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When we meet an advanced alien species will they have a formalized atomic theory?

Yes
No

Author Topic: Alien atomic theory?  (Read 3479 times)

Offline CollapsedPsi

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Alien atomic theory?
« on: April 14, 2014, 01:42:43 PM »
So in the most recent episode we asked the following question:

When we meet an advanced alien species will they have a formalized atomic theory?

So what do you think? Will they have an atomic theory? What do you think will be the same? What will be different? Wild speculation here is allowed/expected!

Offline selenized

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Re: Alien atomic theory?
« Reply #1 on: April 15, 2014, 06:32:02 PM »
Well, to throw out a crazy idea: maybe atomic theory isn't "fundamental" so much as a reflection of our particular aesthetic preferences regarding theories.

What I mean is given a bunch of protons, neutrons, and electrons flying about you could make the claim that the choice to draw boundaries around particular collections of these and call them "atoms" is basically arbitrary. There could be an alien that groups particles or forces in a completely different way, achieving the same predictive power as our atomic theory but in terms of some radically different abstraction.


Offline CollapsedPsi

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Re: Alien atomic theory?
« Reply #2 on: April 17, 2014, 10:35:32 AM »
Except I'm not convinced that you'd be able to have the same predictive power with different boundaries. Understanding electrons is incredibly important to understanding electronics. Understanding proton/neutron/electron interactions are important to understanding radioactive decay. These are just two examples. I just think that if a species is advanced enough they'll be looking at the same universe we are and they'll see the same things. I agree that the way they compartmentalize and describe the things they see will be different, but I think it will be recognizable to someone in our species with an expertise in the same area.

Offline scikopas

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Re: Alien atomic theory?
« Reply #3 on: April 17, 2014, 11:47:57 AM »
I think that someone *could* possibly get to space with just a really strong understanding of mechanics, even without an atomic theory.  Although without atomic theory the materials science would be severely lacking, and development of space-worthy materials would have to come about almost by chance.  (I guess we were able to invent steel before we had the atomic theory or characterization techniques to explain it, so that would be possible too)

But just because I think its possible doesn't mean i think its really easy. It would take a lot of random discoveries compounded for a society to have that glaring of a gap in their knowledge.
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Offline selenized

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Re: Alien atomic theory?
« Reply #4 on: April 18, 2014, 11:03:56 AM »
I think you've made an invalid move in going from a theory an earth bound expert could understand to an atomic theory. I don't think being able to "translate" the whatever working theory the aliens use into an atomic theory is sufficient.

So for a perhaps hideously opaque example. Suppose instead of aliens we're talking about teenagers (a reasonable first approximation), teenagers in a high school physics class. I could look at their work with forces and vectors and show how it is equivalent to solving the same problem with Lagrangians and Hamilton's principle. But to go from that observation to making the claim that the teenagers are aware of the concept of action and any of that is a pretty extreme leap, and it would be improper to say the teenagers had a formalized theory of least action.

Unless, of course, I am just wildly misinterpreting what you were saying, I which case carry on, don't mind me.

aliencam: Henry Petroski talks about similar things in his various books on engineering, often technology precedes the science that explains it. For example early aircraft development preceded any strong theory of aerodynamics.

I guess depending on the biological constraints the aliens might not need all that sophisticated of a spacecraft and so that's plausible. Like alien tardigrades or something (the favorite animal of Cosmos).

Offline CollapsedPsi

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Re: Alien atomic theory?
« Reply #5 on: April 18, 2014, 11:30:49 AM »
I think you did misunderstand a bit. I'm saying that whatever differs between our atomic theory and theirs would be by convention only. They may parse the atom differently than we do.

For example (and this is on the fly here, so be kind):

We speak of an electron as being in a 1s, 2p, or other orbital. Perhaps they could define an electron in a 1s orbital as one particle while an electron in a 2p orbital as a completely different particle. You could do that. You could say that the definition of a particle is highly dependent on its energy state. It's not what we do by convention, but you could. There are millions of possible ways that our atomic theory could be different and yet still "correct". What I mean by the expert being able to understand is that if an expert were to reconcile all the differences in convention it would be obvious to him/her that both systems are similar ways of describing the same phenomena.

I really think that either that will be the case or we'll be meeting some giant bugs who have evolved some capacity to overcome spaceflight without the need of technology. I think that's far less likely.