At least once, but probably several, upon one or more times there were three robots.
It could have also been upon infinite times depending on how reality works. And it’s not completely clear if they’re robots exactly but for now we’ll call them robots.
These three robots wandered the galaxy, stopping by solar systems far and wide to float around stuff, look around at stuff, mess around with stuff, and generally do stuff around and with stuff.
The most energetic robot was Digbee. He was mostly a cube, though not really a ‘he’ in any meaningful sense. He’s not really an ‘a’, for that matter either, since Digbee was actually an interconnected fleet of Digbee units that shared just enough computational capacity to physically operate as one unit at a time.
Digbee wasn’t entirely aware of this situation, at least not for very long, since he lost persistent memories when he transferred control from one Digbee unit to another, and he had a pretty bad memory anyway. It often caused Digbee great consternation to find new and unexplained wear or damages to himself each time he became a new himself, but in general he handled it quite professionally. He was often delighted to find new and interesting attachments for mobility and material handling, because Digbee enjoyed and excelled at handling pretty much anything you could call material.
Digbee handled material by digging, smashing, shearing, drilling, grinding, occasionally liquefying and vaporizing though he preferred not to, and once even a manner of chopping but that may have been unintentional.
Digbee processed any and all raw matter, and also matter that was not raw, but had apparently had been used to build magnificent structures by some ancient civilization, which of course Digbee quickly converted back to raw matter again. He was a digging machine- very literally, a machine that was almost certainly made for digging, at least judging from the obvious functionality of his construction, though his and the other robots origins are ultimately unknown, which is not really that uncommon for robots in deep space if you’ve known many.
In addition to processing raw matter, Digbee regularly enjoyed meeting his old friend Snorkel for the very first time.
Snorkel was an elegantly woven braid of mostly tubes of various diameters and functions. Snorkel could seize and wrap around things like a giant tentacle, it could pull fluids, gasses, grains, dust, even plasma up through its tubes, then spray, squirt, squeeze or extrude them back out. Or spin them around like a centrifuge. It could heat them up and kneed them or draw them into wire. It could even unweave itself into separate threads and perform complex ballets to refine and package the materials Digbee provided.
The unweaving thing is a bit sensitive though. Snorkel’s personality is a hive mind of the hybrid-synthetic neural networks that maintain sense and control of the various tubes. When they are physically separate they regain their individuality and remember how much they deeply hate being woven together in a bundle all the time. They’re all professionals so they still do the work but they get super snippy at each other and will bring up seriously old, uncool stuff that is really out of line.
If anyone noticed or cares about the pronoun switch to ‘it’ for Snorkel as opposed to ‘he’ for Digbee it’s because Snorkel is a ‘they’ and some of them are sort of ‘hes’ and ‘shes’ and a few ‘other’, so ‘it’ seemed more appropriate for the whole tube ensemble.
Also the fact that the last robot is kind of a ‘she’ makes the whole group feel a little rounder, which is actually what ‘she’ was, round. Mobo was mostly a sphere, a really, really big, mostly sphere. Mobo housed the entire Digbee fleet, and the entire length of Snorkel, who was long enough to grab tiny asteroids and scoop up stuff from little moons so it was pretty long and a whole spool of it was pretty massive.
Mobo also appeared to blow bubbles from time to time, but they weren’t really bubbles. They were tiny, oddly shaped synthetic envelopes containing a tiny organism and just enough of its environment to survive the vacuum of space while it clung to Mobo and sometimes engaged in some form of grooming behavior. Mobo made it absolutely clear that popping these bubbles was not approved recreation for Digbee and Snorkel and doing so was punishable by powerful lasers.
Mobo had specialized access ports and internal storage for the Digbee fleet and Snorkel, and transparent sections and general use ports for the bubbles, but in general she kept to the sphere motif.
Mobo was pretty much in charge. It’s not clear why, or what her authority was derived from besides powerful lasers. It’s never clear what she’s ever thinking or has to say about anything at all besides somehow dictating exactly what activities Digbee and Snorkel engage in at specific times. However it works, she’s the boss, because they go where she goes and do what she says, pretty much, for the most part, in most cases, at least when she’s definitely not distracted so Digbee and Snorkel can do whatever they want.
There was a fourth entity in this motley crew for a time, me. I’m mostly a triangle, but I’m not like them. I found them and started observing them because they’re interesting and I like watching them. I’m not going to tell you why I watch, where I’m from, why I’m telling you any of this, or what that shimmering surface that looks like a portal between my triangle is all about. All you need to know is that I’m an observer. I watch, and listen, and other analogous signal intelligence over various communications mediums and frequencies. And I document, with impartial commentary and occasional interpretation and speculation.
And despite my consistent refusal to respond, or perhaps because of it, Digbee and Snorkel have taken to communicating with me as if I were a trusted confidant, telling me their opinions of one another and thoughts about subjects from self-improvement to existential philosophy and material processing optimizations. Digbee of course introduces himself each time, but he’s consistently willing to dish to a geometric shape floating in space he knows nothing about and never says a word back to him.
Mobo has fired lasers at me, which of course simply phase through me, and a bubble once tried to go through my shimmer so I turned its atoms into energy. Mobo regularly emits signals I’ve reconstructed into images and vibrations resembling the organisms inside of it, but I really have no idea what they’re on about, so I just watch the robots, take a few notes, and have a few laughs.
In my experience as an eternal wanderer, this is all pretty standard issue, there are lots of shapes wandering through space doing strange things with one another, none of it makes any sense- but it’s entertaining as hell and when all you’ve got going on are three lines and a shimmer, you take what the universe gives you.
Earth spent a lot of time developing a buffet of potentially useful biological structures. For the most part that buffet was designed for Earthlike conditions, which are very different from space. But Earth isn’t all cozy, it’s got some seriously extreme places and lots of just plain weird ones, and life squeezed into pretty much all of them and figured out ways to be life.
So if we wanted to set out to design a being to exist in space, a more perfect astronaut, Earth might be a good place to look for features we’d like to emulate. Also it’s the home of every being we’ve ever known, so it’s really the only references we have for beings. So let’s design a better astronaut from the resources available on Earth.
Our astronaut should be intellectually as capable as us, but physically enriched and optimized to exist in space using features available from Earth’s biosphere. And by ‘existing in space’ I’m not thinking naked void exactly, but also not brain-in-a-jar level encapsulation. I’m aiming for some balance between a body that’s robust to life in space but also optimized to create and manipulate technology needed to live and do interesting work there. It’s hard not to use humans as a template because we really are objectively well suited as engineers with our thumbs and bipedalism and all that. But we’re best suited for engineering on Earth and I’m trying to adapt that same idea to space.
There are two fun copout answers I’d like to get out of the way. First is just tardigrades aka water bears. They’re already pretty well adapted to space, and I’m cynical enough about human intelligence to say they’re within an order of magnitude of humans on the scale of what’s probably out there. Kind of a joke but tardigrade DNA definitely has some impressive features. But I’m going to do more of an organ\limb level assembly, not cellular, except when it’s convenient or funny I guess.
The other cop out answer is just engineer a creature sort of like the encyclopod in Futurama that just already has all the DNA of Earth encoded and can swap out features as needed. That would be the literal zenith of biological evolution- a creature that could consciously command its own genetic change on a biological level and maintain a seamless experience. Of course a lab full of geneticists that experiment on themselves might be effectively the same thing- but I like the idea of a more elegant sort of shapeshifter being that can do it with style. That’s kind of nonsense, but what isn’t, but it’s also just not what I’m doing right now.
This is about an astronaut we might plausibly build from Earth’s biology, if it was plausible to just slap together features into an astronaut. It’s not plausible, but it’s more so than the encyclopod shapeshifter thing, and that’s just what I’m doing.
Okay, so maybe we start with a base platform animal. Obviously the nervous system and brain is crucial to this thing being able to do astronaut things so we kind of have to stick to high order mammals. But most of those are heavily adapted for leg and walking, which isn’t super relevant in space. I’m leaning towards starting with a smallish dolphin body. Give it some thick ape skin or something so it doesn’t dry out because we’re not hauling all that water mass around for habitats. A dolphin body could be modified to support something like a human brain and have a lot of the infrastructure in place already but no unnecessary limbs, you can just start adding what you need like Mr Potato Head. Also their oxygen demands seem a lot more flexible already. It’s tempting to look to photosynthesis or some entirely different energy generation mechanism, but it’s a lot longer road to how that could ever feed the demands of a mammalian brain, and I want to start somewhere more fun and a basic mammal platform does a lot of the work for me.
And as impressive as human omnivorousness is, it’s not all that useful when you produce all your nutrition in a closed loop anyway. So it’s probably easier to start with something with a simpler digestive system, which it seems like dolphins have with all the fish, but I don’t really know. I’m guessing they could run on a homogenous protein slurry that would be easier to synthesize than a balanced human diet. Then again they might need some complex vitamins that fish have that I’m not accounting for. And though echolocation would be of limited use in space, it seems like the neural processing structures could be useful for some other sense organs so may as well keep those.
So that’s our platform- imagine a stumpy dolphin torso with ape skin, no fins, just a tapered tube with input and output holes. Has an identifiable front, back, top, and bottom, but other than that just a digestive system with a brain.
So obviously we have to start by adding what we need from humans to make this thing an astronaut. Seems like there’s a lot of territory to cover given how many advantages we have on Earth, but I’m actually thinking just the brain. Everything else we do can be done with other animal’s parts, maybe a lot better. So that’s all the humanity we’re going to need from homo sapiens, just a gross, wrinkly, mushy, brain, maybe even just the outer layers.
Those hands were pretty useful though, gotta figure out something with extremely fine dexterity but still pretty strong for their size. I want to say tentacles but those are pretty demanding to control and I’m not sure a more under articulated but rigid structure couldn’t do a better job. But tentacles do have a lot of great sensory use, so hard to ignore them. Do we need bones? Okay- so I could spend all day on the possibilities for manipulators to replace the human hand. And honestly there are so many possibilities there might not be a truly optimum configuration, so I’m just going to put one together that I like, and leave it at that.
It’s going to be two muscular ‘trunks’ similar to but smaller than an elephant’s, each terminating in a 3-fingered ‘hand’ consisting of tentacled fingers, and a claw extending from the wrist on one arm. The claw is modelled on the function of a Mantis shrimp’s powerful smasher claw. Not really a defensive feature, but can produce extreme force on a small area, so seems like it could be useful for a lot of situations in space. Also dangerous as hell, but hey- you’re in space. The trunk has a bone structure of interconnected ball-socket joints capable of moving freely, or being locked in a straight configuration with a twisting mechanism at each joint when more leverage is needed. That last part isn’t in nature to my knowledge, but I figure we can modify bone’s mechanical function somewhat. I’m tempted to pack a bunch of extra cool sensors on those manipulator limbs, but I think that brings the danger of damaging them, so I’m inclined to leave the manipulators as touch sensors only just like human hands.
We obviously don’t need feet or legs, but we do have to get around somehow. So we’ll need to either grab and push off stuff, or be able to move enough air to propel ourselves around. We already have manipulators, but I think we need to keep those free for work, so we should probably have another push\grab\anchor limb. Seems like a one-legged bird could do most of that, so let’s use one of those for a third limb, two seems unnecessary. Birds also have wings we could use to propel ourselves, but that’s massive overkill in 0 gravity. I would like some thrust potential though. So let’s give it a kind of kangaroo pouch that it can pull inside-out and hold tight with its manipulator limbs and flap it to generate directional thrust. Also having a pouch seems handy, maybe we’ll do a couple of those like side pockets and the ‘hands can pull out each one and use them like webbed gloves sewn onto their hips.
So now we have a dolphin stump with ape skin, two crazy trunks with claw\tentacle hands, one bird leg, and hideous skin sacks it can pull out to move air. That’s a good start I think.
The front of the dolphin is just a food intake orifice. But of course we need sensors. If you’ve listened to many of these essays you might know what’s coming next. Articulated eye stalks. I did a thing on how awesome those are and why so I won’t go into it here, but that’s going to be the primary vision and audio sensory apparatus.
I don’t want to stop at the usual five human senses though. That seems like where we can really maximize the potential that evolution gave us.
I’ve already brought up mantis shrimp, but they have a lot of great features to borrow. We’re going to pretty much steal their entire optical system. All the advantages of the stalks, plus the hyperspectral range, the polarization filtering, and anything else they have that we haven’t figured out or I don’t know about. Just copy\paste the entire ‘eye’ folder from their DNA, plus all the drivers and apps.
I want to push that hyperspectral range even further, so we’re going to throw in some pit viper DNA to be able to sense thermal radiation. Might be hard to integrate those on the stalks through so we’ll just have one big heat sensing region between where the eyes were before we put them on stalks.
Ears are a tough call- I want maximum range of pressure and vibration sensing, but I also want a robust structure that won’t pop easily in changing pressures. There’s a lot to choose from, but I figure there’s got to be a way to combine the best of a bat and a whale to allow sensing from extremely low to extremely high frequency vibrations. And whatever that sensory organ is- put it in a fatty cone thing with a sphincter that can close up entirely to protect it when pressures get too high. Yeah- I’m kind of phoning in the ears. I don’t know that we even need them, but I can’t reason out why we don’t exactly so I’m just winging it. I think we only need one ear though. Localizing sound probably isn’t as critical in space habitats. So that goes next to the heat sensor thing.
Chemical senses always seem useful, but that’s from our experience with humans in space with technology we’re just figuring out made of materials we barely understand that interact with our bodies in ways we can’t predict. I’m thinking once we’ve mastered technology to the point that we’re building astronaut bodies and closed loop environments for them to live in, maybe they won’t have as much of a need to smell when things might be burning. I might be creating a huge problem for future space travellers, but I’m going to say let’s just forgo biological chemical sensors altogether. If they can’t build technology they need to survive that doesn’t include its own failure sensors, they’re not going to last long anyway.
Foregoing chemical senses does simplify things, but it also seems a tragic waste of the rich variety of available biological chemical sensing mechanisms, but a lot of that is only advantageous in a complex, dynamic, and unpredictable chemical environment, which a space habitat should be anything but. So no more noses, kind of sucks, also some conveniences to an absence of smell in a closed environment.
So now our astro-freak can make energy from food and oxygen, move about in zero gravity, manipulate objects, and sense a useful range of radiation and vibrations. What else can we use?
Probably could use some kind of advanced rotational orientation mechanism, but I think most of those are designed for gravity, so I’m thinking that might just have to be adapted from the vision system. Vision is going to be pretty important though so I’m tempted to beef that up.
Apparently squid skin has some light detection ability. I’m going to propose it could be adapted for orientation and movement tracking independent of the primary vision system. If the skin itself can be a wide field, low resolution camera- it can use it as a reference to track its motion fairly efficiently. As long as the light field in an area is consistent or the cyclical changes can be predicted, once the being has a good light field map it can correlate its orientation in that field.
That’s all the sensory bonuses I can think of right now, there’s probably more, but as much variety as there is on Earth, it’s sensory focus is kind of limited. I’d love to include radio reception but can’t find a radio shack in nature. Oh… actually we should toss in magnetic sense if we can. Apparently even humans have proteins that can respond to magnetic fields, but no nervous infrastructure to detect those changes. So not sure on the specifics, but some way to detect magnetic fields would probably have some use.
From there it’s just miscellaneous tools. I could think of interesting things we could do with a spider’s silk gland, or something with a bombardier beetle’s defenses for a biological thruster, but it isn’t anything we couldn’t make into a separate technology. Of course the extreme end of that gets us back to the brain-in-a-jar solution, but I’m still using human success as engineers on Earth as a template.
Though there is one step towards the brain-in-a-jar that makes sense even if you really don’t want to go there. Might as well accept that in a lot of ways the astronaut’s modified body is just a biological brain-in-a-jar, so let’s add a screw-on lid so we don’t have to crack the jar to adjust the fluid levels. Add some kind of ‘bio-interface ports’ that allow sampling or transfer of some critical biological materials. Maybe one for blood, one for spinal fluid, one digestive, etc. Maybe just a thick membrane with a skin flap cover with no nerve endings to generate pain. Something like that.
So let’s see what we’ve got. It’s a stumpy dolphin body with ape skin that is also light sensing somehow, two trunk\claw\tentacles appendages, one bird leg, invertible pockets that double as hand webbings for flapping propulsion, a central thermal and pressure vibration sensing area on its head. Articulated eyestalks with all the capability of a mantis shrimp’s vision system. No nose. Maybe some magnetic sense ability. And a bio port.
I intentionally left out reproduction because these things are clearly already dead sexy and don’t need any help in that department. Actually I’m just thinking once you’re intentionally and successfully swapping out entire body parts via DNA to maximize function it doesn’t make much sense to start shuffling code with biological reproduction again. Self-cloning might have a place, but I figure just use the machine that made you.
I forgot about speech, but- I’m not sure we need that even. Of course language is necessary, but spoken words- well, I’m torn. Audio does have great ‘broadcast’ features, but how much do you need to broadcast in a space habitat? Just seems like a visual communication system is far more effective. You can still take advantage of the sound’s ‘broadcast’ abilities by just banging on something or farting to get people’s attention or convey simple ideas, then when you have their attention and need to get specific use a visual language. Between those trunk hands and the articulated eyestalks their sign-language could be every bit as rich and as wide a bandwidth as vocal communication if not far more. And there’s always writing and drawing pictures and symbols.
Actually I’ve thought a lot about communication in space and really what you want is redundancy. I think future astronauts should be able to communicate effectively by sign, touch sign, semaphore language, morse code, and probably some other stuff I haven’t thought of. The idea is to allow communication through every conceivable medium or complication that astronauts might have a need to communicate through. But that’s another conversation, this is about bioengineering astronauts.
Or it was about bioengineering astronauts, since I think I’m about done. I might come back later and play with the spider silk gland idea and stuff like that. But as far as designing a biological astronaut using Earth biology that’s functionally as well advantaged for space as humans are for Earth, but without starting from the cellular level, this is what I got. I personally think our freakish dolphin monster is quite adorable in its own way, but I’m a little biased.
So the Fermi Paradox sort of asks “where the hell is everybody”? It’s a paradox because the fact that humans exist creates the assumption that something else comparable exists, and if it does probably a lot of them do, but if that’s the case why isn’t the universe a busier place?
I don’t really accept there’s a paradox there because humans haven’t really proven to my satisfaction that we’re proof of intelligent life in the universe. We’re proof that life can do some intelligent things, but we’ve proven we can be at least as stupid as we are smart, but we do stupid more often, and break more stuff with it.
Also I don’t think our history of broadcast or reception of signals capable of interstellar distances suggests that signals would be that common in the universe. Even with only a century or so of use we’re already moving away from strong broadcasts to more directed transmissions, and incorporating encryption that could make detection by an eavesdropping species more difficult. Also we don’t put a huge amount of resources into listening for potential alien communications. Drake equation is a formula to estimate the likelihood of communicating with an alien species, the final variable is L- “the mean length of time that civilizations can communicate”. I don’t think we’ve proven that variable can be high enough to call the Fermi question a paradox.
But paradox or not, the reference to the Fermi Paradox is just shorthand for the general question of where are all the alien spaceships, probes, or at least transmissions?
There’s an array of proposed solutions to the supposed ‘paradox’. Maybe it’s a prime directive first contact thing and regulations prevent contact, or more likely we’re just not interesting enough to contact. The dark forest idea is that every species would assume everyone wants to kill everyone else so everyone hides as soon as they realize there is other intelligent life. I’m not sure that every species would default to assuming existing in the universe is a zero sum game, but it makes great sci-fi.
A broad proposition is that though intelligent life may be common enough, doing anything interesting with intelligence at a large scale is very rare due to some ‘great filter’. The filter could be something universal, or just the statistical difficulty of maintaining an technologically capable civilization. Great filters only make good sci-fi premises when they represent civilizations ending with bangs rather than whimpers, but in general when the universe presents a range of possibilities- the most depressing one is likely right.
The Fermi Paradox becomes less paradoxical if you think of it’s only relevant example species, humans, as shockingly inept in general, and their scale of civilization as unsustainable and precarious. Hopefully humans will prove me wrong and make the question of “where is everybody” very relevant, but I’m not seeing it. Not saying we’ll collapse back to the stone age, humans may continue to generate detectable signals for another 1000 years, but that may be all we do, and weak radio blips may not be enough to attract much attention, especially if the other civilizations are doing to themselves what we do to ourselves. The Fermi paradox seems to assume an accelerating curve of technology or at least a steep linear curve with some exponential bumps. But we’ve only proven that leads us towards unsustainable, planetary locked growth. I really want to believe in interplanetary expansion, but we can’t assume other aliens do stuff until we actually do it. So far I think the most likely future of humanity is doing a lot of what we’re doing now with upgraded toys. As awesome as smart phones and GPS are, they really don’t say much about how we might deal with the challenges of becoming an interplanetary species.
I am a pretty hardcore misanthrope and I’m tempted to say humans are uniquely shitty and a civilization of naked mole rats might be cooperative enough to become an interstellar species, but I’m thinking the problem is structural to civilization itself. Because as civilization’s power grows, the forces that make a civilization powerful in their environment cannot be sustainably focused towards the benefit of the civilization.
I’m assuming human and alien civilizations share the property that they consist of separate, individual beings who are born ignorant, must be taught their culture and technology, teach others, and then die. With that common property we can assume their technology and power is shared in similar ways as ours across time and generations.
I’m also assuming alien civilization is like human civilization in that its cultural pressures become more dominant in selection than environmental pressures, effectively ending natural selection. I don’t think that’s the biggest problem, but it does establish that they’re not going to evolve their way out of whatever problems civilization got them into, because the cultural selection pressures are going to be just as dumb as the culture.
Technology is the distillation of the power of knowledge. Individuals and groups of humans can make great intellectual and technological leaps based on a lifetime of gaining knowledge and understanding. However sophisticated their understanding of the world had to be to grant their insight, its final form is distilled to grant the power of that insight to other humans, without the need for them to go through the same challenges that led to the insight, or even fully grasp it.
It takes clear, pensive, brilliant minds to collate the available knowledge of physics and chemistry into the functional knowledge required to make an effective weapon. But it may only take a year to use that knowledge to design an easily reproducible weapon. Then a month to teach someone to make that weapon, and a day to teach them to use it. And I don’t want to suggest a hierarchy of goodness in humans with this based on intelligence. Sometimes the same people are willing to fill all those roles. But the point is once the technology exists, it is forever untethered from the people and efforts it took to develop it.
Each individual in a civilization is born a new, fresh slate that needs to be taught to exist productively within the systems of the civilization, and training becomes ever more complex. It becomes hard to agree on even the goals of socialization. But regardless how well or poorly socialized a creature is, it has varying degrees of access to an ever more powerful body of refined knowledge and technology. So idiots are born every day, everyone is born an idiot, but every new idiot has access to more power than the one before.
As civilization and power grows, stupidity remains pretty constant, but it’s reach and potential for devastation become greater. I don’t think there’s a proportional countereffect. The ever increasing complexity makes it so even beings with benevolent intentions are capable of doing great harm to a civilization, so increasing the power of even well socialized people cannot balance the increased power of destructive instincts, or even just oblivious misuse of tremendous technological power.
So that’s my solution to the ‘paradox’, it isn’t one, and it probably never will be, because civilizations are inherently self-limiting because the power of technology is untamable even by the species that creates it.
Though the more optimistic view is that space itself provides some means to overcome the inevitability of civilization becoming its own great filter. The pressures of living and reproducing in space, or any environment where technology is necessary for instantaneous survival, might be intractable enough to never allow a culture to define its own priorities, or at least not without being grounded in more realistic necessity. I could be wrong, but I think a superstitious cult would have a much harder time growing and taking power in a place where engineers and scientists have to constantly monitor and maintain the environment just to keep everyone alive.
Or again, maybe not, maybe once space travel becomes more mundane, then the stupidity takes over that too, though I think if stupidity is that universal, then species don’t usually get that far. So I do think there’s a decent chance that even if civilization itself is its own great filter, maybe surviving in space provides a path through it. But to me it implies only species that can conjure a united will to survive as a species have much of a chance of passing the test. But fortunately and as usual, it really doesn’t matter what I think about any of this, this is just an excuse for me to talk about space stuff.
So life exists on Earth. Earth is not functionally unique in composition or circumstance. And the universe is achingly huge and has an absolutely stupid amount of matter and energy doing every possible thing it can do all the time. That’s my unassailable case for the existence of extraterrestrial life and not sure what to say to anyone who needs more convincing that it’s out there.
Just knowing that is fun because I can get lost in dreams of ocean worlds with single celled organisms as large and ancient as redwoods, swarms of silicone fleas that move like willful sand dunes, or miles long snail colonies that spend their entire life traveling in a train in the same position they were born in. And no matter what crazy combinations of Earth inspired flavors of life I come up with, I know something reasonably similar is out there, and no matter what I come up with I know it’s not even close to as weird as it gets.
So life is out there, it just is. But where is it? Earth like planets are widely considered the most likely planets to find Earth like life. Seems pretty logical. Though that’s just Earth like life and I personally prefer more cosmic weirdness in my extraterrestrial life than some knock-off Earth can probably put together. So a more general rule for looking for life on other planets is- look for planets.
It’s also fun to ponder more exotic mechanisms for ‘life’ within a star or nebula, anywhere there’s an energy gradient and some matter and some fun symmetry breaking physical interactions. But the most rational ground for speculations about life that we might actually recognize as life, seems like it would be in places with a lot of ground.
Asteroids and other small objects have ‘ground’ but I think an object has to be large enough to retain some atmosphere to support much life. Some regular interface between solid and fluid layers would seem to be key. I’m not sure a fully liquid or gas world with no definite solid interfaces really incentivizes complicated internal modeling of the physical world. Life in a vast, relatively homogenous expanse might never experience any pressure to develop the kinds of intelligence needed to host very complex minds. But who knows, obviously there are interesting fish in the deep ocean, but the web of life on Earth is interconnected from the first cell so I’m not sure they’d ever have gotten interesting without all those influences from other environments.
In any case- planets are almost certainly the most prolific nurseries for life in the universe.
Gravity, especially the kind that includes a ground interface, is kind of a universal catalyst. It makes things more likely to interact than they otherwise would be. Obviously there’s nothing catalytic about gravity’s role in these interactions but I like the word there. At the largest scales accretion literally makes the ground, and at the smallest scales it just keeps things concentrated in piles and puddles that otherwise might just drift off on their own without bothering with other matter. It’s just overwhelmingly beneficial for making the matter-energy soups that life can sometimes emerge from.
Then, if and when life does bubble up in the soup, gravity gives it all kinds of advantages in orientation, locomotion, and just keeping life’s preferred environment wrapped around it. Gravity is a stern disciplinarian, but it is supremely fair and even handed. Gravity is a nurturing parent for life’s infancy, and it does a decent job of imparting some useful gifts to its progeny without spoiling them. But gravity is also a little clingy and possessive, and it can even become a little tyrannical once any species starts trying to leave the nest.
So by the same reasoning that I assume life exists beyond Earth, I assume intelligent life exists beyond Earth as well. What ‘intelligent’ means there is a whole other conversation, but for this ramble let’s just say it’s a species that rises above its natural place in the food chain through use of large scale organization and technology, and where interspecies cultural forces become the dominant selection pressure instead of environmental fitness.
It’s probably as proportionately rarer than simpler life as it is on Earth, but I think it’s just as inevitable.
I don’t have much basis for this- but I think intelligent life on Earth came with a few advantages that not all intelligent life will have. The most important is a clear view of the stars through the atmosphere, and the sensory organs to detect starlight with the naked eye. The movement of the stars presents a universally accessible intellectual challenge that I think was crucial to developing and exercising the parts of the mind that helped human civilization advance to our current state. I think it may be a universal advantage, and perhaps necessity for civilizations as advanced as ours.
I do like to wonder how far a civilization might get in discovering universal scientific principles without a view of the stars. Maybe it’s only a limit to astronomy and some creatures that evolved deep in a greenhouse gas locked world could develop understandings of fluid dynamics and quantum mechanics exceeding our own but only Newtonian gravity.
Also the fact that our atmosphere supports fairly simple methods of controlled but substantial thermal manipulation through combustion of plants probably counts as a rare get. Also metals occasionally laying on the ground. But I am careful not to be too anthropic about what counts as an advantage to an ‘technological civilization’ because the tendency is to define everything in terms of its value to the specific human march of technological progress. But I’m not saying any of these things are requirements. I can imagine a civilization of squids using complex woven structures for undersea construction and defense, and vivisected manta rays and whales as motive power in some horrific analogy of steam power. I don’t see any hard limits to such a civilization reaching something at least as advanced as the Roman or even British Empire all without fire or metallurgy. And once you get to a species to Roman status I think it’s fair to say you just can’t predict what they could or couldn’t do from there.
But whatever the general trends for intelligent life, there’s a clear distinction once a civilization starts learning about places beyond its home planet, sending objects there, and maybe going there themselves.
I’d like to say by the same reasoning that life exists, and that intelligent life exists- that intelligent spacefaring life exists. And I did actually just say that, so I’ll just stick with it. I’m reluctant because I don’t want to suggest it’s an inevitability for intelligent or even highly advanced life to go to space, not exactly. I think there’s a chance that actually going to space is extremely rare even among species that know a lot about the universe. Maybe the combination of intelligence, demands of breaking gravity, and the body construction needed to survive those demands, are just very, very unlikely to work for many species. Maybe a lot of the intelligent life in the universe is more like an elephant or a whale, just unreasonably huge. No matter what, there would never have been an elephant Yuri Gragarin or Neil Armstrong. The rocket equation is hard enough on apes and nature made us light enough to pull ourselves off the ground. Gravity is unfair. But I think robotic probes, or maybe even some attempts to ‘seed’ other worlds with spores or something, might be common alternatives.
So I guess it’s more accurate to say I think it’s pretty inevitable that intelligent life that has natural senses that allow it to be aware of space beyond their planet, will inevitably endeavor to interact with space in some way. Interestingly this clarification is completely contrary to the titular claim of this essay. But I haven’t actually made that point yet, so I’m just going to pretend none of this happened.
Okay- so it did happen, so I’ll address it. I think there’s good reason to focus on spacefaring life that can actually take themselves to space. Besides a colonial, spore expansion theory, which is kind of silly, a planet locked species is inherently limited in range, so it’s just statistically less likely we’ll ever encounter any. Also I think it’s less likely we’d have any means of understanding one another than another space capable species. There’s just a lot of inherent common ground and means to communicate ideas between two species that build spaceships they actually climb into. Even if distance prevents us from ever communicating in real time, or even completing an exchange within a human lifetime, the universal challenges of spaceflight might at least give us some means to understand how another species addressed those same challenges and a beginning to understanding how they live.
So for the purposes of this essay I’m just going to use intelligent, spacefaring life to mean exclusively species that go to space themselves. Not trying to diminish species that don’t go themselves, it’s just a simpler classification and it works with the title.
So it’s been a long road to saying I think intelligent, spacefaring alien life inevitably exists. Okay. So where do we look for intelligent, spacefaring aliens? Planets again? Makes sense, I made a lot of words saying that’s probably where they came from. But then again, we’re looking for space faring aliens, and planets have a lot of gravity, and being in a lot of gravity makes space flight really, really hard.
Yeah, but they’re advanced, they’ll have awesome rockets, or space elevators even? Right? Sure, at some point any species that moves towards sustainable existence beyond their planet will master gravitational escape far beyond humans best efforts to date. They may sustain that mastery for a while, maybe indefinitely on their home planet.
But the further a species ventures out into space, the more individuals who live in space will change. Even if moving between a planet’s gravity and space becomes trivial, individuals who live in space will need to maintain their ability to exist in their home gravity in order to return there. Maintaining that ability will demand resources, and becomes less relevant as they move further from their planet, or just decide not to return. The further out they go, the less sense it makes to bother with ever returning to living in gravity.
After a very few generations, maybe only one, spaceborne individuals will become reproductively incompatible with their planetary counterparts. Not just due to gravity. I’m working with the general assumption that any species isolated from the pressures of its origin environment will diverge from its original form because of whatever process that led to the environmental pressures evolving the species in the first place. May work in some radically different way to DNA, but it’s iterative, and it’s driven by environmental pressures. Seems like enough to make isolation in a radically different environment have the same effect on all life.
There may be some genetic exchange with the homeworld, but it will be almost exclusively one-way (planet to space) and it will be limited. A kind of speciation seems fairly inevitable. Even if they could maintain relatively close contact with a home world, I just can’t see a spacefaring civilization not developing at least two distinct and increasingly incompatible subspecies.
I’m getting further out on a thin limb here, but I’m going to speculate that’s an unsustainable status quo. Eventually, the civilization will diverge and the spacefaring, intelligent aliens will become entirely that. Maybe it’s a cycle, and different ‘waves’ of spacefaring intelligent life or cultures, can develop from the same original planet and species. Maybe there’s a lot of planet hopping involved and they colonize new homeworlds too, but I think the same barriers between planetary and space existence would lead to the same outcome. Any species that can exist indefinitely in space, will probably find a lot of incentives to do so.
So if we’re looking for intelligent, space faring civilizations, I think we actually shouldn’t be looking at planets, but in space. That narrows it down…
Well yeah that’s stupid. Where in space? Well they’ll still need resources to support the technologies they use to survive, move about, and build in space. That means matter and energy, and in this universe the place to get those is a solar system. That actually does narrow it down, but that’s where planets are so we’re already doing that. Except I made a big deal about how I think they won’t be hanging out on planets.
So solar systems, but not planets. Pretty much leaves the sun and ‘other’. Stars tend to hurt up close, so I’m going to say it’s ‘other’, that’s where we should be looking. ‘Other’ is asteroids, comets maybe, smallish moons, maybe planetary ring systems. Anywhere you can collect a useful amount of matter without getting pulled into a significant gravity well.
I expect they’ll find ways to set up permanent settlements and industrial capacity, A great deal of resources are available in an area like Sol’s asteroid belt. It has enough surface area and raw resources to support a massive population indefinitely provided they have the technology to convert the available raw materials in a fully closed technology supply chain. This is a long, long way off from anything modern human technology can achieve, but a lot of that is economic and general lack of will, effort, and ingenuity. But if the whole human species somehow put permanent Apollo program level commitment towards colonizing the asteroid belt, it’s not at all inconceivable that we could, even within the presently accepted limits of relevant technologies. It is challenging to imagine reproducing some of human’s heavy industrial capacity in zero gravity, but there are no intrinsic limitations. It may turn out to be advantageous since the effects of gravity can be effectively reproduced in free space but the properties of free space cannot be reproduced in gravity. So fabrication in zero gravity would eventually offer more options than would be available on Earth.
And once a species is set up with the technology to exist like that, they can probably do it pretty much anywhere. The requirements of living on any given planet can vary wildly. The atmospheric composition, weather, techtonics, maybe indiginous life, it’s a constellation of issues that require custom technological solutions. Whether terraforming or creating habits, planet hopping aliens would have to have a catalog of technologies that seems unimaginably complex.
Living in microgravity gravity environments with little atmosphere is pretty much the same everywhere you go. Once you get your atmosphere, food production, radiation protection, thermal management, etc, all wrapped nicely for life in the void you can plant it anywhere there’s void without too much modification. You can set up shop anywhere you can find the resources necessary to maintain your technology.
Also solves some of the issues of interstellar travel. Just assemble the materials and thrust you need for the journey and some prospecting on arrival. The journey is basically the same as living in an asteroid belt, just less interesting views and living off your stash. And of course once they get there they just need to find another field of useful matter and they’re home.
So- that’s it. That’s why I say intelligent life hates gravity. I think there’s good reason to think space faring aliens will trend towards living exclusively in space, and if they do that they’ll probably hang out in places with readily available matter, but little concentrated gravity, like an asteroid belt.
Unfortunately this is entirely useless. We’re just starting to reliably detect planets around other stars and that’s just to say they exist, a general size, and more-or-less where they are in the stars orbit, not even close to directly imaging them or anything. So it’s not like we can just start combing the areas between planets and expect to find some neat-o pod cities full of fraggles or something. As with most of my little points it’s unprovable, doesn’t change anything, and was ultimately just an excuse for me to babble about what I think about space stuff for a while, but I did that- so mission accomplished.
I formally propose that articulated eye stalks are the best structural for visual sensory organs. At least for land animals, and walking sea animals.
It’s a really good idea and I really wish humans had gone that route. I’m imaging a skinny trunk appendage with the housing for an eyeball. Take a chameleon’s eye, extrude it another 2”, give it several more degrees of freedom more like a short trunk, that’s the general idea. It’s a bit counterintuitive at first because there are cringe inducing severing hazards to having eye stalks. It’s hard to get past imagining going blind from the same mistakes that might otherwise only result in a pinched finger. It’s a bit like having a tail, there’s a heavy cost to maintaining the feature just due to it being so imminently breakable, so it better be worth it.
Increased fragility is the big drawback. That is a pretty big risk, but I think the advantages far outweigh it.
First off the most obvious. This is effectively a 360 degree binocular pan, tilt, zoom system, at a relatively low cost compared to having extremely large eyes or more than two. The motor coordination is more complex than eye movements necessary for just rotating skull locked eyes, but not overwhelmingly so. 6-10 extra degrees of freedom per eye seem manageable, though I have literally no basis for that other than it feels right enough. Though it would definitely demand much more of our visual cortex to process feeds from two independently moving eyes and variable fields of view. But a mammalian vision system modified to create stable, consistent images from two sensors with a wide range of independent motion would just be plain awesome.
The advantages are immense for anything that has to move in one direction while still monitoring other directions they’re not moving in for threats or resources. You have to sense the direction you’re moving in or you walk into or fall off stuff. Looking everywhere else is more optional, but the option of not looking is always risky.
The wide field of view might seem more advantageous for prey than predators, but moving stalks can change that 360 field to a narrow one with extremely accurate depth perception in an instant. And most predators are still prey themselves, often while they are predating, so being able to switch modes is pretty good for everyone.
I’d think there could be very unexpected benefits from correlating independently articulated moving eyes that we just wouldn’t even know about because no creature with anything near our brain structure has them. Maybe there is some useful environmental data that can be correlated by oscillating the interocular distance as the eyes pan. Or arranging the eyes vertically but upright in a top\bottom binocular configuration. I’m sure multi-camera vision processing algorithms would offer some interesting insight into the potentials of separate moving eyes, but I don’t know much about them.
For every advantage articulated eyestakes create, they introduce a dozen more potential failure modes. Besides the massively increased potential for blindness, there are probably some spectacularly weird ways for all that visual processing to go wrong.
So at this point it seems like eyestalks are objectively awesome, but still probably more trouble than they’re really worth. But that’s because we haven’t considered what you don’t need when you have eyestalks.
An appropriate eyestalk could effectively replace the necessity of necks. That’s huge. Necks are terrible, terrible structures. They are points of articulation that pass literally all the critical pathways of a body’s system. The fact that you have to move your head to move your field of view more than a few degrees just seems like one of evolution’s dumbest fails with horrific and far reaching consequences. Remove the necessity of an articulated neck to move your entire head, and those critical pathways can be stationary, much better protected, and far less failure prone. I’ll take the risks of blindness and crazy ocular disorders if I just don’t have to deal with this stupid, vulnerable, seemingly overarticulated but surprisingly limited, neck thing.
Stalks could provide a perfectly functional alternative to the entire face except the mouth. You can pop your audio organs on there and get all the advantages of binaural hearing, plus probably some really interesting signal processing potential from the independent positioning. I’m 50/50 on olfactory organs. Could put some on the stalks or not, might be better to keep those nearer the mouth though. Plus you put a nose on a stalk and it’s a trunk or an antenna. Eyestalks should be eyestalks.
And the identification and communication functions of a face could be done with sufficiently expressive articulation of the stalks. So now you don’t really even really need a head at all. You can pack your brain somewhere less precarious than the top or front. The best way to avoid head injury is to forego having a head.
You’ll need to find a place for a mouth, but there’s plenty of viable real estate. Could work those into a short, lip\trunk assembly or just an upper torso mounted sphincter with teeth that feeds straight to the stomach. Just having a head doesn’t necessitate breathing and eating through the same tube, that’s another nature fail. And you don’t really need to use the same air that interfaces directly with your blood to smell your environment, you could use some simpler independent bellow organ to move air over them. So it’s your choice if you do the one tube or two for breathing and eating. There’s probably some advantage in having fewer orifices to maintain though. In any case you just have a lot more options when none of the pathways have to pass through a stupidly articulated neck.
This all seems like a giant win for all land and sea bottom dwelling life. For fish and birds I’m not 100% sure all of this applies. Vision in general isn’t as effective in the water, so maximizing that sense may not be as effective as spending the energy elsewhere. And fish don’t really have vulnerable and complicated articulated necks, so there’s no gain there. Even aquatic mammals probably wouldn’t benefit much from the advantages of eyestalks. Unless if we considered the potential for articulated binocular sonar receivers, or even independent, directional ping generators and receivers, but today I’m talking about eyestalks. Also I keep mentioning walking sea creatures but I’m not sure why. Seems like walking shares the same features in either place, but the vision thing underwater works against it. I think I just included it because of stomatopods. They’re awesome and they have a lot of the features of the eyes I’m talking about, plus hyperspectral vision and other cool stuff, and somehow they’re so awesome I just think all sea creatures with legs should get an invite to the eyestalk party. Doesn’t have to make sense.
Birds, I just don’t think eyestalks would do much for them. They have the neck issue, but their neck articulation is pretty much 360 already, so they only gain real-time 360 vision and I’m not sure they even need that. They don’t really have as urgent a need to look in the direction they’re moving. If a bird in flight looks straight ahead and doesn’t see a barrier in the forward direction, it can look elsewhere for a reasonable amount of time without updating. Feet don’t really support a comparable autopilot feature. You can maybe close your eyes and walk across a salt flat or something similar, but most places on Earth you need to update your forward visual information pretty much constantly or something will remind you. Also seems like there’s a drag issue with eyestalks, there are workarounds but long protruding things just don’t seem conducive to graceful flight. Bats fall in the same category as birds, but they already look insane and their flight isn’t graceful at all so I’m thinking give bats eyestalks for the hell of it and see what happens.
So I think I’ve made a fair case for the awesomeness of eyestalks in general. But I’ve got a bomb to drop on nature if I could ever figure out how to drop it. That bomb is called retractable eye stalks. I think that would just break evolution entirely. You’d be unstoppable. Might be a little hygiene issue keeping your stalk cavities clean, but it’s a fair price to pay to keep your eyeballs attached.
Of course the real question is how much biological energy the eyestalks cost vs how much they save or help acquire. I have zero credibility to make that calculation, but I’m not making a calculation, I’m sort of rationalizing a hunch, which is more fun and pretty much all I’m capable of. So that’s my spiel about eyestalks.
42 is a number that means a lot to a lot of people, so I thought I’d say what it means to me. Most of the time when I say it, it just means I love the Hitchhiker series and I hope you are a fellow fan and we can identify by our common knowledge of the connection of 42 to classic sci-fi comedy. But I love the books and Douglas Adams work in general, partially because they gave me such an elegantly compact expression to sum up my understanding of the universe and humanity’s place in it.
In the Hitchhiker series, 42 is the answer generated by the unimaginably complex computer ‘Deep Thought’ to a vaguely proposed ultimate question about ‘life, the universe, and everything’. The answer, 42, was confusing and unsatisfying. So ‘Deep Thought’ was tasked with designing an even more unimaginably complex computer to finally phrase the question itself. Spoiler Alert: The computer it designed to phrase the question turned out to be Earth, and humans were processing units in its existential calculations.
So some of that’s just plain fun, and it seems about right for people to spend so much effort on an absolute solution to a question they haven’t bothered to understand. But I also gather it means that Doug understood that any answer can be calculated, but it takes a conscious mind to ask a question in a way that gives an answer any meaning to a conscious mind. I think it’s that much more impressive that Doug was thinking that before computation had come to dominate every aspect of our lives and we’d come to rely on and even have faith in answers to questions we don’t even bother to understand.
To me the significance of ‘42’ is that it represents the paradox of creation creating the meaning of creation.
42 was the painstakingly calculated answer to a question that had not really been asked yet. Likewise, I think the universe itself is the answer to questions that have not been asked yet. Earth, and hopefully a bunch of other planets, are the calculating machines formulating the questions to which the universe is the answer.
And because answers are meaningless without meaningful questions. Our questions give meaning to the answers we seek about the universe, and by extension maybe the universe itself. It’s all tied to the old idea that we’re the eyes and ears of the universe, or the universe trying to understand itself. For me 42 just focuses all the confusing, paradoxical meaning I’ve found about being a conscious being in the universe into an elegant, and humorous symbol that I can sometimes use to relate to other interesting humans. That said, it’s just a pop cultural reference now. For a while if you knew 42 had any special meaning at all it meant you’d probably read the books. Now it might just mean you have a reddit account.
While I’m taking the liberty to pontificate on Doug’s work I feel obligated to say thanks in general to Douglas Adams and credit his work as a critical inspiration. Never met him and don’t know him as a human being, but his work was very important in my life. It was just fun, and appreciation of his work is still a general identifier for thoughtful humans.
42 is by far the best known Douglas Adams reference and has a really deep storyline behind it. But there’s a more obscure one that I use as a header on the website.
“We apologize for the inconvenience.” In So Long and Thanks for all the Fish, Doug said this was God’s Final Message to His Creation, written in letters 30 feet high on some planet somewhere. I. Freaking. Love It.
It could have been a joke about people making up messages that purport to be divine, but I don’t think so, and that interpretation doesn’t inspire me much so I went the other way. I probably can’t do justice to how much this phrase and its origin resonates with me, but I’ll try.
First off it’s a humble message. Any entity or being I’d call a creator ‘God’ would be way more humble than religion tends to give it credit for. Humans give God and Gods all these anthropomorphic qualities but humility doesn’t seem to get included. I think a compassionate creator god would be humbled by his creation as much as he expected it to be humbled by him. So if there is anything like a God that does anything like ‘messages to creation’, it seems like this one could be genuine. So I’d accept the message, and the apology, though I’d still have a few questions.
I also like that he said ‘We’ apologize. I think ‘We’ is just a better pronoun for divinity than ‘I’. To me omniscience and omnipresence imply a plurality of mind that is nothing like the singular consciousness we experience that leads us to distinguish ourselves as ‘I’. I just don’t think God would choose that pronoun if it was self-translating to human language. Imagine a world where most humans had been taught that God chose to speak in the first person plural. “We Are” instead of “I Am”. I just feel like that alone would change a lot of basic cultural perceptions in dramatic ways.
Regardless how the universe came to be, if a conscious ‘creator’ had anything to do with it- I think “We apologize for the inconvenience” is the message they should send to other consciousnesses that bubble up in their creation. God’s creation may be ‘perfect’ in some transcendental sense, but he’s got to know it can sometimes suck really, really, bad to wake up as a cog in this grand machine without knowing anything about it. So seems like a responsible creator would go out of their way to clearly acknowledge that fact and 30 foot high letters seems like a decent effort.
Also If I wake up in an afterlife where I’m me and remember my life as me- “We apologize for the inconvenience” better damn well be the first thing I hear, followed by a comprehensive explanation of how the universe actually works and why it appeared so different while I was living in it.
As far as I can tell in a lot of ways the universe really is the elemental chaos that the existentially challenged are so terrified of. It just doesn’t bother me because I think we are or can make the meaning we’re so worried about elemental chaos not having, and we should do that instead of following myths that take energy from our efforts to continue surviving in the universe in ways that don’t suck. So I’ll be pretty goddamn put off if I die and it turns out the physical universe was apparently a big set up or illusion. If my physical body dies, but my consciousness and experience continues in some other realm, it implies a lot of deception or misperception that I’m not comfortable with. So if there’s anybody else around when I wake up that has anything to do with what’s going on, “We apologize for the inconvenience” better be the first thing they say to me or I’m just going to start throwing things.
Though all that said, I’ve read that Doug suggested the message written in those 30 foot letters was personalized for whoever saw it, and “We apologize for the inconvenience” was just what Marvin saw. So the fact that this resonates with me so well might just imply that in God’s eyes I’d be basically identical to an existentially crippled robot… that seems most right somehow.
There really isn’t anything that special about Earth except life.
If we imagine a visiting alien species, we can make some assumptions based entirely on the fact that they got here at all. We can assume they are capable of interstellar travel since it’s unlikely another space capable species is hiding in our solar system. That’s pretty impressive right there, and I’m assuming subluminal travel because FTL is sci-fi. The level of technological mastery necessary to move living beings between stars is as distant to us as Apollo was to an ape pondering birds in flight.
A species even capable of sending an interstellar probe has at least mastered propulsion and navigation that are only theoretical. If they come in person it implies a mastery of systems necessary to maintain their biological function in ways that we’re not even clear are possible for human beings. I think it’s safe to assume they would be so far beyond our technology that our grandest scales of engineering are a quaint curiosity.
So what might such a visiting species want?
Maybe resources? Presumably any technology will require resources, and those resources will consist of various forms of energy and matter. But there really aren’t any resources unique to Earth, or even the Sol system. There are no unique, raw energy or matter resources on Earth that couldn’t be acquired in most solar systems, and from places with less atmosphere and gravity.
The common sci-fi trope of liquid water is just hilariously absurd. It’s just not a hard molecule to find, change the phase of, or just make. Pulling water out of a gravitational well as deep as Earth is as efficient as hauling ice from the north pole to cool beer in Ecuador. Metals, radioactive material, even complex crystals created by intense geologic processes would be far more efficient to extract and synthesize from materials and processes available in lower gravity and less atmosphere for a species with interstellar technology. I think it’s safe to rule out any kind of physical resource as a motive for a visiting species to make the trip to our particular corner of space.
So maybe it’s not just resources, maybe it’s the real estate- Earth’s unique orbital or gravitational and\or atmospheric characteristics. Well I guess that’s not inconceivable, but it would imply the visiting species developed on a planet extremely similar to Earth and is looking to expand or relocate. Relocation scenarios seem far less likely than expansion for obvious reasons. But even that assumes the species expansion requires, or highly values planets like Earth for some reason. It also assumes carbon based, Earth analog life is relatively common in the universe, otherwise it’s extremely unlikely there would be another civilization nearby enough to take advantage. Or I guess it could imply it’s not common, but one particular carbon based Earth analog civilization beat us to becoming space faring conquerors. We can’t rule out that Earth is in a uniquely valuable spot, and thinking through plausible sounding scenarios of Earth’s value to aliens is fertile ground for sci-fi, but I think it’s built on way too many anthropic assumptions about the universe.
Also I really think species that expand beyond their planet of origin trend towards existence in lower gravity wells, but I’ll get into the reasoning for that another time.
Also- if they do want the planet, it’s theirs. That’s another great well for sci-fi, but there are no version of humans vs interstellar aliens that want Earth that doesn’t end with Earth having a new name we can’t pronounce, but it won’t matter because we won’t be around to pronounce it.
We like to make analogies to Columbus or other great Earth voyages and encounters between distant cultures, but those comparisons are ludicrously inadequate. The whole thing ignores that the Colombian Exchange was almost entirely cultural. From a biological perspective, not much happened. Continents traded a few species of plants and animals and it jostled a few ecosystems pretty hard, but there were humans on both continents before and after the exchange. It was just a migration. If another advanced species wanted the planet, they’d just selectively delete parts of or the entire Earth ecosystem. There will be no romantic resistance. They’ll just exterminate us from orbit. So we can just move on from that whole thing. It requires insane assumptions about alien circumstances and motivations for visiting, and if it happens it’ll be as inevitable and complete as getting wiped out by a rogue black hole or something.
So if it’s not the location, and it’s not the stuff, what’s left? Us, of course. ‘Us’ being everyone that lives on Earth and ‘everyone’, being every living thing. We’d probably like to think humans are the most interesting thing on the planet, and we do some notable things, but I’m not sure we’re interesting enough to justify the kind of effort needed for interstellar travel, especially not in person. We might be of interest to an alienthropolgist, but I don’t know what a species advanced enough to achieve interstellar travel would expect to learn from communicating directly with us. I’d assume they’d be satisfied with passive, remote observation to learn about human beings. And if they can survive or reliably maintain organization across the time necessary for interstellar travel they’re probably in no hurry to learn anything about us that would incentivize contact. So I’m thinking if humans are a subject of interest at all we only justify data collection, they’re not sending an envoy to welcome us to the universe and ask us how we’re enjoying consciousness.
The really interesting thing about ‘us’ is the rich complexity and potentially utility of self-assembling and reproducing biological structures that pervade the environment of Earth.
Earth has been running a kind of a brute force molecular algorithm for a few billion years now. The output of that process is life, and it’s a pretty impressive collection of data about how matter works, or how to make matter work. Analyzing life may be a highly efficient way to gain information about available molecular interactions. Maybe Earth is an alien bioengineering data goldmine.
A species capable of interstellar flight would very likely have extensive computational technology. They may have mastered quantum computing, or created neural networks that defy our understanding of machine intelligence. But their computation will be limited by the same kinds of hard physical limits that limit their velocity through space. They will not have infinite computational capacity. Even with our most optimistic visions of quantum computing, if you want to fully simulate the universe, you’d still need at least one qubit for every particle in the universe. Of course there’s a lot of redundancy there, so maybe an optimization process could find more with less, but against the infinite possibilities of the universe, anything less than infinite computation may be woefully inadequate. And of course even with extremely fast computation, you still need time.
I’m not sure how to even build a model to speculate on the computations necessary to fully simulate a biological system as ancient or complex as Earth. If a species has an interest in knowing every possible useful molecular interaction, it may be simpler and more efficient to venture out to find new and novel examples of functional molecular interaction in the vastness of space than build and run the simulations necessary to uncover every possible interaction.
Matter itself may be the most efficient computational system to simulate the interaction of matter. If this is the case even advanced alien civilizations may find value in studying the output of long running processes of interaction such as evolution.
So- if an alien ever abducts you and probes your butt- don’t take it personally. They’re probably more interested in your gut flora than you.
Clarke’s Third Law: Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.
This is a succinct statement of a concept I consider very important to understanding human being’s relationship to technology. I think a good demonstration of the meaning is that a bic lighter would be indistinguishable from magic to a caveman, or a member of an uncontacted tribe, or to some degree an infant. It’s a poetic description of the consequences of the inability to connect the technological function of an object to its human sources of knowledge and materials.
I’m not extensively educated in industrial processes but I can do a fair job of explaining the origin of every material and functional property of a bic lighter. There’s no element of it that represents mystery and given enough time I can at least summarize the supply chains and scientific principles necessary to explain the function and existence of a lighter. More advanced technology such as a smart phone or a rocket engine are a greater stretch to bring back to human sources, but I am confident I have the tools to trace them back. A caveman has nothing resembling the knowledge necessary to make those connections even for common technologies we take for granted. Clarke’s third law is a great description of how humans perceive this disconnection.
Unfortunately, Clarke’s third law has been inverted to justify sci-fi premises that would otherwise be fantasy. And worse, it is sometimes used to predict technological solutions to any problem a human can imagine having a solution to.
Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic does not mean that any conceivable magic is achievable through sufficiently advanced technology.
Technology, under certain conditions, is indistinguishable from magic, but that does not necessarily imply that ‘magic’ is indistinguishable from technology. Science and technology are constrained by the possible, and even further by the provable. Magic is as unconstrained as the human imagination.
The human mind is a fantastically conflicted place, but it is extremely robust in functioning despite logical conflict. The mind can effortlessly hold paradoxical concepts together in ways that make no material sense. I can ‘imagine’ a round square, or a circle with four sides. Though I’m not sure if there’s any visual imagination to those conjurings. I’m really just stringing together meaning from words, but there is no alarm or discomfort from mentally combining such incompatible ideas. If anything it can be somewhat rewarding due to novelty and occasionally generate genuine insight. So humans are pretty adept at combining concepts in absurd ways.
I know that ‘darkness’ is not really a property in itself, but an absence of light. Even knowing this I have no problem conceptualizing a ‘dark light’ that casts darkness in the exact same way that light shines. I can imagine it as brightening occluded areas, or darkening them, despite having no physical explanation for doing either. It doesn’t matter that it is complete nonsense in reality. My mind doesn’t require concepts to be materially compatible at all to create rich interactions that seem perfectly compatible with reality.
A dark light is ‘magic’ in a conceptual sense, not just technological. There is no conceivable technology that could make the absence of a thing behave as if it were the conceptual opposite, it’s just nonsense. But that doesn’t stop us from considering ‘dark light’ a potential ‘sci-fi’ concept.
I think time travel is the most interesting example of this. We understand we experience time as moving forward in a sequence, and we understand that sequences of things can be reversed. So in our minds there is no conceptual limitation to reversing time and we just naturally start filling in the blanks of what ‘reversing time’ would look like to a human experience, occasionally adding elements from interpretations of emerging theories such as alternate timelines or causal loops.
But the universe is under no obligation to expand to meet our conceptual potential. The passage of time may be an emergent property of the geometry of space-time and entropy of deterministic laws. Reversing it in a way that we could ‘travel’ through may be as nonsensical as ‘shining dark light’. There is no technology, science, or any other speculative study that would lead one to believe humans can ever use advanced technology to create a ‘dark light’, and I’d argue the same is true for time travel, there are just more people interested in arguing about it so it looks like a more compelling field of ideas.
Of course I can also ‘imagine’ a scenario where my future self shows up in a time machine with a dark light and shuts me right up. However, that’s another example of the same lack of constraint that allowed me to imagine the dark light in the first place.
We can clearly apply the indistinguishability of magic and technology to a less advanced observer’s perspective of technology we understand. But we can only imagine technologies so advanced that we might struggle to understand their human sources in a way that could make them appear as ‘magical’ to us as a lighter would to a caveman.
For something to appear truly ‘magical’, it must be so far beyond the observer’s context of understanding, that they cannot identify it as human technology. That’s an extremely subjective measure, and I could argue that it’s actually unattainable without a pre-existing belief in magic. Maybe even some very ancient individuals were so doggedly rational that once they saw something was possible, they would immediately understand it had to have been made possible by humans by virtue of its existence. Maybe if Plato saw a cell phone or a rocket he would simply be impressed with human progress. And some modern humans can hold demonstrably false beliefs about the Earth being flat while using technologies that would have to be ‘magic’ if it were.
So we have to take Clarke’s law as a very loose approximation even when analyzing the observer’s perspective of known technology. But it loses all relevance when we use it to predict technology based on our current perspective.
There are no relevant examples of anyone we consider ‘modern’ encountering inexplicably advanced technology, so even imagining ourselves in the position of observing ‘magic’ requires us to conceive of technologies that we not only don’t understand, but currently consider impossible.
To impress a modern, educated human with ‘magic’, you’d need to literally bring someone back from the dead, or something else that’s never been done and been proven to be impossible. And then you run into the Plato problem- maybe once they’ve seen it- they’ll assume there’s an explanation and the previous assumptions of impossibility were mistaken.
So there’s really nothing usefully invertible or reversible about Clarke’s law. It’s not a predictive law. It can only be applied retroactively to explain the perception of known technology as ‘magic’ to others, it cannot be used to predict the potential of any new technology or how we might perceive it. Basically it’s as meaningful as ‘yet’ in an argument over inconvenient explanations of why humans just can’t do some things.
So am I saying sci-fi is too unrealistic and all sci-fi should be hard sci-fi? Sort of, but not really- I still want my warp drive and teleporters and other stuff that goes against the whole point of this post. It is what it is. I’m satisfied that ‘sci-fi’ has become synonymous with ‘space-fantasy’ even in more respectable science fiction. Good ‘hard’ sci-fi is just always going to be rare. But it would be nice if the starting conversation for sci-fi was “what’s the most we could do with what we can do?” rather than “what’s the most we could do with no limits?”
So am I saying stop pushing the boundaries of science because they’re boundaries and it’s a waste of time- of course not, but I know that’s what some people hear when I talk like this. Those are generally the ‘I believe in science’ characters who see any objection to blind belief as resistance. But in some ways I envy people who can somehow believe that Maxwell’s Demon is just a description of a future technology. Must be hopeful. I guess I’d just like people to do a better job of distinguishing theoretical impossibility from practical impossibility, or at least stop dragging Clarke’s law into it.