At last, another post in the UFnO cat­e­gory, a con­tin­u­a­tion of my attempts at explain­ing why I’m athe­is­tic regard­ing the like­li­hood of aliens ever vis­it­ing us, or we them.

I use the term athe­is­tic delib­er­ately; I’m inclined to think that belief in extrater­res­trial intel­li­gence vis­it­ing Earth is pre­cisely that — it’s a faith, essen­tially a reli­gion, some­thing that is super­fi­cially plau­si­ble but that dab­bles in the improb­a­ble, and with­out much digging.

To recap, in my first install­ment I dis­cussed the sim­ple improb­a­bil­ity of life meet­ing us or vice-​​versa. For me, what it essen­tially boils down to is the real­iza­tion that the evo­lu­tion of tech­no­log­i­cal intel­li­gence is not required any­where; and that the timescales of the cos­mos are such that par­al­lel devel­op­ment of tech­no­log­i­cal intel­li­gences within fea­si­ble con­tact range of one another, at more or less the same time, is extremely unlikely. To this add the absolute silence in radio spec­tra of all stars within our detec­tion range, and things don’t look too good for the LGMs.

In ensu­ing dis­cus­sions here and else­where sev­eral objec­tions were posted; I’ll try to answer them here as best I can.

The most com­mon objec­tion seemed to be that we have a sam­ple size of 1, which isn’t true at all. We have a sam­ple area of 8 major plan­ets, of which only one is known to con­tain life. That’s more than one (actu­ally it’s 12%), and that’s impor­tant. Furthermore, on the one planet whereon life did obvi­ously come to be, we have about 600 mil­lion years of mul­ti­cel­lu­lar evo­lu­tion to exam­ine cou­pled with mon­era, falling into five mod­ern phyla with a stun­ning breadth of branch­ing into every eco­log­i­cal niche.

This is not a small sam­ple size. Saying oth­er­wise is a myopic asser­tion that down­plays both mod­ern diver­sity and the 3.5 bil­lion years of devel­op­ment that life has undergone.

It seemed there were some mis­un­der­stand­ings, too, about what I meant by alien life; I was and am speak­ing of the intel­li­gent, space­far­ing vari­ety; not the generic life-​​elsewhere vari­ety nor the intelligent-​​but-​​homebody vari­ety. I’m not dis­al­low­ing the pos­si­bil­ity of life else­where; I’m sim­ply say­ing I don’t think we’re ever going to meet another tech­no­log­i­cal species. Our United Federation of Planets is more apt to con­sist of our­selves, some inter­est­ing cyanobac­ter­i­form mats, and lichens.*

Radio Silence?

There was another wor­thy objec­tion, one I think is worth a lit­tle deeper dis­cus­sion: Maybe “they” are now devel­oped beyond radio, and are using some other kind of tech­nol­ogy to com­mu­ni­cate. To which I respond: Define the nature of this tech­nol­ogy. Describe a plau­si­ble, valid tech­nol­ogy that is capa­ble of com­mu­ni­cat­ing across inter­stel­lar dis­tances, but which would be unde­tectable to us by any means.

It’s not pos­si­ble to do so with­out delv­ing into the realm of fan­tasy. Thus the most rea­son­able expec­ta­tion is that our LGMs will use some vari­ant or other of radio tech­nol­ogy — but even sup­pos­ing they don’t, we should be able to spot their communications.

By def­i­n­i­tion, any sort of com­mu­ni­ca­tion sys­tem that can be detected in this uni­verse must have a phys­i­cal com­po­nent. That is, in order for it to be detectable, it must have orig­i­nated from some­place (and it would have to be detectable or else it couldn’t be used for com­mu­ni­ca­tion), and must take the form of a sig­nal. Any sig­nal would be rec­og­niz­able, and it would be obvi­ously a signal.

I can be cer­tain of that because there is a vast dif­fer­ence between ran­dom and voli­tional behav­ior; as an exam­ple, con­sider the fab­u­lous com­plex­ity of life around us right now. This is not the result of ran­dom events. Species appear ordered because they are, and they appear to behave in sen­si­ble ways because they do. (That’s not to say there was a cre­ator afoot nor that ani­mals or plants have a plan in mind, as with bees and flow­ers; the non­ran­dom ele­ment of evo­lu­tion is selec­tion pres­sure, in all its forms, includ­ing nat­ural and sex­ual.) Contrarily, the rib­bons of stars that appear in the sky are ran­dom. If they were arranged in a def­i­nite fash­ion, we’d be able to see it right away rather than play connect-​​the-​​dots with our favorite myths.

Hence, even when intel­li­gence is not an active fac­tor in a sys­tem, con­di­tions arise which are clearly ordered in some fash­ion or other; when intel­li­gence does become a fac­tor, the dis­cernible order becomes enor­mous. For this rea­son, a sig­nal — a prod­uct of intel­li­gence — must always be rec­og­niz­able as such to any other intel­li­gence, regard­less of any other variables.

But how can we be sure that another intel­li­gence would pro­duce a sig­nal that didn’t look like ran­dom noise to us? Well, if they’re a tech­no­log­i­cal, pos­si­bly space­far­ing species, they must be con­strained by the same physics we know; they have to have the same kinds of ele­ments and ele­men­tal con­struc­ton tech­niques. Their phys­i­cal mate­ri­als and engi­neer­ing sci­ences would have to fol­low the same laws of nature as ours do, and their com­mu­ni­ca­tions appa­ra­tus, con­structed of phys­i­cal mate­ri­als, would have to use the same kinds of ener­getic prop­er­ties as our own.

And since there isn’t any hole in the EM spec­trum for some kind of radi­a­tion we can’t guess at, since there really isn’t a hole in the cos­mos that lets us posit real­is­tic alter­na­tives to fol­low­ing the curve of space­time, since there isn’t a gap in the peri­odic table that makes room for a totally unguessed-​​at ele­ment, we’re con­strained to the EM spec­trum for long-​​distance com­mu­ni­ca­tions, which means spe­cific, nar­row lim­its of radio trans­mis­sion, using minds struc­tured by the world in which they evolved, fol­low­ing a lot of the same kinds of rules as we have.

Furthermore, since sci­ences such as physics involve prin­ci­ples like pat­tern recog­ni­tion and the abil­ity to dif­fer­en­ti­ate between noise and chaos (regard­less of whether you use dec­i­mal or base-​​fifty-​​seven arith­metic), it’s safe to assume that a tech­no­log­i­cal, physics-​​savvy cul­ture would be able to (1) com­mu­ni­cate in and (2) pat­tern sig­nals that were clearly not ran­dom noise.

Therefore, any form of com­mu­ni­ca­tion, even if we don’t know the lan­guage or the species involved, should be rec­og­niz­able as such almost imme­di­ately. This con­clu­sion is sup­ported by our analy­sis of dol­phin sounds, which seem to include names for indi­vid­u­als in a pod.**

To sug­gest that the sig­nals are there, but occur­ring in ways we can’t detect, is essen­tially claim­ing that there is some­thing like a Star Trek sub­space com­mu­ni­ca­tions medium. It’s a com­pelling idea, because under ordi­nary cir­cum­stances com­mu­ni­ca­tions will be lim­ited to light­speed, which means star-​​voyaging LGMs will be out of elec­tro­mag­netic con­tact with their loved ones for years, pos­si­bly decades.

The prob­lem with a subspace-​​communications model is that it sug­gests some­thing like a rec­og­niz­able sig­nal can be trans­mit­ted into — and exist — out­side the rec­og­niz­able uni­verse. (We can’t even be sure such a place might exist; and, if so, how EM or any­thing else could prop­a­gate through it, if it even could.)

That is not an argu­ment; it is not even ratio­nal. It is an asser­tion of faith. It’s essen­tially an appeal to magic; it’s as good as say­ing the LGMs are using crys­tal balls to com­mu­ni­cate with one another.

The Relevance of Nontechnologically-​​Intelligent or Emergent Species

I’d like to briefly go into the ram­i­fi­ca­tions of non­tech­no­log­i­cal intel­li­gence. The idea here is that there are lots of intel­li­gences out there that just aren’t tech­no­log­i­cal, anal­o­gous per­haps to our own bot­tlenose dol­phins or one of the better-​​endowed cephalo­pod species.

Possibly. Probably, even. But that’s miss­ing the point, which is the extreme unlike­li­hood that Earth ever has been vis­ited by aliens, or ever will be. The aliens that don’t even use tech­nol­ogy are cer­tainly not going to be drop­ping by for a visit.

The most intrigu­ing idea, I thought, was that we haven’t heard from any­one else yet because we’re sim­ply the first. Ever. Anywhere. (To develop tech­no­log­i­cal intelligence.)

As such, I guess we’d be future gods, assum­ing of course we make it through the next century.

The prob­lem here, though, is that these intel­li­gences — future hypo­thet­i­cal ones or cur­rent ones that just don’t have tech­nol­ogy — are essen­tially irrel­e­vant. We’ll never meet either group, most likely, and they don’t serve to shore up the argu­ment that Earth has been or is being vis­ited by LGMs right now.

The Chasten of Distance

The other point I’d like to con­sider in depth is one pf prac­ti­calilty. As was pointed out in response to my ear­lier post, one rea­son for vis­i­ta­tion might be some­thing akin to anthro­po­log­i­cal curios­ity: Hey, let’s see what’s hap­pen­ing on that third planet this cen­tury.

Okay — if we assume one trait of intel­li­gence to be curios­ity, this makes sense. Years ago, I believed the same thing was pos­si­ble, and that was why aliens were keep­ing them­selves hid­den — for a lot of the same rea­sons that anthro­pol­gists work­ing in the field today try to min­i­mize con­tact between them­selves and the peo­ple (or, in some cases, chimps or goril­las) they are studying.

But there’s a prob­lem. A big prob­lem. Interstellar travel is not even remotely like get­ting in a boat and sail­ing to Galapagos. It’s not even like get­ting in a bark canoe and pad­dling to Cape Horn. The dis­tance to just the sec­ond clos­est star*** is so vast that analo­gies totally break down; the near­est ter­res­trial equiv­a­lent might be to a para­me­cium begin­ning in Newfoundland and, by fit and fiat, even­tu­ally cir­cum­nav­i­gat­ing the planet, fol­low­ing every shore and coast­line in its trav­els before it arrived back at its start­ing point.

We’re all famil­iar with Einsein’s equiv­a­lence of mass to energy:

e = mc2

Where energy, in joules, is equiv­a­lent to mass (in Kg) times light­speed (in Km/​sec) squared. There’s a site that gives us some inter­est­ing exam­ples of what this means … and a con­ve­nient cal­cu­la­tor for deter­min­ing the amount of energy you can get from pure mass conversion.

First off, one joule of energy is roughly the absolute min­i­mum required to lift one Kg of mass 10 cm off the ground on this planet. So you’d need 10 joules of energy to move 1 Kg 1 m at an accel­er­a­tion rate of 1 g (which is about 10 m/​sec).

Since the speed of light is near 300,000 Km/​sec, we can actu­ally cal­cu­late how much mass we’d need to accel­er­ate 1 Kg of mass the full dis­tance of a light year at a rate of 1 g. (Why 1 g? Because time spent in free-​​fall — extended time — causes atrophy.)

It turns out that you need about 1,060 Kg of mass, all con­verted to energy, to move 1 Kg of weight at a con­stant 1 g accel­er­a­tion over that dis­tance. This means, roughly, that you’ve got a 1060:1 mass require­ment for any­thing you want to move — and that is assum­ing, of course, a total con­ver­sion to energy of all your reac­tion mass.

Now, sup­pose you start with a vehi­cle like the cur­rent space shut­tle and launch it from orbit. Its mass, at about 43,000 Kg, would require about 45.6 mil­lion kilos of mass to accel­er­ate. That’s not much in terms of astron­omy — the moon’s mass is about 7.3 * 1022 — but it’s still a hell of a big strap-​​on booster. Unlike the lit­tle tiny disc-​​shaped things we’re sup­posed the believe are the virtually-​​undetectable craft of extrater­res­tri­als, you’d have a ship vis­i­ble from orbit.

But it gets worse, since you also have to accel­er­ate the reac­tion mass you’ll be burn­ing later in your jour­ney. This means that most of your ini­tial energy will be spent just accel­er­at­ing the later source of your energy.

Oh — and at a 10m/​sec accel­er­a­tion rate, you’ll be mov­ing at light­speed on day 350 or so, which is … sorry … impossible.

This makes it pretty tricky, at best, to visit a place such as alpha cen­tauri, which is 4 LY away — or 18 scor­pii, which is com­pellingly like our own sun, but 30 LY distant.

We’re con­strained by bulk, by dis­tance, and by the laws of physics — it doesn’t mat­ter how curi­ous you might be about the aliens a few stars over. You are not hop­ping into your Ford Galaxy and pop­ping by on a week­end jaunt, and nei­ther are they.

Of course, one could posit other means of trans­porta­tion, such as worm­holes, or hyper­drive, or reac­tion­less drive — but there’s no way we can see to make any of those things hap­pen, any more than the crys­tal balls the aliens use to talk to each other. As soon as you say hyper­space, you might just as well say magic carpet.

Weird Explorations

As lovely as the idea seems, then, it’s not sen­si­ble to sug­gest that we have aliens hop­ping into minis­cule craft and bounc­ing on by to per­form the odd anal probe and see how we’re pro­gress­ing, man­ag­ing all the while to remain in touch with their home­world. The laws of physics that we know — and we have a pretty good rea­son to believe we’ve got them down solidly enough now for this to be def­i­nite — don’t per­mit it.

Of course, it was believed in the early 20th cen­tury that physics was mostly a done sci­ence, that once a few minor issues were wrapped up the field would not need fur­ther explo­rataion. It turned out that those few minor issues were the ones which gave into Einstein’s rel­a­tiv­ity par­a­digm shift, essen­tially over­turn­ing large por­tions of Newtonian mechanics.

Well, that’s the heroic story, but it’s not quite as rev­o­lu­tion­ary as all that. Actually, Newtonian mechan­ics are still used. Relativity only comes into play when we con­sider the cos­mic dis­tances or the speeds approach­ing that of light; on our lit­tle human scale, clas­si­cal physics works just fine; it’s what’s still taught in high school classes, and with good reason.

So no, Einstein didn’t so much over­turn physics as expand it.

Then folks such as Hawking and Feynman came along, fur­ther expand­ing our under­stand­ings of physics to include the sub­atomic, the immea­sur­ably small — the bizarre world of quan­tum mechan­ics and the ways that mat­ter behaves (or mis­be­haves) in the pres­ence of a sin­gu­lar­ity. But even these expan­sions, sur­pris­ing though their results are, have not changed physics. They haven’t given us a way to escape the speed limit. They haven’t over­turned Newtonian mechan­ics. They’ve only enhanced it.

Even cos­mo­log­i­cal mod­els that pro­pose vari­able max­i­mum speeds of light don’t actu­ally change any phys­i­cal laws — they just reset the speed limit.

Now we hear about a uni­verse com­prised of eleven or so dimen­sions, only four of which we per­ceive; the rest are curled in, col­lapsed to such a small size we can’t even detect them. They basi­cally only need to exist to allow cer­tain extremely eso­teric cor­ners of physics to make sense; as such there’s still some debate regard­ing whether they’re actu­ally there at all.

Whether they are or not, though, they’re not the side-​​doors through which we can slip to shoot from star to star in moments. We are basi­cally stuck tak­ing the long way around, whether we want to or not.

To sug­gest that a super-​​advanced cul­ture has actu­ally unrav­eled the uni­verse, is capa­ble of flit­ting across incom­pre­hen­si­ble dis­tances in moments, is not beholden to the light­speed limit when trav­el­ing or com­mu­ni­cat­ing, is to demand that every sin­gle shred of evi­dence in physics be dis­carded. That’s a tall order, and one not likely to be met. It would mean that every­thing we under­stand would have to be com­pletely wrong.

That’s pos­si­ble, yes — but mil­len­nia of crude phys­i­cal engi­neer­ing and decades of fine quan­tum level engi­neer­ing seem to all point to the same con­clu­sions: That our under­stand­ing of the fun­da­men­tal nature of the gross and the sub­atomic are extremely well refined. We couldn’t manip­u­late the world as we do with the pre­dictabil­ity that we have were our under­stand­ing that far in error. We’d have results more con­sis­tent with the suc­cess rate of, say, voodoo — and the rea­son we do not is because we base our behav­ior in the ratio­nal, the solid, the real.

The stones of Cheops are not going to sud­denly appear on the moon one day, and we are not going to sud­denly appear in orbit around a star in a galaxy halfway across the Coma super­clus­ter, either.

Nor has any­one else ever made such a jour­ney here.


* The lichens will eas­ily defeat George W. Bush’s descen­dants for President.

** That we only recently dis­cov­ered this is mostly because we haven’t really been lis­ten­ing in the right way; we’ve been study­ing the skies for sig­nals of var­i­ous kinds much longer than dol­phins’ vocalizations.

*** We’re orbit­ing the clos­est one, and even that is 8 light min­utes away.


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