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The Joy of High Tech


Rodford Edmiston

This being a collection of random thoughts on bits and pieces of information which should interest the technically oriented reader.

Please note that while I am an engineer (BSCE) and do my research, I am not a professional in this field. Do not take anything here as gospel; check the facts I give. And if you find a mistake, please let me know about it.

Never Invite an Alien Into a Sauna

     Maybe I missed something, but I can't recall any SF story - in print, on film or on TV - where aliens comment that the view screens used by humans have weird colors. Or vice versa, for that matter. Y'see, while a lot more organisms in our world than used to be thought can discriminate between colors, the way we see them is unique. We have a black and white vision, which is mostly used in low light conditions, plus three separate color detection systems, each sensitive to one narrow band of light frequencies. These are what we see as red, green and blue. For humans, all other colors are actually a mixture of these. Correct me if I am wrong, but I believe that of all the creatures on our crowded little globe, only Homo sapiens can do this. It is unlikely in the extreme that organisms completely unrelated to us will see colors with the same method humans use.

     Even if an alien species uses a similar mechanism - sensitivity to narrow bands of frequencies - the odds are that they won't use the same "primary" colors that we do. As an intellectual exercise, I once created a species which saw in full color, by making use of chromatic aberration. You can imagine what they would think of our "color" TV sets.

     Now, if aliens breath the same type of air as us, what they consider "visible" light will probably overlap with the frequency range we use. That's where an oxygen/nitrogen atmosphere is most transparent, after all, so that is what is most available. Of course, there are other parameters to consider. For instance, the frequency of the light largely determines the size of the detector. (The lens or mirror of a telescope is not the detector, merely a light concentrator. The detector is an eye, a camera or a photomultiplier.) This is why the eye of a whale is about the same size as the eye of an ox. It is also why insects see largely by the near ultra-violet; the tiny facets of their eyes work better focusing the shorter wavelengths.

     At least there's a reasonable chance they will have some sort of visual sense. We can't be certain they will be able to hear at all. While most of the living things on this planet - even plants and microbes - can sense vibrations in their environment by one method or another, only a relative few can actually interpret these as sound.

     What does all this have to do with saunas? Read on. We have had it drummed into us so many times from so many sources that humans are nothing special that a lot of us actually believe it. So, here is a worst-case scenario that could result from this false humility. The alien ship lands at Dulles Spaceport in DC. The ambassador gets out, stepping directly into a Washington Summer going full blast. After a short walk, he is seated in a modified limousine and driven in air conditioned comfort to the hotel. He steps out of the limousine and walks another short distance through the heat into the air conditioned hotel lobby... and promptly drops dead of thermal stress.

     Humans have an extraordinary tolerance for temperature extremes. Not just the maximum and minimum limits which they can endure, but the speed of the change. Scandinavians will sit in a sauna at the temperature of boiling water until nice and toasty, then run outside and roll in the snow or jump through a hole in an ice-covered lake. For fun! And they've been doing this for centuries! Folks, there are bacteria which can't take such rapid and extreme changes in heat.

     During testing for the American space program in the sixties, researchers discovered that they could set a pan of cookies in a hot box with a human subject and bake them to a turn in ten minutes, while the man just sweated a bit extra. While the Inuit have an extra margin of tolerance for low temperatures, one exposure to extreme cold (say, overnight in the Arctic in a thin sleeping bag*) is enough for most people to make a large jump in adapting to these conditions. (Assuming they survive the first night, of course...)

     Why do we have this capacity? Probably a combination of reasons. For instance, once humans learned to build shelters - and especially after they learned to heat them with small fires - they began frequently subjecting themselves to this sort of stress. This isn't the total answer, since dogs have gone in and out of such shelters with their masters for millennia, and a dog will die in a sauna after just a few minutes. That we have it, though, is beyond doubt.

     So we have to be careful in dealing with aliens. "Do Unto Others as You Would Have Them do Unto You" might get a lot of folks killed, with the best of intentions. Let's just hope that other species will be as flexible and aware in dealing with us. Imagine the problems involved in dealing with a people from a planet whose atmosphere has a touch of cyanogen in it. They see it as normal, if not necessary, and haven't thought to mention it. They would find ludicrous the idea that cyanide could be poisonous. Until the first human death. Such tests have actually been made in temperature tolerance research.

     This document is Copyright 2002 Rodford Edmiston Smith. Anyone wishing to reproduce it must obtain permission from the author, who can be reached at: stickmaker@usa.net