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Science and Fiction

Entry 1486, on 2013-01-15 at 22:28:25 (Rating 3, Science)

I recently listened to a podcast (you will probably not be surprised to hear) which made some interesting observations about the Fermi Paradox. While the podcast primarily deals with truth and is specifically against unsubstantiated beliefs I do need to say that the person being interviewed, David Brin, is most well known as a science fiction writer. But he is also a published scientist so while his ideas can be extremely speculative, you would also hope his speculations might have some basis in reality.

The Fermi Paradox is an idea I have discussed in previous blog entries but I will quickly describe it here again. Basically the paradox is that it seems that life should be very common in the universe and because of the great age of the universe that life should often become intelligent, yet we see no signs of intelligent life anywhere (except Earth presumably).

The universe is very big and it has become increasingly obvious that planets - and planets with roughly the right conditions for life - are very common. In the last few years the total number of known planets has increased from 9 (the planets of the solar system which included Pluto at the time) to over 1000 today (now only 8 in our solar system but many more orbiting other stars).

If we can find a thousand planets so quickly by looking at a tiny part of just one galaxy imagine how many there must be in the universe as a whole. If there are 10 planets orbiting each star and 100 billion stars in a galaxy and 100 billion galaxies in the visible universe there are a lot of planets out there (about 100 billion trillion according to my estimate based on these conservative numbers).

We have known for some time that the universe is very old: about 13.7 billion years by modern estimates. It is also known that the Sun and Earth, while still being very old, are much younger than the universe as a whole. The Earth is about 4.5 billion years old. So it follows there are potentially planets many billions of years older than ours which might have life billions of years more advanced.

I know it's not that simple because first generation stars can't form solid planets and life might require a whole series of fortunate accidents to get started, plus some of my numbers above are very rough guesses, but in general it seems reasonable to assume there should be billions of civilisations at least as advanced as ours out there.

So where are they?

Some people think intelligent aliens have visited Earth already which explains many UFO stories, but no UFO story has been positively proved to be an alien visitor and the phenomena described by people who have seen UFOs seems very unlike what we would expect from real extraterrestrials.

Maybe they might not be that obvious. Maybe we need to look systematically for alien intelligence. Well that has happened to a limited extent with various SETI projects which are mainly searching for radio signals with appear to have an artificial origin. So far there has been no result which can really be taken too seriously although there have been a few interesting findings, including the "Wow signal" which I might discuss in another blog entry.

So that's the Fermi Paradox. What is Brin's explanation for this apparent paradox?

He basically says that the assumption that life naturally proceeds to intelligent life then to a civilisation with advanced technology isn't necessarily true.

He thinks civilisations on this planet have primarily followed a dominant pyramidal, oligarchic structure which represses progress in science, and is hyper-conservative. Currently most countries are democratic and encourage technological progress but that is the exception in the history of the world, not the rule. Look at how Rome and Greece ended after encouraging starts and how the Dark Ages held back the advances started in earlier times. It is rather depressing.

And look at the popularity of the crazy, superstitious, anti-scientific conservatism in the US today if you want a modern example. It's certainly conceivable that the US could go the same was as those previous empires.

So Brin thinks a similar process might be common on other planets where intelligence gets started. Since similar biological and social evolutionary processes might happen everywhere the idea has some merit although it's clearly highly speculative. The problem with the study of life in the Universe is that we only have one example (Earth) to draw conclusions from!

If advanced technology is rare then it makes our responsibility to pursue it even greater. Brin thinks it might be humans responsibility to rescue the rest of the universe from anti-progressive, ultra-conservatism! Yes, I know this is really drawing massive conclusions from almost no evidence, but it is an interesting idea.

I'm not sure if he's ever written a science fiction novel based on this theme because I haven't ready many of his books. But he has such an interesting way of thinking about this subject that I think I might put some of his books on my reading list!


Comment 1 (3409) by Doug Mackie on 2013-01-19 at 22:19:23:

Frank Tipler a US physicist (and an intelligent design fruit loop) asked: Where are the self replicating von Neuman machine space probes? en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Von_Neumann_probe.

Carl Sagan touchingly suggested that enlightened self interest and benevolence to the galaxy as a whole would stop *intelligent* creatures from creating such machines.

Fred Saberhagen disagreed.


Comment 2 (3410) by OJB on 2013-01-20 at 22:26:22:

Yes, self-replicating machines should be another sign that intelligence exists. So where are they? It seems unlikely they would't exist at all but some built-in restriction would surely exists to stop them reproducing too much. Maybe they exist but in a more subtle form which we haven't noticed.


Comment 3 (3411) by Doug Mackie on 2013-01-21 at 22:55:54:

Malthus explained the built in restrictions to stop other self replicating machines from reproducing too much.


Comment 4 (3412) by OJB on 2013-01-22 at 11:52:52:

Of course everything is self limiting, especially with life, but sometimes those limiting factors don't activate until the replicating entity (living or artificial) has had a seriously detrimental effect on its environment. I'm guessing the Von Neumann machines need to be limited before that natural mechanism kicks in.


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