The line in the title above is from a Jimmy Buffett song. A friend who knows all Buffett songs line by line uses it on his answering machine, invariably provoking a chuckle when I ponder the implications. If the phone doesn’t ring, just what kind of message is being sent? Or is any message being sent at all? Thus does the singer capture the bewildered funk of romantic attachments, which can make hash out of all our logic. Like the dog that doesn’t bark (think Sherlock Holmes), the phone that doesn’t ring carries its own meaning, one we must now try to parse.
For the SETI phone isn’t ringing. If extraterrestrial civilizations are out there, is their silence a way of sending us a message? Alan Tough created a Web site with the express purpose of offering a communications venue to any nearby alien probes, spacecraft designed to study us and report home. The Invitation to ETI contains a number of essays explaining the project and more or less asking for participation by ET (Paul Davies’ contribution is titled If You’re Out There, ET, Log On!), but David Brin jogged my memory yesterday on a mailing list when he mentioned his own essay on Tough’s site, called An Open Letter to Alien Lurkers.
Wonderfully, what physicist and science fiction author Brin did in this essay is to discuss the reasons why ET might choose to remain silent. If the phone doesn’t ring, it may be because the species in question has a non-interference policy:
If you’ve monitored our TV, radio — and now our internet — perhaps you have a policy of noninterference for a different reason… in order to spare us and our culture from some harm that might come as a result of contact. An erosion of our sense of free will? Or our sense of having a high culture? We can understand this notion, too. Certainly the history of first contact between human cultures tells that the one with lower technology and sophistication often suffered ill effects.
If mercy motivates your reticence, we grasp the concept. Yet, this provokes a question — are you absolutely sure? Can you be certain we’re so fragile? Is it possible you might be mistaken? Or (again) perhaps rationalizing a decision that you made for other reasons?
A Safer Solution for Contact?
A solution would be not to phone but try the Internet, a safe course of inquiry because it can be performed via e-mail or anonymous participation in online discussion groups. Eccentricity would hardly be a drawback, for any such overtures would be met, at best, with amused tolerance, some people playing along with such messages out of curiosity and gamesmanship. Perhaps it’s happening today, opines Brin, or possibly ET writes science fiction stories under a pseudonym, hoping to tease our imaginations. If the latter is the case, the sad diminution is the number of well-paying short story markets for science fiction is grounds for concern.
On the other hand: “Perhaps you even lace these works with special clues that can only be deciphered by purchasing and carefully reading every one of the purported author’s books…In hardcover, yet.” All of which gets across the tone of this delightful piece, one that confronts the SETI silence in provocative ways. Is the phone not ringing because any alien probe in our system is damaged and incapable of sending? Or because the extraterrestrial race is waiting for us to pass a particular milestone of development? If the latter, we could certainly use a hint.
Image: The spiral galaxy NGC 4414. Would alien astronomers within such galaxies search nearby stars for other civilizations, or would they look closer to home? Credit: NASA, The Hubble Heritage Team, STScI, AURA.
Brin lists eleven reasons for non-contact in all, including the possibility that the universe is dangerous enough to house berserker world-destroyers that might be programmed to make an end of civilizations on the rise. All the listed reasons go to the question of how little we know about the beings we hope one day to make contact with. If a SETI signal is ever received, should a response be sent immediately? The history of contact here on Earth between less technologically advanced cultures and those with superior tools has seldom ended well for those on the way up. So maybe the best strategy is considered silence until we work out the potential ramifications.
Exopsychology and Its Chances
Nonetheless, with powerful messages being sent to nearby star systems from the Evpatoria Planetary Radar in the Ukraine, NASA’s Deep Space Network sites in California, Spain and Australia, and the European EISCAT system in Svalbard (the latter to contain a Doritos ad!), the question of contact could conceivably be upon us before we have developed a widely accepted mechanism for response. And if Dr. Tough is right and a smart probe may have already been attracted to our area by radio, TV and radar signals pushing into interstellar space, then the phone that doesn’t ring becomes a psychological puzzler.
Exobiology is a science currently without specimens to study. In the same way, exopsychology is a perhaps hopeless but profoundly entertaining attempt to trace out alien motivations. I say hopeless because we bring all the assumptions grafted into our bipedal species over aeons of evolutionary development to the challenge. Can we hope to understand the assumptions a species with an entirely different line of growth would make as it confronts a civilization far beneath it technologically?
Perhaps not. Actual contact between humans and extraterrestrials may be so profoundly strange that we will have no real understanding of what has happened when and if the chasm is bridged. But then, the alien race may feel quite the same way. Brin’s eleventh and final reason for non-contact is that alien species might simply find us too weird to work with. All of which brings Leo Szilard’s response to Fermi when the latter asked his famous question to mind. Where are they? “They are among us,” said Szilard, “but they call themselves Hungarians.”
A Long-Term Bet on an Artifact
Contact or no, we do, at least, know where Allen Tough comes down on this. The Toronto-based researcher, now pursuing his interests in extraterrestrial life and the human search for meaning full-time, has an extensive background in both psychology and education that illuminates his thoughts on alien encounters. Tough has placed a bet on the Long Bets site that our first encounter with alien species or their artifacts will occur here in our Solar System. He makes no bones about the benefits of what we humans call a Bracewell probe:
“Most SETI scientists agree that any ETI we detect will likely be thousands or millions of years ahead of us (because our sun and our science are so young). Such an advanced society will likely have the capacity to build and launch cheap smart autonomous probes to explore the galaxy. Also, an advanced society will likely be motivated to send out exploratory probes. If such a probe were sent a few centuries ago to explore Earth, it will likely be here by now… I am betting that extraterrestrial intelligence, in one form or another, has already reached our solar system and will be confirmed first.”
The SETI League’s Paul Shuch is on the other side of the bet, not because he thinks Tough is necessarily wrong about those alien probes, but because detecting them will be so difficult if, indeed, they are there. “It’s a matter of instrumentation,” says Shuch, “and though we’ve gotten very good at intercepting electromagnetic waves, our record for detecting even nearby natural space debris is not too stellar (pun completely intentional).”
Those of us who suspect intelligent life is vanishingly rare in this or any other galaxy think this is a bet that may take quite a long time to be resolved, but searching for anomalies in the Solar System nonetheless makes good sense (maybe, as Hungarian-born Szilard implies, we should start the search in Budapest). After all, we’re completely in the dark when it comes to potential alien motivations or accomplishments. Thinking through what they might be, and the possibilities of a result close to home, is simply a matter of prudence and thoughtful engagement with the universe. If any of David Brin’s reasons for non-contact do apply, I for one want to find out which one it is.
Comments on this entry are closed.
One possibility you have not yet mentioned: They have already made contact and we are still sorting out what they said.
“Most SETI scientists agree that any ETI we detect will likely be thousands or millions of years ahead of us (because our sun and our science are so young). ”
As a culture with superior technology, the temptation to claim godhood was rampant when the Conquistadores landed in America. They had technology that was strange and indistinguishable from magic. Why wouldn’t ET, being so far ahead of us, decide to use that fact as a carrot or a stick that would convince us to progress. After all, they say modern man has had the same brain capacity for over 30,000 years. Hunter gatherer=theoretical physicist.
I for one, fail to see why this possibility is so often dismissed out of hand as some fantasy on 2001 A Space Oddyessy, Stargate, or Chariots of the Gods. There is albeit frail evidence to support this possibility in creation legends and religious writings. Many cultures say their gods came from the sky. Did they all just make this stuff up as they went along?
Ideas obviously stolen from Saturday Night Live where the alien ‘Coneheads’ masqueraded among us as French…incomprehensible language and behaviour.
I tend to believe that if there is at least one advanced alien civilization in our galaxy, then they already know about Earth–at least to the point it sustains an abundant variety of life. But we have only been a detectable technological society for a very short time, just over two centuries at most, if you assume that there isn’t an alien probe actually within the solar system watching our every move.
I am increasingly unsure as to whether it is reasonable to assume that an advanced alien species would bother to flood the galaxy with probes, to lurk, unseen, in every solar system waiting thousands or even millions of years for something interesting to happen.
A civilization capable of building a fleet of billions of von Neumann probes is also capable of building telescopes that span worlds, or even orbits of worlds, able to detect and image exoplants in solar systems hundreds (thousands?) of light years from home. If their range was long enough, only a relative few such megatelescopes (a few dozen or a few hundred, perhaps) would be necessary to cover most of the Galaxy, perhaps situated near colonial outposts of the species that created them, each scanning millions of stars in its galactic neighborhood for signs of interest, including civilization.
The changes we have made to Earth’s atmosphere since the Industrial Revolution would be easily detectable by massive scopes from many light years away. There is no need to detect radio signals, although there is no reason why they shouldn’t been looking at those wavelengths too. But given that we cannot hide the visible changes we have made to the spectral signature of our planet, caution over what, if any, radio signals to send into space would seem to be moot.
If the trigger point for alien intervention is the detection of a technological society, that signal is now spreading outwards already reaching about 200 light years in all directions (perhaps less, depending on the sensitivity of the watching instruments). So. assuming that FTL travel is impossible, unless there is an alien outpost on our doorstep, in galactic terms, then there is almost no chance that they have even received notice that something interesting is afoot on Earth.
Even if there is a probe here, in the solar system, watching our every move, one would think that all it would be programmed to do is signal to it’s creators that perhaps it is time for introductions. Would we want some jumped-up robot to scoop our first contact with an alien species? No, we would get it to signal us so that we could come rushing over to experience first contact first hand. There may be no more profound a moment in a species existence than to make contact with an entirely new intelligent species. We would want to be there to experience it, and I’m guess others species would think the same way.
So, if there are aliens out there, perhaps the most obvious answer to why they haven’t contacted us yet, is that they’ve still yet to notice us or, if they have, they’re still in the process of getting here to say “Hi”, and it may be many more decades, or centuries before they do.
I think we should keep silent and search through missions like Darwin/Terrestrial Planet Finder. Space flight is often assumed that is impossible but in reality is simply hard if FTL travel is not possible but certainly not impossible. And do we want to bet everything out bacon on the presumption they will be nice and generous to us after all we don’t known much about alien sociology, isn’t it?
The closest thing to alien on Earth is most likely Michael Jackson and we clearly hardly understand him!
Re Tacitus’ comment: “A civilization capable of building a fleet of billions of von Neumann probes is also capable of building telescopes that span worlds, or even orbits of worlds, able to detect and image exoplants in solar systems hundreds (thousands?) of light years from home.” Absolutely true, I would think, and I suppose the difference would be whether the extraterrestrial civilization felt the need to communicate as well as to observe. If the former, then a probe inside a system obviously could handle certain kinds of communications on a one-way basis, informing the nearby emerging culture about the civilization back home or whatever. Or, perhaps, letting its own creators back home know that we are ‘online’ so that they could come here themselves, as Tacitus speculates. A potential outcome is the ‘uplift’ scenario, as in 2001: A Space Odyssey. Incidentally, it’s certainly true that the remarkable advances in telescope design we’ve seen do change the equation about how we might contemplate sending out a probe. Obviously, we’re going to know a lot about any system we send any artifact to ourselves.
I guess alien civilizations could had visited us when we were primitive, but the likehood of that is quite low. Unless you find a clearly alien artefact on earth it’s not even worth considering, since its nothing more than a conspiracy theory.
The reasons why the possibility of aliens==gods is dismissed by most is two-fold. First, despite claims to the contrary, it’s virtually impossible to prove. Given such a remarkable claim, we would have to find remarkable evidence (e.g. an unmistakable alien or anachronistic artifact with an impeccable history from the moment of it’s initial finding, to rule out the possibility of forgery). Second, there is no need to invoke aliens to explain stories of gods from the sky. We have ample evidence that we, as a species, are perfectly capable of crafting myths and legends about things that used to mysteries to us — especially the sun, moon, and the night sky. We have always created “gods of the gaps” to explain the unexplainable.
(Note: The “jump starting by aliens” theory is on the hairy edge of what the Intelligent Design proponents are advocating–that human intelligence is impossible without intervention from a greater intelligence. Of course, they say so because they believe God is the greater intelligence, and they would be sorely disappointed if they were proved correct, but only because it turned out that some advanced aliens were the designers! In any case, my point in bringing ID up is that despite many years and millions of dollars spent, they have been singularly unsuccessful in producing any evidence of design that passes even the most basic of scientific muster (i.e. peer review). Everything, so far, points to a natural evolution without design or intervention).
I, for one, am open to the possibility that we were somehow “jump started” by an alien intelligence at some point. The possibility does exist, however tiny iy may be. But there is, as yet, no evidence that it happened (and they may never be unless the guilty aliens drop in again and show us the incriminating video) and there are perfectly good evolutionary explanations, backed up with fossil and biological evidence, as to how it could have happened naturally.
Here’s a thought. Perhaps the aliens are waiting until we, as a species, won’t be completely freaked out by first contact with them. Perhaps the advent and increasing popularity of science fiction is helping to get us closer to that point, since at least the notion of alien beings is no longer a complete mystery or shock to us.
Mind you, if they were watching what happened during Orson Welles famous broadcast of “The War of the Worlds” or if they note the frequency of “Independence Day” scenarios that crop up these days in books, on TV, and on the big screen, then perhaps they are wisely maintaining a “wait and see” attitude for now!
If you read my (rather long) comment above, you will see why I think that maintaining interstellar radio silence is likely to be a pointless exercise. The methods we will be using to detect signs of alien life on other planets using telescopes like Darwin and TPF, or their increasingly capable successors, are precisely the methods advanced alien races will likely use to detect signs of civilization on Earth. The polluting gases in our atmosphere already betray our presence in the spectrum of the light from the Sun reflected off our planet. We have already “sniffed” the atmosphere of two or three exoplanets light years away, and we have barely even begun looking.
While it may tell them less information than the contents of a radio signal, evidence of industrial pollution surely would be enough for a paranoid or warlike alien species to want to come here and investigate further.
The good news is that if they were close by, they probably would already be here by now (and there would be nothing we could do to prevent them from taking us out anyway), so either they are here, but are not hostile, or they are not here yet and may not be for many years. Either way, there is not much we can do to hide our presence to the surrounding systems.
In his essay, David Brin notes that if any ETI are monitoring
our communication lines and taking all that information back
to their home worlds or wherever without telling us, or if they
are responsible for all those UFO and alien abduction reports
that harry a lot of people, then they may be accused of both
stealing and harassment.
I believe David may have found a way to generate enough
cash to get us into space permanently – by suing the aliens!
The lawyers fees alone will probably be able to pay for several
Mars colonies. And if the ETI also have lawyers (and it would
not surprise me in the least if they did), then the legal battles
will go on for years, generating enough money to probably
start our own Galactic Empire!
As always, Larry cuts to the chase. Legal battles may fuel our expansion, assuming we win the needed lawsuits. Like the RIAA, we can go after all alien species that are monitoring and soaking up our culture without paying. This could be a gold mine…
My own take on this is that there simply hasn’t been enough time for anything interesting to happen yet. Assume that we have only been detectable and worth talking to for about 200 years, and that FTL is impossible. That means that unless there is either a civilisation or an automated probe empowered to make contact within 100 light years, there simply hasn’t been time for news of our presence to propagate back, followed by a decision to make contact, then the contact message (or expedition) to reach us.
In the absence of FTL, the sheer size of the galaxy, and number of stars which may harbour something interesting dictates that even if an ETI is actively looking it may take thousands of years for our presence to be noticed and a message to arrive. Even if FTL is possible, we don’t know how fast it will be or what limitations it may have – i.e. whether our solar system is even reachable. Even if it is, why would a hypothetical ETI thousands of light years out single out our particular star for investigation just yet?
IMHO the first sign of intelligent life elsewhere is likely to take one of two forms:
1. A detection of an undeniable signature in the electromagnetic spectrum, or possibly something else (modulated gravity waves or neutrinos?). Most likely not a directed signal, just leakage of ETI going about their day to day business. Of course, if the ETIs have moved on from radio waves or whatever to communicating using something our physics hasn’t come up with yet, then the sky will remain silent.
2. An ancient trace or artifact somewhere in the solar system, e.g. an asteroid that shows signs of having been mined by an automated probe.
Thanks for being kind about my suggestion. Just remember that there is no “remarkable evidence” that we are anything but the only thinking life in this vast universe. At least we have Eziekiel and the Mahabharata suggesting otherwise. Great to have the discussion.
Ah, but if it’s a given that lawyers are in a truly universal profession, I suspect any aliens species would require humanity to sign a watertight contract absolving them of any responsibility for actions or inactions prior to, during, or after first contact. It’s not as though we’d be in a very strong negotiating position!
I’ve always been a fan of the “primitives in the Amazon” argument. How many of us have ever attempted to make contact with the tribes that live within the Amazon? How many of us would like to or want to?
We could simply be “primitives in the ….” If there is anyone who would notice us or want to notice us, well, they may choose less than direct means.
Another line of thinking is that there is either very little intelligent life in the universe, a moderate amount, or a whole heck of a lot.
If either the first or the second case is true, then the chances of another species trying to contact us is very small. If there is a lot of intelligent life, why bother with Earth? If there is virtually none, who is there to stumble upon us.
Idle speculation, but none the less fun.
And who among us would want to create a von Neumann probe that could get out of control and bleep the bleep out of us?
Edit: On my previous comment I meant if either the first or the last case is true.
NOT first or second.
I agree. While I believe that the odds are overwhelmingly in favor of us not being the only intelligent beings, the only evidence at the moment we have is entirely circumstantial — i.e. conditions on Earth which were obviously conducive for life to arise do appear to be commonplace in the galaxy and the observable Universe. I am hopeful that we will know more within my own lifetime (30-40 years, with luck!) since we are likely to start detecting a good number of Earth-like exoplanets with the next few years, spurring further efforts to image them and examine their atmospheres for signs of life and even industry.
I stick to conservative explanation, that I already mentioned. We can’t find ET only because they are very rare. It may happen so that only 1-10 planets in our galaxy currently have intelligent life. Or worst, only 1 galaxy out of every 100 (1000…) is capable of providing necessary preconditions for development of civilization. What if nearest ET is 500 million ly away?
A technological civilization millions of years old would have the capacity to send a probe to every solar system of the galaxy. What benefit would that give them over telescopes? For one a probe can study the system up close. It can replicate and send copies of itself down to life bearing worlds to study the dna of any life there. On mars types worlds it can search for fossils and other signs of life. On europa type worlds it can peer beneath the ice to search for life not detectable via telescopes. For second if it finds intelligent life it can investigate and send information concerning it back to its makers.
If such a probe exists within the solar system I see no reason why it would contact us as a whole. It probably already knows more about us than we know about ourselves. So what questions could it possibly ask of us that we could answer – none.
There are reasons to avoid contacting us directly. While currently we might be powerless to move beyond our solar system we will in a few thousand years change that. Visit some of the more extremist right wing or left wing websites. Some of the sites that an advanced probe from another civilization would be able to also view. Would you want to contact such a species. Such contact would let them know intelligent species exist elsewhere and might prompt them to invest more into space. Would you want a species capable of wholesale slaughter of its own kind without a hint of regret or remorse to be capable of striking at you.
I sometimes wonder at the major religions. Religions based on peace and tolerance until corrupted. Were those attempts by another species to help us. An attempt to give us a value system that excluded violence except as a means of defense. If so then I wonder what they thought of the failure of the human race to even consider peace, of how we always corrupted the religions as a means to promote war.
Perhaps the aliens are like those in ‘Dykstra’s War’ by Jeffery Kooistra. Uninterested in other races until they are technologically advanced enough to be a threat.
Or perhaps the scenario is more like that of ‘Calculating God’ by Robert Sawyer.
The sad thing is that we could have had some of the answers by now. All it would have taken is 50 years investing in space instead of conflict. We would have had orbital bases, moon bases, and maybe even a mars base. With a moderate amount of industry in space we could have built telescopes and looked at the atmospheres of other worlds. In fermi’s equation we might have had a reasonable estimate of the number of life bearing worlds in the galaxy rather than just random guesses and baseless speculation.
I am not sure that our pollution would be detected as something Intelligently made ( quite obviously it’s stupid thought but that’s not the point). My point is that it could be associated with volcano-geological activity. The methane with oxygen could be associated with life but not necessarily inteligent!
The night side illumination could be detected though a sophisticated telescope. I imagine an alien scientific paper could came out with a article titled like this: “Anomalous near-Infrared emission from Exoplanet S-9751/C” or something similar.
@tacitus, March 18th, 2008 at 14:00:
I agree, any advanced civilization in our galaxy, even a couple of centuries ahead of us, will undoubtedly know that we are here, rendering it pretty useless for us to try and stay hidden. The good news may be that, in that case, they have done absolutely nothing to prevent our rise as humankind and as a techno civilization. So either they are not capable of preventing that, or they don’t mind.
More likely, however sobering, is the idea that they aren’t there, at least not as an advanced techno civilization in our own galaxy. There is a good chance, that we will be the first civilization to explore and colonize the galaxy. Which only makes the vision and the mission more fascinating and a greater responsibility as well: we may become the alien visitors to them!
Maybe an open door to many, and in fact a part of the Drake equation, but how large, measured in time, is the window of opportunity for an advanced civilization? Following to this: how great is the chance of two (or more) of such civilizations existing in the Milky Way galaxy at the same time? I am sure there have been many guesstimates.
Let’s first make a good inventory of the ((number of) life-bearing) earthlike planets in our galaxy, before we venture into any further speculations. That inventory may answer an important part of the question about alien civilizations. My bet (not placed on Long Bets yet ;-) ) is that biological life is quite common in the MW galaxy (and elsewhere) but intelligence and especially advanced civilizations are exceedingly rare.
BTW: the weak point about Tough’s bet is the fact that he does not mention a time-frame.
The galaxy is a pretty big place. What’s the current estimate on stars/planets? 200-400 billion stars (I believe?).
How many planets? maybe 1 trillion? maybe more?
Assuming a species does NOT send out self-replicating robots, because they are worried that even the most controlled experiment can go incredibly awry, how far in the galaxy would you actually be able to explore/catalog. Even amongst the most interested planet hunters, at what point do you start to lose track of what has been found?
Regarding Earth, how long ago would our Civilization show something of interest–assuming a very large telescope sees Earth– Could they see the Great Wall or a Pyramid? Could they see the urbanization of parts of the planet? And how frequently do they need to be looking at Earth? And how long does it take to look at the 200 billion+ stars and planets. This completely depends on how long it takes to look at each, how frequently you look, how many targets there. But assume you have 1 very large telescope, how long would it take to catalog ~50% of the galaxy. I don’t know the metrics, but if you assume you can look&process data for 1,000 planets a day, it would take close to 10,000 years to catalog ~3-4 billion planets, or 1,000,000 years to catalog ~300-400 billion planets.
But, ignoring the numbers, an intelligence out there, somewhere looks at Earth…
The light travels… and they see Earth, “look, something cool. Let’s go check it out.” How long does it take to check it out? Assuming you can’t go FTL and there are no preexisting wormholes…
This is, actually, great point which is more than neglected in all those ETI debates. Since everybody’s hoping that all the big questions will be answered (all at least indicated) during their own lifetimes, nobody is excited by the idea that we could really be the first intelligence capable of interstellar exploration. Humans rather accept kind of self-flagellating stories about our infinite backwardness (metaphored excellently by David Brin’s short story “Lungfish”, meaning us as the “late lungfish” and galaxy as the already overcrowded “land” – http://www.davidbrin.com/lungfish1.html) which suggests at least thin possibility of near-future contact rather than accepting we could be the first ones on the land which mean any establishing of communication with other cultures (let’s say being technological but less developed) would take couple of milennias.
Always, somebody has to be THE first. Even IF the galaxy is really overcrowded by hundreds or thousands other cultures, for the first civ to start the colonization was really hard to look desperately at the results of their own Drake and Fermi equations. Why should we suppose, that deeming the galaxy empty to us, doesn’t mean WE are the firsts (or “first-borns” to follow great Clarke’s terminology)?
When I consider this issue, I always think of smoke signals. Imagine an ancient man, sending smoke signals from one hill to a man on the other. He looks up at the stars, imagines that there are other hills and other people up there, and tries in vain to send and observe smoke signals “up there.” Finding none, he concludes he is alone.
What if radio is the equivalent of smoke signals? A civilization a hundred or a thousand or a million years in advance of us could have communication technologies that make radio look utterly primitive. We could be bombarded at this very second with communications of unimaginable density and diversity from all corners of the galaxy, using a technology, nay, a physics which is utterly unreachable to us as radio would be to that ancient man and his smoke signals.
Hope you´ll understand my english :)
I am in the middle of Alastair Reynolds sci-fi opera: “Absolution Gap”
He wrights about an automated civilisation-destroyer that iliminates all civilisation when they reach a certain technology-development-level.
That is just science fiction, but I still get the chills when I think about it.. somewhere in my spine, it feels like maybee he´s on to something..?
Daniel, I haven’t read the Reynolds book, but you may also be familiar with Fred Saberhagen’s ‘Berserker’ idea, the kind of automated hunter/seeker you’re talking about. This is probably one of the scariest of all answers to the Fermi question, that remaining silent is a defensive strategy against such dangers.
Michal writes…”Since everybody’s hoping that all the big questions will be answered (all at least indicated) during their own lifetimes, nobody is excited by the idea that we could really be the first intelligence capable of interstellar exploration. Humans rather accept kind of self-flagellating stories about our infinite backwardness …which suggests at least thin possibility of near-future contact rather than accepting we could be the first ones on the land which mean any establishing of communication with other cultures (let’s say being technological but less developed) would take couple of milennias.
Always, somebody has to be THE first. Even IF the galaxy is really overcrowded by hundreds or thousands other cultures, for the first civ to start the colonization was really hard to look desperately at the results of their own Drake and Fermi equations.”
Good point Michal. Somehow the possibility that we could be the first seems to provoke a visceral response from the space faithful. There is nothing about this Occam’s Razor possibility that is contradicted by the paucity of evidence we have.
The next BIG step in learning about our environs will be Kepler, funded and slated for launch next year. With success, we’ll know by early next decade IF terrestrial planets in HZs are commonplace or relatively rare. Given the socio-political climate and economic environment I’m not optimistic about funding prospects in the next 10 years to begin ‘Terrestrial Planet Finder’ type missions capable of exploring the rough 50 LY radius for planetary O2 atmospheres, etc.
BTW, Reynolds writes good ‘hard’ SF worth reading by fans of the genre.
Yeah, it’s possible, but I don’t think there’s much point in worrying about it at this point. It’s not as though we can do much about it at this point!
In any case, if there was a species out there pathological enough to want to destroy all potential rivals, then why haven’t they disposed of us already? If you aren’t going to exploit a planet in some way, it would seem a little risky to allow intelligent life to get to the point where a quick burst of technological development over a few hundred years could bring a potential rival species to the point where it seriously threatened your safety. Much better, and easier to eradicate a planet teeming with life well before that stage, and Earth has been teeming with life for hundreds of millions of years.
So, all in all, I suspect the odds of a planet-killing machine lurking out there are virtually nil. If such a thing existed in this galaxy, then it would have likely disposed of us already, many millions of years ago, just to be on the safe side.
The berserker concept.
I doubt this is the case. Image you are an ET with a million years of civilization behind you. How would you go about setting up a civilization destroyer? Do you put your civilization destroyers light years from a life bearing world, or do you place them in the same system? The logical answer is, to us humans, in the same system. You don’t know what sort of species or civilization will arise. They might be all einsteins and go from simple radio to star ships in a hundred years. In order to avoid having to hunt down interstellar ships and dozens of colonies (both inside and outside the system) the berserker machines would be close by.
If another civilization decides to destroy us it will probably be because they have looked at us and decided we are a threat and not the result of rogue machines.
In Fred Saberhagen’s Berserker stories what is the simplest way for the berserkers to win and eliminate all life in the galaxy. Find an out the way system and use up all its resources in replicating. Pick 1000 out of the way planets and use up all their resources in replicating. Then 1 million planets. Remember they are machines so they could do this pretty fast compared to bad life – no need to wait for children to grow up or any worry about suitable living conditions or paying suitable wages. Their numbers would be so great that nothing would be able to stop them as they swarmed the rest of the planets. If such machines existed in our galaxy we could have expect them to have already done this and eliminated all life in the galaxy. Yet we are still here. Makes a good story though.
You are correct, of course, eventually a civilization could get to the point where they send billions of virtually “immortal” probes throughout the galaxy in order to examine individual planets close up. There’s nothing like being on the spot, as they say. But I would guess that this would come at a much later stage than remote observations via telescopes since, given what we know, building mammoth survey telescopes in space will be far more practical than all but the shortest interstellar trip for a very long time to come — perhaps even for thousands of years.
And there is one overwhelming advantage remote observation will always have — near instant feedback (ignoring the time the light takes to get to the scope, of course). Assuming computing power keeps up, surveys of millions of planets within range of the space mega-scopes could be completed in just a few years (or decades at the outside), after which you are likely to have a rich set of targets for a limited number of probes to visit for a closer look.
So even if von Neumann probes are the ideal, I would expect most civilizations to pass through a lengthy remote observation phase (i.e. the one we have just entered ourselves!) before a grand, on the spot survey of the galaxies denizens is even attempted.
As a postscript on planet destroyers, I have written the first (very rough) draft of a short story involving one. I pictured a moon-sized creature that has evolved to travel between the stars, fueled by natural nuclear power, spending the long, long time between systems in a deep hibernation. Upon reaching a solar system, it takes the opportunity to stock up on water (used for propellant and regulating its systems) and spots a nice, juicy inner planet without that pesky thick coating of ice covering it’s oceans. All attempts to communicate with it, or drive it away with nukes are fruitless since the entity does not understand the nature of the lifeforms on the planet, other than that their atomic weapons are an irritant to be squashed out. Once replete, the creature goes on its way leaving the ravaged planet behind.
I suspect that once we have gather the spectra of a few thousand planets, we would have enough data to have a pretty good stab at what was natural, and what wasn’t regarding what was in a planet’s atmosphere. There would, of course, be some false negatives, and some false positives, but I’m betting that planetary scientists, by then, will have it pretty well nailed down.
But there is one problem with remote sensing that I did just think about. Detectable industrial pollution may be a temporary phenomenon. Assuming we haven’t choked ourselves to death, within a couple of hundred years most, if not all, or the pollutants could have been eradicated by the use of clean, green technologies. So the window of opportunity to detect artificial changes to a planet’s atmosphere may be less than 1,000 years for any civilization.
So detecting night-side artificial lighting is probably the best bet, but I’m guess that would be tough given the overwhelming brightness of the star. That said, we will eventually be able to photograph features on nearby exoplanet surfaces (within just a couple of decades, in fact) with technology we can already build. So who know how capable the megascopes will be a couple of hundred years hence.
excuse me everybody but i thought that “if the phone doesn’t ring,its me” was a quote from the late arthur c clarke!!!!!! i believed it so readily because it sounds just like him!!! i know he did say – “don’t call me and i won’t call you”!!! if i am off base please tell me. respectfully to you my friends george
tacitus, yes a civilization that old would indeed be able to do a very great deal! makes me think of the aliens fom 2001 a space odyssey! how appropriate at this time! respectfully your friend george
To expand on David’s comment about Von Neumann
machines that process the material of the entire galaxy,
I can imagine an advanced ETI (Artilects) turning the
entire galaxy into something more useful for itself.
A Dyson Galaxy?
It may not go out of its way to destroy all the “lesser”
forms of life its conversion machines encounter during
construction, but what would such a being or beings
do with us? Would we serve any useful purpose in
such a galaxy? What does a construction site on Earth
do with ants in the building zone?
Does the fact that we have yet to recognize any signs
of artificiality in the galaxy mean they do not exist, or
merely that they haven’t gotten here yet and we don’t
recognize the signs of a serious astroengineering project?
And has this happened in other galaxies?
And if we are the first intelligence to arise in the Milky Way,
will our descendants be the ones reordering the galaxy one
As for thoughts on what an advanced ETI would do with a
whole galaxy, in addition to plain survival, unless the society
somehow remained totally within one planet (which I find
doubtful when you are an advanced technological species,
I don’t care if you want to live in a VR world forever), I can
see a long-lived species with a long view of the future (and
not just to the next political election cycle) wanting to prepare
for the eventual end of the Universe, or at least the galaxy.
However the Universe is going to end one day, it is going to
end. And long before that, the stars in all galaxies will
eventually burn out, leaving any survivors to huddle around
brown dwarfs and black holes for energy. Even they will go
away some day (black holes are estimated to evaporate in
10 to the 150 power years). We barely think beyond Sol
going bye-bye in just a few billion years, but some day our
children will no longer have anywhere to go when all the
stars of the Milky Way start burning out or exploding.
So, if you are an advanced society with a very long life span,
do you surrender yourselves to the fate of the Universe, letting
all those ages of accomplishment fade into oblivion, or do you
get off your duff and do something about it well before the end
If you can stop the end of existence and your end by default,
do you worry about the talking monkeys of Sol 3 who can
barely focus past their next meal, let alone the fate of the
galaxy, or do you do what needs to be done to save the species
that have a chance to survive and make something of existence?
Maybe they will try to save us, but I can see that involving
a radical change of ourselves or at least the scenery, and we
humans as a whole aren’t big on radical change.
I recommend the 1970 film The Forbin Project to see what
might happen when a higher intelligence decides to help save
humanity despite itself.
George, the quote ‘If the phone doesn’t ring, it’s me’ is from a Jimmy Buffett song. If it has a prior history, I admit I don’t know what it is, but I don’t think it came from Clarke if so.
An ETI civilization that has survived to travel interstellar or intergalactic distances has probably learned to live cohesively as a civilization. I can imagine that they may have developed a philosophy of living in harmony with nature otherwise they would have trashed their home planet and ecosystems with non-sustainable industrial and energy generation practices. They would have obviously avoided a war that would have caused their species to go extinct. Living without armed conflict, I think that since, if they had a central nervous system, they probably would have evolved to have warm interpersonal relationships and have fostered such as a way of preventing the run away movements and behavioral patterns that would lead to anger, cold indifference to their fellow persons, crime, fanatical ideologies that lead to militaristic movements and armed conflict.
I can imagine that they might think that our harnessing of a fundamental source of cosmic energy, such as hydrogen fusion (the power of stars) and nuclear fission for war like purposes might befuddle them. They might somehow be afraid of us or deliberately limit contact or avoid contact because the might have a sense of the types of weapons systems we might carry onboard our interstellar space craft. Our research in high energy physics and our ability to mathematically and numerically study string theory and many dimensional space time, quantum chromodynamics, wormhole concepts, black hole physics, quantum mechanics etc., may literally spook them especially if they observe the extreme cold rationality and methodical activities involved in human deliberate design of systems like nuclear powered ballistic missle submarines that carry about up to about two hundred 475 kiloton warheads and the deliberate, rational planned and cerebrally systematic training of crew members to carry out what might amount to planetary suicide.
Just a thought;
ljk: Sounds like you’ve been reading the Heechee Series by Frederik Pohl :)
Wow, thanks for answering my input. This is a great site for me, who is a skeptic when it comes to conspiracy theories and Ufo:s :)
It is inspiring to read serious peoples thoughts on space, evolution, ETI and future of humanity.
And by the way, I can´t even think about the universe ending, it hurts. Will we or another ETI be able to save us?
The idea of humanity being the first intellient species is not so extreme.. It´s quite possible.. but sad..
I read in “Göteborgs-posten” (one of swedens biggest daily-newspapers) that the war in Irak cost about 800 billion dollars, what if we had put that money into the Mars-program or building a 100-times-hubble-telescope on the dark side of the moon?
Hi Tacitus – Actually I have not read the Heechee series yet.
My ideas come from thinking about this stuff for years.
As I said, the Universe is going to end one way or another some
day. Somebody in that time is going to want to do something
about the situation, unless they are into mass suicide.
Even though none of us will be around then, presumably (unless
Frank Tipler is right regarding his Omage Point), the fact that we
are aware of this coming event should embolden us to be the ones
to collect and guard this knowledge for future times. Maybe the
future descendants won’t need it, but who knows? There is no
guarantee that there won’t be the equivalent of Dark Ages in
future places and times.
One novel I have read many times is A Canticle for Leibowitz,
which is what I am thinking of here.
This is why I think the ability to move from one star to the next
is so important. We do not want to be stuck on one planet with
our growing civilization, and this is a necessity long before the
Sun bloats into a red giant or the Universe starts fading away
(or ripping, or collapsing, or whatever else may happen).
@Zen Blade, March 19th, 2008 at 7:39: “But assume you have 1 very large telescope, how long would it take to catalog ~50% of the galaxy. I don’t know the metrics, but if you assume you can look&process data for 1,000 planets a day, it would take close to 10,000 years to catalog ~3-4 billion planets, or 1,000,000 years to catalog ~300-400 billion planets.”
I am much more optimistic with regard to that and actually think that even a slightly advanced civilization could complete a rather complete survey of the Milky Way galaxy and its habitable planets within a couple of centuries orso.
First of all you get a good sample of which kind of stars harbor what kind of planets, with special emphasis on stars suitable for habitable planets. Once you got a good picture of that you specialize in those stars. E.g. assume that the ‘good’ stars are indeed the solar type ones, some 30 billion in the MW, of which say 20% have all the conditions sitable for living planets = 6 billion.
You then focus on those for telescopic analysis, increasingly automated. Just as Kepler will analyze some 100,000 stars and other telescopes have measured positions of millions, it should be possible to have an automated ‘habitable planet mapper’ analyze hundreds of thousands to millions of stars in a number of years. Send some hundreds up and you have a fairly complete picture of the living MW within a couple of centuries.
Of course a bit of guesstimating, but probably the first thing that any advanced civilization with an interest in the galactic neighborhood would do, including we, after the first detection of a habitable planet.
Detection of other inhabited planets is really the first and by far the easiest step in any form of interstellar contact. That’s why I believe that, if any other advanced techno civ. exists in the MW, they already know about Sol 3 (or d).
@Daniel Högberg, March 20th, 2008 at 4:23: “The idea of humanity being the first intelligent species is not so extreme.. It´s quite possible.. but sad..
I read in “Göteborgs-posten” (one of swedens biggest daily-newspapers) that the war in Irak cost about 800 billion dollars, what if we had put that money into the Mars-program or building a 100-times-hubble-telescope on the dark side of the moon?”
The first part: if we are the only intelligence in our MW galaxy is not so sad, just quite a responsibility, ánd a great opportunity! The MW may be teeming with life and/or biocompatible planets, but without other intelligence. OK, may seem lonely, but then, how lonely are we here on earth? And in the course of our dispersal through the MW galaxy, we ourselves would develop into various ‘alien’ races or species. Not so lonely at all (and less potential conflict). Maybe then, finally, we would become the crown on the galactic creation (if not a scourge).
Second part: I agree!!! It annoys me too, that for a couple of billion US or Euro we could have had SIM, TPF, Darwin, ELT, OWL, … We would have had a good inventory of planetary systems of nearby stars, say up to 50 or 70 ly orso.
I read in the early ’90s that for about 600 billion US$ spread over 30 years (i.e. 20 billion US$ per year, not even double present NASA budget) we could have a permanent presence on Mars. Since then I think that estimates have even gone down, because of technological advances and the concept of ‘living of the land’ .
It’s all priorities, and politics.
jim,yes sir…an advanced alien civilization might indeed find us primative and a little scarey from several points of view! it would be hard for us too i imagine to try to contact a rather primative but rather well armed “civilization”. kind of think there must be a good star trek episode or two like that,especially the ones with kirk. lol the aliens in 2001 avoided the problem by “meeting” us a long time before they would not have the upper hand! again…isn’t this something!? now we no longer have carl sagan or arthur c clarke!! not at all to our advantage.thank you your friend george
ronald, a word to you too on the above you have written.don’t want to end up sounding like a broken record but…again…as in 2001 a space odyssey – thought somebody once explained that that was the point there too.an advanced civilization finding itself alone and starting out to seed the galaxy to try to do something about it!!! god ! just imagine how advanced you would have to be in order to be willing to wait that long for results!! hard to imagine. but thanks,your friend george
Rather than fantasize about using other budget items you personally don’t like for favorite space science projects how about focusing closer to home and cleaning your own house? In the nearly 50 years since landing on the Moon, NASA has spent between $5B – $10B per year on manned spaceflight. That’s between a quarter and half a TRILLION dollars on manned spaceflight. For what? A glorified Skylab II that has produced no science and is in the totally wrong orbit for lunar and planetary exploration. And what’s worse, we in the 21st century cannot even return to the moon.
It’s much more possible to redirect NASA waste than to take $ from a program you don’t like and move it to space. After all, the entitlement program fans will be 1st in line for any military money. Remember Ted Kennedy and black civil rights ‘leaders’ whining about the waste of money for the moon program, that money could “eradicate poverty”? What a joke.
No, I do not subscribe to the “Sagan” argument that any civilization that has developed intersteller migration technology will necessarily be peaceful. Peaceful intent is based on trust. Trust requires that you can to a certain extent understand the motivation of your counter part.
You can travel to another country and culture on business. The people look different and culture and language are different. However, your business counter part is still recognizably human with the emotions and desires that are common to humans.
The thing about aliens is that they are alien.
You don’t know their motivation and they do not know yours. You know that they are a competitor. Competitors attempt to get rid of each other, especially when they are very different from each other. Even more especially when they are self-replicating with the potential for exponential growth.
The galaxy could indeed be a very dangerous place (although I think it unlikely).
What if all the people on the internet that want to see a space-elevator up and running did something about it? How many people would not work their whole life if they just to see a space-elevator finished?
Is it not a whole lot of competence and knowledge out there??
Why can´t we start a business/company? Shouldn´t we be able to raise quite a big amount of money from investors promised that they can ship satellites and stuff 50% discount when the elevator is finished?
…or am i just a dreamer that don´t understand how the world works? :)
Did we kill ET?
Rereading the letter by David Brin and noting the line on spam. What if a probe did visit the earth and try to tap into our internet. Suppose its makes were a hive species and had no concept of individuality and hence no safe guards against spam and viruses. Having deciphered the languages and protocols we use on the internet imagine it dived right in and started uploading and translating everything, including the viruses and worms…. What if we did kill ET? What if ET isn’t too pleased?
Daniel Högberg Says:
What if all the people on the internet that want to see a space-elevator up and running did something about it? How many people would not work their whole life if they just to see a space-elevator finished?
Sadly the percentage of people who have any great interest in space is probably very low. The percentage able to pay any great amount to such a project is probably even lower. The percentage willing to pay is again probably even lower. You might get 4-5 million (rough guess) who would be willing to put in excess of 1000 a year. It’s just something they don’t see as affecting them and so not something they would be willing to pay into. I wish it was otherwise. Note this site, it’s an incredible site, but how many distinct visitors does it get? Probably not many compared to the number of people who actually use the internet. If humans were truly interested in space and our future there there would be in excess of a million distinct visitors a day.
I am young and may not have a clear grasp on the whole situation. The way i look at it is thuse that we “humans” are
compleze senite beings and we are not that civilized as we should be. we have improved are technolegy vastlly in the last 200 years, but we still kill which brings us to the big point, the most important things to us on earth is ching-ching money. it is the currenncy of are world and the greed of a few (cough) Pepole run the countrys. Aliens see us as a ignorant species still fight for land and money, they know we are here and say “hey these peole need to clean up there act before we say HI”. so first thing we need a person to really help this world or we will have to learn the hard way.
I like to thing that we are just one breed of “human” in the univserse and we are the little brother within the familly.
i dont think “aliens” are beent on conquest and destruction.
We get this idea from over the Reglius men and women that praise a man made god, “no offence to any readers” but there text says that they are one and only and these pepole are the ones in control over america like america which was founded on Christany. Intill we turn around and change we will not be able to go into a new age.