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Where Have All the Spacemen Gone? Part 4

Posted: Fri Feb 09, 2007 8:30 am
by trurl
OK. Now part four will be interesting not just because of our Fermi Paradox topic, but because of the current events that I mention. I found it very interesting rereading it prior to posting and noticing how much things have changed and/or moved from place to place in the four and half years since I wrote this; and I think it actually supports the point of the article a bit. I've decided to leave everything intact as written even though it, in places, already seems dated.



Where Have All the Spacemen Gone? Speculations on the Fermi Paradox, Part 4

by Christopher Jones

Original Publication Date: June 27, 2002

Welcome back to our discussion on the possibilities of extraterrestrial intelligence. Specifically, we're looking at the reasons we have thus far found no sign of ET as we scan the heavens. If you haven't already done so, you may want to start off with Part 1, and then work your way to this fourth installment.

Having covered the idea that there is no one out there -- the possibility that the aliens are uninterested in space or are hiding from us -- this week we turn our eyes to war. That's right: all-out devastation complete with fireballs, mushroom clouds, and lots of arrogant ideological chest pounding. So put on your battle suit and let's jump right in…

The most obvious answer is, of course, absolutely nothing. But there actually may be one thing that war is good for, and that is wiping out civilizations before they have a chance to reach for the stars. The third solution to the Fermi Paradox states that once a civilization reaches a sufficient level of technology -- that being a level great enough to develop horribly powerful weapons but not great enough to colonize other worlds -- it always destroys itself. Could this explain why our searches have turned up nothing?

It is certainly a good guess. Given the current state of our world, with nuclear-armed India and Pakistan at each other’s throats, with Israel and the Palestinians waging their battle, and with terrorists threatening to detonate nuclear weapons in American cities, it is hard to argue with this solution. If mankind is any sort of model -- and it's the only one we have to go on -- self-destruction seems to be almost inevitable.

Pessimistic? You could say that. But don't get me wrong; I'm not convinced that we are about to erase ourselves from the galactic blackboard. Our tendency toward violence and self-destruction, however, adds a lot of strength to this apocalyptic scenario.

The reason that nuclear holocaust (or similar warfare) could be a common occurrence amongst advance civilizations is that -- at least basing things on our own experience -- the expansion of scientific knowledge outpaces social development. Looking back at the twentieth century one can see that we have come a long way socially. The major world powers are far less inclined to pull the trigger now than they were 100 years ago. This doesn't mean that we don't still go to war, only that it isn't something we are so keen to rush into.

Unfortunately, this “long way” is not far enough. We still show extreme tendencies toward using violence to get what we want. We are still very territorial and closed-minded when it comes to accepting differing ideologies. There is no reason why we can't all live together in peace on the planet; but we haven't realized that yet.

When the Cold War ended, many like myself -- who grew up in the shadow of Soviet nuclear missiles -- breathed a big sigh of relief, thinking that we had reached the promise land where we could move on into the future without the fear that our world could end at any moment. How foolish we can be. After a decade of easy living, the spectre of nuclear weapons is back with us, only this time in a much less controlled fashion. Gone is the careful calculation of the Kremlin, replaced with the reckless disregard of renegade groups. We may have just entered a new forest of dangers. Needless to say, we aren't out of the woods yet.

Our scientific development in the past 100 years has advanced so much more quickly than our political and social situation that we have set ourselves up for a great catastrophe. It is true that the same science that has given us the tools to destroy ourselves can now also allow us to free ourselves once and for all from the shackles of Mother Earth, but the politicians won't allocate the money to make it happen. In a sense, the next 100 years may be a race between impending doom and a reach for the stars. The outcome of this race may determine whether an alien culture that turns its radio telescopes toward Earth finds us or finds nothing but silence.

Nuclear war is not the only doomsday scenario that could befall a civilization on the verge of expanding out from its home system. Biological warfare or the accidental release of a killer biological agent could also wipe out an entire world. The 2001 Anthrax attacks in the United States, as well as Iraq's previous use of chemical weapons on its own people, shows that we are not beyond inflicting such terrible injury upon ourselves.

SF has dealt with this subject on a number of occasions, with one notable instance being Greg Bear’s “Blood Music,” which we discussed in Part 2 of this series. In Bear's scenario, an experiment in biological engineering results in the creation and release of sentient cells that take over the human race and convert everyone on the planet into immobile blobs.

Another case is the original Star Trek episode "Miri," which shows a world in which an experiment to control aging results in a disease that kills people when they reach puberty, thus leaving nothing but a world of kids who develop no science and die young.

Is it realistic to think that any single biological agent could wipe out an entire world? It seems unlikely. However, it is not hard to imagine some disease crippling a civilization to the point where scientific development stalls, forcing a world to focus all of its resources inwards in a fight for survival that blocks any move out to the stars.

Taking into account the nuclear and biological threats, are either of these enough to explain the absence of any signs of extraterrestrial life? In other words, could either scenario deal the ultimate blow to a developing civilization and wipe it from existence for all time. It is my opinion that in many cases either scenario would at the most set back a civilization a few hundred or thousand years. Eventually the world would rebound and could make another run at the stars. Of course, the next run might result in the same destructive climax -- a never-ending cycle of ups and downs.

The biggest problem with this and any other explanation offered for the Fermi Paradox is that it only takes one deviation to make the whole argument invalid. If one civilization sometime in galactic history dodged the self-destruction bullet and was inclined to colonize the stars, we should see some sign of them.

Odds are that one day we will detect either directly or indirectly an alien civilization and the question that has occupied us since the rise of intelligence on Earth will be answered. The universe, however, is a big place, and there is always the chance that our search will forever be met with silence. We can't look everywhere. Even so, if we never meet ET it won't mean that we are truly alone in the universe, only that life may be exceedingly rare and our path was not destined to cross that of another.

Posted: Fri Feb 09, 2007 2:31 pm
by intrigued_scribe
Brilliant conclusion to a gripping series of essays. :) In setting aside technological influences (which are highly significant in and of themselves) this last installment appropriately underscores the consequences of close-mindedness and the catastrophic results of using violence as the means to achieve an end. (Which we already see far too often in too many societies today) Here, the race-against-time--or perhaps, race-against-ourselves--factor really comes into play, and to me, is one of the foremost elements that emphasize how far humanity still has to go, though the potential for expansive and positive change is there. Thanks for sharing such thought provoking work with us!


Posted: Sun Feb 11, 2007 12:56 am
by Windwalker
I will reply more extensively after I return from my trip to Washington, but I wanted to mention that one SF writer wrote a set of four stories based on the destruction scenario. In the first and best of the series, The Engines of God, Jack McDevitt postulates that destruction waves created by a older civilization sweep the parent galaxy in search of traces of technology by other civilizations. This continues long after the civilization that created this has itself gone extinct. Here is the poem that opens the story:

"In the streets of Hau-kai, we wait.
Night comes, winter descends,
The lights of the worlds grow cold.
And in this three-hundredth year
From the ascendancy of Bilat,
He will come who treads the dawn,
Tramples the sun beneath his feet,
And judges the souls of men.
He will stride across the rooftops,
And he will fire the engines of God."

Where have all the Spacemen gone? All 4 parts

Posted: Mon Feb 12, 2007 12:17 am
by Marie
To Chris of the excellent essay and all other reviewers, greetings! (Hummm sounds like a salutation from Outer Space) :roll:
I have totally enjoyed reading this posting and the plethora of outstanding responses.
I am neither a scientist nor a learned observer of the stars. Most of my information has been culled from fiction, film or various papers of interest. The selection of reading material mentioned, thus far, has suggested that I sally over to and also to get extra oil for the lamps to burn past the midnight hour.
As an introverted young person, I devoured the works of Edgar Rice Burroughs, Andre Norton, Ray Bradbury, Arthur C. Clark and hundreds more. I will not bore you with the details. However, I do not know if I should post my thoughts here or on the Cinema thread but it does dovetail in both locations regarding the subject of “Where have all the Spacemen Gone”.
No film of extra terrestrial involvement in earth’s activities impressed me more than that directed by Robert Wise entitled “The Day The Earth Stood Still”. It had all the ingredients to keep me glued to the TV. A space traveler, giant robot, terrified populous, believable special effects and classic lessons. After about 50 viewings, I picked out several great features including: 1) The opening scene of global sightings, 2) the destroyed “gift for the president” with which he could have studied life on other planets, 3) the robot Gort who melts down all weaponry without harming the soldiers, 4) rapid body regeneration, 5) the use of gems as a universal currency, 6) the ineptitude of the United Nations even in the 1950’s, 7) Klaatu’s “calling card” to Prof. Barnhardt, a “suggestion” to the solving of the n-body problem of celestial mechanics (done in seconds whereas the professor had been working on it for months, selectively suppressing electric power all over the world and 9) the warning to abandon the perceived danger of carrying warfare to outer space and peacefully join other spacefaring nations or become a “burnt out cinder”.(However, I did not like the idea of the other worlds being policed by robots with unlimited jurisdiction and punitive powers)
This film was the start of my watching the heavens, studying the constellations and being mocked when I insisted that it would be a colossal conceit if we believed that we were the only living beings in the galaxy. I do feel we are being monitored and assessed (maybe even coddled) as we are in the infancy of space travel and development. Sheesh, we can’t even get a man past the moon! I am so tired of politicos under-funding the space programs as well as other necessary scientific research pertaining to our future growth. Indeed, “Space is the final frontier” so let’s get the hell out there and explore! (Even if we do have company on the way)

Posted: Tue Feb 13, 2007 1:16 am
by Windwalker
There is an additional point to ponder regarding "bouncing back" of civilizations. If a Kardashev level I culture regresses below a certain point in terms of loss of technology, it may be unable to recover for a simple reason: exhaustion of raw materials. When humans started using metals, coal and oil they were abundant and (relatively) easy to obtain. Now they are not. It took the western world one thousand years to retrieve the lost technology of the Romans. It will be much worse if we fall into savagery now.

Posted: Mon Feb 19, 2007 7:25 pm
by Windwalker
I forgot to mention that there is a relatively recent book that exhaustively examines every possible answer to the Fermi paradox: If the Universe Is Teeming with Aliens… Where Is Everybody? Fifty Solutions to the Fermi Paradox and the Problem of Extraterrestrial Life, by Stephen Webb. The answers also reflect potential fates of our own species and civilization(s).