To Join the ‘Galactic Club’

by Paul Gilster on May 28, 2010

Is there a ‘Galactic Club’ of civilizations to which our species might one day deserve admission? If so, the club’s members are being mighty quiet about their existence. But David Schwartzman (Howard University) thinks it might be out there. In that case, he finds three possible explanations for the ‘Great Silence,’ our failure to detect any signs of extraterrestrial intelligence in the last fifty years. He rejects the first, the notion that we are alone in the galaxy — life is, in his view, all but inevitable in the universe, and he’s keen on the idea of high levels of intelligence developing on many worlds, as he tells us in this article in Astrobiology Magazine:

I have argued that encephalization – larger brain mass in comparison to body mass — and the potential for technical civilizations are not very rare results of self-organizing biospheres on Earth-like planets around Sun-like stars. Biotically-mediated climatic cooling creates the opportunity for big-brained multicellular organisms, such as the warm-blooded animals we observe on our planet. Note that several such animals have now been shown to pass the “mirror test” for self-consciousness: the great apes, elephants, dolphins and magpies, and the list is growing.

The second explanation is that the advanced civilizations of our galaxy are simply unaware of our existence. But this seems unsound as well. Assume that but a single planet among the huge number of Earth-like worlds Schwartzman assumes fills the galaxy becomes home to an advanced technical civilization, one capable of spreading among the stars at sub-light speeds. Such a civilization would have had billions of years to develop and expand before life appeared on our planet, and if it set out to build the Encyclopedia Galactica by using Bracewell probes, it would have placed surveillance stations throughout the galactic disk. He’s careful to note that no faster-than-light technologies are assumed in any step of this expansion.

Back Into Quarantine

We’re left with option three, which is that the ‘Galactic Club’ is avoiding communicating with us on the grounds that our culture is too primitive, the so-called ‘quarantine’ explanation. Now you can read what you like into the notion of ‘primitive’ — the article is freighted with the author’s assumptions on the matter. The key question is this: IF an extraterrestrial civilization is aware of us and uncommunicative, what ramifications would this have for our SETI search? For it seems obvious that a culture explicitly avoiding contact will not set up a beacon specifically targeting our planet. Thus the basic premise of most observational SETI disappears.

Paul Davies has a take on this in his new book The Eerie Silence (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2010), one that Schwartzman examines and I’ll also quote here:

“…we should search for any indicators of extraterrestrial intelligence, using the full panoply of scientific instrumentation, including physical traces of very ancient extraterrestrial projects in or near the solar system. Radio SETI needs to be re-oriented to the search for non-directed beacons, by staring toward the galactic center continuously over months or even years, and seeking distinctive transient events (‘pings’). This ‘new SETI’ should complement, not replace, traditional radio and optical SETI.”

That interesting shift of strategy is well examined in Davies’ book, which I can’t commend too highly. But Schwartzman’s notion is that there won’t be any non-directional beacons, either, assuming an extraterrestrial civilization that does not alert others to its presence. His answer, first proposed back in 1988 along with the radio astronomer Lee Rickard, is that SETI should go after leakage radiation from late-stage primitive civilizations like our own. Leakage radiation is very hard to detect and would presumably only appear in a brief window in a culture’s evolution, as appears to be happening in our own, but Schwartzman believes such a search at galactic scale could be productive:

The technical requirements for a galaxy-wide search are dictated by the size of the radio telescope, with the detection range proportional to the effective diameter of the telescope. A large enough radio telescope situated in space could potentially set meaningful upper limits on the rate of emergence of primitive Earth-like civilizations (‘N/L’ in the Drake equation), without ever actually detecting the leakage radiation of even one ET civilization.

The Aspirations of Conjectural Beings

That, of course, would be useful information, but unfortunately the 1988 paper goes into the costs of creating the needed dish, a telescope with a diameter of 500 kilometers that — in 1988 dollars! — weighs in at $10 trillion. It is not a project Schwartzman expects to be implemented, for obvious reasons, although he opines that a ‘newly mature’ world might one day choose to build it. But let’s assume that $10 trillion adjusted for inflation is too much to ask. We’re left with Davies’ notion (and that of Michael Papagiannis before him) that evidence of a Bracewell probe might be lurking in our own Solar System, if we have the wherewithal to find it.

Short of making that detection, contact with the ‘Galactic Club’ seems to be a matter of waiting for the Club to contact us; i.e., restructuring our own civilization so that extraterrestrials will find it to their liking. It’s a prospect unlikely to satisfy those with the restless urge to push SETI to its limits using buildable technology. And it’s hard to know how to re-structure a civilization so that it would satisfy the entrance requirements to a club populated by extraterrestrials whose existence is purely conjectural. Schwartzman thinks an end to war and poverty will do the trick, laudable goals, to be sure, but he assumes that ETI’s aspirations largely parallel our own.

tzf_img_post

{ 42 comments }

Matt May 28, 2010 at 10:50

“But this seems unsound as well. Assume that but a single planet among the huge number of Earth-like worlds Schwartzman assumes fills the galaxy becomes home to an advanced technical civilization, one capable of spreading among the stars at sub-light speeds. Such a civilization would have had billions of years to develop and expand before life appeared on our planet . . .”

That makes no sense. There is absolutely no a priori reason to assume that any other civilization out there is billions of years older than our own. I just do not understand this sort of “reasoning” that rejects a wide range of possibilities without any evidence whatsoever in favor of a few extremes.

Carl May 28, 2010 at 11:17

Every time I read about someone saying there are x reasons why we haven’t detected aliens (or x possible ways they’d react to us), and 1 through x-1 are invalid because of “such and such” leaving just number x as the valid one, I think that person is assuming a lot.

I don’t imagine that anyone on this planet knows enough about what an alien being is like to even begin to imagine what their psychology or society or morales or technologies or reasons for doing or not doing something are. It is possible that the aliens have an alien way of thinking or an alien way of judging good versus bad or an alien emotional drive that just doesn’t fit into our paradigms.

I agree that it can be a fun or even informative exercise to go through to try to imagine the possible scenarios. I just think that we should probably avoid logic based on our understanding all the possible reasons something could be true or false or this way or that.

What if we haven’t detected the club yet because they don’t use radio waves in the expected parts of the spectrum for their communication? Is it possible they are using lasers or a technology we haven’t envisioned yet? Is it possible that they are using broad spectrum digital transmissions that we haven’t recognized as non-random?

What if they simply aren’t looking for us and are instead assuming that any races worthy of joining their club will first seek them out?

What if the reason they haven’t colonized the entire galaxy yet is because there is some upper population limit to stable societies that they haven’t been able to exceed yet?

What if they are war like and are focused on fighting amongst themselves instead of searching for other races?

What if they simply aren’t curious about examining star systems outside their empire and for reasons unknown to us have stopped expanding?

I’m not smart enough or informed enough to figure out why we haven’t had any contact yet.

Joseph Smidt May 28, 2010 at 11:33

Interesting. I guess it would be worthwhile to examine this option 3 as a possibility and ask how we may be able to get around censorship. (Bye the way, for me this is very speculative but nevertheless perhaps worthwhile to entertain.)

So what, are we to violent or something?

Eric May 28, 2010 at 12:00

Oh boy.

“And it’s hard to know how to re-structure a civilization so that it would satisfy the entrance requirements to a club populated by extraterrestrials whose existence is purely conjectural. Schwartzman thinks an end to war and poverty will do the trick, laudable goals, to be sure, but he assumes that ETI’s aspirations largely parallel our own. ”

These kind of conjectures are very striking in their wishful thinking. It’s a pseudo-religious perspective that projects Schwartzman’s own aspirations and values on to the heavens. I really hope that debate whittle away these kinds of biases before we have an actual detection, and go on to naively do something stupid (like pursue active SETI) without adequate consideration of the risks of dealing with profoundly alien kinds of minds with alien motivations.

I doubt the reason for the lack of detection comes from the fact that we do not frequent the self-help sections of bookstores enough, or that we don’t vote Democrat all the time (and I’m a liberal Democrat!). The reasons are probably stranger and maybe much more disturbing than we are currently discussing. For instance, a hypothesis that says we’re running in an elaborate alien simulation seems just as likely as a hypothesis that we’re under quarantine because of some moral deficiencies.

Beyond that, progress in evolutionary biology, sociology, economics and complexity science may reveal other “deep” explanations based on a much better theory of life, intelligence and civilization. I would bet that these sciences more than astronomy would provide the needed theoretical background for explaining issues around ETIs.

philw1776 May 28, 2010 at 13:39

Schwartzman writes , “if we want to enter the Galactic Club, the challenge lies in reconstructing our global political economy. A few minor side benefits should result, like no more war, no more poverty, a future for all of humanity’s children with a substantial proportion of biodiversity intact”

If this is so, it runs contrary to the entire existance of our species. I don’t buy this premise nor do I see those mysterious undefined ‘complexity’ laws he cites dictating large brained multi-cellular creatures. He seems to be projecting his wish fantasies, begnin as they are, into his science. I think that the ET question is a galactic Rorsach test.

Zen Blade May 28, 2010 at 14:07

I generally agree with the other posters. Whenever someone wishes to make an argument with regards to ET life, the individual (out of necessity) performs an incredible amount of oversimplification/reductionism so that the argument can be made.

This being said, his views are somewhat more in line with my views. However, I am also a fan of the “who cares about earth” line of reasoning. It’s not like we can actually do anything to help OR hurt an ET civilization… not in the near future. So what’s the point in making contact? Assuming ET is an actual civilization, they will have needs and limitations just like any other civilization. It might be prohibitively expensive and unnecessary to initiate contact with humans. It may also simply not interest them enough to make contact… If you can build giant telescopes to learn all about the life on another planet, do you really need to talk to them? What are they going to tell you that will be so interesting?

NS May 28, 2010 at 14:35

The most likely reasons for non-contact with ET are: 1) it doesn’t exist; 2) it’s not doing anything we can detect.

Based on a human perspective at least the quarantine idea doesn’t make sense. We’ve never hesitated to make contact/invade/push aside anybody who’s in the way of anything we wanted, and I doubt that ET would either. Best case is ET could carry on its activities without bothering us too much. Worse case…

Athena Andreadis May 28, 2010 at 15:09

I think it says something about us that all our projections about aliens see them as gods (whether angels or demons) or waifs. Masters or pets, but never equals — which would also acknowledge that they would have their own problems to struggle with and we’d figure rather negligibly in them.

Solomon May 28, 2010 at 15:12

This article is wishful thinking taken to an extreme. There is no evidence of intelligent, extra-terrestrial life, despite our searching for it for 50 years. The most likely conclusion based upon this complete lack of evidence is that such life does not exist. Leave the fantasies of galactic empires to Star Wars.

ScottG May 28, 2010 at 15:13

I agree with the notion that our best chance at receiving a transmission from an alien civilization will probably come from intercepting a leakage signal. But, in my opinion, it’s probably not useful to assume that we’re going to be looking for leaking radio waves coming from a “late-stage primitive civilization” analogous to our own.

Since whatever civilizations out there at present are most-likely either not technical whatsoever, or are extremely technically adept by now, we ought to probably figure out what sort of communication devices the advanced guys might be using – and then look for those. That is, we should figure out what are the most efficient transmitting devices physically feasible and then modify our search criteria accordingly.

My guess is that we’re going to have the difficult task ahead of us of intercepting some sort of low-power, narrow-beam electromagnetic communications (think lasers), probably operating in whatever frequency range is both an optimal carrier of large amounts of information and is least likely to be absorbed, scattered, or otherwise corrupted by ET’s local interplanetary/interstellar environment. We’re probably going to have to sit and wait for that most unlikely event of catching some minuscule radiation seeping around it’s intended recipient that just so happens to be in a direct line-of-sight with us.

Carl May 28, 2010 at 17:31

The wandering world of Methuselah shows that planets have been around for over twelve billion years. A surviving civilization advanced a mere million years beyond our own would likely have moved within our galaxy.

They may communicate with exotic physics, say through wormholes, and not curved lines of electromagnetic propagation with gravitational lensing.

What is impressive about our galaxy is its sheer number of visible stars. On autumn nights I lay on a recliner with a pillow resting my arms while holding 50mm binoculars. The view toward the Perseus Arm is breath-taking. The vast array of nearer and remoter stars, and the farther star clouds… what civilization can visit all of it?

Given a likely interstellar community, will they be in our neighborhood?

Chris T May 28, 2010 at 17:31

He’s already showing extremely bad reasoning in the first explanation. Believing that life is likely in the universe at large tells us nothing about our own galaxy. We could easily be the only civilization in the Milky Way while intelligent life is common in the universe as a whole.

“the great apes, elephants, dolphins and magpies”

Three of those are evolutionarily separate from humans by only a few tens of millions years at the longest. None on the list show any signs of constructing a technical civilization. I find it damning that humans are the only species to have developed much in the way of technology we have any evidence for.

Chris T May 28, 2010 at 17:34

I posted before I had intended to:

I find it damning that humans are the only species to have developed much in the way of technology we have any evidence for out of billions of species that have ever existed. This does not lead one to rate the chances of a civilization capable species evolving very highly.

Mark Wakely May 28, 2010 at 18:06

If alien civilizations have any sense of self-preservation (and I’d like to think that’s a minimal requirement for species longevity anywhere) then close observations of Earth would reveal a constantly warring, tribal race that likely wouldn’t welcome ET’s with open arms. Of course, depending on the alien civilization’s distance from Earth, different distances would reveal different conflicts, but given how many battles and how many wars have been fought around the globe since ancient times- with steady technological advances in both tactics and weapons- why would *any* observant ET want to risk harm by contacting Earth? Their fear might be that although they’re witnessing spears and swords used long ago, how advanced we’ve become is unknown, along with the destructiveness of our weapons of mass destruction and their reach. (Those ET’s close enough to have seen the Trinity test of 1945 and subsequent, larger nuclear tests might even have put us on their list to avoid at all costs.) Basically, we might have inadvertently earned the permanent cold shoulder from ET no matter how long or intently we listen, particularly if endless warfare is not only frightening to them but incomprehensible and/or reprehensible. The only exception might be a hyper-aggressive ET civilization bent on domination and willing to take their chances that our current weapons are no match for theirs, which is a perfectly good argument in favor of avoiding active SETI since a signal from us might be viewed as a gauntlet thrown down or an invitation to participate in whatever Earthly battle happens to be in progress when they arrive.

Martin Alfredsson May 28, 2010 at 19:27

I’d say we are like anthills to older (advanced) civilizations.
There are lots of them, they have looked at/dug into/explored several of them so why care for ours, its just the ones they looked at.
In reality we might just be uninteresting, one of many millions.

justcorbly May 28, 2010 at 19:27

>>”There is no evidence of intelligent, extra-terrestrial life, despite our searching for it for 50 years. The most likely conclusion based upon this complete lack of evidence is that such life does not exist. ”

Three hundred years ago, there was no evidence of relativity or electrons. Just because we don’t know something doesn’t mean it’s not there.

We are a bit like people stuck on an island in the middle of the Pacific staring out to sea, at night, in a fog, in an efort to determine if they are alone on the planet. Eventually, lack of extra-island sightings would lead them to conclude no one was out there. In truth, no one else has a reason to stop at their scuzzy little island.

If intelligent life is common, and a “Galactic Club” does exist, then the notion that there is life on this little planet would hardly be surprising or merit a visit. I mean, there’s life in Newark, but I don’t want to go there.

mike shupp May 28, 2010 at 20:03

Option IV: If intelligent life is quite so common, perhaps the “test” for acceptance into the Galactic Club
is that We must contact Them, rather than the other way around. Think of ourselves today as enlightened
American, British, French, Russian, Chinese administrators of the world; no doubt we run anthropological
surveys here and there to see what strange societies human beings make for themselves, but we don’t
govern the Earth on the basis of what appeals to tiny isolated communities and a time must come when
even specialists lose interest in detecting every single microscopic tribe in central Africa or Siberia.

We’ve fire and canoes and a few interplanetary spacecraft; among a billion species with interstellar flight,
we’ll be worthy of note when we launch our own starships.

Mark May 28, 2010 at 20:15

We don’t hear from them because they do not use any type of electromagnetic radiation for signalling. It’s not effective at interstellar communication in real time. They use some technology based on a physics we haven’t even begun to suspect yet. We will join once we understand the required physics. Just as the native people on an isolated island will join modern society when they invent the radio. They sit on the volcano-top in their skins and rags, patiently looking for our smoke signals, patiently sending their own. But we don’t use smoke signals. We use radio. They can’t even begin to suspect that a physics of radio exists. Why, they don’t even have a word for physics. We are that far behind the ET out there. We don’t even have a word for the beyond-physics science that is needed… Someday we will, and some engineer will build a device, and when he turns it on, he’ll rip the earphones off his head and exclaim: “they are out there! I hear them!”

Bounty May 28, 2010 at 22:28

Solving a Drake equation for the number of “intelligent” civilizations in our galaxy has a huge range of possibilities. Fortunately none of the terms can be so pessimistic as to make my existence impossible. However I’m pretty sure that civilization is not extremely common.

Now throw in nova, supernova, asteroids, nuclear war and everything else that can go wrong. Lack of easy fossil fuel (or other materials) to spur growth. Subtract assumptions about super duper fusion, zero point energy, Kardashev type II or higher civilizations and robots that replicate/self repair w/o error. Factor in willpower and cost to maintain continuous beacons (w/o sci-fi power and robots), plus fear of dangerous aliens. It doesn’t surprise me that we are not assaulted with alien messages. How long do you think we’ll fund SETI? 50 years, 100 years? Think we’ll still fund it after that if they don’t detect something? I think that is really hard to guess with any skill.

-Bounty

(PS sorry for any bad spelling/grammar, I’m on my way out to kill and eat some aliens… errr I mean, go fishing.)

Damjan Novak May 29, 2010 at 10:25

given the wast and comparatively cheap resources in the periphery of a solar system, extreme cost of interstellar travel, demographic transition and rapid development of telescopes, I see no reason to presume advanced civilizations are empire-builders, colonizers, frequent interstellar travelers. Why would an advanced civilization invest in seeding the galaxy with Bracewell probes?

‘Just because they could’ is no reason at all. Reminds me of the creation and discontinuation of Ming empire’s fleet. That was done pretty much ‘just because they could’, and lacking an economic incentive, it was a short lived adventure.

Its also fairly unlikely an organized society would stay organized for billions of years; at least in Earth history, few hundred or maybe thousand years was all best empires managed to sustain themselves before a collapse of some kind. While technology does keep progressing irrespective of such events, with a possible temporary setback, grand projects, like this one would be, most definitely do not.

Duncan Ivry May 29, 2010 at 17:16

David Schwartzman’s essay is of rather low quality — see what especially Matt, Carl, Eric, and Zen Blade said above. And it’s worse: There is not one single point of inspiration. It looks like: “By the way, I’m professor Schwartzman, and from time to time a professor should say something, doesn’t really matter what, certainly I will quote several famous people.” It’s disappointing. I’m angry.

Chris T May 29, 2010 at 23:15

Mark’s comment above is a perfect example of how this topic is often used as a vehicle for misanthropy.

NS May 30, 2010 at 16:31

Re what Mark wrote, I don’t think it’s misanthropic. But it’s more likely that somebody will show up on that isolated island and give them a radio than that they’ll invent it on their own. And it may be that it’ll be ET that gives us the faster-than-light communication thing rather than us discovering it ourselves.

JohnHunt May 30, 2010 at 20:23

If there is a Galactic Club, do they recognize any rights on our part? For starters, since we have not yet reached their technologic level, we still suffer from disease, death, deprivation, and warfare. If they have set some criteria before they make contact then aren’t they partially to blame for our suffering, because, after all, they could bring our suffering to an end.

What if we were to vote to join the Galactic Club even if we have not been invited. Can they ethically deny us entrance?

If the Galactic Club exists and one of the civilizations existed long enough already to send highly intelligent Bracewell Probes throughout our galaxy then might they have the ability to monitor practically all of our communications and know if we wanted into this Club? The Internet for example. This forum for example.

Then, is what’s lacking simply a vote of the world’s people re: if we wish to join the Club?

intercostal May 30, 2010 at 23:21

The problem for me is: “Such a civilization would have had billions of years to develop and expand before life appeared on our planet, and if it set out to build the Encyclopedia Galactica by using Bracewell probes,…”

IMO the simplest (most consistent with what we know or think we know) explanation of the Fermi Paradox is that intelligences generally *don’t* set out to explore. Whether this is because they destroy themselves (IMO doubtful; the technology to have a nuclear war is more or less the technology to build Orion drives), because most intelligences are on Europa/Enceladus-like worlds and never see the stars or invent fire, because most do what we’re doing as a species and focus on internal issues with little serious effort put into spaceflight (what percentage of the world GDP goes into space efforts???), because most think it is wiser not to draw attention to themselves from potential hostile species, or some combination of the above; who knows?

But I find ‘they don’t explore’ to be far likelier than ‘they don’t exist’ (I’m not saying they’re *common* – but there’s a LOT of planets in the Milky Way!) or ‘they are purposely ignoring us’. (Especially since if there were a galaxywide civilization, we’d probably see signs — stars with weird (IR-heavy) lightcurves due to Dyson swarms, flares of Bussard ramjets, something…)

Ronald May 31, 2010 at 5:11

The greatest shortcoming of Schwartzman’s view is that it shows extreme wishful thinking, as is immediately clear form the sentence, particularly the part put between ** by me: “He rejects the first, the notion that we are alone in the galaxy — life is, in his view, all but inevitable in the universe, and *he’s keen on the idea* of high levels of intelligence developing on many worlds”.

I agree with the idea that the second explanation is very unlikely, we ourselves will probably have a fairly good overview of habitable planets in our MW galaxy within this century or the next few centuries.

The third explanation is purely speculative.

Regarding the first explanation, rarity: several guesstimates have come to a total number on the order of 50 – 100 million habitable planets (meaning long-term habitable for higher life) in our MW galaxy. That may sound like a lot, but it really isn’t.
As habitability does not yet mean the actual existence of biological life, and biological life still does not imply higher life, and higher life does not automatically imply higher intelligence, likewise intelligence does not yet imply civilization and culture, and even this latter stage does not imply advanced technological civilization (before demise). It is simply highly unlikely that a fair number (meaning detectable number) of advanced technological civilizations exist within our MW galaxy with overlapping windows of opportunity, i.e. existing at the same time.
Not impossible, but very small chance.
The first explanation is really the most likely, no matter how painful this realization. I suppose it is one of the growing pains of growing up in our MW galaxy. However, it also offers great opportunity, and with it responsibility.

Procyan May 31, 2010 at 6:43

Its becoming fashionable to say “we’ve been doing SETI for 50 years, where are all the aliens?” or similar…

I know of no governments willing to fund SETI. The few programs that have spanned those 50 years have been ill funded and extremely limited. However, SETI@home is grinding though the data and logging millions of “hits”. and yet they have only scratched the surface. I find that very exciting. Just wait (and wait and..) until Hat Creek hits its stride. Real SETI is just beginning. The sky is very big and so is the spectrum, add dimension 4 to the mix and the needle(s?) become even harder to find.

The task is immense, the resources spare, so please try to be realistic about the paucity of results to date.

On another oft repeated saw, lets get over our history. I know, Capt. Cook’s visits to isolated polynesians changed them forever, but that was then. Today, If we were to discover a new Tahiti or any pristine environment here on Earth, it would be protected and cherished. In fact that is what civilizations do, they become more civilized. Civilized beings wouldn’t dream of harming this island Earth.

It is tanalizing concept…When will we pass muster? Maybe we just have to get online … I mean Online. I don’t really know what a quantum computer is, but I’m betting that the price of admission is turning one of those ON!

Zen Blade May 31, 2010 at 12:08

I like these topics b/c more ideas come out. Granted, these topics don’t really reveal any science or come upon a solution that everyone agrees to. HOWEVER, I find these open-ended discussions give me more knowledge and more to think about.

From NS,
“Re what Mark wrote, I don’t think it’s misanthropic. But it’s more likely that somebody will show up on that isolated island and give them a radio than that they’ll invent it on their own. And it may be that it’ll be ET that gives us the faster-than-light communication thing rather than us discovering it ourselves.”

But you have to justify giving that technology to another civilization. That’s the interesting part here. Why haven’t we given our technology to all of the different countries/civilizations on the planet. There are potentially horrible repercussions to any new knowledge or technology. There exist both practical/physical harm, as well as potential personal/emotional/social harm.

The more one (me) thinks about these issues, the more one realizes that we are each alone, regardless of our actual situation. If we get a flat tire on the side of the road (with no cell phone), 99% of the people are not going to stop and help. This happened to me back in 2002, while moving across country. I was waving my arms, trying to draw as much attention as possible… no one stopped. After about 5-10 minutes of this, I drove my car out of the ditch it was in, onto a side road, unpacked my entire trunk and my worldly possessions, took at the spare tire, changed the tire, and had to drive half an hour to find a mechanic who could change my tire, etc…

In this above story, you can easily trade me out and put in place “earth” and trade out those motorists driving by me on the freeway for “ET civs”… and I think the metaphor works, whether we like it or not.

Maybe someone will read this post. It’s pretty far down in the thread.
-Zen Blade

tesh May 31, 2010 at 14:34

The more one (me) thinks about these issues, the more one realizes that we are each alone, regardless of our actual situation. If we get a flat tire on the side of the road (with no cell phone), 99% of the people are not going to stop and help. This happened to me back in 2002, while moving across country. I was waving my arms, trying to draw as much attention as possible… no one stopped. After about 5-10 minutes of this, I drove my car out of the ditch it was in, onto a side road, unpacked my entire trunk and my worldly possessions, took at the spare tire, changed the tire, and had to drive half an hour to find a mechanic who could change my tire, etc…

this is a great analogy. I could easily imagine that ETs are too caught up in their own business to bother to stop and “help” a stranger. There are many logical reasons not to do so. Brotherly (or sisterly) love is too risky.

intercostal June 1, 2010 at 0:34

If there are really 50-100 million habitable worlds in our galaxy, I find it hard to believe that intelligences are THAT rare. Life *could* form rarely, but it happened REALLY fast after Earth became suitable, so there is no evidence to suggest that it *is* rare — most habitable worlds will probably have life of some sort.

I agree that DETECTABLE civilizations are likely very rare, but I think most of the winnowing out is post-intelligence; many never get technological, many have no offworld interests, and of those that do *the vast majority* realize that the risks of contact are *tremendously* greater than the benefits and thus do not seek out contact.

Nobody is transmitting since there is nothing to be gained by transmitting.

tesh June 1, 2010 at 5:59

NS May 30, 2010 at 16:31
Re what Mark wrote, I don’t think it’s misanthropic. But it’s more likely that somebody will show up on that isolated island and give them a radio than that they’ll invent it on their own. And it may be that it’ll be ET that gives us the faster-than-light communication thing rather than us discovering it ourselves.

All I have to say to this is beware of Greeks brearing gifts.

Tim Whitworth June 1, 2010 at 7:28

Okay, we may or may not be alone in the galaxy, we just don’t know.
There may or may not be a bracewell probe in our solar system watching us, either with good or bad intent, which may or may not be waiting for orders from a star system over twenty thousand light years away.
Our present radio telescope search doesn’t have the sensitivity to pick up anything other than a directed message from even a star as close as the centauri stars.
EM communication seems to be a good way to go for communications, unless there’s some way around the light barrier, which there are reasons to think that there is not.
We have not investigated low frequency radio waves, not even down to one hertz. Lower frequency radio waves may allow for a single receiver to pick up a large signal due to photon size, thus allowing for viable long distance communication.
Em waves may not be directional over interstellar distances, due to their wave nature.

Ronald June 1, 2010 at 10:06

Intercostal:

First of all I am not so sure that the risks from contact are *tremendously* greater than the benefits.
Secondly, it will be very hard to hide from an advanced civilization anyway.

But most importantly: 50 – 100 million habitable or even actually inhabited worlds is not so much for a galaxy, let’s assume 100 million;

- It is not unlikely that some 90% of those will have only single-celled life (or simple cell colonies), as the earth had for most of its history. Leaving 10 million planets with more complex, multi-celled life.

- Of the 600 million orso years that the earth has had complex life, only a few million years have known any advanced intelligence (self-awareness, tool using, etc.). Let’s assume 1% of the time. If we also assume random distribution across planets and across time (not entirely right I admit), that leaves some 100 thousand planets with advanced intelligence.

- Of the time that the earth has had any advanced intelligence, only a few thousand years have known real civilization and some kind of (even primitive) technology, most of the rest was primitive hunting/gathering and the like. Let’s say 0.1%, leaving some 100 planets with civilization.

- On earth the rise of advanced technology, particularly electro-magnetism/electronics, etc., was not a logical and inevitable outcome. If so, it would have risen several times among several civilizations, as was indeed the case for more primitive technologies, such as iron melting, bow and arrow, sailing, multi-storey construction, compass, book printing, …

It is almost impossible to attach a statistical chance value to this rarity, but it must be very, very small indeed, leaving a very, very small fraction of the previously remaining 100 planets.

So, summarizing, life does not inevitably lead to intelligence, and intelligence does inevitably lead to technological civilization. Just as life can survive very well in the form of micro-organisms, likewise even intelligence can survive as primitive hunter-gatherers.

Our kind of techno-civ must be vanishingly rare in the MW galaxy.
Unless, of course, you prefer to believe in some kind of evolutionary destiny, which I consider unscientific.

Eniac June 1, 2010 at 15:59

given the wast and comparatively cheap resources in the periphery of a solar system, extreme cost of interstellar travel, demographic transition and rapid development of telescopes, I see no reason to presume advanced civilizations are empire-builders, colonizers, frequent interstellar travelers. Why would an advanced civilization invest in seeding the galaxy with Bracewell probes?

To explore the galaxy. To build that Encyclopedia Galactica. To prepare new worlds for settlement. Lots of reasons, really.

‘Just because they could’ is no reason at all. Reminds me of the creation and discontinuation of Ming empire’s fleet. That was done pretty much ‘just because they could’, and lacking an economic incentive, it was a short lived adventure.

That fleet was still created, though, right? Bracewell probes, once created, spread across the galaxy at zero cost to the creators, so the economic argument really won’t hold them back.

Its also fairly unlikely an organized society would stay organized for billions of years; at least in Earth history, few hundred or maybe thousand years was all best empires managed to sustain themselves before a collapse of some kind.

This is a good point. Let us not expect empires spanning the galaxy. The distance between even the closest stars (never mind habitable) is far too great to maintain any sort of remote administration. Or projection of military power. Or even trade. Because of the communication delays, the only workable interstellar pursuits I can think of are exploration and colonization.

Civilizations and their administrations will by necessity remain local to their star systems and interact with others almost exclusively by exchanging cultural items, out of a wish for self-presentation and academic interest, not for profit or power. The light speed barrier renders profit and power extremely ineffective as motivations for human endeavors at interstellar distances.

In my view, all of these civilizations will be human and follow the paths blazed by human-designed probes, but that is something we do not know as yet. Looking for alien probes or their remains right here in our solar system is certainly a good way to examine this question, perhaps much better than listening for radio signals.

Eniac June 1, 2010 at 16:14

There may or may not be a bracewell probe in our solar system watching us, either with good or bad intent, which may or may not be waiting for orders from a star system over twenty thousand light years away.

There may be one watching us, but what good would orders be that are 20,000 years old, from 20,000 light years away? The only order worth transmitting to a Bracewell probe would be: “We have changed our minds. Stop self-reproducing and sending data. Auto-destruct immediately.”

An unlikely event, given the exponential rise in valuable exploration data provided by the probe network and the amount of money such an order would save (zero).

Eniac June 1, 2010 at 16:42

Ronald: If I understand correctly you are saying that single cellular life may be common because it developed in the incredibly short period of the first billion years, and then you say the development of technology from civilization is rare, because it happened only once in 10,000 years?

With all due respect, I think it is a mistake to say that just because something took multiple tries that it is not inevitable. The only two things that took appreciable time on the geological scale was the original abiogenesis, and the development of “complex” life. I believe the latter took long only because it had to wait for the thorough oxidation of the Earth’s surface, but that is debatable. The rest happened in the blink of an eye, and if they hadn’t happened when they did, there would have been a thousand or a million times more time for them to happen later. To me, that is indistinguishable from inevitable.

That leaves only the original abiogenesis, which may or may not have been likely, or even inevitable. We just do not know, yet.

Unless, of course, you prefer to believe in some kind of evolutionary destiny, which I consider unscientific.

It is a principle of evolution that it leads to more and more complex systems. I don’t consider that unscientific, at all. All of the steps you list are associated with greater fitness, which makes them perfectly plausible targets for evolution by natural selection. All, except the abiogenesis.

SG June 1, 2010 at 18:17

I think these discussions are interesting and a lot of people seem to have the view point of “why would ET care enough to even bother with us?”. I must say that I don’t understand that point. Let’s flip it around and pretend we’re the ET (we are). We would be incredibly interested in another technological civilization, even if that civilization was still perfecting stone tools and fire. And if we found a million of these primitive, “early stage primitive” civilizations? I suspect we would still be interested in each new civilization, wanting to know their differences and their unique languages, mathematics, their understanding of physics, their view of the universe around them, etc.

tesh June 2, 2010 at 2:52

SG June 1, 2010 at 18:17
I think these discussions are interesting and a lot of people seem to have the view point of “why would ET care enough to even bother with us?”. I must say that I don’t understand that point. Let’s flip it around and pretend we’re the ET (we are). We would be incredibly interested in another technological civilization, even if that civilization was still perfecting stone tools and fire. And if we found a million of these primitive, “early stage primitive” civilizations? I suspect we would still be interested in each new civilization, wanting to know their differences and their unique languages, mathematics, their understanding of physics, their view of the universe around them, etc.

Not more interested than say the million’th supernova or the quadrillion’th type of plant life or a novel type of life form or white drawf or whatever. However, the resources and the attention span (of individuals or civilisations) that can be dedicated to each point of interest is limited. So why would they choose to pay attention to the million’th civilisation they came across? More likely they would ctalogue and move on, i.e. collect a few samples, take a few pictures and repeat it every 100,000 years or so. Perhaps we are due such a “catalogue” event…

I hope if we are the ETs and come across a budding civilisation, we leave well alone and not interfere. What would be the benifit for us to interfere or even observe? What would we learn? It would be voyeristic and not much more useful than watching a glorified version of “Big Brother/Survivor/Reality Show”. No, if we, as ETs, come across such a situation, we should flag it (put a big sign saying “nature reserve”) and move on.

Eniac June 2, 2010 at 11:13

tesh:

So why would they choose to pay attention to the million’th civilisation they came across?

This sounds like a bunch of researchers rushing from one world to another, surveying a new one every week. If you think about it, it makes no sense. The huge distances mean that this galaxy-spanning ET “civilization” is really a large number of independent colonies related by origin alone. It is likely that there are fewer than one natively inhabited star system per ET colonized system, so even that “million’th civilization” will find itself the sole object of study for several planets worth of ET exobiologists. If that is not enough attention, I do not know what would be.

“catalogue and move on.” Huh? If you just spent huge amounts of time and money on interstellar travel, you would make a quick note and hurry off for another decade-long trip? I think not.

Zen Blade June 2, 2010 at 15:30

I think some of the most recent posts are overly optimistic. I think they simplify things too far.

For example,
“If you just spent huge amounts of time and money on interstellar travel, you would make a quick note and hurry off for another decade-long trip? I think not.”

I totally agree. Only, I think they probably would not spend all that money and time in the first place. Is the argument to “study some unknown, primitive civilization in deep space” really going to win out over “better education”, “more jobs”, “more living space”, “more luxuries”, “more tax breaks”. Look at the parallels in our world. People who study the humanities DO NOT get paid well, and their funding is far more tenuous than funding for the biological sciences. And look how tight that funding has been over the last decade!
Doing nothing: Cost, $0.
Doing anything else: More expensive.

Also, even if you did obtain funding for such an expedition, it will not be “bunches” of researchers. It is going to be a handful of individuals (assuming any sort of space travel), and I do not necessarily see why they would make open/declared contact.

What we should do is play out a wargame of potential contact between ET’s and earth. Many of you probably know about these things, but for anyone who doesn’t…

The government (and non-government too) regularly conducts “wargames” where individuals are to act as a certain personality or position or country, etc… Given a set of circumstances, the responses are then recorded and used to create a likely set of scenarios to determine what outcomes might occur.

I bet, if we were to perform a few contact scenarios (with iterations), the majority of the results would not match our currently held opinions. All it takes is one mistake, and then your planet is neo-asteroidal material.

tesh June 2, 2010 at 15:40

This implies that they are investing time and money on finding civilizations. I think they would be spending far more time and energy looking for valuable resources. If what you say is true (w.r.t. individual colonies), then the individual colony that found a civilization would be far more interested in internal matters, survival, looking for valuable resources. The problem, for us, would be that they would think there is a “quick” buck to be maybe over our expense.

The n’th civilization would be just a distraction on a more important search – for resources possibly. After all they would have access to data about the other civilisations that had already been found. Why bother about the latest. If they did then it would be a cause for worry. They would have to finish off what they were missioned to do. If they had spent huge amounts of energy on intersellar travel, then a new civilisation would not be worth the effort to stop for.

Eniac June 7, 2010 at 14:23

I have said this before, as have others, the notion that there could be a material “resource” worth traveling light years to obtain is quite ludicrous. A planetary system has all the material resources a comfortable civilization might need. Heck, even just a single planet does. That leaves intellectual resources, and of those, what could be more interesting than aliens? Or even just a planet with life on it?

In my opinion, there is really only two things worth doing in interstellar space: 1) Moving on to the next system to colonize, and 2) science. The first is a necessary precondition for our hypothetical ET “interstellar civilization”, but ceases to be an option in the fully colonized “interior”. The second, science, will likely remain an ET occupation forever, and life-bearing planets make ideal subjects of scientific investigation.

So, if there were interstellar ET out there, they would be studying us with great interest. They would probably have colonized our system, for that purpose, or like all the others as a matter of course.

I just don’t think there are such ET. One reason I think so is that it would be very hard to study us without us noticing, even if they wanted to. Whether they would want to hide is also in question, it is certainly not the way that we ourselves study other cultures or species.

Comments on this entry are closed.

{ 3 trackbacks }