Extraterrestrial Life: Chicken or Pork?

8 Dec

Last week I learned something new about myself: if aliens visit Earth, I’ll almost certainly be considering eating one! I’m okay with this fact  but, rest assured, this is not a post about eating Aliens (it’s Chicken or Pork guys, the universal constant for exotic foodstuffs), this is a post about whether any visiting aliens are likely to fancy take-out human!

I posted about the likelihood of Humanity dying on planet Earth (we’re going to die here!) inspired by a post from @thinkingfox. This is my response to his most recent post on attempting to contact intelligent Alien life on the new exoplanets discovered by the Keplar Space Telescope, it’s well worth reading (Thinkingfox: Just because you could). Rob ends his post with a warning that just because we can send out these messages to other planets doesn’t necessarily mean that we should and wonders are we running the risk of attracting the unwanted attention of a spacefaring galactic bully intent on making Humanity their bitch. I’m not so sure and I’d like to explain why…

A lot of this post is going to run around reasonable speculation from the Drake equation, my favourite equation if I had to  pick one, which was developed by Frank Drake in 1961. If you have not come across this Equation before here it is:

N = N* fp ne fl fi fc fL

It states that:

N = The number of civilizations in The Milky Way Galaxy whose electromagnetic emissions are detectable.

R* =The rate of formation of stars suitable for the development of intelligent life.

fp = The fraction of those stars with planetary systems.

ne = The number of planets, per solar system, with an environment suitable for life.

fl = The fraction of suitable planets on which life actually appears.

fi = The fraction of life bearing planets on which intelligent life emerges.

fc = The fraction of civilizations that develop a technology that releases detectable signs of their existence into space.

L = The length of time such civilizations release detectable signals into space.

(Source: SETI Institute HQ)

Put very simply, this means that there are a lot of potential for life in our galaxy, The Milky Way, and that’s before we start looking at the billions of other galaxies that make up the Universe. So ET is most likely out there and NASA’s Kepler Space Telescope is, every day, helping prove some elements of Drake’s Equation correct in terms of the planets it is finding orbiting parent stars in the life-important Goldilocks zone. Giving both sides of the argument, there are problems with the Drake Equation, there’s one huge and obvious problem immediately apparent: if drake is correct, our galaxy is teaming with life both intelligent and otherwise, the intelligent life should be leaving traces that we can detect with existing technology, but we haven’t. This problem is called the Fermi Paradox which states there is an apparent contradiction between high estimates of the probability of the existence of extraterrestrial civilizations and the lack of evidence for, or contact with, such civilizations.

This is a fun area of science, you get to have an opinion that could conceivably be correct! Even the best scientific attempts at predicting what alien life looks like (or how it will behave) is little more than guesswork, extrapolations based on how evolution has worked for humanity on Earth. This obviously comes with the risk of assuming that that this is the only way for sentient life to evolve in the universe…it may not be. Anyway before I tell you what I think, here’s a round-up of the different theories.

Evil ET

One theory, popular in the public consciousness, that runs through science fiction and is supported by some scientists,  states that although ET may look slightly different to humans, it will be carbon-based, oxygen-breathing, bipedal and suffer from all the character flaws that we see in our own species. ET will be violent and destructive, covetous and driven by nothing more than a need for conquest. To ET, humanity will either be a threat to be destroyed, food to be eaten or slaves to be abducted. Earth will be nothing more than a source of valuable resources to be mercilessly stripped. The Guardian ran an article recently that carried the idea that ET might even look identical to us (Guardian: Scientists claim, aliens visiting earth will be just like us!)

Don’t judge me by your own low standards 

For some scientists extrapolations based on how humans have evolved are just not satisfying enough, the unique conditions on earth have created humanity but this doesn’t have to be the only conditions to successfully create sentient life. No one knows for sure if sentient life requires a carbon-based genetic make-up, could Silicon work just as well for complex lifeforms? It’s an open question, we just do not know for sure, but we do know some deep, hydrothermal-vent dwelling worms are silicon-based. It’s not just silicon either, there are a number of other elements that have been suggested as theoretically viable for producing complex biochemistries.

This article based on an interview with Professor Sasselov is a great read (BBC: Searching for the Origins of life and our future)

Technological life

We spend a lot of our time as a species pre-occupied with the notion of looking for organic extraterrestrial life, whether that looks like us or not, but space and more specifically traversing space is pretty lethal to organic life. In order to be able to achieve the feat of interstellar travel the flimsy, organic frame must be protected by some pretty advanced technology and, even with this protection the organic nature of pilots remain the weakest link in the whole operation. We know this for a fact and yet we still expect ET, when we find them, to be organic lifeforms. What if, like us, they have had more success building probes to send into space? What if they have mastered nano-robotics, capable of building ever more complex versions of themselves without reference to their human creators. Long after the organic, builder race had died out, their sentient technological legacy would have the galaxy as their playground. Shouldn’t the search for life be hunting for artificial intelligence near sources of resources such life would require? Some scientists think so: BBC: Alien Hunters should look for Artificial Intelligence

Space is pretty vast, but so is time

In my last post I reminded you how big space is and how its vast size is one of the reasons our species will die here on Earth. Space is massive, but so is time, here are some scary numbers:

  • The best current estimate of the age of the universe is 13.75 ± 0.13 billion years old;
  • In 2007, The Milky Way, our galaxy, was estimated to be about 13.2 billion years old;
  • The Solar System is an estimated 4.6 billion years old;
  • Anatomically modern humans first appear in the fossil record in Africa about 195,000 years ago;
  • 50 years ago, Yuri Gagarin was the first member of the human species to leave the Earth’s atmosphere.

Think carefully on these numbers, for many these are the answer to the Fermi Paradox. It’s not a question of sentient life being unique to our Earth, there could have been life elsewhere at some point in the past, but as the saying goes: on a long enough timeline everything’s life expectancy becomes zero. For me, if you add the vastness of space to the vastness of time, our likelihood of detecting alien life approaches zero!

And finally…a unique earth, floating alone in space

This theory is not massively popular, but quite interesting. It suggests that the conditions on Earth are unique in allowing the evolution of sentient life. This theory is not predicted or answered by Drake and if is correct then the Fermi Paradox has its answer and we truly are alone in the universe: BBC: Life on earth – is our planet unique.

What I think

I’m not too worried about people broadcasting messages at planets identified by Kepler as having the potential for life-sustaining conditions. It’s not that I think there isn’t life in the galaxy, one of those targetted planets may hold an intelligent, organic species of extraterrestrials, but I’m just not worried about them invading.

As I said in my last post, our love of war is one of the major reasons why we’re stuck on earth; space travel costs a lot of money and resources and so do wars, it’s unlikely any civilisation would manage to maintain such an unhealthy love of war and still make it out of their cosmic backyard. Assume our theoretic aliens have ‘evolved’ beyond the need for war amongst themselves, would they would take it on themselves to wage war with any species they meet on their galactic jaunts? Okay I might be suggesting a higher level of societal evolution for my aliens, lets assume for a minute they do still celebrate periods of peace with a good old-fashioned war. Wars normally start for a reason, if a species is capable of traversing space it’s unlikely they would be threatened by a species incapable of launching manned-trips much beyond the confines of their own atmosphere.  So what about other reasons?

A need for resources or a new home is often cited as a potential for hostile acts against earth by extraterrestrials, but Drake’s Equation puts this theory in some doubt. Our theoretical aliens exist, therefore the Drake Equation is at least partially correct. If we track back a bit we can see that for every planet that produces intelligent life that can be detected there are vastly more planets, just in our galaxy that are capable of sustaining life but do not have any actual life present. You’re the captain of an Alien colony ship and you have two choices of planets: Planet 1 is suitable for your species and is entirely free of any other form of sentient life and Planet 2 is our planet the Earth with it’s current level of population and infrastructure. Which planet do you decide to settle or resource strip from? It’s simple really, maximum reward for minimum effort.

In my humble opinion, if ET comes, there is every likelihood that they will come in peace…of course I could be wrong and, hedging my bets somewhat, can I be the first to welcome our future, evil alien overlords and offer any help I can be with the PR drive to win the hearts and minds of the few remaining members of my species that they haven’t vaporised or eaten…


6 Responses to “Extraterrestrial Life: Chicken or Pork?”

  1. ThinkingFox December 13, 2011 at 8:24 pm #

    Great post but a bit surprised you didn’t mention Von Neumann Probes (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Self-replicating_spacecraft)

    [Not to be confused with Von Neumann Machines which would be true self-replicating spacecraft and discounted by Sagan et al]


  2. paulcoxon81 December 14, 2011 at 8:04 am #

    Thanks Rob, I think I’ll be writing another post at some point on the subject of self-replicating machines, metamaterials, nanotech and the risk of creating a technological singularity.

    I’ve also noticed a couple of other oversights that I could have included, I totally forgot that the reason I used a Vorlon as the image for the piece as I was going to discuss the, admittedly fringe, theory that given enough time organic life could evolve into beings of energy.



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