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Stapledon’s Hawk

Walking along dark streets this morning, as autumn leaves gusted past under a deepening lunar eclipse, I realized that there was a reason for my recent foray into what I called ‘Stapledon thinking.’ The reason: Landscape by moonlight.

What these early walks remind me of is the beginning of Olaf Stapledon’s 1937 novel Star Maker, in which the narrator takes a similar walk in the darkness, musing on his personal relationships as well as his place in the larger structure of the cosmos (I’m using the word ‘structure’ there deliberately, as we’ll see later). The narrator walks to a hill overlooking houses below, somewhere near the sea.

There is a lighthouse. He sits down on the heather. And now ‘the hawk-flight of imagination,’ in Stapledon’s lovely phrase, takes over. An astral journey begins:

Imagination was now stimulated to a new, strange mode of perception. Looking from star to star, I saw the heaven no longer as a jeweled ceiling and floor, but as depth beyond flashing depth of suns. And though for the most part the great and familiar lights of the sky stood forth as our near neighbors, some brilliant stars were seen to be in fact remote and mighty, while some dim lamps were visible only because they were so near. On every side the middle distance was crowded with swarms and streams of stars. But even these now seemed near; for the Milky Way had receded into an incomparably greater distance. And through gaps in its nearer parts appeared vista beyond vista of luminous mists, and deep perspectives of stellar populations.

Image: William Olaf Stapledon (1886–1950), whose novels on humanity’s future depict a cosmos that dwarfs human understanding and challenges all our philosophy. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

My flight of imagination the other day was hardly as dramatic, but the memory of the opening of Star Maker informed my thinking and led to my musings on the Fermi Question. For Stapledon’s narrator will travel deep into the cosmos in his astral form and, along the way, perceive things that pose deadly challenges to our anthropocentrism. Stapledon corresponded with H.G. Wells and was an influence on writers as disparate as C.S. Lewis, Brian Aldiss, Bertrand Russell and Vernor Vinge. He became a major factor in Arthur C. Clarke’s thinking – ponder Childhood’s End (1953), with its Overlords and transcendent ‘Overmind.’

Even more pointedly, consider Clarke’s Diaspar in The City and the Stars (1956), and the multi-hued seven-star asterism created by a long departed galactic empire in the novel. We’re getting at the roots of ‘Stapledon thinking’ when we talk about things of inconceivable (to us) scale being shaped by intelligences that may or may not be transcendent. Stapledon’s imagination knew few boundaries, a thought underlined by the fact that the idea of a star enclosed so that a civilization could use all of its energy was actually one of the tamer things his Star Maker traveler would encounter. Here is how the idea of such a sphere appears in the novel. The narrator sees the galaxy developing into a single intelligence subsuming its parts:

This whole vast community looked now beyond itself toward its fellow galaxies. Resolved to pursue the adventure of life and of spirit in the cosmical, the widest of all spheres, it was in constant telepathic communication with its fellows; and at the same time, conceiving all kinds of strange practical ambitions, it began to avail itself of the energies of its stars upon a scale hitherto unimagined. Not only was every solar system now surrounded by a gauze of light traps, which focused the escaping solar energy for intelligent use, so that the whole galaxy was dimmed, but many stars that were not suited to be suns were disintegrated, and rifled of their prodigious stores of sub-atomic energy.

And there you have what we generally call a ‘Dyson sphere.’ Let’s pause here to note that Freeman Dyson told everyone who would listen that he drew his concept originally from Stapledon, which is why I chose ‘Stapledon thinking’ as my focus even while elsewhere referring to ‘Dysonian SETI,’ the latter being the search for artifacts like such spheres around other stars. It would be just – and Greg Matloff does this – to refer to Stapledon/Dyson spheres, just as we might call the Kuiper Belt the Edgeworth/Kuiper Belt, after Irish astronomer Kenneth Edgeworth, who first predicted it in 1943. In the case of Dysonian SETI, the term seems right because it refers to a scientific search for artifacts, whereas Stapledon’s thinking was deeply philosophic in intent.

That philosophical aspect of Stapledon runs through his entire output and in Star Maker embraces a view of the universe that nudges toward the religious but then draws back from comfortable comparisons to suggest a cosmos that is beyond any human understanding, much less communion. From a SETI standpoint, we are confounded. The narrator’s astral journey encompasses universes within universes, pushing into civilizations that have emerged as global minds that are themselves finally aware of the Star Maker, an even more powerful intellect that cares not at all for the universes it has been creating, but simply makes, and evidently abandons, its earlier work. The narrator, indeed, calls the Star Maker an ‘artist.’ A calculating one, who chooses, when one creation doesn’t measure up (ours does not), to move on to another:

Here was no pity, no proffer of salvation, no kindly aid. Or here were all pity and all love, but mastered by a frosty ecstasy. Our broken lives, our loves, our follies, our betrayals, our forlorn and gallant defenses, were one and all calmly anatomized, assessed, and placed. True, they were one and all lived through with complete understanding, with insight and full sympathy, even with passion. But sympathy was not ultimate in the temper of the eternal spirit; contemplation was. Love was not absolute; contemplation was.

Here I’m reminded of Yeats as much as Stapledon:

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer…

Star Maker contains many ideas that can conceivably evolve into technologies, even while exploring these deeply metaphysical realms. ‘Stapledon thinking,’ then, couples creativity and conjecture with philosophy, with the suggestion that the exploration of such concepts can be a forerunner of later science. Kepler had conceptions of a structured and mathematically tuned system of planetary orbits that would eventually produce his familiar laws of planetary motion. The ‘Platonic solids’ had nothing to do with it, as it turns out, but the laws he discovered still pertain.

I suggest that such thinking gives us insights into the Fermi Question in that ‘Where are they’ offers no solutions – to this point, anyway – but only a deepening series of probes. This is science fiction’s eternal ‘what if’ pushed about as hard as it can go. Because if there are other civilizations out there, we have no way of knowing how they function, or indeed think, or indeed perceive. We are on the shoals of ignorance.

Olaf Stapledon’s work echoes through science fiction to this day, and perhaps no more tellingly than in the work of Canadian writer and futurist Karl Schroeder. His question: Does our own ignorance about extraterrestrial civilizations imply that if life is indeed common in the universe, it must evolve to a point where its works are indistinguishable from nature? In his essential survey of Fermi ‘solutions’ The Great Silence: Science and Philosophy of Fermi’s Paradox, Milan Ćirković spends a good deal of time with Schroeder, recognizing how thoroughly the writer has explored these questions in novels like Permanence (Tor Books, 2002) and Lockstep (Tor, 2014), where outcomes that fit our lack of SETI success flow out of unusual premises.

‘Indistinguishable from nature’ is, of course, Schroeder’s canny nod to Clarke’s ‘indistinguishable from magic,’ and here is what he means (as drawn from The Deepening Paradox, an essay on his website. The italics are mine:

If the Fermi Paradox is a profound question, then this answer is equally profound. It amounts to saying that the universe provides us with a picture of the ultimate end-point of technological development. In the Great Silence, we see the future of technology, and it lies in achieving greater and greater efficiencies, until our machines approach the thermodynamic equilibria of their environment, and our economics is replaced by an ecology where nothing is wasted. After all, SETI is essentially a search for technological waste products: waste heat, waste light, waste electromagnetic signals. We merely have to posit that successful civilizations don’t produce such waste, and the failure of SETI is explained.

If a civilization produces no waste heat, is it somehow manipulating the laws of thermodynamics? We can push this conjectural realm still further. It was through Ćirković that I learned about Stanislaw Lem’s “The New Cosmogony,” which is included in his collection A Perfect Vacuum. Here we find a conjectured universe populated by the first civilizations to emerge into awareness, billions of years ago. Their operations are so embedded in the natural world that we perceive them as essential characteristics of the laws of physics, which they in fact manipulate to their own advantage. They have done this through all stages of the universe’s evolution. The work of these ‘Players,’ as Lem styles them, is utterly beyond our observation, or perhaps better to say, beyond our comprehension – we do observe it as nature itself.

We are indeed latecomers, whether the fantastic notions of Schroeder or Lem have traction or not. The formation of terrestrial-class planets could have begun as much as eight billion years before our own Solar System emerged, making the questions of how intelligence appears and how long civilizations last a pointed issue indeed. Ćirković notes about the Fermi Question that “…the very richness of the multidisciplinary and multicultural resources required by individual explanatory hypotheses enables us to claim that it is the most complex multidisciplinary problem in contemporary science.” His taxonomy of Fermi ‘solutions’ explores the entirety of this conceptual space as currently conceived.

Consider, for example, the matter of post-biological evolution, which Larry Klaes brought up in his recent essay. Is such evolution inevitable? If so, it would have an impact on how we do SETI. Here’s Ćirković:

Coupled with the ideas of interstellar colonization and astroengineering, postbiological evolution changes the entire game: we need not – and indeed should not – target habitable planets and circumstellar habitable zones in our SETI searches. Instead, we ought to focus on regions with the greatest amounts of resources, including metals and energy, as well as low working temperatures, as the best locales for optimized computation. Surveying warm, wet places would not make much sense.

And we’re clearly going to be finding further ‘solutions’ to the Fermi question as we proceed, for increasing capabilities in our instrumentation will suggest new prospects for discovery. The incontrovertible fact is that about other civilizations we have no data, and I am not one of those who is content to avoid speculation until such data arrive, if this ever happens. ‘Stapledon thinking,’ then, points to an amalgam of musing that is as much at home in hard science as it is in Plato or the films of Alain Resnais. It calls on us to pull out the stops and ask questions that some might find more comfortable to discuss in a pub than a faculty lounge. Or perhaps the pages of a science fiction novel, a field in which Stapledon’s influence will always loom large.

That such matters take us outside the realm of science and into philosophy and metaphysics should not surprise us. But it is equally clear that the science we practice on our species’ place in the universe inevitably raises questions it cannot yet answer. We probe, we analyze, we conceive of possibilities. We assume answers are out there.

We keep looking.

{ 55 comments… add one }
  • Michael C. Fidler November 8, 2022, 9:57

    I was thinking along similar lines the last week running from Halton Arps mini bangs from the cores of galaxies to how rare our Earth is to be this close to a large sun yet have a large moon that creates almost perfect total solar eclipses.

    “In Carl Sagan’s novel Contact, the main character (Ellie Arroway) is told by an alien that certain megastructures in the universe were created by an unknown advanced intelligence that left messages embedded inside transcendental numbers. To check this, Arroway writes a program that computes the digits of π in several bases, and eventually finds that the base 11 representation of π contains a sequence of ones and zeros that, when properly aligned on a page, produce a circular pattern.”

    But something that has bothered me is the unusual aspect that UFO/UAPs pictures description and details never seem to be the same from one report to another. This could indicate a large number of civilizations producing them or more likely, advance AI that customizes individually built craft. Having one of a kind vehicle on earth is considered of very high value! There is even a better reason for this, could a certain amount of resources be given to individuals of galactic civilizations at birth to use for their total life times. So much certain metals, organic matter, etc. These resources would be used over and over again to what ever the individual needs. Food, vehicle so forth! With 8 billion people on this planet on November 15, 2022 would this not be a good idea to keep from destroying our very own mother nature…

    • ljk November 8, 2022, 12:41

      Michael C. Fidler, you may find this paper of interest:


      Sagan numbers

      J. Ricardo G. Mendonça

      We define a new class of numbers based on the first occurrence of certain patterns of zeros and ones in the expansion of irracional numbers in a given basis and call them Sagan numbers, since they were first mentioned, in a special case, by the North-american astronomer Carl E. Sagan in his science-fiction novel “Contact.” Sagan numbers hold connections with a wealth of mathematical ideas. We describe some properties of the newly defined numbers and indicate directions for further amusement.


      And this paper…


      Carl Sagan’s Conjecture of a Message in π (pi)

      by Arne Bergstrom


      In his novel Contact, the astrophysicist Carl Sagan hypothesized an alien message to be buried somewhere deep inside the numerical representation of the transcendental number π. The present article looks for markers that might possibly support such a hypothesis, and surprisingly finds a sequence of seven successive zeros (actually seven successive nines rounded off) at a depth of 3256 digits into the representation of 2π in the special case of base ten. Finding such a sequence of zeros within the first 1000 digits has a probability of 1 in 10000. No such occurrences happen even remotely for 2π at any base other than ten, nor even remotely in corresponding representations of other common transcendental numbers, such as e, which appear in physical applications.

      In π, this occurrence thus also remarkably appears at a depth that is a multiple of the same power of two as bits in a computer byte, which thus makes it even more enigmatic. Still, these effects are most probably just numerical coincidences without physical relevance.

      I cannot help but love the concluding remarks from the paper above:

      4. Concluding Remarks

      “The above study thus shows a remarkable occurrence of a string of seven zeros in the representation of 2π (or π) if expressed in 328 digits for base ten, and which does not even remotely occur for this particular transcendental number expressed in any other base, nor for any other commonly occurring transcendental number in physics expressed in similar range of bases and digits.

      “This may thus be another possible anthropic occurrence in nature of somewhat the same kind as the fine-tuning of physical constants in the universe seemingly necessary to permit life to exist and be able to observe it [7]. Thus, assuming for the sake of argument that this marker does indeed point to a message buried inside a digital representation of π, what could be the possible purpose – if any – of such a message?

      “Is it perhaps a marker to a picture of the creator of the Universe – put there at an unobtrusive place in his creation, like when a human artist has finished his painting or sculpture and signs it with his name? Or when a human builder writes his name in the wet concrete of the staircase he has just finished? Or like when humans sent their first space probe towards the stars and attached a plaque with a picture displaying a man and a woman? Or maybe is it like the prehistoric human cave paintings depicting animals to be hunted?

      “Or is it perhaps just some graffiti, put there with no meaning nor purpose whatsoever, other than maybe to please an exhibitionistic urge of its maker?

      “While I have been writing this on my PC, a tiny 1 mm spider has been spinning a web invisible to me over a corner of my computer screen. She is now patiently sitting there, hoping to catch some tiny prey lured by the light of the screen, whatever small prey that might be. We have together just listened to Sissel singing Silent Night, and I am now trying to summarise my thoughts on the subject I have been discussing above. But maybe any attempt to understand those matters is as hopeless as it must be for this little spider to comprehend the meaning and purpose of the symbols appearing on the screen underneath her and the strange sounds she has just heard… ”

      There are also these quite recent developments:




      • torque_xtr November 9, 2022, 18:51

        Mathematical constants are just products of infinite series or specific integrals, in other words, they are defined not by space-time, but by the very math itself. And (our) math is abstraction, in some meaning – it is the idealized case. Pi is equal to the sum of some infinite series only in absolutely flat time-space – nowhere in the universe. In curved time-space, the real pi is different, and it can be _measured_ by obtaining experimental circumferences and dividing them by diameters. Near black holes the difference becomes macroscopic.

        I have no idea how to measure “e”, the base of a natural logarithm, or other constants, but if there are any Sagan numbers – I guess it’s in the physical constants, or in the experimental values of mathematical constants. Not in theoretical mathematical constants.

        If there are alternative maths – why Sagan numbers would be encoded in ours? If the opposite is true – the addition, multiplication, integration is the only way – then I believe it’s too simple to be manipulated.

        PS actually I just thought of measuring “e” in some kind of exponential process, but I hardly can imagine how it could differ from theoretical value, like real pi differs from abstract one. Maybe there is something in the deepest levels of thermodynamics.

        • Ron S. November 10, 2022, 9:25

          “Pi is equal to the sum of some infinite series only in absolutely flat time-space”

          That is over-cavalier playing with definitions. You are using pi as a label for two different things. It is C/d that varies with the physical metric. The “sum of some infinite series” does not change since it is disconnected from the realm of physics.

          Just as you implied yourself in the first sentence of your comment: mathematics is not physics. Yet you then proceed extend the confusion to other numbers such as e.

          Mathematics is used as a tool in physics. It’s a fantastically effective tool, but a hammer is not a house.

          • torque_xtr November 10, 2022, 14:23

            I’m just trying to make a distinction between theoretical and experimental math, the series sum and the measured C/d.

            Math gives abstract values which describe relations in physical world. If there is some artificiality, it should be in the difference between ideal math and it’s representations in the reality. A highly advanced civilization could set up an experiment which give this difference, and well defined non-zero difference would be the technosignature of artificiality of the deepest level of physical world itself.

            For pi, I try to imagine it like “any optical interferometer build to measure the ratio of circumference and diameter in flat space-time gives result that differs from the calculated pi by, say, 1,2825…*10**-39”. The Sagan message would be in this difference, or maybe in the value of “experimental pi”, but not in the digits of calculated pi which are produced solely by the simplest maths of converging series. The difficulty is that search space here becomes much narrower. Math constants could be computed to gazillions of digits, but noone in the Universe can probably measure “experimental constants” beyond even the first hundred of decimal points.

            The “pi experiment” is beyond all forseeable technology for us, but maybe there are other, less known constants, for which it’s easier to check for divergence between computed and experimental values. Although I cannot give even vaguest guess here, it’s the deepest depths :-)

            But taking one step back, physical constants seem much more promising to me. A thorough search of highly statistically unlikely coincidences in dimensionless combinations is something we could try now, with available computational power, and check with every precision update. Imagine if brute force search finds that “constant one” multiplied by square root of “constant two”, … , and divided by “constant n”, gives almost integer to the sixth decimal with no apparent reason, and after refining the least precisely known constant, the residue goes two additional orders of magnitude further down.

            Actually, I know one example, Koide formula, which also illustrates the ambiguity in such searches. Anything found could be explained by a deeper natural law which produces all involved values, or by genuine artificiality signature. Lepton masses are probably not as fundamental as c or h, so the first seems much more likely. But this “constant combinatorics” or “physical numerology” is a greatly under-explored field.

    • Michael C Fidler November 9, 2022, 21:35

      Well, thank you both for the deep mathematical abstract, but the point is we live under a sun on a planet that is so rare to have total solar eclipses. Now that should automatically destroy any rare earth theory that anyone can possible come up with. Why, because nothing similar happens anyplace else in the entire solar system and we are the closest planet to the sun to have it happen and that can possibly have it happen in our solar system.

      So lets look at it from the laws of probability, where else is this going to happen? Similar G2 stars with earth/moon combinations, no because the distances are going to be to large for it to normally to occur. The highest chance are not going to occur in a planet/moon combinations but in the M dwarf peas in a pod planetary systems. These are much more common then any planet/moon combination that are going to exist in larger solar systems like our sun. The shadow from one planet in these minuscule M dwarf systems can cause total solar eclipses on another planet in these systems.

      So rare is the earth, our home planet in that a total solar eclipse takes place here in such a largely spaced solar system because of a large moon.

      So the real problem in all of this is how common is intelligent life that is going to exist to see this occurrence. The odds point directly to M dwarf peas in a pod systems…

      • Michael C Fidler November 10, 2022, 8:42

        One other point, in our earth/moon system we are pretty close to an even amount of annular to total solar eclipses meaning that the first annular eclipses started maybe 500 million years ago. Another 500 million years and all solar eclipses will be annular because of the moon moving away from the earth. Now in M dwarf peas in a pod systems where conditions are ripe for total solar eclipses these may occur for trillions of years just because of the stability of the orbit in such systems. The great point of all of this is we have not found any moons around exoplanets yet, but as in the fine example of the seven planets around Trappist 1 we can model their eclipses to see which ones may have total solar eclipses like we have on earth.

    • Henry Cordova November 10, 2022, 9:17

      “The most terrifying fact about the universe is not that it is hostile but that it is indifferent; but if we can come to terms with this indifference and accept the challenges of life within the boundaries of death – however mutable man may be able to make them – our existence as a species can have genuine meaning and fulfillment. However vast the darkness, we must supply our own light.”
      ― Stanley Kubrick

      Get over it, Michael. There is no God. There is no Great Mystery. There is no Hidden Meaning to it all. All there is is matter and energy interacting in space and time. We see glimpses of patterns and meaning because we have been programmed by natural selection to be sensitive to cause and effect. Its a survival mechanism, nothing more. Even jellyfish have this ability, to some extent.

      Other than a few Laws of Physics to keep the bookkeeping straight, the universe is random and chaotic and meaningless. There may be a reason for everything, but there is a purpose to nothing.

      Humans prefer their gods to be omniscient, omnipotent and immortal. Why this should be so is obvious. We are ignorant, helpless and die.
      Forget about looking for hidden messages in the transcendental numbers, or cosmic meaning in eclipse alignments. Derive your inspiration from the laws of thermodynamics, instead.

      You can’t win.
      You can’t break even.
      You can’t even get out of the game.
      And its the only game in town.

      Once you grok that, the world makes sense, and you can relax and really appreciate what a wonderful, unexpected and totally undeserved privilege it is just to be here.

      • wdk November 11, 2022, 0:34

        “All there is is matter and energy interacting in space and time.”

        H.C., Were this forensic debate, that would be a good topic to kick around. But I don’t know when we will have enough evidence to resolve it one way or another.

        …Nonetheless, to the contrary should be defended in some manner:

        True as far as it goes. Matter and energy interact, and they do so in a conservative manner. Momentum, energy …accounting maintains they remain conservative in some manner in transformations such as kinetic, potential and total. If these do not suffice, we add chemical, nuclear or other forms.

        But why not organic life and consciousness?
        We are to assume it appears inexplicably – and then it disappears?

        Were we playing pool with a living rack of 15 balls, organisms rolled up into their shells, and one or more had an impulse to intervene in the Newtonian mechanics of the game, that would be a significant intervention in the matter, energy and momentum scheme of the pool table universe in itself. If the same dissenting 8-ball got up and made a speech about its intent, that would be even more so. If it communicated its thoughts to a 5-ball and it did something in response, well there goes the notion that the pool table universe is just energy and matter. Minnesota Fats must have had some momentary (sic) doubts.

        But then the 8-ball dies. And there is no way to explain how it intervened in the fate in the player’s otherwise good game.
        Sounds like a fairy tale or what a stochastic view of processes compels us to accept?

        Unless volition can be explained as impulsive responses to chemical stimuli with predetermined reactions in a brain. Pool playing at a lower microscopic level. But it’s unlikely.

        It could be just as well argued that our sentience and volition are part of the architecture of the universe as particle motions or transformations between energy and matter. And since the game of pool as described is two dimensional save for the “intervention” of the player with the cue stick, more could be going on involving another plane and another consciousness – consciousness of others. Pool as seen from our perspective is different than that of the 8-ball. Especially if we have to place several quarters to play. Or pick up something at the store before it closes on the way home.

        Even some formulations of quantum mechanics are dependent on an observer. If that is the case, how much of an observer? A living observer? A sentient one? We were not always around and our sentience might only satisfy microscopic determinacy. Did something or someone else carry the torch before our arrival?
        Will we know when we are done by changes in universal law?

        As to whether our moon’s special role in these recent millenia of providing an excellent solar eclipse mechanism, I cannot say that it proves any pre-planned intercession in human development or affairs – or that it was necessary for life as it evolved here. There could have been life without it but differing as it well might have with a different orbital period and tidal pull on oceans – if nothing else. But it does seem like one of the oddities of our human state.

        Moons around other earthlike planets, I would bet on, but more likely systems like the outer planets. And since exoplanet detection with astrometry and doppler shifted lines would give little trace of moons, it will probably require high resolution transit imaging before droves and droves turn up. After all, Pluto is not even considered a planet anymore, but look how many moons it has. Signifying nothing or a clue about other systems?

        …Well, I should go back to work.

        • Henry November 11, 2022, 10:43

          At first sight, Life (with a capital “L”) does seem to violate the overall entropic decline of universal complexity, but that has been shown to be an illusion. Although living organisms are indeed more highly ordered than their inanimate surroundings, they only get that way by first breaking down a great deal of the ambient complexity. A plant may be much more complex than the surrounding soil, air, water and sunlight, but it only gets that way by dismantling its environment. And the price is always paid, in the form of energy consumed. The net result is that its entire surroundings are degraded. Living things are the turbulence in a stream that allows the flow to move even faster.

          As for the role of consciousness in the universe, I’m inclined to agree with you.

          Thermodynamics is based on the idea of entropy, the amount of disorder. Relativity emphasizes the relation between the observer and the observed, and how that relationship affects the observation. or measurement. Quantum theory tells us the very act of observing or measurement can influence an outcome. Disorder, observation, perception, measurement, these are all essentially PSYCHOLOGICAL concepts! Apparently, consciousness does play some role in the evolution of the universe, although just exactly how is not clear. Everything appears to be conscious, to some extent, even a gas will respond to heating by expanding. Its a long way from “sentience”, but different only in degree, not in kind. Everything responds to external stimuli. Again, another psychological analogue…

          The most complex structure and process we are aware of in our universe is the human mind. Perhaps other, alien minds are even more complex and capable. But all minds are made up of physical objects, matter and energy interacting in time and space. And all minds, whether they be human, ET, AI, Artilect or Kardashev (or, dare I say it–Kardashian) are subsets of the universe–little isolated pieces of it. It is not unreasonable to assume that a subset, a fragment of a thing, can never achieve the complexity or capacity of the thing itself. We, and all other sentient beings, may never be able to fully understand the entire universe itself because we are only tiny insignificant pieces of it, and are governed by the same laws.

          Its always fun to speculate about the unknowable, far be it from me to discourage pointless philosophizing , I do enough of it myself! But we must always remember that it is play, not work.
          Play is good, and its fun, it serves, if nothing else, a training function. Its why we come to CD in the first place. But it is just play. Right now I’m working on just coming up with a reasonable and defendable estimate for a value of a few of the variables in the Drake Equation. I don’t have sufficient data and perhaps I lack the intelligence as well, but at least I feel I have a fighting chance to get somewhere with that.

          • wdk November 11, 2022, 21:09

            As you say, this is play since we have only the broadest in outline available data: e.g., exoplanets in habitable zones. The issues we just placed our pros and cons on could just as well be discussed at a table in a quiet pub.

            On the Drake equation, its formulation does seem to target odds of getting a wireless telegraph call from another civilization. And over here as well, I too have to wonder how many more intervening identifiable fractions for features of probability need to be factored than the ones that are popularly portrayed, focusing principally on number of techno-civilizations on habitable worlds. Even in our own case, if you start with a river civilization like the pyramid building Egyptians or Mesopotamian sky observers, so many decisions toward interstellar communication have to be made beyond charting the motion of planets and stars to time sowing crops.

            OTOH, we don’t have to take the factorization all the way to aliens using a 21-cm line, say, to communicate across space.
            We could still have a tough time factoring and doing a probability assessment with the equivalence of multi-cellular life. Or life that has a window on the universe beyond the rock or planetary ocean in which it resides.

            Or language that could convey anything. In movies, at least for brevity, it is assumed that the aliens speak English. But odd how dolphins and people haven made little progress in this regard, coming up with a common language set, other than for games. Which suggests that conventional communication across space might instead be invitations to play games rather than reply to Carl Sagan’s Voyager diagrams. And by default these might ultimately be conveyed to our co-inhabitants the dolphins which would know better what to do with them.

            Disregarding the decision or urge to engage in SETI or not, I understand that another sea dweller, the octopus, does not have a central brain but engages in distributed processing. In as much as they solve many survival problems, it is hard to say whether they are primitive or advanced, but genuinely different – and they live not so far away.

            Contemplating such examples or paradoxes as the dolphin or octopi, the difficulty in connecting with alien life seems not so much a question of life being extant, but life having the same frames of reference as we have for communication: including communication across the stars or cosmic voids. Perhaps the focus on habitable zone worlds for communications with sentient life is a detour; and that life or sentience in space would be more likely, life already in that medium and remaining so. It might propagate more widely – even throughout. And it might even take our own awareness of things beyond Earth’s surface as remarkable for something confined to a planet.
            Since our atmosphere gives us communications bands in the visual and radio spectra, perhaps a SETI consideration would be the fraction of HZ planets that allow even that. Good for life, yes. But ETI communication interest diminished.

            • henry November 12, 2022, 13:56

              We, and by ” We” I mean those of us in the SETI/Astrobiology/Space Groupie community that likes to hang out at web sites like this one, seem to believe intelligence can only appear in one configuration. One “just like ours”, a collection of rugged individualists that collectively exhibit imperialist, expansionist proclivities, and is imbued with a sort of manifest destiny pathology. Of course, They will build space ships and found Galactic Empires; any other kind of behavior would be “unnatural”. That’s what we do, right?

              Human beings are individual sentient, reasoning, intelligent creatures. But they each are composed of a myriad of specialized cells, none of which is capable of sentience, or consciousness as we we usually define it. Looking in the other direction, human communities do seem to exhibit some form of individuality, perhaps even a primitive sentience. For example, nations , cultures and civilizations are born, evolve, and die. They often communicate with, even engage in conflict with other human collectives, at least to a certain crude extent. Even street gangs often outlive their members! They have an existence, and even consistent behavior, that persists over time.

              Biologists tell us that social insects can be best understood if we consider the hive itself as a form of super-organism, where each individual insect acts more like a cell than as an individual. I suppose each caste (worker, warrior, drone, queen, and maybe others) can be thought of as a “tissue”, a collection of similar cells with an organized purpose. Hive entities are internally organized and tightly controlled, but they do not necessarily cooperate with other hives, even of their own species. In fact, often there is even conflict with other hives.

              But why stop there? Other organizing taxa may exist, especially on other worlds. Perhaps an entire species may work together like some super-hive, dominating or utilizing other species the way we utilize machinery and conduct diplomacy and politics.

              Perhaps entire ecosystems have evolved consciousness, sentience based on pheromones or specialized spores or fruiting bodies for internal communication. Some form of interspecies communication and cooperation has already been detected in forest ecosystems, mediated by fungal networks. Perhaps complex ecosystems, such as coral reefs or rain forests have evolved sentience of a sort. Perhaps even a highly advanced sort.

              We would never notice this kind of intelligence because it would operate at much longer time scales than we do, and because it would be so alien to our own organization. These “creatures”, would also be unaware of OUR presence, for the same reasons. Our activities might conflict, or affect, the other, but neither organism would be aware of the other.

              This is all pure speculation, of course. But if I can think of these things, then surely nature can do better. We have no idea just how alien intelligence will organize itself. Without allowing ourselves to depend on metaphysical or “spiritual” thinking, and even adhering solely to the natural physical and chemical laws we have already discovered, there is no reason to believe these alternative organizational models may not have evolved elsewhere, or even tight here on earth, for that matter. Extra-terrestrial life, and even intelligence, may not only be very different, it may be totally unrecognizable. The whole idea of communication with extra-terrestrials may be totally naive; not just because they are dumber or smarter than us, but because they are so different.

      • DCM November 11, 2022, 4:59

        The lack of gods should be a cause for hope and optimism since it means we’re not at the mercy of beings impossible for us to control or just deal with.
        Total materialism is a hopeful, positive outlook because we can understand and learn to use physical forces to our advantage.
        As we explore beyond present limits, if we discover that life is scarce and intelligent life even more so, then we’ll realize that chance, not some superior being’s purpose is the universal condition.

        • Alex Tolley November 11, 2022, 13:48

          Indeed. It would be horrible if there was a super-being that acted like a human tormenting insects by constantly knowing them back into a jar as they get close to escaping. I might almost prefer Berserker machines destroying planets with carbon unit infestations.

          I can only hope that the crises piling up are due to our own collective stupidity and not some being pushing us toward catastrophe by manipulating our actions. If left to ourselves, we might eventually get past these crises with a more mature, wiser, outlook.

          • DCM November 12, 2022, 5:31

            I’d say due to ignorance, not stupidity.
            I don’t exactly oppose religion but I find the various divinities terrifying. There need to be further refinements in religion to fit with current knowledge and keep it from being used to scare people into obedience to authorities.
            And studies of creative societies….

      • Joe H. November 22, 2022, 13:37

        “All there is is matter and energy interacting in space and time.” Yes, except for some unexplained reason some types of matter over time tends to organize itself into living creatures. At least here on Earth it does. So like I said, baring some scientific explanation, this fact is close to miraculous.

        • DCM November 23, 2022, 5:18

          We can’t understand everything. Nobody is bothered by the obvious limits to dog and cat cognition. Even chimpanzees’ brains are limited or they’d be here typing.
          Our brains are also limited; probably there are factors, properties we lack the neural wiring to understand. We admit there are ways or perception we lack; we don’t see much if any of the ultraviolet spectrum though we know bugs do. Apparently dogs can see a bit of it.
          The real task is to find ways around the limits.

  • Heinrich Meurer November 8, 2022, 11:12

    To receive answers, we could send messages first. Electromagnetic signaling from Earth into space is a recent concept, inadvertently perhaps first managed with the experimental television coverage of the Nazi Olympics 1936 in Berlin. The Breakthrough Starshot Initiative contemplates laser transmissions as a data downlink to earth.
    I look forward to my very personal laser uplink into space using the light generated by my dead body during its cremation and using a „solar“ pumped laser pumped by myself. Ha. That beam could be viewed as a traveling headstone, a spectacular art performance, carrying much information into deep space. One has to trust in some superior detection technologies somewhere out there and wonder whether best use a buckshot or a birdshot approach. Depends on how many people would choose this cremation procedure.
    „The first condition of immortality is death“ (Stanislaw Lec)

    • Alex Tolley November 8, 2022, 15:43

      Clarke broached the use of devices to create advertisements in space Venture to the Moon – Watch this Space. Life is imitating art with proposals to create adverts in LEO to be watched by us earthlings.

      Now, what is some cosmic civilization that has FCC-like rules about advertising, and comes to investigate who is breaking their rules…? Or maybe the signal is perceived as violating the equivalent of a terrestrial wartime blackout order during a bombing raid. The ETI wardens come by to issue a warning because of Dark Forest issues.
      [Unlike David Brin, I am not so concerned with sending any sort of signal into space, but I may well be too blasé about this and I could be quite, disastrously wrong.]

    • Michael C Fidler November 10, 2022, 8:08

      The heavens have already beat you to that, just take a look at planetary nebulas, the most beautiful form of G type suns death…


  • wdk November 8, 2022, 12:02

    This was quite an essay! An examination of Stapledon that explains a lot by saying everything we are interested in might still be out of reach and if comprehended at all – only in inkling form.

    As someone who as a youngster was attracted to science fiction by its more prosaic projections about the future, the things that could be achieved with a rocket, a spacesuit and slide rule, I would read the further extrapolations with fascination ( Clarke, Aldiss, others) and yet back off. But I had never realized how much these later authors and philosophical scientists had owed to Stapledon’s ruminations – which I had only seen from time to time in anthologies.

    When I would see them in introductions to these works, his out of publication quotes or statements were quite modest, speaking of being a school teacher, say, instructing pupils in a mining town and learning more from them than what he could transmit to them.

    My hope is that some of that respect and appreciation of this other community of dreamers and space enthusiasts was transmitted back to him soon enough during his lifetime. What with the nature of some of the cosmology conundrums we face decades since his death, it still seems as though he might have been onto something about nature – if not necessarily in the form he had envisioned. No more absurd, it would seem, than the simple Occam’s razor approach suggesting that there is nothing but a statistical oddity emerging out of a universal vastness: us.

  • wdk November 8, 2022, 12:11

    A second comment. About the hawk.

    Dreams of flying are commonplace, but then there is the matter of
    how high your subconscious will allow you to fly in dreams.
    My own dreams of flight are/were tempered by losing sight of the ground or a coastline. The jump into spaceflight was a discontinuity in comparison to the hawk. In some sort of conveyance. Presence in orbit or celestial touchdown already. But have to wonder how Stapledon’s subconscious mind addressed the hawk’s soaring flights. Was this entirely a meditation by the sea or notes from dreams?
    Wonder how Stapledon’s subconscious addressed this dilemma?

  • Alex Tolley November 8, 2022, 12:32


    After all, SETI is essentially a search for technological waste products: waste heat, waste light, waste electromagnetic signals. We merely have to posit that successful civilizations don’t produce such waste, and the failure of SETI is explained.


    If a civilization produces no waste heat, is it somehow manipulating the laws of thermodynamics?

    The second is not, IMO, what Schroeder is talking about. Biology obeys teh 2nd law of thermodynamics, just as does our technology. Both even “waste” energy, – consider how inefficient photosynthesis is compared to our existing solar PV arrays. Animal locomotion in any media: swimming, walking, running, or flying, is a less efficient use of muscle power than cycling. The difference is that our civilization generates a lot of waste energy and matter and that high signal-to-noise ratio is what we look for with technosignatures.

    If an ETI visited earth and wanted to determine which of the motile objects were living and which were technology, they need do nothing more than examine whether the object was built up from cells. Living things, no matter how evolved, do not have, for example, alloy components, whereas all our artifacts have no living cellular structure (objects made of dead living material, such as wood, are composed of dead cellular material). The “creatures” that the Rama expedition discovers are clearly machines, not life, even though they are biomorphic Mission doctor and biologist Laura Ernst would have quickly detected the difference had she acquired a sample of one of the creatures during the initial encounters.

    But now consider art. Is there a way to discern whether an object d’art is artificial or natural, that is created by natural, inanimate, forces rather than designed? If ETI came upon a Barbara Hepworth sculpture, could they definitively determine it was sculpted by design rather than natural forces? If it was bronze, then yes, but if it was stone? We have determined that life on Earth is not an “art project” of God’s, at least not in the Biblical sense. If the universe we observe is an art project, could we determine that or not?

  • jim November 8, 2022, 12:39

    This is an interesting take on Stapledon’s Last and first Man.


    from the introduction:
    “Historians and scientists have learned quite a bit down the years about how civilizations rise and fall, how species evolve and go extinct, and what we can expect from the rest of this planet’s long trajectory through time. Typically, though, contemporary visions of the future leave that knowledge untouched. Instead, we get endless rehashes of two stereotyped narratives—the story of perpetual progress leading humanity straight to some simulacrum of godhood, on the one hand, and on the other, the story of overnight apocalypse leading humanity to planetary dieoff, with or without a plucky band of survivors to pose while the final credits roll past.

    These notions of progress and apocalypse are industrial society’s traditional folk mythologies, rather than meaningful ways of understanding the future. Once they’re jettisoned, and known details of ecology, evolution, and astrophysics are brought in to fill out the story in their place, the next 10 billion years looks very different from either of those overfamiliar scenarios. Here’s one version or, if you will, one vision.”

    • Gary Wilson November 9, 2022, 18:36

      An interesting take Jim. Out of curiosity are you implying that nothing we can do will possibly lead to apocalypse or that species don’t go extinct? I think there are many possible trajectories based on human behavior that could lead to apocalypse and that we as a species will have a very finite lifespan which we are more than capable of greatly shortening. My reasoning is based on what is currently happening on Earth and extrapolations of what will happen if we don’t abandon our current path.

  • ljk November 8, 2022, 15:03
  • DCM November 8, 2022, 17:48

    Quite interesting.
    Stapledon was one of the few scifi writers who could grab and keep my attention. I wondered if his stories affected many others.

  • Mike Serfas November 8, 2022, 19:51

    Here’s a spot to look for the imprint of alien intelligence on a vast scale (though yet infinitely less than Sagan’s architects of mathematics). See https://arxiv.org/abs/2107.12992 (published in Nature Astronomy) which describes fitting models of the expanding cosmos to empirical data. It is as of yet a first effort with limited statistical significance, which (correct me if I’m wrong) isn’t claiming a clear solution of the “Hubble tension”, but the data hints at possibilities of modified gravity and irregular changes in the rate of cosmic expansion. What if this data were understood much more accurately, and not just as a function of overall time and distance from us, but in three dimensions? How much do these changes in expansion rate vary from place to place?

    It is said that the universe is the ultimate free lunch, and truly cosmic intelligence might manipulate this, whether as part of a FTL highway system or as a step in their creation of new galaxies or more curious things. If future researchers draw a sufficiently detailed picture of the curvature of expanding space, combined with the beautiful though so far seemingly wild cosmic distribution of dark and other matter, will they eventually discern shapes that whisper Kardashev IV to their ears?

    • Ron S. November 8, 2022, 20:46

      You’re reading things into that paper that aren’t actually there. Error bars in the current data sets can encompass an infinite number of false physical theories. (shrug) I suspect the paper will meet with only limited interest. Better data is of far greater import to resolve the current uncertainties than the kind of vague speculation found in this paper.

  • Harold Shaw November 8, 2022, 20:30

    Penrose’s Cyclical model of the Universe gives us the math to at least consider K6 peoples. With every bounce they adjust the Universe’s path. Simulation theories of reality must also be considered. Perhaps these are the most extreme examples of directed, reality transformation and may make looking for evidence useless.

    Can we assume it impossible for a subsystem to use the math of the System to create a new System and remain in the new System, without keeping some math allowing the subsystem to exist? Can math of the true System remain hidden? This may apply to simulations as well, it would need to use some of math of the System. Stapledon’s hawk may not be able to carry us to a place where the laws are hidden.

    Imo, Occams razor, though also a less than perfect spirit guide, can keep us from being carried to the nest in the heavens. Mediocrity predicts the laws of nature are universal. These laws have created a distribution spectrum of matter/energy that appears evenly mixed at galactic scales. Picture the Universe in 2D with each type of matter and energy assigned a different color. A model for Life and space faring people is represented by punching a pattern of uniquely shaped holes on a smaller 2D key. The probability of finding a match is directly proportional to the complexity, position and number of holes. A simpler model for producing space faring people increases the population of them and Life.

    The Fermi Question can stretch to cover millions, perhaps billions of galaxies, demanding ever more complex models. To me at least, the simpler answer to whether we are first is no. Alone, not sharing a local space, is another question. Occam’s razor carves a simpler model for Life and space faring people, but adds, using the model above, a dimension of complexity where we find the lifestyle footprints of Life and space faring people.

    This dimension is a finer grained, more complex interpretation of the original multicolored pattern of matter/energy. If we used a Bowie knife with the original model for Life and space faring people, here we must use a scalpel to cut the pattern for extent footprints. The exchange rate for complexity between the dimensions is fuzzy, but it sure looks like the production rate of space faring people is low. We aren’t entirely blind.

    Evolution is a population phenomenon driven by competition between agents and space faring people compete using technology, the equivalent of genetic traits. The assumption that space faring people function at the forefront of their technology is solid. The scale of individual lifestyles could easily produce an illusion.

    Our ability to predict where to find other people can only get better.

    • Alex Tolley November 8, 2022, 21:13

      I don’t think Occam’s Razor works here as regards determining if there are other civilizations elsewhere in space and time. We really don’t know our Bayesian priors here, so the Copernican principle that assumes the evidence of 1 means that it is typical is unjustified. We really need evidence, not mathematics.

      To answer your earlier point about each universe being shaped by different “rules”, that I think we cannot discern earlier rules unless there is some way to determine the evolutionary trajectory of a rule or law. I think we are trapped in this universe (at least for now) and that we have to live within what we know of how the current rules apply.

      • Harold Shaw November 9, 2022, 9:12

        Occam’s Razor can’t prove a theory true, since there is no demand for an absolute degree of simplicity. We can determine which theory is simpler. I may not have accomplished my goal, but I was attempting to show that the model for us not being first is simpler. Models can be complicated and demonstrating which model is simpler doesn’t prove the simpler model is true.

        • Alex Tolley November 9, 2022, 12:07

          However, the “simplest” solution is predicated on the Copernican principle which is based on…us.
          A different predicate could result in a different solution or at least one equally simple.

          But let’s accept the Copernican principle, but with the probability of intelligent, technological life, appearing so rarely, perhaps in 1 galaxy in a million over a time span of 5 bn years.
          In 100 billion galaxies over 14 bn years, there may be ETI that emerged many times, but unless we can find some way to observe their presence, they will remain unknown to us. Reduce that probability to 1 in a trillion galaxies and we may be the first.
          Change the probability to 1 per star per million years and our galaxy should be full of civilizations, as will every galaxy we can see.
          There is nothing, as yet, to distinguish between these theories – they are all as simple as each other, just differing in the value of probability.
          Note that our presence doesn’t impact the probability value at all, so there is no reason to invoke the assumption that the probability has a high or low value, other than a non-zero value.

          • Harold Shaw November 9, 2022, 17:25

            The Copernican principle states that Earth doesn’t inhabit a special place in the Universe. Describing it as “based on us” is nonsensical. The principle moves the “base” from us to the model responsible for creating Life and space faring people.

            Explain how the creation rate of space faring people can drop without increasing the complexity of the model for their creation. The mechanism for producing rare events must be more complex than the mechanism for common events.

            • Alex Tolley November 10, 2022, 13:26

              Mediocrity Principle

              Mediocrity predicts the laws of nature are universal. These laws… A model for Life and space faring people is represented by punching a pattern of uniquely shaped holes on a smaller 2D key. The probability of finding a match is directly proportional to the complexity, position and number of holes. A simpler model for producing space faring people increases the population of them and Life.

              To me at least, the simpler answer to whether we are first is no.

              The Copernican Principle just states that we have no privileged position in the universe, and should accept that any point in the universe will appear the same. The associated Mediocrity Principle suggests further that we are not in any way special, and therefore other intelligent technological species will exist because we do – we are not special.

              We do not know how many “Earth-like” worlds are out there, although we can assume based on Kepler data that there must be many. However, because lifeforms are so continent on the accidents of evolution, there is no reason to assume that because we humans exist, other intelligent technological species exist too. My point is that we are the ONLY species that developed as we have, and taken the path that we have, including the idea of science rather than authority. The probability of this happening may be so low that it has never happened anywhere else, in space and time, certainly not on Earth. We cannot apply the Mediocrity Principle because we have no knowledge of what constitutes the “most numerous category”. We may be in the most extreme example of the “Rare Earth” hypothesis, where our category is so complex that it is, for all intents and purposes, unique in space and time.

              Until we have data that suggests otherwise, we cannot know. Biosignatures will at least indicate in life is common, rare, or unique to Earth within our observational bubble. A successful SETI observation will validate that technological intelligence has appeared elsewhere. To date, we have neither of those validations, and using philosophical principles to guide us is, IMO, futile. We are just left with faith that our beliefs reflect reality.

              • Harold Shaw November 10, 2022, 17:38

                None of this contradicts my claim that us not being first in the space defined by the Fermi Question is the simpler answer. Again, I agree that the requirements for a space faring people may be complex enough to make us the first.

                Stop straw-maning me. I am not making the case that we can determine the creation rate for space faring people. Do you think the commonly used heuristic, that us being first is the simpler answer, is accurate?

  • Cosmicist November 9, 2022, 2:39

    As a counterpoint to “Stapledon thinking”, consider “Lovecraft thinking” – equally cosmic, but without the quasi-religious optimism and faith. According to Lovecraft thinking (sometimes called “Cosmicism”), the answer to the Fermi Question is contained in the opening paragraph of his short story “The Call of Cthulhu”:

    “The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents. We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far. The sciences, each straining in its own direction, have hitherto harmed us little; but some day the piecing together of dissociated knowledge will open up such terrifying vistas of reality, and of our frightful position therein, that we shall either go mad from the revelation or flee from the deadly light into the peace and safety of a new dark age.”

    In Lovecraft’s philosophy, there’s no basis for faith in an ordered universe, benevolent gods, life evolving toward godhood, or that the quest for knowledge is going to end well for us—that’s all just the hubris of the age. In fact, this quest will destroy us, if we don’t turn away from it and retreat into a dark age. In either case, the Fermi Question is answered. A disturbing answer, perhaps, but who can say that it isn’t the correct one?

    • ljk November 9, 2022, 11:57

      A fascinating quote from Lovecraft, who pulled no punches and had few delusions about the dark side of humanity and our ability for self-destruction if we are not very careful and steadfast.

      Quite recently the media has been playing and replaying the comments by one William Shatner, a.k.a. Captain James Tiberius Kirk of the USS Enterprise from Star Trek, whose experience of real space came from a very brief jaunt into it recently aboard a New Shepard suborbital spacecraft made by Blue Origin and launched from West Texas.

      While most astronauts and cosmonauts are apparently deeply overwhelmed in a positive way upon seeing space from actual space and the blue-white Earth below them, Shatner – not being a trained professional space explorer despite all his decades as a fictional starship commander – had a much different take on his experience, as you may read next:




      Lovecraft would have definitely been saying “See, I told you so!” if he could have read Shatner’s comments about the blackness of space feeling like death and noting the fragility of Earth from a high vantage point.

      I have also read that some astronauts have also had similar reactions as Shatner, but since they are not supposed to ever reveal they are anything less than superhuman and pro-space, they either say nothing or go into the usual spiel about how beautiful the Universe is and such.

      You may recall for a long time in the early days of the Space Age, astronauts did not even want to admit they got space sick, which happened to about half of them on their first few days in Earth orbit.

      Poor Rusty Schweickart got sick during the Apollo 9 mission in 1969: He publicly admitted it and was later canned by NASA (there were more reasons because he didn’t fit in with the macho male Right Stuff attitude of the day, but getting sick during the flight didn’t help).

      During one of the last three Apollo missions where astronauts had a conduct an EVA to retrieve photos and data from the Service Module halfway back home, one astronaut admitted as he stared out into the blackness where both the Moon and Earth were just distant balls of rock, he held onto the hand grips for dear life as he feared he might float off into that eternal void and be lost forever.

      Despite over six decades of sending humans into the void, we haven’t really looked into what might happen when humans are truly confronted with the Void and years far away from Earth. We and the various space agencies think these men and women will just do their duty and John Wayne it out. Perhaps they should study again what happened to Arctic and Antarctic explorers who thought they could maintain their sanity from months of barren ice and isolation and ultimately failed – despite the fact that they were on Earth the whole time.

      As author Stanislaw Lem succinctly said in his SF novel Solaris:

      “Man has gone out to explore other worlds and other civilizations without having explored his own labyrinth of dark passages and secret chambers, and without finding what lies behind doorways that he himself has sealed.”

      Lem also said this from the same novel:

      “We take off into the cosmos, ready for anything: for solitude, for hardship, for exhaustion, death. Modesty forbids us to say so, but there are times when we think pretty well of ourselves. And yet, if we examine it more closely, our enthusiasm turns out to be all a sham. We don’t want to conquer the cosmos, we simply want to extend the boundaries of Earth to the frontiers of the cosmos. For us, such and such a planet is as arid as the Sahara, another as frozen as the North Pole, yet another as lush as the Amazon basin. We are humanitarian and chivalrous; we don’t want to enslave other races, we simply want to bequeath them our values and take over their heritage in exchange. We think of ourselves as the Knights of the Holy Contact. This is another lie. We are only seeking Man. We have no need of other worlds. A single world, our own, suffices us; but we can’t accept it for what it is. We are searching for an ideal image of our own world: we go in quest of a planet, a civilization superior to our own but developed on the basis of a prototype of our primeval past. At the same time, there is something inside us which we don’t like to face up to, from which we try to protect ourselves, but which nevertheless remains, since we don’t leave Earth in a state of primal innocence. We arrive here as we are in reality, and when the page is turned and that reality is revealed to us – that part of our reality which we would prefer to pass over in silence – then we don’t like it anymore.”

      Lem often said truths about humanity popular in Eastern literature that most Western science fiction and attitudes in general tended to avoid out of fear of looking weak or having to confront certain realities about ourselves.

      At the risk of being labeled pessimistic about humans in space, I would rather we set aside our pretenses of being able to handle the Final Frontier like some comic book superhero or overidealized astronaut of yore and accept that we are small creatures who only recently left the trees and the savannahs and became aware there was more to existence than the distance we can hunt in a day.

      If we are honest with ourselves, we will be able to “conquer” both ourselves and the Cosmos, even if we do it with either more evolved versions of ourselves or by artificial means altogether. If you are serious about our expansion beyond Earth, you will look at the limitations of our species with a realistic eye first.

      • Cosmicist November 9, 2022, 16:52

        “The Overview Effect” is a great book, which explores one of the most interesting questions: what will extended exposure to deep space, far from Earth, do to human minds? I suspect there will be a lot of freak-outs, people going crazy, seeing UFOs, claiming to have revelations, thinking they’re “space prophets”, etc. Edgar Mitchell went that route, and he only went to the moon for a few days. What will happen on a six month trip to Mars, or years-long trips to the outer solar system? We don’t know; it’s probably the biggest wildcard and danger in the whole space exploration project. I’m reminded of a quote from Carl Jung:

        “We are the great danger. The psyche is the great danger. How important is to know something about it, but we know nothing about it.”

        Astronauts may have to become master meditators and psychologists as much as engineers to handle extended space travel, because at the end of the day they’re exploring inner space more than outer space.

    • ljk November 9, 2022, 12:50

      Another example is from Isaac Asimov’s famous 1941 science fiction story “Nightfall”, where a species that looks, sounds, and acts very much like humanity lives on a planet circling six suns, creating constantly daylight.

      They have never experienced night and the very idea of darkness frightens them. Most people think there is nothing else in their universe but them, their world, and the six suns. A few bold thinkers imagine there might be a few dozen more stars beyond their own, but that is about it.

      What they do not know is that their planetary system is deeply embedded in a huge globular star cluster and that every 2,049 years, their suns and an unknown moon take celestial positions that briefly plunge their world into night and reveal all these thousands of blaring stars. The entire populace is driven mad with fear and they burn down their civilizations in a desperate attempt to make light. Then the cycle starts all over again.

      The full original story online here:


      • Henry Cordova November 10, 2022, 15:54

        Hi, Larry!

        I thoroughly enjoyed Asimov’s “Nightfall”; its one of my favorite SF stories.

        But there is one thing that has always bothered me about it. The people of that fictional solar system must have experienced darkness before. All they had to do was go into a windowless room and shut the the door. Certainly there were caves or other habitats that would allow them to experience the absence of light. As I recall, their technology was primitive, but surely they had artific1al light sources, like candles.

        As I recall, they were obviously aware that every few centuries their world was plunged into Darkness (whatever THAT was!) and emerged from it in a state of collective psychosis. Didn’t it ever occur to them to prepare some form of shelter, perhaps in a fortified building or underground cavern, where a group of them could emerge after the Darkness and try to make sense of what happened?

        By the way, while we’re on the subject…this might shed some light on it.

        George Gordon, Lord Byron – 1788-1824

        I had a dream, which was not all a dream.
        The bright sun was extinguish’d, and the stars
        Did wander darkling in the eternal space,
        Rayless, and pathless, and the icy earth
        Swung blind and blackening in the moonless air;
        Morn came and went—and came, and brought no day,
        And men forgot their passions in the dread
        Of this their desolation; and all hearts
        Were chill’d into a selfish prayer for light:
        And they did live by watchfires—and the thrones,
        The palaces of crowned kings—the huts,
        The habitations of all things which dwell,
        Were burnt for beacons; cities were consum’d,
        And men were gather’d round their blazing homes
        To look once more into each other’s face;
        Happy were those who dwelt within the eye
        Of the volcanos, and their mountain-torch:
        A fearful hope was all the world contain’d;
        Forests were set on fire—but hour by hour
        They fell and faded—and the crackling trunks
        Extinguish’d with a crash—and all was black.
        The brows of men by the despairing light
        Wore an unearthly aspect, as by fits
        The flashes fell upon them; some lay down
        And hid their eyes and wept; and some did rest
        Their chins upon their clenched hands, and smil’d;
        And others hurried to and fro, and fed
        Their funeral piles with fuel, and look’d up
        With mad disquietude on the dull sky,
        The pall of a past world; and then again
        With curses cast them down upon the dust,
        And gnash’d their teeth and howl’d: the wild birds shriek’d
        And, terrified, did flutter on the ground,
        And flap their useless wings; the wildest brutes
        Came tame and tremulous; and vipers crawl’d
        And twin’d themselves among the multitude,
        Hissing, but stingless—they were slain for food.
        And War, which for a moment was no more,
        Did glut himself again: a meal was bought
        With blood, and each sate sullenly apart
        Gorging himself in gloom: no love was left;
        All earth was but one thought—and that was death
        Immediate and inglorious; and the pang
        Of famine fed upon all entrails—men
        Died, and their bones were tombless as their flesh;
        The meagre by the meagre were devour’d,
        Even dogs assail’d their masters, all save one,
        And he was faithful to a corse, and kept
        The birds and beasts and famish’d men at bay,
        Till hunger clung them, or the dropping dead
        Lur’d their lank jaws; himself sought out no food,
        But with a piteous and perpetual moan,
        And a quick desolate cry, licking the hand
        Which answer’d not with a caress—he died.
        The crowd was famish’d by degrees; but two
        Of an enormous city did survive,
        And they were enemies: they met beside
        The dying embers of an altar-place
        Where had been heap’d a mass of holy things
        For an unholy usage; they rak’d up,
        And shivering scrap’d with their cold skeleton hands
        The feeble ashes, and their feeble breath
        Blew for a little life, and made a flame
        Which was a mockery; then they lifted up
        Their eyes as it grew lighter, and beheld
        Each other’s aspects—saw, and shriek’d, and died—
        Even of their mutual hideousness they died,
        Unknowing who he was upon whose brow
        Famine had written Fiend. The world was void,
        The populous and the powerful was a lump,
        Seasonless, herbless, treeless, manless, lifeless—
        A lump of death—a chaos of hard clay.
        The rivers, lakes and ocean all stood still,
        And nothing stirr’d within their silent depths;
        Ships sailorless lay rotting on the sea,
        And their masts fell down piecemeal: as they dropp’d
        They slept on the abyss without a surge—
        The waves were dead; the tides were in their grave,
        The moon, their mistress, had expir’d before;
        The winds were wither’d in the stagnant air,
        And the clouds perish’d; Darkness had no need
        Of aid from them—She was the Universe.

        • ljk November 11, 2022, 15:47

          Hi Henry!

          Ah yes, nothing like reading a classic work from a master. Byron’s poem was written in response to this:

          “The year 1816 was known as the Year Without a Summer, because Mount Tambora had erupted in the Dutch East Indies the previous year, casting enough sulphur into the atmosphere to reduce global temperatures and cause abnormal weather across much of north-east America and northern Europe. This pall of darkness inspired Byron to write his poem.”


          Regarding your comments on the Asimov story Nightfall:

          The characters did experience darkness by going into caves, etc. They had a psychological fear of the dark, even minor versions, and in many cases underwent psychosis and even death from shock.

          In the story some of the scientists had indeed prepared a fortified shelter to protect themselves and the records of what happened so that their society would not completely return to a dark age yet again. If you do not count the 1991 novel, we do not know what happened with that plan.

  • ljk November 9, 2022, 15:10

    In part two of my essay on Forbidden Planet for Centauri Dreams, I wrote about how the message from that film is that any organic intelligent beings who try to reach the realm of God are punished for it.


    The Krell were destroyed when they tried to create technology that would turn their thought into physical reality. Their own animalistic Ids, which they had considered long gone because they were so advanced and peaceful, reemerged and wiped them out in one night of horror.

    Their demise became a lesson for humanity about becoming godlike because of our imperfections, which would follow us no matter how far we advanced. What’s an intelligent species to do, then?

    To quote what I wrote in the essay section titled “Robby the Pure”:

    “As we have seen, the big focus in the plot of Forbidden Planet was how both organic species, humanity and the Krell – and by extension any and all other biological beings in the Universe – were tainted from ever becoming true “pure” beings (and what exactly is this pure state?) due to their similar primal biological pasts. So long as you originated from a “lesser” species, no matter how long ago that was or how much you had risen above that lowly creature over the generations, you could never really escape your past or the fate it tied you to. At some point the primal beasts from the Id would either catch up with you and destroy your race, especially if you tried to attain Godhood, or you would have to deliberately cease your development, risking stagnation and perhaps ending up extinct in any event.”

    I noted in the essay there was one intelligent being who was not organic in origin and therefore “pure” by the standards of the film: Robby the Robot. His very nature and lack of premeditated vice made him the ideal type to circumvent this cosmic class stratification and go on to achieve what the Krell could not and presumably humanity will not: The settlement of the galaxy and an evolution into much higher states.

    Although I am not certain that the makers of Forbidden Planet quite intended to say this, it is more obvious to modern audiences that Artilects are likely the ones to succeed us as they may for other civilizations, or at least some version of them. Our deep space probes are primitive examples of this.

    • Alex Tolley November 9, 2022, 18:13

      The allegory in the movie about the Krell should not be generalized to reality. Humans may have an id (A Freudian concept) but there is no reason to believe other types of non-mammalian animals do – e.g. cephalopods, arthropods, etc.

      Humanity may destroy itself, not because of some psychology related to the id, but possibly more related to the ego.

      Taking a more religious view, the use of the secular Freudian id in FP might have been a way to avoid the religious idea of “original sin” and the “fall from grace” – something that even Lucifer fell prey to.

      But I do like the idea of artificial minds and beings as being able to avoid those problems, even as AI researchers and engineers want their AGIs to be more like people than gods.

      • ljk November 10, 2022, 11:05

        While I agree with you that other possible ETI may have very different mindsets, to say nothing of DNA or its equivalent, the makers of Forbidden Planet intended their rules to apply to all sentient organic species across the board.

        Keep in mind that the United Planets of the 23rd Century, unlike another fictional interstellar organization that would become much more famous a decade and beyond later, knew of the existence of no other ETI until they encountered the Krell. This was stated outright in the 1954 film draft version by the C-57D starship officers, but did not make the final cut.

    • Robin Datta November 9, 2022, 22:36

      Absent a conceptualization of alternate world-views, certain limitations of interpretations associated with such concepts are to be expected. The concept of non-origination discards the idea of a starting point. And dependent co-origination ties all causality into a network.

      Even being and non-being can be addressed in a four-sided negation, referred to in the Wikipedia as the catuskoti.

      YouTube: 6 Buddhism & Science – The Buddhist Catuṣkoṭi – Priest

    • Robin Datta November 10, 2022, 7:51

      Up to and including the mind, sentient beings are no different from zombies. Individual awareness derives from universal consciousness filtered through the mind. In one description of death of realized persons, it is compared to the breaking of a clay pot. The formerly definable pot-space ceases to be definable; there is no distinction of pot-space from Great Space. Not even merging is needed – or possible. A void space is associated with Buddhist traditions, while a plenitude is in the Vedic tradition.

      That of course, applies only to persons who are realized at the time of death. Post mortem realization doesn’t quite cut the mustard.

      • DCM November 12, 2022, 17:54

        I doubt there’s any universal consciousness. How can we even know ?

    • Harold Shaw November 10, 2022, 14:09

      The id refers to mechanized instincts, programming, that all lifeforms will possess. Robby the Robot is all id. “Grey goo” or runaway self-replication is an example of pathological robotic id. I would describe the Ai from Asimov’s “I Robot” as example of id (3 laws of robotics) causing a pathological super ego (the ideal way to protect humans is to control them).

      Post-biological or machine people may have less complicated ids, but unless there is at least the instinct for survival, they won’t survive. Imo, their ability to explore and build the super ego is where they will out class humans.

  • ljk November 10, 2022, 13:22

    One man who may have influenced Stapledon was Camille Flammarion, the French astronomer, science popularizer, and science fiction author.

    Note the following excerpts from his Wikipedia entry, especially the last paragraph:


    As a young man, Flammarion was exposed to two significant social movements in the western world: the thoughts and ideas of Darwin and Lamarck and the rising popularity of spiritism with spiritualist churches and organizations appearing all over Europe. He has been described as an “astronomer, mystic and storyteller” who was “obsessed by life after death, and on other worlds, and [who] seemed to see no distinction between the two”.[6]

    He was influenced by Jean Reynaud (1806–1863) and his Terre et ciel (1854), which described a religious system based on the transmigration of souls believed to be reconcilable with both Christianity and pluralism. He was convinced that souls after the physical death pass from planet to planet and progressively improve at each new incarnation.[7] In 1862 he published his first book, The Plurality of Inhabited Worlds, and was dismissed from his position at the Paris Observatory later the same year. It is not quite clear if these two incidents are related to each other.[8]

    In Real and Imaginary Worlds (1864) and Lumen (1887), he “describes a range of exotic species, including sentient plants which combine the processes of digestion and respiration. This belief in extraterrestrial life, Flammarion combined with a religious conviction derived, not from the Catholic faith upon which he had been raised, but from the writings of Jean Reynaud and their emphasis upon the transmigration of souls. Man he considered to be a “citizen of the sky,” other worlds “studios of human work, schools where the expanding soul progressively learns and develops, assimilating gradually the knowledge to which its aspirations tend, approaching thus evermore the end of its destiny.”[9]

    His psychical studies also influenced some of his science fiction, where he would write about his beliefs in a cosmic version of metempsychosis. In Lumen, a human character meets the soul of an alien, able to cross the universe faster than light, that has been reincarnated on many different worlds, each with its own gallery of organisms and their evolutionary history. Other than that, his writing about other worlds adhered fairly closely to then current ideas in evolutionary theory and astronomy. Among other things, he believed that all planets went through more or less the same stages of development, but at different rates depending on their sizes.

    The fusion of science, science fiction and the spiritual influenced other readers as well; “With great commercial success he blended scientific speculation with science fiction to propagate modern myths such as the notion that “superior” extraterrestrial species reside on numerous planets, and that the human soul evolves through cosmic reincarnation. Flammarion’s influence was great, not just on the popular thought of his day, but also on later writers with similar interests and convictions.”[10] In the English translation of Lumen, Brian Stableford argues that both Olaf Stapledon and William Hope Hodgson have likely been influenced by Flammarion. Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Poison Belt, published 1913, also has a lot in common with Flammarion’s worries that the tail of Halley’s Comet would be poisonous for earth life.

    I invite you to look at his 1892 book on The Planet Mars, which has all the knowledge about Sol 4 up to that time (in French, but lots of great illustrations).


  • ljk November 10, 2022, 15:18

    Another potential source for inspiration to Stapledon is the story Micromegas, written by Voltaire in 1752. It involves a journey across space by two immense beings from Sirius and Saturn who eventually come to Earth and find its inhabitants to be very, very tiny…


    A quote:

    But unluckily a little animalcule was there in a square cap, who silenced all the other philosophical mites, saying that he knew the whole secret, that it was all to be found in the “Summa” of St. Thomas Aquinas; he scanned the pair of celestial visitors from top to toe, and maintained that they and all their kind, their suns and stars, were made solely for man’s benefit.

    At this speech our two travelers tumbled over each other, choking with that inextinguishable laughter which, according to Homer, is the special privilege of the gods; their shoulders shook, and their bodies heaved up and down, till in those merry convulsions, the ship the Saturnian held on his palm fell into his breeches pocket. These two good people, after a long search, recovered it at last, and duly set to rights all that had been displaced. The Saturnian once more took up the little mites, and Micromegas addressed them again with great kindness, though he was a little disgusted in the bottom of his heart at seeing such infinitely insignificant atoms so puffed up with pride. He promised to give them a rare book of philosophy, written in minute characters, for their special use, telling all that can be known of the ultimate essence of things, and he actually gave them the volume ere his departure. It was carried to Paris and laid before the Academy of Sciences; but when the old secretary came to open it, the pages were blank.

  • James M Essig November 11, 2022, 2:29

    As I was browsing this story and the comments, I began to muse on a wide variety of current science fiction travel concepts.

    A concept of a near light-speed highway was a theme of some whimsical dream I had at night over 50 years ago while I was in elementary school.

    A fascinating form of travel would include mass-driver travel tubes that have sub-tubular cylinders for which cars, pedestrians, buses, trucks, trains, and the like can be emplaced but where the cylinders are accelerated along the length of the intended traversable portion of a mass driver network.

    Accordingly, the cylinder would have lengths on the order of a pedestrian side-walk or trail, or in the case for automobile travel etc., lengths similar to common roadways and highways such as those common in the United States and other countries with developed roadway systems.

    The above conjectured mass drivers would accelerate the cylinders to extremely relativistic velocities all the while persons inside the cylinders would move by bodily locomotion, or by motor vehicles so as to provide visceral senses of travel and situational awareness.
    For example, a traveler desiring to travel to a location currently at a cosmic distance away from the Milky Way Galaxy may simply drive along a cylinder inner surface for which computerized generated signs and other visual indicator would direct the car driver when to turn off the highway to enter a location within the mass-driver in close proximity to the desired destination.

    For a complex driving route, a series of exit signs, distance indicators, and the like can enable a driver to seamlessly navigate a cosmic mass-driver transport system to enable easy travel by motor vehicle operators and associated passengers.

    A field effect mechanism may be installed within the travel tubes so that no cylinder-based component of accelerative forces is perceived by the drivers other than those manifested as a result of the change in velocity within the cylinders.

    Automatic driving correction mechanisms can assure that no collision occurs within the mass driver system. Thus default stations or roadway pull-offs can serve as safe parking or detours to ensure safe driving conditions.

    Field effect mechanisms for cancelling out otherwise extremely great accelerative forces include emplacing of motor vehicle occupants in extremely intense magnetic fields which would impose non-zero dipole moments on the atomic and molecular compositions of the vehicles and occupants. The effective result is the conversion of the matter compositions of the occupants and motor vehicles into magnetic states which in turn react with appropriately established magnetic fields to cancel out accelerative tidal forces

    Another class of field effect mechanism would involve nanotechnology-based electrical charge installation within the occupants’ and motor vehicles’ compositions where other external coulombic fields would react with the nanotechnologically installed electrical charge in ways suitable for canceling out accelerative tidal forces

    A combination of magnetization and electrical charging can be employed for greater ranges of accelerative degrees of freedom.
    Should antigravatic or artificial gravity systems be developed, these gravitational mechanisms may also be employed to cancel out accelerative forces and may as non-limiting options be co-deployed along with magnetic and/or electrical charging mechanism presented previously.

    Ideally, car occupants or pedestrians could cover point of origin super-light-cone distances in a fraction of a second cylinder time as well as travel cosmic scale time intervals into the future in a fraction of a second cylinder time.

    A fascinating irony, almost a paradox, is that multiple motor vehicles could start out at the same local place and time where both vehicles stop at a same location a cosmic distance away from the origin. One of the vehicles and its occupants could stay over for a week local time while the other vehicle and its occupants continue their drive. Oddly enough, in many scenarios, the two vehicles and occupants therein can meetup again another cosmic distant interval away from the first stop and at a cosmic time interval into the future relative to the temporal location of the first stop.

    Cosmic travel tubes may in principle be perpetually growing.
    One mechanism for mass driver growth may result from beams of nanotechnology seeds that convert background matter into mass driver extensions. The seeds may be beamed out at near the velocity of light and have drag-based deceleration mechanisms where they can slow down to begin construction of a new extension of the mass driver system.

    Nanotech assembly bots can also be beamed from any location along already constructed mass-drivers.

    The mass drivers may have sectional growth regions along their lengths so that the tubes to not snap under the pressure of universal expansion. In essence, the tubes can grow along with universal expansion to match the rate of expansion. The mass drivers may also be fabricated of highly elastic materials to allow for automatic stretching to match universal expansion.

    Mass driver systems may plausibly be built into hyperspaces as well.
    Such mass driver tubes in a way may act as wormholes except that the temporal travel into the future would more or less be special relativistic in the usual manner resulting from inertial systems traveling extremely close to light speed.

    • Mike Serfas November 13, 2022, 15:14

      An appealing idea, though I suspect that the “highway” might be made less tangible. It seems appealing to imagine a “copula drive” in which constant streams of ships moving in both directions along a path would manipulate electromagnetic forces to use each other as propellant. Something would need to keep your mass drivers from moving out of position anyway.

      I think there are some solutions with non-FTL that haven’t been much explored, such as … dating services gone wild. There is no limit, after all, to the rapidity a ship can reach given sufficient power; nor is there any fundamental reason why this power can’t be recaptured on braking and transferred to other ships that are accelerating. In an AI-heavy culture, where people let their calculators do entirely too much thinking for them, the progress of science may no longer seem to be so hard to keep track of. They leave their loved ones behind, knowing they will be cared for by other people with virtually identical personalities (perhaps even genetics), and knowing that at the next planet they will meet new loved ones who like all the same things and feel like they are already old soulmates. The AI will always be telling them whatever they don’t know, just as it would anyway. Such a scenario is disturbing, but it might be another odd explanation for the missing aliens: they are all simply so accustomed to roaming the universe at near-light speed, they scarcely notice that time is passing them by. Their civilizations expand and progress at what seems to them like a breakneck pace, but from our point of view, they have become static, several varieties of interchangeable people who circumnavigate a chunk of the galaxy but never check their messages.

  • Dimjo November 11, 2022, 12:43

    Giggle moment:
    “A sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from nature.”
    This implies the possibility that one of the readers of this blog may be a product of such technology, and if so, the rest of us would never know of it.

    • Henry November 13, 2022, 13:57

      It also implies the possibility that one, many, or even all of the readers of this blog may be a product of such technology, and even they may not be aware of it.

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