The Fermi Paradox (‘Where are they?’) is becoming something of a cottage industry; everyone has an answer. My own hunch is that while life is widespread, technological civilizations are not, with perhaps as few as 5 to 10 active at any given period in the galaxy. But many would disagree with this assessment, including Itzhak Shechtman. The Israeli theorist speculates that ancient super-civilizations may well be out there, and perhaps detectable through an upgraded SETI effort. But his first task, in a recent article in the Journal of the British Interplanetary Society, is to silence the critics.
For cosmic catastrophe theory has gained traction in recent years. In its scenarios, certain cosmic events — gamma-ray bursts, neutrino-induced extinctions, disastrous interactions with galactic spiral arms — could cause species extinction that would prevent long-lasting cultures from ever developing. A solution to the Fermi Paradox? Nobody lives long enough to visit us.
But Shechtman believes such theories disregard the pivotal role advanced civilizations could play in changing their own destinies. His terms will be familiar to anyone following the development of advanced computers:
The present paper introduces a new concept: ‘immunity-through-singularity.’ According to it, within a cosmically very short time span after a culture attains approximately the level of humanity it develops into a singularity. From that time on the rules of the game change: it becomes immune against most terrestrial and cosmic catstrophes, developing into a super or hyper civilization.
Such advanced cultures could, Shechtman argues, predict long in advance the threatening cosmic events that must be modified, thus avoiding their consequences. Even in our present era, we are beginning to develop tools (albeit a bit too slowly, in Centauri Dreams‘ view) to deflect incoming asteroids or other space debris. Other types of disaster such as gamma-ray bursts or stellar collapse neutron fluxes still pose a threat to young civilizations like ours, but it remains the case that despite them life on Earth survives and now contemplates expansion into the cosmos. They are not, then, necessarily fatal.
The question remains: where are the advanced cultures that survive these events? Shouldn’t we see the handiwork of super-civilizations if they are out there? Shechtman argues that we are not looking for their markers. Here he describes the current state of such research and argues for a willingness to consider alternative solutions:
Many cosmic phenomena are presently poorly or not at all understood, perhaps because we try to interpret them using solely the known laws of inanimate nature, disregarding possible intervention by super intelligence, which can master and exploit these laws much better than we do, thereby adding a new aspect to these phenomena.
Thus we arrive at an important conclusion: that a new branch should be created in Astronomy/Astrophysics which would aim to include in its endeavours to interpret poorly-understood cosmic phenomena also the assumption that they may involve intervention by some super intelligence.
The paper thus makes a contribution to the growing field of what might be called ‘advanced SETI,’ the study of which involves methods like Shechtman’s and goes well beyond current efforts that are limited to eavesdropping for signals in radio and optical frequencies. If a change to SETI outlook is needed, as Milan Ćirković and others have argued for some time now, then developing the analytical tools to apply to future SETI efforts could teach us much about life’s potential for altering natural processes that might otherwise seem ineluctable.
The paper is Shechtman, “Is the Universe Teeming with Super Civilizations?,” Journal of the British Interplanetary Society Vol. 59 No. 7 (July, 2006). My photocopy of this article obscures the page numbers; if anyone can supply them, please do, as to the best of my knowledge JBIS continues to be unavailable online. The fact that the journal Geoffrey Landis calls ‘the home of advanced concept thinking’ should have so meager an online presence continues to baffle me.
Addendum: The page reference for the above is pp. 257-61. Many thanks to Brett Holman for this information. Thanks also to Tibor Pacher, who points out that abstracts are available here, though you have to be a BIS member to download entire papers. So the JBIS online situation is less limiting than I had believed.