Saturday, January 11, 2020

SETI, METI and the Fermi Paradox

Let's take a science break, looking upward at what might be ours someday, if we build a worthy, forward-looking civilization. Tantalyzing goals seem to be getting closer in some ways! For example, a “super Earth” about 6x our planet’s mass orbits a red dwarf  just 31 light years away at  the outer edge of its host star's "habitable zone," and hence, depending on atmospheric constituents, scientists believe that this super-Earth could have water on its surface.

In a model based on Kepler probe data, researchers estimate that “planet is very close to Earth in size, from three-quarters to one-and-a-half times the size of earth, with orbital periods ranging from 237 to 500 days, occur around approximately one in four stars.” This article is vague and I assume they are talking about sunlike stars. The bestiary of “habitable” worlds orbiting red dwarves would be very different.

Yeah, that puts even more of a burden on the Fermi Paradox. Which alas gets covered in much of the press with incredible shallowness.  See below.

== Is there life out there? ==

We keep refining our models of what it takes to have a “Goldilocks World.” For example, Earth skates the very inner edge of our sun’s Continuously Habitable Zone (CHZ) which will migrate outward past us in just a hundred million years or so, maybe as little as the 66 million since mammals got their big break. As is, Earth must reach a “Gaia balance” with only just enough CO2 to feed plants. Any more and we fry. And humans are supplying more.

Now scientists are considering other factors, like size: How small is too small? The critical boundary point seems to be about 2.7 percent of the mass of Earth. Any planets less massive than that would lose their atmospheres to space before liquid water could form on their surfaces, and any water that might be present would vaporize or freeze. For comparison, the moon is 1.2 percent of Earth’s mass and Mercury is 5.53 percent.  Here I’m skeptical.  But it’s a start.

Isaac Arthur has one of the best science-speculation podcast series. On Halloween 2019 he added a 4th chapter to his cluster about the Fermi Paradox… which I (back in 1983) labeled “The Great Silence.”  In this episode, he reviews the notion of “filters” that might be responsible for the apparent paucity of detectable tech civilizations out there.  

The Fermi Paradox, the big question of where all the aliens are, has many proposed solutions focusing on what might lower the odds of intelligent species arising on another world, or what might end technological civilizations or cause them to go unseen by us and our SETI efforts. But what if intelligence rarely leads to technological civilizations in the first place? Could there be countless planets in our galaxy occupied by species who never came to value technology?”

== SETI advances… but there’s more METI foolishness ==

Should we be revealing ourselves to the cosmos? What if the first aliens to discover us do so thanks to our own transmissions, and, more disturbingly, what if those aliens are less than benevolent? On this week’s StarTalk All-Stars, astrobiologist and host David Grinspoon also tackles METI, or “Messaging Extraterrestrial Intelligence.” With co-host Chuck Nice, Dr. FunkySpoon invited David Brin, the Hugo award-winning science fiction author, scientist and NASA consultant who was on the committee that drew up the protocols for what to do if we do make contact with aliens.

You’ll learn why the “barn door excuse” – that we’ve already sent out radio and television transmissions that may have sealed our fate – is scientifically incorrect, but why new plans to use planetary radar like Goldstone (pictured above) to send focused beams into space would pump up the volume and increase the likelihood of being found. You’ll hear about the growing global discussion of whether the general public has the right to determine whether we broadcast our presence to the universe, or whether the “scientific elite” gets to decide humanity’s fate. 

Let’s set aside arguments over the narrow tech-window overlap… or the dismal insolence of those who would yell yoohoo on our behalf, without serious discussion of public or collegial concerns. (To read about that debate, go to There is another, more specialized aspect to the specific “send everything” notion.

Plus, play along with David Grinspoon as he plays Chuck’s new game, “Brain of Brin or Dump of Trump,” and tries to guess whether a statement was first uttered by David Brin or Donald Trump. 

The Penn State Extraterrestrial Intelligence Center aims to fund research, host conferences, educate students, and grant doctorates in the general field of SETI.

== Shallow coverage in the press doesn't make us look "sapient" ==

WIRED carried an article about radio conversations with alien civilizations, that is simultaneously cogently interesting and amazingly wrongheaded. After covering some interesting aspects of communication methodology, the author concludes that all those efforts to develop clever math-linguistic protocols will not avail. Instead, we should (as recommended by the SETI Institute’s Seth Shostak) just beam forth the whole internet and let super-advanced aliens sort it all out. 

There is another, more specialized aspect to the specific “send everything” notion. That aspect is a phrase recently familiar: “quid pro quo.”

Only a few Earthly animals exhibit inter-species altruism, but most do seem to grasp some degree of commerce or trade: “You do something for me and I’ll do something for you.” Or give me that in exchange for this. Among advanced civilizations, separated by vast gulfs of empty space, the chief items of exchange will be in the form of information. Artworks, ideas, inventions, music and so on.

But these “beam everything!” fools seek to give away all of our trade goods straight from the start! Every famous painting or symphony or poem or patent, poured forth in exchange for nothing. “Thanks for the terrific free samples!” those uber-beings out there may reply. “Now what do you have to actually trade?” And if you doubt that scenario, despite trade being prevalent across all times and cultures, are you so sure that you’d bet our future without the courtesy of even discussing it?

Should we let fools rush to impoverish us? That’s not the behavior of scientists. It’s a cult.

== And harmless silliness ==

AstroGrams – helped by Apollo astronaut Charlie Duke - offers people worldwide the opportunity to inscribe a small metal plaque with their name, and a message and send it into space – either on a suborbital flight or orbital flight, to the International Space Station, to lunar orbit and perhaps even to Mars or beyond — with costs starting at just $99. Silly, yes, but harmless compared to fools who want to pour coherent blaring “yoohoo” radio messages out there.

Finally...A sense of scale from XKCD. Voyager 1 isn't even at the event Horizon.


Treebeard said...

I don’t think we can project anything at all on hypothetical aliens, who may be so alien that all analogies to human experience are irrelevant. Trying to guess their reactions to our transmissions is an exercise in anthropocentric projection, which reveals something about your worldview, but nothing about the world. Aliens have as much reality as angels and demons at this point, so it’s just mental masturbation. How should we behave toward aliens? How many angels can dance on the head of a pin? Who cares?

scidata said...

Feeling sad, discouraged, a bit farther from the stars (Canada-US-Iran). We're a small population. 63 Canadians is like almost 600 Americans. And at least that number again in Canadian citizenship hopefuls (there were 138 no-shows for the flight back from Kiiv to Toronto). Many were agricultural and medical researchers, postdocs, and high school students. Some from my old haunts. We must do better. Outrage is a poor substitute for sanity.

'S' and 'ET' are plain enough, it's the 'I' that is the real rabbit hole. Intelligence is not a simple anthropocentric projection. It's an effect caused by life itself. In one of our previous discussions of SETI, someone said that all we can do is use human reasoning because that's all we have. Perhaps. Here's a more robust "Natural intelligence and anthropic reasoning" paper submitted this month that covers these topics specifically. It's a bit dry, a laundry list of facts, definitions, and references. The only glaring omission is Dr. Brin's musings. I neither recommend, criticize, nor even recognize the author. Consider this as payback for the mountain of reading this blog has dumped on me.

David Brin said...

Blah blah there are things we'll never understand, so give up! How many times has that pathetic nostrum to be refuted before the dour-gloom-romantic side of human nature learns we will always reach beyond our grasp? Last night I heard Roger Penrose opine about quantum effects in neurons culminating in consciousness.

It's an effrontery even by Judaeo-Christian theological standards, since in the tale of the Tower of Babel He clearly states "if they continue, nothing will be beyond them."

In fact Earth itself provides copious examples of diversity to learn from and examine for the breadth of possible life forms. Octopi have more mass in their distributed brains than in their mnain brain. Zowee. Alas, what's to be done with guys like treebeard except a head pat: "We'll not only save the indulgent civilization that coddles you while you scratch at its eyes... we'll also go meet others out there, boldlly and with open minds. COulda used your help with both adventures. But we'll manage without it."

Daniel Duffy said...

The explanation of the Fermi Paradox in accordance with Occam's Razor:

We are all alone in the galaxy, if not the universe.

From a previous post -

Though the signs of our civilization may exist in the future, for now there is still no sign of an other civilization in the universe.

It is looking more and more likely that we are all alone.

"Many solutions have been proposed to solve this riddle, known as the Fermi Paradox. The aliens are hiding. They’ve entered suspended animation until more propitious conditions arise. A Great Filter makes the leap from “life “to “intelligent life” improbable, if not impossible. They’ve blown themselves up.Researchers of Oxford University’s Future of Humanity Institute have another answer. It’s likely intelligent life doesn’t exist at all, outside of Earth."

No Klingons. No Wookies. No ET phoning home.

Just us.

Maybe because Earth is a VERY rare place. Even more rare is a large companion moon.

So if we fail as a species the universe goes back to the unaware darkness of being mindless, blind, deaf and dumb.

But if we succeed, we can seed the universe with intelligent life in a remarkably short period of time - even at only a fraction of light speed.

"And indeed, the power of the SRP lies in its ability to replicate at an exponential rate. The initial rate of exploration would be slow, but after producing potentially millions upon millions of offspring, the rate of expansion would increase by an order of magnitude. So even at a speed of about a tenth the speed of light, these probes could cover a huge amount of territory in a relatively short amount of time from a cosmological perspective.... The researchers put this model to test by using a computer simulation. What they discovered was that, by using this technique, an alien civilization could send probes traveling no faster than 10% the speed of light to every single solar system in the galaxy in only 10 million years. Which is incredible — that’s an amount of time that’s significantly less than the age of the Earth."

David Brin said...

Daniel that just boils down to the F(L) hypothesis that the fraction of candidate worlds with life is small. It has its place in the argument, and has the benefit of likely being tested within our lifetimes. As F(p) the fraction of stars with planets got thoroughly tested the last 20 years. I deem F(I) to be far more likely, given that live seems very common but tech level intel happened here only once.

David Brin said...

Mind you, Also in my top five is the Feudal Trap, since 99% of human cultures fell into that horrifically stupid, error-prone and progress-squelching attractor state.

David Brin said...

God does appear to be telling Puerto Ricans to move to Florida and vote there.

scidata said...

If a SETI signal is detected, it will likely be at Green Bank, West Virginia.
Life is old there, older than the trees.

duncan cairncross said...

My favorite reasons for the Fermi Paradox (because I like them)

(1) Earth is unusually DRY due to the collision that made the moon
Earth Like worlds usually have oceans hundreds of Km deep and as a result the surface is a "wet desert" - sun but no nutrients so there is nowhere for life to live except the "deep smokers" - as a result it takes longer than the stars lifetime or the age of the universe to make the transition to complex life - it took Earth over 2 Billion years with LOTS of life

(2) Time travel is actually very easy - All species that are technically minded discover time travel - change the past and the only stable situation is the one that "uninvents" the species

Daniel Duffy said...

The more we discover about the galaxy and its history the more it appears that we are all alone.

Lack of metals:

Indeed, life is dependent on the presence of five critical elements, or metals in the parlance of astronomers: sulfur, phosphorus, oxygen, nitrogen, carbon (or SPONC for short). These heavier elements were cooked in nuclear reactions inside stars and became part of the interstellar medium only when stars reached the end of their energy-producing life. So, as time went by, the concentration of metals in the universe gradually increased.

But here's the thing — these heavier elements only recently became sufficiently concentrated in the interstellar medium to allow life to form. Planets around older stars, therefore, are likely to be low in SPONC. Only around relatively young stars, like ours, can life emerge. So humanity would thus be among the first civilizations — perhaps the first — to arise.

Gamma Ray Extinctions:

According to new work conducted by astronomers Tsvi Piran and Raul Jimenez, the odds that a planet could be hit by a GRB depends on its place in space and time. The closer that a planet is to the galactic core, where the density of stars is much greater, the odds increase. Their models show that a planet near to the core has a 95% chance of being hit by a catastrophic GRB at least once every billion years. Pulling back a bit, about half of the solar systems in the Milky Way are close enough such that there's an 80% chance of a GRB per billion years.

But here's where it gets interesting: The frequency of GRBs were greater in the past owing to lower levels of metallicity in the galaxy. Metal-rich galaxies (i.e. those with significant accumulations of elements other than hydrogen and helium) feature less gamma-ray bursts. Thus, as our galaxy becomes richer in metals, the frequency of GRBs decreases. What this means is that prior to recent times (and by recent we're talking the past 5 billion years or so), GRB extinction events were quite common. And in fact, some scientists suspect that the Earth was struck by a GRB many billions of years ago. Piran and Jimenez figure that these events were frequent and disbursed enough across the Milky Way to serve as constant evolutionary reset buttons, sending habitable planets back to the microbial dark ages before complex life and intelligence had a chance to develop further. Fascinatingly, before about 5 billion years ago, GRBs were so common that life would have struggled to maintain a presence anywhere in the cosmos (yes, the entire cosmos).

The Rare Earth Hypothesis:

One of these resolutions is the so-called Rare Earth Hypothesis — the suggestion that the parameters required to spawn a space-faring species is excruciatingly narrow. It's an idea that was put forth in 1999 by paleontologist Peter Ward and astronomer Donald Brownlee. By synthesizing the latest findings in astronomy, biology, and paleontology, the two put together a list of variables that, in their opinion, make our planet exceedingly rare in the cosmos. So rare, in fact, that it may explain why we may be the only ones out there.

Rarer Civilizations

It's also possible that life is exceedingly prolific in the universe, it's just that civilizations are what's rare. As Webb points out, it's not a given that tool making species are common, or that technological progress, the advent of complex language, and the adoption of the scientific method are inevitable.

Rarest Technology

The high likelihood that most Goldilock Zone water worlds are WETTER than Earth and hence unable to evolve hands-and-fire sapients like us. There may be intelligent cetacians and cephalods, but their water worlds would prevent fire and technology from being invented.

Daniel Duffy said...

We can imagine life and intelligent life with totally different biochemistry. But that makes the Fermi Paradox worse, not better.

We're free to imagine different life chemistry - and they could probably now be simulated by computer models. But you will probably already find them here on Earth.

For example, some animals do not have hemoglobin to carry oxygen through the blood. Crustaceans (shellfish like lobsters, shrimps, and crabs) use a compound called hemocyanin. Hemocyanin is similar to hemoglobin but contains copper instead of iron. Many copper compounds, including hemocyanin, are blue. Therefore, the blood of a crustacean is blue, not red.

(Sorry Mr. Spock but your green copper-based Vulcan blood should actually be blue.)

What if Brown Dwarfs (planets wandering between the stars that are larger than Jupiter but smaller than a star that never ignite in a fusion reaction but produce a lot of infra red heat radiation) turn out to be scattered by the dozens or hundreds in the space between the stars? And what if most of them have mini-solar systems (like Jupiter and Saturn) capable of supporting life because there is enough heat is generated by the BD to allow liquid water and photosynthesis based on infrared frequencies? It's easy to imagine life based on infrared photosynthesis on moons orbiting brown dwarfs which give off heat but not light (creatures on such a world would evolve to see in infra read, like Ahnuld's "Predator"). Not just imagine it, we already know of such life here on Earth, green sulfur bacteria. And if BDs floating between the stars greatly outnumber suns, then visible light spectrum-based life may be the exception instead of the rule.

In addition to infrared based life, Cornell researchers have modeled methane-based life forms that don't use water and could live in the liquid methane seas of Titan. Methane based life forms by themselves are a fascinating concept. The chemical reactions of a cryogenic methane based life form would be very slow. An intelligent methane life may take years to form a single thought or say a single sentence - but would still be intelligent. But ironically the potential "Goldilocks" zone for such life is far greater (extending across the range of Jovian worlds out to the Kuiper belt) than our narrow zone for water-based life forms.

All we can expect are variations on a theme. The laws of physics and chemistry place limits on what elements could be assembled and function as "life". Truly exotic combinations and chemistry don't work here on Earth and most likely won't work anywhere else because of these same laws - you can't reasonably expect plutonium based blood or triple helix DNA (which is chemically unstable).

Even so, "life as we know it" based on water and the visible light spectrum photosynthesis may be the rare exception in a universe dominated by methane-based life and life that utilizes infrared photosynthesis.

Which means that the Fermi Paradox starts with an order of magnitude greater number of potential life bearing planets capable of evolving a technologically advanced species.

So where is everyone?

Daniel Duffy said...

The residency requirements in Florida are not that strict. A billionaire like Bloomberg could start of business in Florida and hire thousands of Puerto Ricans and meet the residency requirements while registering to vote. And actually moving to Florida is but one way of establishing legal residence:

Although signing and recording a Florida Declaration of Domicile is not required to establish your Florida residency, it does put the public on notice that you have indeed made Florida your permanent home.

Oddly enough, the act of registering to vote in Florida is itself a sign of being a Florida resident. You can accomplish this when you get your driver's license or non-driver ID card. The DMV should provide you with a voter registration form at the same time. If not, ask for one.

yana said...

Drakes and Fermis and Malthussusses, Oh My!


Why has SETI no incontrovertible proof after 50 years? Hawking was worried about our EM broadcasts inviting the "wrong kind" of attention. Yet after 120 years of that, nobody out there seems to care. Hawking's tripstone was assuming that ETs would be vastly overtech past us, and implicitly assumed faster-than-light travel as a given to our future conquerors. He thought that it would be light-speed signal leakage that would give us away. Might be possible, but this implies that our space overlords should have been here by the 1920's. If they ain't here by now, they're not coming.

So why? That's Enrico Fermi's paradox, codified by Drake first but not best, which is how science works. The nature of the question itself assumes that humanity has already attained a level of sustainability against all anticipated threats. But we haven't. Until we do so, Fermi's stumper is just masturbation after all. We have to get sustainable colonies on at least two other rocks in the Solar System before we can start to feel safe from the species-level threats, those ones which we can't do anything about. Yet.

500 million years from a cell to a capsule in orbit. It implies many millions of years beforehand, of chemical reactions organizing one by one into chains of process. We know it happened here, now we can see other planets where it could happen, so where are they? Why are we alone?

It's because we're early. 1 billion years early. That's a guess, but a darn good one. It's not just a convenient round number, the one billion years. The universe is 13 and a half billion years old, and it will be about 14.5 billion years old when it changes. Space is an effect of matter, so if space is expanding then that means more matter is being created from the matter/energy substrate. But this won't always be so.

Predicted it 25 years ago, but never thought it'd be observed until we could travel beyond the Milky Way's ecliptic: Dark Flow. Wish cosmologists would stop it already with the word 'dark', but the observation is that not only are galaxies fleeing apart from each other, but they are all moving slightly towards one distant spot in the sky. And that spot is 15.5 billion light-years away.

The universe is not a thing, nor a collection of things. It is an event, not a thing. The event we're almost halfway through, is an event which takes about 29 billion years.

Everything is an event, even lonely matter sitting there minding its own business. We are accustomed to think of only interactions as "events" because something "happens" when matter or energy undergoes a change. But the fact that a particle merely exists, in a place at a time, is an event inherent of itself. In both senses, the universe can be seen as full of events, but now as an event itself.

Matter and energy are the same thing, both arise as knots, as fluctuations of various organization from the same substrate. Thought this was true using the theory of the Higgs boson years ago, and now we know that the Higgs beast exists. Now, we know that every bit of the universe winks in-to and out-of existence about 4 quadrillion times a second. It's what Schroedinger said about the cat, now we know it's all true.

Doesn't matter whether it's alive or dead, science has proved that there IS a cat in a box. No word yet on whether it's wearing a hat.

yana said...

Drakes and Fermis and Malthussusses, Oh My!


We are about 1.0 billion years away from our universe's halfwaypoint, when numbers which we thought of as physical constants crest and start drifting contrarywise. That needs 'splaining. There's a constant in physics, the "fine structure constant" for simplicity called 'alpha' which is 1 divided by 137.0359. It worried Richard Feynman, who said it's: "a magic number that comes to us with no understanding by man." Enrico Fermi also had a piqued internal feud with "alpha", it consumed much of his later career.

If alpha was a hair smaller, stars would not create carbon, and if alpha is a touch higher, carbon atoms would decay much faster. The scope of this essay means skating over details which the reader can find on the 'net or in decent a library for further reading, but here's some backstory.

We can make nuclear fission today, and also we can study how it happened naturally 1.7 billion years ago, in a cave in Africa. Differences in the fission byproducts neodymium and samarium suggest that alpha has decreased slightly over time. In addition, observation of chromium expelled from quasars also suggests that alpha has decreased. Not by much, one proposed rate of change is on the order of 1 part in 1,000,000 parts, per billion years.

Alpha is defined as the charge of an electron doubled, then that result divided by a denominator which is Planck's constant multiplied by the speed of light then that result divided by 2 times pi:


Or: e4pi/hc, if you like.

That's the same equation, only with math tricks, and it means "alpha" equals the charge of an electron multiplied by 4, then that result multiplied by pi, and then THAT result gets divided by Planck's Constant times the speed of light.

The constancy of alpha between the subatomic and cosmological scales really bothered Enrico Fermi. It is the reason Fermi posed his "paradox" in the first place. But Fermi lived too early, and now we know more. The equation above might seem like a good candidate for glossing over, but you should be able to apply some simple algebra to see for yourself, what a decreasing alpha means.

If alpha trends lower, then that means either: 1) electrons are becoming weaker over time, or 2) the speed of light is increasing over time. Pi won't change, and Planck's constant is unlikely to change, so that leaves e or c as our variables. Now refer to earlier paragraphs here to tie it all together. Space is an effect of matter. Matter and energy are expressions of the same thing. Einstein showed an effect of gravity on the speed of light, and matter loves gravity. If space itself expands all around an innocent photon, what choice does it have, but to shift red?

So is it e, or is it c, which is our variable? The charge of an electron, or the speed of light? It's both of them, and they're bound by the proportion of matter/energy in the universe. As alpha falls, the spectrum shifts slightly towards more matter than energy. That would mean space expands. Check, we've got that. As alpha falls, we should see higher and heavier elements produced in the universe, another checkbox, we see this everywhere as time marches on.

We should find more and larger black holes, which are merely the outward face of matter which has passed a threshold of organization, and yet again: Check, we see that today. Should also see fewer supernovae and fewer gamma-ray bursts, but time will tell on that. Several decades are not enough sample size to know about that yet.

yana said...

Drakes and Fermis and Malthussusses, Oh My!


If alpha is falling, we are gaining matter, which is just a more highly organized flavor of energy. Every aspect of a falling alpha points towards more life "as we know it," our kind of life based on matter. This does not preclude life based more on energy than matter, which David Brin puts out in the 1st and 6th books of the Uplift Sexology. Get your mind out of the gutter, we're talking science here. It's just a series of six books.

More matter (and more stable matter) means more planets capable of sprouting life, and a more stable stellar environment for such cradles of chemical invention, since more matter means more gravity, and then faster absorption of stray planet-altering rocks within an innocent star's accretion disk. If alpha is falling, then the universe should become far more hospitable to any life based on matter, "Life as we know it"

But this will not always be so. Back to the tippy-top of this essay, the universe is an event 29 billion years long. We are highly sure that there was a Big Bang 13.5 byr ago, and it looks like something's attracting matter 15.5 byr's away. The universe looks to be 1.0 billion years from the midpoint, which might mean the height of matter over energy, via the current falling value of alpha, which may be the unwitting abettor of life as we like it. A billion years from now, does alpha bottom out and begin to rise? Instead of getting further from the big bang, now it's in front of us, and getting closer.

Don't worry, it won't be as catastrophic as flicking a switch and the universe flies into a Big Crunch Smoothie. It would still take billions of years for our kind of life to become untenable, as carbon itself slides from the list of 'stable' to 'radioactive'. In the meantime, we'll have continuing carbon production among aging stars on both sides of the event, and we would see shrinking space and more freely available energy... shouldn't take much imagination for a curious ape, to think up what to do with that kind of universe!

Drake plugged in numbers and came up with 50,000 fellow galaxians in 1961. Forgan came up with 31,574 back in 2008. But still Fermi echoes down the hall: "Where is everybody?" The more science uncovers, it appears that we are an early beneficiary of a side-effect of how the universe changes over time. Alpha is falling, so we should expect a wave of more frequent (and more complex) arrangements of matter for the next billion years.

yana said...

Drakes and Fermis and Malthussusses, Oh My!


In a billion years, there will be a crescendo of intelligent life filling space with transmissions. If we survive to see that, we will be the "ancient ones" who shepherded a billion worlds. If we don't, someone else will, because they're coming, soon and lots of them. We are just early to the party. We are probably not the first in this universe, but we are very early in the wave.

Any ape knows the advantage of being the first to an unpicked berry bush, but the smarter ape tastes the soil in which berry bushes grow, then poops on the same kind of plot further along the creek. Humans can explore and expand, but there are no aliens to either embrace or exterminate us. We greenhorn humans are just early, that's all. There will be plenty of aliens later, because a decreasing value of alpha enhances the stability of existing carbon.

Fermi's Paradox is not a mystery. The permanence and stability of matter itself is increasing all across the universe, as far as we can see. In a billion years this will reach a high-water mark, then ebb. Because life on Earth was 3 billion years early, implies that we'll keep meeting new galactic neighbors for the next several billion years. Hey SETI, enjoy the relaxing silence while it lasts. A billion years from today, the noise will be deafening.

If all this speculation is true, then there are strategic aspects. METI, for instance, doesn't mean a thing, one way or another. There's either zero or few possible recipients of our call. SETI however, becomes much more important with each passing million years. When each new life gets to the level of EM leakage, we want to know about it.

Foolishly taking our own example as a median, the path from the discovery of magnetism to space travel could take anywhere from a hundred years to 50,000,000 years. Took us a couple thousand, but from supraplanetary EM ejaculations to space trips, only took us 70 years. By the time we see alien sitcoms, we will either be spacefaring because we've been smart or will become spacefaring in a crash program in 30 years at great cost, because we were too wrapped up in our own little world.

scidata said...

Meh. One signal collapses all colossal wave functions.

Darrell E said...

It is fun to speculate. But granting any significant degree of assuredness to any speculations regarding life in the universe is unwarranted. The parameter space that we have so far been able to search with a fidelity that is capable of giving enough data for definitive conclusions regarding the presence or absence of life is infinitesimal. We can't even be sure of the planet right next to us in our own solar system. And exactly opposite as someone above claimed, the more data we gather the more likely it seems that life is unlikely to be rare. The further we see one after another the things that were previously claimed to be unique about the Earth, our solar system, life on Earth and their histories have been shown to be not unique. Except of course in the sense that everything that exists has a unique history. I wonder when the Rare Earth hypothesis will die? Really, it's ridiculous.

Larry Hart said...

I presume most of us have seen that ridiculous tweet of Trump's portraying himself as Thanos:

Aside from the tone-deafness of casting himself as a villain and forgetting what happens to that villain in the next few seconds of the movie, the characterization is simply wrong. A better movie analog for Trump would have been Edward G Robinson's Dathan character in The Ten Commandments. The guy who promises that when the Hebrews are tired of wandering in the desert, he'll lead them back to Pharaoh and the slave pits. The one whose followers since into depravity, idolatry, and cruelty before Moses tosses the tablets at them and God's righteous vengeance destroys them.

"Where's your messiah now!

Larry Hart said...

Zepp Jamieson in the previous comments:

Neville Chamberlain was a much better PM and person than history gives him credit for--he just made the same grievous mistake of thinking the other side was dealing in some sort of good faith

There's a recent historical novel called Munich by Robert Harris which takes place during Chamberlain's 1937 (?) visit to Germany which depicts the mood of both the British and German populations toward Chamberlain at the time. Very eye-opening.

Jim Lund said...

Going past the existence of intelligent life, space is quite big. Likely FTL is impossible. Slower than light travel is expensive, slow, and difficult. So let's assume everyone stays close to their home star.

How difficult is communication? Reception is fairly easy, but how expensive is transmission? How strong does a signal have to be to get received at 1000 light years, 100k light years? How much energy does it take? Also, the only stars that 'count' as communicating are those that can keep it up for a long time--100k, 1M years. Long enough for extended back and forth messaging.

You can run the Fermi numbers and get a reasonable chance there is a communication partner within 10k light years, but the conversation would still be slow, so the effort required is great.

Quid pro quo with a turn around time of 2X light years is very slow. So what form of communication is the most reasonable strategy? I doubt star 'A' wants to send a short message, and wait for a reply, leaving the channel closed 99.99%+ of the time. And yet if the star 'B' on the other end stops reciprocating, you don't know for a long, long time.

Larry Hart said...

re: Fermi Paradox,

Is SETI searching for two way communication, or simply for evidence of intelligence? I'd expect the former to be unlikely in our species's lifetime, and almost certainly so in our individual lifetimes.

One problem I see is the assumption that intelligent ETs would view contact as an impetus to approach us. In the wild, when an animal encounters evidence that another animal is alive, the tendency is to avoid that other as a danger. That is if the other isn't perceived as prey. Rather than a siren call, wouldn't it be more likely that our transmissions--if identifiable as evidence of life by others in the first place--would be a signal to stay clear?

Jon S. said...

It's pretty clear, if our planet can possibly be taken as a baseline, that pre-sapient intelligence levels are commonly reached. From elephants teaching each other how to find the humans who will help them (when they've been injured by other humans, no less!), to wombats herding smaller creatures into their burrows to protect them from wildfires in Australia, to corvids trading pretties to humans for food, to the rather amusing video I watched this morning of a cockatoo manipulating a brick until it fell off the top of the garbage can it was keeping closed, then flipping the lid open so that it (and other birds) could feast on the trash inside, early indicators of intelligence seem quite widespread on our world.

Therefore, we're left with our other major considerations being development of innovative technology (indications are that Cro-Magnon man outcompeted both Neanderthals and Denisovans by simply innovating more quickly as they spread into new areas), interest in leaving the nest, and of course the question of how common life is in the first place. It's entirely possible that our galaxy is as teeming with life as our space operas have always dreamed, but that the vast majority of that life is simply uninterested in leaving their homeworld - either their life-forms are ill-suited to offworld expeditions, or their philosophies devalue exploration, or simply that they've been overwhelmed by their equivalent of our "capitalist conservatives" and decided that anything aiming offplanet is just too expensive - pie-analog in the sky, as it were.

Or perhaps there's something to that speculation about gamma-ray bursters being far more common earlier in the universe's existence, and it wasn't until recently (in stellar terms) that life became viable over the long term. Perhaps we're an Elder Race. Personally, I find that to be the least palatable explanation, but the universe doesn't care what I like.

David Brin said...

Darrell: “I wonder when the Rare Earth hypothesis will die?”

I give it 12 years. By then we should be getting enough atmospheric spectra to tell if there are planets roughly like ours, out there.

LH: The Dathan comparison was cool.

Zepp re Chamberlain: There were ways to appease Germany other than utterly betraying the Czecks. There’s no excusing that.

Jim: “So let's assume everyone stays close to their home star.”

Seriously? Even self-replicating probes? Well… if there are “crystal spheres.”

David Brin said...

Duncan,I believe I was among the 1st to mention “dry Earth” back in the 1980s, in part because Earth skates the inner edge of our sun’s CHZ. THAT is an anomalous "non-copernican" trait, probably more so than having a large moon.

I love the Time Travel hypothesis. The same logic applies to "we're in a simulation." The simulators save costs by having a ship speed limit (light) and no aliens.

The metalicity thing might explain the lack of any signs (so far) of fantastic giga-mega structures across all galaxies. But there’s been plenty for at least the 5billion years of our sun and probably 8 or 9 billion.

The rest is interesting and fun. The brown dwarf thing might be pertinent in other ways… like making interstellar travel too hazardous and thus changing the calculations of colonization waves.

The biggest thing is that we havealready counted locally up to a dozen “Europa ocean worlds” suggesting that they are everywhere, even near unstable or unsuitable stars.

re: cosmological musings, a small number of you will be jealous to know I had dinner and a long, avid conversation last night with Roger Penrose, discussing his conformal mapping recurring universe theory and “quantum consciousness” along with other matters. Nyah nyah. Roger. Penrose. ;-)

Yana, alas, while way-fun and erudite, your cosmological dance is riddled with errors, like the notion that the Attractor 15.5 billion light years away means the universe is halfway through its lifespan. A bizarre conclusion, though a colorful one that might make a fun non-hard SF story premise! Alas, your fun missive - while vivid and displaying a lively mind - is riddled with such.

I agree that we might be the “ancient ones.” Indeed, I will soon post my NOVEL that is entitled “THE ANCIENT ONES” !! Here’s a novel that’s also about that. The Hugo winner by Poul Anderson TAU ZERO. Get it now.

locumranch said...

Perhaps the most likely explanation to the Fermi Paradox is one despised by progressive arrogance, that technology is most characteristic of defective & maladaptive species development, as in the case of humans who developed knives & cutting instruments due to a lack of environmental specialisation & claws, agriculture & bread making due to an insufficiency of teeth & jaws, and enlarged brains due to inherent physical shortcomings & deficiencies.

In effect, the human race is a functionally disabled race of physio-emotional cripples, being both unable unwilling & unable to adapt to either the natural order or the terrestrial environment, whereas any mature, advanced or harmonious alien species must necessarily adapt to its physical environment, making further technological and intellectual development both unnecessary & undesirable.

All of our most prized human inventions -- including fire, the wheel & refractive lenses -- are technological 'crutches' and admissions of pervasive human inferiority, insomuch as (1) we require fire because we are incapable of growing the warm coat necessary to survive a cold winter, (2) we require the wheel because our stubby ineffective appendages are ill-equipped for long distance travel or the conveyance of burdens, and (3) we require refractive lenses because of substantial sensory & visual impairment.

Human beings -- and any DEFECTIVE race that may resemble us in any way -- are the veritable outcasts, lepers, malcontents & retards of the Universe and, most likely, no sufficiently mature, evolved or well-adapted alien species will ever want anything to do with us.


matthew said...

I still think the greatest Fermi filters are the ones we are facing now. Technology sufficient to reach the stars requires a certain level of ecological damage that may "foul the nest" enough to prevent sustainable off-planet colonization. Plus, development of spaceflight coincides with WMD where one individual may doom all the others.

I understand that these concerns may be the result of confirmation bias ("our situation is the *most dire ever*") and a low information horizon, but we are currently doing a less-than-required job of dealing with both threats. We are the only dataset that we can look at at this time. Conformation bias is our lot until we can either discover another data set or model one close enough to our reality.

Not saying we are doomed, just saying that defeating these two threats will be difficult and success is not preordained.

David Brin said...

Wow, one benefit of moderation... we have the 2008 locumranch back! Oh, everything he says is wrong. But it's INTERESTING and worth reading his well-expressed challenges to our "standard" models. Still a bit hostile and predictable, but not insane drivel-strawmanning.

Worth answering with this... humans are spectacularly PHYSICALLY intimidating to other animals. Not only do we wield fire and sharp tools, we borrow the skins of other beasts and our babes yowl like there's no need for them to hide. (There's not.)

Beyond that, humans are the best long distance runners, most accurate musicians, best GENERAL acrobats and we THROW, accurately and with deadly force, which no one else can do. And those who play even amateur baseball likely throw better than any ancestor.

Locum's notion that we are decadent and becoming soft is half true, in that half of the population in the most advanced nations does that. Like the obesity epidemic that has swept Red America.

Problem is this. Half of Americans, for example, ARE taking care of themselves, physically. And half of those are vigorous. And half of THOSE are engaged in vigor-activities with passion and ambition, attaining physical strength and skill that would have made them gods among the ground-down 30 year old cavemen L so admires.

We've discussed this before and he never, never, never adapts his arguments to take into account the pure fact of the Age of Amateurs, with 20% of Americans passionately diving into hobbies or skills that range from blacksmithing to sword making to astronomy to any art or craft that poor misanthropes like locum loudly proclaim we have abandoned. Abandoned by YOU and your pals, perhaps.

In fact, modern society offers us choices. And those who choose sluggard dissolution into piles of lard-indolence are more common in his favored parts of the nation. Those rising to the challenges are more common (tho still a minority) in ours.

David Brin said...

matthew, I agree. So does Roger Penrose. We are at a critical juncture. We have the means to do better than other techno-sapients. I believe that's because feudalism is likely a near universal attractor-trap. It dissolved 99% of human societies into dismal stupidity, testified brutally by recorded history.

We may be relatively unique in discovering an alternative attractor state. And while it's spectacularly creative/productive/effective, many human males will try to cheat to bring it down, because.... harems.

Darrell E said...


Yes, it seems plausible that dealing with the ever increasing energy levels necessary to industrialize, make use of orbital space, make use of a solar system and then perhaps even to cross between stars, is inherently dangerous. Whether by accident, neglect or bad actors the energy levels being played with are high enough to cause devastation on planet wide scales and as the energy levels / technology levels increase the faster the devastation can happen.

jim said...

Lets go though the most obvious reasons why the Fermi Paradox is not a paradox but should be the expected outcome.

Sending a self replicating bio / techno system(s) to another solar system is almost impossible.

Why would any system devote the resources to conduct an inter stellar mission?

There is a large difficulty in developing a self sustaining ecosystems /techno systems off planet. they seem to be extremely fragile.

Why spend the resources needed to developing self sustaining space based systems?

Where did all the spare resources (surplus energy) to develop space based systems come from ? Something like fossil fuels -who's widespread use causes all sorts of problems?

jim said...

I don't think we have so much discovered an alternative attractor state, i think that the very large surplus energy from fossil fuels has reduce the cost of transportation and communication enough to allow for the type of government system seen in some merchant city states to spread to the rest of the world.

David Brin said...

Yes, Jim, we know that's your oft-expressed cynical opinion, ignoring every bit of contrary evidence. Oh sure, fossil fuels empowered the wealth generation that enabled Enlightenment 3.0 to burgeon. But v1.0 -- Athens -- transformed the world and terrified every inheritance oligarchy without a bit of it.

Moreover, we are already proving that baseline electrical and transport can be shifted over to sustainables. Granted, that transition is being fought by troglodytes. But the potential is proved. And citizens are infilling cities away from fuelish suburbs, meaning Dutch/Japanese levels of efficiency are also within reach.

duncan cairncross said...

The "Obesity Epidemic" annoys me

We are doing this to ourselves by setting the target in the wrong place - the "ideal BMI" is simply the mean of the data set recorded by a Belgian Astronomer nearly 200 years ago

A study of mortality rates has the lowest mortality rate NOT at a BMI of 21 - the "Ideal" but at a BMI of about 28 - overweight verging on obese - AND the lowest mortality rate

This IMHO contributes massively to the number of people who are actually morbidly obese by simply moving the "Target" out of reach

Somebody whose body is naturally heavy - somebody who has got zero chance of getting down to a BMI of 21 - but is fit and healthy at a BMI of 30 - is nagged at and told to lose weight

Some of those people end up being morbidly obese - the traditional and very unfit hippo types - because the "target" is simply unattainable

This is a contributing factor

Probably less important than the prevalence of sugars

scidata said...

Dr. Brin: But the potential is proved.

I just don't understand the fixation and denial of some. Every technological indicator objectively shows hyper-exponential advancement. It's plainly obvious, no? If someone really wanted to fight the trend, they should warn against the potential dangers (a la Nick Bostrom), not stubbornly deny the reality.

We're getting damn close to bacterial and fungal computers, with harnessing the particle physics of entire stars for computation being discussed. Ribosomes are child's play in comparison. The Breakthrough Starshot microprobe to Proxima Centauri is well into the planning stage. Remember, only a century ago we were largely horse-powered.

David Brin said...

A side thought about that decadence thing. Nowadays, because of the de-emphasis on wealth and caste, we are seeing likes marry likes. vigorously athletic men and women marry, for example. Hence over a LONG time you might see bifurcation into inherited types. (The flick Wall-E weirdly ignores that for many physical activity is pleasurable and there'd be low gee athletics aboard.)

Hence you MIGHT tend to see divergence of types. (First sign... the children of movie stars tend to be pretty, gosh amazing!)

That's not the argument poor locumranch is making, though. And under his preferred feudalism it would get far worse.

CODA: Proof that homophobes are imbeciles. For ages homosexuals bred and passed on their traits because they had to enter hetero marriages to survive. Birth rates among gays plummeted when they became free from oppression. You'd think the bigots would want that. But an earlier eugenics effect had effect... the tendency of bigot to be idiots.

David Brin said...

Secretary Of State Mike Pompeo: ‘We Will Continue To Fight… Until The Rapture’

David Brin said...

Zepp Jamieson said...

Larry wrote: "There's a recent historical novel called Munich by Robert Harris which takes place during Chamberlain's 1937 (?) visit to Germany which depicts the mood of both the British and German populations toward Chamberlain at the time. Very eye-opening"

Could you be a bit more specific? I'm interested.

Doctor: Re the Czechs. Yes, that was shameful. In truth, that slipped my mind as I was writing that bit. It was unforgivable on Chamberlain's part.

duncan cairncross said...

Chamberlain - like most of the ruling class did NOT want to go to war

WW1 had killed too many of the ruling class - and most of them though Hitler was at least partly right about the Jews and the Communists

Chamberlain slower down the re-armament as much as he could - it all happened in spite of his efforts

Churchill was a member of a small minority of his party that saw just what was needed - luckily enough the Labour MP's were more perceptive - or less dazzled by the Nazis

yana said...

David Brin thought:

"you will be jealous to know I had dinner and a long, avid conversation last night with Roger Penrose"

Yeah that guy's been doing great work for as long as ever, me be jealous, he's a guy who'd be a great chat over a glass of something. One thing he hasn't got yet, is that alpha is mutable. This means that you don't have to nest iterations, Penrose's "aeons", like petroshka dolls.

My only procedural quibble with Penrose is that gravitational radiation does not persist across what he calls a "boundary", which is in fact nearer to eternity, if the heartbeat of an aeon is measured by one rise and fall of the Fine Structure Constant. Instead, it's the final reduction of gravity to true zero which triggers the next "aeon". But by then, there is no surface, there is no space. This CMB is ours, and ours alone, and it is unique, but it's the same one everybody else sees, saw, and will see.

The idea that anything transmits from one iteration to the next just smacks like humanocentrism, almost like a kind of spiritualism.

Larry Hart said...

Zepp Jamieson re Robert Harris's novel Munich:

Could you be a bit more specific? I'm interested.

The novel begins in London--1937 I'm pretty sure--where the general mood is one of trepidation over a possible impending resumption of war with Germany. They're digging trenches and handing out gas masks and that sort of thing. Eventually, the setting moves to Germany where Hitler is preparing to receive Churchill in the summit which we 21st Centurians know results in the "peace in our time" speech. And the mood of the German population toward Chruchill is almost messianic. They don't want war either--at least not war from their west. And Churchill's visit is anticipated the way Elvis or The Beatles would be some decades later.

Churchill and Hitler are both there as characters, but as is Harris's wont, the actual protagonists are bureaucrats involved in making the meeting happen, one on the British side and one on the German side. There are plots and subplots involving attempts to leak internal Nazi documents to the outside world. I don't want to spoil too much more than that, nor do I remember all of the specific details at this point.

What impressed me about the book was its ability to tell a story about Nazi Germany which came complete with a conflict, resolution, and palpable sense of relief even though the war itself wouldn't start for two more years. It helped me to understand why "peace in our time" was so eagerly embraced when it was, and why the Czechs were essentially sacrificed on that altar. And yes, that betrayal is there in the novel as well.

If you're not already familiar, Robert Harris has an impressive list of both historical novels and alternate-history novels. My favorite of the alternate history variety is Fatherland which depicts a 1964 in which America and Germany have had a cold war for 20 years after a stalemate in WWII. It has some elements in common with Dr Brin's short story "Thor Meets Captain America", though there's nothing supernatural about Harris's book. I strongly recommend it if you like that kind of thing.

scidata said...

"Enigma" (2001) starring Kate Winslet and Dougray Scott was pretty good. Robert Harris wrote that book. He seems to have a penchant for WWII historical fiction. Maybe a British Philip K. Dick.

Larry Hart said...

Dr Brin:

Hence you MIGHT tend to see divergence of types. (First sign... the children of movie stars tend to be pretty, gosh amazing!)

I've mentioned this before in other contexts, but with the recent trend where wealthy and beautiful celebrities have been adopting impoverished children, we are living through an experiment with a new dynamic--children whose genetics are unrelated to the wealthy and beautiful receiving at least some of the evolutionary benefits of wealth and beauty.

CODA: Proof that homophobes are imbeciles. For ages homosexuals bred and passed on their traits because they had to enter hetero marriages to survive.

I've heard right-wingers dismissing homosexuality by actually referencing the possibility of inter generational space travel, i.e., "If you were populating a space colony that would be isolated from earth for a long time and rely on reproduction within the colony to keep it going, would you include homosexuals in the mix?" As if that's analogous to the situation that a planet of seven billion human beings finds itself in.

Larry Hart said...

Dr Brin:

But an earlier eugenics effect had effect... the tendency of bigot to be idiots.

More to the point--bigots are bullies first and everything else a distant second. Their goal is not for homosexuality to vanish from the earth, but to use homosexuality as an excuse to dehumanize and then be mean to a subset of people.

If there were ever a time when there were no gays left, the bigots would find other human characteristics to rail against in the same manner. I see this as the inevitable result of Nazism too. If they ever do remove all the Jews, all the gays, all the gypsies, all the slavs...well, the system requires that newer subsets of the remaining people have to be found to be the despised untermenchen. The lizard has to continually eat its own tail or die.

Larry Hart said...


But the real question before the Senate is far broader than the specific scandal recounted in the articles. What is on trial, at the most basic level, is Mr. Trump’s vision of the American presidency.


The Ukraine scandal presents a near-perfect distillation of Mr. Trump’s conception of his office — and the House’s articles of impeachment will put many of the elements of his vision before the Senate for judgment.

Fundamentally, Mr. Trump proposes that the purpose of executive power is to serve the individual interests of the president. It serves the public good only coincidentally and only when convenient.


Larry Hart said...


"Enigma" (2001) starring Kate Winslet and Dougray Scott was pretty good. Robert Harris wrote that book.

Yes, I didn't want to clutter my previous post even more, but that's my favorite of Harris's not-alternative historical novels. I learned a heck of a lot that I hadn't known before about Bletchley Park from that book.

Larry Hart said...

Interesting take on FDR:

Public policy really does have the potential to shape public opinion. Years after Roosevelt created Social Security, one of his advisers suggested to him that funding it with a new tax — the payroll tax — had been a mistake during the Depression. Roosevelt responded that the tax transformed the politics of Social Security, making it feel like a savings program rather than welfare.

“I guess you’re right on the economics,” Roosevelt told the adviser. But “those taxes aren’t a matter of economics — they’re straight politics.” As the president explained, “With those taxes in there, no damn politician can ever scrap my Social Security program.”

Or as the Jefferson's eulogy in "Hamilton" puts it:

I’ll give him this--his financial system is a work of genius.
I couldn’t undo it if I tried.
And I tried.

Tim H. said...

Looks like Somtow Sucharitkul is staying busy:
These days it seems like a fine idea to remind folks of what lies at the end of some roads.

Darrell E said...

scidata said...

The first thing that popped into my mind when reading that was The Trigon Disunity trilogy by Michael P. Kube-McDowell, comprised of the novels Emprise, Enigma and Empery. Anybody read / remember those? I didn't like the 1st novel but I quite liked the 2nd & 3rd.

jim said...

I saw where Vox has some predictions for 2020

They are expecting Biden to win the democratic nomination then lose to Trump in the election. The republicans keep the senate, and Trump appoints another supreme court justice.

And in completely other type of prediction the Astrologers have long expected 2020 to mark an end of one age and the beginning of another, and that the transition periods can be very dangerous. I find it amusing that astrology is matching up with events on earth in what can only be described as some sort of non causal synchronicity. Say goodbye to the earth signs (oil and coal) and hello to the air signs (climate change) for the next 200 years. LOL

David Brin said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Larry Hart said...

Dr Brin:

and the horrific THE SEPARATION by Christopher Priest, which argues that Britain should have accepted Rudolf Hess’s offer of a separate peace and let the Nazis spread hell across Eurasia. (A truly vile book I reviewed in the New York Review of Science Fiction. I really must publish that review some time.)

Morality aside, just in terms of practicality, doesn't he realize that Hitler would eventually have done to that agreement what he did to the one with Stalin?

 Ashley said...

scidata said..."I just don't understand the fixation and denial of some. Every technological indicator objectively shows hyper-exponential advancement. (snip)We're getting damn close to bacterial and fungal computers, with harnessing the particle physics of entire stars for computation being discussed. Ribosomes are child's play in comparison.(snip)"

I would not disagree with any of the core assumptions you've made, but as David already knows, my back of the envelope calculations suggest that because of the speed of light limit, and the volume of space there hasn't been enough time for aliens to have colonized our galaxy.

My assertion is driven by time and distance, with the caveat that with a data-set of one, the error bars leave us with the most optimistic minimum time of 31,400,000 (based on 0.1c) as the base figure, multiplied by the confounding variables that must be factored in.

Finally, I posit that any civilization able of such a task has probably evolved beyond the need to colonize planets (based on be able to keep a spaceship fully functional for 3000 plus years).

Obviously, YMMV.

Larry Hart said...

One bad effect of moderated comments is that they are not immediately viewable for self-editing.


...where Hitler is preparing to receive Churchill in the summit...

...And Churchill's visit is anticipated...

Should have been Chamberlain, not Churchill. I trust the context made that clear.

Zepp Jamieson said...

Larry: about Robert Harris. Thank you for that! I realized I have read him--"Pompeii" a few years back. I'll get a copy of "Munich" soonest. I see he has a new one, "The Second Sleep" that also looks pretty intriguing.

David Brin said...

I apologize for using the "meds" cheap shot. Still, I have made abundantly clear how tolerant I will be, when there is some substance and less hate behind his postings. At the other end, I have never earned locumranch's obsessive hatred and when he screeches it, he shall not pass. I have a preset number of times in a row, upon which I will simply block him.

Ashley I attended the first Interstellar Migration conference and the consensus figure accepted since is that it should be possible for someone to achieve 0.1c travel. If so then organic beings who must colonize worlds and replenish population/industry could still fill the galaxy in under 100M years and Von Neuman probes could visit every system and leave agents (as I depict in EXISTENCE) in under 20 My. An eyeblink in a 10 billion year old galaxy.

"Evolving beyond colonization" is possible in one case, another, five or ten... But if they are many. Dig it. Every species on Earth that is given an opportunity to spread out does so, no matter what their motives.

scidata said...

In Isaac Arthur's latest video talk, "Fermi Paradox: Could Technology Develop Without Fire?", he guesses that you need two basic things for fire: a partially dry planet with oxygen, and a species that's "weird in the head" (one that thinks it's fun to play with fire).

Geothermal, atomic, or solar could also work, but much more slowly than fire

Alfred Differ said...

Matthew, (from last thread)

I think the author may be correct about the insider information trading, but the short seller might not have been someone on the actual guest list. There are margin requirements for typical traders that make large trades possible only for people with lots of cash or a portfolio their broker believes can function as collateral. Still, start with the guest list and look at who they called around that time.

That this happened doesn’t shock me… unfortunately. Some people don’t give a damn about OPSEC. Even when one does, it is hard to get it right. When one doesn’t, though, everyone and their brother can know what is going to happen.

These after-hours trades aren’t unusual in the sense that lots of people speculate on the news they hear. Mostly, though, it is the algorithms doing the betting. When it actually IS humans in first, they are betting against what the algorithms will do when they hear. After that it is second and third harmonics and other elements of the chords struck where each of us bets on the bets on the bets.

As for speculating on aerospace equities, that’s a no-brainer. All it takes is someone to tweet Trump’s mood (he does it frequently) and the algo’s will act. No human conspiracy involved. Just herd mentality.

David Brin said...

"Could Technology Develop Without Fire?" Easily. A bio-oriented species might learn to use the eye lenses of other creatures to get microscopes and telescopes. Then selective breeding and then genetic meddling to create plantlike organisms that separate metals and dispose of them in "fruits" or the tips of leaves. As on Kithrup, in Startide Rising!

Breed them to grow these fruits into clay molds to get pre-formed shapes. You can see where it goes.

Alfred Differ said...

Fossil fuels empowered a few to become wealthy, but that is not what powered our Enlightenment. The timing is wrong and the numbers don’t add up to enough wealth to explain why we all got richer.

Enlightenment wealth expansion began in the Dutch Republic while they were at war with the Hapsburgs. It wasn’t just a few Dutchmen who got rich. The average Dutchman got richer. It spread into England after 1689… when they borrowed a few things Dutch… and then stole a few things more that we would be inclined to call ‘intellectual property’. 8)

If the average peasant’s daily ‘income’ measured everything about their economic life including what they self-made and self-consumed, we could scale it to (say) three coins. The average Dutchman at the signing of the Treaty of Westphalia was earning somewhere between six and nine on that same scale. The average human today makes about 48 (conservatively) on that scale today. The average American makes about 150 (conservatively) on that scale and 900 if one adjusts for the improvement of quality of goods and services.

The upward slope began BEFORE Europeans latched on to fossil fuels. In fact, fossil fuels are not cheap to extract, process, and use. One really MUST become wealthier FIRST. Look around at the few remaining peasants on Earth today. Many of them still burn the trees.

[I’m cribbing from McCloskey again for anyone who cares to pursue the numbers and arguments behind them.]

Larry Hart said...

Dr Brin quotes scidata:

"Could Technology Develop Without Fire?"

I'd think so. At greatest remove, simple machines (lever, pulley, wedge) have nothing to do with fire. And some marine animals even generate electricity.

scidata said...

Re: bio-oriented species

We like to claim lofty powers of invention. The truth is that nature had gears, levers, chemistry, combustion, cybernetics, semaphores, and even Turing machines long, long before we ever climbed down from the trees. We merely study nature, learn the notes, and play fugues on the melodies. There is grandeur in this view of technology I think.

SETI is not a waste of time. If nothing else, it teaches introspection, not unlike AI in that respect. Without introspection, there are only politicians, not leaders.

David Brin said...

Actually, I take a mid ground between jim & Alfred. Fossil fuels certainly made a big difference, though water powered the textile mills that first enabled working men and women to own some decent clothes.

I cite Athens as a counter example, and it is. Enlightenment made great strides without fuel. Still, the great mistake of Athens - failure of inclusiveness - might have been eased if they had more power.

Zepp Jamieson said...

I noted the name discrepancy but just assumed it was part of Harris' history revisions.

Alfred Differ said...

For Britain, national income from land accounted for about 20% of the total in the 18th century (compared to 2-3% today). Coal land was a small percent of this, so in an alt.history where Britain had no coal, it would have had a smaller income by some amount. An upper bound on that amount is about 2%.

The problem is that by the mid-19th century, Britain's national income had doubled and coal prices had not. Coal usage had boomed, but it wasn't what was making people richer. The energy extracted from it could be acquired other ways... and was in other parts of the world. The US continued to use charcoal for iron into the 19th century. Continental Europe did not convert to Coke usage for some time. That was all about relative prices of course.

It's not the fossil fuel's cheap energy supply that mattered. It's what we imagined we could do when we liberated each other a bit and dignified the behaviors of our neighbors a bit. We freed ourselves from mental shackles and THEN put fossil fuels to work. Cause -> Multiple Effects

It's liberty and dignity that explain the enrichment of the Enlightenment.

duncan cairncross said...

I would go back before fire

We have ONE example of intelligence emerging - US
Our brains eat 20% of our food - that is a vast overhead
We needed something BIG to make that a profitable exchange

IMHO that was "Death at a Distance" - half brick sized rocks thrown accurately by a mob of ape-men

How effective was that? - when the other animals had not developed any defences - today the surviving animals will run away
Back when we first started doing that they would NOT have run away - a herbivore cannot afford to run away from "non threats"
So they would have stood there and become dinner

If THAT is the killer App that enabled us to afford our big brains then what OTHER "killer apps" are there??

What could a marine animal DO with it's intelligence in the very early days that would pay for an excessively large brain?

Could a "Dolphin" develop a sonar that conned it's prey into it's mouth?

David Brin said...

Well, even before we got big herbivores, we probably used rocks to chase predators who had eaten their fill away from their kills rather than guarding them. We could chase off the jackals and vultures and may have become the top carrion guys. Then when we evolved real throwing, big mob-flocks of birds were easy targets. Meanwhile wth hands and eyes we could exploit shellfish no one else could access. Many steps along the way...

Treebeard said...

In a debate with Carl Sagan, biologist Ernst Mayr argued that SETI would almost certainly fail because high intelligence was not favored by evolution. He pointed out that the longest-surviving, most numerous species (microbes, insects, jellyfish, etc.) never developed high intelligence, while intelligent species are small in number and prone to extinction. Yes, humans developed high intelligence by being clever killers and harvesters, and our population has exploded very recently, but guess what? During the same period we developed the ability to kill and harvest ourselves and the planet to extinction. So I think Mayr has a good point. This also suggests that glorifying human intelligence is rather stupid. The intelligence that figures out “e=mc^2”, followed shortly by atomic explosions, will probably be the thing that kills us all off. Fermi Paradox resolved—blame the nerds.

Larry Hart said...

Zepp Jamieson:

I noted the name discrepancy but just assumed it was part of Harris' history revisions.

No, that was just me spacing. Munich is a historical novel, not an alternate history.

David Smelser said...

Hey Jim, Vox predicts that Trump will NOT get a new supreme court appointment (70 percent).

"Trump will not get a new Supreme Court appointment (70 percent)
This might get a little morbid, but we’ve all thought about it.

The most likely event precipitating a new Supreme Court appointment by Trump is the death of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the oldest of the nine justices. Per the most recent actuarial tables from the Social Security Administration, 86-year-old women have a 8.2 percent annual risk of death; 87-year-olds, as Ginsburg will be in March, have a 9.2 percent risk. Meanwhile, 81-year-old men like Stephen Breyer have a 6.4 percent risk of death.

If you go through and multiply out the combined odds that each member of the court doesn’t die in the coming year, using their age (rounding to the nearest year) and gender in the SSA tables, you get 77 percent odds that no one dies. I think Ginsburg’s odds are somewhat grimmer than the tables imply, given her multiple brushes with cancer; there’s an outside chance that Thomas or Alito retires, so I shaved the overall odds of a vacancy down to 70 percent. — DM"

And their Trump winning reelection is just better than even (55%).
Job Biden as democratic nominee is 60%.

jim said...

Your male centered view of human evolution misses the real story.
Prometheus was a hominid who lived about 2 million years ago.
Fire, man’s red flower, was the gift of the gods that transformed mankind.

With it much more of the living world becomes edible, for the most part that means being able to eat (and gain nutritional value) from many more types of plants, it also makes meat less dangerous to eat (parasites killed during cooking). Gathering typically provides much more food than hunting.

You see the evidence for this in the shrinking of both the size of teeth and length of the gut. Those changes were made possible by the pre-digesting of food that occurs when food is cooked.

David Brin said...

Treebeard got a decent night's sleep, so earned entry. And sure, an intelligent species can bring its own death through eco-depradation. Humans started spreading deserts once we could protect herds of goats. But it was agriculture and accompanying kingship that enabled ill-considered irrigation-without-drainage that spread deserts even faster. Then more kings and lords smashed any systems of science that might have noticed and fixed problems. Hence feudalism is the attractor state that is directly associated with a species becoming smart enough to wreck its world but too dumb to pay close attention and fix it.

Had any normal human power developed nuclear weapons, they would have been massively used by now. Only once did a major pax empire develop major new weapons and hurry to craft an international order in which they WON'T be used. This was done by "nerds" including not just the scientists who have helped us veer around other land mines (Cars DO cause smog and carcinogens can be detected/avoided and ozone holes repaired.) But other nerds like George Marshall and Dean Acheson and the Dulles brothers who helped nerdy politicials like TRuman and Ike craft a better era.

One that would be feudalists and their romantic dyspeptic, stylishly cynical slave-followers are striving to demolish, bringing us back into Fermi self-destruct territory. Nerds, yeah, sure.

Darrell E said...

It doesn't seem plausible that throwing accurately requires anything remotely like human level intelligence. There are plenty of examples of organisms with similarly remarkable, or more so, skills that don't have anything like human level intelligence.

Some selective pressures that seem more plausible are . . .

The Ecological Intelligence Hypothesis, e.g. the need to find food, the need to process food (how to get that shell open to get the meat inside).

"Specifically, features such as spatiotemporally dispersed food, generalist diets, and
extractive foraging are considered key drivers in this process."

Social Intelligence Hypothesis, which is currently considered to have been a primary driver of intelligence in the evolutionary history of nearly all highly intelligent critters except cephalopods.

" . . . the Social Intelligence Hypothesis accredits the evolution of intelligence to the demands of group living, such as maintaining complex and enduring social bonds, deception, cooperation, or social learning from conspecifics."

And then there's predator–prey dynamics.

"Capturing prey and avoiding predation have dramatic fitness consequences. Thus, it is not hard to imagine how complex cognition allowing flexible behaviours in these domains could be subject to strong positive selection. According to some authors, the cognitive challenges of predator–prey dynamics can be equivalent to those required to compete with group members as in both cases they require interactions with another individual pursuing personal gains.

Note that none of these drivers are unique to the histories of species considered to be highly intelligent, like us humans. But that is not necessary. Evolution has devised myriad solutions in response to the same sorts of selection pressures. Given reality we have every reason to expect both similarities and differences and that every lineage has a unique history.

(Quotes from Review, Grow Smart and Die Young: Why Did Cephalopods Evolve Intelligence?, Trend In Ecology & Evolution)

jim said...

Industrial civilization has done far more damage in far less time than goat herders or hydraulic empires ever did. Sure, we have noticed that we are causing huge environmental problems but we are not changing our behavior enough to make a difference.

We have know that climate change is a giant problem for the last 40 years and have not taken the actions that could have avoided climate change, as a matter of fact almost every single year we increased the rate at which we were adding CO2 to the atmosphere. We are now past the tipping point with multiple natural feedback loops kicking in. (arctic ice albedo effect and arctic permafrost now releasing about as much CO2 as Japan, permafrost use to be a sink for CO2)

We have expanded our population so much that if we don’t continue using fossil fuels, billions would die. We have trapped ourselves in ecological overshoot buy our extensive use of fossil fuels and things are not looking good.

We are clever but not wise.

Larry Hart said...

The New York Times tells us what we already know (emphasis mine) :

That gets to one takeaway from the Trump years: that there’s a real constituency for the white welfare state he gestured at during his campaign. It’s not a majority, but our election rules (starting with the Electoral College) and the structure of our government (like equal representation of states in the Senate) make it large enough to claim and maintain real political power. And the Trump phenomenon also shows that you don’t have to deliver the benefits to hold those voters in your camp. All you have to do is deliver pain to disfavored groups, to target them and make a show of it.

Donald Trump has been too erratic and undisciplined to take welfare chauvinism as far as it could probably go. But it is almost certainly true that somewhere in American politics, there’s someone who has paid attention to what Trump has discovered and is planning accordingly.

jim said...

Alfred said
“It's liberty and dignity that explain the enrichment of the Enlightenment.”

LOL, sorry but your “white savoir” view of history avoids all the evil shit that Europeans did to get wealthy.
The discovery of the new world is the event that destabilized European society. Let start with literally boat loads of gold and silver stolen form the Aztecs and Incans, the introduction of many new edible plants (potatoes, tomatoes, peppers, beans etc.) to Europe. The genocide of the native American peoples leaving two continents fill with prime farm land and forests but almost devoid of people.

Then lets not forget the importance of slavery to international trade. Iron weapons made in Europe get traded in Africa for slaves, the slaves sold to plantations in the new world for things like sugar, the sugar gets sold back to Europe and the cycle repeats.

Or hey go read the history of the opium wars. I could go on and on about the evil shit Europeans did to enrich themselves before the wide spread use of fossil fuels.

Sorry but the worst in humanity (slavery, military conquest, genocide, and oppression) played an essential role in the “enrichment of the Enlightenment.”

David Brin said...

Darrell I am saying that several things came BEFORE we shattered the glass ceiling of intelligence we became runners before we got big brains, but brains helped those runners give clever patterned chase. We became throwers who could drive away carrion competitors... but the BEST throwers bred more so we got very good... and William Calvin gives evidence that the brain centers for throwing became very useful for speech.

All of these things contributed to us getting much smarter than we needed, just to get by. Which brings us to jim.

"Industrial civilization has done far more damage in far less time than goat herders or hydraulic empires ever did. Sure, we have noticed that we are causing huge environmental problems but we are not changing our behavior enough to make a difference."

Maybe. But had we been a bit dumber, it might have taken 200,000 years to notice what goat herd and irrigation and kings were doing. Ecology would be discovered way too late. Read what Toynbee said about so many empires that collapsed that way. Also Jared Diamond.

We got ecological science just 10,000 years after the goats. The Earth, while under threat, is still fantastic. We COULD still become decent planetary managers... or bring her to life and awareness, as in EARTH. (!) If feudalism doesn't lock us back into cycles of relentless stupidity.

:We are clever but not wise."

And what are YOU? For saying that wise thing? And the HUNDREDS of millions of others who are saying that, using the Western invention of habitual self-criticism to motivate action that no feudal culture would have allowed? How often must I hold up a mirror to you, son?

jim said...

"And what are YOU?"

I would say (from personal experience) that I am more clever than I am wise.

Darrell E said...

Blogger David Brin said...

"Darrell I am saying that several things came BEFORE we shattered the glass ceiling of intelligence we became runners before we got big brains, but brains helped those runners give clever patterned chase. We became throwers who could drive away carrion competitors... but the BEST throwers bred more so we got very good... and William Calvin gives evidence that the brain centers for throwing became very useful for speech."

Okay, thanks, I understand you better now. Many different drivers / pressures, feedback, co-opting of existing capabilities, couldn't agree more.

Your use of "patterned" jumped out at me. If I had to boil down an explanation of intelligence, in the context of biology (though it could certainly be extended to AI), down to the fewest number of words it would something like "the ability to perceive, conceive and model patterns."

scidata said...

and there's the "Daydreaming Intelligence Hypothesis"
It's true that a big brain requires a lot of food, but that's partially because, unlike muscles, it almost never shuts down. It ticks along every hour of every day and most of every night for 70+ years. We're finding out that, like non-coding DNA, much of the brain seems to have hidden use/purpose, beyond physiology and sensory perception. There's a payoff for that. Imagination is a super powerful selection advantage. It enables an animal to see and prepare for the mid- and long-term future. Drawing plans, especially in a social group, utterly defeats fangs and claws. The first hugely successful PC apps were spreadsheets (Visicalc/Multiplan/Lotus 1-2-3). They were marketed as "What If?" machines.

The only other class that seems to spend loads of time, motionless, just staring into sea or sky, are the cephalopods. Those things give me the creeps.

David Brin said...

jim: " would say (from personal experience) that I am more clever than I am wise."

And what was THAT other than humble-bragging?

Seriously, guy. Is it remotely possible that my relentless efforts to get you to look... actually look ... in a mirror will ever, ever, ever bear fruit? It sure doesn't look so.

Larry Hart said...


The only other class that seems to spend loads of time, motionless, just staring into sea or sky, are the cephalopods.

You don't have cats, do you?

jim said...

Humble bragging?? (that is a nice little catch 22)

Maybe, just maybe
I just meant what i said.

How is it bragging to say i am just like other human beings, more clever than wise?

scidata said...

Well, I was counting mammals as a class. Yes, cats too. They're either wondering how to relate to me or how to eat me. Either one creeps me out.

David Brin said...

jim while a wise person might be expected to say "I am more clever than wise," everyone KNOWS that. Therefore anyone feigning wisdom would say it, too..

It's not a catch 22 though it is ironic.

One test is whether you can acknowledge that irony, plus the possibility that one WAY that you are unwise is an inability to notice your own foibles. One of which - pronounced in your case - is to assume your simplistic model is profound and that you already know everything you need to know, in order to draw encompassing, profound opinions...

...While bragging how humble you are.

Larry Hart said...

Dr Brin:

jim while a wise person might be expected to say "I am more clever than wise," everyone KNOWS that. Therefore anyone feigning wisdom would say it, too..

"Only the true Messiah would deny his divinity."

duncan cairncross said...

Dr Brin's comments about driving off the scavengers with rocks makes total sense

As does his throwing rocks at flocks of birds when on the ground - TODAY the birds will not let you get that close but back then they would have felt quite safe in their ability to fly away before you got close enough to grab or bite

The "fire hypothesis" is far too weak - the old fires were almost certainly natural we already HAD bigger brains before evidence of actual fire use

David Brin said...

Actually, the brains lagged after bipedalism and doing stuff with our hands. Moreover birds are known to take fire from one place and spread it to others in order to flush out small game. Amazing!

Zepp Jamieson said...

I think America is the only society where 'clever' is considered a somewhat derogatory term. Oh, I know Brits have the expression "too clever by half" to describe someone who is a show off, but being called "clever at school" is considered praise.

Larry Hart said...


Well, I was counting mammals as a class. Yes, cats too.

Oh, I see. I wasn't taking the term "class" literally enough, thinking it applied to any classification of animals. You actually meant Class as in Phylum Class Order Family Genus Species.

My seventh grade teacher taught us a mnemonic for that which went "Please Come Over For Goat Soup." At the time, I thought "Why is that any easier to remember than the words themselves?", and yet here we are 48 years later.

Alfred Differ said...


LOL, sorry but your “white savoir” view of history avoids all the evil shit that Europeans did to get wealthy.

Nah. You are deep into a guilt trap. I'm not trying to excuse the evil bastards who did what they did. I'm just pointing out that the economics numbers don't add up. Well… actually they do add, but the problem is that the enrichment involves multiplication by orders of magnitude.

The discovery of the New World helped fund European factions in an already unstable landscape. Starting with the arrival of boatloads of silver and gold ignores the role played by Europeans in helping to topple certain powerful Arabs in earlier centuries. My European ancestors were a mercenary lot as inclined to cut throats of people who offended them as the ones they were paid to cut.

The 'worst of humanity' DID enrich some, but not all that many. The Enrichment problem to explain is how the average European got rich. It sure as hell wasn't from gifts handed down the social ladder. It wasn't done the way my maternal grandmother did it either when she stole from the rich… and probably worse. We can calculate the impact such things would have on the average person's 'real' wage. It's a few percent at best. The enrichment problem, though, involves explaining things like 200% by mid-19th century and 1700% today for the average human on the planet.

Sure. Lots of evil shit happened, but that didn't make the average person rich. Something else did. You can still be indignant about their bad behavior without jumping to the erroneous conclusion that they all got rich doing it.

Alfred Differ said...


In all fairness, I think 'clever' has been somewhat derogatory in every 'feudal' (as our host defines it) society. It's only in our Enlightenment civilization where there is variation. Only in our civilization is a clever person dignified for general expressions of cleverness.

Zepp Jamieson said...

Alfred: Granted, the word "clever" often appears in cautionary tales and rhyme from mediaeval times but again, in the too-clever-by-half sense, usually some god's disdain for human hubris. I think the concept became toxified by the Puritanical mistrust of secular knowledge, and toxified into the mad scientist genre of literature today which underlies the social mistrust and even antagonism toward "experts" to which Brin often alludes.

jim said...

Without the massive amounts of gold and silver stolen from the Aztecs and Incas would the Europeans have the coinage needed to act as your medium for exchange in the mercantile systems ? (or to pay soldiers )

And I think you are totally underestimating the value that the international slave system for the enrichment of Europeans from the 16th to 19th century.

And as far as the enrichment from 200% in mid 19th century to 1700% today?
Energy Slaves man, fossil fuel energy slaves. Sure, human cleverness is important for understanding how the system unfolds but without the fossil fuels to power it, that development could not happen.
Fossil fuel use and economic activity are so closely correlated that they are almost interchangeable.

In theory you can replace the surplus energy from fossil fuel with the surplus energy from something else but that hasn’t happened. 50 years ago fossil fuels provided about 80% of the total energy used and that percentage bounced around a little but we are still using fossil fuels for about 80% of the total energy supply today.

Larry Hart said...

Since the initial comment about "clever", I've been trying to suss out whether the word feels like it has a good or a bad connotation.

My own sense is that the good connotation of "clever" refers to someone who can figure out how to accomplish a difficult task. The negative connotation feels like an accusation that the clever person doesn't think through or understand the consequences that follow from that feat.

A Dilbert example: A clever person figures out how to use ordinary water for fuel, with the unintended result that humanity soon dies of thirst because all water is now being used more productively.

Larry Hart said...

I stumbled across this interesting take on the origins of the electoral college. The author's point is that the reasons that method of presidential election was chosen are not the ones we tend to think they are.


But as tempting as it is to read history in the light of contemporary concerns, the debate at the convention focused on a different issue: Should Congress choose the president? Both the Virginia Plan and the New Jersey Plan, the two primary alternatives at the Convention, proposed that Congress select the president. This was unsurprising because in most states at the time, the legislature chose the governor. On June 1, the convention voted 8–2 that Congress should elect the president, and the delegates would affirm that decision on three other occasions.

The frequency with which the delegates revisited the issue reveals not their confidence but their dissatisfaction. Most delegates wanted the executive to check legislative usurpations and block unjust or unwise laws, but they feared that dependence on the legislature for election—and possible reelection—would compromise the executive’s independence.

The difficulty lay in finding an alternative to legislative selection, and the delegates considered and rejected various possibilities, including popular election. Ultimately, perhaps in desperation, they referred the issue to the Committee on Unfinished Parts. On September 4, less than two weeks before the convention ended, the committee proposed the Electoral College. Its proposal mirrored the states’ distribution of power in Congress; each state had as many electoral votes as it had members of Congress. But because the electors dispersed after voting for the president, the Electoral College did not threaten the independence of the executive. With only minor adjustments—most notably, the House replaced the Senate as the body that would select the president if a majority of electors failed to agree on a candidate—the convention endorsed the proposal.

The point of all this is, the Electoral College did not emerge because of opposition to popular election of the president.


What is striking about the convention’s debate on popular election of the president is that its opponents did not claim it would encourage majority tyranny. Doubtless the delegates were aware of the danger of such a tyranny—Madison first presented his famous discussion of “majority faction” at the convention—but no delegate objected to popular election on that basis, and Madison himself supported popular election of the president.


jim said...

Have you ever though that “normal” people might have good reasons to not to trust the “fact users”.

Take Lawyers as an example. Many people are distrustful of lawyers because they rightly see lawyers as the critical part of the system that ensures that the wealthy have a very different relationship with justice system than ordinary people.

Then there are the fact using economists and their corporate fact using managers who push a system of globalization that greatly benefit themselves but hurts the vast majority of the population in the US.

Then there are the universities filled with fact users who have increased the cost of a collage education so much faster than the rate of inflation. Now that normal people need a collage education to have a chance of a middle class life the cost have exploded and graduates start out with massive debt.

Then there is the medical professions fact users, that have set up a system that inefficient, expensive that severs only part of the population and drives millions into bankruptcy.

Then the fact using drug companies that abuse the patent system to make cheap drugs expensive drugs (see insulin) or push opioids to make addicted customers.

Just because a profession uses “facts” does not mean that you can trust them not to screw you over.

David Brin said...

jim is getting enough sleep, these days. He is being articulate.

Yes “normal” people might have good reasons to not to trust the “fact users”. But that entirely misses the point.

ALL elites have claimed to be those wityh the facts and wisdom to use them... kings, priests, lords. Our secret sauce is Reciprocal Accountability. Yes, a lawyer can oppress you, as those kings, priests and lords did. The sauce is for you to hire a lawyer to oppose that one and for us to have cooperatively set up a system of competitive adversarial judgement to actaually see who does have the "facts."

You can claim that adversarial process isn't always fair or reaches flawed decisions. Sure. Agitate for better laws and oversights and all of that to incrementally improve our crude and early arenas.

But they inarguably work better than ANY of the past systems and better than ALL of them combined. And undermining these enlightenment methods is THE core goal and tool of the oligarchies who are plotting now for a return to ancient oppressions.

David Brin said...

"Just because a profession uses “facts” does not mean that you can trust them not to screw you over."

And again and again, jim fails to look in a mirror. His OWN reflexive response to authority was inculcated and planted into him by the greatest propaganda campaign of all time, Hollywood's push for Suspicion of Authority... plus tolerance, diversity, eccentricity and all of that.

jim's reflex to crit any accumulation of elite authority IS PART of why our system works as well as it does and can get better. Moreover he ignores that most of the "fact users" he frets might be authoritarian are reciprocally COMPETITIVE! Scientists are the most competitive humans our species ever created. It's not that jim's assertions about danger from elite authority are wrong...

... it's that he seems utterly incapable of looking beyond that trained reflex at the solutions wrought by brilliant folks before us. And hence he utterly refuses to be brilliant himself. (Partly by looking... actually looking... in a mirror.) That's a pity.

jim said...

David Brin said

And again and again, jim fails to look in a mirror. His OWN reflexive response to authority was inculcated and planted into him by the greatest propaganda campaign of all time, Hollywood's push for Suspicion of Authority..”

You have made that comment to me several times and I always scratch my head because I have never claimed to have invented suspicion of authority, and of course I think that I am at least partially a product of the civilization I was raised in. So yes, my suspicion of authority probably does come from wider culture (although it has gotten stronger from my interactions with some authorities.) But so what? Just because I am product of a civilization that inculcated suspicion of authority doesn’t mean my criticisms is invalid.

Zepp Jamieson said...

Jim: I had in mind science in the main. Economics, despite its love of numbers, is not a science: put 30 economists in a room and ask them to predict next year's economy, and you'll get 50 different answers. Similarly, lawyers, despite a love of literal interpretation of the law, can take hundreds of such interpretations from any given law. I would cite the Second Amendment as an example of that.
There are the other soft sciences, such as history or political science, which rest largely on personal interpretation. They aren't necessarily dishonest, but should be approached with healthy scepticism.
Hard sciences, such as physics, math, climatology, etc., derive conclusions from available data. The data may be incomplete, but the process is honest.
Medical system: It wasn't doctors and hospitals that caused that massive fiasco: it was politicians allowing insurance companies and for-profit entities to take control of what should be a public service, resulting in the biggest swindle in the history of humankind. I love to point to it as an example of why privatisation of social services is inevitably a corrupt failure.

David Brin said...

jim may be incrementally edging toward dim but real awareness: " But so what? Just because I am product of a civilization that inculcated suspicion of authority doesn’t mean my criticisms is invalid."

And no one said they were invalid. I used them as an example of a process of self-improvement that moves ahead best when it is self-aware and not just reflexive-spasmodic.

I can see you are trying to understand. Good. Now try harder, I know you can do it.

Larry Hart said...


Just because I am product of a civilization that inculcated suspicion of authority doesn’t mean my criticisms is invalid.

I think the point is not that your view is invalid, but rather that you should see that a civilization which promotes and nurtures that view is better than you give it credit for.

Andy said...

"But other nerds like George Marshall and Dean Acheson and the Dulles brothers who helped nerdy politicials like Truman and Ike craft a better era."

Weren't the Dulles brothers, well, terrible? I remember reading an article about how horrible and ruthless their foreign policy was for the countries on the receiving end of their machinations.

David Brin said...

LH: Stop coaching him... he seemed on the verge of getting it himself.

Andy, relative to what? Compared to the spymasters of every other empire the world ever saw? Because our Cold War machinations were darned tepid compared to any other pax across time. Moreover the OUTCOME effects of Pax Americana are now inarguable... the very best time of peace and progress for humanity in general and uplifting of the poor across all of time, compared to all other empires combined.

Am I saying we weren't awful... compared to what we CLAIMED to be? What we hope to be? What we aspire to, according to new standards promulgated (for the first time) by Hollywood? No I'm not. Moreover self-crit is the American habit that you and jim express and it is HOW we got better than all the past... while gradually improving toward a non-caveman future.

But right now the issue is confidence. It is being savaged from a right that has been entirely euborned by the enemies of all we ever accomplished. And we must fight for this enlightenment renaissance. And that must start with recognizing that the blemished, faulty, guilty and fiulthy instrument of that renaissance was still better than absolutely everything that ever came before, and much better than what the neo-feudalists would have us all become.

Alfred Differ said...


You are letting your reasonable outrage at the evil done back then cloud the reality that the numbers don’t support your argument. They don’t have to, though. What was done back then is (by modern standards) pretty damn bad. No justification needed for moral judgements. Unfortunately, the reality is that only some got rich doing it. The average European did not.

As for gold and silver coin being needed to pay soldiers, you don’t know your history. The Russians were successfully invaded by the Poles a few centuries ago who absconded with the silver. The Russian high nobility solved their payment problem by granting titles in a kind of ‘service nobility’. Since pretty much everyone in that area was used to serfdom at that point, the ‘coin’ being obligated in trade was serf labor. This solution to scarce silver had repercussions lasting centuries, but it proved that trade was really about exchanging debt. Even when gold and silver are used, they represent what others might give up in exchange. They are stand-ins for fungible debt.

The value of the slavery institution wasn’t small, but it wasn’t big enough to account for what happened either. In fact, the best argument for why the institution has all but died is that it got beaten economically. Slavery as a practice comes in many forms, but all of them are ancient. All of them have been studied too from the perspective of economic practicalities. Slavery made SOME PEOPLE rich, but not the average man. After the average man saw an improvement to his real wage of about 3x, slavery as an institution lost its defenders. The people who opposed the institution were always around, but the defenders largely vanished as the enrichment got underway.

You can wave your hands in the air and say I’m wrong, but I’ll point at actual economists who have studied these things and invite you to do the work. Start with McCloskey’s second tome of the three-volume set related to bourgeois ethics and you’ll see her reference most everything that supports the stance I’ve decided to share here. She backs her opinions (decent enough on their own due to her training) with studies from others more focused on particular aspects of the enrichment arguments. Pro and con. The second book is essentially a collection of all the demonstrably incorrect arguments for the cause of the enrichment and it finishes with the one argument that she says can’t be knocked down.

Larry Hart said...

Dr Brin:

LH: Stop coaching him... he seemed on the verge of getting it himself.

What can I say? "Translator droid" is one of my powers.

duncan cairncross said...

Hi Jim

I agree with Alfred - we ALL got rich -

I differ about the reason - he goes for some economics arm waving and I think it was the "toolkit" - mostly physical but including a couple of economic tools like the stock market

David Brin said...

In western Europe, some inventions like the horse collar, wheelbarrow and crop rotation made free farmers (though often abused tenants) more productive than slaves and Western Europe is geographically complex, giving maany paths to run away. And the Black Death made labor valuable and able to negotiate. In the vast steppes of Poland and Russia, escape was impossible from mounted lords.

But slavery was always for the lords. Pompei brough home thousands of prisoners from Spain and suddenly regular Roman farmers could no compete and went bankrupt. The same guys who served in Pompei's armies.

scidata said...

Enlightenment wins in the long term simply because parasites need hosts more than hosts need parasites.

Jon S. said...

Another basic error - all that gold and silver was only valuable to the conquistadores because it was assigned value in Europe. In Central and South America, gold was pretty, used for ornamentation, but seems to have paled in value next to that of food and people (whether used for labor or sacrifices to the gods).

Anything that isn't necessary for survival only has value because we say it does. That's why the US economy has largely transitioned from moving pieces of paper around to transferring "money" electronically.

As Terry Pratchett observed, to a man lost in the wilderness gold is just so much more weight to carry around. A good potato, though, perhaps with a bit of salt and some butter, is a meal, and to a starving man that's infinitely more valuable than some pretty metals.

Darrell E said...


We certainly hope so anyway. But, Enlightenment hasn't had much of a chance yet. Its track record is but a blip here and there throughout our history. It seems to have a good foothold now. I hope we can prevent it from slipping away. Given the past 3 US presidential administrations, particularly the current one, I sometimes think it's game over. Other times I think we are just experiencing the final fight or flight reflex of a cornered animal that knows death is imminent and that if we can manage to survive it there will be a period of relatively rapid progress again.

jim said...

I think part of the differences in opinion about the “enrichment” has to do with the fact we are apparently focused on different parts of the causal system.

It seems to me that some are assuming that when I talk about surplus energy or discovery of the new world (and subsequent genocide of native Americans) that I am arguing that these are the proximate causes of the enrichment. But that is not really my argument, I am saying that the new world filled with easily accessible resources and the enormous surplus energy that you can obtain from fossil fuels are the necessary (pre)conditions for the enrichment.

So I am more focused on the necessary (but not sufficient) conditions as opposed to (for example) focusing on why the Dutch were more successful than say the Italians. Both of the Italians and Dutch had close to the same pre conditions (from my perspective) but different outcomes. So there is certainly a lot to learn from focusing on the more proximate causes.

But if the necessary conditions go away ( say energy cost of energy goes to high) the more proximate causes of the enrichment can’t continue.

gregory byshenk said...

Jim said....
It seems to me that some are assuming that when I talk about surplus energy or discovery of the new world (and subsequent genocide of native Americans) that I am arguing that these are the proximate causes of the enrichment. But that is not really my argument, I am saying that the new world filled with easily accessible resources and the enormous surplus energy that you can obtain from fossil fuels are the necessary (pre)conditions for the enrichment.

Which is fine, but remember you need a really strong argument to show a necessary condition.

Not just (for example) that fossil fuels were used to power the enrichment - but that nothing else could have done so. And this is going to be a very difficult case to make, if for no other reason than that - as others have already pointed out - the 'enrichment' began before the large-scale use of fossil fuels.

jim said...

You missed the point.
Gold and silver were not just assigned value by European conquistadors, but by the many different kingdoms in Europe, The Ottoman Empire, Persia, India, China and increasing parts of Africa. No country could print out a fiat currency that was accepted by other kingdoms they had to use gold and silver coinage. I don’t see how trade could have grown as much as it did without an accepted medium of exchange. (Again a necessary condition but not sufficient explanation.)

Luke said...

Regarding METI in general and the "send the whole internet" idea in particular, after reading Peter Watts' excellent novel Blindsight I'm even more concerned about what kind of reaction such efforts might provoke.
What we might view as a generous message or gift, others might only be able to interpret as information warfare

David Brin said...

It is true that gold/silver allowed wealth to be much more liquid and hence commerce was boosted. All the VALUE was the same, in the land and goods and labor. But transactions did not have to wait for harvests or other bulk swaps. Though in fact the invention of reliable BANKING and cashiers' cheques soon replaced massive transfers of gold. Hence it was an abstract enlightenment invention that made much more difference in the 18th & 19th centuries than Aztec silver made in the 16th & 17th.

Wm Jennings Bryan ran on "free silver" and it's trueit would have helped poor and middle farmers a lot. He was also a precursor to the KKK, so...

Keith Halperin said...

Hello Dr. Brin et cie,

I'm a low-key lurker who's returned after a several-year absence. (Don't recall angering anyone.)
@ Jim, Gregory Byshenk: As you’ve alluded to, I’ve read:
1) Our prosperity has been largely due to our 300-year fossil-fuel “binge”,
2) We are unlikely to develop/install/scale sustainable replacements in time,
3) The effects of our binge will likely overtake our efforts to ameliorate/reverse them, so
4) We are likely to quickly (over the next few decades) and unpleasantly lose much of our prosperity and population (5%-10% of current world population largely living at a 17th Century peasant’s standard of living), and possibly return to the feudalistic attractor-state OGH has mentioned. (This last part is my speculation.)
I do not want this to happen!

Dr Brin:
Can you provide some encouraging evidence that we are “turning the tide” and headed in the right direction?

Half my ancestors are from the former Russian Empire, so I can tell this joke:
Q: What‘s the difference between a Russian optimist and Russian pessimist?
A: The Russian pessimist says: “Things are TERRIBLE! This is the worst of all possible worlds!”
The Russian optimist replies: “That’s not true. This is NOT the worst of all possible worlds!
Things can in fact get much worse….”

Also Dr. Brin:
“Wm Jennings Bryan ran on "free silver" and it's true it would have helped poor and middle farmers a lot.
He was also a precursor to the KKK, so...”
Known as the “Invisible Empire of the South,”[15] the first Klan flourished in the Southern United States in the late 1860s during Reconstruction, then died out by the early 1870s…..
…. The second Klan started small in Georgia in 1915.
….. He helped defeat a resolution (at the 1024 Democratic National Convention) condemning the Ku Klux Klan because he expected that the organization would soon fold; Bryan disliked the Klan but never publicly attacked it.[104] ….
Based on this and other information, I’d interpret that Bryan was a racist, but not a precurser to the KKK.

Cheers and Thank You,

Keith Halperin

Larry Hart said...


Regarding METI in general and the "send the whole internet" idea in particular, after reading Peter Watts' excellent novel Blindsight I'm even more concerned about what kind of reaction such efforts might provoke.
What we might view as a generous message or gift, others might only be able to interpret as information warfare

Do we want to be the ones responsible for infecting the universe with FOX News?

jim said...

Lets divide the process of enrichment pre-industrial revolution and the ongoing Industrial revolution.
The industrial revolution absolutely positivity could not have happened without fossil fuels, no other energy resource was available to people in the 1800’s in the quantity and quality needed to power the industrial revolution. And no other energy resource could have scaled up as quickly while offering a such a low energy cost of energy.

Wood /charcoal – limited by forest management and other uses for wood.
Peat – low quality and limited location
Wind / water wheels – limited in locations / intermittent higher energy cost of energy
Human / animal power – limited quantity, difficult to scale and high energy cost of energy

A.F. Rey said...

2) We are unlikely to develop/install/scale sustainable replacements in time...

So our only choice is to do the unlikely! 8)

Which may sound bad, until you remember that the Orange Cheeto had about a 25 percent chance of being elected--an unlikely development! ;)

Keith Halperin said...

@ AF Rey et al:
That makes sense.
What are some "*realistic" efforts that are/can be made this decade to avoid **major suffering over the next several ones?

Keith H

*Both technically and politically
** Gigadeaths and a "Mad Max" world

Larry Hart said...

A.F. Rey:

Which may sound bad, until you remember that the Orange Cheeto had about a 25 percent chance of being elected--an unlikely development! ;)

Everything since the 2016 election--or maybe since Brexit--makes it clear that we are in an Age of the Unprecedented.

David Brin said...

Welcome back, Keith!

I know those Russian proverbs. It is why they cannot be allowed to control human destiny. In fact, I think you'd love my story "The Logs" featuring two sisters exiled to the asteroid belt (New Siberia) by the new czars. It is in INSISTENCE OF VISION.

An equivalent:

"The stars appear empty of tech civilizations! They must kill themselves or else slump into feudal rigor mortis!"

"The stars appear empty of tech civs. Gee won't everyone out there be grateful and delighted when we come and rescue them from stupid errors and feudal rigor mortis!"

Keith Halperin said...

@ Larry Hart:
ISTM that since 11/2016 we've been in some sort of Philip K. Dickian alternate reality:
all we need to complete the picture is the appearance of a two-foot tall, three-eyed, eight-legged alien which has a tendency to go around telling dirty jokes in a gravelly, heavily Yiddish-accented voice....



Steve O said...

Hey Dr. Brin! You might remember me as the professor in Colorado that tried to get you in front of a VC w/r/t Holocene Chat.

Strange question, and I hope you will allow me to derail things a bit. I have just completed a business book with an embedded sci-fi case study to make it interesting. I think business leaders are of a generation to where a science-fiction-y story to go with a new paradigm might be a hit. I am looking for an agent - if you are so inclined and know one that might be interested, would you let me know at steve (at) Of course feel free to ignore and delete if this is inappropriate.

And any of your readers here has an interest in business, feel free to contact me if you would like to be a beta reader.

My apologies for the hijack...

Tony Fisk said...

Larry Hart said:
A Dilbert example: A clever person figures out how to use ordinary water for fuel, with the unintended result that humanity soon dies of thirst because all water is now being used more productively.

Ironic. This is one of the many dire aspects of the proposed Adani Carmichael mine: billions of litres of ground water are to be diverted to this clever monument each year, for free. Drought stricken farmers still have to pay for whatever's left. Meanwhile, Australia's embers now circumnavigate the globe. Sorry for the mess, but the spice must flow.

Talk about evolution of the species reminds me of this fascinating snippet demonstrating what genus homo might given up for better communication skills.

A.F. Rey said...

What are some "*realistic" efforts that are/can be made this decade to avoid **major suffering over the next several ones?

Actually, anything we do now will help postpone major suffering in the future. Because CO2 continues to build up in the atmosphere.

It doesn't matter if we don't (or can't) prevent a 2 degree C rise in average temperatures because the CO2 is already in the atmosphere (or because we can't prevent enough additional CO2 from being emitted), because we can prevent the rise from going to 3 degrees C, or 4 degrees C, or 8 degrees C, all of which will cause even more and perhaps worse major suffering in the future.

So anything we can do, in the current political climate or in a future one, is worth doing. Reduce burning fossil fuels as quickly as we can. Replace them with carbon-neutral energy sources. Reduce deforestation. Increase plankton in the oceans. It's not a matter of preventing major suffering and, if we can't, to then concentrate on mitigating that suffering. It's a matter of preventing the situation from continuously worsening in the decades to come.

Alfred Differ said...


Actually, I don't think there IS an economics argument explaining why the enrichment happened. People are fishing in the wrong pond when they explain it as colonization, slavery, coal, protestant work ethic, and all those other attempts backed by economic data. What happened was more social and it happened to have a dramatic economic impact.

In a nutshell, the Dutch during the early Republic years treated each other with a bit more dignity and made room for each other's liberty a bit more than usual. (They were being practical/prudent considering their geographical position.) Without understanding where that might go, it made them rich even while they fought the Hapsburgs in a protracted, multi-decade, multi-continent war. We can look back on it now and see how it might work. We can look back on how the English copied much of the Dutch system after they booted the last Stuart King... and then got much richer... and then stole the Dutch trading empire.

Even after the first few decades of the 19th century, economists didn't actually see the enrichment happening. It was well underway during Adam Smith's life, but he didn't really mention it. Historians did when they noted that the typical maximum population in Britain before starvation set in was somewhere between 4 and 5 million souls. By around 1830 they numbered near 20 million. Something BIG had happened.

Alfred Differ said...


But if the necessary conditions go away ( say energy cost of energy goes to high) the more proximate causes of the enrichment can’t continue.

If one focuses strictly on the economics, fossil fuel use was too expensive (during the early years of the enrichment) relative to non-fossil substitutes. With the enrichment underway, Britain stripped their forests and fuel costs finally came up enough to force fossil fuel development.

Obviously it is the case that had there been no fossil fuels, that substitution wouldn’t have happened. The reality, though, is that fossil fuels were available in some places and not others. Where they were, substitution happened earlier, but not by much because coal could be traded. It was actually pretty late, though, that substitution began to happen on the New World. We still had forests and charcoal was still cheaper for quite a while.

The problem with your necessity argument, though, is that land prices never reflected the necessity of fossil carbon. Income derived from land depends on how land is used. Whether for its coal or fertility, land produces income by how it is developed and that income is reflected in the price of land. Well… any asset really since investors pay for income streams. For example, a typical slave sold for 12x the owner’s yearly income expectation from owning that slave in regions and times when the slave was expected to live a while and closer to 1x on Caribbean sugar plantations. For coal land in England, though, prices were not wildly different than for other types of useful land. Lots of coal was sent to Cornwall (which was relatively coal poor) and once there the income derived from mine land was comparable.

Arguing for the necessity of fossil carbon requires a counterfactual where the world has no coal and oil. This is obviously untestable. What IS testable in trade records is that fossil carbon got developed and used AFTER non-fossil carbon fuels got expensive. The most important objection to the necessity argument, therefore, is “Could not the innovators of the time have developed some other fuel substitute when non-fossil prices finally got high enough?” It’s a hell of a leap to say that could not have done so. Why? The infrastructure necessary for fossil carbon fuel usage is damn expensive. The people around before it was all developed probably would have argued it wasn’t feasible. Is that not what we do when we argue for the necessity of fossil carbon in the enrichment? Aren’t we just as likely to be unable to imagine a world that might have developed differently had they no other choice?

Obviously, I don’t buy your necessity argument. I don’t think you give our ancestors enough credit for curiosity and creativity. People possessing both Dignity and Liberty have done some VERY astonishing things. They knocked down the Feudal Order and unseated two of the Horsemen of the Apocalypse. What next?

Keith Halperin said...

Thanks, Dr. Brin.

Re: Russian sensibilities controlling human destiny:
I hope it won't be said that the West won the "Cold Battle" but eventually lost the Cold War...

I look forward to more of your Coss stories. (IMSM, I recall you saying you like to go in new directions and not continually writing in the same setting.)

"the BEST throwers bred more so we got very good... and William Calvin gives evidence that the brain centers for throwing became very useful for speech."
One could then argue that for a species to become intelligent requires that it learn to play the equivalent of basketball, baseball, or cricket, so for there to be nerds- you first need jocks...
"Where are they?"
"Well, the good ones got drafted by Cosmic Basketball Association, so they don't play around here anymore..."
(Who knew of such a thing? Bet you did.)

-Keith H

Keith Halperin said...

Thanks, Dr. Brin.

Re: Russian sensibilities controlling human destiny:
I hope it won't be said that the West won the "Cold Battle" but eventually lost the Cold War...

I look forward to more of your Coss stories. (IMSM, I recall you saying you like to go in new directions and not continually writing in the same setting.)

"the BEST throwers bred more so we got very good... and William Calvin gives evidence that the brain centers for throwing became very useful for speech."
One could then argue that for a species to become intelligent requires that it learn to play the equivalent of basketball, baseball, or cricket, so for there to be nerds- you first need jocks...
"Where are they?"
"Well, the good ones got drafted by Cosmic Basketball Association, so they don't play around here anymore..."
(Who knew of such a thing? Bet you did.)

-Keith H

Larry Hart said...

Keith Halperin:

Q: What‘s the difference between a Russian optimist and Russian pessimist?
A: The Russian pessimist says: “Things are TERRIBLE! This is the worst of all possible worlds!”
The Russian optimist replies: “That’s not true. This is NOT the worst of all possible worlds!
Things can in fact get much worse….”

Heh. That's the Russian equivalent of the one my dad used to tell:

"The optimist says, 'This is the best of all possible worlds,' and the pessimist (sadly) agrees with him."

David Brin said...


KH... I think Baseball is the all around sport that features every skill you'd need in the paleolithic!

Looking at historical anomalies it is easy to concoct stories in which we were helped by a Ben Franklin alien... and their enemies have come to inflict upon us the anti-Franklin... in every way except basic horniness.

David Brin said...

Steve O. I'll ponder some possible contacts....

duncan cairncross said...

Hi Alfred

I agree - if we had no coal we would have continued to use wood - forests are renewable - the ancient art of coppicing would have kept a steady supply of fuel - more expensive than coal - but not by as much as you might think

Enter a steampunk paradise - steam engines powered by charcoal - with small numbers of IC engines running on alcohol or woodgas

David Brin said...

And land-sails pushing great trains across the plains! Mighty kites (now in development) could have long ago powered mills in that alternate world.

There are versions of solar that heat water and homes that don't require advanced materials and hence would have reduced the competing need for wood used for home heating. And Iceland has shown that waste heat from charcoal or wood fueled businesses can likewise be piped to homes etc. Cities that are more snugly compact might have developed urban farming methods earlier. Vast amounts of algae would provide both oils and animal feed...

Larry Hart said...

Dr Brin:

And land-sails pushing great trains across the plains! Mighty kites (now in development) could have long ago powered mills in that alternate world.

Seems to me that hot air balloons could have been used for air transport much earlier in history than they were.

Larry Hart said...

How low can we go?


On any given day, Trump is vindictive, ignorant, narcissistic, a fraud — well, his pathologies are well known. But it’s time to apply the same word to him as the brave Navy man did to the renegade in his unit. Under Trump, the United States is a confederacy of corruption, driven by a thousand points of evil. And that evil is contagious.

We all grew up hearing an ageless warning about public morality: that the only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good people to do nothing.

The presumed outcome is reassuring, a story we tell ourselves. But in the last three years, that homily has been proven right, in the country where it was not supposed to happen. The Trump presidency has shown just how many ostensibly good people will do nothing, and how evil, when given a free rein at the top, trickles down.


Larry Hart said...

From the same article as above, and this is why I refused to accept legitimacy from day 1:

“Accepting refugees with open arms — giving without keeping score — is who we are as Americans,” tweeted Representative Pramila Jayapal, Democrat of Washington, herself an immigrant.

Sorry, that’s not who we are as Americans in the Trump era. When the hate flag is flying, most of Trump’s followers have stood up and saluted.

Here’s the two-step that all good people must take now: First, realize the level of depravity that has taken over the White House, and second, fight accordingly.

“Do not come to this fight believing that the Trump team views any action, including outright criminality, as off limits,” writes Wilson. This doesn’t mean you have to cheat, lie, or coerce. But it means you do have to fight, or be counted among the do-nothings who allowed evil to flourish.

Luke said...

Dr. Brin, regarding "And land-sails pushing great trains across the plains! Mighty kites (now in development) could have long ago powered mills in that alternate world." Could you please provide some more info on this? I'm very interested in any links or other details you might have about this type of tech.

jim said...

No we can’t go and see what would have happened if fossil fuels did not exist.
But what we can do is, get an estimate on how much surplus energy had to increase in order for us to power the industrial revolution , then look at the energy resources available to people in the 18th century and see if any of those could provide the needed surplus energy. And it is quite clear that there isn’t any energy resource that could have replace fossil fuels.

(and I really don’t understand your land value argument, the owners of coal mines and oil wells became very wealthy)

Now Duncan is correct that coppicing is the best widely available option, but to greatly increase the amount of wood used for energy you would have to reduce the area used to farm food.

As far as kite powered railroads go, how did you make the iron (or steel) rails and wheels for your kite powered transcontinental rail road? That would have taken a truly prodigious amount of charcoal and the cost the iron or steel would have to be a lot lower than they were a century earlier.

Keith Halperin said...

@Larry Hart: I like that!

Re: METI (and giving away the store):
I think that as long as it is hard to send interstellar signals (expensive, relatively few radio telescopes capable of transmitting, etc.) there's little to fear. However, should it become easy/cheap to do so through some sort of interstellar Bit Torrent, I think there'd be reasonable cause for concern. (Actually, if that were the case: "fuhgetta boudit"- those digital horses will have left the terrestrial farm by the millions.)

*Idea for a rather mediocre-sounding and technically-implausible story/screenplay-
a mixture of "Independence Day", "Killing Star", and "3001":
Every time an alien communicating species is detected, a message is sent out with a very nasty virus included which would work to destroy the civilization or act as ransomeware (though why/how THAT would work across interstellar distances and times escapes me)....

A proposed "Little Filter":
There are few technical civilizations out there because when they reach the communicating stage, they devote a great proportion of their available time watching cat videos, doing Facebook, or commenting on blogs....


Keith H

*There may already be something like this, but I can’t find reference in TV Tropes…

Alfred Differ said...


One of my sisters was the one who took after my mother in having the large vocabulary. Both would find it amusing that I’ve finally had to look up the meaning of the verb ‘copice’. They’d be even more amused at my struggles of years ago with a fig tree growing where I didn’t want it. Darn thing wouldn’t die when I cut it way down. Now I have the word for what I was unintentionally doing to it. 8)

“The curious task of economics is to demonstrate to men how little they really know about what they imagine they can design.” – FA Hayek

I’m occasionally tempted to put this quote down when discussing things with you, but it is far more appropriate for Jim today in the inverted sense.
His argument that people could not innovate substitutions for fossil carbon fuels way back when is a demonstration of a lack of faith in us not as designers-at-scale but as designers-in-the-small. Whether we would have or not*, I think the crux of the problem for Jim IS that lack of faith. There is no way to ‘win’ anything in that kind of discussion. The best we can manage is to demonstrate our faith in contrast.

*Small scale design is what we all do as naturally as breathing. Any single one of us might be likely to fail at a task, but the law of large numbers applies when millions of curious tinkers feel liberated to act and dignified in the act.

Darrell E said...

Several times at various sites, possibly even here, I have listed some rationalizations of the possible reasons that could account for Trump supporters continuing to support Trump. There is of course some low hanging fruit. Like Republican senators and representatives and white trash, I mean white supremacists. But what really frustrates me are the more average members of society. Especially the ones that are pretty decent people that would think very poorly of any average person they encountered personally that behaved like Trump does and would never themselves behave like Trump does. Some such people that I know as well as one human can know another. Friends and family. How can they continue to hold against such a relentless onslaught of evidence that Trump is a scumbag? How could they have misjudged him so badly in the first place?

And then there are the folks that sound very rational and ethical as they relate their assessment of presidential candidates and somehow come up with they'll have to vote for Trump if Warren, or whoever, wins the Democratic nomination. WTF?

There is so much evidence of just how unsuitable Trump is for POTUS, with more accumulating everyday, it's hard to choose what is the most obvious. I'll just use one little tidbit.


There you go. In that one little clip is all the evidence any reasonable and reasonably decent person should need to decide that Trump is entirely unsuitable for POTUS. Whether for purely pragmatic reasons or for ethical reasons, all you need to know is in that short clip. Of course the same is true for lots of other video clips too.

The tragedy of times like these is that reasonably good people are fooled, often by themselves, into supporting a Trump against any evidence. It's nothing new. It's happened quite a few times just in the past 120 years. I never thought to see it in my lifetime in the US.

David Brin said...

Luke, Google's offshoot for moon prejects: "X" is developing kites to go very high and tugg at generators. They also developed the stratospheric balloons you've been reading about that can go almost anywhere on Earth and effectively 'hover' providing telecom.

Now let me shoch you all and say jim is right! This argument has drifted and he brought the topic back around. There are four questions:

1) Could an enlightenment/scientific civilization have done a lot without fossil fuels?

2) Were fossil fuels essential to developing our industrial civ that is lifting 7 billion people into safety, satiety and education for all children?

3) Is the era of fossil fuels ending? Because they are running out? Because we must replace them?

4) Does that end imply enlightenment civ was doomed anyway, whether or not we win the current fight against the forces of feudal oligarchy and darkness?

jim's ORIGINAL assertions were #3 &4. His dolorous assumtion that we are doomed anyway helps to excuse his political laziness and cynical-aloof smugness. And 3&4 - while rooted in genuine problems, are simply false...

...but this recent discussion in this thread got diverted down paths of #1&2... which are cool SFnal questions abount counter-factual worlds and we went bouncing about with talk of stratospheric kits, coppicing and charcoal and land trains and the price of firewood in 18the century England! Fun stuff for a sci fi con panel, but not the original questions.

jim's answer to #1&2 was correct. Periclean Athens accomplished plenty with early-crude enlightenment and had Pericles lived they'd have done more. Maybe achieved a lot. But their ceiling was stiff without fuels and these democrats would have kept their slaves.

So sure, fossil fuels played a big role. So? They are NOT running out, any thime soon. And the argument is over whether NOW we have a window of 20 years to use fossil-dominated energy to transition to sustainable systems that can replace the smokestacks?

Alfred Differ said...


But what we can do is, get an estimate on how much surplus energy had to increase in order for us to power the industrial revolution…

Actually, no. You can’t. What you can do is estimate how much surplus energy existed, but you can’t reasonably estimate how much HAD to exist in order to… whatever. You don’t know the optional paths we might have taken in to the future and have no reasonable way to estimate them. That hairy problem is not just multi-dimensional, it is hyper-multi-dimensional. Micro-economics is like that and that’s the level one must come down to in order to consider the optional paths for substitution.

Any science student with a bit of experience with thermodynamics will probably have learned that the early efforts dealt with understanding the various parts of the alcohol distribution process. How much water is needed to condense the vapors? How much fuel is needed to boil the water? What is meant by efficiency and just how good can we get a process to be? Early distillers were paying non-fossil carbon energy prices and needed to conserve, thus one of the big motivations for inventing thermodynamics.

That same student studying how early industrialization actually happened, though, will notice that we did not optimize for energy efficiency. The economics student will just smack their forehead and say ‘duh… of course not’. We partially optimized for cost efficiency and that’s a different problem. That means historical evidence showing what we did is not evidence of what we HAD to do regarding energy. Had prices been different, we would have done different.

Zepp Jamieson said...

Gregory: I can't help but wonder if you are conflating "burning fossil fuels" (something humans have been doing for at least 5,000 years with the discovery of coal) with the invention of internal combustion or even steam engines.

jim said...

You missed the main point – industrialization required a massive INCRREASE in the surplus energy available. (the laws of physics set a lower bound on the that increase.)

David Brin said...

There are ways to distill alcohol from fermented mash by solar without wasting fuel to boil the mash. I suspect that either alternatepast or our future civs would become quite good at it.

jim said...


Holy Cow, I am going to go home and celebrate that we were actually able to agree on something this important. ;-)

Now onto the disagreement. You wrote
“So sure, fossil fuels played a big role. So? They are NOT running out, any time soon.”
OK great, I will shock you and agree with that statement.

But that is not the point I am making. What is running out quickly? The easily accessible and processable oil, gas and coal. What has been happening the amount of energy it takes to get access to new fossil fuels has been greatly increasing. For example to get more oil we are fracking rock a mile or two below the surface, and propping open the cracks with sand , this takes much more energy than drilling an old style oil well. And the fracked oil wells also deplete much faster than the old wells and give a different distribution of hydrocarbons.

So the implication is, Just to get the same amount of useful energy form fossil fuels we have to spend much more energy on accessing the energy. And sense the environmental damage is a function of the total energy expenditure, to keep the same amount of useful energy from fossil fuels you must do more environmental damage.

David Brin said...

jim, the question is whether we can use the easily available fossil fuels to maintain a vigorous economy AND enlightenment attitudes (which YOU claim are decadent artifacts of energy surplus) WHILE investing in R&D to replace those fossils with sustainable methods.

EVERY current trend suggests that the answer is yes, assuming we are not deliberately thwarted in achieving this transition.

And that is much of what the current struggle is about. And in that struggle we are hobbled not just by stupid-but-canny would be lords, and by troglodytic-manipulated populist fools, but also by fools who excuse their laziness and political torpor by grabbing our ankles and crying:

"No! I won't help because it's futile!!!!!"

jim said...

David said
“question is whether we can use the easily available fossil fuels to maintain a vigorous economy AND enlightenment attitudes, WHILE investing in R&D to replace those fossils with sustainable methods.

EVERY current trend suggests that the answer is yes”

Every current trend ????
Oh man I wish that was true.

Last year we released more CO2 into the air then ever before - A really important trend going the wrong way.

The fossil fuel percentage of total amount of energy used by society has been ~80% for the at least the last 50 years and it is not trending down.

Our banking system depends on economic growth (and the ecological destruction that goes with it) to pay off debts. A steady state economy certainly could exist but our banking system could not sustainably exist in it.

Our political system sees economic growth as one of its most important goals (if not most important). More economic growth in our current system means more ecological destruction.

And then there is trend in American governance – increasingly erratic.

Keith Halperin said...

@ A. F. Rey: Thank you.

@ Everybody: Here’s what concerns me:

1) A country needs primary energy consumption of 4kW/capita to maintain an HDI of 0.9 according to
2) Current world primary energy consumption is ~14 TW, per:
3) Mark Jacobson of Stanford says that ~12 TW can be provided through renewable resources by 2050
(I think this is very desirable!)
4) Estimated world population in 2050 is ~9.7 G (

Putting these together, I interpret that it is extremely unlikely we’ll be able to provide the energy for a decent standard of living for the great majority of the world’s population through renewable (and/or *non-renewable energy) over the next 30 years.

Please shoot me down and show my false assumptions, incorrect calculations, etc.!


*Non-renewables would need to approximately double during this time.

David Brin said...

" A steady state economy certainly could exist but our banking system could not sustainably exist in it."

The conflation of economic growth with wastrel energy use is stupid, but I suppose to be expected.

Keith you assume the energy footprint of an average middle class person is... what? Current American levels? Current levels of Japanese or Dutch folks?

David Brin said...



and (for zen's sake) omward

Keith Halperin said...

@ Dr. Brin: ~1/2 current US levels, or the lowest usage for a country that has an HDI of 0.9 or above: Ireland, Germany, South Korea....

David Brin said...

I'd be very surprised if Japan and Holland don't have a ratio that's even better.

Take it to the next posting.


Anonymous said...

how many ostensibly good people will do nothing

I rather liked Peter watts commentary on that:

Edmund Burke once said that the only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing. I think that begs a question.

If you do nothing, what makes you any fucking good?

SumDummy said...

I think we can safely assume that any species intelligent enough to interact with via interstellar communications is going to be technologically sophisticated, and that in itself implies a form of intelligence that values technological capability.

From there you cannot avoid the conclusion that intelligent agents which value technological sophistication will inevitably development radically advanced technology. You can argue that it might take a relatively longer or shorter amount of time compared to humans (maybe because of their composition, environment, psychology, or other attributes). But given that humans have gone from zero technology to today in just 10,000 years, with huge advancements just in the last 200 years (machinery, electricity, computers), it seems reasonable to assume that any species will achieve recursively self-improving superintelligence on a fairly short timeframe, say, 100,000 years or less. (In our case, about 10,000 years from fire and stone tools, assuming we create AGI sometime this century).

OK, so with all that said, ALL aliens we are likely to encounter will be superintelligent.

The most important question then becomes: does superintelligence converge on a single set of values? If so, then maybe we can make develop some scenarios around those axiomatic values. If not, then there is literally no point in having a discussion.

So, what values might superintelligence converge upon? And how might the pursuit of those values manifest itself in phenomena that are observable at interstellar distances?