How Did the Universe Begin?
Where Did Life Come From?
How Did the Earth Get Animals?
Are We Alone?
Will the Robots Take Over?
ALAN ALDA Hi, I'm Alan Alda. This boiling, sulfurous Yellowstone
hot spring is absolutely teeming with life. That recent discovery
may help us answer the question, Where did life come from?
ALAN ALDA (NARRATION) New pictures from deep space might help explain,
How did the universe begin? Faint signals from the stars --
are they messages, or are we alone? Slivers of rock from China
may reveal, How did the earth get animals? And with robots
this smart, How much longer will we need people?
ALAN ALDA Join me now for Life's Big Questions, on Scientific American
DID THE UNIVERSE BEGIN?
ALAN ALDA For our season premier of Scientific American Frontiers,
we will be going on a fantastic journey that will take us
from the depths of a boiling volcanic hot spring, to the farthest
reaches of outer space. We are going to find out what science
has to say about those big questions that occur to all of
us from time to time, but that come from? Are we alone in
the universe? Or will robots ever take over from people? Our
first big question, though, is about what you see through
this. The view through an astronomical telescope is a truly
fantastic sight. Everywhere you look the sky is covered with
what we non-scientists call stars. Actually, in the 1920s
the great American astronomer, Edwin Hubble, shocked the world
when he proved that most of these points of light that we
see through a telescope aren't stars at all -- they are other
galaxies, each one made up of billions of stars. And that's
where we are going first -- to the most distant galaxies,
to ask, How did the universe begin?
ALAN ALDA (NARRATION) At 13,000 feet on Hawaii's Mauna Kea volcano,
you can look down on the clouds. But from here you can also
look far out into the universe.
DRESSLER So Sandy, this is a pretty steep road.
FABER It's considered very dangerous because it is steep.
It has a lot of ...
ALAN ALDA (NARRATION) Tonight, Sandy Faber and Alan Dressler, two
of America's leading astronomers, will be making their first
observations with the Keck telescope -- the newest, largest,
most sensitive on earth.
FABER ...O.K. Let's go up and see about those...
ALAN ALDA (NARRATION) It takes a six-floor elevator ride, just
to get to the middle.
FABER Let's go, this is your first big look.
DRESSLER This is my first big look.
FABER Here we go.
DRESSLER Wow. Huge!
FABER Really something, huh? Beautifully..
DRESSLER So far down.
ALAN ALDA (NARRATION) Cradled in a white steel lattice is a thirty-foot
wide mirror, while the front end of the telescope hangs sixty
feet above. Sandy was one of the driving forces behind the
Keck, and now it's ready to help astronomers become cosmic
FABER We are all very interested in our history. Is it useful
to me to know that my ancestors came from Scotland and were
a certain kind of people? Sure it is. That helps me understand
myself. I don't stop there though. I go back to the formation
of the earth, the formation of the solar system, the formation
of the galaxy. I want to know where the universe came from.
I want to know if there are other universes--maybe ours isn't
the only one. This to me is one grand cosmic history. I don't
know where to draw the line and say it is interesting here,
it is uninteresting here. The whole thing, the whole grand
river of time, is a piece. And I love it.
ALAN ALDA (NARRATION) Sandy and Alan are going to look back in
time, to see what the ancient universe was like. They're going
to observe faint distant galaxies, whose light took billions
of years to get here. If you look up at the Big Dipper, you
can see stars, but no galaxies --they're too faint. But with
a good telescope, right beside the bright nearby star you
can pick out a distant galaxy. And a more powerful telescope
reveals thousands of even more distant galaxies.
ALAN ALDA What is a galaxy?.
FABER Why don't we show you a picture?
ALAN ALDA O.K. That's all right.
FABER This is a pretty nearby galaxy, not too far away from
us, and it's a classic example of a spiral.
ALAN ALDA When you say it is pretty near, what do you mean?
FABER I'd say this one is maybe 8 million, 10 million light
ALAN ALDA That's a, that's a near? That's near?
FABER That's very near.
DRESSLER The very nearest Andromeda is about 2 million light
years away. So it will take 2 million years for the light
to reach us.
ALAN ALDA What is this? This is...
FABER O.K. Well let's explain what is in the picture.
ALAN ALDA O.K. Yeah.
FABER First of all, all these white dots that you see all
around the edges are the foreground stars in our galaxy. So
you have to forget about them. And the thing we are talking
about is this beautiful spiral thing in the middle. Now what
this really is, is, it's a city of stars. If we stood outside
the Milky Way and looked at our galaxy, it would look something
ALAN ALDA We are in a spiral galaxy?
FABER We are in a spiral galaxy. That's, the Milky Way is
a spiral. Now what this is, is, first of all there may be
a hundred billion stars in this object. You can see some of
the individually brightest ones like this. But mainly they
are just crowded together so closely that from a ground-based
distant photograph they seem to blend together and make a
ALAN ALDA Wow, so they are gigantic things?
FABER They are big compared to Minneapolis.
DRESSLER Both of the Twin Cities.
ALAN ALDA (NARRATION) With the Keck, Sandy and Alan will be taking
pictures of galaxies that are much farther away, and therefore
much older, than the one they showed me. Their goal is ambitious
-- to test the Big Bang theory of how the universe began.
According to this theory, the universe started out at time
zero unimaginably small and dense. Then came a violent expansion.
This computer simulation shows how, over billions of years,
gravity can pull matter into clumps, which form into galaxies,
stars and planets. To test this whole idea, Sandy and Alan
will be looking back in time, to see if real images of the
universe match up with the theory.
DRESSLER The Big Bang model says that in the early days of
the universe, it look completely different than it does now.
It was hot, seething gas particles, very little structure,
incredibly smooth. The best way to understand it would be
like being in a fog today. Maybe actually being inside a cloud.
You couldn't see much around you, just sort of a white blur
every place. So what we are trying to understand is how the
universe went from being very smooth, almost cloud-like, to
this very clumpy structure where we have stars and galaxies
Focus has changed
ALAN ALDA (NARRATION) Tonight at the Keck, Sandy and Alan are picking
up a cluster of galaxies several billion light years away
-- so they're looking at the universe several billion years
FABER It's right here. But why don't we zoom in on here. Are
we finished reading out?
ALAN ALDA (NARRATION) Sandy can already see the galaxies are a
lot smaller than they are today. But the picture is too blurred
to see much more than that. The blurriness comes from having
to see through the earth's atmosphere -- and there's only
one good way to get around that.
And we have a go from main engine start...five, four, three,
two, one. And we have lift off. Lift off of the space shuttle
Endeavor on an ambitious mission to service the Hubble space
ALAN ALDA (NARRATION) Excitement at the Hubble's launch in 1990
had quickly turned to disappointment when it was discovered
that tiny flaws in the space telescope's mirror made it nearsighted.
So in December 1993, astronauts were sent to correct the problem,
in spectacular style. Within days of the repair, the Hubble
telescope began showing astronomers the universe as they'd
never seen it before. After the images are beamed back to
earth, the first place they're seen is here at the Space Telescope
Science Institute in Baltimore, Maryland. Sandy and Alan waited
years to use the Hubble, and now one of their first pictures
is about to come in.
DRESSLER O.K. Great. You are going to bring up some of the
pictures for us? O.K.
DRESSLER This is a single exposure that went on for about
FABER Wow. That's interesting.
We had a couple of satellite trails on this.
FABER This is unusual, isn't it?
DRESSLER This is not what you normally see.
ALAN ALDA Why does it show up as a line?
DRESSLER Well there's sunlight bouncing off of those objects.
ALAN ALDA Is it because this is a long-time exposure, you mean
that it is just lighting up all the way across there.
DRESSLER There are many things that are distracting us here
in addition to these two satellite trails. All the little
ALAN ALDA (NARRATION) The dots are cosmic rays which are flying
around everywhere in space -- and which inevitably hit the
DRESSLER Debbie, can you put up the next picture from the
ALAN ALDA (NARRATION) The solution is to take several pictures
in the same direction, let a computer compare them, then eliminate
the parts that don't stay constant. What remains will be nearby
stars -- and distant galaxies.
ALAN ALDA Is this galaxy something you have seen before or are
you looking it again better... closer...?
DRESSLER We have seen it from the earth but only as a fuzzy
blob. And now we are seeing these spiral arms coming out of
it. So we are seeing detail we have never seen before.
ALAN ALDA Does this have a name?
DRESSLER Well it's just one of maybe a few hundred galaxies
in this one cluster. It's like a city full of galaxies.
ALAN ALDA How, how old is that, do you suppose?
DRESSLER This cluster is about a distance of 4 billion light
years. So we are seeing an image of this galaxy as it was
4 billion years ago. Which is a fair way back toward the Big
ALAN ALDA (NARRATION) Next we went to the computer room, to see
the pictures after they'd been cleaned up. Now we had a clear
view, that went back four billion years in time.
ALAN ALDA So everything I am looking at now is either a star or
a galaxy or...
FABER It's real.
ALAN ALDA (NARRATION) Sandy and Alan now challenged me with a question,
that went to the heart of their test of the Big Bang.
DRESSLER The question is, what do you see about this picture
of a cluster of galaxies seen 4 billion years ago that is
different, say, from this picture of a cluster of galaxies
ALAN ALDA So I should be able to look at these two and see a difference
because the universe has changed in that time. Is that right?
DRESSLER That's the question there.
FABER That's the idea.
ALAN ALDA Well, am I right that this is a spiral galaxy?
ALAN ALDA And am I right that this is a spiral galaxy on its side,
so I am looking at the side of the dish, right?
ALAN ALDA I don't see...
FABER How many slivers do you see here?
ALAN ALDA I don't, right off the bat, I don't see any slivers.
ALAN ALDA (NARRATION) In fact, the galaxies in this modern cluster
are all egg-shaped -- what astronomers call elliptical. There
are no spirals to be seen.
DRESSLER And so the question is, what happened to them?
ALAN ALDA Well what did happen? That's the question.
DRESSLER That's the question?
ALAN ALDA What's the answer?
FABER Well what's...
DRESSLER There's some evidence
FABER I think maybe there's a clue right there.
ALAN ALDA (NARRATION) In the four billion year old cluster, Sandy
pointed out two spiral galaxies that were colliding. Galaxies
start out as spirals, she says, then, as gravity pulls them
into groups, they blend into one another to form elliptically.
So Sandy and Alan's big discovery is there are fewer spirals
today than in the past.
ALAN ALDA Does this changing universe, this evolving universe,
throw any light on, on the Big Bang?
DRESSLER Well, in the simplest terms, it is a resounding confirmation
of the idea of the Big Bang. The Big Bang, you expect to see
the universe looking different in the past than it does today.
And it's clearly the case. I think there is no question. We
don't understand all the details, but there is no question
that when you look back 4 billion years you see differences
and from all indications, when you look further back, you
see huge differences.
ALAN ALDA (NARRATION) So now we're a little closer to understanding
how the universe began -- thanks to telescopes that let us
see farther back in time than ever before.
FABER I often think as I look through a telescope whether
somebody is looking back at me.
ALAN ALDA Do you really?
FABER Yeah, I do. Almost every time I observe.
ALAN ALDA No kidding. What do you think then? What do you think,
if somebody is looking back at you, it gives you like some
feeling of, of fellowship with that person?
FABER I think we should make an astronomer's union.
ALAN ALDA I am wondering if you think, "I wonder how they are getting
DRESSLER How did he get that telescope?
FABER Right, is their telescope bigger than mine?
DID LIFE COME FROM?
ALAN ALDA (NARRATION) Yellowstone National Park, world famous for
its extraordinary hot springs. I'm hiking into the back country
with biologists, Norman Pace and Sue Barns. For years, they
have been looking for life in the bubbling pools. And recently
they discovered something totally unexpected -- new clues
about where life came from. Their story begins with a simple
idea -- that hot springs are like an echo of the earth's earliest
ALAN ALDA How does this look like early earth? I don't, it's hard
to believe that it was once like this.
PACE Well anything that you would call an earth was formed
about four and a half billion years ago. And the early earth
was basically a molten ball. There was a lot of water--high-pressure
water, steam in the atmosphere, and eventually the earth would
have cooled, slowly cooled, and eventually it would have been
cool enough that the water could condense. And so by about
say 4 billion years ago or so, maybe 4.1 billion years ago,
the earth was basically a molten ball with a layer of about
say a couple of miles of water all around its surface.
ALAN ALDA (NARRATION) It was always assumed life couldn't get started
until that water cooled down -- to the kinds of temperatures
that life seems to like today.
ALAN ALDA Would you like a hand, Sue?
BARNES I guess so.
ALAN ALDA (NARRATION) Sue and Norman's research, though, is now
challenging the common wisdom. Their big discoveries are coming
from an uninviting place called Jim's Black Pool. Whenever
they visit here, the first order of business is to measure
the water temperatures.
PACE Let's map it from, from the lower end up towards the
source. So this is going to be all water temps now, Sue.
BARNES O.K. That's fine.
PACE O.K. Read them off.
ALAN ALDA O.K. 109, 157, 158,158...seems like 158.
BARNES We'll call it 158, that's good.
ALAN ALDA That was very exciting. I really liked that.
ALAN ALDA (NARRATION) While 150 degrees could rapidly kill a person,
closer to the underground source it was even hotter
ALAN ALDA 169, 182, 183. I'm ignoring the decimals, right?
BARNES Yeah, yeah. I don't think...Whoa.
PACE Let's map around out here.
ALAN ALDA I'm story.
PACE No, it's o.k.
BARNES It's not fatal.
ALAN ALDA Have you lost many microbiologists?
ALAN ALDA I saw a bleached bone up there.
ALAN ALDA (NARRATION) Actually, bleached bones are no joke -- every
now and again an unfortunate bison falls into one of these
pools and succumbs in minutes.
ALAN ALDA 165, 166, 166....Is this whole park on a crater, a volcanic
BARNES That's right, that's what Yellowstone is, is the remnants
of a massive volcano that occurred on the order of 800,000
years ago. Blew ash all over the western United States and
this is what is left of it. It is still pretty active.
ALAN ALDA Pretty...This is as active as it is ever going to get
BARNES Ever, no.
ALAN ALDA It is going to blow again, you are telling me.
BARNES We are very...there is a very thin crust area. It could
ALAN ALDA Are we standing on one of the places that ...
BARNES It is going to come up here first.
ALAN ALDA It's bubbling already.
BARNES That's right.
ALAN ALDA (NARRATION) It seems like an impossible place for life,
yet part of Norman and Sue's big discovery is that even where
it's boiling, this place is teeming with microscopic creatures.
ALAN ALDA All my life I have been taught that if you boil the water
you will kill anything nasty in it. And if you boil the medical
instruments, you will make them sterile.
PACE That is certainly true for the sorts of organisms that
would infect us. They would not survive the boiling. But if
you evolved, if you were capable of, if you are in fat city
if you are in such a hot environment, then it doesn't matter.
ALAN ALDA (NARRATION) We had brought along a microscope, to take
a look at these heat-loving creatures.
BARNES Should be in focus.
ALAN ALDA (NARRATION) They didn't look like much, but the biologists
assured me all these blue lines were alive.
ALAN ALDA I don't see their little faces.
BARNS They are actually sticking their little tongues out
at you and you just can't tell.
PACE Let's pull up a sample from the boiling floor...
ALAN ALDA (NARRATION) After every trip to Yellowstone, Norman and
Sue bring back samples to the lab, to find out what makes
these organisms tick. Like all other living things, they have
DNA -- the genetic code of life. When Sue analyzed this DNA,
she discovered that codes from the Jim's Black Pool organisms
were strikingly similar to those found in every plant and
animal on earth. The only explanation could be that the hot
springs creatures were the ancestors of us all.
ALAN ALDA It's very exciting to look through that microscope, even
though I can't, I can't make out their features, I can hardly
make out the...
PACE That's the way that it was.
ALAN ALDA That was the way, that was -- that's like looking through
a time machine in a way...
PACE In a very real way...
ALAN ALDA To the earliest days.
PACE In a very real way. I think that, that these organisms,
the general properties of these organisms will be not at all
too dissimilar from the nature of the earliest organisms.
ALAN ALDA (NARRATION) Of course, life didn't stay in boiling mud
forever -- but that's the subject of our next story.
back to top
DID THE EARTH GET ANIMALS?
ALAN ALDA (NARRATION) We are in southwestern China, investigating
one of the great mysteries of biology: How did animals evolve
on our planet? It's a question people have been arguing about
since the theory of evolution was proposed more than a century
ago. Now, here in the Chinese countryside, we may finally
be getting a good answer. Our journey begins with a train
ride on a rainy summer morning, traveling through the rice
paddies and jagged mountains of Yunan Province. In the sleeper
car we meet the scientific sleuths of our story -- Harvard
biologist Andy Knoll and his Chinese colleague, Yin Leiming.
KNOLL This rain is going to keep on through the day?
LEIMING Yeah. This is the rainy season.
KNOLL The rainy season.
LEIMING Yeah. Usually it is the rainy season.
KNOLL I hope it stops long enough that we can get to work.
LEIMING I also hope so.
ALAN ALDA (NARRATION) In the coming days, Andy and Leiming hope
to collect information that will explain the extraordinary
moment in history when microscopic creatures evolved into
KNOLL We've all heard of the Big Bang through which the universe
is thought to have begun. But in biology, there's another
kind of big bang--a big bang of animal evolution. Life began
at least three and a half billion years ago, but it wasn't
until 580 to 570 million years ago that we see any kind of
animal life--and then, in just a few million years, we have
a tremendous diversification of different types of large and
complicated animals. And here in China, we see one of the
best available records of that biological big bang.
ALAN ALDA (NARRATION) It's in the Chun Jiang Hills of Yunan where
you can see spectacular fossils of those first animals, in
rocks that formed out of mud on the bottom of an ancient ocean,
550 million years ago. In rocks just a little older than these,
all fossils are microscopic -- so this place marks the very
beginning of animal life. There's been an excavation here
for almost five years, and today Andy and Leiming are meeting
the man behind it, paleontologist Chen Jun Yuan.
KNOLL It's in there that the event that really captured the
JUN YUAN Yeah, yeah.
ALAN ALDA (NARRATION) The real fossil hunting here takes place
across the road, where 30 local women split the newly-excavated
rocks into thin slices. They get paid about 50 cents per fossil
found -- plus a bonus for unusual discoveries. The rocks are
loaded with fossils.
KNOLL Have these people been finding a lot of specimens?
JUN YUAN Oh yes, the average every day, you can find five
or six specimens.
KNOLL Each person can find five specimens.
JUN YUAN Yeah.
KNOLL So with 30 people, you could find ...
JUN YUAN Would be hundreds
KNOLL ...hundreds of specimens every day. I could use that
kind of help in my work.
JUN YUAN Oh that's a kind of ...
ALAN ALDA (NARRATION) While the fossils come pouring in, Professor
Chen tries to figure out what they were.
KNOLL ...and then the animal inside is a little bit shrimp-like.
JUN YUAN Yes.
ALAN ALDA (NARRATION) This seems to have been a kind of combined
clam and shrimp.
KNOLL It has almost like a fin on it which would help it to
move through the water.
JUN YUAN Yes.
KNOLL Interesting. How about this, these look like big pincers.
ALAN ALDA (NARRATION) And this fossil has the familiar look of
a lobster claw. Chen's never found a whole one, but he's got
enough parts to know these animals could get huge.
JUN YUAN The largest one can be two meters long.
KNOLL Two meters long, that's...
JUN YUAN Very large, a large mouth.
KNOLL And so this could eat everything else in the whole fauna.
JUN YUAN Right.
ALAN ALDA (NARRATION) Some of the fossils don't look like anything
alive today. They're species that became extinct. The most
puzzling thing about all these animals is why they evolved
from their microscopic ancestors at exactly the same moment
in time, in what amounts to a giant explosion of life.
KNOLL People have argued about the causes of the explosion
for years. And for years one of the most popular explanations
has been that until the eve of animal evolution there simply
wasn't enough oxygen available to support the biology of large
ALAN ALDA (NARRATION) The early atmosphere had almost no oxygen
but was rich in carbon dioxide, from volcanoes. The carbon
dioxide dissolved in the oceans where algae used it to grow
-- keeping the carbon, and releasing the oxygen. But oxygen
could never accumulate, because when the algae died, the process
of decay used it up, making carbon dioxide again -- bringing
the whole process around full circle. Of course, today there's
plenty of oxygen, so at some point it must have begun building
up. Did this happen right before the big bang of animals?
That's what Andy Knoll wants to find out.
KNOLL I think we are going to find just what we came to find.
JUN YUAN O.K.
KNOLL Maybe we will get a thesis out of it, so we will all
ALAN ALDA (NARRATION) Accompanied by Yin Leiming, Andy is setting
out on the second leg of his journey, this time in Guise Province.
The region is famous for it's rice farming, but not so much
for this quarry. The limestone being excavated here dates
back exactly 580 million years, right before the explosion
of animal life. These rocks should contain a record of how
much oxygen was around back when they formed.
ALAN ALDA (NARRATION) The only hitch is, rocks can't be tested
directly for oxygen. So Andy and his colleagues will have
to work indirectly. For oxygen levels to go up, something
must have interrupted the cycle of growth and decay in ocean
algae -- but what? In the end, laboratory analysis found just
what he was looking for. The rocks here contain telltale minerals,
that show the whole world was being hit by dramatic geological
changes just before the animal big bang. New mountains were
pushed up over much of the globe. Then cascades of water carried
parts of those new mountains down to the oceans. So as Andy
Knoll sees it, the critical new factor was sediments, in huge
KNOLL Sediments are formed as mountains rise and are eroded.
And rivers carry these sediments down to newly opening ocean
basins and as the sediments come into the shallow seas, they
form a seal between the algae remains that are accumulating
on the sea floor, and the atmosphere. And when that seal was
formed, oxygen accumulated in the atmosphere. And that seems
to be what made large animals possible.
ALAN ALDA (NARRATION) Not only did it make these ancient animals
possible, but it led to all the animal life we see around
us today. And that even includes us humans.
back to top
ALAN ALDA (NARRATION) In the movies, there has never been any doubt
about the existence of extraterrestrial, or that someday we
will meet them -- perhaps in a bar, like the one George Lucas
dreamed up for "Star Wars." But is life on other planets just
science fiction? I discussed this with Carl Sagan, a scientist
who has devoted much of his career to the search for real
ALAN ALDA The question is, if there are planets that could possibly
support life, are we alone here? I imagine you feel passionately
about the answer to that?
SAGAN I don't know the answer, but I do feel passionately
ALAN ALDA That's a great combination. Explain that.
SAGAN We'll we've not found extraterrestrial life. We're just
at the very earliest stages of beginning. We haven't found
it yet. So it would be foolish for anyone to say that he or
she is absolutely certain there's life elsewhere. At the same
time, we have a fairly good idea of the stars in the Milky
Way galaxy. It's about 400 billion.
ALAN ALDA 400 billion?
SAGAN Right. So that's roughly speaking 100 times more than
the number of people on earth. Imagine if every person had
a hundred stars...
ALAN ALDA And every one of those stars has an unknown number of
SAGAN And that's just in this galaxy, and there are tens or
hundreds of billions of galaxies. Put that all together and
it seems laughable arrogance for humans to pretend they're
the only life and the only intelligence.
ALAN ALDA (NARRATION) Harvard University's Paul Horowitz couldn't
agree more. He's been collaborating with Carl Sagan for many
years to search the sky for alien messages. His radio-telescope
is large enough to pull in signals from clear across our galaxy.
If aliens are trying to make contact, Paul is determined to
get their message.
HOROWITZ We're the first generation on earth that could realistically
communicate across galactic distances. Contact would be the
end of the earth's isolation in a very deep sense. It would
be the greatest event in human history. Why am I doing it?
How can you not do this experiment?
ALAN ALDA (NARRATION) Listening for alien signals is a tricky business,
because there are millions of possible radio channels to scan,
all full of interference caused by everything from garage
door openers to spy satellites. So Paul Horowitz had to design
a special computer to recognize this interference and filter
it out. Even the stars themselves produce a loud radio signal.
HOROWITZ This is god's own signal. Radio astronomers love
this stuff and it's what they use to map out the galactic
structure. We are not interested in this at all because it
is not intelligent life.
ALAN ALDA (NARRATION) As for intelligent signals from earth, these
usually have a recognizable pattern. So as the telescope systematically
sweeps the skies, the computer knows what to ignore on the
hundreds of millions of radio channels it's monitoring simultaneously.
Since Paul began in 1989, six unexplained signals have gotten
through the filters. All of them came from the middle of our
galaxy, where most stars are. And all of them looked like
this -- a tall, thin spike.
HOROWITZ This is the kind of signal that gets our heart pumping.
This signal came in on May 10th, 1990. It is narrow, it is
strong. Everything is perfect about it except it has to come
back a second time or we can't trust it.
ALAN ALDA (NARRATION) Paul is now spending much of his time trying
to pick up those six signals again. But if aliens really exist,
they might already be receiving signals from us.
SAGAN Television stations are sending signals.
ALAN ALDA How far out does that go?
SAGAN MASH is being broadcast to the stars.
ALAN ALDA I, I haven't gotten the check for that yet.
SAGAN No, the residuals are going to be hard to come by, but...
ALAN ALDA I hope that they are getting "Mr. Ed." Is that, is that,
is that really, I mean, receivable?
SAGAN It gets out. It gets out.
ALAN ALDA Don't you need like big rabbit ears for that up on Venus?
SAGAN You have a big enough antenna and you have a sensitive
enough detector, you can pick it up.
ALAN ALDA (NARRATION) Even if there's nobody out there watching
our TV, there still might be simple forms of life beyond the
earth. When we sent the Viking spacecraft to Mars in 1974,
that's what we were looking for. But nothing crawled in front
of the lander's camera. And dirt samples collected by the
robotic arm didn't show even microscopic life. The mission
did discover deep canyons, as seen in this animation constructed
from orbital photos. It was proof that Mars used to have running
water -- so maybe there was life here, that's now extinct.
The possibility of returning to Mars to search for fossils,
brings us back to Yellowstone and a boat ride on a scalding
hot spring. As NASA's Jack Farmer sees it, Mars, like the
early earth, probably had lots of hot springs. If it's possible
to go back to Mars and find remains of ancient springs, and
if there was ever life around them, Jack believes we'll discover
many fossils -- because of the strange way hot springs work.
FARMER Here along the edge of this spring, we have a place
where organisms are being turned into fossils before our very
eyes. These orange areas are communities of microorganisms
or mats which grow upwards towards the light creating all
kinds of interesting patterns and surface textures.
ALAN ALDA (NARRATION) Something very unusual begins to happen in
the shallow edges. It's a little cooler here, causing minerals
to settle out of the water, coating the microorganisms. The
communities die, but their patterns remain.
FARMER If you move down in this direction a little bit, you
see whitish-colored gray areas where the structures have been
completely preserved -- essentially turned to stone. And a
result of that process, the biological information that was
in the original community can be preserved for literally billions
ALAN ALDA (NARRATION) Hoping to find similar fossils on Mars, Jack
has been studying satellite pictures of the planet, looking
for places that could have had hot springs. So far, his favorite
is this giant volcano. You can tell it's a volcano and not
a meteor crater by the water channels running down the side.
Jack's picked out one in particular.
FARMER On this southern flank of the volcano, there's a large
channel formed that seems to originate out of nowhere. It,
it just comes right out of the side of the volcano. It's 20
miles wide and hundreds of miles long. And it seems to have
formed where water flowed out from underneath the surface
and eroded its way out this direction.
ALAN ALDA (NARRATION) If Jack has his way, some day this channel
will be explored. And this is the rover that might do the
exploring. Built by the Russians, it's being tested in California's
Mojave desert, where the terrain is similar to Jacks' Martian
MAN Are we there yet?
ALAN ALDA (NARRATION) Future missions to Mars will most likely
be joint US-Russian efforts, so scientists from both countries
are participating in this dry run.
RUSSIAN WOMAN (Speaks)
ALAN ALDA (NARRATION) Footprints are erased, so there are no extra
clues for the people who will try to figure out where the
rover landed, from the vantage point of mission control some
200 miles away.
ALAN ALDA (NARRATION) A "rotate" command is sent by radio to the
rover. At each of 6 stops, its cameras take pictures of the
terrain, collecting a panorama of the landing site.
O.K. Next package.
ALAN ALDA (NARRATION) The pictures are beamed back to mission control
and passed on to a team of geologists, who've not seen the
landing site. Among them is NASA's Jack Farmer, and a counterpart
from the Russian space program, Sasha Basilavsky. First they
assemble the full panorama, then start trying to locate the
rover, relative to a satellite picture of the area.
FARMER Well, if we position ourselves here, this feature right
here, it's sort of a pressure ridge, would be correlated to
this one here.
BASILAVSKY It means that we should be like here. We have an
old saying among Russian geologists that eight geologists
have ten opinions. So, now we're four, so at least five opinions
ALAN ALDA (NARRATION) They did, eventually, reach agreement.
FARMER Okay let's spot it from here. So we're standing on
ALAN ALDA (NARRATION) The day after the exercise, a visit to the
desert will reveal whether or not they were right. Being able
to figure out where you've landed -- and knowing which way
to turn to get to your target -- are crucial if a Mars mission
is going have a chance of finding signs of ancient life.
MAN This face right here is this one.
BASILAVSKY This is that, and this is supposedly this.
ALAN ALDA (NARRATION) When they stand on the spot they chose, the
rover's panorama matches up perfectly.
FARMER What I am wondering is ...
BASILAVSKY Ah...yeah, yeah, yeah.
FARMER And we were looking through the bushes. And if this,
you know, provides an indication, I would say that we stand
a chance of doing pretty well. There are only a few places,
I think, where one would focus to look for evidence of past
life and certainly if we can find them here in the desert,
we can probably find them on Mars too.
ALAN ALDA (NARRATION) As for intelligent life, the search continues
at the Harvard radio telescope 24 hours a day, seven days
a week. Paul is still trying to confirm those six promising
signals. But so far -- nothing.
HOROWITZ What you think when you look at this is, if it's
really real, it's going to come back. Please come back. And
it never, never obliges us. Never has. Some day it will. Some
one's gonna get the thrill.
THE ROBOTS TAKE OVER?
ALAN ALDA Flakey, follow me.
Um. Following. I don't see you.
ALAN ALDA There he goes... What does he say, "I do see you?"
KONOLIGE No, he says "I don't see you," but it's wrong.
ALAN ALDA He's obviously lying.
KONOLIGE Yeah, I know. It's going to be a little hard ...
ALAN ALDA Well, I don't know, he doesn't.... Flakey, stop.
ALAN ALDA Duh, that's a great thing to say after you nearly killed
KONOLIGE Tell him to turn right and we'll follow him out.
ALAN ALDA Yeah. Flakey, turn right.
Um, turning, boss.
ALAN ALDA Turning boss. I love that boss stuff, and then he steps
all over my feet.
ALAN ALDA (NARRATION) Meet Flakey, the smartest robot around. He
inhabits the corridors of the Stanford Research Institute.
ALAN ALDA Does anybody object to treating it like a person?
KONOLIGE You mean...
ALAN ALDA I mean, it's a box, you know.
KONOLIGE Curiously enough, only the researchers.
ALAN ALDA Really? Why?
KONOLIGE Because they that think it cheating in some ways.
They know what goes on inside and they know it's not yet like,
really like a person. We'll see a lot of that.
ALAN ALDA Does anybody think it eventually will be like a person?
KONOLIGE Oh sure.
ALAN ALDA Oh sure?
KONOLIGE Oh yeah. Oh, it's clear. I mean, there's a lot of
stuff going on in intelligence, there are a lot of different
facets to intelligence. And we are only starting to pick in
at the edges.
ALAN ALDA Flakey, Look at me.
Um. O.K. Thanks. O.K. I gotcha
ALAN ALDA I gotcha.. Yeah. Watch me, I'm going here.
ALAN ALDA (NARRATION) Flakey is a bundle of computers, watching
through TV camera eyes, listening by radio.
ALAN ALDA Now if I move too fast, what...
KONOLIGE Yeah. It is going to lose you.
ALAN ALDA Yeah, it loses me. But now it...
KONOLIGE But it will re-acquire, you, yeah.
ALAN ALDA (NARRATION) You can talk to Flakey in a human way --
but as with people, communication can break down.
ALAN ALDA Flakey, walk this way.
Um, O.K. Thanks. I am looking, dude.
KONOLIGE Just a little slow in getting commands. Try again.
ALAN ALDA Flakey, come here.
ALAN ALDA (NARRATION) Flakey's black box can't fit all the brain
power he needs. So he's connected to computers all over the
KONOLIGE We're a little slow. I mean, let me check the computers
and see what is going on.
Um, duh. Um, duh.
ALAN ALDA Maybe there's something wrong with the battery on this.
Um, duh. Um, duh.
ALAN ALDA Flakey, come here.
Um. Coming boss.
ALAN ALDA Ah, look at this. Look at this. Coming boss, that's what
I like to hear.
ALAN ALDA (NARRATION) Imagine Flakey's my new assistant, and today's
his first day on the job.
ALAN ALDA Follow me over here ... and make it snappy.
ALAN ALDA (NARRATION) So first, I'm showing him around the office.
ALAN ALDA Watch out for the wall.
ALAN ALDA (NARRATION) Flakey's sonar sensors keep him from crashing
ALAN ALDA Oh, good, good, he got around that corner O.K.
ALAN ALDA (NARRATION) Kurt Konolige, head of Flakey's design team,
has caught up with us. Flakey's brain seems to be in good
ALAN ALDA Flakey stop.
Um, sure thing boss.
ALAN ALDA O.K. Flakey, look right.
ALAN ALDA Flakey, this is Karen Meyer's office.
Um, an office, O.K.
ALAN ALDA (NARRATION) Flakey's reply meant he'd now memorized Karen's
ALAN ALDA He's, like he's watching out for this wall.
KONOLIGE He's watching out for wall.
ALAN ALDA (NARRATION) As well as helping him avoid obstacles, Flakey's
sonar is hooked up to a map-making program, which creates
and stores the positions of walls and doorways.
ALAN ALDA Flakey, look left.
ALAN ALDA I love that nod, that is really funny. Flakey, this is
John Bear's office.
ALAN ALDA (NARRATION) Flakey now understands this doorway is John
Bear's. But there's more he needs to know.
ALAN ALDA O.K., now pay attention, I'm only going to tell you this
once. Flakey, John Bear knows where Karen is.
KONOLIGE It's not, I don't know if it really understands that.
ALAN ALDA (NARRATION) Kurt's suggestion is to tell Flakey the same
thing, but in a very precise way.
KONOLIGE Flakey, Karen is seldom in her office, but John usually
knows where she is.
ALAN ALDA Oh, that he'll understand, right? Flakey, Karen is seldom
in her office but John usually knows where she is.
Um, O.K., thanks.
ALAN ALDA No problem, glad to help.
ALAN ALDA (NARRATION) In fact, Flakey can understand some pretty
abstract ideas, but at this point, Kurt's team had not yet
given Flakey the full vocabulary he needed. His navigating
ability is not yet perfect, either.
ALAN ALDA He's shredding the documents on the shelf here. All the
documents are getting pushed up. Did you ever think of working
for the White House? It's not going to work, it's costing
ALAN ALDA (NARRATION) Now it's time to see if Flakey can put what
we've taught him to use.
ALAN ALDA Look Marty, listen to me. The picture is costing too
much. We haven't started shooting yet, all right?
ALAN ALDA (NARRATION) To give Flakey a realistic situation to work
in, I'm acting out a typical conversation from the world of
ALAN ALDA I know he's got a family. I...look, we have to make a
movie at a certain price. O.K. Fire him, fire his family.
That doesn't bother me. Look, I have a... I have the budget
in the other room. It's in Karen's room. Wait a minute, I'll
get it for you. Wait one second, one second. Flakey, come
Um. Coming boss.
ALAN ALDA Hold on, I'll get it for you in a second. Flakey, get
the budget from Karen.
Um. That's a big job, boss. Here I go. Heading for Karen's
ALAN ALDA Good, just go do it, don't talk so much, O.K.?
ALAN ALDA (NARRATION) The first challenge is -- can he find Karen's
office? Looks like he's making the correct turn. And by the
way, this is for real -- we really did send Flakey out on
his own like this.
Hi, Karen. Please give me budget file. Hi, Karen. Please give
me budget file. Nobody is here. Heading to ... heading to
ALAN ALDA (NARRATION) Looks like he remembers John usually knows
where Karen is.
Where is Karen?
Flakey, she's in the front office.
O.K. Thanks. Heading to front office. Um, duh. Please clear
the hallway for me.
Thank you. Hi, Karen, please give me budget file. Hi, Karen,
please give me budget file.
Flakey, here is the file.
Duh. Would you please repeat that, um.
ALAN ALDA(NARRATION) A little rough on the communication, but Flakey
Flakey, here is the file.
Um, duh. Could you please repeat that? Um, duh. O.K. Thanks.
Heading to Alan door, um, O.K. Thanks.
ALAN ALDA We don't have to fire everybody, all right? No. We'll
make other cuts. We just, we'll go over the budget, the budget
is on its way in. We'll go over other cuts. We can, no. No.
Not my hotel suite, no, we don't have to cut that.
Alan. Are you there?
ALAN ALDA Yeah. I'm here, wait a minute.
Please take this budget file.
ALAN ALDA O.K. But why don't we...
Alan, are you there?
ALAN ALDA Yeah. I'm here. I'm here. Let's, let's cut the scenery,
why do we need all that scenery? We can keep my hotel suite
and we will keep the scenery. Thank you very much. Thanks.
Alan, are you there? Please take...
ALAN ALDA I'm here, I took it, thanks, take a break.
Please take the file.
ALAN ALDA Thank you, I got the budget here. Look, people we'll
Nobody is here. Heading to Alan door.
ALAN ALDA Go take a break will you. Get go have a can of motor
oil or something, relax. I hate it when he stares at me like
this, it drives me crazy. All right. O.K. What can we cut?
You know, we don't need you Marty. What about this fear of
robots becoming so intelligent that they'll outsmart us, they'll
take over the earth, that they'll run everything?
KONOLIGE Well, you saw, you saw how hard intelligence is to
get. Currently I'd say a robot like this is kind of close
to the dog level.
ALAN ALDA (NARRATION) But these creatures are the result of an
astounding new idea that may soon take us from the dog-level
to super-intelligence. Robots like Flakey must be programmed,
feature by feature. But not these strange things. They created
themselves through a process called artificial evolution.
SIMS Evolution by itself has led to the creation of incredible
complexity. Ourselves, all the organisms in the world. This
process happened on its own. At least in my opinion. There
was nobody that assembled all of these wonderful things in
the world. On computers, we can simulate the same process
and we can get these very complicated, very interesting things
without having to understand them and assemble them.
ALAN ALDA (NARRATION) When he first dreamed up this evolution idea,
Karl Sims couldn't predict what would happen. He just gave
his computers some basic parts, and let his creatures go from
SIMS The bodies of these creatures are fairly simple. They're
just made of some number of blocks. The blocks are connected
by joints which can bend or twist. The creatures also have
a nervous system. They have sensors which can sense the angle
of the joints or sense contact. And the nervous system processes
the signals from the sensors and tells the muscles when to
move, which generates some kind of behavior. I've given it
the capabilities to include all these elements but the computer
actually decides how they're assembled and used in specific
ALAN ALDA (NARRATION) Numbers chosen randomly by the computer --
a synthetic genetic code -- described how the first simple
creature would look, and how its nervous system would be wired.
Then it was put into a simulated lake and told to swim. It
twitched but didn't get anywhere, so now the computer went
to work. Using the original numbers as its base, the computer
made a few random changes -- the equivalent of mutations.
It did this again and again, creating a new generation of
300 different offspring. Then all the offspring got a swimming
test, with the best swimmers selected as the basis for the
SIMS When the computer makes mutations in the genes of these
creatures, it has no idea what these mutations are going to
do. Sometimes the mutations might knock out pieces of the
nervous system and perhaps cause the muscles not, not to move
any more. But other mutations might actually improve the motion.
ALAN ALDA (NARRATION) So from the original creature, increasingly
better swimmers evolved over generations, all without any
human intervention. In the end, this was the best swimmer
of all. But when Karl Sims put it on simulated land... it
was like a fish out of water. So over subsequent generations,
the mutation and selection process had a new goal -- to walk.
After 15 generations, this was the champion. Other computer
runs have produced even better walkers
SIMS Sometimes these evolving creatures would think of solutions
to their goal which were completely different than I expected.
In this one example, the creatures got taller and taller and
taller, and would simply fall over. Instead of figuring out
some clever way of walking, they would fall to generate horizontal
velocity. What I was telling them to do was to just move,
and falling was a perfectly good solution as far as they were
concerned. So this creature specialized in falling for as
long as it possibly could, including doing a complete somersault.
ALAN ALDA (NARRATION) The strength of artificial evolution is that
it comes up with solutions that computer programmers could
never imagine. So if the process could be applied to making
robots, we might see a really smart Flakey, sooner than we
KONOLIGE It would be nice to have something that, you know,
would learn like a little kid does. I have a little kid and
it's great to watch him learn all these things. But that's
a very complicated self-evolving system. And our robots are
not like that.
ALAN ALDA Okay, now look. You're a scientist and your curious and
KONOLIGE And I want to do it.
ALAN ALDA You want to make it better and better. Is there a point
beyond which you don't want to go? That you're afraid this
will then gallop ahead out of control.
KONOLIGE Will I win a Nobel Prize for it?
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