2020 Topics

Please note: These were the planned abstracts for our cancelled April 2020 dates.

Titles and abstracts will be added here as they become available. Please check back soon for updates!

The list is alphabetical by presenter last name.

Greg Barr

"Overview of CONTACT's Epona"

Greg Barr will provide a concise summary of Contact's Epona past as a Magrathean project management exercise, including a quick look at its Internet repository at worldbuilders.info.

Nora Bateson

"Warm Data..."

...and why it matters that the deeper systemic processes are not visible in current KPIs and other documentation practices.

Penelope J. Boston

"Transport of Biosignatures and Life Across the Solar System and Beyond"

From the prospect of lunar paleontology of Earth materials [1-6] to notions of life cross-seeding amongst Earth's neighboring possible habitats [7-9], to the idea that just perhaps life of some sort might hitch-hike on objects transiting from one Solar System to another [10-11], the questions are essentially the same. 1) What are the transport mechanisms that might make any of these processes possible? 2) How would material find its way to such transport? 3) What are the destructive processes that would occur along the way? 4) What are mechanisms of protection for materials on their journey? 5) What are the time constraints on viability of life, and on biosignatures? As we appear to be advancing once again, to the Moon, with the potential for increasing numbers of exploration opportunities, and as two extra-Solar System objects have recently been identified within about a year of each other, it is timely to visit these questions in detail and try to map out progress that we have made in answering them for the different planetary and small bodies and solar systems beyond our own. Where and how can we look for evidence to support or refute the plausibility of biomaterials on the Moon, traveling within the Solar System, and crossing the distances between star systems?

William Clancey

"What Can We Learn from the Octopus about the Nature of Intelligence and its Evolution?"

The octopus, a wily amorphous mollusc, entrances us for its apparent curiosity, problem-solving, and shape and color-shifting abilities. Popular books refer to its "soul" and "consciousness" (perhaps revealing more about people than such heady and heartfelt topics), while journalists proclaim it to be an "alien." Recent scientific studies are providing useful data about octopus behaviors, physiology, and genome. But what aspects of human cognitive processes and capabilities are actually identifiable in the octopus? More generally, what might the cephalopods' independent evolution of a nervous system and body with such remarkable abilities reveal about the varieties of extra-terrestrial intelligence?

Jay Cole

"The Ranger and the Astronaut"

As part of the Rangers and Astronauts symposium, Jay Cole of West Virginia University will report his progress on the proposed Radio Astronomy National Historic Park and also talk about his related effort to examine the impact of science fiction on public opinion, with a focus on radio astronomy.

Bruce Damer

"The Ranger and the Astronaut"

As part of the Rangers and Astronauts symposium, Bruce Damer will report on what it's like to do hot spring chemistry experiments on the origin of life in a national park with the public looking on.

"The Quest for the Origin of Life on Earth, Mars and Elsewhere in the Universe"

In recent years, accelerating progress has been made both in the laboratory and at field analogs building chemical evidence that life might have started on the Earth 4 billion years ago in hot spring environments, rather than deep at oceanic vents as has been previously proposed. The science of the Hot Spring Hypothesis for an Origin of Life will be reported along with implications for the search for life elsewhere: on Mars, icy moons, and exoplanets. Life detection missions such as Mars2020, future Mars sample return and Enceladus plume sampling will be discussed along with larger societal implications of the hypothesis.

Keith Doyle

"Mars and Space Themes in Board Games"

Outer space themes in board games have been around since the 1950s. A lot has happened in the last couple of decades. I'm a fan who's done a lot of research looking for games for my personal collection. There's a wealth of interesting imagery on this theme as well. The site Board Game Geek has pages on pretty much every known game with lots of pictures uploaded of the artwork and game layouts, cards, etc., so there's no shortage of material I can draw upon for a slide deck. And there's a lot of interesting advances in game mechanism designs that could be of interest. It would be possible to host some First Contact game sessions so people can try it out at the conference.

Chris Ford

"Your Digital Avatar in Tomorrow's World"

My focus will be on how you can literally represent yourself in the virtual worlds that are emerging.

Andrew Fraknoi

KEYNOTE: "Inspiration from the Cosmos: Music, Astronomy, and Popular Culture"

Gus Frederick

"Looking Backward - Twenty Years After What Could Have Been"

In 1888, a unique Science Fiction novel was published. Playing on the Rip van Winkle trope, Looking Backward: 2000- 1887 told the tale of Julian West, a gilded age plutocrat with insomniac tendencies, who sleeps for 113 years and wakes up in 2000 Boston. The book follows Mr. West as he adapts to the strange new future world he finds himself in. Written by journalist Edward Bellamy, the book was a best seller at the time, and inspired "Bellamy Clubs" as well as several intentional communities built around the various technical and social aspects of the future as envisioned through Mr. Bellamy's 19th Century eyes. Several years later, Bellamy wrote a sequel entitled "Equality" which returned to the Boston of the future to examine the lot of the 21st Century woman, seasoned by the Suffragette movement which Bellamy supported. Both novels are early examples of the impact that science fiction can have on society as a whole. His ideas regarding future technology are especially interesting. Among other things, he "predicted" streaming multimedia, a universal electrical grid and autonomous vehicles. While Bellamy got many things correct, his missed a century of world wars and colonial collapse, which were unseen blips in his timeline. He simply extrapolated from 1887 onward with educated guesses biased by the gilded age and emerging progressive era.

Jim Funaro

"Outside the Box: Musings on the World of Perception"

This talk explores the skills and limitations of the sensory systems of Terran organisms and the implications of this speculation for ExtraTerrestrial communication. It will feature a stroll through the subjective worlds of our planet's creatures and will consider some possibilities for other dimensional realities. Unlike most approaches to ET contact, it attempts to anticipate what we might NOT expect in a message to us from the stars.

Joel Hagen

"I Know Who I Am... I'm Not So Sure About You"

Does it matter if James Dean is dead? Did you attend this year's Buddy Holly concert? My cousin owns your face. 500,000 Likes can't be wrong. Show me that blockchain jacket you were wearing at Bixby bridge. Is Hatsune Miku Pepper's Ghost? Bring me the head of Wilhuff Tarkin! Ibn Fadlan and I have a look around.

Jeroen Lapré

"Maelstrom II and Exoplanets"

Jeroen will give a brief progress report on his personal passion project; an indie science fiction short film - Arthur C. Clarke's Maelstrom II.

Mr. Lapré will also give a sneak preview of the California Academy of Sciences next planetarium show Living Worlds. We start the show by describing life by what it needs; an energy source, nutrients, and shelter. Building up from an explanation of light and color, to an understanding of spectra, we show that astronomers have discovered more than 4,100 exoplanets orbiting other stars. We show how future space telescopes might detect biosignatures and maybe even technosignatures on those exoplanets. If we find signs of life and civilizations on these worlds, what does that mean for us? We end the show by making these bold statements; in order for Humanity to become a citizen of the galaxy, we must learn to live with our home planet, for it may take more than a thousand years to hear from our neighbors.

Steve McDaniel

"Fix Earth or Fix Mars... Why Not Both?"

Coatings can make a significant contribution in combating the problem of increased atmospheric carbon dioxide levels and detrimental impacts of climate change. They can also terraform a high CO2 atmosphere to one more enriched with O2. Ocean-bound algae exist primarily as a thin layer that spreads over vast oceans surfaces currently accounting for most (70-80 percent) of the earth's photosynthetic conversion of carbon dioxide (CO2) into oxygen (O2). We have been able to mimic this thin layer of horizontal algae in land-based platforms, while minimizing the footprint of land needed by converting the system into coated vertical arrays. Natural polymer gels have long been used to support the growth of living cells. We have designed and prototyped translucent coatings that retain high levels of moisture (> 80 percent water content) when applied over large vertical surfaces and produce usable O2 that can be recovered for added value. To achieve this, an alga engineered to express genes from a bacterial cellulose producer was used. We demonstrate that these genetically-modified algal cells are not only viable in the coating system for months, but they also actively capture CO2, generate O2 and produce cellulose. Furthermore, the current coating can be removed from the vertical substrate and easily disassociated, releasing the cellulose for collection. Other algae have the potential to be genetically modified in a similar manner, whether to produce usable products such as cellulose and other polysaccharides (or protein or fatty acids) or to tailor the host alga for the application conditions, such as arid and/or high light conditions. This opens a new field by merging genetically engineered microbes with coatings to produce usable and harvestable products while also sequestering CO2 in the process.

Chris McKay

"Human Exploration of the Entire Solar System"

We consider how humans can travel through, enjoy, and explore the entire Solar System. In this context it is important to ask whether a mission architecture based on simple extrapolations from the Apollo Moon program is appropriate for missions whose distance and time of transit would be orders of magnitude greater. The human privations that can be ignored for a trip of a few days cannot be ignored for missions of a year or more. This realization calls for a new architecture for deep space missions that include sustainability and provision of critical human needs.

David P. Miller

"Stereo vs. 3D for Tele-operation in Space"

Operating a rover on another world means that the robot has to be autonomous or it has to be tele-operated. Autonomous operation is a matter of degree, and current technology is not really up to the task. Tele-operation has been used on the Moon since 1970. As robots become more autonomous the required bandwidth can be reduced. The less bandwidth required to operate a robot the smaller the transmitter and antennas onboard the robot can be in order to get the critical information to the operator. Current sensing could reduce the amount of information that needs to be transmitted between robot and operator. This talk will compare different kinds of tele-operation problems and the technology that could be used to overcome these problems.

David Morrison

"What Really Killed the Dinosaurs?"

Mass extinction is a topic that fascinates scientists and laypersons alike. The best known mass extinction occurred 65 million years ago at the end of the Cretaceous era and included the sudden demise of the dinosaurs. Since the pioneering work of the Alverazes and others in the 1980s, it has been generally accepted that the cause was a massive, global climate disruption associated with the impact of a large asteroid in the Yucatan. There have been a few dissenters however, primarily scientists who have focused narrowly on the fate of the dinosaurs, with less attention to the loss of other species at the same time.

Understanding the cause of this "KT" extinction has been further complicated by the contemporary immense flood basalt eruptions in India, which triggered global changes in the atmosphere. Suggestions have been made that the primary cause of the mass extinction was volcanically induced changes in atmospheric chemistry, not a large asteroid impact. One of the best ways to disentangle these effects is to improve the precision of geological dating. Research over the past several decades has clarified the synchronicity of the eruptions, the impact, and the killing. The picture that emerges is that the impact and associated extinction were distinct in time from the major volcanic effects. This work supports the original proposal that the asteroid was the main contributor to the dinosaur mass extinction.

Meanwhile, another controversy has arisen over a suggestion that a minor but much more recent extinction, just 12,000 years ago, was triggered by a cosmic event. The extinction of the North American megafauna (mastodon, saber-tooth tiger, etc.) occurred at the time of a pause in post-glacial warming, called the Younger Dryas (YD). Also at about this time, there was a change in the Stone Age weapons of the Clovis Culture inhabitants of North America. A small number of enthusiasts suggested that the cause of this "YD climate change and megafauna extinction" was external, perhaps a nearby supernova or a cosmic impact. Following the KT extinction playbook, they excavated Clovis settlement sites searching for direct evidence of cosmic debris. They have published a series of papers, some in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, focusing on a comet impact on the Laurentide Ice Sheet in North America, perhaps in Hudson Bay, more likely with a shotgun blast of multiple icy projectiles. From the perspective of the better-understood KT impact mass extinction, I will briefly discus the status of the YD controversy.

Gerald Nordley

"Epona and Exoplanets"

Gerald Nordley will discuss the real 82 Eridani system in the context of other exoplanets that now include a rapidly growing catalog of real possible destinations. Since 82 Eridani became Epona's Taranis, thousands of extrasolar planetary systems have been discovered, a number of them nearby. It has turned out that the method used to create the Taranis system was prescient in its ability to approximate the range of what nature has actually done. An interesting revelation is that the Solar System's mass "gap" between Earth and Uranus is filled in the real universe with many "super-Earths" and "mini-Neptunes." This was well-anticipated by "Sucellus" and "Rosmerta" in the Taranis system. The main addition to the planetary system formation process we might make today is to include the disk/planet interactions that cause some planetary systems to "pile up" close to their central stars in resonant or near-resonant chains of "hot" planets. In retrospect, one might have expected this from the model of Jupiter's moon system. Another interesting thing is the apparent long-term robustness of these closely packed planetary systems. This suggests that, while a long-term numerical integration of the orbits would need to be done to confirm it, an orbit like that selected for Epona might fit in the real 82 Eridani system without too much difficulty.

Douglas Raybeck

"Likely Sensory receptors of Extraterrestrials"

My presentation concerns the likely sensory apparatus of the extraterrestrials we are most likely to encounter. Vision is by far the most likely modality followed by audition. Following these, there are numerous possible combinations ranging from vibration, olfaction, palpation and even taste.

Wolf Read

"Bringing Epona into the 21st Century"

One of the overarching ideas behind the Epona Project involved creating a scientifically defensible fictional world. All aspects, including the astronomy, physical geography and biology had to be developed in a manner that fit with known science. Thus, while an imaginary creation, a world like Epona may have some possibility of existing - if not around the star chosen to host this planet, perhaps orbiting a remote sun somewhere in or beyond the vast expanse of the Milky Way Galaxy. In terms of exoplanets, 82 G Eridani (82 Eri), Epona's parent star some 6.0038 parsecs (19.57 light years) distant from the Earth, was an open playground back in 1993. The details of 82 Eri's planetary system - let alone if it even had one - remained hidden by the veil of the interstellar gulf. Nearly two decades passed before the first worlds around the sun-like orb were announced. However, even at the dawn of extrasolar planet discovery, the quite unique and alien world of 51 Pegasi b announced in 1995 offered a glimpse at the future of discovery. Planetary systems proved to be more varied and unique than many people with an interest in astronomy anticipated, and the one hosted by 82 Eri was no exception. The family of worlds that included Epona were borne of a computer model called ACCRETE, a suite of algorithms that had a tendency to generate planetary mass arrangements that bore some resemblance to the Solar System. Based on what is now known about 82 Eri, this approach proved to be on the conservative side of the star-system spectrum. However, in some cases, the model output produced tantalizing echoes of the actual worlds that grace 82 Eri. In his talk, Gerald Nordley will look outward from 82 Eri and explore what the vast array of exoplanetary systems tells us about the possibility of a world like Epona existing amid the known conditions of the 82 Eri system. My talk will look inward with a detailed intercomparison between the Taranis system of yesteryear and the assemblage of worlds so far detected around 82 Eri, all in the spirit of trying to keep Epona "alive".

Don Scott

"The Ranger and the Astronaut"

As organizer of the Rangers and Astronauts symposium, Don Scott will offer a video summarizing the work at Craters of the Moon, and describe projects and proposals by the next generation of "Rangers" and "Astronauts" that will carry the concept onward into the next generation.

Carlo Séquin

"Geometrical Conversation Pieces in ET Contact"

When we first make contact with an alien civilization coming from a vastly different background, what might be the objects that have meaning to both parties and that we can take as a start of some conversation? One possibility is geometrical objects of high symmetry, such as the Platonic solids or mathematical knots with symmetrical structures. I will show how these objects exhibit some universally true facts that will be known to any kind of civilization with which we can possibly communicate.

Michael Sims

"Next Stop the Stars - well at least the planets!"

We are at the point in human history when humans are on the threshold of becoming a multiplanetary species. Between 40 and 100 years from now there will be a million people off world.

There are three primary economic changes which will take place in getting us there.
1. Launching payloads from Earth must become much cheaper
2. Landing on planetary bodies must become much cheaper
3. Activities on those planetary surfaces must become much cheaper

Through the actions of SpaceX, Blue Origin, and others launch costs per unit mass have been driven down orders of magnitude and will continues to go down. So, there are major changes afoot in 1.

Ceres Robotics Inc (Ceres) and the other NASA CLPS teams are directly addressing 2. We will address this in the presentation.

Ceres' planetary robots are our solution to how we make planetary surface operations affordable, hence making a difference in 3 - in affordable planetary surface activities.

All three arena are critical to the affordability of humans becoming multiplanetary and hence making it possible.

Seth Shostak

"A Better Way to Find E.T.?"

For nearly seven decades, a small group of researchers have attempted to find evidence of extraterrestrial intelligence by hunting for radio transmissions or laser flashes. So far, nothing has been found. In the near future, this effort will be extended to nearly a million star systems. Is this larger sample what is needed to produce a reasonable chance of success, or is there another approach that we should emphasize? In this talk we will present the limitations of looking for signals, and an alternative strategy for examining the galaxy for our cosmic confreres.

Kelly Smith

"Is Messaging Extraterrestrial Intelligence (METI) Ethical? Implications of Informed Consent and Public Opinion"

Most of the discussion within the space community concerning METI has been about the level of risk it poses. Advocates of METI usually argue that the risk is so low it's not worth worrying about, while opponents typically counter that we can't assess the risks accurately enough to make a well-informed decision. In other words, the debate has been mostly over the kind of empirical question that physical scientists feel comfortable dealing with. Assessing the empirical dimensions of METI risk is a useful exercise, to be sure, but it's often unappreciated that these details just don't resolve key questions. In particular, if we look at METI through an ethical lens, the central question is not what the level of risk is, but whether those who are exposed to that risk (in this case, all of humanity) agree to it. First, I will apply a widely accepted model of informed consent form medical ethics to METI, concluding that at present we do not have the data about public attitudes to consider it an ethical practice. Then I will present preliminary results from the first public opinion survey specifically about METI and analyze the ethical implications.

Melanie Swan

"Quantum Computing, Black Holes, and the Problem of Time"

This talk discusses quantum computing and its implications. The basics of quantum computing are described without dwelling on the many questions and objections to the technology that have been raised extensively in the field. Rather the focus of this talk is to assert that quantum computing is an early-stage technology in development, and examine its greater scope of application, well beyond the proximate use of forcing an evolution in cryptographic standards. The greater stakes of this talk are an improved understanding of physical reality.

Quantum computing (information processing at the quantum scale of atoms (1x10-9 m)) is farther along than might be thought. Commercial systems (on-premises and cloud-based) are shipping from IBM and Rigetti (controllable gate model superconductors with 19 qubits) and D-Wave Systems (less-controllable quantum annealing machines with 2048 qubits). Quantum computing is implicated in possibly being able to break existing cryptography standards (2048-bit RSA). A 2019 US National Academies of Sciences report estimates that this is unlikely within 10 years, however methods are constantly improving. The US NIST is developing next-generation cryptographic standards based on lattice cryptography (complex 3D arrangements of atoms), as opposed to the difficulty of factoring large numbers (relied upon by RSA 2048); group theory (lattices) versus number theory (factoring).

Quantum computing is just one example of the larger trend of the improved capacity of humans to manipulate physical reality by creating tools that have increasingly greater correspondence to the 3D world. This talk explores quantum computing in the further context of random tensor networks (quantum chromodynamics and gauge theory (quark scale: 1x10-15 m)), the Ads/CFT correspondence (the claim that any physical system with a complex bulk volume is describable with a boundary theory in one fewer dimensions) which relates to the black hole information paradox, and proposed models for the emergence of time and space at the smallest known level of physical reality, the Planck scale (1x10-35 m), with spin networks and spin foams (histories of spin networks) using group field theory and quantum hydrodynamics.

Michael Waltemathe

"Biocentric Perspectives and Biodiversity in Space Exploration: Religious and theological aspects of our relation to possible environments"

Human space exploration missions create environments for humans. They construct a specific relationship between human and environment. Humans have defined and redefined their relationship with their environment(s) on Earth over millenia. They have also had a large impact on Earth's different environments. This has been and still is a topic of philosophical and religious debate. Human construction of very reduced environments specifically suited to let humans survive in the environment of outer space gives new insights into the relationship of human and environment and poses questions to traditional thought on this relationship. If a re-definition or an extension of religious and philosophical thought on humans, their environment and its inhabitants can stem from deliberations on space architecture will be discussed in this talk.

Zac Zimmer

"Firstness as Knot: The Entanglements of Contact and Colonialism"

This article builds off my previous work that identified "Colombo ex frigata" as a literary trope used in Speculative and Science Fiction (SF) to structure First Contact narratives. After summarizing the trope (a Deus ex machina-style device that re-writes interstellar space travel and initial alien contact as a repetition of the Columbian Exchange), I move on to consider the logic of "firstness" that underlies that trope and the majority of First Contact SF. I consider critical concepts like Scenarios of Discovery (Diana Taylor), Firsting and Lasting (Jean O'Brien), Americanicity (Anibal Quijano) and Anxiety of Discovery (Annette Kolodny), especially as they relate to longstanding rumors (documented by the first Iberian cronistas in the early sixteenth century) that Columbus had secret pre-knowledge of the American continent. I conclude with a literary analysis of Gerald Vizenor's attempt to imagine another Columbus as an aesthetic slicing of the Gordian Knot called "firstness;" Vizenor's writings connect to revisionist indigenous and American Indian scholarship that suggests pre-1492 trans-Atlantic circulation. This archeological and anthropological research opens new perspectives on alternative and indigenous futurisms.

Robert Zubrin

"Artificial Singularity Power: A Basis for Developing and Detecting Advanced Spacefaring Civilizations"

Artificial Singularity Power (ASP) engines generate energy through the evaporation of modest sized (108-1011 kg) black holes created through artificial means. This paper discusses the design and potential advantages of such systems for powering large space colonies, terraforming planets, and propelling starships. The possibility of detecting advanced extraterrestrial civilizations via the optical signature of ASP systems is examined. Speculation as to possible cosmological consequences of widespread employment of ASP engines is considered.