yelled.

The bear paused and stared at him again. The message in the look was clear: "You don't get a vote." The bear reached again but the vines were just out of range.

* * *

The sun was just coming up as he opened the flap of his tent and looked out at snow-capped mountains marching away into the distance. The frigid air made him hustle to get his camp stove going for some heat. He quickly cooked and ate a breakfast of coffee, oatmeal, and fruit, then cleaned up the camp. Today was the day. He had to be ready.

The equipment was all set up. All he had to do was get the time right, take the pictures, and get out without being detected. Should be a snap. The convoy was scheduled to pass on the road below in two hours. Even with a nice long walk, he had plenty leeway to be in place well before the scheduled time, just in case they got fancy and went by early. He couldn't afford to mess this job up. Antonio was already peeved with him for foul-ups on his last two expeditions. And this boss was not the sort one wanted pissed at one. More than one colleague had already paid the ultimate sacrifice to Antonio's wrath.

He headed south along the back side of the ridge, the crest screening him from the road. After a mile, he came across the scuppernong bushes and paused to reinforce his breakfast. He had eaten about a dozen of the berries and was thinking it was probably time to head back when, from the direction he had come, he heard the sounds of a large animal moving through the underbrush.

At first, he thought it was just a mountain goat but the glimpse of mottled brown fur made him realize he was well and truly screwed. It was a grizzly bear and it was between him and his camp. The bear didn't seem to be aware of him yet, so he eased on down the path away from it, moving even further from his camp. Suddenly, getting back felt urgent. The bear continued moving his direction. He continued to retreat, cursing quietly to himself.

The bear seemed to be moving faster. He glanced over his shoulder and saw that it was looking right at him. It may not have been aware of him at first, but it clearly was now and was intent on catching up and examining this strange creature running away from it. He moved faster.

There was no way he could out-run a grizzly bear. They can do thirty miles an hour. He'd have to find some way of putting himself out of the bear's reach if he didn't want to submit to the up close and personal examination the bear seemed intent on administering.

As he broke into a jog, he noticed that the bear didn't seem to be trying to catch up but just pacing him. He saw the trees and vines hanging over the cliff up ahead. He could've sworn he felt the wind of the bear's paw swiping at him as he leaped over the cliff grabbing at the vines.

* * *

At first the vines dropped him toward the canyon like a bungee cable, but after ten feet or so, they caught and slowed his fall. There was a series of sickening lurches as the vines tightened their grip on the trees above, then stopped slipping. He found himself hanging twelve feet below the edge of the cliff and six feet away from it.

The bear was still pawing the air trying to catch the vines but not quite reaching. He reflected on what a good thing it is that bears don't use tools. 

He looked at the canyon wall again. Climbing down would not get him back to his camp in time to take the pictures, but neither would climbing up the vine rope to face the bear. He was stuck.