Konspiracy Korner: UFO's
Childhood's End, dept.


LR asks, quite reasonably,


There is absolutely nothing more fascinating than thinking about the universe. I know the point of the article wasn't about whether we are alone, but am genuinely curious why you're sure that we are alone in our galaxy. Please do elaborate. - See more at: http://seattlesportsinsider.com/comment/157084#comment-157084


This is kind of a "stub," as Wiki would put it.

My conviction on UFO's has little to do with religion and nothing to do with prejudice.  Like everybody else, I used to assume that all them stars were not out there as a waste o' space (Jodie Foster), and then I ran into one idea, with four corollaries, that put "PAID" to the whole discussion.  At least for me.

You amigos want to put "UNPAID" to it?, Dr. D is delighted :- )


Google these five ideas:

  • Fermi's Paradox
  • Great Silence
  • Drake Equation
  • von Neumann probes
  • Uniformity of Motive

And then post your reactions, one at a time, if you please.  You've got to research these ideas with your openness-to-new-things dial set to 11.  They are shockingly powerful.  The ideas attain to a force in logic that you rarely come across in philosophy.

Dr. D held back the fifth corollary, Goldilocks Earth, because (1) we don't need it and (2) it would probably inject the discussion with too much emotion.  But!  The discoveries on "exoplanets" are thoroughly depressing for SETI, whether or not it will admit such.


Fermi's Paradox

Fermi's Paradox is, almost always, horribly mis-stated as "Where are they?"  That's not a paradox.  A paradox is this:

  • Intelligent life must have colonized the Milky Way galaxy by now - actually, a very, very long time ago.
  • Yet it has not.

Enrico Fermi was just a little bit smarter than you and I are, not that this makes him automatically correct.  :- )  There's a story about his being stationed to observe an atomic blast, and then tearing up some bits of paper, throwing them into the wind, and calculating the kinetic energy before the papers fell down...

In any case, Fermi had insight that was Einstein-like.  When he spoke, you didn't sign off without thought, but you certainly listened.

There is a reason that he was convicted that intelligent life must have colonized the galaxy by now.  For openers:  once an intelligent species has put a satellite into orbit, it would take at most 5 million years to colonize the galaxy.  What is that, in the context of ~15 billion years?!  We are saying that the current eyelash-blink of time in which humans have evolved, is the knife's edge to evolution in the galaxy?!  This year is the pivot point for the Milky Way galaxy?

Of course, if you dislike Fermi's paradox, there's wiggle room.  There is always wiggle room in this kind of discussion, in every question up to and including the staging of the Moon Landing.  SETI fans work pretty hard to propose "escapes" from this logic.   

When we are not emotionally invested in a discussion, we don't work harder to brace up one side of the discussion than we work to shore up the other side of it.  It's a curious thing that some rocket scientists work so hard to make the case on one side of this issue, and in fact some of them are quite annoyed by it.  (Dr. D is not much invested on this particular topic; he was amused when he ran across Fermi's logic.)

That's not to say that all ideas on the other side are only wiggling.  There is an indignant case to be made against Fermi, and there is a measured case to be made.  If you propose ideas on this subject -- for or agin' -- that I haven't run across, I'll be delighted.  

I don't rule it out that aliens could land on the White House lawn tomorrow.  :- )  It's just that I currently believe that it is practically demonstrated that they won't.


I got nothing against alien intervention, in principle; "Childhood's End" is one of my fave novels.  (Arthur C. Clarke perpetrated the little joke that perfectly-benevolent aliens looked exactly like demons from hell, explaining our mythology and making obvious Clarke's disdain for his fellow man.  When they finally showed themselves, "It was a tribute to their preparation that only a few people fainted.")

Dr. D believes that there is an end to childhood available, and that it does not depend on superior intelligence or technology.  But that's another subject.  :- )

Would that aliens would install peace on planet earth.  But even if they don't, Fermi's Paradox is a tremendous exercise in logic.




Taro's picture

Any life capable of colonizing may be able to do so without us knowing. Fermi's Paradox works if you assume our intelligence/technologic advances are somewhat comparable to that of alien life. Apes are probably aware of humanity's dominance on earth, but ants probably aren't.


The ancient astronauts show up and they build pyramids and giant heads out of rocks?
Why did they not build 80,000-seat domed stadiums with 200-foot high-def video screens in order to watch the Iroquois play proto-lacrosse?
Intelligence indeed.  Not even cupholders.

okdan's picture

But to say it's "over my head" would be the understatement of the year. But I certainly love thinking about it.
A while back I came across a fun article talking about possible explanations to the fermi paradox. I'll maybe just summarize it out and post the link at the end for those interested.
There are two big groups of explanation for the Fermi Paradox (with hard proof of neither, but they are compelling to ponder).
Number 1: There is a great filter that acts as a strainer for advancing civilizations, that they all must pass through. As it relates to human civilization on earth - we're either Rare, First, or... Screwed (tried to self edit here, but apologies on language).
Rare - If there is a great filter that all evolving civilizations confront, we may be past it along with other civilizations, but that it filters out so many civilizations, that there are only a few of us left making it nearly impossible for us to discover each other.
First - We're the first ones to ever make it past the filter, which means we're alone in that sense.
And Screwed - the filter is ahead of us, and we have a bad time coming (not making it past). If that's the case, with the filter ahead of us, our fellow pre-filter civilizations are all too immature to have the capability to reach far beyond our own galaxies to discover each other.
Explanation number 2 has a lot of possibilities. There's no proof for any of these, and they range from the technically possible to the ridiculous, IMHO.
1. Super-intelligent life could very well have already visited Earth, but before we were here.
2. The galaxy has been colonized, but we just live in some desolate rural area of the galaxy.
3. The entire concept of physical colonization is a hilariously backward concept to a more advanced species.
4. There are scary predator civilizations out there, and most intelligent life knows better than to broadcast any outgoing signals and advertise their location.
5. There’s only one instance of higher-intelligent life—a “super predator” civilization (like humans are here on Earth)—who is far more advanced than everyone else and keeps it that way by exterminating any intelligent civilization once they get past a certain level.
6. There’s plenty of activity and noise out there, but our technology is too primitive and we’re listening for the wrong things.
7. We are receiving contact from other intelligent life, but the government is hiding it.
8. Higher civilizations are aware of us and observing us (AKA the “Zoo Hypothesis”).
9. Higher civilizations are here, all around us. But we’re too primitive to perceive them.
10. We’re completely wrong about our reality and our universe.
So just some fun ideas to consider. The great filter, while having a lot of unknowns, is compelling for me personally. But again, way over my head.
The full article is here, if you're interested. It's a fun read, but it uses a couple more explicit words, just fyi: http://waitbutwhy.com/2014/05/fermi-paradox.html
Unrelated doc, I've been meaning to reply back in the race/rbi thread from a while back, but work the past month has been consuming my entire life, and probably will for the next month or so. Just didn't want you to think I was ignoring the topic after my first post :P


This is a cool 'solution' to Fermi's Paradox.  If I were going to write a sci-fi novel about it, I'd probably use this them.  In the 1960's Star Trek they had a species that moved to fast (or operated on too high a frequency) for Kirk & Spock to perceive :- )
The problem, for me, comes when I start thinking more concretely - when I move from a few general ideas into the nitty-gritty of how reality works.
For instance, suppose that the Milky Way galaxy filled up -- 2 billion years ago -- with beings that move too fast to perceive.  Do they still use the same EMP (light) spectrum?  When they need to see in the dark, do they flash "our" light ahead of them?  Man's light and sound signature has been expanding out, in a globe, from Earth, for 70-odd years.  Why, when we look out into the universe, do we see no light signatures, no EMP beacons, etc?
Do they occupy space in the same way - do they have mass?  Are they subject to gravity, and do they bend space and light the same way we do?  Do their cars run very well on square wheels?  Why, in physical terms, are we unable to perceive them?  I can't get any farther once I ask that question.  
It's one of those ideas that requires us to --- > violate Occam's Razor more and more, into infinity almost, as we become more specific.  What's more plausible, that the Milky Way is filled up with beings that "aren't subject to the laws of nature" and so leave no physical signature ... or that they ain't here?  :- )
Interesting area of discussion though.  ... and I hope I ain't the only one on this side of the discussion, because I'm not that well-read on physics and biology :- )


True that ants can't perceive us, but insect nervous systems are biologically ... well, not really nervous systems.  You can say that a plant has a nervous system, but you've got to call it that by analogy only.  Ants don't even know that they're alive; they are biological clumps of cells with reflexes.  
Any animal that knows it's alive, such as a cat, can interact easily with humans.  And humans are aware that 1,000-IQ chess computers exist.
Once I get concrete, again the idea of "too smart for us to perceive" seems to collapse on itself.


For a while I thought, "well, they've been here for a billion years, but they don't *want* us to perceive them."
This runs into the Uniformity of Motive problem, which is pretty well conceded to be a 'refutation' even by SETI (the defenders of the faith).  All it takes is a single civilization -- such as man! :- ) -- to decide to send out self-replication von Neumann probes, and the game is busted.  And this could have happened at any point in the "2 billion years."
Man himself has been allowed to violate the Prime Directive.  Our light signature has already "escape from containment."  And it's going to be what, a couple of years cosmologically speaking, until a private Earth corporation launches von Neumann probes out into the galaxy, never to be contained again.
It would be one thing for the U.S. to conquer the earth.  It would be another thing to prevent every single child from tossing a paper airplane into the air.  :- )  If the Psychlos control the galaxy from one side of it, there's still no way for them to be aware of every satellite launched from every possible solar system in the galaxy.


Great stuff Dan.  Thanks a lot.
My own noodlings on the filter idea that you explained so magnificently.  "Over your head" indeed :- )
On #1, usually the "filter" is proposed as "blowing each other up with nukes."  
It runs into the Uniformity of Motive / Behavior problem, outlined elsewhere.  It becomes tougher for me to deal with as I get more specific about how Man Himself would be "filtered."  What is going to stop us from sending von Neumann probes out, in say 50-100 of our years?  You program them with AI, you tell them to use local minerals for their 3-D printers, and to move out again in every direction.
Tough to see a realistic "filter" for Man himself, other than self-destruction (which humanity has already essentially passed, in terms of preserving technology under the Rocky Mountains).  And, personally, I can't go with the idea that every civilization, ever, blew itself up -- all within a very short time of learning how to build atomic weapons.  For instance, some of these civiliations would have had only one major government, right?
Just an example of the problems I run into with the Filter proposal.
No need for replies amigo when you get busy.   Usually our SSI comments thread get filtered into obscurity by things like that .... :- )


"Rare" meaning what precisely, though, in the context of the 100-400 billion stars in our galaxy?  One in 100,000 stars develop life?  One in 1 million?  Once we are past that, in astronomical terms what do we care about 1 in 10 to the 6th power vs 1 in 10 to the 12th power?  The simplest animal has, what, 5,000 codons, and the odds against its RNA/DNA sequencing are more like 1 in 4 to the 1000th power.  The number of stars in the galaxy are infinitessimally tiny compared to that, so saying "1 in 100,000" vs 1 in "100,000,000" is almost synonymous.
If we suppose that even 10 civilizations have made it, in the past, to the point to where we're at, we're into a full-blown Fermi Paradox...
Or are we saying that only 2 civilizations made it, us and one other?  (1) Still the Paradox, as to why they didn't colonize the galaxy as we're about to, and (2) If we're going to say 2-3 other civilizations, what's the problem with just saying 1, which is us?  ;- )  Why would 1 be less likely than 2?  
You didn't say this amigo; it's just where my own thoughts on it go.  All apologies.
Once we are into the "rare" civilization territory, then for me -- at a 30,000-foot meta level -- we have conceded the Goldilocks "Just Right Design" Earth (or fantastic-fluke Origin of Life) and we are into the general territory of the Giant Bubble Machine.  "True that man is fantastically rare, but there are infinite multiverses and we can perceive ours because we are in it."
It's not impossible "theoretically" -- meaning we could write a novel that carried the idea -- but as Antony Flew said "it is a truly desperate theory."  Once we start admitting that the odds against Humanity are 1 in 10 to some huge exponent, the road leads nowhere.


Am not saying that Fermi's Paradox has given us a slam-dunk falsification of Alien Life in our galaxy.  It hasn't.
But it is convincing for me. :- )  I don't believe there have ever been spacegoers in our galaxy.  Which would explain the Great Silence out there, and the lack of cupholders down here ...
Good stuff!


Is Hugh Ross'.  He has a detailed argument that it will be impossible, whatever our technology, to EVER build a ship in which a life form can travel to the Andromeda Galaxy.  He goes through the mechanical problems with interstellar travel -- such as the damage that a tiny particle would do to a ship traveling at near light speed.  And the cost to building "shields" against that.
I can very easily visualize *that.*  That one doesn't require us to construct a universe we have no evidence for.  :- ) 
Still, if he's right, that means no UFO's.  Ever.
And:  he doesn't deal with the idea of probes that don't house life.
And:  he doesn't deal with "why no EMP beacons" and why the Great Silence.
But still:  if I wanted to reconcile the idea of "life evolution being common" with "no UFO's," that might be where I went with it.

benihana's picture

A tin-foil-hat-esque friend of mine sees Virtual Reality as the 'filter' ahead of us. His hypothesis is that once we are technologically capable of creating a virtual reality that meets our physical needs of sustenance and exceeds our emotional, sexual, and other Pavlovian needs, than society will completely stop. We will plug into the Matrix and be quite content. Why colonize space, when infinite worlds of virtual reality are so much more readily available?
Interesting discussion...
- Ben.


I'm curious, not countering you ...   what would you do Ben with the Uniformity of Motive problem?  Even within the population of Earth, surely there would be *some* people who chose not to plug in?  
Much less *some* alien mentalities that had little use for that kind of recreation, or any kind of recreation ... your friend is looping back into the assumption that alien psychologies are the same as ours.  I wonder if he realizes that, because he'd probably be appalled at his own Earth-centrism, once he saw it ;- )
Or not.  The "Matrix" concept is fun, if nothing else. 


Yes, great discussion from my end.  
But I have no sense of whether the community is interested enough for it to warrant the effort.  Writing the original article doesn't interrupt the shtick much, but being the only one to carry the comments thread (on the O.P. "side" of the issue) definitely does ...

Taro's picture

Definetly interested. A topic I'd like to know more about.
My own gut feel is that there is life out there more intelligent than ours, but I've never really gone through the trouble of analyzing it.
It feels like any analysis would be limited by our intelligence and understanding of how the universe works.
Dark matter consists of 96% of the universe and we no idea what it is.

benihana's picture

Friend was speaking specifically of human evolution, I generalized the concept to support the 'filter' hypothesis.
Still one could easily argue that aliens would likely fall into the same hierarchy of needs that Maslow laid out. Once you have an established sense of self, then naturally doesn't self actualization follow. And does enlightenment correlate with adventure and expansion? Doubt it. If you look at many religious ideals they center around a peaceful existence, being one with nature and fellow man, the opposite of greed and expansion.
What do I think about the uniformity of motive problem? I think it'll be the have's who plug in, and the have not's who do not or can not. The have not's won't have the resources necessary for interstellar travel.
- Ben.


Of course, that doesn't stop us from putting together our best understandings.  Two theories:
The universe came into existence when an elephant ate a cherry, spit it back out, the goddess Diana swung a sword at it, it split open, and ...
The universe came into existence when a giant explosion of light and matter began an expansion of gasses and heat ...
 In all realms, we take the building blocks of facts as we have them, and go from there.  Even though there may be uncertainties involved.  This point itself is fundamental to all Konspiracy Korner discussions.  
When you wind up watching one side arguing for the laws of physics, as it were, and the other side arguing that laws of physics are negotiable -- THIS OFTEN HAPPENS -- you know which side to take.  ;- )  Not that you did this with UFO's.
The *facts,* such as the laws of physics, and the laws of probability (Drake Equation), steer me strongly into the understandings given above.  
I could be wrong.  And by the way, my own "confidence coefficient" on this one is only 98%, 99% -- personally I suspect that maybe there's 1 chance in 50 or 100 that I've whiffed on it entirely.


On the notion that near-light-speed-travel is too expensive, takes too long and poses too many challenges...the answer is to not travel near light speed but much, much faster than light speed. The only ways physicists can see for doing that are to a) create wormholes (that's a BIG engineering challenge, but theoretically possible after a lot of learning is done) or b) warp space and time to change the speed of light in a small region around your ship by the presence of a sufficiently powerful magnetic field. Essentially the idea behind Star Trek's warp drive.

Taro's picture

Its crazy to think how far humanity might advance in a thousand years. Much less a billion.
We'd be able to converse with the human a thousand years from now, though we'd likely be living in a different world. You go a billion years into the future and I think humans have evolved to something beyond us.
Apes didn't even exist until 40 million years ago, I can't even imagine how primitive current human beings would look like to future earth citizens.


When you look at the problems of traveling faster than light, most plausible ideas seem to involve warping or tearing space to travel to somewhere else, or to bring somewhere else to you.  This is the interestellar idea, or the Nasa idea, and basically everyone else's idea.
But, the problem is this:
No one knows what gravity is.  
Newton says that gravity is the attraction between two bodies of mass.
Einstein states that gravity is a warping or bending of space time.  A gravitational field causes a particle to move through space involuntarily, just as it travels through time involuntarily.
If you Google these things, you end up seeing this:

Gravity is an indentation in the blanket of space time.  The larger the object, the larger the indentation in the blanket, and the greater space and time are warped around the body.  The man in the space ship will be pulled into the sun's gravity by rolling down the slope to the low point of the blanket.  Or something.
This explanation in wholly unsatisfactory to me, as it doesn't explain what gravity is, it just explains more accurately what gravity does;  This answer says that gravity causes matter and time to warp, but it doesn't answer the larger questions of how and why.
Here are things that nobody knows about gravity:
Is gravity a wave or particle like light or magnetism?  If so, nobody has ever seen one.  The people who have wild guesses that gravity is a wave or particle, call this hypothetical energy graviton.  This treats gravity like a material, because we understand materials.  But there is no evidence that gravity is any sort of material.  Rather, it is the immaterial force that holds the material world together.
If space and time are the blanket, and a planet or star causes a dimple in the blanket, why do things roll to the low point on the blanket, what is holding up the blanket, and what is underneath the blanket? 
So this is how far people are from the problem of interstellar travel:  They haven't been able to alter, manipulate, or control in even the tiniest way the laws of gravity here on earth.  Further, people don't understand gravity enough to determine whether this is even possible.  Until that happens, it will be impossible to bend the entire universe in half to get to the other side of it.
This post is what you get when a layman speculates about physics.


Your second bullet point is a thunderous "or something." Right, why is the sun in that image moving the blanket towards 6 o'clock?  Which way is up?  :- )  I could visualize the swirl down the funnel if there were a direction for the funnel to go.
I'm quite sure that's a naive Q on my part.  Physicists usually don't believe a diagram; they believe a formula ...
Still!  It's tough for us to grok a subject that is outside our area of expertise, but ... the LAST thing we want to do is "shaddap" and defer to the experts.  If you can't explain something simply, you don't understand it well enough - you Mojician explain law and real-world trials in a hugely simple manner.  A chessmaster can explain *anything* in chess to a beginner - "If a plan can't be stated in simple words, it doesn't exist," GM Aleksander Kotov.
We ain't physicists, but I so much appreciate your ideas above.


In my mind, your post Mojo goes to the same idea that I've been insisting on.  We can't afford to simply say, "The aliens are too smart for us," and use an analogy about simple life forms who don't understand *anything* much less how to communicate.  (No disrespect to Taro's interesting jumping-off point.)  We have to get more concrete, and ask why this would mechanically prevent us from communicating.
We can't afford to simply say, "we'll go through a wormhole," and use an analogy of folding a piece of paper in half, and then go "Problem tentatively solved!"
It's like chess:  once you start to ask about the specific tactical variations, the worse a vague idea looks.  Can't solve a problem in chess with a quick verbal idea.  SABRMatt did such a great job of demonstrating this w/r/t Climate Change.  Easy to say, "Man's wrecking the planet." The problem only gets solved when you get your hands dirty in the mechanics of it.
We've got some laws of physics in front of us, such as "nothing moves faster than light."  I would think (hope) that in a real trial, the facts of the case weigh more heavily than the "possibilities" about how a mystery culprit might have framed the defendant ...
:- ) 


Here, we have the four forces in nature, and electromagnetism seems to be the only one that scientists and engineers seem to have a good handle on.  Gravity is the slipperiest.  If you talk to an expert on gravity, you are liable to get an answer about what he thinks it might be, or an evasive answer that says what gravity does.  It boggles my little brain, and I think that nobody, not even the experts, even knows what gravity is.


Next up, shall we discuss their theories on the Problem of Consciousness?  :- )  It's especially delightful to ask the Q naively, as a ringer, and watch a biologist intone the "solution" before he suspects he's talking to somebody who will play ping-pong with 'im ...
Hey Mojo, can I ax you a fast legal Q?  It has come to my attention that --- > posting Gary Larson comics, without permission, was feebleminded.  With a capital F.
They put it a leeeeetle more nicely than that, but that's how they shoulda put it.  They're coaching me through it a bit, but would still like your camera angle if possible.  When you Bing an image, it *always* says "image may be copyrighted."  How do I google pics that have a very, very low chance of getting the admins (or me, at other gigs) into an annoying cease-and-desist situation?
Could use a concise, real-world compass on it, if that's inside your territory.
:: daps ::


If I understand what you mean by the Great Silence, that if interstellar travel is possible and multiple intelligent civilizations exist in our galaxy we would expect to encounter a plain trail of evidences left by them, I have always found such argumentation quite convincing. It requires what comes across as special pleading to counter it.
The same sort of argumentation applies to the idea of time travel. If time travel were possible, why do we not routinely encounter plain evidence of time travelers? Every time travel scifi novel or movie attempts to get around this with the same sort of arguments outlined to allow for future SETI success. In this case it would be the Search For Extra-Temporal Intelligence. But almost identical problems, and again, special pleadings are required to invent a context that would allow the search to be plausible.
I am by no means a scientist, or a physicist, or a theoretician. And I have a deep respect for those who genuinely are. When one realizes the incredible brilliance it took for Johannes Kepler to posit what he did...and then see it confirmed by more concrete discoveries, it blows my mind. But I lose respect for scientists who engage in fantasy and then sell themselves on TV as revered scientists layering speculation after speculation on top of a modicum of fact.


There are state and federal copyright protections.  The state copyright protections vary from state to state, but I think only extend within state lines.  The federal ones are found at the US Copyright office.  This office has a database, where you can look up a particular work to see if it is copyrighted and if so what the license situation is.
The database is here:
There are two copyrights for The Far Side, the newest one of them is this:
Type of Work:
Visual Material
Registration Number / Date:
TX0006082656 / 2002-06-14
Supplement to: TX0001008190 / 1982
The Far side. By Gary Larson.
Copyright Claimant:
Chronicle Publishing Company
Authorship on Application:
artwork & text, compilation of cartoons, cover artwork adaptation: Gary Larson; compilation of cartoons, cover artwork adaptation: Andrews & McMeel, employer for hire (on original appl.: all text & ill.: Gary Larson)
Basis of Claim:
New Matter: cover artwork adaptation, compilation of cartoons (on original appl.: compilation of cartoon material)
Supplement to Registration:
TX 1-008-190, 1982
Variant title:
The Far side.
Larson, Gary
Chronicle Publishing Company
Andrews & McMeel
The way to legally post a Far Side pic is to look this up, write to Andrews and McMeel, and ask for it.
This is an impractical way to do things.  The easy way to to look for safe harbors.  Here's the best.  http://search.creativecommons.org/
You can restrict results on this creative commons search engine by the type of license you want.   Here is a page explaining the six types of creative commons licenses.
For example, if you find a picture on creative commons under an attributed by license, then you have to give props to the copyright holder for taking the picture, and you don't alter the work in any way.  This is the most restrictive type of creative commons license.  Many of the creative commons pics can be altered freely.  
In looking the matter up, I found this:
This has the creative commons search space, as well as links to several free image banks.
I've never done any federal copyright work, I just looked this stuff up on the internet.
I'm just as bad an offender as anyone else on this.  I didn't know that anyone cared, as long as you weren't posting whole videos of the new Star Wars, or NFL footage, or anything like that.

misterjonez's picture

I guess I'm just in the wrong time zone to participate in these things real-time. However, I will say that I pay quite a bit of attention to the Lawrence Krauss's, the Stephen Hawking's, the Neil deGrasse Tyson's, etc.. as much as I can via public tubes and television programming (which is to say, not all that much, but quite a bit more than the general public).
Tyson is the only one who definitely comes out when asked about gravity and says, "We have absolutely no idea what gravity is. We can describe it with impressive accuracy, and we can predict its action on nearby information/structures, but we have absolutely no idea what it actually *is*" I find his frankness refreshing, so his StarTalkRadio snippets are regular viewing material for me on YouTube.
Regarding Fermi, it is my harebrained opinion that life is almost certainly out there - intelligent life - and that it's probably fairly nearby. But here's where I think most people miss the boat (not physicists, but us, the Average Joe's of the world):
We've had the ability to broadcast radio signals for, what, a century? In that time, look at what has happened to the human race's technological prowess. We've gone from the horse-and-buggy to trains that can break the speed of sound, we've got airplanes driven by jet technology, we have a World Wide Web which essentially interconnects the entirety of human consciousness to a degree never before even conceived of by pre-1950's sci-fi writers (and I think that's saying something; those people have incredible imaginations), and we've sent robots (after building them!) to other planets in our own solar system.
A century ago, the moon was a pipe dream. Not many people *actually* believed it was made of cheese, but the fact that anybody actually *did* speaks to just how far our understanding of the universe has come. You can go to NASA and stand twelve inches from moon rocks, if you choose to do so.
All of that leads me to this question: what will the human race be capable of in another century? What about two? Five? Ten?! We're probably not going to be mucking around with radio waves any more, that much I am quite certain of, so what's our 'window' for radio noise? Two centuries? Three...five, at most? This leads me to think that the odds of us, even with a dedicated search effort, finding active radio waves is infinitesimally small. A species, like ours, takes a couple hundred million years to develop from the most basic forms of life of which we are aware in our Earth Life Tree, and then, in the relative blink of an eye, we're going to be broadcasting radio waves for 2-6 centuries before once again 'going silent' when, in reality, we've just moved past the need for them. How, then, is a species like us supposed to detect the presence of a civilization somewhere 'out there'? We're going to have to operate on roughly the same technological 'bandwidth' as they are, at the same time. And THAT, ladies and gentlemen, is EXTREMELY plausible in my view as a factor for why we don't see 'evidence of intelligent life' in the universe.
That's my favorite thought when it comes to the Great Silence, or Fermi's Paradox. Maybe radio transmissions are inherent to ALL technology which organic life can utilize, and there's nothing we can do to stop them, in which case my half-baked theory goes out the window with the thrice-used bathwater. But if it's not...


Asked for a bit of advice and got a consultation.  Good stuff Counselor.  I'll set up some "image banks" in the bookmarks bar and breathe easy.
Check's in the mail.


You went from The Great Jonezie Silence to benevolent alien intervention in the blink of an eye.  Slap me silly.  ... Xlnt snippet from Tyson.  Yes, these legendary "objective" scientists usually work so hard to keep from saying that which they fully understand to be the case.
On the radio silence -- that makes all kinds of sense, that the "shell" of radio waves might only be about 300 years "thick."  Thath high-quality H2O.
My issue is, though ... supposing that radio 'bandwidth' had to converge in time, and we put "Paid" to the idea of detecting anybody else's radio transmission.  (This might occur if nobody were looking for each other ...)
The Great Silence is concerned with the fact that we haven't seen evidence of ANY kind that there are advanced civilizations.  For example, a civilization that was 10,000 centuries past ours could and would:
... Re-engineer some of its local stars to its advantage (visible to us across the galaxy)
... Set up a Sagan-style transmission beacon that was triggered by our own light or radio (none exist within 50 light years)
... release a "berserker"set of self-replicating machines (expanding exponentially) as an imperative defense system
... Set up some type of EMP (light) beacon system
... or be interested in letting us know they're here, in any way they chose ("Uniformity of Motive" problem)
... Colonize, organize, and fill up the Galaxy to (benignly) take advantage of all resources in it
... re-engineer the COSMOS, if they're really 1 billion years ahead of us :- )
... etc etc etc
Instead, we look and listen out into the galaxy and there's nuttin'.  Absolutely nuttin'.  And we can see all the way across the whole thing.*


Here's an outstanding link that summarizes the problem.  It comes from an individual who badly wants to believe in ETI's, but who is willing to list the discouraging aspects of the Great Silence issue.
There is a snarky, but witty, rejoinder from "Anonymous" in the comments thread.  His tone is regrettable, but the spirit is clear.  For me, it's a sort of self-satire on his part -- materialists regard themselves as objective, but themselves are usually only too glad to battle hard for their own fanciful pet theories.  At least this guy is self-aware :- )
With threats on the scale of berserker probes, its very hard to imagine that ETI, if capable, would take the extreme risk to not launch defense of the same scale.The lack of any detectable ETI activity whatever is very good evidence for a conclusion that there are none. Anything else is wishful thinking at this point, akin to religion more than any scientific perspective.There are no meaningful equations or calculations you can do regarding ETI probability and so forth, because there is no actual data to work with.Maybe I am wrong and the ETIs are so advanced that they can cloak themselves from detection, and can choose when and if they make contact? Yes, of course. Perhaps as well a god willed all of creation into being in six days. In the end those proposals are equals in their worth for any scientific-minded consideration.

misterjonez's picture

Good reading material there. I'm just going to go free-flow on your points, because you did a great job of outlining so many of the same things I've wondered. Don't mind the incoherency if you can help it ;-) And, to be clear, I'm not arguing with you here; I'm trying to keep from tripping all over my own shoes out on the dance floor :-)
To your #1 point: this is a significant issue, but I think it might be less of a 'problem' than we are led to believe. I love stories which involve star lifting or other forms of stellar engineering which, if carried out, would actually extend the lifespan of the universe that we see around us. By draining away their mass and converting stars to red dwarfs (the primary form of star lifting I've seen discussed), the ongoing fusion process at their cores is balanced to the point where they could sustain their red dwarf phase out to 100 billion (with a B) years or more*. There would be some telltale signs of this behavior going on, if it was taking place, but those signs would currently only be visible to us in relatively close stars, if I understand the limits of modern telescopy half as well as I think I do (which is to say, not very well but well enough that I can't be off by more than an order or two of magnitude, which wouldn't really change the equation that much).
*incidentally, red dwarf stars are really, really hard to detect via our modern telescopes. this would seem to negate *some* of the concern that we can't currently see evidence of stellar engineering because, for the most part, it would result in stars being shrunk to red dwarfs, which are...you know...hard to see ;-) So, while it *could* be occurring, by its very nature it would be difficult to detect unless it was relatively early in the process, and relatively close by, in cosmological terms.
Point 2 is trickier, because it does imply motive to the intelligence, or at least it implies some degree of commonality with our current attitudes/behaviors. I'm not sure I can really tackle that one, but I will say that it would seem extremely odd, logically, for a super-advanced civilization to NOT set up a galaxy-wide comm. network, if only for the purpose of keeping tabs on developments in the region. However...
Point 3 is where it starts getting juicy, especially when viewed in the same light as Point 2. Some would naturally view such a set of berserker/conformity probes as a pro-active defense system, just as you suggest. But others would likely be more cautious, and that caution would almost certainly stem from the fact that intelligence (at least as far as we can tell) is unpredictable to a large degree (you frequently reference super chess programs that behave in utterly inexplicable ways that even panels of grand masters do not understand). If you build the berserker probes, what's to stop them from turning on you and giving YOU a hard time? Even assuming they aren't a threat to wipe your civilization out, due to some kill switch you have hidden under the driver's seat, is the risk worth the reward? By unleashing something like that on the universe, you'd essentially be declaring war on everything, including creation itself, and that type of behavior strikes me as unlikely - even for an artificial intelligence. It's self-serving without an end goal in mind, and I doubt that AI's - which are almost certainly inevitable on our own Life Tree - would undertake such a grand exercise simply for the purpose of restructuring reality.
Point 4, again, assumes a couple of things that give me pause, but it's interesting to think about, for sure. The first bump in the road, for me, is that we would be able to observe such a system; who's to say they aren't communicating via highly-focused particle beams that aren't broadcast omnidirectionally? I mean, if conserving resources is important - and I think any civilization which was as advanced, or more advanced, than we are would think it was - you wouldn't really want to be wasting all the energy required to send a readable signal out in *every* direction when you could do it via what amounts to a high-powered, ultra-advanced, whisker laser network. But even assuming they built said network; again, the fact that we can't *see* it would seem to suggest that we aren't meant to. Keeping something like that secret, until a young civilization has reached a certain level of advancement, seems consistent with how *we* behave with regards to younger people or less-developed societies when it comes to game-changing technology (no 9mm Beretta's for eight year olds - and no nukes for you, Iran!).
Point 5 you address well enough that I will just agree that Uniformity of Motive is an issue, but just for fun I'll take a swing at it. Let's say they actually are interested in contacting us...the first question we would need to answer is: why? Easiest way to do that, given our limited perspective, is by assuming their role to the best of our ability and thinking about it from what we think is their position. It boils down to two possibilities: either they want to cooperate with us, or they want to compete with us. If cooperation, it might reasonably be for a United Federation of Planets style, galactic community induction. It could be. I mean that seriously - it really could be. That would actually explain a lot of the our inability to find evidence of advanced intelligence in our own galaxy. The community passes tech laws which ensure that all members operate above the 'radio bubble' detection level where we're currently at, which makes their actions undetectable by lesser species (like Earthling humans in 2015) and this keeps the playing field level for those species to go through their own developmental process. Obviously, this is the Gene Roddenberry version, but like all great sci-fi minds his ideas were rooted in reasonable logic (even if his tech was mostly hand-waving). If they were interested in contacting us for another reason, it would almost certainly be for competition or, more succinctly: to wipe us out. You're either going to cooperate, or you're going to compete; there is no middle ground as far as we can tell when it comes to life's behavior on any scale.
Point 6 is actually easier than most people (I'm assuming this would not include you, but I'll spew my thoughts here, anyway ;-) ) might think to debunk, at least when dealing with parochial concerns like living space, food production, energy harnessing/utilization, etc.. Most of the problems we stress over, here on Earth, are pretty small beans in the grand scheme of things. I can't find the image, but there is a beautiful picture of an artist's interpretation of how a massive hab ring (or it might have been a bubble) could be made by stripping the Earth from the inside out and maximizing the mineral content to create a hab ring that could comfortably house either hundreds of trillions, or quadrillions, of people (I forget the number, but it was absurd). So, to actually take advantage of *all* the resources in the galaxy seems, at best, a megalomaniacal plot and, at worst, an actual attempt to pretty much destroy everything as we know it. If the concern of a highly-advanced species was essentially just to persist and grow at an 'organic' (I hate that term, but I'm tired and having difficulty coming up with a better substitute) rate, there would be essentially no reason to leave their own solar system, physically, for several thousand years once the first energy hurdle (fusion**) is well-and-truly cleared. So, again, colonizing the galaxy seems like it wouldn't be that high on a hyper-advanced civilization's agenda. Especially if the light barrier can't functionally be broken.
**The amount of water on the Earth would power humanity's aggressive growth curve for, essentially, ever (or at least long enough for us to figure out a more efficient energy generation method, like micro black holes, which might take us a few tens of thousand years but we'll get there if we survive that long). Once we've got fusion power, the whole ballgame changes into something that nobody, not even those with once-in-a-generation brilliance, can imagine. Nobody could have predicted what the internet would do to humanity within three points of the compass, and fusion will be an even bigger deal in the long run.
Point 7 is taken right on the jaw, however, and I don't have much I can say on that particular subject. If you've got a civilization which, at year one of our hypothetical calendar, was where we are today and had a billion years to progress...first off, I have no idea what the agenda would be for such a life form. Bacteria haven't even been around on Earth for HALF a billion years; what in the world would a billion-years-on evolved human think was important? The only answer which is consistent with there being advanced intelligence out there for that long, which doesn't result in such large-scale engineering, is that they don't want to. I'm pretty good at empathy and understanding other people's positions (a pretty key attribute for a D&D GM/fiction author, I think) but I wouldn't even *think* about trying to climb inside that creature's mind. Even if their raw intellect was still on a scale we could comprehend to some significant degree...I just...no. I can't do it.
Let me be clear: I'm much closer to what seems to be your position, regarding advanced intelligence, than I am to several (but not all!) prominent physicists, who seem absolutely convinced that such is hanging out just around the corner. The above was just me trying not to fall hopelessly behind in the conversation :-) In my mind, there's no way to rationally declare that the Great Silence isn't a whale of an issue for several important existential, philosophical, and scientific questions.
A random thought: sanctity of life does seem to be inextricably linked, as a core value, to any nonviolent advanced intelligence existing nearby which hasn't come to wipe us out (which, I assume, hasn't yet happened...). This, to me, is why Gene Roddenberry's utopian (or dystopian, depending on your perspective) future can't just be dismissed out of hand. It's entirely possible that any species which is a hair too violent would turn its own lights out before it could join any kind of galactic community. So a 'waiting period' of sorts would seem to be warranted on the part of such an advanced civilization/society before making contact with the beings. I've got in mind a story where that's exactly what happens: first contact doesn't take place until *after* the radio bubble goes quiet for a period of time, then the ambassadors come in and answer the question: did they blow themselves up, or did they pass that particular hurdle and prove they're ready to join the greater community in some capacity?
Either way, I just spent an hour or more on this ridiculous post. Sorry for wasting y'all's time...


...I believe Einstein has it approximately correct in the sense that gravity is acting on our four-dimensional universe from a different dimension that can be folded by mass. The Higgs-Boson discovery is as important as it is because it theoretically explains the existence of mass at all. I do not believe gravity is a particle or wave...I believe it is a distortion in space and time caused by a reality of our universe that we cannot perceive...a dimension of it that goes beyond what we can sense.


Well, that's part of the question. Why does mass warp space-time? How is this accomplished? What indeed is space? We don't have a real good handle on what time is either. For me, the Higgs discovery just pushes the question of mass back a level. How does this particle confer the properties of mass?  Why does mass change in certain circumstances?  How does mass interact with space-time to create the phenomenon of gravity?  Basically physics at this level seems to be limited to describing what these forces do rather than how they work. It is possible we may never be able to get past that level... We may just be stuck with an explanation like "that is the nature of things" as unsatistying as that may be. 


I like receiving checks in the mail.  I also take Visa, Mastercard, Discover, Amex, and anything valuable that isn't contraband.  Except, my wife requires me to avoid snow machines, ATVs, jet skis and the like because there is a limited market, and she doesn't like me to junk up our yard.  Recently, I took a diving dry suit and aqualung as payment (XL 7 mil if anybody is interested).  I also do trades of services with skilled tradesmen.  For Doc though, I only accept payment in good shtick.


I drop a hammer and it goes toward my feet, not toward the clouds.  If a "blanket dimple" in space-time is the best explanation we've got, it's okay by me.  You need *some* explanation other than the world standing on turtles.
So, am not trying to sound like I'm scoffing too much at these blokes.  :- )  Just wish that sometimes they'd be more forthcoming about it, when "bloodletting" is the best they've got.
"That is the nature of things" - very often I despair :- ) like that too.  
Matt -- in his hyper-intelligent way -- believes sincerely in the intersection with a 5th dimension, and that as part of the continual fabric of our 4.  That's about 2 centimeters more satisfying than "it's simply the nature of the universe."
Why do the elements have the properties they do?  Why are the laws of physics consistent, like they are?  --- > Would even a 1-billion-year-old alien race have these answers?  I seriously doubt it, like 30%-70% doubt it.  Einstein spoke of a Library Author that he could only dimly sense the PRESENCE OF, much less decipher the skills of.
Most physical scientists I've talked to, have given up on questions like "why does mass have the properties it does," given up to the extent that they're annoyed by the subject.  I sympathize.


EXCELLENT remark on Higgs there, Dr. G.  I agree.  
And here is a 120-second summary of the discovery by Higgs himself.  Amigos will probably agree with Dr. G that it only kicks the can down the road another twenty yards.

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