Friday, July 10, 2009

Won't Get There From Here

The paradox about The Fermi Paradox is that anyone finds it paradoxical at all.

To ruthlessly summarize, the Fermi "Paradox" goes like this: The Milky Way has lots of stars, many of which must have planets capable of sustaining life, at least a few of which must harbor intelligent life. And while stars are very far apart, the Milky Way's age trumps distance. Further, in a galaxy orders of magnitude older than human civilization, it is extremely unlikely humans are the first intelligent species. Therefore, since there are other intelligent beings in the Milky Way, we must have seen some sign of them by now, except that we haven't.

This is considered a paradox because reasoning from logical premises leads to a conclusion that contradicts observation: there must be, but there isn't.

As paradoxes go, this is nothing on anything Zeno cooked up. There are any number of ways to shoot holes in Fermi's logical premises: interstellar travel is, in fact, irremediably difficult; the mean distance between habitable planets exceeds the detection range; civilizations become harder to detect as they become more advanced.

To those obvious objections, add this:
(PhysOrg.com) -- For more than 50 years, many have taken the so-called Fermi Paradox to indicate that the existence of intelligent alien civilizations is an impossibility. However, a recent re-examination of the paradox points out that, rather than discounting the spread of an intelligent civilization, the Fermi Paradox merely points out that advanced civilizations with exponential growth are unlikely to exist.
In other words, for any civilization advanced enough to accomplish interstellar travel, there will be no point in doing so.

The only reason anyone still pays attention to the Fermi paradox is because Fermi said it, and it is a faux profundity: religion in miniature.

36 Comments:

Blogger Bret said...

Is there a cut/paste glitch in your excerpt (at the end)?

July 10, 2009 7:56 AM  
Blogger Hey Skipper said...

Thanks -- fixed.

July 10, 2009 8:10 AM  
Blogger Harry Eagar said...

Perhaps they all reach a point where ZPG seems the most obvious way of managing a complex society, and then they don't have enough individuals to inspect the billions of other stars that might have life.

At the rate we're going to Mars, it will take a million lifetimes of the Universe to get past our own neighborhood.

This could be called the Many Worlds Problem Lite

July 10, 2009 10:22 AM  
Blogger Hey Skipper said...

Or, we could be forever condemned to not knowing whether the galaxy has 10,000 civilizations, or just one.

July 10, 2009 12:17 PM  
Blogger erp said...

In answer to Harry's lament about our lamentable slowness in getting very far out into our own spatial neighborhood, perhaps if every time a Democrat got into power, the space program wasn't downsized, we'd be further along. Carter's hatchet job was particularly painful.

July 10, 2009 1:01 PM  
Blogger Susan's Husband said...

Heh. I have that same article saved for a fisking, as its arguments are very poorly thought out. The primary one is that it presumes the entire galactic colonization is funded by the original home planet. I.e., there are no secondary colonies. Another is that you don't need exponential growth to colonize the galaxy in a short time period. Should I post a longer fisking here, or at home?

As for the "they all reach a point ..." formulation, that founders on the ground of lack of unanimity. Breeders will always have a long term advantage over ZPGs.

The "millions of lifetimes" is a bit pessimistic, consider dinosaurs were roaming the earth just one million lifetimes ago. "Millions" would put us back before mammals. Not to mention that a million human lifetimes is still a short period on the galatic scale.

July 10, 2009 1:48 PM  
Blogger Hey Skipper said...

The primary one is that it presumes the entire galactic colonization is funded by the original home planet.

Of all the arguments I can think of against space colonization, population is by far the least powerful.

However, for the one data point we do have, it very much looks like population is going to stop growing by 2050, then start a long term gradual decline. I won't make a general conclusion from one data point, but that data point strongly suggests that for this planet, being wealthy enough to mount an interstellar voyage (even granting such a thing) also means the breeders do not have an advantage: no advanced economy has total lifetime fertility reaching replacement levels.

Gotta leave ... doing a 200 mile bike ride tomorrow. (in a relay team, so it isn't all on me.)

Maybe I'll have my strength back by Monday.

July 10, 2009 3:25 PM  
Blogger Harry Eagar said...

I wasn't lamenting. I think the human space exploration program is boring and wasteful. If it hadn't been Democrats anxious to dish the Commies (using Nazis), it never would have started, which makes erp's attack strange.

Even if we had had a good reason to do it, the way we did it was disgraceful.

I used to answer the Planetary Society's polls by marking 'no' on all their pet projects. Probably most Americans more or less agree with me, because 'on to Mars' has showed about as much electoral appeal as 'invade Cuba.'

You really cannot send 'people' to inspect 100 billion planets, nor can you send physical probes, you'd need 100 billion of them, and that gets expensive.

It's the old target acquisition problem again. Until you can by remote sensing narrow the possible sites of interest, wandering around the Universe is too expensive for any sensible society to bother with.

Very likely, some sort of remote sensing could be developed, but nobody has mentioned that step.

July 10, 2009 3:38 PM  
Blogger erp said...

Harry, I wasn't attacking -- merely trying to explain our tardiness in getting very far in space exploration. I know a Democrat started NASA -- I was around then, but as you know Carter just about killed it. The space program was basically kept alive to allow the Soviets to pretend they're space players too. Now NASA is running on momentum and I expect Obama will let it continue to decline until it runs out of steam.

Disgusting.

July 10, 2009 7:58 PM  
Blogger Peter Burnet said...

Skipper:

religion in miniature.

Oh come on. Read your Harris and Dawkins. People who doubt the existence of extra-terrestrial life because there isn't an iota of material evidence to support it are faith-based, but folks who doggedly keep coming up with conjectures that hint/imply it is out there despite any evidence because it fits nicely into their worldview are not?

"Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen."

Hebrews 11:1

interstellar travel is, in fact, irremediably difficult; the mean distance between habitable planets exceeds the detection range; civilizations become harder to detect as they become more advanced...for any civilization advanced enough to accomplish interstellar travel, there will be no point in doing so.

How can you or anyone else know possibly know any of that without making completely unfounded assumptions about the nature of extraterrestrial life and the limits of technologies we may not even have conceived of yet? Have you forgotten about the indivisible atom? There is a strong sub-text to your argument to the effect that, if there is life out there, it is no more advanced than we.

July 11, 2009 5:30 AM  
Blogger Susan's Husband said...

erp, much as it pains me to support one of Mr. Eagar's positions, the demise of NASA would be a very good thing for manned space exploration. NASA may have been a positive force 40 years ago, but it has spent the last few decades doing what it can to stymy access to space. It's like the US Post Office to FedEx - the private sector succeeds despite it, not because of it. That's the nature of government and we must face it even if we happen to like what that particular agency is putatively trying to accomplish.

July 11, 2009 6:46 AM  
Blogger Gaw said...

As a Brit looking in, I'm rather amazed that the question of whether life exists on distant planets can be turned into a Republican vs Democrat scrap. I wonder if the aliens will be pro-life?

You guys seem incredibly politicised and polarised, perhaps worryingly so for the rest of us. Over here, we have a lot more political consensus, in that everyone just hates Gordon Brown.

July 11, 2009 6:56 AM  
Blogger Harry Eagar said...

FedEx does not even try to do what the Post Office does, so that comparison is inapt.

However, here's a thought: If Truman (who started it, not Kennedy) had not agreed to use Nazis, thereby locking us into V2 liquid fuel technology, maybe you guys would have your ladder by now, or some other innovative method of making short trips.

July 11, 2009 11:21 AM  
Blogger erp said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

July 11, 2009 1:16 PM  
Blogger erp said...

SH - I bow to your superior knowledge of science and technology, but IMO had Carter not politicized the space program and used it as a whipping boy perhaps it wouldn't have devolved into just another bureaucracy.

We had good people in NASA at the beginning and the public was behind it.

BTW - even Harry can be right on the nonce.

July 11, 2009 1:27 PM  
Blogger Susan's Husband said...

Mr. Eagar;

No, it does, but nevertheless the USPS used legal mechanisms to try and strangle FedEx in the cradle. NASA does the same with private space flight.

As for liquid fuels vs. more exotic launch technologies I can't see the early stages relying on anything but liquid fuels so you can't blame that on Truman or the Nazis.

erp;

Gah! You made me defend Jimmy Carter!

I would point out that NASA was politicized long before Carter - what did you think JFK's "Man on the moon by 1970" was? But even he wasn't the first, as it really started with the response to Sputnik. The current state of NASA was, IMHO, unavoidable.

July 11, 2009 5:52 PM  
Blogger erp said...

SH -- Gawk you made me defend Kennedy who politicized it for his own reasons, but was also the right thing to do.

July 11, 2009 6:11 PM  
Blogger Harry Eagar said...

You're certainly right about liquid fuel in the early years, but Dornberger kept the innovators out.

Moral for free marketers: Don't hire nazis.

FedEx does not attempt to deliver to every address every day. Not even close.

It is THE perfect example of how the market attempts to destroy public goods for the benefit of a few, without enhancing efficiency. It's called skimming, and it's bad.

The reason for this is that markets are imbeciles and assign 0 value to networks, whereas in reality networks are among the most valuable parts of a complex economy, even if intangible. See the history of the Black Ball Line for the most famous example.

You, of all people, ought to appreciate the value of networks.

July 12, 2009 11:59 AM  
Blogger Bret said...

Harry,

Do you realize that FedEx would love to have the opportunity to deliver 1st class mail to every address every day but are prohibited by law from doing so, don't you?

July 12, 2009 2:08 PM  
Blogger Susan's Husband said...

It's not clear to me that, even today, we have the technology the build launch systems more exotic than chemical fueled rockets.

I find it that that your moral of not hiring Nazis is addressed to private markets even though it was the government that thought it a good idea. Somehow, any mistake is always the fault of private markets, regardless of who makes them.

"The reason for this is that markets are imbeciles and assign 0 value to networks"

Do you never actually read any business publications? Valuing networks is a mantra, nearing dogma, of modern business. It's what largely fueled the Internet Bubble, everyone saying "it doesn't matter if we lose money today, we'll have the network tomorrow and cash in". I read stuff about how valuable networks are nearly every single day, all written by and for private market types. I am utterly boggled that you would write something like that in public.

July 12, 2009 7:05 PM  
Blogger Harry Eagar said...

There are imaginary networks and real networks. The real networks are not highly valued, as we note that they are left to languish in too many instances.

I do not recognize that FedEx would love to deliver to every address every day and wonder where you got that idea, Bret.

July 12, 2009 10:02 PM  
Blogger Barry Meislin said...

Hold on there.

Werner may have been a Nazi, but he was OUR Nazi.

(At least, after he was THEIR Nazi.... So is that repentance of a sort? Or just another paraduck?)

(On the other hand, might old WVB have been just another apolitical rocket enthusiast, looking for the chance to develop and launch the biggest, baddest rocket possible?....)

July 13, 2009 2:04 AM  
Blogger Susan's Husband said...

Ah, I see. As usual, networks that favor your view are real, ones that favor mine are imaginary.

I would ask, though, if FedEx doesn't want to deliver first class mail, why is it illegal for them to do so?

July 13, 2009 5:59 AM  
Blogger Bret said...

Harry,

FedEx and many others but they are prohibited by law. From wikipedia:

"Article I, section 8, Clause 7 of the United States Constitution grants U.S. Congress the power to establish post offices and post roads. The Federal Government has interpreted this clause as granting a de facto Congressional monopoly over the delivery of mail. According to the government, no other system for delivering mail - public or private - can be established absent Congress's consent. Congress has delegated to the Postal Service the power to decide whether others may compete with it, and the Postal Service has carved out an exception to its monopoly for extremely urgent letters."

July 13, 2009 7:09 AM  
Blogger Hey Skipper said...

Peter:

Oh come on. Read your Harris and Dawkins. People who doubt the existence of extra-terrestrial life because there isn't an iota of material evidence to support it are faith-based, but folks who doggedly keep coming up with conjectures that hint/imply it is out there despite any evidence because it fits nicely into their worldview are not?

That isn't what I meant.

Ferm's paradox only appears paradoxical if one takes as fact assumptions for which there is precisely zero evidence.

It isn't the existence of extra-terrestrial civilizations which is in question, but whether those civilizations can, or will, expand to colonize the galaxy within even pretty extensive time.

Fermi's paradox relies upon a series of assumptions which must all be true in order for the paradox to be paradoxical. If even one collapses, the entire thing becomes meaningless with regard to whether other civilizations exist.

It's like the US Post Office to FedEx - the private sector succeeds despite it, not because of it.

Harry is correct, FedEx does not even try to do what the USPS does, and vice versa. NB: FedEx carries a whole lot of stuff for the Postal Service.

The USPS did not try and use legal mechanisms to strangle FedEx. Rather, in 1977 Congress removed restrictions on routes operated by all cargo airlines, despite resistance by trucking companies.

The repeal of those laws allowed overnight priority point - point delivery.

However, while Harry is correct that FedEx does not attempt to deliver to every address every day, he is absolutely incorrect to say that FedEx is the perfect example of how the market attempts to destroy public goods. FedEx pioneered a service that simply did not exist, and which no public entity was going to create.

Which makes, in this case anyway, the market a heck of a lot smarter than government provision of public goods.

Bret:

Do you realize that FedEx would love to have the opportunity to deliver 1st class mail to every address every day but are prohibited by law from doing so, don't you?

I'm not sure FedEx wants to do that -- it seems the company is pretty happy carrying the mail without having to deal with the front end operation. Here is where Harry does have a point, though, even if he is mistaken about history. The USPS is obligated to provide mail service throughout the US without price discrimination for first class mail. Contrast with the airline industry, where some airlines (Southwest, Jet Blue) skim high demand city pairs, but will never get you from, say, Buffalo New York to Madison Wisconsin.

Unless there was a requirement to serve every community, no matter how small, then a private entrant would, in fact, skim the high-demand city pairs.

July 13, 2009 10:49 AM  
Blogger Harry Eagar said...

FedEx did propose to skim first-class mail in easy to serve areas, which would have made the post office more uneconomic than it already is.

We subsidize 42-cent mail service to Point Barrow because we are a nation and it is important to have Point Barrow part of it. You may not ever want to send a letter to Point Barrow, but without the post office, it would cost you hundreds, if not thousands, to do so.

Markets do not recognize social goods, another reason I am skeptical of the idea that whatever the market determines is the best possible outcome.

The CEO of FedEx, who tried a publicity campaign to enrich his company at the expense of a public good, failed and, remarkably, then forged an alliance with the post office that apparently has worked out pretty well for both.

He's an operator. One of the very small number of CEOs I think really manages his company.

July 13, 2009 3:29 PM  
Blogger Peter Burnet said...

Skipper;

Once upon a time there was a cult that believed their lives were ruled by flying spaghetti monsters. One day, a free-thinker among them said: "You know, we believe there are all these flying spaghetti monsters out there that decide everything, but none of us have ever seen one. I find that paradoxical." He was hauled before the elders who proclaimed thus: "This man's so-called paradox hangs entirely on the assumptions that flying spaghetti monsters: a) aren't invisible; b) are flying low enough to be seen; or c) aren't too shy to reveal themselves to us. There isn't a shred of objective, empirical, testable evidence to show flying spaghetti monsters are any of those things. The paradox is really religious poppycock."

July 13, 2009 4:51 PM  
Blogger David said...

Sorry I'm late:

First, you all might want to think about how much longer delivering information in the form of ink on paper to every home in the nation is going to be something that anyone has to do.

Second, Fermi's Paradox is not about interstellar travel or colonization, it's about those stupid formulae containing 17 made-up variables that supposedly "prove" that intelligent life is hiding under every space rock. If intelligent life is easy, then we should have heard from somebody by now. The rate of expansion, etc., is completely irrelevant to the point.

July 14, 2009 6:03 AM  
Blogger Brit said...

A problem with the question of intelligent alien life is our anthropocentrism. We expect things to be not quite of, but approximately of, our shape, size, substance and way of thinking.

The sad thought is that the universe could well be teeming with 'intelligent' life but we have no way of being able to communicate with or even see each other.

July 14, 2009 7:51 AM  
Blogger Peter Burnet said...

Not only what Brit said, but we expect them to be progressive and left of center enough to teach us the futility of war and how we can abolish it, although I suppose there are also some conservative versions that just want to eat us.

July 14, 2009 9:53 AM  
Blogger Harry Eagar said...

Not only information on paper. Stuff.

RFD was important for more reasons than that it allowed farmers to buy live chicks.

July 14, 2009 1:33 PM  
Blogger David said...

No, Harry, just information. Stuff gets delivered without the USPS.

July 14, 2009 8:15 PM  
Blogger Harry Eagar said...

You wouldn't think that if you lived where I live.

July 14, 2009 8:54 PM  
Blogger Hey Skipper said...

David:

... Fermi's Paradox is not about interstellar travel or colonization, it's about those stupid formulae containing 17 made-up variables that supposedly "prove" that intelligent life is hiding under every space rock.

Not quite. Fermi's paradox uses 17 made-up variables and one observation to come to two diametrically opposed conclusions: at least one civilization would by now have colonized the entire galaxy vs. we are the only (or, just as unlikely, the first) intelligent civilization in the galaxy.

The problem with Fermi's paradox is that, through religious belief in its variables and interstellar travel, it poses a false dichotomy. For any number of reasons, it is quite possible the galaxy has thousands of civilizations, and we and they will never know about even one.

One of the offshoots of FP is SETI, which is based upon the presumption we will be able to detect alien civilizations through their electromagnetic radiation. Unfortunately for SETI, the last 20 years have pretty much gutted that prospect: in the span of a century, our EMR spiked from zero, and is quickly on its way back down.

Brit:

A problem with the question of intelligent alien life is our anthropocentrism.

Perhaps. However, despite our anthropocentrism, we do recognize signs of intelligence in other creatures. And other creatures, at the very least, recognize "otherness" in us.

Also, we seem pretty good at separating non-life phenomena from living phenomena. Everything we have observed outside of Earth looks exactly like none of it is alive.

Harry:

Of course, the government could simply have established licensing standards, a la those for the USPS, for any company wishing to deliver mail, and then let the market have at it.

Works pretty well for food: network saturating, delivery intensive.

July 15, 2009 9:14 AM  
Blogger Harry Eagar said...

Yes, it could have, but not all experience along that way has been so good.

Railroads, for example. The government sponsored too many crosscountry lines, so that none of them could be profitable.

July 15, 2009 10:17 AM  
Blogger Ali said...

Skipper:

Sent you this message but your mailbox was full.

"I'm having one of those weeks where all the work I expected to do is being pushed back right to the end of the month.

I've (offically) got the time off to come to Cambridge and will do my best to make it come hell or highwater."

July 20, 2009 10:01 AM  

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