Waste or not to waste (follow-up)

Csiro Parkes Observatory, Australia

Csiro Parkes Observatory, Australia

Since my last post, I came across a couple of articles that put the significance of human reaction to finding alien civilizations more into focus.
It was a ‘tongue in cheek’ comment, but this topic is probably here to stay, or should I say we’re not about to put the ‘genie’ back in the bottle. In the previous posting I was mainly thinking of the consequences of our civilization entering into contact with an alien one. But we have to consider the consequences of what just the knowledge of the discovery of an existing alien civilization would have on ours, regardless of contact. That will translate into a major re-alignment of priorities, and would affect the lives of Earthlings in unexpected and dramatic ways.
What might go through the mind of the average person when confronted with the piece of information that we are not alone – and which in turn will spread like wild fire through the info sphere? As highly social animals, no one is immune. These information nuggets have a name: “memes”, a term coined by Richard Dawkins, that describe something that spreads within a culture, from a catchy phrase to an entire belief system (like a virus). Due to our thirst for information, we are particularly vulnerable to memes, and some could be highly destructive to our civilization, potentially wrecking it as effectively as any physical weapon. One of the ways to protect us from these memes is to build another kind of sphere or cage (see Dyson Sphere from my previous blog); this one is called a Faraday Cage  which would filter information in and out. Read more about this in Nautilus Magazine.

Green Gank observatory W. Virginia, U.S.

Well, now that everyone is potentially pretty “freaked out”, here’s a nugget of information that will positively allow you to surrender to the fear of the aliens: Yuri Milner, a Russian entrepreneur, has pledged to give $100 million in the next ten years to SETI (Search for Extra Terrestrial Intelligence). This gift will allow SETI to develop new instruments, hire new astronomers/observers and allow for substantial observing time at major radio observatories (Green Bank in the U.S. and CSIRO Parkes* in Australia). And in the near future, the upcoming James Webb (successor to the Hubble) and the next-generation 30-meter telescope possess the ability to measure the atmospheric chemical composition of the nearest potential planets.
In a world divided by cultural and religious war and threatened by environmental issues, these potential “memes” and discoveries could play out in a variety of ways: they could make us reflect on the state of a world that would like to reach to the stars, but is anchored in conflict. Or it can trigger a panicked free-for-all, where every construct of our civilization is made futile and meaningless.
Either way, it will be transformational.
* This dish is the stage for a cool movie aptly named “The Dish”; it retraces the role that the CSIRO Parkes Observatory played during the flight of Apollo 11 in a smart comedy.

Waste or not to Waste

Provocative ideas need to be tested with the gusto to match.

Freeman Dyson is a 91 year-old physicist, and has no fear of exploring iconoclastic ideas. Many I find appealing, but some, in particular his acceptance of global warming being a good thing, is not one of them. Of course, the Sahara becoming green again could be a good thing, but is it worth the cost to other now temperate regions of the globe? For more about him read the article in the New York Times Magazine.

Dyson is also a big supporter of the analog (have you listen to an LP lately?), imagining that if his “self” was to be transferred in a different platform at the end of the universe, he would much rather be stored in an analog cloud of particles rather than in a digitized version in a networked universe. He also devised what he calls a “Cosmic Egg” which would be a nano spaceship full of minuscule nano bots, that would be able to travel fast due to their low mass, and for a long time until they found a suitable planet, and set up a nano civilization, start reproducing, build and send more eggs to explore other destinations…on and on.

The idea of his that resulted in the latest study of exploration of infra red spectrum of distant galaxies, is his vision of what became to be called a “Dyson Sphere”. There is nothing nano about this one – it goes like this: when a civilization has used all the energy available on its home planet, it would construct a sphere around its star (that would be the Sun for us), and collect all of its energy output. Even this would soon become insufficient (according to Carl Sagan), and more and more stars would be needed until most of the galaxy energy output would be collected. This activity would be easily detectable from afar since it would leak infra red emissions, while dimming the light emitted by the galaxy. It turns out that due to the laws of physics, energy use is impossible to hide.

That is what this latest effort at detecting alien civilizations has been directed towards, by analyzing the part of the infra red spectrum in which such waste energy would surface in hundreds of galaxies. We should be able to recognize the telltale signs of such a civilization. The study came up empty handed, as no out-of-balance emissions have been detected.

But this result allows us to reflect on the consequence of this failure:

“Such an expensive and greedy civilization would have no place for a more gentle and welcoming one like ours. It’s the trait of rapacious users who either have a big reason or a big insatiability”, says David Brin, an astrophysicist. Surely trying to enter in contact with such an empire would not bode well for us, as Stephen Hawkins has said. When two civilizations come into contact, it does not end well for the less technologically developed of the two.

So these kinds of ‘gas guzzling’ galactic empires probably do not exist, and this is why we do not detect them. SETI (Search for Extra Terrestrial Intelligence) is basically looking for waste energy. An advanced civilization must have found ways to reduce or even eliminate waste, so as to be invisible.

I think that this is extremely relevant to our small world problem, as it shows us the obvious path, which is to lower waste instead of increase consumption. In the past few years, what was an educated guess (the possibility of extraterrestrial life) has, thanks to the Kepler Observatory (another space telescope like the Hubble), become a more and more unavoidable outcome. Among the 3500 celestial bodies discovered by Kepler, more than a thousand (confirmed by other observatories) have been substantiated as alien planets. This allows us to extrapolate that every star in the Milky Way has more than one subject orbiting it.

In the meantime, our light emissions have obscured viewing the Milky Way for more than half of the human population. It seems to me that it will soon be the subject of myth and lore told under a canopy of artificial light. All the while we are broadcasting louder and louder…knock knock…who’s there?

To know more about this read this excellent article from Scientific American