Friday, January 18, 2008

Also linked to from Harry's Place - In the Guardian, David Cox writes:


ET stay home

We should resist the efforts of Russian scientists to contact aliens who could threaten our very existence

...Not long ago, the idea that an extraterrestrial civilisation might threaten us would have been dismissed as far-fetched. No longer. Recent simulations of known extrasolar planetary systems have found that about half of them could be expected to harbour an earth-like world. There's no reason to suppose that intelligent life hasn't evolved on some of these planets as it has on earth, and there's every reason to guess that some of the lifeforms involved would by now be far more developed than our own.

As long ago as the 1970s, Sir Martin Ryle, the then Astronomer Royal, warned that "any creatures out there" might be "malevolent or hungry". The late Ronald Bracewell, a Stanford University astronomer, argued that alien creatures would be likely to be both cunning and well armed. Another influential astronomer, Zdenek Kopal, told a British colleague: "Should we ever hear the space-phone ringing, for God's sake let's not answer. We must avoid attracting attention to ourselves."

David Cox is a writer, producer, and (apparently) a total nutter. There's a lot of that going around in media these days.

Fortunately, Iowahawk is investigating the problem.


The idea that we can do anything at this point to mask our presence when we've been broadcasting into space for decades now is rather silly, as is the idea that we can stop it.

But...he's not all nuts.

I remember seeing a presentation by a panel of physicists years ago that discussed this very thing and it is something to be concerned about -- if you believe "they are out there". I do believe it's likely there is other life out there (no, I don't believe that any of the ufo stories are convincing at all...I am a hard skeptic on that).

The fact is that, contrary to Star Wars, planets with life on them are rather easy to destroy. A theoretical space craft...not very big...traveling at some velocity that's a significant (I forget how significant -- probably not that much) percentage of c, would strike the earth (no extra explosive load needed, just the mass of the spacecraft) with sufficient energy to scrub the biosphere right off it. And due to the distances involved, relativity effects, and our own technology...even a highly advanced technology would find it impossible to do a damn thing about it.

The game goes like this: Two races meet in space, first to locate the other's home world wins. There's absolutely nothing that says a technologically advanced civilization has to be an equally enlightened and "humanitarian" (and risk taking) one. On the contrary, it may be that in the social Darwinism of space, the most ruthless will be the one that's left, and that's who we'll meet. The stakes are too huge to take risks. Once the missile launches, it's all over.

Who knows, maybe they've got spacecraft/missiles out there prowling the universe on autopilot, sensors up, looking for intelligent life and ready to home in. No sense in taking any chances...

Well, Stephen Hawking said "Mankind will need to venture far beyond planet Earth to ensure the long-term survival of our species"

"The long-term survival of the human race is at risk as long as it is confined to a single planet," he said. "Sooner or later, disasters such as an asteroid collision or nuclear war could wipe us all out. But once we spread out into space and establish independent colonies, our future should be safe...

.."If we used chemical fuel rockets like the Apollo mission to the moon, the journey to the nearest star would take 50,000 years. This is obviously far too long to be practical, so science fiction has developed the idea of warp drive, which takes you instantly to your destination. Unfortunately, this would violate the scientific law which says that nothing can travel faster than light.

"However, we can still within the law, by using matter/antimatter annihilation, and reach speeds just below the speed of light. With that, it would be possible to reach the next star in about six years, though it wouldn't seem so long for those on board."

The science fiction series Star Trek has used matter/antimatter annihilation as an explanation for the warp drive. But, in reality, he said that scientists believe that the flash of radiation produced when matter and antimatter are brought together and destroy one another could in fact one day be used to drive craft to close to the speed of light.

And anyway, what's the point of a future without space exploration?

As you noted, we're already sending out radio signals. Once we start with this stuff, there's no going back. We're kind of sitting ducks right now, and that should change. To venture beyond earth, we need to learn more about what's out there, and the SETI program is part of that.

Unlike Hawking, Cox doesn't know anything about the properties of antimatter or lightspeed, yet he's trying to drum up weird fears about SETI and science. I think he's mostly nuts, but at least (unlike the journalists in Iowahawk's post) he's not violent..

Oh, I agree completely that we need to explore. In the high-stakes scenario I lay out, the only effective mode of self defense is to spread out. In Hawking's annihilation scenario, he leaves out "Someone else finds us and builds an interplanetary bypass through us."

According to the piece, Cox isn't against SETI, which is just listening after all, he's against actively broadcasting, which is at least a rational concern. I don't know the science well enough to know how such broadcasts differ from the energy we've already been outputting (though I could take some guesses). I'm sure they're designed to be even more detectable in some way.

Well, one thing's for sure, the more we broadcast, the more we better get ready to get out of the way if anything comes back down the pipe at us. So it's all just a good argument to push for more exploration.

In Hawking's annihilation scenario, he leaves out "Someone else finds us and builds an interplanetary bypass through us."

True, but if there are any beings sophisticated enough to build that bypass, they probably would have done it a long time ago. Maybe nobody wants to come to these backwaters in the unfashionable end of the western spiral arm of the Galaxy

We should immediately attack and annihilate any alien scum attempting to contact us.

It's the Precautionary Principle. How do we know they're "harmless" until we dissect them right down to their DNA-equivalent molecules?

How do we know they're "harmless" until we dissect them right down to their DNA-equivalent molecules?

They may not even have DNA..

Yea, but what do all the probabilities, calculations, etc. tell us about their women? I.e., somewhere close to 100% of this is, me thinks, psychological and sociological projection.

And (if you'll pardon this excursus) such thoughts as this: "As long ago as the 1970s, Sir Martin Ryle, the then Astronomer Royal, warned that "any creatures out there" might be "malevolent or hungry". The late Ronald Bracewell, a Stanford University astronomer, argued that alien creatures would be likely to be both cunning and well armed. Another influential astronomer, Zdenek Kopal, told a British colleague: 'Should we ever hear the space-phone ringing, for God's sake let's not answer. We must avoid attracting attention to ourselves.'" have always struck me as entirely reasonable and rational - given the calculations and probabilities framed by various theoreticians, scientists, etc. (E.g., M-theory - or string theory - somehow projects the feasibility of 10³°° possible universes***. So if numbers like that can be considered, or even imagined - and M-theory purports to be mathematically based, including some abstruse calculations by astrophysicists - then why wouldn't, quite literally, any scenario be imaginable from that construal of a "realistic" and "rational" point of view?)

*** Yes, that's 10³°° and that's universes, not galaxies or even stars. To get an idea as to how large that number is, a googol is a term used to represent 10¹°° and there are fewer than one googol atoms in the universe.

As psychological and sociological projection and what it reflects about our late modern era though, this strikes me as perhaps an interesting subject, if in speculative terms only. We live in a pronounced ideological age, also one given to fabulist and fantasist "excursions," even when it comes to historic events (e.g., 9/11 truthers), so perhaps these psychological and sociological projections represent a particular and telling example of those unmoored proclivities.

Again, pardon this excursus, I take none of it too seriously. But the psychological and sociological projections that may well be reflected in much of this has provided some speculative amusement and there is, in a kind of obverse sense, a more serious thread running through those amusements.

If the possibilities are so varied out there, the statement 'Should we ever hear the space-phone ringing, for God's sake let's not answer. We must avoid attracting attention to ourselves.'" becomes even more ridiculous.

It doesn't matter if the space phone is ringing - the probability is already high that someone, somewhere in those 10³°° universes already knows we're here. We've probably been on the equivalent of their Tom tom for eons. They don't care if we answer or not.

The Russian experiment is interesting, not because of the possible reactions of "aliens" who are more likely to resemble phosphorous-nitrogen seaweed than Star Trek space babes, but because they're testing a system of transmitting data. We haven't made great strides in actual space travel (where are our flying cars!) but we have made significant progress in methods of storing and transmitting data.

According to a recent article in Newsweek (which may or may not be reliable), computers are able to crunch enough numbers to sort of read minds. A computers ability to read that kind of data implies that we may someday be able to download ideas and concepts onto a remote database in the same way we blog, without the annoyance of typing.

We've also made a lot of progress in the field of biomimetics (bionics). We're heading towards the point where we will be able to replace most parts of the human body, either through artificial implants or cloning.

With the right combinations of all the above technologies, annoying problems in space and time travel become solvable. It will probably take us centuries to be able to create an artificial intelligence that can think or emote the way we do, but the ability to copy and download our existing consciousness from one storage unit to another could be do-able by the end of this century.

So, if we wanted to travel from point A to point B, instead of moving our delicate, high maintenance bodies, we could just transmit the data from one bio-storage unit to another, from body A on earth to body B on mars.

Or even from body A in 2145 AD to body B in 2147. If we see space and time travel as the transmission of data/consciousness, rather than as the transportation of bodies, all sorts of possibilities open up. Transmitting data through space is easier than transmitting cumbersome bodies, and it's likely that data could be transmitted through time as well. While data/consciousness couldn't travel faster than the speed of light, it's more likely to be able to travel (and survive the trip) through "warped" space-times, wormholes or simulated superluminal travel through a timespace curved by something like gravitation.

Anyway, that's one reason why I think the Russian radio transmission experiment is good, and fairly harmless. But I just posted the Guardian article because I thought Cox was a hoot.

Yes, mine was coffee table banter only; it's an amusing subject and a perfectly sound and reasonable post. I think the Russian experiment is fine. Unless, of course, they've attempted to insult the Borg or some Klingons in their transmissions. I'd have a problem with that, obviously.

You'd have to work pretty hard to insult a Borg or a Klingon. They're not easily offended. But we do want to make a good impression on the Vulcans.

"Syme: It's a beautiful thing, the destruction of words. You wouldn't have seen the [Newspeak] Dictionary 10th edition, would you Smith? It's that thick. [illustrates thickness with fingers] The 11th Edition will be that [narrows fingers] thick. Winston Smith: So, The Revolution will be complete when the language is perfect? Syme: The secret is to move from translation, to direct thought, to automatic response. No need for self-discipline. Language coming from here [the larynx], not from here [the brain]" -1984 (film)


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