Oh, god, the assumptions. I like speculations about alien life, just as I appreciate the diversity of life on Earth, the different forms of life in the past, and the prospect of evolution in the future, but every time I read about this stuff in astronomy-related journals, I feel like they’re making an effort to reduce my intelligence. The problem is that they have no imagination and no biology, but they’re trying to imagine the nature of alien biology, and all they end up doing is running around in circles trying to figure out why little grey humanoids aren’t landing their flying saucers en masse to march out and shake hands with the president. It’s all Fermi Paradox this and Drake Equation that, two stupid ideas that have captured the eyeballs of everyone with these biased priors, and they always go trotting off to get the opinions of the same spectacularly ill-informed people. Take this bad article in Universe Today.
The first horror: they favorably cite Robin Hanson, the creepiest economist in America, and they quote a contradictory statement by him.
Humanity seems to have a bright future, i.e., a non-trivial chance of expanding to fill the universe with lasting life. But the fact that space near us seems dead now tells us that any given piece of dead matter faces an astronomically low chance of begating such a future. There thus exists a great filter between death and expanding lasting life, and humanity faces the ominous question: how far along this filter are we?
Why? Why do you think a “bright future” is equivalent to “expanding to fill the universe with lasting life”? Why do you think that’s the road we’re on, when there’s a total absence of viable colonies of humans on other worlds, and all the other planets in our solar system are uninhabitable, and planets around other stars are unreachable? What is the basis for thinking that we have that particular “bright” future in front of us, especially when you immediately admit that the chances are astronomically low?
This is my problem with the general tenor of these speculations. They all assume that we, that is human-like intelligences, are desirable, inevitable, and the only proper kind of life; they’ve read far too many science-fiction novels prophesying a colonialist destiny led by strong-jawed Anglo-Saxons with glinting eyes and a finger on the trigger of their blaster. They never seem to consider that the truly successful clades on Earth are things like algae, grass, protists, and insects. If we were to speculate on the species with bright futures, they’d all be weedy and prolific and adaptable to a wide range of environments. They wouldn’t be overgrown monkeys who can’t even imagine a non-monkey future.
The second person the article cites is weirdo philosopher Nick Bostrom. It’s funny how these kinds of stories always shy away from talking to evolutionary biologists. It’s probably because we tend to get all squinky-eyed and sarcastic about their faulty premises. Or is that just me?
The Great Filter can be thought of as a probability barrier. It consists of [one or] more highly improbable evolutionary transitions or steps whose occurrence is required in order for an Earth-like planet to produce an intelligent civilization of a type that would be visible to us with our current observation technology.
See? That’s what I’m talking about. They’re always going on and on about the likelihood of finding an intelligent civilization like ours. Why not speculate about finding a planet that has produced kangaroos? Or stomatopods? Or baobab trees? These are all unlikely outcomes of a contingent, complex process that produces immense diversity, and they’re all wondering what the “barrier” is that prevents our kind from winning the cosmic lottery every time. Get over it, we’re not a favored outcome, there’s no direction to evolution, and that’s why there aren’t smarty-pants bipeds tootling about the galaxy stopping by for tea. That and physics, probably. I also don’t understand why mobs of physicists aren’t rising up and pointing at the speed of light and the energy requirements for interstellar flivvers and saying “That’s why!”
Then this article has to take a predictable slant in a section titled…
Gotta Love the Drake!
No, you don’t. The Drake equation is a simplistic collection of variables with no suggestion of mutual dependency that are concatenated to provide a whole string of excuses for why human-like aliens aren’t sending us their version of “I Love Lucy”. It’s basically a Ouija board for apologists for science-fiction outcomes. It’s a tool for churning out meaningless crap. It’s kind of like how the article ends with this self-serving statement.
We have written many interesting articles about the Great Filter, the Fermi Paradox, the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI), and related concepts here at Universe Today.
Again, no you haven’t. If I were an editor at Universe Today, I’d scratch out the word “interesting”, and maybe, to throw them a bone, write in “infuriating”.
One more thing that annoys me. They cite Hanson again, saying that one of the benchmarks for his preferred flavor of alien intelligence features
Wide-scale colonization. I’m just thinking, given his other criteria, that any planet suitable for colonization is already going to contain a fascinating extraterrestrial biota — they wouldn’t have an oxygen-rich atmosphere, or soil, or exploitable organic materials otherwise — and from a biologist’s point of view, the “colonization” he considers desirable is going to involve the destruction of native species on a large scale. We’re lucky, given that it’s Hanson, that he didn’t speculate on the universality of rape. That’s more his thing.
Fear of death, pure, unbridled hubris (more complicated than simple arrogance…) and the idea of implement an “ideal society” (ideal for the leader behind that idea…) are, in my opinion, the main forces behind the delusion about our chances of building some “cosmic empire” or “cosmic federation”, and escape to the eventual extinction of our species.
It’s closely reated to the observation that humans find it hard to imagine their own non- existence, so tell al these fairy stories about the soul existing without the body. it’s a given that, in the long (hopefully long) term, Earth will cease to support human life, any sort of DNA life. so we’ve got to believe in a get- out clause. Einstein is wrong, we just need to find the trick so we can buzz around the Universe like Startrek, find Planet B (any number of them), and go on shitting in our nest.
Plus the extrapolation from a sample of one- life MUST be humanoid, DNA based, 20 degrees Centigrade water- based chemistry. Then when we go to Planet B, we can do what some humans did when they found territory they didn’t know about before, and where the existing inhabitants have less- efficient weapons or are less inclined to use them. Enslave and/ or exterminate them, they don’t matter much and anyway we’d like to own their home.
I’d like to see some real imagination used- alternative chemistries, that can spawn replicators at -100C or +500C, oxygen free respiration cycles (we already know of some of these), alternative biopolymers etc etc.
But Drake’s equation tells me that there’s a planet out there where a kindly giant spider keeps a little nest of Pzmyerids…
I really don’t understand why people would expect any aliens to have visited or even made contact with Earth. The answer to Fermi’s paradox is trivial–or in fact there are many answers:
1) Space is big. Really big… And nobody travels faster than the speed of light–and more likely not much faster than 10-20% thereof (you get less out of the thrust as you go faster because your mass increases). As such, it would take generations to reach the nearest star and dozens of generations to reach the nearest star with a planet that might possibly support life. There is no way around this.
2) Space is full of radiation that will destroy any information medium (especially DNA) long before you reach a destination worth reaching. There is no way around this.
3) The jury is still out on whether “intelligence” is an evolutionary advantage. We’ve only been here around 100000 years, and things ain’t lookin’ too good for us. Bright future, my pasty, white ass. We’re gonna die in our own filth like yeast in a bottle of beer. There is no reason to presume other “intelligent” beings would merit the term intelligent more than we do.
4) Even if there were intelligent beings wise enough to avoid extinction, what the hell would they be doing out here in the exurbs of the galaxy, when all the cool kids are more likely to be near the galactic center (older stars, older civilizations and greater density thereof). Hell why even waste radio waves out our way, when they are more likely to reach another intelligent species directed toward galactic center, and the reply to your message would reach you much faster. Conversations near the perimeter of the galaxy would tend to drag.
5) We have nothing to offer an advanced species unless they want to kill us for our habitable planet–and why would they need one out this far unless it were to serve as a penal colony.
Paradox solved. You’re welcome.
Howard Brazee says
Boy, you hit on my beliefs well.
Rob Grigjanis says
Physicists in these very pages have pointed out the various problems with interstellar travel, in thread after thread. Not sure what you’re moaning about, or what you expect. Maybe we can look to the mobs of biologists rising up for an example.
consciousness razor says
People obviously have a reason to care about it, because discovering a civilization of intelligent aliens (even ones that may otherwise be unlike us) would have dramatically different consequences for us compared to discovering some other type of alien life.
Could we figure out how to communicate with them? Could we learn stuff from them and with them? Are they moral agents like us? Do they pose a threat to us, or do we pose a threat to them? And so forth.
You’re just claiming it’s not very likely that we’ll come across an alien civilization, any time soon or anywhere near us. (We actually know very little, so how did you come up with your estimate about the chances? You’re relying on tons of assumptions whenever you make a claim like that too, aren’t you?)
But it’s also not likely that we’ll encounter whatever other type of alien you care to name. It’s still the case that one type of discovery would have a much bigger impact on us than the other, although any discovery of alien life would certainly be very significant.
SETI, the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence… Meh, maybe we ought to find some terrestrial intelligence first. Seems in short supply right now, honestly.
Eh, I think you’re being a bit too harsh on these people, PZ. The problem with this approach isn’t that the questions aren’t worth asking — it’s just that any answers we come up with are wildly speculative at this time. But in his defense, Frank Drake knew this perfectly well when he came up with his equation as a way of organizing the agenda of the first SETI conference in 1961. He didn’t expect that we’d be able to find numbers to plug in and “solve” the equation — he was just saying “these are all questions that we ought to be researching.” Back then, it would have seemed wildly unlikely that we’d ever even figure out the second and third variables (stars with planets, % planets capable of supporting life), but we’ve done a pretty good job of closing in on those numbers, and it doesn’t seem beyond the realm of reason that further advances may reduce the range of other variables as well.
Also, of course, Drake was a radio astronomer. He wasn’t speculating about little green men flying around in saucers — just how likely it was that we might pick up somebody’s signals. At the time of his conference, that seemed pretty likely — part of the reason he and Fermi get so much play (and even more now that we’ve discovered Goldilocks planets are everywhere) is that astronomers are still kind of shocked that civilizations like ours aren’t more common, just because they don’t expect nature to perform one-offs. If one tribe of bonobos performed behaviors that no other bonobos on the continent had, wouldn’t we want to figure out why?
I also think the sense of urgency from some of them (maybe not the writers of this specific article) isn’t based on “how soon do we get to be galactic colonizers” but rather “can we solve this question in time to give a warning to the rest of the planet before we manage to wipe ourselves out?” Suppose extra-solar astronomy was good enough at this point to announce “Okay, we’ve begun studying the atmospheres of extra-solar planets, and we’ve found hydrocarbon and other pollutants in six of them that strongly indicate civilizations similar to ours that managed to cook themselves through global warming. So yeah, we’ve identified the ‘Great Filter.'” Would that be sufficient to act as a wake-up call for us, do you think?
Oh, who am I kidding.
I sometimes feel that PZ is a hater with physicist inferiority complex and just looks for examples of bad science to point it with his finger and claim physicists are stupid, the same way how creationists try to look at old disproved assumptions in biology and play gotcha with biologists.
There is a story about a guy going home at night and meeting a drunken guy under the streetlamp looking for his keys. He joins the search and after half an hour he asks the drunken guy:
-where did you lost your keys?
-in the park.
-so why do look for them here
-it’s too dark in the park.
That’s why we look for technological space faring civilizations that use radio waves, because we can’t detect any other kind of civilization or life for that matter.
Drake equation is a proposition on how to estimate the number of civilizations with each step having “we don’t know” as an answer. 1st year physics will teach you that answer without error margin is pointless and yet some stupid people plop all their assumptions into it and get a number. Seriously the last paper with 36 as the result was so disappointing, if they tweaked their assumptions even a tiny bit they would get 42, that would be fitting.
Any informed discussion on drake equation already concluded that if we plot high and low estimate for each step of DE we will get the number somewhere in between of “it almost never happens” to “there should be millions of them”. The only use of DE is to look at what steps we can think of researching, no point trying the end result yet.
Fermi paradox squares two factors to big for our imagination – time and distance. Yes, distances in the galaxy are vast but so the time that passed since first planets formed. Even travelling at 10% speed of light and spending 5000 years before sending just 2 new colonies would be enough, so obviously such a picture is impossible so we need an explanation why don’t we see anyone. A_ray_in_Dilbert_space suggests one solution – interstellar space travel is impossible – that can be a great filter. Or maybe there are other filters – either intelligence is not a favored outcome in evolution (so that step in DE would be really small and we are past this filter) or maybe technological civilizations tend to destroy itself in a war or destroy their habitat (which serves as warning and guidance to us now). Or maybe any interstellar travel requires steps we can’t imagine now and need to postpone such inquiries until we develop something else.
Each possibility is just there to create a field of exploration not to provide the answer so anyone who tries to come up with simple one number is just attention grabbing and a sad statement on the situation of science in today’s world where funding is everything.
I do not know where to begin. Thank you for putting that very short list of the dominant successful live forms here on earth it is something that seems never to be considered or even recognized in any alien life civilization speculation I have ever seen.
There will never be found any long term civilization either a terrestrial one or one from some other distant planet that does not understand how biology, chemistry and physics works and tries to live in harmony with it. You do not have to look very hard to find the evidence that the dominate intelligence on this planet has at best a vague rudimentary understanding of any of it, save for a few individuals with just a glimmer of what is going on. We are in the midst of a world wide pandemic that highlights our ignorance while facing dramatic climate change and a great species die-off of our causing all.
If it is as it looks today that light speed is the limit any star traveling will have to be done in vessels that would be able to travel for hundreds of years and would have to be self-sustaining . How many generations would it take to reach a point that planets would not be needed much at all or even desired? It would take a degree of cooperation and mutuality that has only been theoretically studied let alone accomplished. Forget about the most common forms of organization how would they fare in such an environment we can’t even keep the ones on earth stable for very long before we succumb to violence to settle our disagreements, hows that going to work on generation vessels? Authoritarianism would fall to fratricide or the Guillotine and revolution. how is any of that going to work in a place that depends on what everyone does or they all parish? I am not going to try and write all of the questions I have but the very idea seems like elves and magic fun and all but basically mythology, future myths and elves or Atlantians in the sky. more likely ants or wasps.
Mrdead Inmypocket says
Manifest destiny never really falls out of vogue.
Everything we say about potential extraterrestrial life is speculative. It seems a bit silly to condemn other people for speculating when all of your own ideas are just as speculative.
Pierce R. Butler says
Most importantly, all those aliens will need Jesus!!1!
Stuart Smith says
In fairness, I think part of the issue is simply that we have some idea how to look for a species with similar technology to our own, but have absolutely no clue what to look for to find a truly alien species that has charted a wildly divergent technological path. If a species start building broadcast networks and burning hydrocarbons, we know how to look for that. If they start floombing wurglets and other incomprehensible-to-us actions, then we not only don’t know what to look for, we might well not understand what it was even if we found it. So, if you’re looking for proof of alien life, and you don’t have a practical method of interstellar travel, may as well keep an eye open for a planet that’s bleeding electromagnetic energy into space, because what else can you do? Anything else will be, by necessity, even more speculative, because if induction from one example is sloppy, induction from zero is even worse.
Thank you for that PZ.
We’re already on the most amazing spaceship ride that anyone will ever take. And the spaceship is fully equipped with a complete energy supply and fully integrated supporting biosphere.
I’ve always thought that us apes couldn’t stand the psychological trauma of being put in a tin can with artificial life support…..have you ever seen the bathroom facilities on the starship Enterprise?
Neither have I.
1) Communication. Come back to me when you learn how to communicate directly with a dolphin or an octopus.
2) Probability. I’m pretty sure there are other intelligences out there, given the size of the universe. I’d be surprised, however, to see any of them in this galaxy let alone near enough to detect.
3) Observations. Not sure where I heard this, but it seems apropos: The clearest indication that there is intelligent life in the universe is that they have never tried to communicate with us.
To Hanson: it’s “begetting”. Please learn all the best words before you write so bigly to show how you’re a superior genius.
PZ Myers says
What I object to is:
The complete neglect of an entire field of study, evolutionary biology, that has quite a bit to say about the premises of their speculation.
The inclusion of fringe voices like Hanson and Bostrom that lack any credibility. It begins to feel like an intentional snub. They’d rather hear from the wackaloons like the “It’s aliens” guy than scientists who might rain on their parade.
Worst of all, the neglect of what evidence we do have. We aren’t being visited by aliens; rather than accepting this is simply a fact that tells us that intelligent interstellar travelers are rare or nonexistent, well gosh, it’s a “paradox”. No, it’s not a paradox, it’s data.
“have you ever seen the bathroom facilities on the starship Enterprise?”
Hmm. Maybe a project that will be left to fan fiction…
They do have garbage scows, so in this franchise waste management remains a profession. Perhaps though, if you can have replicators, warp drive, transporter technology, and implanted universal translators, you can also have cybernetically implanted holographic waste disposal units that beam waste into space without rematerialization. Either that or replicated food is so perfectly engineered that none of it is wasted and the need for excreting has become an evolutionary dead end.
Mario Romero says
I remember, as a kid, reading a sci-Fi story that talked a bit about it, but only marginally. The hero of the story, spoke about a spacefaring species that dedicated themselves to colonize space. In their quest to extend life and conscience if it was possible,, they would have no qualms about turning away from their primal appearance and change into a species more suitable for a certain environment. They would turn into Annelida if that was required of them to survive and colonize an exotic planet.
As a kid, I hated that thought. I didn’t want to turn into a worm if only to expand into another planet. I was too invested in Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon to renounce my “humanity”…
Slowly raises hand
Susan Montgomery says
“We are only seeking Man. We have no need of other worlds. We need mirrors. We don’t know what to do with other worlds. A single world, our own, suffices us; but we can’t accept it for what it is. We are searching for an ideal image of our own world: we go in quest of a planet, of a civilisation superior to our own but developed on the basis of a prototype of our primeval past. At the same time, there is something inside us which we don’t like to face up to, from which we try to protect ourselves, but which nevertheless remains, since we don’t leave Earth in a state of primal innocence. We arrive here as we are in reality, and when the page is turned and that reality is revealed to us — that part of our reality which we would prefer to pass over in silence — then we don’t like it any more.”
― Stanislaw Lem, Solaris
I think I get what you’re saying in specific. But just an amateur checking here, at base and writ large, this is chemical evolution, it moves forward in time, and with sufficient input of energy and material, a system will tend to become more complex at least in periods, no?
biology and hence evolution does not have a direction it is primarily concerned with survival through reproduction, what ever gives an advantage to survival and reproduction is likely to survive and reproduce. That leads to a proliferation of different species living at the same time all with the same equally long history of evolutionary change leading to what they are now.
it turns out that right now the type of intelligence we are the property of exists and that has not been very long compared to many who have gone before there is nothing permanent about any of it. We have just begun to study what intelligence is with our modern science. There are a lot more intelligent species then we originally thought. In working with AI we may not even know what intelligence is yet. The earth and its biology was perfectly happy it appears for millions of years without our kind of intelligence I see no reason to expect it to be any different any where else. the one thing that can be said about our kind of intelligence is that it is extraordinarily destructive to everything else, as our use of technology increased so did destructive power with measurable results. That sounds like a long time negative for survival to me.
@23, well, not exactly. Chemical evolution depends on the laws of thermodynamics and kinetics and the suite of elements available.
Chemicals, when exposed to energy, re-arrange themselves into the best thermodynamic sink, whatever molecule that may be. However, if the speed of that reaction (the kinetics) is on the order of billions of years, you just won’t see it until then.
And, the best thermodynamic sink is not necessarily more complex. Any chemical evolution involving the element nitrogen, for example, will inevitably trend towards nitrogen becoming one of the best thermodynamic sinks there is, nitrogen gas, which is just N2. (Second strongest bond between atoms that is known to exist.)
So, chemical evolution does not necessarily lead to more complex molecules nor more complex systems. It’s all chance, basically. If the right suite of elements in the right phases (liquids, for the most part), the right concentrations, the right catalysts and the right kinds and amount of energy are all there, it might happen. Or not.
Chemicals in space have had a mighty long time to evolve, but are not yet very complex and certaintly not yet a complex system.
consciousness razor says
But the time factor works against this, when you think about the other direction. There’s an even more enormous amount of time in the future when alien life could exist somewhere in our galaxy. The amount of time elapsed since our galaxy formed is basically nothing in comparison to that. Have trouble imagining billions of years in the past? Probably, but that still barely gets us started.
The point is, almost all of the time when life could develop and propagate is in the future, not the past. So, it’s just not safe to assume that the extremely tiny piece of the bigger picture that we happen to know anything about (because it’s in our past, although we still know very little) is representative of the rest. That once again boils down to assuming aliens must be a lot like us (or in a situation like ours), but they certainly don’t have to be.
We’ve also only experienced about 100 years of being able to detect radio waves, or even consider life existing on other planets. H G Wells and Jules Verne didn’t write that long ago.
One idea I like from SF was that there are boom and bust cycles for civilizations.
Yep yep yep. So sick of people that think scifi movies are real. No, we aren’t going to be zipping around galaxies in FTL travel. Even if we could, space is so big it will still take hundreds of years to get to places. But nope, we’re all going to be living on other planets in 50 years, so why worry about caring and fixing the planet we have? Who cares about creating a just system for everybody when we can just jump into our spaceship and move to Mars? Oh and it’s our destiny to own all the galaxies! We have to keep the human race alive, no matter what!! Barf!
Stephen Gould (without getting into controversies about him) put it succinctly that evolution isn’t a ladder with a predetermined goal and species do devolve. But time, at least, has a direction and is a governing variable. Maybe I’m being facile here, but I don’t think you can ignore that.
And I can’t think of anything for the moment that can’t be described in terms of complexity and organization. The earth is a substantial ball of chemicals with at least one, sweet source of energy that has allowed the formation of organic capsules leading to increasingly complex forms. Conditions for that kind of thing aren’t ideal everywhere in space and everything dies eventually, but given the right initial conditions and sustainability, the dead will make way for something new and more adaptive. Eventually.
An example (pulled out of dimly remembered paleontology from decades ago) might be shell forms of certain gastropods that became more and more complex over time until they hit a plateau or became a dysfunctional dead end. Ecosystems that we consider healthy evolve diversity until they become destabilized. Perhaps a society comes to mind that becomes so complex that it doesn’t have the resources and mental energy to sustain itself under current conditions and starts to collapse.
We’re all just chemical bags living in a chemical world (queue Madonna).
I should have pointed out in @29 above that the forms of gastropods I was referring to were the shapes and spininess of the shells.
One place the Drake Equation could get us.
How many planets are there in the galaxy where, if magically transported there, at least one species of modern Earth life could survive and thrive?
Our survey of exoplanets still can’t tell us enough about the planets to make a good stab at this but it gives a research direction.
Two words: “Strong AI”.
The exoplanet colonisation is a future that belongs to things made of silica and metal. And if we are very, very lucky, AI might help us get the technology to keep our only habitable world habitable.
Meanwhile, minds inhabiting substrates that do not age will undertake those cenrury-long journies to other systems.
No, I do not share the unrealistic hopes of Ray Kurzweill. Strong AI is up there with fusion, or a cure for cancer.
It will happen, but hardly during our lives.
Rob Grigjanis says
How would that be colonisation in any meaningful sense of the word? Does “belongs to things made of silica and metal” mean “is for the benefit of things made of silica and metal”, or does it somehow benefit humans? It sounds to me like a sophisticated way of marking territory without using piss. Saying “look, we really are arseholes” without actually going anywhere.
We know how to keep our only habitable world habitable. We’re just not doing it.
We’re never going to colonise different solar systems, because an essential requirement to doing so makes it unneccesary because to do so requires we be able to live indefinitely in space, if we can live indefinitely in space we don’t need other Earth’s.
All this speculation about Aliens out there assumes far too much. For example it assumes that multi-cellular life is “common”. We know that for at least 80% of the time that life has existed on Earth, life has been microscopic and largely single cells. So the great majority of planets with life may be full of very simple life. It assumes that life out there will be similar to life here. Why? It may be so different we don’t recognize it has alive. It assumes intelligence will be “common”. Well it hasn’t really been common on Earth so why else where? It assumes that intelligence equals technological development. Why? The majority of intelligent life in the Universe, maybe the great majority may be animals like Earth Whales, Octopuses etc. It assumes that technological intelligent life in the Universe will be like us. Why? It could be that a technological Alien society may reach a particular point of development and stop right there and develop their technology no further. It could also be that technological civilizations have a tendency to not last long and hence we could be alone right now.
I could go on. The bottom line is given how vast the Universe is, It is possible that the Universe we can observe is only a very tiny fraction of the full Universe, I suspect intelligence exists out there but I really think we should be careful about assuming it would be very similar to us.
The Drake Equation doesn’t even make sense in its own terms. You don’t combine probabilities like that with simple multiplication. For an analysis:
If you want to imagine very different life, think about our own ancient origins and the weird hints and strange glimpses we get. For example, one of the histones, proteins in the nucleus that coil DNA, is also a protein that can extract energy from copper. Try to imagine a world of life based on enzymes for extracting energies from metals and how it might interact with the DNA that might encode it. It’s an alien world one can speculate about without a faster than light drive.
I think the biggest problem to be solved before we could go to the next factor in the Drake equation is that we don’t know the probability of life forming in any environment. We only know of life on one planet, and only one form – DNA based. I’ve read interesting speculations that life could exist parallel to ours on the Earth but be so alien we don’t recognize it as life, but that goes back to what we know – just one form of life, DNA-based, exists on one planet. Until we have properly explored our solar system, we don’t know what the probability is for the existence of life elsewhere. If we explore all the places with liquid water and all the necessary chemicals, and find no life, then the probability is likely to be very low. If we find life teaming in water environments on various moons and planets (Mars possibly and, interestingly, maybe Pluto) then the probability of life elsewhere is high. We just don’t know enough to get past that factor.
Of course, everyone recognized that the researchers who came up with the number 36 made a math error somewhere. The correct number is obviously 42, the answer to all big questions in the Universe.
I’ve had such conversations and instantly dismantled them with trees and crocodiles.
A Crocodilian vessel lands, the Croc steps off, being of slower processes of communication, but faster on predation, obviously, miscommunications occurs and the Croc is killed, the Croc fleet fires upon the planet, due to our overly slow and strange communications methods making communications improbable.
Trees, a Plantidilian civilization arrives to communicate, it takes a century to get a sentence through, think we’d even notice the attempt?
Or more at home, why did the dog bite? If you even have the slightest problem figuring that out, discussing alien life is utterly out of the fucking question. Same with a cat scratch or even bird peck.
That, figured out from dog bits, occasional cat scratches and a few bird pecks, while always successfully hand feeding squirrels. Yeah, shit is complicated.
First, figure out what level of sentience or communication that you have. Come back to me when you can feed a dik-dik gazelle by hand, we’ll go into detail.
Then, figure out communication methods, first and foremost, threat vs non-threat displays to a species you’ve never met, add in 100 times difficulty in dealing with a species not from this planet as a best case scenario, potentially, a million fold higher. Assuming anyone that could traverse the stars was stupid enough to land here.
Finally, find enough common ground to find mutually understood definitions.
Yeah, I’d rather figure out cold fusion than that!
After all, a Tasmanian Devil says hello by biting the other Devil on the nose.
I really am not interested in exploring yes and no in that kind of context!
Besides, my bite is so toxic as to send a Komodo Dragon into full retreat upon notice of my breath. Given that was late in the day, they’d likely evacuate the island, had they met my morning Godzilla breath.
Meanwhile, humans have trouble communicating at all if they’re of a different belief system and wars erupted, repeatedly, throughout human history.
And you want to meet Marvin the Martian?
Lemme see, someone has interstellar travel (let’s face it, it’s fairly certain that not even human level intelligence is within this star system, counting earth). They somehow fuck up and land here, being utterly alien, miscommunication occurs and someone who uses energies sufficient to overcome the gravitational binding of this planet, at a minimum gets pissed off.
Yeah, let’s try! Dead is cool! So many Republicans suggest that to me, we should all try it.
Yeah, not gonna happen.
Were I Marvin the Martian, I’d avoid this place. No intelligent life here yet, maybe in a few hundred thousand years.
A billion years on, it’s a case of who cares, we’ll make Venus look like a summertime home.
“I like speculations about alien life…”
A lot of readers seem not to notice clear and unambiguous statements in opening paragraphs.
Rob Grigjanis@33: “We know how to keep our only habitable world habitable. We’re just not doing it.”
Do we? I’m not so sure. I mean we know elements of it–that we can’t grow consumption or population indefinitely or that we have to be careful about fouling the nest, but I don’t know of a single economic or political system that doesn’t require growth for stability. I don’t know of anyone who has come up with a credible alternative that doesn’t require growth. Certain problems–like supporting the young and elderly are just much easier to solve in a growing economic system. And whether one’s goal is rewarding merit or equality, doing so without growth requires taking from some so you can give to others–the resistance to which has provided reliable employment to tax shelter attorneys and accountants as long as there have been taxes.
if as you said you do not know of any economic or political system that does not require continuous growth to survive which says that you do not know of any but not necessarily that there has not been one or can not be one but if that is true is that not flaw in our intelligence that may lead to our ultimate extinction at least those who can not adapt to a different way of ordering ourselves?
Not necessarily. We already have a great deal of error correction technology even though the computer age is still less than 100 years old. Combined with enough redundancy and shielding, it should be possible to actively maintain coherent data storage for as long as the technology that houses it continues to function. Maintaining coherent data is not the main issue, protecting the spacecraft from damage while traveling fast enough to make interstellar travel viable is much harder.
Sure, and we’re busy looking for signs of all different kinds of life, not just intelligent life, namely the spectra of the light reflected by or filtered through exoplanetary atmospheres, and any telltale signs of chemical activity that cannot be explained in the absence of biological processes. That process is still in its infancy, but given we have no better way to explore our galactic neighborhood, it will no doubt be a focus of research for the foreseeable future.
The exurbs are significantly safer over astronomical time than the galactic center. There’s far less risk of being bathed in the radiation of a nearby supernova, or gamma ray bursts from an active galactic center, etc.
But we do. The idea that any advanced species would want or need to take over our planet or enslave us is pretty far-fetched, but we do have a few things no alien civilization has — our unique culture, history, and imagination.
Ultimately, physics is boring. Knowledge of how the universe works is finite. With each passing decade, it’s getting harder and harder to tease out smaller and smaller discoveries as we push the edges of our knowledge, and given enough time, we’re likely to hit barriers that are simply impossible to overcome.
Also, seen 100 million planets, seen them all, but if alien life is rare as it appears to be, then cultural exchanges are likely to be the most precious of commodities, providing a trove of new information from a completely different perspective for a jaded civilization to explore and enjoy.
consciousness razor says
But it’s not about speed…. The question you should ask is “speed relative to what?” And that doesn’t have only one answer.
High acceleration can mean too much stress. You had better not be plowing through a bunch of material (nebulae, atmospheres, or larger bodies like asteroids, planets, stars, etc.). Most of your trip should be in interstellar space, which is basically empty. In any case, you’ll be pummeled pretty badly by cosmic rays no matter what. You’ll have to worry about that the minute you leave Earth.
That may be, but look at how people actually behave. Many people are very insular and self-obsessed. Their interest in art, music, literature, film, etc., from around the world is normally pretty minimal. They don’t really go out of their way to understand and explore other cultures or their histories, on our own planet.
Taking a long trip across the galaxy would be an incredible amount of effort for something that a lot of people don’t seem to value very much. So I don’t think we should expect that, unless we have some other reason to expect very radical changes in how people view and interact with other cultures (and with the artists who make those cultural products even within one’s own society).
As for what aliens themselves may do or how they may think, I really don’t know. Maybe they’d put more value into that sort of thing or maybe not. Interstellar travel still seems like an awful lot of work, considering that they could always just satisfy themselves with more of their own art, without leaving home.
Erlend Meyer says
We really don’t have much data on how likely or successful high intelligence really is. Our current civilization might self destruct, but that won’t exterminate all humans. That would probably require a mass extinction event like snowball earth or another meteor strike.
And it’s not like we’re the only species with some level of intelligence. We see examples of this in many other groups like our brethren primates, birds and even cephalopods. And the 4b years might just be the time it takes to produce this level of complexity.
But in this game the winner takes all. There won’t be a second intelligent species as long as we’re here, just as there won’t be a second genesis as long as there is life here.
True, but we do have some.
First we know that life got started on Earth relatively quickly — perhaps within the first half-billion years. That’s not very long considering we’re that’s from the very formation of the planet.
Next, we know that multicellular life took another three billion years to arise, suggesting that step was a lot harder that abiogenesis itself.
Regarding intelligence — there’s evidence the first primitive brains appeared within a hundred million years of multicellular life appearing, after which there’s a steady increase in the capabilities of the lifeforms regarding what would be considered complex behavior — all or mostly instinct, of course, but still, brain power would appear to be linked to success in a wide variety of species, the odd world-spanning natural disaster notwithstanding.
There is also evidence of higher order thinking — problem solving, empathy, social interaction — in multiple species: birds, primates, dolphins, elephants, octopus, etc. — again, which again would imply such developments do impart significant evolutionary advantages, which along with other traits and chance circumstances, culminated in the rise of homo sapiens.
All in all, if I were to guess, I would bet on single cell life being relatively abundant across the cosmos, but that it very rarely evolves into multicellular life. However, if it does, then the intelligence to drive it comes about relatively easily, though again, anything capable of creating a civilization and technology arises only through the most favorable of circumstances.
It’s inconceivable to me that we’re the only technological civilization in the Universe. At a minimum, there’s likely to be millions, if not billions of them, given there’s anywhere from 200 billion to 2 trillion galaxies, but whether they occur at a frequency of more than one per galaxy, that’s the pertinent question. I have no idea if they do. I would lean yes, but that’s more hope than anything else.
I didn’t mention it, but I’m assuming that by the time we’re even capable of interstellar travel (assuming we ever are), it will be conducted via automated probes hardened against hard radiation, perhaps with advanced AI — with payloads of information including DNA blueprints for recreating life upon arrival — i.e. the digital transmission of the biological matrix necessary to colonize another world. Without the necessity of having to protect human cargo would remove one of the most difficult aspects of the design of an interstellar spaceship.
Space maybe pretty empty, but there’s still a lot of dust out there, and plowing into even a single speck a few microns in size at a significant fraction of the speed of light could easier destroy a spaceship without the proper defenses.
What some or even most people think is irrelevant if, as a species, there’s enough curiosity to drive it forwards, which is true in our case. Sure, capital gain has often been the driving force, but the curiosity and the challenge itself has also played major roles.
Obviously, if we’re unique in the galaxy in that regard, we’re not going to find much, but assuming there are other technological civilizations out there, they have all had to solve the same problems we have faced to get to where we are today. The specifics may be different, but we all share the same universe — the same chemical constituents in the same abundance, and the same underlying physical laws. There is plenty of reason to believe that any successful technological civilization will have a lot in common — and certainly enough to communicate with each other and understand their wants and needs.
I’m also reasonably optimistic, given the societal advances we have made in the last 100 years (as unsteady the progress has been), that should we be around long enough to develop interstellar travel, we won’t be the mercenary marauding assholes most people seem to believe we will be.
It’s all conjecture of course, but speculation is fun.
Rob Grigjanis says
What you display is not optimism. It’s dreaming. Nothing wrong with that, of course.
What I ever so love is, all who ignore contraction, where all light and radio waves contract in the direction of travel that’s 180 degrees around the traveler’s direction of travel, who are enjoying the hardest gamma radation imaginable.
Planck units prevent higher, entire breaking the universe thing going on, but as Tau approaches zero, the gamma influx would be far more than sufficient to photodisintigrate any theoretical starshit.