chris_gerrib: (Me 2)
There is a concept going around in science fiction called "dark forest theory." The popular Three Body Problem trilogy relies on it. New author Patrick Tomlinson's Children of a Dead Earth series relies on it. The theory is this:

1) Given that 90% of stars in our galaxy have planets, which means billions of planetary systems
2) Even pessimistic assumptions about the occurrence and duration of intelligent life, the galaxy should have many such species
3) We haven't seen any aliens
4) Either they are hiding or something is wiping them out.

Item #4 is where we get the name "dark forest theory." The galaxy is like a dark forest, full of predators, and the only way to survive is to hide. The logic of dark forest theory is that any intelligent civilization will eventually advance to a level of tech sufficient to endanger the more intelligent civilizations, so it's best to kill the newcomers before they get too smart. Also driving this idea is that, for a sufficiently-advanced civilization, wiping out a planet is easy. (Take a rock the size of a bus, accelerate it to 90% the speed of light, and crash it into a planet. You will literally turn the crust of the planet inside out.)

Personally, I believe in weak dark forest theory. By this, I mean that their may be predatory alien species out there. I don't believe in strong theory, as expressed in the books above, in which mere indications of intelligent life invites a world-ending strike. I have two issues with the strong version of the theory.

First, practical. We don't make proactive efforts to hunt down ants. We'll kill them if we find them, but we don't hunt them. Nor do we hunt most potential threats. We proactively spend the time and effort to go after proven threats, like mosquitoes. Space is big, hunting down and killing species cost money.

My second objection is the "fastest gun in the West" theory. Simply put, the only civilization that gets an opportunity to do this is the absolute first. If there are multiple civilizations, then the one that starts dark foresting puts a large bullseye on its back. Everybody is gunning for them, out of self-preservation. And the act of being an exterminator means they aren't hiding.

No, the reason we haven't seen advanced alien civilizations is that the galaxy is big, we've only been looking a short time and our current tools could only find civilizations that are changing solar systems.
chris_gerrib: (Me)
I recently finished reading Robert Charles Wilson's novel Burning Paradise. The book is set in the year 2014, but it's not our 2014. WWI ended in 1914, and there was no WWII. Humanity is generally at peace and growing more prosperous. There's a catch, of course - humanity is being manipulated by a collective of aliens.

The human characters in the book keep saying that "the collective isn't intelligent" and compare it to an ant colony. "We can see the interactions between the various beings," they say. Two questions: one - who says an ant colony isn't intelligent? Two - would a bacterium, looking at a human, think we were an intelligent being or just a collective of cells moving in formation?

I submit that the answer to question #1 is that an ant colony is as intelligent as the typical animal of equivalent mass of the colony. I submit that a bacterium looking at a human would have doubts if we were intelligent. Basically, it's a scale thing. If you can see the gears turning, it's easy to assume that there's nobody home.
chris_gerrib: (Me)
I was reading somewhere that, in certain Japanese temples, one can see Roman glassware. To be clear, Roman glassware that was purchased when it was new by the temple staff. It was a reminder that the Silk Road was a real thing. So, not only was the road real, but at least some people on both ends of the road were aware of the people on the other end.

Think about that. Roman emperors were at least tangentially aware of Japanese emperors, and vice versa. But from a day-to-day perspective, they had no influence on each other.

Where this ties into space (no, I'm not obsessed about space, I can stop thinking about it any time I want to) is in terms of alien civilizations. The best guess we have about intelligent life in the galaxy is that we would expect, on average, civilizations to be separated by about 200 light years. Now, averages are funny, and so you could have a civilization a thousand light years from its nearest neighbor or one light year and still have an average galaxy-wide of 200 light years.

But 200 light years is a God-awfully long way. Travelling at the speed of light, a trip would take 200 years - assuming you can go that fast and don't need to stop for anything. Even travelling at 100 times the speed of light - or 100 times faster than Einstein says you can - that's a two-year trip one way.

This would, I suspect, set up something similar to the old Silk Road. Sufficiently-advanced civilizations would be aware of each other, and would probably have some low level of trade, but very little real influence on each other.

The universe is big, old and empty too.
chris_gerrib: (Me)
1) From Tobias Buckell, our future will be brighter then you think. The gist of the article is that technology is offering radical solutions to problems such as providing enough clean water to drink. The article mentions in passing that the cost-per-watt of solar energy is falling through the floor. It would seem to me a good use of cheap solar is to purify water - run the plant during the day and stash the water overnight.

2) A two-fer from The League of Ordinary Gentlemen: First, how not to fire somebody, and second, a fantasy letter written by a lawyer to his clients.

3) Our great Twinkies crisis has an end in sight - the new owner of Hostess plans to have Twinkies back by this summer.

4) A reminder - there was no such thing as a Paleo diet. Our ancestors ate anything and everything they could, and what that was varied wildly by location.
chris_gerrib: (Me)
Two cool things "borrowed" from [livejournal.com profile] jaylake:

Cool Thing #1

I give you The Law of the Tongue, a "treaty" between men and killer whales.

Cool Thing #2

Apparently, as late as 500 million years ago, massive floods were still happening on Mars. It sure looks like there'd be lots of water on Mars today, just buried underground.

Predictions

Jason Kuznicki at The League of Ordinary Gentlemen makes some interesting predictions. I think he's overly-optimistic about some of them (solar and genetic engineering) and right on about others (driverless cars). Two that I want to discuss briefly are the "Great Filter" and a physics paradigm shift.

I've discussed the great filter before, and suffice it to say I don't believe it exists. I do think there are a lot of small filters (we dodged one of them by avoiding a nuclear war with the USSR) but the great filter doesn't exist. The real reason we haven't discovered intelligent life in other planets is simple - space is big and we've only been looking a few decades. I also don't think intelligent life is an inevitable result of evolution nor is it the apex of evolution. There could have been intelligent dinosaurs. In fact, if an intelligent species of dinosaur had existed but been at a Stone-Age level when the rock hit, would we be able to recognize it now?

The physics paradigm shift is more of an observation. Much of modern astrophysics hinges on things like "dark matter" - stuff that we can't detect. As Kuznicki puts it - "the invocation of epicycles is a standard sign that your model is missing something really big." If this is true, then part of why we haven't seen aliens is we're waiting for them to send us a telegraph - a technology they abandoned long ago.
chris_gerrib: (Default)
I'm going to Windycon this weekend, and tomorrow's a bank holiday, so this is probably the last post for the week. (My schedule at the con is here.)

On the "OMG" front, I saw Rick Perry's brain freeze at the debate last night. Now, as a writer who forgets his characters' names, I sympathize with the man. On the other hand, write it down! He had notes, and I saw him look at them. Make a cheat sheet, dude! For a more in-depth overview of the debate, including the Cargo Cult Of The Sacred Free Market, see Charles P. Pierce.

Moving on, here's a few links for the long weekend:

1) John Scalzi says everything that needs to be said about the Penn State pedophile scandal. I agree completely with his comments.

2) On the pirate front, the maritime insurance companies are creating a private navy to hunt pirates. Something very similar happens in the sequel to Pirates of Mars.

3) The White House officially announces they are not hiding evidence of ETs, but they would, of course.

4) More evidence that we don't understand our own digestive systems - GI Specialists Suspect Specific Carbohydrates May Cause Painful Symptoms of Irritable Bowel Syndrome.

5) A serious look at a not-so-serious problem - Seven scientific reasons a zombie outbreak would fail rather quickly.
chris_gerrib: (Default)
Every once in a while, I get fixated on a really weird concept. For some reason, the current concept was "scale models of the Solar System." Finding myself with a little time, a calculator and an Internet connection, I did a little noodling. I think the results are interesting, and are presented for your amusement.

Start with imagining a Solar System done at the scale of 1 inch = 10,000 miles. This results in an Earth roughly one inch in diameter. Actually, .79 inch, but close enough. Call it a golf ball. Our moon, then, is a .16 inch ball, roughly the size of a pea, 25 inches away. If God were playing golf with whomever He plays with, it would be a gimme putt. It's also the farthest point we've sent humans to.

On that same 1 inch = 10,000 miles scale, the Sun, our local star, is a 7.25 foot diameter ball 775 feet away. Or, in golf terms, a garden shed 258 yards out - a short par 4. Mars (yes, I've got a Mars fixation - sue me) is a ball .4 inches in diameter, and never gets closer to Earth than 508 feet. When its on the other side of the Sun, it's 2,058 feet away. Put another way, in our scale Solar System, Mars is a marble that varies between 169 yards away - a long par 3 - to 686 yards away - out of even Tiger Wood's reach.

So, in our scale model / cosmic golf course, where is Alpha Centauri, our nearest star? At 1 inch = 10,000 miles, the Centauri system is 40,719 miles away! We couldn't fit this scale model on our planet!

If we drop the scale to 1 inch = 100,000 miles, then the sun is an 8 inch beachball, Earth's an oversized dot 80 feet away, and the Centauri system is a pair of beach balls (Centauri is a double-star system) 4,071 miles away. That's just a few more miles than the air miles between New York and Los Angeles.

Space is big and empty. If you want to know the answer to Fermi's Paradox (if there are aliens, why aren't they here?) contemplate this scale model. Space is big, and really empty.
chris_gerrib: (Default)
I've written from time to time of Fermi's Paradox. One of the concepts used to "answer" the paradox is the Great Filter, which is the idea that there is some event that allows few if any civilizations to arise. I'd said before that I don't think peak oil is such an event. But now I'd like to add an event to the possible list of Great Filters. Call it "the Death of Science."

Modern science is so complicated that it is difficult for any one individual to evaluate all of it scientifically. One person just can't know everything. This leads to people evaluating scientific principles based not on the underlying science but on who they trust, or find most believable.

The problem is that sometimes the anti-science folks are seen as more believable. Thus, the anti-vaccination crowd listens to Jenny McCarthy, an intelligent person to be sure but no scientist. Or the anti-global-warming crowd reads a bunch of stolen emails and crows that they prove climatologists are betraying science.

So, in my theory, these anti-science types gain a critical mass in society and wreck their civilization. Perhaps more perniciously, once the civilization is wrecked, one could see that the anti-science types use the collapse of civilization to argue that they were right, thus preventing redevelopment of technology.

It's a variation on the idea that "civilization ends not with a bang but with a whimper."

And I do hope I'm wrong, at least about one particular civilization.
chris_gerrib: (Default)
So, via , I find a link to an article suggesting a fatal flaw of Fermi's Paradox. Basically, Fermi's Paradox asks, "if there are other intelligent species in the galaxy, why aren't they here?" An analysis of the paradox suggests that, even with slower than light travel, a civilization could fill the galaxy in about 100 million years.

Except there is a flaw. This assumes that the aliens would have continuous and exponential growth.

When you look at our civilization (all caveats about sample size of 1 apply) the more advanced we get technologically, the less our population grows. A large part of that in our case is, that as technology advances, children transition from useful if unskilled labor to long-term burdens. This pushes birth rates down.

So, maybe the reasons the aliens aren't here is that their population isn't growing.
chris_gerrib: (Default)
Fermi's Paradox is the famous question, "if there are other intelligent life forms in the galaxy, why aren't they here?"

Via [livejournal.com profile] jaylake, I find that the real question is when were they here?. Basically, Charles Magee, the blogger, generated 50 random alien visits in the 5 billion years that the solar system has been around.

On only three occasions would the hypothetical aliens have observed multi-cellular life. The rest of the time, it was just microbes if that.

The universe is a big place, and old too.
chris_gerrib: (Default)
Yesterday, I was referred to this article on Fermi's Paradox, which hopes that no other life is found in the Solar System, by Tim O'Reilly. For the non-geek, Fermi's Paradox is a question asked by Enrico Fermi, the great physist, "if there are other intelligent lifeforms in the universe, why haven't we seen them?"

The first-cited article spends ten pages talking about the "Great Filter." This is the concept that some event is so improbable of occurrence or difficult to survive that we are the only intelligent species in the galaxy. For example, development of multicellular life may be so unlikely as to almost never occur. Another example may be that many civilizations arise, but they quickly succumb to some massive disaster. O'Reilly's contribution to the discussion is to suggest that Peak Oil is one such event. The idea here is that when we run out of oil, civilization will collapse. Even after or if civilization recovers, they will not be spacefaring because the cheap sources of energy have been used up.

This is by no means a new idea to science fiction fans, as a casual recollection of the literature will find examples of this concept at least back into the 1970s. At least some of those examples suggest inventive ways around the energy crunch. In truth, an energy- or resource-starved world would have even more incentive to go to space. In short, answering Fermi's Paradox with "peak oil" doesn't work for me.

Going back to the first-cited article, part of the problem of Fermi's Paradox is the assumption that we'd be able to observe and detect an alien civilization. This article suggests that detecting random ETA broadcast radio signals from a civilization won't work over even interplanetary distances. Other wild ideas, such as Dyson Spheres, would be difficult to detect at best.

The one "sure-fire" way of finding aliens is to assume that one race built a fleet of self-replicating Von Neumann machines, which would fill the galaxy in a few tens of millions of years. In my mind, this begs two questions.

1) Why build the machines? What benefit accrues to the builders?
2) Could we even detect the machines? There could be a battleship-sized ship or even a fleet of them in say, Saturn's orbit, and we'd not know about it. Nor could this fleet detect Earth's radio signature.

It's impossible to extrapolate from a sample size of one, so the answer to Fermi's Paradox will have to wait.
chris_gerrib: (Default)
The author John Scalzi asked for comments on The Fermi Paradox.  

The Fermi Paradox was posed by Enrico Fermi, an Italian physicist and one of the fathers of the atomic bomb. Discussing the possibility of intelligent life in the galaxy, he asked “where are they?” Fermi was no dummy. He knew that, for 99% of the history of humanity, the aliens would have to find us by landing on Earth. 
 
Implicit in his question, however, was the assumption that aliens would go forth, if not to look for us, just to explore. Some of the pessimists who argue that man is alone in the galaxy point out that, even at relatively low rates of population growth, eventually any alien species will fill the galaxy. I think both groups are missing something, namely demographics.
 
Consider humanity (since it’s the only species we can consider.) For 99% of human history, the demographic pressure has been to have as many children as possible. Worried that the kids will get eaten by a saber-toothed tiger? Have more. (It works for rabbits.) Worried that somebody needs to be around to run the farm when you’re old and senile? Have more children. In agriculture, you get a bonus – even very small children can do useful work.
 
All this changes when man becomes industrialized. Building steam engines is a non-trivial task. And you can’t have a rocket ship if you can’t build a steam engine. Education becomes more important, and guess what – children become a short-term liability. 
 
Carried to extremes, as in Western Europe and Japan, birth rates fall below replacement levels. The only reason the US population is growing is due to immigration. Even third-world countries, like Mexico and Kenya, are seeing the rate of population growth fall.
 
What does this have to do with aliens? Plenty. Most mass migrations in human history were semi-voluntary at best. My great-great-grandfather came here from Lithuania because that was the only shot he had at getting enough cash to buy a farm in the old country. As soon as the pile under his mattress was big enough, back he went. Fortunately for me, a 14-year-old boy who became my great-grandfather stayed.
 
So, if populations stabilize or fall, the big pressure for immigration and colonization fall off as well. Granted, some small percentage will go no matter what. But then, you run into the problem of small numbers. Assume 1% of the alien race leaves. 1% of a billion is a million – roughly the population of Montana. Montana is a big state, but a damn small planet.
 
So, why haven’t we met aliens? They’re just not spreading out very fast. And I suspect neither will we.

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