Wednesday, June 11, 2014

A brief added SETI thought or two

Following up on my earlier posting that contained updates on SETI...

I like and respect the Neil de Grasse Tyson. His new COSMOS (produced by Ann Druyan) is a delightful rallying call for the Enlightenment against encroaching darkness. Indeed, here he is introducing and moderating the 2014 Isaac Asimov Memorial Debate, this time on the topic "Selling Space."

Still… sometimes it seems that he is too used to being the only smart guy in a room. And that leads to mental laziness. Like this piece of "logic:"

"There's a worm in the street, you walk by it. Does the worm know that you think you're smart? The worm has no concept of your smarts. Because you're that much smarter than the worm. So the worm has no idea that something smart is walking by it. Which makes me wonder whether we have any concept -- if a super species walked by us. Maybe they're uninterested in us because we're too stupid for them to even imagine having a conversation. You don't walk by worms and go "Gee, I wonder what the worm is thinking." This is just not a thought that you have! So one of the best pieces of evidence for why we haven't been visited by aliens is that they have actually observed us, and concluded there is no intelligent sign of life on earth."

Neil's generally a very smart and wiseguy, but his reasoning on this SETI-related matter is just lazy and specious. No… it is hogwash. But that isn't unusual in this topic area! Nowhere else have I seen so many bright people leap to simplistic and unjustified "answers" than in this, the one scientific topic without any known subject matter.

Think about Neil's analogy. We do have experts who are very curious about the brain activity of worms! I could introduce you to some.

True, your average worm won't meet such specialists! But that proves nothing because the scaling is not the same. There are millions of worms per person on Earth. But the maximum possible or conceivable rate of appearance of a new technological/sapient species in our galaxy is perhaps once per year. In other words, each arrival of intelligent life in the Milky Way is an "event" – noteworthy and meriting effort to study -- even if we are far lower than the godlike elite.

Moreover, this elite won't have to deign to stoop to our level. They will be able to deputize sub-intelligences, commanding them to be interested and study new sapient races. Indeed, it could be dangerous for them not to create such deputies, designed to be just a bit smarter than us, to study us and other "worms" at our level. And sure, that may be happening! Read some of my Uplift novels...

childhoods-end...or Childhood's End -- where Arthur C. Clarke provides a chilling glance of a universe in which humans are at the bottom of an intellectual food chain. Yet they do not ignore us; in fact they take great interest in our species.

What it comes down to is that the “we’re like worms” explanation for lack of contact is worth discussing! But it is not an “of course” that can blithely dismiss the Fermi Paradox. It is one hypothesis - and not one of the top ones - among a hundred or so that range from barely-possible, to somewhat plausible, all the way to "kind-of likely."

The crux of this? That even brilliant guys can be lazy. Duh? I have that on good authority, from a friend of mine who does not always drink beer. But when he does....

Oh! Here’s a far more cogent summary (from xkcd) of the reason why we shouldn’t make much noise in the cosmos… at least until we know a little more.


Paul Wilson said...

Neil is a great addition to popular science and how it is received. So, thank you Neil! Cosmos is a great show.
No, nothing I have read to date dismisses logically the Fermi Paradox. I was a happier sci-fi fan before I encountered the paradox and had to think about it.
Perhaps Neil will address it directly next season.

Robert said...

Here's an interesting article and video on warp drive research including an updated design... and pointing out that even if the design isn't able to move us faster than light immediately, if it can allow us to move faster for less fuel around the solar system it'll benefit research significantly.

Rob H.

Paul Niles said...

So, I think it is pretty risky making statements about the likelihood of something that we know absolutely nothing about. Let's be really honest about what we know we don't know here -- almost everything.

The only thing we do know is that no one has contacted us. Therefore I think any hypothesis that includes the idea that aliens would be interested in us has a serious problem on its hands.

In the end it is fun to speculate about, but really not worth passing judgement on any ideas at this point because the available data is so tiny.

Alfred Differ said...

Those other sentients out there certainly should NOT ignore the worms here. It would be the height of folly. These worms tripped across a couple of ideas in the last couple hundred years that utterly changed what they knew, thus what they could do. The income of the average worm (per day) for the last few thousand generations was essentially unchanged even when they figured out how to domesticate some plants and animals to feed themselves. This wonderful innovation wound up feeding more worms and spreading the improvements. Within the last ten generations, though, that changed and the worms are growing their income far faster than they can breed. They did this through an ideological shift. The worms who did it first demonstrated their fantastical success and now billions of others are adapting by adopting similar ideas.
If the worms were unaware of how they accomplished this change, the other sentients might safely assume the situation will revert to normal soon enough. There would be justification for having an interest in them let alone a need for concern. Unfortunately, the worms know how it happened.

Alfred Differ said...

I'm not sure that we even know that they haven't contacted us. Proving the negative is problematic. 8)

Only the un-curious or unaware wouldn't be wondering what was happening over here. We've DONE something recently and in this we've become a potential risk for the spreading of what we are to other worlds.

David Brin said...

PaulN my whole point is that bright guys should not shrug and blithely say "of course this is the answer."

David Brin said...

One of my many listed hypotheses is that some humans ARE in contact. The sole thing we are sure of is that the large MAJORITY of humans do not know of contact.

Alex Tolley said...

"So one of the best pieces of evidence for why we haven't been visited by aliens is that they have actually observed us, and concluded there is no intelligent sign of life on earth."

He actually said that, or is that paraphrasing? It is hard to understand how his statement qualifies as the best piece of evidence.

The most parsimonious solution is that there are no other super civilizations in the universe. Or that their impact on the cosmos is not visible to us - like a city too far away from an the anthill to be observed by ants.

" create such deputies, designed to be just a bit smarter than us, to study us and other "worms" at our level."

There is no need to be so obvious. OTOH maybe that explains our politicians - alien androids doing experiments :)

thelousysloth said...

I didn't like when Tyson said that. I used to blithely ignore worms for the most part until I read a book by Charles Darwin called The Formation of Vegetable Mould Through the Action of Worms. I never looked at a worm the same way again. I suspect there would be plenty of sentients interested in studying wormy little old Homo sapiens. Assuming anyone is out there besides us.

A_Ware said...

I'm glad for Cosmos and Neil, though the level of the show and the blanket statements bug me (the priests of the church of science are so often SO certain.)

My personal wager on the "where are they" topic is "They are watching and waiting."

Tacitus2 said...

Long ago when dating my future wife we took a lot of long walks (had no money ya know). When I found a worm stranded on the sidewalk I would always rescue it, toss it off to the grass. Wife to be found it quite endearing.
Maybe I am regarded in certain worm societies as the Progentitor!


Mr. Shiny and New said...

Tyson's analogy isn't perfect, mainly because we can easily conceive of aliens who are smarter than us, but not so aloof that they wouldn't want to at least investigate us. Worms are just worms, until they become nuisance parasites.

What I find most distressing about that quote, though, is the offering of this analogy as evidence of anything. It's an idea. It's not evidence of any kind. That's what makes it a bad statement. The fact that worms are uninteresting to many humans is not evidence of alien behaviour towards us.

Louis Shalako said...

If we have had radio for a little over a hundred years, and if it takes a hundred years for a radio response from a star 100 light-years away, then it will still be a hundred years until we get a response. The Fermi Paradox is no paradox in a universe that spans infinity.

Infinity is bigger than the biggest distance we can imagine.

If a radio signal left a planet that is 1,000 light years from Earth, and it left 1,000 years ago, the signal degradation of a low-powered signal might make in unrecognisable--and it's in a code or a language that is unfamiliar to begin with. It would fall into the background radiation.

If someone asks you, "Are the pyramids of Giza evidence that we were visited by aliens millennia ago?" simply laugh and say no.

They are evidence that our ancestors could build pyramids. And that TV show is for ten year-old kids.

Wolf said...


rseed42 said...

Other examples of otherwise smart people talking(writing) about subject matter they know little about (and get it wrong):

* Michio Kaku
* Roger Penrose

matthew said...

Yes, Wolf, that SMBC cartoon is my favorite solution to the Fermi Paradox too

Hank Roberts said...

> The Formation of Vegetable Mould
> Through the Action of Worms.
> by Charles Darwin

Splendid book. Worth reading nowadays.

Someone should write the sequel:

The Degradation of a Living Planet Through Actions of Incompletely Sapient Vertebrates.

David Brin said...

Hank, that's a good one!

Tony Fisk said...

Hank beat me to it when mentioning Darwin's interest in worms (he got his entire family involved in the study!)

XKCD's take on the Fermi Paradox, together with it's assessment of Global Warming, leads me to think our only hope is if the Shark hits an Iceberg.

- from the owner of a worm farm.

Jumper said...

Maybe they just already know all there is to know about worms if they're so smart.

Carl M. said...

Just wait until they arrive demanding more episodes of Gilligan's Island

Terry Bollinger said...

I recently witnessed a fascinating example of a sharp and very well-spoken scientist dropping an astonishing oversimplification on an audience. It was bad enough that I sincerely hope it was just a case of a badly failed joke.

String theorist and superb physics expositor Brian Greene was asked during a live interview what he thought about the idea that the universe is actually some sort of simulation running in a parent universe, which might itself also be a simulation.

Dr Greene nicely summarized a paper about the idea that he did not necessarily endorse. The paper gave a mathematical argument that if such simulations are possible at all, then our universe is more likely to be such a simulation than a "first" universe.

It's all highly speculative, of course, but Dr Greene presented it well. It was entertaining, and nicely pointed to the importance of math in exploring even such "out there" ideas with some rigor.

It's what Dr Greene said next about motives that floored me:

"If we are a simulation, it's our duty to misbehave in interesting ways. Otherwise the author of the simulation may someday just decide to turn us off."

Uh... really?

One would think that the tapestry of possible motivations for why a vastly intelligent Creator might bother to design and simulate such an incredibly massive, rich, and complex universe as ours might itself also be almost infinitely complex and subtle, perhaps even the refined inheritance of an ancient line of earlier progenitor universes.

But... entertainment?

In effect, the audience was in effect told that the most likely Prime Motivator for the creation of our particular simulation was a severe lack of sufficiently raunchy reality shows for Her, Him, or It to watch while slouching back on a Cosmic Couch and downing a few Infinity Ales.

Now that, my friends, is oversimplification posing as scientific speculation... that is, if it was not just a badly timed attempt at humor!

David Brin said...

Re simulated reality:

"Stones of Significance" at

Tom Crowl said...

Off topic... but topical...

RE the Brat victory:

Its not about conservative or liberal... its about both parties being dominated by corporate interests... in opposition to their own.

Seung Min Kim reports for Politico that a new poll by Public Policy Polling found that registered Republicans in the 7th District favored comprehensive immigration reform by a 70-27 margin. The pollsters claim that immigration didn’t tilt the race toward Brat.

(while racism may play a part... its mostly about how the domestic labor force has been ignored, degraded, patronized and frankly deceived while their jobs were exported and they got sold debt... instead of better wages and a fair share of the productivity they contributed to)

At Republic Report, Lee Fang writes: Brat…spent much of the campaign slamming both parties for being in the pocket of “Wall Street crooks” and D.C. insiders. During several campaign appearances, Brat says what upset him the most about Cantor was his role in gutting the last attempt at congressional ethics reform.

Democrats would be wise to pay attention to this and not consider it just a bunch of crazy extremists.

Tom Crowl said...

A speculation on whether an alien species would be a danger to us or not:

"Biological" intelligent life producing 'space-capable' technology must arise from a social organism... and may be expected to have at least some history of biological altruism which may have taken on an intellectual component.

They could be 'good guys' but not for sure.(see Hitler)

The greater danger may be form the next iteration of intelligent life...


Which will not have a similar history.

Here also we can't be sure of the outcome... but I'd suggest the danger could be much greater.

Bottom line: It can go either way... and prudence would seem to be indicated.

A.F. Rey said...

"If we are a simulation, it's our duty to misbehave in interesting ways. Otherwise the author of the simulation may someday just decide to turn us off."

If reality is dependent on my life being entertaining, then the universe is doomed! :(

Jonathan S. said...

Then again, if we misbehave in interesting ways, the simulation might be shut down while the Programmer looks for the glitches in His code...

locumranch said...

Personally, I've always thought that the Fermi Paradox was not much of a paradox, once you take into account that (1) we (humans) have only possessed the ability to send & receive radio signals for about 100 years, (2) radio wave travel is limited by the speed of light and (3) our planet orbits the sun (a massive radio signal jammer) which blocks radio waves from about 50% of the sky (and/or 90% of the galactic disc) for about 1/2 the year.

That said, NASA estimates that there are (approx.) 14,600 star systems within 100 light years of us, of which we can safely assume that less than 1/10th of their planets support basic life, times a less than 1/10th chance that those planets possess advanced life capable of inventing radio technology, times a less than 1/10th chance that those planets possess an environment suitable for radio technology, times a less than 1/10th chance that those advanced radio-capable species are outward-looking or interested in meeting the irrelevant alien, leaving less than 1.4 alien races (out of a spatial sphere with a 100 light year radius) with which to communicate, assuming that we are able to wait at least another 100 years for their return to arrive.

Fermi screwed the pooch, IMO, by asking 'where the aliens are' instead of the more temporally appropriate 'when is the soonest that we can we expect to hear from them'.


Hank Roberts said...

Well, watching the Sun's recent X-flares and the point of origin now rotating toward us, I have to wonder.

For people, there's the Darwin Award.

For planets, perhaps there's a Sedgwick Award*

AKA building a large sensitive infrastructure during a peaceful stretch, not protected against variability either on the planet or from the sun, watching the sun begin to act up and chanting as we are now:
"nyah, nyah, missed me ...."
*General Sedgwick (mocking his own soldiers who took shelter when they could hear (subsonic) sniper's bullets approaching, said:
“They couldn't hit an elephant at this distance."

Tony Fisk said...

While Carrington events are of concern, at least we do currently have the means of detecting them and taking defensive measures (ie shutting down the grid until the loop current surges settle down) Assuming such protocols are in place. (Are they?)

After a while, the simulations within simulations theory starts to read like we're stuck in a vast pyramid scheme (God as an Amway rep!??).

For wont of anything better, I would suggest that we keep calm and carry on.

... until the purpose of the Great Maker(GM) becomes clear to us and is nearly achieved, *THEN* we start misbehaving in interesting ways (like, call in the Vogans).

If we were sufficiently interesting to watch, then how does the GM keep an eye on us?

And... why are those worms watching me?

Tom Crowl said...

Fun to speculate:

12 Futuristic Forms of Government That Could One Day Rule the World

Any seem worth investigation?

Tom Crowl said...

Number 8 is "Seasteading"... an element in David's "Existence"!

Tim H. said...

A quantity of human neural tissue equivalent to what an earthworm is equipped with might be equally unimpressive, but what if the worms were networked?
And no, I'm not being original, the concept has some distinguished footprints.

LarryHart said...

Carl M:

Just wait until they arrive demanding more episodes of Gilligan's Island

Remember that old Saturday Night Live sketch? "Send more Chuck Berry!"

Jonathan S. said...

"After a while, the simulations within simulations theory starts to read like we're stuck in a vast pyramid scheme (God as an Amway rep!??)."

You'll have to scroll down a bit, but...

LarryHart said...

I've always wanted to see a story where a character understands that he's in fact a fictional character being writtin by an omnipotent writer.

For example, suppose Emerson D'Anite were to come to understand that everything that happens to him is because David Brin makes it so. And then he starts worshipping to and praying to David Brin to the exclusion of all other concerns, they way real-life monks or some fundamentalists do.

Wouldn't the All Powerful Brin have to appear to poor Emerson at some point and tell him "No, I don't want you worshipping me all the time. Actually, you're ruining the story! Now, get back to work."?

Science Fiction Concatenation said...

Shades of Clarke's First Law: When a distinguished scientist states that something is possible, he is almost certainly right. When he states that something is impossible, he is very probably wrong.

steve davidson said...

@Jonathan S: we'd not be aware that the simulation had been stopped; nor would we be aware that code changes had been made and that it had been re-started (except for legacy effects which would probably be discernible, but nearly impossible to define as such because the entire (simulated) universe would have been changed to the new parameters.
What bothers me more is the idea that the simulation itself is "entertainment". "What do you think would happen if we tweaked things and made all of the planets spherical? Oh, Oh! I know, let's make the universe infinitely expandable! No - make it collapse on itself!"....

Robert said...

@LarryHart: A fan-fiction I wrote back in 2000 actually has something along that lines. In it, a fan-fic author is manipulating characters with one character figuring out she's being manipulated, going after him, changing the entire story by burning pages from the book, and the original author has to fix things.

The twist is when the fan-fiction author realizes he is in fact a fictional character... and vanishes from existence.

Rob H.

Tony Fisk said...

@LarryHart, I read a story by Greg Egan ('Crystal Nights', from memory) that went along those lines. Once he is revealed to them, the creations end up locking themselves away from their creator because he is a douche bag.

David Brin said...

LArryHart there is a bit of ‘pray to the author” in Vonnegut’s BREAKFAST OF CHAMPIONS. Also in Heinlein (I think TO SAIL BEYOND THE SUNSET or CAT WHO WALKS THRU WALLS).

Steve D… we live in the lingering holodeck wherein a grumpy retired lawyer named George W. Bush dropped in a buncha quarters (the real year is 2030) and got to relive life getting all his dream jobs, jet pilot, baseball team owner, oilman, governor, president… and he got tired before appointing himself astronaut. We exist until the quarters run out. But there’s the satisfaction that no real world would have allowed him anywhere near power.


matthew said...

Slate on emotion detection software for facial recognition programs.
Guess I need to be careful about having my picture taken while reading about political stuff. Need to keep my " utter disgust" face to myself and away from my employer.

Plus, it looks like the US and Iran will be cooperating militarily to defeat ISIS in Iraq while working at cross purposes in Syria. What a mess.

TheMadLibrarian said...

Larryhart: "The God Game" by Andrew Greeley, or "Redshirts" by John Scalzi. Both of those books look at the notion that we are simply players in a play written and produced (sometimes quite poorly) by Someone else. Diane Duane likes to tinker with this idea too.


LarryHart said...

@Everyone who commented on characters knowing they are fictional.

I realize the concept of an author "meeting" his own characters in a story is not a new one. Dr Brin, Vonnegut's in "Breakfast of Champions" remains one of my favorites, and the first time I actually saw it done.

I was going for a specific theme though that I'm not aware of having been done yet--making the character become an obsequeous worshipper of the author and deciding that his Creator would of course want nothing from him (the character) but that he (the character) pray to and extol the greatness of the Author.

Which not only completely misses the point of creating a character in the first place, but actually ends up thwarting the Author's will, as the story gets completely derailed.

If our real life selves are actually being "written" by God, I suspect He might need to impart that lesson to a few fundamentalists. "Enough with the praying, already. Now, go do your job!"

David Brin said...

Huh. ut how does such a character help me seek enough books to make 3 college tuitions?

LarryHart said...

@Dr Brin,

First, make the character a trillionaire.


Jumper said...

Zelazny's The Game of Blood and Dust has found its way to the internet.

Jumper said...

Radio according to theory attenuates beyond the quantum level shortly and so our broadcasts are not really receivable to anyone outside the solar system. It's just an amusing myth. Laser seems more optional but is obviously a narrowcast. This has implications for thinking about paranoid technological civilizations: would they risk exploration in the plane of the galaxy? Exploring at right angles to it would be safer, in case of overshoot interceptions.

David Brin said...

Jumper you are right about radio attenuation, but wrong on the actual scale. Our leaked TV and Radar is still recognizable as intelligent... though not as content, to a distance that depends on receiver antenna size, staring time and other factors. An antenna the size of a city aimed at us for a year could detect (if not decipher) the signal of Mr. Ed out to a hundred light years. But who would stare for a year at one star?

Planetary radars are another thing. laser-like beams we've (rarely) used to scan moons and asteroids. But for them the sweep is so fast that it (again ) is very hard to detect.

Mark said...

This is completely off topic, but I thought you would like this video of a private citizen using drones to film police.

David Brin said...


Steve Clayworth said...

I think we don't quite have a handle on the many different ways that intelligence could potentially manifest itself "out there". We're very much fastened to the meme of intelligence being characterized by language, math, science and technology and there's no evidence that evolution points to such a requirement (or any evidence whatsoever that evolution points to anything at all). We can recognize signs of intelligence in cetaceans, primates, certain birds, and cephalopods, but we're not discussing books with them.

The denizens of Tau Ceti might have more in common with an octopus and have brilliant poetry spoken with chromatophores, but it's doubtful we'd recognize it.

O.R. Pagan said...

Dr. Brin, Thanks for the post, right on point! I am one of those scientists who work on the brains of a type of worms. In fact, I just published a popular science book on flatworm brains. Moreover, in the first episode of the new Cosmos, they wrongly represented how planarian flatworms swim and I wrote them about that. No response... (:-). Anyway, thanks again for the post!

Hank Roberts said...

Here's a scary thought. Imagine this being said by aliens who consider themselves human and us as animals:

"Treatment of animals is also outside of the political ethic. There are no animal rights  —  unless the animals request them  —  so humans are free to treat animals however they want. The same is true of the planet in general. In order for the Earth itself to be considered under libertarian philosophy, it must be private property."

Danijel Kecman said...

With the regard to "the worm" reference Niel's take on it is probably wrong for a simply one reason. Even some super intelligence had to be on a lower level of evolution similar to ours. They would have to had a record of it and since we are on a level of evolution where we produce records for the future generations they would have in their collective memory a record of similarity to compare it with "the worm".

Anonymous said...

I like Neil too, but it's not his new Cosmos, it's Ann Druyan's new Cosmos.
She is the creator, producer and main writer for the new Cosmos series.