July 26, 2006


Alone in the Universe (Iain Murray, The American Enterprise)

As a long-time devotee of science fiction, I have always been excited by the possibility that mankind might encounter extraterrestrial life. But I have always tried to apply the rules of logic and reason to those prospects. And it is becoming increasingly clear to me, and others, that merely wanting to believe is not enough.

As our observation methods have improved, we've learned that somewhere on the order of 20-50 percent of all stars have planets orbiting them. We have no idea whether life-friendly planets are common, or what the chances are that life, much less intelligent life, exists on such planets, but if we assume that there is nothing special about our own solar system, we come up with some pretty optimistic numbers. Astronomers Frank Drake and Carl Sagan suggested that there could be 10 million civilizations as advanced as or more advanced than us in the galaxy today.

Such a theory, however, begs an important question, one raised by Italian physicist Enrico Fermi way back in 1950. He turned to his lunch partners at Los Alamos, who included Edward Teller, and asked simply, "Where is everybody?" If intelligent, communicating life is common, why haven't we seen evidence of it? After all, if the formation of civilizations has been fairly constant through the long life of the universe, then there should have been billions of them by now.

... We are therefore led to the uncomfortable conclusion that there may be something wrong with the assumption that life can exist in numerous other places. Perhaps our solar system is not average at all. Perhaps life-friendly planets are rare. ... It is quite possible, then, that we are the only civilization around at the moment. ... For life as we know it, we are today left with the unpalatable but rational conclusion that instead of Carl Sagan's millions of civilizations, there is a very good chance we are the only one. The latest decade's discoveries and arguments do not mean that we are alone for certain, but they are probabilities that point strongly in that direction.

Mr. Watson offers the following comment: "This conclusion is, of course, unacceptable to scientific materialists because it would imply that the statisitical arguments against Neo-Darwinism have merit, that life does not arise easily from the random interactions of atoms, and that mankind occupies a unique position in the galaxy."

Puckish (Brothers Judd, 7/30/2003)

Posted by Orrin Judd at July 26, 2006 9:50 PM

As you are well aware, I'm an avid SciFi reader who thinks, occasionally, the genre hits a real home run for ehancing thought regarding Man and the material universe.
The recently completed novel highlighted below was such a book. A sauperb exposition of two completely and disparate species never really understanding each other.
Most likely something you'll never have time for, but maybe one person reading this comment will enjoy.


From Publishers Weekly
Can a proud and warlike people find common cause with their alien conquerors in the face of a greater danger? That's the question that military SF ace Flint (1633) and two-time Nebula Award finalist Wentworth (This Fair Land) ask in this thought-provoking far-future novel. After defeating the human species, some of the sea lion-like Jao consider finishing off the job through mass asteroid strikes. But the young Aille, newly arrived commander of Jao Ground Forces, seeks to win over the humans not only by showing them the threat posed to all intelligent life by the Ekhat, the elder race that raised the Jao to sentience, but also by trying to forge bonds between the vanquishers and the vanquished. The authors excel at describing how human and Jao customs clash, allowing the reader to discover along with the characters the core beliefs of each society and how these beliefs could be adjusted and harmonized with one another. The Ekhat presents a truly alien threat of the sort that could well merge two belligerent societies into one, not just out of fear but through ties of blood and honor. Building to an exhilarating conclusion, this book cries out for a sequel.
Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

From Booklist
Flint and Wentworth drastically modify a venerable sf setup--alien occupiers of a conquered Earth can't understand what makes humans tick--much to the benefit of the book and the greater delight of readers. For one thing, on this Earth, insight and idiocy are equally distributed between the conquerors and conquered, with the invading Jao frequently realizing how much they have to learn and then setting out to learn it. Meanwhile, the humans are playing the same game, with those humans who are hostages to the Jao, or part of the Jao's sepoy army, preparing for war against a still more evil alien race, probably doing more good than the fragmented Resistance accomplishes. If the elaborate detail with which both sides are depicted sometimes slows the pacing, it redounds to Flint and Wentworth's world-building skills. And when Jao clans fall at odds on Earth, on a scale that threatens wholesale devastation, the pacing brisks up enough for anyone's taste. A possible series opener that stands well alone. Roland Green
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

Posted by: Mike Daley at July 26, 2006 10:57 PM

Murray's arguement is ridiculous.

Posted by: Ted at July 27, 2006 12:05 AM

Where are they?

Posted by: oj at July 27, 2006 12:17 AM

They are waiting for us to develop warp-drive technology. When we do, they will de-cloak and make themselves known to us. (Sorry, too much Star Trek.)

Posted by: Dave W at July 27, 2006 12:59 AM

"Where are they" is a question brimming with the charming hubris that characterizes humanity: We haven't seen any evidence that aliens exist, in the thirty years that we've been actively but feebly and haphazardly searching for them, using technology that any star-faring species stopped using an eon ago.
Therefore, it's quite clear that aliens must not exist.

Or maybe it's just proof that humans are still stinky super-bad Losers by galactic civilization standards.

After we've visited a couple of dozen desirable systems and found no trace of life, then perhaps it'll be time to seriously ask such a question. Until then, we're blurting out "are we there yet" before the minivan has even left the driveway.

Posted by: Noam Chomsky at July 27, 2006 1:35 AM

If they're a trillion light years away, they wouldn't have gotten here yet.

Posted by: Joseph Hertzlinger at July 27, 2006 1:58 AM

If you'll permit a second Star Trek reference here, they might all be communicating in such a way that we can't detect. In Star Trek, advanced civilizations communicated via FTL subspace transmissions which we couldn't detect. Sort of like wondering where everybody is when we're using smoke signals and everyone else is using short wave radio. Once humans managed to tap into subspace we learned that there's a whole lot going on.

Posted by: Bryan at July 27, 2006 7:25 AM

Dammit...Bryan's on to us...

Posted by: Bartman at July 27, 2006 8:13 AM

We're alone.

Posted by: David Cohen at July 27, 2006 8:41 AM

We're alone

Thank G-d!

Posted by: The Other Brother at July 27, 2006 8:51 AM

Since we have zero hard data on the subject, the question of extraterrestrial intelligence is a laboratory test of what science does when left to its own devices. And what it does is swing, pendulum-like, between extremes, with a period of about a generation. Every new generation just says the opposite of its parents. (Like the width of neckties or global warming vs. global cooling.)

As science gets weighed down by data, the period increases. In a well-founded area, like mechanics, it can take centuries to swing from one end to the other.

Posted by: Bob Hawkins at July 27, 2006 8:52 AM

We have tons of hard data and it's all negative.

Posted by: oj at July 27, 2006 8:56 AM

Charles Pellegrino's "Killing Star" explains the Fermi Paradox in an interesting way. In it he and others list Pellegrino, Powell and Asimov's Three Laws of Alien Behavior:

#1: Their survival will be more important than our survival.
#2: Wimps don't become top dogs. [Or, any chance we can wipe them out is too big a risk for them to take.]
#3: They will assume the first two laws apply to us.

It's fairly easy to use big solar arrays to accumulate enough anti-matter to propel a smallish
spacecraft/missle to 92% or so of c. As soon as anyone with space capacity hears radio signals, they can, should and will set about building a relativistic missile as fast as possible and send it on an intercept course. At .92 of lightspeed, it is too fast to detect in time, and too energetic to stop or intercept. It penetrates the atmosphere in about a millisecond, leaving a 20-200 mile diameter vacuum hole, and tosses crustal debris 1000+ miles up. That column collapses and scours the surface, and leaves black skies for a few months or years...everywhere. The impact is a few hundred million megatons, or about 10,000 times the total nuclear arsenal of Earth at its peak. Some thermophilic bacteria might survive its effects.

So that's the answer to Fermi's Paradox ("Where are they?") Every race careless or naive enough to broadcast, even briefly and by accident while developing radio, has targetted itself. As a result, all techno-societies have been destroyed by others. (With the time lags involved, mutual destruction is both likely and easy.) All we can conclude from our own survival so far is that none are left within about 35 ly of Earth (turnaround time for signal out, missile back.)

Posted by: tps at July 27, 2006 9:00 AM

If everyone else has destroyed each other we're alone.

Posted by: oj at July 27, 2006 9:24 AM

Charles Stross' explanation, in Accelerando, is that once a civilization develops the Internet, they stop paying attention to the Universe.

Posted by: David Cohen at July 27, 2006 9:33 AM

Which this Internet discussion refutes.

Posted by: oj at July 27, 2006 9:42 AM

Yep, with almost no confidence whatsoever, I can say the 'Others' are rare or nonexistent.

I just finished a good book by George Basalla, Civilized Life in the Universe, which gives a detailed history of SETI. It has a whole chapter devoted to Carl Sagan alone (it must be admitted that Sagan's enthusiasm, charm, and skilled rhetoric advanced the cause of SETI much more than anyone else).

To sum up, Basalla notes that SETI is dominated by physical sciences types (astronomers, physicists, engineers), and gives short shrift to biologists & historians. The latter group sees contingency everywhere, and concludes that life, especially intelligent life, is going to be fantastically rare. Also, the religious overtones of the search are brought into bold relief. Finally, he highlights the anthropological straightjacket we are in: we assume the aliens are somewhat like us in their choices of technology & science when it is overwhelmingly likely they will be so different than us as to be incapable of communication.

He is especially good at showing how early thought about ET (by early I mean Greeks up to the Enlightenment) looks ridiculously anthropocentric, but that we don't recognize the same limitations about current searches.

Posted by: Bruce Cleaver at July 27, 2006 10:19 AM

I want a green Orion slave girl, dammit.

Posted by: Bryan at July 27, 2006 10:25 AM

Make it two.

Posted by: Bruce Cleaver at July 27, 2006 10:31 AM

From what little we know of the dynamics of solar system formation, it's becoming clear that the earth's large, nearby moon is freakishly unlikely. There are plausible theories as to why such a moon might be necessary for evolution of life.

Posted by: Mike Earl at July 27, 2006 10:46 AM

We're not alone. We're just the first.

Posted by: Raoul Ortega at July 27, 2006 11:33 AM

The trouble with things that don't exist is that they take so long to find.

Posted by: jd watson at July 27, 2006 11:37 AM

A decade ago, theorists thought they had SS formation all figured out, because they could finally make systems on a computer that looked like ours. Before that, they kept getting strange things like gas giants migrating inwards, highly elliptical orbits, etc., that we KNEW were not right because that's not what WE look like, and we KNOW that WE are perfectly average. Then technology advanced enough to where we could look for other planets, and, shockingly!, we started seeing all sorts of systems that look nothing like ours. It must be stated that current technology means that we are biased towards these strange systems, but that doesn't yet tell us whether there are many (or any) other Earths out there...

The problem with SETI is the same as that of modern climatology. The field is populated with True Believers, which, from a standpoint of good science, is A Bad Thing.

Posted by: b at July 27, 2006 11:45 AM

There's also what might be called the "Loch Ness Monster Effect."

It's all a function, I guess, of wanting to live in the most interesting possible universe. If you're walking by any old lake and you see some indistinct shape in the water, it could be a fish or a turtle or a piece of debris, and you probably won't think it's anything but mundane. Legend has it that there's some sort of sea serpent critter in Loch Ness. Indeed, the very idea of living in a universe with a Loch Ness Monster in it is so clearly more interesting than living in a universe with no Loch Ness Monster, so there's an automatic bias toward wanting things like the Loch Ness Monster to be real. Consequently, if you're walking past Loch Ness and you see an indistinct shape in the water, your expectations subconsciously biases you toward thinking that you saw the legendary sea serpent critter and dismissing the more mundane and likely possibilties. ("It could be a fish or a turtle or a piece of debris, maybe, but it would be so much cooler if it was the Loch Ness Monster.")

Similarly, a universe full of interesting intelligent aliens would seem to be a more interesting one to live in than a universe where Man is the only intelligent life form. Therefore, there's a natural desire to see evidence of abundant intelligent life in indistinct data, and to exclude more mundane possibilities.

Posted by: Mike Morley at July 27, 2006 12:52 PM

Or there is something nasty out there.

We are shouting reruns of "I Love Lucy" at 186,000 miles per second. Like a newborn mewling in the forest, we are calling the wolves down upon us.

- Paraphrased from Greg Bear's novel "The Forge of God"

Posted by: Gideon at July 27, 2006 2:25 PM

Not enough data. We can never prove a negative, but once the sample size becomes large enough we can start making educated guesses. We are not there yet.

Posted by: Chris Durnell at July 27, 2006 3:06 PM

Noam: Good point.

Bryan: Indeed. The use of radio waves may be just a brief interlude in the life of technological civilizations.

Mike: Yes, a universe with extraterrestrial life and intelligence would be more interesting, and does seem to me to be more likely, for all the reasons SETI folks give.

Finally, am I the only person around here who thinks OJ's arguments against the existence of extraterrestrial life are remarkably and amusingly similar to atheist's arguments against the existence of God?

Posted by: PapayaSF at July 27, 2006 3:14 PM

The ideologue always thinks the new evidence that will contradict all of history and prove him right is just around the corner....

Posted by: oj at July 27, 2006 3:17 PM

Sort of like those folks who pray for miracles, eh?

Posted by: PapayaSF at July 27, 2006 3:46 PM

PapayaSF: Um, lots of people observe the miraculous every day, whether through things that happen directly to them, or to others. Sorry if you haven't gotten your own private magic trick yet.

On the other hand, no one has even seen anything that directly or indirectly suggests the existence of extraterrestrials. What was your point again?

Posted by: b at July 27, 2006 3:57 PM

Fermi's question is still a good one, though. If there is advanced alien life, none of it wants to talk to us, and none of it is interested in expansion (a civilization anywhere in our galaxy with even sublight drives would have colonized earth given a million years headstart).

Either the advanced aliens don't exist, or we're in their wildlife preserve.

Posted by: Mike Earl at July 27, 2006 3:58 PM

B: Lots of people see evidence of extraterrestrial life every day, too! Not that that proves anything in a scientific sense, of course.

My point is that SETI proponents, while they are reaching into the unknown, are making arguments using astronomy and statistics and logic. Maybe they are right (I hope so), and I'm willing to hear arguments on both sides, but they deserve a better counter-argument than "Well, where are they? Huh?! Huh?!", which seems to be OJ's position, more or less.

Which is, perhaps not coincidentally, the most simplistic and annoying atheist argument: "Well, where is He? Huh?! Huh?!" So my point is that just as that statement from an atheist is an unsophisticated argument against the existence of The Being Who Lives in the Sky, it's also an unsophisticated argument against the existence of other beings who might live in the sky.

(Isn't it interesting that believers in the One Sky Being are often opposed to believers in Other Sky Beings, and vice versa, when neither have scientific evidence in their favor? Shouldn't most atheists oppose belief in extraterrestrial life on the same grounds they oppose belief in God? Should believers in the One Sky Being be so dismissive of others who believe in intelligent life Out There? Just sayin'.)

And of course SETI circles are mostly true believers. That's true of most intellectual/spiritual/whatever affinity groups. People interested in studying X tend to be people who believe in X. Seminaries don't have a lot of atheists, either.

Mike Earl: Or they've been around, but now they're dead and/or gone.

Posted by: PapayaSF at July 27, 2006 4:43 PM

It's right in front of your noses. They're here, of course, but they strictly observe the Time Zone Rule.

Posted by: joe shropshire at July 27, 2006 4:59 PM

With ever more sensitive radio telescopes and sophisticated computer search algorithms, SETI is beginning to draw a few negative conclusions based on the search results to date: To wit, there is no civilzation in the galaxy that is actively trying to be found at radio wavelengths.

Any civilization deliberately shouting 'Hello everybody!' at wavelengths clear enough to be detected by a cursory search (such as the hydrogen band) would have been seen by now.

Posted by: Gideon at July 27, 2006 5:02 PM

PapayaSF: A very poor analogy. Good scientists are true believers in science in the sense that they believe that asking questions & making observations is a good way to obtain certain truths. SETI True Believers already "know" the truth that their observations will tell them, which, as with modern climatology and certain other fields, is the perfect recipe for Bad Science.

Posted by: b at July 27, 2006 6:59 PM


SETI just uses those to prove they aren't there, which the rest of us could have told you. But you Darwinists are wed to the quackjery so you have to believe.

Posted by: oj at July 27, 2006 7:05 PM

Before we throw in the towel just yet, maybe we should take one more lap around the galaxy. Then we'll see who knows what.

Posted by: EPT at July 27, 2006 9:50 PM

The ideologue always thinks the new evidence that will contradict all of history and prove him right is just around the corner...

Except, of course, that there's no history to contradict regarding non-human aliens.

The 10th century Europeans and South Americans lived in mutual ignorance of each others' existence.
Once the Europeans got out and about in the world, they found out where humans lived, and where they didn't.

We aren't out and about the galaxy yet, not even our own solar system. Our speculations about the existence or not of other intelligences in the Universe are therefore based on nothing whatsoever.

We don't even know yet how plentiful Earth-like worlds are.

Posted by: Noam Chomsky at July 28, 2006 12:49 AM

Semanaries are full of atheists. 140 years ago, Nietzsche was a student. About 100 years ago, so was Stalin.

Many of today's liberal churches demand atheistic seminarians. The Episcopal Church has a clergy that is probably 60% un-believing. Other denominations are close behind.

I recently re-read "Childhood's End". It was sad because it seemed dated, and because the people were generally so bland. But I suppose mice are supposed to be that way.

If aliens wanted to conquer us, or talk with us, they would. So either they prefer the quiet, or there are none nearby (or at all). Wanting them to be there (a la Star Trek) doesn't make it so. And why do certain people want to believe that they would be inherently 'nobler' than man? Even in Clarke's book, the visitors were basically glorified shepherds.

Posted by: jim hamlen at July 28, 2006 1:14 AM


All of history refutes the fanciful notion of life elsewhere.

Posted by: oj at July 28, 2006 10:54 AM

"All of history" doesn't include us actually looking for non-Terrestrial life in other star systems, and therefore there's no history of us failing to find such life, only of failing to look.

Posted by: Noam Chomsky at July 29, 2006 6:37 PM

No amount of SF reading will bring lay people up to the required levels of IMAGINATION required to discuss such hypotheses, pro or con.

See a what a physicist may think:
There is no time, the appearance of time is a consequence of uncertainty.
Space is infinite dimensional and only on the average appears as four dimensional.

From Are We Cruising a Hypothesis Space?

As a layman myself I would however tend to favor the following hypotheses to explain Fermi's Paradox:

- Even when intelligent beings evolve in some alien environment there is no compelling reason that they would develop technology, for lack of motivation (dolphins, orcas, seem quite intelligent) or for lack of ressources (metallic ores, fossil fuels, see also related arguments in Guns, Germs and Steel).

- Intelligent beings ressourceful and agressive enough to develop technology crash their environment and/or civilization in a very short period of time (like we are seemingly about to do), such mere blips are therefore unnoticeable along the scale of cosmological time.

- Intelligent beings ressourceful, technologically savvy and WISE enough, just KEEP QUIET in their home planet.

Posted by: Kevembuangga at August 9, 2006 7:47 AM

It requires just enough imagination to overcome the reality that there are no others.

Posted by: oj at August 9, 2006 8:12 AM