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A Science Fictional Take on Being There

If you’re not a member of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America (still commonly known as the SFWA from the days before the ‘fantasy’ bit was added), you may not see the group’s regular bulletin. That would be understandable, given that although it can be found on newsstands, the SFWA Bulletin now costs a solid $6.95 per copy. Nonetheless, keeping up with Robert Metzger’s ‘State of the Art’ science column would keep me buying this journal even if it didn’t come as part of my membership.


Metzger, the author of the 2002 novel Picoverse and 2005’s CUSP as well as a variety of short fiction in addition to his science writing (some of which is available online), speculates in his most recent column on a subject we’ve recently treated here. Would a species capable of star travel actually need to make the journey, given the advances in technology that would surely make it possible to learn more and more about exoplanets from its own star system? Metzger reviews current exoplanet work in the context of discovering life from afar, and notes we don’t have to re-do the fabric of spacetime to pull off the trick.

In this era of space-based observatories like CoRoT and (soon) Kepler, most Centauri Dreams readers would likely agree that exoplanetary life may be detected from nearby space (at least with next generation tools), but what gets the attention is Metzger’s riff on how a truly advanced alien culture might view us. No need to land on the White House lawn — why not stay invisible, experiencing our Earth through billions of intelligent ‘motes’ sent by exploration craft the size of dust grains. One mote could dock with every organic entity on the planet, recording everything it experienced and shipping the data back to the home world.

Now that’s telepresence! And yet note Metzger’s next line (italics mine): “As science-fictional as that sounds I would consider such an approach one implemented by a fairly primitive stellar faring race.”

Far more advanced would be the race that could mine the vibrations that occur at the deepest level of our existence. “I’m talking,” writes Metzger, “about what we spew out at the atomic and sub-atomic level, every atom of our body buzzing and spewing, impinging upon the fundamental fabric [of] our reality.” Reconstruct the record that reality imparts in spacetime and this happens:

Out around some distant star, deep in the bowels of some alien mind may sit an infinite number of Earths, each one a snapshot in time, separated by mere pico-seconds, spanning the temporal spectrum from the instant you are reading these words to the moment when the first gravitational perturbation started the coalescence of our solar system out of the thin background of dust and hydrogen.

How would such information be housed and accessed? What uses would alien intelligences make of it? For the answers to those questions, we turn to our science fiction writers, whose job it is to explore such scenarios. Earth may have little to offer a race capable of warping spacetime or skiing through wormholes — not in the physical sense — but as a source of information for study and recreation, we might be just the ticket. The exploration of the galaxy through remote techniques that presume no travel by organic beings has its own logic. Whether the urge to actually be in the places being explored is universal or limited to certain members of a single species remains to be seen. And more than a few science fiction novels might be spun out of answering the question.

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • tacitus January 26, 2009, 15:01

    I have written a few unpublished SF short stories dealing with issues of first contact in widely varying circumstances — it is kind of fun to speculate.

    One of my story ideas that is, as yet, unrealized is remarkably similar to Metzger’s mote sized alien probes. My concept was that a certain percentage of the dust particles you see floating in the air are, in fact, recording devices that, when combined, form a complete record of everything that happens on Earth throughout history. The story focuses on the moment of discovery — the dust-sized probes normally self-destruct when they are in danger of being too examined closely, but then a scientist accidentally circumvents the devices’ fail-safe mechanism and comes to realize the implications.

    It’s also nice to see more attention finally being focused on the concept of observing from afar — something I have been agitating for, for quite a while now. While it may be far less sexy than interstellar travel, in terms of cost-benefit analysis, there is no contest. You could probably build a whole fleet of colossal interferometers out in the depths of the solar system for the same price as a single, viable interstellar probe that has a hope of reaching another star system within the launchers’ lifetimes.

    What would be great is if an expert in the field could tell us what are the theoretical limits to observing exoplanets. How much of the galaxy will we be able to explore without leaving out doorstep assuming that we have all the technology and money we need to build the telescopes — that would be a great subject for a guest post, hint, hint!

  • Administrator January 26, 2009, 15:56

    tacitus, it does begin to look as though a properly placed instrument at the gravitational focus of the Sun could pick out exoplanets as far away as Andromeda. So the theoretical limits of what we might observe are dictated by the technology to use such a resource (and, of course, others we’ll develop along the way). Good idea about a guest post on this — let me see what I can do about that.

    Robert Freitas has some interesting thoughts on mote-sized sensors and the ability to cover a planet with an intelligent web of such devices without its inhabitants even noticing what’s happening. I don’t have an article to point to on that but Freitas went into it in a telephone interview a few years back. Fascinating stuff.

  • Paul Hughes January 26, 2009, 18:43

    I started thinking about these ideas as far as back as 1988. I had first started thinking deeply about nanotech in 1986 after hearing Drexler speak at my university, and by 1987 I started thinking of nanotech re-engineered brains, and their ability to increase intelligence even further. Of course Vernor Vinge was the first to articulate this publicly, but I was already on that wavelength years earlier.

    Anyway, I had an epiphany in the summer of 88 while driving in the mountains in Arizona when it occured to me that at least one ET has already evolved to levels far beyond our comprehension, and either 1) they are “recording” every quantum moment of everything happening on earth using some kind of embedded “pico, femto” -technology or 2) since they would have the computational capacity to “emulate” trillions of earths, the probability is we are actually in one of their running simulations.

    Either way, it brings up interesting questions about their intentions, benignity, as collectively we “primitives” continue to experience unfathomanable amounts of pain – physical, emotional, existential, not to mention our onrushing physical death. The only way I’ve been able to rationalize my way out of this, is that “we” are actually “them” donning limited IQ-Realities as part of a experiential learning process.

  • andy January 26, 2009, 19:15

    I’ve seen studies that technology very close to present-day levels could detect planets as far away as M87 using microlensing (though characterisation would be pretty much impossible as resolving the host star, if any would be impossible). Use the Sun as a lens, who knows…

  • Paul Hughes January 27, 2009, 1:44

    REVISION: I meant to say what was possible IF there was a very advanced ET here, rather than there actually being one.

  • James M. Essig January 27, 2009, 2:45

    Hi Paul;

    This is a most excellent concept.

    If a race or an ETI being could somehow know the entire scope of the atomic and substomic statistical mechanical states of all life forms on Earth, and experience the conscious, cognitive, volitional, affective, and instinctual experiences as we experience them, say at the snap shot level of each passing Planck time unit or about each 10 EXP – 43 second, and actually recreate a virtual copy of our Earth from the first gravitational collapse of a gas cloud leading to the formation of our solar system to present day January 27, 2008, the ETI civilization might effectively be here.

    If the subject ETIs could duplicate our planet and all life on it in absolute detail in a virtual manner, perhaps topologically, existentially, thermodynamically, there would be no distinction between the macrostate state of the ETIs really being here and merely observing us from lightyear away. Perhaps quantum information teleportation could be the means of such information transmission.

    Your bring up an excellent point. From the purely sociological perspective of my personal childhood upbringing, I have tended to think of humans and ETI as having dignity based on a body-soul (especially the soul) perspective. However, another way to skin the cat is to consider just how large an extraterrestrial mind might be, regardless of whether or not it is intrinsically independent of matter for its existence. A mind as such with the simultaneous conscious knowledge of the entire time evolved macrostate of our planet would be glorious indeed. Existentially, it would be absolutely huge: Much more advanced then my primitive soul or mind in comparison as I labor with early morning fatigue to get this post out which can be represented by as little as only a few thousand bits.

    Great Topic!



  • Adam January 27, 2009, 9:37

    Hmmm… the No Cloning theorem in quantum theory might put the kibosh on such ideas. But I do like the idea of reading all the “vibrations in the fabric of reality” idea, even if it probably can’t happen because of all the noise. Perhaps we’re hopelessly ignorant and naive, and a billennia of being civilised might teach us a better way of exploring the Cosmos.

    Yet I still het a thrill at the thought of actually being There…

  • ljk January 27, 2009, 11:09

    I recently read how astronomers can get a picture of the very
    early Universe (400,000 years after its formation from the Big
    Bang 13. 7 billion years ago) studying the sound waves created
    by the event.

    This feat is considered equivalent to figuring out what a
    Stradivarius violin looks like just by detecting its sound

    So if we can do this, imagine what a really advanced species
    can do.

    Even if the ideas presented in this thread are not true, it
    does make one thing very evident: We are still in the earliest
    of stages in terms of figuring out how alien life and intelligence
    might operate and how to go about detecting it. Of course I
    am very happy that people are even thinking about SETI at
    all, to say nothing of there being consistent attempts at it, but
    we need to get beyond the idea of aliens living on planets like
    our sending radio signals into the galaxy. I know other forms
    have been started, but we need to widen the net. This includes
    looking for probes in the Sol system, if we can get past the
    stigma created by the UFO groupies.

    I think it is even more than the old analogy about a primitive
    tribe looking for other groups by trying to detect their smoke
    signals while electromagnetic transmissions beam over, under,
    and through them every second with their knowing.

    Our SETI has to at the very least be supplimented with other
    methods, or we will continue to miss out, because advanced ETI
    are probably the only kind we will be able to detect for the near
    future, just as we can only see super Jupiter exoplanets for the
    most part.

  • James M. Essig January 27, 2009, 11:47

    Hi Adam;

    Good point.

    I also thrill at the thought of actually being there.

    The really cool thing about actually going there is that we can extend the numbers of human persons to infinity in the limit that our travel distance from the Milky Way Galaxy and/or the future extension of our civilization goes to infinity.

    Something about just really being there permits an infinite number of distinctly charactered human personalities to exist if one considers that the psychodyanmic structure of our psyches and the individual thought, emotions, feelings, acta of will, etc., (conscious, subconscious and unconscious) may somehow be coninuous in terms of a potentiially completely continuous morphing, or otherwise, a time independent and time dependent perfectly continuous structure with no fine grained quantization of psychodynamic states. All of the beautiful woman that could come into existence would be nice also.

    The main point is that we will likely find a imparitive to actually be there and zip around the universe. If FTL travel is possible, great. If not, then we can still relish on learning how to achieve ever higher gamma factors with perhaps gamma = infinity being the mathematical limit from the perspective of 1-Dimensional number line continuum hypothesis. Not bad to perhaps be able to travel an infinite time distance into the future.

    I think the fun of actually going there and knowing that we’re there will be enough of a reason to go and look over the next horizon.



  • tacitus January 27, 2009, 13:38

    ljk, I wouldn’t downplay the importance of SETI with regard to radio signals. It’s importance to interstellar communication depends on how long a technological civilization takes to advance to more effective means of long distance communications.

    If technological, spacefaring civilizations quickly advance beyond radio as the best means of long distance communications (within a couple of hundred years, say) then they are unlikely to put much effort into radio beacons and detection since they would assume others will quickly advance through the radio technology window too.

    However, if it turns out that nothing better is likely to come along for hundreds or thousands of years, then setting up few “we are here” beacons for us to find would probably be a worthwhile endeavour.

    We just don’t know, of course.

  • ljk January 27, 2009, 20:35

    Sorry if my post came across as anti-radio SETI. I did not
    mean it to be, nor would I want it to stop. I just think we
    need to step outside the decades old paradigm and start
    looking in other wavelengths. We have made some progress
    in the last few years, but we need to do more.

    Optical SETI, which just got going about a decade ago, was
    just getting off the ground around the same time radio SETI
    began, but some scientists downplayed it because we humans
    weren’t up to the task of transmitting powerful laser beams –
    which doesn’t make an entire amount of sense when we are
    supposed to be looking for ETI more advanced than us. And
    we could have detected laser beams even easier than digging
    through millions of radio signals. But human biases kept most
    Optical SETI projects from happening until 1998. Then all of
    a sudden everyone jumped on the bandwagon. I guess better
    late than never, but who knows what we may have missed in
    the intervening decades?

    Thus my push for searching in wavelengths IN ADDITION
    to radio, so we don’t make the same mistakes again, or
    at least miss fewer areas. And this includes searching for
    probes in our Sol system. I just hope they aren’t all the
    size of dust specks, or we might destroy an entire mission
    with one cloth across a table.

  • Mark Wakely January 28, 2009, 13:57

    The concept of an alien civilization actively mining “the vibrations that occur at the deepest level of our existence” makes me wonder if that isn’t responsible for our “sense” of God’s existence. Block or turn off the probing, and our religious belief systems come crashing down. How would civilization respond to that? In some quarters, probably not too well…

    Also, I’ve often wondered if the famous “Wow!” signal received in the earliest days of SETI wasn’t actually a remarkably compressed message we couldn’t decipher because we lack the ability to expand and read the message. It might have contained the proverbial encyclopedia galactica, but our technology is simply too primitive to “open the file” in a manner of speaking.

  • george scaglione January 28, 2009, 19:25

    tacitus – soooo some of those dust motes we “see” around might just be….something else! what a brilliant concept! – and, mark,yes sir! what you say above about our sense of gods existance makes alot of sense too! you additionally just may be right about that “wow”! signal ! incredable and gooood thinking my friend.the best to all, your friend george

  • Luis Dias January 29, 2009, 15:05

    This is all too esoteric for me. I can almost hear the alternative medic… crackpot jerks telling us “It’s all what we’ve been saying for decades!!”, yes, the “energy”, the “vibrations”, etc. Forget about the noise problem and that you’d need a supercomputer in the information magnitude of the ENTIRE UNIVERSE to decode it, d’oh!

    Now the reason I stopped by and no one seems to mind, I just wonder, what the hell are those cannons bursting fire from inside that blue planet? They’re awesome!!

  • James M. Essig January 29, 2009, 16:39

    Hi Mark;

    It occured to me that a system of computing and/or data transmission might be developed in which the information would be stored in compressed form, a fantastically compressed form, if the appropriate key or algorithn was available to unlock the information or decode it.

    The idea revolves around the notion that a sequence of numbers that is fairly large perhaps very large, such as a number of the magnitude of that of the number of 10 EXP 100 when compared to one or more judiciously selected numbers of similar size or to portions of itself , might contain an incredible amount of data. Just think of all the numerical relations or mathematical operations or entities that can be found among the factors of such munbers, the number of relations between one such number and another, from among the digits of the numbers and their relative locations, the huge number of base number representations such as base two or binary numbers, base three, base four,… base 10 as we use in physics and engineering at the analogue level, … base 10 EXP 100, and all of the other number theory relations within a judiciously chosen number. The number of such mathematical relationships staggers the mind.

    George and tacitus, I have to definately agree with you about the possibilities for the WOW signal. Heck ,just studying the possibilities ETI might use to incode information might lead us to new mathematics.



  • george scaglione January 30, 2009, 10:22

    everybody,again thank you for the brilliant ideas above.it is such a pleasure to be able to communicate with you on my favorite subjects! yes the possibilities for the “wow” signal are indeed immense. or lol maybe just our imaginations in overdrive! but i must hasten to ad that given the sheer SIZE of space i would be very suprised to learn that we where all that there was!!!!! bet you five cents that there are civilizations out there right now that actually do the things we here talk about! respectfully to one and all your friend george

  • ljk January 30, 2009, 16:04
  • george scaglione January 31, 2009, 11:13

    ljk, interesting point.maybe that could be.not the first time the subject has come up.thank you george

  • James M. Essig February 2, 2009, 0:42

    Hi George and ljk;

    A local friend of mine several years ago pointed out an analogy of his concept of a creator or higherpower as a software designer wherein our entire cosmos, both physical and any spiritual levels would simply exist as a software program relative to the creator. Accordinly, each and every universe, muliverse, ETI civiliztion would be simply analogous to a software program developed by a software engineer or a programmer. These created entities would indeed have real existence and being, but they would have been completely created, completely known, and at least in terms of their created nature completely fabricated with awesome deliberativeness, intentionality, and freedom by the creator.

    As a cultural philosophical perspective using analogies from moder science/technology, I thought that I would post these ideas. Note that there is no attempt being made to promote faithbased agendas, spiritualistic dogmas, or psuedo science here, but rather, the point I am trying to make is that even the doctrines of faithbased systems which are a ubiquitous part of human culture and have always been so can borrow from modern scientific lexocography and heuristics for the purposes of reinterpretation or for added insight.

    If the universe is a computer and/or akin to a software program, it is a marvelously complex one and it seems to be bootstapping itself to ever greater degrees of complexity and wonderful variety.

    Note however, I would like to and still think of our selves and our universe as more then a computer. But in reality, just as the universe maintains continuity in its existence and qualities, but continues to know how to evolve and keep track to dot all of the i’s and cross all of the t’s, it is essentially like a computer. Maybe not a clockwork deterministic computer, but one where deterministism, partially deterministism, and quantum indeterminism all work together to produce a wonderfully complex and varies cosmos.