Two Thoughts for the Weekend

by Paul Gilster on May 27, 2006

“Advanced societies throughout the galaxy probably are in contact with one another, such contact being one of their chief interests. They have already probed the life histories of the stars and other of nature’s secrets. The only novelty left would be to delve into the experience of others. What are the novels? What are the art histories? What are the anthropological problems of those distant stars? This is the kind of material that these remote philosophers have been chewing over for a long time…” — Philip Morrison (1961)

“Will we be able to understand the science of another civilization?… Our science has concentrated on asking certain questions at the expense of others, although this is so woven into the fabric of our knowledge that we are generally unaware of it. In another world, the basic questions may have been asked differently.” — J. Robert Oppenheimer (1962)

vamp07 May 27, 2006 at 18:06

When will it happen? Next year of thousands of years from now? I know one thing. Its just a matter of time if mankind can survive.

pfdietz May 29, 2006 at 7:57

Doesn’t Hart/Tipler/etc.’s Fermi Backlash make Morrison’s statement seem dated? This blog seems to have a theme that interstellar travel should be feasible, in which case where are all these aliens?

Administrator May 29, 2006 at 8:16

Yes, we always come back to the Fermi question, and I’ve yet to see a truly satisfactory answer to it. My own view: life is all but ubiquitous in the universe, but sentient life and technological civilizations are extremely rare. Interstellar travel is feasible in the long run but there are few civilizations capable of achieving it. Anyone’s guess is as good as another’s, but I would bet there are fewer than ten technological civilizations in the Milky Way. And that’s one writer’s answer to Fermi, but there’s just so much we don’t know…

pfdietz May 29, 2006 at 13:57

If there are ten technological civilizations in a galaxy, this would mean there would be about a trillion technological civilizations in the observable universe. I’d expect some of them to have performed large scale modifications to their galaxies by now, and also launched colonies into the surrounding galactic clusters and superclusters. Intergalactic travel is not *that* much harder than interstellar, if you can afford to wait.

My guess on this: if we ever detect emissions from other civilizations, it will be from cosmological distances, with the civilizations at distances where their colonization waves could not keep up with the universe’s accelerating expansion.

Administrator May 29, 2006 at 14:36

A fascinating possibility!

A couple of years ago I was on Michio Kaku’s radio show and made the statement that the technologies of any Type III civilization, if such existed, would be ‘blindingly obvious’ to us as they went about engineering their galaxies and otherwise modifying everything around them. And Kaku disagreed completely. His view was that we would be no more likely to understand the effects of a Type III civilization than a colony of ants would be to understand that they were living on the side of an interstate highway. I disagreed then and still do, but the lack of evidence for some kind of extraterrestrial technologies still seems a great mystery to me.

sineral May 29, 2006 at 19:39

i dont believe there is anything that humanity is incapable of understanding. once a life form’s faculties of rational thought have evolved to the point where it possesses the tools of abstraction, simplification, metaphor, etc, then all things become understandable given enough time or individuals. human science is already the perfect example of that; at first there was just philosophy, at some point later there was physics, medicine, etc, today physics alone has 18(?) sub catagories. as our ability to probe reality increases, we specialize further.

so the question isnt whether the ant would understand what the highway is; a better question is whether the ant could discern the difference between the highway and the natural environment. i would guess no, i assume the only thing ants understand as being “artificial” are the trails of chemicals left by other ants, because that is the limit of the ant’s technology.

so are various things we observe and assume to be natural infact artificial? dark energy, dark matter, or even the universe itself could be the effects of alien technologies that operate on theortical models of reality that are several layers of abstraction closer-to-the-metal than even the unification of quantum mechanics and relativity. but to argue that we cant understand those things is to argue in favor of irreducable complexity and similar shenanigans.

Eric James May 30, 2006 at 2:06

The Fermi Paradox poses an interesting question which cannot currently be answered by a falsifiable hypothesis. Therefore it’s more a philosophical question than a scientific one (unless you work in Are 51, I suppose).

A consideration is our own planet’s evolutionary past. Earth existed for billions of years, producing little more than single-celled organisms. Then, the Cambrian Explosion (or more accurately the Tommotian Explosion). What caused it? How unique an event was it? We don’t know. Therefore we can’t know the likelihood of higher life forms (much less intelligent ones) having evolved on other worlds. All we can accurately say is it happened here.

Perhaps the answer lies along the model presented by Isaac Asimov in his Foundation series wherein extraterrestrial life forms, everywhere in the galaxy, turn out to be very primitive and unable to compete with Terran life forms.

Or, perhaps there are “Federation” guidelines to prevent primitive civilizations like ours from being contaminated by extraterrestrial communications and technology (who knows WHAT those crazy Earth monkeys might do?).

Or, perhaps the “observable universe” is nothing more than a projection placed above our heads by God to give continuity to our perceptions of reality.

ljk June 2, 2006 at 7:19

Where are all the aliens?

We live in a galaxy that is 100,000 light years across
and contains 400 billion stars.

If we use grains of salt to represent stars, and a
handful holds about 10,000 grains, to equal the
number of stars in the Milky Way galaxy would fill
an average class room full of salt to the ceiling and
pouring out the windows.

Now go find the one blue subgrain orbiting the
one little yellow grain in all that.

And our electromagnetic signals have penetrated
no more than 100 light years or so into all that,
most of them faint.

If there are ETI less advanced than we, then they
won’t be able to find us, assuming their culture
even has such inclinations.

If they are more advanced than we, they may have
little reason to communicate with us, especially if they
are radically different – and probably Artilects to boot.

As for ideas about where Advanced ETI are and
what they may be like, see these items:

http://arxiv.org/PS_cache/astro-ph/pdf/0506/0506110.pdf

http://www.futurehi.net/docs/Matrioshka_Brains.html

pfdietz June 2, 2006 at 8:39

ljk: you are assuming the aliens stay at one star. The Fermi conundrum is why we haven’t seen aliens that have colonized far beyond their home star systems.

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