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You’ll have to forgive me for the lack of focus in today’s post. I want to alert you to a few unrelated headlines that have caught my attention.

Maritime union is an old idea. But has this old idea’s time finally come? Three Maritime senators - http://news.nationalpost.com/2012/11/27/maritime-union-senators-ask-atlantic-canadians-to-think-big-and-merge-provinces/ - plan to unveil their idea for a new regional identity this weekend.

I’ve written before on the subject of regionalism, but I’ll reiterate my position here: I’m all for it. Canada’s a great piece of real estate and one of the dozen best countries on the planet. But it’s also vast, and populated by pockets of citizens who share many interests, but have ways of life that are different enough to warrant greater political acknowledgment of those differences.

It’s not about diminishing the separate identities of the three Maritime provinces, rather increasing the power of the Maritimes within Confederation. If the senators are suggesting a merger of three provinces into one bigger province, I’m against it. But if they’re suggesting three provinces inhabiting a regional union with greater autonomy from Canadian Confederation, I’m for it. One can value Canada and the peace and prosperity it represents, while still liking the idea of confederation consisting of four or five semi-autonomous states, created to represent regional variety. Such an approach might forever quell the rancor that exists between Quebec and Canada, as well as Alberta and the east. Key to such a construct, though, would be resisting the urge to create still more bureaucracy, instead using economies of size to improve efficiency.

A controversial idea, undoubtedly, with good arguments for and against. But lest you think it’s way out in left-field, you may recall Maritime union was the proposal being discussed in Charlottetown when the “Canadians” crashed the party, and Joseph Howe had broad public support for undoing Nova Scotia’s inclusion in Confederation – a wish undemocratically denied by Britain.

If you think Maritime Union is a radical idea, you’re going to think I’ve gone moonbat nutty when I send you to this next link: http://www.cbc.ca/news/yourcommunity/2012/07/human-immortality-could-be-possible-by-2045-say-russian-scientists.html

I’ve been having this debate with friends and family for a while. I contend that immortality is coming, sooner or later. It strikes me that death is fundamentally a question of biochemistry. As our knowledge of biochemistry increases exponentially, fuelled by unfathomable increases in global computing power, it strikes me as all but inevitable that we’ll solve the death ‘problem’: our bodies age for a reason; physical processes take place which cause that aging; harness those physical processes and you defeat aging.

Trauma could still cause death, of course. But inevitable death from aging or disease could be defeated.

Not easy, of course, and maybe still a very long way off – but entirely real and possible, barring cataclysmic breakdowns in civilization and technology.

The story above, though, imagines a different kind of immortality, and a timeline that looks overly ambitious. In fact, I’m not even sure it qualifies as immortality.

The idea of ‘uploading’ a person’s consciousness into a computer has existed in science fiction for a while. The problem that hasn’t been answered, though, is whether such a copy is still you, or just a perfectly rendered new being that thinks like you, albeit contained in a computer.

It’s an age-old philosophical problem: continuity of identity. If your physical body dies when your consciousness is uploaded into a computer, isn’t that just the murder of one being and the creation of another? And if your physical body doesn’t die – if you’re still you – then you’ve created a clone of yourself, sure, but the you that is you will still age and die.

But imagine if, instead of a single uploading event, technology is increasingly incorporated into our bodies. Brain implants allow us to access the internet with our thoughts. The knowledge of the web seamlessly becomes our knowledge. Implanted computer memory becomes useable by our brains as easily as our own flesh memory. Virtual worlds becomes more fleshed out, even indistinguishable from the real world. And gradually, the line between meat and machine is mentally erased.

Question: At what point do we cross over? Do we still die and then another, computerized entity is born? Or is the gradual change no different than the recycling of cells our bodies experience all the time?

The live forever movement is growing. Driven by ego and dollars, it will become a well-funded field of research. My guess is our great-grandchildren, if they’re wealthy enough, will have the chance to live forever. (For more on the topic, check out http://humanityplus.org)

OK, from speculative science to something a little more grounded. Researchers at Lake Vostok in Antarctica have found microbes: http://news.yahoo.com/ancient-microbes-found-buried-antarctic-lake-200620910.html

This is significant because it demonstrates the ability of life to survive extreme conditions. Lake Vostok is a body of water buried beneath the southern continent’s ice. The microbes in the water live without sunlight or oxygen, have had no new nutrients introduced to their habitat for at least 2,000 years, swim in brine at least five times saltier than sea water, and at temperatures 10-degrees below freezing (the salt stops the water from becoming ice). In short, they live in conditions that may well exist on other planets in our solar system.

This is no guarantee life started on those other planets, but it’s confirmation microbial life could almost certainly survive elsewhere. For example, the Jovian moon Europa likely conceals a massive ocean beneath its icy crust. The Vostok discovery lends weight to the idea the moon contains a habitat that could support life. (My favourite extremophile has to be water bears, some of which have survived exposure to the vacuum of space for 10 days: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tardigrade#Ecology_and_life_history)

 

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