Hope We ARE Alone (‘Cause That’s A Good Thing)

Nick Bostrom at Technology Review:

It would be good news if we find Mars to be sterile. Dead rocks and lifeless sands would lift my spirit.
Conversely, if we discovered traces of some simple, extinct life-form–some bacteria, some algae–it would be bad news. If we found fossils of something more advanced, perhaps something that looked like the remnants of a trilobite or even the skeleton of a small mammal, it would be very bad news. The more complex the life-form we found, the more depressing the news would be. I would find it interesting, certainly–but a bad omen for the future of the human race.

It’s very improbable that our technological civilization is here.  That’s a fact, and the only question is “How improbable is it, Johnny?”  Every day that goes by without us “hearing” extra-terrestrials makes intelligent life (life intelligent enough to build a radio, anyway, which is a pretty low bar) more unlikely.

So why does the prospect of finding Little Green Men (LGMs) on Mars scare Nick Bostrom so?  Because if even simple life is unlikely (and not found, even on Mars) then we’ve already been lucky enough to get past the rough patch, the thing or things that make other life in the galaxy really, really difficult.

But if we find the remnants of LGMs on Mars or anywhere else, then that means that we can expect a great deal of trouble ahead.  It means we’ve yet to face some existential threat that no other civilization in the galaxy has survived.  He calls that “The Great Filter”.

[I]f we discovered the fossils of some very complex life-form, such as a ­vertebrate-­like creature, we would have to conclude that this hypothesis [that the Great Filter is behind us] is very improbable indeed. It would be by far the worst news ever printed.
Yet most people reading about the discovery would be thrilled. They would not understand the implications. For if the Great Filter is not behind us, it is ahead of us. And that’s a terrifying prospect.
So this is why I’m hoping that our space probes will discover dead rocks and lifeless sands on Mars, on Jupiter’s moon Europa, and everywhere else our astronomers look. It would keep alive the hope of a great future for humanity.

Have I scared you yet?

Explore posts in the same categories: Astronomy, post-modernism, Science

5 Comments on “Hope We ARE Alone (‘Cause That’s A Good Thing)”

  1. Paul Says:

    “Have I scared you yet?”

    Not in the least. Tell me that the Great Filter is less than about 20 years off and I might be concerned about getting the most out of my remaining lifespan. Otherwise, this type of hype is fear-mongering at best. Sort of like that asteroid that has a .0004 chance of hitting us in 2039 or whenever. Ask any San Franciscan if they worry about “the big one”. They don’t. It’s too far off to worry about, and there’s way too much life to breathe in the interim.

    Not to change the subject too much, but I believe that the likelihood of “hearing” extraterrestrial life is a function of how long a technologically advanced civilization needlessly (and inefficiently) generates RF energy. In the roughly 80 years since radio made its appearance, our ability to efficiently utilize directional RF (and now, fiber optics) makes it likely that in just a couple more generations our energy output in the radio spectrum emanating away from Earth will be significantly LESS than it is today. So, we might actually be one of many technologically advanced civilizations trying to hear another technologically advanced civilization that’s very, very quiet – a hard thing to do if we are all technologically noisy for so short a period of time.

    One last point: Any fossils found on Mars immediately begs the question “Did a meteor impact on Mars deliver life to Earth, or did a meteor impact on Earth deliver life to Mars?”


  2. joe Says:

    I wouldn’t be too scared about the idea of us not surviving too much longer as a species – that was sort of directed at those who are afraid that we are alone in the universe.

    I doubt that visibility in the RF will diminish too much, if only because we’ll produce more waste heat overall even as we produce more efficiently. “Dyson spheres” glow unnaturally in radio and in the IR, after all. On top of that, I suspect Homo Sapien Sapien will intentionally beam more RF to specific targets in the future, not less, but that’s just me.

    The real question posed by Fermi is about the absence of artifacts. It’s really hard to be “technological” and leave nothing behind. And if there have been large numbers of civilizations in the (long) lifetime of this galaxy, the evidence is strangely missing – even this early in the search it should be there, or show up soon.

    And yes I wonder which planet infected which too. I was hoping that Bostrom would say something about the “pan-spermia” idea also (both planets being seeded with life from elsewhere), but I don’t think it changes his point at all.

  3. Becky Says:

    From a purely non-scientific and vaguely superstitious viewpoint:

    What if life is moving it’s way from the sun? What if the Sun got hotter and burned out Mercury when it went past the hope of being THE planet, the inhabitants having irrevocably made life unsustainable for themselves?

    Then on to Venus, which evaporated itself in war or some other industrial-type or nature-based incident (to explain the gaseous clouds).

    Now it’s the turn of Earth.

    Meanwhile, life is just beginning to set up on Mars, rather than being remnants of a previous society. Getting ready for when Earth’s time is done, millions of years from now…

    Having an over-active imagination requires no basis in fact!

  4. joe Says:

    Hi, Becky. That’s an interesting thought.

    The Sun’s not getting hotter like that (and thank God – literally!) – at least, not yet. But the idea that the Solar System could become uninhabitable from the inside out and drive “intelligent” life out is actually pretty close to what we think will happen in, oh, about 6 billion years when the Sun goes nova.

    I suspect we’d be hard pressed to find a life form on this planet that’s been around for even 1 billion years, much less 6. Some archaic form of algae, perhaps.

    So when you think about it, I don’t have much faith that, as a species, we’re going to be around to worry about the need to get outta Dodge then, which tells me, oddly enough, that the Biblical stories about the Second Coming are very comforting.

    It’s funny how it all works together like that.

    Thanks for writing, Becky.

  5. Becky Says:

    So Mercury burned itself up by destroying it’s ozone layer!

    But maybe with our 2nd coming and subsequent erasure of Earth, a new Eden will evolve on Mars…to be continued.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: