Archive for September, 2018
In the previous entry in this series of blog posts about the possibility of alien life in our galaxy, and especially about such life visiting us here, I speculated about the wide disparity between the knowledge we’ve obtained about the universe—which is substantial—and our ability to move around in that universe—which is miniscule. We’ve only just gotten to the moon. Is that the reason we’ve never been visited by aliens from other star systems—that the distances are just too immense and space travel is not as easy as our science fiction stories make it out to be? Or is it that they are really nowhere to be found?
There’s certainly no shortage of stars in our galaxy around which planets could form that potentially could harbor life. But before any civilization can visit us here, a lot of things have to happen. It has taken us 2 billion years and several major extinctions for us to reach the sophisticated level we’re at right now. We can see galaxies that are billions of light years away, but we’re a long way in time from journeying there. We’re a long way from visiting even just the nearest star for crying out loud! Any other intelligent civilization almost certainly has to go through that same process of learning about the cosmos before they can make the leap from simply knowing about the presence of other suns out there, to actually visiting them. That’s a huuuuuge step.
So, I’m wondering, how many civilizations out there have actually made that step? Or is there a limit to what a civilization can do?
There’s a hypothesis about alien civilizations that postulates a “Great Filter” that has prevented most if not all civilizations from reaching the ability to travel the galaxy and visit us here on Earth. Somewhere, the Great Filter suggests, in the evolution of a civilization, the inhabitants of a planet reach a stage where their ability to continue is blocked. That’s a legitimate argument, especially as there are at least two processes that could possibly prevent us on Earth from moving on to visit other planets and star systems—annihilation either by nuclear war or by global warming. We haven’t done a particularly good job in reducing the risk from either one lately. But it’s one thing to postulate that, on the one hand, these processes are a risk for us on Earth, and, on the other, transferring those possibilities to other planets. In some respects, the Great Filter seems almost too anthropomorphic, that what happens on Earth must, of necessity, happen on other planets.
One thing we can be sure of, however: that an alien civilization must acquire knowledge about the universe and the galaxy in which we live in order to visit us here, and it must develop the means of transportation around it. But where does that knowledge lie that would allow them to close that gap? Does it exist? Don’t look to science fiction for the answer.
It’s entirely conceivable that a breakthrough will occur in the (near?) (far?) future that will allow us to travel to distant star systems. I’m not ruling that out. And it’s also possible that knowledge is available to any and all civilizations which can reach the highly sophisticated stage where they have access to it. It’s more a question of a civilization being able to make it to that stage. How many civilizations have reached that stage? None? Or does that knowledge even exist? At least that would answer the question: “Where are they?”
This is likely to be the first of three postings on a topic that has intrigued me for several years—the prospect of intelligent life on other planets. Enrico Fermi posed his famous paradox, basically “Where are they?” in 1950. He was referring to the question of why highly intelligent, highly sophisticated visitors from another planet haven’t visited us here on Earth. With the tremendous number of planets out there, say 50 to 100 billion in our galaxy alone, surely the chances must be around 100 percent that other life forms have developed, and a small population should have attained the ability to travel the galaxy in some form of advanced spaceship, perhaps with a drive system we can’t even conceive of. Many planets out there must be older than ours, giving their inhabitants sufficient time to develop space drives that can cut travel time from star to star down to a reasonable value. And that’s what I want to limit my comments to here in this post—the concept of actually travelling the galaxy. Keep in mind, I’m not trying to answer the question of “where are they,” just give some possible reasons why they aren’t.
I want to start by looking at the development of life on Earth and see if we can extrapolate into the future. The Earth is, of course, the only planet we are aware of on which intelligent life has developed, and that could mean it isn’t the best model on which to build an example, but it’s the only one we’ve got so I’m going to use it. Life began on Earth around 2 billion years ago. (There’s some evidence life may have evolved earlier than that, but I’m going to use 2 billion as a nice round number.) In those 2 billion years, life has not once died out completely. There have been extinctions, sure, and large numbers of species have been eliminated, but life has managed to remain continuous in one form or another since then. Even the grand extinction which resulted in the eradication of the dinosaurs around 65 million years ago didn’t completely eliminate all life. Small mammals survived the asteroid impact, and even the dinosaurs themselves were not totally eliminated—they survived into today as birds. Up to that time, reptiles were the dominant animal life form. They were the ultimate, the top level, the upper crust. They basically formed an endpoint, as far as evolution was concerned at that time, and it took an outside event to force a change. Now, I suppose, mammals are the top animal life form. We dominate the planet, and have made changes no other animal could ever conceive of making.
Over the last few thousand years, we humans have learned a lot about the universe in which we exist. We’ve built telescopes which can probe well beyond our own galaxy and see millions of others. We’ve learned what goes on in the interior of a star, in its core, in the atomic and subatomic interactions which produce the light and heat and all the other emissions that the star puts out. We can even detect the faint, wispy neutrinos the star emits. We know there seems to be unseen forces and masses in the galaxy which make up the majority of all mass and energy in it. We’ve seen stars and planets and asteroids, and even planets that just haven’t had quite enough mass to start the fusion reactions that make a star what it is. Behind this has been the development of elaborate mathematics that has made it possible. There’s so much knowledge we’ve accumulated over those several thousand years. All in all, we’re pretty damn astute about our knowledge of the universe and our place in it. We can be proud of that.
Yet, for all our sophistication and knowledge, we’ve never sent humans out into the void of space any farther than the moon. We’ve sent a couple of spacecraft to the edge of our solar system, but those are piddly jumps compared to the size of the universe or even the galaxy. Traveling the galaxy is a hell of a lot harder than looking at it. That’s why science fiction writers have to develop complex, intricate, and ultimately a little naïve spaceships to get their characters around, because there’s no real way to do it. Light travels at the speed of light; we travel at the speed of rocket ships. And the difference is telling.
All this suggests that if there are highly intelligent and sophisticated life forms out there capable of traveling the galaxy, or even from one galaxy to another(!), they would have to have knowledge and space drives so far beyond us they would be impossible for us to conceive. Perhaps harnessing a force we can only guess at. (Read more science fiction for a few good guesses.) Pardon the pun, but even in our sophistication, we’ve got a long way to go.
Well, the Bubonicon Science Fiction convention #50 here in Albuquerque, NM is over for 2018. It ran from August 24 to 26, and as I do every year, I attended as much of it as I could, hoping to grab a rare tidbit of information or advice, or perhaps a little dirt or the real scoop on some facet of science fiction or fantasy or even real science. This year’s theme was the “Golden Age of Science Fiction and Fantasy,” playing off the fact that the Convention (the “con”) is fifty years old this year (its golden anniversary), and taking a look back at the “Golden Age of SF and F, which, from what I was able to gather, lasted from the 1930’s to the 1960’s, or thereabouts. Many of today’s sci-fi writers lived through at least a part of that time, and cut their sci-fi teeth reading the popular authors of the day. A number of authors acknowledged the role that all that reading paid in the development of their writing. A debt I can well understand. I even got a few books autographed.
I will have to admit, though, that I am somewhat unfamiliar with the works of that era. I came to science fiction late in my career, and though I grew up during that time, I read more non-fiction (science mostly, especially biological sciences) than fiction, and what fiction I did read tended to be related to real life. So, in many of the sessions of this con I had difficulty identifying with the lives of the older writers. I did find it interesting learning about the development of sci-fi through the years, though. I had read a few of the works of Robert Heinlein (“Starship Troopers,” “Methuselah’s Children”) but that was about the extent of my sci-fi reading before I entered college and began concentrating on science, especially microbiology and virology (the biology of the teeny-tiny). It wasn’t until almost time for me to retire from paid scientific work and shortly after the time I began my first sci-fi novel that I read Heinlein’s most popular work, “Stranger In A Strange Land.” About that time also, I began reading quite a number of science fiction works of many other authors (I generally eschew fantasy, however). Sci-fi is my life now; I’ve graduated from science to science fiction. It’s been quite a ride.
I’m beginning to look forward to Bubonicon 51 in 2019. See you there.