The Great Filter

We know now that our galaxy is filled with rocky planets, a percentage of which will almost certainly fall within the category of ‘earth-like’.  (100 billion stars mean even a 1:1000000 chance allows for 100 000 earth-like planets).  If we ever do find evidence of microscopic life on Mars the odds will go way up as well – meaning that life is much more likely to exist elsewhere.   And yet, we see no evidence of extraterrestrial life in our observations of the galaxy, a fact known as the ‘Great Silence’.

There could be many explanations for this phenomenon.  A short and not at all comprehensive list includes:

  1. We are leading the development curve.  Other life has not yet reached or surpassed our current development level, and those who have are so far away the evidence still has not arrived (1000 light years is really far away).  This theory makes the assumption that humans are outliers, which is always possible but statistically less likely.
  2. We are well behind the development curve, and would not recognize evidence of extraterrestrials because we haven’t developed far enough yet.  Just as an Amazon tribesman might not grasp the significance of a Predator drone at 20,000 feet, we might not recognize or understand what we are looking at.  For a long time we assumed that radio transmissions would be evidence of life, but would a 1970s SETI researcher have recognized a typical WiFi or cell phone transmission as evidence of sentience, or merely dismissed it as noise? Even if an ET civilization did have recognizable transmissions at some point, it wouldn’t have been obvious to anyone on Earth until the middle of the last century.  It is possible that ETs developed beyond us while we were bashing away at each other with clubs or muskets.  The thought that irrefutable evidence of ETs might have been readily available in the form of recognizable radio transmissions during the Spanish Inquisition makes me chuckle for some reason.
  3. Life is harder than we think.  Just because it happened here doesn’t mean that it is easy.  Perhaps the places where it might happen number in the dozens.  Add in some random elements like planet killing asteroids, and we have a quiet galaxy.
  4. The Great Filter.  The notion that some point in the development of a civilization is very hard to overcome, and that most species do not actually succeed.  If this filter is in the past, something like the development of language or writing, then we may be outliers leading the pack.  If it is in the future, like developing into a star-faring civilization before we destroy our own planet, then we might be in trouble.  We certainly aren’t doing well at planet management so far, it isn’t hard to imagine humans entering a downward spiral long before leaving the solar system.

Whatever the situation, our current rush of exoplanet discoveries and the dawn of private space travel make me hopeful that humans will be able to explore at least our own solar system, with an eye to exploring further in some capacity (biological or not).  Meanwhile we should really be trying to find ways to avert civilization killing catastrophes like war and climate collapse.


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Classic Science Fiction: The Gripping Hand

In my continuing expedition through the great SF novels of the last 100 years, I recently read The Gripping Hand by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle, a sequel to The Mote in God’s Eye. The authors waited 17 years between publishing the two novels (both of which were excellent for very specific reasons.  I reviewed the first novel in a previous post.

The Gripping Hand was an excellent novel for its vivid portrayal of the friction between two very different species, the Empire of Man and the Civilization of the Mote (‘Moties’).  The novel picks up 25 years after the events of the first book, in which the Empire opts to blockade the Moties into their own system rather than risk being overrun.  Events conspire to make a blockade impossible, and the Moties and Humans must come to terms in some way.  The evolution of this relationship, and the conflict within the Motie civilization and with the humans form the core of the novel.

In my review of the first novel I qualified my enthusiasm by noting the anachronistic social mores and gender relationships of the 35th century human culture.  The Moties were a brilliant exploration of what a truly alien species might be like.  However, at a glance, the Navy appeared grounded somewhere in the mid 18th century, a milieu in which Aubrey and Maturin would have felt completely at home. The gender relationships and ideas were pure idealized 1950s American. It was hard to get past the absurd social interactions between the human men and the single woman in the novel, with everyone getting embarrassed at the slightest hint of impropriety.  The cultural stereotypes were powerfully rooted in the mid-20th century as well (a loyal Irish Marine Sergeant with a knack for brewing whiskey, the Scottish Naval Engineer with the impenetrable brogue, the treacherous Levantine trader).

I was pleasantly surprised to note that the authors had been paying attention to social events in North America.  The Navy of the Empire now had female officers, the young women were prone to making their own decisions without it being ‘shocking’, and the culture had evolved significantly to allow for these developments (much like our own in the intervening years).  Even the treacherous Levantine appeared in a much more sympathetic light, and he was one of the main heroes of the novel.

In all, The Gripping Hand was an excellent classic of Science Fiction, and any true fan of the genre should make a point of the reading both novels.


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Halo 4 Release Date


Halo4 , the next installment in an SF video game series that is much loved by its players (unlike many other Microsoft products), will be released on November 6th, 2012.  Given that people have been known to take the day off work when a new Halo is released, what are the odds that all those fanatical players will take time to vote in the US presidential election?

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Classics of Science Fiction: The Mote In God’s Eye

I just finished reading one of the all-time science fiction classic novels. The Mote in God’s Eye by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle is an imaginative leap into the far, space operatic future where humans have their first encounters with another sentient species.  The humans are members of an anachronistic Imperial Navy, sent to make contact with the new species and assess if they are a threat.  The aliens (“Moties”) are an intelligent, highly technological species that has many problems of their own.  Each side has large and potentially dangerous misconceptions about the other, and the central plot of the book focuses on the secrets and problems that arise.

Chris Doll’s “MacArthur” scratchbuilt model

The book primarily follows the human characters, with a focus on Captain Rod Blaine, an aristocrat who is in command of the primary contact ship (The `MacArthur`).  Many of the secondary characters matter, but Blaine is the prime decision maker both on the ship and later in a more elevated role.

The motivations of the Moties are the prime Macguffin of the story.  Are they truly benign and friendly?  Do they merely wish to escape their system and open trading routes, or do they have more dangerous intentions? The authors’ conception of the Moties actually held up more with time than his portrayal of the human characters.

Like all science fiction, most of the events reflect ideas and conceptions at the date of publication more than anything in the future.  Published in the early 1970s, the characters reflect many assumptions of the time.  As a prime example, consider that there were no women on the warships with the exception of one perky young aristocrat who sought to ‘make her own way’ before finding a man.

Sexual mores were firmly grounded in early 1950s America, and class relationships grounded somewhere in Napoleonic Europe.  There was only one non-European character of note, and he was a sneaky businessman and a traitor to the Empire.  Everyone was deeply religious, and the perspective of the Church (quasi-Catholic) was important and of significant concern, more so that it is even now.

Such characterizations even now seem quaint, though the authors did insert some future-historical justification for such anachronistic social structures.  It is hard now, in our accelerating-change-as-norm existence to imagine any such throwback ideas gaining traction in the distant future.

On the other hand, the Moties were a fascinating exploration of what a wholly different alien species might be like, how they might think and act.  Their society was deep in an eons old cycle of civilization alternating with chaos and barbarism, driven largely by population pressures far beyond those experienced by humans.  Every aspect of their interactions with each other and with the humans was informed by the knowledge of an impending cyclical collapse.  Their whole cultural groupthink made the assumption that anyone who made serious efforts to prevent the cycle was ‘Crazy Eddie’ and therefore insane.

It took me awhile to get past the mid-20th century American cultural assumptions that dominated the entire novel, but at its root The Mote in God’s Eye is a brilliant, creative novel about the moral quandaries that would face anyone who meets a new group of sentient creatures.  We humans have not historically been very good at meeting new human cultures, and while I hope for the best, I suspect we will do worse with aliens.

I strongly recommend any Science Fiction fan read this book, as one of the must-read classics of the 20th century.

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Living Planets and Global Sentience

Live Science has a thoughtful analysis by Adam Hadhazy of the concept of a `Living Planet` idea, a common SF trope.  Could an entire planet develop sentience, or become a single living entity?  SF has presented the idea hundreds of times, such as the planet Pandora in Cameron’s movie Avatar, the (deliberately) sentient planet Gaia in Asimov’s Foundation Trilogy, the sentient and not very friendly planet Chiron in the classic video game Sid Meier’s Alpha Centauri, and a long list of other fictional planets (see Wikipedia).

Ultimately, our definition of life might be too limited to encompass something like Gaia. But for now, Gaia joins Mogo in the fiction department.

Plausibility score: Virtually no conceivable mechanism, nor motive, would allow for the development of planet-size intelligent, biological beings. Unicron and Pandora are great for the movies, but when it comes to real life, they earn just one out of a possible four Rocketboys.

I agree that a planetary organism is not likely to arise through ‘natural’ processes. I think that one idea they ignore is the possibility of a deliberately evolved planetary sentience, such as the Gaia planet imagined by Asimov.  I agree that evolution alone is not likely to lead to a planet-spanning sentience, but we humans have at least partially exceeded the basic tooth-and-claw imperatives of evolution and survival already.  It is not inconceivable that a planetary sentience could develop out of a vastly networked society such as our own.

Current trends are certainly racing towards dramatically increasing levels of networked thinking.  It doesn’t take too many SF style leaps of imagination to think of the internet as a precursor to a global intelligence – it is already a shared form of common mind.  It isn’t much further to infer the networked nature of electronic communication being applied to global processes like climate.

I doubt that even the most ambitious SF imagines every cell on a planet as being part of a global sentience.  However, the microbes on our skin and in our guts are not a part of our awareness in any meaningful sense, despite the fact that we are sentient, and need them to continue existing.  Human evolution relied on the reasonably predictable existence and function of those microbes, just as a global sentience might operate on a reasonable assumption about the practices and functions of the biological activities on its surface.

Global sentience might be best imagined as a non-natural outcome, but it is not wholly implausible.  In fact, if our current pace of technological development continues, I have trouble imagining our future world without some form of common, networked awareness.




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I am very intrigued by this book: Exodyssey: Visual Development of an Epic Adventure by Steambot Studios.

Follow the Steambot crew through an original but also realistic point of view on futuristic civilizations, space transportation and society as they visually develop the characters, vehicles, environments and props needed to tell the tale. Various educational lectures and tools are thoroughly documented in this visually stunning book.

I particularly want to get my eyes on the hundreds of sketches and color illustrations.


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