Floating predators. Googly-eyed monkeys. Sky cows. Brain matter in tanks. Sentient robots.
Netflix’s new series Alien Worlds covers them all. Each episode dreams up a fictional planet and the creatures who call it home. When you first see the fantastical critters and colorful plants on each world, you might dismiss the show as pure science fiction, but Alien Worlds is rooted in biology and evolution here on Earth.
What would happen to life on a planet where gravity was twice as strong? How would animals adapt to a planet around a dimmer star? Are we doomed to become a hive mind? Biologist and award-winning science fiction author, Philip Kramer, PhD, and Margaret Reeb, who works at the SETI Institute, have teamed up to break down the series.
Philip: This is where the scifi nerd in me really rejoiced.
Margaret: Me too. This was my favorite episode.
Philip: When it comes to our first encounter with aliens, I do think they will be of the metal and wire variety and not flesh and blood. It seems like the inevitable next step when biology can no longer keep up with the demands of a civilization. This episode really explores why a species might decide to go this route.
Margaret: As much as I like thinking about life overall, thinking about intelligent life that could exist in our universe is so much more compelling. And who knows what form that life will take.
Philip: Or how many of them are out there.
Margaret: Andy Frank who we meet in this episode jots down a formula on a napkin. It’s similar to the Drake equation, which was meant to start a scientific dialogue about quantifying how many advanced societies could exist in the milky way. Andy’s equation is concerned with the total number of technological societies that could have evolved in the observable universe.
Philip: Then the obvious question is why haven’t we heard from them and how do we go about contacting them?
Margaret: As someone who is very passionate about SETI, I do appreciate that they addressed this question in the episode. I think the simplest explanation is that the universe is so big and we’ve just started looking. Plus, humans are such a young species. Cosmologically speaking, we just started sending our own radio waves into space. Maybe a response to our earliest signals are already headed our way.
Philip: Terra is a nine billion year old planet. It is a barren world, likely due to climatic issues we are beginning to face today, and helped in no small part by its aging star.
Margaret: This planet is the closest to Earth that we’ve seen. It orbits a G-type star, like our very own sun. It’s just a touch closer but still in the habitable zone. To your point, it’s interesting that they don’t talk about what led to Terra’s demise. I chalked it up to the dying star but you’re right, maybe the life forms altered the climate.
Philip: I could be wrong, but it seems to me they were trying to imply this was Earth’s future. They did name the planet Terra, which is just Latin for Earth. And we do know that our sun too will expand into a red giant and sterilize the planet in another 2-4 billion years. The icy planet they fled to could be any number of the icy moons in our own solar system.
Margaret: As Jill Tarter says, “SETI is a mirror…” And I kept trying to connect the dots about how humans could end up like the hive mind of Terra. This system is very similar to ours and shows us what could happen if humans don’t drive themselves into the ground. It’s very difficult now to see a future where we could all cooperate as a hive mind, but a lot could change in a billion years.
Hive mind (Brains in Tanks)
Philip: The life-forms we meet in this episode seem to be just as much technology as they are biology. Essentially, they are neural tissue in a vat of fluid. Their individual vats are connected by a network of a sort. They have formed a hive mind, another scifi staple.
Margaret: Like any good show, this episode left me with so many intriguing questions. Why didn’t the hive mind just give up on the neural tissue and upload their consciousness into a robot or a computer? This seems more efficient than creating a dome and continuously supplying the brains with the nutrients they need.
Philip: Considering we don’t have a firm grasp of what consciousness is and how it works, it’s possible uploading changes them in some way. But you’re right in that keeping neural tissue alive is very difficult. It is very energy demanding. It looks as though the plants growing in the dome could be supplying them with oxygen and glucose. An enclosed ecosystem would have to be much larger and more complex in order to create the vitamins and trace nutrients the brains can’t make themselves. Check out a previous post of mine on the Science of Enclosed Ecosystems.
Margaret: It made me wonder what these creatures looked like before they put their brains in tanks. Why did they think living this way was better than living as individuals? What was their society like? As I said, this episode left me with so many questions.
Philip: You and me both. I was most intrigued by the claim that these lifeforms didn’t age. As someone who currently works in the field of aging research, I would really like to know their secret. Aging is a combination of so many different things, most notably the accumulation of damage in DNA and proteins. Considering much of this damage happens spontaneously due to chemical reactions and as a result of cell division, radiation, and oxidative stress from normal metabolic processes, it’s difficult to imagine they could eliminate it entirely. Read more on The Science of Aging and its Fictional Cures.
Margaret: This is why my vote would have been to become a robot! Nothing is impervious to damage but it seems like robots would be more sturdy than brain matter. Also, I would hope that if a hyper-intelligent species worked as a hive mind, they would have left their planet before their star got so unstable that they lost their energy source and their escape pod got taken out by a solar flare. Everyone makes mistakes, I guess.
Philip: You say that as if you’ve never argued with yourself before or decided to put off a chore for tomorrow or the next day or a billion years. My guess is that they were all living in a virtual reality and only decided to move once their lives were in danger. I admit, watching huge numbers of the brains go offline from the solar flare was a bit terrifying. What would that feel like to the rest of the Hive mind?
Margaret: This is probably a generational thing where my great-great-great-great grandchildren will read this and think I’m crazy, but I wouldn’t want to give up my individuality to become a hive mind. But like I said earlier, a lot could change in a billion years, and if the climate is inhospitable, I can see how becoming a hive mind in a dome might be the best choice.
Margaret: I’m going to take a controversial stand and say that we should discuss the robots on Terra like we have other life forms in this show.
Philip: As with all technology, the brains created these to do the things they couldn’t or didn’t want to do. Things like harvest a moon’s resources or terraform a planet. Obviously the robots would need the ability to self-replicate in order to do their jobs properly. All the scifi stories I’ve ever read tell me that’s a bad idea. I foresee these self-replicating robots one day overthrowing their masters and eventually becoming a pestilence on the galaxy, unable to escape their programmed imperative to harvest all resources.
Margaret: The singularity, yes. That should terrify all of us. Let’s talk about what these little guys were up to, other than injecting the brain tanks with food: terraforming. The thing about terraforming is that it’s very hard to create an atmosphere on a planet where there isn’t one. The show made it sound like the robots were going to melt some glaciers, release steam into the atmosphere, and call it a day. If this is going to work, there has to be something going on with the planet that they don’t talk about. Otherwise the steam would just float away or fall back down as snow.
Philip: They must be stripping the oxygen from the ice, but that doesn’t solve the problem. Only really heavy gases would stay in the atmosphere on a planet with a low gravity and lacking a magnetosphere. The sun would strip everything else away.
Margaret: Plus, as the star begins to run out of fuel and expand, it’s going to affect the climate and atmosphere of this new planet. Seems like this hive mind isn’t really thinking things through. It might have been smarter to find a planet around a younger, more stable star.
Philip: That’s all assuming they have the capability to leave the star system. For a species that doesn’t age, that might not be an issue, but seeing as their technology as well as the plants in their domes rely on solar energy, they will run out of power before they get anywhere close to another star. They must have a decent and possibly reactionless drive capable of getting those domes off the planet, but anything short of a hypothetical wormhole will likely take many dozens if not hundreds of years to reach a nearby star.
Margaret: They are hyper intelligent and don’t age! But this sort of debate is interesting because we don’t have any examples of hyper intelligent species to compare the hive mind to. All the other creatures were simple to debate because we can draw tons of comparisons to Earth. The hive mind? Not so much.
Philip: The same goes for these robots. Yes, we have made some of our own on Earth, but their intelligence is debatable. Are the robots in this episode true AI and able to think for themselves, or just custodians who serve at their creator’s whim?
Margaret: So that was another thing that came to mind. If all of the hive mind died, what happened to the robots in the new planet? Were they able to survive? Did they create a robot utopia?
Philip: What would that look like?
Margaret: Let’s debate that in another post. To close, I’ll say I really liked how this episode showed that nothing in the universe is permanent, especially humans if we aren’t careful. Our sun is going to burn out one day and the Earth is going to become uninhabitable. To me, this is why everyone should care about astrobiology and SETI.
Philip: It was sad to see the Arecibo telescope at the end in light of the recent news about it. How is it’s loss affecting the SETI community?
Margaret: It’s so sad. To many, Arecibo was a beacon of science, and it’s heartbreaking to see it destroyed. NASA conducted its first SETI listening studies at Arecibo, and after the government stopped funding SETI, university and public-funded efforts pushed SETI forward at Arecibo.
Philip: That must have ruined their plan to send more messages out into space. When they described the interesting step-wise methodology for how we might go about communicating with aliens, starting with numbers, and then using those numbers to describe elements of life on Earth, and then what we look like, I thought it just might work.
Margaret: The Arecibo message was a great moment for SETI. It’s unlikely that we’ll get a response but it helped us think about communicating over extremely large distances and how we might communicate with an alien intelligence, which is a tall task.
Philip: Do you think we should be sending more messages? Or is the fear of actual contact reasonable.
Margaret: I think if we’re worried about the singularity and robot intelligence, we should be concerned about aliens. However, I think it’s more likely that an alien intelligence might not be all that interested in us. We are very young and aren’t that technologically advanced when you think about the age of the universe and what other civilizations may have already achieved.
Philip: And if every alien civilization out there decides to just listen and not talk, we’ll never hear anything.
Margaret: It’s true, if we all decide to be quiet, no one will make contact. But we are leaking radio signals into space from our own communications. These may disintegrate over long distances, but still, we’re making noise. I generally agree with Jill Tarter that we’re not mature enough to start sending signals into space. It needs to be a multi-generational effort and we don’t have the level of commitment amongst our species to do this yet. But I hope it happens.
Philip: Me too. And maybe if we’re lucky, our generation might supply the first sentence or two in the thousand year long conversation.