Alien Crash Site

#010 with Michael Lachmann

Episode Summary

This week Alien Crash Site invites Evolutionary Biologist, and SFI Professor Michael Lachmann into the Zone to seek out a feeling device. We discuss the work he's done in the past year on strategic approaches to COVID, interdisciplinary science in general, his opinions on the origins of life, Roadside Picnic, Stalker, Solaris and understanding how aliens feel.

Episode Notes

Learn more about everything referenced in this episode by clicking the links below:

Michael’s webpage

Lauren Ancel Meyers

Carl Bergstrom’s Calling Bullshit

Michael’s work on the Neandertal genome

Information’s impact on fitness

Michael, Sara Walker, Chris Kempes and Lee Cronin, herein the #OriginsOfLifeLeague

Life Alive

Episode Transcription

 **Please note, this is an AI-generated transcript. Human-edited version coming soon**

…begin transmission…

Caitlin McShea (0s): Hello everyone today is the 1st of April, but the content in this episode is no joke. This is alien crash site, a new interplanetary interview series from the Santa Fe Institute, where we ask Maverick individuals from our broad community to imagine an ideal alien object that would make a tangible impact on humanity's future. This idea of an alien artifact is borrowed from the Soviet sci-fi novel roadside picnic, which was written by the Strugatsky brothers and later adapted by Tarkovsky and to be totally incredible film called stalker. This podcast owes a great deal of debt and respect to all of those artists. 


So, this week we bring Michael Lachmann into the zone. Michael is a professor at the Santa Fe Institute. He's an evolutionary biologist usually, but for the past year, he's been contributing his skillset to a research consortium in Texas, working to determine how best to strategically approach this COVID crisis. Things like how best to instantiate lockdown procedure, how likely spread is under various conditions, how best to distribute vaccines, to whom where, how quickly, et cetera, but when he's not working to save us all, he is thinking about the origins of life and most interesting subject to ponder. My favorite, as this audience, no doubt knows in this conversation.


Michael walks me through his notion of what's happening at the origins of life and what that might look like for lifeforms, other than our own earth life. We are periodically joined by two opinionated and very vocal guest felines Bhatia, and Shula. We talked through roadside picnic, stalker and Solaris before Michael reveals what his ideal alien object is. If you're interested in watching this video version, you can see the There, you will find a transcript of this episode and links to everything mentioned in this interview, including papers that Michael has written and information about all of the totally awesome colleagues that he names. 


You can also revisit any of the episodes you may have missed there too. So, without further delay, let's prepare for our adventure. I am Kaitlyn McShea. This is alien crash site. So suit up, sit down, and please keep your arms and legs inside of the hoverboot. 


Caitlin McShea: hi, Michael. Hi. How are you? 

Michael Lachmann: I'm good. Yeah, I mean, I just, wasn't in spring break and I'm following cases in Texas and they seem to be quite going down so happy and as always like lots of pressure about finishing stuff, but otherwise I'm very good. 

Caitlin McShea (2m 55s): Are you monitoring cases statewide or just Austin? 

Michael Lachmann: No statewide. So, we have, I joined 

Michael Lachmann (3m 0s): This consortium in Austin and UT Austin, and we have a dashboard for just Austin and also a dashboard for various 22. So, subdividing, Texas into 22 areas. So, we're following. Yeah, it's all based on hospital data. And currently, I mean, it's not really going down at an amazing rate, but it's not going now 

Caitlin McShea (3m 22s): Say for our audience, that what you're doing now is a huge departure from what you typically do. So, you sort of became an epidemiologist this year, but usually you're an evolutionary biologist and you're thinking about much bigger things. And so when I approach these interviews, I try to be improvisational, but I have a lot of ideas about things that I want to talk to you about because I think how you spent the last year might speak to how people do science and the difference between doing these kinds of actionable practical app application type work. And then like how you make inroads on these very, very big questions, like origins of life. 

So, I don't know if there's a relation, what it is about origins of life at evolutionary biology that equips you to be an epidemiologist all of a sudden, but I'd love to hear about the transition. 

Michael Lachmann (4m 6s): Yes. I mean the, so I'm an evolutionary biologist and I usually, I don't enter labs and I work very abstractly, but the tools that I got as my, in my PhD and before, so working on population genetics and things like this are actually exactly the tools that some epidemiologists have. So Hey, Lauren, Ansul, Myers and CalWORKs to him were graduate students with me. And so, their background is just like my background up to the PhD. 

So, in terms of mathematical background and modeling background, I mean the, the work that I do is identical, but of course, to be an epidemiologist, you need to know the literature of a big, what did people do? What didn't they do? What models are good to use? So, all this, I don't know. And so, I D I joined the group is headed by Lauren. And so, she provides that part. And at first, I just wanted to help in any way I can. So, at first, I was just making their programs work faster because I'm a pro I'm a good programmer. 

And, and then slowly I entered more and more into actually bitten the allergy and gain more confidence to actually work on that. Usually in my work, you know, ideas that I have are really important. These like insights into stuff, which I didn't trust at all. I didn't trust myself at all. And it bit me all day, but now it's 10 goes on a, over this year. Now I do trust my ideas more so more of who I really am as a scientist goes now more into even the pulmonology work. 

Caitlin McShea (5m 47s): Is that a, is that a process that's always present when you work across, like with people in other disciplines? Is there always this discomfort in the way that you think about something that isn't like your field? It's an interesting 

Michael Lachmann (5m 58s): Question. So, I don't remember. I don't remember ever, ever having this feeling directly. I think normally I felt very confident and just in this work, I think it could be because of its significance. I mean, in terms of the pandemic, and also because of the beginning of the pandemic, there were so many people expressing their opinions and other people expressing their opinions against people expressing their opinions. 

And so, I think it became stronger here. I did work a few times with, in a, in fields that were totally not my own. So, when I worked on the sequencing of the Neanderthal genome, it involved a lot of lab work that I, I knew nothing about. I mean, not that I did any lab work, but, but even there, I felt confident to say, you know, like, maybe you should boil this or maybe you should use that. So, I didn't feel any problem expressing my opinions there. 

It's somewhat new. Yeah. I think, I mean, my, my general opinion is that, and that's why I did. I think that when someone enters a field for the first time, that's when they see they have kind of the best insights because they, they don't trust things that they see. And so, they, they can give you, I mean, not, they will often give you very stupid insights. I mean, or they will ask questions that aren't relevant, but they will also ask questions that you didn't think were relevant. 

And so, I think at that point, you get the best input. So that's why I, when I worked on the Neanderthal genome or gene expression studies, I wasn't afraid to ask these questions. 

Caitlin McShea (7m 45s): Yeah. A fresh set of eyes could be really useful here and there. So now that things look like they're ramping down in Texas and across the nation, you get to return to your life's work. Were you able to do any of that this past year? Has it been kind of grindstone, pandemic work? 

Michael Lachmann (8m 1s): Pretty much grindstone pandemic work. So, every, every Friday at around three, four of us who have been meeting, so Sarah Walker, Chris Kempes, Lee Cronin and me have been, we have been having these zoom meetings, which were mostly about life, but also about life origin of life. So that was, that was pretty much the only other work I was doing. I mean, I guess there was also a JTF called to, to write a small little piece, but other than this, I wake up, eat breakfast, join the zoom meeting, and then basically stay near my computer till like one at night working on the pandemic the whole time. 

Caitlin McShea (8m 46s): Wow. Well, thank you. As someone who has a vaccine coming down the pike, I appreciate the way that you pivot, like in times of need. And I'm sorry that have been so busy and I'm away from the, from the kind of deeper thing. 

Michael Lachmann (9m 0s): I think it also gives you a lot because I imagine that not being able to work on it directly can cause people to feel helpless, but I mean, even though you, you are working on what you want, but because the pandemic is around you and you don't have any influence. So, I think it may, I think that working on the pandemic made me handle it better. 

Caitlin McShea (9m 26s): Okay. So, can you explain how it is that you make inroads into a question as large as the origins of life, what specifically you're looking at and how you're capable of measuring it, modeling it, whatever it is from a theoretical sense? Like how do you get to it? 

Michael Lachmann (9m 44s): Yeah. This is a good question. Yeah. You can ask, what do you have? Like, why do you think you can work on 

Caitlin McShea (9m 51s): What qualifies you? 

Michael Lachmann (9m 52s): Exactly. And it's really unclear. So, I, I don't really remember the moment when I decided that I do want to work on the origin of life. I, so when I wasn't in the Israeli army and you go, you go to the base for two weeks or three weeks or one week, and then you come back. And at that point I had read some article in the scientific American, I think. And I'm actually not, I'm not sure if that was before or after that article, but anyway, I was, I was coding simulations for the origin of life. 

At that point in basic, I would run them on my Commodore 64 live like a fan running. I don't know if it needed a fan, but I felt like it needed one. And then I went, I went away for three weeks and then came back and checked if life evolves. And so already that early, I was interested in that question. And then I, when I studied, when as an undergrad, I studied kind of an interdisciplinary program. And I, I actually, at that point felt that I, I would become a physicist, but the question of the origin of life just wouldn't leave me. 

And I, eh, I felt that I even, I couldn't even do physics without going into the origin of life question. So, the reason that in the end, I decided to go into biology really came from the origin of life. And so, so I think the main thing that qualifies me as, because I've been thinking about this for so long, and my approach is kind of very information oriented. So, I, I, I, I see the evolutionary process and the origin of life as a process that kind of discovers functional information or generates functional information. 

And I think this view of evolution as information generating has been in the background of all of my research. And so, so even though I started working on the origin of life when I was 18 or 19 or something like this, and have been thinking about for a long time, I haven't actually worked on it for most of my career. So, I worked on it then as an undergrad, I also worked on it. But then even though I went to biology in order to work on it, I didn't actually work on the origin of life. 

Instead, I've worked on things like role of six in a, in evolution of multicellularity signaling information. But I think in the background, my, my knowledge about how evolution and information interact gave me a good background to come back to that question. And I came back to the question I think around probably now it's around 10 years ago. 

Caitlin McShea (12m 50s): So, I'll say I read through the things that you sent me and I gained yesterday, a new understanding of the meaning of the word information. So, thank you for that because it's no seriously. I think that my thought about it was quite limited. And I want to try to articulate what that understanding is, and if I'm wrong, you knock me down to correct me. But I guess I only ever thought about information when people in this origins of life league talk about it as like the stuff that's maintained in DNA or the stuff that's used to replicate, reproduce more of myself into the future. 

But I was reading about this. I was reading your piece about information and its impact on fitness and evolution. And I realized there's this like second version of information, which has almost this like immaterial external environmental type of information. And so, the example that I'll use is like, Caitlin is a bunny rabbit and she lives in a hole and she wants berries, but she doesn't know if there's a predator outside of her hole. And if she did, she would hide. And if she didn't, she would go. But so, I guess what became really, what was really illuminated to me yesterday when I was reading through all of this, is that like, let's say I got lucky. 

I decided not to go out and I lived and I reproduced, and then five generations later there was like a great, great granddaughter Kaitlin bunny, the DNA that, that bunny uses somehow encapsulates the fact that there wasn't a predator outside of my hall five generations ago. And so, it's just like that link is something that I had never considered before. And I'm wondering, I don't know if this is a question that you can answer, but it seems to me that like, there's this immaterial environmental information that impacts directly the material information that is employed in replication. 

And that's kind of like where something like memory emerges.

Michael Lachmann (14m 31s): Yeah. That's actually amazing. And amazingly good representation. I mean, it took me a really long time to get there, but it is really there's. We use the word information. I mean, that happens was all words. Like I always wonder what did people think when someone said four words before knew like that word totally changed in meaning and the word information is very similar. Like, and I think that, so Shannon introduced the information theory and I think one of his great breakthroughs was to, to throw out the whole meaning and just say, I don't care what you're saying. 

You're talking, you know, when you're talking on the telephone, I want to Telegraph how much information is transmitted and I don't care what it is about. So that was what enabled him to do his analysis. But today, when we talk about evolution, I mean, even when we use information and physics, maybe, I mean, it's tightly linked to, to entropy that meaning part is missing and we have to reintroduce it, I think. And, and it is, it is hard because the, the reason that we can do information theory is exactly because we threw out the meaning. 

So now we have to put it back in and still be able to work with information for you. And so, the, the one paper will be kind of looked at. And so, the bunny rabbit lives in a hole and knows about whether there's a predator out, how much what's the fitness benefit. That was a question that interested me, like, how come we can ask about fitness benefit? And we can ask about how many bits of information there are. And what is the connection between the two? 

And it was very surprising that we found that you can actually measure in a way measure fitness benefit in Bates and say, this fitness is worth, you know, like a two-fold advantage in how many offspring you'll have per generation. And that two-fold advantage you can say is one bit of information per generation. So, the two kind of are very similar, but it's still, it still doesn't make the connection between information and meaning. 

Very, very clear. It just says here, you can see it as that. And then what you were talking about these weird correlations, Oh, there, my cat, 

Speaker 3 (17m 7s): I really just wanted to interview the cat and you're my medium. 

Michael Lachmann (17m 16s): I know. And so, Well, like you said, in, in physics, right. We can talk about things that can record memory, right? Like a rock rolls on the sand and there is this, okay. It leaves an impression on the sense. So that is a memory of the rock rolling. So that is information, but it's, it doesn't have a meaning, right? It's it was out meaning. So, it's, you generate correlation between the rolling of the, of the rock 

Michael Lachmann (17m 51s): And what you see on the sand, but selection that evolution has this other weird, eh, correlation across time where, like you said, my ancestors had maybe a certain type of hemoglobin and we're in an environment where this helped them survive. And because of this today in my genome, I have a slightly modified version of hemoglobin that maybe binds to oxygen better or words. 

So, there's this connection between what happened to my ancestors a long time ago, there was a group of them. Some of them had this version of hemoglobin salmon. Sam had a different version, and those that had my version of survive. So that event across time causes me today to have this version of hemoglobin and be able to survive better maybe. And it's this generates this functional information, right? I'm not giving is functional for me because of the event that happened in the past. 

And this is a really interesting connection. I, which I haven't totally been able to, to understand yet. 

Caitlin McShea (19m 4s): Well, I've only been thinking about it for a day, but it's been like keeping me up because it's something that I blind to until I read these papers. So, I don't know if this is like, sort of a woo woo question. But I was thinking about DNA being the sort of genomic memory of what's happened in your lineage. And then the example you just gave of the rock, rolling down a Hill, and the impression that it makes in the sand is also like a consequence of material. Like is his information, his memory necessarily material, is there, is there some, can we conceive of a sort of like trans material form of information? 

I just don't know. I don't know that it seems to me that they're necessarily tethered, but I don't know what that means. 

Michael Lachmann (19m 43s): So, info. Right. So yeah, so information will always be somehow material on one hand, but I guess one special thing that that evolution does, right, is that we, in a way are informational beings. And so physically, I don't think it's totally true, but there's diabetes claims, you know, that all the atoms in my body changed every so often. And it's probably not true for the atoms in my DNA, but, but there's a big turnover. 

And, but the information that makes me up stays there and, you know, like we, we can copy the DNA to a new, a new molecule and the information is there. So, so what, one thing that the origin of life did is this, this association between information and the physical it's physical representation. 

Caitlin McShea (20m 46s): Okay. Can I ask why it would be the case that the atoms in your DNA don't behave according to the same universal laws as the atoms everywhere else? 

Michael Lachmann (20m 55s): Oh, no, they do. But that, you know, that you really don't want to have mutations. So, for example, the atoms in the DNA, in your germline, like every time you touch the DNA, there is a danger that you, that you will introduce a mistake. So, I think that the organisms have evolved to touch the DNA as little as possible. So, your germline only replicates a limited number of times between generations. 

So, so I, I don't think that there is this exchange of atoms in the DNA all the time. I could be wrong. 

Caitlin McShea (21m 37s): No, that's clarifying. Thank you. Okay. And so, from the sounds of it, it seems like you were kind of thinking about emergence of life. I don't know if that means, I don't know if you're focused solely on like Taryn life or do you think Astro, biologically as well? Are you, are you interested in what's out there or are you mostly focused on what's right here? 

Michael Lachmann (21m 55s): I'm actually more focused on what's out there. So, I think that, so it's actually the whole group, like Sara, Lee, Chris Kempes and many others may be, but I like to sync off life is more of a continuum. So, I think that, you know, if I have my cup of coffee and you think of it as a cup of water, like even here, I think the sign of what's happening in life is happening here. 

Right? Some functional information is being generated here just as it is being generated over evolutionary time in, in humans or in viruses. So, so the question is, of course, life is not really being generated here. Like only a limited amount of functional information is being continually generated here. And the origin of life is somehow about crossing, maybe some, one threshold or many thresholds where you were able to acquire a lot of information instead of just a few bits that you get here. 

But if, if you have this view, then there's the question. Okay. So how much information that is gained in the cup of water? How long does it survive and anywhere on earth, are there locations where more information is being generated? Not by life, but by something that is not life is the other places where this transition is crossed, or one of, some of these transitions are cross. So, is there more life sinks that are higher on the ladder to life? 

Are some of them around on earth. And then you can ask also the question about Mars or tighten them so on. So how, how many steps towards life happened on Titan or happened, happened on Mars and so on. And one way to say it is like dark fear. Is there more life other than the life? We know it on earth. So, when people usually say, well, no, there isn't because it's out competed by life, but then you can ask, okay, let's say that it isn't there. 

And we look at the process that went from nothing to the origin of life. As we know it, that process, let's say it took a million years, or let's say took a hundred thousand years off these hundred thousand years. How many are happening today? All the time? Like just the first day, just the first two weeks, the first months, how far does it go all the time in many places on earth. And I think, I think that's an interesting question. My answer would be probably a long way. 

I actually, I'm actually of the opinion that the origin of life could still be around somewhere. We just, we can't find it because it's so small and hard, rare and hard to see and fragile maybe. Yes. But I think that, I think just like we have bacteria that are very far from us still around, I think it could be that more parts of our evolutionary tree could be around and more parts of evolutionary trees that don't get anywhere and unconnected to ours could also be around 

Caitlin McShea (25m 8s): And is the expectation that whatever this pathway is for on this continuum of where life emerges, that, that that's bit of steps that's really close to what is about to be life that that's happening universally in like any other forms of life we might encounter. That's what we're looking for is some like universal, predictable pathway. Do we have such a thing? Okay. And what is it? 

Michael Lachmann (25m 31s): This is the thing that we, that we want to understand is what if the pathway is universal and what isn't like to me, something like this, this gathering of functional information, I see it as the definitional part. This is what life is. And then the question of, well, okay, but what about sales? Will there be sales? What about DNA? Will there be a genome? These questions? We will find that some of them are universal. 

Every time life evolves, there will be a genome maybe, or there will be, I, there won't be DNA, but maybe there will always be a genome. Maybe there will always be cells, but this, this is there is, I guess there is things that will always happen. There are things that are necessary and there are things that are definitional. So, there are things that these, this is what makes life. There are things that have to happen for life to emerge. And then there are things that will just happen. You know, like two organisms will sit around and talk about the origin of life. 

It will happen, but it's not necessary. Yeah. 

Caitlin McShea (26m 44s): The 

Michael Lachmann (26m 44s): Gathering of functional information happens all the time everywhere to some, to some degree. And then what happened in the origin of life is that a process emerged that allows gathering a lot of information. I mean, when, when information is generated in this cup, it might be generated for a short time and then lost. But in the origin of life, some information that I have is 3.8 billion years old, or something like this. So, something emerged that allows this information to be maintained for a long time, almost indefinitely. 

And at some point, it had to do with the invention of a genome. So, the genome obviously makes it possible to try and make, to transmit information for a long time. But I think, I think an actual genome was, was relatively late. I mean, we can, we can kind of also, we have another similar situation and the emergence of culture where at first there was just maybe trans transmission of signals between individuals in a population. 

And then the signals probably became more and more complicated. You could talk about more and more things just like in the origin of life, probably you could make more and more complicated, more you could code for more and more complicated molecules that had more and more function. And then at some point maybe we had a full language and then later point we had; we were able to write things down. So, it's, it's a long time till you get to a stage where it's like a genome where you, you have, we have writing where the writing really has very little to do with what it is talking about. 

Right. But, and yet you could, you know, you can write the word car or play more or cat.  

Caitlin McShea (28m 40s): Yeah. 

Michael Lachmann (28m 41s): So, I think it's a, it's a long process, but the question is, what was it, the beginning of the cross 

Caitlin McShea (28m 48s): And for you, that's the gathering of functional information. 

Michael Lachmann (28m 51s): Yes. The gathering of a lot of functional information. How does that? 

Caitlin McShea (28m 55s): Okay. So, if I, if I'm understanding, and this is not like the end all be all, this is the Michael Lachmann intake. It seems that what you're looking for is some sort of process that also is captured in, in a way that allows it to persist for like forever, for an unimaginably long time beyond the, even like the span of the thing that is living. And that's really interesting because that's even more complicated than just the process. Right. It's you need both, I think, in order to understand it. 

And that's hard to see. 

Michael Lachmann (29m 29s): Yeah. And that's a weird type of, of persisting because the information persists, but also an important part of the evolutionary processes that the information can change. So, Oh 

Michael Lachmann (29m 43s): Yeah. So, it's, it's both maintaining and changing that part of the evolutionary process.  

Caitlin McShea (29m 49s): I think this leads nicely into this kind of artifact question, because quite often we talk about what we would expect is like a sign of life on another planet. And you were just using this example of your coffee cup as, as lifeing in a way, not living, but lifeing. And so of course, if we found like a coffee cup on Mars, we would have a sense that life was once there, but we could take it back to our labs and we wouldn't really necessarily gain any information about the origin. So, but there is an impact to the discovery of such an artifact. It at least provides, well, it may not be even an end up to, I could say it's not necessarily a Martian life form.

It could be mine from like when I visited the Rover and familial two millennia or whatever. So, yeah. So, I wonder this is something that I think about in terms of like, when people send missions to foreign oceanic, icy moons were interesting. Chemistry is going on, let's say we found something that looked like it's the consequences of a living system. What can we actually learn from the object itself if it's not alive? Or what do you think we can learn if the object itself isn't alive, we're alive. And we don't know what, where we came from. 

Michael Lachmann (30m 54s): Yeah, it's really interesting question. I mean, the, just, I wanted to clarify one thing there is life is happening here. I meant that as, as I swirled the coffee around and there is a selection process on various waves or vortices and so on happening in the coffee, but there's another point that we, that I often make. And that is that I see this cup as life just as I see me as life just as I see. 

So I think, I think that, and that's what you said that because if we find me on Mars or some something equivalent to me, we would say, we have found life on Mars, but if we find the cup of Mars and we also would say, we found life on Mars, and if we can explain the origin of coffee cups, we have, we will have explained the origin of life. But yeah, but here, I think there is a point where not many people agree with the point that I will make now. 

And that is so because of this view of this continual ladder of life, I think that life has very little to do with chemistry. And I don't think that I would be, it is possible, but I would be very disappointed if it turns out the existence of a particular chemical reaction on earth enabled the immersions of fly, something like the kick cycle or something like this. That just because there is this particular reaction life emerged. And if it wasn't there, it wouldn't have, I would. 

I mean, I think it is totally possible, but I find it very disappointing. So, I think, I think life is the process of gathering financial information and it has nothing to do with certain chemistry. And because of this, I think it means that when we find life on another planet at the low level, it will be very, very different. So, I don't think for sure that it's, it will have, I mean, I would guess it will have a genome, but it will not have DNA. 

It will not have RNA will have totally different molecules. And I even think that it will not have proteins. And so, its proteins will be built differently. And that is actually very, very disappointing because it means that this is one of the best parts of science fiction movies. When you see aliens that you go into a bar and eat with them, but I think that will never happen. So, we will never be able to taste what alien fruit tastes like, because it will be so foreign to us. 

I mean, I guess aliens can, you know, sugar and salt, they will probably be able, that will be kind of identical. So maybe parts, parts, we will be able to eat. But most, most of it, we won't be able to eat. And there won't be, you know, like these monsters that tried to catch humans and eat them, they will not exist. It's, it's impossible to, to transfer the resource. 

Caitlin McShea (34m 3s): Okay. That's funny. We talked about, I had Tamara on about three weeks ago and her object was something like alien wine. I want to know what alien wine tastes like. And then we came to the same conclusion. Like maybe don't try it. Who knows what, how it reacts with your, with your stuff. But yeah, I, I do, I do wish that we had the kind of megafauna, you know, jazz bar star Wars opportunity to hang out. But I don't think that we do, that's unlikely. I want to push a little bit on this chemistry thing before we switch to the alien artifact. If you'd like, now we're talking about aliens, it seems natural. But even if I'm willing to agree with the fact that the origin of life is not necessarily a chemical reaction, it's something more like a dynamical process, but we don't know what, but it's something that it's gathering information. 

Isn't the chemistry necessary for the construction of whatever this memory storage thing is. Even if it's not a genome, it's gotta be like, it's got, something's gotta, something's gotta hold onto this stuff. And that seems like a consequence of chemistry. Is that fair? 

Michael Lachmann (34m 55s): Yeah. No, I think that chemistry is important, not a particular set of, of molecules or so I don't think that like DNA, 

Caitlin McShea (35m 7s): Particular chemistry, you had a particular chemical reaction that we have witnessed. Oh, understood. I get that. That's great. 

Michael Lachmann (35m 12s): So, so DNA, for example, is a really amazing molecule. It holds information for a long time, but can be changed easily, can be transformed to are, can transfer the information to our name. It's like looks, I mean, it's so simple, but it looks like it's made exactly for its purpose. Like, like the world, the reason that we have life is because there's DNA. Like it's so perfect, but I, that it must be the DNA evolved. And if it evolved, that means that it's function was found. 

It wasn't just there. So, so that it could have been a different molecule that would have been justice, perfect 

Caitlin McShea (35m 51s): Selection lends itself to this beautiful thing that we have. Right. 

Michael Lachmann (35m 54s): Right. And actually it's important here to stress that DNA is actually not perfect at all. What makes it perfect is all the machinery around it. So the error rate of DNA would be just horrible, was out all the enzymes that help it work. So it is really, there is no magical and molecule. 

Caitlin McShea (36m 14s): Yeah. Okay. Great. All right. Shall we is as opposed to finding a, a coffee crop on Mars aliens have visited our world and there, and there were all of these zones about, and even though they are extremely dangerous to enter, you're going to you because you hope to find something. So I have to ask the question, Michael, at the risk of imprisonment, great injury, even death, what do you hope to find in an alien crash site? 

Michael Lachmann (36m 36s): Yeah, it's a cool crisis. I mean, I, it's a, it's kind of lucky that I recently read the roadside picnic. Yeah. Actually they, they had the same. It's not just in roadside picnic. They had the same kind of idea in several of their books. Right. One thing is that one really cool thing is that you go in there and there's this object. Yeah. You don't know, you have no idea about its function. It just does something for you. 

And because its function is so alien, what it does to you is some weird thing. So it's almost counter the idea to say, I want to find this. 

Caitlin McShea (37m 19s): Totally, totally. I think that's, that's a, that is a great criticism. I think that's absolutely right. But one thing 

Michael Lachmann (37m 30s): I think that, so like I said, you know, like it would be great to be able to eat alien food, to be able to taste what it is. But I, so one thing that I thought about is there's this question about, and it could be that all of us are really kind of converging to the same. 

Caitlin McShea (37m 51s): I right. After a hundred episodes, it's going to be some like conglomerate thing, but go ahead. 

Michael Lachmann (37m 55s): Yeah. And then you'll find it. But I think the one question that I've been kind of thinking about or wondering about is around, right. There's this, like, I forgot exactly the phrase, but what does the frog's brain tell frogs? I tell to the frog sprain. Right? So it's like this question around, what does it feel like to be a frog it's even right. What does it feel like to be Kaitlin? So what does it feel like to be someone else would be really cool, but so then I thought that, but one interesting question that I have, like, so we divide the world into these discrete units of emotions. 

Like I'm happy, I'm sad. I'm hungry. Like these are, these are these really discreet. Like, I mean, sometimes they're, they're mixed, you know, like, but it's, it's rare that I'm like somewhere between hungry and yeah. I guess hungry, hungry, and upset or something like that. So, and I think, you know, my cat, I try to interpret what, what is it? It is meowing about, right. It wants something. 

Or it's it's, I mean, it's me yelling and expressing something, but what is it expressing? And we often try to put like human emotions on the cat. Right. So it said, or it's hungry, but I don't think these discrete units, I don't know how far evolutionarily they go. Like when, when was this, this dissertation done. So I think that, I would guess that cats have a different discretization so they have a totally different set of emotions. 

And we, we try to say the cat is angry or upset, but that doesn't apply to a cat at all. Like it's true that cats have legs. And we can say, this is the leg of the cat because evolutionarily likes appeared before cats and humans. But eh, but I think, I think that most emotions appeared after and aliens would of course have nothing to do on our evolutionary tree. 

So their emotions would be even further. So I think that if we encountered aliens, their emotions would be told and, and motivations would be totally alien alien to us. So even a simple word, like happy wouldn't apply to them. Like it's just, it's, it's in our weird evolutionary tree, that happiness period or songs or science. And so I think I would like, like some object that gives me access. 

I don't know how this would work, but access to these foreign emotions. What, what are these other emotions? What do they feel like that an object like this would be really cool. 

Caitlin McShea (40m 59s): Okay. Yeah. I think this, I think what you said about songs and science is really helpful in trying to understand what you were, what you're saying about this sort of empathic engagement with aliens when they're so different from us, because there's that phrase that's like, you know, a smile is understood in every language, but of course, like that's still limited to the human species and the construct of the language that we've invented. So yeah. It's, 

Michael Lachmann (41m 21s): I mean, if you think about the smile, Jessica flak would be able to tell you right by the smile is this weird, like showing off the teeth in other primates, like they show the teeth, but they don't think they're smiling at all. And so it's, it's, it is like a smile it's totally obviously like this evolutionary artifact. 

Caitlin McShea (41m 39s): Right, right. And the function that it serves and communicating this piece of information across the different, like species that have evolved from each other. That's but so we can't assume that these aliens smile, we can't just seem that they're friendly. We can't have a drink with them at the bar. So how do we engage with them? This would be the object. Right. Okay. So you said you don't know how it works, but I'm going to push you to act to try to imagine how it works. Are you, do you have to encounter an alien to get a sense of how it feels emotionally? Like, do you have to be in the presence of this being with the device or do you get us, do you just get like insight into the emotional units of this species? 

Michael Lachmann (42m 16s): I wonder at first, at first I thought it would be this device. You put it near frog and you feel like a frog, you put it and then you feel like a plug, but then I thought this is kind of too impossible. I think that the, yeah, it would be cool. You know, like maybe it was an object where once you hold it and you see food or you see, you know, someone, your emotions are then split, like according to their, their world. 

Like, so you feel, you feel the emotion you would feel if you were that alien somehow. 

Caitlin McShea (42m 55s): Okay. So like, so I have this device, I put it next to like I'm in the wilderness or whatever. I have this device I'm in the wilderness, despite the fact that I have this crazy different, want to suspend your disbelief, but this is the example. So I'm in the wilderness, I'm hungry. I have this device, I put it next to this rabbit that I want to eat and I feel satisfied cause I'm about to eat. But I also feel fear because the rabbit knows that it's about to be prey or if it knows that something to that effect, like a simultaneous feeling between yourself and this. 


Michael Lachmann (43m 25s): Yeah. Your device would be way better than mine. So I thought just, it would be a device where you hold it in your hand and then, and now you feel the emotions that the cat has. So you can't, but it would be nice if, you know, you put it near a cat and then you feel the emotions that the cat has and then you put it in your rabbit and then you feel the emotions that the rabbit tats. Yeah. That, that would be even better. But I wanted, I also wanted to get the emotions that the aliens had. So that's why I said, you just, you just pick up that object and then now you're, you have the emotions of often ill. 

And so I also wanted to, I wanted to make the comment that, eh, for me, when I think of aliens, I think much more of solars aliens, then, then the roadside aliens. Like I think that individuality that we have here, I don't think I, I'm not sure that is very common. I, I'm not sure that aliens would have this type of individuality. So for example, it could be that this is the happenstance, what's the better word for happenstance, coincidence, something coincidence. 

Yeah. Sorry. There is this coincidence that happened to us. Which, so if you let's say you look at aunt, Anne's kind of did this evolutionary transition where they became from individuals. They became like a larger, larger individual individual to a larger level so that the colony interacts now with the world. But I think what happened when ants evolved my theories, even though I don't think we know much about it is that they lost a lot of their individuality or we all can also look in us. 

Right? We have neurons in our brain when the neurons became a multicellular organism, they lost a lot of their individuality. I think that a MOBAs have a much more interesting life as individuals, the neurons do. So, so usually during this transition, the lower level loses its individuality. But what happens with humans is we are obviously our culture is in a way this new individual or harbors these new individuals, a right. 

Like we say that we are little cops in their cogs cogs in the machine. Right. But we, right when Newton didn't come up with this theory of physics, its humanity did come up and we didn't, you know, like no single human invented rockets, like humanity invented rockets. So right. And we fight COVID 19 writers as a, as a culture, not as an individual. So there is some kind of immune system that appeared at the level of, of the populace. 

Caitlin McShea (46m 21s): Yeah. So, okay, good. Cause you were going to link it to this sort of like collective non individual alien type thing, like this center water or whatever. 

Michael Lachmann (46m 31s): Right. So I think that the fact that we can talk, even though we're part of this larger individual, like the, the larger scale organism, I don't know what it is that is human, human humanity, but we still can talk as individuals. I mean, we, we think that we have ideas and there things we like, I think that is this coincidence that happened when humans, I don't know why it happened, but I'm not sure that it's, it is very common. Like I think that usually the transition will be more like multicellularity like, or eh, and like, so what are these a in, in star Trek? 

What are the, Oh no, this is horrible. The, these cubic like spaceships, what are they called?

Caitlin McShea: Borg?

Michael Lachmann: Borg. But so in like these, I, I would think that individually a higher levels of project individuality, that it's kind of necessary for technology where the lower level of individuality is kept, I would think is rare. 

Caitlin McShea (47m 38s): Okay. Do you separate animals from humans? Like, do you think that there is a such thing as an individual cat in a herd? Is it something about like a higher level of consciousness that like might make for this coincidence that you're talking about? Although, no, I don't know because, so this is speaking of coincidence. I really liked that you brought up Solaris because the thing that links, this kind of sentient, I don't know an amorphous pool or whatever it is. And the individualism of the stalkers that are running into the roadside picnic zones is that Tarkovsky adapted both.

So that's like really nice. I can, like, I can bounce between the two because Turk house, he gave me that option. But yeah, I guess, but so then I, it, it, it isn't necessarily associated with consciousness because of course, status LLM imagined essentially like this, that is an individual, 

Michael Lachmann (48m 29s): There's something weird because it's unclear how evolution happened there. And, but we don't know enough about solar so that you can make up a story where it 

Caitlin McShea (48m 40s): Well, but that's something that we would encounter. Right. We just encountered it. We didn't play anything about its origin. So, I think it's relevant. 

Michael Lachmann (48m 45s): Exactly. And as two cats, it's interesting. That's actually really interesting. So, I think, I think that actually cats have more individuality than we do. And because they're not part of this higher level, eh, they have to discover everything on their own because they can't communicate with others. So, in a way they're, they're more individual, they're more, more an individual. Yeah. We, we lost some of her individuality. Yeah. It's I mean, it's weird. 

We don't think about it, but just like, so humans still were produced on their own, whereas an ant colony doesn't try and work. It doesn't, it doesn't reproduce on its own. And because of status, it doesn't care all the time about where it will lay its eggs and so on. It can be more useful to the colony in the way we do it. But, but very often we do, we do give, give up, right? Like monks give up a possibility to reproduce. And very often people make the decision of, you know, like not having kids in order to work. 

It's something that I think other, you know, like I don't think that an elephant would say, well, I want to explore the world. I don't want to have kids. So, it's a, we in that, at that, at that level, we gave up this individuality. We, we give sinks to society that we don't get. 

Caitlin McShea (50m 8s): Yeah. Interesting. It's like, we've transcended this biological necessity somehow. Like we're above like thing. We we've somehow electively transcended that, which is kind of crazy. And you suspect that alien life will not have done that, that it, it seems more likely that evolution would be such that they wouldn't with their D give up that to a societal.  

Michael Lachmann (50m 29s): Yeah. So, the, it seems that when on earth, this transition happened, most of the time individuality was lost at the local level. So that's why I'm saying, but it could be that, but when you have, you know, like the, the aliens that sit in UFO's to make, you know, to make spaceships, it could be that you have, it only happens like this. Right. I don't see why, but it could be that it's necessary. 

Caitlin McShea (50m 55s): No, I think it's just a reflection of the way that we think about ourselves. Right. I don't, I don't think that it's like human shaped green things flying around and plus I don't, but it's, you know, it's easy to like be imaginative against the limit of what we know, which is ourselves. It's always a reflection of ourselves. Okay. So let, let's try to figure out the shape and the name of this thing, and then safely scatter out of his own before we're harmed, what does this thing look like? This thing that you put next to the frog? 

Michael Lachmann (51m 22s): Oh, that's a cool question. So, this item thinks about that. Who would have to say this? So of course, you can always say like, this would be boring, like a glass ball. 

Caitlin McShea (51m 33s): Well, the golden spirit, everybody says a sphere that's right. Right.  

Michael Lachmann (51m 36s): Exactly. But I think let's see. Yeah, it would have to be, I think it would have to be some object that obviously has a function and we have no idea what the function is. Like, you know, like a fork when someone sees a fork, I don't think they would have any idea what, what its function is. So, it would, but it obviously has a function. So, what would be like something like this that, yeah, it would, it would be, yeah. 

So, I write, so I can't really describe it, but it would be something like, so it would be made of several materials, like a hammer, right. So, wood and metal, it could be made of several materials and it would have like a very distinct shape, like a hammer. But, but we would, we wouldn't, we wouldn't know what, what it is. So, it would be like a, I don't know, it's hard to imagine what something that we can't imagine. It would be like, it's a, 

Caitlin McShea (52m 38s): I'm really glad, I'm really glad that you're using the example of a hammer though, because I disagree. I think if I stumbled upon a fork, I would glean some sort of like stabby function. And I think if I stumbled upon a hammer shape thing, I would be like, Oh, this is heavy. I have leverage over it. And so, I wonder if someone, other than you stumbled upon this hammer shape thing. And instead of like putting it next to objects, to feel them just start to smash. So, like the book is important. The shape that the object takes is extremely important in attempting to determine what the function of it is. 

Michael Lachmann (53m 11s): Can you see the little mermaid? Like what's the fork and what's it for, but yeah. I mean, I, obviously you can gleam some for most objects you can gleam other than cell phones, you can like 

Michael Lachmann (53m 27s): Some of their function, like from what they look like. I remember I, when I was in the army, I walked upon this box, like was about this size and it had like lots of wheels and numbers and Russian writing. And I totally didn't know. It was impossible to say exactly what it was, but kind of just from looking at it, I think, so this is what I think it was, I think it was an analog artillery.  

Computer looks, I think the, the wheels they're like what computing things like sign of things. And so that was an almost, I mean, in this case, I could, I could kind of know because of where it was, like, it was part of the army. Why do you need the big box in the army? So, you could kind of reconstruct what it's for. It was totally alien in that. And so, but I think, yeah, it would be something like a, I think like a flashlight. 

So, it would look like, like a flashlight looks, you know, like a flashlight has like metal parts and glass parts and buttons. And it would be something like this, but it would look massing like a flashlight. It would have like weird protrusions, not, not too big. And, and yeah, so it would look like something that definitely has a function, but it could be used for calming your hair or hitting someone over the head.  

Caitlin McShea (54m 57s): Yeah. That's, that's great. That's right. We all do often think that objects are tools of violence. It's so easy to start smashing things. Okay. And then do we have a name for it? What w what do we do? Call it and that's it. And then you're free. 

Michael Lachmann (55m 13s): Huh? Okay. What's the name? And I mean, it's, what's, what's do the stalkers call it. Right. 

Caitlin McShea (55m 20s): Right. Exactly. And I guess to be fair, the stalkers usually refer to the things based on what they look. Right. So, it's like black sparker and like golden spheres and hoops. So, I guess you have to describe it's like multi-material protrude and stick. 

Michael Lachmann (55m 36s): I think so. I think it would be, so I would say it looks like a flashlight, but there's no light emitted anywhere. So maybe they would call it like the, we like the dark flashlight. Would that 

Caitlin McShea (55m 47s): Something like flash dark, but does it flash? If there was no light, it's neither it's like, like black dim, 

Michael Lachmann (55m 52s): Maybe what? Maybe it would just be called a flashlight. Like they would just call it to 

Caitlin McShea (55m 56s): Right. They would sell it at the borscht as such. Oh, you've had another flashlight. No, that's great. 

Michael Lachmann (56m 3s): So each one, each time you find one, it gives you like, it would be cool if it gives you like a different alien or maybe not, maybe all every time you find one, you switch to like this alien emotion side. And at first you don't really notice it. Right? So, you, you put it in your pocket and you walk around and you don't really notice that suddenly you, your emotions are divided differently. Like cats make you, I don't know what, like something 

Caitlin McShea (56m 30s): Right. I see. Because you're, you're navigating the world and you're perceiving things through this filter, this flashlight filter, and you might not have any idea that you're experiencing it through the, the eyes of this visiting species, which could be very dangerous. Yeah. 

Michael Lachmann (56m 45s): Yeah, exactly. Like, I mean, I think what's there, there was something right there wasn't objected enhanced emotions actually in the, in stock or, 

Caitlin McShea (56m 55s): I mean, so at the end of the novel, the thing that everyone's after is the golden sphere, which is said to like, grant your wish. It's like a wish granting device, but it's more than that. It's more like whatever is going on psychologically within the head of the stalker that holds it, that gets actualized by the golden sphere. So, you hope you're thinking about your family, but you might not be, you might be thinking about like war it's inaccessible, but the golden sphere can access it. So, I don't know if that's what you're talking about. 

Michael Lachmann (57m 21s): Yeah. I mean, it is. I always come, I always give this example of the, how, how meat is cut in Germany, because it's, I think it's really funny. So, my, my sister, we lived in Germany and my sister sent me a recipe of how to make something. And usually you just need to translate the units, you know, like sour cream is called something else in Germany, or maybe they don't have exactly sour cream. So you find something that is closest, but, but when you make meat dishes, like things that come from say beef, it will say, you know, like entree coat or something like this, like a certain cot, but there is no equivalent word in German for that. 

And the reason is not that the reason is that they cut the cow differently. It's not that, you know, like you contract, there is no translation, cause that object doesn't exist in German. 

Caitlin McShea (58m 14s): So, you're always making the wrong thing. 

Michael Lachmann (58m 16s): Yeah. You can't, I mean, you can't really make it because it doesn't exist in German. So, it's, it's not just that the translation is wrong. The object doesn't exist. 

Caitlin McShea (58m 26s): No, but it's wild to think about that. I think this is a great example because the cow certainly exists. Beef exists and therefore this part of this cow exists in Germany and the same way that it exists in America. But it doesn't because it doesn't exist semantically in the same way. So when you're tripping, when you've got the flashlight in your pocket and you're tripping with, through this alien perspective, you may be feeling things that you can't describe or you can't replicate once you're, once you're back to human perception or whatever, because it's simply doesn't exist. 

Michael Lachmann (58m 54s): Exactly. Yes. So, so the you, yeah, you see, you see a plate of food and you feel something, but there's no translation. Like it's not that you feel hungry or happy that translation does exist. Yeah. Like this part, right. This part of the cow does exist on the cow. Right. But then, you know, like, but you don't cut it as one piece. So, you cut it may be together with the part of the foot or something, part of the tail.  

So, I mean, if, if someone gave you a cow, you, but be able to cut that part out of it. And yeah. So I guess, but the, the emotion example is more complicated because it is, it's not that you grew up, you know, like that, all the feelings that you have when you see a cookie and when you see a plate of food, all of them like can be grouped together as hungry. And it's just that aliens group them differently. It's that in addition to that, they group them differently. But they also have, you know, like they have totally different emotions. 

Right. Probably in the end we would probably figure out that hungry is just one mock certain molecule, the new brain, right. It's each emotion has just, it's one molecule and that's it. And that's why we divide the world like this and aliens will have totally different molecules that have nothing to do with ours. 

Caitlin McShea (1h 0m 15s): Right. And furthermore, in terms of like complication you the plate of food example, like in my alien visor or whatever, I might not recognize that as food at all, like I have no idea. Right. So, it's not even that I don't have a hungry when I'm an alien. It's that like, I might think it's art. Like, what am I, I don't know what this thing is because it's not something that exists in my universe. 

Michael Lachmann (1h 0m 38s): Yeah. So, the question is like, will I need to see alien food to feel the feeling that alien hungry have? Or will it, will the object like transported into our world? Like yeah, yeah. Or the last or whatever they have, like, do I need to see an alien to feel it? Or can I see a human, but I just get a different feeling. I think it's better. If it's, I translate, I can translate it to our world. 

Caitlin McShea (1h 1m 8s): It's definitely better if it has this translation function, because otherwise it would just be an extremely confusing experience. But I don't think that that's fair. Like I actually think that if this object exists for it to truly function the way that it functions for us to feel those emotions, you have to experience them in the middle. You like, I think you have to be in the alien. So no, it's not like you get to look at your wife and you feel like alien less. That's too easy. That'd be great. But that's too easy. I think you look at your wife and you're utterly confused,

Michael Lachmann (1h 1m 35s): But it's cool because, so if you had enough of these flashlights, right, you could kind of have a city where everybody has, has a flashlight in their pocket and they interact with each other, like just like the aliens would, and this has nothing to do with how humans interact with each other. So, they're like, it, it just changes the whole, the whole social structure. Right. It's kind of transformed from one, one state to another. Yeah. 

Caitlin McShea (1h 2m 5s): So you can imagine a social experiment where like you put 50 families in a dome and every single individual has one of these flashlights and every time a new one is born, they get one and then like three generations later, what does this thing look like? Is it a kind of a, is it like a toy model of this alien civilization? They might be cruel, but I would, I would be curious. Okay. Sweet. All right. I hope this was among the weirdest interview you've ever done. That's kind of the goal and yeah. 

Good object. Yeah. I like this alien flashlight city as an experiment, as a social experiment. It's a bad conclusion, but it's a fun one. 

Michael Lachmann (1h 2m 44s): Yeah. I mean, it would be nice if you could go to like science fiction writers and say like, could you put that in? I want to read about,  

Caitlin McShea (1h 2m 51s): We should just write it. We should. Co-author this story. Once, once COVID is behind you. And you're a little freed up to think more imaginatively about aliens, we should figure this out ratio, short story, produce it with the Santa Fe Institute press. Well, thank you so much, Michael. Thanks for playing along. This was really great. And yeah, I look forward to seeing you on campus in the coming months.  

Michael Lachmann (1h 3m 13s): Yeah. Now we are allowed to come in like 50%  

Caitlin McShea (1h 3m 16s): Should be cool. We need 50% of the people that actually take  

Michael Lachmann (1h 3m 18s): It. It's almost like the El Farol problem. 

Caitlin McShea (1h 3m 22s): Yeah. We, we need to call Brian Arthur and figure out exactly how to optimize our return. I want 50% off is filled 

Michael Lachmann (1h 3m 30s): If needs to be like a public. 

Caitlin McShea (1h 3m 32s): Right. You can make like a L. Okay. All right. All right, Michael and Chris are there. I want to go. Sweet. Okay. Well, thank you so much. Good luck with all of the rest of it. And thank you again for the work that you can save all of our lives, but.

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