New Horizons’ Pluto Flyby with Dr Mark Showalter

After traveling three billion miles, over a period of almost ten years, NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft is on its way to Pluto to perform first ever Pluto flyby. In this podcast Dr Mark Showalter, senior research scientist and principle investigator at the SETI institute, describes in detail the nature of this mission and what to expect in terms of scientific findings. Dr Showalter describes different features of the spacecraft, talks about the instruments on-board, and discusses the challenges involved as the spacecraft approaches Pluto.

Dr Showalter works on some of NASA’s highest profile missions to outer planets. He has been a member of Cassini Mission Science Team for nearly a decade, and is involved in the observations of Jupiter’s rings using New Horizons spacecraft. A frequent user of Hubble Space Telescope, Dr Showalter has to his credit the discovery of Jupiter’s outer most ring, Saturn’s moon PAN, and two moons and two faint rings around the planet Uranus.

Pluto is an interesting and complicated alien world. The Pluto system has four moons that orbit around the central binary system, which consists of Pluto and its large moon Charon; Dr Showalter explains the Pluto system in detail. Dr Showalter discusses the duration of the flyby and how close the spacecraft will come to Pluto and its moons; he then touches upon the following points:

  • What are main observations that the scientists intend to make and what are main expectations that the scientists have in their minds as the New Horizon spacecraft is about to flyby Pluto.
  • The New Horizons spacecraft has the capability to fly beyond the Pluto system. After the Pluto flyby, what is next for the New Horizons spacecraft? Where will the spacecraft go from there?
  • Whatever direction the spacecraft takes after the Pluto flyby, for how long will the spacecraft be able to communicate? How much fuel the spacecraft has and how long will it stay in the communication range? Will this spacecraft follow the footsteps of Voyager-1 and Voyager-2 and will continue travelling beyond the solar system?

As the spacecraft approaches Pluto, Dr Showalter and his colleagues are getting ready to manage a number of crucial aspects of this mission. Dr Showalter discusses his role in this mission. An interesting question that arises at this point is that, as the spacecraft approaches Pluto, if an anomaly is spotted, would the team have enough time to send a command to the spacecraft from such long distance, and would there be enough time to get any such command executed on time to deal with any anomaly.

Dr Showalter talks about the “Our Pluto Campaign” launched by SETI: SETI has invited public to help name features on Pluto. I finish this podcast by asking Dr Showalter about upcoming space missions that are being planned, and about new developments in his area of research.

By |May 20th, 2015|Podcasts|

From Consciousness to Synthetic Consciousness: From One Unknown to Another Unknown with David Chalmers

What is consciousness? In this podcast David Chalmers starts addressing this question by saying that “being conscious is when there is something it is like to be that being”. This argument was initially presented by an American philosopher Thomas Nagel in an influential paper “what is it like to be a bat”. This paper was first published in the Philosophical Review in 1974.

David Chalmers is an Australian philosopher and a cognitive scientist specializing in the area of philosophy of mind. He is professor of philosophy and a director of the Centre for Consciousness at the Australian National University. He is also professor of philosophy at New York University. In 2013, he was elected a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts & Sciences. In this podcast Chalmers discusses the nature of human consciousness, its place in nature, artificial intelligence, and the concept of singularity.

In his paper “Consciousness and its Place in Nature” Chalmers describes some aspects of consciousness as easy problems and then discusses the hard problem of consciousness. In this podcast Chalmers explains in detail this approach of describing the challenge of understanding consciousness. Chalmers discusses the easy problems of consciousness and the hard problem of consciousness. An intriguing question is would we ever be able to solve the hard problem of consciousness? Some consider it an unsolvable problem and they give two main reasons for this: (1) inability of our brain to process the complicated information that would lead to an understanding of consciousness, and (2) as we all are conscious and do not have the ability to observe consciousness from outside, we cannot solve this problem. Chalmers shares his views on these points.

Another question is does consciousness have boundaries? One view is that consciousness is a fundamental property of matter that exists at different levels, and is perhaps connected at different levels. At each subsequent level, it becomes collective, and more complex, consciousness for that level. For instance, perhaps sub-atomic particles are conscious, then perhaps atoms and molecules are conscious, and then we experience consciousness at human level. If we continue extrapolating, it can be said that consciousness exits at the universal level as well. This leads to another question: does the universe create consciousness that we experience, or the universe is just a physical and mechanical entity, and it is something in this universe, perhaps us, the human beings that create, and then experience, consciousness?

Chalmers also discusses the relevance, and irrelevance, of artificial intelligence to the phenomenon of consciousness. If we assume that consciousness is an emergent phenomenon – a property of system is said to be emergent if it is in some sense more than the “sum” of the properties of the system’s parts – then as the processing power of computers is increasing, can it be said that one day consciousness may emerge in machines. One fundamental question is “what happens when machines become more intelligent than humans”. Chalmers says, “One view is that this event will be followed by an explosion to ever-greater levels of intelligences as each generation of machines creates more intelligent machines in turn. This intelligence explosion is now often known as the “singularity””. In this podcast we discuss these questions in detail.

But is consciousness necessary; can a universe exist without consciousness? If we manage to make a machine, that can store and process information the way we store and process information, and if this machine can replicate our emotional behaviour as well, but it is not conscious, then a collection of such machines can live and function in a universe that does not have consciousness. Is it necessary to have consciousness in such a simulated world? A number of fascinating questions that arise at this point are:

  • Will such machines live in a world that does not need consciousness? A world that can exist and function without consciousness.
  • Will the machines of future be just super intelligent or will such machines have machines-consciousness?
  • Is it possible that the consciousness that we experience is not real and it is just an illusion and is it possible that we are living in a simulation?
  • Is it possible that in a universe where “they” have achieved singularity, perhaps “we” are artificially intelligent machines, living in a simulation, in a matrix?

Chalmers suggests in his presentations that there is more to consciousness than just physical processes in the brain and that neuroscience alone is not enough to understand consciousness. So how should research on consciousness be conducted? Using neuroscience scientists are trying to map human brain, and are trying to find neural correlate for all brain activities and for all experiences; will this research one day lead to the discovery of neural correlate of consciousness and will this / these neural correlate(s) of consciousness inform us where does consciousness originate and how does it functions? Chalmers touches upon these points in this podcast. Chalmers continues and addresses the questions that what type of research is required to get to a theory of consciousness – a theory that can explain relationships between objective data and relevant subjective experiences? Is there a need for a new framework and perhaps a different scientific and philosophical model to understand consciousness? Finally, I finish this podcast by asking David Chalmers what are major developments and breakthroughs that he envisages in his area of research in the near future.


Chalmers, David (2010). The Singularity: A Philosophical Analysis Journal of Consciousness Studies, , 17, 7-65

Chalmers, D. (1995). The Puzzle of Conscious Experience Scientific American, 273 (6), 80-86 DOI: 10.1038/scientificamerican1295-80

Nagel, Thomas (1974). What is it Like to Be a Bat Philosophical Review DOI: 10.1017/CBO9781107341050.014

By |March 14th, 2015|Podcasts|

Upcoming Podcasts at Bridging the Gaps

Multiple Intelligences, Future Minds, and Characteristics and Expectations of 21st Century Learners with Dr Howard Gardner

Dr Howard Gardner is professor of cognition and education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. He is also an adjunct professor of psychology at Harvard University. He is a senior director of Harvard Project Zero. Professor Garnder has received honorary degrees from thirty colleges and universities; he has twice been selected by Foreign Policy and Prospect magazines as one of the hundred most influential public intellectuals in the world. He is the author of twenty-nine books translated into thirty-two languages and has published several hundred articles. In this podcast we discuss Dr Gardner’s theory of multiple intelligences in detail. We also discuss the idea of future minds presented by Dr Gardner and the characteristics and expectations of 21st century learners.

On the Research on Exoplanets with Professor Sara Seager

Professor Sara Seager is an astrophysicists and planetary scientist at MIT. Her science research focuses on theory, computation, and data analysis of exoplanets. Her research has introduced many new ideas to the field of exoplanet characterization, including work that led to the first detection of an exoplanet atmosphere. She is the author of two text books on these topics. She was part of a team that co-discovered the first detection of light emitted from an exoplanet and the first spectrum of an exoplanet. In twenty thirteen she was awarded a MacArther Fellowship. In this podcast we discuss the past, present and future of research on exoplanets. We also discuss the possibility of finding earth like planets.

By |February 16th, 2015|Podcasts|