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The Cyber Gulag revisited & Debate reloaded

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Is there life after Facebook? Or after the Spring-ing ‘revolution’? Now, when Wall Street is occupied, how will we occupy ourselves? Could we google protest, tweet discontent, arming  ourselves with all the mobile launcher gadgets powered by the micro & soft, touch screen & scream tech, then upload promenades, block a tragedy and avoid farce, and eventually download pure happiness – happily ever after? … Pimp my revolution, Date my resolution …

Through the pain of sobriety, the protesters all across the MENA, Euro-Med and overseas are learning that neither globalization nor the McFB way of life (mostly spent in the large, air-conditioned shopping-malls) is a shortcut to development; that free trade is not a virtue, but an instrument; that liberalism is not a state of mind but a well-doctrinated ideology, and finally that the social media networks are only a communication tool, not a replacement for indepen- dent critical thinking or for the collapsed cross-generational contract. “We are the suckers, the eternally expectant ones, the hopeful ones – and the eternally disappointed ones…”

Machines run on binary-coded algorithms (predictability of human behavior cyber-providers) can neither compensate for an empathic human touch nor can they replace the wonders of socio-emotional interactions of individuals in a real time-space. Sociableness is neither of linear, one-directional dynamics à la Running Sushi, nor can it be a 3-size simplified and instant portable like the Starbucks coffee. Personal relations are lived, not utilized by a mouse click. Human integrity is self-molested (brutalized) and self-reduced (trivialized) to a lame shop-window commodity, which is purchasable 24/7 by ‘poking’ on the photo of someone’s personal profile. And, likies are available to give a rating for ‘displayed commodities’.

MORPHEUS TO NEO:
Your appearance now is what we call ‘residual self-image’.
It is the mental projection of your digital self.
TRINITY TO NEO:
The Matrix cannot tell you who you are, but who you are seems to be at least
in some sense related to whom you think you are in the Matrix.

MORPHEUS TO NEO:
You have the look of a man who accepts what he sees, because he’s expecting to wake up.
Ironically, this is not far from the truth…
Unfortunately, no one can be told what the Matrix is. You have to see it for yourself.

This grotesque of self-imposed cyber gulag, called ‘social media networks’ might end up like smoking of the 21st century. In early 20th century, smoking was cool, sexy, brave, rebellious, liberating and most of all: social. As such it was glorified and promoted by that time Western press, film and other entertainment industries. However, as soon as the physical and mental exposures and distortion, as well as the dependency, submissiveness and heavy-addiction have been credibly verified, smoking was barred from all public places, from children and elderly, schools and hospitals. First opposing for some decades, the tobacco industry was eventually forced to visibly and clearly state warnings about all hazards associated with its products. Today, smoking is proscribed in the OECD countries, ghettoized, and effectively confined to the specially designated glass-boxes with powerful ventilations systems and sensitive fire-alarms. The developing world will maybe follow, one day, successfully. As for the OECD states and media networks: London/UK’s tweet and loot nights of early August 2011 and NY feed, occupy and camp autumn days of 2011 are an indication enough.

Misled by a quick triumphalism of the social-media cheerleaders and TV reporter–nomads, the international news agencies have definitely confused the two: revolt and revolution. As they later missed to co-relate a massive EU bail-outing and the UK loot-outing. Negotiating on the coined “Euro-zone debt crisis” (debt bound economies) without restaging the forgotten Lisbon strategy (knowledge-based societies) is simply a lame talk about form without any substance – it is a grand bargain about control via austerity, not a vision of prosperity.

The very precursor of the so-called Arab Spring was the winter of the (still unsettled) global financial crisis with its severe impact felt or misused locally. Consequently, the Arab unrests started as a social, not political, public revolt over high unemployment and soaring costs of living (Tunisia and Egypt), over the inter-tribal inequalities (Libya, Bahrain), or over a combination of all factors (Yemen and Syria). Besides publicly ‘crucifying’ a couple of scapegoats, it has then failed to bring about structural change (r/evolution), and is paradoxically ending up with more debts, ever higher living costs, and more unemployment than before the real or fabricated austerity measures were imposed in a response to the mounting global financial crisis. Finally, it is not clear whether these popular revolts have been preempted (or diverted by hacktivists), and at the end, scrutinized and criminalized.

How does the Arab ‘Spring’ correlate with the UK/London (looting) ‘Summer’ and the Wall Street (walking charade) ‘Autumn’? Well, the difference between a dialectic and cyclical history is a distance between success and fall: The Arab Oil Embargo of 1973 (that interestingly enough also included the non-petrol exporting republics of Egypt, Syria and Tunisia) was an attempt at political emancipation. In the aftermath of the Oil Shock that the Embargo subsequently triggered, the Arab states have found themselves within ever stronger external financial and politico-military dependencies… History also rounds up the virtuality, (of) taxation and representation. No taxation without representation! – isn’t it?!

MORPHEUS TO NEO:
Welcome to the desert of the real! …How do you define ‘real’!?
If you’re talking about what you can feel, what you can smell, what you can taste and see, then ‘real’ is simply electrical signals interpreted by your brain …
The world exists now only as a part of a neural interactive simulation that we call the Matrix.

CYPHER TO TRINITY:
If I had to choose between that and the Matrix … I choose the Matrix.

TRINITY:
The Matrix isn’t real?

CYPHER:
I disagree, Trinity. I think the Matrix can be more real than this world.

The Ancient world of the Roman Empire was one of the first legal systems to extensively practice the institute of the so-called Civic death. This savage, inhuman but effective sanction medieval Europe eagerly continued for centuries, before it was finally abolished by the post-Napoleonic age. What would be the modern equivalent to this Antique criminal law penalty? Imagine that instead of a fine or imprisonment, the convicted individual gets a sentence which bars him from any access to mobile phones, internet/FB and to shopping malls. Science fiction? Not really! That is exactly what the Prime Minister Cameron asked for in the British Parliament, as to put the London riots under control in August 2011.

CYPHER:
I know that this steak doesn’t exist. I know when I put it in my mouth,
the Matrix is telling my brain that it is juicy and delicious.
After nine years, do you know what I’ve realized?
Ignorance is bliss.

AGENT SMITH:
Then we have a deal?

CYPHER:
Reinsert me into the Matrix… I don’t want to remember nothing. Nothing! You understand?
And I want to be rich… Someone important, like an actor… You can do that, right?

AGENT SMITH:
Whatever you want, Mr. Reagan.

For over ten years, Europe’s youth (in France, Greece, Hungary, Portugal, Spain, Ireland, Norway, Britain) is repeatedly sending us a powerful message on the perceived collapse of the cross-generational social contract. So far, the only consolidated response was the impressive build-up of the so-called ‘Wing/s front’. These movements, seemingly rightist political parties, are effectively exploiting mounting frustration of electorate over the main center-left and center-right political parties (that lost most of its traditional ideological platform and specific political content, but far too often co-habituating in a form of grand-coalitions across the EU), and the potent emotional charges related to ‘migration question’.

The history of Europe is a story of small hysterical nations, traditionally sensitive to the issue of otherness (as the ethnic, linguistic, religious or behaviorist minorities were misused far too many times in history by assertive neighbors all over the continent, or domestically presented as a Hassobjekt for the locally surfacing hardships). The present-day, aged but not restaged, EU is (in) a shadow of the grand taboo that Europe can produce everything but its own life. The ‘Old Continent’ is demographically sinking, while economically just keeping afloat. The cross-generational social contract is silently abandoned (as one of its main operative instruments – the Lisbon strategy – has been eroded, and finally lost its coherence). European youth feels it correctly, still does not express it right: The escapist, defeatist/rejectionist, retreating and confrontational anti-politics is on a rise in lieu of the visionary, dynamic far-reaching policies, aimed at the knowledge-based economy and solidarity-based society.

Imagine human beings living in an underground, cave like dwelling, with an Entrance
a long way up, which is both open to the light and as wide as the cave itself.  They’ve
been there since childhood, fixed in the same place, with their necks and legs fettered,
able to see only in front of them, because their bonds prevent them from turning their
heads around. Light is provided by a fire burning far above and behind them.
Also behind them, but on higher ground, there is a path stretching between them and
 the fire. Imagine that along this path a low wall has been built, like the screen in front
of puppeteers above which they show their puppets … Then also imagine that there are
people along the wall, carrying all kind of artifacts that project above it – statues of
people and other animals, made out of stone, wood, and every material. And, as you’d
expect, some of the carriers are talking, and some are silent.

What is the possible message of the Arab ‘Spring’, London ‘Summer’ and the Wall street ‘Autumn’ for Asia in general and for Southeast Asia (SEA) in particular? Well, there are few. The cross-generational social contract should be neither neglected, nor built on the over-consumerist, anti-intellectual, trivialized and brutalized McFB way of life. Equally alienating and dangerously inflammatory is the radicalization of the entering youth generation – be it a religious or political radicalization. There must be a third way! – especially for the newly arriving SEA middle class that is also rapidly urbanizing. The middle class formation and its urbanization is closely related to the identity-crisis, too. The forthcoming task of intellectuals is to offer the best ways for accommodation of these new arrivals and their integration. It is the political parties who should then promote those policies and best practices for the lasting benefit of all stake holders and the social cohesion which, not only “pleases the markets” and complies with the spooky and shadowy rating agencies but, stabilizes the entire nation.

No doubt, just as the cyber-autistic McFB way of life is the same in any European and Middle Eastern city, so are the radical, wing politics! Have you spotted any critical difference between the rhetoric of Norwegian serial killer Breivik and the Al Qaida Wahhabi ‘Islamists’? “Just like Jihadi warriors are the plum tree of Ummah, we will be the plum tree for Europe and for Christianity”– many news agencies reported these as words allegedly written by the Christian Jihadist Anders Behring. The European (right-wing) parties opposing e.g. Muslim immigration are nothing but the mirror image of the MENA’s Islamist parties. In both cases, there are: (i) Socio-political outsiders (without much of an coherence, integrity and autonomy) that are denouncing the main, status quo, parties as a ‘corrupt establishment’; (ii) Extensively exploiting domestic economic shortcomings (e.g. unemployment, social inequalities, etc.), but they themselves do nothing essential to reverse the trend; (iii) Making ethnic and religious appeals (preaching the return to tradition), attacking foreign influences in their societies and otherwise ‘culturally purifying’ population; (iv) Generally doing better in local rather than in national elections (the ‘Rightists’ win on the national elections only when no other effective alternative exists to challenge the governing party/coalition block); (v) More emotionally charged populist movements than serious political parties of the solid socio-economic and socio-political program (per definition, these parties have very poor governing score).

NEO:
What is this place?

MORPHEUS:
More important than ‘what’ is when!

NEO:
When?

MORPHEUS:
You believe that it is the year 1999…
I can’t tell you exactly what year it is, because we honestly do not know…

So far, the Middle Eastern/MENA and European political establishments responded to these developments in similar fashion: (i) the Middle East: became more sectarian Islamic in its orientation, symbols, practices; (ii) the EU/Europe: mainstream (center) parties adopted rhetorics and promoted the measures advocated by the right-wing, anti-immigrant parties.
The calamities all over the EU and Euro-Mediterranean zone are showing us how dangerous, disastrous, and short-sighted these (anti-politics) policies of exclusion are.
Is Southeast Asia able to prevent its own Middle Eastern ‘Spring’, London ‘Summer’ and
‘Occupying Autumn’ social-cohesion ‘Fukushima-Daiichhi-like’ meltdown?

The Arab world’s population growth is considerably higher than its economic growth. This means that besides the grave indigenous political and regional security problems, domestic disparities, unemployment, pauperization and inequalities are on the sharp rise. Past the prime age of the “baby boomer” generation, Europe suffers the worrying negative demographic growth and rapid ageing. The EU replacement ratio is between 1,3 and 1,7 (and is afloat only due to steady and silent but massive naturalizations all across Europe over the last decade). The EU’s economic growth is very symbolic, despite huge territorial enlargements in the past decade. Actually, the EU’s growth in many categories could be portrayed as negative.

Ergo, both regions are in a socio-economic retreat, naturally reflected in their political defensive. To reverse the trend, both regions would need an extra effort (which is not presently lurking on the horizon).  

CAPTAIN TO AUTO (SHIP’s COMPUTER):
That’s all I’ve ever done! That’s all anyone on this blasted ship has ever done. Nothing! Nothing!!

AUTO TO CAPTAIN:
On the Axiom, you will survive.

CAPTAIN:
I don’t want to survive. I want to live.

AUTO:
…must follow my directive.

WALL-E:
Dirrrr-ect-ti-veee?… Eveeee!

EVE:
Waaaalll-eeee!… Wall-E!

WALL-E:
Ta-dah!

Finally, what is the karma and dharma of current financial crisis? Where is a thin line between too big to fail (so, bail) and too heavy to fly (but, expensive to buy)? Is the ‘Occupy Wall Street’ a spontaneous outcry, a stress-eliminator walk (usually recommended by medics), a camping charade overrun by a bluffing demagogue of anti-corporate populists and mid-term elections opportunists? Is this in fact a Woodstock-remake TV show, just another US exporting item? Or is it the (only way out for domestically needed) solution? Is OWS a mix of all, or none of these?
AGENT SMITH TO MORPHEUS:
Did you know that the First Matrix was designed to be a perfect human world, where none suffered, where everyone would be happy? … It was a disaster. (… entire crops were lost.)

MOUSE TO NEO:
To deny our own impulses is to deny the very thing that makes us human.

CYPHER:
Ignorance is bliss!

Revelation 21:4, KING JAMES BIBLE
And God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes; and there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain: for the former things are passed away.

MORPHEUS TO NEO:
Most of these people are not ready to be unplugged, many of them so inert, so hopelessly dependent…

IVAN, in Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov
So long as man remains free he strives for nothing so incessantly and so painfully
as to find someone to worship.

AGENT SMITH TO MORPHEUS:
Some believe that we lacked the programming language to describe your perfect world,
but I believe that, as a species, human beings define their reality through misery and suffering.
The perfect world was a dream that your primitive cerebrum kept trying to wake up from.   

GARCIN, In Sartre’s No Exit:
Hell is – other people.

Sagan is very precise and instructive: “If we are to survive, our loyalties must be broadened further… Many of those who run the nations will find this idea unpleasant…”

As one of the exceptionally few world regions, Southeast Asia so far holds both what is otherwise missing in the other two mentioned theaters – stabilized demographic growth and an impressive economic growth. However, the demographic and economic growth poses an additional environmental stress, which – if not under check – may result in confrontational domestic policies and practices aimed at to maximize a grab for finite, scarce resources.

Hence, be the outside world Kantian or Hobbesian (be it driven by the sense of higher civilizational mission and common ASEAN destiny, or by the pragmatic need to strengthen the nation’s position), all necessary means are here! To register its future claims, the SEA – as well as any other theater – have to demonstrate its lasting and decisive will now.

Tentatively, we can cluster that will around three main tasks:

(i)    Prosperity: Support to all three sides of the knowledge triangle: research (creation of knowledge); development/innovation (application of knowledge); education (dissemination of knowledge), as well as the promotion of life itself;
(ii)    Solidarity: Human dimension enhancement through promotion of cohesion policies, including the full respect of authenticity as well as the  preservation and promotion of indigenous socio-cultural and environmental diversities;
(iii)    Security: Enhancing the human-centered (socio-economic) safety, based on free- dom, justice and inclusive collective (environmental and socio-political) security.
This opportunity should be understood as history’s call – which both invites and obliges at the same time. Or, as Hegel reminds us that since: “reason is purposive activity…” the state should be: “…the actuality of the ethical Idea, of concrete freedom…” for all. An effective long-range prosperity, solidarity as well as (external or internal) security cannot be based on confrontational (nostalgia of) ‘religious’ radicalism and other ideological collisions. Clearly, it cannot rest on the escapist consumerism, corrosive socio-economic egoism and exclusion, restriction and denial, but only on promotion and inclusion. Simply, it needs to be centered on a pro-active, participatory policy not a reactive, dismissive one.  

TRUMAN:
Who are you?

CRISTOF:
I’m the Creator
…of a TV show that gives hope and joy, inspiration to millions.

TRUMAN:
Then who am I?

CRISTOF:
You are the star.

CRISTOF:
I know you better than you know yourself.

TRUMAN:
You never had a camera in my head!

Post Scriptum

NEO TO AGENT SMITH:
…You can’t scare me with this Gestapo crap. I know my rights…
I want my phone-call.

AGENT SMITH TO NEO:
Mr. Anderson, you disappoint me…
Tell me, what good is a phone-call if you’re unable to speak?

Note:
An early, shorter version of Is there life after Facebook?, the so-called fb1,article appeared at first in China (Beijing, the 4th Media) on 12th August 2011. Is there life after Facebook? – The Cyber Gulag revisited & Debate reloaded, the so-called fb2, article was an extended version of that text published by the Addleton Publishers, New York, RCP 10 (2), 2011.

The present text is an expanded, unpublished version that includes SEA and elaborates on OWS for the first time in this article. It is exclusively prepared for the International Media Conference in Paris, France (23–25 November 2011).  

References:

1.    Bajrektarevic, A. (2003), Beyond the Cyberpunk of negative utopia, Reader for the Research colloquia: Alternative Futures, Helsinki, Finland
2.    Kirkpatrick, D. (2010), The Facebook Effect, Simon & Schuster
3.    Bajrektarevic, A. (2011), No Asian century without the pan-Asian Institution, Post Script  THC, Jakarta 8:3
4.    Heidegger, M. (1927), Sein und Zeit (Being and Time), Max Niemeyer Verlag Tübingen (page: 37)
5.    Dostoyevsky, F.M., (1880), Братья Карамазовы (The Brothers Karamazov), (Chapter 5), Bantam Classics
6.    Huxley, A. (1932), Brave New World,  A Flamingo Modern Classics 1994 (page: 82)
7.    Nietzsche, F. (1886), Jenseits von Gut und Böse; Vorspiel einer Philosophie der Zukunft (Beyond Good and Evil) (page 199), Druck u. Verlag von C.G. Neumann, Leipzig
8.    Fromm, E. (1956), The Art of Loving, Perennial Classics, (page: 79 and page: 80).
9.    The Matrix Movie, written and directed by the Wachowski brothers (1999). According to the movie script; all quoted dialogues refer to the first motion picture of the Matrix trilogy (1999-2003)
10.    Pariser, E., (2011), The Filter Bubble: What the Internet Is Hiding from You, Penguin (page: 43)
11.    Khanthong, T. (2011), Overdrive: Conveniently Ignoring the Truth, The Nation – Thailand (page 13A, 07 X 11)
12.    Plato  Republic, (trans. Grube, G.M.E.), 2nd Ed. Rev. C.D.C. Reeve, Indianapolis, Indiana: Huckett Publishing Co., 1992 (514a1 – 515a3)
13.    Dante, A. (1321), La Divina Commedia (The Devine Comedy), The NAL, Penguin Group /first published, 1954/  
14.    Goethe, J.W. (1808), Faust, Anchor Books Editions 1961 (page: 73, Der Tragödie erster Teil)
15.    NIC – National Intelligence Council (2008), Mapping the Global Future – Disruptive Civil Technologies (STwP Impacts on US Interests out to 2025), Conference proceedings April 2008  
16.    Tim Lister, Europe’s resurgent far right focuses on immigration, multiculturalism, CNN (July 24, 2011)
17.    Bajrektarevic, A. (2005), Destiny Shared: Our Common Futures – EURO-MED Human Capital beyond 2020, Crans Montana Forum, Monaco
18.    Bajrektarevic, A. (2005), Towards the Creation of the OSCE Task Force on Human Capital, Documents of the 13th OSCE Economic Forum, Prague, Czech Republic
19.    Youngs, R. (2010), Europe’s Decline and Fall – The Struggle against Global Irrelevance, Profile Books    
20.    WALL-E (2008), written by Andrew Stanton and Pate Docter, directed by Andrew Stanton. All quoted dialogues taken from the official movie’s script    
21.    Bajrektarevic, A. (2010) The JHA Diplomacy: Palermo Convention, 10 Years After, GHIR – Geopolitics, History and Intl Relation (3:1/2011) (page:32)
22.    Friedman, G. (2009), The Next 100 Years, Anchor Books/Random House NY
23.    Sartre, J.–P. (1944), Huis Clos (No Exit), Vintage International (Random House 1989)
24.    The Truman Show, written by Andrew Niccol and directed by Peter Weir in 1998. All quoted dialogues taken from the official movie’s script
25.    Hegel, G.W.F. (1807), Phänomenologie des Geistes (The Phenomenology of Mind), Oxford University Press, 1977 (page: 25 VII)
26.    Sagan, C. (1980), Cosmos Random House, NY /Carl Sagan Productions Inc. (page: 327).  

Modern Diplomacy Advisory Board, Chairman Geopolitics of Energy Editorial Member Professor and Chairperson for Intl. Law & Global Pol. Studies contact: anis@bajrektarevic.eu

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Science & Technology

Space exploration and the future exploitation of asteroids

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The discoveries of exoplanets in recent years have been absolutely extraordinary, and they could relatively soon be reached by our technology. At Cape Canaveral in Florida, on April 18, 2018 at 6:51pm, the Falcon Nine rocket was launched to send NASA’s Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite or TESS space telescope into orbit. It is a probe that scans the sky for planets about 100 light years away orbiting stars similar to our Sun.

Over the next decade, scientists expect TESS to fulfil its primary mission, which is to discover thousands of exoplanets. Exoplanets are planets that lie beyond the solar system. This is a golden age as far as discoveries are concerned. Only some 20 years ago we did not know that there were Earth-like planets in the Universe and it is hard to believe how many more things will come to light at such a pace. It is difficult to keep up with today’s discoveries: as of May 1 this year, there were 5,017 exoplanets.

Only recently, thanks to the development of satellites and high-power, high-definition telescopes, has it been possible to study neighbouring planets more accurately, particularly those capable of harbouring life. In the past, the idea that Earth-like planets could exist in the galaxy was not only inconceivable, but was also considered heretical blasphemy (Giordano Bruno’s execution was a case in point).

In the early 1990s astronomers, although with high-powered telescopes, were unable to detect distant planets. It is not easy to see an exoplanet: just imagine looking at a firefly next to a reflector. The process is extremely difficult because stars shine with their own light and planets reflect their light: generally speaking, a star is about 10 billion times brighter than a planet but, thanks to remarkable technological advances, two astronomers – Polish scientist Aleksander Wolszczan and Canadian scientist Dale Frail – detected two planets – Poltergeist and Phobetor – through a terrestrial telescope, near the newly discovered pulsar star B1257+12. The case of 51 Pegasi b (Bellerophon-Dimidium), which was spectroscopically detected by the Swiss Michel Mayor and Didier Queloz in 1995, is different. It orbits a Sun-like star (51 Pegasi) and is therefore considered to be the first exoplanet in all respects. On October 8, 2019, the two Swiss scientists received the Nobel Prize in Physics.

The search had already intensified ten years earlier, in 2009, with the launch of Kepler, the first space telescope designed to detect exoplanets. In 2018 Kepler was replaced by the aforementioned even more powerful TESS. The most interesting aspect of TESS is that it was designed for the specific purpose of detecting exoplanets using the transit method, which detects the decrease in brightness of a star’s light due to the transit of a planet. The decrease in brightness signals the transiting body and the orbit is determined, based on the frequency. It is an excellent method for finding new planets.

Although the search for exoplanets was initially aimed at establishing how many planets in the galaxy orbit the stars, the results are staggering: our galaxy has about 400 billion stars and, according to recent discoveries, on average each star hosts at least one planet: this means that there are at least 400 billion planets in our galaxy, the Milky Way.

The discovery of such a large number of exoplanets is a radical change in our knowledge of the Universe, but the idea that millions of planets might not only be able to host other life forms, but also to generate them, is even more extreme. To this end, astronomers and astrophysicists are searching for planets in a region they call the habitable zone. The habitable zone is the area around the star that enables the planet to maintain water in a liquid state. Scientists are looking for a planet in an optimal location, not too close or far from the parent star, that has enough oxygen and water to make the atmosphere, and probably even life, possible.

Scientists are astounded at the amount of planets discovered in the habitable zone that could harbour life forms: as mentioned above, there are at least 400 billion planets in our galaxy – hence even just one per cent equates to four billion planets that could potentially be habitable. The discovery of exoplanets has radically changed the way we think about the entire Universe: almost all scientists believe that other forms of life may exist. Despite the large number of habitable exoplanets, many scientists argue that only microbial or bacterial life forms could exist outside the Earth. They are wary of what they call far-fetched theories that planets could harbour more sophisticated and evolved intelligent life forms, probably equipped with more advanced technologies than ours. Japanese-born astrophysicist Michio Kaku – a summa cum laude graduate of Harvard University – said: ‘Think about it. The Universe is about 13.8 billion years old, while the Earth is only 4.6 billion years old. How many civilisations could have arisen and fallen in this time span before the formation of the Earth?”

The theory, coupled with the practical discovery that the galaxy teems with Earth-like planets, has triggered a revolution in the scientific community. It is believed that most of the planets in the habitable zone are home to life forms very similar to ours. In the Atacama Desert, Chile, in August 2016 astronomers announced the discovery of a planet orbiting the closest star to our solar system, namely Proxima Centauri. The planet in question, Proxima B, is Earth-like and close enough to its star to harbour life. Proxima B is one of the most interesting and recently discovered exoplanets: it is about 1.3 times larger than Earth. Scientists believe it is rocky and may be similar to our planet. Proxima B may be habitable and is being studied with telescopes in more detail; images will be available over the next ten years.

Despite the immense distance, an ambitious programme to study it by spacecraft is underway. The Breakthrough Starshot project is the brainchild of Israeli citizen Russian philanthropist Jurij Milner and the late, famous cosmologist, Stephen Hawking (1942-2018). Milner said: “For the first time in the history of mankind, we will not only be observing the stars, but we will also be able to reach them”. The goal of Breakthrough Starshot is to send small probes a few centimetres in size to the nearby planet. The microchip will be fitted with a sort of parachute propelled by laser beams that will inflate the sails and deposit the probe on the nearest star. The device will travel at cruising speed, but can accelerate up to 20% of the speed of light so that it will easily reach the nearest stars. Although travelling at very high speeds, the probes will take twenty years to complete the journey.

Light travels at a finite speed: the sun rays take about eight minutes to reach the Earth. Many bodies are thousands or millions or billions of light years away.

In recent years, an increasing number of astrophysicists have speculated that mankind could unravel the mysteries of interstellar space travel much sooner than previously thought. They believe the key is to use a theoretically possible structure known as wormhole: a space-time curve theorised by Albert Einstein that could make interstellar travel times not only shorter but almost instantaneous. Wormholes are capable of curving space and would play a key role in space travel. They are studied in the current theory of gravity and general relativity. A wormhole is a tunnel that connects two separate ends that are folded on themselves: they are commonly called stargates, because they enable travel over considerable distances in less time than light would take, but without exceeding the speed of light. In theory, spacecraft capable of creating wormholes could travel to distant exoplanets in a few hours or a matter of seconds, respecting Einstein’s laws.

Mount Palomar, California, October 6, 2013: a red supergiant star in the constellation Pegasus. ten times larger than the Sun, exploded in a colossal supernova. For the first time, scientists could witness the death of a supergiant star in real time but, as the dying star was 160 million light years from the Earth, astronomers witnessed an event that had happened 160 million years ago.

One of the basic concepts of astronomy is that almost everything we see happened in the past because light does not travel instantaneously. A supernova is a stellar explosion that wipes out all the planets around it, including any civilisations or life forms, but the whole process occurred in the distant past. The violent death of the star in the constellation Pegasus provides dramatic confirmation that the Universe is an ancient and dynamic unit.

Billions of years from now, our star, the Sun, will turn into a supernova and the day is inexorably approaching when we should migrate to another habitable planet. It is not reassuring that the event will occur in the very distant future, as thinking about it today will save us tomorrow.

At La Silla Observatory in Chile, in August 2011 astronomers announced the discovery of a large Earth-like planet in the constellation Orion: the planet is in the habitable zone and the star around which it orbits is very similar to ours, thus making it suitable for hosting life. Hence the goal for us earthlings is to discover a stable solar system, like the one Earth is in.

However, specific resources are needed before practice can be developed from theory. In Los Angeles, in June 2019 TransAstra Corporation announced a partnership with NASA to launch a new project into space, namely asteroid mining. TransAstra Corporation was established in 2015, at the time when entrepreneur Elon Musk with SpaceX, Amazon founder Jeff Bezos with Blue Origin, and others were devising cheap and effective ways to travel to space. By having rockets capable of going into orbit cheaply, a business could be created in space like that of mining asteroids for precious metals of great value on Earth. They are called precious metals because they are becoming scarce on Earth. Hence where can we find asteroids?

Metals such as rare earth elements, gold, copper, zinc and platinum have been mined on Earth for thousands of years and are vital to civilisation, but their supply is limited partly because they do not come from our planet. The Earth originally was a mass in a molten state: many precious metals were drawn inwards. As a result of that process, the heavy elements sank to the centre of the Earth; as they cooled down, a crust of light materials was formed.

It is widely known that without the use of metals, technology and civilisation would not have existed. Luckily for us, it is estimated that about 3.8 billion years ago trillions of asteroids crashed into the Earth, depositing a layer of heavy metals on the Earth’s crust. Those materials did not come from the Earth: they were deposited on our planet by comets and asteroids that crashed into the Earth a long time ago. All the precious metals we mine on Earth come from celestial bodies. The bombardment of asteroids deposited metals that made the Bronze Age, the Iron Age and today’s technological civilisation possible, but many metals – including the rare earth elements needed for technology – are increasingly unavailable. This is the reason why many scientists and experts believe that the asteroid belt could come in handy. An asteroid, even a small one, has more rare earth elements than have been mined on Earth in the history of mankind: it is estimated that if extractions were made from even ten of the over six thousand asteroids – whose existence is recorded in the NASA database – they would produce resources equivalent to 1.5 trillion dollars. The asteroid belt could meet our civilisation’s needs for thousands of years and centuries to come.

The most sensible choice is to build spacecraft to find asteroids, extract material and take all the advantages and benefits.

Mountain View, California, April 2013: scientists at NASA’s Ames Research Centre discovered two new potentially habitable exoplanets, Kepler 62E and 62F, thanks to the Kepler Space Telescope. Planets 62E and 62F are called water worlds because they are covered by a global, all-encompassing ocean and are promising because they are located in the habitable zone and are covered by the ocean.

This means that in a phase of expansion and space migration, not only raw materials are needed, but also water which, once broken down and split into hydrogen and oxygen, could be used as fuel with the processes that are at the forefront, which I have analysed in some of my previous contributions.  

It is firmly believed that the search for life forms will further undergo a revolution very soon. On December 25, 2021, NASA launched the James Webb telescope, a space telescope for infrared astronomy, capable of analyses considered impossible until a few years ago, i.e. taking detailed, full-colour images of an exoplanet. The James Webb telescope is completely different from those in space. It gives the possibility to observe the reflected light of exoplanets and the electromagnetic spectrum in order to detect potential biological traces.

The future lies in research, the past in war. The certainty is many graves if we stand still.

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Science & Technology

Finding the missing links of black-hole astronomy

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An accreting SMBH in a fairly local galaxy with very large and extended radio jets. © R. Timmerman; LOFAR & Hubble Space Telescope

A deeper understanding of black holes could revolutionise our understanding of physics, but their mysterious nature makes them difficult to observe.

The weirdness exhibited by black holes boggles the mind. Formed when a star burns all its nuclear fuel and collapses under its own gravitation, black holes are such oddities that at one time, even Einstein didn’t think they were possible.

They are regions in space with such intense gravitation that not even light escapes their pull. Once magnificent shining stars burn out and shrink to a relatively tiny husk, all their mass is concentrated in a small space. Imagine our Sun with its diameter of roughly 1.4 million kilometres shrinking to a black hole the size of a small city just six kilometres across. This compactness gives black holes immense gravitational pull.

Not only do they trap light, black holes can shred any stars they encounter and even merge with each other. Events like this release bursts of energy that are detectable from billions of light years away.

The Nobel Prize in Physics 2020 was shared by scientists who discovered an invisible object at the heart of the Milky Way that pulls stars towards it. This is a supermassive black hole, or SMBH, and it has a mass that is millions of times that of our sun. 

‘At the heart of every massive galaxy, we think there is a supermassive black hole,’ said astrophysicist Dr Kenneth Duncan at the Royal Observatory in Edinburgh, UK. ‘We also think they play a really important role in how galaxies form, including the Milky Way.’

Galactic monsters

Supermassive black holes are gravitating monsters of the Universe. ‘Black holes at the centre of galaxies can be between a million and a few billion times the mass of our Sun,’ said Professor Phillip Best, astrophysicist at the University of Edinburgh. 

They pull in gas and dust from their surroundings, even objects as large as stars. Just before this material falls in towards the black hole’s event horizon or point of no return, it moves quickly and heats up, emitting energy as energetic flashes. Powerful jets of material that emit radio waves may also spew out from this ingestion process.

These can be detected on Earth using radio telescopes such as Europe’s LOFAR, which has detectors in the UK, Ireland, France, the Netherlands, Germany, Sweden, Poland and Latvia.

Duncan is tapping LOFAR observations to identify the massive black holes in a project called HIZRAD. ‘We can detect growing black holes further back in time,’ said Duncan, ‘with the goal being to find the very first and some of the most extreme black holes in the Universe.’

LOFAR can pinpoint even obscured black holes. Duncan has used artificial intelligence techniques to combine data from LOFAR and telescope surveys to identify objects of interest.

Better instruments

Better instruments will soon assist in this task. An upgrade to the William Herschel Telescope on La Palma, Spain, will allow it to observe thousands of galaxies at the same time. A spectroscope called WEAVE has the potential to detect supermassive black holes and to observe star and galaxy formation.   

Radio signals indicate that supermassive black holes exist from as early as the first 5-10% of the Universe’s history. These are a billion solar masses, explained Best, who is the research supervisor.

The surprising part is that these giants existed at the early stages of the Universe. ‘You’ve got to get all this mass into a very small volume and do it extremely quickly, in terms of the Universe’s history,’ said Best. 

We know that following the Big Bang, the Universe began as an expanding cloud of primordial matter. Studies of the cosmic background radiation indicate that eventually clumps of matter came together to form stars. However, ‘The process where you form a blackhole as large as a billion solar masses is not fully understood,’ said Best.

Intermediate black holes

While studies of SMBHs are ongoing, Dr Peter Jonker, astronomer at Radboud University in Nijmegen, the Netherlands, is intrigued by the formation of black holes of intermediate scale.

He is studying the possible existence of intermediate black holes (IMBH) with the imbh project. He notes that supermassive black holes have been observed from when the Universe was only 600 million years old. Scientists estimate the overall age of the universe to be around 13.8 billion years.

‘The Universe started out like a homogenous soup of material, so how do you get clumps that weigh a billion times the mass of the sun in a very short time?’ said Jonker.

While supermassive black holes might consume sun-like stars (called white dwarfs) in their entirety, IMBHs should be powerful enough to only shred them, emitting a revealing flash of energy.

‘When a compact star, a white dwarf, is ripped apart, it can be ripped only by intermediate mass black holes,’ said Jonker. ‘Supermassive black holes eat them whole.’ There are strong indications that intermediate black holes are out there, but there’s no proof yet.

He is searching for flashes of intense X-ray energy to indicate the presence of an intermediate black hole. The problem is when signals are detected, the intense flashes last just a few hours. This means the data arrives too late be able to turn optical telescopes towards the source for observations.

‘This happens once in 10,000 years per galaxy, so we haven’t seen one yet in our Milky Way,’ said Jonker.

Jonker also seeks to observe the expected outcome of two black holes spinning and merging, then emitting a gravitational wave that bumps nearby stars. However, to discern these stars being jolted necessitates powerful space-based telescopes.

X-ray flashes

The Gaia satellite, launched in 2013, is providing some assistance, but a planned mission called Euclid will take higher resolution images and may help Jonker prove IMBHs exist. This satellite was due to be launched on a Russian rocket; it will now be launched with a slight delay on a European Ariane 6 rocket

Nonetheless, a small satellite – the Chinese Einstein Probe – is scheduled for launch in 2023 and will look out for flashes of X-ray energy that could signify intermediate black holes. Duncan in Edinburgh says that the search for intermediate black holes ties in with his own quest. ‘It can potentially help us solve the question of where the supermassive ones came from,’ he said.

Right now, physicists rely on quantum theory and Einstein’s equations to describe how the Universe works. These cannot be the final say, however, because they do not fit well together.

‘The theory of gravity breaks down near a black hole, and if we observe them closely enough,’ said Jonker, ‘Our expectation is that we will find deviations from the theory and important advances in understanding how physics works.’

The research in this article was funded by the EU. This article was originally published in Horizon, the EU Research and Innovation Magazine.  

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Science & Technology

Tech needs girls, and girls need tech

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The UN says, globally, 17 percent more men and boys have access to the internet compared to women and girls. ITU/R. Farrell

More and more young women and girls are highlighting the importance of access and safety in the digital world. Marking International Girls in ICT Day, on Thursday, UN agencies have issued a call to action to ensure equal access to digital learning opportunities.

The International Girls in ICT Day is observed annually during the last week of April, and this year the focus is on ‘Access and Safety’ as key elements to engage the next generation with information and communication technology (ICT).

According to the UN International Telecommunication Union (ITU), this year’s theme “reflects the world’s shared interest in empowering youth and girls to safely benefit from an active digital life.

Fair and equal

The UN agency recognizes the need to ensure girls and women enjoy equal access to digital learning opportunities, particularly in least developed countries.

Worldwide only 30 per cent of tech science and technology professionals are women. And according to ITU’s latest data, globally, just 57 per cent of women use the Internet, compared to 62 per cent of men.

Furthermore, if women are unable to access the Internet and do not feel safe online, they are unable to develop the necessary digital skills and engage in digital spaces, which diminishes their opportunities to pursue careers in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) related fields, ITU continued.

Inspire the next generation

“Girls in ICT Day is a call to action to inspire the next generation of young women and girls to enter STEM careers,” said ITU Secretary-General Houlin Zhao.

Calling on all government, business, university leaders and others, to do their utmost to support young women and girls, Mr. Zhao said that is essential to “give them the chance to achieve their dreams.”

Girls’ access to STEM is crucial

Joining the call, UN Women reiterated the importance of ensuring every girl has safe and meaningful access to digital technology and ICTs.

In a statement marking the Day, the agency said they were inspired by young activists such as 18-year-old Ana Vizitiv from the Republic of Moldova, whose work promotes gender equality in ICT and STEM, and by role model and entrepreneur 20-year-old Yordanos Genanaw from Ethiopia, who participated in the African Girls Can Code initiative and is now developing a website and coaching others.

“These young women are using their skills to inspire other girls to pursue coding and basic IT skills, regardless of gender biases”, the statement continued.

Reminding that girls’ access to, and engagement in STEM subjects, is more crucial now than ever – especially after the COVID-19 pandemic and multiple crises in countries across the world have created repeated challenges to young women and girls to learn, earn and connect – UN Women reiterated the importance of technology as a solution to access essential services and information.

Technology also helps them communicate in school, keep in touch with friends and relatives and as a key aspect of their autonomy and future prospects.

Persistent negative stereotypes

A recent study by UN Women and ITU shows that girls access digital technology at a later age than boys, and that their use of this technology is more often curtailed by their parents.

In addition, young women and girls are disproportionately exposed to online and ICT-facilitated violence and harassment, which can negatively impact their physical, mental, and emotional well-being, and influence how they access and use digital tools for the rest of their lives, UN Women added.

Built upon the idea that “every girl has the right to be connected and safe, and to play her part in shaping a more equal, green and tech-driven future”, the UN Secretary-General has called for a global digital compact for improved digital cooperation.

The Generation Equality Action Coalition for Technology and Innovation for Gender Equality is bringing together governments, tech companies, the UN System, civil society organizations and young people, for a more equal and diverse digital transformation, including by preventing and eliminating online gender-based violence.

Marking the Day, UN Deputy Secretary-General Amina Mohammed called for an end to systemic barriers: “Girls continue to face cyber bullying and threats, and a lack of access due to digital divide”, she said on Twitter, asking for a transformation in tech and innovation, to be “equitable, safe and accessible”.

Across the UN system, agencies spoke up for gender equality in STEM. The UN cultural agency UNESCO called for the empowerment of young girls in ICT, so they can have a future lead in the workplace. The UN refugee agency mentioned the importance of not forgetting the digital access for refugees, and the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) reiterated the need to guarantee better access to digital technologies, for rural women and girls.

Join the digital revolution

The global celebration and associated worldwide Girls in ICT Day events underline ITU’s commitment to encourage girls and young women everywhere to consider pursuing STEM career paths.

To date, over 600,000 girls and young women have taken part in more than 12,000 celebrations of Girls in ICT Day in 195 countries worldwide.

“All over the world, girls and young women want to join the digital revolution. When we remove barriers of access and safety, women and girls can make remarkable contributions to, and be empowered by, ICTs. To put it simply: tech needs girls, and girls need tech,” said Doreen Bogdan-Martin, Director of ITU’s Telecommunication Development Bureau.”

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