The Fermi Paradox

In a number of posts I’ve said something like “we can do something to address the risks associated with climate change if we wish to do so” and regularly get challenged as to what I mean. All I really mean is that humans are an intelligent, rational species and so we should be able to understand the risks associated with climate change and should be able to determine some optimal manner in which to address these risks, while – of course – also considering all the other related issues. It is simply a trivial statement about us as a species and my intent isn’t to suggest that we will actually do so, or that it will be easy.

However, I can see a couple of reasons why this type of suggestion is challenged. It is possible that even though we – individually – can make intelligent and rational decisions, it is possible that – collectively – we can no longer really do so. Maybe society, or our civilisations, are now so complex that it is simply not possible to view things in such a simplistic way. What might seem obvious to a small group, is no longer obvious when dealing with a group that is much larger, and much more diverse. An alternative way to put this might be that there is no way to make decisions that would be regarded as the most rational by all involved.

Another problem that I can see is that by saying we can do this implies that there is some other we who might be observing us doing so. Another, intelligent, technologically advanced civilisation who might come along and ask “why did you do that?” If they don’t exist, then maybe framing it in this way doesn’t make sense? So, this is my rather convoluted way in which to introduce the topic of this post; the Fermi paradox. The point behind the Fermi paradox is that there are billions of stars in the galaxy that have ages similar to, or older than, the Sun. Many of these stars will probably have planets and, some, will probably be similar to the Earth and be capable of supporting life. If we aren’t special in some way, then we might expect some of these to host technologically advanced civilisations, capable of exploring the galaxy. If so, where are they?

Rather than explaining the various solutions to the Fermi paradox, I’ll just post the short video below (H/T Willard). In fact, I had been intending to make this post somewhat more light-hearted than some of my more recent posts. I don’t think I’ve quite achieved that, but maybe people could bear that in mind when commenting 🙂 .

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100 Responses to The Fermi Paradox

  1. Rachel M says:

    I always thought it was the other way around. That we are more intelligent collectively than as individuals. I can see how having a wide range of views and a diversity of views may help with decision making. I imagine that mistakes will be made but that over the long term, collectively we’ll make the right decisions. Good video!

  2. Yvan Dutil says:

    My own take in this issue:
    Sustainability: A Tedious Path to Galactic Colonization
    http://arxiv.org/pdf/0711.1777.pdf

    Cost Analysis of Space Exploration for Extraterrestrial Civilisations
    https://www.researchgate.net/publication/241582527_Cost_Analysis_of_Space_Exploration_for_Extraterrestrial_Civilisations

    Now I am working on increasing the value of L.

  3. cgs says:

    Really nice video. Thanks for posting! As I came to the end and the narrator gave his final possible solution to the Fermi Paradox, I couldn’t help but think of two of my favorite quotes – ones that are probably familiar to many scientific folk.

    “The universe is a pretty big place. If it’s just us, seems like an awful waste of space.”
    ― Carl Sagan, Contact

    “Sometimes I think we’re alone in the universe, and sometimes I think we’re not. In either case the idea is quite staggering.”
    -Arthur C. Clarke

    Let’s hope that there is a type 3 civilization out there, but one with a more benevolent character than the one described! One that is there to help life pass through barriers – not be one itself.

  4. Rachel,
    I see what you mean. Maybe there is a sweet-spot, though. One individual can make pretty silly decisions, but too many people can never quite agree?

    Yvan,
    Thanks, I’ll have a look at those.

    cgs,
    No problem. Good quotes. I’ll have to try and remember those 🙂

  5. M&S says:

    I can recommend Stephen Baxter’s Manifold trilogy for some of the most interesting explorations of Fermi’s Paradox in science fiction

  6. dikranmarsupial says:

    Looking at a different example:

    All I really mean is that humans are an intelligent, rational species and so we should be able to understand the risks associated with running up an enormous national debt and should be able to determine some optimal manner in which to address these risks, while – of course – also considering all the other related issues.

    Sadly, as a species, we are not very rational when it comes to “discounting”, which is, I suspect, also why we also tend to have a problem with obesity. We are just not very good at balancing immediate benefits against long term losses, and our actions tend not to agree with our stated rational opinions.

  7. The economy is a good example of a case where reasonable people disagree often totally on the consequences of a particular action.

    One typical issue of that nature is, whether increasing government spending is for good or for bad when the economy is sluggish. The Keynesian answer is typically that increased spending (i.e. taking more public dept) is good while more right-leaning economists oppose that.

    Both sides might agree that the answer depends on the reasons for the sluggish economy, but disagree strongly on the reasons or on the quantitative arguments that are decisive.

    While it should be possible to agree widely on some facts related to climate change, I do not believe that reaching agreement on actual policies is necessarily much easier than in the case of economy.

  8. dikranmarsupial says:

    I’m not sure even Keynes would agree that increased borrowing to encourage a sluggish economy would be a good idea if it led to a national debt of 80% GDP. However, that is missing the point, even when we do have what we consider to be a rational plan today, we often don’t have the willpower to stick to it, either as individuals, or as a society. “just one more wafer-thin increase in borrowing, Mr Creosote?”

  9. However, that is missing the point, even when we do have what we consider to be a rational plan today, we often don’t have the willpower to stick to it, either as individuals, or as a society.

    I guess one issue is that even a rational plan will lead to some form of suffering for someone/some group. Do we increase taxation, or cut spending? Do we cut funding for healthcare and make people pay for some of it? etc. It might be relatively easy to come up with what sounds like a rational plan (people do it all the time on blogs or in pubs 🙂 ) but it’s much harder to actually implement it when reality starts to bite.

  10. People want answers without putting in the work. What is that SETI@home project all about? You know the one where people could volunteer their PC cycles for signal processing so as to perhaps discover intelligent life somewhere hiding in the din of space noise? Or was that a microwave oven? 🙂

    Why aren’t we doing this with information here on Earth? This could be misplaced Lonborgian priorities on my part, where we could probably do both.

    What brought this up was that I just asked this same question on the Azimuth Forum
    http://forum.azimuthproject.org/discussion/comment/14618/#Comment_14618

    The really practical idea is that we are looking at ENSO data so that perhaps we can determine the underlying governing behavior as to when an El Nino will develop.

    Should not this be child’s play in comparison to the goals of SETI ?

    I managed to lure an AGW denier over to the forum who claims he has an algorithm to predict ENSO with unbelievable accuracy. Right now he is being circumspect as to precisely how he is doing it, but would it not be kind of embarrassing for mainstream climate science if he figured this out?

    Lots of rhetorical questions on my part, but I wasn’t the one who brought up the Fermi Paradox 🙂

  11. I guess the other aspect of recent economics that may be relevant to climate policy is that the best thing that we could have done economically (I would think) is to not have had the banking crisis in the first place.

  12. SM says:

    Of course, climate issues provide the answer to Fermi’s Paradox…

  13. JCH says:

    There is no such thing as money, so what is 80% of nothing? An economy is a house of cards in which we have irrational confidence it will remain standing. It won’t, but psychologically we act in oblivious ignorance of that reality. Even when it is isn’t collapsing, it’s constantly destructing within. There is no substance to any of it. The more obliviously irrational we are, the better the economy. See 2006. A house of cards is all we will ever have, and people who think they know how to keep it standing with their little rule sets are easily the craziest of all. When Buffett says to never bet against the American economy, what he is recognizing is we are the best house-of-card builders on the face of the earth; meaning, Americans are the biggest conglomeration of psychotics on the planet.

  14. Net Denizen says:

    @SM:

    Of course, climate issues provide the answer to Fermi’s Paradox

    I also think that this hypothesis is a good choice to resolve the Fermi Paradox, since carbon-based fuels seem likely to be ubiquitous in the universe. Another plausible choice is that most civilizations set themselves back with war too frequently to progress to interstellar exploration.

    On a related front, I hope for more powerful space telescopes that might allow us to examine extrasolar planets’ atmospheres for synthetic gases (e.g., CFCs), and thus determine whether they host/have hosted technological civilizations.

  15. I hope for more powerful space telescopes that might allow us to examine extrasolar planets’ atmospheres for synthetic gases (e.g., CFCs), and thus determine whether they host/have hosted technological civilizations.

    Very tough. The Darwin/TPF mission was going to try and do this, but it was cancelled a few years ago. We’ve got some atmospheric measurements for massive, close-in planets, but can’t yet do the more Earth-like planets, and certainly not those that may be in the potentially habitable zone. We’re launching a couple of missions (TESS and CHEOPS – I think) that will get atmospheric measurements, but – again – only for relatively massive, close-in planets (Neptune mass or higher). JWST and E-ELT may do better, but I’m still not sure whether we will have the ability to detect actual biosignatures on exoplanets any time in the near future.

  16. entropicman says:

    The Great Filter concept is depressing.

    So far we’ve passed the nuclear war filter by sheer luck, with climate change, overpopulation, AI and bioweapon filters still ahead in the near future.

    I am not encouraged by remembering one old definition.

    “Intelligence is a tool for achieving goals, but goals are not chosen intelligently.”

    Long-term survival should be a goal for humanity, but very few are thinking that far ahead.

  17. John Hartz says:

    If the human race doesn’t have the intelligence and wherewithall to eliminate nuclear weapons from the face of the Earth, what makes us think we will be able to effectively mitigate climate change?

  18. Willard says:

    A variation on the Fermi paradox: there are billions upon billions of ClimateBall ™ episodes on the Internetz. (…) If there’s any intelligence in them, where is it?

  19. mwgrant says:

    What if we are entangled in a quantum sense with another civilization and they destroy themselves! or vice-versa… oh the agony. I think the gazing at our navel is obstructed by the lint in it. Well, anyway, you can infer my opinion of the Fermi Paradox.

  20. verytallguy11 says:

    Is Fermi’s paradox not simply solved by postulating that interstellar communication and travel is impractical.

    There may be many civilisations as or more advanced than our own, but we, and they, are limited to our home planets simply by virtue of the huge distances and the speed of light.

    This should not be depressing, but an inspiration to nurture the previous sphere we rely upon.

  21. Is Fermi’s paradox not simply solved by postulating that interstellar communication and travel is impractical.

    There may be many civilisations as or more advanced than our own, but we, and they, are limited to our home planets simply by virtue of the huge distances and the speed of light.

    It could well be that this is indeed the case, but our galaxy is about 100000 light years across. Even at 1/100 times the speed of light, it could be traversed in 10 million years. So, maybe impractical, but not impossible. So, I don’t think this qualifies as a solution, but may well be a viable explanation.

  22. jinghis says:

    A theory that I kind of subscribe to is that we are the answer to the Fermi Paradox. Life on earth was seeded from advanced races.

    Our mission if we wish to take it on, is to continue spreading life throughout the Universe.

  23. John Mashey says:

    See long discussion a few years ago. See also this by Charles Stross on energy and SETI FAQ on distances for radio detection.
    “Representative results are presented in Tables 1 and 2. The short answer is
    (1) Detection of broadband signals from Earth such as AM radio,
    FM radio, and television picture and sound would be
    extremely difficult even at a fraction of a light-year
    distant from the Sun. For example, a TV picture having 5
    MHz of bandwidth and 5 MWatts of power could not be detected
    beyond the solar system even with a radio telescope with 100
    times the sensitivity of the 305 meter diameter Arecibo
    telescope.

    (2) Detection of narrowband signals is more resonable out to
    thousands of light-years distance from the Sun depending on
    the transmitter’s transmitting power and the receiving
    antenna size.

    (3) Instruments such as the Arecibo radio telescope could detect
    narrowband signals originating thousands of light-years from
    the Sun.

    (4) A well-designed 12 ft diameter amateur radio telescope could
    detect narrowband signals from 1 to 100 light-years distance
    assuming the transmitting power of the transmitter is in the
    terawatt range.”

    Basically, we will likely only ever hear other civilizations if:
    a) The spend Terawatt(s) to beam *us* for some reason. They won’t hear us by accident.
    b) They are located the right distnance away that signal are arriving ~now.
    c) they are very persistent.
    d) They don’t expect answers back for a while, if ever.

    The real bottom line is that one *must* do energy caculations both for space travel and for communication.

  24. entropicman says:

    A generation ship, perhaps converted from an asteroid, is not impossible to our physics and within our potential technology. Similarly, there is no physical law precluding large transmittera.The main barrier might be economic.

    One answer to the Fermi Paradox is that, like ourselves, all those alien bureaucrats are willing to spend enough to listen, but not spend enough to pay for transmitters or spacecraft.

    “If all these aliens want to contact us, let them spend the money” 🙂

  25. Detecting radio emissions from Earth-like civilizations more than 100 light years away seems difficult. David Brin’s Existence explored the Fermi paradox and argued that physical messages are more effective than radio signals. Diffraction limits detectable radio power at galactic distances, but large physical objects don’t diffract. Also, a radio signal needs to be powered continuously until a civilization develops a receiver in the target solar systems, which could take millions of years. But a physical object could be sent using less energy and simply wait until a technological civilization emerges.

  26. Brandon Gates says:

    Willard,

    If there’s any intelligence in them, where is it?

    Somewhere in the difference between clever and cogent.

  27. entropicman says:

    Dumb Scientist.

    We have four interstellar spacecraft in transit, two Pioneers and two Voyagers, complete with messages. Unfortunately none of them is aimed at a nearby star.

    Even if they were, travel time would be around 40,000 years.

    Brin’s scenarios are possible, but would still need more work and investment than we are currently willing to invest.

  28. Sure entropicman, but it’s less work and investment than using radio. Radio (or gamma rays as used in Greg Egan’s Incandescence for their superior bandwidth) communication has the advantage of speed, but that’s it. Physical messages would require less energy, and once sent they’d have to be autonomous so they’d survive the collapse of our civilization and wait until the target star system develops a technological civilization. In contrast, radio/gamma transmitters would have to be powered continuously, perhaps for millions of years.

    We’re not even currently willing to invest in our own food and water security, so I agree that we’re not currently willing to invest what’s required to contact another civilization. But Brin’s insight does suggest that SETI should consider looking for anomalous objects in the asteroid belt, rather than focusing solely on radio communication.

  29. By the way, Greg Egan’s short story Riding the Crocodile is freely available, and set in the same universe as his novel Incandescence. Greg Egan’s “Amalgam” is the most plausible galactic civilization I’ve ever read about, mainly because Egan actually obeys the laws of physics (e.g. no FTL).

  30. entropicman says:

    Dumb Scientist

    We may not get much opportunity to go searching for alien probes.

    With three great filters (resource depletion, overpopulation and climate change) already approaching criticality there is a significant possibility that we may become trapped on Earth before we can establish ourselves out in the Solar System.

  31. EM,
    Well, our ability to travel in space peaked in the 1970s. Can barely manage low-earth orbit these days.

  32. entropicman, I know. Sometimes I like to pretend that we have a future, but that’s getting harder every day. So I escape into fiction like Geoffrey Landis’s Approaching Perimelasma.

  33. entropicman says:

    aTTP

    We have used resources accumulated over 3 billion years of metal ore production and 400 million years of fossil fuel production to reach our current apogee and cannot sustain it for long.

    This may be Earth’s only opportunity to get an intelligent species out into the universe. If our civilisation collapses before getting out of the bottle, there will be too little left for any possible successor to try again.

  34. entropicman says:

    Dumb Scientist

    Like yourself, I have spent a lifetime reading science fiction. The hope was always that we would end up with a hi-tech interstellar civilisation.

    Instead our future looks dystopian, more like Soylent Green.

    Goodnight

  35. It’s only hopeless if we give up, and I intend to keep fighting the merchants of (unwarranted) doubt. We still have a small chance of giving our descendants the opportunity to perform The Planck Dive.

  36. Did anyone find any intelligence via the SETI@home deal yet?

    Why not try something where you might succeed? We have well over 300 continuous years worth of data in ENSO records and ENSO proxy records available and the pattern for its quasi-periodic behavior is likely encoded for someone to discover.

    … doing my best Lonborgian playing-a-scold imitation.

  37. guthrie says:

    The comments are also interesting and informative.

  38. John Hartz says:

    Don’t worry! Be happy!

    Our Galaxy Could be Mixing With Andromeda’s Supersized Halo by Ian O’Neill, Discovery, May 8, 2015

  39. BBD says:

    If we accept that any technological species requires energy to build itself, then this begs the question of where the energy first came from.

    Before geothermal boreholes are drilled, the mining and smelting technology to make drills must evolve. Same goes for solar panels (or Dyson Spheres) or wind turbines or nuclear reactors

    What (other than fossil fuels) might be the primary energy source for our alien chums out there?

  40. BBD says:

    DumbSci

    entropicman, I know. Sometimes I like to pretend that we have a future, but that’s getting harder every day.

    Glad to hear it’s not just me.

  41. Bwana_Mrefu says:

    Surely the problem is that are too many Great Filters approaching? Never mind climate change, think about the potential mischief inherent in, say, the development of genome manipulation, and AI.
    It is clear to me that our knowledge accumulation rate is not commensurate with our, essentially unchanged, great ape biochemical responses to our environment. The older I get, the more I think that Fermi didn’t observe a paradox. Maybe it is just evidence that global civilizations follow parabola?

  42. Wind and water mills, like we did before FF.

  43. Eli Rabett says:

    We are not past the nuclear war filter.

    We don’t have a clue about how to build generation ships BTW this is why the “ecomodernism” nonsense is nonsense

  44. “There is a legend, that one day will come a species who achieves the impossible. Beings who notice and wisely evade all traps and pitfalls, yet do so while moving forward. A race that soberly studies the art of survival, the craft of maturity, and the science of compassion.

    It is said this will be a new dawn. That long-awaited civilization will set forth to rescue all promising new races, teaching them the skills to make it and survive. And they will lift up those who tumbled earlier.

    They will light a path for all.”

    — M’m por’lock, in David Brin’s Existence

  45. BBD says:

    Victor Venema

    Wind and water mills, like we did before FF.

    It’s interesting that high carbon steel and aluminium post-date the fossil fuel era.

  46. Eli Rabett says:

    “One typical issue of that nature is, whether increasing government spending is for good or for bad when the economy is sluggish. The Keynesian answer is typically that increased spending (i.e. taking more public dept) is good while more right-leaning economists oppose that.”

    The Keynsian answer is to increase government spending when the economy is sluggish and decrease it when the economy recovers.

    The so called 90% limit was a spreadsheet error.

  47. BBD says:

    It’s interesting that high carbon steel and aluminium post-date the fossil fuel era.

    Oops. Should be:

    It’s interesting that high carbon steel and aluminium date from the fossil fuel era.

  48. angech2014 says:

    Problems are the tyrannies of time and distance, very hard to overcome. Secondly the danger of transit, needs a life form that does not value it’s own hide too much. Third is the evolution of the spreading life form, Will it overdevelop and come back to attack its originator.
    On the Fermi Paradox otherwise no sensible, super intelligent life form would let us observe it observing us anyway.
    Reasons for visiting would be the coffee, the conversation and the comedy.
    If otherwise we would not be here now anyway.

  49. Eli Rabett says:

    FWIW more detail on why the so called 90 or 80% debt to GDP limit is nonsense

  50. bill says:

    Why the Universe is empty: because a great many otherwise demonstrably intelligent beings look at the notion of a ‘Type 1’ or ‘Type 2’ or – ye Gods! [pun intended] – ‘Type 3’ civilization and say ‘Great Idea!’

    There’s your ‘filter’ right there.

    We’re stuck on this rock, people, and all the evidence indicates ‘Type 1’ alone’s gonna ruin it. Holding to the notion that if things got really bad – they are! – we could always bugger off to somewhere else (because Science!) is an absurd – and very, very dangerous – delusion.

  51. izen says:

    There may/probably is intelligence in the material universe, it is just we are not part of it. Yet.

    Why on Earth(!) would any intelligent entity bother with a animal just about smart enough to bang the rocks together, but still lives in a uncontrolled ‘natural’ exosphere.
    Hell we are still dependent on the original evolved biology, having made no attempt to modify or control our DNA or institute any other enhancements to our limited natural, or unintelligent, design.

    And time-scales matter, before ~1850 this question would have been meaningless.
    http://longnow.org/clock/

  52. BBD says:

    Any thoughts on the primary energy source question?

    If we accept that any technological species requires energy to build itself, then this begs the question of where the energy first came from.

    Before geothermal boreholes are drilled, the mining and smelting technology to make drills must evolve. Same goes for solar panels (or Dyson Spheres) or wind turbines or nuclear reactors

    What (other than fossil fuels) might be the primary energy source for our alien chums out there?

  53. It’s difficult/dangerous to extrapolate from an N=1 sample, but I thought Victor’s answer of “wind and water mills” was a reasonable guess for species that evolve on a terrestrial planet. Burning wood (and later fossil fuels) harnesses the primary energy source at the base of our ecosystem. On terrestrial planets that’s ultimately sunlight, but on Europa, Titan or Enceladus it would probably be tidal heating.

    Of course, a species building a Dyson sphere needs to have moved on to nuclear fusion or something even more powerful, like direct conversion of matter into energy (if that’s even possible).

  54. BBD says:

    I don’t think old skool windmills and wood can produce enough energy to bootstrap a technological civilisation. We couldn’t do it, after all. The industrial revolution only kicked off with coal.

    After sleeping on this, I think it is a key, essential question.

  55. Maybe. That’s the way it worked in our N=1 sample, at least. Sadly, I tend to agree with entropicman when he says that our possible successors might not be able to bootstrap a technological civilization because we’ve already used up most of the easily available ores and fossil fuels.

    But our weakness might not be universal. Some civilizations might be able to leapfrog from burning wood to building solar panels and nuclear power plants (e.g. Niven and Pournelle’s “Moties”). I don’t have the foggiest idea how to even begin answering that question.

  56. BBD says:

    DumbSci

    But our weakness might not be universal. Some civilizations might be able to leapfrog from burning wood to building solar panels and nuclear power plants

    I honestly don’t see how they could do that. There’s an energy gap.

  57. If we don’t seem to understand true sustainable living on our planet, how can we build a workable ‘generation ship’? On the other hand if we can crack the issues of sustainability required to make a spaceship work over generations, maybe we will realise that exactly the same problems apply to ‘Spaceship Earth’, just scaled up a few times.

    The question of ‘if one person is intelligent, why is a whole planet of people not clever enough?’, is an interesting one. The answer is that unlike ants, we’re all individuals driven by personal needs, desires and beliefs. When people are driven by a simply-defined common cause, like immediate invasion by a foreign tribe, we can pull together and move mountains.

    Unfortunately the ‘sustainability of global life-support systems’ problem that we’re facing at the moment due to our numbers, is too nebulous and long term for most people to understand. This is why explaining (for instance) what climate change is likely to result in for individuals is the most important aspect of generating action. If it’s not brought down to the individual level the message doesn’t have an impact. The anti-mitigation crowd know this; that’s why they always concentrate on warning about “wind turbines bringing the price of your house down”, “the cost of driving your car” and “£300 on your annual energy bill”.

  58. BBD,

    I honestly don’t see how they could do that. There’s an energy gap.

    Maybe there’s just an energy gap using our crude methods of building solar panels. Maybe other species are technological geniuses like Motie engineers. They might be able to find an easier method for “growing” solar panels without all the energy and labor intensive refining that we have to do.

    Even using our crude methods, I’m not sure there’s an insurmountable energy gap. It seems like it could just be an economics gap, because the only relevant difference between burning wood vs. coal is that burning coal requires less labor for the same power output.

    But if I had to guess, it seems likely that other terrestrial species would also bootstrap using fossil fuels because that seems easier than the alternatives.

  59. Richard says:

    Great video! I couldn’t help remembering Woody Allen’s standup joke answering the question why we struggle to prove aliens exist … because they always land next to someone on there own and then scarper if anyone else comes near (Ref. can’t find on web … probably in a box somewhere in the loft).

    On our ability to make good decisions as individuals or groups, I note Tversky and Kahneman

    “… people rely on a limited number of heuristic principles which reduce the complex tasks of assessing probabilities and predicting values to simpler judgmental operations. In general, these heuristics are quite useful, but sometimes they lead to severe and systematic errors.”

    http://psiexp.ss.uci.edu/research/teaching/Tversky_Kahneman_1974.pdf

    The wisdom of a crowd to estimate the number of jelly beans in a jar is interesting but quite different to judging multiple variables and their complex impacts on our planet and grandchildren. After all, were the Easter Islanders demonstrating wisdom destroying their ability to escape by consuming all the trees?

    Perhaps, under resource pressures and during conflict, we tend to make very bad choices which are actually individually selfish ones rather than wise group ones. As people we are good at being overoptimistic, or at least, underestimating costs (we do that every time we engage a builder; 😦 don’t ask ) and we are doing it on CC.

    If an insurance salesman said ‘I will reduce your premium by 80% if you fix the roof and add fire detectors’ you’d bite their hand off. We know adaptation costs will escalate to the point where we will look back wistfully at the relatively modest mitigation.

    I would be interested in Kanheman’s view on why we are displaying this collective inability to make rational choices, rather like those Easter Islanders.

  60. entropicman says:

    Johnrussell40

    We already know most of what we need to build a generation ship. Propulsion would probably use nuclear power to fire vapourised rock out the back. Structure would be an asteroid (perhaps melted to reshape it), hollowed and spun for gravity. We understand energy flow, nutrient flow, ecosystem structure and dynamics well enough to build a working artificial ecosystem, though it might take several attempts to get long term stability.

    Distinguish between an intelligent individual and an intelligent society. An individual may see an opportunity or a problem clearly. The problem is to persuade a society to accept the problem and act on it. As you say, it is very difficult to get individuals to look beyond their short term interest. For example, we know academically how to run ecosystems sustainably, and in many places the locals have developd it to a high art. (How else could you survive long term in a Himalayan valley or on a polynesian island?) The problem is that the current libertarian fashion subordinates social cohesion and group interest to individual freedom.
    Perhaps the libertarian conspiracy theorists are right and the first step out of the trap we are sliding into should be a world dictatorship. 🙂

  61. entropicman says:

    Still thinking about generation ships. The first serious attempt to run an artificial ecosystem was Biosphere I. It failed bcause interactions between the atmosphere inside and the concrete it was built from kept upsetting the CO2 concentration and some unfortunate species choices bred out of control. It lasted a year bfore the crew had to bail out. Biosphere 2 is being run as a research environment and has been much more stable. You learn from your mistakes.

    Since any permanent off-Earth environment would share a lot of features with a generation ship I suspect that by the time we sent off the first one we would have learned by trial and error how to set it up.

    (Of course, that does assume we ever do get off this rock!)

  62. Eli Rabett says:

    Biosphere 2 is not closed.and the Ringworld is not stable.

  63. Szilard says:

    Idly wondering what kinds of impacts a firm assessment that life either did or did not develop in the past on Mars would have on estimates for the number of life-bearing planets in the Galaxy. Naively, I’d think the impact should be pretty significant, no?

    I guess it’s fairly likely such an assessment will be available in the not-too-distant future.

  64. Andrew Dodds says:

    DumbSci –

    Of course, even better would be an anomalous object in the asteroid belt that was transmitting at us..

    As well as aTTP’s point above about the relative ease of spreading through the Galaxy, it’s also the case that a single probe with the ability to travel to a star system, find and land on a KBO-type object, self-replicate and send out more probes could very quickly ‘colonise’ a galaxy, at little up-front cost. Assuming that each ‘base’ could communicate with others in a relatively small radius you could use this to spread a comms network through the galaxy as well. Only one group of one civilization has to initiate this process.

    My personal take is that worlds with bacterial life will prove to be ten a penny – bacteria appeared on Earth essentially instantly (give or take a few dozen million years), and primitive chordates turned into humans in perhaps 500 million years. So the origin of life is fast, and the development of intelligence from basic metazoans is medium-fast (n=1, admittedly), but it took 3.5-4 billion years to terraform Earth to the point where metazoans could really take over.

    This terraforming process takes time, I suspect, at least proportional to the volume of the planet – because it’s the process of oxidising at least a fraction of the volume of that planet. If this is true then it’s a partial solution to the paradox. A planet must be big enough to retain a magnetic field (hence water/atmosphere) – Earth may be actually quite small by this standard, having an unusually large iron core.

    So.. it may be that the real ‘differentiator’ of Earth is just that it was relatively quick going from non-oxygenated to oxygenated, and that there are a lot of bigger planets out there still gradually transforming. Smaller planets may lack magnetic fields or plate tectonics and so not keep a stable hydrosphere for long enough. It’s also noteworthy that the sun really couldn’t be much bigger – the habitable zone just would not last long enough. And the other driver of oxidation is Solar radiation..

    So it may just be that the Sun is as big as it could be, and the Earth is as small as it could be, and this combination has allowed complex life to emerge far more rapidly than ‘normal’. We could just be first, or close enough to first, and the golden age of galactic life/civilization lies 10 billion years in the future..

    Oh, and a prediction from this guesswork: Mars may have gone through an Earth-like phase, with an oxygenated atmosphere, in which case complex life could have briefly taken off there. That would give macroscopic fossils.. no time for anything to crawl out of the ocean, but perhaps time for the odd worm.

  65. Richard says:

    John Hartz –

    On nuclear disarmament (one of many ‘filters’ we are capable of self-assembling) – yes, but we did have CTB Treaty, then NPT, then START, etc. not end of story and proliferation has happened (in part through lack of security in a UK/Dutch company holding centrifuge designs, leading to Pakistan’s bomb).

    But Global Warming is much more complex in that it touches almost everything … energy security, water, food, migration, built environment, species loss … threat multipliers in every senses galore. “A psychologist could barely dream up a better scenario for paralysis”, Daniel Gilbert, Harvard Univ.

    Have you read George Marshall’s “Don’t Even Think About It: Why our brains are wired to ignore climate change” … thinks he has answers to the paralysis … get’s good reviews and thinking of adding to my burgeoning reading list !!
    http://www.bloomsbury.com/uk/dont-even-think-about-it-9781620401330/

  66. afeman says:

    Charlie Stross brings the bad news about interstellar (and even interplanetary) colonization:

    http://www.antipope.org/charlie/blog-static/2007/06/the_high_frontier_redux.html

  67. afeman says:

    Whoops, same content, different URL.

  68. Andrew Dodds says:

    afeman –

    He does seem to disregard bootstrapping – most of the resources we need for space colonisation are already in space. Human travel is unlikely, though. Unless you can transfer your brain to a computer of some sort (hard) in which case it becomes much easier.

  69. JCH says:

    The industrial revolution kicked off, really, with hydro power. England and New England had mill towns with multi-story factories full of employees. When I lived in the Brushy Mountains in North Carolina I used to hike around the county looking for ruins of 18 and 19th-century factories. There were a lot of them. The old wheels are still there.

  70. Canman says:

    Maybe Luddite environmentalists are a filter that prevents civilizations from technologically advancing and leaving them vulnerable to asteroid strikes, ice ages and super volcanoes.

  71. @Andrew Dodds: “Mars may have gone through an Earth-like phase, with an oxygenated atmosphere, in which case complex life could have briefly taken off there.”

    The best thing that could happen is that we soon discover that there was once life on Mars and due to climate change it’s now extinct. It might get people thinking that perhaps we can’t take Earth’s environment for granted as much as we have been and if we abuse it we could bring about our own downfall.

  72. @JCH

    And this is where the industrial revolution all started: the first proper factory ever built. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cromford_Mill I was born and brought up close enough to cycle to it as a lad.

  73. afeman says:

    Andrew –

    Stross doesn’t disregard bootstrapping, he assumes it explicitly.

  74. JCH says:

    They must have been fracking up river because that water wheel is putting out a lot of smoke.

  75. angech2014 says:

    “the origin of life is fast, and the development of intelligence from basic metazoans is medium-fast (n=1, admittedly)”.
    Where did the Dinosaurs go and why did they leave us behind?
    They had a hundred million years to develop intelligence and we had only 50,000 years yet we share the same brains and bone structure and senses.

  76. They had a hundred million years to develop intelligence and we had only 50,000 years…

    Huh? The oldest primates date to 55 million years ago. The oldest mammals appeared 225 million years ago.

  77. John Hartz says:

    Richard:

    I know of Marshall’s book but I have not read it. Thanks for the link.

  78. And then it happens

  79. victorpetri says:

    I have my own personal theory to explain Fermi’s paradox, life’s complexity is just as advanced elsewhere as it is here. So elsewhere, they have also just begun to look beyond home planets.

    If somebody is interested, I try to explain why here:
    https://humansrunderrated.wordpress.com/2013/04/18/70/

  80. Thomas says:

    While the Earth is 5.6 billion years old, human civilization has only been around for about 10,000 years. Aliens can’t travel to the stars on whatever their equivalent of horses, so maybe the start of civilization isn’t the right starting point to use, but the start of advanced technology.
    On Earth, it’s only been about 300 years since the start of the industrial revolution. In a universe billions of years old, that is an extremely short time. When you consider that advanced aliens which have reached the point of interstellar travel may be hundreds of thousands to even millions of years more advanced than us, then the Fermi Paradox disappears.
    Those aliens may be as far advanced beyond us as we are beyond the single celled creatures living in a mud puddle.So the next time you walk past a mud puddle try to picture the life inside it wondering “Why hasn’t anyone from the neighboring mud puddles visited us?”
    When you think about it, we currently have about as much ability to visit a neighboring star as those residents of the mud puddle have of visiting the next mud puddle. By the time we are able to routinely visit other stars, creatures such as our present selves won’t interest us very much at all.
    We will soon find microscopic life on distant planets from their chemical signature, but I don’t expect advanced aliens to suddenly land in our mud puddle and declare their friendship.

  81. entropicman says:

    Thomas

    With the resource depletion, overpopulation and climate change filters to pass through this century it could be argued that the lifetime of a technological civilisation is usually 300-400 years.

  82. Andrew Dodds says:

    angech2014 –

    Well.. if we assume that it has been *possible* for human-level intelligence to emerge for the past ~200 million years since the emergence of the mammal-like reptiles – and I’m not sure it’s that long, we almost certainly need to be fully endothermic, and there is a fair bit of neuron-tweaking involved – then it did appear quickly in geological terms.

    As I said- the big ‘gap’ is from the end of the Hadean to the start of the Phanerozoic, ~3.3 billion years – long enough to re-run the Cambrian to Humans 5.5 times over.

    afeman –

    By ‘bootstrapping’, I mean that once you have a proto-colony, it can produce it’s own resources in situ. So if – as an example – I start a colony in one of the polar craters of the moon which has ice – it can easily produce it’s own water, oxygen and food. With continuous sunlight and no atmosphere, solar power is better than on Earth. The value of such a colony would to make simple bulk materials (Iron, Aluminium, etc) which can easily be transferred to Earth orbit.

    Asteroid mining for metals that are rare on Earth is probably essential for the long term

  83. JCH says:

    WEB – the stadium wave is going to eviscerate this El Nino. Just watch, the big bad AMO is heading south, and its taking the free world with it. It’s the dawn of big socialist chill.

  84. JCH,
    As you say, “Put a big, irregularly shaped stock tank full of water with an atmosphere in outer space and spin it.” and then get it wobbling with slight angular momentum changes. Of course the water will start sloshing, especially with respect to the slight differences in density of water above and below the thermocline. The Chandler wobble of ~1.18 year cycle and the Quasi-biennial oscillation of upper atmospheric winds of a 2.36 year cycle are related (factor of 2) and those two working in conjunction as momentum forcing are enough to set the pseudo-periodic oscillations of the equatorial Pacific in motion. Voila, you get El Ninos.

    One can trace this behavior back several hundred years via coral proxy records.
    http://forum.azimuthproject.org/discussion/1608/enso-revisit#latest

  85. JCH says:

    WEB you egghead, pretty soon you’re going end up with a planet, and one of those has not been very helpful at improving understanding at Climate Etc.

  86. I am “paused” from commenting at CE so nothing I can do in that regard.

    Kind of a permanent “hiatus”.

  87. angech2014 says:

    WebHubTelescope says:
    I am “paused” from commenting at CE so nothing I can do in that regard.
    Kind of a permanent “hiatus”.
    Why the Universe is empty: because a great many demonstrably intelligent beings look at the notion of a ‘Type 3′ blog site and say not for me.
    Personally we all get hurt when we blog at some sites.
    Sorry on my part.

  88. AngieBaby, you are one of those Aussie duh-nihilists that make CE such a cesspool of misinformation.

  89. Michael 2 says:

    WebHubTelescope says: I am “paused” from commenting at CE so nothing I can do in that regard.

    I seem to be on pause here.

  90. matt says:

    @attp (& willard)
    > “All I really mean is that humans are an intelligent, rational species and so we should be able to understand the risks associated with climate change and should be able to determine some optimal manner in which to address these risks, while – of course – also considering all the other related issues.”

    Ok so I had problems putting this accurately, but hopefully despite the lack of clarity you will understand what I am trying to say.

    I often cringe a little when you use the word optimal (which occurs frequently). Don’t take this as a great criticism, I think it works in everyday language. Personally I avoid the word entirely unless given a math problem (say, what is the shape with the greatest area to perimeter ratio).

    > “should be able to determine some optimal manner in which to address these risks”

    I don’t think even the smartest individual that will ever live can achieve this. I know this is all semantics, it is just a pet peeve. Can we try something else… “near optimal” or “quasi optimal” (neither of which I like)? Maybe Willard can come up with something more appropriate that works in both casual and more formal language.

  91. matt,
    That might be the one area that I get called on the most. I’m really just trying to accept that there is more than one factor that needs to be considered when making any kind of decision. I agree, though, that there probably isn’t a well-defined, or easily defined, optimal pathway. Certainly happy to try and express things more carefully, but I have always struggled a little to do so. I thought “some optimal” might be okay, but even that seems to have issues 🙂

  92. Pingback: Matt Ridley on filters | …and Then There's Physics

  93. This post contains a solicitation for comments on an unconvincing solution to the Fermi paradox. Please delete if that is unacceptable. I’ll address the OP too though, and I also have a somewhat topical astronomy question.

    “Great Filters” do not explain Fermi’s paradox since if there is even a fairly small chance to pass a filter, then the likely abundance of civilizations will more or less guarantee that there will be many civilizations that have passed the filters. [For references, see the link at the bottom of the post. But recent discoveries have made it likely that there is an abundance of planets where life can develop. That life starts doesn’t seem that unlikely. And evolution can induce intelligence, under certain conditions, it would seem.]

    Gamma-ray bursts, that have also been proposed as an explanation of the Fermi paradox, also don’t explain the Fermi paradox, for the same reason. These explanations are not very Copernican.

    Also, when could we have started to be concerned about the CO2 problem? It seems that we could have been aware that there could be a problem more than a century ago: Arrhenius laid down the basics in the late 19th century. We then could have noted that CO2 pollution was tied to GDP, maybe linearly (which Arrhenius maybe even did?). So with exponential economic growth (which you get from yearly growths) there could be a problem, even if warming depends logarithmically on CO2, and even if things were still unclear and there was no consensus at the time.

    Regarding the Fermi paradox, it is a paradox only if one assumes that advanced civilizations are expansive, akin to 16th century European colonialist countries. And that is precisely how they are not. For an argument of that, think Pinker’s Better Angels. There is also a meta-ethical argument to be had, which concludes that all there is when it comes to ethics is practical, ordinary reasoning. [See bottom link.]

    Here is a somewhat related astronomy question that you might be able to answer: Is there a clique of planets that move away from all other planets faster than the speed of light? At this moment, say. The background is this: Suppose that two civilizations, A and C, move away from each other at the speed of light. They then can’t communicate directly. However, one can imagine a civilization B in the middle of A and C. Let B move away from both A and C with half the speed of light. If A, B and C are close, then A and C could communicate with each other fast after all, via B.

    Is the above example correct? (I know little cosmology.) The physics is applicable over large distances which implies that A and C can’t be all that close, which in turn might mean that the example is wrong? On the other hand, one can imagine any number of intermediate helping civilizations B_i.

    So assuming an abundance of advanced civilizations all over the universe, can they communicate with each other? Or does the expansion of the universe mean that there will be cliques of isolated civilizations?

    There is a competition related to all this, namely what to send to an other civilization; see:
    http://www.breakthroughinitiatives.org/Initiative/2
    (They also have a big sister, 100 million dollar, initiative to search for other civilizations.)
    The link at the bottom is a possible entry draft.

    The Better Angels and meta-ethical solution to Fermi’s paradox in this post, and the link below, seem to be unconvincing. First because of the subject. Fermi’s paradox seems to be considered somewhat unserious because there are so many uncertainties. Second, because of the uncertainties, complexity and vagueness of the specific solution. (And third of course, because the arguments are unconvincing maybe, or are presented unconvincingly.) Gamma-rays, or filters, are more concrete, and easier to buy as an explanation, even if the math doesn’t add up. However, the paradox is about a hard, exact question, that has a definite answer; we should try to answer it as best we can, even if the answer turns out to be vague and complex. Especially as the answer could be important.

    This was the least inappropriate forum that I found for this post. Is there a better place?

    https://sites.google.com/site/danielvallstrom/Home/what-advanced-civilizations-are-like-and-why-we-don-t-see-them

  94. Daniel,

    Is there a clique of planets that move away from all other planets faster than the speed of light? At this moment, say.

    In the observable universe, no. In a sense, the observable universe is defined as the region of the universe that is casually connected. Of course, all of the known extrasolar planets are in our own galaxy, and are all causally connected. Actually travelling between might be impossible given our current technology, but isn’t physically impossible.

  95. Mal Adapted says:

    ATTP, do you mean “causally” connected?

  96. Mal,
    Yes. I just meant that the observable universe is that part of the universe from which photons have been able to reach us.

  97. Mal,
    Sorry, I see what you mean. I said “casually”, instead of “causally” the second time I used it. I’ve corrected it now.

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