If aliens exist, they’ll find political union as tough as we do


I’ve thought a great deal about the so called Zoo solution to Fermi’s Paradox over the last five years. This is the idea that intelligent aliens have decided not to reveal themselves to us, and this is why we see no signs of intelligent life.

It’s quite an unscientific solution, as we cannot gather evidence in favour of it.  If we could, then we would have proof of intelligent life, and that would be the end of it!

The question now is: can we prove (or disprove) this solution while still having no evidence for aliens? The best we can do at this stage is challenge the assumptions that we must make to support it.

This is what I did in my latest paper.  The critical assumption about solutions that forbid contact with us (the Zoo Solution, the Prime Directive, the Interdict Hypothesis) is that this requires some form of law or moral tradition. Laws require agreement between multiple parties – in this case, most likely multiple species of intelligent life, from a variety of different backgrounds with very different belief systems.  To use Carl Sagan’s line, these solutions need a “Galactic Club” – underwritten by a host of treaties – to work.

So how can we test if a “uniformity of motive” can be established? I ran some computer simulations that were in effect an experiment in uniformity. In each experiment, I assumed that there N civilisations would appear in the Galaxy over its lifetime.   I placed them at given locations at a given time. I then tested whether a signal from civilisation a) would reach civilisation b) before b) became advanced enough to receive it. In other words, I wanted to measure how much civilisation a) can influence civilisation b).

This is a strict condition for universal interstellar law to emerge. It’s true that we can relax this condition by allowing civilisations to evolve after they make contact, but I wanted to see whether a universal legal system is a natural consequence in a populated Galaxy.

And, surprise surprise, it isn’t. In previous work, I was able to show that Galactic Clubs were very unlikely. In my latest research, I was able to quantify what the Club would be replaced with. More often than not, my simulations showed a large number of small civilisation groupings, which I call “Galactic cliques”.  It’s quite likely that these cliques do not share much in common culturally (at least initially).

So we can conclude that Galactic Clubs are far from guaranteed. In fact, to obtain a single Club the distribution of civilisations in space and time must be quite odd (you can read the paper to find out more), or one clique must dominate the others well after the fact (via political or military means).

This work hardly destroys these solutions to Fermi’s Paradox. What it does show us is the weaknesses in the assumptions we make to propose these solutions.  The Galaxy is big enough that it would be pretty tough for every civilisation to come to an agreement about how to conduct themselves.

This is a consequence of the laws of physics, and it holds true whether there are ten or ten thousand civilisations out there.

It’s certainly true even if there’s only one, as our own civilisation can attest to.

Pedants Corner: Dwarves vs Dwarfs

The coming release of The Hobbit in cinemas brings to mind a common mistake amongst astronomers (and the general public) when they come to the plural of “dwarf”.

These are brown dwarfs… (Hubble image of Orion)
…and these are dwarves wearing brown

Science is a global practice.  It just so happens that most scientists have adopted English as lingua franca, requiring non-native speakers to be able to use it to communicate with the admittedly lazy native speakers.

On the face of it, English is not exactly a good choice for a universal language (of course, it wasn’t exactly chosen, but rather foisted upon much of the world during the colonial period, and the British Empire cemented its familiarity and use).  Its history is the history of a perpetually invaded and embattled island kingdom.

The language is a heady mix of Germanic, Latin, Norse, French, and other invasive languages, evolving from a creole in the medieval period to the modern English we know today.  As a result, it’s unmercifully bloated and obscure, with countless words, a partially collapsed declension system, no gender, a dizzying list of irregular verbs, and a baffling range of dialects and accents to confuse and terrify.  The situation is made even worse thanks to neologisms, new words that enter the language at a rate of several thousand per year.  Literature and other media makes their presence felt constantly (case in point, this year’s most famous neologism, omnishambles).

There are few pieces of literature with impact as great as Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings.  While he was not responsible for the coining of the term, Tolkien adopted the plural “dwarves” for his fictional race of diminutive stonemasons, calling it

a piece of private bad grammar

The fact that this piece of bad grammar would be part of the third best-selling book of all time has understandably led some to accidentally use it (here’s an example from the Royal Astronomical Society’s own pages).

Am I pedantic? Absolutely.  It doesn’t change the meaning of the sentence, only the length of the last syllable in one word.  But I’ve accepted my fate as someone who’ll be frequently irritated by what I consider to be bad usage.  There’s not much you can do about an evolving language, especially one as beaten up and malleable as English.  Amongst native speakers, we can guess how quickly an irregular verb will regularise, and non-native speakers are developing an English variant that may soon be inaccessible to the native.

I’ll just need to focus my pedantry somewhere else

Snow Brings Out the Apocalypse in All of Us

It continues to snow in Edinburgh, nearly two months after winter got the jump on us (and the rest of the UK) at the end of November.  While we’re now at the dribbly end of the season (a few measly inches in comparison to the feet of snow we had in December), what my father calls the “siege mentality” still grips us.  The feeling of not wanting to go out unless you have to is difficult to shake, even with the one whole week of snow free streets we had, which ended on Friday evening.

And when you do venture out (as I did today, proved by the photo of the castle above), you meet with yet more mania.  I’m not referring to the somewhat amusing mania of sales shopping – that is sadly defunct thanks to the economic landscape.  I’m referring to the more traditional “we’re all going to die on a very specific date” mania.  I saw a man standing in the middle of Princes Street carrying a board with the sign “Judgement Day May 21st: Free Proof Available”.

A quick google of the date throws up a variety of websites “confirming” this, with the figurehead appearing to be Harold Camping.  His prowess with predictions of this sort is remarkable – having predicted the second coming of Jesus in 1994, he is apparently unhampered by his failure, and claims that the Bible contains algorithms for calculating the date of the Rapture (that bit where the faithful are uplifted to heaven and the sinners are left to be royally screwed).  The sources of the algorithm specifically are the books of Daniel and Revelation.

I recommend reading the Bible from cover to cover.  Not because I’m trying to convert you, more because it’s a fascinating piece of literature.  The Old Testament is a circus of horrors – Jehovah is clearly unhappy with most of the human population, and the gods they worship (interesting in itself because these other deities appear to exist, the “no god but God” line not appearing until the Gospels).  The pious are drenced in the blood of their enemies, and Jehovah doesn’t refrain from getting His own hands dirty.

Like any good book, it saves the best for last – the Book of Revelation is one of the most frenzied and perverse texts I’ve ever read.  It makes “The Doors of Perception” read like “George’s Marvellous Medicine”.  If you refuse to read the whole Bible, at least read Revelation.  It’ll give you perspective on the minds that accept this Jewish mystical mushroom trip as future events.  It also explicitly states that the events of the Book of Revelation will occur at a time unpredicted by any man.  I suspect that if this is direct revelation from Heaven, then God is not making an exception for Harold Camping (as He should make exceptions for no-one, if He is to be a judge of our actions).

Let me make it clear that I do not believe in God.  And I certainly do not believe in Harold Camping, and I hope you don’t either.  This insistence on apocalypse and fear in religion tires me.  At what point are we going to stop fearing the reaper? It’s incredibly easy to simply destroy the world to rid it of its flaws (as most millenial cultures wish), but it’s much harder, and ultimately more rewarding, to change the world instead.  People (on the whole) are generally good.  They have their weak spots – they are often manipulated, they can lose the track of things.   Sometimes they can’t see the bigger picture to their actions, and sometimes they’re just plain selfish, but they’re trying to get by in a difficult world.  It’s about time we stopped scaring the crap out of each other for inexplicable reasons, and simply worked at being better adjusted, better educated, and just plain better.