This is a barroom conversation, not a publication

It must be awfully easy to get published in the Journal of the British Interplanetary Society. A couple of beers, some scratches on a cocktail napkin, and you get to call it research.

According to a research paper accepted for publication in the Journal of the British Interplanetary Society, extraterrestrials are sleeping while they wait. In the paper, authors from Oxford’s Future of Humanity Institute and the Astronomical Observatory of Belgrade Anders Sandberg, Stuart Armstrong, and Milan Cirkovic argue that the universe is too hot right now for advanced, digital civilizations to make the most efficient use of their resources. The solution: Sleep and wait for the universe to cool down, a process known as aestivating (like hibernation but sleeping until it’s colder).

Understanding the new hypothesis first requires wrapping your head around the idea that the universe’s most sophisticated life may elect to leave biology behind and live digitally. Having essentially uploaded their minds onto powerful computers, the civilizations choosing to do this could enhance their intellectual capacities or inhabit some of the harshest environments in the universe with ease.

OK, sure, yeah. Maybe. Why not? Evidence would be kind of nice to have, but hey, speculate away. They just guess that extraterrestrial life might be like my laptop, with a “sleep mode” that conserves battery power, just like a 19th century scientist might speculate that alien life is steam-powered and has periods where they cool the boilers and scrape the accumulated scale out of the pipes. Perfectly plausible. Take what you know and extrapolate it far off into the unknown, all while pretending you know exactly what you’re talking about.

The idea that life might transition toward a post-biological form of existence is gaining ground among experts. “It’s not something that is necessarily unavoidable, but it is highly likely,” Cirkovic told me in an interview.

Experts. How do you become an expert in alien species that have progressed so far beyond our known technologies? Especially when you’re willing to recognize that these hypothetical aliens would face challenges on such a cosmic scale that trying to imagine how they would cope with them is like stone age tribesmen trying to come up with an explanation for how to amplify a weak wi-fi signal to reach your deck.

The funny thing is, these guys don’t even believe their own theory.

Interestingly, neither Sandberg nor Cirkovic said they have much faith in finding anything. Sandberg, writing on his blog, states that he does not believe the hypothesis to be a likely one: “I personally think the likeliest reason we are not seeing aliens is not that they are aestivating.” He writes that he feels it’s more likely that “they do not exist or are very far away.”

Cirkovic concurred. “I don’t find it very likely, either,” he said in our interview. “I much prefer hypotheses that do not rely on assuming intentional decisions made by extraterrestrial societies. Any assumption is extremely speculative.” There could be forms of energy that we can’t even conceive of using now, he said—producing antimatter in bulk, tapping evaporating black holes, using dark matter. Any of this could change what we might expect to see from an advanced technical civilization.

Well then, why even propose it?

Yet, he said, the theory has a place. It’s important to cover as much ground as possible. You need to test a wide set of hypotheses one by one—falsifying them, pruning them—to get closer to the truth. “This is how science works. We need to have as many hypotheses and explanations for Fermi’s paradox as possible,” he said.

The important word there is TEST. Very good, smart guys. How do you propose to test it? I don’t mean that silly suggestion they made that we could send a space probe to the alien’s planet and poke the bear, since we won’t have the capability to do that in the foreseeable future, and even if we did, it seems incredibly stupid to propose to annoy some god-like aliens. Inventing empty hypotheses with no means to test them that are so improbable that you think simpler hypotheses are a better explanation is not “how science works”.


  1. jrkrideau says

    I sometimes think that people in the USA fail to appreciate British humour.

    On the other hand, by the standards of the Journal of the British Interplanetary Society. the article seems reasonable. It is a purely speculative piece. Heck, for all I know, some of Arthur C. Clarke’s papers were purely speculative.

  2. mailliw says

    the universe is too hot right now for advanced, digital civilizations to make the most efficient use of their resources.

    That can’t be right, as we all know the earth is ruled by evil giant alien blood drinking lizard people. As cold blooded creatures the earth is currently too cold for them. Hence their active promotion of climate change.

    I know some people think this is a far fetched, but consider, if the wealthy and powerful had been secretly replaced by evil alien lizards how would we be able to tell the difference? Surely their behaviour would be identical?

  3. Bruce says

    The first “test” to run is to measure if outer space is too hot, or if most of the universe is already under 3 Kelvin from absolute zero. Oh, wait, we verified that over half a century ago. Wankers.

  4. helenaconstantine says

    There is evidence of this. Haven’t you ever read The Hitchhiker’s guide to the Galaxy?

  5. says

    I hope their paper gave credit to Isaac Asimov. In his 1956 story “The Last Question”, the last of humanity commits their consciousness to the Cosmic Computer during the last gasp of the dying universe. Before doing this a question is asked: “Is there any way to reverse entropy?” The computer doesn’t have the answer but ponders on it for millenia before answering the question in the only way it can. Their digital aliens are really us wandering as digital souls in an eternal cyberspace waiting for the heat death of the universe.

  6. mineralfellow says

    I am currently reading “The Cult of Alien Gods: H.P. Lovecraft and Extraterrestiral Pop Culture,” by Jason Colavito, and he essentially argues that the entire ancient aliens movement is taken by simply believing that Lovecraft was writing facts instead of fiction (and he makes a darn good case!). This article takes its title from Lovecraft, and also directly quotes Lovecraft within the text. It is very standard ancient aliens style.

  7. KG says

    alien life is steam-powered and has periods where they cool the boilers and scrape the accumulated scale out of the pipes

    I’ll be amazed if no steampunk story has yet been written on this premise!

  8. Rob Grigjanis says

    markbarker @9:

    What type of “life” is there for whom 2.73K is “too hot?”

    qubit-based life.

    Currently, some quantum computers require their qubits to be cooled to 20 millikelvins in order to prevent significant decoherence.

  9. davidc1 says

    @6 I hope you are not including me in them people ,a few thousand senile old farts made him leader of the tory party ,and only 43% of the great English voting public voted for the tories last Dec ,and FPTP did the rest .
    As for britsh1t ,david -call me dave -cameron should be hung ,drawn and quartered for agreeing to a referendumb without explaining to the dozy gits who voted leave that it was not binding.
    File this under irony ,the people of Kent voted to leave ,now they are going to be lumbered with a great big lorry park at Ashford just off the motorway ,all the lorries that need to wait their turn to get on the ferries are going to park up there ,and wait ,and wait ,and wait .