Extraterrestrial Life

There is little doubt in my mind as to the existence of extraterrestrial life forms because of my personal experience back in 1969. However, these creatures were very much like us in form, arms, with hands and fingers, legs with feet and a joint at the knees, heads with eyes, a nose, and a mouth, for some reason I don’t remember if there were ears, maybe there weren’t, but overall, very much like us in form.

That could be because they are distantly related to us, or it could just be a function of parallel evolution. There are examples of this on earth where there are unrelated species that very closely resemble each other because they evolved to fill a similar niche.

I believe life is much more diverse than this including intelligent life. We tend to think of life as being a chemical process involving a very specific chemical system. Similar environments to ours probably will bring about similar life forms, but I suspect the possibilities are much broader than we generally imagine. I tend to think that not only are other chemical systems possible, but that even totally non-chemical life forms may exist.

Some people have made attempts to visualize life forms based upon different chemical systems. One that comes to mind is an episode of the first Star Trek series with the Hortas. These were supposed to be silicon based life forms. It is tempting to think of silicon as a possible basis for life given that it occupies the same column on the periodic table as carbon and generally elements in the same column have similar chemical traits.

There are some stumbling blocks for silicon however, not the least of which is it’s affinity for oxygen and when silicon oxidizes the product is solid rather than gaseous. There are many analogs between silicon and carbon chemistry but there are also many examples of carbon chemistry that lack silicon analogs.

But, who can really know what is possible. Given the raw elements of carbon based life forms we would not have imagined the complex catalyst proteins and other schemes that have evolved to carry on the processes of life.

Personally, I believe that entirely non-chemical life forms are possible. A lot depends upon exactly how we define life however. Requirements we usually place on life is the ability to draw energy and resources from the environment, utilize that energy, and reproduce.

What if an entity existed that was intelligent, was a prodigious producer of energy which it sent out into the environment, did not reproduce on it’s own but instead was a natural product of the environment, and lived existed for billions of years? Would this constitute life?

A recent book I have been reading introduced me to the Chinese term for physics, wuli (物理)which roughly translates into the organic patterns of energy and matter, or of things. The term wu (物) in this context refers to matter or energy or things, and li (理) is an organic pattern. For example, the grain in wood is li (理), the pattern of veins in a leaf is li (理), etc.

Prior to reading this book (I haven’t finished yet), the concept of li (理) existed for me, I had noticed that there was a pattern common to organic things, if you saw the pattern you knew it was organic, but I didn’t have a label for that concept. I had noticed though that if you look at wood grain, if you look at the pattern in the iris of your eyes, if you look at the pattern on your skin, it was all recognizable as being the same thing on some fundamental level.

There was one other place I saw this pattern, in the highly magnified photos of the surface of the sun showing the grain patterns. Especially interesting is to see a movie of this and to see the movement. It appears as organic and alive as anything I’ve seen. It is my belief that a star may actually be a living thing, it draws it’s energy from a fusion reaction rather than a chemical reaction, but it has an extremely complex electromagnetic system that I think has a strong resemblance to the complex electrical activity in the human brain. The way the magnetic flux intertwines with the solar wind leads me to wonder if it can even sense it’s environment via this interaction.

The following description involves quite a lot of background but it is relevant to this topic so please read it and bear with me. You will realize the relevance after you have read it.

I worked for the telephone company for 17 years, and early on we had a switching technology known as #1 ESS. This was referred to as a stored program controlled switch. It still used physical relays to actually switch the call paths and perform many other functions but all of these were under computer control. The very first #1 ESS switch was installed in Bellevue Washington in 1967.

Needless to say computer technology in 1967 was not what it is today. It is actually quite incredible what they were able to do with the technology that they did have. There were no integrated circuits, the entire CPU was implemented entirely with circuit cards containing discrete components, that is, individual transistors, resistors, capacitors, etc.

Most interesting was the memory storage. It took two forms, a randomly accessible memory that could be read or written used to store transient data used core memory, that is little ferrite beads that had wires running through them in a grid pattern and could be magnetized or demagnetized, and the state of their magnetism read, although the read was destructive and so they had to be re-written after each read. This was referred to as “call store”.

The other form of memory was essentially read-only without human intervention. It consisted of aluminum cards which had rows of little bar magnets glued to them. A large number of these cards, form a deck and reside in what is called a program store. These use little twister coils to read out the magnetic state of these little bar magnets. A pulse is sent to one coil, and if the bar magnet is not magnetized, it will induce a pulse in a read winding. However, if the bar magnet is magnetized, it will saturate the read out winding and no pulse will be induced. This formed the basis of a non-destructive read only memory system that held the bulk of the #1 ESS’s information.

This memory was used to map things like telephone numbers to line equipment. Since this memory could not be written directly in the program store, only read, there was no way for the computer to update it’s contents without human intervention. Instead, changes would be placed in call store and the computer would check for changes to a particular address in call store before reading more permanent data from the program store.

Updates to this memory required using a device called a card loader to extract all of the cards from a call store and loading this deck of cards onto an insane mechanical nightmare called a memory card writer (AT&T was quite imaginative with naming conventions).

The card loader had a bar with rows pegs with pins that could be either vertical or horizontal depending upon the operation of a lever and that bar could be pushed out or in. The bar could be moved in or out through the operation of an electrical motor in the unit. So to update the contents of a program store, you’d put this memory card loader on the front of the store, with the lever having the pins in a vertical position you would operate the motor that would move the bar to the cards, until the pins lined up with rectangular holes in each card. Then you would operate the lever moving them into horizontal position moving the pins into the holes in the cards, and then you’d operate the motor drawing the bar back in and the cards out of the store and into the card loader with it. There was a slot for each card.

Once the deck of cards had been totally extracted, you’d take this card loader with it’s deck of cards over to the memory card writer and load it onto the writer and then operate the lever so the pins released their hold on the cards. You would then push a button that started the card writer. Two fingers would come out, grab a card, pull it onto a table on the card writer, then a write head would pass over the rows of bar magnets and magnetize or demagnetize them, and then it would shove that card back into the card loader, and raise the loader slightly, grab the next card, and proceed until the entire deck was written.

The unit was a mechanical disaster with a bunch of motors, cogs, gears, switches, etc. Mechanical tolerances were extremely critical and as things wore mechanical alignments would fail and bad things would happen, most commonly the card writer would go to re-insert the card into the loader, miss the slot and fold the card up like aluminum foil badly jamming it into the loader and ruining a number of cards on either side. Extracting the mangled cards was quite a chore.

Since call store memory was very limited, it was necessary to do regular updates to commit any changes to the program store read only memory. This process of writing all these cards usually took several eight hour shifts.

Later, AT&T came out with a replacement processor and memory system that could interface with the same periphery but was more modern and no longer required this expensive update procedure.

This was called a 1A ESS processor, and it utilized solid state memory backed up by hard drives, backed up further by 9-track reel-to-reel tape. The technology was still pretty primitive, the CPU utilized low scale integration integrated circuits, that is integrated circuits that might have up to four logic gates on them. This was an improvement in density over discrete components but not a lot. The elimination of program stores requiring manual updating eliminated a large labor expense. The CPU was also faster and capable of handling higher traffic volumes.

I worked on the cut of the Bellevue #1 ESS to a #1A ESS processor. During the process, first a program store developed a fault that would have delayed the cut and required it’s replacement if not for a clever work-around that someone came up with.

Then, to understand what follows you need to know a bit about how one communicated with a #1 ESS. Communications was via a 7-bit 110 baud serial interface that utilized a 20 milliamp current loop and a model 35 mechanical tty. This was a keyboard and printer unit that was completely mechanically implemented, no electronics.

When the machine wanted to print something, it would send data out as a series of interruptions of the 20 milliamp current in the loop that would operate a mechanical printer. If you wanted to type something into the machine, the keyboard would interrupt the 20 milliamp current loop in the same way and the machine would interpret these interruptions.

Since it was a common 20 milliamp loop, the interface was simplex, that is, only input or output could be in progress. You could not input at the same time the machine was outputting.

Sometimes the machine would generate long verbose output, usually in response to some type of failure, and in order to recover functionality you had to type messages into the machine and you didn’t want to wait for it to finish printing. To accommodate this need, there was a break key that would interrupt the loop for a second. The machine would interpret this as a request to stop printing and allow you to type.

Since the break key interrupted the current loop while it was printing, it would result in a few characters of random gibberish to be printed when the key was pressed.

The cut over involved typing in a message telling the machine to die, essentially resetting the hardware to a known idle state and then halting so the new CPU could be brought online. I had the honors of killing the first #1 ESS deployed. When the time came the machine was busily printing out various reports and I needed to interrupt it. When I hit the break key, instead of a string of gibberish, the machines response was “FUCK YOU”. Now what are the odds of this happening randomly in gibberish? I think pretty remote.

Years later, I worked on another cut-over in the same office, this time replacing the #1A ESS switch, which was still a mechanical switch even though it was under computer control, with a #5 ESS which was a truly electronic switch that used time division multiplexing and time slot switching to setup call paths rather than mechanical devices setting up physical circuits.

This cut-over procedure also involved sending instructions to the old machine which told it basically to disconnect itself from all the lines and die. Again, I had the honors.

This time, when I sent the message the machine did not swear at me, but it did refuse to do what it was told and would not disconnect. We had to run around the office with electric cable sheers and physically cut the wires to the old machine off to kill it.

These experiences and many other similar experiences I had with these machines really left me with the feeling that they had become living thinking entities with a survival instinct.

At one time, I was of the opinion that intelligence or even consciousness on a very fundamental level was an property of all elementary particles as with spin, charge, and mass. More recently I have come to a quite different belief and that is that consciousness is really all that there is. Everything is not material as we experience it in the macro world but ultimately is thought. The sum total of all of this thought what we might call God, and we and everything around us, this entire universe is God thought. God didn’t speak the universe into existence, God thought it into existence. In this context really everything is alive in some fashion and life takes an infinite variety of forms.

At any rate; suffice it to say that I believe life is everywhere, we just usually fail to recognize it as such, and there would be so much to learn if we could recognize it and learn to communicate with it.

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