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Where Have All the Spacemen Gone? Part 3

Posted: Wed Jan 31, 2007 6:05 am
by trurl
OK everyone. Here is part three. And, Athena, here is your prime directive mention...

<b>Where Have All the Spacemen Gone? Speculations on the Fermi Paradox, Part 3</b>

by Christopher Jones

Original Publication Date: June 14, 2002

Well, we're back, and I'm not even singing this time! When we last met we were examining some of the many possibilities that have been offered over the years to explain the Fermi Paradox -- the puzzling fact that when we search the stars for signs of life we find none, despite the popular opinion that it must exist.

Specifically, we were focusing on our second solution, which in general terms says that aliens are either uninterested in space travel and contact or are hiding from us. The three possibilities that we discussed were: the high cost of colonization; a lack of interest; and a lack of stamina. In this installment, we tackle three more:

1) We are being quietly observed.
2) Ethics get in the way.
3) A barrier could prevent our contact with others.

Let's jump right in.

There is a rather popular solution to the Fermi Paradox that supposes that aliens actually <i>have</i> colonized the galaxy and they are all around us -- only we don't know it. This possibility, known as the Zoo Hypothesis, likens the Earth to some sort of alien exhibit in which they observe us in the same way we might watch research subjects through a one-way mirror. Their technology is so advanced that we are unable to detect their presence.

This observation could be carried out either from space (the way that the two green monsters always watch Springfield on <i>The Simpsons</i>, or the way aliens first approached Earth in the famous short story/Twilight Zone episode "The Monsters are Due on Maple Street"), or from a secret base right here on the planet (such as the one the Federation used in the film <i>Insurrection</i> and the TNG episode "Who Watches the Watchers?"). However it is handled, it implies that all the claims about UFOs and alien abductions are true.

It seems highly unlikely that the Zoo Hypothesis is the right solution. After all, aliens in SF who attempt such things always stumble, leaving behind an artifact, having sex with one of those they are observing, or wearing dark glasses when unnecessary thus tipping off people that they are really reptiles. And so far, we have found no aliens.

As anyone who has ever seen <i>Star Trek</i> knows, there's a little thing called the Prime Directive that prevents the more advanced civilizations from interfering with the more primitive ones. Captain Janeway would seem to do anything to avoid violating this most precious Federation rule (well, most of the time). She would be the poster child for those who believe that aliens are all around us but carefully conceal their existence so as not to disturb the natural development of our society.

This argument of highly valued ethics sounds wonderful and noble -- all the things you would expect from an enlightened civilization that has had millions of years to come to terms with itself.

Scientists always say that any alien intelligence would be far more advanced than we. Of course the accurate form of this statement would be that any spacefaring alien intelligence that we may come into contact with would be far more advanced. This is because we are at the beginning stages of technological civilization and virtually any other society would be either far more advanced or far more primitive. The more primitive ones would still be entirely confined to their home worlds. Given this great advance in intelligence, it only makes sense that they would be delicate about tinkering with others.

Maybe. If the human race is any indication, aliens may not give a damn about how their arrival or presence would affect a less advanced civilization. The Europeans didn't care about the native cultures of the Americas, did they? And that was after thousands of years of development from our cave dwelling ancestors. Will thousands or even millions of additional years change us?

Perhaps in most cases it does make a difference. But as some have pointed out, it would only take one deviation from the Prime Directive to sink the whole theory. If there really are 1,000 extant civilizations in the Milky Way at any one time -- as some estimates suggest -- can we really expect every single one of them to uphold high ethical standards? As anyone who has seen the original <i>Star Trek</i> series knows, the Prime Directive is made to be broken, and it only takes one James T. Kirk to blow the whole thing out of the water. Repeatedly. But if they are in hiding, the result is that we find no aliens.

The last possibility that we will look at for solution two is an interesting, though very fantastical one suggested by SF and fantasy author David Brin in his short story "The Crystal Spheres."

These are not the crystal spheres that were once believed to hold the stars and planets in place, going back to Aristotle, but rather invisible shells that encompass each star system throughout the galaxy. The purpose of the spheres is to protect young life and arising civilizations from more advanced, aggressive explorers.

Humans accidentally shatter their sphere once they are advanced enough to explore well beyond Pluto, and their subsequent exploration of the galaxy reveals that all "good" worlds (those with conditions favorable for life) are off-limits. The spheres can only be broken from the inside.

This is yet another explanation for why we haven't seen any aliens in our neighborhood; they can't get to us. But there is another twist to the story that is a compelling explanation in and of itself, and a realistic rather than fantastical one at that. When the humans finally come across a system with good worlds and a shattered crystal sphere, they find information on the abandoned planets that reveals our place in a universe in which life is only beginning to hatch. It seems that it takes a lot longer for advanced civilization to develop than we think, and Earth, along with this newly discovered world and a couple of others, are the only ones to break out of their spheres so far. Thus, when we look out at the stars and find no one, it is because we are one of the first, destined to one day become an elder amongst galactic civilizations.

Of course, "The Crystal Spheres" is just fictional speculation supported by no scientific evidence whatsoever, and so close to the fantasy side of the genre that it is only marginally SF. Still, it is a fascinating idea (and an excellent story) whose result is, once again, that we find no aliens.

<b>MOVING ON</b>
Well, there you have it. Three more possibilities to explain the Fermi Paradox, all seated within our general second solution. By no means is speculation on the subject limited to the six ideas we've covered in parts two and three of this series. There are dozens and dozens of ideas out there. If you have one or know of one that you would like to discuss, feel free to post in the discussion area.

In the next installment of "Where Have All the Spacemen Gone?" we'll look at the third solution to the Fermi Paradox and whether a terrible war could wipe out advanced civilizations before they have a chance to spread out into the galaxy. :)

Smoke and Mirrors

Posted: Wed Jan 31, 2007 6:03 pm
by Windwalker
The first two possibilities again hinge on a basic similarity (of biology and motives) between us and the observers. Brin’s Crystal Sphere idea is clearly a fusion of the Ptolemean entities of the same name and the Dyson spheres, postulated by Dyson as a method to harvest energy by Kardashev II civilizations.

The Zoo hypothesis is interesting, assuming we are of interest to advanced extraterrestrials. However, they can still be observing idly, so to speak – the way we look at scurrying ants, or colorful fish while snorkeling in the Barrier Reef. If we are too dissimilar from them in either basics or power scale, they may use us for experiments or swat us like flies, as we do to other lifeforms on earth.

I dedicated an entire chapter of my Star Trek book to the Prime Directive and its equivalents (if anyone is interested in reading it, let me know). It reminds me of the Victorian custom of excising pages from novels so as not to contaminate the oh-so-delicate minds of unmarried girls. Of course, the historical record of first contact among human cultures is abysmal, to put it mildly – although less so if contact was initiated for trade and exchange of information, rather than Lebensraum or spread of an ideology. On top of conscious motives, we have the problem of biological contamination (not relevant if the contact is long-distance, but very much at the forefront otherwise, given the effects of diseases on non-immune populations and of invasive new species here on earth).

We also run into the ethical questions of interference: should an epidemic be left to run its course unchecked? Should a tyrant be left undisturbed to torture and execute? On earth, political and economic expediencies have almost invariably dictated the answer to such questions. By extension, should aliens with advanced technology intervene if an inhabited system’s sun is about to go nova?

But in the end, the non-interference doctrine (to me, at least) reeks of condescension and, perhaps, a dose of insecurity. Who decides when a civilization is “ready”? And what is the metric for the decision? If the extraterrestrials are advanced, benign and similar enough to us to care, there are plenty of ways to do technology and ideas transfer without jeopardizing, demoralizing or addicting the less-advanced civilization. After all, the Plains nations took to guns and horses like ducks to water; they might have lasted even less than they did without them.

So, these are my general thoughts… there is more, but this is too long already! (*laughs*)

Posted: Wed Jan 31, 2007 6:59 pm
by rocketscientist
Looks good in here! :D

So... Where are the extraterrestrials? If the math and the science point to their existance than perhaps it is reasonably safe (for the sake of the argument anyway) to consider them a given.

Where they are depends on who they are, doesn't it? Since we don't have any other examples, lets look at the physiology and psychology of humans a moment. See if my 'theory' makes sense.

Physiologically, we know that the peoples of earth evolved to adapt to their unique environments. Often, their bodies were molded by the climate. Makes sense (for the most part - although I still don't understand why we don't have fur - but that's a different topic). Everyone pretty much accepts this, and it's the motivating principle behind evolution.

So I would put it forward that culture is to psychology, what climate is to physiology.

The colonization of the New world is a reasonable comparison to colonization of other planets. The attitude of those doing the exploration set the tone of first contact, and the attitude of the indigenous populations was also a factor which mustn't be disregarded. Many an European ship, low on supplies and ammunition sailed away from islands where the natives made a hostile stand - although they didn't forget them and often came back later, better armed. ( chew on that one for a while - maybe they have seen us - interstellar distances, being what they are, they just haven't come back around...)

Anyway, my point is that the culture of the extraterrestrial beings will dictate their motives and their behavior. It may also where they are and what they are doing as concerns us.

So the variables as I see them (granted, not a learned source) are: 1) level of technology, ie. are they even 'flying' yet, 2) distance (possibly negligible), and 3) culture or mores.

Now there are a number of sciences that might be able to pin those variables down a bit - anybody know if they have?

Values across a manifold

Posted: Thu Feb 01, 2007 12:14 am
by Windwalker
There's no doubt that both biology and culture would play a role in how extraterrestrials behaved in general and towards other sentients in particular. For example, if they were optimized for floating in Jupiter's upper atmosphere they wouldn't share much with us in any dimension.

SF stories have been written about such encounters. If done well, they are absolutely riveting (Hal Clement's Mission of Gravity and Joan Vinge's Eyes of Amber are two of my favorites, though the list is long).

The three variables you propose (technology level, distance, culture/mores) are actually part of the Drake equation -- and debate over them has been raging ever since Drake formulated the expression. Whole books have been written on them, partly because many sciences contribute to each term.

Endlessly fascinating stuff! (*smiles*)

Posted: Thu Feb 01, 2007 12:35 am
by rocketscientist
Yes the equation takes all of these factors in account, and I'm sure I'm stating the obvious, but is there any consensus on these issues? I know I'm asking a lot.

I'd love to see a bibliography on the subject. I apologise if this has already been provided - but Yahoo blips being what they are, I may have missed them.

It's an amazining thing really - to discuss, scientifically, a subject with so many unknowns. But Biolology as a discipline should be able to give us at least an educated guess - or am I wrong?

Believe me when I say I'm out of my depth on the matter, but completely fascinated. Like many Science Fiction authors, I can imagine a great deal - whether or not it has any bearing on reality is something I rely on science to inform me of. :p

Posted: Thu Feb 01, 2007 12:57 am
by Windwalker
rocketscientist wrote: I'd love to see a bibliography on the subject.
It's an amazing thing really - to discuss, scientifically, a subject with so many unknowns. But Biology as a discipline should be able to give us at least an educated guess - or am I wrong?
No, alas, we're not even close. I fervently wish we could! We are fatally hobbled by the lack of a second life sample. Biologists agree on two points: complex life will be carbon-based because of that element's versatility in forming infinite varieties of molecules, and water is the biological solvent of choice, again because of its special properties. That's pretty much it!

I can recommend a couple of books. David Darling's Life Everywhere: The Maverick Science of Astrobiology and Cohen and Stewart's What Does a Martian Look Like? The last one is particularly good in distinguishing universal life attributes from parochial ones (and it's funny, too).

Posted: Thu Feb 01, 2007 1:18 am
by rocketscientist
Ok - but that is at least something to go on. Carbon based life with an H2O substrate will have some parameters, correct?


Posted: Thu Feb 01, 2007 4:31 pm
by Windwalker
rocketscientist wrote:Carbon based life with an H2O substrate will have some parameters, correct?
You'd be surprised! Just look at the variety of life on earth and count the lifeforms that became extinct during several cycles, each claiming 90% of that era's flora and fauna. You can tell that even here, where everything developed on the same planet from a single common ancestor, there was an wealth of choices.

From the other end, look at the incredible "cultural" variations of our nearest relatives, the bonobos and chimpanzees -- let alone other primates. That arises from a genetic difference of just 3%.

The possible choices at different scales are a great topic for a multipart essay. Hmmm... (*puts it on ever-lengthening list*)

Posted: Fri Feb 02, 2007 4:37 pm
by rocketscientist
Check out this link -

interesting in light of our recent discussions, Uh?

The Galantai scheme

Posted: Fri Feb 02, 2007 4:43 pm
by Windwalker
Very interesting indeed, and not just in view of our recent conversations. Definitely a valid classification, and a less "aggressive" one than Kardashev's. In a way, it is based on defense and stewarding of resources, rather than use of resources.

Posted: Sun Feb 04, 2007 2:31 pm
by intrigued_scribe
Took me long enough to finally give this one a properly thorough read...but in any instance, this is very interesting! The comparison of advanced civilizations observing and interacting with those that are far behind them--so to speak--to the Europeans arriving in North America is all too appropriate. In particular, the question of which factor, benefits or consequences, poses (or should pose) the greater influence on interference to the natives' affairs and way of life has considerable bearing on this issue. More than that, the inherent necessity of deciding how much interaction is too little or too much especially grabbed my attention. Fascinating stuff. :) Also, the article in Centauri Dreams ties in nicely with all of this.

Posted: Thu Feb 08, 2007 9:52 pm
by sanscardinality
I made a joke about this in the Yahoo threads, but I think one really feasible explanation for why we haven't heard from other intelligences is that we aren't worth exploiting to them.

Examine the pattern of Western exploitation of Pacific islands for example - effort was expended (and impact realized) in direct proportion to the value of the treasure to be had.


Posted: Thu Feb 08, 2007 11:10 pm
by Windwalker
sanscardinality wrote:I think one really feasible explanation for why we haven't heard from other intelligences is that we aren't worth exploiting to them.
Agreed. There are no unique minerals or energy sources on earth and the gravity well makes their extraction and transportation expensive. It's far cheaper and more efficient to mine planet(oid)s that lack atmosphere. For the rest, alien civilizations will be different enough that our flora, fauna and artifacts will be no more than oddities to them -- I doubt they will share our aesthetics, given how divergent these are even among human cultures.

Victorian customs, the Zoo Hypothesis, and fur.

Posted: Fri Feb 09, 2007 8:23 am
by trurl
Wow, I am so far behind in this discussion!

Great discussion, views, and speculation! I am going to just post once here and cover a variety of other posts...

First, I just have to say that the first thing that popped into my head upon reading about the Victorian custom of excising pages was the Monty Python bookshop sketch in which a man wishes to buy only the expurgated version of "Olsen's Standard Book of British Birds." He wants "the one without the gannet." He doesn't like gannet's because "they wet their nests."

OK... on to the real topic.

Regarding the Zoo Hypothesis, it seems that we ultimately come to the conclusion that we may be of no interest to the aliens in the first place. I don't see where, in the past or at present, we have anything technological to offer a civilization that has the power to find us here. Nor do I see anything from us that would be viewed as a threat to them. And, as Athena points out, there is nothing special on the Earth that they could not mine more easily from a planetoid. (Unless, of course, they have some terrible phage that is only cured using an elixir created from Skittles, in which case maybe we have something they can't find anywhere else.)

But what I keep coming back to is the temporal issue. Given the vastness of interstellar space and the vastness of time that the universe has existed, it is probably exceedingly rare that, in the same neighborhood, two civilizations on a level similar enough to make any meaningful contact possible ever pop up.

One thing that interests me right now merely as a "what if," is the possibility of life on Enceladus, a moon of Saturn. There is good indication that there may be liquid water under the surface. Along with Titan, it is one of the examples of bodies in the outer solar system that would be planets were they orbiting the Sun rather than their host planet. And the "what if" I speak of is the possibility that billions of years from now a civilization might arise on one of these outer bodies. How long would they believe they were the only life in the universe? If the sun had expanded to the orbit of Earth by then, they may find no evidence that we ever existed.

Now, there was another comment wondering why we don't have fur. I would just like to state for the record that my best friend from high school did, in fact, have fur.

And while carbon-based life forms may grow fur, I am curious, Athena, about the possibility of silicon-based life. You said that "biologists agree on two points: complex life will be carbon-based....and water is the biological solvent of choice." I have often heard, not just from SF novels, that silicon is the other element that might be suitable for the development of life. Do you agree or disagree? What might silicon-based life be like. (I seem to recall a discussion in a book or journal long ago that time for such life would pass very slowly because of the nature of the processes within silicon. I may be rambling here -- I don't remember well what I read as it was quite a long while ago.) I expect that water would still be a suitable solvent.

And one more thing that was spurred to mind for me by the discussion of diversity of life on Earth is the race that was featured throughout season three of "Enterprise," the Xindi. On that planet there were five different species (humanoid, sloth, reptile, marine, insectoid) that all evolved intelligence and all live and work together. (There was a six, evolved from birds, that died out.) Although this made for interesting SF, I would expect this would be impossible. As a biologist, Athena, and since this storyline came about after you wrote your book, what did you think of it? (Is it even worth commenting on?)

Well, this is long enough. There's always another thought... I'm going to post part four of the series now (the last installment) and will post parts one and two here to the new forums as well.


Silicon-based life

Posted: Sat Feb 10, 2007 6:50 pm
by Windwalker
Chris, I agree that the temporal problem is the key. Indeed, if life arises in Europa, Titan or Enceladus when the sun has entered the red giant phase, they won't know of our existence unless we have left orbiting artifacts (black monoliths, anyone?).

In reply to your question: There are several problems with silicon being the basis of complex life. I can think of two right off the bat.

Because of its larger atomic radius, silicon (unlike carbon) cannot form stable long chains. It can only do so in the presence of oxygen, which forces it into a crystal lattice. So silicon can never give rise to the infinite numbers of compounds that carbon can, alone or in combination with other elements.

The second problem is solvent. Silicon compounds are insoluble in water or ammonia -- the only efficient silicon solvent is hydrofluoric acid (used to etch silicon chips). But whereas water is abundant in the universe, fluorine is rare. So silicon-based life is at best a distant second to its carbon-based equivalent.

I thought the Xindi plotline was the most interesting one that "Enterprise" came up with. The possibility of separate intelligences evolving is small, but I don't think it can be completely excluded. Some scientists think that cetaceans and elephants have attained intelligence but there is extreme disagreement over whether it is equivalent to ours. Plus, of course, the Neanderthals definitely had developed intellingence, awareness and culture -- but they were close relatives.