It Aint Never Going to Happen (Except in SF)

A reader writes: 

"And I think eventually we’ll learn to harness gravity, once we understand what the hell it actually is, and then this pesky Einstienein relativistic-light-barrier will fall soon after that."

My comment: 

Ain’t going to happen. Apples did not start falling up when Newton refined Aristotle’s physics, and time did not start running backward when Einstein refined Newton. No advance refutes the previous evidence–it only reinterprets it. Faster than light drive is as likely as a ride on the back of a fairy-magic unicorn.

"Assuming the aliens don’t arrive…"

Is there even the slenderest scintilla of evidence that homo sapiens is not utterly alone in the universe? I do not mean a semi-unsupported hypothesis based in turn on a totally-unsupported hypothesis about the origin of life from non-life, I mean evidence, something you can bring into a court of law?

You see, the scientific method assumes as an arbitrary postulate that the laws of nature and the conditions of nature do not vary from place to place: which means that they assume that repeating the conditions of the early earth in some other solar system would repeat the unknown miracle that created life from non-life.

But who can even count all the factors involved? Suppose only planets with liquid water can generate life from non-life? In our own solar system, we have exactly one world that may have had flowing water at some point in the past (Mars) and one moon or two which may have water now (Io, Europa). That implies water-bearing planets might be common. May be a lot of those.

But that is only the first factor on a list. Suppose only planets with tides? Not so many of those. Dinky moons like Phobos and Deimos won’t do. Suppose only solar systems with large gas giants to sweep away debris? There may be less of those. Suppose multiple star systems do not provide orbits stable enough for planets to develop life? That factor eliminates half the star systems in the galaxy, perhaps more. Suppose only stars with stable orbits around the galactic center are fit for developing life? Now we have even fewer. Suppose the correct concentrations of metallic elements in the local interstellar cloud, the correct concentration of the galactic magnetosphere, the correct shockwave of the heliopause belt of the local interstellar gas cloud — you see where this is going?

Because while we can pretend we know how life emerges from non-life, until we can do it in a lab, we actually don’t know. A guess is not a datum. There may be an unknown factor: the solar system a zillion years ago may have passed through a belt of interstellar e. coli bacteria left floating in a wide cloud in interstellar space by the noble yet doomed, long-lost race of the Panspermian Forerunners. It could be one of the factors on the list. We don’t know how long this list is.

I doubt the space-spore theory of the origin of life on Earth myself, but I cannot prove it false — a doubt is not evidence. Myself, I take on faith the idea that life emerged when Auðumla, the cosmic cow, licked Buri, the primordial being, out of the rime and frost of the yawning abyss called Ginnungagap — but faith is merely a reverse of doubt. It is an opinion, an article of faith, not evidence.

The idea that simple chemicals combined in the primal oceans, perhaps stirred by a lightningbolt, and fell into place as a long-chain ameno acid whose chemical alphabet  spelled out a self-replicating (and grammatically correct) molecular sentence is as arbitrary as the story about the cosmic cow, but the only difference is that it does not posit any supernatural entities — an assumption and not a conclusion. It is an opinion, an article of faith, not evidence.

Even if planets capable of developing life were as prevalent in our galaxy as sperm in an ejaculation, if nature is as wasteful on a cosmic scale as she is on the microscopic scale, there will be thousands or millions of planetary bodies where life never emerged, even if all the conditions were exactly perfectly right.

I shall not bore you with reciting the other factors in the so-called Drake Equation, except to say that they are all unknowns. We do not know how frequently intelligence can emerge from non-intelligence even on worlds with life, or civilization emerge from barbarism, or technological civilization from civilization–as far as we know, in each case on Earth each of these events happened once and spread from that center: unless the Far Eastern and Middle Eastern civilizations arose independently, in which case we have two events. Hardly enough data points to hypothesize a trend: a universe where all planets develop to the level of the aborigines of Easter Island, who cannot maintain even a Neolithic level of technology, but stay trapped in the Paleolithic level, does not strike me as innately less likely than a universe crammed with galactic empires. As for the emergence of an interplanetary or interstellar civilization from a planetary one, that has not even happened once, so we do not even have a single data point from which to make a guess. It may be too unlikely ever to occur.

And if they are outside our galaxy, chances are that they will never generate a signal of any kind strong enough to reach us, unless of course they reach a level of civilization where interstellar war is commonplace, and they use weapons on the E.E. Doc Smith level of destructive waste, igniting stars into noavae and supernovae. That is, if they fought a galaxy-destroying war two million lightyears ago in Andromeda, we would be picking up the signal now; or if they fought a supercluster-destroying war one billion years ago in one of the dozens of clusters of galaxies in the Corona Borealis supercluster. But if the Andromedans only blew up the cities on the surface of one small iron-nickle core planet like ours, or several hundred thousand earthlike planets in one arm of the distant Andromeda galaxy, we would not see it. If the Corona Borealis creatures annihilated only a few smaller galaxies, ones we have not counted or named yet, I doubt we would notice.

And if we did notice, that would only tell us as much as the story of Ozymandias of Shelly: that at one time in the unimaginable far past a great peoples once lived. Except that we will not even have a Rosetta Stone to translate their boasts.

I met a traveler from an antique land
Who said: Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed;
And on the pedestal these words appear:
“My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look upon my works, ye Mighty, and despair!”
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.

 

AN AFTERTHOUGHT: You may be wondering, dear reader, why if I am so skeptical about the basic SF tropes of FTL drive and alien First Contact, I do not therefore write Mundane SF, a subgenre is concerned with things happening on earth one block from my house taking place no further in the future than next week.

Good question! I am glad I put it in your mouth to ask me!

The reason is that I take these doubts as a challenge. Given the size of the universe, and the apparent rarity of life, given the Fermi Paradox, what explanation can I as an imaginative SF writer invent to make my story realistic-seeming enough to count as Jules Vern style Hard SF rather than merely be counted as STAR WARS or STAR TREK style adventure story that merely happens to be set in a scientifiction-flavored background? That is the gauntlet I have myself hurled at my own feet. Yes, I have some ideas I think make sense to explain away the paradox of the empty universe, and no, I am not telling. I came up with (or shamelessly plagiarized) at least two answers, and so I have at least two trilogies to write.

* * *

AN ADDED AFTERTHOUGHT: Let us dispense with the argument that, since the universe is so vast, any event, no matter how unlikely (including the creation of life from non-life), must have taken place at least once. By that argument there must be somewhere in the universe an exact replica of Earth with everything the same as here, except only that the opening of TALE OF TWO CITIES reads “It was the best of times, it was the blurst of times.”

The fact of the matter is we do not know by what natural process life can arise from non-life; hence we can make no good guesses about what conditions and preconditions are required for that process, nor do we know enough about the universe to know how frequently those conditions arise.

Let us suppose that one needs an earthlike planet for life to arise. This is a supposition only: for all we know, the clouds of rapidly rotating gas giants in closer-than-mercury orbits might be the prime real estate for life creation, and small rocky worlds like ours produce life on average only once every 15 billion years. Or the surface of neutron stars might be much more fertile of flat forms of two-dimensional life than any world. But leaving that speculation aside, let us assume rocky Earthlike worlds high in metals is the most fertile of soil to spontaneously give rise to organisms. Recent discoveries of exosolar planets have delighted astronomy buff and/or SF geeks(like me) world wide, and certainly cleared one of the basic obstacles: but keep in mind that an assumption of uniformity is merely an assumption. Assumptions are not facts. What if we just so happen to be in the midst of a rather thickly seeded area of the cosmos where planetary development is frequent? What if there is some peculiar property of the Hyades Cluster or the Orion Arm that makes this particular Local Interstellar Gas cloud in which the nearby stars hang particularly favorable to the development of planets?

For example, in the famous Lensman series by EE Doc Smith, the author there postulates that planets are created by near-collisions of stars, and therefore only a galaxy that intersected another galaxy edge-on would have abundant planets. All other galaxies are sterile. As a science fiction conceit, this is not as far fetched as other ideas (such as inertialess drive) — if it or something like it were true, no study of the likelihood of planets developing in our galaxy would necessarily tell us the likelihood of planets developing in other galaxies.

In other words, the argument that the mere vastness of the universe allows for any unlikely event (such as life arising from non-life) to happen frequently, is an almost meaningless argument. It is an almost meaningless argument because the word event can be made to cover anything, large or small: including the event of discovering that you are utterly alone in the universe. If the unlikely event were the development of planetary bodies in the Milky Way galaxy, and all other galaxies were as devoid of planets as Luna is of atmosphere, then even the study of our local conditions proves nothing about conditions elsewhere.

About John C Wright

John C. Wright is a practicing philosopher, a retired attorney, newspaperman, and newspaper editor, and a published author of science fiction. Once a Houyhnhnm, he was expelled from the august ranks of purely rational beings when he fell in love; but retains an honorary title.
This entry was posted in Other. Bookmark the permalink.

42 Responses to It Aint Never Going to Happen (Except in SF)

    • The Drake Incantation

      Here is the often imitated but never duplicated Mike Flynn (WRECK OF THE RIVER OF STARS, COUNTRY OF THE BLIND, FIRESTAR) famed scientifictioneer, on the Drake Equation:

      http://m-francis.livejournal.com/115907.html

      It it not clear which of the many anonymoi you are, but I will give it a shot. In real science, the terms in the equation stand for real, measurable quantities.

      For example, let’s take a real equation: Y = 0.35X – 73.39
      where Y is the strength in kg/cm^2 of the seal of a plastic bag containing a medical device
      and X is the temperature of the sealing platen in degF.

      Both X and Y can be measured using calibrated methods traceable to the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST). That is, both X and Y can be “quantified” in the actual sense of the term – measurements can be made. The equation is empirically fitted to observational data with a coefficient of determination of r^2=0.83, which means that 83% of the variation is seal strength is accounted for by variation in the temperature of the platen that sealed it. (The remaining 17% would require additional terms in the equation, such as the thickness of the plastic, etc. Ockham recommended getting by with as few terms as possible.)

      When Newton developed the equation s=0.5gt^2 for the distance covered by a freely falling body in time t, it too was based on empirical observation of actually falling bodies. The acceleration due to gravity was regarded as a genuinely causal factor and both time and distance were genuinely quantifiable.

      The Drake “Equation” is not even remotely of this species. Most of it consists of unknown coefficients rather than terms. And none of the terms can be actually quantified by measurement or counting. They are unknown and in all likelihood unknowable. It would be like setting up an equation in which some of the variables were the “morale” of the workforce or the “willingness” of a homeowner to accept a lower bid.

  1. jordan179 says:

    I don’t know about FTL, but the concept of “dark energy”, advanced by physicists to explain the increase over time of the rate of cosmic inflation, sounds an awful lot like antigravity — a gravity-like force but acting in the opposite direction. Now (if it’s real), as it occurs in Nature it seems to expand space as it operates, which would be less than ideal for human purposes, but (once we understand it better) we might learn to concentrate and isolate its effects, as we’ve done to a considerable degree with electromagnetism to make electric lights, magnetic switches, and lasers. My guess is that any antigravity technologies — if they are possible — are centuries to millennia in our future.

    As for FTL, some physicists believe that various forms of wormhole (“hyperspace jump”) or Alcubierre (“warp”) drives are possible. Einstein’s own theory allows for Einstein-Rosen bridges (a type of wormholes). Admittedly, they would require exotic forms of matter and energy, in vast quantities, but a civilization millennia more advanced than our own might be able to supply them.

    I think that it’s very likely, based on the evidence we have about the conditions under which bacteria can survive and how they can be transported by meteoric impacts, that there is at least widespread bacterial life in the Universe. However, based on the natural history of the Earth, bacteria take billions of years to evolve into multicellular life. Perhaps life is common, but multicellular life is rare.

    We’re discovering that there are numerous low-level sapient to pre-sapient species on the Earth — yet only one (us) developed high-level sapience along with a complex technological civilization. And we spent millions of years as a genus not notably more advanced than (say) African elephants or orcas, and only a few tens of millennia with an obviously sophisticated technology.

    Perhaps on multicellular life-bearing planets, sapience is fairly common, but most of the sapients are at chimpanzee or gray parrot levels, caught in ways of life which make further technological progress difficult. It may be very rare for a species to simultaneously evolve a big brain, language, tool-use, and a way of life which makes it possible for a cultural-technological “ratchet” and “escalator” to emerge. Consider the African gray parrots, who are too small for most productive forms of tool use, or the orcas, who lack hands.

    When we do reach the stars (STL or FTL) we may find numerous Earth-like planets with complex ecosystems, and sapient native races — who live much like chimpanzees or bottlenose dolpins. That’s one reason why I think it’s so important that we begin respecting the other sapient races with whom we already share our Earth, because it may be that the majority of sapient races in the Universe are our inferiors, both technologically and intellectually.

    We may be the Elder Race.

    • rlbell says:

      A great frustration for proposed methods of FTL travel is that while it is possible to construct internally self-consistent mathematical models of physical universes that allow for such things, it is currently impossible to prove that we live in any of the universes described by these models.

      Building an Alcubiere drive depends on an 8-dimensional universe with concentrations of obtainable negative matter. As we sit on a large concentration of normal matter that repels negative matter, set within the great mass of the Milky Way, we would need starships to collect the stuff from intergalactic space (which would take less time than using particle accelerators, assuming it could be manufactured like antimatter[10^10 particles per year, 10^13 years per gram]).

      It is much like the lever that moves the Earth. Logically, such a device must be possible, but the engineering difficulties make it supremely impractical, if not virtually impossible

    • based on the evidence we have about the conditions under which bacteria can survive

      Conditions where bacteria can survive aren’t necessarily conditions where they can, hypothetically, evolve.

      and how they can be transported by meteoric impacts,
      What evidence is this?

      The evidence of bacertia surviving on the moon is ambiguous.
      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Myth_of_Streptococcus_mitis_on_the_moon

      The meteorite from mars, ALH84001, did not contain bacteria.
      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/ALH84001

      • jordan179 says:

        It’s the physics

        Because bacteria are small they can survive intense accelerations and decelerations, such as are experienced on launch and impact. They have been proven to be capable of going dormant for hundreds of millennia (we’ve retrieved live cultures from inside bubbles in crystals.

        It is known for sure that meteoric impacts knock rocks off worlds which then crash into other worlds — we have found meteorites originally from Luna and Mars on the surface of the Earth. On the face of it, one would think that the temperatures involved in such impacts would sterilize the rocks, save that we know for sure that such temperatures are not always imposed uniformly upon them — in other words, parts of the meteorites may remain relatively cool both at launch and at re-entry and impact.

        The only thing we don’t know for sure is if this has ever actually happened, but given the number of impacts and the number of bacteria, the odds approach a mathematical certainity, over the billions of years our Solar System has been in existence. I would guess that every place in the Solar System where bacteria could live, they are living.

        Multi-cellular life, of course, is far more fragile.

        • A meteorite would take centuries at the very least traverse interstellar space. Even if a micro-organism could survive that long, in a simple vacuum, cosmic radiation would kill even the hardiest bacterium.

          Assuming of course, that a life bearing meteorite on an interstellar trajectory is even possible.

          • jordan179 says:

            A meteorite would take centuries at the very least traverse interstellar space.

            More like tens to hundreds of millennia, actually.

            Even if a micro-organism could survive that long, in a simple vacuum, cosmic radiation would kill even the hardiest bacterium.

            Ah. You seem to be assuming that the microbes would have to be on the outer surface of the meteorite. What you don’t realize is that microbes can live inside rocks. On the interior of the rock, it would be far less exposed to cosmic radiation (if the rock was big enough, not exposed at all), and depending on just how it got inside the rock, it might not even be in a vacuum.

            We know for certain that microbes can survive tens to hundreds of thousands of years sealed inside rocks because we’ve obtained living cultures from microbes trapped in a bubble inside a crystal. The microbes had been sealed in with some algae when the formation hardened, and the microbes had survived both by semi-dormancy and by eating the algae.

            Assuming of course, that a life bearing meteorite on an interstellar trajectory is even possible.

            Why would it be impossible? The only difference between an interstellar and a mere interplanetary trajectory is that one must achieve stellar rather than merely planetary escape velocity, but a gas giant can slingshot an object onto such a trajectory without imposing any additional damage to any microbes in a rock.

            I suspect that you’re focusing too much on what happens to any particular microbe or rock and thus losing sight of the numbers involved. Most microbes on rocks launched on escape trajectories will die. Most such rocks will never crash anywhere the microbes could survive. But there are billions of years for Arrhenian distributions to take place in, and that means a lot of microbes on a lot of rocks.

            Microbes are r-strategists par excellence, and they may be so good at it that they can hop from world to world despite their total lack of intelligence and technology.

    • rob_lowrance says:

      Theoreticians have hypothesized dark matter and dark energy to try to save their theories. Many speak of them as if they have been proven to exist, but they are still only hypothetical constructs to shore up collapsing theories.

      • jordan179 says:

        Theoreticians have hypothesized dark matter and dark energy to try to save their theories. Many speak of them as if they have been proven to exist, but they are still only hypothetical constructs to shore up collapsing theories.

        Since the “theories” you speak of as “collapsing” are direct implications of relativity applied to astronomical observations, if those theories turn out to not be true, the implications would go beyond merely invalidating the hypotheses of dark matter and dark energy. This would leave things wide open for the possibility of FTL, a steady-state Universe, and many others. Think about it for a bit.

        I personally think that it’s more likely that dark matter and dark energy are real. But if they aren’t … who knows what is?

  2. coheleth says:

    Yeeeehaw!

    “Ain’t going to happen. Apples did not start falling up when Newton refined Aristotle’s physics, and time did not start running backward when Einstein refined Newton. No advance refutes the previous evidence–it only reinterprets it. Faster than light drive is as likely as a ride on the back of a fairy-magic unicorn.”

    Well, saddle-up a unicorn for me, because I’m counting for this sort of breakthrough to occur. My reasons, however, are religious and mystic, not scientific.

    • The theology of FTL

      “My reasons, however, are religious and mystic, not scientific.”

      I am just as skeptical when it comes to the theological debate. Christianity requires belief in two species of intelligent created beings aside from Man, these being angels and fallen angels, and allows (at least in poetic tradition) for others, elves and trolls and other sons of Cain. Pagan traditions are richer, speaking of satyrs and dryads who are immortal, and Hyperboreans, long-lived macrobes, one-eyed Arimaspians, who live either in the antipodes or beyond the Riphaean mountains. Hindus speak of a multiplicities of worlds and myriads of reincarnations among them, but these are spirit worlds, where Nagas, Asuras, Devas and Ghosts might dwell, not planets in the sky; some New Age groups or Theosophists adduce a belief in reincarnation and allow for reincarnation between planets in this universe, but I am not aware of any that say (1) there is an warp drive and (2) WE are going to get it.

      If the material universe is as the theosophists imagine, I do not see why mankind, with our wars and adulteries and thefts and lies and aborticides, would be the favored children of the Life Force from beyond the Source Wall, as opposed to a more enlightened and peaceful race, dwelling perhaps in an orb circling Arcturus, killing no living thing, practicing oneness with all life, and deriving all their nutriment from sips of water.

      To the sons of Panawe and Joiwind in Poolingdred of Arcturus will the Star Child sent the great Monolith of the Galactic Overmind, called Shaping, who will lead them through evolutions unguessed to an ultimate spiritual plateau: we will be dismissed with a curt message telling us to attempt no landings.

      But I am not a theosophist. Given their world view, it seems just as likely to me that the vast material universe was set aside for the pleasure and use of the devils from beyond Sulva and the vampiristic machine-creatures that serve them, and that these “princes of the middle heavens” will have sovereignty until the Heat Death of the Universe countless aeons from now, when the Starmaker of Olaf Stabledon will abolish this universe with the contempt of frustrated artist and try again.

      • coheleth says:

        Re: The theology of FTL

        In response…

        Personally, I believe we will meet extraterrestrials, but my conviction is not scientific; it’s mystic. Ever since the dawn of the ages, God’s plan of salvation has been expanding to encompass more and more. First, it started with an individual, then a family, then a tribe, then a nation, then all nations. A logical continued progression would be all worlds, then the cosmos itself, until God is all in all. I think Earth, the humblest of planets, is at the epicenter of a spreading tide of grace that will someday claim each and every star.

        And God uses the weak, the sinful, the ragtag misfits and lovable rogues, to accomplish his plan of salvation. Not enlightened demigod races of nigh nirvanic peace and kindness. If we lived in the Star Wars universe, it would be more shocking for Naboo to be the chosen planet than Tatooine. I would expect Tatooine given the oddness of the Lord and his choices. Remember, the Jews were the least of the nations, by God’s own admission.

        Anyway, look at the end of Matthew. Why, pray-tell, does Jesus instruct us to preach to all creatures? Is that not a hint that salvation goes far beyond human beings, reaching even to the animals and, who knows, the aliens?

        Mystic insight vs. science. I’m betting on the insight.

        And I’m not alone. Many medieval Christians assumed the existence of extraterrestrials right off the bat. Even a Cardinal wrote a chapter in a book on light beings that live on stars, among other entities.

        From our friend Mr. Flynn and his friend Mr. Hannam (excerpted email correspondence we were having):

        ***

        Dear Mike,

        Thanks for copying me in.

        The question seems to refer to the work of Nicolas of Cusa. Book 2, ch 12 (Page 95 of the translation linked below) of On Learned Ignorance discusses the possibility of extraterrestrials. Since Nicholas was a cardinal, it’s unlikely such speculation was considered contrary to the faith.

        http://cla.umn.edu/sites/jhopkins/DI-II-12-2000.pdf

        There’s also a bit on Nicholas on p 198 of God’s Philosophers.

        I hope this helps.

        Best wishes

        James

      • ndrosen says:

        Re: The theology of FTL

        I thought that each angel was supposed to be a separate species. 8-)

        Although I guess that that Scholastic conclusion is not required by Christianity as such. You probbaly know much better than I.

        • Re: The theology of FTL

          I confess I was using the word ‘species’ not in the technically correct sense. Remember that the Middle Ages — for some reason dismissed as a time of darkness and superstition — was in fact the time when logic, rigor of thought, and precision in definitions was the paramount concern for scholars, not emotion, and not ‘authenticity.’ I doubt I can live up to so high a standard.

  3. krokinole says:

    By the Holy Moons of Mars!

    “Dinky moons”?

    Speaker Ernest having been recently executed due to theological concerns, newly promoted Speaker Wilhelm-Shaddap speaks for Kyr:

    “Holy Phobos, and Blessed Deimos Lost, companions of Father Mars, sacred to all Followers of Kyr, have been insulted! Let those who seek holiness-through-explosions go forth from Krokinole & bring the Judgement of Kyr to the unbelieving scoffer!

    “Also, Kyr asks if the ANOME of Nowhere or the Chairman of Ys, Inc., might be able to lend him enough money to hire the Guild to transport a wild band of desert-dwellers to deal with this insult.”

  4. noahdoyle says:

    Which is why, in my ‘hard’-SF game/writing/thought setting, it’s the solar system only; the distant stars are still a mystery, and people still tell tales of strange beings under distant skies.

    I have to admit that though I do enjoy Star Trek/Wars and their galaxy-spanning ilk, I have a spot in my heart for the Sol-only concept. It’s a statement of affirmation, that we can do these things, they’re just closer to home. It may not be the glare of Sigma Draconis, but standing on the surface of Titan, the cool green hills of Earth are very, very far away.

    • There is something epic about hovering in front of an ancient artifact in the Gamma Draconis system, knowing only that the Shivans come out of it and having no idea what’s on the other side, that a Sol-only Sci-Fi setting can never reproduce.

      I can imagine the distances between planets, because I can see planets with a simply store-bought telescope.

      But the distances between stars, galaxies? Unimaginably, eternally vast. And to conquer those distances by cheating both fate and the universe, by crossing that distance somehow without actually traversing it (wormholes, tunneling, subspace, neoetic folding, whatever) is more fantastic even still.

  5. I was making a Stargate joke when I referred to aliens. Must you be so intentionally dense? Obviously when I refer to alien “gods” arriving in their “Ha’tak” vessels and using the pyramids as *landing pedestals* I am not being serious, but instead just injecting some fanboy geekery about my favorite show into my comment.

    Surely you are widely versed enough in nerdery to know this already. Do you even know who Daniel Jackson is?

    • ?

      “I was making a Stargate joke when I referred to aliens.”

      I got that joke. I was not scoffing at the idea of Stargate aliens arriving! They’ve been here before, and built the pyramids of Egypt and the ruins at Mohenjo-Daro.

      No, it is Zephrem Cochrane and his foolish warp drive idea — the Vulcans will never arrive. That’s what I was scoffing at.

  6. m_francis says:

    A good point on why the universe seems so wastrel if we are the Only Ones. Someone once pointed out that it must be as massive as it is if it is to last long enough for intelligent life to evolve.

    James Chastek also commented on the parallel between the excess of the universe and the excess that nature seems to indulge in.

    If you just let the forces bang around enough- blindly- you get a world.

    And if you let billions of seeds bang around enough – blindly – you get some plants. Living things purposely use immense numbers of seeds. If it takes so many seeds to make a dandelion, we could expect a universe to be left over after making an earth.
    http://thomism.wordpress.com/2009/02/28/3586/

    Which I used:

    [T]he Fudir tapped the window with his knuckles. “All that immensity… It makes you feel how small you and I and the whole of humanity really are.”
    “In all that immensity,” the harper answered, “even superclusters of galaxies are small, so I don’t see what importance smallness has. I look at it and marvel that all that immensity has produced you and me.”
    The Fudir chuckled. “Seems a bit overkill. ‘The mountain labored and brought forth a mouse!’” A comment that would have been a sneer from the lips of Donovan, was gentle amusement from the Fudir.
    “Why not?” said Méarana. “How many acorns lie scattered to make an oak? How many sperm are expended to make a man? Why shouldn’t it take a universe to make a world?”
    The Fudir paused and stared at her. “By the gods!” He turned to face the Spiral Arm. “By the gods… I will never again look upon the night sky without seeing it as… as a mass of sperm.”
    from UP JIM RIVER, by Michael Flynn

  7. jjbrannon says:

    Crowing over the ravens of birdbrains

    “I do not mean a semi-unsupported hypothesis based in tern on a totally-unsupported hypothesis about the origin of life from non-life, I mean evidence, something you can bring into a court of law?”

    Only the gull-ible or the loons would believe such hypotheses.

    :>)

    JJB

  8. The Arbitrary and Metaphysically possible

    While I would say that life on other planets is metaphysically possible by the fact that it occurred here, I think that is all that can really be said on the topic. Anything more specific is purely arbitrary regardless of whether one says there is or is not other life in the universe.

    Only the discovery of life on another planet would answer the question. Not finding life on any other planet I don’t think is even a possibility because that would mean we were able to examine every planet in existence. That would include being aware of every planet.

    As far as traveling to those other planets or they traveling to us is not an arbitrary postulate. Within the sphere of our evidence it is not possible, it is false according to our present knowledge.

    Or, at the least, to my knowledge. I haven’t heard of anything that would lead credence to the view that we could achieve interstellar travel on the order to make such a one on one discovery possible.

    • Re: The Arbitrary and Metaphysically possible

      “While I would say that life on other planets is metaphysically possible by the fact that it occurred here, I think that is all that can really be said on the topic.”

      Agreed. I would be disappointed not to find microscopic life on Io or Europa, or evidence that it once existed on Mars, but I would not be surprised — that is, the absence of life would not cause me to question, doubt, or rethink any conclusions of science or articles of faith. If the universe is utterly empty of life except for Earth, that would not surprise me. If the universe were as filled with life as earth is, where even suboceanic sea vents contain multicellular organisms that never see the sun, that again would not surprise me.

      The fact of the matter is we do not know by what natural process life can arise from non-life; hence we can make no good guesses about what conditions and preconditions are required for that process, nor do we know enough about the universe to know how frequently those conditions arise. For example, in the famous Lensman series by EE Doc Smith, the author there postulates that planets are created by near-collisions of stars, and therefore only a galaxy that intersected another galaxy edge-on would have abundant planets. All other galaxies are sterile. As a science fiction conceit, this is not as far fetched as other ideas (such as inertialess drive) — if it or something like it were true, no study of the likelihood of planets developing in our galaxy would necessarily tell us the likelihood of planets developing in other galaxies.

      But someone who takes it as an article of faith that Earth cannot be unique because there is no God, and therefore life must be an accident — aha! — he will be shocked if the universe is empty. But his belief is an article of faith, not a conclusion of science, and not a conclusion backed by evidence.

      • Re: The Arbitrary and Metaphysically possible

        I’m not sure whether your last sentence was directed at me until I reread my own post and saw one of my most ghastly sentence constructions ever.

        “Not finding life on any other planet I don’t think is even a possibility… “

        That is not close to what I meant! Is there a grammarian hell? Here is what I meant.

        Empirically ruling out other life in the universe is impossible due to distance, travel restrictions, and the sheer mass of the damned thing.

  9. kokorognosis says:

    I have to say, theologically, I find that evidence points to the Creator liking life, and cramming it in wherever He can. (Re: Extremophilic organisms) It’s also a big universe out there for one tiny little species– unless, of course, being fruitful includes the whole cosmos. Whether or not other life is intelligent, who knows? But I’d not be surprised to find strains of bacteria floating in the depths of Jupiter– or even Palanians on Pluto– and neither would shake my faith. *shrug*

    I don’t know that useful FTL is possible or probable. I’d like to dream that it is, but I’m not going to pin any hopes on it.

  10. Life from non-Life

    This discussion reminds me of several different Bloom County strips.

    Such as this example:

    http://www.berkeleybreathed.com/Images/fav_strip5_full.jpg

    To my mind, the very fact that no scientist yet has managed to pour a collection of compounds into a test tube and “spark” those compounds to life, leaves the door hanging wide open for Divine interpretation.

    As for FTL, fictional drives that “fold” or take “shortcuts” through space — rather than trying to propel at FTL speeds — seem a little more realistic and are easier to buy into; Niven and Pournelle’s so-called Alderson Drive being a good example.

    Of course, once we actually become an interplanetary civilization, we might realize that the solar system is big enough to occupy our colonial ambitions for ten thousand lifetimes. We might only ever go as far as the Kuiper and the Oort, nestled into a hundred thousand little island-states amidst the dark of eternal night. How “far” is “far enough?” In the 19th and 20th centuries, the Earth became “small.” How long will it takes — starting from 2010 — to make the solar system similarly “small” to us?

    • Re: Life from non-Life

      “To my mind, the very fact that no scientist yet has managed to pour a collection of compounds into a test tube and “spark” those compounds to life, leaves the door hanging wide open for Divine interpretation.”

      Maybe. But speaking as a brainblinkered, enthusiastic, science-hating and Galileo-burning Christian, I believe everything in Creation acts under its own nature (even when miracles occur, they do not abrogate nature but give it an additional level of meaning) which means I am forced to assume that God the Creator used a process of natural laws to bring about His intended result. Science can investigate the mechanics of the process without speculating about that intent.

      “Of course, once we actually become an interplanetary civilization…”

      What makes you think this will happen ever? Building a house at the bottom of the sea will prove easier than building one in outer space, because in the sea we have water and oxygen ready at hand, needing only extraction procedures (like gills) whereas space is a more hostile environment. Terraforming Mars is more expensive and difficult than rendering the Gobi, the Sahara, or the Ross Ice Shelf fit for human habitation, because, again, there is oxygen at hand in these earthly places.

      Land occupies less than a third of the Earth’s surface, and places where people live or grow crops occupies considerably less than that. But even the least hospital place on earth is better suited (costs less effort and machinery and manpower) for human life than the friendliest spot for human life in the solar system.

      Now, if you want to postulate a flotilla of semi-intelligent or intelligent machines occupying the solar system, send out from earth to stripmine asteroids and so on, and send resources back to Earth, that strikes me as more feasible. Make them Von Neumann machines who replicate themselves, and lower the cost of communication with them so that anyone with a cellphone can talk to them and see what they are doing, then the solar system becomes quite small.

      • noahdoyle says:

        Re: Life from non-Life

        Make them Von Neumann machines who replicate themselves, and lower the cost of communication with them so that anyone with a cellphone can talk to them and see what they are doing,

        I’m seeing an odd combination of Simmons’ Moravecs and Martin’s Sandkings here…

  11. docrampage says:

    maybe we have seen intergalactic wars

    What makes you so sure that astronomers have not seen the results of intergalactic wars? The universe is full of exploding stars and exploding galaxies.

    You know that pulsars are artificial, right? They are part of an intergalactic astrogation system. :-)

    • War damage

      “You know that pulsars are artificial, right? They are part of an intergalactic astrogation system.”

      Yes, but the question for the MIB is how do -you- know it?

      http://news.softpedia.com/news/Chandra-Observes-Fastest-Star-Ever-72262.shtml

      “The object in question is a neutron star, known as RX J0822-4300, in close proximity to the center of the Milky Way, traveling at about 4.8 million kilometers per hour, and is thought to have been accelerated by the gravitational interaction with the supermassive black hole, present in the core of the galaxy, that might have altered its trajectory in such a way that it will most probably be ejected out of the Milky Way, in the next few million years.”

      My comment: obviously this neutron star is inhabited by Robert L. Forward style ‘flats’ who are fleeing from the hideous Ieldra who occupy the titanic black hole at that galactic core.

      http://www.encyclopedia.com/doc/1P3-1220042201.html

      “Astronomers have found a neutron star spinning at an astonishing 1122 rotations per second, 1.5 times faster than any other star. Till now, no neutron star has ever been found to spin faster than 716 times per second, which was the previous record. But now, new observations have revealed a neutron star that appears to be spinning much faster than that supposed speed limit.If confirmed, the finding could bolster the possibility of exotic “soft” states of matter inside dense stars….”

      My comment: a factory producing exotic soft matter for war munitions.

      “In a galaxy 25 million light-years away astronomers have found what looks like are the remnants of strange celestial explosions called hypernovae. Hypernovae are possibly the most powerful explosions in our Universe since the Big Bang–explosions are more powerful than supernovae, the spectacular death gasps of stars some 5-10 times more massive than our Sun. In fact, hypernovae may produce some 100 times more energy than supernovae. But what are these explosions and what causes them? Astronomers are not sure at this point. It is hoped that the discovery of these two suspected hypernova remnants, called MF83 and NGC5471B, located in the nearby spiral galaxy M101 will allow astrophysicists to infer their true nature.”

      My comment: Galaxy M101 should not have ticked off Richard Seaton and Blackie DuQuesne!

      • docrampage says:

        Re: War damage

        >”You know that pulsars are artificial, right? They are
        >part of an intergalactic astrogation system.”

        >Yes, but the question for the MIB is how do -you- know it?

        It was part of the orientation. In Tucson there is a small shopping center near the University with typical student shops selling T-shirts, sunglasses, used books –the usual. In one corner, next to the utility closet, there is a wooden door that doesn’t even look like a real storefront. There is no company name, just a neatly lettered sign in small black letters saying: “Travel Agent –the most exotic travel locations in the Universe.”

        You won’t find the business license registered anywhere and you won’t find this business on the Internet. They don’t have a phone. You walk in to find an elderly gentleman in a tidy white suite sitting behind an old but well-polished oak desk. On the wall is a rack of typical adventure-travel brochures. If you pick one out, and go up to the desk, the old man will inevitably tell you that they only handle that trip through an associated agency and he will give you a card to call another travel agency. But if you sit down at the desk, make small talk for a bit and explain that you want to know what real adventure is like, the old guy just might pull out a ring of keys and let you through the back door where the real brochures are.

        Imagine spending a night in a hotel sailing through the rings of a boiling gas giant. Some inner source of heat sends clouds of gas thousands of miles into space where, if you are lucky, you may spot a vorun, a mysterious vacuum creature, sipping the expelled gas like a delicate butterfly with iridescent wings fifteen miles across.

        Imagine a hunt for amphibians the size of dinosaurs on a low-gravity swamp planet. You wear a high-tech environment suit that keeps you cool and dry as you slog through swamp water that is laced with propanol and arsenic. The suit is fully self contained so that you can chase your dangerous prey below the water.

        Imagine skiing and sail-sledding on frozen methane snow and piloting your own personal submarine through lakes of methane teeming with exotic silicon life.

        Tell him Doc Rampage sent you and you may get a discount.

        • Re: War damage

          Oh, that travel agency! Yes, it is right across the street from a small odd-looking gunshop that is actually from the 47th century. I seem to recall there is sign that always seems to face you, no matter what direction you approach it, reading “Finest Energy Weapons in the Known Universe” and a smaller sign in the window, “The Right to Buy Weapons is the Right to be Free.” The door will not open for any policemen or military men, however.

          • docrampage says:

            Re: War damage

            Although I loved Weapon Shops of Isher stories, the inspiration for the above post was “Of Missing Persons” by Jack Finney.

            Sometime between the ages of 10 and 15 someone gave me a book for Christmas called “Tales of Time and Space”. It was a collection of short stories (including “Of Missing Persons”) by various authors. I never would have picked the book myself because it didn’t have a lurid cover with a Flying Lab or a half-naked Red Princess of Mars or a Lensman blasting away at a nefarious alien. And frankly, I didn’t enjoy the book as much as one that I would have chosen. But over time, I have found those stories to be among the most memorable.

  12. slenderest scintilla

    “Is there even the slenderest scintilla of evidence that mankind is not utterly alone in the universe?”
    Well, we could check out all those reports of humanoid beings seen in connection with UFOs. I happen to have a large collection of litterature on the subject, and I find the evidence convincing. I agree that not everybody does. But surely no-one can deny that it at least amounts to “the slenderest scintilla of evidence”?

    • Re: slenderest scintilla

      I stand corrected. If we take UFO sightings as evidence of ET life, then there is at least a scintilla of evidence to be examined: I for one am unwilling to dismiss all reports of such eerie things without a more careful examination. That is the advantage of being a hardened skeptic — I need not accept (or reject) any claim until after I see the proof.

      But if we (perhaps because of a haughty prejudice) put UFO sightings in the same category as Bigfoot sightings and ghost sightings, and concentrate on evidence collected by astronomers and astronauts for extra-terrestrial life, the evidence level once again falls to zero. We have not seen the Red Weed growing on Mars, or even caught sight of the Witch King Gorice of Carce and Lord Juss fighting their endless wars on the surface of Mercury.

      • jordan179 says:

        Re: slenderest scintilla

        I think that we need to distinguish between “extraterrestrial life” and “sapient extraterrestrial life.” The history of the Earth strongly suggests that life evolves quickly on a suitable planet, but sapience takes billions of years to arrive. Hence, we logically should find many alien ecosystems for every one which has advanced to producing sapient species.

        Futhermore, we should also distinguish between “extraterrestrial life or sapience anywhere” as opposed to “in our stellar neighborhood.” The Solar System and those stars near enough to permit practical STL expeditions is a very small volume of space compared to the size of the whole Universe. If there was an alien civilization as advanced as our own a mere 1000 LY away — a fraction of the Galactic diameter — we couldn’t even theoretically detect them, nor them detect us, as neither of our radio spheres would have reached the other. And our Galaxy is just one of literally billions in the Universe. So alien life, and sapience, is much more likely in the Universe as a whole than it is in our stellar backyard.

Leave a Reply