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Wednesday, 28 December 2011


Why assume we will recognize another 'intelligence' when we meet it. Perhaps that rock at your feet is smarter than you think.

This kind of idea of "God" as some kind of deity is just plain wrong and likely perpetuated by the ignorance that IS religion.

"God" is the omnipresent infinite power or energy that sustains the whole Universe not to mention you as well.

I can't be the only reader who thinks Ctein's posts are too short by a factor of X can I?

I Like Stephen Hawking's quote pertaining to the same subject (paraphrasing) "We should be careful about trying to contact extraterrestrial life, they might be exactly like us".

You're taking the name of the question too literally. It's not meant to be an actual paradox ("this statement is false"); it's intended to spark a discussion of *why* we haven't encountered other intelligent civilizations. So your point that there are plausible explanations for the lack of contact doesn't undermine Fermi's point.

In fact, your air travel analogy is spot on IMO. We are "reasonably convinced" that there are many other intelligent races out there and that they should have contacted us, but obviously there are problems with our premise.

But you forgot curiosity Ctien. Without it I don't believe any species can become "advanced". With it, and a little luck, I don't believe they can be held on whatever world they arise. We've made the first miniscule step off our blue planet.

In other words, the absence of great photos in my portfolio doesn't mean I don't have talent. (ehem)

See, the article is not off-topic after all.

I've heard the paradox before, and my problem with it is the base upon which the whole thing is built: "even if only 1% of those..."

That's a huge assumption on which to hang the big conclusions drawn.

Lets change it to, "even if only .0001% of those..." or better yet "even if only .000000001% of those..." and run the same paradox. Different conclusion, no?

Another assumption I question: are there really thousands of quintillions of planetary systems? Isn't that a wild guess, that might be off by many orders of magnitude?

Best. X. Ever.

That's why good novelists can "get" humanity better than more technical folks sometimes, despite just making it all up. Oh, and I have some nostalgia for that high school slop that was at least made at the school. Nowadays unless you live in Berkley schools often serve various forms of fast food or something very close (heat-and-serve garbage).

The question is, why do people think the existence of extraterrestrial civilizations ought to be pretty obvious?

How far away could we detect ourselves? That sets one limit on how big a part of the universe we've actually prospected for civilizations like ours, and the answer is pretty darned small last I looked it up (maybe 50 light-years?).

When Fermi promulgated the question (1950), high-power AM broadcasting and huge radar installations were high-tech. But since then, we've drastically reduced our emissions -- partly to save power, partly to save bandwidth by being able reuse frequencies over smaller geographic areas. Less and less of our communications moves by radio at all -- more and more of it is in optical fibers, where it can't leak off into space. Now the military high tech is stealth -- blasting out megawatts of radio energy just makes you a target.

This still leaves the question of FTL flight, and Von Neumann machines. FTL flight may actually be impossible; best evidence so far seems to point that way pretty strongly. And maybe it's really that hard to make a machine that will last out the slow flights between stars, and then reproduce itself from the resources it finds?

Or, somebody always says, maybe we're the first. Yeah, well, maybe. If you accept the premise that planets, life, and intelligence will be ubiquitous, then the odds of our being the first in the galaxy are billions to one against. Possible, but not very likely.

@ Ctein,

a nice article, but I do want to probe your "pets" illustration. Digging deep back in time to my formal education, I somewhat remember a set of classes on human evolution in the context of the world as those earlier humans encountered it, and how that context shaped development. The domestication of the dog (first) was not a sentimental instinct, but rather a resource-using instinct as dogs were useful to hunt, to guard and to control flocks of sheep and goats. Cattle were corralled and used as mobile sources of fresh food. etc etc: animals were pressed into service for specific purposes. Of course, over time, a sentimental instinct takes over and an acceptance of keeping - and liking - a much wider set of animals for sentimental value, and not use value. Someone of my acquaintance keeps snakes, lizards and I think also some bird-eating spiders, none of which are remotely useful in the middle of England.

I think the hard-headed "this animal is useful" instinct was a rational choice by intelligent humans all those years ago, and distinctly precedes the "sentimental" instinct which could easily by itself illustrate your main point. Perhaps we're becoming dumber with increasing development?

Um. One could quite readily explain four out of your six inexplicable trivialities by one thing: biology. The fact that we have technologically advanced doesn't mean we have left the biology behind.

Admittedly, I have no idea how to explain pets or the religious impulse by biology.

The religious impulse could be a result of sapience.

Pets, still murky, though.

Concerning them, I put forward that they are calling the police because of the disturbance of peace. :)

I don't have many thoughts on extraterrestrial life or the search for it, but I think an analogous argument is often made during arguments over evolution. Someone will say that they don't believe that 500 million years is enough time for X to morph to Y, as if there is a person among us with any conception of what is or is not reasonable over that many years.

A good and very smart friend once told me in what otherwise was a rather cynical newsroom conversation that he actually *was* a believer. I said that surprised me, since there were so few in the typical newsroom. He said simply that there were too many wonders not to believe. I pay close attention to what smart people say, as long as they're not nuts, because I'm sharply aware of my own limitations and by paying attention to smart people, I often learn things. After he said that, I tried to think of some objective "god" wonders. And, I thought of a few. I'm still not a believer, but I moved a bit that way down the spectrum.

A common assumption is that intelligence is a successful evolutionary survival strategy. It certainly appears to be working in the short term, but it could turn out to be an anomaly, yet another evolutionary dead end, a failed experiment.

What? Huh?

The paradox arises when you take one more step. We know that an advanced civilisation can have expansionist and colonising tendencies, because several of ours did. If only 1% of species are like us in that respect - or have other motives for visiting us such as the imminent death of their sun - there has been ample time for some of them to do so. The other 99% might be content to stay at home - it's the 1% that are the problem.

There is possibly another answer to Fermi's puzzle. Another of the 1%s not mentioned is the amount of space that massive objects capable of supporting life take up in the universe. All the planets, stars and galaxies we can observe only account for about 4% of the universe, and rocks that can support the formation of life would be significantly less than 1% of the universe. Then, "if only 1% of those develop life, [and] even if only 1% of those…." Multiplying through all those small percentages, we're talking about a very, very small, and probably well dispersed, part of the universe. So trying to look for signs of intelligence that we can understand may be a bit like looking for a needle in a haystack. The reason we haven't found signs of intelligent life yet may simply be that we haven't _found_ signs of intelligent life yet: we haven't picked over the haystack finely enough to find a needle.

I think I can answer one aspect of the "paradox". I believe that one of those other intelligent species visited, but were unfortunate enough to get within signalling distance while daytime TV programs were being broadcast. They watched for a while then beamed an emergency signal to all the other intelligent lifeforms warning them to stay away, Earthlings weren't ready yet.

..."Yet, as I walk through the world, it does not seem to be lousy with self-evident, irrefutable miracles...."

wow, I feel sorry for you, because if one looks past the surface and applies a questing
mind and open eyes, this place (our plane of existence) is lousy with them....
room for everyone though....keep looking!

best wishes,

"give me ambiguity or give me something else"

I agree totally- we don't know enough to make sense of ourselves. But it is amazing how many people are walking around telling us eaxctly what god thinks, how he thinks and what he (it's always a "he" in their world) commands us to do- even when it directly contradicts exactly what he did say to do!

As for extraterrestrial life- you laid out the math quite well. The truly scary part would be that we are, in fact, the best and the brightest in the entire multiverse.


Lovely article; expecting that intelligent life which has thousands, let alone millions or billions of years on us in development is similar to humans, is the same as medieval expectations that Earth is at the centre of the universe. Yet this is the current stage of our popular expectations and beliefs.

As we are here, this is the only proof necessary that intelligence exists, and combined with what we know about the universe as it is, it is virtual certainty that we are not "the only ones". Even if we were, the fact that we exist added to the point that the universe might be infinite either in time or space, it is a certainty that eventually there will be someone who we would today consider "God(s)", as with infitie tries intelligence no matter how unlikely will develop infinite times and develop into what is some sort of ultimate form that we can speculate on.

Since we are here the question is not whether there is god/superior intlligence/make of it what you will, but really "Who are they?" and as the title says: "Where are they?".

We may have the answer to that question too.
In principle we have the leftovers from all major religions in the world to show us the "otherworldly" ie, love thy neighbour as yourself etc... as imagine the power of another few million of years development in the hands of selfish and self-indulgent beings.

It is quite amazing that we haven't blown up ourselves yet during the first 100 years since the discovery of nuclear power, and there is very little certainty that we will not do it eventually.

Imagine having exponentially more power than that, which will certainly happen with further development and it also certainly would not be good. That is all the reason necessary why someone more intellgent and powerful would stay out there, in the shadow, waiting for us to change... as long as it takes.

Until we either do not change for the better, or to perhaps reign us in in case we get too wild to be able to threaten more than this planet where we were born on.

Both options are very likely a long way off, so the question "Where are they?", will likely remain unanswered for a while yet, except for the ones who find this answer for themselves among the plethora of religions on offer in today's world.

One possibility is that all advanced civilizations exterminate themselves. As you point out, we don't know how others would behave, but we're totally capable of deliberate suicide.

Just wait till genetic engineering gets to the point where a bright grad student can adapt a virus to do whatever. All it takes is one guy to decide that we don't deserve to live. He cooks up a highly contagious airborne virus that incubates for a couple of weeks. When it wakes up, it makes cell walls go all squishy or disables hemoglobin or something else unsurvivable. Pfffft!

The odds of this NEVER happening are too small to bother with, unless, of course, something else gets us first. Oy.

I'm not disagreeing with any of this but I'm left wondering, why are you telling me this? What was the point to this post?

I would boil down each of the 4 things, as presented, as entertainment. However, I would not automatically characterize that as unnecessary for sustenance. For other species, sure.

Uh oh:
"Most everybody with a lick of sense, whether or not they believe in a god(s), full well understands that there is no possible way they could have any idea how a god would think"

One thing the 1% idea doesn't address is time. All of human history is but a blink of the eye in the history of the universe. There could be millions of such blinks before and after us, that we would have no way of witnessing.

And that's not even considering that in addition to an "infinite" number of galaxies in our universe, there is the real possibility of an "infinite" number of universes that arose from an "infinite" number of Big-Bangs. For us to draw conclusions about the totality of being, based only on the measly little bit of stuff we've observed and logically worked through in the tiny amount of time we've inhabitated this planet, is true folly.


It's true that deduction about exobiology is beyond-speculative as you point out. We'd much rather use induction but that would require an n > 1 for our sample set of sentient life forms -- but obviously at that point the Fermi paradox becomes rather moot.

My personal intuition based on our own planet's biology is the L coefficient in the Drake equation is very low. Either from self-annihilation, from retreating inward into virtual reality, or moving past the use of "primitive" forms of communication like electromagnetic waves.

I'm reminded of Terence McKenna who said "To search expectantly for a radio signal from an extraterrestrial source is probably as culture bound a presumption as to search the galaxy for a good Italian restaurant."

No paradox.
The reason we've seen no signs of intelligent life is that Earth is under quarantine.
Out there, somewhere, is a whopping great sign that says "KEEP OUT. INFECTIOUS DISEASE RISK. EARTH HAS HUMANS. HIGHLY CONTAGIOUS."
Or the alien equivalent.
Kind of makes you feel proud of our virility, doesn't it.

Well, you most probably already know it and my comment may be the one hundredth pointing at it, but here's the XKCD take at the question: http://xkcd.com/962/

There are many things that could be said in response to this, but I'd like to just paraphrase Hobbes the Tiger: considering the way people tend to behave, the clearest sign that there is intelligent life elsewhere in the Universe is that none of it has tried to contact us.

When is the next Kirk Tuck article?

You raise some very interesting philosophical points. I’m sure you will correct me if I’m wrong, but my interpretation of your explanation of Fermi’s Paradox is this: there are too many “unknown unknowns”; we cannot understand the situation fully enough to draw any meaningful conclusions due to the lack of observable data. In short: “Dunno.”

Well, perhaps I am falling into the same trap as Fermi did, but as a thought experiment, it’s worth the enjoyable risk. Considering the vastness of space and time, and given that we know that it is *possible* for life to evolve, probability suggests that intelligent life is likely to appear more than once in the Universe’s lifetime. Possibly large numbers of times. My assumption as to why contact will never be made between life forms has always been that the bright spark of intelligent life cannot sustain itself for anything like the length of time required to increase the likelihood of it happening nearby simultaneously, whether this is to do with war, disease, or most likely overpopulation of the host planet leading to exhaustion of resources. Each civilisation will burn out long before it has a chance of exploring the sufficiently large distances and times to be even in with a remote shot of meeting some other species. But perhaps I am falling into the ultimate human conceit of assuming that other life will even require a host planet at all?

Where I do agree with your “unknown unknowns” concept is that, even when we were face-to-face with some other species, how would we know how to recognise them? The Star Trek stereotype of humanoid-with-crinkly-forehead-and-large-ears is hardly likely. Fiction rarely comes up with even remotely convincing ideas as to how extra-terrestrial life might appear; Terry Bisson’s famous short story “They’re Made Out Of Meat” most eloquently expresses the idea that how we are made is something other than the norm, although I do refute his central conceit - that meat exists as anything other than the vector of life. Perhaps it’s simply the limitations of human imagination, but surely Earth life is a vaguely accurate guide to the general structure, scale and viability of beings across the universe? The richness of life on planet Earth evidences almost infinitesimal variation, yet even the most bizarre creatures are earthbound, respiring beings which can be seen, studied, and understood. Surely the arid, barren vacuum of space itself surely prevents the evolution of the very beings that would be able to exist within it. Life needs a substrate to develop; this by definition limits the extent of travel, and eventually, the lifespan of the life forms themselves. In short, like an over-protective mother, the Earth both gives us life, yet prevents us from ever leaving her comforts.

"Um. One could quite readily explain four out of your six inexplicable trivialities by one thing: biology. The fact that we have technologically advanced doesn't mean we have left the biology behind. Admittedly, I have no idea how to explain pets or the religious impulse by biology."

I suspect the other two could be explained by the emerging field of evolutionary psychology. Religion is a group-reinforcing concept (as anyone who has read the Old Testament realizes), and group allegiance and solidarity is critical to success in small hunter-gatherer social units.


We have met the X, and he is Ken Rockwell.

"I think I can answer one aspect of the "paradox". I believe that one of those other intelligent species visited, but were unfortunate enough to get within signalling distance while daytime TV programs were being broadcast. They watched for a while then beamed an emergency signal to all the other intelligent lifeforms warning them to stay away, Earthlings weren't ready yet."

My theory is that alien beings have been here many times and, each time, they found...dinosaurs, who, after all, occupied Earth for about 2000 times as long as we've been here. The next time they check in, humans will probably be gone, but they'll wonder where in the heck all the dinosaurs went and who made the incredible mess.


Is this a photography site or a a 'cheap' philosophical blog? Re the non-existence of God... what if you are wrong and He really exists?

Maybe it's like an old episode of The Twilight Zone, Outer Limits or X Minus One (the last is old radio), and they have discovered us. We are dumb animals to them and the Earth is their zoo.

What's the current theory on how long the Universe has existed? How many civilisations could have risen and fallen in that time. Maybe we just haven't been around or near enough at the same time. Slightly ot,you know how excited archaeologists get when they find a pot or some such from thousands of years ago? Imagine in some future time when someone finds what has been left on the moon by NASA.That'll blow their tiny minds.

There is no doubt that there are more advanced civilations. The odds are stacked against this not being the case.

The only questions are: 1) Do they know we are here and 2) what will their intentions be when they know.

Lets hope that deep fried human being is not some advanced alien delicacy. And hope that a Canon 1DS can split thier exoskeletal big cranium in half if they come for us!

"My theory is that alien beings have been here many times and, each time, they found...dinosaurs, who, after all, occupied Earth for about 2000 times as long as we've been here. The next time they check in, humans will probably be gone, but they'll wonder where in the heck all the dinosaurs went and who made the incredible mess."

Mike, that is just wonderful.


Dear folks,

I very carefully distinguished "religious impulse" from theology. That didn't stop several folks from making dogmatic theological statements. My reaction to all of them: Show me your data. Otherwise all you have is an opinion. There are 7 billion of them on the planet. Yours is not particularly special.

I have my own theological beliefs. I have been quite careful to make them NOT-evident in this column. It is my intention to never make them evident in any column; they are private. I can say that each and every one of you who has speculated, even indirectly by vague implication, about what my religious beliefs might be, is extremely far off the mark.

Let's close the book on this. By editorial edict, this is not a venue for discussing religion, regardless of your feelings in the matter.


Dear Robert S.,

Oh, I don't take the name too literally, but most of the people I hear discussing it do. And I do hear lots of discussion about this subject.


Dear Joe, Erik, et al.,

Look up something called the “Drake Equation." It's an effort to quantify (very weakly) all those percentages and timescales being thrown about.

I just totally made up the 1% numbers. Some of the percentages in the Drake equation are actually much higher than 1%. And we're pretty certain of them. Some of them might be much lower than 1%. Until you get to the terms involving “intelligence,” it's not likely any of them are something like ".0001%" unless our scientific understanding is EXTREMELY wrong. Which is entirely possible.

Regarding the number of planetary systems, we actually have enough observational data at this point to justify that number. I could be off by a factor of 2 or 3 either way, but not likely by a factor of 10.

Regarding timescales, intelligent life arose on the earth in approximately 1/3 the time the universe has existed. We also have some fairly good reason to think that intelligence could arise in half that amount of time, without straying very far from what we know. So, plenty of time for other thingies to get smart… if they're going to get smart.


Dear Steven Palmer,

What is the point of any of my off-topic columns, hmmm?

pax \ Ctein
[ Please excuse any word-salad. MacSpeech in training! ]
-- Ctein's Online Gallery http://ctein.com 
-- Digital Restorations http://photo-repair.com 

Dear JamesB, vlatko and Mike J.,

I completely agree that most of these peculiar characteristics that I described are likely quite explicable biologically. But that's ex post facto. My point was that if you were trying to imagine intelligent life without knowing about us, you could not come to the conclusion that any of those specie-al characteristics were inevitably part of the mix.

Think of it like trying to explain big floppy ears on an elephant. One can conclude that they serve a purpose for the elephant… But you then don't jump to the conclusion that all large herd-oriented herbivores will have big floppy ears. It just happens to be the direction elephants evolved in and it served them well. Most large herbivores didn't follow that path.

Similarly, you can come up with pretty good rationalizations, maybe even correct explanations, for most of what I attributed to humans. What you can't do is then say, well that shows that it's inevitable or necessary. All you've done is show that it is explicable.

And, as I said, I left out the really, really big ones, because the majority of humans are simply incapable of discussing them objectively or dispassionately (look at how much trouble there was with a mere mention of religious impulse). No need to stir the pot with irrelevant emotional reactions.

pax \ Ctein
[ Please excuse any word-salad. MacSpeech in training! ]
-- Ctein's Online Gallery http://ctein.com 
-- Digital Restorations http://photo-repair.com 

@Stan B: Wikipedia (as usual) has a good write-up on the topic:


UFO sceptic Ian Ridpath has a good article debunking the "incident" as well:


And in a neat tie-in back to Ctein's post, I leave you with this quote fron Ian Ridpath's website:

"It seems to me that the truth about UFOs is quite simple: it is rooted in human misperception, human self-delusion, and the quite natural human tendency to delude others. In other words, UFOs are a terrestrial phenomenon, not an extraterrestrial one. By studying UFOs we learn not about extraterrestrial life or interstellar travel but about human nature."

A couple of questions that Ctein might address:

The critical science for a connection with aliens, it seems to me, is physics. A lot of people seem to assume that out there among the stars there "must be" many civilizations far in advance of ours. But aren't we quite likely near the end of any physics relevant to contacting an alien civilization -- that is, isn't it quite likely that there are no civilizations whose physics are much better than ours?

I understand that most stars put out huge amounts of radio-frequency electro-magnetic waves. Every with our very best space-based instruments, we have problems detecting things as large as gas giants circling nearby stars. If we're looking at a star which is blasting out huge amounts of radio waves, wouldn't detecting a "contact radio message" be like trying to see a guy on the ground on one of the planets, waving a flashlight at us? What are the chances of extracting a relevant radio wave from the background radio noise from the star?

What would you say to an alien civilization? What's up?

A. Dias-

Sorry to point out the obvious, but what if you are wrong and She really exists?

Dear David Evans (and Mike J),

Yes, the time -distance equation problem. Turns out it doesn't resolve that simply.

Assuming you have starships that can go at 10% of C (the fastest we can imagine building anything, absent FTL), it takes about 10^14 travel-years to visit every star in the galaxy, which is about 10,000 times the age of the galaxy. Now, one would imagine that if there were one starship (proof of existence), there would very likely be more than one. But how many? Are there 20,000 traversing the galaxy? That's still only one visit, on average, in the entire lifetime of the solar system. A million? That's still only one in every hundred million years. As Mike said, maybe they missed us last time around.

A billion starships? Well, now you're getting to fairly frequent visits, but I don't know anyone who has speculated that there are 1 billion starships randomly roaming the galaxy… or, if there are, it argues for a rather thriving interstellar culture, so most of those ships are probably going between established points of destination.

Point is, it seems hard to get visited by chance, very often. And we are not yet visible from very far away.

But let's turn the question around, and take David's hypothesis: that some species kinda-sorta like us arises and sets out pointedly to expand throughout the galaxy. Even at the incredibly slow sublight velocity ships we know how to build today, that would only take several hundred million years. There's been enough time for this to happen 20-40 times over. And that's a problem.

Maybe it goes something like this: "Humans 1.0" goes out and turns Galactica Incognita into Cognita six billion or so years ago. After a few hundred million years, Humans 2.0 come along and do the same thing. Whoops! It's not a virgin galaxy they're exploring. And so they have a big war and lay waste to everything. And a few hundred million years later Humans 3.0 come along, look at the remnants of the carnage, scream “holy shit" and retreat back to their home world as quickly as possible. And a few hundred million years later, Humans 4.0 come along, look around and say, “Gee, everything sure looks pretty calm but lordy they left things in such a mess. We should be the stewards of the galaxy and clean it all up and leave it in pristine condition and not exploit it that way.” And a few hundred million years later, Humans 5.0 show up and say, “Goddamn hippies” and ...

Okay, tell me how this all works out another 20 or 30 cycles later?

I don't have a clue.

Anyway, that's the failure of trying to logic this out using the reasoning that if even one alien species does X, then... you can kind of make guesses and assumptions the first time it happens, how it might work. But it's hard to imagine there would be only that first time, might as well assume we are the very first. As soon as it becomes not-the-first, it turns into sociology and politics involving unknowable aliens.

pax \ Ctein
[ Please excuse any word-salad. MacSpeech in training! ]
-- Ctein's Online Gallery http://ctein.com 
-- Digital Restorations http://photo-repair.com 

Right on. That's why I respect Lem so much among SF writers. He seems to get that alien intelligence would be so alien that it would most likely be incomprehensible to us. Also that the environment of space is so distractingly alien and hostile in and of itself that it would severely compromise our perceptions of, and interactions with, human beings, let alone anything alien that we might encounter in it or through it.

But I have to chime in with others who have pointed out that most of your so-called species-specific traits seem not at all species-specific, except in terms of refinement and abstraction. There is a reason that packrat-ism is named after a certain rodent, for example.

With things like commerce, though, especially trading in debt (as in legal tender and derivatives), I can think of no correlates in other species.

Slightly off-topic, but seeing how has been mentioned, I thought I'd throw it into the mix "If horses have gods, then they probably look like horses"

There is a simple answer to Mr. Fermi:

They are gone or better at least their signals are gone! What lies at the heart of the assumption is that an intelligent civilisation is an endless (or open ended) affair that keeps chattering in UHF bands. Well in my book it is not. We are able to send signals into outaspace since the nineteen thirties, but wether that ability is infinite, I wonder. On the up side, we do much more using cable as we speak, on the down side, our society is based on cheap oil which (tar sands or no tar sands) will be a finite resource. So people like James Howard Kunstler predict that the end of our technological civilisation is just around the corner. So I guess on the up side or on the down side, there is a window of about 100 years in which a civilisation anounces it's precense to the universe by means of UHF radio signals. Then either the technological society will have failed into a "World made by hand" or "Internet/cable technology" scenario and fall silent to the outside world. And if a technological society would adopt deep space travel, radio messages, well narrow beamed and pointless (lightspeed is rather slow compared to the vastness of the universe which is known to be a really, really big place (c) Douglas Adams).

Greetings, Ed

Religion is a group-reinforcing concept

Oh, yes. But that comes later. I was talking about Ctein's religious impulse, which I — supposedly Ctein, too — consider a presupposition for religion.

Animals don't wonder where it all came from, it simply is. The question of origins apparently arises only when you add intellectual curiosity in the mix.

Pets, well, still don't have a real idea. (Please, people, don't confuse "pets" with "domesticated animals" for all that an animal has to be domesticated or at least tamed first in order to be a pet.) Maybe it's a function of our gregariousness. Maybe it's a need for "nature" in us. Maybe it's a form of one of the biological impulses. I don't know.

BTW, I have recently read an interesting article that said the wolves more or less started domesticating themselves. It's only after that we took a more active role in creating the dogs.

There might well be intelligent 'life' out there, looking for other 'intelligent' life...they've seen us, and decided that they need to keep on looking.

A Dias,

"Is this a photography site or a 'cheap' philosophical blog?"

Do the two not overlap?

So, the conclusion of this article is, if there is intelligent life out there and it is anything like us, we can be absolutely sure we will never hear from them at all - they will be way too self-absorbed, ego-centric, and taken up with trivialities to ever bother reaching out.

As to one of the commenters who asked "Is this a photography site or a 'cheap' philosophical blog?". Assuming that (A) photography is an art form, and (B) Art is about the world we live in, so that (C) photography tries to say something about the world we live in - when I look at most photo-sharing sites, blogs and forums about photography, it would seem to me that photography mostly IS a form of rather cheap philosophy.

Contact between more technologically advanced human societies and
less technologically advanced human societies has generally been
disastrous for the latter. We could be under quarantine by ET societies for much the same reason.

TOP = The Online Philosopher?

... "almost everything humans do makes no sense in any abstract, logical way" ...

Well, there is no such requirement :-) In fact, we are nothing more than smart animals. As such, we are 100% under laws of nature, especially evolution and natural selection. Thus, everything we do makes some kind of sense. And because we are living in constantly changing conditions, diversity is the only way to survive and accommodate. Diversity has a natural consequence in some strange and maybe illogical behaviors which are not penalized by nature (currently). However stating that a particular behavior is illogical is very tricky, because it means that one can foresee and/or understand ALL possible consequences of this behavior.

@A Dias, but what if He is a She? And why 'cheap' in scare quotes?

"The religious impulse could be a result of sapience."

Or a vestige of undeveloped sapience. Not to suggest that anyone with religious impulses is unintelligent, but it's possible that we're evolving away from such beliefs rather than toward them.

As I grow older, I find it puzzling that advance in intelligence is always equated with advance in technological development. I am not sure that one is an absolute indication of the other.

One definition of intelligence (in my opinion the best) is: The ability to comprehend. It does not absolutely follow that comprehension of being leads to an endless quest toward mastery of the statistics of the physical universe.

Comprehension, if it does not lead to inner peace, may not be a goal worth striving for. For me, ideally, comprehension does stand for inner peace. When one considers the possibility that the ultimate result of true intelligence is an individual like the Dalai Lama,it is not so difficult to believe that such individuals could live relatively close to one another, even in neighboring solar systems, and never realize the others exist.......maybe never even care.

Ctein had too much tea. Let the Happy Holidays pass quickly so that we can all go back to normal.

> Just wait till genetic engineering gets to the
> point where a bright grad student can adapt a
> virus to do whatever.

have a look here - this is indeed what is happening right now. Some researchers genetically engineered a harmless (for humans) virus into a mega-bug:


The universe overall has existed for vaguely 13 billion years -- but that whole time-span isn't available for evolution and such. First you need to pump up the metalicity (to astronomers, anything heavier than Helium is a "metal") to the point of being able to create life, by running some early stars through their life-spans, blowing them up, and forming new solar systems from the remains. That kind of thing takes time.

Still, plenty of time has gone by.

On Earth, we've found specialized organisms living in the most amazing places (the undersea volcanic vents have their own ecosystems built on different metabolisms, for example), and have demonstrated creating the immediate precursors of the critical components of Earth life in a few weeks in the lab. As a matter of opinion, it seems absurd to me that life wouldn't evolve pretty much everywhere there's liquid water. (There may be completely different ways to make life, too; we haven't found them or created them yet though, so that remains speculative.)

God is non-disprovable. This is the result of cultural evolution -- everybody whose concept of god could be disproven, has had it disproven, leaving only those that are non-disprovable. However, there's plenty of evidence that all the reported personal "religious experiences" correspond to various disease effects and brain malfunctions. Doesn't prove that's what they actually are of course; but there's nothing left that the theory of "god" both can explain and does explain any better than any other theory.

To paraphrase Pogo,
"We have met the X and he is us."

Ah good, somebody else who misses Walt Kelly's Pogo. Suspect you're like many of us Ctein, that which assisted in our maturing is no more; sensible comic strips and cartoons with nary a hint of nastiness.

Then there is Calvin and Hobbs; a child with a vivid imagination and his imaginary (to us)
tiger. Harvey the White Rabbit also comes to mind.

The last time intelligent life forms encountered each other on a cosmic scale? It didn't go well. We blew the whole place up.

This is so far off-topic that it is on-topic.

Meh , intelligence is over-rated. The dinosaurs existed for hundreds of millions of years, and would have continued to thrive had a big asteroid/meteorite not blown the hell out them. That's how we "intelligent" critters came dominate the planet and use our smartness to destroy the world with our technology and endless growth and accumulation of wealth.

How long have we been on the earth since the first primate climbed down from the trees and decided to walk upright? How long since humanity began to shape the world with its intelligence? Not very long. We may just prove in the not-distant future that intelligence is actually detrimental to sustainable life on a planet.

Even if there are "intelligent" being out there, it would take hundreds of thousands and thousands of years for any communication. Not very f*****g likely.

Dear Robert e.,

Please reread the sentence before my use of the phrase "species-specific." I did not say "species-unique," in fact, I explicitly rejected that. What we're talking about here are traits that are not species-ubiquitous or even particularly common. you will note I did not include things like eating or sleeping on this list because almost every species that we know of with a halfway-decent nervous system does both of these. One could science-fiction only speculate about a species that didn't, but we have no idea whether such a thing exists. Whereas we can be reasonably confident that the specie-al characteristics I listed aren't at all necessary to life, or intelligence, as we know it.

Also, remember that this is by no means an exhaustive list. It doesn't even include the most important specie-al traits.


Dear John Camp,


Regarding your first question, I would distinguish between physics and engineering. We know we are nowhere near the limits of engineering (although we don't know what those limits are). There's nothing in our physics, for example, that prevents us from building an Avatar-type starship… but for the fact it would cost many quadrillions, possibly quintillions of dollars using engineering that we know how to do. But does it exceed our knowledge of physics? No. (And, yes, I've seen the YouTube video which purports to show that it's physically impossible. The video is wrong. No, I will not dissect it here; it would take way too long.)

As to whether we're near the end of physics (or at least physics that would mean anything in practical engineering terms)? Maybe. Flip of the coin. But I'd have to have the answers to three questions before I'd want to even hazard a guess: what's with dark matter, what's with dark energy, and what is the correct extension of the Standard Model of quantum mechanics? The answers to all three of those may turn out to be trivial tweaks. Or they could be very profound.

A question that doesn't concern me is the contradiction between quantum mechanics and general relativity. We have a philosophical belief that there should be a unifying theory of everything, because so far that's been a very good and successful operational assumption for science. We don't know that it's actually true. If it turned out GR and QM were the place where it stopped being true, it wouldn't cost me any sleep as a physicist.

And, getting extremely speculative, science may not be the be-all and end-all. For quite a few hundred years now, it's been the most successful intellectual approach and methodology for acquiring useful knowledge. But maybe it isn't the ultimate, end-of-the-line, approach. Just the very best that we've come up with so far.

What would post-science even look like, assuming there could be such a thing? I don't have the foggiest.

As for your second question, the way you make yourself visible in a “Contact” scenario is you put a whole lot of energy into a very narrow wavelength. Most stars, including ours, aren't very bright at radio wavelengths and don't put a lot of energy into any narrow band.

Broadband signals, like radio and TV transmissions, cannot be detected very far away except by really huge antennae, many kilometers across. A narrowband signal would be detectable over thousands of light years.

For those who like highly technical details, this is a very nice paper:


This relates to a question that hasn't been asked here but does come up often: if there are any alien starships out there, why have we seen no evidence of them with our telescopes. The answer is that they are broadband sources and compared to other astronomical objects they are incredibly faint. With our current observing capabilities, one would have to pass quite close by, in interstellar terms, for it to be detectable. The odds do not favor that (see my previous post to David Evans).

pax \ Ctein
[ Please excuse any word-salad. MacSpeech in training! ]
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@Sven W- 95% of all UFO related sightings and incidents are in fact explainable by rational, logical, earthly and astronomical scenarios. Unfortunately, many debunkers conveniently nitpick and delete the facts and evidence of the remaining 5% to explain away incidents that involve multiple sightings from multiple sources and individuals (often military), together with radar, radiation and other physical evidence- as did your Wikipedia source. You'd be well served by reading Leslie Kean's book, who did exhaustive research on the most well documented UFO incidents- including the case of the Japanese 747 captain who flew alongside a UFO three times the size of a football field (also sighted on radar).

It might also interest you to know that former Project Blue Book director, physicist and astronomer Dr. Allen Hyneck (the originator of the term "swamp gas") admitted that his job was to automatically debunk each and every UFO report. He eventually quit in disgust when he saw just how much hard, credible evidence there was that couldn't be explained away, and would later call for serious governmental investigation into the UFO phenomena. We do agree that studying UFOs does tell us a lot about human nature, they've been coming here for a long, long time...

Dr. Wernher von Braun- It is as impossible to confirm them (UFOs) in the present as it will be to deny them in the future.

I completely agree that most of these peculiar characteristics that I described are likely quite explicable biologically. But that's ex post facto.

That's the only way to go about explaining, isn't it? Now, predicting is different. You can predict that something will occur, although you cannot specify what exactly. In that case, yes, it is pretty inexplicable. You don't even have to predict the behaviour of intelligent life to find things inexplicable.

Who could predict bower birds' "gardens" as the means of attracting females? Or lyre birds' calls? (This one is perfectly apposite here. :)) Who could predict the mane of the lion? Or that the natural weaponry will appear as the nose horn on rhino, horns on the buffalo and the antlers on the deer?

Again, you can predict that the expression of general fitness and the desirability as a sexual partner will occur in some way. The exact expression... well, no, you can't predict it.

Dennis, thousands of years of social conditioning — what Mike said — is difficult to erase. Consider that the "scientific method" first appeared only at the end of the Middle Ages, 5-6 hundred years ago.

The point here is, what prompted the Neanderthals to start burying their dead? Where did that impulse come from? (It appears that Homo sapiens imitated Homo neanderthalensis.)

I still say that it might be a sign of sapience, trying to explain the world around you, your place in it and what happens after you die. The later forms — god(s) in high places, in the sky and finally "above the sky" — is just shifting the explanation to the places you cannot physically check.

The late Spanish particle physicist Francisco Yndurain wrote a book on the subject (¿Quién está ahí? Who's there?, in Spanish, sorry). I think two of the hypothesis he discusses are worth mentioning:

1. There is a limit to what an intelligent society can know. He even proposed that we are already reaching that limit. It is not so outlandish if you consider the increasingly large number of scientists and engineers we are using to maintain scientific progress.

2. Any sufficiently advanced society will develop the technology to self-destruct, and they will. We did develop that technology decades ago, and it seems just a question of time until someone is foolish enough to push that big red button...

The late Spanish particle physicist Francisco Yndurain wrote a book about this question (¿Quién anda ahí? Who's there? In Spanish, sorry). Two of the hypothesis he discusses are worth mentioning:

1. There is a limit to what an intelligent society can know. He even proposes that we are approaching this limit. It is not so outlandish if you consider the increasingly large number of scientists and engineers we need to keep advancing.

2. Any sufficiently advanced society will develop the technology to self-destruct, and they will. We did develop that technology decades ago, and it seems just a question of time until someone is foolish enough to push that big red button...


Totally off topic ... as soon as I saw "Xmas" I had the image of the murderous Robot Santa in Futurama (where the term is X-mas, pronounced "ex-mas"). Not for the faint of heart but one of the favorites the Christmas with my daughter.

Just my 2 cents.

Stan B: I followed the link to your website and noticed it is "pro-UFO". Other than pro-UFO books (e.g Leslie Kean) and pro-UFO opinions by various astronomers and physicists (Hyneck, von Braun), do you have any first-hand evidence?

Seeing as this is a photography blog, perhaps a photo of your good self standing next to a spaceship or even an amiable ET, would be most helpful.

Okay, I'm being slightly tongue-in-cheek, but the point is that extraordinary claims really do require extraordinary evidence.

From personal experience in other areas, its easy to fall "under the spell" of group-think or what is more generally referred to "confirmatory input basis".

For example, if a person has a preference for idea "A" over idea "B", and only studies the material that is pro-A, of course they will come to believe that A is true. The key is to study the good quality material for both A and B, then go with one that has the strongest evidence. This is essentially the scientific method.

I notice in your response that you quickly dismiss the Wikipedia article (I say "dismiss", not "debunk") and appear not to have read the articles by Ian Ridpath. As "evidence" you quote some opinions ... opinions are not evidence.

I started to watch the video (in your earlier post) but it seemed the usual fluff: wide-eyed assertions and opinions but no critical analysis. The two articles I referenced seemed to be calmly and cooly written, working through each point and providing an explanation. Based on this, it appears to me that the Rendlesham Forest incident was mis-interpreted; and should not be regarded as a UFO incident.

Of course, the Rendlesham incident might be a UFO but the "pro-UFO" case is lame and the "anti-UFO" case is strong. I've decided to go with the stronger argument.

Stan, I hope you don't take offence with my viewpoint but I do hope there are some ideas in my post that might be of use to you.

Dear Bill Mitchell,

Indeed. The timescales are too long for us to imagine how a dialogue would work. What questions could we ask today that we'd be sure that 1000 years from now we'd care about the answers to (and couldn't answer ourselves by then)?

So the modern assumption is that we're looking at monologues. A civilization just decides to dump its knowledge out there in the hopes that it will proof of value to somebody else, with no expectation of a reply.

But even that is not a given. An interesting cost/performance ratio that was published in Nature some years ago showed that it was more cost-effective to, in essence, launch a whole bunch of DVDs on solar-system escape velocity. It was more expensive (and even took longer) to send very large amounts of information to the same number of recipients via radio waves.

Vaguely analogous to the problem today of sending a terabyte of data to a client. It's more efficient to put it on a hard drive and mail it than to upload and download that amount of data over a typical net connection.

There's an interesting exercise for somebody: to convey all the world's knowledge (currently I think it's around an exabyte?), how long does it take, how far away can you receive it, and how much does it cost to do it by radio? Obviously time/cost/distance are interrelated but I suspect the number might be terrifyingly large. Our current long-distance transmissions have been at such a low data rate that the entire lifetime of the universe would not be sufficient to convey more than a few percent.

Might actually be cheaper to go build that starship.

pax \ Ctein
[ Please excuse any word-salad. MacSpeech in training! ]
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