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This is a science fiction intelligent alien biology question.

I'm imagining a race of large (around 2m in height) insect-like species on a distant planet who discovered astronomy VERY late in their technological advancement, in fact only after meeting aliens from another planet. This was because of the combination of several factors such as their compound eyes, the atmospheric composition of their planet, and their species biologically and culturally being more interested in what's below than above them in general. At the time of them first meeting aliens and discovering the existence of outer space, their technological level is slightly more advanced than present day humans of 21st century, with the exception of those fields dependent on the knowledge of astronomy and some fields being significantly more advanced, like biology.

Now, I'm entertaining an idea that upon being granted access to the knowledge in astronomy and astrophysics built up by the aliens, a few members of their race showed astonishing proficiency in those fields, rapidly becoming major contributors to the interstellar astronomy community, and that it's because of a particular biological trait shared by those individuals. What could this trait be?

A few points to consider:

  1. The very first astronomers of this race worked almost entirely on existing data on sheets and made significant scientific achievements from just that.
  2. Astronomy and astrophysics are complex fields of science with a lot of things going on, such as computation of orbit, understanding the composition of a planet's atmosphere, making sense of data and theorizing on what could explain it, etc. And then there are activities such as making observations, explaining existing data, discovering new physical laws and equations, etc. Our insectoids don't have to excel at everything astronomy, they just have to be good at a particular task that's very useful for astronomy. Bonus point if the task is helpful for explaining anomalous data.
  3. The trait in question doesn't have to be related to their vaguely insect-like biology, though traits that actual Earth-insects have and would be helpful for this species' astronomical studies would be very nce. But a purely intellectual trait wouldn't be interesting unless there's good reason to make it unique to this species. Also note that this trait doesn't have to be shared by all individuals.
  4. The interstellar community obviously have FTL, allowing them to directly visit some celestial bodies they want to observe.
  5. One idea I'm considering is that they have a hive mind and can essentially perform grid computing. But for now let's assume they're all their own individuals.
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12 Answers 12

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Introduction

Firstly, think of autistic savants. There is no noticeable physical difference there, yet these people are capable of incredible (hyper-specialised) feats. Quoting Kim Peek's Wikipedia:

"He could speed through a book in about an hour and remember almost everything he had read, memorizing vast amounts of information in subjects ranging from history and literature, geography and numbers to sports, music and dates. Peek read by scanning the left page with his left eye, then the right page with his right eye. According to an article in The Times newspaper, he could accurately recall the contents of at least 12,000 books."

Consider also someone who has absolute pitch? There is no physical advantage that they have, however, their brain allows them precisely identify the world of sound around them.

Now consider also synaesthesiacs, who can "taste colours" or "hear smells" etc. Again,there seems to be no physiological difference, yet they are able to experience the world in profoundly different ways, having a more specific experience of certain things (making each object/experience more easily distinguishable).

Insects have far more senses than we do really. They can communicate effectively via pheromones in a way incomprehensible to us and they can see in parts of the EM spectrum we can only grasp with computers.

Concept

The fact that it took so long for this race to develop in the field of Astronomy suggests that they are perhaps unable to naturally look at the Stars, perhaps they can only see in a very narrow part of the EM? Perhaps their planet has a very thick atmosphere? Whatever the reason, I think that a specific physical advantage is less likely.

However, there is no reason to say that a small group of them might not have developed variants on these human abilities listed above. One that can memorise everything it reads/learns almost instantly and never forget it? One that can not only see a spectrum of light, but feels it like it's a pheromone? These might have have been beneficial traits for previous roles, such as acting like a cultural memory bank or working in farming to only get the very best food.

Now, think about a very small group who have all these abilities. Someone that might be able to look through a telescope and remember exactly what they just saw. Who could then convert that into a specific pheromone, etc, to explain it to everyone else. They could judge similar experiences (sights, sounds, smells) with each other allowing them to rapidly develop their field - quickly creating star categories, etc.

Chart of insect sensory organs

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At least on Earth, astronomical instruments are extremely precise and sensitive compared to the innate biological abilities of an astronomer! Sure, I can look up at the sky and see that Betelgeuse is a bit dimmer than normal, but I can only guesstimate how drastic the fainting is. With a decent telescope, on the other hand, I can have measurements of its magnitude at the same wavelengths to a decimal place or two without too much effort. Particularly in a galactic society with faster-than-light travel, it seems that any observational task the insects could do well, machines could quickly be built to do better. Given how data-driven astronomy is, and how imprecise our senses are, it seems hard for this species to outdo telescopes and computers.

There's one big exception to the rule: initial back-of-the-envelope observations. Sometimes you don't necessarily need to know quantitative data about an astronomical object, just qualitative data. For instance, if I'm monitoring a star for a possible exoplanet transit, I might care only about whether or not there's a transit in a given dataset - other people can do detailed follow-up observations to determine the parameters of the exoplanet. So the one way these insects could contribute to observational astronomy would be if they had an ability to perform a variety of quick-and-dirty measurements.

Using that as a sort of recipe, here are some possibilities:

  • Magnetoreception, the ability to sense a magnetic field. This could be useful for mapping magnetic fields throughout the galaxy (though the galactic magnetic field is quite weak).
  • The ability to restrict vision to a particular band in the electromagnetic spectrum, as well as versatility in the range of wavelengths visible to the naked eye. It could be handy to be able to compare how an object looks at different wavelengths.
  • The ability to determine a sample's composition. Freedomjail suggested mass spectrometers; I think the ability to view individual spectral lines when looking at a source would be even more useful. This would enable them to determine a star's spectral type just by looking at it.

All of these are only the starting points for astronomical observations. All they do is provide a little push towards obtaining more detailed data. But then again, sometimes all science needs is a little push in the right directions.

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As juveniles, these insects form far-ranging nocturnal swarms. Some adults remember how.

swarm

https://pestcemetery.com/subterranean-termites/

Your termite-like insects dwell in a subterranean hive or nest. Periodically, some juveniles with wings are born. These young pioneers group together and make a far ranging nocturnal flight of migration, navigating by the stars.

Once they arrive at a new site, they eat their wings. They begin the work of excavating their new home. Most lose themselves in the earth and their new life, and forget what it was to fly under the stars. But every now and then there is an individual who secretly leaves the nest on a clear night, and looks up, and remembers.

These few become the astronomers and later the starfarers of your society. There may be more of them than they initially realize.

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Their antennae can "taste" an atmosphere's composition, similarly to a pollution filter. They would also, as possible, have a means of using that for survival in their "ancient" days, such as being on a volcanic planet with dense clouds of ash giving them ability enough to measure pollution, air composition, and any other factors that they might have been dependent on the survival of on your planet for them.

Because you state that they only learned about astronomy from high-tech interstellar civilizations, they would have probably not have had a way to observe the night sky; in any part. This would fit very well into a volcanic planet, because the surface would be generally avoided due to the high amounts of atmospheric pollutant, leading to a mostly underground civilization.

Perhaps instead of needing complex scans on their planets, to determine the content of each planet, it would be easier to just take it to to the ant-people, whose specialized people could give them a quick, accurate, and precise reading.

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  • $\begingroup$ They wouldn't have to live underground -- just having a permanent cloud layer would do the trick. Additionally if the gravity is much greater than Earth's, it would have been more difficult and less practical to develop high-flying aircraft. $\endgroup$ – workerjoe Feb 27 at 16:59
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    $\begingroup$ Antennas as olfactory sensing organs exist on Earth, for example in locusts. I don't have a link at hand, but recently I read that scientists were able to interpret a locust's neural response to detect bomb presence, raising the possibility of using locusts (or just their antennae) in a bionic bomb sensor. $\endgroup$ – Jan Dorniak Feb 27 at 17:00
  • $\begingroup$ @JanDorniak I have to say that a world where the police release a swarm of locusts in times square to track down a madman's hidden bomb, is a world I want to be a part of. $\endgroup$ – CaptainSkyfish Mar 16 at 15:22
  • $\begingroup$ @CaptainSkyfish robo-locusts. Don't forget that part. They're part machine. $\endgroup$ – Jan Dorniak Mar 16 at 15:28
  • $\begingroup$ @JanDorniak Sigh, just another weapon for Skynet to use against us... $\endgroup$ – CaptainSkyfish Mar 16 at 15:41
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Difference in Thought Patterns

Consider this species. They have very limited knowledge of the grand cosmic-scaled physics that we do. Counter to that, they have an advanced understanding of things on smaller scales. Their models and theories are based on micro-scale observations and experiments on models of their size.

This leads to the first premise that they will think differently when confronted with the same problems. Just a difference in perspective might be enough to crack problems that have stumped us for years. The only reason that they have not done it yet is because they lacked our astrophysical data which both pointed out and explained holes in their theories.

Given that they are looking inward towards their planet, then they might have a better understanding of matter -- both from a chemistry and a physics perspective. They can possess an advantage relating to astronomical matter because they have a deeper understanding of it. Spectral lines that we can't explain, unknown isotopes of elements, and other things like this are right up their alley.

While this is a mental trait, it is born as a result of them abandoning astronomy until now and of their nature applied to a different pursuit.

Social Work Structure

Another possibility is that these people are at least partially connected with those around them due to a more eusocial manner of living. Not to the point of a full-on hive mind, but they are used to working together and can synergize with each other better than, say, two humans working together. This can manifest in two great minds bouncing ideas off of one another until an equations sticks, or it can be a small group that know their individual places and do their best for the team instead of themselves.

While this aspect does not necessarily lend itself to being great at this field in particular, it does allow them to thrive when put into a collaborative situation where this behaviour can be nurtured and encouraged.

Physical Differences

As has been brought up, these insectoids will almost certainly have different eyes than others in this universe. If they spend most of their lives underground, then expect them to be well-adjusted to the darkness, meaning that the relative void of space will be brighter for them. Alongside that, they will probably not have the same visible light range that we do. Depending on the frequencies that they can directly see, this could prove to be very interesting for observing the cosmos.

If they possess something akin to compound eyes as their means of vision, then their microscope technology would have to adapt to their visionary constraints. This might give them a competitive edge on optical-based observation equipment once they put that knowledge into making telescopes and the like.

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  • $\begingroup$ I like the idea of it being a psychological difference. Like maybe the creatures have eyes on the top and bottom of their bodies. The bottom ones are usually much better, the top mostly vestigial and used to watch out for rain. But some of them are born blind in the bottom set of eyes, giving them a natural tendency to always think about the above. $\endgroup$ – CaptainSkyfish Mar 16 at 15:27
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All of the members of the species have vestigial light receptors covering their exoskeleton, connected to an equally vestigial independent nervous system (inherited from an ancestor species that used to run away from light, or maybe seek it). They all more or less "feel" light, but for most it's a sensation akin to when us humans have the hairs on our arms stand up.

Some individuals, though, have that vestigial system erroneously connected to their central nervous system which made them suffer from a sort of synaesthesia. Once this was a nuisance, but now it's like having a multicore visual cortex, and their ability to process and understand information relating to light is much greater, as they understand light in a much more intuitive way, like a person with synaesthesia can "taste colours" these guys can comprehend light in a way nobody else can: a bunch of data in a set of screens around them merely describing light is way more revealing to them than it is to even an AI. Light and data about light is like a pristine clear symphony to them, for lack of a better analogy.

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Living mass spectrometers

As a species which is culturally more interested on what is below than above then, they fastly understood that their habitat was finite and thus developed a very strong interest for “ecology”.

Thanks to their tremendous biological knowledge, they embraced eugenics and modified themselves so they would be able to use the totality of what their habitat offered them. They became living recycling machines, able to “eat” literally everything then sorting and separating elements so they can reject raw materials which will be reuse. In the process, some of them became living mass spectrometers, their ability to quantify the sorted elements being precise up to the atom…

Therefore, there is today no other species able to achieve what they can do with a simple sample of dust, mud, roc or atmosphere of a planet: they are the ultimate species to understand the composition of a planet.

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Does your insectoid species have castes like ants and termites do? If so, perhaps they could, over time, develop a caste dedicated entirely to astronomy. Perhaps their eyes are better adapted to seeing at further distances, maybe their intelligence would be higher than that of the other castes, maybe they are more perceptive.

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Maybe most of the galactic civilizations are surface dwellers; but your insects are subterranean.

They normally don't see the stars; but they are exceptionally good analyzing the planet below; having no fear of the dark and not being frightened in enclosed spaces. So maybe those new members of the galactic society are perfect for long-range-flights where you have to stay in an enclosed space all the time, or for mineralogy on newly discovered planets.

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Presuming the atmosphere is unfavorable for direct observation, space telescopes are how astronomy is needed, hence innate skills with electronic displays systems would be needed.

This would open the door to a lot of very advanced technology we are just getting now in astronomy such as the use of the planet's orbit to get multiple perspectives of a star cluster. In most cases, as someone else mentioned, juveniles of insects are better at parallel 3D visual-spacial tasks like formation flying. Hence I would presume that it would be tied to life cycle, not particular genetic traits.

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Insects are Genetically Versatile

Insects cover a vast range of biological niches, and there are specializations within insects nearly every biological dimension. They reproduce in vast numbers with short generation times (typically, there are exceptions), and should evolve faster than long-lived animals.

Astronomy is About Light -- Photons

Until the development of gravitational wave detectors, all of astronomy requires detecting photons. As humans, we started with photons of human-visible energy, and have expanded to cover most of the spectrum.

Therefore, Eyes

Insects, with their segment eye structure, could evolve to have a greater range of photodetectors, from IR through soft-UV. One can imagine spectroscopy being built into specialized eye-lets. With more information, insects (or certain, gifted insects) could directly observe many more properties of space.

With more information, as they developed technology they would be drawn to more significant observations earlier than humans were, and might be data-driven rather than religion-driven.

Better Eyes Make Superior Astronomers

So the answer is that the segmented, multi-part structure of the insect eye can evolve to be much better astronomical observation tools, and individuals blessed with the most extreme range of the genetic variation would excel.

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From the first hit on a search.

According to the BLS, astronomers must have the ability to solve complex problems, conduct research, and accurately analyze data. They need strong math and science skills, along with being about to work within a team. It also helps to have knowledge of specific science-related software programs.

So possible abilities are ability to solve complex problems, analyze data, do math, work within a team, and use of the relevant programs.

So that hive mind option would actually help since it would boost team work. But making the species social and cooperative would be enough.

Mathematical talent would also help since it would be easier to get those good math skills. Especially if it comes in the form focussed on math relevant to astronomy. Possibilities I can see are being better at working with larger data sets or with multiple dimensions. These would help you process the data your programs give you more efficiently and solve problems related to space or space-time with less effort. Being able to intuitively understand relativistic phenomena would be a nice talent for an astronomer to have.

Related but not on the quote because the quote is for humans and this is a human limitation. Humans kind of suck at understanding curved or rotating space. Being able to deal with that intuitively would be nice.

Similar to being able to process larger data sets, simply having better working memory without extra mathematical aspect would still be useful. Better ability to learn and recall would also help.

Also, from the same.

In addition, because astronomy graduate programs are highly competitive, beginning research early in an academic career can be very beneficial. Students should be open to interning at astronomy labs, working with professors on research projects, and/or completing an undergraduate thesis project to make themselves more competitive for these graduate programs.

Astronomy might simply be the new hot thing with the local government heavily promoting its study. It would attract the best students. Research funding might be easy to get with opportunities to participate abundant. Internship positions might also be easy to get.

My recommendation would be to mix and match several factors from the above. You should stress factors that are specific to astronomy such as the funding and support from local government. Alternate or complementary to that, the superior ability to work with three or four dimensions is specific enough to be a good choice. It is not really a problem if they are also really good at some parts of physics and math, right?

Also include something that is easy to demonstrate. If the story is set on their home planet you can just show the value locals give to astronomy. Otherwise ability to work with large datasets is probably the best pick. You can probably show them being really good at processing tables of data or checking a long list or a long text in some story relevant context.

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