The Science Behind “America Declassified” – White Sands

6 12 2013

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Unintended Consequences

My adventures as a scientist-host with the Travel Channel television series, “America Declassified” took me across the blinding flats of the White Sands Missile Range, which had unintended consequences.  Unnervingly, it deposited a sliver in my mind that I simply cannot ignore.

In forging outward across the staggeringly-immense, derelict runways we now know as White Sands Space Harbor, witnessing firsthand the contrast between what had until so recently been a fully-functional spaceport and today’s blatantly inhospitable reality, I was left with a persistent awareness of a haunting, obscure truth:

Ours is a civilization that is mature (and immature?) enough to have developed space travel technology… and then completely let it go.

Space Shuttle Columbia's landing at White Sands concluding STS-3 in March, 1982.

Space Shuttle Columbia’s landing at White Sands concluding STS-3 in March, 1982.

Sifting the Future Past

This disturbing truth, revealed to me as we barreled across the slow-motion avalanche of selenite crystals relentlessly erasing the spaceport from existence, is that from this moment onward the science of studying humanity’s artifacts – archaeology – will include not just arrowheads and pottery, but also advanced spaceflight technology.

Could it be that we have reached an era where we – due to social, political, or economic difficulties – actually regress technologically?  A time where what we currently achieve is less advanced than what we achieved in the past?

It is here that we venture headlong into the little-known, frontier science of Space Archaeology.

Close-up, showing the intense degradation of the runway markings.

Close-up, showing the intense degradation of the runway markings.

Archaeology at the Final Frontier

Beyond the obvious, the study of historical space technology also includes places like White Sands Space Harbor.  The facility boasted several features unique to human history, like runways that were flat, long, and wide enough to be used to train people to land vehicles returning from space, or the fact that they were marked in such a way that they could be seen by human pilots reentering the Earth’s atmosphere at nearly 18,000 miles-per-hour, or speeds greater than Mach 23(!).

Admittedly, this concept of archaeology runs contrary to our popular view of archaeologists.  It seems difficult, for instance, to envision Indiana Jones racing against the clock to retrieve a turbo-cryo-pump from an abandoned rocket testing facility before it is demolished, or diving to the bottom of the ocean to rescue a historic rocket engine before it rusts to pieces… Yet, that’s exactly what a select few scientists are attempting as I type.

Travel Channel’s Citizen Science-Explorers

In the final analysis, it could very well be that viewers who share in this segment’s exploration of modern lore, tromping off the beaten path with me onto restricted territory at White Sands, were themselves briefly transformed into citizen space archaeologists.

-And in this light, we might all unwittingly serve a very important role through the lens of history – to help ensure that while spaceflight technology might indeed be lost to the sands of time, it will never be completely forgotten.

Semper Exploro – Always Explore!

Ben McGee





Exploring a Logarithmic Temporal Technology Scale

19 09 2013
Industrial archaeologist performing an underwater survey. (Credit: NPS)

Industrial archaeologist performing an underwater survey. (Credit: NPS)

In a previous, fairly soft-content post, I mused about the possibility of the existence of a logarithmic pattern in history that relates, in a predictable way, the subjective perceptions of technology within a civilization to their pace of technological advancement.  (In a sort of tongue-in-cheek gesture, I called it the McGee Scale of technological advancement.)

At the time, I based the scale itself on our civilization’s history and our historical understanding of the possibility of flight.  Then, I turned the scale around and anchored it to the present day to use it as a tool to make some tantalizing projections about the pace of our own future technological advancements.

However, while a fun, neuron-tickling exercise, after playing around with it a bit more, the scale has taken on something of a more serious light.  With this in mind, I thought I’d share the work and the resulting possibility that such a proposed relationship might actually be more than trivial.

Review: A Logarithmic Scale of Cultural Technological Achievement/Advancement

To begin, let me review what the scale looked like.  Being temporally-logarithmic in nature, it’s an intentionally coarse scale over time, which has the distinct benefit of smearing out statistical noise like wars, upheavals, disasters, and dark ages to provide an average pace of technological development in a civilization.

It’s admittedly subjective and tenuous in that we really only have one technological civilization’s history to base/test this upon (our own), but here’s what it looked like as compiled.  (Note: I also added an extra step at the end of the scale for grins.)

So, from any point in time for a given technological civilization, the scale defines the following general relationship in technological advancement, where “τ” (tau) is a reference moment in a civilization’s past or future technological history, and all units are in solar years:

  • Recent technological achievements at τ+1 year would have also been considered commonplace at time τ.
  • Recent technological achievements at τ+10 years would have been considered generally commonplace at time τ.
  • Recent technological achievements at τ+100 years would have been considered uncommon at time τ.
  • Recent technological achievements at τ+1,000 years would have been considered unachievable/fantasy at time τ.
  • Recent technological achievements at τ+10,000 years would have been considered unimaginable at time τ.
  • Recent technological achievements at τ+100,000 years would have been incomprehensible at time τ.

Granted, this all makes general sense, and the sentiment is a fairly logical one.  So, I’ll admit that at first this seems like an exercise that goes out of its way to justify something that is already straightforward or intuitive.  However, the intriguing and unique factor here is that this scale is based on actual historical information, and its utility is therefore a testable hypothesis.

Navigable balloon by Henri Giffard (1852). 19th century print.

Navigable balloon by Henri Giffard (1852). 19th century print.

Testing the Logarithmic Scale Looking Backwards: Practical Flight

It becomes easier to see how the scale might be tested if instead of working forward through time in the general case, the scale is anchored at the present moment but instead operates backwards through history.

With this conversion, the scale now becomes:

  • At τ-100,000 years, recent technological achievements at time τ are incomprehensible.
  • At τ-10,000 years, recent technological achievements at time τ are unimaginable.
  • At τ-1,000 years, recent technological achievements at time τ are considered unachievable and/or fantasy.
  • At τ-100 years, recent technological achievements at time τ are considered uncommon.
  • At τ-10 years, recent technological achievements at time τ are considered generally commonplace.
  • At τ-1 year, recent technological achievements at time τ are considered commonplace.

Now, let’s dive into specifics.  In my original thought-experiment, I evaluated the technology/science of flight.  So, where the above scale in the general form reads, “technological achievements commonplace at time t,” let’s insert the term, “practical human flight,” to refer to regular use of technological aircraft for transport between settlements.  Let’s also insert real year values, using 2013 as civilization reference time τ, and see what it all looks like:

  • In 97,987 B.C.E., practical human flight is incomprehensible.
  • In 7,987 B.C.E., practical human flight is unimaginable.
  • In 1,013 C.E., practical human flight is considered unachievable and/or fantasy.
  • In 1913 C.E., practical human flight is considered uncommon (but possible).
  • In 2003, practical human flight is considered generally commonplace.
  • In 2012, practical human flight is considered commonplace.

With this, we have real values and predictions, so let’s pick this list apart.

First, in the 98th millennia (or the 980th century) B.C.E., there is no historical information from humanity.  Originating in Africa, anthropological studies suggest humans (homo sapiens) became anatomically-modern roughly 200,000 years ago and began migrating to Eurasia ~100,000 years ago (our target period).  However, evidence suggests humans only became behaviorally modern, (meaning the development of language, music, and other cultural “universals,” such as personal names, leaders, concepts of property, symbolism, and abstraction, etc.)  some 50,000 years ago.  This means that our time period is nearly 90 millennia before the advent of agriculture and some 50 millennia before the widespread development of language and culture, where humans at the time operated only in nomadic groups known as “band societies.”  Therefore, it would have been impossible not only to convey the idea of practical, technological flight to them, but even describing the idea of a human settlement would have been problematic.  Therefore, this one is spot on; to these early humans practical human flight between settlements would have been incomprehensible.

Second, in the 8th millennia (or the 80th century) B.C.E., there is very little historical record to evaluate.  However, all we need to do to break (falsify) this logarithmic scale/model is demonstrate that practical human flight had been considered by that point.  Archaeologically, it can be demonstrated that the first steps toward technological civilization are being taken at this point in history.  Agricultural technology is being developed simultaneously in South America, Mexico, Asia, and Africa; stone tools, granaries, and huts are being developed in Africa; the creation of houses, carvings, stone tools, counting tokens and musical flutes made of bone are developed in Asia; statues, pottery, and evidence of ceremonial burials are found in Greece and the Mediterranean, along with wheat, barley, sheep, goats, and pigs, indicating a food-producing economy.  In all cases listed here, it seems that the problem of sustaining civilization, (i.e., food and shelter) is still paramount.  Of them, the early Greek civilization may have had the most technologically-developed system and therefore the most opportunity to consider technological advancement in the direction we’re considering.  Yet, based on a lack of both technology and historical/archaeological evidence, it appears safe to say that in this tumultuous time of antiquity practical human flight between settlements would have been plainly unimaginable.

Third, by the 11th century C.E., there are a few small-scale examples of individual flight attempts using kites, gliders, or even bamboo-copters across Asia and Europe.  None of them illustrated practical success.  At the specific time (11th century), of all civilizations on Earth, those of the Islamic world and of China had reached a technological and/or scientific peak.  So, in the interests of breaking this scale as a model, it is there that we’ll look for evidence that human flight might have been considered achievable in a practical sense.  Islamic contributions, insofar as history records them, are restricted largely to mathematics and not practical engineering.  Further, the year 1,013 C.E. preceded the birth of famous Islamic mathematician Omar Al-Khayyam by several decades, and neither he nor his predecessors offered any known discussion of technological flight. On the other hand, the existence of the Song Dynasty in China gives us the greatest run for our money.  There, the relatively advanced use of technology, including boating, magnetic compasses for navigation, horology, along with the development of art, literature, and sweeping advances in science (e.g., geomorphology, climate change,) push this boundary to the limit.  However, despite the sophistication of the civilization at the time as well as their notable use of hot-air Kongming lanterns for nearly a millennia prior(!), it seems that there is no evidence to suggest serious considerations or attempts concerning the development of a practical airship.  Hence, it is safe to say that globally, practical human flight would have been considered either unachievable or simple fantasy.

Fourth, the scale’s prediction for the year 1913 is not hard to corroborate, and further, is right on the money.  The successful invention of the manned, practical, but non-directional hot air balloon was made in the year 1793.  The first dirigible design that could have been utilized in the fashion described for this exercise (for practical transport between settlements) was invented in 1852.  The first commercial Zeppelin was launched in the year 1900, and the Wright brothers’ flight was performed in 1903.  So, yes, it is safe to say that while there was likely widespread belief by the year 1913 that flight was indeed possible, (graduating us out of the previous “bin”), such flights would certainly have been considered uncommon.

The rest, 2003-2012, is obviously correctly categorized – Success!

A printing operation as depicted on a woodblock ca. 1568.

A printing operation as depicted on a woodblock ca. 1568.

Testing the Scale Again: Electronic Text

Now, having gone through the first technical example, let’s attempt another and see if the agreement was a fluke.  This time, let’s leave the time scale intact from the previous example but shift to an entirely different sort of technology: printed language.  Working backwards, in order for this to work, we have to figure out what a “recent technological achievement” in “printed language” means at civilization reference time τ (now).

Well, for the purposes of this experiment, I’m drawn to consider so-called e-books, being digitally-formatted and distributed writings or texts to be displayed and read on electronic devices.   Hence, instead of inserting, “modern human flight,” let’s instead insert the term, “the use of electronic text” to refer to regular use of digital language technology and see what it all looks like:

  • In 97,987 B.C.E., the use of electronic text is incomprehensible.
  • In 7,987 B.C.E., the use of electronic text is unimaginable.
  • In 1,013 C.E., the use of electronic text is considered unachievable and/or fantasy.
  • In 1913 C.E., the use of electronic text is considered uncommon.
  • In 2003, the use of electronic text is considered generally commonplace.
  • In 2012, the use of electronic text is considered commonplace.

Again, since we have real dates and descriptions, let’s see how well they match up with history.

97,987 B.C.E. – Language has not yet been developed, hence this fits the scale’s definition of incomprehensible.

7,987 B.C.E. – Writing has been developed, but printing of any kind (stenciling was the earliest possible technology that qualifies) is still more than five millennia away at best; hence this fits the scale’s definition as unimaginable.

1,013 C.E. – The earliest example of printing with movable text was within a couple of decades of being first premiered in China.  So, the process of printing could be argued to be understood, but extending this to describe self-luminous text, single machines that can store entire libraries of information, and text that can change itself – Yes, this would clearly have been considered physically-impossible fantasy.

1913 C.E. – To start, history reveals that the pantelegraph, which can be considered an early version of a fax machine, was invented in 1865.  This leveraged technological advances to transmit printed text electronically, though it did not store said text, nor display or reproduce it electronically, only mechanically.  Next, electromechanical punch-card data storage was invented in 1880, so it can be truthfully claimed that the technological storage of numeric or text data was at least conceptually available by 1913, though again, this invention did not display any of the stored information electronically.  However, the technology gap regarding electronic displays began to close with the nearly simultaneous invention of the scanning phototelegraph in 1881, which allowed for the coarse electric transmission of imagery, (and at least hypothetically, visual text).  Finally, the invention of the Nipkow scanning disc in 1884 provided the first electromechanical means to scan and display imagery in real-time.  So, by 1913 we can reasonably claim that the existence of these inventions, used with greater prevalence over the course of at least three subsequent decades, implies that the key concepts necessary for using electronic text – electric scanning of visual information, the electromechanical storage of information, and electromechanical display of information – were all acknowledged realities.  Therefore, while perhaps a stretch to say that use of electronic text is merely “uncommon” in the year 1913, I would claim that the concept of electronic text would not seem unachievable or fantastic (the previous temporal “bin”).  Though there was admittedly no market for such a device, one could conceive of a large, hard-wired or wireless invention composed of a punch-card library, text-analogue mechanical counters for mechanically displaying lines of text (as stored on the cards), and a Nipkow televisor to transmit and display that text to a receiving/viewing station.  Highly uncommon, yes.  But clearly possible.  (I think we made it in right under the wire on this one.)

And again, the remaining categorical descriptions for 2003-2012 are obviously correct.  Success again!

The Antikythera Mechanism. (Credit: National Archaeological Museum, Athens, No. 15987)

The Antikythera Mechanism. (Credit: National Archaeological Museum, Athens, No. 15987)

Viewing the Scale in Both Time Directions: Testing the Wheel

First, readers may note that the “forward” and “backwards”-looking versions of the scale are actually two halves of a single scale with respect to arbitrary civilization reference time τ.  In complete form, note that the scale looks like this:

  • At τ-100,000 years, recent technological achievements at time τ are incomprehensible.
  • At τ-10,000 years, recent technological achievements at time τ are unimaginable.
  • At τ-1,000 years, recent technological achievements at time τ are considered unachievable and/or fantasy.
  • At τ-100 years, recent technological achievements at time τ are considered uncommon.
  • At τ-10 years, recent technological achievements at time τ are considered generally commonplace.
  • At τ-1 year, recent technological achievements at time τ are considered commonplace.
  • [τ = the current civilization/technology temporal reference point]
  • At τ+1 year, recent technological achievements would have also been considered commonplace at time τ.
  • At τ+10 years, recent technological achievements would have been considered generally commonplace at time τ.
  • At τ+100 years, recent technological achievements would have been considered uncommon at time τ.
  • At τ+1,000 years, recent technological achievements would have been considered unachievable/fantasy at time τ.
  • At τ+10,000 years, recent technological achievements would have been considered unimaginable at time τ.
  • At τ+100,000 years, recent technological achievements would have been incomprehensible at time τ.

Well, considering this now-complete scale (operating in both temporal directions) and presuming that the previous two examples demonstrated some general agreement between this scale and the history of technology, let’s explore what happens if we do not anchor time τ at the present-day.

For the following exploration, let’s consider advances in the technology of the wheel, but let’s set time τ instead to the height of Classical Civilization – smack in the middle of the scientific Hellenistic Period in the year 250 B.C.E. seems about right.  Where was the wheel then?  Well, the spoked wheel and chariot had been invented more than a millennia earlier.  So what was new then?

The answer, as it turns out, is the water-wheel, newly invented by the Greeks and used both for irrigation as well as for a mechanical power source in mining, milling, and other industrial activities.

So, including this in the scale as “the use of a technological water wheel,” the predictions in both directions are now:

  • In 100,250 B.C.E., the use of a technological water wheel is incomprehensible.
  • In 10,250 B.C.E., the use of a technological water wheel is unimaginable.
  • In 1,250 B.C.E., the use of a technological water wheel is considered unachievable and/or fantasy.
  • In 350 B.C.E., the use of a technological water wheel is considered uncommon.
  • In 260 B.C.E., the use of a technological water wheel is considered generally commonplace.
  • In 251 B.C.E., the use of a technological water wheel is considered commonplace.
  • τ = water wheel technology reference point in the year 250 B.C.E.
  • In 249 B.C.E., advances in wheel technology would have been considered commonplace.
  • In 240 B.C.E., advances in wheel technology would have been considered generally commonplace.
  • In 150 B.C.E., advances in wheel technology would have been considered uncommon.
  • In 750 C.E., advances in wheel technology would have been considered unachievable/fantasy.
  • In 9,750, advances in wheel technology would have been considered unimaginable.
  • In 99,750, advances in wheel technology would have been incomprehensible.

So, here we go:

100,250 B.C.E. – Language, agriculture, and settlements had not yet been developed amongst humans, and so technology like a water wheel for irrigation and mechanical power cleanly fits the scale’s definition of incomprehensible.

10,250 B.C.E. – While language and culture have been developed by this point, the world’s oldest known wheel dates back to roughly 5,300 B.C.E., which is five millennia into the future; hence the concept of a functioning water wheel fits the scale’s definition as unimaginable.

1,250 B.C.E. – The spoked wheel and the chariot had been invented a few centuries prior, yet it would still be seven or eight centuries before the first invention of the water wheel – essentially a giant wooden wheel powered by a stream to automatically deliver water to fields or grind grain.  The description in this context would likely have been considered unachievable/fantastic (in the technical sense), and therefore fits the scale’s definition.

350 B.C.E. – Being that the waterwheel was invented in in third century B.C.E., and we’re not quite there yet, the use of one certainly qualifies as “uncommon.”   Yet, is that too generous?  Would it have been considered unachievable or fantastic then?  To answer this, let’s look at the technological innovation going on at the time.  Hellenistic scholars of the 3rd century employed mathematics and dedicated empirical research to further technological and intellectual advances.  Specifically, there is evidence to suggest that finely-machined gear systems to represent the motions of the Sun, Moon and planets had been constructed (see: Antikythera Mechanism).  Thus, considering that 350 B.C.E. is just a century before the creation of such finely-tuned machines that their precision would not be reproduced for another two-thousand years, while a waterwheel might have seemed unusual prior to widespread adoption, it would certainly not seem impossible or fanciful.  Therefore, I would argue that its characterization is accurately predicted by the scale.

260, 251, 249, and 240 B.C.E. qualify with generally commonplace use of the water wheel and no major loss, upheaval, gains, or advances in wheel technology.

150 B.C.E. – Moving forward, this is where subjective decisions must be made about what the evolution of “water wheel technology” means in order to continue.  In my mind, what we’re really talking about is the mechanical use of the wheel – a circular disc – itself in technology.  From this generalized perspective, we now have the latitude to consider technological innovations that incorporate the wheel, but are not necessarily direct evolutions of a “water wheel,” as technological descendants of the technology under consideration at the reference point.  (This is doubly-reinforced by the reality that innovation is anything but linear.)  So, what wheel-based technologies came into being approximate a century after our reference point in 250 B.C.E.?  The astrolabe, which functioned as an analog calculator typically used in solving astronomical problems.  While precision technology using the wheel had been occasionally in existence for a couple of centuries prior to the reference time (250 B.C.E.), its use in this fashion would have definitely been considered uncommon.  This is accurately predicted by the scale.

750 C.E. – The early centuries of the Common Era are pretty tough on this scale, as coincidentally it is a period of particular turmoil and conflict… and therefore not much innovation.  However, a monk, astronomer, and engineer under the Tang Dynasty in China was notable for advancing the use of clockwork mechanisms with an escapement and integrating it with the movement of a large celestial sphere.  In common terms, he enabled the construction of an impressive, accurate, and automated astronomical display not unlike what is found in a modern planetarium.  Despite their relatively advanced technological achievements at the time, describing such a device to someone from the year 250 B.C.E. would have arguably seemed fantastic.  Therefore, the scale holds up.

9,750 C.E. and 99,750 C.E. – Now, here’s where we run out of data.  However, considering the many unbelievable technological achievements of even the last century that incorporate wheels or discs, including electrical dynamos, automobiles, two-wheeled personal transports (see: Segway PTs), electronic interface devices (e.g., Intellivision), etc., etc., all of which would have been either unimaginable or incomprehensible to someone from the year 250 B.C.E., it isn’t a stretch to say that technological innovation at these proposed times in the distant future would be even moreso.  And so, by convenient definition and temporal increments, the scale holds up here.

So – this makes three examples of using the scale with real-world data.  Is there any utility to it?

Assumptions (Weak Spots?)

Immediate objections amongst the astute may be that this scale is too coarse to be testable and/or of any meaningful value to us, (which may ultimately be true).  However, even this does not necessarily mean that the use or consideration of such a scale has no utility.  Perhaps where it fails can lead to even more interesting territory.

Of course, such a scale presumes human existence tens or hundreds of millennia into the future.  Is it too bold to be that optimistic? =)

Thoughts in general?

Relating Different Cultures via “τ-Power” Values

Used in another way, I propose that this scale may find its greatest utility in providing a means to compare the technological development within or between different cultures at separate stages of technological development.

Logarithmic scales may be thought of conveniently in powers of ten.  So, if we consider the technological time-position of a given reference culture to be the origin, or τ^0 power, the relationship of the technological level of a target culture to the reference culture may be simply described as a sequential power integer in either the positive or negative direction, as illustrated in the following converted scale:

  • Technology in use by the reference culture is incomprehensible to the target culture; (τ-100,000 years) = τ^-5 culture, or a negative-fifth-power culture.
  • Technology in use by the reference culture is unimaginable by the target culture; (τ-10,000 years) = τ^-4 culture, or a negative-fourth-power culture.
  • Technology in use by the reference culture is considered unachievable and/or fantasy by the target culture; (τ-1,000 years) = τ^-3 culture, or a negative-third-power culture.
  • Technology in use by the reference culture is considered uncommon by the target culture; (τ-100 years) = τ^-2 culture, or a negative-two-power culture.
  • Technology in use by the reference culture is considered generally commonplace by the target culture; (τ-10 years) = τ^-1 culture, or an order-of-magnitude culture.
  • Technology in use by the reference culture is considered commonplace by the target culture; (τ-1 year/τ+1 year) = τ^0 culture, or in other words are both considered to be technologically-equivalent cultures.
  • Technology in use by the target culture is considered generally commonplace by the reference culture; (τ+10 years) = τ^1 culture, or an order-of-magnitude culture.
  • Technology in use by the target culture is considered uncommon by the reference culture; (τ+100 years) = τ^2 culture, or a two-power culture.
  • Technology in use by the target culture is considered unachievable/fantasy by the reference culture; (τ+1,000 years) = τ^3 culture, or a third-power culture.
  • Technology in use by the target culture is considered unimaginable by the reference culture; (τ+10,000 years) = τ^4 culture, or a fourth-power culture.
  • Technology in use by the target culture is incomprehensible to the reference culture; (τ+100,000 years) = τ^5 culture, or a fifth-power culture.

Utility of the “McGee Scale”?

By considering the technological time-position of a reference civilization (which may itself possess different “t-power” values for different technologies within it), I believe the development of such a scale at least conceptually achieves or enables two objectives:

First, it provides an alternative means to describe, compare, and (at least roughly) quantify past cultures in terms of technological development.  This may yield new insight into both the relationship between evolving technologies and cultural change as well as the effects of introducing foreign technology (e.g., from a culture of a more advanced t-power) to the evolution of a given culture.

Secondly, gaining the ability to describe technological cultures in simple and quantifiable terms (based on human history of technology and not solely upon speculation, as is the case with the Kardashev Scale), also provides a more formalized method of evaluating the concepts underlying pursuits proposing non-terrestrial cultures and technology, such as the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence (SETI).

So – with all of that, I think I’ll fire this post off into the cyberwild.  Critical feedback is very welcome.  This whole concept scheme evolved organically, and if left to my own devices for much longer, I just might convince myself that this is worthy of a full write-up and submission to a journal – (perhaps Contemporary Archaeology?)…

Thoughts, anyone?





Exploring Extraterrestrial Artifacts on the Wow! Signal Podcast

12 08 2013

A quick note today urging a listen to the latest episode of Paul Carr’s Wow! Signal Podcast, “The Serendipity Schema,” where like a bad penny I turn up once again.

This time, Paul digs into my 2010 paper on xenoarchaeology, giving me an opportunity to explain its interdisciplinary rationale, the conceptual hot water into which it delivered me, and why I believe a dialogue is necessary on how to credibly evaluate non-terrestrial artifacts – both as a transparent social service as well as a new lens through which we might discover a great deal more about our own activities in space and what they say about us.

Admittedly, I also learned quite a bit from the episode’s second interviewee, Dr. Paul H. Shuch, and the web-based “Invitation to Extraterrestrial Intelligence” project, or IETI.  Overtly far-fetched but claiming a privileged low-cost, high-impact position, the IETI experiment recalls several of the more recent, public-engagement Active SETI experiments that I discussed at length in a recent blog post.  (Perhaps the idea isn’t as new as I’d at first presumed.)

So, for those interested in kicking back and exploring the intriguing and scientifically-contentious landscape surrounding the future possibility of discovering artifacts from another world, have a listen.

As always, the segment was exceedingly well-produced, and it was my distinct pleasure to participate.

Congrats on Season 1, Paul!  Here’s to many more!





Escape Trajectory Artifacts at WAC-7

7 01 2013

Artist depiction of Pioneer 10. (Credit: Don Davis for NASA)

Just a quick update today on something I’ve been excited to talk about for some time:

I’ve been working during the past year with Dr. Colleen Beck of the Desert Research Institute on long-term planetary science/space archaeology crossover research, the first fruit of which has just hit the cyberverse.

In short, in an upcoming presentation at the Seventh World Archaeology Congress in Jordan on the 18th entitled, “The Bottle as the Message: Solar System Escape Trajectory Artifacts,” Dr. Beck and I are assessing what our escape trajectory spacecraft are really saying about us…  and how the famed Sagan/Drake engraved plaques and records intended as tools for extraterrestrial intelligence under a distant future recovery scenario may actually be serving as a scientific red herring in our own minds when compared to the extraordinary informational value of the spacecraft itself.

More to follow (and a slew of lingering posts on other topics)!





Xenoarchaeology: Considering Regmaglypts

31 05 2012

-Just a quick thought this evening on a possible (and personally-recommended) entry into the future xenoarchaeologist’s playbook.

Xenoarchaeology, (insofar as I’ve been engaged in its development,) is deeply interdisciplinary in principle.  As such, it is useful to promote and incorporate unfamiliar astronomy and planetary concepts into a field perhaps initially or reflexively dominanted by archaeological forensics concepts.   This may be specifically relevant when attempting to determine an object’s (artifact’s?) possible extraterrestrial character, (presuming for the sake of argument that there is reason to believe there is one).

Regmaglypts visible in a meteorite recovered from Zacatecas, Mexico. (Credit: Robert A. Haag)

With this in mind, given a scenario considering the possibility of terrestrial capture of a non-terrestrial artifact, (say we are lucky enough to intercept an alien Voyager probe, for instance,) I’d like to review the concept of the “regmaglypt.” 

A geological term, regmaglypts are various “small, well-defined, characteristic indentations or pits on the surface of meteorites, frequently resembling the imprints of fingertips in soft clay.” 

In short, they represent a sort of very specific evidence of aerodynamic thermal erosion during an object’s entry through the atmosphere.

Discovery of features like this on an object would serve to strongly suggest an extraterrestrial origin.





Cycloidal Ridges on Europa: A Xenoarchaeological Analogue

7 05 2012

Jovian moon Europa. (Credit: NASA NSSDC)

When seriously considering the possibility of xenoarchaeology as a practicable science, I’ve proposed (as have others) the endeavor to be deeply interdisciplinary.

Solid archaeological methodologies will need to be complemented with and modified by a strong foundation in planetary science.

I also often suggest that the practice of xenoarchaeology will find its most frequent utility in “debunking” rushed, biased, or outright pseudoscientific claims.  In many cases, it seems sensible to presume this may appear strictly as planetary science applied in a feature-analysis context.

So, with this in mind, I’d like to look at the mysterious case of “cycloids,” or specifically, “cycloidal ridges” on Jupiter’s second moon, Europa:

Cycloidal double ridges viewed in the northern hemisphere of Europa (60°N, 80°W): Striking evidence that nature can produce apparently-artifical features on other worlds. (Modified from Hoppa et al., 1999)

Jovian Cycloids

Found across both hemispheres of the barren, fractured ice world, these double-ridges are vast – nearly half a mile tall and half-again as wide - and shockingly symmetric, with apparently perfect vertices connecting each sweeping arc.  They exhibit a puzzling nature to parallel nearby ridges, as though “drawn” on the surface of the world in series, yet they then suddenly conflict with ridges curving the opposite direction.

The features were, at the time, truly bizarre, with no understood natural process to account for them.

While due to their immense size and their relatively-obscure nature, no one (to my knowledge) actually suggested them to be the result of Extraterrestrial Intelligence (ETI).

However, due to the cycloids’ striking geometry, I feel them to be a perfect example of an analogue scenario where a scientific xenoarchaeological hypothesis might be entertained.

Still don’t see them?  Look at the features highlighted here in red.

Icy Geoglyphs?

So, let’s say for the sake of argument that a popular case had been made that these were “Europan geoglyphs” – symbols or markers left behind by an ancient extraterrestrial civilization.

While it is often difficult to explain to non-scientists the ultimate importance of seeking to disprove a working hypothesis, in this context the utility of taking such a stance becomes clear.  With any potential xenoarchaeological site or artifact, the first order of business will be to characterize the planetary environment in order to rule out natural causes.  Only then would an archaeological-style investigation proceed, evaluating site context, invoking potential inference-by-analogy, etc.

In the case of Europan Cycloids, given a thorough and persistent site evaluation, a principal xenoarchaeologist, (being interdisciplinary and a capable planetary scientist by necessity,) would have identified that these features could have been caused by tidal forces from Jupiter.  Therefore, the ETI hypothesis is unnecessary, and with no other supporting evidence to suggest the presence of extraterrestrial life, should be refuted.  (To verify the more prosaic explanation from a more archaeological perspective, one might then investigate possible astronomical alignments with respect to the cycloids, [see: archaeoastronomy,] yet these would all point – literally and figuratively – to Jupiter itself, leading to the aforementioned cause.)

Case closed.

Avoiding the Tendency to Cherry-Pick

Why take this approach?  Why be so eager to rule out the “fun” option?  Simple:

In order to challenge the innate predisposition toward bias common to us all, one must work against the preferred hypothesis, not toward it.  (See also: cherry-picking fallacy.)

Now, had the features been discovered on a moon experiencing much less tidal stress, the story might be different…  (One might investigate in-situ geochemistry or seek more up-close imagery to search for detailed evidence of possible machining.)

-But one simply cannot go there first because the implications are possibly thrilling.  It is, in fact, because the ETI hypothesis is fantastic that one must work to rule it out.

This is the fundamental consideration that separates science from pseudoscience, which cannot be overemphasized when proposing something new, (i.e., xenoarchaeology.)





Xenoarchaeology: Reality and Fantasy

3 05 2012

Archaeological evidence of extraterrestrial involvement with ancient human civilizations, as seen in the movie, “Prometheus.” (Credit: Fox)

Cultural Xenoarchaeology

For reasons I can’t immediately explain, (the recent rash of technical publications addressing the concept of “xenoarchaeology” or “non-terrestrial artifacts” nonwithstanding,) there is a tantalizing idea cropping up in a number of recent and upcoming films and television programs.  (See: Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, Prometheus, Ancient Aliens.)

This concept, simply, involves the discovery of archaic evidence of the existence of Extraterrestrial Intelligence (ETI) and/or evidence of physical interactions of ETI in Earth’s (and mankind’s) past.  All of this, arguably, might be lumped under the auspices of the protoscience Xenoarchaeology.

Perhaps this increase in popular consumption of the idea that aliens have been around longer than we have indicates a mounting social awareness of cosmic deep time and the possibility of extraterrestrial life as it is stirred together with our classic, collective existential questions: “Why are we here?” and, “Are we alone in the universe?”

However, these pop-culture expressions and depictions of xenoarchaeology stray pretty far afield of what “scientific xenoarchaeology” would actually look like.

Separating Xenoarchaeology Fiction from Fact

In most part built upon ideas originally popularized by Erich von Daniken decades ago, (and fictionally by H.P. Lovecraft before him,) these modern concepts invoke the assistance of ETI in the development of human civilization as the “gods” of the religions and mythologies of antiquity.  However, this view has long since been shown by archaeologists to be entirely speculative and lacking in any direct, physical supportive evidence, (i.e., it is pseudoarchaeology.)  This stands in contrast to the physical archaeological evidence that does exist to directly support the idea that we humans created civilization, agriculture, the pyramids, etc., without need of assistance.

While the idea of meddlesome, elder-brother or mentor-type ETI is admittedly thrilling, the concept as it relates to xenoarchaeology does not automatically become scientific and in fact differs significantly from the groundwork currently being laid out for scientific xenoarchaeology.

Allow me to provide a few examples of where reality and fantasy diverge:

  • The practice of much fictional xenoarchaeology takes place on Earth, whereas future scientific xenoarchaeologists will likely find their skills of most utility on other worlds during in situ investigations.
  • Fictional/pseudoscientific xenoarchaeology typically centers on terrestrial features of human civilization, (e.g., pyramids, temples, large-scale geoglyphs,) whereas proposed xenoarchaeological investigations will likely center on extraterrestrial features of a possible artificial nature on other worlds.
  • Fictional xenoarchaeology usually assumes the involvement of ETI with a given feature of interest and works from there, whereas scientific xenoarchaeology will be required to rule out all other natural planetary, biological, and geological possibilities before hypothesizing ETI.  (In fact, ruling out features as xenoarchaeological in nature and disproving those making pseuarchaeological claims will probably be the most frequent uses of the existence of a true, scientific practice of xenoarchaeology.)
  • Xenoarchaeologists of popular fiction conduct investigations with their bare hands, whereas scientific xenoarchaeologists will primarily use remote sensing techniques, (satellites, robotic rovers,) to investigate/collect data.  (Or, if they are very lucky, they might one day even conduct work from within a spacesuit or biological quarantine facility.)
  • Fictional xenoarchaeology attempts to find evidence of ETI in terrestrial archaeological sites or artifacts, whereas scientific xenoarchaeology will rely on the fact that ETI was not involved in terrestrial archaeological sites and artifacts in order to construct relationships and methodologies that will be useful in the evaluation of a potential site of completely alien/unknown character. 

I could go on, but hopefully the potential difference between xenoarchaeological reality and fantasy, (like popular depictions of most sciences,) has been made clear.

Why Xenoarchaeology at All?

When considering the concept of scientific xenoarchaeology, invariably the question arises: “Is there a need for xenoarchaeology as a science at all?” 

Admittedly, this question is a good one.  Pseudoscience aside, there are currently no pressing sites of xenoarchaeological interest.  Why, then, expend the effort?

Well, let me first point you to the established field of astrobiology.  This is a field devoted entirely to the origin, evolution, and possibility of extraterrestrial life.  Associated with the field are multiple related academic journals, societies, and even college degree programs. 

Astrobiology is legitimate.  Yet, we have yet to discover even the smallest extraterrestrial microorganism.  Yes – Astrobiology, the scientific study of alien life, is currently conducted in spite of the complete absence of the known existence of alien life.  The field thrives regardless.  Why?

Astrobiology thrives because its underlying assumptions are viewed to be scientifically sound.  Life occurred on Earth, and considering the pantheon of worlds being discovered around other stars, by all modern physical and biochemical reckoning, signs seem to point that it will only be a matter of time until we discover life elsewhere.  (By similar reasoning, the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence [SETI] continues its vigilant watch for technological [radio] signs of life in the galaxy, and few nowadays write off the pursuit as being in vain.)

The assumptions underlying the scientific development of xenoarchaeology are, indeed, indentical to those above.  And further, given the ambiguity of the term “intelligence” and modern knowledge of many cosmic threats that can cause mass extinctions, (novas, gamma-ray bursts, asteroid impacts, etc.,) it seems even more likely that material evidence of extinct extraterrestrial life will be encountered prior to the fortuitious discovery of life itself while it is still alive. 

That is, if I were a gambling man, I would wager that xenoarchaeologists get an opportunity to evaluate ultimately definitive evidence of extraterrestrial life prior to astrobiologists.

Xenoarchaeological Relevance

In the final analysis, popular depictions of xenoarchaeology are useful in that they engender a more sophisticated (if not completely sensationalized) view of our place in the cosmos and the possibility of intelligent life in it.  On the technical side, considering the current absence of evidence of extraterrestrial life, xenoarchaeology as a scientific pursuit is equally justifiable to astrobiology and SETI. 

Further, I would argue that like astrobiology, taking the time to rigorously conceptualize a scientific field tangential to those that exist but centered in an extraterrestrial context will help us see ourselves from a clearer scientific vantage; this will invariably serve to enhance our understanding of terrestrial archaeology, anthropology, biology, and yes, even astrobiology.  (Developing an additional means to address some of the planetary pseudoscience out there, e.g., Martian Cydonia, can’t hurt, either.)

And who knows?  Perhaps our space exploration investigations are only a rover or two away from the discovery of that first Martian or Titanean burrow or petroglyph, which history will remember as a moment that literally changes everything. 

My view is that it’d be far better in the event of such a discovery to be proactive and have scientific xenoarchaeology prepared, (in at least a cursory sense,) instead of being reactive and leaving the scientific establishment scrambling to catch up. 

In this sense, perhaps science could stand to learn a thing or two from Hollywood.





Xenoarchaeology imagined: Lovecraft vs. von Däniken

25 01 2012

Human explorers discover an alien vista over an extraterrestrial-designed pyramid in the movie "Stargate." (Credit: MGM)

Clashing Pioneers of Xenoarchaeological Thought

The idea of alien archaeology, or more appropriately, “Xenoarchaeology,” is a mainstay of current science-fiction.  Hopefully, it may soon graduate to the realm of science-fact.  In this light, it is fruitful to consider a couple of prime examples of cultural influences and to discuss which amongst them leans more toward fiction or fact.

For many, the idea of xenoarchaeology practiced here on Earth is best exemplified by the works of Erich von Däniken, who in the 1960s and 1970s popularized the idea that many ancient human beliefs, artifacts, technology, and structures could be attributed to the influence of extraterrestrials in the distant or even prehistoric past, (known generally as the “ancient astronaut” hypothesis.) 

His landmark non-fiction work, “Chariots of the Gods?“, has inspired numerous popular stories, including the prominent films Stargate, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, and the History Channel television series, Ancient Aliens.   

Ironically, while admittedly fun to consider, von Däniken’s work to me strays far afield of the work any reasonable xenoarchaeologist might pursue.  In my opinion, as a non-fiction book the content fails to rise above anything other than science-fiction.  This is due to the fact that 1) the concepts presented are entirely speculative and/or circumstantial, 2) the work willingly ignores conventional archaeology and anthropology, 3) the work trivializes the achievements of ancient human cultures (i.e., implying that they “needed” extraterrestrial assistance and did not simply create vast works on their own,) and 4) because to my knowledge no adherents have yet to supply a sensical tapestry of evidence ruling out more conventional explanations to support their claims. 

Frankly, it seems the ancient astronaut proposal is simply a pop-cultural rather than scientific phenomenon.  However, in a fitting twist, it is from pioneering science-fiction nearly a half-century earlier that we find what I believe is a fitting xenoarchaeology archtype.

Captain Robert Falcon Scott, who may have served as an example for Lovecraft's protagonist geologist William Dyer, preps for a scientific measurement during his 1911 antarctic expedition. (Credit: Corbis)

H.P. Lovecraft and the Prototype Xenoarchaeologist

I must admit – I had H.P. Lovecraft all wrong.  

Before reading Lovecraft’s staggering 1931 antarctic research science-fiction novella, “At the Mountains of Madness,” last fall, I assumed he was a horror writer in the same vein as Edgar Allen Poe, with whom he is commonly referenced. 

This is a gross and possibly criminal mis-classification.

The story, written with shocking adeptness from the perspective of a research geologist leading an antarctic research expedition, was amongst the most grounded, compelling adventure science-fiction tales I’ve ever experienced.  It is certainly the most realistc terrestrial xenoarchaeology story I’ve ever encountered, which is doubly shocking given that it was penned nearly a century ago. 

Allow me to elaborate.

Whereas von Däniken’s work centers on objects of human history, Lovecraft reaches much, much farther back - demonstrating a unnervingly clear understanding of geologic deep time.  In “Mountains,” an interdisciplinary team of researchers, who are deploying drills to collect exploratory geological core samples, discover evidence of apparently artificial influence in ancient strata. 

This to me is a realistic xenoarchaeology scenario, as opposed to identifying surviving artifacts in historical human cultures that betray extraterrestrial influence. 

Then, geologist Dyer, after discovering the mummified remains of what it becomes increasingly obvious is non-terrestrial life, becomes a de-facto xenoarchaeologist as he and a graduate student are thrust on a rescue mission into the barely-surviving, non-Euclidian (!) ruins protruding from an ancient, uplifted antarctic range.  Deciphering the petroglyphs found there, Dyer reconstructs aspects of the ancient alien culture and history, leading him to attempt to ward off all future deep antarctic exploration.

What Lovecraft Got Right:

  • Age of artifacts.  To me, considering the potential distances and times involved with and available to interstellar travel, the odds of encountering evidence of extraterrestrial intelligence across a broad range of cosmic and geologic time is much more likely than something practically contemporary, (say, of ancient Egypt).
  • Scientific approach.  The research team in the story was composed of an array of scientists and technicians of different specialities.  Together, utilizing interdisciplinary thinking, they are able to tackle what becomes a clearly xenoarchaeological situation.
  • Bizarre/Incomprehensible technology.  While some of the petroglyphs are physically intelligible to Dyer, the architecture of the alien ruins defies conventional explanation (and even defies conventional mathematics!)  Advanced bioengineering is also alluded to, something completely foreign to human understanding.  Again, it seems true that artifacts of a truly alien culture would not be readily intelligible to ours.
  • Non-terrestrial biology.  Bipedal humanoid morphology is all-too-often invoked in science-fiction as well as ancient astronaut lore, which to me is nothing more than an anthropomorphological conceit.  The mummified beings in Lovecraft’s story are radially symmetric, vaguely vegetable in form, with a myriad of appendages and sensory organs.  -A wonderful exmaple of truly alien but biologically-sensible morphology.

So, there you have it.  A clash of the titans, as it were, in popular culture from a xenoarchaeological context.

I would venture, in sum, that from von Däniken those seriously considering xenoarchaeology might learn what not to do; From Lovecraft’s speculative “At the Mountains of Madness,” however, those considering xenoarchaeology can explore how pioneering xenoarchaeology might actually be achieved – with a healthy dose of pop thrill to help the concepts go down.





Xenoarchaeology Critical Mass

29 12 2011

The recovery of an alien artifact from the TMA-1 lunar excavation site in 2001: A Space Odyssey (Credit: MGM)

Xenoarchaeology Rising

2011 has been a good year for the nascent pursuit of xenoarchaeology as serious science.  After beginning a conversation with a 2010 Viewpoint article I authored in the journal Space Policy, which was intended as a broad, conceptual justification for the further development of xenoarchaeology as a field, I was rewarded with a generally favorable review from Spacearchaeology.org as well as some fruitful academic sparring with a public relations specialist sporting a long-standing grant from NASA’s Astrobiology Institute (more on the aforementioned fruit to follow).  

Now, I am quite pleased to note that 2011 has seen other space science researchers open up to the idea that conceptually setting up the rigorous and credible search for (and investigation of) suspected alien artifacts is not only warranted, but due.

While most, it seems, find the concept of xenoarchaeology to be at the very least on the forward edge of scientific conception, it appears that an increasing number of scientists are coming around to the same conclusion that I did: For a field aiming for discoveries necessarily encased in enormous scientific and socio-political bombshells, a proactive stance is appropriate.  

Quite simply, now is the time.

With luck, we will soon reach a sort of intellectual critical mass cultimating in a formal xenoarchaeology workshop, the proceeds from which should lay out the groundwork for a new, practicable 21st-Century science.

To this end, I’d like to point out some of this recent relevant work:

Davies’ Footprints  

Eminent researcher Paul Davies of ASU’s Beyond Center penned an article in Acta Astronautica early in 2011 entitled, “Footprints of alien technology.”  Much in the same vein as my own article, Davies considers deep time in combination with the possibility of extraterrestrial life to conclude that there is a possibility of subtle biological, geological, and physical artifacts of xenobiological activity, even on the Earth.  He then suggests means to search for such trace evidence.

Searching Luna

Carrying his work a step further, Davies and undergraduate student Robert Wagner submitted an article this past fall, also to Acta Astronautica, entitled, “Searching for alien artifacts on the moon.”   Applying the logic distilled in the previous work against the current SETI paradigm, this paper details the relevance that indirect evidence of extraterrestrial intelligence in the form of non-human technology would play.  The article suggests a practical, low-cost application of a search for such evidence using increasingly high-resolution imagery of the lunar surface available to the public (via the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, for instance). 

The practice of this remote sensing search, by very definition in my own article, would be considered a practice of xenoarchaeology. 

In point of fact, regarding the applicability of xenoarchaeological guidelines, this is an example of what I called “Scenario 1″ in my 2010 article  - that being a remotely-conducted investigation.  This is in contrast to “Scenario 2″ xenoarchaeology, being an in-situ human investigation (astronaut), and “Scenario 3,” an investigation involving artifact/sample return to Earth or terrestrial capture of an artifact.

Justifying Solar System Xenoarchaeology

Further hammering home that we have yet to reasonably exhaust the possibility of xenoarchaeological artifacts lingering in our own cosmic backyard, researchers Jacob Haqq-Misra and Ravi Kumar Kopparapu of Blue Marble Space Institute of Science and Penn State, respectively, also submitted an article to Acta Astronautica entitled, “On the likelihood of non-terrestrial artifacts in the Solar System.”  In it, Haqq-Misra and Kopparapu utilize a probabilistic approach to quantify search uncertainty in the Solar System.  They conclude that, “The vastness of space, combined with our limited searches to date, implies that any remote unpiloted exploratory probes of extraterrestrial origin would likely remain unnoticed.”

So, there you have it.  An exciting time, indeed, and further proof that the area is ripe for both academic and practical research!





Research supports possibility of non-terrestrial artifacts in Solar System

7 11 2011

In a professionally-risky but scientifically-admirable move that came as a bit of a shock to me, two Penn State University researchers recently authored a study that claimed, statistically-speaking, that not enough of the planetary surface areas (at sufficient resolution) and volume of the Solar System has yet been surveyed to rule out the presence of what they term “non-terrestrial” artifacts.  (For more information, see the PSU press story here.)

Archaeologists excavating an alien artifact in 1928 from the movie “Stargate.” (Credit: MGM)

According to the post-doctoral academics, “The vastness of space, combined with our limited searches to date, implies that any remote unpiloted exploratory probes of extraterrestrial origin would likely remain unnoticed.”

That this admission has been formalized is extraordinary news, for it reinforces the very impetus for my own work on xenoarchaeological guidelines; lending credence to the view that a proactive stance on the rigorous development of xenoarchaeology as a practicable field science (along with related communication strategies) is no less justified than that underpinning astrobiology or conventional SETI studies.

Curious to me from a terminology standpoint is the authors’ use of the term, “non-terrestrial.”  It certainly allows for a consistent discussion while avoiding the sensationalist baggage involved with the term, “extra-terrestrial.” 

Looks like the academic environment is ripe for the further development of xenoarchaeological methodologies and analogue work.  Stay tuned.

(For more information, see my original post here, and past related follow-up posts here, here, and here.)








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