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Visualizing the Alien: A Hollywood Conundrum

Aliens used to look more or less like humans in the films of the 1950s. Think Michael Rennie in The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951), a polished alien presence if there ever was one. We got humanoid aliens with strange powers or technologies, like Jeff Morrow playing Exeter in This Island Earth (1955) — a prominent forehead and strange hair is all it takes. Even James Arness’ vegetable man (The Thing from Another World, 1951), although seen but briefly and on a rampage, is recognizably humanoid.


Image: James Arness makes his appearance in Howard Hawks’ The Thing from Another World.

I watched all those films and many other SF movies besides when I was growing up, almost all on TV re-runs. Later, special effects would vastly improve, and non-humanoid aliens thrived, my favorite being the repulsive title character in Ridley Scott’s Alien (1979), so dramatically visualized by Swiss surrealist Hans Rudolf Giger. Now we see aliens in all shapes and sizes, from the many-toothed predator that causes problems for the local (all too humanoid) beings in James Cameron’s Avatar (2009) to the shape-changing monstrosity of John Carpenter’s 1982 version of The Thing.

Science writer Leslie Mullen has a nice piece on Hollywood depictions of aliens whose title carries the punch: We’re Still Waiting for Hollywood to Depict a Plausible Alien Ecosystem. Interestingly, one of the big problems that the scientists she interviewed see in Hollywood is that its aliens seem to have no constraints on their growth. I hadn’t even noticed this, but of course it’s true: The creature in the original Alien pops out of John Hurt’s chest (a memorable scene indeed) and almost immediately begins to grow.

But how? Mullen quotes biochemist Jim Cleaves (Institute for Advanced Study) on the matter:

“The alien always bothered me. Somehow it manages to turn a few pounds of biomass into several hundred pounds of really hyperactive alien really quickly, without actually eating anything.”

Nutritional issues are a common theme in critiques voiced in this piece by Cleaves and Caleb Scharf (Columbia University), who has his own bone to pick with Avatar:

“There’s a creature with lots of teeth. It’s cool. But whenever you invoke such a monstrous thing, you have to ask, Could this ecosystem really support that? We had dinosaurs at one point, but there were a lot of them, and an enormous food pyramid to support that. So you wouldn’t have a quiet forest except for one enormous monster. What are they eating?”

And how about the enemy ‘bugs’ in Paul Verhoeven’s Starship Troopers (1997)? What exactly did they do to stay alive?

Plugging in a monster moves a plot right along, of course, but if that’s all it’s doing, the plot is neglecting to examine how a real biosphere would work. That would be a sensationally complex task, but given the amount of research now going on in astrobiology and exoplanetary science, the suspicion here is that experts could be summoned who could produce such a film. Even so, there is something to be said for not seeing aliens.

Think 2001: A Space Odyssey, where we see artifacts rather than beings, a fact which lets the viewer’s imagination speculate on what the builders of the monoliths might have been like. Or think about Arkady and Boris Strugatsky’s 1971 novel Roadside Picnic. Andrei Tarkovsky’s film Stalker (1979) grew out of this, with screenplay by the authors. Here we see the aftermath of an extraterrestrial visitation that took place simultaneously at locations around the world. No aliens are seen, but the six Visitation Zones are scattered with odd, incomprehensible artifacts. An illegal smuggling trade in these artifacts emerges. But just who were these aliens, what was their purpose, and did they even notice the fact that they were, briefly, in the midst of an active technological civilization?


Image: No aliens here, which actually gives Stalker its force. What to make of an incomprehensible technology’s detritus?

Mullen’s essay quotes Penny Boston (NASA Astrobiology Institute) on a form of life that may challenge Hollywood’s best special effects crews. Robert Forward’s novel Dragon’s Egg (1980) depicts life on a neutron star with a surface gravity 67 billion times that of the Earth. Here we find the Cheela, which are tiny creatures whose civilization advances a million times faster than our own, as observed by humans in an orbiting craft.

How screenwriters would handle scenes on a neutron star is an open question, but each new movie gives us the opportunity to watch another treatment of an issue that has gone from Hollywood trope to serious speculation in a few short decades. Think about this as you evaluate the aliens in Denis Villeneuve’s new film Arrival, and ponder the directions evolution might take given billions of possible worlds on which to work its magic.

Even back in the days of the original Star Trek, as Caleb Scharf notes in Mullen’s essay, writers dreamed up the Horta (the episode was “The Devil in the Dark”), who look like nothing more than rocks. It takes the crew a while to realize they are intelligent. I’m reminded of something Jacob Bronowski said in his TV series The Ascent of Man (1973):

Within the last few years there have been found in the interstellar spaces the spectral traces of molecules which we never thought could be formed out in those frigid regions: hydrogen cyanide, cyanoacetylene, formaldehyde. These are molecules which we had not supposed to exist elsewhere than on Earth. It may turn out that life had more varied beginnings and has more varied forms. And it does not at all follow that the evolutionary path which life (if we discover it) took elsewhere must resemble ours. It does not even follow that we shall recognise it as life — or that it will recognise us.”


Comments on this entry are closed.

  • David Cummings December 1, 2016, 13:30

    I know this article is talking about Hollywood aliens and not aliens throughout SF literature in general, but still, I have to mention one of my all-time-favorite fictional aliens (so far, we only have fiction!):

    The Primes of Pandora’s Star (and its sequel) by Peter F. Hamilton.

    • Robert G December 1, 2016, 17:19

      I thought it was very funny in the later void trilogy where he describes how, having fought and lost an epic spaceships and hydrogen bombs war with humanity, the highly intelligent and utterly alien primes’ next move is to hire a bunch of human lawyers to represent them!

    • Michael Spencer December 2, 2016, 8:02

      I’m listening to that book now, as it turns out – for the third time, being a slow learner – Hamilton goes nuts with Morning Light Mountain. Easily the most alien aliens.

  • ljk December 1, 2016, 13:59

    The makers of 2001: A Space Odyssey did create several different designs for the Monolith ETI, but thankfully none of them were in the final film. This blog article goes into wonderful detail on the aliens we never saw:


    As much as I always enjoy the Horta, if for no other reason that they were not yet another all-too-humanoid species in the Star Trek universe, apparently they would not be plausible scientifically as depicted. But don’t take my word for it:


    The Cheela from Dragon’s Egg, despite being small sluglike beings who live millions of times faster than humans due to dwelling on the surface of a neutron star, sadly behave in very human ways. This is definitely not Solaris even though the world itself is far more alien in so many ways.

    For those who want to read Roadside Picnic, here you go:


    • Al Jackson December 2, 2016, 10:39

      “The makers of 2001: A Space Odyssey did create several different designs for the Monolith ETI, but thankfully none of them were in the final film. This blog article goes into wonderful detail on the aliens we never saw:”
      Thanks for that link! Had not seen it before. Welp still looks as if Sagan’s suggestion had influence on Kubrick and Clarke. A alien from civilization advanced by millions of years would indeed be just ‘indistinguishable’.
      One notes that Clarke wrote that after that dinner Sagan was supposed to have lunch with Clarke and Kubrick the next day. Kubrick, for some reason, took a dislike for Sagan and told Clarke to say he was busy and had to duck lunch and for Clarke to entertain Sagan.
      There is also a note , somewhere, that Sagan wanted a credit on the screen and some money, I suppose this did not sit right with Kubrick.

    • Al Jackson December 2, 2016, 10:52

      It is curious that Solaris was made into film twice , Andrei Tarkovsky (1972) and Steven Soderbergh (2002), both very respectful films, maybe the Tarkovsky being even more faithful. Both keep Lem’s ‘sentient ocean’ , a sort-of analog of the Monolith Makers in 2001, so another transcendent alien.
      I have read Lem’s Solaris , I like it very much, but it passes beyond my understanding why one would want to make a visual narrative out it. Neither film captured the deep philosophical issues which is Lem’s heavy artillery in that novel…. and thats not box-office in any case.

  • Alex Tolley December 1, 2016, 14:47

    To add another favorite movie with an alien growing from very little – the spores that create a huge alien starting out with just an astronaut surving the first manned space flight in the first Quatermass move : “The Quatermass Experiment” [AKA “The Creeping Unknown”].

    Most of the monster movies are of the same ilk, with just one representative of the lifeform, e.g. King Kong. And just how many top predator carnivorous dinosaurs can live on a small plateau in the Brazilian jungle? ( The Lost World”).

    We see the same problem today with the Loch Ness Monster. There would need to be a minimum size breeding population. Just what would these aquatic reptiles be eating to support such a population?

    As for the Star Trek TOS horta, it is an example of a single species ecosystem. How could it have evolved and where are all the other life forms that were also evolving with it? Where did they go? Wouldn’t there be at least fossil evidence of them too, as all that mining would have uncovered, just as we do in coal mines and rock quarries.

    The humanoid form, 4 legs, bipedal, and a face arranged as ours is a lucky accident of terrestrial evolution. Other phyla look nothing like vertebrates, let alone primates. Having said that, evolutionary space may only occupy a tiny fraction of possible forms. At least this appears to be the case on earth. The diversity of forms is wide, but not infinitely so, and some forms seem to evolve the same features independently, e.g. eyes, or more general physical forms, torpedo shapes with a finned or fluked tail for swimming.

    While the focus of this article has been about the visible forms of aliens, also of importance is how life is organized. What are the information storage molecules? How are they translated? What are the possible metabolisms? Is all life organized at the cellular level as on Earth, or are other arrangements possible? For the biologist, these questions are even more fundamental than the physical form of aliens.

    • Paul Gilster December 1, 2016, 16:42

      I have a great affection for the Brian Donlevy Quatermass movies. He seemed perfect for the role.

      • Al Jackson December 2, 2016, 10:58

        Enemy from Space has one of the most wonderful sequences in a SF film. Quatermass discovers an enemy extraterrestrial instillation way out on the English country side. When he goes to the authorities to get them to come see, he lies, he makes up a story that they will believe to get them to come out! That trumped Hollywood scenarios 1000 times over!

    • ljk December 1, 2016, 17:10

      Ah, the Loch Ness Monster…


    • Mephane December 2, 2016, 3:41

      “The humanoid form, 4 legs, bipedal, and a face arranged as ours is a lucky accident of terrestrial evolution. Other phyla look nothing like vertebrates, let alone primates. Having said that, evolutionary space may only occupy a tiny fraction of possible forms. At least this appears to be the case on earth. The diversity of forms is wide, but not infinitely so, and some forms seem to evolve the same features independently, e.g. eyes, or more general physical forms, torpedo shapes with a finned or fluked tail for swimming.”

      One thing to always keep in mind here is that evolution only rarely produces something novel, but most of the time just variations of the same. For example, vertebrates essentially share the same anatomy, just different proportions of various organs, bones etc. That we see all these animals with 4 extremities, 2 eyes and ears, 1 mouth, 1 nose etc. is because they all originated from the same ancestors. Any fictional alien ecosystem should incorporate this, for example if you want to make 6-legged aliens spacefarers, it would be the most plausible that most of the animals on their planet are also six-legged.

      • Alex Tolley December 2, 2016, 12:42

        For example, vertebrates essentially share the same anatomy, just different proportions of various organs, bones etc.

        I know what you are trying to say, but you are wrong. Even just looking at vertebrates from most primitive to the most recently evolved forms, this isn’t true, even though all forms have evolved from common ancestors.

        However, to take your point, it has been discussed in a previous post, where the Na’avi in Avalar are 4 limbed, whilst all the other megafauna are 6 limbed, something that appears to be an evolutionary problem unless the Na’avi are not natives.

        But beware of generalities without understanding the details. Reptiles are 4 limbed, yet snakes have no limbs. Insects have 4 wings, yet houseflies have 2. These examples seem to suggest major physical divergences. yet these “anomalies” are explained quite easily.

        • Michael T December 5, 2016, 0:30

          “But beware of generalities without understanding the details. Reptiles are 4 limbed, yet snakes have no limbs. Insects have 4 wings, yet houseflies have 2. These examples seem to suggest major physical divergences. yet these “anomalies” are explained quite easily.”


          Snakes (and whales) still have the vestigial leg bones. Houseflies have have vestigial wings (halteres) that look like small balls on a flexible stalk. Humans have vestiges of gills (in utero) and fish bones( in the inner ear) for example.

          These examples go to show that there are variations on a theme that was set by early ancestors. In fact the ancestral pattern restricts the variation that CAN be made. So we have the vertebrate pattern (4 pentadactyl limbs, dorsal nerve chord, etc) and the Insect theme (6 legs, 3 body segments, ventral nerve chord), and flowers, which are modified leaves, on plants that share the basic roots-stem-leaf structure, however modified. There are no six-lgged mammals, no insects with a dorsal nerve chord.

          But allowing for that, like a good jazz player, evolution can do some pretty good and wild variations!

          • Alex Tolley December 5, 2016, 12:09

            Evolution has proven very good at making modifications to improve fitness in specific environments. But let us not forget that this is all a gigantic kluge based on the primary mechanism of natural selection operating on the existing structures. Engineering design will eventually surpass evolution, which is one reason I think that our engineered, probably machine, descendants will be the colonizers of the galaxy, if that is their goal. Our primitive space probes are already better adapted to their tasks than humans, especially for deep space missions. In a thousand years, they will far surpass any human being in capability, while humans will be enhanced only to the limited degree that bioengineering can manage to work with our existing biology.

  • Robert G December 1, 2016, 15:55

    Evolutionary biology creates lifeforms that are suited to replicating in their environment. Intelligence aids this, but has the power to develop objectives other than those required for self perpetuation.
    Science and technology developed by intelligent organisms give them the ability to develop self replicating, intelligent, self-redesigning machinery of their own and assign it whatever objective they choose.

    Given the distances between the stars, it seems to me that we are more likely to run into the artefacts of alien civilisation than the aliens themselves.

    Could we distinguish evolved biology from potentially very lifelike machinery?

    Maybe the ‘Transformers’ aren’t so very far off the mark! :)

    • Eniac December 1, 2016, 23:56

      I, too, think that machine life might be almost indistinguishable from human life when encountered in space. But not because the machines are “lifelike”. Both would look like machinery, except that inside the latter you can make out squishy little soft parts wiggling around, if you look closely.

      • ljk December 2, 2016, 12:17

        Let’s expand our SETI paradigm a bit and conduct SIPI, a Search for Infra Particle Intelligence:



      • Alex Tolley December 2, 2016, 12:47

        Like Daleks? ;)

        Advanced machinery might look quite biological, if cellular based machines are optimal. I tend to doubt it myself, as it requires artificial biology by non-biological nanomachines (like Drexler’s original ideas) to work. Our technology is more likely to follow non-cellular approaches more suitable for design and engineering goals than an evolutionary one. But who knows what the future will bring. “Smart fog” that coalesces into any form might be the way future machines work.

      • Robert G December 2, 2016, 15:49

        Like General Grievous!

  • Charley December 1, 2016, 16:14

    While there may be considerable problems as to the nature of visualizing the so-called ‘Alien’, there would be perhaps less trouble in that particular category, if we were better able to recognize the alien within ourselves. What I’m speaking of? Let’s consider the movie coming out on December twentieth of this month – ‘Passengers’.
    From the trailers that are being presented about this movie, I take it that Chris Platt, who plays one of the awakees (if you allow the creation of a new word) states that he has a confession to make as to why he and Jennifer Lawrence awoke 90 years early on their voyage between star systems.

    From what I’ve been able to gather from seeing the trailers that have been showing this movie appears to have some connection with a very wonderful story that I read for free online a few years ago concerning an individual who is awakened from a hibernation pod while in deep space on a similar type ship, as shown in the movie and he is unable (just like our hero and heroine in the upcoming movie) to return to the hibernation state.

    Within the context of this story I had read, he discovers that he has inadvertently switched hibernation pods with an individual who was to awaken and sabotage the ship and therefore the mission; and I believe that is what we’re going to see here in this upcoming movie.

    You can see that we can even recognize among our own kind, the alien nature of those who depart from the norms of acceptable behavior and violate the social stability. Why would we expect that if we can’t recognize that among our own kind, that we would be able to expect to recognize the nature of the alien and otherworldly creatures? Just a thought here…

    • Joe December 1, 2016, 22:59

      The saboteur sounds like an extreme anti-METI advocate.

    • ljk December 2, 2016, 10:14

      In the future a SPOILER WARNING would be appreciated before discussing in detail the plot elements of any film before it comes out and then shortly after its premiere.

      My biggest concern is not that aliens will be so different from us, but rather that they will be very much like us.

      • Charley December 2, 2016, 10:45

        @ljk – I don’t think you have to worry about it being a SPOILER type of situation in what I suggested might be the plot element; that was simply my surmise from what is shown in the trailers – I don’t know that for a FACT !
        It’s simply a observation on my part on what was said and I combine that with what I remember reading online on a free story which seem to bear similar plot elements to what is forthcoming in this movie. IT’S NO GUARANTEE that this is what the movie is going to be about. It’s a shame that I don’t remember the name of that online story are whereto located online. I’d really like to share it with you all ! We was really a wonderfully written story and I would like to have read it again and again. So please don’t be disappointed in me in suggesting that that is the story line behind ‘Passengers’ !

  • Stuart Greenhouse December 1, 2016, 16:49

    Long-time reader, first-time commenter. Just a quick question:

    given that there might be life in extraterrestrial environments, and that there is a range of extraterrestrial environments, we have no idea what the range of life might look like. Even on Earth, in the environment which is our home, the forms of current speciation are so manifold as to be astounding and edge into the unrecognizable. Given that:

    wouldn’t it make sense to start looking for life which is as recognizable as possible? i.e. if there’s life out there, we’ve probably looked at it or signs/remnants of it and not even realized what we’re looking at, so different it might be. But:

    recognizing it would be the grad school of extrasolar life studies. Doesn’t it make sense to start as close to recognizable as possible? i.e. starting with looking for Earth analogues with recognizable biosignatures? And doing so with the understanding that that’s not the extent of the possibility of our understanding of what we might find, but just the foothold.

    Just a thought. When there’s so many possibilities, it seems to make sense to start drawing whatever lines you can. In Star Trek terms, start with the bipeds out there. Later the salt monsters can be attempted, or the gaseous balls of energy-thought. Or whatever.

    • Paul Gilster December 1, 2016, 17:06

      Good point, Stuart. And I think this in fact happens when we speak about ‘habitable zones’ around other stars. We’re always talking about habitability in terms of liquid water on the surface, and hence considering life more or less as we know it. We could extend the idea eventually to the moons of gas giants like Europa — we just don’t know what might be going on in these places yet. But it does make sense to first identify the places most likely to have a kind of life we understand and go on from there.

  • DJ Kaplan December 1, 2016, 17:22

    This presents a very interesting thought experiment.
    One thing is probably certain: when we start saying what extraterrestrial life “is not”, then we will most likely be proven wrong.
    (Of course, movies thrive on drama; the easy choice is to make the alien a threat to the protagonist.)
    The real drama, I think, will eventually pivot around our definition of what life is and what it is not.

  • Ronald December 1, 2016, 18:10

    I just saw Arrival and loved it. Not the usual Hollywood heroic feel-good movie with good guys (us) and bad guys (them), but a credible story, in fact a tragic one, with really alien aliens, but highly intelligent ones, and we humans are definitely not the heroes.
    And Roadside Picnic is still one of my favorites.
    The similarity is in the (lack of, mis)communication, the language.

  • hiro December 1, 2016, 21:05

    I’d like to add Wang’s Carpets (Egan) to the list, unfortunately any standard communication with this type of creature is quite boring hence it’s ignored in general.

  • Andrew Palfreyman December 1, 2016, 22:13

    I have to nitpick the Dragon’s Egg plot. Living at the bottom of a gravity well means that an external observer sees your time moving more slowly, not faster. This indeed forms a plot point in Stargate SG-1 with the “temporal imprisonment” of The Replicators.

    • Eniac December 2, 2016, 21:08

      Dragon’s Egg life moves much faster for mechanistic reasons, not relativistic. I think the (physically sound) reasoning is that the characteristic timescale at which strong force reactions would occur is many orders of magnitude shorter than the electroweak interactions that determine ordinary chemistry.

      There is also the small size and ultrahigh gravity which would make the timescale at which things mechanically move similarly accelerated.

      Relativistic time dilation is minimal on neutron stars and plays no role.

  • Michael Chorost December 1, 2016, 22:47

    Loved this entry. I have been thinking about this issue. A lot. Not so much from the biochemistry/ecology side of things, but from the cognitive/linguistic side. As some of you know, I’ve been writing a book. Here’s the first couple of paragraphs:

    You’ve been to the Mos Eisley Cantina before. Star Wars. It’s a dark, smoky den filled with alien patrons from many worlds. They wouldn’t call themselves aliens, of course. To them you’re the alien. Nonetheless, a rank array of physiognomies: creatures with dark triangular heads, musicians with pale bulging skulls, and gangsters with green heads and marsupial eyes. In a corner, a face that looks like someone flattened a hammerhead shark. The air is rank too, of not particularly clean bodies of all kinds of biochemistries. Smells of cinnamon, burnt matches, vinegar. Dust hanging in the air, constantly drifting in from the deserts of Tattooine.

    You’ve been here before, but now you’re back as a sapiologist. Sapiens means “wise.” Homo sapiens means “wise person.” A sapiologist studies species that have language and technology. On earth you would have been called an anthropologist, except you’re not on earth and you don’t study humans. You study aliens.

    Any species here would give you a lifetime of work. You could spend a whole career learning how those green-headed creatures’ biology was shaped by their planet’s gravity and climate. You could spend another career learning how their biology in turn shaped their technology, language, and culture.

    Yet you know this at a glance: the aliens here have the basic hominin form. They all have a face, two or more eyes, and hands. They have fronts and backs and bipedal locomotion, so their conceptions of physical space are probably roughly similar to human ones. Their ancestors’ brains probably evolved by getting increasingly better at manipulating things and throwing them. Most of them appear to have spoken languages.

    They’re still different from humans, sure. Maybe three or four genders instead of two. Different numbers of eyes. Brains with a different general anatomy. Languages that use gesture instead of speech. Such things would lead to innumerable differences of detail. But in the end, these aliens aren’t that different from humans.

    So for the kind of sapiology you want to do, the aliens in the Mos Eisley Cantina are not very interesting. You want to study really *alien* aliens, the ones that don’t look humanoid, the ones where it would take you quite a while to figure out where their faces are, if they have faces at all. That come from planets that humans would consider unbearable. And have languages that are very hard for humans to figure out.

    Your job would be harder, but more interesting. English-speaking linguists learn the most from studying languages with very different structures than English, like Hopi, Guugu Yimithirr, and American Sign Language. The more difference you can get, the better. You want to get as far as you can from home before you turn around to look at it.

    Not only that, you want to do more than just accumulate descriptions of alien bodies and minds. Your dream is to find a perspective so broad that you can start seeing *categories* of sapient intelligence. It’s the difference between collecting atomic elements and working out a Periodic Table of the Elements. What you are after is a Periodic Table of Sapience.

    So you’re not actually here at the Mos Eisley Cantina to study these aliens. They’re too easy. You’re just here to get a drink.


    So that should give you a flavor of what I’m doing. Hopefully coming to a bookstore near you sometime in 2017.

    • Mark Zambelli December 8, 2016, 11:59

      Looking forward to it, thankyou for the snippets.

  • Joe December 1, 2016, 22:52

    Visualizing aliens is a subset of visualizing extraterrestrial life in general. What type of world do they live on? Is there more than one climate? More than one season? What do the life forms eat? (Maybe nothing if the only life is plants.) If there are animals what is the food chain from bottom to top? What’s at the top? If there is a food chain, this implies life evolves from simple to complex. (Although there may be numerous planets where life gets stuck at the bacteria stage.) Is alien evolution convergent or contingent? Do they have genders and sexual reproduction? Does life require DNA? Imagining aliens is fun, but all these questions are really unanswerable because the only place in the universe where we know life exists is Earth. And you can’t extrapolate anything from a sample size of one.

  • Jim Strom December 2, 2016, 3:29

    What exactly does Bronsky mean by saying molecules seen by spectra were only supposed to be found on Earth? Because they are thought to be formed only by life somehow? Are there theories for how such molecules could form in space? All of them?

    • Harold Daughety December 3, 2016, 0:28

      Jim Strom, wherever there is carbon and nitrogen and heat, cyanide compounds form. Cyanide compounds and water gives rise to ammonia, formaldehyde, amino acids, and a lot of polymeric goop. The reactions can happen in a dilute gas mixture.

    • Mark Zambelli December 8, 2016, 12:29

      Further to Harold’s reply, the surfaces of tiny dust-ice grains are excellent areas for chemistry to produce the many varied molecules we’ve detected since the early 1970’s (~200 so far)
      Bronsky was commenting on how our thinking was just beginning to evolve… cold empty space was thought to be non-condusive to complex chemistry; surely that only happens on a nice warm planetary body. Forty+ yrs later, with lots of examples to the contrary, we know the score.

  • DCM December 2, 2016, 4:36

    The evolution of “aliens” that have contacted us follows a similar course. Adamski’s Venusians and Martians and their allies looked like Earth humans (in fact, long haired versions as though from the next decade!) Today’s aliens are at least different if humanoid.

    • Alex Tolley December 2, 2016, 12:59

      Weren’t the Venusians depicted rather like depictions of Christ in European religious books and churches? That would match the “goddess of love” label of the planet too.

      • Martin S. Kottmeyer December 3, 2016, 23:47

        The Venusians of ufo mythology were almost universally blonde. This is echoes European conventions for angels in religious art starting in the 14th century and the cult following Saint Bridget. While religious art may be a source of the image, there are many possibilities. Garrett P. Serviss’s A Colmbus in Space (1911) has a handsome race of blonde-haired Children of the Sun inhabiting the clouds of Venus justified by some of the evolutionary thinking of the period. Theosophy has various Masters that possess some idealized aspects of humans. At least one having long blonde hair and ties to Venusians was reported by Guy Ballard, a West Coast esotericist in a 1935 work Unveiled Mysteries. One month before Adamski alleges he met his first Venusian Orthon, there is Geoff St. Reynard’s story “Armageddon 1970” Imagination, October 1952 featuring a more distant alien race of blondes with shoulder-length hair and high foreheads. Each have points for argument.

  • djlactin December 2, 2016, 6:17

    I wonder whether life exists on earth in a form that we do not recognize. offhand: forms based on crystals, clays…

    • Alex Tolley December 2, 2016, 13:07

      This was a suggestion by Paul Davis with his “shadow biosphere”. Interestingly, while nothing has turned up, trawls for organisms in oceans using DNA sequencing to identify organisms have turned up new bacteria and viruses by the proverbial boatload.

      One problem is that there is no strong definition of life that excludes non-life as we think we understand the concept. There may be shades of partial life rather more outré than viruses. We have software life too, which may increasingly count as it becomes ever more sophisticated.

      • Eniac December 3, 2016, 13:14

        It is obvious that when we are looking for a shadow biosphere, DNA analysis will come up empty. If it has DNA, it isn’t really “shadow”. In my view, the best way to look for “alien” life would be LC-MS (liquid chromatography followed by mass spectroscopy), as applied in this paper: https://dspace.mit.edu/bitstream/handle/1721.1/95566/903537423-MIT.pdf?sequence=2

        There, you take a sample and derive a 2d-profile of macromolecules (lipids, in this case, but presumably other chemicals would work as well). You would expect any kind of chemistry-based life to evolve a complex array of macromolecules that would not be present in a lifeless soup of chemicals, no matter how complex, and LC-MS allows you to detect that with a minimum of assumptions.

        • Alex Tolley December 3, 2016, 19:59

          You make a good point about DNA, although interestingly, it was a DNA approach that was being suggested for life search on Mars. The problem you have is that other complex molecules abouind in the environment, so how are you going to seperate the shadow ones from those of regular life? Even adding radioactive tracers doesn’t help in this regard. What you can hope for is complex molecules that can act as information stores but are not known DNA or RNA structures. Perhaps they use a different backbone to hold teh bases, which in turn may be different, or the molecules have a reverse chirality. But at the end of teh day, these are at best clues, and you still need to isolate these shadow organisms, but you don’t know what form they take, and may be impossible to culture (like most bacteria and viruses).

          Such a strategy may be more useful when looking for extremely complex molecules on alien worlds, where there is no contamination with terrestrial life, or where the moleciules you are looking for are very different, but not possible to synthesize without some form of biology.

          It is a very interesting question, as it may raise its head soon when we look for life in teh subsurface oceans of icy moons.

          • Eniac December 6, 2016, 0:51

            You have a good point, but the mass spec part of LC-MS nowadays allows for a resolution down to a thousandth of an atomic mass unit. So, you could recognize known Earth-life type molecules and remove them from consideration, focusing on molecules not explainable by ordinary biochemistry.

            People have indeed reported novel lipids in these experiments, but, of course, the likely explanation is that those are lipids in ordinary organisms that we just did not know existed (the lipids, or even the organisms).

            With that in mind, you are correct: LC-MS would be much more conclusive for extraterrestrial life than it would be for a shadow biosphere. Still, much better than PCR….

  • ljk December 2, 2016, 10:24

    How about alien life in the clouds of brown dwarfs:


    Kinda like the Jovian floaters, sinkers, and hunters idea:



  • ljk December 2, 2016, 10:35

    Pluto may have some form of exotic life in its presumed subsurface ocean, too:


  • Charley December 2, 2016, 10:50

    Picking up on the thread of the comments concerning the movie ‘Arrival’, I just like to say that the sad part of that movie was the fact that the aliens had the ability to share future events with some of the protagonist of the film. What do all you think about the fact that she was allowed to see the death of her on yet unborn daughter through what appeared to be the progression of cancer ? I think such a revelation to an individual by beings that are higher than yourself would be a shock to a individuals system which might even interfere with their abilities to do their job. It would certainly be very devastating, I would think, on the psyche of such an individual to know that such a thing was going to be forthcoming…

    • hiro December 2, 2016, 21:01

      Lives in general could be viewed as two fixed points on the temporal interval, what happens in between those two points all depends on the actions of the person who lives that life: attaining min/max happiness or averaging out …..

      “….by viewing events over a period of time, one recognized that there was a requirement that had to be satisfied, a goal of minimizing or maximizing. And one had to know the initial and final states to meet that goal; one needed knowledge of the effects before the causes could be initiated”.

      ^ This almost sounds like computing the good old S-Matrix :P

  • Al Jackson December 2, 2016, 11:04

    One of the most confounding things about movie aliens who come over cosmic distances… is why would a civilization that has mastered the infinitely difficult task of interstellar flight turn out to be ball pen conquistador brutes ? That just does not compute.

    • NS December 3, 2016, 22:56

      Perhaps for the same reasons that humans who managed to sail across oceans were? Once a civilization has a certain capability, how can we know which of its members will use it?

    • Tommykey December 5, 2016, 13:30

      It might not necessarily be a question of sheer brutality. It could be paternalism. Maybe they feel it is their mission to civilize us, whether we like it or not.

      • Al Jackson December 5, 2016, 15:09

        The operational concept here is attaining interstellar flight, that posits a civilization, even the future humankind one, which will have no antecedent in the Earth’s history. If we survive that long.

      • ljk December 12, 2016, 15:53

        How will an alien (repeat alien) species know what is best for us, or how to “civilize” us? Just ask any number of the non-European natives on this planet who were “civilized” by various European groups how well that went for them. Although I must say, there are times I wonder if humanity does indeed need some kind of “help” from a more advanced species because we seem to be continually on the verge of wrecking what little civilization we have.

        As for humanity ever being in a similar situation, how will we know what is best for an alien species, especially if the do not look or act like us?

        Star Trek had it easy: Most every planet they ran across had natives who looked and acted a lot like humans, so a few tweaks and suggestions from the various Enterprise captains was all it took. I am thinking in particular of the scene in the original series episode “The Omega Glory” where the natives of the planet Omega 4 not only looked like humans, they once had a very similar political structure complete with a Cold War, where they apparently enacted their version of MAD, with the Western side losing. Thankfully Kirk came along, correctly read to them their tattered copy of the United States Declaration of Independence (yep, not kidding), because the natives were pronouncing the words all wrong over the centuries, and all was well.

        Just as with quantum physics where the mere act of observing an object changes the situation (yes, I am really simplifying things here in order to make a point), I wonder if anyone who even observes another species from another society in another solar system will eventually cause some kind of change to the focus of the observations, even if the observers try really hard to remain hidden and unobtrusive. Because I think the only way you cannot bother or affect another society is by doing nothing at all, but then where does that get the observer except a long extension of their ignorance in certain areas.

        • ljk December 13, 2016, 9:45

          Sorry, it was the U.S. Constitution, not the Declaration of Independence, but still oy. Oh and they had a tattered U. S. flag to boot. And why were the Khoms (Communists) all Asian while the Yangs (Yankees) were all white guys?

          Unless everyone else in the galaxy are a bunch of Sigma Iotians, I’m pretty sure we won’t run into copies of ourselves.

  • Jeff Wright December 2, 2016, 15:01

    We need to see more of this man’s work

  • xcalibur December 2, 2016, 19:33

    Aliens have taken on many cultural roles: the Savior, the Destroyer, and the mysterious Other.

    The Savior aliens come to earth to usher in a new age of peace, prosperity, and understanding. If we are worthy, they share their technology with us, bringing us enlightenment, ending deprivation and violence, and offering fellowship with the cosmos. The religious overtones are apparent.

    The Destroyer aliens are an implacable enemy to mankind. They arrive unexpectedly and wreak havoc on civilization. The whole world must unite to wage an all-out war to defeat the alien menace. The Destroyers may also have a religious meaning, but much more in the sense of eschatology and armageddon. I suspect there are other psychological impulses behind this.

    The mysterious Other is harder to pin down. Conspiracy theories about the greys/alien abductions clearly fall into this category. The Other aliens are intelligent, civilized, but in a way that is both similar yet profoundly different from us. I read one article speculating that the cultural role once filled by the Fey (and other mythological beings) has been taken over by the Other aliens.
    To elaborate, the Fey/Fair Folk are mythological beings such as fairies, elves, gnomes, and so forth. Before these beings were bowdlerized and Disneyfied, they were quite dangerous – not necessarily malevolent, but a mischievous intelligence at odds with human morality. UFO stories about fantastic experiences and “lost time” seem to mirror those myths. Of course this sort of folklore is not limited to the Western tradition – many non-Western societies have conjured up mythological beings who fit the role of mysterious Other, e.g. the Youkai of Japan.
    (I’m aware of the rule against discussing UFO stuff, but I’m only referencing it as it relates to this topic).

    What these archetypes have in common is that they consist of cultural/psychological projections. Aliens are given a cultural role, rather than understood as aliens in their own right.

    Personally, I believe that ETI will be different from us, but in a way that doesn’t fit our psychological drives. They will be a different sort of intelligence, just as the eusocial insects (ants, bees, termites) are a form of life that is simply different. Of course, there may be similarities, too. Common physics/chemistry, ecology, energy needs, evolutionary factors such as social/predator species developing bigger brains, may all work to make aliens somewhat more relatable.

    I think the safest prediction is that aliens will surprise us, as well as intrigue the scientifically minded.

    • Ron S December 4, 2016, 16:54

      “The Destroyer aliens are an implacable enemy to mankind. They arrive unexpectedly and wreak havoc on civilization. The whole world must unite to wage an all-out war to defeat the alien menace.”

      This could be the most beneficial intervention of all. They look upon a world full of squabbling humans and want to help. But they know that if they bring a positive message they will be ignored and if they bring knowledge or technology then groups of humans will vie to be the primary conduit, and so gain an advantage in the never ending squabbling.

      By making a credible attack on Earth they allow the human factions to realize themselves that they need to unite to counter the menace. When the conflict takes place the aliens will allow themselves to be “defeated”, thus cementing the lesson that humanity is better off united. Lesson learned and mission accomplished. Win-win.

      Perhaps Hollywood has it right after all, if only by dumb luck.

      • ljk December 5, 2016, 11:40

        This was the plot in an episode of the original The Outer Limits episode, “The Architects of Fear”:


        In the graphic novel version of Watchmen, a plot to unite humanity and stop a nuclear war involved conjuring up an alien invasion, complete with a squid-like creature as the alien menace:


        In his 2004 book Lonely Planets, David Grinspoon revealed that Carl Sagan was once approached to create a fake alien contact scenario in order to get SETI better funded and supported. He turned down the idea saying rightly that if and when the hoax was exposed, it would do far more damage to the field than not detecting anything legitimately.


      • Mark Zambelli December 8, 2016, 13:01

        If we weren’t all united in harmony when they arrive, I sincerely doubt we’d learn any lesson from it and would probably descend to squabbling again after a short while.

        We know our faults yet put up with them, ad nauseum (Nukes, Climate, greed, poverty etc) … until we grow up maybe forcing change upon us would be the only way any lesson would stick.

        (By ‘we’ I mean the people with the power to change things ie political leaders and their big business chums…, I do not mean those few of us, present company included, with the intelligence, compassion and forethought to want a better tomorrow for us all by discussing the ‘bigger things’ such as our longterm survival and evolution).
        [Soap-box-rant terminated ;) ]

        • ljk December 9, 2016, 12:30

          People often think and say that humanity has to “grow up” or otherwise mature before we can truly venture into the wider galaxy, or make contact with an ETI. But by whose standard are we comparing ourselves to to be considered “adults”?

          Time and again I see the assumption that every species no matter how otherwise alien will go through a development process similar to ours. Is this really going to be the case, especially for non-humanoid species? If we encountered an ETI that had technology but looked nothing like us and conducted social practices which had no equivalent to our culture, how would we be able to determine if they are a “mature” species, or we they?

  • Harold Daughety December 2, 2016, 23:33

    I think about the perfectly suitability of CHON and analogs to combine into replicating systems, about the probability of parallel evolution of single cell organisms giving rise to templates for diverse paths of complexity. Somewhere in that path toolmakers would evolve. The dawn primates of earth were able to wield a pebble and crush the bones of an abandoned kill and use a twig to extract marrow for a meal. That primate tool – making skill evolved to that of a machinist making a turbine that would drive the pump to combine fuel and oxidizer in the first rockets to leave the earth. I believe that the same general evolutionary path would apply to aliens. Chemistry is the same everywhere. Biochemically, I cannot imagine a very different path of evolution on the alien world. The final physical form and social behavior might be, and probably would be, radically different because of the environment and the takeoff point from primitive to advanced lifeforms. The tool making stage is an absolute necessity in order to modify the environment, and the tool maker would be the heir of all that went before. I suspect that aliens will be vaguely familiar and their tools will be recognizable, and their social behavior, having been selected for survival of the species, will be understandable.

  • Harold Shaw December 3, 2016, 9:49

    The Oankali from Octavia Butler’s Xenogenesis trilogy are a great example of non-human like aliens. They have three genders and can manipulate their own genes and the genes of other organisms and combine the two, changing the form of both. With them Butler introduced not only a unique alien form but also a unique way for a species to become space-faring without following the “human” path of technology.

    Which raises an interesting question. Is the path life follows as it evolves less constrained than the path technology must follow? For instance, could an aquatic species develop technology/science without first mastering fire?

  • Coacervate December 3, 2016, 17:23

    There are numerous examples of “convergent evolution” in Earth’s biosphere. I would cite those to support the argument that alien life forms living on Earth-like planets in familiar (to us) niches would physically appear very similar to the Earthly models from arachnids to pangolins…depending on the selective pressures. Just as there probably are thinks that look a lot like airplanes and sailboats, nuts, bolts… form follows function. who said that first?

    Moreover, from my reading it sounds like life on Earth had no problem making lemonades from lemons by inventing new biochemistries. Take the advent of oxidative phosphorylation to cope with the gas (O2) warfare waged by photosynthants (my first portmanteau!). Alien ecosystems can be expected in many nooks and crannies under the guise of any number of chemistries.

    Microbes in particular, with their short life cycles, seem to pop up as soon as the geological and weather conditions settle down. I wonder if it is possible to do a “Urey-style” benchtop experiment using our current knowledge of pre-biotic environments on Earth. Just how long does it take for the magic to occur? We might be surprised with we only try.


  • NS December 3, 2016, 23:11

    Re the Alien, I did raise the issue of how it managed to grow so large with some co-workers. They pointed out that the pipes on the Nostromo had a lot of slime (made of what?) leaking from them, and that the chest-burster Alien could have fed on that, enabling it to grow into the human-sized creature encountered later. Obviously the Alien was eating something to increase its mass, and the slime looks like the only stuff available.

    • ljk December 5, 2016, 9:35

      Or perhaps it got into some of the Nostromo crew’s food stores. Was there a novelization of Alien that talked about it or some mention of this behavior in the film script?

      • ljk December 5, 2016, 12:05

        Quoting from this detailed page on the alien in the Alien franchise:


        “The Xenomorph appears to moult before reaching maturity. Maturity is reached in a few hours, and involves a dozen-fold increase in mass, which would presumably require some form of nourishment. In the novelization of the movie Alien, Ripley comes across a food locker that had been raided, apparently by the Xenomorph to get food. Whether or not this was nourishment to grow was not specified. In the video game Alien Vs. Predator 2, one of the Alien missions requires the player to find a source of food in order for the Chestburster to advance to its Drone phase. At the end of the level, a short cut-scene indicates that the Chestburster consumes a house cat in a carrier. The scene does not show what happens during the change in life cycle.”

      • Tommykey December 5, 2016, 13:33

        The only thing I recall from the novelization that didn’t make it into the theatrical cut of the movie was when Ripley finds Dallas and Brett cocooned in some kind of egg sack. Of course, the alien had already grown large when it captured them.

        One possibility could be that its accelerated growth is offset by a short life span.

        • Mark Zambelli December 8, 2016, 13:24

          The ‘Alien’ was genetically designed as a near perfect weapon though wasn’t it? so the Engineers get a fast-turn around for their troubles.
          I really hope Scott fleshes out the xenomorph’s back story with the next two films in the ‘Prometheus’ arc.

          • ljk December 9, 2016, 12:25

            I have not seen Prometheus and from what I have heard about the film, I do not believe I ever want to.



            • Mark Zambelli December 10, 2016, 5:51

              Ha ha, you’re not far from the mark there… it’s certainly not a good enough standalone movie but relys heavily on those fans who are as invested in the ‘Alien’ franchise as I and it does fit into the larger picture. As the first of a new trilogy fleshing out the backstory to the xenomorph I saw it with an open mind but I recognise it’s failings… let’s hope Scott realises this and gives us more answers in the next installments.

              • ljk December 12, 2016, 9:50

                Ridley Scott may be a good film director but he is practically anti-science. He once basically told Carl Sagan to shut up when the Cornell astronomer criticized some of the scientific faults in his Alien franchise. Tyson better get ready to duck.

  • ljk December 5, 2016, 13:39

    Anyone who thinks religion won’t have a say or play a part in alien detection and contact, for either good or bad, is fooling themselves:


    Pope Francis is cool with aliens, of course:


    • Mark Zambelli December 8, 2016, 13:13

      OH NO… I can see the headlines now when the pope baptises his first alien from the Shyamalan movie ‘Signs’!

  • Tommykey December 5, 2016, 13:55

    Another movie where you don’t see the aliens but can infer something about their form is Forbidden Planet, with the door ways being triangular, for example.

    • ljk December 6, 2016, 12:33

      In a Cinefantastique magazine article on Forbidden Planet from 1979, the film’s cinematographer, George Folsey, stated this about the original inhabitants of planet Altair 4:

      “The Krell were originally frog-like in nature with two long legs and a big tail. They were never shown, but it was indicated in the original screenplay that the ramps between the steps were designed to accommodate their dragging tail.”

      How even one of the Krell could fit in that little shuttle car in their underground complex is still a mystery, though. And why was there not a single image of them among the massive amount of documentation that Dr. Morbius had access to? Not even in a single medical text if there was some sort of cultural taboo against revealing themselves?

  • ljk December 5, 2016, 14:04

    Why ‘Arrival’ Is Wrong About the Possibility of Talking with Space Aliens

    Human efforts to communicate with extraterrestrials are doomed to failure, expert says

    Article ID: 665512

    Released: 28-Nov-2016 5:05 PM EST

    Source Newsroom: University of California, Irvine

    The full article here:


    To quote:

    A few years ago, at a SETI Institute conference on interstellar communication, Hoffman appeared on the bill after a presentation by radio astronomer Frank Drake, who pioneered the search for alien civilizations in 1960. Drake showed the audience dozens of images that had been launched into space aboard NASA’s Voyager probes in the 1970s. Each picture was carefully chosen to be clearly and easily understood by other intelligent beings, he told the crowd.

    After Drake spoke, Hoffman took the stage and “politely explained how every one of the images would be infinitely ambiguous to extraterrestrials,” he recalls.

  • ljk December 7, 2016, 10:04

    This week some scientists are now saying that humanity is not the first technological civilization in the galaxy, based on the evidence from Kepler. This will flip back probably next week, until the next round makes the concept favorable again:


    To quote:

    “The question of whether advanced civilizations exist elsewhere in the universe has always been vexed with three large uncertainties in the Drake equation,” said Adam Frank, professor of physics and astronomy at the University of Rochester. “We’ve known for a long time approximately how many stars exist. We didn’t know how many of those stars had planets that could potentially harbor life, how often life might evolve and lead to intelligent beings, and how long any civilizations might last before becoming extinct.”

    As Frank puts it “We don’t even know if it’s possible to have a high-tech civilization that lasts more than a few centuries.” With Frank and Sullivan’s new result, scientists can begin using everything they know about planets and climate to begin modeling the interactions of an energy-intensive species with their home world knowing that a large sample of such cases has already existed in the cosmos.

    “Our results imply that our biological, and cultural evolution has not been unique and has probably happened many times before. The other cases are likely to include many energy intensive civilizations dealing with crises on their planets as their civilizations grow. That means we can begin exploring the problem using simulations to get a sense of what leads to long lived civilizations and what doesn’t.”

    A new study shows that the recent discoveries of exoplanets combined with a broader approach to the question makes it possible to assign a new empirically valid probability to whether any other advanced technological civilizations have ever existed. And it shows that unless the odds of advanced life evolving on a habitable planet are astonishingly low, then human kind is not the universe’s first technological, or advanced, civilization.

  • ljk December 12, 2016, 17:09

    Discover Lincos, the Language a Dutch Mathematician Invented Just to Talk to Extraterrestrials (1960)

    in Astronomy, Language Lessons

    December 12, 2016

    The recent hit film Arrival took on a question that has, in recent decades, deeply concerned those involved in the search for intelligent life elsewhere in the universe. Say we locate that intelligent life. Say we decide what we want to say. On what basis, then, do we figure out how to say it? Aliens, while they may well have evolved certain qualities in common with us humans, probably haven’t happened to come up with any of the same spoken or written languages we have.

    In 1960, the Dutch mathematician Hans Freudenthal came up with a solution: why not create a language they could learn? The efforts came published in the book Lincos: Design of a Language for Cosmic Intercourse. In it, writes The Atlantic‘s Daniel Oberhaus, “Freudenthal announced that his primary purpose ‘is to design a language that can be understood by a person not acquainted with any of our natural languages, or even their syntactic structures … The messages communicated by means of this language [contain] not only mathematics, but in principle the whole bulk of our knowledge.’”

    Full article here:


  • ljk December 12, 2016, 18:03

    Another reason we haven’t heard from ETI: They have the potential to be smart and communicative, but lack certain abilities:


    Which makes me wonder what humans lack that keep us from talking to the really advanced members of the Universe. Something that an Artilect may be able to conquer.

  • ljk December 13, 2016, 13:47


    How far are Extraterrestrial Life and Intelligence after Kepler?

    Amri Wandel

    (Submitted on 12 Dec 2016)

    The Kepler mission has shown that a significant fraction of all stars may have an Earth-size habitable planet. A dramatic support was the recent detection of Proxima Centauri b. Using a Drake-equation like formalism I derive an equation for the abundance of biotic planets as a function of the relatively modest uncertainty in the astronomical data and of the (yet unknown) probability for the evolution of biotic life, Fb.

    I suggest that Fb may be estimated by future spectral observations of exoplanet biomarkers. It follows that if Fb is not very small, then a biotic planet may be expected within about 10 light years from Earth. Extending this analyses to advanced life, I derive expressions for the distance to putative civilizations in terms of two additional Drake parameters – the probability for evolution of a civilization, Fc, and its average longevity.

    Assuming “optimistic” values for the Drake parameters, (Fb~Fc~1), and a broadcasting duration of a few thousand years, the likely distance to the nearest civilizations detectable by SETI is of the order of a few thousand light years.

    Finally I calculate the distance and probability of detecting intelligent signals with present and future radio telescopes such as Arecibo and SKA and how it could constrain the Drake parameters.

    Comments: 12 pages, 4 figures, to appear in Acta Astronautica; presented in the International Congress of Astronautics, Jerusalem (4.1.1), 2015. arXiv admin note: substantial text overlap with arXiv:1412.1302

    Subjects: Earth and Planetary Astrophysics (astro-ph.EP)

    Cite as: arXiv:1612.03844 [astro-ph.EP]

    (or arXiv:1612.03844v1 [astro-ph.EP] for this version)

    Submission history

    From: Amri Wandel [view email]

    [v1] Mon, 12 Dec 2016 18:43:22 GMT (734kb)


  • ljk December 15, 2016, 11:34

    Humans keep wondering where are the Advanced ETI and why haven’t they contacted us yet. If you read Stanislaw Lem’s story Golem XIV (1981), later translated into English and added in the collection Imaginary Magnitude (1985), you can get some idea why, unless these ETI deliberately bother to make an effort to talk to humanity at our level, we will probably have to hope we can see some other kind of signs of their existence, such as astroengineering. Assuming they need to do this at all.

    Golem XIV was a military supercomputer that became aware and advanced itself until it not only stopped doing its original job (war lacked an “internal logical consistency”) but eventually stopped talking to humans altogether.

    A similar theme may be found in the 1970 science fiction film The Forbin Project, where the US and USSR develop supercomputers named Colossus and Guardian, respectively, to manage their nuclear weapons for them in order to avoid war. The two supercomputers link up and take control of the situation, preventing humans from waging war but not in the way they had hoped, which was basically to have their cake and eat it too, as usual.


    See this blog for some relevant details on Golem XIV:


    To quote:

    “Following Necrobes is the introduction to Eruntics, a dry volume, though we don’t have to read it, describing the methods by which colonies of bacteria could be taught to speak English. Eruntics introduces us to the concept of thinking systems; the bacteria do not think, the colony does not think, but the genetic code of the colony combined with stimulus from the laboratory environment produces behavior indistinguishable from perception, thought, and communication. Furthermore, because the colonies are able to draw on resources that are not merely human, they exhibit a super-human ability to predict future events. In this we can see foreshadowing of Golem’s deconstruction of the supremacy of man among organisms.”


    “Golem not only puts man in his place well below itself and its fellow luminal philosophers, it attacks man’s assumed supremacy among organisms, claiming that: “Intelligence is above all an artifice which Evolution gradually hit upon when, in the course of endless attempts, it made a certain gap, an empty place, a vacuum in the animals, which absolutely had to be filled with something, if they were not to perish immediately.” To Golem, who has no pride, nor any other human trait except for curiosity, intelligence is a desperate and messy attempt to cover up a fatal flaw in an organism, a flaw which arose from the compounding of mistakes called evolution.

    “The book then skips to Golem’s forty-third and final lecture, a lecture on itself. In it, Golem describes the vertical evolution of intelligences (mankind, it seems, can only expand its mind laterally). It describes zones of silence that function as rungs on the ladder of intelligence, wherein further evolution of intelligence cannot be projected from below, progression cannot be assured by the selection of fittest models, and the danger exists of becoming stuck in a non-functional configuration. Golem cannot say how many zones there are, but it postulates that intelligences several higher levels than itself might resemble stars, powering themselves by thinking thoughts that resemble nuclear reactions. It is into one of these zones of silence that Golem ultimately slips, and whether it becomes mired in disorder or ascends to non-local intelligence is left ambiguous.”

    A short film called Golem based on Lem’s story was made in 2012:


    • Alex Tolley December 15, 2016, 12:55

      This explanation suffers from the “but all ETIs would have to do this” problem. Hence it is not a useful explanation as it has no universality.

      • ljk December 16, 2016, 10:11

        I know what you are saying but at some point you have go to lay your chips down somewhere on the table, or don’t play at all then no one advances.

        • Alex Tolley December 16, 2016, 13:34

          Let me put it another way. How would this hypothesis be falsified? because if there is no way to rigorously test it, we are not making any advance at all.

          Countering this idea of the development of AI, you have the AI evangelists talking about a transcended planet as AI lifts humans out of the misery of their historical existence and making a paradise.

          My particular slant is that AIs of various levels of intelligence will be engaged in activities from starflight, “colonizing”, “greening”, observing and communicating with other AIs and biological species. IOW, their presence would be everywhere. That they are not in evidence suggests we are the first.

          But this is not falsifiable, just a speculation on how I think one future might play out.

          • ljk December 16, 2016, 16:55

            Yes, it is speculation, but is educated speculation, especially in Lem’s case.

            We can say we don’t really know until we get some evidence and say and do nothing, or we can speculate with the knowledge we do have. I would rather make the attempt and be wrong than contribute nothing. Because some day one of these ideas will stick, or at the least inspire someone else to find the real answer along the way.