Being there
Posted by aogThursday, 27 July 2006 at 12:18 TrackBack Ping URL

Brothers Judd is rediscovering the Fermi Paradox, although none of the commentors seem to remember previous discussions.

What I found interesting here is that all of the commentors seem to think that detecting the existence of alien technological civilizations would be done by detecting their communications. On the contrary, it seems to me that we are far more likely to detect them via their works. There is no good reason that I know of to presume that such civilizations would not engage in environmental engineering on a scale that would be visible across much of the galaxy. But the primary form of environmental impact we would observe would be the colonization of our own solar system. It would be hard to miss, for instance, heavy mining of the asteroids or gas giant moons, or perhaps the disassembly of a gas giant or two for raw materials. That’s a bit different from inspecting faint radio signals for signs of intelligence.

Resolving the Fermi Paradox doesn’t require explaining why we haven’t had contact, but why we’re here at all instead of an alien colony. Even at only 1% of lightspeed, a species could colonize the galaxy in less than 20 megayears, which is an short amount of time on the scale of galatic history. As Fermi himself asked, “where are they?”.

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cjm Thursday, 27 July 2006 at 19:31

we’d know it just like the indians knew when the europeans landed. i am guessing a species that can travel across space would not necessarily be using magnetic spectrum comms.

what i think about, is whether or not there are other elements in the universe, that would lead to different types of life. if the elements common to our solar system are all there is (anywhere) than other life forms are probably carbon based as well.

my guess is that life is governed by a set of rules, just like inanimate matter is, and so you won’t get aliens with super gigantic intellects and so forth. just other humanoids that are behind or ahead of us technologically, but otherwise capable of relating. of course given mankind’s propensity for spilling blood it might not be for the better if aliens are like us :)

Andrea Harris Thursday, 27 July 2006 at 21:17

I’m not sure why people seem so sure that alien intelligences have even left their own solar systems to go anywhere. After all, we haven’t.

Annoying Old Guy Thursday, 27 July 2006 at 21:47

Ms. Harris;

Because we can’t, yet. I find it completely unbelievable that some of us won’t, once we can. Note that there’s no presumption that the entire species leaves, but only that a tiny fraction of colonists do so (just like England didn’t move to North America). On the other side, one have to presume that no such colonists from any technologically advanced civilization ever do so because all it takes is one.

That said, there are many proposals for such “Fermi Traps”, e.g. everyone goes virtual and loses interest in physical reality. Or high technology civilizations senesce by insulating their members from reality so that they can no longer cope with it. My favorite was the “light speed horizon”, where people become so wired in to a global infonet that they cannot bear to be parted from it, which means staying no more than a few light seconds from the homeworld.

But, I still hold that expansion is the default and its absence must be explained.

Annoying Old Guy Thursday, 27 July 2006 at 21:51


It seems reasonable to presume biological / evolutionary limits on intelligence, but what of singularities? Can technology grant us trans-human intelligence and abilities? If so, one would presume that this capability is available to aliens as well. And even if not, given the time scales we are discussing even a slow rate of technological progress could easily make any aliens we encounter the equivalent of great powers. The human species hasn’t even existed long enough to be a significant fraction of such a length of time — what might we be in a megayear? Ten megayears? And that’s the low end of the potential difference scale.

Michael Herdegen Friday, 28 July 2006 at 00:53

…none of the commentors seem to remember previous discussions.

Hey! Since I commented in that thread, as “Noam Chomsky”, I find that remark a bit presumptuous.

What I found interesting here is that all of the commentors seem to think that detecting the existence of alien technological civilizations would be done by detecting their communications. On the contrary, it seems to me that we are far more likely to detect them via their works.

A point that I made by implication, and others explicitly, although of course “detecting their communications” is the favorite method, because it’s the easiest.

There is no good reason that I know of to presume that such civilizations would not engage in environmental engineering on a scale that would be visible across much of the galaxy.

If we knew what we were seeing.

Plus, star-faring species would probably have the ability to move around and refurbish planets, but even with that level of power it’s not a given that they would be able to make Dyson spheres or manipulate stars. So maybe their works aren’t visible on a galactic scale, even if they’re a million years ahead of us, or at least not visible to us at our current level of ability to detect.

Even at only 1% of lightspeed, a species could colonize the galaxy in less than 20 megayears, which is an short amount of time on the scale of galactic history.

But there’s a big difference between “could” and “would”. As you remark to Ms Harris, we can’t yet leave the solar system. (And if we could, I’d go, assuming that they’d select me, which is rather doubtful).

However, there’s no technical reason that we haven’t yet sent nuclear-powered-rocket probes to all of the nearest stars at an appreciable fraction of lightspeed, or seriously tried to make light-sail probes a reality. Those things we could do, we just don’t. We aren’t interested enough in doing it, even though those could be done for an annual budget equal to what we spend to advertise fizzy sugar water and download cell-phone ring-tones.

When it gets easier and cheaper, we’ll do it, but not as quickly as it could potentially be done. So too with our galactic colonizers. Maybe they ARE slowly colonizing the galaxy, but at a leisurely pace.

Further, the Chinese sent out huge exploration and colonization fleets long before the Europeans. They might have been the ones to rule and shape the world. However, for political and cultural reasons, they abandoned the effort, and turned inward. Maybe there’s a parallel.

…everyone goes virtual and loses interest in physical reality. Or high technology civilizations senesce by insulating their members from reality so that they can no longer cope with it.

I firmly believe that such will happen to a large fraction of humanity. Look at how popular television and video games are. People could be so much more than they usually are, but few put forth the effort to be really spectacular. (Myself included, of course, or I wouldn’t be making this comment - I’d be out changing the world). Given that, why not spend all of your free time on the Holodeck, or in virtual reality, especially since there may not be a lot of need for humans to “work”, as we know it.

I’d be willing to bet that by 2200, 70% or more of humans are Lotus-eaters. ‘Course, that leaves a significant number to explore and conquer the Universe.

Can technology grant us trans-human intelligence and abilities?

Absolutely. It’s already happened. The ability to travel from coast-to-coast in a single day, for instance, is “trans-human”. The ability to live in Antarctica is “trans-human”.

The difference between what we take for granted and the future will be nano-scale, miniaturization, and effective bio-mechanical interface. Much of our communications, transportation, and medicine will become internal to humans, rather than external. Once we can “jack in” to mechanical sensors, we’ll be able to “see” in the ultraviolet and infrared, to call to “mind” any data-sets that we can conceive of.

But we’ll still be humans with tools, differing from cave-dwellers with stone knives and woven-grass baskets only in the power and sophistication of our implements, not in fundamental ways.

Annoying Old Guy Friday, 28 July 2006 at 09:28

See, a million years is far to small a span of time, it’s practically contemporaneous and in my view too coincidental. Tens or hundreds of millions of years difference would be more typical. So even at a leisurely pace, they should have been here by now.

As for trans-humanity, you don’t believe in the Singularity either? It’s not clear to me that we can’t build (or enhance our own) intelligence to something as far beyond us as we are beyond other mammals, i.e. differing in a fundamental way.

Michael Herdegen Friday, 28 July 2006 at 12:30

I neither believe nor disbelieve in the Singularity.

While I’m confident that we’ll eventually build devices that act in a way similar to human intelligence, but faster, with more capacity, it’s not clear to me why we’d want to be the devices, instead of simply directing and controlling them.

As for aliens one billion years ahead of us, there are at least a dozen plausible explanations for why they aren’t here. I don’t find their absence to be at all unusual or telling. It’s just disappointing.

For instance, if they are a hundred million years ahead, they’re likely well beyond the need to strip-mine gas giants for materials. They probably just fabricate whatever they need by converting energy directly into matter, one atom at a time.

It’s also not impossible that we are currently our galaxy’s senior species.

cjm Friday, 28 July 2006 at 14:28

amplifying physical labor alla machinery was easy because the principles involved were well understood, amplifying intelligence is hard because we don’t understand how it works yet. maybe we will unlock that box eventually, but it all reminds me of the scene in “Blade Runner” when the replicant (Roy Batty) is discussing ways of extending the built-in lifespan of replicants, and Tyrell keeps shooting down his suggestions.

We make an a/i that is more intelligent than us, ok, but then how do we control it ? Can you make a genie that “works” and still keep control of it ? It all sounds like playing god, with all that implies. My current view is that we will be able to create machine intelligence that is as smart as the smartest humans, and has more “endurance” but that it won’t be able to get past current limits of human knowledge. A godly fail safe as it were.

David Cohen Friday, 28 July 2006 at 17:44

Well, this really is what Accelerando is all about, so I highly recommend it to the commenters on this thread.

Annoying Old Guy Friday, 28 July 2006 at 19:48

Mr. Herdegen;

Because the devices can go place and do things no human can, not to mention being far more resistant to destruction and old age.

Mr. Cohen;

I have that book but I have been able to get started on it, the early bits seem meandering and pointless, although it’s no Finnegan’s Wake.


Perhaps. It’s an open matter whether incremental increases in intelligence and intellectual capable have a tipping point beyond which there is a qualitative difference.

Michael Herdegen Saturday, 29 July 2006 at 16:24

There will probably always be those who need to actually physically be somewhere, or to do something themselves, to feel satisfied about the experience, but even now most people are happy to settle for vicarious experiece.

As virtual experiences get much better, incorporating touch and smell as well as audio and visual, even fewer people will feel the need to have an original experience, and most will be even happier to live the reproduction.

Jeff Guinn Saturday, 29 July 2006 at 19:52


Resolving the Fermi Paradox doesnít require explaining why we havenít had contact, but why weíre here at all instead of an alien colony. Even at only 1% of lightspeed, a species could colonize the galaxy in less than 20 megayears …

If …

Throughout this thread, and the Fermi paradox, is the assumption that given enough time, there is a solution to vast distance.

What if there isn’t? It is one thing to posit traveling at .1C, but how the heck does one stop? Unless the star has a vector pointed at the arrival direction, it is of no use whatsoever in slowing down an approaching object. Even then, circularizing the orbit at some useful distance would take (just guessing) thousands of years.

So, unless there is some plausible means of both accelerating to, and decelerating from, something as little as .1C, then the task may well be nigh-on undoable.

Then there is galaxy’s structure to contend with — roughly the inner 2/3 of the galaxy is completely inhospitable to life. The density of stars is sufficiently high to carry with it unsurvivable radiation. The outer fifth (or so) is too sparsely populated for there to be any stars with Earth like planets. Not only does the remainder pose a circuitous route, but if the density of stars with hospitable planets is 1 in a 1,000, and there is no ready means of determining which those might be, then the task might well make Red-2 at the roulette wheel a near certainty by comparison.

There are more than a few things that seem to have hit technological barriers in our time, many having to do with travel. How much faster do planes go now than they did 30 years ago?

It seems to me far from certain that there are any technological solutions to the tremendous hurdles involved.

Hence, no paradox.

Annoying Old Guy Saturday, 29 July 2006 at 20:55

I still don’t see the problem. If you can get up to .1C, you can get to .05C and stop. Moreover, my postulate was down at .01C. There have been engineering studies of nuclear drives, which include acceleration and deceleration that are projected to reach .03C - .04C. The very origin of the paradox is that once Fermi saw the energy released from nuclear reactions, he saw that it would suffice for such a space drive and then wondered, “where are they?”.

You can even do it with solar sails. Robert Forward had a cute scheme involving a double mirror so that the home system provides both acceleration and deceleration via laser boost.

Alternatively, if you have a nuclear drive that can boost you to .03C, then you laser boost out and use the drive only for deceleration. Solar sails are quite powerful and you’d hardly need thousands of years to circularize an orbit.

And, if it turns out anti-matter can be manufactured in industrial quantities, it’s easy.

I also think that spotting habitable planets from tens of light years away will be quite doable for a space based civilization which can build really big telescope. Moreover, you could always send robotic probes first, which wouldn’t have the deceleration problem.

Jeff Guinn Sunday, 30 July 2006 at 00:22


I will defer to your expertise regarding accel/decel — my main point was that it appears few people consider stopping at the other end.

But I don’t think there is any getting away from … spotting habitable planets from tens of light years away will be quite doable …

In the Goldilocks region of the universe, a 50 light-year radius sphere would probably not contain even one habitable planet (not enough time or brain bytes left over to do the math, sorry). As a guesstimate, if habitable planets are one in a 1,000 type-M stars, and intelligent life is one in a 1,000 of those, there is a very real chance that not one is in observable distance of a habitable planet, and the search space for larger radii becomes prohibitively huge.

That is possibly solvable by enough robotic craft, but throwing the search problem into the mix substantially slows migration rate.

My main point, though is this: Fermi’s paradox only exists if the problem is solvable. Given habitable planet density in the Goldilocks region, it may well be that stepping stones are sufficiently far apart as to make the endeavor impossible.

Michael Herdegen Sunday, 30 July 2006 at 04:30

I doubt impossible, especially with some sort of stasis or hibernation technology, but clearly difficult. Therefore, absent an FTL drive, even a very old, extremely advanced, and unimaginably wealthy civilization might decide not to attempt to colonize the entire galaxy.

But one might expect them to send out an enormous fleet of robotic probes to explore the galaxy, just to see what’s out there. There’s no reason to believe that we’d have spotted such a probe in our system, and in any case, what are the odds that such a probe would have visited Earth during the last 20,000 years, since we started building permanent settlements and developed agriculture ?

Andrea Harris Sunday, 30 July 2006 at 13:30

I think you missed the point of my comment. I’ll come at the subject from a different angle: I don’t see how the (apparent) lack of starfaring alien races zooming around interstellar space should equate to there being no intelligent beings occupying the planets of other solar systems. After all, we haven’t left our solar system of origin, and for better or worse we think of ourselves as a race of “intelligent beings.”

I say this because people use the “we haven’t found anybody” (meaning radio signals strong enough to make their way here, actual physical evidence of UFOs, etc.) rule to mean that we are the only intelligent life in the universe. That always struck me as kind of presumptious. The answer to “where are they” could be: at a lower level of civilization than our own (say, at the straw-and-mud-hut level, which structures don’t give off much of a radio signal nor are visible from space), or merely at a pre-space-faring level, as we were in the 1940s. Or they could have religious or philosophical or (insert alien psychological impulse) proscriptions against leaving the planetary surface. And so on.

Jeff Guinn Sunday, 30 July 2006 at 18:30


I donít see how the (apparent) lack of starfaring alien races zooming around interstellar space should equate to there being no intelligent beings occupying the planets of other solar systems.

Agreed — as the possibility that Fermi’s paradox may be more apparent than real substantiates.

IF interstellar travel proves to be somewhere between prohibitive or impossible, and IF intelligent life occurs at the rate of one in 10^-6 stars in the Goldilocks region, then there could well be something like a half dozen intelligent life forms in our galaxy alone, all destined to presume they alone exist.

And that doesn’t even begin to address the other scadzillion galaxies in the universe.

Brit Monday, 31 July 2006 at 05:40

There are lots of possible answers to Fermi’s paradox. The fact is, we really know nothing much at all about the universe.

On Orrin’s site however, this is just another stick to try and beat Darwinism. Orrin wants to argue from Fermi that Darwinism is wrong because it predicts that there is nothing ‘special’ about life on Earth in general, and human intelligence in particular.

But since we have no idea how unlikely the evolution of even human levels of intelligence are even given similar conditions and timescales to those on Earth, and since we don’t know how difficult epic space colonisation will prove to be, we can make no very useful assumptions at all.

As Andrea suggests, Fermi’s paradox tells us nothing about whether intelligence equal to human levels or even quite a bit higher has evolved on other planets. All it can do is pose a question about whether much more advanced intelligence with a will to colonise or contact us has evolved - which says nothing at all about the validity of Darwinism in explaining Earth’s natural history.


Michael - why the Chomsky alias, out of interest?

Michael Herdegen Monday, 31 July 2006 at 13:53

Three reasons:

  1. While I have a TypeKey account in my own name that I use when posting links, to get past the spam filter, the interface between TypeKey and Brothers Judd is sometimes wiggy, and so I sometimes have to sign out of TypeKey, and enter a name at the site, in order to comment. When that happens, I’m too lazy to re-establish my TypeKey identity, until I’m posting a comment with a link in it.
  2. I got irritated a while back by nutty posters posting as “Chomsky”, and pasting in chunks of rubbish that Chomsky had spewed forth, and so I appropriated the name, hoping that it might tweak that kind of poster. It’s also slightly amusing to me to see somewhat conservative and fairly rational thinking attributed to Chomsky by my posts, and it’s also been amusing to at least one other regular Brothers Judd poster, “erp”.
  3. I have an emotional affinity for my own name, and when using it to comment at a site, I feel a sense of “ownership” or “belonging” at that site - I buy into the group. When using an alias, I feel less that way, and because I have far less time to comment than I used to, by using a nom de plume I don’t feel as much regret when I have to abandon a conversation.
David Cohen Wednesday, 09 August 2006 at 17:48

I realize that I’m coming back to this late, but we’ve been traveling.

For people who are at least open to the idea of the Singularity, this discussion has been remarkably biocentric. Interstellar travel is like distributing soda; it would be much easier if you could arrange not to ship the water. Rather than engineer massive multi-generation ships or cryogenics, it is better by far to wait for Moore’s Law to let us send a couple of hundred sentiences in a “ship” the size of a Coke can. Low mass/big sail and we’re there that much quicker. Besides, the internal clock for whatever virtual reality is provided for the crew can be set to tick at whatever interval seems best. The trip can take a subjective hour or year while the moments leading up to first contact can be poured over for a subjective century.

Annoying Old Guy Wednesday, 09 August 2006 at 18:13

That’s OK, I was just about to make another post on it, but since you’ve restarted the thread…

I don’t think you have to accept the Singularity to believe in artificial, intelligent life forms. I was going to hit that point to address Mr. Guinn’s point about habitable planets. My (unstated) presumption was that interstellar colonizers would find any solar system with a stable star and orbital mass “habitable”. All the data we have now indicates that such star systems are very common. And, depending on your acceptable time scales, construction of standard human habitable planets is quite feasible, given what we know of physical reality today (and future discoveries might well make it easier).

This in turn gets back to what I meant originally about the visible artifacts of advanced civilizations, e.g. large scale restructuring of entire solar systems (of course, perhaps we’re living in one that the owners abandoned and don’t realize it — despite selection effects, the structure here is seeming ever more odd).

And finally, to get back to Ms. Harris, I don’t find “we haven’t done it yet” argument persuasive because of the time scales involved. The entire history of our species (less than 0.1 megayears) is very short amount of time. It’s the same argument as used against flying across the Atlantic. Now, it may well turn out that galactic colonization isn’t possible, but at current there are no known reasons it can’t be done by any technologically advancing species and in much less time than the length of time the galaxy has existed. It is for this same reason that I don’t find the existence of other civilizations at roughly our level plausible. I would expect them to be tens of megayears ahead or behind us and therefore being further from us in capabilities than we are from chimpanzees. (Now, it might be that such societies don’t modify their environment the way more primitive species, such as humans now, do, and my presumption of visible artifacts is flawed)

Of course, we can’t afford interstellar travel now. But suppose we have only 1% GDP growth per year. What would that look like in 1000 years? 10,000? A megayear? Interstellar craft start to look cheap well before then.

Michael Herdegen Wednesday, 09 August 2006 at 20:26

If advanced sentiences transfer to data storage, and live in virtual reality, what would be the point of them constructing huge physical structures visible from across the galaxy, or in colonizing every planet ?

There won’t be any crowding problem, and probably no energy scarcity problem. If they want to live on a Ringworld or whatnot, they can just programme that environment in.

They might be curious enough to explore the galaxy, or even the universe, but why would they disturb anything ? They can just replicate anything interesting in their virtual environments.

David Cohen Wednesday, 09 August 2006 at 20:56

Michael: It depends upon the time scale you’re worried about. In a couple billion years, energy might become pretty scarce around here. Also, sentiences living entirely in virtual reality might not, as AOG said, be willing to live more than a few light seconds away from the Sun and might be dense enough (or efficient enough) to stop much energy from leaking through. Not a Dyson Sphere as Dyson imagined it, but a means of using all of the Sun’s output.

Annoying Old Guy Wednesday, 09 August 2006 at 22:12

Mr. Herdegen;

No point at all, but if that was the only thing driving the activity of a sentient species, they’d simply shut themselves off. Our experience is that the richer a society, the more grandiose its pointless activities.

I don’t mean to suggest that an alien civilization would build huge constructions in order to be seen, but because those structures served some other purpose. Perhaps they would be large scientific efforts (such as particle accelerators or Tipler cylinders). The original Dyson sphere was postulated because Dyson saw no upper limit to the amount of energy a civilization would want to consume. Alternatively, aliens might engage in mega-engineering to prolong the energy output of stars (this is called stellar lifting). Or perhaps simply to create interesting looking patterns in their night skies.

More directly to your point, the idea that a virtual civilization would “go small” and live virtually is one proposed solution to the Fermi Paradox. However, this needs to explain why the entire civilization does that, not most or even virtually all. If nothing else, you can’t simulate what you don’t know and you can only find out certain things by going out and looking.

On the other hand, it may be that, as I mentioned, highly technic civilizations lose the urge to modify their environment, which means that they could, in fact, be here and we haven’t noticed. I simply don’t believe that’s believable for all civilizations, but that doesn’t mean I’m right.

Michael Herdegen Thursday, 10 August 2006 at 11:24

While I tend to agree with Dyson that there’s always a use for more power, maybe they pride themselves on being “green”, and living lightly upon the land, or maybe they’re ruthlessly practical, and conserve every erg, just because they hate waste.

But speculating about alien psychology is even more fanciful than guessing whether they exist or not, based solely on our frightfully inadequate ability to peer into the universe.

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