Yes, I still do some research -- scholarly papers on evolution, communication, astronomy and exobiology... whether or not humanity is likely to be alone in the cosmos. Though I've lapsed from doing very much science these days, I still try to maintain my "union card" by producing a scholarly paper or two. Here are some of those accessible by Internet.
Scientific American interviews me in their Too Hard For Science? series. "David Brin on - Raising Animals to Human Levels of Intelligence." If we cannot find aliens in the stars, we might create new "alien" intelligences on Earth. But it won't be easy, technically, politically or ethically.
My special feature on "How the Net Ensures Our Cosmic Survival" has appeared in Communications of the ACM, the June 2010 issue.
Responding to Stephen Hawking's new Discovery Channel show, I debated the "alien threat" on the Larry King Show with Michio Kaku, Seth Shostak, and actor Dan Aykroyd (who pushed UFOS). My unusual stance? That no one knows a damn thing about aliens! Alas, many otherwise smart people weigh in with "of course" explanations for why advanced sapient races haven't been seen, or what they would "obviously" do if encountered. It is a field rife with unwarranted (and wishful) assumptions.
Way back in 1983, my Great Silence paper was -- and still remains -- the only genuine review article ever published in the SETI field, comparing assumptions and theories, instead of leaping for just one, exploring the wide range of possibilities, re alien life. For popularized accounts see "Xenology," "Shouting at the Cosmos," and "what to say to an ET lurker."
These just scratch the surface. It is a huge, important topic that deserves better from our top minds, than lazy suppositions and cheap platitudes.
Every few years I weigh into a battlefront in culture war: Global Climate Change. Trained as a scientist, and knowing many who research the atmospheres of 8 planets, or who propelled spectacular advances in weather forecasting, I tend toward listening to expert advice on this one - especially since we're only being asked to do things we should be doing anyway. (Ironically, I coined the term "age of amateurs" and pushed citizen power! Still, expert knowledge matters.)
In 2007 I posted an essay dealing with some logic-flaws in the denial-movement. Now I go after those who claim: "I'm not denying science - I'm a skeptic, just asking questions!" In fact, I know some real skeptics. I'm one, myself! But in "Distinguishing Climate 'Deniers' From 'Skeptics'" I distinguish posers from the real thing.
Serving as a futurist pundit, I opened and closed the History Channel show "Life After People" -- which became the network's best-watched telecast ever, with 5.4 million viewers. Somewhat better than my earlier show for the HC -- "The ArchiTechs." ("Five geniuses are challenged: Design better safety/rescue systems for skyscrapers... in 48 hours!") Those more interested in a hurried roller-coaster of ideas about "saving the Enlightenment" might visit my speech at the "Beyond Belief: Enlightenment 2.0" conference. For other appearances on Nova and Discovery Channel shows, see Speaking and Podcasts.
For many years now, every science show -- from Nova to UNIVERSE -- that has done an episode about comets has portrayed the cometary nucleus as a dark, spinning mass, covered with dust, except for a geyser-like fountain or two, bursting steam through the mantle layer and spewing particles into space. Would it shock anybody out there to learn that this was my original theory? Drawn out in my doctoral dissertation at UCSD, way back in 1980? The same hypothesis is also featured in a novel I wrote with Gregory Benford, Heart of the Comet (A Bantam spectra book), which appeared just before the European Giotto mission approached Halley in 1986... and confirmed this model, down to the last detail. Now, you can view the Astrophysical Journal paper that started it all, "Three Models of Dust Layers on Cometary Nuclei." See also an abstract of my dissertation itself: "Evolution of Cometary Nuclei as Influenced by a Dust Component."
Reputable scientists everywhere are waging a "charm offensive" to promote awareness of climate change. Here's my contribution.
"Recently, on the pages of a very high-ranked tech commerce newsletter, I was personally challenged, by a former top member of Enron, to answer a series of standard neoconservative mantras concerning global climate change. Talking points that -- in my opinion and in the opinion of almost every scientifically-educated person I know -- smack of ritualized denial."
"Once the sole province of nerdy young men, science fiction has become a central port of our culture's myth-making engine, now engaging girls, women, and adults of all ages. Yet the breadth of SF and its ultimate importance can be difficult for a non-aficionado to grasp."
One of my biggest, boldest and most popular essays about our future destiny, "Singularities and Nightmares: Extremes of Optimism and Pessimism About the Human Future," is now available for free access. It explores a startling range of possibilities for humanity and the Earth, from dangers all the way to opportunities that inspire others to think that we may soon become apprentice gods. Weigh the possibilities for yourself.
"In order to give you pleasant dreams tonight, let me offer a few possibilities about the days that lie ahead — changes that may occur within the next twenty or so years, roughly a single human generation. Possibilities that are taken seriously by some of today's best minds. Potential transformations of human life on Earth and, perhaps, even what it means to be human."
My full essay on "Other Theories of Intelligent Design" appears in SKEPTIC's online edition.
"There is rich irony in how the present battle over Creationism v. Darwinism has taken shape, and especially the ways that this round differs from previous episodes. A clue to both the recent success -- and the eventual collapse -- of 'Intelligent Design' can be found in its name, and in the new tactics that are being used to support its incorporation into school curricula. In what must be taken as sincere flattery, these tactics appear to acknowledge just how deeply the inner lessons of science have pervaded modern culture."
Did you think that SETI (the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence) was benign and scientific, as portrayed in the movie CONTACT? Well that was back in the 20th Century, when the programs, aims and goals were open and scientific. Alas, things have been gradually changing in the cult-ridden 21st Century. See an exposé of how a small and inward-looking community of radio astronomers aim to gamble with all of human posterity, based on a few questionable assumptions... without ever openly discussing their intention with colleagues or the world at-large.
Indeed, the world is taking notice. A recent editorial in NATURE presented a capsule summary of the problem and the very openminded and vigorously fun Seti League (not to be confused with the Seti Institute) has posted a pdf version online. Let there be no confusion. The request that is on the table -- for a wide-open and broad-based discussion of this important issue at some prestigious and eclectic venue like (say) the AAAS -- is one that no reasonable person or group would refuse. Will such an open discussion take place? Allowing all perspectives to be heard and examined? Stay tuned.
ALSO READ: Active SETI Resource Site: I've also written Shall We Shout Into the Cosmos?, a collection of quotations and comments about the wisdom of broadcasting to the stars, written by great scientists, including many of the founders of SETI.
"Technological breakthroughs -- for example in the development of sophisticated multichannel spectrum analyzers -- have enabled researchers to sift through interstellar static with fine-toothed combs that compensate for everything from orbital doppler effects to quirks in the manner that aliens might choose to transmit, enabling investigators to search -- patiently and relentlessly -- for needles in the 'Cosmic Haystack'."
In 1983, I wrote an essay -- now called a "classic" -- concerning the probability of contact with extraterrestrial intelligent life, including the possibility that such life might ever have visited Earth.
"The 'Great Silence': the Controversy Concerning Extraterrestrial Intelligent Life" (published in the Quarterly Journal of the Royal Astronomical Society) remains one of the only complete review articles ever written on this expansive subject. (Nearly all "exobiology" papers push a particular theory or viewpoint, instead of comparing and contrasting the entire range of possibilities.) Those interested in SETI or Contact or the notion of intelligent life in the cosmos will find this the most comprehensive work on the subject. For years this essay was unavailable outside of major university research libraries.
This classic -- the only Review Article ever published in the SETI field -- can be accessed via an academic archives site.
A companion article, Xenology: The Science of Asking Who's Out There, asks is serious, scientific pursuit of extraterrestrial intelligence possible?
A much less all-encompassing technical article, and possibly more fun, is "An Open Letter to Alien Lurkers," my contribution to Professor Allen Tough's attempt at contacting extraterrestrials via the Internet!
Out of all the possibilities inherent in SETI (the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence), one that was left unexplored till now has been the possibility of "lurkers"... alien machine intelligences sitting quietly somewhere in our solar system -- perhaps the asteroid belt -- listening to our radio and TV... and now possibly tapping into the World Wide Web. Hey, why not?
Well, there may be some pretty good reasons why not! Still, while I'm skeptical, Allen's idea also intrigued me. Anyone interested -- and especially you alien lurkers who are dropping by this site right now -- please feel free to visit Professor Tough's site.
"True, aliens may be a lot nicer than 18th Century European colonialists were. But would you bet our future on it?"
I often meddle in my old professional stomping ground of science. And yes, I opine about modern politics (see The Political Lamp is Lit! and my Contrary Brin blog). These two areas have meshed in recent years -- a good thing, when disinterested science informs public policy. And bad, when political fanaticism warps or ignores science. All parties in the passionate "culture war" are guilty of trumping evidence to serve dogmatic will. Can we ever return to an era of confident problem-solving? Not so long as indignation remains the worst addiction.
But then, might that be a clue? Could a single scientific breakthrough help get us past a rising mass frenzy of self-righteousness? I've long corresponded with experts, trying to find out. Now, I'll post my suggestion online, hoping to interest more of the right people. "An Open Letter to Researchers In the Fields of Addiction, Brain Chemistry, and Social Psychology" talks about the worst "drug addiction" -- one that crosses all political and social boundaries, warping our ability to negotiate like adults or solve problems for the sake of our children.
"Suppose that, instead of preaching to substance abusers that they should 'get high on life,' we could actually train them in self-triggered endorphin/dopamine-releasing methods? Methods the rest of us learn unconsciously in childhood. Better addictions that do not suffer from receptor down-regulating and other problems, such as depression or insatiability."
I have written about scientific appraisal of the subject of parapsychology -- originally for the site for the Public Television show Closer to Truth. Reprinted here, my article "Seeking a New Fulcrum: Parapsychology and the Need to Believe in a New Transcendence" offers some perspectives you may never have seen before.
"Perhaps parapsychology is something other than its enthusiasts imagine. Not a trail leading back to ancient wisdom, but a prediction. More an expression of human desire than an exploration of existing or ancient talents."
A conversation with Robert L. Forward and Jonathan Vos Post, moderated by NASA scientist (and Nebula Award winner) Geoff Landis, about the possibility of interstellar flight without faster than light travel (article originally appeared in the magazine Science Fiction Age).
"We already have an interstellar space probe, Voyager. It's leaving the solar system all right, but on this scale, it's departing at the rate that grass grows."
I'm reprinting here a speculative paper, "Neoteny and Two-Way Sexual Selection in Human Evolution: Paleo-Anthropological Speculation," which origionally appeared in the Journal of Social and Evolutionary Systems (vol. 18(3), pp. 257-276, January 1996). In it, I speculate about some of the ways that human beings turned out to be so strange compared to other species.
"Human females began competing for mates because they needed the kind of competent, collaborative devotion received by female birds -- but which only a fraction of human males seem inclined or capable of delivering."
Here's a hint at something to come... I've begun a new venture in web/internet software!
Yes, the e-bubble finally burst. All right, many high-riding venture capitalists are now looking for day jobs. So what am I doing filing for a software patent?
Well, countercyclical theory suggests that now's the time to create the fundamentals for the next wave of internet excitement, when people start to realize that it's a genuine part of life in a new century -- not a fad, but a zone of public life as important as phones became in the Twentieth.
What's it all about? A new and vastly better approach to online real-time text/voice/video communications... a realm that nowadays is all-too-often dismissed with the derisive term "chat" -- partly because the clunky teletype-based interface convention is almost unchanged from when I first used a version at Caltech, in 1970!
The only substantial reform that's been attempted so far has been to set up silly cartoon "avatars" that add nothing to functionality or efficiency of human-to-human communications. It occurred to me that current systems don't take any advantage of the many techniques that people naturally use in complex conversational spaces, like cocktail parties or business meetings. Take for example the easy way we compress, sift, correlate and remember things that other people say -- skills we've had ever since the Holocene Era began, tens of thousands of years ago. Skills that haven't yet been translated to the Internet.
So I came up with a new approach -- and a tiny startup company to implement it. If my partners and I are right, many people will want to host using this new approach. A demo will be available online soon!
Of course, software is NOT my area of professional expertise! And yes, the timing may be bad, with the e-bubble bust so fresh in memory. Still, I was once an engineer. And this concept appears to be so much better than the present interface. But I suppose the market will be the final judge of that!
[All items sold thru Amazon.com (a secure online store) help offset the cost of maintaining the site.]
I still do science, but civilization seems more interested in my perspectives on the future. (Who am I to argue with civilization?) Let's face change with agility and hope, and meet the challenges ahead.