Episode 10: The World of Blind Nomads
What would you do if you had two bony antennae sticking out of your head? Well, if you lived on this starless planet, you might use them to sense the world around you.
1. Mahadeo Sukhai is the world's first congenitally blind biomedical research scientist. He's also the Head of Research and Chief Accessibility Officer for the Canadian National Institute for the Blind. You can find him on LinkedIn at https://www.linkedin.com/in/mahadeo-sukhai/
2. Mona Minkara is an assistant professor of bioengineering at Northeastern University. She studies chemical reactions in the lungs. You can follow her on twitter at @mona_minkara or click the following links to learn more about her work:
Her website: https://monaminkara.com/
Her lab website: http://www.minkaracombinelab.com
Her Planes, Trains, and Canes series: https://planestrainsandcanes.com
3. John Furniss is a professional woodworker. You can learn more about his work (and buy his beautiful pieces!) at https://www.theblindwoodsman.com/ or follow him on instagram at @blindwoodsman and tiktok at @theblindwoodsman
- Empowerment Through Integration, an organization dedicated to changing the narrative about people with disabilities
What's up Exo-fans? All right, that's the last time I try to sound cool and give you a nickname. But I wanted to give you a heads up that this episode has some tech issues in the first five minutes, which is lol what happens when you try to host, produce, and edit a podcast all on your own, but it's just in the first five minutes. It gets better after that, I promise. And I hope you enjoy the episode.
Hey there and welcome to Exolore, the show about facts based fictional world building. I'm your host, Moiya McTier. And I'm bad at making decisions. I'm an astrophysicist who studies planets outside of our solar system. Those are called exoplanets. And I'm a folklorist who specializes in creating imaginary worlds and this podcast is my way of sharing those worlds with you. Before I get started, I want to thank Michael, my first and only Centaur level patron. Head on over to patreon.com/goastromo to support the show and keep Michael company. It's two good deeds for the price of one. Did you ever do GLSEN's day of silence when you were younger? Have you ever taken a turn in the sensory deprivation chamber? Or did you ever try to see how long you could go without using your eyes? Or was that last one just me? Well, for this episode, I wanted to imagine a world where the life forms evolved to perceive the world using different senses than us. And because about 30 to 50% of the surface of our brains are devoted to processing visual information. I wanted to build a world full of people who don't see, I knew that I didn't have the knowledge and experience necessary to genuinely imagine such a world. So I invited three guests who could help me out. My first guest is john Furniss, but you might know him as the blind woodsman.
I'm a professional woodworker. I love to do mechanics. I fix our car when we needed a work on small engines and I guess you could call me an armchair scientist. I don't really have any formal training beyond like high school and stuff but I do like to read books and watch documentaries and those kind of things.
And are there any fictional worlds that you're inhabiting right now?
There's a really cool book series that I just listened to called the Bobiverse and the story goes, there's this guy that he has volunteered for a program where his thoughts are downloaded when he dies. And then it's like 100 years in the future. And they put his mind into a spaceship to go explore throughout the universe and the galaxy, and it's really cool.
That sounds really cool. I'll check it out. My next guest is Mahadeo Sukhai, the world's first congenitally blind biomedical research scientist, and we definitely talk later in the episode about the burdens that come along with being the first.
I currently serve as head Research in chief accessibility officer for the Canadian National Institute for the blind and I'm adjunct faculty at Ontario Technical University and Queens University. So I do research. I started in genetics. Actually, no before that I started in astrophysics and astronomy. So, so I ended up in genetics and so so this is where I sit now. I do lots of fun stuff around. Understanding the lived experience of people who are blind or partially sighted.
Wow, that's a lot. Do you have time for fictional worlds?
Yeah, so I was on vacation last week, and I had two novels with me. Ben Bova is a science fiction writer who has been writing for a number of years on sort of a fictional universe called the Grand Tour universe and effectively what it is, is it's a series of novels and stories in a loosely put together continuity about humanity spread throughout the solar system. So I was reading that and I was also reading the third book and Mary Robinette Kowal's Lady Astronaut series called The Relentless Moon which was a very gripping alternative history thriller set on the moon.
Next up is Mona Minkara, a bio engineer who studies chemical reactions in the lungs. Mona studied both chemistry and Middle Eastern Studies in college so she's definitely a woman after my own heart. And outside the lab Mona likes to knit, travel and do improv comedy.
I am an assistant professor of bioengineering at Northeastern University. I do research related to pulmonary surfactants. I'm a computational chemist by training. So I'm a theoritician, but I use that kind of knowledge and apply it to understanding what's happening in the lungs, which is extremely relevant these days because of COVID. On the side I actually love to travel and I was able to win the Holman Prize that's put out by the Lighthouse for the Blind San Francisco, which is like a big chunk of money, 25 G's, to be able to fulfill this idea that I had, which was traveling independently using only public transportation to five different cities around the world. But yeah, so that's what I do. I'm a scientist, traveler, adventurer.
Awesome. What about fictional worlds?
Have you heard of the book, The Name of the Wind? It is one of my favorite books of all time.
I love that book! All right, now that we all know each other, it's time to start actually building our fictional world. And our job here is to imagine what type of life and culture might actually form and evolve on a type of planet with a given set of characteristics. And for today's episode, the planet we're thinking about is one that doesn't orbit a star. And these types of planets actually do exist out in the universe. Astronomers call them rogue planets. And they're not necessarily just free floating through the galaxy because their motion is still dominated by the gravitational pull of stars and gas and dust around them in the galaxy. But they aren't gravitationally bound to a star. And I just want to take a second to talk about this a little bit more than I usually do, because my last research project actually looked at the motion of stars in the center of the Milky Way galaxy to see how often they have close encounters with other stars. Because one of the possible consequences of a close stellar encounter is that planets could get ripped away from their host stars. And what I found in my research was that 80%, eight zero, 80% of stars in the center of the Milky Way, a place that we call the bulge, experience these close stellar encounters. And I'm not saying that all of those encounters result in a planet being ripped away from their star, but like probably some of them do. So I really like the idea of focusing on a rogue planet for today's episode, because in my research, I found that there are probably a lot of rogue planets in the Milky Way bulge. When thinking about our rogue planet, imagine that it's almost exactly like Earth. So it's the same size. It has a moon, it just doesn't orbit a star. And so the way that it maintains an earth-like temperature is that it has a slightly thicker atmosphere, and some internal heating mechanisms like volcanism, which would contribute to a slightly thicker atmosphere.
Are the volcanoes or whatever -- the temperaturemaintenance system... Does that emit light?
I mean, it'll give off heat, which is like infrared light, but let's say just for the sake of this thought experiment that there is no light.
That's what I wanted to clarify.
So would we be talking about an atmosphere that's very thick, like Venus? So that it would be a high pressure on the surface, as well as a high temperature. I mean, and probably mainly carbon dioxide and those kind of gases.
That's a fun question.
It is a fun question. But no, we're not. We're not talking about a Venus. It's it's pretty Earth, like, just imagine Earth's atmosphere, but in 10 years if we don't get a check on climate change, and it's just like, like the carbon dioxide content is just a little bit higher. Yeah. Okay. So first, let's imagine the biology of the life forms on this planet, we can make it as human or as inhuman as we want it to be. But we do want to make sure that we're talking about the human equivalent for this planet. Otherwise, we would just get way bogged down in the millions or billions of species that would exist here. Thinking about like the dominant life form: without sight, because there's no light on this planet, what other senses might the life forms on this planet develop to engage with their world?
I think we just touched on one we talked about we talked about infrared. And so the dominant life form and in fact a lot of animal life forms in air quotes on on this planet could use heat sensing as a way to interact with the environment.
Yeah, or even audio audio feedback.
Scent for sure.
John, you're mentioned I've scent reminded me of this animal and Avatar The Last Airbender. It looked like like a giant star nosed mole rat. And its main sense was smell and it could navigate by smell alone. That was really cool.
And sound, you said. Mahadeo, when we talked earlier, you said that there are something like 17 senses.
So there's the five obvious ones: sight, sound, smell, taste, and touch. And then there's something like nine hidden underneath that. So there's motion sensors. There's pain sensors, there's cold sensors, there's heat sensors. There's there's another weak electromagnetic sense. So I think there's like nine extra, behind the original five that everyone is taught in grade school. I would also imagine that touch would perhaps play a significant role for our dominant species on this planet. And I'm going to go with the name Mir, which is Russian for village, but also the root for mirror which is Latin for seeing, which of course, nobody's doing on this planet.
So you're proposing that as a name for the world?
I love that. Yeah, let's go with that.
Sonar would probably it wouldn't I think about it one of the main senses because that would be the closest one akin to sight. Such as like a dolphin or a bat or you know...
That's a really good point, I think.
Yeah that's it I was thinking
Cool. Any other physical traits that you think the life forms here might evolve? Ones that maybe would help them with these extra senses like big ears for example?
Or some kind of antenna?
Yeah, maybe a large, oh, like a think of it almost like a turkey's gizzard but made for sound so that it can be more easily sensed and transmitted, like a drum head kind of thing.
John, you have to enlighten me. What exactly is a turkey's gizzard doing here on earth?
Well, I use that as an example. But a turkey's gizzard on Earth I believe is a food processor?
Yeah, it's part of the digestive system.
That's what I thought yeah.
Oh, I thought it just was like a funny looking thing.
Nah, it's got a function.
I guess many funny looking things do. Any other features? Remember this is a... the planet has a thicker atmosphere, there's more carbon dioxide. Would that do anything?
One thing I was wondering: Because most, pretty much all oxygen on earth is created through photosynthesis in one way or another. And free oxygen usually isn't found in nature because it's so reactive unless it's being actively created. But that oxygen is one of the reasons we can operate at the level and the speed that we do so they might be slower moving or thinking or...
I mean that's possible.
Are they gonna be oxygen based creatures?
They don't have to be.
They don't have to be
Unknown Speaker 13:07
Possibly methanogenic. Like, you know, the from the volcanoes and stuff. There could be a lot of methane in the air.
Or sulfur metabolizers like archaeobacteria.
And then like what happens like with the sonar? Like the sonar aspect right now, like the way it's designed for our atmosphere depends on the density of our atmosphere. But what happens on such a planet?
Well, sound travels faster and easier through denser media.
So maybe then the eardrums or whatever that we might need to sense the sonar don't need to be as big.
Here's another important question. If it's sulfur based biology, do you need running water on the planet or is it all running lava?
I think he would have to have water. I mean, I don't see how lava could be able to dissolve the chemicals and do the biological processes because it's so... such a high temperature you'd almost have to be silicon based.
Well, I mean that so that that's true, right? And thinking about the archaea down like say the Marianas Trench, right? So you've got sulfur based life forms in a high pressure environment in an ocean next to, you know, magma basically. And so if you're imagining that evolving into an intelligent species, then I would agree, you'd have to have oceans.
Another thought that I had a little bit separate from what you guys are saying is, if the creatures are sonar based, maybe then, like every feature has a way to automatically produce the right amount of sound. That would be just beneficial to have like consistently. Like a mechanism, some kind of, like organ that just automatically was designed just for the like, optimized, you know song sonar like emission.
So again, similar to how dolphins will do that right? Because they will dive down and they'll sense in the water with sonar. Yeah.
You know, we have our vision optimized for certain distances, different certain capabilities, there will be some other organ that kind of does that but with sound.
We don't need to create a mechanism that is like seeing for them.
No, but there's no communication. Yeah.
Well, and to be an advanced being, you would have to be able to sense your environment at a distance. Otherwise you wouldn't know, I need to go over here to get this thing and do that, you know, process.
Yeah, you would need the equivalent of depth perception. And I mean, most humans get that through eyesight. And so in this case, sonar I would agree is the best way, not the only way, but the best way to do it. I mean, hyperacute hearing will give you a depth perception too. But it's different, right? And I think you have potentially better range with sonar.
And this is a small tangent, but it's kind of a an interesting thing that popped in my mind is that how will they refine advanced metals and things like that in an atmosphere that doesn't have enough oxygen to create fire?
They have a lot of magma. Yes, you're right.
So they can just harness that somehow.
Yeah, that would be interesting. Because think of how many things we have to have fire to do.
Yeah, I can picture them like grilling over a magma river
Yeah. Having magma coming out of their faucets.
Unknown Speaker 17:05
Yeah, but to refine, you know, for instance, a large mass of steel and have it come out pure without high sulfur content which makes it weaker. Yeah, I know it's kind of a tangent, but it was just something that popped in my mind.
But just a moment. I'll push back on that for a moment. Right. So our bias is the technology has to take the path that it took here. Unfortunately, we have an N of one in terms of technological civilization. So yeah, so this is this is pure astrobiological speculation. But why would they have to take the same technological path that we took, right?
Yeah, I guess you're right.
So there's no need for fire necessarily if they choose to... like if they evolved in a different way. And so if they're able to do different things and manipulate the environment in a different way, because fire is a way to manipulate the environment.
Yeah, exactly. And I guess another question would be, what level of advancement are they? And what level of advancement does their culture care to get to? You know, if there's such a thick atmosphere, they may not know that there is anything but the ground that they stand on.
Well, if the atmosphere is entirely cloudy, then you don't have clear skies, you've got clouds, you've got a greenhouse effect. So if you're using heat sensors, you may not necessarily tell that there's this great yonder that is not anywhere near as hot as your planet is.
It would be cloaked, and none of the stars... I mean, we can even detect the heat of stars with infrared telescopes from Earth. But that's an extremely sensitive thing and if you're, you know, basically you'd be blinded by an overpowered light.
Now if they if they discovered radio, then radio astronomy might actually become a thing.
Ya know, having vision in the infrared spectrum being more useful than any visible light, it's feasible that they could even detect microwave or radio.
True, because because we didn't we didn't specify, if they have infrared sensors, we didn't specify what wavelength infrared, whether it's near or long.
Yeah, yeah, if they're seeing in long infrared, like close enough to the radio that they can detect that as well, their eyes would have to be so huge.
Why, but but they may not actually be using eyes the way that we conceive of eyes, right?
Or whatever sensory organ. Yeah. Like it has to be big enough to actually receive those signals
It could be a horn that has the qualities of an antenna so to speak.
I would add that so that they can gather signals from multiple orientations, there's one sticking up and one sticking out, behind them.
Just like our eyes don't work the way they were meant to work, there probably are humanoid creatures that will have those horns that don't work like they were meant to work. And then what are the implications there?
Yes, let's talk about that when we get to culture.
Yeah. When I guess I was kind of thinking beyond humanoid. I guess in my mind, it's still more of an amorphous kind of a creature.
I like that. I like that idea. So that's how they're receiving, but how are they transmitting?
Why would the species simply not communicate through heat flow?
They could, yeah.
If you're talking about infrared sensors anyway, then I guess the question is, can you code that in terms of information?
They could have some sort of, like a frill, like dinosaurs did that they could change the blood flow to certain parts of it so that it would be warmer or colder. And almost like an octopus changes colors. But with heat instead of...
And I think that's a good point. Because it's not that they have to manipulate their environment, they would actually have to manipulate their own body temperature. Or the body temperature of a part. I mean, they are in a thicker atmosphere, so they could just as easily hear and speak.
Well, it could be it could be complimentary. They don't necessarily need to have just one. Maybe they maybe they can communicate through body temperature changes and through sound.
Yeah, I mean, we have body language and maybe the temperature fluctuations that they can control in their bodies are similar to gestures that we would do with our own bodies.
That's a really good point. I mean, body language came before speech sounds right. And so the other interesting wrinkle here is that on earth homosapiens, 80% of our sensory input is through our eyes for those of us whose eyes can do that. But for, for our species on Mir, we're not thinking that way. So, either we've got a different distribution of senses so that things are potentially more complimentary, or something else dominates.
I would like to go to the idea I like what you were saying, um, maybe not having something that dominates but something that is more complimentary, like 50-50 or whatever. Whatever the different inputs, this way it allows for the chances for something... Let's say something doesn't work, you know that there's still other avenues of communicating and exploring.
We can think of it as another sense, which would be more navigation over communications. Say that the, oh, how can you put this? That one developed before the other. And so it might be like a holdover, so to speak.
Like further back in the brain.
Yeah, yeah. Cuz we've kind of come up with two conflicting senses there because when you think about it, a horn that detects and broadcasts radio is an appendage that's going to take an enormous amount of brain power and physical resources.
So is there an evolutionary advantage for that, right?
Well, it could also be used for fighting. I feel like a horn is just so multifunctional.
If it gets damaged, then evolutionarily speaking, that wasn't very pragmatic.
That would be counterproductive. Exactly.
Then you would need senses that are kind of complimentary. Like back to us as an example, as a metaphor. So 80% of our senses apparently comes from our eyesight, but imagine if it was 50-50 between our eyesight and our hearing so that like, we were all kind of born innately being able to echolocate, then having ears that don't work as well or eyes that don't work as well wouldn't culturally have made that big of an impact, right. Everything in the world that we live in now is catered to the eyes. A lot of it is.
Yes, absolutely correct. And I mean there's some interesting neuroscience research that's out there. So somebody who is congenitally blind, so anyone who's born with partial or no vision in one or both eyes, if that's not something that could be corrected before the age of one, then your visual cortex is co-opted. It's repurposed. Right?
Towards other senses?
Towards other purposes, actually. Not necessarily senses. It could be senses, it could also be memory, it could also be motor control, it could be all sorts of things. Right? And I think that very much depends on plasticity and what you're exposed to as an infant growing up, right? And then as a toddler, and so it's not necessarily other senses. The literature on, if you can't see, can you hear better than everyone else? You know, can you have Vulcan hearing? I think the literature is a little bit confusing. And I also don't think it's properly controlled, but that's a separate conversation.
But that that brings it back to maybe a society that might have horns, not just for communicating and receiving, but maybe also for fighting. But then what would that mean? Because they can get damaged in the fighting.
I mean, that leaves opportunity for a culture where you just protect your horns at all costs. I mean, one of my first instincts when I'm like in a dusty room or something is to protect my eyes.
Yeah they're eyes, right? They're not sticking out there. To have a horn I think is a very interesting concept because it sticks out right?
It's like your fingers.
Yeah, but even more than your fingers because your fingers are kind of supported by other fingers. And you can curl them up into a fist.
Maybe horn is a misnomer. You know what I mean? Think of it more like an ear, or, you know, like your nose or something like that.
Yeah, like, but even your ear, right? Let's say your ear gets chopped off. You can still hear because the mechanism of hearing's inside.
So maybe the horn is the receiver and the processor is inside the head. And instead of having like a hard bony horn, maybe it's like an antenna that can curl up like butterflies can curl up their antennae.
Yeah, maybe. And maybe we can supplement it with another sense.