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.*
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.
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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