We need better post-contact protocols

The discovery of extraterrestrial life can be classified as a low probability, high impact event. Since we don’t have any empirical data to help us assess the consequences of ET contact, governments are largely unequipped to deal with the potential hazards it could pose. In recognition of the impact that such an event would have on society, a number of international organisations have developed post-contact protocols to assist decision-making and establish a plan of action before such a chaotic event takes place.

The current protocols suffer from a number of problems and could be improved. The majority have been drafted by scientists, often working in a very specific domain of space exploration (radio astronomy). Protocols that focus on specific methods of detection might be useless if detection happens using a different method (for example by amateur astronomers). Also, because they are written by scientists, these plans often take a naive view of government, or do not provide advice that would be useful to governing organisations. Finally, these protocols are almost unanimously composed by international associations, offering an idealised and unrealistic perspective on geopolitical struggles that would inevitably ensue in the wake of discovery.

The most widely-cited set of protocols are the “Declaration of Principles Concerning Activities Following the Detection of Extraterrestrial Intelligence”, drafted by The International Academy of Astronautics (IAA) in 1989. The IAA is an international community of scientific experts recognised by the United Nations, tasked with advising governments and space agencies on policy and scientific matters related to exploration of outer space. The IAA protocols have been endorsed by a number of international scientific societies and also constitute an informal agreement among most of those carrying out SETI. The specific protocols are as follows:

    1) Any individual, public or private research institution, or governmental agency that believes it has detected a signal from or other evidence of extraterrestrial intelligence (the discoverer) should seek to verify that the most plausible explanation for the evidence is the existence of extraterrestrial intelligence rather than some other natural phenomenon or anthropogenic phenomenon before making any public announcement.

    2) Prior to making a public announcement that evidence of extraterrestrial intelligence has been detected, the discoverer should promptly inform all other observers or research organizations that are parties to this declaration, so that those other parties may seek to confirm the discovery by independent observations at other sites and so that a network can be established to enable continuous monitoring of the signal or phenomenon. Parties to this declaration should not make any public announcement of this information until it is determined whether this information is or is not credible evidence of the existence of extraterrestrial intelligence. The discoverer should inform his/her or its relevant national authorities.

    3) After concluding that the discovery appears to be credible evidence of extraterrestrial intelligence, and after informing other parties to this declaration, the discoverer should inform observers throughout the world through the Central Bureau for Astronomical Telegrams of the International Astronomical Union, and should inform the Secretary General of the United Nations in accordance with Article XI of the Treaty on Principles Governing the Activities of States in the Exploration and Use of Outer Space, Including the Moon and Other Bodies. Because of their demonstrated interest in and expertise concerning the question of the existence of extraterrestrial intelligence, the discoverer should simultaneously inform the following international institutions of the discovery and should provide them with all pertinent data and recorded information concerning the evidence: the International Telecommunication Union, the Committee on Space Research, of the International Council of Scientific Unions, the International Astronautical Federation, the International Academy of Astronautics, the International Institute of Space Law, Commission 51 of the International Astronomical Union and Commission J of the International Radio Science Union.

    4) A confirmed detection of extraterrestrial intelligence should be disseminated promptly, openly, and widely through scientific channels and public media, observing the procedures in this declaration. The discoverer should have the privilege of making the first public announcement.

    5) All data necessary for confirmation of detection should be made available to the international scientific community through publications, meetings, conferences, and other appropriate means.

    6) The discovery should be confirmed and monitored and any data bearing on the evidence of extraterrestrial intelligence should be recorded and stored permanently to the greatest extent feasible and practicable, in a form that will make it available for further analysis and interpretation. These recordings should be made available to the international institutions listed above and to members of the scientific community for further objective analysis and interpretation.

    7) If the evidence of detection is in the form of electromagnetic signals, the parties to this declaration should seek international agreement to protect the appropriate frequencies by exercising procedures available through the International Telecommunication Union. Immediate notice should be sent to the Secretary General of the ITU in Geneva, who may include a request to minimize transmissions on the relevant frequencies in the Weekly Circular.

    8) No response to a signal or other evidence of extraterrestrial intelligence should be sent until appropriate international consultations have taken place.

    9) The SETI Committee of the International Academy of Astronautics, in coordination with Commission 51 of the International Astronomical Union, will conduct a continuing review of procedures for the detection of extraterrestrial intelligence and the subsequent handling of the data. Should credible evidence of extraterrestrial intelligence be discovered, an international committee of scientists and other experts should be established to serve as a focal point for continuing analysis of all observational evidence collected in the aftermath of the discovery, and also to provide advice on the release of information to the public. This committee should be constituted from representatives of each of the international institutions listed above and such other members as the committee may deem necessary.

The IAA protocols seem to be mainly concerned with internal management of the scientific community in the wake of a contact event, rather than with the impact on society. The drafters want to ensure that data are carefully validated and peer-reviewed. They further want to compel signatories to agree to share their data and to archive results in a reliable and accessible way. Only once the science is sound, should any discovery be disclosed to the public.

Of course in reality, none of these points may turn out to be realistic. Firstly, we already see evidence that scientists already have difficulty holding back from making groundbreaking claims before they are properly reviewed and validated. Secondly, because of fierce competition for funding and recognition in the scientific field, it is highly unlikely that any individual or group would want to share credit for a discovery with the international community. Nor would they be eager to share raw data with others before having published them in peer-reviewed academic journals.

By taking an idealised view of both geopolitics and the scientific profession, the IAA protocols may not turn out to be very helpful at all. We need to develop new protocols that are intended to help governments and individuals deal with the chaotic, mad scramble that would undoubtedly follow an unanticipated detection.


Four unexpected events that could radically change humanity’s future

Looking for inspiration recently I found Edge.org, a website that purports to “seek out the most complex and sophisticated minds” and put them to work on the world’s most difficult problems. A bit presumptuous, but I was intrigued enough to dig a bit deeper. This year in 2013, the contributors (which range from psychologists to futurologists to hacker-musicians) have been set the task of describing those things we should be most worried about as a civilization. Cool idea, disappointing execution.

The problem with the majority of the responses is that everyone seemingly has a book to sell, so they have re-framed questions to fit their narrow and specialized areas of expertise. To a man with a hammer, everything looks like a nail; to an evolutionary scientist, everything looks like a problem of natural selection. The linguists think our biggest problem is language, the political scientists think our biggest problem is a breakdown of democracy, and so on.

Since I do not claim expertise in a particular field and since I don’t have a book to sell, I feel I can attack the problem from more epistemologically neutral ground. Here are four things I really think we should be worried about as a civilization. They are not doomsday scenarios: the usual asteroid impact, vacuum fluctuation, supervolcano and pandemic were already taken (and discussed ad nauseam in places like New Scientist). To invert the anthropic principle, a world in which humanity no longer exists is not interesting enough to discuss.

The four things I’ve chosen represent real, life-changing developments that may not wipe humanity from existence, but would seriously disrupt the continued and expected trajectory of our planet. And, importantly, any of them could happen tomorrow.

You can call them Black swans if you like, and they do meet some of the criteria of Taleb’s popular theory – they are high impact events that are not easy to compute with our current models of prediction. They are also ‘jumps’ in history, rather than smooth continuities from current events.

Figure 1: Four low-probability, high-impact events


Scenario 1: Contact with ET
We could look for analogies with the way that Copernican thought de-centered and de-privileged humanity’s place in the cosmos, but the truth is that we have no cognitive models to assess the impact of meeting a cosmological ‘other’. Empirical observation tells us that aliens do not exist (very few of us claim to have observed one). But on the other hand, a growing body of empirical evidence points to the near certainty that life exists elsewhere in the universe. So on one hand we have astronomy and the tools of detection growing more and more sophisticated, and on the other hand we have the deafening silence of Fermi’s paradox in observed local phenomena. For those of us who follow developments in cosmology, the tension sometimes feels almost unbearable.

The implications of contact, if it came, are hard to predict. Certainly it would give a much-needed boost to funding in science and space exploration. It could crucially ignite the imaginations of a younger generation of school kids who have grown up in a period of economic and cultural malaise and who yearn for a big metanarrative like my parents had in the 1960s with the cold war and I had in the 1980s with cybernetic technology. Reagan famously said on a number of occasions that discovery of an alien civilization would do more for world peace and shared purpose on this planet than any earth-bound effort could accomplish. Maybe he was right, but on the other hand a second Copernican revolution could intensify ideological schisms between scientific and non-scientific societies, creating a ‘reality gap’ much larger than the one we currently observe in politics.

We are certainly unprepared for alien contact, and that is another reason why it deserves to be listed here. With a potential for such high impact, we are woefully unprepared: ontologically, culturally, strategically. We should have our best minds working on ways to understand, model and prepare for the eventuality of contact with extraterrestrial life forms.


Scenario 2: Physics breakthrough
Physics has run up against a brick wall in being unable to unify the standard model with gravity, dark matter and dark energy. We don’t know if the universe is deterministic or probabilistic. We don’t know what preceded the big bang, or what will come at the end of observable time. While gaps in our knowledge are cause for frustration, they also represent an opportunity. The blank spots on the map in theoretical physics might contain particles and interactions that could be harvested in new ways to generate energy, to communicate or to manipulate the fabric of spacetime. Consider that one of the last major paradigm shifts in physics – the discovery of atomic nuclei – heralded the most destructive and disruptive period in human endeavor. A new physics breakthrough could do much the same. It might offer a solution to our current energy shortfalls, while at the same time introducing new risks and unforeseen problems.

The implications of a new physics paradigm for energy are enormous. Imagine that we discover a way to generate high-efficiency energy without producing large quantities of waste (the infamous ‘cold fusion’). The immediate effect would be a significant drop in fuel prices, making our economies more efficient and more productive. Cities would become cleaner and cheaper to run. We might develop new forms of thrust that could lift objects into orbit and interplanetary space at low cost. Suddenly private space exploration and colonization of the inner solar system would be in reach.

A new physics paradigm might bring with it a host of other related innovations that could have implications for fields like communication, computation, materials, optics, and medicine. If we think about everything that has been touched by the discovery of atomic energy, we begin to get a sense of what a major physics discovery could do. Whether such a breakthrough is possible, and what it might look like, are by nature unpredictable.

Scenario 3: Artificial intelligence
Although I find some posthumanist arguments compelling, I am skeptical about the claim that artificial intelligence will emerge automatically alongside accelerations in the complexity of computer hardware. That fact is that we simply don’t know how to create an artificial intelligence, or even whether it is possible. Yes we can build smaller and smaller transistors, ensuring that the exponential curve of Moore’s law will hold up in the foreseeable future, soon delivering us computers that have similar levels of complexity to a human brain (by the 2030s). But those computers will not be ‘alive’ unless we find some way to imbue them with the spark of conscious self-awareness.

The thing is that because we don’t have a reliable working theory of artificial intelligence, it could sneak up on us from anywhere. A video game designer has a reasonable chance of accidentally stumbling upon the secret (think Alexander Fleming). Or perhaps AI can emerge and self-assemble from dumb networks, the likes of which are proliferating across the planet unregulated. A secret military programme could ‘brute force’ the problem using mind bogglingly complex hardware.

A staggering number of computer scientists believe that artificial intelligence is not only possible but inevitable. A staggeringly small number of individuals have given thought to the civilizational risks such an event would present.

One person who has thought deeply about the existential risk represented by computer intelligence is Nick Bostrom. His central argument is that computers seem to be very good at optimization for problem solving, but not particularly good at nuance or understanding of the big picture (something that 2 million years of evolution on the plains of Africa has bestowed to humans). Combining a highly capable tactical thinking machine with single-minded objectives could be potentially dangerous. The bottom line is that in all of human history we have never had to contend with an intellect greater than our own. The impact could be as wonderful or as terrible as we can possibly imagine.


Scenario 4: Life extension
Experiments on mice, using a variety of therapies and techniques (calorie restriction, supplements, gene therapy) have produced promising results, with some individual techniques increasing lifespans by as much as 40%. If our current medicine can extend the lifespan of other mammals consistently using scientifically understood pathways, we are surely within the ballpark of a discovery that could do the same for humans. Our bodies are more complex, but a comparable 40% extension in human lifespan would correspond to an additional 28 years or more, pushing life expectancy well past 100 years for those alive today. Based on rapid advancements in biology, assisted by computer technology and our growing understanding of the human genome, I anticipate that such a breakthrough is possible within the next two decades.

And that may be only the beginning. Combining multiple techniques synergistically might extend human life expectancy by 50% or 60%, pushing us well past 120 years or more. These techniques might be possible without even having to drill too deeply into the human genome. Some of these effects could be achieved with chemical compounds ingested or injected into the body, subsequently producing beneficial effects either by ‘tricking’ or repairing damaged cells. At the same time that we push the survivability of the human body against the decay of ageing, we will also be making scientific progress in the fight against diseases like Alzheimer’s and cancer, pushing our survivability even further. We already possess promising therapies to fight both of those diseases, and we might be less than a decade away from more effective treatments.

I suspect that life extension will be one of the most contentious political issues of this century. The prospect of some humans living much longer than has ever been biologically possible is an ethical minefield: who should have access to these techniques, who will bear the economic burden of network externalities implied by an immortal population, how will we conceive of healthcare and human rights in a world on the verge of immortality?

Of the four scenarios outlined here, I actually think this one is most likely to occur. Many of the problems of ageing are already understood by science, at least in principle. The challenge is one of applied knowledge, something human beings have proved exceedingly good at.


Review of A.D. After Disclosure

A new book by authors Richard Dolan and Bryce Zabel explores what might happen if UFOs turned out to really be from another world.

There are some insightful ideas contained in this book, regrettably packaged with credulity-straining aspects of the ‘disclosure’ movement. The consequences of extraterrestrial contact are much more important and vital than the specifics of how ET visitors arrive – even more significant than the details of any sinister government coverup. Foregrounding the UFO conspiracy angle in this book excludes readers interested in the implications of extraterrestrial life but uninterested in conspiracy lore. Nevertheless, Dolan and Zabel spend roughly half of the book meticulously laying out the case for a purported U.S. government coverup going all the way back to 1947. Zabel has credentials in this area, having produced a fictional TV show in the 1990s along the lines of the X Files.

If the authors hadn’t been saddled with the need to situate their arguments within popular conspiracy belief systems, they might have simply begun: “Suppose that aliens arrive tomorrow,” and gone from there. Other authors have avoided UFOs while discussing the momentous question of contact with extraterrestrials and allowed themselves more room to speculate, notably Albert Harrison in his (2002) After Contact: The Human Response To Extraterrestrial Life, and more recently Michael Michaud’s (2006) Contact with Alien Civilizations.

Despite my skepticism with respect to the disclosure ‘core narrative’, I have admiration for much of Richard Dolan’s other work concerning UFOs. If not the first, he is certainly the most prominent academic to try to bridge the gap between mainstream political science and the marginalized discipline of ufology. Dolan’s scholarly training as a historian has given his early contributions to the field much needed reflexivity and analytical rigour, Something sorely lacking elsewhere in the contemporary UFO community.

By contrast, this book is peppered with buzzwords from the exopolitics/disclosure movement: “truth embargo” “false flag” “MJ-12” “free energy” “anti-gravitics”. Seemingly pulled from the dark corners of the conspiracy Internet we also find aspects of millennial eschatology: “It will end soon”… “it’s inevitable”.

In A.D. After Disclosure, the authors’ eagerness to abide less credible ideas tarnishes the impact of their overall contribution. It would be a shame to see Dolan transmogrify into another Stephen Greer or Michael Salla (respectively of the Orion Project and Exopolitics Institute), neither of whom appear to have encountered an unsubstantiated claim they didn’t like. For a particularly egregious example see a report by Salla in which he identifies and names exactly 57 races of alien creature “known to be currently interacting with Earth”.

Dolan and Zabel’s book reads a little bit like the fantasy of a nerd who, picked on by the popular kids and jocks in high school, dreams of exacting revenge one day by becoming rich and famous. Here, the jocks and popular kids are replaced by longstanding bugbears of the UFO/disclosure community: mainstream science, journalism and skeptical members of the public.

The inevitable act of UFO disclosure will herald a new paradigm in which skeptics are repudiated and UFO believers get to say, “I told you so”. In the wake of UFO disclosure, scientific textbooks will have to be re-written and skeptics will have their belief systems “shattered,” the authors explain, almost gleefully. In this A.D. world, the fringe will become the new center:

“Most people, including the self-described “skeptics,” have refused to read anything about UFOs. They have avoided thinking about the subject in any way other than as story fodder for science fiction films. They will be the most shocked; their belief spectrum will shift radically, all at once. Others less dogmatic, or especially those who have taken some time to acquaint themselves of the facts as they can be known, will have less distance to travel.”

It is not without cause that ufology regards traditional science and its institutions with suspicion. Beaten up by mainstream media and ridiculed by official government institutions in the early days of saucer mania – a fact that Dolan chronicles elsewhere in his excellent UFOs and the National Security State – many UFO believers have had to become fact hounds of the sort that would embarrass Encyclopedia Brown. But all of the careful documentary research and fact finding has created a blind spot in ufology to the big picture – the philosophical implications of the thing they are working so hard to prove exists. Because of this blindspot, other disciplines of mainstream academic and scientific thought such as astrobiology, evolutionary cosmology and information theory risk leaving ufology behind in the quaint middle twentieth-century paranoid mode in which it appears trapped.

After Disclosure is at its best when it deals with those bigger questions and moves beyond the insular language of UFO conspiracy. There are excellent but brief sections toward the end of the book dealing with the implications of extraterrestrial contact for human legal, geopolitical and religious structures. I broadly agree with the authors that contact with ET would provoke a cultural response in humanity similar to the upheavals of the 1960s USA. I also agree that the legal status of non-human entities is an under-explored and important component of any post-contact scenario. I simply wish that the authors had devoted more of their considerable talents to fleshing out those original ideas.

Going forward, it would be refreshing to see Dolan break with some of the more dubious elements of the exopolitics/disclosure meme set. He’s already demonstrated a willingness to part ways with mainstream academia over the taboo subject of UFOs. What ufology needs right now is not another preacher to the converted, but a critical thinker who can communicate the implications of ET contact to wider audience. Dolan and Zabel would do to take some of their own advice from the pages of After Disclosure:

“When we cannot find the right word or phrase, we will invent new ones.”


Definition: Directed Panspermia

directed panspermia imageDirected panspermia refers to a theory of exogenesis that involves the sentient, purposeful seeding of life throughout the universe. Because it requires a guiding intelligent hand, it differs from standard theory of panspermia in which life might be accidentally transferred between bodies in the solar system (for example between Mars and Earth) or between stars in the interstellar medium.

Given that the Milky Way galaxy is some 13 billion years old, and that our solar system is less than 5 billion years old, it is possible that an intelligent civilization evolved elsewhere in the galaxy before life emerged on Earth. This window provides more than enough time for an intelligent race to seed the galaxy, even using relatively slow-moving vessels.

Some of the earliest proponents of the directed panspermia hypothesis were chemist Leslie Orgel and biologist Francis Crick, who in a 1973 paper proposed that an advanced ET civilisation could have seeded life on Earth. The authors write:

[T]here is adequate time for technological society to have evolved twice in succession. The places in the galaxy where life could start, if seeded, are probably very numerous. We can foresee that we ourselves will be able to construct rockets with sufficient range, delivery ability, and surviving payload if micro-organisms are used. Thus the idea of Directed Panspermia cannot at the moment be rejected by any simple argument. It is radically different from the idea that life started here ab inito without infection from elsewhere. We have thus two sharply different theories of the origin of life on Earth. Can we choose between them?

There is, in other words, no straightforward way to falsify the proposition that life on Earth originated from elsewhere. The authors propose a number of means that we may test the hypothesis, for example by attempting to match the elements needed for life to operate on Earth with elements that may or may not be plentiful on this planet. Life as we know it is reliant on some trace elements such as Molybdenum, found rarely on this planet, suggesting that it could have originated from a star system where that element is more plentiful.

The authors acknowledge that interstellar seeding of life is technically achievable. It is possible that humanity has already unwittingly engaged in a primitive form of directed panspermia. Probes sent to the Moon , Venus and Mars could have carried stowaway bacteria on board that may have survived – however briefly – on the surface of these planetary bodies. NASA Researchers claim that a strain of Streptococcus mitis bacteria returned to Earth on the Surveyor 3 spacecraft having survived a round trip to the moon. The inhospitable surface environment of these destinations makes it unlikely that life could multiply and spread across the surface, but humanity will have to take additional care to sterilize probes on future missions to places like Europa or Enceladus that could potentially become contaminated with Earthly bacteria.

Problems with the theory

One problem is that we don’t yet understand the mechanism by which life emerges from inanimate matter (abiogenesis). The theory of directed panspermia simply defers the problem of abiogenesis to some precursor civilisation. In other words, even if aliens seeded the Earth with life, who or what made them?

There are also a number of practical concerns. Building a space probe capable of maintaining the viability of genetic material over immense distances of time and space is much easier than maintaining a life support for living crew, but still challenging. A probe containing biological spores could travel more slowly, but it would need to be able to sustain the integrity of the ship and its frozen cargo over long periods of time – longer than any earth-bound human structure has endured, perhaps hundreds of thousands of years. Carl Sagan and other researchers place an upper limit on the survivability of genetic material in space at ~ 1 million years. Once a probe reached its destination, it would need to retain the capability to ‘wake up’, direct itself at the target planet, revive and release its biological cargo. All of this might be within the technological capabilities of a highly advanced race, but a program of directed panspermia remains beyond human capabilities for the near future.

Finally, any theory of alien intervention on Earth must contend with Fermi’s Paradox. If precursor civilizations exist in our galaxy, why have we not seen evidence of them? A civilization powerful enough to seed the galaxy would surely be capable of interstellar travel and perhaps stellar engineering, the results of which we might detect. The theory of directed panspermia rests upon the existence of extraterrestrial life, and we cannot confirm the latter.


Why would a civilization engage in directed panspermia at the galactic scale? Perhaps all species are driven by a biological imperative to spread their genotype beyond their home planet, thus ensuring its longevity. Perhaps an alien world in catastrophic danger initiated a program to seed life beyond their doomed planet, believing that they alone bore responsibility for preserving life in the universe. The mind can wander endlessly over the possibilities.

However, to accept the directed panspermia hypothesis is to concede that we owe our existence to some other, higher intelligence. While this precursor civilization might not be ‘God’ in the metaphysical sense, they would nonetheless be our creators. What purpose might they have for humanity, or for life on this planet? What would be the nature of our relationship if we ever made contact with them? Owing to the enormous time scales involved in human evolution, any precursor civilization would already be at least 3.5 billion years ahead of us. Their motives might be inscrutable and their existence might be undetectable to our primitive senses.


Review of Prometheus: more questions than answers

David the android examines a star chart in Ridley Scott's Prometheus

Prometheus is Ridley Scott’s first science fiction film since Blade Runner (1982) and his return to the genre provides an opportunity to revisit some of the core preoccupations of his earlier work. Prometheus shares with Blade Runner more than its dark, foreboding mood and presence of android characters; both films are preoccupied with the nature of life, free will and the instinct of survival.

In Prometheus, life is abundant. In fact, its abundance becomes a source of danger for the protagonists as it blooms everywhere it can, given the opportunity – yes, even from the bodies of the human crew themselves. A kind of grey gloop stands in for what we can only imagine is the sort of single-cellular organism that might have kicked things off on this planet billions of years ago. Instead here, augmented by some fantastic alien technology by a race that the movie calls ‘the engineers’, its evolutionary potential is highly exaggerated to the point of being dangerous.

Scott’s skill with this genre remains highly evident. He has a particularly keen awareness of the need to place his characters in peril. In Prometheus, he does this with great deftness, slowly building the tension and raising the stakes as the crew of hapless scientists and their corporate lackeys land on a seemingly deserted moon and begin to explore. Everything that can go wrong does so until eventually the entire ship and crew are in mortal danger from infection by the mysterious but suitably creepy alien bio agent.

The ship’s overseer, played brilliantly by an icy Charlize Theron, steps in to bring some harsh medicine half way through the film in a valiant effort to stop things from spiraling out of control. But as he showed in the original Alien, Scott has a gift for letting the proverbial shit hit the fan despite his characters’ best efforts, all the while taking the audience along for the panicked result.

All sorts of barriers are breached: space helmets are penetrated, suits are ripped, skin is sliced, and microbes invade. In case it wasn’t already obvious to astrobiologists in the room: should you ever get to explore an alien world, DON’T TAKE YOUR HELMET OFF. Also don’t touch or lick anything.

Ridley Scott and his characters play fast and loose with the scientific method in this film, one of its weak points. The whole concept of interstellar travel and hypersleep is glossed over. Prometheus seems to take place in a post-singularity era, where highly-capable artificial intelligences walk among us. Yet human bodies seem even more frail than ever and it is clear from poorly scripted decisions that intelligence augmentations are not de rigeur for human characters in this universe.

Scott has made a few sacrifices in terms of science and plausibility in order to tell a compelling story that still addresses bigger philosophical questions. To wit, the opening scene features an expressionless alien engineer, standing on a barren riverbank that likely belongs to a proto-Earth. Behind the figure, a massive saucer-shaped craft hovers menacingly, then lifts away. The engineer opens up a can of the grey goo – foreshadowing – and takes a big gulp, before suffering the unpleasant results. It is evident from this scene that somehow the earth has been ‘seeded’ with microbial life (see directed panspermia). While the scene is evocative, it doesn’t seem logical. Why not simply shoot a canister of goop from space and let it do its thing? Surely a super advanced galactic civilization would have outgrown romantic, self-sacrificial gestures. This is just one example of logical compromises that Scott and the scriptwriters have made in Prometheus in order to advance the plot and convey abstract ideas to the audience.

Undoubtedly the best aspect of Prometheus is the multilayered onion-like symbolism that pervades the film. The engineers, burdened with the horror that their biological meddling has unleashed, suffer the consequences in ghostly flashbacks. Meanwhile the human characters, having recently created artificial life in the form of David the android, must endure the results as he starts to take on a will of his own. “Don’t all children,” David asks, “end up wanting to kill their parents?”

Like Blade Runner, it is possible to endlessly analyze the plot of Prometheus. Scott has left enough ends loose here that the film is simultaneously both provocative and frustrating. A sequel, already hinted at, might add more clarity to the story arc and answer some of the mysteries surrounding the enigmatic engineers. But even if no such sequel ever gets made, Prometheus has achieved its most ambitious goal, which is to pose big interesting questions in the face of deafening (cosmic) silence.


Another solution to Fermi’s paradox: are advanced ET civilizations conservative?

graffiti art from PolandRiding on the train into Valencia the other day, I noticed that fresh graffiti tags had appeared on concrete barriers that are being put in as part of a high-speed rail expansion. The economy in Spain is not doing well at the moment, and there is a lot of youth unemployment, which probably explains the proliferation of graffiti art. A moral panic erupted in mainstream society during the 1980s around urban youth and the disorder represented by graffiti, which has never really abated. We obviously have not found a reliable way to reduce graffiti in the 30+ years that it has been a widespread activity. But on longer timescales, are societies getting better or worse at subduing behaviors that the majority deem a nuisance? That question got me thinking about cyberpunk science fiction and the whole idea of counterculture, and whether it was likely that highly advanced civilizations could support or contain lively countercultural movements within their borders. While alien ‘resistance movements’ are a frequently used trope in science fiction (see the Rebel Alliance, or the mutants in Total Recall), there are some sound scientific reasons why ultra-conservative, homogenous alien civilizations might be a more common scenario.

One answer to Fermi’s paradox that I’ve always found both preachy and intellectually unsatisfying is the proposition that intelligent species destroy themselves through technological folly before they are given the chance to spread across the galaxy, explaining their absence. This solution has been called the ‘doomsday scenario’ by aficionados of Fermi’s paradox, and it makes up part of a range of solutions broadly classified as the ‘great filter’ hypothesis. In the 20th century context of the Cold War, in which Fermi and his immediate successors worked, the inference was that nuclear war would be the most likely cause of the demise of Earth’s civilization (nowadays this solution to Fermi’s paradox is picked up most fervently by environmentalists). But one reason why nuclear bombs did not destroy the planet in the 1960s and why they are increasingly less likely to do so is that humanity has developed systems to control risk and limit the possibility of their use. These systems include technological devices such as nuclear launch codes and the apocryphal ‘red phone’; but they can also include socio-political innovations such as geopolitical diplomacy and the United Nations. The old adage that no two countries with a McDonalds franchise have ever gone to war with each other is anecdotal evidence that another type of system – global capitalism – functions as a set of checks and balances limiting disruptive human behavior. Many of these systems involve predictive algorithms (insurance risk, terrorist profiling), meaning that we are increasingly regulating virtual, potential activity before it takes place. If cities could find a cheap, practical way to stop graffiti before it even began, they would probably employ those methods everywhere they could (actually, new innovations in building materials and paint are technical systems intended for this very purpose; youth employment schemes and neighborhood watch are socio-political examples).

The stakes appear to be rising as our civilization achieves greater levels of technological proficiency. With the advent of globalization and computerization, single individuals now command more resources at their fingertips to potentially disrupt or destroy large swathes of the globe. The recent furor over the publication by Nature of details about how to make a weaponized strain of Bird Flu using genetic engineering is one example of the currency of this debate. We need only look at some near-future science fiction to understand the risks of living in a world where disgruntled individuals can command nanotechnology, artificial intelligence or atomic energy. One kid with a spray can does not make much of an impact upon our 21st century society, but a skilled and malicious virus programmer could potentially devastate a future, more heavily computerized Earth.

Robert Freitas Jr. imagined this scenario in his short seminal (1983) paper ‘Crimes, Crazies and Creole Cooking’, which deals with dangers faced if Earth were to make contact with only a handful of unsavory members of an extraterrestrial civilization (ETC). The analogy he employs is the ease with which a single human child can wipe out an entire ant colony, without supervision or help from the rest of his species. An alien child or criminal could therefore be extremely threatening to humanity. But as dangerous as the brigands, zealots and smugglers of an alien ETC could be for any humans they encountered, these characters would be equally destructive to their own society, given the immense quantities of energy that individual agents would command in such an advanced culture. By Freitas’ back-of-the-napkin calculations, a single member of a stellar civilization might command 10^16 watts of energy, a thousand times greater than the entire energy output of the current planet Earth. Things get worse if even a few hundred such individuals were to band together and pool their immense resources. Alone by themselves they could engage in interstellar travel at near the speed of light or launch relativistic projectiles at planet-sized targets. It would therefore be in the best interest of the alien hypercivilisation to stamp out those sources of disorder, lest it be rapidly destroyed from within. In fact, as the technological capacity of individuals and small groups increased, so would the stakes for any emerging highly advanced civilization. Even pockets of political diversity that were tolerated in nearby space might have to be wiped out, to eliminate the chance of an organized attack sparked off by some future diplomatic disagreement. Indeed, one of the key tenets of game theory is that agents that do not act to take advantage of a short-term benefit risk losing out in the long term when their opponents do the same to them (see the prisoner’s dilemma).

We might term this the inverse doomsday self-regulation scenario, because it takes as its starting point the observable tendency of technological systems to become more and more dangerous, but diverges to optimistically suggest that most intelligent civilizations overcome this problem through aggressive self-regulation and increasing cultural conservatism. This solution to Fermi’s paradox has several troubling implications for any future interactions with an advanced ETC, notably:

1. Most advanced civilizations in this scenario will be culturally and politically homogenous;

2. For all civilizations, sending out an exploratory vanguard is a risky strategy because the exploring colonists could defect and return to harm the parent ETC;

3. There could therefore be a large number of advanced ETCs in the galaxy that mostly keep to themselves and do not communicate;

4. If we get too close to a neighbor or become too technologically threatening they may seek to eliminate us.

Students of Fermi’s paradox make a distinction between proposed solutions which are based on the real or supposed existence of testable physical or evolutionary laws, and those that are dependent on a specific arrangement that may not hold in other parts of the universe. Is this self-regulatory proposition a ‘soft’ solution to Fermi’s paradox, relying on a contingent set of circumstances? Not necessarily. Inasmuch that the doomsday scenario could be considered a ‘hard’ solution because it relies on an as-yet-untested but possible evolutionary tendency toward self-destruction, so does the inverse regulatory solution rest upon a testable hypothesis about the development of advanced intelligence. If we observe that our own civilizational development tends toward more robust and evermore complete systems of social control, then we can confidently hypothesize that self-regulation and the elimination of discord are fundamentally linked to advanced civilizational development. There might, following John Smart (2011) be a point at which we observe early-stage civilizations ‘turn off’ all radio transmissions as they reach a point of civilizational consensus and decide with a single mind that contact with others is not worth the risk. A more developed paper on this concept might seek confirmation of a trend toward increased social control in our own planetary context, perhaps using data on declining crime rates in western societies or the internal characteristics of nation states that have avoided war with one another. Science fiction, undaunted so far by the lack of evidence for a galactic Wild West is likely to carry on telling stories about rogues, antiheroes and troublemakers; the less dramatic reality may be that the cosmic Sheriff is always in town.


How far away is the Voyager 1 spacecraft?

The Voyager 1 probe is currently 119 Astronomical Units (AU) distant from the sun and is traveling at about 3½ AU/yr. 1 AU corresponds to the mean distance between the Earth and the Sun. At 17.8 billion kilometers away, the Voyager 1 craft is the most distant man-made object ever to explore the cosmos. The distances involved are so vast that it can be difficult to visualize the scale of this technological achievement. Here is one figure that really brought home the sense of distance for me: traveling at the speed of light, it would still take 16.5 hours to reach Voyager 1 from Earth.

NASA scientists believe that Voyager 1 will officially traverse the outer boundary of our solar system some time in the next several months. The spacecraft is currently in a region known as the “heliosheath”, the outermost layer of the Solar System, where the solar wind, which travels at about 1 million miles per hour, is being slowed down and meeting the interstellar wind. Nasa scientists believe this indicates the imminent entry of Voyager 1 into the interstellar region, although the exact position of the boundary is still unknown.

The Voyagers have enough electrical power and thruster fuel to operate at least until 2020. By that time, Voyager 1 will be 19.9 billion kilometers from the Sun. Eventually, the Voyager craft will pass by other stars. In about 40,000 years, Voyager 1 will drift within 1.6 light years (9.3 trillion miles) of AC+79 3888, a star in the constellation of Camelopardalis. In approximately 296,000 years, Voyager 2 will pass 4.3 light years from Sirius, the brightest star in the sky.


Discovery of first habitable planet beyond our solar system

Discovery of the first extrasolar planet potentially capable of harboring life was announced today by NASA and the Kepler telescope team. The planet, unassumingly dubbed Kepler 22-b, orbits within the habitable zone of its host star, about 15% closer than the Earth orbits our sun. Consequently, astronomers have estimated that its surface temperature likely hovers around 22 degrees Celsius, perfect conditions for life-supporting water to exist in liquid form.

The habitable zone is so named because it is the only range within which planets are likely to maintain a temperature conducive to liquid water. So far, water is the only known solvent that enables life processes to take place, although other chemical candidates have been proposed.

Kepler 22-b orbits a star similar to our own, about 600 light-years away in the constellation Cygnus. Its star emits about 25% less light than our sun, enabling its habitable zone to encompass planets with closer orbits.

A complete orbit of Kepler 22-b around its sun takes 280 days. At 2.4 times wider than Earth, the composition of Kepler-22b is a puzzle. It could be rocky, a “super-Earth” much like our own planet but bigger. Alternatively it could be a gas giant like Jupiter or Saturn, making the prospect of life taking hold less likely.

Ground-based observations to take place this summer will help confirm the mass of Kepler 22-b, enabling astronomers to determine what type of planet it is.

The total number of possible extrasolar planets discovered by the Kepler mission now stands at 2,326. Even more are likely to be announced in the coming year as time allows for additional confirmations of observed transits.


Here’s what an alien Smurf might look like

I was a bit disappointed during the recent Kepler press conference, when they brought in an expert from Industrial Light and Magic who hadn’t prepared any computer graphics to show what life might look like from the surface of Kepler 16b. That’s a shame, since the appeal of fields like astronomy and exobiology for schoolkids is undoubtedly that they are among the few serious jobs where you get to imagine what life looks like on an alien planet. Still, scientists aren’t the only ones with a license to do that, and when they drop the ball, artists and geeks are more than willing to have a go. Today I came across this fantastic piece of artwork by a talented fellow named Nate Hallinan. He has taken the classic 2D animated Smurfs as a starting point, and imagined what they might look like if they were the product of actual evolutionary biology (much like an exobiologist is paid to do). Here’s his imaginative explanation for the creepily realistic artwork:

The Smurf is actually the result of a symbiotic relationship between two organisms. We believe that Smurfs put their ‘embryos’ in the button of a developing mushroom. From a distance, Smurfs seem like they are wearing a hat and pants but as you can see this is a fallacy. The fungus provides camouflage and protective epidermal layers for the creature, while the creature provides nutrients and mobility for the spreading of spores.

That seems logical enough to me, but how does he explain the weird specialization of Smurf skills in their society, or the fact that abilities never seem to be duplicated in the same tribe? More importantly, what cartoon species is he going to give this treatment to next, and can he please make it the Gummi Bears?