Saturday, November 3, 2012

Illegal Aliens

Three years ago, almost to the day, TOF in his alternate ego as m_frank, posted semi-seriously some 31 different answers to Fermi's paradox on the old LiveJournal site.  Various thoughts and ruminations have impelled him to revisit the list and give it a new coat of paint, or at least a new vest and some additional comments.
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Klaatu and his ride
One of the major tropes of science fiction is the Alien From Space.  Recall Klaatu, War of the Worlds, Earth vs the Flying Saucers, and other such visitations.  Heinlein gave us the Mother Thing, the Bugs, Lummox, et al.  Van Vogt gave us the Rull; Zenna Henderson, the People; Weinbaum, Tweel; and so on.  TOF himself has been responsible for perpetrating the Hraani ("The Common Goal of Nature") and the Krenken (Eifelheim)

These alien folk have served admirably as metaphors for various aspects of humanity or human societies; but as one mainstream critic supposedly noted with surprise, in SF a trip to Mars is not only a metaphor for the stresses of human society, it is also supposed to represent on some deeper level an actual trip to Mars.  If this is so, then we have a problem.

Where are the actual aliens?
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Aliens qua alien

Of course, by alien life we do not really mean a layer of lichen floating on the torpid seas of some far-off world.  I mean that would be way kool, but it sure ain't why we're in the game.    

Earth vs. the Flying Saucers!  (We win.)
Fermi famously asked the question, "Where are they?" regarding alien life.  We needn't wonder where the worms of Yuts'ga are.  By all accounts, they aren't going anywhere.  But that needn't matter, so long as others are.  According to incantations - I mean, calculations - there has been plenty of time for those others to make it here, at least by voice if not in the flesh (or whatever may serve them as flesh). So why haven't they shown up? Where are the flying saucers, or at least the messages from Mars? 

The basic prayer is something called the Drake Equation, which is actually disguised to look like a real equation, perhaps in the hope that no one will notice that most of the terms in it are not even remotely measurable. The equation runs:
N = R^{\ast} \times f_p \times n_e \times f_{\ell} \times f_i \times f_c \times L \!
N is the number of civilizations in our galaxy with which communication might be possible;
R* is the average rate of star formation per year in our galaxy 
fp is the fraction of those stars that have planets 
ne is the average number of planets that can potentially support life per star that has planets 
f is the fraction of the above that actually go on to develop life at some point 
fi is the fraction of the above that actually go on to develop intelligent life 
fc is the fraction of civilizations that develop a technology that releases detectable signs of their existence into space 
L is the length of time such civilizations release detectable signals into space
Some observations: 
  • fp is starting to look good.  We've actually been detecting a fair number of extrasolar planets.  However
  • ne is not looking good at all.  Most of those planets are hot Jupiters whirling like centrifuges way too close to their homestars.   Of course, that is an artifact of the detection method, which is preferential to large planets and proximity to the star.  It would know Mars from a hole in the ground. 
  • f may be far smaller than we would like to think.  Asimov's Foundation series has no non-humans at all.  In TOF's Spiral Arm there are planets able to support life after Terraforming, and a few that have developed prokaryotes or lichens and such and one that even has acoels burrowing in the oceanic ooze:
   Yuts’ga was known once as Second Earth; but that was in the Commonwealth’s palmy days, when comparisons to Terra were made openly and with pride.  She bulked larger than the Homeworld, tugged a bit more than bones or muscles liked, and spun more slowly.  She owned a moon, too, which they called Djut Long Dji, which meant “second moon” in some ancient tongue of Terra; but their grandchildren’s grandchildren wondered why it was called “second” if there was only one and the name eventually collapsed into Tchudlon. 
   She was a large moon as such things go, and it was a rare thing for a small planet to have a large moon; but she was not so large as Luna, and so was less of a pestle to Yuts’ga’s mortar.  The seas were stirred by moderate tides; life was ground, but not so finely as on Earth. 
   Still, life was life.  It was more than the prokaryote cryptolife that was the fruit of most worlds’ groanings; more than the lichens that had graced the downy cheeks of Dao Chetty.  Her vast world-sea was called the Wriggling Ocean because there were –
by the gods! – worms burrowing in the ooze.  Who knew what might next be found? 
   The answer, as it turned out, was nothing; and as world after barren world followed, men ceased to care.  Worms?  They vanished under the bioload of the terraforming arks.  An easy job, the old captains said.  Yuts’ga had done half their work already.  They stroked her seas and quickened her with fish and insects and smiling crocodiles, graced the land with pine trees and waving grasses and fragrant rhododendrons.  They did remember to save a few of those ur-worms, and studied them closely and found them much like Terran acoels; but they did not let them get in the way of things.  There was work to do!  A galaxy to conquer! 
   Much later, the world was called Tikantam, which meant “the sensible horizon,” because her star was the farthest of the Commonwealth suns pluckable by eye from the skies of Terra.  But it was not too long after that men ceased to care what could or could not be seen from Terra.  There were convulsions, wars, cleansings.  In the end, as epigones reconnected their ancestors’ bones hoping that they might once more live, the older name was rediscovered and she became Yuts’ga once more. 
   Somewhere along the way, they lost the worms. 

-- In the Lion's Mouth, "VII.  Yuts’ga: A Role, in the Hay"
  • fc, the fraction of civilizations that develop a technology that releases detectable signs of their existence into space, is another problematical.  The history of Earth is not encouraging, as only one civilization ever developed a natural science, and technology may be unlikely to develop beyond a certain point without science to open up the possibilities.  In change management mapping, we are supposed to examine every state between the Current State and the desired Future State and ask for each Intermediate State what are the drivers that want to move us off the Intermediate and which are those that want to keep us there.  There may be more drivers for a Rest State than for a Transition State.  More on this later. 

There are three basic answers to Fermi's Paradox, more or less replicated by the thoughts of our very own follower "Martin," who comments in the responses below:
  • They're not there (Martin's F1)
  • They're there, but not here (Includes Martin's F3)
  • They're here, but we don't know it (Martin's F2)
More detailed answers:

A. They aren't there.  
1. We're it. Unique in the universe. They aren't there, period.
What a waste!  All that great big honkin' universe and we're all there is?   Complaints of this sort assume implicitly that the universe is purposeful.  Otherwise, why should there be anything else in the universe, regardless of its size?  Besides, how many dandelion seeds are wasted to make a single dandelion?  How many stone chips litter the workshop floor to make one statue of David?  Why should it not take a universe to make a world?  If the universe were much smaller, it would have expanded into thin bouillabaisse long ago; if it were much bigger, it would have collapsed into a monobloc.  This is how big a universe has to be to make stars and galaxies and pretty girls.  (Or manly men, if you prefer.)  
2. We're first. We are the "elder race" of the universe. They aren't there, yet.
Well, someone had to be first.  Why not us?  Life is hard and maybe the start-up costs are too high.  As far as we can tell, it only happened once here on earth.  If it's so easy and automatic, why did it not happen twice?  (Unless it did - a separate conundrum.)  Maybe f is really really small. 
It needed a couple generations of stars before enough heavy elements to form life-bearing compounds had spread around the universe and gotten concentrated in planets.  Besides, there is also then.  All those gazillions of distant galaxies?  Those were gazillions of years ago.  Any signals coming from there would have had to have been sent when the universe was young, before the life-soup had coagulated.  The universe might be teeming with intelligent species right now busily putting out daytime soap operas; but we don't see the universe right now.  We see the universe that was back then.
"Let's get them aliens afore
they can contact the Earthlings
3. We're last. They were there, but not any more.
  • C'est le vive.  That L factor in the Drake-quation is really, really short. They wiped themselves out in wars of annihilation.  
  • The plague got 'em.  
  • Famine got 'em 
  • The von Neumans got 'em (and are coming our way). 
  • They all became dependent on government handouts and then the government went bankrupt. 
  • They mucked up their environment a bit too much. 
  • The glaciers got 'em.  
  • They genetically modified themselves and screwed up, bad.  
  • The Morlocks really didn't like the Eloi. 
  • They adopted an existentialist, materialist philosophy, saw no reason for going on, and drank the Kool-Aid.   
  • That trans(humanism) thing didn't work out so well.  
  • They went a little too far with contraception and offended the god Darwin.  
  • They killed too many of their own children. Ditto. 

B. They're there, but not here.  
4. We're multicellular.  Life elsewhere got started but alien prokaryotes never hit on the idea of shacking up together.
Here, it happened twice.  Mitochondrians and chloroplasts gave us animals and plants.  But the stages where independent competing replicators form up into cooperative wholes needs a different theory than natural selection.  Protozoans get along just fine, so it's not like metazoans were "better fit," only that they were "not unfit."  What is the mechanism that creates these biological conglomerates?  A separate puzzle, but what if it's not all that easy to accomplish? 
5.  We're dry. They never got out of the water and saw the stars. No one will try to contact us if they have no idea there is any 'us' to contact.  Again: how many different times has the ocean come to walk on the land?  A couple times, maybe.  There are things still coming ashore. 
  • We've been mooned. No one else had moon:planet ratios large enough to create tidal pools as escalators to the land.  That may not be the only way for fish to transition to amphibians, but it surely is the way that happened here.  How unusual were the circumstances that created the moon?  Nowhere we know of is there a sufficiently-sized planet with such a relatively large moon.  It needed, so theory says, a Mars-sized body striking the proto-earth in just the right way to spin off a moon into the proper orbit. 
6. We're mobile. Aliens are plants and fungi and don't get around much.
Don't expect the flying saucers to land, lower a ramp, and weeds or mold to start growing down the ramp to meet us.  The waiting dignitaries won't wait that long.  Plants and fungi grow.  You can't grow your way from α-Centauri to here.  Fungi probably won't build powerful lasers or radios, either. 

7. We're intelligent. Aliens get along fine with imagination.
 After all, every other animal species on Earth gets by without intellect.  They can even learn and remember in response to sensory stimuli.  They have personalities, can use tools, can sometimes even make tools.  But in the past billion years or so, no one else has come up with disco or daytime soaps, let alone art, speculative philosophy, systems of mathematics, or physics.  Remember, intellect means "read between (the lines)."  Imagination only gets you so far.
  • We're single-minded.  Jaynes was right about the closing of the bicameral mind.  The aliens are of two minds about things because their two brain hemispheres never knitted into one. 
8. The Endless Sumer.  Aliens achieved Sumerian-level civilization and never broke out of it.
Rest needs no cause.  It's motion that requires a mover.  Once there is a breakthrough to civilization, there need be no further developments. Looking back on the Garden of Eden that was their pre-intellective, pre-civilizational existence and comparing it to the vale of tears in which they eat by the sweat of their brows, the aliens figured they better not take any more chances.  The same goes for any other rest-points along the way.
  • The universal State imposes a Pax Imperia and that includes the kabosh on any disruptive new technologies.
  • Humanism triumphs.  The aliens are all excellent artists and literary critics. 
  • Bureaucracy triumphs and new technology is not covered by any of the procedures.  
  • God-kings triumph.  The aliens spend their lives preparing the king for his afterlife. 
  • Oligarchies triumph. Everything is geared toward the maintenance of power.  New technology may shift the power balance. 
  • They get to their moon, then quit. 

9. We're scientificalistic.  Aliens never cared about the natural world.
The breakthrough to natural science occurred only once, in the Latin West.  Other civilizations hosted isolated individuals but never embedded the study of nature in their cultures.  There are many reasons why a culture does not develop a natural science. 
  • They're not curious.  Nearly every Terran culture was markedly incurious about the natural world.
  • The hypnotizing circular motion of the heavens convinced them that the world was a series of repetitive cycles.  Everything that has happened will happen again.  Natural laws are transient.  
  • There is no God, so chaos and unreason is at the root of everything.  Natural laws are illusions. 
  • There are a host of competing and contradictory gods.  Natural laws represent temporary compromises among the gods.  
  • There are dryads in the trees, nymphs in the wells, and the stars are alive, divine, and influential in daily life.  If nature has minds of her own, she must be placated, not studied.  
  • They worship the phallus.  This interferes with thinking straight.  
  • There is a creator God, but he is not rational.  Therefore the world is not rationally ordered.  
  • There is a creator God, but he does not act through nature.  Apparent natural laws are simply 'habits of God.'  
  • The world is ordered, but human reason is incapable of grasping it.  
  • Logic?  Reason?  Euclidean geometry?  What's that?
  • Math is hard.  
  • Their local astronomy is complex and messy and never leads them toward rational explanations. 
10.  They all went fiber-op. No more radio broadcasts into space.  We'll never hear them.
  • They communicate by odor or other means not amenable to radio.  

11. They're coming. They're there, but not here, yet.  We happen to live at just that cusp between the launch of their interstellar probe and/or radio signals and the receipt of same here. 

C. They're here, but we don't know it.  
12.  We're quarantined. They don't come or talk to us because we have cooties.

13. We're boring. They're here but don't come or talk to us because they don't find us interesting.
  • They detected our radio and TV signals and fled in horror.
14.  They're boring. They're here but don't come or talk to us because they have nothing to say.

15. They're quiet. They're here, but observing only.

16. They're incognito. They're here, but disguised as humans.
  • They're here, but disguised as cats.
17.  They're practical jokers. They're here, but only only contact hillbillies and people driving on deserted country roads.

18. They're gods. They were here. Long ago. And they over-awed the natives, who called them gods.

19. We missed them. They were here. Long ago. Dinosaurs ate them.
  • They were here. Long ago. Dinosaurs ate them. And then they smashed all the dinosaurs with a comet.
20. They love us. They're here, but they don't want to interfere with our natural development.
  • They even have a guidebook: "To Serve Man."  
21. They hate us. They're here, but they don't want to interfere with our natural development.
  • Only the Mayans knew about their plans; so they destroyed the Mayan civilization
  • They're massing their fleet for an assault when the Mayan calendar ends. 

Updated: 3 Nov 12; 8:09 PM  Added thoughts suggested by Martin's link.


  1. I've long championed the Lex Luther Equations as the answer to Fermi's Paradox: which is a much more solid equation than Drake's, since I'm not making up absolutely everything in it.

    The Lex Luther Equation does fit under the first point under 'We're Last', but is more scientifilicious to require only one genius billionaire psychopath than imagining wars of total destruction due to it having fewer variables - or something.

    It is better to sound smart than to be smart.

  2. Its quite reasonable to call the Drake equation an 'equation' even if we don't know most of the terms. After all, for the archetype of equations, Newton law of Gravitation, the key constant G was only determined 70 years after Newton's death. Further the equation is of some use even if we don't know all the terms:
    (1) Data from the Kepler satellite is giving information on f_p and n_e, while R^* is known reasonably well. The terms f_l, f_i and f_c are all less than 1, so the Drake equation gives an upper bound on the number of civilisations arising per year. Equivalently and more usefully in my view, it gives a lower bound (100-1000 years) on the time T between civilisations arising in the galaxy.
    (2) While we're unlikely to get much information on f_l, f_i and f_c in our lifetimes, in a few thousand years (if all goes well with us…) we might get better estimates of f_l via robotic star probes, and hence via Drake a really useful bound on T.

    I do not buy the 'the're coming' argument. If they exist at all then almost certainly the've been around long enough to reach us, unless they are so short lived that they never will reach us. For a more quantitative expression of this, you might be interested in a paper (by me): (due to appear in Int. J. Astrobiology).

    1. Care to try a Bayesian analysis of the likelihood of F1, 2 and 3??

    2. But - none of this matters at all until we get some meaningful data, starting with second data points for 'life', 'intelligent life', 'detectable signals', 'civilizations' and so on - and, if and when we do, then we can maybe start to talk about backing into a few of the variable. Until then, the Drake Equation is purely speculation unencumbered by any relevant data whatsoever.

      Speculation unencumbered by meaningful data - in this case, those second data points mentioned above - stretches the definition of science well past the breaking point. It is mere fantasy.

    3. After all, for the archetype of equations, Newton law of Gravitation, the key constant G was only determined 70 years after Newton's death.

      Not a valid analogy. Newton's Law of Universal Gravitation lends itself to precisely-measured comparisons of the gravitation between different sets of objects, at which time G cancels out. The Drake Equation doesn't have any facility of comparison, even in principle, and besides there is little that is actually measurable therein; some of the terms are not even potentially measurable in any reasonable way.

      As for the supposed elusiveness of G, G is an artifact. Newton's Second Law would require a constant if the units of force, mass and length weren't defined the way they are; G is an artifact of our not using gravitation to define the units of force, mass and length.

    4. Of course Newton's law is much superior in depth to the Drake equation, and even without knowing G it tells us much more. The Drake equation is (mainly) a rather trivial counting type equation. But I still maintain it has the potential to give SOME useful information. For example, if n_e is around 10^{-4} (which Kepler might show) then on my analysis anyway the classical SETI search for radio signals is futile. If civilizations are long lived, they are here already; if short lived they are too few and far away.

      Baysian analysis of F1, F2, F3. Nice idea. F1 I don't see how to do, but for F2, F3 one could see if there arr parameter values which give them a chance.

  3. Was not the plausibility of wide prevalence of Moons-our-size pretty conclusively established by Belbruno and Gott in 2004-2005?

  4. They don't have eyes and never saw the stars to realize that there were other possible locations. Given that all eyes on Earth appear to descend from a single mutation. . . .

    "What a waste! All that great big universe and we're all there is?"

    I must point out that the universe is overwhelmingly hard vacuum, so plentiful life -- every single planet teeming with life -- would still be a "waste" by this definition.

  5. Just because something is an equation, doesn't mean it's of any use... it's a little like when I, as a kid, realized that Spock was wrong-- humans ARE logical. We're just using information that's not objective and/or can't be measured.

    My favorite response to the "what a waste!" type argument is to point out that I figure that, if God made other people, they're going to be a lot like us and we'll have to work to convert them all! (Yeah, I'm assuming they're fallen, too, but that's based on the lack of mention of non-fallen made-in-His-image folks.)

  6. It's a matter of competition. Here we have a universe with billions of galaxies and billions of stars per galaxy, even if we only have millions of star faring sophonts that still means lots of peoples to get involved with. We are, to put it simply, not interesting enough to out-compete our rivals.

    BTW, look up "myxobacteria" for multi prokaryote life. Would seem that multi-cellular life isn't that odd a thing.

  7. This is awesome and hilarious, thanks.


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