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A Galaxy Alive with Civilizations

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.

And later:

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.

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • philw September 19, 2006, 9:49

    Why do we need a ‘new branch’ of science to study something that has no basis in observational fact? How about first encountering some troubling observations, similar to the initial pulsar quandry, and THEN hypothethizing transbiological intervention to see if it better fits the data.

    I welcome a fresh approach to SETI, but so far the alternatives are vague wishful thinking based on an imagined tech future for humans. It’s almost like a cult. You MUST believe in the onrushing computing singularity.

  • Brett September 19, 2006, 12:32

    ADS has the paper listed, and the page numbers as 257-61.

  • Administrator September 19, 2006, 14:33

    Brett, thanks so much for the page listing. I’ll insert it immediately.

  • Tibor September 19, 2006, 15:52


    JBIS is already online with issues from 2000 on; members can download the papers, the public can access the abstracts (or can purchase). Here is the direct link:


    You can “click through” as well on the BIS homepage.

  • Administrator September 19, 2006, 15:59

    Excellent news, Tibor. Thank you for pointing this out to me.

  • ljk September 19, 2006, 17:26

    Maybe no one else in the Universe has or will do things like
    Dyson Shells, make Artilects, etc. But the fact that WE HAVE
    conceived of them means at the very least we may making a
    self-fullfilling prophecy one day.

    Maybe aliens won’t do things quite like we do. But I do know
    one thing: Every living thing is designed to survive, at least to
    the point they can and do reproduce. To not want to survive is
    more than just illogical, it means the end of the species.

    If you have the sufficient knowledge and technology to make it
    in this Universe, are you going to make sure your brains and
    know-how allow you to survive such things as supernovae,
    black holes, and even the end of existence, or is it less than
    logical to assume that they would just give up when they have
    the means to survive indefinitely?

    We are only just beginning to understand the Big Picture. We
    have barely explored the Cosmos. It’s a little early to start
    making declarations.

    Scientists used to think the ocean floors were essentially barren
    wastelands when it came to life. I once leafed through a book
    from 1968 displaying images taken by a submarine expedition of
    the Pacific Ocean floor. Dull gray sand occassionally interrupted
    by a passing fish or two. It took another decade of exploration
    to find first the black smokers and then all the amazing life that
    thrives around them.

    We’re still way too deep in the desert.

  • Rob September 19, 2006, 17:46

    Claiming that a super-civilization is responsible for some astrophysical phenomenon already is a valid scientific argument. Of course you need to explain why and exactly how they did it as well as point to some other, yet unexplained consequences of their work.

    Now, saying we don’t know how, they used technology we don’t understand and we have no idea what their motives are, just doesn’t cut it.

    In any case if have a phenomenon we have no explanation for, yet we can’t build a good testable hypothesis for artificial origin, we gained no new understanding.

  • philw September 19, 2006, 22:39

    What if, just what if interstellar travel really is nigh onto impossible and what if stuff like AI, Von Neuman replicators and ‘singularities’ are simply not possible? Thus, we’d have no intelligences spanning solar systems, never mind pervading the galaxy. We’re mostly SF buffs and folks bullish on technology but a rational person must concede that these common techie postulates are not guaranteed truths. Because of our cultural predilections we space cadets tend to accept these future technical developments unquestioningly, almost as articles of faith.

    Another point. What if protiens, self-replication, the start of life really was a once in the universe or galaxy improbability as many notable biologists (not astronomers) have argued? Or what if the transition to multi-cellular life (it took billions of years here) is also another highly improbable occurance even on a galaxy wide scale? We have no real objective evidence as yet to guide us here.

    copied from The habitable Zone Space Board

  • philw September 19, 2006, 22:44

    Rob wrote “Claiming that a super-civilization is responsible for some astrophysical phenomenon already is a valid scientific argument. Of course you need to explain why and exactly how they did it as well as point to some other, yet unexplained consequences of their work.”

    I agree with the 1st sentence assuming that the claim had evidence to support it, but you would not need to explain WHY at all and you could also punt on ‘how’ if there were definitive symptoms of an intelligence at work behind an observed phenomenon.

  • Eric James September 20, 2006, 0:37

    Maybe they all develop to a critical stage, where they inadvertently annihilate themselves. Maybe we are approaching that stage now.

    It’s long been suspected that we might destroy ourselves by playing with nuclear fire. Perhaps this is only one possible misstep to civil annihilation. Perhaps advances in high-energy physics inevitably leads to some experiment, or other, that simply wipes out the experimenters and their civilizations.

    Look at CERN. Their intent is to see if nano black holes and other exotic matter, might be created in an earthbound lab. What happens if their calculations are off? What happens if black holes don’t evaporate? What happens if strange matter can be stable? What happens if a rip in spacetime is the result?

    Also, if you think about the entire time the earth has existed. The odds of finding a developing civilization on it in any arbitrary day during that time, is quite miniscule. Literally, billions to one. And this is with a planet that seems particularly well suited to the development of life. I doubt there are many other worlds so perfectly situated.

  • Jonathan Burns September 20, 2006, 2:53

    Hi, all. Two cents worth …

    I wrote a Fermi Paradox piece a while ago. Didn’t reach any radical conclusions, but there was one angle which I haven’t seen discussed in the literature, that there may be a tradeoff between “longevity” and “mobility”.

    The mobility of a civilization is the reciprocal of the average generation period between one colony and its successors: basically the sum of transport time and reproduction time. Those two times should tend to be on the same scale; there’s no sense in devoting all your resources to reproducing a colony in fifty years, if it will take a thousand to reach the next star system; or vice-versa.

    Minimum reproduction and travel times, arguably, are both on a scale of a hundred years, give or take a factor of several. (One has to assemble a variety of materials in proximity to the star; the faster the transport, the more materials are needed.) On that scale, a wave of Bracewell/Von Neumann machines or lightly crewed pioneer ships could circumnavigate our Galaxy in a couple of million years.

    But a wave of pioneers by itself doesn’t add up to much of a civilization, as we understand it. Are the crews organic beings? If so, what do they eat? How do they live? Is a lineage of two million years supposed to persist in a minimal ecology? Do they have any purpose other than discovery?

    I couldn’t get this off my mind. I came to the conclusion that if *we* go colonizing, our purpose would include the reproduction, not only of the human species, but of the whole terrestrial biosphere, with all its potential for continuing evolution. Wherever we founded colonies, we would insist on indefinite sustainability.

    That has consequences. For one, the reproduction time must allow for the construction of large habitats, and for ecologies of many species to get established. Probably thousands of years rather than hundreds. Instead of an ever-outward progress in hundred-year trips, we should expect species trading between neighbours in many trips back and forth.

    Another consequence is that colony sites would be chosen for safety. If one intends a colony to become in effect a neo-planetary environment for trillions of organisms, to last a billion years, well, one doesn’t found it in the vicinity of a supergiant star or a magnetar prone to gamma-ray burst events. A colony can be founded with a few thousand individuals in a short time, perhaps; but once developed, it’s there for keeps, because evacuating a population of billions is much more work.

    This suggests a picture of a civilization in tiers.The fastest moving components – Von Neumann probe waves or the like – would reproduce quickly and cover distance rapidly, but would be expected to move on or die out quickly too. Those which embodied the full potential of the species – evolution, immortality, indefinite sustainability – would spread slowly and deliberately, from one absolutely defensible haven to the next. In short, they would avoid calamity by not being where calamity is inevitable. Over a Galactic timescale, billions of years, they would not be found near violent star-forming regions and the like.

    This offered me one version of interstellar civilization which avoided the _reductio ad absurdum_ of the Fermi Paradox. We could be distant from their established home regions, and be in a period between their occasional far-flung probe waves.

    (Or then again, we could be in a region of space which they have wisely avoided :-))

    None of this would argue against Schectman. Perhaps civilizations do establish immunity by singularity – in which case, we should look for whole regions mysteriously immune from catastrophes. But it might also make sense to anticipate immunity by extreme caution, and look at regions where catastrophes are naturally rare.

  • Adam September 20, 2006, 7:23

    Of course the overlooked possibility is that we are close to the rise of life in the Universe, that in our epoch life is just reaching intelligence and we may well be the extreme outlier statistically and be the first, poised on the brink of galactic expansion.
    James Annis published a study in the JBIS that looked at galaxies for signs of super-civilisations that used starlight for power, but in a sample of several hundred found no unnatural galaxies. He suggested that meant the odds of Type III Civilisations was very low, at least at this cosmic epoch.
    Personally I think this means we’re the first or close to the first, in this galaxy at least. Annis also studied the potential for GRBs to be a limiting factor on the emergence of Type III civilisations and came to a similar conclusion – that the galaxy is at the beginning of the ‘Era of Intelligence’. Whether the latest GRB theories support this idea, I don’t know, but they seem to be much rarer in the nearby Universe, thus a phenomena that is decaying towards a very low frequency, as Annis suggested.

    As for Singularities or self-annihilation, I think the truth will be something unexpected.

  • Edg Duveyoung September 20, 2006, 13:02

    Think about time traveling backwards to anywhere on earth a mere 200 years ago. You would be as if a god with your present knowledge, and you would communicate with those folks ever so carefully. Who hasn’t read about these “first encounters” in science fiction stories? I’m betting most readers here have considered that humanity’s relationship with “the civilization of earthly microbes,” is a metaphor for what visitors to our earth would be facing if they “stopped by” today to “see us.”

    Visitors to our earth would HAVE TO be at least 100 to 200 years more advanced than our present technology. Until we can do “Star Trek” technology, our society will not be “ready” for extra-terrestrial communications — just as a time traveler going back to the 1700’s would find those humans back-then, well, frankly deeply spooked and be emotionally unable to even begin to approach absorbing the cognitive distances being encountered.

    Certainly if any space-faring visitor arrived here today, most of the world’s folks would consider it a spiritual event.

    A mere 200 years from now, humans may very well be able to fly without any easily seen mechanics — nano-tech anti-gravity gizmos don’tcha know — like Baron Harkonnen in Dune. A mere 200 years from now, humans may have ALL KNOWLEDGE on a chip implanted in their brains. A mere 200 years from now, anyone may be able to “think with” anyone on the planet instantly with 1/1000th the effort it takes to make a phone call today.

    Need I go on with this kind of speculation? Do you think for a second that if you can fly, know everything and can read the thoughts of billions of people that you’d have the same personality, same outlook, same morality that you have now? Do you think you’d view ordinary folks as primitive, brutal, panicked by ignorance? Yep, you would.

    And that’s just what humans might be able to do in a mere 200 years. Yet, almost any space-faring civilization will almost certainly be technologically advanced by thousands or millions of years beyond our abilities. Do you think such folks will be able to travel at will to almost anywhere by merely thinking it with super-enhanced brains? Why not, eh?

    No, if we’re ever to be visited, if we’re ever to visit others, we must be a very different kind of folk. When was the last time you wanted to know a microbe “as an individual sentient being” so that, you know, we could all get along with each other? And what self-respecting microbe would have any interest in human concerns?

    The day the space ship lands may already have happened, or maybe tomorrow it will — doesn’t matter — we’re not worthy, we’re not able, we’re not ready, and we won’t know what’s before us in the least.


  • JD September 20, 2006, 14:06

    My own thoughts are that this galaxy has just recently (in appropriate scale) lowered it’s level of lethality to where technological civilizations have a chance to develope.

    If the triggering point for life is not nearly impossible I assume it would be fairly common. The chances of planetary life developing into a technological civilization, in my estimation, were probably very slim during earlier periods of galactic evolution. Think of how many times life was reset on our own planet. I mention this because readings over the years have given me the concept that our own stellar orbital area within the galactic lens has been fairly benign (no major stellar catastrophies etc.). We’ve probably been very lucky overall. We could very well be the “first” in our own galaxy. There’s no way of knowing of course unless we either go there or somebody already out there talks to us.

    Of course, as some writers have postulated in their novels, the lack of life may be due to xenophobic predators. I can’t for the life of me eleminate this concept. Perhaps if we ever find a way to cheat and get out there in a big way we should consider carrying guns? :)

  • ljk September 20, 2006, 15:21

    You guys want an idea of what advanced beings in a galactic
    civilization might be like? Check out Orion’s Arm here:


    I know it’s science fictiony, but they aim for the hard science
    angle and the ETI are definitely not aliens with big heads and
    eyes abducting rural bumpkins in the night.

    This is why we need to do SETI – it’s just good science to form
    a hypothesis and test it. And it only makes sense to search for
    them rather than wait and hope they will find us.

  • Robert Bradbury September 21, 2006, 13:33

    The Fermi Pardox is premised on the assumption that we *should* be able to see them, or that they should have come to visit, or that they would want to contact us, etc. But one has to ask why?

    As my various discussions in the development of Matrioshka Brain concepts have explained (1) advanced technological civilizations can *see* everything in the galaxy (billions or trillions of telescopes each with collecting areas exceeding the entire collective telescope collecting area that humanity has built to date (by many orders of magnitude)); and (2) one generally goes someplace to survive; harvest resources or maybe to learn something. The greatest amount of resources will be in ones own sun. Surviving involves slowing down its burning rate (disassmbling it) so it will last trillions of years. There is nothing to learn because one simulates pre-singularity civilizations (their entire history) as lunchtime exercises for the “children” of your advanced civilization. Advanced civilizations might communicate with one another but even this is doubtful as one cannot communicate a miniscule fraction of their knowledge across interstellar distances. Every advanced civilization knows the answer is “42” and they derive it themselves long before it arrives via interstellar telegram or probe. There isn’t any “paradox”. What we observe (and haven’t yet observed) makes complete sense if one understands the real limits for advanced civilizations and stops applying anthropocentric reasoning to the analytical process.

  • Adam September 21, 2006, 23:14

    Hi Robert

    I think ‘staying home’ will be just one option for a civilisation advanced enough to stellar engineer. Out-lier groups within the whole will take the other option of ‘walking about’ and seeing what there is to see, just like Homo habilis did two megayears ago. I know it’s ‘anthropocentric’ or ‘anthropomorphic’ to make such a comparison with human evolutionary history, but it seems to be an invariant of animal biology that species with the broadest geographic ranges survive better than ‘stay-at-home’ niche specialists.


  • ljk September 22, 2006, 7:46

    If you are a seriously advanced Artilect who knows virtually everything you need to know and has done everything you feel like doing, what do you do next?

    Are they bored? Are they virtually inert? Are they making new worlds/universes via simulation just to see what happens to pass the time? Are you figuring out how to keep this Universe from fading away/ripping/collapsing, or are you already planning your escape to another universe or working on making a new one to go to when this one dies out?

    Is the Universe itself an Artilect and everything we see
    are the sublime thoughts of the Ultimate Being?

  • Adam September 23, 2006, 8:56

    Hi Larry

    Good points. Ken Macleod expresses some skepticism about “the Fast Folk” – people living as software, ever ramping up their speed and capabilities – in his “Fall Revolution” series, particularly “The Stone Canal” and “The Cassini Division”. He pointedly suggests that they’ll very rapidly lose patience with the sluggishness of the real world, vanish into their collective backsides, and then probably be destroyed by virus-like rapid replicators taking over their virtual worlds. A real, physical world that’s unresponsive to a mind’s mere whims is a very effective buffer against parasitic replicators.

    Yet at the same time there’s something sublime about Robert’s Matrioshka Brains, though they remind me of the “retirement homes” for old ETIs that David Brin depicts in his second Uplift War trilogy.

    One final point is that if the Universe is a computer then no computer within it can match its productions for subtlety and novelty – nothing has the informational density to match. Or have I missed something?


  • Rick September 29, 2006, 13:34

    One thing I have not heard discussed is the density of stars in our location out in the spirial arm. Maybe near the center of the galaxy or in star clusters where there are 100s of stars within a few light years of each other; civilizations have discovered each other already and have just assumed that the outer regions of the galaxy are either lifeless or un-reachable. Not unlike our early assumptions of the ocean floor as discussed prior. Maybe *we* are just out in the boondocks.

  • george scaglione September 30, 2006, 10:24

    a very interesting group of comments thank you every body. reminded me of something i had been discussing about a week ago.concept involved how much distance (!!!!!) there really is in space and that in many cases intergalactic or even “just” interstellar flights might seem for all practical purposes impossible because the distances from our point of view would be vitually infinite!! enter wormhole technology.a series of wormholes – one feeding into the other,end to end,might be just the exact answer needed!! and again… nobody is contradicting dr einstein either because we would “only” be going virtually ftl . also lets not forget that we are talking about two issues,ourselves in the distant future or aliens who are right now maybe a million years our senior in science. also,such a spacecrafts “engines” might be able to create said worm holes as needed. incredible? well as one of my friends recently pointed out…”what would people just a hundred years ago think of our present day technology?”respectfully your friend george

  • William Sinclair February 29, 2008, 12:46

    I think they’re out there, but just have the common sense (and ethics) to leave us alone.

    When we encounter a stone age tribe, we don’t give them computers. TV sets and birth control pills. We just observe them hopefully.

    Previous contacts between us and primitive tribes usually ended up destroying their culture.

    This by the way is called the “zoo hypothesis” and is a good counter argument to the Fermi paradox.

  • george scaglione February 29, 2008, 14:41

    william,a point well made thank you ! could easily be true. best regards, george

  • andy February 29, 2008, 14:59

    The zoo hypothesis fails because it assumes all these non-communicating civilisations have all arrived at the same ethical code independently, despite potentially wildly different evolutionary/cultural histories. All it takes is one civilisation not to subscribe to the ethical code and it all falls down. There is no reason to believe that all advanced civilisations will behave in the same way, which is a common flaw to many supposed resolutions to the Fermi paradox.

  • Malcolm December 23, 2008, 16:58

    andy wrote “…there is no reason to believe that all advanced civilizations will behave in the same way,…”

    I choose to think along the lines of a unifying process. Science and spiritual endeavor tend to fuse, and not far beyond the ubiquitous early 21st Century jejune glibness, often observed among scientific tribes on earth, there is established access to ongoing higher culture.

    Is there a “logos” driving the convergence of all emergent culture and civilization? I suspect so.