Edge Science In The Blog Era

I am a researcher on interstellar travel and related topics, a physics professor at New York City College of Technology and a sometimes NASA consultant; I’m probably the least likely person to enter the philosophical debate regarding consciousness as an epiphenomenon (a secondary effect perhaps arising from neuronal complexity) or a field that pervades the entire universe (panpsychism). Usually, it has seemed wise to keep my head down whenever this debate reared its head.

But certain issues were troubling me at the unconscious level. One of my mentors and co-authors, the late Evan Harris Walker, was a physicist who pioneered in the 1970’s early quantum consciousness theories. Although I couldn’t follow all the math, Harris’ concepts were fascinating. While consulting for a science-fiction novel in the early 1990’s, I investigated long-term survival of a near-Sun giant planet’s atmosphere, at the request of the novel’s co-author Buzz Aldrin. Calculations indicated that the hydrogen/helium atmosphere would survive for billions of years, which made Buzz very happy. Being too timid to submit these results for peer review, I missed out on predicting the existence of “Hot Jupiters” before their discovery. Finally, an undergraduate astronomy student questioned mainstream assumptions regarding the existence of dark matter and informed my class of his opinion that astrophysics is in a similar situation to classical physics in 1900—anomalies are building up and the paradigm must change.

It all came together in mid-2011, when I was invited to participate in a retrospective symposium to be held at the London headquarters of the British Interplanetary Society (BIS) on the achievements of the British philosopher/science- fiction-author Olaf Stapledon. I had discovered Stapledon’s 1937 masterwork Star Maker many years earlier, when I learned how often it was cited by astronomers, physicists and astronautical researchers including Freeman Dyson.

Since I’ve concentrated most of my creative effort on astro-engineering, space habitats and starships, I decided to leave these aspects of Star Maker to other speakers. Instead, I elected to check the scientific validity of the novel’s core metaphysics—that panpsychism is correct and a fraction of stellar motion is volitional.

First, since stellar interiors are devoid of neurons and tubules, I constructed a very simple model of molecular consciousness based in the work of Bernard Haisch and Sir Roger Penrose. I assumed the existence of a universal proto-consciousness field that interacts with molecules via vacuum fluctuation pressure—the Casimir Effect.

To test this against the real world, I initiated a Google search to see if there is any difference in the motion of cooler stars with molecules in their upper layers and motion of their hotter sisters. What I discovered blew my socks off—Parenago’s Discontinuity. The accompanying figure, from tabulated data in Allen’s Astrophysical Quantities 4th ed. and Binney et al’s reduction of observations from the ESA Hipparchus space observatory, plots stellar velocity around the galactic center vs. star (B-V) color index. Hot, blue, massive stars are to the left. Cool, red, less-massive stars are to the right. As I learned, the velocity discontinuity occurs at about the point where molecules begin to appear in stellar spectra. In general, cool stars with molecules (including our Sun) revolve ~20 km/s faster than their hot sisters. It was gratifying to see how nicely the two data sets coincide. I included these results in my Stapledon Symposium paper, which was published in the peer-reviewed Journal of the British Interplanetary Society (JBIS).

But there was more stellar kinematics to come. An astrophysicist working in Argentina, Richard Branham, has investigated giant star motions in the Hipparcos data set. As I describe in my recent book (Starlight, Starbright: Are Stars Conscious?, Curtis, UK, 2015), Branham’s results for a sample of thousands of giant stars out to a few thousand light years, shows that Parenago’s Discontinuity applies for these stars as well.

Astrophysicists work by proposing multiple possible explanations for observational anomalies and testing them. I am aware of two proposed rival explanations for Parenago’s Discontinuity.

One, that Binney et al. considered early on, assumes that low-mass stars might be affected more by close stellar encounters. This is probably not correct because, as most astronomers are aware, Population 1 stars are only sufficiently close when they reside in the birth nebulae. These nebulae last “only” 100 million years or so; velocities of low-mass stars being ejected from the birth nebulae should show greater dispersion, not systematic effects.

Another proposal that I discuss in the new book and elsewhere is Spiral Arms Density Waves. The density of the interstellar medium is not uniform. According to Density Waves, when a dense diffuse nebula moves through a star field, it might drag low mass stars along faster than high-mass stars. Unfortunately, an observational study of a few nearby spiral galaxies does not support Density Waves. Also, reduction of deep-sky-object tabulations by Messier, Herschel, and the NGC (New General Catalog) reveal few or no nebulae larger than a few hundred light years.

One can argue that the main sequence and giant star samples in the above studies are limited to a few thousand stars. GAIA, an ESA space observatory is currently on station conducting motion and distance studies of ~1 billion Milky Way stars. In a few years, we should know conclusively whether Parenago’s Discontinuity is a local or galactic phenomenon.

It was also necessary to investigate how a minded star might alter its galactic trajectory. The leading candidate is unidirectional matter jets, since we now know that some young stars eject these. A more controversial possibility is a very weak psychokinetic (PK) force. One place to review the controversy that still swirls around PK is a wonderful book by MIT physics professor David Kaiser, How the Hippies Saved Physics.

I’ve presented these concepts in several ways. As well as peer-reviewed papers in JBIS and Acta Astronautica and a presentation at a recent International Academy of Astronautics Symposium, I have collaborated with artist C Bangs (who is also my wife) on Starlight, Starbright: Are Stars Conscious?, an article in the Baen Press on-line science magazine, an Artist’s Book Star Bright? that has been collected by the Museum of Modern Art and two postings on science-journalist Paul Gilster’s Centauri-Dreams blog.

A well managed blog is apparently an excellent research tool. Instead of waiting months or years for the referees’s comments on a peer-reviewed submission, readers’ responses flood in almost immediately. Although some of the responses to my blog posting were jocular and others concentrated on the decades old PK controversy, many were from people well acquainted with astrophysical literature and technique.

Although it is much too early to speculate on the ultimate observational fate of this investigation into Stapleton’s volitional stars concept, one thing is clear. It is quite possible that panpsychism is emerging from philosophy and evolving into a sub-division of observational astrophysics.