Is Anyone Out There?

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BobProkop
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Is Anyone Out There?

Postby BobProkop » Thu Mar 15, 2012 11:50 am

At last night's star party, I was called a pessimist by a good friend and fellow HAL member for my skepticism about the probability of there being other intelligent life in the Milky Way. My instinctive reaction at the time was to dispute the label, but on further thought I don't think I should have bothered. "Pessimism" and "Optimism" are value judgements concerning a person's outlook, based on whether one considers the subject under discussion to be either a Good or a Bad Thing. But when it comes to extraterrestrial intelligence, aside from the fact we have zero knowledge whether or not such a thing even exists, we have even less reason to characterize the existence of said intelligence as either "Good" or "Bad". We simply have nothing upon which to base any meaningful statement.

One could just as easily (and with equal justification) call someone who flatly disbelieves in extraterrestrial intelligence an optimist. Just look at Stephen Hawking, who opined that any encounter with "ET" would be an unmitigated disaster for Humanity, similar to the effects of the European discovery of America on this hemisphere's Precolumbian population.

But be that as it may, I am indeed an extreme skeptic when it comes to thinking about extraterrestrial intelligence, at least when comes to our own galaxy. Despite the fact that I have little use for the Drake Equation, I'll play for a moment by its rules and posit that the most reasonable values for each of the variables are so low that the best solution to the equation is ONE (i.e., us). First of all, I think we can safely rule out the overwhelming percentage of stars in the Milky Way as candidate hosts to ET: red, brown, and white dwarfs, most double stars, all variable stars, giants and supergiants, Population II stars, all stars within globular clusters, all stars within the galactic bulge, etc. Next, we have to rule out all hypothetical systems with gas giants or supermassive asteroid belts inside their habitable zones (such as HD 69830). Next, All relatively young stars need to be put to the side.

So now that we're already down to far less than 1% of the stars in the galaxy as potential homes for ET, we have to work on whatever planets there might be. At this point we're reduced to pure speculation (no data), but I strongly suspect that there are many more worlds like Venus or Mars than there are like the Earth. And then it seems nearly certain that our looked-for second Earth really does require a giant moon such as our own to avoid Venus's fate, or worse. It's also becoming clear that the presence of oceans of water on the Earth's surface are the result of some very highly fortuitous circumstances in the early solar system that are hardly likely to be often repeated elsewhere.

And we haven't even come to the requirement for a stable interstellar environment (e.g., no nearby supernovae with their attendant doses of lethal radiation). And then there are mass-extinction events.

I could go on, but I've probably already written enough. I'll end with what I think is a Show Stopper argument - "Where are they?" Considering the age of the Milky Way, and the time available therein for any hypothetical alien intelligence to have filled the entire galaxy by now, they should already be "here" (or at least should have been here at some point in the past). The fact that they aren't (or weren't), I believe, screams volumes. They aren't there.

So what do you think?
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Ernie

Re: Is Anyone Out There?

Postby Ernie » Thu Mar 15, 2012 12:27 pm

I would argue that you're restricting your premise to what we know now and not allowing for what we don't know. My guess is what we don't know will turn out to be MUCH greater then what we think we know now. Just based on sheer numbers, I would say odds of intelligent life forms in the universe are extremely high. Now the Milky Way is granted a much more limited sample with proportionally lower odds. I just think there is too much we don't understand. We assume that high radiation precludes intelligent life. But we also assumed high temperatures precluded any type of life until we found underwater thermal vents with life. You can go on and on with rules we've later found weren't rules at all.

In the end I could argue either side but winning an argument doesn't change the odds but just one's perception of the odds. I'll stick with "we just don't know" but the odds are MUCH higher than we knew 100 years ago and 50 years ago and even 10 years ago. It's too easy to use science to attempt to preclude things from possibility. I could very easily argue that science precludes the existence of God (and I don't want to go there) but I could also look at the complexity and levels of understanding we've uncovered and have yet to uncover to say that screams of something beyond pure chance and thus a creator must exist. Both arguments are valid. There is too much we don't know and don't understand. Rather than close off possibilities, I leave it all open. Odds are more often than not correct but they are also wrong enough to take note.

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Re: Is Anyone Out There?

Postby BobProkop » Thu Mar 15, 2012 1:22 pm

Good reply, Ernie, but the crux of your argument is revealed in the phrase "based on sheer numbers". In essence, that is Sagan's "billions and billions" reasoning, which ultimately doesn't get you very far. Remember the old line about a billion monkeys typing away for a billion years at a billion typewriters and eventually you'll get all the works of Shakespeare? Well, here's another case where we now actually know better. I literally (not figuratively) laughed out loud when I read about some researchers with way too much time on their hands who simulated that very scenario on a supercomputer, and proved quite decisively that you don't get the works of Shakespeare - you get billions of pages of unintelligible random characters.

The same goes for huge numbers when it comes to the universe. Half a trillion stars in the Milky Way (I'm adding in all the as-yet undetected brown dwarfs) sounds like such a whole lot that we convince ourselves that there's got to be something out there. But that's all it is - a feeling. As I was trying to explain last night (but did a very poor job of doing so), the world is crammed full of sound, but there's very little music. All the trees falling in uninhabited forests, all the waterfalls and ocean waves, all the insects buzzing and birds chirping - even after millions and millions of years, will not produce Wagner's Das Rheingold. Or more to the point, no amount of interstellar organic molecules floating around will ever (even in 13.7 billion years) present you with a living organism, without there being some extraordinary circumstances (such as our Goldilocks planet) present as well. (As Arthur C. Clarke once wrote, a single cell is not only more complicated than an automobile, it's more complicated than General Motors!)

Now we have to be careful here. The complexity argument against extraterrestrial intelligence is no more valid than the sheer numbers argument is for it. (After all, we really don't have any good idea what a "right" amount of complexity is. Perhaps spontaneously appearing self-replicating automobile corporations is something we should expect to find!) But it does help to put things in context. By bringing it up, I show how inadequate the numbers argument is.
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Re: Is Anyone Out There?

Postby Ernie » Thu Mar 15, 2012 1:43 pm

I would still come back to the point that you're excluding large numbers of possibilities simply because we can't explain how life could exist in that particular habitat. I can't tell you how a lifeform could exist in the high radiation zones close to the center of the galaxy (although much as heat has been shown to be able to take the place of sunlight as an energy source for life I don't think it's out of the question that radiation could potentially do the same). I also can't tell you how a planetary system could exist and be stable in a double star system. Of course if you'd told me that life would exist in the bottom of the ocean under extreme pressure with no light source and little food sources I wouldn't have been able to explain that either until we found it. Too much we don't understand and we over estimate what we do know as absolute fact in spite of being proven wrong time and time again.

Now, I will give you that the odds of other intelligent life forms in the Milky Way is much lower then in the universe as a whole. That's simple math. I just don't think it's as low as you think it is because I don't exclude all of the potential stars and star systems that you exclude absolutely. What we can see is a fraction of what is and what we truly understand is much smaller still. I don't expect we'll be contacted by aliens next week but I can't say I would be shocked to find out I'm wrong either. :D

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Is Anyone Out There?

Postby christodd » Thu Mar 15, 2012 1:57 pm

I think the absence of evidence does not constitute evidence of absence.

Sure, Fermi's paradox is a compelling argument, but our ignorance so massively dwarfs our knowledge that I can't help but think that the probability that life has arisen someplace else in the universe is extremely high. The Kepler mission's results have strengthened that in my mind.

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Re: Is Anyone Out There?

Postby BobProkop » Thu Mar 15, 2012 2:39 pm

"our ignorance so massively dwarfs our knowledge that I can't help but think that the probability that life has arisen someplace else in the universe is extremely high"

Two points:

1) We're not talking about "life" here, but about intelligent life. (At least, that's how this conversation started.) I too suspect that life itself is quite common.

2) How does the second half of your sentence follow from the first? I could just as easily (and with equal justification) say, "I have no idea whether or not anyone has ever recited James Joyce's Ulysses backwards, but since my ignorance of this is so great, and the number of people in the world so vast, the probability of someone having done so is extremely high." See? High probability of something being so does not necessarily follow from ignorance (or from huge numbers).

And yes, sometimes absence of evidence is evidence of absence! (Driving around Columbia, I see no 100-story highrises. The absence of any evidence of such buildings is indeed evidence that there are none.)
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Re: Is Anyone Out There?

Postby BobProkop » Thu Mar 15, 2012 2:42 pm

Besides, Phil opened that can of worms himself last night (concerning absence of evidence) when he said, "The universe has been around long enough for another intelligent race to arise and fill the galaxy with itself" (or words to that effect). To which I replied, "Well then, where are they?"
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Re: Is Anyone Out There?

Postby Ernie » Thu Mar 15, 2012 2:54 pm

Well part of the problem with Phil's argument is it assumes that intelligent life forms not only developed long ago but also survived long term and to the present. That's two entirely different propositions, and for the latter I would say the odds seem fairly well stacked against that. It would also require the ability to either exceed speed of light travel or survive long term without a planet of some type and the resources they would need. Outside of Star Trek episodes we're a LONG ways from even approaching either of those feats. Our survival on Earth long enough to tackle those problems is a very real question. How many earth like planets have already come and gone?

And agreed, intelligent life versus simple life are two very different questions with very different odds. The catch is just as we've found simple life forms in extreme conditions I believe more complex and intelligent life forms in extreme conditions are not precluded in any way. Just because we haven't found it here on earth doesn't mean it doesn't exist. What's to say there isn't a civilization in a different solar system living on a Venus type planet and coping just fine who would find earth toxic? Sure we look first for what we know but we keep finding the most interesting things where we expect nothing.

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Re: Is Anyone Out There?

Postby PhilB » Fri Mar 16, 2012 8:32 pm

Fermi's paradox is no real paradox at all. Consider that we've only been sending out radio waves for the past 100 years, and we have already advanced enough to where quantum entangled secure communications, laser communication, and other point to point communications are no longer science fiction, but science future. if we survive the next 1000 years, it's very conceivable that we would naturally evolve to a technological state where we would be radio silent to the rest of the galaxy. And it's already been shown that radio waves dissipate after only a few hundred light years into background noise, so the only way to really look for life is not in direct communication but rather by it's impact on it's environment.

The only impact big enough to be noticed from such cast distances are those that change the spectrum of a star such as Dyson swarms/shells/ring worlds, etc. but again, we are already to a point, even in our technological infancy, that we realize we can extract far many more orders of magnitude of energy from much stealthier means such as using black holes.

Basically, it seems (from what little we already know) to be the natural order of things that a civilization, if it survives self destruction, will evolve to use technologies that a lesser civilization such as ourselves will be unable to detect. As an example, think of the lowly ant. He sees these lumbering moving things in his life always, but try as he might, no matter what pheromones he sprays or what dance he makes or how his antenna waves, these lumbering things (us) never respond back, and thus he assumes we are not intelligent like he is. How foolish the ant is, because we actually use sound and radio waves to communicate, something that the ant knows nothing about.


And Bob, here's another little nugget to consider: You say that even if simple life may be fairly common (or at least not rare), intelligent life is so rare that we are basically it (at least in this local group of galaxies). But a simple head count shows that every place that we have so far discovered life, has also included intelligent life! as it stands now, the portion of Drake's equation in which intelligence arises out of simple life is 100%! :P

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Re: Is Anyone Out There?

Postby Ernie » Fri Mar 16, 2012 9:31 pm

That's one point of view Phil but...

Where you lose me is you assume that just because we can thoereticly harness the power of a black hole (your example and just one) that we can do so in reality. That VERY much remains to be seen. If you had to give odds based on the technology we have today and the knowledge we have today you would have to bet against that theory ever becoming reality. There is a TON of known and unknown theories and ideas and some of it will become reality. It's anyones guess how much and how the pieces will fit together in the end. I don't think we know enough to either assume or preclude any eventuality.

Your point about "if we survive another 100 years" is actualy my point as well except I would assume it will require more then 100 years for light speed travel or some way around that need. I would bet money that there have been and maybe are civilizations somewhere in the universe as advanced as ours. Have any of them survived long enough to spread out before beying destroyed (or destroying themselves) is a question with much differant odds in my estimation. Now, the one gotcha there is again we assume destructive events based on what we know. Just as there are likely events we've never dreamed of there are likely also desctructive events to us that may not be for another species as yet undiscovered out in space.

Many more questions then answers.

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Re: Is Anyone Out There?

Postby PhilB » Fri Mar 16, 2012 9:44 pm

The fact that we can even theorize that it's possible, even as low in technology that we would could relatively be compared to other civilizations is the point I'm trying to make. Just imagine that things that are beyond our current understanding of the universe! To think that we are the end all be all of intelligent life and that we are looking in the right places with the right technology and finding nothing and that must mean We Are Alone is not wise. for all we know we are nothing more than ants in Central park NYC!

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Re: Is Anyone Out There?

Postby wbaggett » Fri Mar 16, 2012 11:08 pm

BobProkop wrote:And yes, sometimes absence of evidence[i] is evidence of absence! (Driving around Columbia, I see no 100-story highrises. The absence of any evidence of such buildings is indeed evidence that there are none.)[/i]


I would claim, though, that the parenthetical part of your statement is not a valid example. By driving around Columbia and not finding any 100-story buildings, you have very effectively made all physical observations that would be needed to establish the existence of such entities within the observed area. Thus, not finding them really does mean they are not there in Columbia. You can't possibly make the same argument for the actuality of extraterrestrial intelligent life since we have NOT made adequate physical examinations of every star/planet in the Milky Way to be able to say intelligent life doesn't exist anywhere (else) in the Galaxy. Your analogy would be more apropos if you would state that since we don't find 100-story buildings in Columbia, there are none on Earth. In this case, you have not made all the observations needed to undeniably demonstrate the statement, so there is significant uncertainty in the conclusion. So, I would suggest that "absence of evidence is evidence of absence" only if you have made the right observations or experiments.

You also seemed to rule out a lot of stars without really explaining why and I think you ruled them out too quickly. If life requires water near its triple point (an assumption, but it seems to match the single example we know about), then almost every star has a zone where this criterion could be met. The zone is wide for some stars, and narrow for others, but since there is no reason why planetary formation processes would avoid the so-called "habitable zone" then there must be a lot of planets in the 0.5 trillion stars (your number, I think) that exist in their zone. That would provide a lot of opportunities for water-based life, perhaps intelligent, to form within the MW.

Your concern about the quantities in the Drake equation is valid, since almost all of them require some assumptions just to provide a value to stick into it. People will always rightfully quibble over those assumptions until they are no longer assumptions because the right observations/experiments have been done to provide undeniable values. Until the relevant observations/experiments are performed, there is no way to get away from the assumptions. The values of some of those quantities will be addressed by the Kepler mission, so when they have completed their analysis we could get a less uncertain result from the equation.

Finally (I've probably typed too much already! posting.php?mode=quote&f=4&p=111#) you state "no amount of interstellar organic molecules floating around will ever (even in 13.7 billion years) present you with a living organism." That is, of course, axiomatically false since life exists on Earth.

This is the first time I have ever posted to a forum, so I hope I did things right in terms of formatting, smilies, and such. I guess I'll see when I submit it!
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Re: Is Anyone Out There?

Postby Ernie » Fri Mar 16, 2012 11:25 pm

You did a good job of helping us gang up on Bob! :D

You know we love ya Bob! lol

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Re: Is Anyone Out There?

Postby BobProkop » Sat Mar 17, 2012 12:09 am

Wayne, glad to have you weighing in on this! Welcome to the Forum!

"You also seemed to rule out a lot of stars without really explaining why"

Well, that's the problem with posting to the internet. You generally have book-long explanations behind every sentence you write. If I really wanted to bore everyone, I could have given chapter and verse on all my reasoning. Suffice to say that I have thought out carefully why, and have good reasons for eliminating all those large classes of stars.

I guess I could really boil down my own thinking to a single idea. I regard the Earth as almost a "Magic Planet". It's just too perfect. The right distance from the Sun, the right size, the right chemical compositions, the presence of oceans of water, an enormous moon to create massive tides without at the same time causing us to tidally lock onto it (as it has to us), the right history, a remarkably consistent star (not a variable), not a double star, just the right mass, good metallicity, almost 4 billion years of interstellar calm in our neighborhood (which must have been changing constantly throughout all that period), No gas giants close by within the solar system, the asteroid belt small enough and far enough away, the presence of plate tectonics... I could go on and on.

As regards astronomy, one thing that has struck me almost more than anything else in my lifetime (I still remember vividly the very first satellites going up) is how disappointed I've been over the years as we learned time and again how unremittingly hostile the rest of the solar system is to life. (I started out desperately wanting life to be everywhere. I even hoped we'd find some on the Moon!) When I was a teenager, astronomers could still seriously believe the dark patches on Mars were vegetation - then came Mariner 4. I remember being told in grade school that Venus was "most likely covered by a planet-wide ocean or a pole-to-pole swamp - until we discovered just how hellish its conditions actually were. Then after Pioneer 10 we learned that Jupiter's moons were bathed in lethal radiation. One by one, all the hopeful places for finding life were ruled out. No Venusian swamp monsters, no Martian princesses, no Jovian homesteaders (a la Heinlein's Farmer in the Sky)... no life anywhere. I began to actually resent us sending out all those robot probes! And today, all this talk about subsurface ecosystems on Europa or Enceladus is just that - talk (and a lot of wishful thinking).

I also really dislike the argument from numbers. It leaves me cold. The idea that "it's gotta be out there" is an argument not from reason, but from pure emotion. We want there to be other minds (me too!), so we dream up ways to make our desires sound plausible, and label anyone anyone who doesn't jump on the bandwagon a "pessimist" (itself an emotion-laden term - almost an argumentum ad hominem). But in the end, that's all it adds up to - we want it to be true, so we'll give preferential credence to whatever supports our wishes.

And yes, Fermi's Paradox is very, very hard to get around. Phil's ants might not be able to communicate with us, but they'd sure see our handiwork! (They do walk across our sidewalks.) As I see it, there's been more than enough time and more than enough stars in the Milky Way to have given rise to a galactic civilization many times over, if there was indeed anyone else out there to make one. But no one has.
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Re: Is Anyone Out There?

Postby Ernie » Sat Mar 17, 2012 12:33 am

But see Bob, last things first, you're assuming a means of travel that our best physics can't even theorize on at this point which may or may not be possible. If indeed, exceeding the speed of light is impossible, we may never make it to the closest star and neither may anyone else much less getting further.

Now without getting into all of the stars you're ruling out and just sticking in the solar system, you're ruling out planets and moons we can NOT rule out at this point. Do we know for a fact there is no intelligent life on Venus? No. We just know we haven't found it in a few quick looks and it hasn't jumped up and found us yet either. The moon and Mars are at this point the best explored and we can not totaly rule out life or even intelligent life there. We can at best rule out the life form types we know to look for. We couldn't live on Venus, that is 100% true. We don't think anything could on the surface (but I would bet we end up being wrong on that) but we have no idea about sub surface life. The same for the moon. I don't believe intelligent life on the moon is at all probable. I can argue fairly well against life period there. As we know it, it's a very bad fit. What do we know about under the surface of the moon? Nada! Could there be a life form on the interior? Possibly, we know NOTHING about it after all. Certainly can't rule it out. Interior life, even intelligent life forms would have no reason to make themselves visable on the surface and would have very good reasons not too.

We know so little and we understand even less. In our own galaxy we have explored less then 1% of 1% of 1%. That's not much to be ruling any possability out with. We simply don't know.

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Re: Is Anyone Out There?

Postby BobProkop » Sat Mar 17, 2012 9:23 am

Ernie!

I like your way of thinking! I totally agree that "we don''t know" is a very defendable position to hold as regards this question. My beef was (and is) with the idea that "there's gotta be" intelligent life out there, solely on the basis on numbers. I don't believe I've written in the above postings that there's no extraterrestrial intelligence in the universe (at least I hope I haven't - I certainly don't believe that). But I'm quite willing to argue the position that there's none in our own galaxy.

But in the end, I think that everyone who puts serious thought into this is going to have (perhaps even in secret) a definite bias towards one answer or the other. True fence sitters are not often encountered. I've found this to be true in discussions about religion, too. If someone tells me they're an agnostic, a few well-chosen questions will almost always reveal their true leanings, one way or the other.

And that last sentence brings up an interesting side issue. A good case could be made that strong belief in ET is a form of religious thought. Its advocates certainly approach the issue with all the passion and evangelical fervor of a street-corner preacher. They have their own sacred texts (the Drake Equation), their own prophets (Carl Sagan, et.al.), and their own eager anticipation of a coming rapture (the Singularity). Just try and watch Spielberg's ET, the Extraterrestrial without seeing a re-working of the Second Coming.

As I wrote in my last posting, I for one would love to find evidence of life elsewhere in the universe. (I was actually hoping we might find some on Vesta!) And like you, I won't give up hope until we've turned over every rock. (There's still Ceres in 2015! That one actually looks promising.) But we've got to be careful about confusing those two very different questions: "Is there life out there?" and "Is there intelligence out there?"

By the way, who was it that quipped "Exobiology is the only branch of science without a subject to study" or words to that effect?
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Re: Is Anyone Out There?

Postby Ernie » Sat Mar 17, 2012 11:56 am

Bob,
You actualy hit on an interesting sub topic to this and that's religion. While faith in many ways is a much tougher nut to crack I actualy believe science justifies my faith and it certainly informs my view on this subject in terms of where my brain goes on the question of other intelligent life.

There are MANY who hate it when someone talks about a "creator" versus simply God. To me it's not a big leap at all. I look at religion in terms of faith and a belief that some things are unknowable by design. If you can accept the bible (pretty much all versions) as more metaphorical than history text (though definitely some history there as well) it's not a big stretch.

I don't know which I find more compelling, the complexity or the utter simplicity of many things (E=MC2) when we REALLY do figure them out. The idea that it's all just pure chance isn't an easy thing to wrap your head around in my opinion. Many can (and do) disagree but I view science as justifying my own faith not contradicting it. I find it hard to believe that there isn't something at a higher level that we don't understand and never will while in this plain of existence. The idea of parallel universes and such is something I find entirely plausible.

Now all of that being said it makes it easier for me to believe "we're not alone" in the universe. It takes it from a set of probabilities to a set of probabilities informed by faith that probably is what tips me in the direction I take. You can probably throw in some desire to understand it all even if one has to die and move to another plain of existence to do so. Of course there's always the possibility that I'm entirely wrong and the human brain is just a freaky thing! :) Certainly plenty of humans walking around to justify that point of view as well!

Interesting to ponder none the less!

I should note that Stephen Hawking can "prove" that God doesn't exist ONLY if he sticks strictly to the Bible as being "factual" and thus something that can be provably wrong. If you accept the metaphorical angle you can neither prove nor disprove the existence of God based on the Bible itself (by whatever name you choose to use).

You're welcome for a whole other topic to debate and tear apart endlessly! lol

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Re: Is Anyone Out There?

Postby BobProkop » Sat Mar 17, 2012 12:36 pm

Ernie,

I'll leave that one to someone else to start (as a topic).

Hmm... makes me think that a "Musings" category might not be a bad idea to have on the Forum, for just such discussions.
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Re: Is Anyone Out There?

Postby BobProkop » Sat Mar 17, 2012 1:04 pm

A POSSIBLE SOLUTION TO THE FERMI PARADOX

Our predecessor species may have merely gotten so introspective and trivial, that there's no point in contacting them. Just read what was in today's Washington Post (print edition - I still get it delivered to my door):

Encyclopedia Britannica stops the presses, By Alexandra Petri

I think I’ve forgotten what it was like to wonder. Once, I dropped my smartphone in a puddle and had to spend a whole day not knowing how to spell the name of Isaac Newton’s roommate. But that was it for the past decade. Otherwise, I have information at my fingertips. Lyrics? Lives? Letters? All there before I can say “Encyclopaedia Britannica is going out of print.”

Which reminds me. After 244 years, the Encyclopaedia Britannica is closing its covers. The most recent print edition, 32 volumes from 2010, will be the last. And of the 8,000 sets printed, 4,000 are still sitting in storage waiting to be sold.

So much for A to Annoy. Ovid to Plastering. Plants to Raymond of Tripoli. Raynal to Sarraut. Sarsaparilla to Sorcery. Napoleon to Ozonolysis. Mushroom to Ozonides.

The volumes were tantalizing; the words and phrases that bookended them, baffling. The encyclopedia delimited, neatly, What We Ought to Know, written by People Who Ought to Know it. A little bit of knowledge is a dangerous thing. A full set is expensive and hard to transport. After you get it, it sits in your garage or on your shelves and shames you with your lack of knowledge about Raymond of Tripoli.

Encyclopedias were an exercise in patience. You paid for them in installments. You waited for the heavy books to arrive. When you needed to look something up, you painstakingly located the correct page in the correct volume, read it, and returned the book to the shelf.

Between the Wondering and the Finding Out was a gap, where memory settled.

To mangle a quote from Balzac, the duration of my recollection of facts has always been proportional to the amount of resistance I encountered in discovering them. My favorite memory of the Encyclopaedia Britannica was the section on James Otis. I only imperfectly remember it. But I recall its saying that Otis, in later life, “went harmlessly insane and emerged periodically to try law cases.”

These things stick with you.

I have often depended on the knowledge of strangers. Crowds are generally right. But they lack a certain flair. They couldn’t have said that about James Otis, or the perpetual bugbear of “Needs Citation” would soon have reared up on the side. But weigh flair against immediacy and immediacy wins every time. Wikipedia won this round. Pretty soon, to say someone has encyclopedic knowledge will mean “he is generally ill-informed but can check Wikipedia if you give him a second.”

It makes, as usual, perfect sense. The company’s president told the New York Times: “Some people will feel sad about it and nostalgic about it. But we have a better tool now. The Web site is continuously updated, it’s much more expansive and it has multimedia.” The writing was on the wall when someone conducted a survey and found that Wikipedia had four errors per entry and the Encyclopaedia Britannica, three. “This study is clearly inaccurate!” the Encyclopaedia bellowed. “It cites Wikipedia!” But the damage had been done.

The Encyclopaedia is falling the same way so many things fall, in the online age. The demand for them has never been greater. Music. News. Knowledge. The desire to pay for a physical copy, or a copy at all — shrinking, daily.

On the one hand, we have never been thirstier for instant facts. We live in a time where there is no wondering. You can Know, instantly, the answer to any question of fact. It’s a remarkable gift.

But as a consequence of this ease of discovery, we carry fewer facts with us. Why buy an encyclopedia? It’s out of date the instant ink hits paper. And costly! Let’s get another telescreen for the fourth wall and some bonus soma, as long as we’re mixing our dystopic metaphors.

We all know less. Or do we? “It is not that we know less,” we try to argue. “It is that we waste mental storage space on fewer things.” Get rid of the capital of Eritrea and phylum of the chimpanzee. There’s a Wikipedia for that. Save that space for things that really matter, like — directions — well, actually, your phone does those. Or — song lyrics. No, those are online as well. Or — memories. I don’t have any (too busy squinting into my phone for directions and facts) but maybe you do!

There’s a curious void, and we’ve filled it with Thoughts About Ourselves. No wonder we spend more time on Facebook than Google. Why learn about anything else? Why stare beyond? Someone in the 16th Century already did, and, wouldn’t you know, Wikipedia’s all over it. Once, people only had the nagging suspicion that everything you could possibly think had already been thought, centuries ago. Now, with Google suggesting things before we think them and Wikipedia supplying answers to our every question, we don’t have to suspect. We know.

So much for that. So long, Britannica. From ubiquity to obsolescence, a mere More Accurate Subscription Encyclopedia Service for schools and libraries, in a few years. What a chapter. It speaks volumes.

I miss the heft of the books. I miss the cracking noise of the spine.

Most of all I miss the wondering.
Bob Prokop
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Re: Is Anyone Out There?

Postby wbaggett » Sat Mar 17, 2012 2:18 pm

BobProkop wrote:I regard the Earth as almost a "Magic Planet". It's just too perfect. The right distance from the Sun, the right size, the right chemical compositions, the presence of oceans of water, an enormous moon to create massive tides without at the same time causing us to tidally lock onto it (as it has to us), the right history, a remarkably consistent star (not a variable), not a double star, just the right mass, good metallicity, almost 4 billion years of interstellar calm in our neighborhood (which must have been changing constantly throughout all that period), No gas giants close by within the solar system, the asteroid belt small enough and far enough away, the presence of plate tectonics... I could go on and on.


Well, Bob, the only things scientifically that are "magic" about the Earth are that it formed in the habitable zone of the Sun and it has a large moon. Recall that the Sun, Earth, and moon all formed *before* life on Earth, and life here evolved to fit the conditions here. Who's to say that a different form of life doesn't appear on other planets around other stars, and evolved to fit the conditions there? Your idea of a "magic planet" fits right in with Ptolemaic ideas of the Earth being the center (i.e., special) of the universe -- as a species we have moved beyond such parochial ideas and accept that we and Earth are not privileged. This way of thinking has really opened up the ability to accept the possibility of intelligent life elsewhere. Note that that acceptance of the idea doesn't mean intelligent life exists, just that we can conceive of it and it doesn't fly in the face of everything we think we know.

BobProkop wrote:As regards astronomy, one thing that has struck me almost more than anything else in my lifetime (I still remember vividly the very first satellites going up) is how disappointed I've been over the years as we learned time and again how unremittingly hostile the rest of the solar system is to life.


It appears that you are limiting your imagination of "life" to be what most people would describe as "life as we know it". Biologists have a very tough problem since they really only have a single example of life to study -- a water-based form that developed under the singular conditions here on Earth. However, to extrapolate from this one example and conclude that life, and possibly intelligent life, could not be very different from life here is not being fair to the rest of the universe (or even Galaxy) and the physical and chemical processes that occur everywhere.

BobProkop wrote:(I started out desperately wanting life to be everywhere. I even hoped we'd find some on the Moon!) When I was a teenager, astronomers could still seriously believe the dark patches on Mars were vegetation - then came Mariner 4. I remember being told in grade school that Venus was "most likely covered by a planet-wide ocean or a pole-to-pole swamp - until we discovered just how hellish its conditions actually were. Then after Pioneer 10 we learned that Jupiter's moons were bathed in lethal radiation. One by one, all the hopeful places for finding life were ruled out. No Venusian swamp monsters, no Martian princesses, no Jovian homesteaders (a la Heinlein's Farmer in the Sky)... no life anywhere. I began to actually resent us sending out all those robot probes! And today, all this talk about subsurface ecosystems on Europa or Enceladus is just that - talk (and a lot of wishful thinking).


Of course the Europa talk is just that -- we have not devised the experiments to go test for it yet. Talking up the possibility is one way of generating interest for developing the experiments. The first step is to go to Europa and determine what the conditions truly are. Right now we have a few photos and maybe some gravity mapping, and that's about it. We know where Europa is located and what the general environment is like, so we can take that information along with the photos and gravity maps and try to model what the interior is like to explain the other observations. When we do that, the models are suggesting that there could be life-supporting conditions below the surface, hence the talk.

BobProkop wrote:I also really dislike the argument from numbers. It leaves me cold. The idea that "it's gotta be out there" is an argument not from reason, but from pure emotion. We want there to be other minds (me too!), so we dream up ways to make our desires sound plausible, and label anyone anyone who doesn't jump on the bandwagon a "pessimist" (itself an emotion-laden term - almost an argumentum ad hominem). But in the end, that's all it adds up to - we want it to be true, so we'll give preferential credence to whatever supports our wishes.


Numbers are cold and impersonal. They are also the language of science. To dislike the argument by numbers on the basis of the way it makes you feel is a purely emotional response, which you seem to be so solidly against when the response is in the other direction. :)

BobProkop wrote:And yes, Fermi's Paradox is very, very hard to get around. Phil's ants might not be able to communicate with us, but they'd sure see our handiwork! (They do walk across our sidewalks.) As I see it, there's been more than enough time and more than enough stars in the Milky Way to have given rise to a galactic civilization many times over, if there was indeed anyone else out there to make one. But no one has.


The easy way around Fermi's Paradox is the argument of scale, physical scale in this case. If the speed of light is truly a physical barrier, then the only way interstellar travel will work is either with creatures of extremely long lifetimes (including "suspended animation" of some sort), or if the creatures are willing to embark on travels that require many generations to complete. As for simply detecting signs of intelligent civilizations, I would credit our level of technological advancement to lie at the root of the problem -- it is too difficult for us to build radio receivers with sufficient sensitivity to pick up the signal.

I don't know if intelligent life exists elsewhere in the Galaxy, but I do accept that conditions here on Earth are in no way special and thus I accept that it is possible, and perhaps even probable, that it does exist. Until we are capable of making the observations to quantify the many terms in the Drake equation, arguments both ways are plausible, and this forum thread will continue for a long time to come. :)

BobProkop wrote:Pretty soon, to say someone has encyclopedic knowledge will mean “he is generally ill-informed but can check Wikipedia if you give him a second.”


I LOVE this!
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Re: Is Anyone Out There?

Postby BobProkop » Sat Mar 17, 2012 3:09 pm

Good points all, Wayne. By the way, that last quote you ascribed to me (the one you LOVED) was not mine. I was quoting Alexandra Petri. (Just to set the record straight. I love the quote, too.)

But as to your reference to the Copernican Principle, "Your idea of a "magic planet" fits right in with Ptolemaic ideas of the Earth being the center (i.e., special) of the universe -- as a species we have moved beyond such parochial ideas and accept that we and Earth are not privileged." Two points need to be made:

1) The Copernican Principle is not something that has been demonstrated to be true, in the sense of being proven. It is rather a way of approaching one's interpretations of the data. "Science" has not and cannot prove the principle. It is rather in the nature of those true-by-definition axioms that we encounter in geometry, etc. Not that there's anything wrong with that. We all have to start from somewhere. At some point we have to stop trying to reason backwards or we'll never get past "I think, therefore I am". The Copernican Principle belongs squarely within the (very respectable) realm of philosophy.

And in the end, it falls into the same category as the principle question under discussion here. Just as we have zero knowledge whatsoever about the existence or non-existence of extraterrestrial intelligence, we also have absolutely no good grounds to categorize the Earth as unprivileged or not special. It could conceivably turn out that, when all is said and done, we are after all. Imagine some future age in which humanity has spread throughout the length and breadth of the Milky Way, but had never discovered a single planet anywhere with life on it (and you have to admit, there's nothing intrinsically impossible about such a state of affairs). At that point, one would think that people would start to interpret the data in a quite different fashion than today. I'm not saying that this is the case. But I do maintain that it is possible.

2) The Ptolemaic System did not regard the Earth as either the Center of the Universe, or as in any way privileged by position. To the contrary, prior to Copernicus the Earth was thought of as being at the bottom of the universe, in the least privileged position of all. There's a wonderful line in the Almagest (I've actually read the thing), where Ptolemy notes that as regards the Fixed Stars, the Earth is to be considered as no greater than a mathematical point. Hardly anything special. And there are repeated instances, too numerous to recount here, throughout the Middle Ages of people referencing the Spheres as "Those Happy Climes", and as being in every way more exalted than our poor selves. Dante in The Paradiso, looking down upon the Earth from the constellation Gemini, thought it "pathetic".

We do our ancestors a disservice by misrepresenting their thoughts. Not your fault - most modern education drills these myths into our hapless youth, and an attitude of chronological snobbery is endemic.
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Re: Is Anyone Out There?

Postby wbaggett » Sun Mar 18, 2012 2:47 pm

Touche'. :)

Your are correct that the Copernican Principle has not been proven. However, you can say that about any scientific theory -- they are never truly proven but stand ready to be dis-proven at any moment. (Possibly the best-known example in physics is Newton's theory of gravitation which was falsified by both Special and General Relativity; we still use Newton's formulation because for most problems we are attempting to solve those approximations work just fine.)

We'll probably need to agree to disagree, but I don't think the Copernican Principle is simply a matter of philosophy: every advance in positional astronomy has served to move the Earth farther from the physical center of things. In fact, placing the Earth at the center (bottom, wherever, as long as the position is special in some way) is a more philosophical position than the Copernican Principle. After all, we are "at the center" just because that's where we are; this is a very anthropocentric statement to make (by definition). I would offer that defining the Earth to be non-special has more scientific utility than not doing so: if we consider Earth to be special then we can't use it as a guide to creating experiments to look for analogies elsewhere in the Solar System or Galaxy. Why look for something similar to what we see here if we have predetermined that what we see here is unique? Whether that non-specialness is a good representation of reality or not remains to be proven (or rather, dis-proven).

On your second point, I did use the word "privileged" and that was misleading; sorry. I meant it in the sense of being special (i.e., having some unique characteristic), not as having any particular advantage.

This has been an interesting exchange (for me, at least), but I think I'm pretty well tapped out on it. Since you started it, I offer you the final word, assuming you have anything left to add. :)
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Re: Is Anyone Out There?

Postby BobProkop » Sun Mar 18, 2012 5:05 pm

Not much to add myself (at this point), other than that I still wish there really were Barsoomian princesses out there to win, and Boskonian bad guys to foil!

But if anyone else still has something interesting to say on this subject, have at it!
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Re: Is Anyone Out There?

Postby BobProkop » Sun Sep 15, 2013 12:24 pm

Chief SETI astronomer Seth Shostak recently gave a talk in which he predicted that we'll discover extraterrestrial intelligence by the year 2037. I remain a skeptic, but his comments are quite interesting. You can watch his presentation here:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hkxEbIxoNQI
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Re: Is Anyone Out There?

Postby BobProkop » Mon Apr 20, 2015 1:48 pm

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