Wednesday, June 20, 2012

"Solutions" to the Fermi Paradox - Contest Winners! (Part One)

Prepare for a feast of ideas (below) about why we seem alone in the cosmos.  But first...

Illustration by Patrick Farley
A wonderful review of Existence from io9: “The story is about life — though he's calling it Existence, since not all the characters are alive in a biological sense. It's all about the chaos and passion of adolescence — the designs we make for our lives when we're young, before unforeseeable events send us spinning into strange new orbits. It's about the way the world narrows and focuses, as hobbies turn to avocations, legacies are considered and the afterlife looms....     The book proposes that there is not one answer to Fermi's paradox, but hundreds of answers, ranging from the quotidian to the weird. It also proposes that the best way to confront these answers is deeply human: to be creative, diverse, compromising, curious. That to reach Heaven — or something like it — requires that we look beyond ourselves, beyond humanity (all six species of it), and into the universe beyond.”

=== Winners of the "why are we alone" contest ===

My latest novel, Existence (published yesterday) reveals dozens of scenario about first contact, including a couple of unique ones concerning the Fermi Paradox or The Great Silence, as the quandary of why we have never encountered extraterrestrial civilization has been called. I've written about all this extensively in scientific papers and in fiction.

Only then I figured, why not go all-modern and crowd-source this question! So I put it to the folks at may Facebook Fan site, spurred by the offer of a prize -- a hardcover first printing of EXISTENCE going to the top vote-getter.  We got a fair number of submissions and the top responses are presented here, ranging from the serious and thoughtful to the humorous and ironic...
...starting with our Grand Prize winner, Mr. Tony Farley, a physics teacher from California.

#1 We don't have the capabilities to detect anything but a tightly beamed signal. And like detecting the sound of a jet in the sky, where you can see it, is not where you can detect signals from it. You have to point your microphone behind it. With tightly beamed signals over galactic distances, you have to know the proper motion of the planet and its sun and they have to know our proper motion to beam it to us. If they are ten light years away, they have to beam it to where we were ten years ago and we have to point our detectors to where they were ten years ago. All the SETI searches ignore this and hope a civilization is sending out a ridiculously powerful beam in all directions.  –Tony Farley

Tony Farley has also published a physics text, The Electric Force, for the iPad.

In fact, Tony, you are partly on-target with this one. But first, where you are wrong. SETI searches engaged in by the top group near Berkeley do compensate for motions and Doppler shifts and orbital variations to a degree that would amaze you.  They can detect a signal that is spectrum-varying with time and compensate for that as the source spins and rotates and revolves around a noisy star. These are clever folks.

Still, you are right that they still make untenable assumptions. They search the sky with narrow listening beams... looking for aliens who might be BROADcasting hello signals in all directions.  But there's no reason that even a beneficent race would do that, around the clock, for eons.  Horribly expensive.  They would, as you say, "ping" likely targets like our solar system, maybe once a century.  To detect such pings, instead of one expensive SETI program in one place, we should have a thousand backyard receivers, networked, scanning the whole sky at once.  Look up Project Argus of the SETI League!

And congratulations on your prize! A hardcover of Existence is winging its way to you.

#2 The universe is big in space AND time. It would be a major accomplishment for a technological society to remain intact for a million years, yet that is just a blip on the scale of the universe. How many galactic empires came and went before the Earth was even capable of supporting life? –Thomas Nackid

A good question.  And yes, we might simply not overlap with the others!  But note, Thomas, your assumption is that the numbers of tech races must be very small (and that may be the case) in order for the statistical non-overlap idea to work.  But if there are numerous long-lived species, then we get the Fermi Paradox. And if they travel?  A lot?  Colonization changes all the numbers!

Even if they just explore and don't colonize, then the Earth would likely have been visited.  But even one toilet flush during the Archaean would have changed life on Earth in ways we'd detect in the rocks.

#3 Life, even intelligent life, is common in the universe, but advanced civilizations are rare, and hard to find in the small window of time that we have been looking, and not all advanced civilizations are nice. Getting between stars and communicating between stars is hard, and having someone close enough to communicate with at the same time you're communicating is rare, and sometimes perilous. We have not found anyone yet because we can only shout at our nearest neighbors, and our local neighborhood is currently empty, probably by chance and possibly by malice. –Ilithi Dragon

I am one of the SETI experts who has been arguing that the Great Silence may be telling us something.  "If all the races more advanced than us are being quiet... maybe they know something we don't know?"

Several major voices in the field, Like former NASA SETI chief John Billingham, have joined me in resigning from major committees in protest over the SETI Institute's role in helping clear a path for METI or "MESSAGE to ETI."  See our complaint: Shouting at the Cosmos -- or How SETI has taken a Worrisome Turn into Dangerous Territory.

#4 They won't unscramble the signal until we put a deposit down.  –Lone Hanks

hrm... you REALLY want to read my novel EXISTENCE!  There will come a couple of moments when you just break down with guffaws!

Along those same lines: We haven't yet chosen a intergalactic long distance carrier. --Christopher R. Vesely

#5 The "Do Not Feed the Humans" sign just past Pluto deters all but delinquents making crop circles.  –Kevin King
Ditto my answer to #4!

#6 Civilized people do not just drop in uninvited. –Eli Roth
We've been inviting!

Along those same lines: There may be a "Prime Directive" ethos that they stick to. --Glenn Brockett

That's the "Zoo Hypothesis" that comes in dozens of variations... all of which assume either that the ETIS are few and share the same value system, or else have one heckuva police force...

I'll toss in one last one:

ALONECOSMOSAs society gets rich enough and technologically sophisticated enough, eventually everyone is able to live in their own personal Matrix, customized to provide them with their ideal life. Soon after the civilization stops bothering to expand any further, as the perfect existence can already be found on their home planet and nothing more could be wanted. Humans have a rare neurological structure that prevents them from being satisfied with this sort of simulation. –Eneasz Brodski

See also a discussion of The Great Filter: Does a Galaxy Filled with Habitable Planets Mean Humanity is Doomed? on io9 -- Robin Hanson’s concept that there may be some obstacle that consistently prevents species from reaching the technological stage where they can traverse interstellar distances.  (That's the core topic in my new novel.)

Hey, we've run out of space (get it?) So we'll go through the remaining top candidates next time.  Meanwhile, Congratulations Mr. Farley... and the rest of you for having lively minds!

Continue to Part 2 of solutions to the Fermi Paradox

ExistenceHCAlso see a collection of articles exploring the Fermi Paradox and SETI: the Search for Extraterrestrial Life.

 I explore many of these ideas in my novel, Existence.


Acacia H. said...

Actually, Dr. Brin, I've mentioned on more than one occasion my reasoning behind the lack of numerous spacefaring species in the Milky Way galaxy: spacefaring species require a specific range of planets where life can evolve, flourish, and then escape from.

First, the Earth is on the close-side of the Sun... and in just a hundred million more years might not be habitable (unless we boost the Earth's orbital momentum by slingshotting asteroids around Jupiter and back to the Earth, stealing some of Jupiter's momentum and adding it to our own through said asteroids). Venus shows what happens when a planet is too close. Mars is what happens when a planet of insufficient size is too far. (And would the Earth have survived where Mars is? How many asteroids smacked into Mars thanks to Jupiter?) So location is key... but it's only ONE key element.

Second and more importantly is size. When a planet is close to the size of Mars, it risks being too small to sustain an atmosphere long enough for life to arise. This is a shame: Mars would be a perfect stepping stone for life to escape from as it has a smaller gravitational sinkhole than the Earth... and it's likely that space elevators could be constructed on Mars without use of esoteric materials like carbon nanotubes. However, the converse is also true: too large, and you're trapped on the planet. If a planet has twice the mass of Earth, how difficult is it to break out of low orbit? And forget space elevators in those circumstances - you're reliant on old fashioned rocket power.

Third, you need a viable Moon. Why? First, the Moon helped inspire our species to look up and out. It has stirred our imaginations for eons. It drove the space race between the United States and the Soviet Union. In short, the Moon is why we entered space. But it also provides a useful gravity well from which to slingshot craft away from Earth with less power. And it may very well be essential for having stirred the primordial soup that brought about life.

Fourth, planetary placement. If you have a gas giant that slowly spirals inward or outward, it can dislodge a planet and result in it no longer being viable for life. We are fortunate that all our gas giants are outside... and are content to stay there. Far too many solar systems have been shown to be different, with some gas giants so close to their stars that their orbits are measured in days, not weeks. Such solar systems may very well be too disrupted to allow for life to arise.

Fifth, you need a proper mixture of elements. If a planet forms and doesn't get smacked by asteroids and such, most of the metals could very well end up in the planetary core. Life could arise and never be able to achieve much because those species are reliant on bone, wood, and stone in order to make tools... and bone, wood and stone are poor tools in making spaceships.


Acacia H. said...

Sixth, you need a good star. Red dwarf stars tend to suffer flares and irregularities that could make life problematic. Stars larger than the Earth burn up quicker and reduce the time in which life can evolve.

Seventh, you need to have a species with both intelligence and curiosity. If the race is extremely intelligent but just has no interest in the stars and moving onward... it will contently stay at home and never talk to anyone. Why bother? What's out there that they don't already have? Likewise, some degree of competitiveness is useful for flourishing and encouraging a race to step outside the planetary boundaries.

And let's not forget galactic placement. If you're too close to the galactic center then a planet could easily be irradiated by supernovas, torn apart by passing stars and the like, and have a shorter window for live to grow before something inevitably goes awry in the region around it.

So. To sum up, we need a good galactic location, a good star, a decent planetary system with gas giants that aren't disrupting rocky planets, a planet that isn't too large or too small that is in the habitable zone of the star, a moon (even a small one!), a good mixture of elements on and in the planet's crust, and a species that wants to talk to others or leave home.

The solution to the Fermi Paradox is simple: we're the only planetary system in this neck of the woods that has gotten to this point of development. We got lucky. There may be other species out there, but if they're tens of thousands of light years away or further, we may never hear from them or know they are out there. And they may never know of us either.

Robert A. Howard, Tangents Webcomic Reviews

Rob said...

Gotta be crystal spheres. That's my story. I'm sticking to it. OK, it's not *my* story but I'm still sticking to it.

David Brin said...

Robert your first two suggestions are cogent and yes, the thousand planets we have discovered will only include a few with attractive traits. Only remember, we are talking about maybe a trillion or so planets in the Milky way. Now add the fact that a dozen moonlets in our system may have "roofed" (ice-covered ) oceans. Yes, your factors trim the numbers, but it will take more orders of magnitude than that.

As for the need for a large moon. Hm... I find that less compelling. More mystical.

I find the TYPE of intelligence arguments to be similar. They might have major effects. But "major that only trims by two orders of magnitude is not enough. I think it very likely we are much smarter than average. But by how big a factor?

Many of these are discuss you-know-where...

Acacia H. said...

I disagree about the number of habitable planets that would be viable for intelligent life with the capability of leaving the planet, Dr. Brin. We have seen dozens of planetary systems. Of these, the Sol system has been an outlier. We've not seen many planetary systems with gas giants on the outside and rocky planets inside and within the habitable zone. Admittedly part of this lies with the difficulty of FINDING Earth-sized planets in the Goldilocks zone, but even so, we've found many gas giants that are snuggled close to their stars, which would likely disrupt rocky planets in habitable regions of the star's planetary system.

In addition, it doesn't matter if there's life on Europa, Titan, or even Mars. Why? Because such life would not be in a position to LEAVE the planet. If there is a mile of ice above your head and you've evolved to exist within the black oceans of your world... then you're not going to develop metal working, radio telescopes, or the like. Life could become as intelligent as octopi or squid or dolphins and whales, but their world is closed. There is no universe outside of their limited black region. There's the Ceiling of the World... and the Floor. That's all.

So those life forms won't be going out and saying "hi" anytime soon.

If a planet has a thick and hazy atmosphere, then there are not many stars visible. Pretty much the only things that life forms on Titan would "see" is Saturn and Sol. And no doubt the vision in these cases would be infrared, not visual spectrum. The rest of the stars? Hidden. And the viability of leaving Titan to go elsewhere? Could metalworking arise in a methane-based atmosphere? Would such a species even consider fire when cold is integral to their existence? We humans tolerate heat and can work with it. Creatures from a methane world would likely find fire to be far more damaging to them than we find it.

So then, the ice-ocean dwellers and the frigid methane dwellers are unlikely to leave their worlds without an outside hand. They would need Uplift. And that suggests a species from a world that is large enough to contain an atmosphere, small enough to escape from, and in a region that was not inhospitable. We're not talking billions of worlds here. We're talking maybe a couple million. And now let's spread them across the galaxy... and let's accept that some worlds will destroy themselves and some will fall victim to plague and the like and some will just not be lucky.

Humanity has been lucky, up to date.

As for you finding my Moon hypothesis "mystical" might I mention that it gave humanity a target to aim for that could easily be reached and returned from and also worked as a boost for our satellites and probes to go to our neighboring worlds. You underestimate the potency of the Moon because of your prejudices against it. And yes, you are as prejudiced against the Moon as I was against the Clintons.

When you consider how ravaged the surface of the Moon is, with some fairly massive impact craters, you have to realize the Moon has sheltered its sister through the billions of years they've existed together. That protection has not been perfect. But it may have been enough to allow life to gain a sufficient foothold to withstand the occasional devastating impact.

Rob H.

Stephen said...

One I read in a recent New Scientist (not an article, just a letter to the editor):

The premis was that dark matter is inherently antihetical to life at a very fundamental level. We evolved only because we happen to live in a corner of the universe where dark matter is rare - like we're on some transdimensional high ground above an ocean of dark matter.

I like this hypothesis because it simultaneously explains two things - why we can't find life and why we can't find dark matter.

Not saying its true, just saying that its a fun hypothesis.

sociotard said...

Hey, I'll throw a screwball one out there.

Did you ever see the episode of Star Trek TNG when they found the paradise planet where all laws were enforced with the death penalty? Remember they had a god-being protecting the planet? It got mad when the enterprise beamed a girl aboard?

Maybe that's us. Not a whole galactic civilization enforcing a prime directive. We just have a God, and he is a jealous God.

Tom Crowl said...

Questions re 'intelligence and technology' influencing answers to the Fermi Paradox:

* We are a social species. Is it reasonable to assume that creative intelligence and high technology would arise in a non-social species (the lone hunter)? Or a social but 'hive' species (with no individuality at all)?

* If a social species is required (or heavily favored) for tech advancement... what characteristics might those species share?

I suggest these:

*A "Dunbar's Number" directly related to cognitive limits... and these are shaped by the physical characteristics of the planet on which the species arise.

* The same altruism and monsters-from-the-id' dilemmas that we face.

And that these make it extremely difficult for these social species to scale w/o ending either in some sort of 'matrix', collapse... or going the way of the Krel (Forbidden Planet).

Civilizations (on Earth at least) have NEVER stably scaled (in time frames that would have any meaning in this context)...

Of course, we haven't been here that long.

But I'm not seeing much rigorous attention to these dilemmas... assuming they're real. And I do.

The Problem in Scaling Altruism: Where's the Intelligent Life?

Issues in Scaling Civlization: The Monsters-from-the-Id Dilemma

Anonymous said...

With my tongue somewhat planted in cheek.... To develop science, Alien civs would need to convert to Christianity (specifically Roman Catholicism.

"The Soul of Science" by Pearcey and Thaxton make a very strong case that only Judeo-Christianity (especially in Western Christendom) created the mind set necessary for the development of what we today call "science".
To quote from the book, "The most curious aspect of the scientific world we live in, says science writer Loren Eiseley, is that it exists at all.

Westerners often unconsciously assume a doctrine of Inexorable Progress, as though the mere passage of time leads inevitably to increased knowledge as surely an acorn becomes an oak. Yet the archaeologists would be forced to tell us most great several civilizations have arisen and vanished without benefit of a scientific philosophy.

Faith in the possibility of science must precede the development of actual scientific theory, a tone of though is required before science could even develop. This tone of thought was present nowhere else but in Western Christendom. The cultural differences that created this tone of thought and made science possible are summarized as follows:

First,the Bible teaches that nature is real. If this seems too obvious, remember that the Hindus teach that that the everyday world of material objects is maya, illusion. Any culture which denigrates the real world is infertile soil for the growth of science.

Second, a society must be persuaded that the study of nature is of great value. The ancient Greeks lacked this conviction. Manual labor was left for slaves while philosophers sought a life of leisure to pursue higher things. Hands on, practical empiricism was alien to the Greeks. In contrast, Judeo-Christianity teaches that the world has great value as God's creation. "And God saw that it was good". There has never been room in either Hebrew or Christian tradition that work was degrading.

Third, in the Christian world view, God made the world, but is not the world itself. Nature is de-deified - a crucial precursor for scientific study of nature.

Fourth Christianity established a legacy of a rational God creating an orderly world.

Fifth, belief in an orderly universe made possible the belief in a universal, fixed natural law.

Sixth, the modern emphasis on the use of mathematics to precisely measure nature can also be traced to the Biblical teaching that God created the world ex nihilo.

Seventh, Christianity believed that humans can discover the inner workings of natural order.

Eight, by preaching free will as opposed to deterministic fate, Christianity made it possible to believe that humans could actually do something about nature.

For these reasons and others, Christianity (and only Christianity) can be considered the mother of modern scientific method.

So without Catholicism, or an equivalent mind set, science would never have developed on this world or any other. Science is a rare fluke and the universe is filled with millions of civilizations, none of which have advanced beyond the Iron Age.

Combine Rare Earths with Rare Science and we may be all alone in the galaxy

Acacia H. said...

I'm surprised you didn't bite your tongue several times as it seems firmly embedded in your cheek. ;)

Rather than consider any one religion as fundamental to science, it may be better to consider population size and density as an important element. The larger the population in a smaller region, the better you have the transmission of ideas which results in advancements. In short, the Middle East initially was an effective region for advancement because people were forced into small regions due to the deserts. Unfortunately, cultural change resulted in an environment less accepting of science... and allowed it to shift to Europe, another region that had a number of compressed locales in comparison to India and China (or Russia).

This may also be why the Native North and South Americans didn't have as great of advancements in technology compared to Europe - they were more spread out. They had some great ideas and innovations. But they didn't have the NEED to grow technologically until the European invasion.

Rob H.

Hans said...

One of Asimov's stories said we needed the moon to pull heavy elements to the surface. Was this a totally screwball idea?


Max Keele said...

Any civilization with sufficient curiosity to wonder what the universe holds--and sufficient creativity to go about the process of finding out--will inevitably discover than it is far simpler, easier and cheaper to model your own virtual universe that it is to travel the physical one.

Given the continuing relevance of Moore's Law (that computational power will double every two years or so) and the emergence of highly sophisticated modeling technologies, and the increasing popularity of virtual environments, It is only a matter of time--and short time at that--before we ourselves have engineered a virtual universe of our own. A universe where we can all be immortal, powerful, fully realized creatures armed with full knowledge and understanding of our creation. That is, if we are not already in such a universe of someone else's manufacture.

Leo said...

I wasn't aware of your contest. But I posted this long ago. A very simple, elegant solution to the Fermi Paradox:

Tea Party Democrat said...

Let me propose the following hypothesis:

An advanced alien civilization may have an advanced understanding and developed science of what consciousness is, and instead of expending huge amounts of energy to produce radio waves, would simply use their understanding of consciousness to communicate with us mentally, in our dreams.

We have simply not applied our extensive ability to do signal analysis to what people post about the dream they had last night on facebook.

The hypothesis is that evidence of communication with alien intelligence is clearly distinguishable in what is currently subconscious influence on humans.

The talk about METI would be evidence that *we* are going to be the ones expending a lot of energy to produce radio waves that other civilizations could detect.

Boris Borcic said...

I missed the contest. My answer to the Fermi paradox is that the standard way across the Universe for intelligent species to observe that others exist, is through millennia-spanning studies of patterns of star explosions in distant galaxies.

IOW, they are there, it's just that we need to focus properly.

Unknown said...

Fascinating reads, Dr. Brin! I came over here from Google+ since you conveniently posted a link, and I'm glad I did.

I noticed there's been some discussion of the relevance of a big moon (or a big enough moon, for some value that satisfies "enough"), and I wanted to toss in my thoughts. While I don't doubt the aspirational effects of a large moon in the night sky as much as you do, I think a more concrete reason why a moon is important has to do with stabilizing the climate of a planet... by stabilizing axial tilt. I have read and seen video presentations of computer models demonstrating that Earth's axial tilt would have varied wildly over the span of millions (or perhaps even tens of thousands) of years, causing dramatic shifts in climate zones.

This would presumably create some harsh evolutionary pressures on land-based life, and would create a challenging environment for any kind of intelligent, tool-using life... assuming such life could ever arise in the first place.

As for some of the other comments and ideas, I just had some brief observations:

Regarding Moore's Law... this isn't a law, yet people treat it as inevitable. (The "law" is more of a self-fulfilling prophecy, as engineers struggle to continue the rate of progress predicted by it.) In fact, the formulation of Moore's Law has changed many times since it was first suggested -- the time between cycles has varied between about 18 months and 2 years, the actual metric has changed from transistor density (the doubling thereof) to some fuzzy concept of "computational power" (which Gordon Moore himself never claimed). That said, Moore's Law has hard limits that we're already bumping up against.

Point being, even switching to a completely new technology for our computational needs doesn't guarantee that upward progress will be continuous and unimpeded, nor does it guarantee that we'll even develop sufficient power to create a credible virtual world for our consciousnesses to run around in. By extension, there's no guarantee any other species will be able to do these things either.

Unknown said...

As for the notion that the Judeo-Christian culture prevalent in the West was necessary for valuing the scientific method... I think that's hogwash. I would invite anyone to read Carl Sagan's account of the burning of the Library of Alexandria in the book Cosmos; Sagan argues that this is the true beginning of the Dark Ages. By contrast, while the works of Aristotle et. al. were all but destroyed in the West, they were translated and preserved in the East by Islamic scholars -- important works of philosophy, mathematics, optics, astronomy, etc. Granted, Aristotle was an empiricist but not an experimentalist, so some ingredients for the modern scientific method required the Enlightenment.

In short, I reject the notion that "This tone of thought [i.e., faith in the possibility of science] was present nowhere else but in Western Christendom." I also reject the statement that "Hands on, practical empiricism was alien to the Greeks." Because Aristotle and others were definite empiricists, and their influence on Hellenic thought can't be ignored.

It's also worth noting that many scientists and philosophers in the West were men of leisure, many of them aristocrats who never had to do "real" work to support themselves, and so were free to pursue Enlightenment goals of furthering scientific (secular) knowledge. Even professors in the modern university system often delegate the mundane tasks of research to their graduate students, existing in the rarefied space where they direct research, think about the really interesting problems, and publish. A lot of people in the Western Christian tradition do, in fact, hold that work is degrading, and it's been this way for almost as long as Christianity has existed. Religion provides a framework, but humans will always be human.

The very notion that the modern use of mathematics stems from the belief that "God" created the universe from nothing is equally absurd to me. I am not sure I could construct a logical argument to develop such a conclusion.

SteveO said...

Adding to what Robert Poole said...

Some Greeks, including the Ionians, were very practical, empirical reasoners and sound engineers. They had to be to survive. The problem was that Euclid and his ilk, including Plato, were anti-empiricists and "won" the battle to hide knowledge from the masses and elevate logic above observation. In doing so, they probably set back the Scientific Revolution by about 2,000 years.

Christianity at times, just as Islam at times, provided havens of knowledge and education, and in at least some moments both extended an environment that allowed for critical inquiry and discovery. But on the whole neither was necessary nor sufficient in and of itself to create an Enlightenment. Other factors, including the cheap high-volume preservable communication (printing press), a moderately large well-educated class of people who did not need to search for their food every day and therefore had the leisure to think and observe, and the philosophical rediscovery of empiricism, were far more necessary.

David Brin said...

Huh! Looks as if we added a few new and very bright members to this... the sharpest ad hoc BlogMunity around. Welcome Mr. Poole and others!

If I might weigh in befor flying off to San Jose, Berkeley and San Francisco on book tour...

..I agree that the Western Enlightenment may be sociologically an anomaly, since 99% of human cultures fell into the standard pattern -- feudal oligarchy by the owner caste -- that repressed freedom, opportunity, competition, markets , democracy and science in nearly all cultures.

Alas, I believe the Church may have had a positive influence primarily as a repressive force that bright young minds might then productively rebel against! This happened when Aquinas and the Scholastics rediscovered greek logic and used it to fight back... which led to the agile church deciding to co-opt Plato/Aristotle etc!

Which created a NEW conservative oppression for Galileo and then the reformers who pushed individualism in the reformation...

Look I am not anti-clerical in most standard ways. But note the common underlying current beneath Plato, Buddha, LaoTze, the Hindu Sutras and Jesus. ALL of them preached: "the regular physical world cannot be improved and human effort to do so is wasted and illusory. Even if you study something, you'll never get at the perfect essence. Progress, if any, comes only from within. Therefor you must..."

...and here's where they parted company, in the specific prescriptions. Whether to seek enlightenment through.... logical reason, or serene detachment, or prayer and ritual, or gradual karmic payoff... theologians have emphasized these prescriptive differences. But the underlying commonality is vastly more important!

It amounted to : "The physical world will bring you no satisfaction... give up!"

All temporal world progress has come from folks who said: "Um... no... I think I'll try, anyway."

Tony Fisk said...

I was about to mention the Moon as a axial stabiliser, but R. Poole beat me to it.

I had a bit of a brainstorm some years ago about putting a space tether on the far side of the Moon and using it to push against the solar magnetic field to drag the Moon (and Earth) further away. Probably even more terrifying than playing Angry Birds in Space with asteroids! ('Praise the Looooord...! Wump!')
(In both cases, I leave it as an exercise for our undoubtedly capable descendents to work out the resonance issues with Jupiter.)

So, where is everybody? Well, Pohl had his Heechee hiding out in black holes (something alluded to in 'Heaven's Reach', from memory). Clarke suggested that an 'Overmind' came by every so often and 'harvested' (sort of like a psychic Berserker. Childhood's End portrayed it as being a tad more benevolent... but still quite ruthless; the husk and stems were discarded).

I we are all alone in a simulator, then we live in expectation of the eventual Universal Stack Overflow, or the unlooked-for Segmentation Crunch.
(Q: Will a fully working quantum computer cause us to reach the processing limits??)

The possibility that 'dark matter' has something to do with life in the first place is covered by Pullman in 'His Dark Materials' (Lord Asriel has invented a 'dust' detector...)

'42 CyFlyses'?!? The Capcha spirits are trying to break through again!

Tony Fisk said...

On the Moon allowing heavy elements to be present in the Earth's crust.

Not so much, but it seems that *early life* had a hand in creating many of the concentrated ore bodies we see today.

Many heavy metals are toxic to us, but only because our metabolisms need them (in trace amounts) to function properly. As early life in the oceans died and settled to the still depths, they took the metal salts with them. This concentrated the metals in the silt and gradually scoured the oceans clean (It even appears that those 'natural fission sites' may have arisen from algal mats concentrating the Uranium)

All very interesting, and I daresay there'll be more than a few quirked eyebrows about the idea (there are, of course, plenty of inaminate 'geological processes' that allow ores to gather). It makes me wonder whether the fairly diffuse distribution of (not so) rare earths is because they *don't* play any metabolic role? It would be ironic if it were so, given the cool things we're learning to use them for!

Tony Fisk said...

... I should add that modern life soaks up heavy metal like sponges. Early life perhaps less so, but gradually grew more efficient at gathering it as the natural concentrations fell.

David Brin said...

Tony re your "Lift the Moon" concept...

The moon-anchored tether in question would be out of the way, dipole stabilized and counterweighted and in no danger of tangling or messing up anything in cis-lunar space.  It would essentially be a space elevator on the far side, making the far side very valuable.

What's needed is a back-of-envelope look at the idea by the only guy on Earth who would know if it could work. My pal Joe Carroll of Tether Applications Inc. If so, if it might save the planet, then let's patent it! ;-)

Paul451 said...

I love some of these ideas. (Especially Dark Matter as biocide. And Sociotard's personal Gods.) So I feel like an ass pointing out they are all just bespoke cases of the standard set of "solutions":

1) Life and/or intelligence is rare.
2) Civilisation is hard.
3) The Matrix.
4) The Zoo Hypothesis.
5) Monsters - a variant of "Life is rare".

Rob H: Life is rare.
Other Rob: Zoo hypothesis.
Stephen: Life is rare. (But an original variant!)
Sociotard: Zoo hypothesis. (But an original variant!)
Tom Crowl: Civilisation is hard.
Anon (the Roman Catholic idea): Civilisation is hard.
Hans: Life is rare.
Max Keele: The Matrix.
Leo: Life is rare.
Tony Fisk: Monsters, Monsters, & the Matrix.

Tea Party Democrat's alien dreams on Facebook, and k4ntico's similar version, both try to solve the SETI-variant of Fermi's Paradox. But don't solve the full colonisation variant.

And to be fair to everyone else, my only contribution to the Fermi debate is just a Monsters variant. (That evolution, both cultural and biological, will ensure that every species that colonises more than one iteration of planets will colonise them all, faster and faster, less and less efficiently, then burn out. We were either lucky, or between waves.)

Paul451 said...

Re: Roman Catholicism as the secret sauce of science.
Science blossomed during and after the Reformation. The spread of Catholicism across Europe seemed to shut down independent inquiry. (Although the "Dark Ages" is apparently exaggerated.) But I do wonder if the secret sauce was the printing press. Plus multiple civilisation near enough to trade ideas quickly. The printing press allows ideas to spread, with suppressed ideas finding haven in neighbouring civilisations until they can re-infest the civilisation that suppressed the creator.)

The only area I see religion helping science is in the idea of a single creator. This created (heh) a cultural assumption that there was a single system of unifying laws which apparently strongly influenced Newton in seeking to unify planetary dynamics and ballistics into one theory of gravity and motion.

duncan cairncross said...

Hi guys

The problem with the idea that life is rare is

We believe with only slightly advanced technology we will be able to colonize other star systems

If only one species goes through all of the zeros and expands it would fill the galaxy in a relatively short period (in stellar lifetimes)

So any limitations imposed (no big moon...) must have prevented ANY species from doing this expansion at ANY time in the last few Billion years

This is the big mystery - back when interstellar travel was believed to be impossibly difficult the distribution of life would have been down to planets having all of the boxes ticked

As soon as we think that interstellar travel is possible the problem changes completely

Rob said...

OK, I'll toss another one in.

Most of the universe isn't photosensitive or photoemitting, therefore most of the intelligent life in the universe is likewise insensitive to light.

It's mostly Dark Matter or Dark Energy, and we have no idea how to detect it directly.

They haven't found us because they use the wrong sensory spectra, and they're not looking in the right place. And that's why we haven't found them.

Paul451 said...

Re: Dark Matter biocide.

Damn. I just realised it doesn't work. It would require us to remain in a dark-matter-free bubble for our entire evolution, 4+ billion years. But that's 100-150 orbits around the galaxy, it's long enough for a mixing of any dark matter. It would require some mechanism to keep the solar system in a bubble. Perhaps the Gods...

Re: Sociotard's personal planetary God.

Every so often a smug fundamentalist will say something like "What would you Atheists do if your precious science ever found direct evidence of God?" (The answer is, of course, that God is then reduced to a naturalistic phenomenon. No harder to accept than the Big Bang, the Earth's core or French Canadians.) The part that interests me is what would happen to religion if science not only found evidence of God (or Gods!), but found that God's properties don't match their particular religion. Hell, even if it does match their religion, what happens to that religion when it becomes a branch of physics? What need of priests and popes, of churches and Holy Books, when you can get answers straight from the horse's mouth, or at least by looking them up on the CERN website, or in a wikipedia article "N2021a6 (the one true god)#Teachings"?

Fermi's Paradox generally only talks about the visible Milky Way. The additional amounts of Dark Matter/Energy is irrelevant.

sociotard said...

Well, the priests were always the ones who got power from religion, not the oracle.

I just got back from the Abraham Lincoln movie. It was fun, though very different from the book. The cinematography was great. Some of the changes did give the story a better arc, but also made it mesh less well with history.

Tony Fisk said...

You expect a movie about vampire hunting presidents to mesh with history? You'll be asking for a realistic depiction of vampires next!

Anonymous said...

"Alas, I believe the Church may have had a positive influence primarily as a repressive force that bright young minds might then productively rebel against! This happened when Aquinas and the Scholastics rediscovered greek logic and used it to fight back... which led to the agile church deciding to co-opt Plato/Aristotle etc! Which created a NEW conservative oppression for Galileo and then the reformers who pushed individualism in the reformation..."

I think you will find Dr. Brin that the RCC has always been accepting of science, whether it is Pope John Paul II declaring that evolution is "more than a theory" or the Vatican's acceptance of the possiblity of intelligent space aliens (

As you mentioned Galileo, perhaps this would be a good time to discuss the entire behind his case as well as the treatment of other "martyrs" to science.

Galileo Galilei: Whose friends and admirers included the Pope and Jesuit college in Rome. There was much more involved in Galileo's trial then a simple confrontation between religion and science. Ironically, the majority of church intellectuals were on Galileo's side while the clearest opposition came from secular ideas of the academic philosophers (see "The Crime of Galileo" by Giorgio de Santilanna). The truth is, on the whole, the Church had no argument with Galileo's theories on science. Their objections lay with his attacks on Aristotelian philosophy (As formulated for the Church by Thomas Aquinas' Scholasticism) - and all the metaphysical, spiritual and social consequences associated with it. Aristotle's philosophy was thought necessary for the formulation of religious and moral laws. Galileo was also caught up in an intellectual power struggle between the older *secular* elites which ran the universities and had a vested interest in defending Scholasticism and a new generation of pragmatic young Turks like himself. The Church, being threatened by Protestantism felt it imperative to defend Aristotle.

His friends in the Jesuits in effect told Galileo, "We know you're right, but give us time to break the news to the masses. The middle of a religious war with the Protestants is no time to be undercutting what is considered the basis of our theology. So please publish in Latin for the elite and not in the vernacular for the masses." Not only did Galileo ignore the advice of his Jesuit friends, his "Dialogue Concerning the Two Principle Systems of the World" includes a dimwitted buffoon named Simplicio, a thinly disguised caricature of the Pope who had been Galileo's friend and admirer. Galileo was a conceited prima donna who betrayed his friends and admirers. Not to put too fine a point on it, but Galileo was being a total dick. Is it any wonder that the Pope and the Jesuits turned against him?

Anonymous said...

Some other martyr's of science:

Bruno: Who was not burned at the stake for advocating the idea that there were other inhabited planets orbiting around other stars. He was condemned for being a pagan advocate for the hermetic tradition. Hermetic writings treated the sun as a god, and the rest of the universe as moving, and hence alive. This it turns out is the real reason Bruno was attracted to Copernican heliocentricism. His belief in the sun's divinity nicely dovetailed with a heliocentric world view. Bruno was a martyr to pagan mysticism, not scientific inquirery.

Kopernick (Copernicus), Whose heliocentricism was proposed without a single shred of empirical evidence. Such evidence would not be available until Galileo saw through his telescope that Venus had phases like the moon. A mechanical explanation for planetary orbits would await Newton's "Principia". (Newton, BTW would remain a devout Christian who spent more time in Biblical study than in scientific pursuits). What motivated Copernicus wasn't science but neo-Platonist philosophy which taught that the sun was symbolic of God's ability to create and therefore deserved primacy at the center of the universe. This was in opposition to the Aristotelian view (which dominated the Church as Thomas Aquinas' scholasticism) which assumed that the Earth was the enter of the universe.

justin smith said...

I just think advanced civilizations stop using radio waves to communicate in favor of faster and more efficient systems like fiber optics. We're headed there ourselves. Even satellite radio and TV beam very low-power signals directly at the Earth. So there is an incredibly short window during which a civilization can be detected by radio waves (50 years or so).

Anonymous said...

In short, I reject the notion that "This tone of thought [i.e., faith in the possibility of science] was present nowhere else but in Western Christendom."
*While other societies were technologically advanced none but Western Christendom created the scientific method.
I also reject the statement that "Hands on, practical empiricism was alien to the Greeks." Because Aristotle and others were definite empiricists, and their influence on Hellenic thought can't be ignored.

*Aristotle was too lazy to actually count the number of teeth a horse has. Such drudgework being beneath the dignity of a true philosopher, he reasoned his way to how many a teeth a horse must have.

It's also worth noting that many scientists and philosophers in the West were men of leisure, many of them aristocrats who never had to do "real" work to support themselves, and so were free to pursue Enlightenment goals of furthering scientific (secular) knowledge. Even professors in the modern university system often delegate the mundane tasks of research to their graduate students, existing in the rarefied space where they direct research, think about the really interesting problems, and publish.

*You’ve missed the point entirely. The work in question is the work of science, the actual work of making observations and collecting data.

A lot of people in the Western Christian tradition do, in fact, hold that work is degrading, and it's been this way for almost as long as Christianity has existed. Religion provides a framework, but humans will always be human.

*For all societies except Judeo-Christianity, work was something slaves did, not a nobleman or citizen. Only Western Christendom developed the Protestant work ethic. Only Christianity had a supreme God who was a carpenter. In contrast, Hephaestus/Vulcan was an object or ridicule and scorn.

The very notion that the modern use of mathematics stems from the belief that "God" created the universe from nothing is equally absurd to me. I am not sure I could construct a logical argument to develop such a conclusion.

*The modern emphasis on the use of mathematics to precisely measure nature can also be traced to the Biblical teaching that God created the world ex nihilo. This is an alien concept to all other cultures, whose gods merely reshaped existing primordial matter. For example, the ancient Greek world view consisted of eternal matter structured by eternal rational universals called Forms or Ideas. Plato's demiurge did not create from nothing he merely injected Ideas into reasonless matter. As a result, the Greeks expected a certain level of fuzziness in nature, which could never be considered to be precise or represented mathematically.

Jumper said...

Great post. I'll offer up a couple of things.

What makes us think we are that smart? Intelligent life might view us as slow and uninteresting. At present we see technology as an astounding development, but possibly it's just a phase. Whenever SF tries to postulate this (well, often) we wander into a sort of Yoda concept or Avatar at-one-with-the-local-Gaea idea, i.e., still limited to our own current imaginations.

And it's an old idea that UFOs are just a modern explanation for phenomena which used to be termed "angels" or fairies and sprites, animal spirits, etc. That the phenomena are the same "thing" and as moderns we are no more able to explain "it" as in the past. Such that "they" are already here and we are insensitive to that reality because of our, well, relative stupidity.

We are convinced too that we have a handle on reality - we know of invisible electromagnetic spectra and curious variants of solid state matter and plasmas; model esoteric concepts such as spin, intermediate vector bosons, etc., etc., - and think we are just THAT close to apprehending the whole enchilada. But perhaps there really are layers of reality no more comprehensible to us than rocket fuel, or the moon, or Beethoven are, to a tortoise.

Lest this all seem a bit hopeless - that we are too stupid to even think about our own concept of "progress" to any transcendental result, I think it is an open-ended enough concept that it is much to be encouraged and will continue to bear good fruit.

Anonymous said...

The point that needs to be remembered is that the development of the concept of science as a method, a thought process, and as a worldview was a total fluke, an historical accident that was never inevitable. Most civilizations throughout human history never developed science (which is NOT the same thing as engineering, mathematics or philosophy).

For science to emerge as a way of looking at the world, a set of cultural assumptions have to be accepted first. Without this fertile cultural soil, the seed of science cannot grow. Reality has to be real not an illusion. Time has to be linear, not endlessly circular and repetitive. Scientific inquiry has to be considered valuable in itself, not work beneath the dignity of philosophers. Nature itself cannot be holy. God has to be rational and the universe orderly. Mathematics have to be used to describe the real world and that can’t be done unless you assume that the real world can be accurately measured in the first place You have to be free, not subject to fate or kismet.

Such a rare confluence of cultural assumptions occurred nowhere else but in Western Christendom. Other civilizations got parts and pieces, many came very close, but only Western Christendom had all the philosophical elements necessary for science to be born. Even then, science was never inevitable and could have been stillborn. Even if you assume that the RCC tried to restrict certain lines of inquiry (while patronizing and embracing nearly all of what we call science), the birth of science can still be considered a classic case of unintended consequences.

Science was such a rare flu that if we re-ran the tape of history, odds are it would never appear.

Truly alien minds (not just humans with bumpy foreheads like in Star Trek) would have thought processes and brains so different from our own that the odds of them developing science can be reduced even further. There may be millions of alien civilizations out there, each of them millions of years old.

But none of them are more advanced than the iron age.

Anonymous said...

So here is idea for your next novel, Dr.Brin:

Mankind spread ou th the stars and finds thousands of intelligent alien species and civilizations. None of them have devloped science or advance beyond basic metallurgy and rule of thumb engineering.

Does mankind act like Spanish conquistadors or like the American Peace Corps? Or both? Does mankind split politically into two groups, one dedicated to oppression and exploitation and one striving to improve and educate the natives?

Acacia H. said...

Mr. Anonymous, first it is difficult to accept without lots of salt the words of someone who doesn't even bother to create some sort of handle for himself or to sign his work. While certain internet types may live for Anonymity, Contrary Brin is a community and communities flourish because we know each other. Anonymity precludes knowledge and risks arrogance.

Second, Christianity is not as bad as some would claim, but it is not the shining beacon of civilization that you are claiming it is. There were good elements to the Catholic Church... and bad. There still are in fact. There were times when the Church was (and is) very anti-science, especially when the science goes against established tenets of the Church - birth control, for example, or the study of anatomy for artistic and scientific purposes (which required the dissection of human bodies (after said people were dead, obviously). It also is behind the ongoing disdain against women by blaming humanity's "fall from grace" on one mythical woman, and then going on to use these fallacies in an ongoing war to prevent women from being in a position of power within the Church.

While I am not Christian, I have a bit of fondness for Catholicism and its charming ritualism and rites. It is a beautiful religion in some ways. It is also flawed in others. Far too often the words "you are playing in God's Domain" is used as a blanket excuse to try and impede scientific progress. So please, accept that I am taking your arguments with a lot of salt due to the combination of your Anonymity... and the fact that the Church is not the shining saint you are portraying it to be concerning science. History has stated otherwise.

Acacia H. said...

@Paul451: Actually, my point is not that life is rare. My point is that the conditions where life can arise and then be in a position to leave its homeworld and go into the galaxy itself is rare. For instance, there very well may be microbes on Mars, complex life on Europa, and even life on Titan or in Jupiter's atmosphere. Some of that life could even be to a level of intelligence comparable to humanity. But none of it would be in a position to develop a technological civilization that we can detect and attempt to communicate with.

Take for instance Isaac Asimov's "Nemesis" which included a planet locked in orbit around a gas giant orbiting a red dwarf star... with a hive-mind microbial lifeform that was very sentient and able to communicate with humans. But only after humanity reached the planet. It could not build radio telescopes or the like and send signals out to us. For all its intelligence, it was incredibly limited.

You could have a humanoid lifeform develop on a Superearth that is three or four times the mass of the Earth, and it could flourish and develop a complex civilization! But that civilization could very well be trapped on the planet's surface by the gravity of the planet making rocket technology problematic. Even if by use of aircraft-assisted rockets that species could reach low orbit... what then? It would take a lot of effort to go from there into the solar system. And if it lacked a sizable moon to use as a gravitational slingshot and convenient local target... that species may very well decide to just stay on the surface.

So no. Life out there is not necessarily rare. The conditions for life out there to easily leave its homeworld and flourish in its solar system... and even to leave its system and go into the interstellar void... that is what is rare.

Rob H.

Anonymous said...

I know I'm a bit late for the contest, but I'd like to throw my two cents into the ring nonetheless.

Perhaps when it comes to interstellar-level civilizations we're just not "interesting" enough to talk to. Maybe galactic society is populated entirely by super-intelligent AIs, and they're simply waiting for us to BUILD something interesting enough for them to have a conversation with.

Jumper said...

I can posit coal deposits with development of scientific method. An energy supply which (temporary or not) exceeds that needed for simple survival and reproduction. The Royal Society began in such a milieu.

And to say that China would NEVER have developed a systematic approach is nonsense, I think. History rolls along and they'd have got it if the West hadn't first.

Jumper said...

And to not forcibly credit Islamic civilization with the invention of science for all practical purposes is just wrong. They exceeded Christian Byzantium for sure.

François Marcadé said...
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François Marcadé said...
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François Marcadé said...

First I would like to report that I received “Existence” on my Kindle as promised on the 21st of June at midnight. Except that it must have been at 2:00 m because I am living 2 time zones away from (By the way Dr. Brin have you given some thought about the Dubai Literary Festival ? I understand the authors are very well treated and I would love to meet you and show you around).

I have no real pet theory for the Fermi Paradox. I recall having read somewhere (but It can be a Science-fiction source and therefore not reliable) that Earth could be exceptional in having water but not enough to cover its all surface with a kilometer deep ocean. Land-dwelling life would therefore be rare, Intelligent land-dweller even rarer and land dwelling tool user unique. My big issue with this hypothesis (or any Rare Earth hypothesis ) is that assuming that the Great Filter is behind us is that it leads in overconfidence. In the absence of evidence one-way or another, it is only prudent to assume that we are not out of the great filter. If we manage to get out of the solar system and find a empty galaxy, that would be a very troubling experience and a huge responsibility. I am not even sure we are ready for this.

ell said...

Rob may be closest to explaining the Fermi Paradox. The ETs may be transmitting with gravitons, tachyons, or something else we haven't predicted yet. Or they may be using subspace radio -- and we haven't pried open those extra dimensions to access it.

James Blish mentioned a Dirac transmitter, which sent messages across the Universe instantaneously. We just don't have a Dirac receiver.

Rob said...

Almost. My thinking is that these are intelligent aliens whose presence we can't detect not because the aren't using photons to communicate, but because being made up of dark matter/energy, we could never sense each other at all!

Acacia H. said...

If we are the only intelligent species that gets into space and expands, then I could easily see humanity taking the role of the First Progenator Species in Brin's Uplift Saga. My belief, however, is that we'll find plenty of worlds with life... that were unable to leave their planets. And thus we are in the position of helping them do so, by towing asteroids into orbit for easy mining, providing technology for races to leave their worlds, or even simply revealing to them that there is something beyond the boundaries of their atmosphere.

Of course, the humanity that reaches the star may very well not resemble that which we currently take. I must admit I'm rather taken with Dr. Brin's concept of raising robots as humanity's children... and thus having robot children walk in the stars who believe themselves to be human (because they are).

I must admit, I'd love to see Dr. Brin write a sequel to his short story "Lungfish."

Rob H.

Tony Fisk said...

Minor spoiler:

From review comments, I believe 'Lungfish' is incorporated into 'Existence' (still waiting for my copy)

rewinn said...

"....what would happen to religion if science not only found evidence of God..."

Thoughtful theologians realize the danger of actually finding scientific evidence of God, for this would reduce God to just another natural force to be exploited by engineers. If the behavior of God is at all subject to human actions (e.g. prayer or ritual), then He can be used as a power source.

The supposed connection between Christianity and Science is an ancient "Just-So" story, that is, one that explains an outcome in terms of what came before in an untestable way that seems plausible only if you ignore facts that don't fit the story. While it's possible that the Elephant's Child of Science owes its trunk to the Alligator of Christianity, the story suffers from defects:

"...Time has to be linear, not endlessly circular and repetitive..."

Circular time is no barrier to science. One can do science in a mechanistic world in which time is circular.

"...God has to be rational and the universe orderly..."

The universe of Christianity is *not*orderly*; it is subject to divine intervention.

"...You have to be free, not subject to fate or kismet...

Many Christians believe in predestination; many Buddhists believe that your fate is determined by Right Action.

"...Such a rare confluence of cultural assumptions occurred nowhere else but in Western Christendom...

I believe someone else mentioned Araby, source of words like Algebra and Alcohol - and a cautionary tale in that its preeminence in science was eventually destroyed by the political ascendancy of reactionary fundamentalists. We in the United States may be seeing something similar.


As to the Fermi Paradox, surely the true answer has been implanted in my dreams by the Elder Races:

1. After a brief fling with the electromagnetic spectrum, sphisticated species communicate in more and more subtle ways, eventually using quantum effects that humanity is at present unable to detect.

2. The Old Ones of the Galaxy deliberate switched to communicating via neutrinos so that they won't be eavedropped upon by us darn pesky kids!

Anonymous said...


The concepts of "linear time" and "free will" given by the Jews (see "The Gifts of the Jews" by Thomas Cahil). Prior to the Jews and their God who purposely created the universe for a reason, civilizations viewed time as cyclical instead of linear. Existence for them was a dreary, never ending repetition of sameness instead of progressive march advancing towards some goal. The very idea of "progress" which seems so natural to us moderns simply can't exist in a civilization dominated by a cyclical time viewpoint.
Yet linear time is not enough, we have to break the shackles of predestined fate and kismet. The concept of "progress" is also stillborn in a civilization ruled by the concept of fate. Why bother trying if your fate was decided at he start of creation. Again the Jews provided this gift, with their religious moral structure and prophetic teachers emphasizing personal responsibility for doing good or evil. In a society dominated by cyclical time and/or predestination, the concept of "science" isn't possible.

"Many Christians believe in predestination;"

Catholics do not.

"many Buddhists believe that your fate is determined by Right Action."

Buddhists did not develop science.

Paul451 said...

Rob H,
Re: "Life is rare."

Sorry, I thought the regulars would be familiar with the two main groups of Fermi "solutions". One is everything up to now, to which we must be an exception, the other is everything from now until galactic colonisation, to which we may not be an exception. So by "Life is rare", I meant planets/suitable-planets/stable-planets/life/complex-life/intelligence/tool-use/civilisation is rare. Hence we must have beaten the odds. Your examples largely fell into that category.

By "Civilisation is hard", I meant everything from now. Such as the difficulty in interstellar colonisation, WWIII or another inevitable scientific self-immolation, inevitable decadence, etc. Of the five categories I chose, "the Matrix" is just a variant of "Civilisation is hard", while "Monsters" is a specific case of "Life/intelligence is rare." The only real exception to the two broad categories is the Zoo Hypothesis, which allows life and colonising civilisation to be common, but protects our existence (and includes "solutions" ranging from the Prime Directive to Crystal Spheres). And speaking of which...

Re: AI waiting for someone to talk to.

A specific case of "We're not interesting enough", which is a variant of the Zoo Hypothesis. (They don't find us interesting, but are preserving us untouched for billions of years?)

Paul451 said...

Re: Jumper's angels,

I don't know what to do with this one. I presume, unlike Singedrac's AI's, its not a matter of not wanting to talk to us, but literally being unable to. But I guess when you ask why every civilisation ends up an ethereal being, then it falls to a variant of "Civilisation is hard" (and has the usual flaw of there being no exceptions in 4 billion years.) But it still feels like I'm forcing the fit. This may, like the Zoo Hypothesis, be its own category.

(Also, David covered this in Those Eyes.)

Re: The Catholic Church and science.

Since you were the one to claim that the Catholic Church was the secret that allowed science to emerge, the burden is on you to explain why science didn't emerge until it began losing control over Europe.

Paul451 said...

Merging Jumper's Angels, David's "Those Eyes", and Timothy Zahn's "Conquerors", perhaps radio itself damages the quantum magic that powers, first their technology, then themselves.

Earth is too close to the RF-emitting Sun for habitation, allowing only a non-material presence, seen only by the most sensitive, only during periods of unusual solar quiescence, shielded on the night side of the planet, during the early (pre-lightning) stages of what will become a thunder-storm. (And even then it's weird and confusing for all involved.)

And once we started broadcasting, we killed even that.

Every civilisation discovers quantum magic once they are far enough from their Sun, in their shielded experiments into things like quantum coherence. The enormous potential means they soon switch over to a quantum magic based civilisation, then discover all the other Q-magic races, and live rich and happy post-Singularity lives far away from the deadly deadly stars.

Rob said...

That'd be a variant on Vinge's "Zones of Thought" fun.

Ian Gould said...

Anonynous, do any o the points you raise not apply equally to Islam?

Ian Gould said...

"Re: Roman Catholicism as the secret sauce of science.
Science blossomed during and after the Reformation. The spread of Catholicism across Europe seemed to shut down independent inquiry. (Although the "Dark Ages" is apparently exaggerated.) But I do wonder if the secret sauce was the printing press. Plus multiple civilisation near enough to trade ideas quickly. The printing press allows ideas to spread, with suppressed ideas finding haven in neighbouring civilisations until they can re-infest the civilisation that suppressed the creator.)"

In a perverse roundabotu way, the Fall of constantinople ha a lot to do with the advance of science in western Europe.

When the Ottomans conquired Constantiniple, lots of Greeks fled to Euroep taking various classical works with them.

The early stages of the Renaissance were already under way but the influx of Grek texts (and of Greek scholars able to translate texts already present)and of classical art work had a major influence.

Of coursse, things didn't really get moving in Europe for about another two hundred years.

The start of the colonization of North America had a ouple of major impacts on Western Europe which we tend to overlook today.

1. Cod fishing and whaling introduced new cheap sources of protein. (Slightly later, trapping also introduced a huge new supply of furs which made winter clothing much cheaper, effectively boosting income. It's easy to ignore that as late as the 18th century the fur trade was the single largest source of wealth in North America.)

2. As well as new agricultural crops which lifted productivity and living standards, the Europeans were able to break the former Ottoman monopoly on sugar, coffee and various other tropical crops. The slave plantations of the Caribbean effectively replaced the slave plantatiosn of southern Iraq and the hefty associated profits shifted from Trukish hands to European hands.

3. In most civilizatiosn pre-1500 you see a pattern: populaton grows and living standards expand until the limits of production given technological and land restrcitions are reached. After that, population continues to increase and living standards decline with farms shriking in size.

European populations continued to rise after the discovery of the Americas but emigration reduced the rate of that growth meaning the new crops and food sources I mentioned before allowed living standards to be maintained or increased, increasing the revenue available to the state.

(Something similar happened in 18th century China where the same food crops were introduced allowing peopel to supplement paddie rice production with production of crops like chillis and banans on land that had previously been unused. The Ching empire also expanded geographically to the south and west and encouraged colonization of those areas by Han chinese.)

Ian Gould said...

Paul451: Greg Egan goes even further in Quarantine by invoking the Observer Effect interpretation of quantum mechanics.

Humans aren't just observing pre-existing physical phenomena in space, we're collapsing indeterminate quantum superpositions and creating deterministic valeus for the physical contants (for example) that didn't previously exist.

It's several years since I read the book but IIRC, the final straw that led to the aliens uarantining Earth was us measuring the age and mass of the universe and its rate of expansion with such accuracy that we excluded the possibility of a future Big Crunch and condmend both oruselves and every other intelligent species to living in a universe that's ever expanding and ever cooling.

Ian Gould said...

As for the idea that China could never had devleoped science.

They were pretty damn close.

Yang Hui BTW lived during the mongol invasion of souhern China and much of his work was lost as a result.

Boris Borcic said...

Re Paul451 "and k4ntico's similar version, both try to solve the SETI-variant of Fermi's Paradox. But don't solve the full colonisation variant."

That's quite brutal. If the rule is for civilizations to positively learn of others from exceptional patterns of supernovae in distant galaxies after millennia of observation, it's quite feasible to imagine a lesson thus learned that strongly discourages expanding one's visible footprint...

The shorthand name for that "solution", perhaps, hyperlinear war visibility.

Excel-Macros said...

great post

rewinn said...

"....The concepts of "linear time" and "free will" given by the Jews ..."

...would sound familiar to the "pagans" of Northern Europe.

Ya know, *someone* had to be first to invent science. Whoever was first can invent all sorts of "Just-So" stories to explain why the Elephant's Child of Science required the Alligator of Christianity to pull on its nose. That doesn't make it "true" in any meaningful sense.

Indeed, as others have pointed out, it was only in the REJECTION of Christian supernaturalist concepts as an explanation for everyday phenomenon that science became possible. It was also necessary to discard the primacy of the substance/essence structure of reality and the Argument From Authority mode of reasoning which remains the core of Catholic ( opposed to Christian) teaching.

".... Existence for them was a dreary, never ending repetition of sameness..."

Oh good lord what piffle. Certainly many feudal societies did their best to persuade the peasantry of a Candidian universe; the Christian innovation of promising a future, post-death paradise FAR from promoting the concept of progress was instead politically useful in promoting the continued sameness of earthly dreariness. "Slaves, love and obey your masters as ye love Christ" (Ephesians 6:5) is one of the most anti-progress doctrines ever written. I mention this not to excoriate Christianity, but to point out that in a book the size of the Bible and a culture as large as Christianity, you can find support for almost any doctrine at all, e.g. without a doubt, Christianity was the necessary precursor to the development of the Fig Newton (Mark 11:20). To claim therefore that Christianity or something like it was a necessary precursor to the development of science is just silly piffle.

Which is not to say it won't sell books. People LOVE silly piffle that tells them they are part of a special society responsible for all that is good.

ell said...

" The Old Ones of the Galaxy deliberate switched to communicating via neutrinos so that they won't be eavedropped upon by us darn pesky kids!"

Good one! The best codes/ciphers are the ones you don't even notice.

Jonathan S. said...

And no one else has taken exception with Anon's claim that the experimental method was "alien" to ancient Greek thought?

There was, for instance, a fellow by the name of Eratosthenes, who managed to derive the size and shape of the Earth to within about 2% of modern accuracy by working with empirical data (the angles of shadows in the cities of Swenet (modern Aswan) and Alexandria). He may have also used that data to work out the distance to the Sun with a fair degree of accuracy - whether he did or not depends on exactly how certain ancient texts are translated.

You might have heard of a man by the name of Archimedes, as well...

Ian Gould said...

Another Fermi Paradox solutiom: David can file this one as a Zoo/Berserker hypothesis.

Some highly advanced alien race seeded the galaxy with intelligent species to observe their development.

Cross-contmination between specimens makes the data worthless leading to sterlization and re-seeding.

Tacitus said...

I enjoy the more esoteric notions for interstellar "travel". But as a grand adventure I like most would be less engaged by some method of sending off DNA or robots or self replicating probes.

Our imaginations are tainted by the sweet intoxicant of faster than light travel a la Star Trek. And why not after all? It is just a grander version of trans Atlantic travel in the age of Sail!

But we don't know how to practically do FTL, it may well be that there are rules of which we are ignorant.

Maybe FTL can only go along certain vectors, certain paths.

We could be like an amnesia patient waking up 100 kilometers north of the Trans Siberian railway.

Waiting around for a generational ship or a sleeper ship to come along at sublight speed could easily be the equivalent of sitting around with endless steppes on all sides, waiting for the Lake Baikal Ornithological Society to turn up!


Ian Gould said...

A question for David - and I've sort of alluded to this before - assume that tomorrow we receive evidence of artificial radio signals from a nearby star.

In your opinion:

a. how long should we take to decide, as a species, whether or not attempt to communicate; and

b. assuming we do decide to make contact, how long would it take to decide on and implement the required technology and the message to be sent.

Most of the scenarios I've seen discussed seem to assume that the response time for an alien species to a signal from Earth would be effectively zero (i.e. a response would be sent almost immediately.)

For all we know, politicians on Gliese-whatsit-d are stalling the funding for the Terawatt orbital laser because religious fundamentalists insist that any species created in God's image must have six tentacles.

Paul451 said...

Sorry, I thought you were saying "Civilisations discover each other in the pattern of super-nova. Since we don't know what to look for, we can't "hear" them." (Merely a variation on "they don't talk to us".)

Am I right, this time, that you mean every civilisation sees Monsters in the signature of exploding stars? And quite reasonably decides to stop drawing attention to themselves. Which solves the colonisation issue, because every civilisation is hiding under the bed, and the broadcast issue, because every civilisation is quietly hiding under the bed.

(I've wondered aloud, here, before, how would people react if we definitively proved that a galaxy-scale effect was artificial. The result of a Kardashev III type civilisation. For example, when looking at Hoag's Object, notice the second ring galaxy in the background. What if it wasn't in the background but was a sub-structure in Hoag's itself? Red because it's older, earlier. Ie, dating the star-formation in the various parts of Hoag's showed a) the majority of stars are formed in waves, b) the waves expanded from a single point, and c) the wave has reached Hoag's nearest galaxies, beginning their conversion, suggesting an expansion of about a tenth of the speed of light of something entirely artificial, able to steer star formation in entire galaxies.

How would we react? No communication, no contact, no chance of contact for 3 billion years. No invasion, or cultural domination, or other direct influence on us. Just the awareness that there's Something Out There which paints galaxies. Would we withdraw, crippled by inferiority? Would we worship? Would we expand, inspired?

(Hoag's isn't actually unusual. Google "Ring galaxy". It's just a cute example because it is face-on and there's that second ring galaxy in the background. Hubble images of Arp 147 & 148 are pretty cool too.))

Ian Gould said...

As for the belief that traditional Chinese society encouraged mindless conformity and blind obedience to authority:

Rebellion against unrighteous rulers is one of the most persistent themes in Chinese literature and theatre.

The Emperor ruled by the Mandate of Heaven.

If things went badly for the Empire it was a clear sign that the Mandate had been withdrawn and it was time for a new Emperor.

Jumper said...

Here is an interesting net contrarian. This relates to some long-standing thoughts David works on.

which I found because I read this:

(49 meroods. I think the ones wearing them are following me, and likely in a cult of some sort.)

Acacia H. said...

Ah, the power of internet advertising. I finally succumbed (being unable to find e-copies of Existence in the public libraries and not seeing any print copies available) and purchased the hardcopy instead. Though Dr. Brin has Barnes and Noble's "buy one, second one half-off" deal, combined with Terry Pratchett's "Long Earth" to thank for that as well. And indirectly, J.K. Rowling and Pottermore seeing that their public library-positive e-book policy resulted in me revising my initial decision not to get the Potter books on the Nook. (It's easier to go the two miles to the local Barnes and Noble to download new books.) ;)

Existence seems interesting so far, though I'm only around 60 or so pages into it. Though I must admit, some aspects of it are depressing; Dr. Brin, you are fixated on your thoughts of the Aristocracy, aren't you. ;) Though it's nice to see the thought that even they might be succumbing to conspiracy theories, believing they are controlled by an uber-elite when in fact there is no such body. (Man, looking at the hardcover, I've realized that it's going to be a huge softcover, the print is small as it is despite being of damn respectable size. I'll have to get it on the Nook when it comes out in paperback.)

Rob H.

Ian Gould said...

Some interesting news for David from Saudi Arabia:

Simon in London said...

Most likely IMO: technological civilisations are very rare in the universe, and interstellar or intergalactic travel is very hard.

An obvious objection to the latter is that interstellar or even intergalactic travel by (self-replicating?) machine probes would not seem to be very hard, given enough time. Although even if sending out probes is easy, communicating back to base may not be, and without communication, sending the probes may seem pointless.

I suspect that time is of the essence: it is rare for technological civilisations to arise, they are spread thinly through the Universe, and the Universe is (a) very big and (b) too young for any to have reached us yet.

utopia27 said...

My hypothesis - we're looking in the wrong dimension. If M-brane theories are borne out, it may be the case that there are a near-infinite set of universes (branes) stacked directly on top of each other. The primary means of communication/detection between these branes is gravity waves.

Dark matter will turn out to be proximate matter in adjacent branes. Because adjacent branes interact primarily through gravity, adjacent branes will preferentially contain planets.

Per the Fermi paradox, given a near-infinite number of planets, any intelligent species will find a large number of other intelligent species 'nearby' in brane-space.

The fly in the ointment is that we do not currently have technology to communicate across or traverse brane-space. If, however, we posit that a specific type of technology allows ready communication and/or transit between branes, then once we build a communicator, there is some communicating civilization that will bootstrap the process.

Cross-brane exploration and development may be more economical and practical than cross-space development. Cross-brane communication may be very brane-directional, without a lot of spatial bleed.

So - we may be surrounded by vast numbers of intelligent societies, each very actively interacting with other societies - but all of them isolated from us in their own brane-dimensional stovepipe.

We haven't broken into our local brane-dimensional stovepipe yet because we haven't developed appropriate gravity-wave detection technology, nor have we applied SETI principles to investigating signals from what gravity wave detectors we do have.

Anonymous said...

Please update this blog entry with a link to Part 2.

orthodontist said...


Acacia H. said...

Here's a link to those who are unaware of the "Newest Post" link below these comments. ;)

Part Two of the Fermi Paradox Solutions. And yes, we're continuing the discussion at the same time, so do join us!

Rob H.

Anonymous said...

#4 They won't unscramble the signal until we put a deposit down. –Lone Hanks

Am I the only one who thought of "On Digital Extremities" from Fine Structure?

Anonymous said...

I love to wonder about this subject.

Currently, there is a world-wide male fertilization issue. This brings into question the fecundity of our species, of any species, really, anywhere.

I have heard that the average lifespan of a species is 120kyr. I think this a very short time in which to develop a technological civilization. And during that 120kyr period, if we totally exclude the Great Filter & the resources necessary for such a civilization, we have the forces of competition directing the species...

In any case, an answer to the paradox must include these everyday forces.

I think all these other ideas about zoos, time separation and aliens waiting for us to become moral are at best satire and at worst facile.

But what about post or transhumanism? This to could, or would occur in an alien sentient species, too.

And we don't see them either.

Perhaps the 120kyr window for us, or for them is too short a time, much to steep a mountain to climb.

There is only one possibility that I could agree with - machine intelligence supplanting biological. For x amount of reasons.

What direction would they take?

We don't see them either...

The fact that biological ET's are not here does not concern me as much as the missing machine intelligences. They would not need life-bearing worlds, however...

I read somewhere that a mind sophisticated enough would discern the clues for a synthetic reality, a simulated universe.

What would give you courage & desire to explore, expand and grow technologically if such a state of affairs existed and you could detect it?

After you minus out the Great Filter and its included issues of fecundity and competition, science-driven evolution and supplantation by the technology created, I think what remains is really all about sophisticated, powerful minds with their technology coming to terms with what researchers at the Max Plank considered.

In effect, do you say, "What's the point?"

Do you lose interested and shut down the shop?

Is this why we don't see any indication of Type 3 and above civilizations in our Galaxy?


- Wondering about the Universe

Alf P. Steinbach said...

“The Fermi Paradox = where are all the others

1. We’ve been looking for smoke signals. Duh.
(Neutrinos, as an example, pass through just about anything in their way, including right through the whole Earth, while photons — electromagnetic radiation — are thwarted by even the most diffuse gas. Ignoring this difficulty, human scientists and engineers focus on use of electromagnetic radiation for interstellar communication, reasoning that aliens will naturally use the technology that works for us here on the surface of the Earth. I think it’s herd psychology, embracing the familiar and finding the unfamiliar abhorrent and unnatural, regardless of the technical problems and technical merits.)
2. We don’t recognize engineered structures when we see them: we just can’t believe the scale.
3. Any sufficiently information dense signal is indistinguishable from noise.

Unknown said...

I think that there is a degree of hubris implicit in the Fermi Paradox.

Firstly is the question of whether we would be able to detect an alien civilisation. It seems unlikely both because of the distances concerned and also because of the assumptions made regarding how they would communicate. SETI, in essence, relies on an assumption that someone knows we are here (in the broad sense that they conclude someone is out there) and is actively trying to communicate with us. There is also the question of whether we would know if we were being observed - or even visited. This might be illustrated by taking the analogy of how we treat the artic.

The arctic has no land mass, no minerals or other resource that is worth very much to us economically (except perhaps on the sea floor) and has little strategic value. The wildlife there is a curiosity and something that we might observe but don't interfere with directly.

Any civilisation that is able to get to our planet hardly has need of the resource here (why lift metals, minerals or water out of a gravity well when there is a large amount circling around that is easier to collect from asteroids etc?). So we might be a curiosity but probably not one that visitors would want to interfere with (just as we don't with artic wildlife). They might be watching but it seems unlikely that we would easily detect their technology if they did not want us to.

Not entirely clear that there is a paradox.