Tuesday, August 04, 2015

Earth: The lonely guy of the universe

There's something pathetic about our frantic quest for extra-terrestrial life and the whining question, "Are we all alone?"

It goes back to a lunch in 1950 in Los Alamos, N.M., the birthplace of the atomic bomb. The subject was flying saucers and interstellar travel. The physicist Enrico Fermi blurted out a question that has become famous among astronomers: “Where is everybody?” The fact that there was no evidence outside supermarket tabloids that aliens had ever visited Earth convinced Fermi that interstellar travel was impossible. It would simply take too long to get anywhere.

Exactly. Check out the NASA graphic below on the New Horizons spacecraft:

Traveling at 51,000 miles an hour it took more than nine years to get to the edge of our solar system! A great technical feat, but to what end?

When I read about how excited the folks are who are involved in this sort of enterprise, I think, "Sure, it's their field, it's how they make a living." But I also wonder how they get all that money from Congress for these projects, which only seem to end up with some fun Nova documentaries that feature pictures of one dead planet after another. But maybe there's life below the surface! Send another spacecraft to dig up some soil samples!

Nick Bostrom, whose ideas are featured in the Times story, wrote an amusing paper on this subject:

Now, it is possible to concoct scenarios in which the universe is swarming with advanced civilizations every one of which chooses to keep itself well hidden from our view. Maybe there is a secret society of advanced civilizations that know about us but have decided not to contact us until we’re mature enough to be admitted into their club. Perhaps they’re observing us, like animals in a zoo. I don’t see how we can conclusively rule out this possibility.

That's what I've often thought---that flying saucers are manned by alien grad students doing field work on this primitive planet with its amusing inhabitants. The students are warned not to do any harm to the planet or its inhabitants, though they can abduct us and stick probes up our butts, all in the interests of alien science, you understand.

But Bostrom is a serious guy, so he isn't interested in that kind of speculation. Instead, he discusses what he calls The Great Filter---whatever it is that prevents intelligent life from evolving on other planets, considering the long and unlikely evolution of our own species. Is it behind us or before us? If The Great Filter is still before us---climate change, epidemics, a meteor?---the human experiment is in peril.