Why alien life would be our doom: Kurzgesagt – In a Nutshell video

Originally published at: https://boingboing.net/2018/02/01/why-alien-life-would-be-our-do.html


It seems likely to me that simple distance would be the filter. Keep in mind that we are NOWHERE close to getting to the point that lightspeed is the limitation. The technology required to get to even 10% of lightspeed would require a significant proportion of global GDP for decades… And while we getting a handle on the likelihood of planets capable of supporting life depending on similar chemistry to ours, we have no real way of estimating how common technological civilizations would be. Except to observe that of the millions of species that have evolved on the Earth, only one of them has developed even rudimentary technology. The universe could well be teeming with life, but none of it capable of any contact with us. As indeed the Earth has been for the vast majority of it’s existence.


What if the filter is that colonizing the galaxy is a stupid idea that seems appealing only to people who live in an era when colonizing the planet they are on is still in fashion?


Bingo! The far more likely and efficient scenario would be to upload all the dominant species’ consciousness into a supercomputer, using all reachable resources and local solar bodies to build & power it.

Lack of a galactic empire is, by Occam’s Razor, likely to be evidence that interstellar travel is less efficient than just creating your own local perfect universe.


Other possibilities: The idea of “exploring” the universe may not be a universally held value. Like the man said, “one of the pleasures of adulthood is not going.”

The damage done to a planet-dwelling life form by long-term space travel might make the journey suitable only for machines. These machines may not be recognizable as machines as we understand them. They might be identical to rocks, flora, or politicians.

We may not be the only species that’s paranoid about what they might find out there.


I agree. Distances in just the nearest parts of our galaxy are almost unimaginable. Take this into account. On the original Star Trek, the Enterpise, cruising at a high end speed of Warp Factor 7, which is 656 x c (speed of light), it still takes months to reach some of the destinations just in their quadrant of the galaxy. So, when Capt. Kirk says Warp Factor 3 to Rigel star system, assuming they are starting from Earth, it would still take several days to get there. In space distances, Rigel is right in our galactic neighborhood. To reach the Eagle nebula which includes the famous ‘Pillars of Creation’ it would take a month or more to reach and that is still relatively close to us. Unless some advanced civilization can utilize worm holes, colonizing the galaxy is near impossible. But what do I know, I’m a Yeti.


Rigel is in our stellar neighborhood, not galactic.


IMHO the answer to the Fermi paradox is simple: Extra-solar travel is just too hard.

Once you have the technology level capable of accomplishing it, you don’t need it or want it anymore. Think about it even a ship traveling at an unimaginable 0.1C is going to take decades to reach even the closest interstellar neighbors. So you need to be able to build a device that can sustain life for decades without outside support (not even solar power!) and survive the stresses of interstellar travel. Or you could use the same technology to build orbital or deep space habitats in your own system (which can use solar power and don’t need vast amounts of fuel to accelerate and decelerate) for a tiny fraction of the cost and get effectively unlimited living space. What’s more, you don’t have to terraform the damn things, they’re purpose built for your needs.

So the only reason to go to another solar system would be to collect raw materials, but we aren’t anywhere close to using up the available materials in our own system so why bother? Maybe interstellar travel will make sense in a billion years when we’ve converted the entire mass of every planet except Earth and all of the asteroids into space habitats, but even then you only need one more system to get you another many million years.

Basically, if FTL travel and/or unlimited power sources with reactionless drives don’t exist then it never becomes practical to leave our solar system.

Visiting and especially colonizing distant solar systems basically requires technology that our current understanding of physics would suggest is impossible. At best you might be able to send an automated probe, but even that would be an enormous effort.

I do think the Galaxy is probably teeming with life. Much of it stuck in evolutionary local maxima (like the dinosaurs), but others undoubtedly even more advanced than us and just as frustrated at not being able to escape their home solar system.

A side note on this: If aliens do decide to kill us there will be no war and likely no warning. Just one day a rock will slam into the Earth at 0.1C and wipe out all life. If they can get here in the first place there’s no reason they need to play fair. So if we do have a first contact situation the aliens almost certainly aren’t planning to exterminate us. Of course they might be planning on enslavement, but if that’s the case then we’d better polish up our boot (or whatever the alien equivalent is) licking skills, because anybody who can make the journey is so far ahead of us technologically that we’re straight fucked.

Without a Warp Drive about the best we can hope for is some extremely laggy (decades or centuries) communication via tremendously powerful lasers to a miraculously discovered stellar neighbor.


Like all the other variations on the Fermi Paradox, this is based on terribly bad science and terribly silly ideas about the feasibility and desirability of interstellar travel, never mind the equally bad science and foolish ideas about the likelihood of sapience evolving on other worlds.

Humans have a tendency to wanderlust, which causes us to get all kinds of notions, some smart, others stupid, about exploration and colonization and filling the frontiers and so on. In this we are sort of like rhesus macaques: we spread everywhere and thrive in all kinds of habitats. Compare to our nearest relatives, chimps and gorillas, who are homebodies who have never spread much beyond their home ranges. There’s no guarantee that ETs, if they exist, are going to share our wanderlust. Maybe they’re spending their GDP on making their home a paradise instead of fretting about whether they are a multiplanet species or not.


Also, the (probable) fact that we have not been visited by alien species can mean one of two things:

  1. There is a Star Trek-like “Prime Directive” preventing first contact with galaxy wide enforcement.
  2. FTL travel is impossible. Or at least so hard to invent that nobody else in the galaxy has figured them out over probably millions of species with billions of years of evolution.

I’m really hoping the answer is #1, but it seems like a very very long shot. It does make one wonder what the critera might be for first contact. One world government? Living in a way that is indefinitely sustainable ecologically? Some sort of minimum standard of living for all members of the species? Elimination of armed conflict as a means of resolving problems? Basically don’t let a species out of their home Solar System until they learn how to not wreck up the place.


We might be waiting awhile then.


Yeah, criteria like that would put first contact well outside of my lifetime.


The idea of colonizing the galaxy is impractical and unlikely, but I think it’s unfair to compare it to terrestrial colonization. The reason colonialism is bad on Earth is that anywhere you want to colonize already has either people on it, or an ecosystem that will get utterly wrecked by the arrival of humans. If you’re talking about colonizing empty planets… well it’s easier to find a planet in the habitable zone that doesn’t have any life on it than one that does.

This is, of course, assuming we don’t start getting into turf wars with aliens, but that’s also pretty unlikely given even very realistic ideas of colonizing the galaxy would involve colonizing a teeny tiny segment of the galaxy where, given the vastness of space, alien life is unlikely to exist anyway.

So if you remove the prospect of warring with indigenous people and displacing ecosystems, you’ve ditched the major horrors of colonialism, but you get to keep the bit where there’s more space for people to live. Which is probably good, because we kinda have a lot of people right now. Now, space colonization isn’t really a pragmatic way to deal with that issue but… if we could do it, it seems like it’d be a smart idea.


well it’s easier to find a planet in the habitable zone that doesn’t have any life on it than one that does.

We have no idea if this is true or not. Ideas about how common life is in the galaxy are all extrapolated from a single data point, our home system. We don’t even have a good grasp on how common it is to find rocky worlds in the habitable zone of stars. Our telescopes aren’t quite powerful enough yet, but they’re getting close.


a bit depressing. also I think the universe is too vast to apply this ‘filter’ hypothesis (which smacks of the anthropic principle, which is utter BS).

I suspect that the ‘filter’ is most likely sustainability. It is logical that it would take a very long time for any civilisation to develop the required tech to reach other habitable planets and colonise. It’s taken life on Earth around 3.8 billion years of evolution to get us to where we are today, and there has been at least one extinction even (poor dinosaurs) during this process. So… logically, there will be more extinction events likely to come and it will take us even MORE time for us humans to ‘grow up’ and stop acting like blood thirsty apes and avoid self destruction, in effect - reverse our deeply ingrained evolutionary instincts and become ‘sensible’ as a collective, how long will that take? Perhaps another asteroid will pay us a visit also? So one good answer may be that the ‘filter’ is for life to evolve into a sustainable society. I mean it is no small thing to reverse the directives of evolutionary design.


Suppose we actually build that 0.1c rocket and go visit Alpha Centauri. Odds are very high that there’s nothing interesting there. A few gas giants, maybe a Mercury or two. Sure, we can learn some cool things, but there won’t be tourists lining up.

Next, imagine the political will it would take to do that. That ship would cost a few GNP just to fill the gas tank. Meanwhile, our civilization is rapidly approaching the point where we can’t even pave our roads.

How many stars do we have to visit before we discover Club Med? How many worthless rocks will we need to see before we decide it’s not worth it? If C > W, then we will never find anything fun. If the Apollo program is any indication, then W may be less than ten.

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My best guess is “none of the above”.

The first estimates of when primitive life began are getting into the Late Heavy Bombardment period when the surface was getting smacked by rocks and only solid in parts. This suggests this is easy.

Eukyrotic life took a long time. A billion years or so to happen. So it is probably hard. But it did not necessarily happen only once. All we know is that if it happened twice, then all the other ones got eaten. Or something. Most European languages are related, but this does not mean they all descended from one group of people who invented the first speech.

The Cambrian explosion happened at the end of the ‘Snowball Earth’ phase. So, when conditions were right, it happened fairly promptly. I feel intelligence is similar: if conditions are right, so having a bigger brain helped us to survive, then we can take an existing organ, and just make it a bit bigger. It’s not making everything completely different.

Now think of us going interplanetary. I feel we would send small, intelligent drones, rather than vast ‘generation ships’. We might even recreate humans at the other end to inhabit a planet once it has been terraformed. Then we might do it again. But would we do it four times? Ten times? I don’t see a Galactic Empire as the logical goal here. I imagine we (or whatever we create that makes the trip) might stop colonizing. Not because it is bad, but because the benefits do not outweigh the costs to the people funding the trip.


Anyone who hasn’t read Chixin Liu’s Three-Body Problem books really should. The English translations are excellent, and they’re very relevant to this topic. I won’t say any more about the exploration of the concept here, but it is fantastic sci-fi.


I have to say, I think we are getting too far ahead of ourselves when we try and explain why ET is or isn’t around and that our future will be to leave Earth.

If we examine the filters we have passed through already and take just a quick look at how we live now and what we do as a species: sex, consume, compete (rinse and repeat) it is obvious that there wont be a happy ending to our story unless we can defy our own inherent nature somehow to radically change our trajectory towards self destruction.

However, assuming we do pass this dangerous stage somehow, and change to become a united and sustainable civilisation at peace, then we would have crossed perhaps the final filter leading us into an age of almost unlimited potential. I hope we get there! If we do reach this point of unlimited potential, I wonder how different our philosophy would be from what it is now? It is possible that we would have taken a journey inwards rather than outwards. Matured to the point where we no longer fight, no longer re-produce like mad, no longer consume in a unsustainable way… we would be very different! What would an ‘enlightened’ human or alien desire? Would we be bored? Would we be content at home? Perhaps we would no longer be interested in reaching out to the stars so we could consume more and populate more? This could explain why life doesn’t do it, we either cant cross the filter to become ‘enlightened’ and destroy ourselves OR we become ‘enlightened’ which allows us to cross the final filter and by doing so we have changed so much that we have no desire to continue the same old imperatives to breed like mad, consume more and more and therefore dont travel into space?