seti

So Where Is ET, Anyway?

5 Jun , 2009

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While having lunch with colleagues at Los Alamos National Labs in 1950, physicist Enrico Fermi mused about the likelihood of intelligent life existing elsewhere in the Universe.  Fermi, one of the most astute scientists of his day, thought the size and age of the Universe means many advanced civilizations should have already colonized the galaxy, just as humans colonized and explored the Earth.   But if such galaxy-wide extraterrestrial civilizations exist, he wondered, where are they?

Some believe this problem, called the Fermi Paradox, means advanced extraterrestrial societies are rare or nonexistent.  Others suggest they must destroy themselves before they move on to the stars.

But this week, Jacob D. Haqq-Misra and Seth D. Baum at Penn State University proposed another solution to the Fermi Paradox: that extraterrestrial civilizations haven’t colonized the galaxy because the exponential growth of a civilization required to do so is unsustainable.

The researchers call their idea the “Sustainability Solution”.  It states: “The absence of ETI (extra-terrestrial intelligence) observation can be explained by the possibility that exponential or other faster growth is not a sustainable development pattern for intelligent civilizations.”

The researchers base their conclusions on a study of civilizations on Earth.  Historically, rapid growth of societies means rapid resource depletion and environmental degradation, usually with dire results.  They cite the example of Easter Island, where resource depletion likely caused a collapse of the local population.  And they conclude that while there are examples of sustainable growth like the !Kung San people of the Kalahari Desert, exponential growth in population and spatial expansion of a society is almost always linked to unsustainable growth and eventual collapse.

This principle has implications for our current global civilization.  Since Earth’s resources are finite and it receives solar radiation at a constant rate, human civilization cannot sustain an indefinite, exponential growth.  But even if we survive and advance as a civilization, we may have trouble colonizing the galaxy should we ever decide to do so.  And if this limitation applies to us, it may apply to other civilizations as well.

But the Sustainability Solution doesn’t mean ET is not out there.  Slower-growth extraterrestrial societies might still communicate by radio or other wavelengths, so current SETI programs still make sense.  Or ETI may result in chemical bio-markers in planetary atmospheres which may leave spectroscopic signatures detectable with upcoming generations of Earth and space-based planet-hunting telescopes.

The Sustainability Solution also allows that advanced civilizations may indeed colonize the galaxy, then collapse as resources are consumed at an unsustainable rate.

And some civilizations may send small messenger probes to other stars, which suggests a search for extraterrestrial artifacts (SETA) within our own solar system might be just as fruitful as radio-based SETI.  Searches might involve radio or visible detection of extraterrestrial probes orbiting the sun.  Or artifacts may even be embedded within planets or moons of our solar system, just like the giant black monoliths in Arthur C. Clarke’s 2001: A Space Odyssey.

In any case, the discovery of artifacts from a slow-growth extraterrestrial civilization would be an example “sustainable development” on a galactic scale.

You can read the original article here.


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Jon Hanford
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Jon Hanford
June 5, 2009 3:02 PM
I brought theses issues up under the ‘NASA gives truth about UO videos, namely: “On a closely related note, 2 Penn state researchers just released a paper entitled ‘The Sustainability Solution to the Fermi Paradox’ (The Fermi Paradox is basically saying that if intelligent extraterrestial life exists, where is it? We should have detected it or have been visited by now. See Wiki for an excellent overview). Anyway, the authors conclude that “The Fermi Paradox cannot logically conclude that humans are the only intelligent civilization in the galaxy.” This short, nontechnical paper can be found here: http://arxiv.org/ftp/arxiv/papers/0906/0906.0568.pdf . The authors explain their ‘Sustainability Solution’ and bring up good points for future SETI searches.”. Also: “My take on the… Read more »
Jon Hanford
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Jon Hanford
June 5, 2009 3:09 PM

Do’h. Erratum: read “these issues” and “about UFO videos” where appropriate.

Jon Hanford
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Jon Hanford
June 5, 2009 3:16 PM

Of course, belated thanks to Brian Ventrudo for expanding and reporting on this thought-provoking paper !

Gerald
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Gerald
June 5, 2009 4:22 PM

I’ve always considered the Fermi Paradox to be bunk. Since we know of zero civilizations capable of colonizing other planets outside their own star system (our civilization can’t do it), what is the basis for predicting the rate at which such civilizations should have colonized the galaxy over its 10-billion year history?

Silver Thread
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Silver Thread
June 5, 2009 5:22 PM
The idea of an artifact hunt for alien relics is one of immeasurable fascination to me. The Earth’s Oceans are littered with remnants of our failed ventures into the unknown, a sufficiently advanced civilization would certainly have peppered the cosmos with evidence of their past forays into the vastness of space. The notion set’s the imagination alight. consider the marvel of such a discovery, but what sort of calling card might an alien culture leave behind and how would they ensure it’s longevity in face of a dynamic environment? If Humanity is indeed the sole bastion of intelligence in our corner of the galaxy, then it redoubles the imperative that we find a sustainable mechanism by which to… Read more »
damian
Member
June 5, 2009 6:03 PM

My gut feeling is our lack of a unifying theory affects our search for ETI’s.

Not much point in speculating on how that might affect our search, but it stands to reason that until a civilization arrives at such a juncture it is unlikely to progress far out of its solar system.

A though experiment for you all; If a microscopic organism living on one persons head were to become self aware and build a technologically advanced society, would it come to the realization it was living on a larger sentient being?

Lets not forget our sense of scale in our search, we happen to exist in a very large universe.

Regards
Damian K

omnivorr
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omnivorr
June 5, 2009 7:13 PM
If we consider ourselves as any example to go by, then there is very little likelihood of “civilisation”s reaching further than their own star system since they will have squandered their resources on warfare and SUVs long before achieving the technology to advance into interstellar travel. (..or to have depleted all the matter of their system to build a Dyson-sphere or some such white elephant…) A very ancient “message in a bottle” is all we may ever see (or send), by whatever means detected, at our current primitive state of technologies and organisation. Remembering that the further we look the further back in time we are viewing, it would therefore seem logical that, assuming a given time to… Read more »
Torbjorn Larsson OM
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Torbjorn Larsson OM
June 6, 2009 2:52 AM
The quality of this paper is abysmal. The resort to formal logic (never mind the lacking logic of the paper itself) reminds me of high schoolers trying to dress up attempts of authorship. To paraphrase what was said on the abysmal writings of crackpot Smolin thread (also authored by Ventrudo; is this a coincidence?), you read this and then you die a little inside. [Disclaimer: As opposed to the other thread commenter, I’m not claiming to study SETI. But I have authored papers.] The paper confuses several different subjects. For example, there is a difference between observing communications and other artifacts, as well as a basic difference between a communal civilization and a colonizing one. As we can’t… Read more »
Torbjorn Larsson OM
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Torbjorn Larsson OM
June 6, 2009 3:18 AM
Oh, I guess I need to propose my own ideas on ths topic instead of mere criticism. [But again, the disclaimer: I haven’t studied this.] As regards the related “Great Silence”/communication topic of SETI, it seems to me Seth Shostak is on the money when he claims that not enough stars have been surveyed. By his data and a Drake model, his estimate of a conclusive test of the prediction by 2020 seems to me to be in the correct ball park, albeit perhaps optimistically so. As regards other artifacts, it seems to me we don’t know enough. For example, biosphere population models (non-Malthusean ) can explain the absence of traces by synchronizing biosphere ages by medium scale,… Read more »
Torbjorn Larsson OM
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Torbjorn Larsson OM
June 6, 2009 3:22 AM

“test of the prediction” – that would be the prediction of civilizations of lifetime of a typical species. (Assuming earth species lifetime as a measure of species lifetime of evolution in general isn’t much of a jump IMO.)

Shorter lifetimes demands further observation.

Torbjorn Larsson OM
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Torbjorn Larsson OM
June 6, 2009 4:09 AM

Oh, I completely forgot to check up on the authors. “Department of Meteorology & Astrobiology Research Center” ( Haqq-Misra). “Department of Geography & Rock Ethics Institute” (Baum). WTF WTF?

Turns out that Penn State University has a Department of Geography dedicated to “subjects of inquiry in the natural, social, information sciences, and humanities”. The above ethics institute is indeed listed as a “Liberal Arts” department, who have a professor of Philosophy (Nancy Tuana) as Director. Tuana gave 2008 a seminar in “Ethical dimensions of climate change”.

No wonder then that a “Sustainability Solution” is proposed. Even though it seems to be vapor-ware and isn’t proposed in a scientifically sustainable way. eek

Rob Bowman
Member
June 6, 2009 4:27 AM

It seems to me that ETI has existed, does exist and will, in future, exist. The sheer size and diversity of the universe would make me a foolish gambler indeed to bet against it.
On the other hand, the sheer size of the universe means that life is so sparsely distributed that our chances of detecting it are very low, and of meeting it effectively nil.
To say that civilisations burn themselves out is pure speculation, and indeed contrary to the evidence: We only know about one civilisation and, despite some heinous mistakes and some localised waxing and waning of subgroups, we are still limping along.

Lawrence B. Crowell
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Lawrence B. Crowell
June 6, 2009 5:03 AM

I agree with the conclusion of these authors. Intelligent life will consume resources and learn about the nuclear bomb. They will then likely put themselves in a situation where they must either control their activities or perish. This means that exponential growth into the world outside their home bio-planet is unlikely and expansion beyond ever less likely.

We are clearly faced with the same problem.

Lawrence B. Crowell

Jim Krug
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Jim Krug
June 6, 2009 5:03 AM

This is utter garbage for this very simple reason:

“The researchers base their conclusions on a study of civilizations on Earth. Historically, rapid growth of societies means rapid resource depletion and environmental degradation, usually with dire results…”

The incredible fallacy here is that their theory is based on resource depletion of a finite Earth. While what we’re actually talking about are boundless resources in a nearly infinite universe.

Noted physicist Michio Kaku has indicated multiple times that when a civilization becomes advanced enough to colonize multiple worlds, resource depletion is no longer a problem.

JIm

jw
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jw
June 6, 2009 8:36 AM
Jim Krug, great post. I’m always amazed at how closed minded some individuals are with respect to the chance of advanced life. They always base it on or compare it to us and that is a very flawed thing to do IMHO. For example, an alien species that is a couple hundred thousand years older than us and thus a couple hundred thousand years more advanced in technology would have likely developed a far more advanced method of communication than we are capable of even picking up. Given the age of the universe, it’s likely there are some that are even millions or billions of years older than us. And if they had a learning curve comparable to… Read more »
Jon Hanford
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Jon Hanford
June 6, 2009 9:26 AM
@ Torbjorn Larsson OM, could you please supply your references to the statements you posted above, namely ” …as[sic] species lifetime is typically 100 000 years” and “the galaxy colonization time [is] at least an order of magnitude larger than that [the species lifetime]” ? You also mention a paper you have bookmarked that “can explain the absence of traces by synchronizing biosphere ages by medium scale, low frequency catastrophic events such as supernovas or GRBs”. Could you kindly direct me to copy of this paper ? It seems most of the people posting on this story do believe in Extra Terrestrial Intelligence, but have differing opinions as to the details. Great! Science thrives among valid, informed debate.… Read more »
gtring
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gtring
June 6, 2009 11:07 AM

Nice article Brian.

I read this paper too. The paper’s content seems amateur compared to other research papers. There is an Astrobiology institute at Penn State, but the other writer is from their Ethics institute. Once I knew that piece of information, I was read this with a good dose of healthy skepticism.

Dark Gnat
Member
Dark Gnat
June 6, 2009 7:09 PM

I think the reason we haven’t communicated with anyone is because we are looking for aliens that are like us.

I’m willing to bet that alien life forms, even intelligent one might look, behave and communicate in ways that are truely *alien*.

They may communicate via magnetism, neutrinos, or spitballs. They might be right next door, but simply speaking a very different language.

As far as the sustainability issue, I’m thinking there might be just as any variables. For example, they might have colonized their moon or a nearby planet that has loads of resources, including raw materials for space vessels or probes.

Then again, they might have already nuked themselves.

tacitus
Member
June 7, 2009 2:32 AM

I would echo Jon’s question to Torbjorn — he slams the paper but then introduces his own completely unsubstantiated claim that a species’ lifetime is one 100,000 years. I assume he means an intelligent species, but since we are very much still around I fail to see how any prediction of species lifespan can be anything more than a complete guess.

tacitus
Member
June 7, 2009 2:45 AM
On the other hand, Jim hits on what I think is the biggest weakness of the paper. The authors spend time talking about historical scenarios from Earth’s history, but completely fail to make the case that the same things can happen to ETIs that have begun to expand beyond the orbit of their own planet, let alone beyond their own solar system. The travel time and difficulty of establishing new colonies (and their subsequent isolation) would seem to be far more important than any concerns over exponential growth. In addition, given the timescales involved (600k yrs or more) in colonizing the galaxy, there is the possibility that a species may just find it easier to evolve beyond the… Read more »
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