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On Cosmic Isolation

Michael Chorost is a science writer whose research interests grow directly out of his personal experience. You may have already read about his struggle with hearing loss — a problem he has dealt with since childhood — in his book Rebuilt: How Becoming Part Computer Made Me More Human (Houghton Mifflin, 2005). It’s natural to find Chorost writing often on things like cochlear implants and neurotechnology, but intriguing to find that he is also a SETI advocate, and one who believes his hearing issues have a bearing on a field he has studied passionately all his life. In fact, the book he plans next, which follows on 2011’s World Wide Mind (Free Press) will be a SETI title.

So what’s the connection between deafness and hunting for signs of an extraterrestrial civilization? Chorost sees it as a matter of isolation and communication, as he notes in a recent entry on the Psychology Today site. Is the entire human race subject to deafness? It is in the sense that we have no idea whether or not we live in isolation or in a galaxy populated with other intelligences. Our ignorance of our place in the universe becomes its own kind of perception problem, a deafness SETI has been trying in vain to remedy for the last fifty years.

Image: Dish antenna of the 43-metre (140-feet) radio telescope at the Green Bank observatory in West Virginia. Credit: Seth Shostak/Science Photo Library.

It’s an interesting idea, and one the author develops by looking at a recent article by Atul Gawande in The New Yorker. Gawande focused on the effects of solitary confinement on people, relating the story of one prisoner held in such conditions in a maximum security prison who began to lose his mind. The argument is that without encounters with other people, we find our psychic integrity threatened. In the case under study, prolonged isolation led to compulsive behavior, panic attacks, hallucinations and increasing paranoia. Looking at how people relate to those around them, Chorost wonders about a planet-wide pattern of isolation:

I think the analogy is pregnant and poignant, but unproven. Still and all: crazy prisoners, crazy planets. Contact and communication with other planets might have a calming effect on a civilization, giving it perspective and self-knowledge. After all, it’s mainly through interaction with other people that we get feedback on our behavior. We know ourselves by how people reflect us back to ourselves. The Other is a kind of mirror. Right now, humanity has no way to see itself in perspective. We just don’t know what’s abberational in intelligent species, and what’s normal.

So we could be looking at one more possibility for explaining the Fermi paradox. Extraterrestrials are not here because they think we’re lunatics. It’s not a likely scenario, and Chorost doubts it applies, but there is something to be said for the idea of planets facing existential loneliness:

I think that deafness and planetary isolation have something in common. A deaf person knows how easy it is to become profoundly cut off. (If civilization collapsed and the electricity went out for good, my rechargeable cochlear implant batteries would last me about a week.) I think of our planet swimming in the starry blackness, studded with radio telescopes peering anxiously into the void—and hearing nothing. To me, that feels a lot like being deaf.

When I was growing up, my uncle from Florida used to drive up once a year for an extended visit. He was already going deaf at the time and thought it was from the effect of aircraft engines (he had serviced radio equipment for Eastern Airlines his entire career). In any case, over the years his deafness became profound. Like Chorost, he was also fascinated with SETI and the idea of finding other intelligences. He had huge problems communicating with people in conversation, but he built a world out of books and kept a massive library. I often wondered, when deafness closed off his interests in music and shortwave radio, whether he felt the same sense of bafflement I feel when walking on a starry night, wondering whether there is anyone out there sharing this universe, pointing instruments into the sky and asking why no one speaks?


Comments on this entry are closed.

  • David July 30, 2012, 10:23

    I buy humans as lunatics but I dont think its the reason. We should find evidnec in our neighborhoos at least of a much more advanced civilization .
    This is a good opportunity to ask about a probe we had that was shuit down some years ago. There was a very short article in Scince about it. Though it was not the probes main purpose the article concluded that there had been no aliens passing through the solar system using matter-antimatter because this probe would hvae detetced the antimatter.
    Does anyone remember this?

  • Ed Reed July 30, 2012, 10:51

    There’s another possible reason for SETI quiet – if, indeed, we’re deaf and blind to the vast majority of matter and energy (dark in nature, to us), perhaps we’re just not “getting” the messages others routinely use. We won’t know until we’re no longer deaf and blind to the rest of what makes up the Universe – at least then we’ll have more channels of possible communication to search.

  • JoeP July 30, 2012, 11:49

    It is indeed a little disconcerting to contemplate that we may be the only technological civilization on the galaxy.

    Theoretically, even if that were the case, it is possible that Earthlife or our possible robotic descendants could spread out from our system and populate the entire Milky Way over time, and no doubt diverge into all kinds of lifeforms/robots that are vastly different from each other. Yet still, even if this scenario were to happen, it leaves so many unanswered questions, since Earth was the ultimate seed for it all.

    The key question: what is the point? Right now, science avoids that question, or indicates that there is no point at all. I think SETI is an attempt to get some kind of answer to at least part of that question.

  • A. A. Jackson July 30, 2012, 13:19

    I think Chorost should read more modern science fiction.

    “Extraterrestrials are not here because they think we’re lunatics.”

    I can’t off the top of my head cite all the SF short stories that used this idea, but Frederic Brown trumped this idea in 1955.
    In MARTIANS GO HOME , billions of Little Green Men show up, for no apparent reason, our ‘protagonist’ Luke Devereaux (a science fiction writer) spends most of his time thinking that because aliens are here, he is insane!
    He spends some of his time in an asylum.
    One of the greatest eccentric SF novels, it is virtually impossible to really tell if the appearance of aliens is real or imagined.
    Maybe this is our real problem?!

  • Interstellar Bill July 30, 2012, 15:24

    I find the analogy absurd between radio telescopes and deafness, since we ‘hear’ signals from the entire Universe. You’re not deaf when you can hear the wind blow but there’s nobody to talk to.

    We know a great deal about the 4.5 Gyr series of low probability events which it took to bring us about here on Earth. Consequently, the null hypothesis is that we are alone, and SETI’s value is precisely in the extreme degree of surprise that its success would produce, given an obviously empty Universe.

    If intelligent life had enough probability for SETI success, then we’d see at least one Type III galaxy somewhere within 10 billion ly.

    Also, any society capable of building a SETI beacon that we could detect from thousands of light years is capable of interstellar settlement, so we’re back to Fermi. It seems that SETI success could only be from the paradoxical category of stay-at-homes, paradoxical because the beacon needs to be in space, making it likely they’d settle their own solar system, which in turn makes interstellar settlement inevitable. The only out is that they destroy themselves right after the beacon is turned on, and somehow it keeps running forever.

  • Adam July 30, 2012, 15:31

    Hi Paul
    A short story or two spring to mind. The first imagines the return of the last starship to Earth after fruitlessly searching another Galaxy for life. The only other civilisation we discover is the extinction Martians, who also had fruitlessly searched the Cosmos for Others. Human-kind, like the Martians, succumbs to cosmic despair. Lester del Rey was the author.
    The second featured a fleet of ramjets who also have fruitlessly searched the Galaxy for a hint of life. They began as one ship, but have created new ships out of the material scooped up and have expanded their numbers. The story focuses on an artist’s response to the fruitless quest – he flips it around, creating a celebratory piece about how humanity have created life in the face of a hostile Universe. George Zebrowski penned that one.
    Two responses to an empty Universe. I hope we know which one to pick if we’re ever faced with the choice. However I don’t think we are alone.

  • Christopher Phoenix July 30, 2012, 15:43

    The problem with SETI is that it assumes the existence of friendly, garrulous, radio-using aliens who we can use “as a mirror”, in the words of the blog post. It seems to me that most people’s interest in SETI has more to do with searching for “space brothers” to call up on the space phone rather than locating actual advanced extraterrestrial species. These aliens may throw a wrench in our jubilation when/if we find them by being simply to different to use as a mirror for human behavior.

    How can we expect to use extraterrestrials as a mirror for human behavior? If aliens are completely different from humans- both physiologically and psychologically- it may be very hard to use them as Earth human analogues. Imagine that we discover a an alien civilization with a similar pattern to social insects like bees on Earth. Perhaps the alien queen mother will wonder why Earth’s President doesn’t just kill and eat her opponents instead of holding an election ever five years, while the humans are utterly horrified over juvenile aliens’ habit of eating their weaker siblings. Perhaps the alien queen will be astonished and confused by the fact we believe in taking care of people with infirmities instead of “recycling them because they are of little use to the human hive”!! Just wait until we ask them what they think the meaning of life is- rather than worrying about what it means to be alive, they know their prime function is to “serve the hive!!”.

    SETI- and thinking on aliens in general- suffers from the “space brother” syndrome. People, including the researchers, seem to think that programs like SETI will locate aliens who think similarly to humans, rather than considering the difficulty of communication with an intelligence totally different from our own. People seem to think that human thought patterns are universal, and that aliens will comfort us, resolve our cosmic existential crisis, and show us a better way to live. In retrospect, these ideas will probably appear childish- the radio astronomer’s version of Star Trek. We’ve got to learn that we have to solve our own problems, not wait for “space brother” (or perhaps, “space mommy”) come clean up our mess for us an assure us we aren’t alone.

  • Alex Tolley July 30, 2012, 16:07

    At this point we clearly are not civilization isolated on earth. There are still a number of different world views to provide some feedback.

    Arthur C Clarke once suggested that we may be like isolated islanders assuming there is no other tribe “out there”, as they cannot hear any other signaling drums, all the while radio waves are everywhere, just requiring a receiver.

    At the outset, SETI assumed that civilizations would want to communicate and use the simplest systems and frequencies possible. Now we are currently trying to exhaust the radio spectrum, assuming that on some frequency ETIs are transmitting. We have also moved to the optical spectrum and I particularly liked the Benford’s idea of targeted, short laser pulses, repeated every year. But what if all these ideas are just the equivalent of drums? At this point we do not know of any other signaling mechanism, especially one with high capacity and preferably superluminal.
    Without new physics, the intelligent probe idea seems more logical. (I like David Brin’s take on this in his new book, “Existence”).

    If planetary civilizations do become a little psychotic (and I would like to see evidence from isolated tribes/groups) then seeding the universe with humans to create new and varied civilizations might be one way to overcome it. Of course colonizing the solar system first, with perhaps trillions of people and a vast variety of social and political forms might be even easier.

  • Rob Henry July 30, 2012, 18:53

    A. A. Jackson, I believe that the perspective of Martians go Home hits the nail on the head. We could only ever hope to meet supermen or cavemen, and if such supermen had any plans for us at all that didn’t involve our destruction, they would not include selflessly uplifting us.

    By comparison, mocking us just for their own entertainment value is a realistic outcome. Even if they desired just to reach out and contact us in friendship – the result would more likely be like Solaris. In Solaris, a world that had eons before evolved (or been engineered into) a Gaian whole tried to replace “missing bits” of their human contactors by recreating their deceased loved ones, thus unwittingly inducing insanity upon humanity.

  • lepton July 31, 2012, 4:05

    It is quite important to explore icy moons of gas giants of our system for potential (primitive) lives. If they appear to share a common ancestor of earth lives, that means seeds of life can spread across space; if they appear totally different, it means life can rise independently wherever the condition is meet. Either way, it is good news.

  • spaceman July 31, 2012, 4:16

    There has been much speculation in the sci-fi genre as to what may be the societal implications of first contact with an alien species, but perhaps less about the core reasons why we choose to investigate the cosmic landscape in the first place.

    Establishing contact may indeed propel humanity into a more enriching future as we progress toward learning about the ETI, about what they know scientifically and morally, etc. Of course, it is also possible that it’ll be more peril than reward– an ominous theme not lacking in the sci-fi genre.

    Getting back to motivations regardless of the actual existence of other sentient beings in the Universe, I believe humans are driven by wanting to know who else is out there, by wanting to feel connected to the larger Universe, by wanting to know about what else is possible and what other global societal trajectories exist…these are all reasons for listening.

    Thus far it seems as though we may be truly alone in the Universe. In my view the two main reasons for our probable cosmic loneliness are: (i)abiogenesis is a freak event and/or (ii) perhaps evolution from simple to complex life is very very rare.

  • ljk July 31, 2012, 9:18

    I thought Martians, Go Home was a commentary on American tourists in foreign lands. :^)

    I don’t know if humanity is collectively insane, as it were (though certainly far too many of its individual parts are off their rockers, to use a phrase), but we are terribly self-focused even after several centuries of knowing intellectually that Earth is not the center/bottom or otherwise the focal point of the Universe.

    This comes from our isolation in time and space due to evolving on a single world with no obvious signs of any other intelligences. Even if there is no other life in the Cosmos, which I doubt and even find absurd, humanity and Earth are but specks of specks when compared to the known major features of the Universe, such as galactic superclusters and even the Milky Way itself.

    The next question should be: Can humanity overcome its evolutionary state which is barely past the trees and savannahs (do not be fooled by our shiny toys and buildings – even ants and termites have proportionately giant cities they build and live in), or are we but the midwives of the intelligences that *can* truly grasp and dwell in the Cosmos? And have other complex beings gone through this as well?

  • ljk July 31, 2012, 11:28

    Spaceman said on July 31, 2012 at 4:16:

    “There has been much speculation in the sci-fi genre as to what may be the societal implications of first contact with an alien species, but perhaps less about the core reasons why we choose to investigate the cosmic landscape in the first place.”

    LJK replies:

    There have been non-science fiction books and articles published over the decades and centuries exploring why we want and need to venture into space.

    Even NASA has jumped on the philosophically reflecting bandwagon with a recently published book titled Cosmos & Culture: Cultural Evolution in a Cosmic Context (NASA SP-2009-4802), which I reviewed last year here: https://centauri-dreams.org/?p=18702

    Spaceman then said:

    “Establishing contact may indeed propel humanity into a more enriching future as we progress toward learning about the ETI, about what they know scientifically and morally, etc. Of course, it is also possible that it’ll be more peril than reward– an ominous theme not lacking in the sci-fi genre.”

    LJK replies:

    As much as I would love to see all our METI and space exploration efforts conducted in a proper scientific, thoughtful, and dignified manner becoming of the best of our species and society, we already have real-world examples that show how even as humanity expands into space, its baser nature will not suddenly disappear.

    Various businesses have beamed messages into the galaxy from ordinary citizens who tend to beg the perceived ETI recipients for help or invite them to Earth for a beer. A Hollywood film production company transmitted into the galaxy the subpar remake of The Day the Earth Stood Still as a publicity stunt: A science fiction film about an advanced species planning to eliminate humanity for all the environmental transgressions we have committed to our planet! NASA radioed a Beatles song to the star Polaris from one of its DSN stations as part of a celebration gesture for several coinciding anniversaries. And even British astronomers got in on the METI act in order to raise some cash when they beamed a Doritos advertisement to a nearby star system that has several known exoplanets.

    As an anthropology professor I had in college once said, investigators learn a lot more about the true nature of another culture by sifting through their garbage dumps than looking at their official monuments. The same may be said for SETI, both as conducted from our world and others.

    And do not presume our future human “ambassadors” who may one day journey to the stars in person to be the same kind of noble astronauts and cosmonauts we have supposedly been sending up into the void since 1961. Even those early explorers were not always as clean cut and noble as NASA and others have often portrayed them to the public.

    Unless there is some kind of radical change to our descendants as they spread out into the Milky Way galaxy, there will likely be a range of humans among those who venture into deep space just as we have found on Earth now since the dawn of our existence. The same might also be said for those beings from other worlds who also venture in the Universe, at least the ones who are around our level of development.

    The point here is that human beings will want to explore and expand beyond the confines of Earth, warts and all. We cannot really stop this unless we want to drastically restrict and change humanity, which would ultimately be inhuman and make our children non-human. So far despite all our flaws and vices we have not turned our civilization or our planet (or any other world) into dust and the final chapters remain to be seen.

    I am also willing to bet that we will encounter beings on our celestial journeys who may be very different from us but will not be saints and angels at least as we think of the concept. Such a discovery will show that we too can expand beyond our home planet without destroying the Universe in the process. After all, it has been here for at least 13.7 billion years with no obvious signs of malicious devastation.

    Spaceman then said:

    “Getting back to motivations regardless of the actual existence of other sentient beings in the Universe, I believe humans are driven by wanting to know who else is out there, by wanting to feel connected to the larger Universe, by wanting to know about what else is possible and what other global societal trajectories exist…these are all reasons for listening.”

    LJK replies:

    I think Dr. Sagan also summed up that view quite succinctly in a quote from the first CETI book published 39 years ago:

    “In a very real sense this search for extraterrestrial intelligence is a search for a cosmic context for mankind, a search for who we are, where we have come from, and what possibilities there are for our future – in a universe vaster both in extent and duration than our forefathers ever dreamed of.” – From Communication with Extraterrestrial Intelligence (CETI), Carl Sagan, Editor, 1973, MIT Press, “Introduction”, pp. ix-x.

    Spaceman then said:

    “Thus far it seems as though we may be truly alone in the Universe. In my view the two main reasons for our probable cosmic loneliness are: (i) abiogenesis is a freak event and/or (ii) perhaps evolution from simple to complex life is very very rare.”

    LJK replies:

    We have barely begun to explore the Universe. As for SETI, Jill Tarter said we have conducted the equivalent of looking at one glass of water from an ocean after fifty years of mostly sporadic searching – and the ocean in this case is supremely vaster than any body of water on Earth.

    We are limited and isolated by a combination of the young age of our technological civilization, the distances between stars in the Milky Way and other galaxies, and the vast number of suns in our galaxy and others. If and when we have roamed a decent portion of the galaxy with our astronomical instruments and vessels over the coming ages and found not even a pond of alien algae, then we can start to seriously question if we are alone or not in the Cosmos.

  • Abelard Lindsey July 31, 2012, 17:27

    If aliens are completely different from humans- both physiologically and psychologically- it may be very hard to use them as Earth human analogues.

    The thing to remember about aliens is that they are alien.

  • Christopher Phoenix July 31, 2012, 21:09

    @Abelard Lindsey

    The thing to remember about aliens is that they are alien.

    Exactly!! Yet, many researchers who discuss alien life seem to be unable to to break out of anthropocentric concerns long enough to actually think about how different alien life may be.

    I was watching an episode of Morgan Freeman’s Through the Wormhole once, and Seth Shostak came out and told us about his hypothesis that all intelligent aliens we will encounter will have gone through the so-called “singularity” and become the Borg- ahem, machine life. While he expounded on his ideas, computer generated visuals of women with large breasts and implants sprouting from their heads flashed by.

    If you think about this, Seth is assuming that aliens, like humans, are individual organisms, and that they (like Seth’s vision of future humanity) will develop technology to modify themselves and link each other together. I’m not that taken with transhumanism in general- sticking wires into your body will be unpleasant, painful, and do nothing for your sex appeal- but even if it is true that humans are to go through the “singularity” soon, who’s to say that aliens don’t need to because they are already a hive mind? Maybe there are intelligent alien trees linked into a massive organisms covering thousands of acres. Who can really say? For that matter, who’s to say the aliens won’t have a Butlerian Jihad, or that humans won’t have a Butlerian Jihad? This is just one example of how many scientists project human traits on hypothetical aliens.

  • Eniac July 31, 2012, 23:39

    We have barely begun to explore the Universe. As for SETI, Jill Tarter said we have conducted the equivalent of looking at one glass of water from an ocean after fifty years of mostly sporadic searching – and the ocean in this case is supremely vaster than any body of water on Earth.

    An apt analogy. If you looked at that glass of water closely, you would discover millions of microorganisms living in it. So, if you think about it, that glass of water can be very diagnostic of the whole ocean, small as it may be.

    If and when we have roamed a decent portion of the galaxy with our astronomical instruments and vessels over the coming ages and found not even a pond of alien algae, then we can start to seriously question if we are alone or not in the Cosmos.

    I disagree. We can start questioning now, while we don’t know much. The situation you describe is the moment where we can stop questioning, the moment we know for sure.

    And what really is the question? Is it “Is there life?”, or is it “Is there no life?”. It depends on your prior assumption which one of us is the questioner. In my opinion, the safer assumption is that we are alone. It is also the one that is easier to falsify.

  • Richard August 1, 2012, 15:02

    But if the galaxy is indeed teeming with life and there’s something of a galaxy-spanning civilisation that somehow eluded our sensors, isn’t a bit unlogical to assume this civilisation still communicates with sub-lightspeed means of communication? What would be the use of that? If a message arrives at the nearest star system inhabited by another race of the galactic association surely the meaning of the message is already aged beyond usefulness, except maybe for historybuffs.

    I always liked Ian Douglas’s solution to the Fermi paradox where a group of xenophobic aliens [the Xul] were willing to commit galactic genocide by systematically homing in on any civilisation that started broadcasting their civilisation’s technic improvements by slamming close-to-lightspeed moving asteroids on their homeplanets. Any civilisation that somehow survived thought twice about making their presence known again.

  • Eniac August 1, 2012, 22:55

    … isn’t a bit unlogical to assume this civilisation still communicates with sub-lightspeed means of communication?

    To the contrary, this is a very reasonable assumption, because the laws of physics do not allow anything else. You can throw those out for the purpose of fiction, if you want. You might, then, just as well be talking about fairies or wizards.

    I have some trouble understanding what there is to like about galactic genocide. In any case, the galaxy-spanning civilization you envision is not possible without FTL communication. What you will have instead is a separate civilization on every star system. From the point of view of each, there would be so many “others” out there that targeting them all with relativistic missiles would be completely futile. Besides, since any unoccupied star system is prime colonization material, there is really no room for a new civilization to arise from scratch. All but one will be colonies, and the one homeworld will be the stuff of legends. Or the subject of a lengthy Galactipedia article. Or whatever….

  • Marshall Eubanks August 2, 2012, 11:18

    @Interstellar Bill
    “If intelligent life had enough probability for SETI success, then we’d see at least one Type III galaxy somewhere within 10 billion ly.”

    But would we know it ? My own feeling is that “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from astrophysics.”

  • ljk August 2, 2012, 14:43

    For those who think that an advanced (and paranoid and greedy and just plain mean) ETI might want to take out all the galactic competition to have the Milky Way all to themselves, Winchell Chung has a most interesting, enlightening, informative, and illustrative discussion on this very topic here (you will have to scroll a bit):


    One of his main points is that if someone is being aggressive, chances are that others will notice and may take action against the aggressors, even if it is just for their own preservation rather than some kind of all-encompasing galactic justice.

    I still say the main reasons we are seemingly isolated on a cosmic scale is due to the vast numbers of star systems and distances between them in the galaxy. And other galaxies just magnify things. Anyone who reads this blog knows that interstellar travel is neither for the weak minded nor weak hearted.

  • Eniac August 2, 2012, 23:01

    @LJK: Yes, exactly right. The presence of many civilizations makes it not only futile, but extremely lethal to pursue a strategy of unprovoked genocide.

    I still do not see how any place in the galaxy could possibly stay isolated for long after the advent of interstellar colonization.

  • Michael Chorost August 3, 2012, 9:57

    I really appreciated Paul’s thoughts on my blog entry and the many smart commenters who weighed in on his ideas and mine. I wrote up a detailed response, taking as my cue Chris Phoenix’s comments, which brought up important questions about communicating with minds that could be completely different from ours. Here, I think about *how* they could be different. Here it is, and thanks again to Paul.


  • tim lower August 4, 2012, 21:53

    Thank you for an interesting article and series of comments.

    Not to plug the book noted in the July 31st post by Gilster & Klaes, but chapter 22 of that text reveals among the human populous the existential loneliness noted in this and Dr. Chorost’s postings on the topic. The chapter also discusses the tendency to projectively reveal our human identity and human needs when contemplating a message that we might send to an extraterrestrial species. We saw this as primarily a function of invoking an in-group/out-group dichotomy between human and extraterrestrial groups.

    This basic in-group/out-group dichotomy commonly leads to perceptions of out-group homogeneity within the in-group. Out-group homogeneity is the tendency to think that members of an out-group (in our case, extraterrestrials) are more similar to each other than are members of the in-group (in our case, humans). The tendency to expect a “hive-minded” species may in this instance serve as an extreme expression of out-group homogeneity (i.e., the belief that extraterrestrials will be so alike that they will have one mind is an extreme version of out-group homogeneity). This tendency does not, of course, rule-out a hive-minded species. Rather, instead it suggests that the apparent odds of contacting such a hive-minded species may be somewhat inflated by our own predictable psychological processes. As LJK notes above, an extraterrestrial species may quite well express substantial individual variation in a variety of psychological functions, including among them intellectual functioning and personality.

    We also tend to diminish the valuable role that prosocial behavior and curiosity play in the selection, development, and expression of intelligence within a given species.

  • ljk August 6, 2012, 9:51

    Eniac said on August 2, 2012 at 23:01:

    “@LJK: Yes, exactly right. The presence of many civilizations makes it not only futile, but extremely lethal to pursue a strategy of unprovoked genocide.”

    “I still do not see how any place in the galaxy could possibly stay isolated for long after the advent of interstellar colonization.”

    Perhaps, but do you take time into this factor? If ETI landed here millions of years ago, would we be able to find any of their remains? Assuming they left any or any that we could find? And even if we did, they would have to be VERY obviously of alien and intelligent origin to be accepted by the professional scientific community.

  • ljk August 6, 2012, 11:10

    Just to give everyone an idea how far mainstream SETI needs to catch up with the latest innovations in technological ideas, Hugo de Garis has been investigating femtotech as a method that highly developed ETI go about their business:


    Note how he has to caveat his ideas with saying how silly they might appear to early 21st Century human mindsets, just as space pioneers of the previous centuries had to “apologize” for such “outlandish” concepts as rocket trips to the Moon.

    To quote from the above linked item:

    “As humanity, or our intelligent machines, create these Xtechs, it seems to me obvious that those civilizations, that are hugely more advanced than we humans are, and that are billions of years older, may be all around us, but way too small for us to detect. This kind of thinking has an impact on the SETI effort (Search for Extra Terrestrial Intelligence). Im now thinking more and more seriously about SIPI (Search for Infra Particle Intelligence), i. e. trying to think about ways to communicate with whole civilizations that live in elementary particles.

    “At first SIPI seemed like a joke, but the more involved I became with devising Xtechs, the more unavoidable the notion of SIPI became. I think SIPI is the answer to Fermi’s famous paradox (if hyperintelligent life is commonplace in the universe, “where are they?”) , namely that they are everywhere around us, but with human levels of technology, they are unobservable, being way too tiny for detection.”

  • Eniac August 10, 2012, 0:17


    Perhaps, but do you take time into this factor? If ETI landed here millions of years ago, would we be able to find any of their remains? Assuming they left any or any that we could find? And even if we did, they would have to be VERY obviously of alien and intelligent origin to be accepted by the professional scientific community.

    What do you suppose happened to their colonies for us to have to rely on remains? Do you not think that in the unlikely event of extinction of an entire settled system, neighboring systems would not immediately take the opportunity to recolonize?

    The vastness of time coupled with the irreversibility of colonization is precisely what will fill the galaxy with life, just as it has filled the Earth. No doubt about it. Your only way out is to claim that colonization does not happen, for whatever reason.

  • ljk August 10, 2012, 11:40

    Maybe others do NOT colonize. Maybe that is just a crazy notion unique to aggressive, greedy humans who have yet to truly appreciate that colonizing a new land across a sea is much easier than latching onto an alien planet.

    I say this in the same vein that others like to say that we humans are the first intelligences in the galaxy and perhaps beyond. I personally don’t really buy into that notion as there are lots of stars much older than our Sol, but I am still waiting for the data to roll in.

    As for interstellar colonization, I know we will just keep going round and round on this matter, but I sincerely question if colonization is the goal of ETI? And when you and others say all it takes is just one, that is assuming a lot that just one species can not only cover the entire galaxy and its 400 billion star systems (even if you leave out all those systems which lack suitable worlds or are otherwise just plain undesirable to live in) but somehow maintain their civilizations across all that space and time. Plus I know Earth seems hunky-dory to us, but would it to another species that evolved on a different world?

    And maybe this is just bias on my part, but if I had the capability to explore the galaxy, I would not want to go from one dirt or ice ball to another and then just stop, not when I literally have the whole Milky Way in my grasp. Because either you are an adventurer, which means you do not want to stop exploring, or you are a stay-at-home type, which means you have little desire to leave a planet in the first place.

  • Eniac August 10, 2012, 23:46

    that is assuming a lot that just one species can not only cover the entire galaxy and its 400 billion star systems

    All it is assuming is that each system, after being colonized, has an appreciable chance to in turn colonize another system in a few thousand years. I don’t think that is assuming a lot. It yields a spread rate of some fraction of a parsec per millenium, and you can calculate yourself how long it will take to cover the farthest reaches of the galaxy. It will be a very short time compared to that which is available.

    The talk about “suitable worlds” and Earth not being “suitable” to others is likely to be completely moot considering that the descendants of ours that will embark on this journey will be much different from us, and in all likelihood adapted to living in space rather than on planets. What they will need is energy and raw materials, and EVERY system has that in copious amounts.

    if I had the capability to explore the galaxy, I would not want to go from one dirt or ice ball to another and then just stop, not when I literally have the whole Milky Way in my grasp.

    I think it is you who needs to recalibrate their sense of time, here. You seem to be imagining a band of explorers having nothing better to do than to roam the galaxy, hopping from star to star, never staying. This is completely the wrong picture, because of the long travel times involved. What interstellar travel will mainly be is a chance to pack up and start a new life at a frontier. A better life, not so much for you, but for your children and grandchildren. Once you settle a world, there is no way everyone will just pack up and leave again after a few weeks. A few will, much later, and that is what will keep the wave going. Most will stay, and life will firmly take root.

    … but somehow maintain their civilizations across all that space and time.

    Every colonization will be a new beginning. Every star will develop its own civilization, or series of civilizations. No “maintenance” involved. It is not about the civilizations, anyway, but life itself. Civilizations may come and go, but life is there to stay. In the one example we know, life has held on for several billion years, without ever even remotely being in danger of “leaving” again. To notice that there is life on Earth, we do not need hard to find “remains”, all we need to do is take a quick look practically anywhere, and we will know that this planet is inhabited. Bringing life to a planet, or a solar system, is an intrinsically irreversible process. A solar system can be seeded, or colonized. It cannot be “unseeded”, or “uncolonized”. Even if (some of?) our descendants somehow transcend and go off into higher spheres where they are undetectable to us, their pets, vermin, houseplants, and other biological cousins will still be there and thrive.

    Unless, of course, interstellar colonization will not happen at all, with a high degree of reliability. This appears to be where you are heading, but your rationalization of why and how this could be the case is not clear.

  • Eniac August 10, 2012, 23:55

    Maybe others do NOT colonize. Maybe that is just a crazy notion unique to aggressive, greedy humans who have yet to truly appreciate that colonizing a new land across a sea is much easier than latching onto an alien planet.

    So here you are allowing for us to be unique in the galaxy, which takes away your best reason to assume the presence of ETI in the first place: the Copernican principle. Lose that and, given the complete absence of evidence for their existence, the ETI become mere figments of the imagination.

  • ljk September 6, 2012, 0:38


    The Transcension Hypothesis: An Intriguing Answer to the Fermi Paradox?

    Owen Nicholas

    Ethical Technology

    Posted: Sep 5, 2012

    Ever since Enrico Fermi questioned back in the 1950s why, if a multitude of civilisations are likely to exist in the Milky Way, no sign of their existence in the form of probes or spacecraft has ever been detected, scientists and critical thinkers have struggled to resolve the problem by supplying a host of inventive arguments with mixed reception.

    To date one of the most common answers to the Great Silence was simply that life is so rare, so widely distributed, and the scale of the universe so immense, that the probability of contact or communication between any two space-faring civilisations is almost non-existent. Needless to say an outlook which seems like a very lonely, sad and pessimistic state of affairs for intelligent life to find itself in.

    However, John Smart, of the Accelerating Studies Foundation, has proposed a novel idea which suggests a rather more exciting and stranger fate for intelligence than previous conceptions. In the Transcension Hypothesis, he suggests that sufficiently advanced civilisations may invariably leave our universe by using and eventually relocating to black-hole-like destinations! Bizarre as this notion may initially sound the suggestion is backed by considerable research drawn from fields as diverse as biology, physics, computer science, information theory and sociology, with a series of falsifiable claims which will become testable in the coming decades.

    A central principle of the theory is that the evolution and development of our universe should in some sense be broadly predictable and constrained by its internal processes in much the same way as the life cycle of a biological organism is constrained by its developmental genetic toolkit. The biological analogy, as it turns out, is a vitally important means of conceptualising both the divergent and convergent physical trends that will shape any far-future emergent order. Before examining this idea further, a distinction is made between two complementary genetic mechanisms; evolutionary and developmental systems.

    Evolutionary systems are those that are defined as the unpredictable, creative, locally-driven mechanisms that involve two way communication/feedback modes and bottom-up organisation which is characteristic of the vast majority of biological change. Developmental systems by contrast are considered to be responsible for less than 5% of genetic material and accounts for the predictable, cyclical, globally driven, one way and top down modes of organising. One process accounts for the creative complexity and phenotypic variation of biological life, the other for the pattern conservation and repetition of forms, such as the development of general body plans and life cycles. Those genes which direct and constrain developmental change naturally alter very slowly over time while those involved in evolutionary processes change considerably faster.

    It is these developmental processes in biology that govern cycles of birth, growth, maturation, reproduction, senescence and death that Smart seeks to apply to the possible development of the universe as a system. If the universe can be described as existing within a life cycle, then it becomes feasible to ask which aspects of the observable universe are attributable to evolutionary processes and which to developmental ones. If quantum mechanics, chaos, non-linear dynamics can be described as fundamentally creative and unpredictable then the laws of classical mechanics, conservation and entropy can adversely be seen as conservative and predictable.

    It is Smart’s contention furthermore that if we could witness the evolutionary development of two parametrically identical universes from birth to death we would expect to see huge differences in terms of the creation of internal structure, the evolution of life, emergence of intelligence and the application of technology within such civilisations whilst at the same time observing deep commonalities in terms of historic processes, as well as biological, cultural and technological convergence. Species convergence in the sense of a non-identical, dynamic progression towards universal milestones is of critical importance to Smart’s next suggestion; rather than advanced civilisations seeding the galaxy in a process of expansion, evolutionary development guides intelligent life increasingly into inner space and what is referred to as STEM, small scales of space, time, energy and matter that eventually lead to black hole like domains.

    The reversal of scale from the very large stellar engineering projects predicated on the expansionist model to the very small atomic and subatomic realms offered by the transcension model would certainly explain why no evidence so far exists of galactic intelligence despite the relative lateness of humanity’s arrival on the scene, particularly as the universe seems to many cosmologists as a life friendly environment. But what evidence is there that transcension is a feasible developmental trend?

    Here Smart turns to the history of structural complexity and argues that much in the same way that cosmological superclusters gave birth to the first galaxies, which in turn created the first stars that lead to stellar habitable zones, the evolution of planetary life and the emergence of localised human cultures, so to do human societies develop increasing specialisation, the construction of industrial cities which have become the leading edges of our civilisation, one that now stands on the brink of creating localised self aware technology. This great leap downwards will represent a further order of connectivity and miniaturisation as intelligent computers will have access to micro-realms and nano-computational domains currently beyond present technology. While expansions do occur such as the colonisation of the land by marine life or the future colonisation of the solar system by robots, Smart maintains that these events are limited, temporary phenomena compared to the predominant trend of increasing locality of the spatial domain within complex systems.

    According to the hypothesis, the reasons for this trend are fairly simple; compression and energy rate density (energy flow per unit mass or volume) leads to increasing efficiency and computational capability:

    ‘Energy efficiency acceleration has also been shown to be smoothly logarithmic for at least the last few hundred years, across a broad variety of lighting, power, computation, and communications technologies and nanotechnologies. Note also that the higher the energy flow density of any system, the closer the system approaches the universal density limit—a black hole.’

    Following this train of thought the growth in computational capability as measured by information creation, processing speed and connectivity, would appear to progress exponentially at the leading edge of complex systems with each medium being replaced by more STEM efficient substrates. The idea of accelerating complexity as a universal developmental process will not be new to anyone familiar with the concept of a technological singularity. But where transcension is unique is that it offers a framework by which people can examine the possibility within the context of an, at least partly, predictable cycle.

    Rejecting the Kardashev scale as a meaningful measure for civilisation Smart goes on to support John D. Barrow’s scale of particle manipulation as a more appropriate indicator. In the Barrow scale a civilisation is assessed based on the spatial localisation of their engineering; the ability to miniaturise increasingly dense, efficient and complex structures down to Planck-scale limits. STEM compression rather than energy consumption becomes the key factor in judging the level of development, from the manipulation of genes and molecules down to the level of elementary particles and the fabric of space time itself. That seemingly magical capability may in fact be closer to reality than people imagine. For the human species it is estimated that if Moore’s law continues to hold, within 600 years a physical limit to computational acceleration will have been reached, leaving only one remaining domain to utilise. The energy dense environment of a black hole.

    There are a number of reasons why black holes would seem to be an attractive environment for STEM density and general learning systems. Seth Lloyd has proposed that black holes may provide the ultimate computing environment by removing the energy cost of information transfer. This would solve the ‘memory wall’ that exists in contemporary computing and allow instantaneous communication and computation from any point to point in the event horizon. Also, bizarrely due to gravitational time dilation, the closer you approach a black hole the slower non-local time becomes to the point that near instantaneous forward time travel with respect to the rest of the universe would take place.

    This means that any miniaturised civilisation situated directly above the event horizon of a black hole would witness the universe speed through its processes in the literal blink of an eye. Galaxies such as the Milky Way and Andromeda would collide and merge, and if our current theories are sound, so would all black holes in their local gravity wells. In fact according to some, all the matter in our universe will one day end up inside merged black holes. Entering a black hole without losing structural information would therefore be a considerable challenge to any advanced intelligence and one of the ways it might do this would be by reengineering itself with femtotechnology, structures at sub atomic scales.

    If you are part of a civilisation which has utilised all STEM resources to create a super dense, super efficient computational substrate, commonly referred to as ‘computronium’, you may increasingly find the rest of the universe too slow and informationally dull relative to you. If this situation became intolerable then capturing as much non-local information as theoretically possible in the shortest amount of time might become a central priority. Black holes could act as ‘ultimate learning devices’ by altering the physical constraints of the universe, enabling you to merge rapidly with the most complex regions in existence, namely other intelligences. This would have interesting ramifications for astronomical features currently observable, for instance there are certain classes of accretion disc around super-massive black holes that are the most efficient energy harvesters known to exist, in some cases 50 times more efficient than stellar nuclear fusion. It might be that some unusual, highly efficient black hole formation may be evidence of intelligent processes rather than classical ones.

    However, Smart conceives black holes as being much more than simply ideal attractors for advanced complexity, but rather as test beds for further competition, cooperation and natural selection at the merger point. The artificial creation of black holes and the passive coalescing of intelligence is seen as a possible developmentally constrained destination for all advanced civilisations. What is more Smart connects this possibility with Lee Smolin’s Cosmological Natrual Selection or the fecund universe theory that suggests black holes may act as seeds or replicators of universes within a multiversal structure.

    Over the decades the central singularity within black holes has been postulated as an ideal candidate for universe creation as the laws of relativity collapse in this region, allowing for improbably infinite energy and spatial densities. Any daughter universe generated here might, according to Smolin, exhibit fundamental parameters that are causally different from the parent universe. As with Smart’s hypothesis these fundamental parameters can be divided between those that are regarded as developmental, responsible for cosmological longevity, complexity and black hole abundance, and those that are responsible for generating phenotypic variation and thus regarded as evolutionary. So, through transcension, intelligent life may avoid the eventual decay and death of the universe in much the same way that biological systems transcend the death of the body through germline replication. As Smart iterates:

    ‘ In this scenario, each universal civilization may be in the process of turning into something analogous to a seed, a developmental structure that packages its evolutionary history and experience in a way that transcends our apparently finite and potentially dying universe, just as seeds transcend finite and dying biological bodies. An equivalent biological analogy for our universe itself might be an ovarian follicle, a developmental structure that assembles many potential seeds and puts them in a competitive selective system to generate the best new seed.’

    Smart also believes that this is something which will become increasingly plausible to test via computer modelling and scientific simulation. Just as phylogenetic trees of living systems are being created, so universe morphology is being conceptualised and mapped with the intention of categorising which fundamental parameters are conserved and which are stochastic and variable processes. The hope is that with advances in computing it will be possible to simulate various universe models and gain valuable insights into the way our own is structured.

    One of the biggest implications of an evolutionary developmental universe lies in the field of METI (messaging extra-terrestrial intelligence) which has continued in the optimistic vein of assuming that contact is not only possible but would be beneficial to the two parties concerned. But if transcension is correct in its proposal that sufficiently advanced civilisations will accelerate technologically via STEM compression and the use of black hole environments, then this may be an unwitting mistake.

    Remembering Smart’s biological analogy that all civilisations undergo two separate yet parallel processes, one unpredictable, innovative, and often reversible, the other predictable, constrained and often irreversible, we can observe two very different messaging systems in action. Evolutionary mechanisms require constant feedback from the environment while developmental processes use one way communication that is not altered by the local environment. A case in point is the developmental constraints of two human identical twins that have been separated at birth.

    Due to the particular self organisation of our universe and the limiting factor of the speed of light any interstellar send and receive cycle would be far too slow to aid in local evolutionary progression. If every message takes at least 100 light years to cross the chasms of space, what sort of meaningful conversation could ever be sustained? Because of this it is Smart’s contention that any such occurrence would be a very rare, very local, and short lived phenomenon. Across such time and distances the only worthwhile messages would be developmental ones, which would have to be one way and hence only useful for control and constraint not for innovation. Sending simple information already known by the receiver would not be worth the cost to send, while transmitting complex and advanced data could only serve to limit the receiving civilisation by directing them to transcension in a similar way.

    This could be extremely disagreeable as any later merger would be considerably standardised and monocultural in nature. Monocultures are evolutionarily non-advantageous and any reduction in variation amongst complex organisms may be inherently undesirable.

    Decreasing the variability of another civilisation’s evolutionary path would be condemning them to accept and follow our incomplete and culturally biased world view, which poses a rather unique moral problem. If one way messages are genuinely destructive of variation then perhaps a moral incentive exists amongst advanced civilisations not to contact burgeoning cultures in a variation on the zoo hypothesis. The zoo hypothesis contends that alien life chooses to avoid contact with less developed societies and adopt a strategy of non-intervention in order to prevent precisely such a scenario occurring. Even if such messages or interventions do occur it is assumed that the vast majority of advanced cultures have arrived at similar conclusions to those expressed by transcension and do not violate the principle.

    So far the case for transcension has made logical sense within the framework of an evolutionary developmental universe that possesses the traits outlined above, but are there any empirical tests that can be undertaken to prove the hypothesis one way or another? Here Smart proposes exactly that. Based on the rate at which technological civilisations like ours develop electromagnetic communications it is estimated that a brief window of around 200 years may be all that unintentionally emitted ‘leakage signals’ from radar, radio, and TV etc, have to emanate from our planet. If calculations regarding the exponential acceleration of computing are correct, it is suggested that a mere 400 years after radio silence intelligent civilisations may reorganise themselves into near black hole dense matter.

    The regular cessation of leakage signals and any METI program would therefore be a common feature in a life-friendly, transcension universe. Assuming that the number of civilisations our age or older that exist in the Milky Way is in the millions, then using a sensitive radio telescope that can survey the whole galaxy we would expect to detect thousands of leakage signals. This would depend on the accuracy of the 200 year signal life span. If it was possible to measure the cessation curve in space and time this might be experimental evidence supporting a transcension like process of some kind.

    Unfortunately developing the infrastructure which will be necessary to search such a vast region of space is no easy feat and comes with significant hurdles. Those arrays which are in the early stages of planning and construction are limited both in terms of the potential range of the instrumentation and the relatively small radio-loud leakage window, only 100 years in some estimates. Earth was loud for a similar period and by now most communications have been moved to the much higher bandwidth domain of fibre optics, which is unlikely to be reversed. The Murchison Wide-Field Array under construction in Australia might detect signals from 30 light years away but would be confined to 11 G-type stars only, needless to say an insignificant population. By 2019 the Square Kilometre Array may cover 1000 G type stars up to 300 light years away, but again proportionally these numbers are small and considering the chances of the signal window being open, unlikely to yield much.

    Furthermore, estimates of detection probability may be misleadingly high due to overestimating signal strength and the integration time. If transcension is a ubiquitous process then until much larger arrays can be built either on the ground or ideally in space or on the far side of the moon, where a radio blackout exists with respect to the earth, it is unlikely that SETI radio telescope programs will accomplish much in the near future.

    Fortunately this is not the case for optical SETI which may provide a wealth of information that can be analysed on a transcension related basis. Using methods such as transit photometry it is increasingly possible to detect planetary, atmospheric and importantly life signatures of exo-planets hundreds of light years away. The abundance or deficit of earth-like planets exhibiting signs of life and their distribution in the galaxy potentially says a lot about the likelihood of transcension being a valid destination for intelligence. If the theory is correct we would expect to see an inner ring within each galactic habitable zone of far older planets that have collapsed into near black hole densities as part of a growing transcension zone. Smart describes this as the ‘missing planets problem’, an absence or a much lower frequency of life-signature exo-planets observed in the inner rings of the habitable zone. The expanding edge of the transcension zone should be well defined with planets of the right age and distance from the galactic core regularly flipping states and becoming STEM dense objects.

    Assuming reaching the limits of Moore’s law coincides with transcension and we are within a millennium of our own black hole like state, then the Earth should appear on the outer boundary of such a transcension zone. We may also be able to detect high rates of unusual phenomenon, such as black hole migration towards the galactic core or potentially artificial binary systems which you might find as Jupiter-mass black holes absorb their parent stars. Claims such as these may take a while to verify or refute but the central point is that methods exist that will in future provide evidence either way.

    At the heart of the transcension hypothesis lies the belief that the accelerating leading edge of computational abilities and our ability to access STEM densities and efficiencies, must in some way be representative of the developmental processes of our universe. The more computationally complex a system becomes, whether this system is biological or mechanical in nature, the more STEM efficient and STEM dense becomes its physical substrate. Smart see’s growth curves across the spectrum of technological and social phenomena as being indicative of developmental processes, which are in some sense becoming increasingly irreversible as our civilisation matures. From economics, production rates and price-performance, to social morality and falling rates of violence in developing societies, Smart identifies a general sweeping trend of greater complexity, interconnectedness, self-organisation and regulation, computational capacity and miniaturisation. Much as biophysicist Gregory Stock has explored, the emergence of a global brain is to Smart an almost foregone conclusion:

    ‘While evolutionary process is best characterized by divergence and speciation, the hallmark of developmental processes is convergence and unification. A planet of postbiological life forms, if subject to universal development, may increasingly look like one integrated organism, and if so, its entities will be vastly more responsible, regulated, and self-restrained than human beings. If developmental immunity exists, planetary transitions from life to intelligent life, and from intelligent life to postbiological life should be increasingly high-probability. The exact probabilities of each of these transitions, also seems likely to be empirically measurable by future astrobiology and SETI.’

    Evo devo theorists will argue that a failure to transcend would be due to evolutionary variation disrupting a developmental process, while success would mean the triumph of development in preventing evolutionary disturbances. The key question that must be asked is how much do evolutionary processes contribute to transcension? If the answer is high then we must expect a great deal of variation in when and how civilisations within the galactic habitable zone achieve transcension. Some of them may well be evolutionary failures involving expansionist surges, stellar engineering feats and major exploration of outer space. If on the other hand developmental processes are dominant then we should expect to see predictable advancements and phenotypic parameters as well as a well defined pattern of distribution amongst transcension civilisations. While this will not be true for every case, and behavioural deviancy amongst alien cultures in terms of METI and interstellar probes will undoubtedly exist, any universal developmental process should be robust enough to absorb local variation.

    From Greg Egan’s Diaspora; where an uploaded humanity disappears into subatomic wormholes in search of novelty, to Stephen Baxter’s Xeelee omnibus; where all baryonic life must flee our universe before the dominance of dark matter lifeforms, science fiction has long portrayed visions of future civilisation transcending the known universe. But it is far more interesting when a scientific hypothesis, one that incorporates and connects with a wide variety of contemporary studies, should make similar far reaching claims. Whether transcension into a computational microcosm is a viable route for advanced civilisation I will leave up to more informed thinkers to debate the issue, but what I imagine is exciting to many is just how boundless the possibility state seems to be for humanity should it survive the next few hundred years.

    Short of some existential catastrophe the future of our species may be more bizarre then we could ever imagine. Is transcension an intriguing answer to the Fermi paradox or another technological/space-time singularity fantasy? Is density really our destiny?

    Owen Nicholas is a recent graduate from Nottingham University where he majored in History and Political Science; he is involved in numerous charities aiding the elderly and ethnic minorities and teaches English to foreign students.

  • Jesus September 19, 2012, 7:15