RSS feed for entries


About that lack of little green aliens

Artist’s conception of most earth-like planet so far

(Illustration: NASA, SETI, JPL, via APOD)

The Drake Equation (written out at the end of the post) was invented as a way to think about the probability of meeting aliens as we go about our business. One big factor is of course how many habitable planets there are to begin with. If we refuse to assume we’re special, hundreds of civilizations per galaxy looks like a rather conservative guess, given how many billions of stars there are to work with. But that dumps us straight into the next question.

If there are so many, why haven’t we seen any evidence of aliens? No antimatter-powered spaceship engines like strobes among the stars, no SETI signals, no weird laser bursts, nothing. (UFO sightings seem a bit too private to count as interstellar events.) The assumption is that there’s a Great Filter: something reduces the number of communicative aliens.

In the good old days, people assumed the “something” was that good planets are hard to find. But this is where the recent data on planets is disturbing. Possibly even deeply disturbing.

We’ve had the necessary equipment to look for exoplanets only for a couple of decades and yet we’ve already found hundreds of them, including a few rocky ones orbiting in the habitable zone of their stars. That’s just in our little neighborhood. Data from biochemistry indicates that life arises spontaneously under the right chemical conditions, which are probably fairly common since carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, nitrogen, phosphorus, sulfur, magnesium, iron, and some trace elements are quite common. Data from biology indicates that cells arise spontaneously, and so does multicellularity. So the only step for which we have a sample size of one, is how often do those multicellular organisms develop technological civilizations? The answer for that step, like the others, could well be “all the time.”

If so, the Great Filter is not at the front end. It’s at this end. Our end. The technological civilizations must have short lifespans.

And it’s not really that hard to see why, if they’re anything like us. But it may go beyond merely killing each other with pollution or wars. It may go to the relationship between technological capabilities and fundamental concepts of social organization. That’s something I’ve wondered about in my work on government.

Technology hugely increases the available physical power in a society, and that also increases social power. Holding all that at our fingertips, as it were, means that every action is also hugely magnified. … Enough of it, used badly, can destroy the society that couldn’t figure out how to control the power of the people using it.

That is not hyperbole. It might seem like it because modern technological societies are only at the very earliest stages of being able to destroy the planet. … A big nuclear war could have done it. Global warming could do it. In a far future when everyone has personal spaceships, an evil mastermind could orbit a light-bending device between us and the Sun which would shade the whole Earth to death before the machine could be found and destroyed. There isn’t just one way to destroy a highly technological society, and the more advanced it is, the more ways there are. Bad governments can do it. All the people together can do it with tiny actions that add up. Mad individuals can do it with sabotage. There are so many ways that it is literally only a matter of time. The more technologically advanced the society, the more essential limits to power are for its very survival.

The growing desire to limit power and decrease inequality could be more than the resentment of the have-nots, more than cute idealism from those who don’t yet need to get a job, more than some pie-in-the-sky luxury we can’t do right now. The grassroots Occupy movement and the great big oaks like Piketty may be feeling the same reality. We must have an equitable society to survive. It is not optional.

That immense silence between the stars may be a communication after all. It may be the universe telling us to shape up or die.

Drake Equation:     N = R* fp ne fl fi fc L     where,

  • N = The number of communicative civilizations
  • R* = The rate of formation of suitable stars (stars such as our Sun)
  • fp = The fraction of those stars with planets. (Current evidence indicates that planetary systems may be common for stars like the Sun.)
  • ne = The number of Earth-like worlds per planetary system
  • fl = The fraction of those Earth-like planets where life actually develops
  • fi = The fraction of life sites where intelligence develops
  • fc = The fraction of communicative planets (those on which electromagnetic communications technology develops)
  • L = The “lifetime” of communicating civilizations
    Print This Post Print This Post

One World Order — evil twin version

I see this: “Experts said [Putin] is also promoting “Putinism” – a conservative, ultra-nationalist form of state capitalism – as a global alternative to Western democracy.”

And this (pdf) which amasses enough data to make even Serious People sort-of-admit that the US is an undemocratic oligarchy.

So we’ve achieved one world order. Not quite like the founders of the League of Nations had hoped.

Captain Picard of Star Trek transformed into a Borg

Captain Picard of Star Trek transformed into a Borg

    Print This Post Print This Post

Gently shout disaster

I don’t envy the IPCC. The International Panel on Climate Change studies looming calamity, and has to talk about it in polite, soft, encouraging tones. Otherwise they’re called “alarmist.” “Unrealistic.” Or (eeeek) “pessimists.”

So we’re facing flooding over coasts where billions of people live, people who won’t be able to farm any more so they and others will starve, people who will move to higher ground where nobody will want them and will try to push them out. We’re facing droughts and floods and freezes and fires due to climate forcing. We’re facing pests and diseases moving into new areas where there’s no resistance to them. We’re facing the triggering of feedback loops like the release of greenhouse gases from the formerly frozen Arctic and the release of methane from icy deposits on continental shelves. At that point we can push our puny human contribution down to zero and it won’t matter. The build-up will continue and there will be exactly nothing we can do about it. And that’s only the beginning of what we’re facing. Our grandchildren, your grandchildren, are the ones who’ll find out just what it is that we’ve done.


That would be rude. And depressing. Unless you have something nice to say, don’t say anything at all. If you don’t have a solution, stop being a problem. Oh, and don’t tell us to change anything.

(That’s why it’s also rude to point out the real world evidence: we could be using 100% sustainable renewables by 2050(pdf) with less dislocation than the Great Recession. Or take it from the IPCC itself. Also a summary of options in 2011, before recent improvements.)

So the IPCC is doing its best. They’ve said, “Um. I hate to interrupt or anything but, uh, we really, really, really, really, really need to do something. But, ah, if that’s too harsh, you can also tell yourself you’ll try geoengineering.”

There aren’t enough swear words in the English language to do justice to the idiots who want that kind of “optimism.” As I said in one of my many earlier posts on this topic, we’ve been so good at controlling planetary processes, our best alternative is to mess with them.

    Print This Post Print This Post

Not so cynical about Afghanistan

You know, mostly the world seems to be going to hell in a handbasket. Afghanistan, I would have said, has been fasttracked.

And then today I saw this.

Afghani man backpacking a ballot box up a mountainous trail in the rain

Ballot boxes were carried by hand and by donkey all over Afghanistan

(Ahmad Masood / Reuters)

Sure, Afghanistan is corrupt and war-torn and sexist and poor. They know that. They know that no election is going to make a big difference all at once. And yet they carry ballot boxes up mountains to small villages because they can see a better world even if they don’t live there.

They may make it.

Which means there may be hope even for the rest of us.

    Print This Post Print This Post