Monday, January 25, 2010

Royal Society, extra-terrestrial life, fag paper

The Royal Society has a 2 day Conference on the "detection of extra-terrestrial life and the consequences for science and society".

I hope they take into account the fag-paper question.
What's that, I hear you cry.

The probability of contact is reduced by a number of factors, chiefly the presence of a suitable planet in the "Goldilocks zone", provided with not too little, not too much of : water, heat, minerals and gases in its atmosphere. So it is unlikely that there is conscious and intelligent life in the Orion Arm of our galaxy, because of the improbability of having life-supporting conditions in two close-by systems.

But there is another reducing factor, which might be called "Temporal Simultaneity".

To communicate, two civilisation have to be technologically active at a high level in the same period of time.

It is not safe to assume that intelligent life, once it appears on a planet, endures for an astronomically significant length of time. Going by the modern history of our own planet, it is more likely that our technological civilisation will have terminal event before we learn what the term "sustainable" means.

The duration of human beings in relation to earth time has been likened to the thickness of a piece of cigarette paper placed on the topmost railing of the Eiffel Tower, earth time being the Eiffel tower, human history being the paper. Our period of tecnological competence (which means understanding radio communications as far as the Royal Society's topic is concerned) bears a similar ratio to human history as human existence bears to the Earth.

The search for extra-terrestrial intelligence assumes that two pieces of paper exist at exactly the same height: that two civilisations share the same period of time. But the planetary towers on which we stand are in fact of hugely different temporal dimensions.

Our Sun, I believe, is relatively a late-comer in the family of stars. Other stars with life-bearing planets may have come before our sun, and other stars with ditto ditto may come along after our sun has done the red giant thing.

Civilisations may have appeared on other solar systems in other star generations, but they may not still be around now.

If our civilisation destroys itself through nuclear war or as a result of uncontrolled releases of greenhouse gases and other erosions of our life support system, and if other civilisations have the same proclivities, then the probability of two competent civilisations coinciding in time and making contact with each other becomes vanishingly small. Which is comforting, as if we encountered people with the same mindset as ourselves, it would end in tears, because we would probably have something that they want. Never trust an alien who offers you a handful of beads.

If a civilisation capable of sending electromagnetic signals continues for hundreds of thousands of years, the paper becomes a little thicker and the likelihood that it will exist simultaneously with another transmitting/receiving civilisation is increased. A civilisation that has achieved a steady-state economy for millions of years is more likely to share the same period of time with us, but they would be horrified if they saw what we are doing to our planet, and they would probably be working under non-intervention rules, having discovered on their own planet how destructive colonialism can be.

I take no pleasure at all in putting this thought forward, but just suggest that it is something that we have to take into account.

[update: just discovered that I am not alone...]

1 comment:

@jessecusack said...

The chances of coming into contact with other intelligent life do seem impossibly small given current knowledge.

However the conference is about detection of life (intelligent or otherwise), not contact. It seems quite probable that we will detect signs of other life for a number of reasons.
1) The latest research on extrasolar plants indicates that they outnumber stars.
2) There are hundreds of billions of stars in the galaxy.
3) Life has existed in some form or another for billions of years on earth. This far exceeds the time it takes for light to travese the galaxy. If taken as a precident, then the odds are good of life existing somewhere now.

I remain highly optimistic!