Perihelion Science Fiction

Sam Bellotto Jr.

Eric M. Jones
Contributing Editor



Originally published in Perihelion Science Fiction. Free science fiction stories, science articles, comic strips, reviews, and more, on the Internet. Every month, Perihelion presents solid stories with strong plots, intriguing characters, with a sense of wonder reminiscent of the classic science fiction pulp magazines from the ’60s and ’70s. Artwork is by award winning illustrators. Articles are by experts in their fields. Established in 1967, originally as a print magazine, by Sam Bellotto Jr. and Eric M. Jones, the magazine was revisioned in 2012 as an online publication, and has been published regularly every month since. For the best in entertainment and information, bookmark Perihelion on your favorites list.


Regarding Fermi’s Paradox

By Eric M. Jones

IF THERE ARE INTELLIGENT EXTRATERRESTRIAL Civilizations in our galaxy (we’ll just call them “aliens”), they should be—on average—millions of years more advanced than we Earthlings. Our galaxy was already seven billion years old when Earth came along. Aliens should be here by now because only a million years should be required to colonize the entire galaxy, even at speeds much slower than light. Fermi’s Paradox is a terse summary of this puzzling problem tossed off by the great physicist Enrico Fermi, who said simply, “So where are they?”

Sir James Hopwood Jeans (1877-1946), English physicist and mathematician, was the first to incorrectly propose that matter is continuously created throughout the universe. He came up with the startling comparison that “There are more stars in the universe than grains of sand on all the beaches on Earth.”

He was wrong about that, too. There are far more stars ... around 4×1022. The square root of that number is about the same as both stars in our galaxy and the number of galaxies in the universe, 2×1011; more or less, 200 billion each. So the suspicion that life must exist beyond the Earth is tremendously strong amongst people who muse about these things, or for anyone viewing the Milky Way; on a clear night sky far from city lights and overcast. How could it be that we Earthlings are the sole tenants of this celestial abundance? Why haven’t we had conclusive proof of any other inhabitants? Why has there been no convincing contact from aliens?

Because humans are incapable of viewing an unfiltered reality; here are some of my assumptions and prejudices regarding the issue, and cosmology in general:

• Axiomatically, we don’t live in a simulacrum, or a giant computer program like in “The Matrix.”

• Aliens will never travel through black holes or wormholes, through time, into other dimensions, or faster than light.

• “Natural” stuff exists. The “supernatural” does not exist. That’s why it’s called “supernatural.” If you believe Jove did it, all bets are off.

• The 0, 1, 2, 3, Kardashev Civilization Scale, that rates alien civilizations by how much energy—from a whole planet, to a star, to a galaxy—they can control; is just plain Sesame Street silliness.

• Dyson Spheres, which are hypothetical structures built around a civilization’s parent star, don’t exist and cannot be built. Those who think otherwise are missing a few college classes in their understanding of physics and engineering.

• The “Wow” signal, a strong narrowband radio signal detected by Jerry R. Ehman on August 15, 1977 while he was working on a SETI project at the Big Ear radio telescope of Ohio State University, was experimental error and is here ignored.

• Science Philosopher Karl Popper coined the term “falsifiable” to validate if hypotheses are scientific and not just bloviations. This makes my head hurt. He simply meant “testable” ... Jerks!

• I consider our Milky Way galaxy as being the only one of interest regarding questions of aliens, travel, etc.

• I remain unconvinced that a large moon is important in the evolution of life on a planet. If Earth had no moon, it would be different, but not lifeless.

• Frank Drake’s famous equation is often examined in inquiries of this sort to put some numbers on the likelihood of aliens. I don’t see any particular value to it, since it leads to estimates of “N” (the number of aliens in our galaxy) with error bars of many orders of magnitude. Drake never proposed his equation as anything more than a neat mathematical contemplation to spark interest in the question. So be it.

• Some might point to ghosts, UFOs, crop circles, lights in the sky, swamp gas, blurry photos and even the new book on the subject (“UFOs: Generals, Pilots, and Government Officials Go on the Record” by Leslie Kean), as some sort of proof, but basically there is an apparent failure of such aliens to communicate or interact with us.

• I consider self-replicating interstellar probes so unlikely as to be impossible. There is no example of actual mechanical self-replication and there are good economic reasons to assume they are impossible.

“So then, where are they?”

There are many perfectly good answers to Fermi’s Paradox, which proposes that aliens should be here already if any were in our galaxy—some pedestrian and some quite novel. My guess is that the real reason has not yet been discovered or is a mixture of several factors. Either there are, or are not, aliens in our galaxy.

If there are aliens, we really aren’t aware of them. So why?

The Zoo Quarantine. Like Star Trek’s “Prime Directive,” the rule book of aliens doesn’t allow contacting developing cultures until they can achieve “warp speed” ... or something like that.

They are very thinly spread out, either in space or in time or both. (I demonstrated this solution in an article about how to understand large numbers, “Zeros ... All Those Zeros!,” 12-NOV-2012.) Let’s assume there are 15,000,000,000 (15 billion) intelligent extraterrestrial civilizations in the observable universe. Let’s define “intelligent” as aliens capable of sending us any kind of a signal. Thus, fewer than one-in-ten galaxies have even one alien civilization, and the chance of Earthlings ever detecting one is probably hopeless. Or stated another way, and if these numbers are reasonable: there is about a 10:1 probability that we are the lone intelligent civilization in our galaxy.

Aliens hide from aggressive roving imperialist bands which have had millions of years to tear through the galaxy ... harvesting anything they want. Thus the Great Radio Silence.

Ray Kurzweil’s rapidly approaching Singularity predicts that machines will effectively take over in, ohhhh ... 25 years from now. Maybe this is the common alien fate because machines have no curiosity and have no reason to evolve any.

Fear and loathing. There are lots of places on Earth you wouldn’t want to travel to (says the U.S. State Department): Algeria, Afghanistan, Egypt, Haiti, El Salvador, Pakistan, Yemen, Saudi Arabia, Mali, Niger, Mexico, Philippines, Kenya, Somalia, Israel, the West Bank and Gaza, Honduras, Chad, Libya, Nigeria, Iran, Mauritania, Cote d’Ivoire, Eritrea, Congo, Burundi, Sudan, Colombia, Lebanon, South Sudan, North Korea, Guinea, Tunisia, Syria, Iraq. I am not sure the so-called “civilized” places would be any better for aliens to land, either.

Conspiracy. The Government is hiding them from us. There was a time when stating, “The Government says ...”, would win any bar bet. Now ... not so much! Pass the tinfoil hats, please.

Radio silence. Or maybe we can’t read the signals. A century ago we had plans to wiggle mirrors at Mars. Now omnidirectional radio broadcasting is dying. In the early days of radio, transmitters were often quasi-omnidirectional and extremely powerful—the Mexican Border Blaster stations were 500 kilowatts—huge compared to any modern commercial transmitter. The coming of international agreements reduced stations’ power, and the coming of satellite downlink transmissions fermi and fiber optics reduced them further. There are good reasons to believe that the power of transmitters will continue to decline. Ideally, almost all stations will be microwatts or less and crypto-random spread spectrum as well. Aliens searching the skies will find that detecting Earth’s transmissions is becoming increasingly problematic. Their transmissions might have become unavailable to us many centuries ago.

Radio and TV technologies have not stood still over the years. For decades we have had advanced radios that simply suck signals out of the air, receive nearly everything and use a computer to read the wiggly bits, with software to decode and display it. Now “Cognitive Radios” survey the local electromagnetic environment and send and receive messages by whatever receivers and transmitters are available to it. They are programmed to decide what course of action to take. They won’t read or send on military or police bands, for example. If the transmission or reception is a short distance away, they’ll go direct at low power. Think you can pick up any of these sophisticated schemes? How about a hundred years from now? Any advanced communication is probably indistinguishable from noise, and none of it will be omnidirectional or non-encoded, or powerful.

Completely new non-electromagnetic-spectrum communication is possible too. Perhaps some weird species of the “Standard Model” could be used, or perhaps some as-yet-unnamed field disturbance or some quantum coherence method will be found—already full of alien chatter and alien internet websites.

Aliens are stay-at-homes. What reason might an advanced technical civilization have that would squash its desire to explore space and colonize other planets? There are hundreds of possibilities, each of which might make a good science fiction story.

• The aliens might solve population pressures and all its political problems by periodically wiping out 99 percent of their population. Remember that the usual state of humans is filthy breeders in squalid huts and shacks surrounding magnificent castles. Wiping out most of us serfs might have beneficial effects for our own coming New World Order (as would pouring more concrete in NYC by an additional five stories), but it would reduce the industrial infrastructure needed to launch interstellar missions or pursue SETI projects.

• Civilizations might deteriorate into a drug-using, semi-utopian paradise, or alternatively some brain connection, computer simulation, etc., where the bulk of the population lives in a virtual fantasy. Kids playing “World of Warcraft” while smoking you-know-what seem headed in that direction.

• Larry Niven's “Known Space” stories introduced Louis Wu as the sole rehabilitated “Wirehead,” a person who has been fitted with a ceaseless-pleasure brain implant. Wireheads usually die from starvation and personal neglect. This does not seem so odd. Nor does it seem preventable. When brain stimulation advances a few decades, this might become common.

• Eventually, it will be discovered that the RNA molecule, common to all life on Earth, was evolved on Earth and is uniquely tailored only to Earthlings. For instance, if we went to another planet, all life on that planet, having some totally different protein coding chemistry and genetic-code information passing, would treat us merely as something to eat (at best), and we could eat nothing on that planet unless we grew it ourselves from sterilized ingredients ... which could quickly destroy all living things on that planet unless we stayed wrapped in a bubble. The most likely places for life, therefore, are the hellish places we should never go—a conundrum for which it is hard to see a solution. This would make staying home the only practical choice.

Aliens are standing back waiting for Earthlings to resolve their insane religious shenanigans and international disputes, often based on religions. Alien species could tolerate a tiny bit of supernatural gobbledygook and some degree of harmless illogic, but billions of people who are ready to fight for crazy religions ... “We’ll be back when you stop this madness.” Remember that the Mexican Border Blaster stations ran Christian Fundamentalists endlessly ... along with Wolfman Jack. If the aliens heard any electromagnetic signals, those were them.

Interstellar travel is impossibly expensive, especially compared to robot missions. Humans have launched a couple of interstellar robotic missions almost by default—the Voyager spacecraft—and are likely to launch more. There doesn’t seem to be any compelling reason to send delicate organic beings to a distant solar system. (Although setting up a human colony on Mars has merit.) Sending advanced robots to explore the cosmos and report back home is the only sensible plan. These robots needn’t be very big, and there are lots of places to hide them.

Yes, we are alone.

If there aren’t aliens in the galaxy, what is the Great Filter? Something must prevent aliens from evolving or quickly extinguish them. Perhaps we live in a brief wink of existing, or perhaps we are the first, or one of the rare lucky ones to somehow avoid it. There are several possibilities.

Robin D. Hanson, an associate professor of economics at George Mason University and a research associate at the Future of Humanity Institute of Oxford University, invented the term “The Great Filter” and proposed a partial list of some critical steps a successful civilization must pass through to become Fermi’s galaxy-colonizing civilization.

• The right star system (including organics and potentially habitable planets).

• Reproductive molecules (e.g., RNA).

• Simple single-cell life (prokaryotic organisms whose cells lack a nucleus).

• Complex single-cell life (eukaryotic: cells with a nucleus and DNA).

• Multi-cell life.

• Sexual reproduction (necessary for evolution).

• Tool-using animals with big brains.

• Where we are now.

• Colonization of space.

The Great Filter theory contains the possibility that humans have already conquered the past threat of extinction, but it's easy to be pessimistic considering humanity’s future. And at best we have to wonder if aliens can last forever, perhaps even longer than the universe in some non-corporeal wisp? It’s hardly likely; civilizations probably reach some natural boundaries.

We might be the first galactic intelligent civilization, or even the first life. Someone has to be.

Perhaps Earth is really in a special place that has some unique characteristic—yet to be discovered—that allows life to exist? Perhaps Earth is in a random bubble lacking Dark Energy or Dark Matter. This would explain why there seems to be no observable life besides on Earth, and we also can’t detect Dark Energy or Dark Matter. The Copernican Principle is the axiom stating that the Earth has no special place in the universe. This idea is similar to Newton’s #3 Rule of Reasoning from the Principia: “Qualities of bodies, which are found to belong to all bodies within experiments, are to be esteemed universal.” But these are just axiomatic rules to make sense of what we observe and reduce the silliness in science. It doesn’t have to be a universal truth. Even if it is unlikely, the large percentage of as-yet-undetectable stuff and the possibilities of new discoveries gives one pause ...

Intelligence itself leads to the Great Filter. In order to be truly evil, one has to be smart. Limited intelligence brings with it a need to get along with others in the group. Real evil requires intelligence and the ability to use that intelligence. Many times, that has the unavoidable consequence of aggressive and destructive behavior. (Wouldn’t it therefore be in humanity’s best interest to reserve the most severe punishments for crimes that only smart people can do?)

The Observer Effect. This interpretation of quantum mechanics says that things don’t really exist, or exist in an indeterminate state until they are observed. It might be too extreme. As Einstein said, “I like to think the Moon is there, even when I am not looking at it.” But let’s assume there is something to the idea. The observer effect might make a neat solution to cosmic loneliness. Maybe when the universe was formed, there evolved only one observer (humans) and one thing to be observed (the universe). All that stuff in the Hubble Deep Field photo wasn’t really there before we observed it. But would this mean aliens don’t exist? It might mean that only life that has no quantum connection to consciousness exists. Intelligent life might require a quantum mechanical link. Perhaps human and some Earth life, like dogs and cats and mice, have a quantum mechanical connection. Nothing else in the universe has this connection.

In this case, we don’t actually have to explore the entire universe for aliens at all. We have only to figure out the nature of quantum mechanical consciousness ... and that seems to be happening.

Civilizations destroy themselves periodically. In 1940, very few people knew how to destroy the bulk of humanity by nuclear weapons. By 1960, thousands did. By 1980, tens of thousands were capable, if they could find the material. As time went on, there arose biological weapons and several other truly destructive methods, which are in fact more effective and easier to use.

So as knowledge of terrible weapons increases in a population, the likelihood that the intelligent life on any planet can be destroyed increases. The several close calls with nuclear weapons in the US-Soviet Cold War is a cautionary tale. Dystopian visions abound in movies and TV, and even if some people survive a catastrophe, what we call civilization might collapse. History shows many collapses of large civilizations. This will probably happen again and again.

Additional notes. 

Why might intelligent creatures never evolve to become an advanced technological civilization? Maybe there is life throughout the galaxy, but they are just fish and cows.

Perhaps reading by making sense of symbolic squiggles on paper is more important than we think. Perhaps recognizing fonts, reading, is a side effect of the characteristic adaptation of tree-evolved creatures who needed to be able to find their own tree? Something about the shapes might be important to human brains but perhaps no other alien brains. Perhaps reading is magic beyond the capabilities of other celestial creatures. So were trees critical to evolving intelligence too?

Dolphins and octopuses are good analogues for studying intelligence and guessing how alien brains and motivations might be different from ours. Both are intelligent and have advanced skills you and I will never possess, but communicating with them is almost impossible, and we have no idea what they’re pondering.

Birds have advanced brain capabilities. When they are getting ready to migrate, their brains enlarge the navigation parts and shrink the social, mating, nest-building and food-finding parts. Bird brains are reconfigurable ... a really neat trick. Human brains are reconfigurable too, but to a much lesser degree and this ability declines with age.

So if aliens exist, where are they ... and if aliens don’t exist, why? This most interesting of scientific questions remains a conundrum. The universe is vast, and humanity has only made the briefest splash into the cosmic ocean. Unlike many other scientific problems, your well-thought-out answer to Fermi’s Paradox is probably as good as anyone’s. END

Eric M. Jones is the Contributing Editor of “Perihelion.” He is an engineer, designer, consultant, and entrepreneur, currently working in his Internet business PerihelionDesign, designing, building and selling unique products, parts and materials for people in the home-built experimental aircraft community.

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