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Hey, Is Anyone Out There?

Two columns this week have touched on the rather interesting question of why, given the fact that we keep finding more and more evidence that extrasolar planets are commonplace in the galaxy (and presumably the universe) we have yet to discover any evidence of extraterrestrial intelligence. After all, the universe is some 14 billion years old, the Milky Way itself is believed to be around 8 billion years old, and we’ve been listening with radio telescopes for decades with no sign of any intelligent communication. Not even something resembling the radio, television, radar, and other electromagnetic signals we’ve been sending out into the universe for some 80 years now.

Charles Krauthammer tackles the topic in a column that appeared earlier this week:

It’s called the Fermi Paradox, after the great physicist who once asked, “Where is everybody?” Or as was once elaborated: “All our logic, all our anti-isocentrism, assures us that we are not unique — that they must be there. And yet we do not see them.”

How many of them should there be? Modern satellite data suggest the number should be very high. So why the silence? Carl Sagan (among others) thought that the answer is to be found, tragically, in the high probability that advanced civilizations destroy themselves.

In other words, this silent universe is conveying not a flattering lesson about our uniqueness but a tragic story about our destiny. It is telling us that intelligence may be the most cursed faculty in the entire universe — an endowment not just ultimately fatal but, on the scale of cosmic time, near instantly so.

This is not mere theory. Look around. On the very same day that astronomers rejoiced at the discovery of the two Earth-size planets, the National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity urged two leading scientific journals not to publish details of lab experiments that just created a lethal and highly transmittable form of bird-flu virus, lest that fateful knowledge fall into the wrong hands.

Wrong hands, human hands. This is not just the age of holy terror, but also the threshold of an age of hyper-proliferation. Nuclear weapons in the hands of half-mad tyrants (North Korea) and radical apocalypticists (Iran) are just the beginning. Lethal biologic agents may soon find their way into the hands of those for whom genocidal pandemics loosed upon infidels are the royal road to redemption.

As Krauthammer notes, this was the belief held by Carl Sagan, and one of the reasons that he became involved in things like the Nuclear Freeze movement in the 1980s. It has a certain air of plausibility too. Ever since Enrico Fermi created the first human-created sustained nuclear chain reaction under the abandoned grandstands of a stadium at the University of Chicago, technology has been advancing faster than morality at a record pace. The fact that mankind has made it this far having only used atomic weapons twice is perhaps no small achievement. Now, we’ve got access to knowledge that could create viruses that replicate far too fast for public health authorities to deal with them, not to mention other nasty inventions that have the potential to wipe out large numbers of people. And then, of course, there’s always the possibility of a natural disaster on the scale of the one that wiped out the dinosaurs. Who knows how many advanced civilizations have appeared and disappeared before we even had a chance to start listening for radio signals?

Geoffrey Miller has another theory:

I suggest a different, even darker solution to the Paradox. Basically, I think the aliens don’t blow themselves up; they just get addicted to computer games. They forget to send radio signals or colonize space because they’re too busy with runaway consumerism and virtual-reality narcissism. They don’t need Sentinels to enslave them in a Matrix; they do it to themselves, just as we are doing today. Once they turn inwards to chase their shiny pennies of pleasure, they lose the cosmic plot. They become like a self-stimulating rat, pressing a bar to deliver electricity to its brain’s ventral tegmental area, which stimulates its nucleus accumbens to release dopamine, which feels…ever so good.

The fundamental problem is that an evolved mind must pay attention to indirect cues of biological fitness, rather than tracking fitness itself. This was a key insight of evolutionary psychology in the early 1990s; although evolution favors brains that tend to maximize fitness (as measured by numbers of great-grandkids), no brain has capacity enough to do so under every possible circumstance. Evolution simply could never have anticipated the novel environments, such as modern society, that our social primate would come to inhabit. That would be a computationally intractable problem, even for the new IBM Blue Gene/L supercomputer that runs 280 trillion operations per second. Even long-term weather prediction is easy when compared to fitness prediction. As a result, brains must evolve short-cuts: fitness-promoting tricks, cons, recipes and heuristics that work, on average, under ancestrally normal conditions.

The result is that we don’t seek reproductive success directly; we seek tasty foods that have tended to promote survival, and luscious mates who have tended to produce bright, healthy babies. The modern result? Fast food and pornography. Technology is fairly good at controlling external reality to promote real biological fitness, but it’s even better at delivering fake fitness—subjective cues of survival and reproduction without the real-world effects. Having real friends is so much more effort than watching Friends. Actually colonizing the galaxy would be so much harder than pretending to have done it when filming Star Wars or Serenity. The business of humanity has become entertainment, and entertainment is the business of feeding fake fitness cues to our brains.

(…)

Maybe the bright aliens did the same. I suspect that a certain period of fitness-faking narcissism is inevitable after any intelligent life evolves. This is the Great Temptation for any technological species—to shape their subjective reality to provide the cues of survival and reproductive success without the substance. Most bright alien species probably go extinct gradually, allocating more time and resources to their pleasures, and less to their children. They eventually die out when the game behind all games—the Game of Life—says “Game Over; you are out of lives and you forgot to reproduce.”

It’s somewhat of a depressing vision of the future, really. Instead of achieving greatness, colonizing new worlds, and exploring the galaxy, is humanity really doomed to a turn inward on itself as our brains become more fascinated with the instant gratification of fake reality than the hard work of, well, reality? There certainly seem to be signs that it’s a possibility. “Internet addiction” has been a common topic for most of the past decade, and it’s commonplace to walk around a mall or other public place and see people looking down tapping out messages (or playing games?) on their cell phones, perhaps preferring the artificial community of sites like Twitter and Facebook to the reality of creating real friendships and real communities. You don’t see this outside the First World, of course, because in most of the world people are still spending their day worrying how to survive rather than worrying about which Hollywood celebrity just got divorced or what happened last night on a so-called “reality” show. Once material scarcity is no longer an issue, though, humanity seems to concern itself more with trivialities than substance. Star Trek presented a vision of a world where want and need no longer existed and humanity redirected its energy to science, the arts, and the exploration of the galaxy, but what if eliminating want and need just causes our brains to become lazy? Then, the fate that Miller posits for all those advanced civilizations becomes quite plausible.

Of course, these two dystopias aren’t necessarily the only explanation for why we haven’t heard from E.T. Perhaps they just don’t find us very interesting, except perhaps in the way that we find a colony of ants interesting. If interstellar travel and communication are possible, a civilization that has achieved such things would be as far removed from our world as we are from early hominids who first made their way out of Africa millions of years ago. Perhaps, as David Swindle suggests, we aren’t hearing anything from them because we just aren’t able to hear them:

I’m sympathetic without having the same pessimistic spin. My hypothesis for why we haven’t yet replicated the scene where they meet the Vulcans in First Contact (and why we never will because such creatures do not exist): by the time any extraterrestrial race would have sufficient technology to travel to earth via Star Trek-like star ships the rate of technology’s exponential growth for their species would be moving so fast already that the rate of change would be so drastic they would not resemble us at all. I don’t know how many of the technological predictions I should take seriously in Ray Kurzweil’s The Singularity is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology and its documentary counterpart Transcendent Man. But the starting point for Kurzweil’s analysis — Moore’s Law which observes that technological progress builds on itself, perpetually doubling the strength and halving the cost of technology — is not controversial. It seems to me that any discussion about intelligent life beyond the stars needs to also include this insight about the nature of technological growth.

We’re assuming, for example, that these aliens would still be using electomagnetic signals as their means of communication. What if they’ve discovered some other means to communicate that we can’t detect yet because we haven’t even conceived of it? There’s a certain amount of hubris in assuming that the rest of the universe would be just like us in that regard, actually.

Of course, the other example of hubris is assuming that we’re all alone in the universe, the only intelligent life form in a space that traverse tens of billions of light years. The probabilities of that being true strike me as being even lower than the odds that the people who believe they’ve been abducted by aliens are describing something that actually happened. There’s someone out there, somewhere, it just may not be as easy to find them as we think.

UPDATE (James Joyner): I saw Krauthammer’s column and a few reactions to it this morning but kid-related activities derailed any actual post writing. One of the comments on one of the posts I read pointed to a fascinating essay in the Quarterly Journal of the  Royal Astronomical Society from an F.J. Tipler published way back in September 1980 and submitted almost a year before titled “Extraterrestrial intelligent beings do not exist.” It’s PDF’d and the format makes excerpting exhausting, so I’ll simply commend it to those interested. It’s based on a principle called “the assumption of mediocrity,” which basically posits that we must assume that other intelligent beings have developed communications and transportation technologies at least as advanced as our own.

The concluding sentences: “[T]he Universe must contain 10[20] stars in order to contain a single intelligent species. We should no therefore be surprised if indeed it contains only one.”

Of course, three decades of work have been done since this was published.

Related Posts:

About Doug Mataconis
Doug holds a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May, 2010 and also writes at Below The Beltway. Follow Doug on Twitter | Facebook

Comments

  1. Bleev K says:

    Not even something resembling the radio, television, radar, and other electromagnetic signals we’ve been sending out into the universe for some 80 years now.

    What about the “wow signal“?

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  2. That’s the closest I believe that SETI or any of the other projects have come to something potentially artificial in origin, although as the article you linked to notes it hasn’t been established that it was in fact artificial. That was 34 years ago and we apparently haven’t detected anything similar since then, though.

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  3. John Peabody says:

    Arthur C. Clarke once compared this problem with three-foot piles of stamps. The time we’ve been searching for ET is only one of the stamps. What are the chances that our stamp is at the same height as the ‘active’ stamp in a nearby pile, and thus could detect the neighbor’s civilization? Patience, people. COSMIC patience.

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  4. Bleev K says:

    I agree but it’s at least “resembling”.

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  5. OzarkHillbilly says:

    We’re assuming, for example, that these aliens would still be using electomagnetic signals as their means of communication.

    And even if they are, there is an awful lot of random electromagnetic noise out there to drown out any coherence (even w/ computer programs to specifically cancel out the noise).

    What if they’ve discovered some other means to communicate that we can’t detect yet because we haven’t even conceived of it?

    Lasers have virtually no spillover to detect.

    Of course, the other example of hubris is assuming that we’re all alone in the universe, the only intelligent life form in a space that traverse tens of billions of light years.

    Hubris, thy name is Homo-sapiens.

    There’s someone out there, somewhere, it just may not be as easy to find them as we think.

    They are, and someday, should we still exist, I believe we will find evidence of them. It might take a thousand years of technological progress to do it, but the day will come.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 1

  6. Dave Schuler says:

    Basically, good sense. I wouldn’t join any intergalactic league that would have us as members.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 11 Thumb down 1

  7. Hey Norm says:

    Most of the human race believes in, our politics are driven by, and most of histories wars have been fought over an infinitely old, infinitely powerful, omniscient being that cannot be detected and for which absolutely no proof exists.
    Yeah…we might as well believe in aliens too.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 5 Thumb down 4

  8. John Burgess says:

    No, back in 2,000,000BCE, the Cosmic Computers passed their version of SOPA and outbound communications got shut down on Cosmic Security grounds. What you hear about Universal Copyright Protection is just a diversion.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 4 Thumb down 0

  9. tps says:

    It might be that they rose up from the slime, lived a long life, and quietly faded away. In terms of the age of the universe we’re still young pups living in the backwaters of an ordinary galaxy.

    Its also hubris to think anyone would be interested in a boring, yellow sun like our own and want to send a signal to it.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 0

  10. Tano says:

    There’s a certain amount of hubris in assuming that the rest of the universe would be just like us in that regard, actually.

    Yes Doug, but it goes much deeper than that. The deeper assumption that “intelligence” itself should be expected to emerge in other places is itself a hubristic leap. In fact, the most successful creatures on Earth are bacteria – I think you would be hard pressed to really make the case that our evolutionary strategy is better than theirs. I am pretty certain that they will survive here on Earth long after we are gone. At the bottom line, the prize in evolution goes to those who survive, so on the evolutionary grading system, I think the bacteria should be considered a higher form of life.

    Our “intelligence” in the end is only an adaptation that has, so far, worked very well to help us survive and flourish relative to many other species of large multicellular organisms. But it is not objectively the best, and obviously not the only way forward for a species to adapt to its environment. I see no reason to assume that “intelligence” whatever we mean precisely by that, is some necessary end point of an evolutionary process.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 8 Thumb down 0

  11. @OzarkHillbilly:

    And even if they are, there is an awful lot of random electromagnetic noise out there to drown out any coherence (even w/ computer programs to specifically cancel out the noise).

    Particularly when our own experience suggests that as the technology becomes more advanced, species will tend to start favoring spread spectrum broadcasts, which are particularly hard to distinguish from noise unless you know the specific protocol involved in advance.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 0

  12. PogueMahone says:

    Good post. Thanks.

    There are countless possibilities as to why we haven’t heard from an E.T. that most certainly exists.
    Perhaps they have heard of us and they simply turn out the lights and hide behind the couch whenever we come looking – like I did 15 years ago and that psycho Brianna chick.
    Perhaps they’ve watched us closely and thought, no – we don’t wanna visit that crazy.
    Or, my favorite scenario, they’re watching us as though it were their reality TV escape… “Tune in next week on Big Blue – when the fat, silver-headed one that wants to lead them breaks down in tears”

    Cheers.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 1

  13. Another possibility: if Einstein’s speed limit is ivioable, other races may have just reached the conclusion there’s little gain in sending messages that take generations to lead to a response and that, beyond the simple existential questio of uniqueness, trying to communicate with other species is a waste of time, effort, and resources.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 5 Thumb down 2

  14. Ben Wolf says:

    We’re alone in the universe, and we’re all going to die.

    Happy New Year

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 2

  15. @Doug Mataconis:

    although as the article you linked to notes it hasn’t been established that it was in fact artificial.

    Or that if it was artificial, that it wasn’t just one of our own signals being misinterpretted as a much more powerful signal from far away.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  16. Ben Wolf says:

    The notion a technological civilization, let alone a galaxy of them, could avoid radiating

    anywhere

    in the electromagnetic spectrum borders on the absurd. Either we’re the only technical species anywhere in the vicinity or everyone went to enormous lengths to be vewy qwiet, which if true suggests they know something we don’t and had better figure out quickly.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 1

  17. Ben Wolf says:

    That’s it, no more commenting on my iPad.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 1

  18. Jib says:

    This is not that hard to figure out if you do the math. First we are looking for something very specific, a technological society. Life as smart as the great apes or dolphins or whales will not create radio’s.

    Life on earth is about 3 billion years old, multicellular life is about 1.5 billion years old. We have been sending out radio signals for about 100 years. That is a long time, from multicelluar life to radio waves. Long enough that it could mean that technical society is actually very rare. Much rarer than intelligent life.

    Now look at our solar system, 3 planets in the life zone but only one produces life. What happened to Venus and Mars? Is what happened to them more normal than what happened to Earth? Could it be most planets dont support life for the 4 billion years it takes a technological society to emerge?

    Now look at at earths history. Through out the vast majority of the 3 billion years that life has existed, humans could not live on the planet. This matters when you start looking for colonies. If we find earth like planets, the odds are we will not be able to colonize it. Not without a lot of technology.

    Now do the physics and economics. Lets say we get extremely lucky and find a planet within 3 light years that is like earth was 10 million years ago. Calculate the amount of energy it would take to move the amount of mass you would need to move in order to establish a permanent colony on the new planet. The technological level of any society is a function of the size of society. In order to be self sufficient at a tech level that will allow people to live on a hostile, ALIEN, world we are talking about a large society. Millions of people. We are talking about multiple missions over several generations. What kind of society would we have to evolve into that would allow us to spend that kind of resources for 100 years or so? No wars, no economic crisis to stop the migration. Anything interrupts the flow of material and the colony dies.

    Planets that support life appear to be in the minority. Tech societies are rare or we would have found one, planets that can support humans are rare, getting to those planets is very expensive. And if anyone else has done it, they will be ALIEN and who knows how they will communicate. Look how little we understand dolphins or great apes and we have been studying them for decades.

    It is no wonder we have not found anyone else. It would be a miracle if we did.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 8 Thumb down 1

  19. Dividist says:

    Great post. I’ve always found the Fermi Paradox to be fascinating and a challenge to conventional thinking. Ultimately it comes down to statements about belief and probability.

    I think most people do embrace the concluding belief that you state here – that the universe is so big that “there must be someone out there, somewhere it just may not be as easy to find them as we think.”.

    You toss off a casual comparison between the odds of “being alone” or the UFO true believers being correct – but that is actually the right way to think about this – comparing those two beliefs. The way I see it, to hold both the belief that “someone is out there” and “UFO’s are not really ET in origin and UFO believers are loons or mistaken” is the equivalent of following the White Queen’s dictum to believe” “six impossible things before breakfast”. The consistent belief pair is that “someone is out there” and at least some of the UFO reporting is real. Or to reject both notions.

    The heart of Fermi’s paradox is that if they truly are “out there” they should not be this hard to see. Doug, you focus on SETI and the lack of EM evidence, but that is not what FERMI was pointing out with his back of the envelope calculation. He was pointing out that while the distances are great, the time frames are so extraordinarily large between us in the relatively younger part of the galaxy and the older center, that it is not reasonable to believe that the entire galaxy would not be colonized by now if there was anything remotely like us in the history of the galaxy. Even using sub-light speeds, currently understood physics, and very slow colonization rates, the whole galaxy should be colonized – if they were out there.

    For myself, I resolve Fermi’s Paradox with the use of Occam’s Razor and accept the simplest most elegant answer. The reason we don’t see any indisputable evidence of alien civilization, is because there is no one out there. At least in our galaxy (the universe is too big to consider in this regard – if truly infinite – everything is out there). While life is likely to be found everywhere, the lack of evidence of alien intelligent, nature shaping, civilization building, communicating creatures like ourselves point to us being extraordinarily improbable and nothing else like us existing anywhere in our galaxy. Someone had to be first. It’s us. We won the lottery.

    In our galaxy, we are alone.

    I find that prospect strangely optimistic and exciting. It is all out there for us – we just have to go get it.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 4 Thumb down 0

  20. @Ben Wolf:

    The question isn’t whether they radiate in the electromagnetic specturm. It’s whether they radiate in a way that can be disintguished from random noise from light years away. It’s not obvious the answer the the later question is yes, since even we seem to already be moving beyond blasting highpowered single frequency radio signals around.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 0

  21. Tano says:

    @Dividist:

    It is all out there for us – we just have to go get it.

    What do you imagine we are to “get” out there? And what would we do with it if we got it?

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  22. Jib says:

    If you want a taste of how alien an alien race could be, read Peter Watts Blindsight. In the story, humans first contact is with space going intelligent life that is not sentient. As the story shows, if they are not sentient, we are not communicating with them even if we are face to face.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  23. Brett says:

    @Dividist

    Even using sub-light speeds, currently understood physics, and very slow colonization rates, the whole galaxy should be colonized – if they were out there.

    Why? Interstellar travel is really, really hard. The fastest possible starship designs require a ton of energy, some weird requirements (such as gigantic lasers or lots of antimatter), and a lot of resources. The slower designs still require a large commitment in energy, time, and resources, and also have the added technological complexity of designing a hugely complicated craft that must survive without outside maintenance for decades to centuries . . . just to get to the nearest stars.

    Now, perhaps probes don’t have quite as much difficulty (although it would still be no mean feat to design and send them). That’s where the issue raised by John Peabody comes into play: timing. We’ve only really been looking at the sky with anything more sophisticated than the naked eye for several hundred years – and only been looking at the sky with radio for little more than 100 years. An alien probe could have passed through the solar system in, say, 950 CE, and we’d never be the wiser.

    In any case, the focus on interstellar colonization always struck me as having the same root as many of the explanations for the Fermi Paradox: human anthropological thinking. The truth is that we have no idea as to what might be the motivations underpinning an alien society, or what they might value in terms of space travel. We do know that it’s entirely possible for a society to have great potential for space colonization and travel that goes almost entirely unused, in the form of Earth and humanity.

    All that said, I wouldn’t be surprised if some form of the Geoffrey Miller Hypothesis is right – that civilizations reach a point where they can go into a comfortable stability (not his other fear-mongering about religious fanatics out-breeding the secular). Any technological civilization that continues to advance will likely eventually figure out a great deal about their own biology, as well as technology that requires major commitments in time, energy, and resources to utilize (such as long-distance space travel).

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 5 Thumb down 0

  24. Jib says:

    @Brett: This.

    At best we can expect to spend 5% of GDP on space travel. I get that number because we spend something like 6% of GDP of defense for decades so I think we could spend 5% on space travel if we cut spending in defense to 1%.

    Clearly we are talking about a different civilization than the one we are living in now but it is not too far fetched.

    And a much, MUCH, bigger economy in order for 5% be able to build true inter-stellar travel.

    And we can only do this if we find a planet within a few light years.

    So we spend that kind of resources for inter-stellar colonization, for decades in order to build a colony. And then what do we do? You can not have anything resembling economic trade separated by light years. This is not like the spice trade where if your ship made it back you would double your money in something like 18 months. You will never make your money back in your life time.

    Clearly if we do this, we will no longer be capitalists. Capitalists will only do it if they can make money at it.

    It is not impossible that we might do it. But it is highly unlikely.

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  25. This reminds of the central premise of “mundane science fiction,” which is SF that focuses on Earth, has no FTL or interstellar government, no aliens, no time travel, no alternate dimensions, nothing of that sort. It actually seems a lot like what Miller was talking about, in some ways.

    It also reminds me of Bainbridge’s Religion for a New Galactic Civilization 2.0, which is kinda-sorta-but-not-really a response to the Miller hypothesis.

    And now I’m going to get back to that novel I’m working on, even though the writer’s block is way harder than reality at this point.

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  26. Oh, here’s another article I think you should take a look at, Doug, one about how our basic premises we’re operating from may be wrong:

    Their optimism relies on one factor in particular: In the equation, the probability of life arising on suitably habitable planets (ones with water, rocky surfaces and atmospheres) is almost always taken to be 100 percent. As the reasoning goes, the same fundamental laws apply to the entire universe, and because those laws engendered the genesis of life on Earth — and relatively early in its history at that — they must readily spawn life elsewhere, too. As the Russian astrobiologist Andrei Finkelstein put it at a recent SETI press conference, “the genesis of life is as inevitable as the formation of atoms.” [Read: What If Our Solar System Had Formed Somewhere Else? ]

    But in a new paper posted on arXiv.org, astrophysicists David Spiegel and Edwin Turner at Princeton University argue that this thinking is dead wrong. Using a statistical method called Bayesian reasoning, they argue that the life here on Earth could be common, or it could be extremely rare — the latter possibility isn’t ruled out. Spiegel’s and Turner’s new analysis could have major repercussions, by erasing the one Drake factor scientists felt confident about and replacing it with a question mark.

    While it’s true that life arose quickly on Earth (within the planet’s first few hundred million years), the researchers point out that if it hadn’t done so, there may not have been enough time for intelligent life — humans — to have evolved. So, in effect, we’re biased. It took at least 3.5 billion years for intelligent life to evolve on Earth, and the only reason we’re able to contemplate the likelihood of life today is that its evolution happened to get started early. This requisite good luck is independent of the actual probability of life emerging on a habitable planet. [Read: Believers in Mysterious Planet Nibiru Await Earth's End ]

    “Although life began on this planet fairly soon after the Earth became habitable, this fact is consistent with … life being arbitrarily rare in the Universe,” the authors state. In the paper, they prove this statement mathematically.

    Their result doesn’t mean we’re alone — only that there’s no reason to think otherwise. “[A] Bayesian enthusiast of extraterrestrial life should be significantly encouraged by the rapid appearance of life on the early Earth but cannot be highly confident on that basis,” the authors conclude. Our own existence implies very little about how many other times life has arisen.

    Two data points rather than just one would make all the difference, the researchers say. If life is found to have arisen independently on Mars, then scientists would be in a much better position to assert that, under the right conditions, the genesis of life is inevitable.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 0

  27. ponce says:

    My money is on the sun is blotting out any alien signals.

    It’s like trying to hear someone on your cell phone while standing in front of a massive speaker tower at a rock concert.

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  28. Simple. It´s entirely possible that´s is impossible to travel from distance galaxies to another, and it´s also very possible that´s very difficult to send long range signals thru galaxies. It´s more feasible that someone creates some far etched telescope that manages to SEE life in another planet, but not to enter direct contact(Probably somekind of vegetable life,. or maybe some dinossaur like monsters)

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  29. mannning says:

    If, as some believe, there are many universes, or multiverses, a further conclusion is that we cannot communicate with them or visit them. If they do exist in their infinite profusion, there would be an infinity of opportunities for intelligent life to exist, but we will never know about it.

    Some scientists are pursuing a way to prove indirectly that alternate universes do indeed exist, but I know of no reports of their success, and I will not hold my breath until they do.

    Then there are those who speculate that wormholes might be used to transit at superspeeds in our universe and between such other universes, a thought that UFO affecionados have seized upon to explain their apparitions, and to support the idea of life elsewhere coming to visit us. I believe this is a few steps too far into SF.

    Perhaps the LHC will find proof of existence of the Higgs Boson and the Higgs Ocean, and set us on the path to a fuller understanding of our universe and its potentials.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  30. @mannning:

    Leaving aside the multiverse theory, though, it does seem hard to believe that we are the only intelligent form of life to ever evolve in our own universe.

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  31. sam says:

    …it’s a singular fact of the Great Conflict against Russia that no one–certainly no one on the Allied side — had any clear notion of how to go about it. You will think that’s one of these smart remarks, but it’s not … I can tell you truthfully that the official view of the whole thing was:

    “Well, here we are, the French and ourselves, at war with Russia, in order to protect Turkey. Ve-ry good. What shall we do, then? Better to attack Russia, eh? H’m yes. (Pause). Big place, ain’t it?”

    Brig. General Harry Flashman

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  32. Tano says:

    @Doug Mataconis:

    it does seem hard to believe that we are the only intelligent form of life to ever evolve in our own universe.

    Why Doug?

    Traits evolve (or persist after evolving) only if they continue to aid in the survival of the species.It remains an open question whether our intelligence is of any lasting value. For a few tens of thousands of years it has helped us outcompete other large animals, but it doesn’t seem that our status is anywhere near as secure as many other species that are adapted to their habitats at least as well as we are.

    The “intelligence as time-bomb” hypothesis is certainly plausible – we seem to combine a great creativity in figuring out how to manipulate things with a very narrow and short term perspective on the consequences of such tinkering.

    So I really wonder whether Homo sapiens-type “intelligence” is little more than a weird aberrational adaptation that worked for a while in one species in one place, but relatively quickly reached its limits of usefullness.

    For instance, what possible use, in the grand scheme, is the ability to broadcast patterned electromagnetic radiation into space? You are not going to reach anything and get a return in any time-scale that would make it useful. And if there is anything out there capable of interpreting our signal, it is just about certain that they would be far further along any technological curve such that they would be a great danger to us if they cared to bother.

    We are not going to ever colonize space – the distances are simply too great, and there is nowhere within any plausible range for us to go. I imagine any “intelligent” creatures out there would have figured that out long ago, and not bothered.

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  33. Dazedandconfused says:

    Ran into a guy who claimed there is a lot of doubt about our most powerful signals to date being detectable by our best equipment after just a dozen light years of so, and SETI doesn’t like to talk about it.

    Stars are damn noisy things, and we are very puny EM generators, or something like that.

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  34. DRS says:

    I’m with Stephen Hawking on this: contact with an alien civilization, especially if it felt the urge to visit us personally, could be a Very Un-good Thing. Even if it doesn’t turn into a Hollywoodish one-way chomp-a-thon, the possibilities of being the Mayan peasants to the aliens’ Conquisators might give us some hesitation.

    Be careful what we wish for.

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  35. Rob says:

    Quote:

    This is the Great Temptation for any technological species—to shape their subjective reality to provide the cues of survival and reproductive success without the substance. Most bright alien species probably go extinct gradually, allocating more time and resources to their pleasures, and less to their children.

    > So true! I have always thought the creation of anything like the Holo-Deck from Star Trek would be death of civilization… :)

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  36. Brett says:

    @Dazedandconfused

    Ran into a guy who claimed there is a lot of doubt about our most powerful signals to date being detectable by our best equipment after just a dozen light years of so, and SETI doesn’t like to talk about it.

    I’ve heard of that argument as well. Basically, it’s hard to tell most of our radio signals from the background “noise” beyond a couple of light-years, with some exceptions (military radar IIRC). The only problem is that those exceptions tend to be tightly focused, so the odds of actually picking up one of those signals is extremely remote.

    And that’s all made with a very optimistic assumption: that the alien civilization is broadcasting in AM or FM. It’s increasingly no longer the case on Earth, where most radio signals are now digitalized – and the perverse thing about digital signals is that they’d be virtually impossible for an alien civilization to tell from ordinary radio noise.

    SETI presumably doesn’t like to talk about this, because they’re eternal optimists. You’d have to be.

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  37. Jib says:

    @Doug Mataconis: Your right but that is not the question. The question is how come we have not found any one. To find them they would have to be broadcasting radio originating within a few light years of earth some time in the last few decades. Fat chance of that happening

    Or they have to have traveled to this solar system and left enough stuff behind that we would find it today. For that to happen they would have to be a space traveling civilization and while that is not impossible, it is very hard. Hard enough that there might be several in our galaxy in the last 2 billion years or so and not have visited our solar system.

    And if they have visited our solar system in the last 2 billion years, how much stuff would they have to leave behind for us to find anything? Lots of stuff can get destroyed on earth in 2 billion years. Better chance of some thing surviving else where and we have searched very very little of the solar system so we may still find something.

    I think there is a better chance of finding ancient space junk at one of the various Lagrangian points in the solar system than it is we will hear a radio broadcast. Which is to say, a small chance.

    It is the ultimate black swan. It has almost no chance of happening right up to the day it happens. And then everything changes.

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  38. R Nesbit says:

    @Tano: Only to a degree. The Earth won’t last forever. Bacteria will “win” the short game, and will almost certainly last as long as the Earth. But at least as far the life we know is concerned, intelligence seems to be the best bet for a species outlasting its planet of origin. Of course, I highly doubt that even if we do survive, we’ll be anything like humans now in four billion years.

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  39. I started a comment but it got pretty long. So I posted it at my own site instead. Bottom line: that intelligent life is common in the universe doesn’t have much scientific support. I even included a slideshow! But you will probably be surprised at my conclusion.

    Click here.

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  40. Seerak says:

    technology has been advancing faster than morality at a record pace.

    Of course it has. For centuries we have been told that reason is limited, that it is only efficacious in the worldy realm of practical things and “prudential” alternatives, but the moral realm is completely beyond it’s reach, the province solely of primitive religion or subjective whim. You can’t derive an “ought” from an “is”, they prattle.

    Why in the fucking hell should the results of such ideas — a fantastic technological civilization placed in the service of ancient tribal morality — surprise anyone? That the likes of Kim Jong Il and the rulers of Iran should balance a nuclear bomb in their hands and consult their respective arbitrary belief system in deciding whether to toss it — this is the appropriate symbol, the visualized end-of-road of the premise that “if God is dead, everything is permitted” — as if there were no earthly *reason* to be moral.

    That has long been my answer to Fermi’s paradox, contra Arthur C. Clarke’s purely technological measures as dramatized in his short story “The Sentinel” (prologue to “2001″): that the inflection point that a civilization must pass to make it to interstellar space is not only technological, but philosophical. It must not only develop an advanced technology, it must develop an advanced, rational morality to go along with it. Not only must we know how to do something; we need to know (not “feel”) why it’s right.

    Mankind was poised to begin that journey a few hundred years ago, but some sonofabitch didn’t want to let go of his religious security blanket, and so decided to deny reason in order to make room for faith.

    And here we are.

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  41. The problem of the Fermi Paradox is simple: when we are talking about a star only a dozen of light-years away were talking about a star that would require one to travel at the speed of light for years to get there. That would require an enormous amount of energy(An amount of energy that no one has the slightest idea of how to get by today´s Physics), even if one is willing to travel for years or even decades. In fact, traveling in time is probably easier than traveling from a star to another star.

    Even a very sophisticated civilization, thousands of years more advanced than us(And that using a very Positivist point of view) wouldn´t be able to do that.

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  42. Scott O. says:

    Brett + Dazedandconfused bring up a major point. We are not able to search the universe, or even much of our galaxy, for signs of intelligent life in the form of radio signals.

    “Q: Could we find ourselves? If there were an alien civilization equivalent to ours in the Milky Way, could we find it? Or do we overestimate the length of time technological civilizations are producing, by accident, radio signals that escape into space? The NOVA segment seemed to intimate that with advances in technology we may significantly reduce our radio fingerprint, so to speak, and eventually “go dark” even though we are still here. Gordon Lampley, 7th grade teacher, Norwood, North Carolina

    Seth Shostak: Dear Gordon,
    Although Earth is inadvertently broadcasting radio, television, and other signals into space 24/7, the facts are that most of these signals wouldn’t be detectable by our SETI experiments at distances greater than about one light-year, which is not even the distance of the nearest star beyond the Sun. Of course, the aliens might have much larger antennas than we do, so this doesn’t rule out someone finding us. However, Earth’s strongest signals-mostly military and research radar-are strong enough to be found dozens or even hundreds of light-years away, even with equipment that’s no better than our own. Will such strong signals be emitted by an advanced civilization? Who knows, but having a few powerful radar transmitters might help avoid an asteroid hit that could ruin an alien’s entire day.”

    http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/space/shostack-seti-qa.html

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  43. mannning says:

    @Jib:

    . It has almost no chance of happening right up to the day it happens. And then everything changes

    That puts paid to the discussion, I think! Bravo!

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  44. matt says:

    I’ve always expected advanced civilizations to utilize some sort of quantum mechanics based communication.

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  45. Joe R. says:

    @mannning:

    If, as some believe, there are many universes, or multiverses, a further conclusion is that we cannot communicate with them or visit them.

    That would be the case by definition. If we could communicate with them or visit them, then they would be a part of this universe.

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  46. WhapleWem says:

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