Archive for January, 2009

President B.O.

As of exactly this post’s time (January 20, 2009 12:00 Eastern Time), executive power in this country was peacefully transferred from one individual (and one political party) to another. This, in itself, is a rather remarkable feat. There are too many times in history when bloody civil wars have broken out because a leader has died or left their position without there being a strictly-defined successor. Even in our own country we have had a number of close calls. The Presidential Line of Succession was only established in 1947 and before then there have been periods, following the death or ascension of the Vice President to the Presidency, when there simply was no Vice President, many times lasting for several years. 

But what I really wanted to talk about today was my own following of Barack Obama. I first became aware of him way back in the Year of Your Lord 2003. I happened upon a magazine article (I forget which magazine it was) which stated–without qualification–that Barack Obama would be the first black President of the United States.

To be honest I was dubious. Not because I didn’t think he was qualified, or that because America would never vote for a black President. It was because I actually thought that someone else might beat him to it. After all he was really only a kid (42 years old) serving in his state legislature. He probably had maybe fifteen to twenty years until he might reach the office. Of course, only 5+ years later…

Next, I remember watching the returns for the 2004 election, when suddenly he popped on the screen giving an interview and I thought “hey, there’s that guy I read about”. He seemed to be moving up. Maybe he would really become the first black President.

And now he is. Not that he will have an easy time because of it. There will be many people (myself included) keeping a close eye on him, as we should do of all elected officials. But if his own history is any indication, I don’t think we have much to worry about.


Alien Civilizations V: Paradox

We should expect alien civilizations, if they exist, to quickly expand and colonize the galaxy. If they exist, they should already be here in our own solar system, mining the Sun, harnessing its entire output via a giant arrangement of solar collectors enclosing the sun. Their existence would be blatantly obvious. All we would have to do is look up and see, with our naked eyes, enormous engineering constructs in our solar system.

These constructs, however, do not exist. Furthermore, we can be certain they also do not exist around any other stars that we can see because, well, we can see the stars. If our solar system were spared from this fate for some reason, our nighttime sky would still be completely black.

The implication is obvious. There are no alien civilizations in our solar system, so there aren’t any anywhere. At least, there are none close enough in time and space to have made it here yet. For example, if an alien civilization developed one billion years ago in a galaxy two billion light-years away, then they would not have been able to have spread here yet. The laws of physics cannot be broken, not even by a super-advanced civilization.

But assuming they do still exist, why haven’t they done this? I honestly doubt that they would be hiding. If I were a super advanced civilization going about the universe this way, I probably wouldn’t bother hiding. What would be the point? Any developing civilization would probably eventually end up competing for the same resources. Indeed, I might be inclined to wipe them out before they could be a threat in order to secure my own survival.

And that raises another excellent point. If an alien civilization did evolve far in the past and colonize the galaxy, why are we still here? The fewer civilizations that have access to resources, the longer each civilization can survive. Plus, by constructing a Dyson swarm, they might even have deconstructed Earth for materials. Similar to the previous question: why is Earth still here? Not that that’s necessary to use Earth for materials. There’s likely enough material in the asteroid belt to make a Dyson swarm, but since there are more materials laying around, you might as well use them too (plus if you remove the planets and are left with only the swarm, you no longer have large masses gravitationally tugging on your collectors causing them to drift out of their orbits).

Then again, maybe they did exist, but died out before they had a chance to colonize the galaxy. Maybe there have been many civilizations which have all died out. This paints a rather unfortunate future for ourselves if true. They might even have sent precursory robotic probes throughout the galaxy as stated in Part III, but then died out before continuing. If so, there might still be alien base orbiting the Sun, or an alien base set up on some asteroid, waiting to someday be occupied by beings that no longer exist.

There is another mystery that galaxy-colonizing aliens seem, at first glance, to solve: dark matter. There is a large about of matter in the universe which we can detect gravitationally, but which does not shine or absorb light, rendering it, effectively, invisible. Maybe there really is a galaxy-spanning civilization harvesting the starlight of most, but not all, stars, and the ones we see are the small percentage.

To be honest, I don’t think that is what is really going on. If that were the case, we should still be able to detect their waste heat. There would be a very large number of anomalous heat sources crowding the sky, outnumbering visible stars by 9-to-1, and we would be left with the paradox of why such a civilization would choose 90% of the stars in the galaxy and leave the other 10% alone.

But that line of logic leads to what could be called a prediction of my hypothesis: find a galaxy, or cluster of galaxies, which are unusually dim, and/or radiating lots of infrared and radio light, but not visible or higher frequency light. Freeman Dyson essentially proposed the same thing-looking for anomalous heat sources in the sky-but predicted only point sources within our own galaxy. Here, I am predicting extended heat sources, perhaps actually covering significant portions of the sky, at hundreds of millions of light-years’ distance.

In the end, I think that the most likely state of affairs is that there are no extraterrestrial civilizations in our galaxy, neighboring galaxies, or within several hundred million light-years. This is pretty depressing thought, being alone. But it’s also one of great opportunity: we made it! We’re the first! The vast resources of the universe are ours for the taking! We have won the comic lottery, so to speak. At least, we will if we are able to band together, act in a unified fashion in order to ensure our own survival, instead of spending most of our resources finding new ways of killing each other.

But to be honest, I think we do have what it takes. In 1950, the idea that human civilization would last until the year 2000 was uncertain. There were many who thought the odds were the human race was on the brink of extinction. But today, the idea of the human race surviving to 2050, 2100, 2200, and so on seems much more believable. Global superpowers have learned, it seems, that working together is much more productive and desirable for all of the human species. In the words of Carl Sagan, who had fiercely argued against nuclear proliferation, “perhaps we have, after all, chosen life.”

So what about all other current efforts to find extraterrestrial life, namely SETI? SETI is searching for extraterrestrial radio broadcasts, perhaps beamed to us deliberately or “leaked” accidentally. So far–obviously–they have found nothing. Under my hypothesis, this result isn’t very surprising. They haven’t been found because there’s no one there. If they really wanted to relay information to us it would likely be through a probe already stationed in our own solar system, one which would have been there throughout all of human existence.

But does that mean I think that such a search is a waste of time? Absolutely not. Science is, after all, grounded in observation and experiment, not theorizing. My hypothesis could be entirely wrong, and could very well be disproved by SETI by discovering a single instance of extraterrestrial intelligence. I whole-heartedly support their efforts and, given the circumstances, really wouldn’t mind being proven wrong. If my hypothesis is right, we are the first sentient species to colonize the galaxy, and if I’m wrong, we have other intelligent species in the universe. Either way, I win.

Next Chapter: Additional Thought

Alien Civilizations IV: Survival

An alien civilization, existing for billions of years, will swiftly colonize every star in the galaxy shortly after developing (that is, swiftly compared to the amount of time that has already progressed). If an alien civilization has formed once, then its artifacts should already be here in our solar system.

Next Chapter: Paradox

But is that all that they will do? Litter space with probes and garbage? But let’s try to consider what an alien species would really do during billions of years of time. Let us assume one thing: that an alien species, having evolved and survived the evolutionary process, will take steps to maintain and maximize their own survival.

In order to facilitate this, let’s imagine that it is us who are trying to maximize our survival. What can we do? How to we make it possible for our civilization to survive for the longest possible amount of time. Living forever is obviously impossible, but with a mindset for conservation, our civilization could probably survive far beyond the death of the sun, far beyond the end of the flickering out all the stars, even up to the point where matter itself will decay into subatomic particles.

How? The two deciding factors are how many resources we have, and how fast we use up those resources. Far in the future, the only real resource that will matter is energy. From a physical standpoint, you can keep recycling the same matter over and over, so long as you continually input energy to combat entropy. For example, you can burn gasoline to run an engine, then take all the exhaust and reverse the chemical reaction and literally turn smog back into gasoline. All that’s needed for the last part is an energy source and the know-how to do it.

Now, far in the future, we’ll likely be uploads living in virtual space. We likely won’t be using gasoline, and our impact on physical reality will be significantly reduced. All we’ll really need are computer systems and a power source, and computer hardware is extremely durable. Likely computers in the future, just like computers today, will have very few, if any, moving parts. Once the virtual space servers and systems are all set up, they will likely require very little maintenance for centuries.

All that leaves is energy. Our civilization’s survival becomes dependent on how much energy we have, and how fast we use it. To put some numbers to it, let’s assume that human civilization consists of ten billion uploaded people, who each consume, on average, on thousand watts. Power usage is clearly ten trillion watts, or ten terawatts, around 70% of humanity’s current power usage.

Next, we want to expand our energy reserve as much as possible. The most energetic object relatively close to us is the Sun. The Sun’s power output is some four hundred trillion trillion watts, or forty trillion times greater than our future needs. We could use only a small portion of that power, and just let the rest radiate away into space much as what happens today, or we could capture the entire solar output by enclosing the Sun with a Dyson swarm, and save it for later. Antimatter would do nicely for this. The Sun will only last the next five billion years or so. By using only a tiny fraction of its output and saving the rest, we could survive on its power output for forty trillion times longer than the rest of its lifetime, or 2 x 1023 years. This is from a single star.

Of course, the Sun is actually a pretty poor producer of energy per unit mass. It might be useful to actually mine hydrogen and helium from the surface of the Sun and burn it in our own fusion reactors. We can continue fusing the resulting nucleons into more massive elements (until you hit iron, which takes energy to fuse), and accounting for inefficiencies in the process, let’s estimate that we can tap fully 1% of the total mass-energy of the Sun. The total mass of the Sun in 1.989 x 1030 kg, so we will have on hand 1.989 x 1028 kg of energy, or 1.788 x 1045 J. At ten terawatts, our civilization could survive 1.788 x 1032 seconds, or about 5.676 x 1024 years.

This is an enormously long time. It is currently estimated that star formation won’t last much more than one hundred trillion (1015) years. But even after five trillion trillion years, the universe will still be quite habitable. Matter and energy will still exist, and if we take further steps, we can increase our civilization’s lifetime many orders of magnitude further.

So far, we have only exploited the resources of a single star. What if we expand the area from which we are gathering energy to include the entire galaxy? It is currently estimated that the Milky Way masses roughly 580 billion solar masses. By using all of that material, we would extend our survival by a factor of 580 billion, or 3.29 x 1036 years. We would do this by constructing Dyson swarms around every star in the galaxy, and gathering all extra interstellar material not already in stars. It’s quite a task but almost trivial considering we have hundreds of billions of years to figure out how to do it. And actually, it probably wouldn’t be all that hard. By sending out von Neumann probes, we would very quickly colonize the galaxy and begin autonomously constructing these Dyson swarms. All the stars in the galaxy would become covered by these swarms more or less simultaneously, and almost within the blink of an eye: a few million years, tops.

We could then go about colonizing and consuming other galaxies as well, but by now you should see the point. The logical consequence of wanting to survive for the longest possible time leads to having a large portion of the visible universe converted to, essentially, power generators and battery packs. And the sooner this process is started, the more energy we will have to live on. The Sun, and the galaxy, is blazing away far far more power than we actually need, and it’s being wasted by going out into empty space. Every year that we spend not mining the galaxy for energy costs us literally billions of trillions of years of time in the far future.

Of course, when we combine this plan with the possibility of alien intelligent the obvious question arises: why hasn’t this already happened? Why don’t we look up in the sky and see that the Earth is orbiting inside a giant opaque sphere? If aliens exist, and if they care about their own survival, why haven’t they figured this out? Everything that I have described requires a number of breakthroughs (interstellar travel, intelligent autonomous robotic probes, interplanetary-scale mega-construction, the social and political will to commit to projects lasting many millions of millennia, etc.), but none of them violate the laws of physics. It’s merely pushing survival instinct and technical know-how to their logical extreme. Any alien civilization that has evolved in the past several billion years will have both. So where are they?

Next Chapter: Paradox

Doktor Wer

What’s better than Daleks shouting?

Daleks shouting in German.

Oh yes.