Skip to comments.Poul Andersonís Answer to Fermi
Posted on 08/30/2010 6:56:20 PM PDT by LibWhacker
Enrico Fermi’s paradox has occupied us more than occasionally in these pages, and for good reason. Where are they, asked Fermi, acknowledging an obvious fact: Even if it takes one or two million years for a civilization to develop and use interstellar travel, that is but a blip in terms of the 13.7 billion year age of the universe. Von Neumann probes designed to study other stellar systems and reproduce, moving outward in an ever expanding wave of exploration, could easily have spread across the galaxy long before our ancestors thought of building the pyramids.
Where are they indeed. Kelvin Long, one of Project Icarus most energetic proponents, recently sent me Poul Andersons thoughts on the subject. I probably dont need to tell this audience that Anderson was a science fiction author extraordinaire. His books and short stories occupied vast stretches of my youth, and I still maintain that if you want to get not so much the tech and science but the sheer wonder of the interstellar idea, you can tap it in its pure form in his writing. Poul was also the author of Tau Zero, the novel which gave our Tau Zero Foundation its name, and were delighted to have Karen Anderson, Pouls wife, as a valuable part of the organization.
In a letter to the Journal of the British Interplanetary Society in 1986, Anderson sketched the reasons why Fermi was asking his question, citing the von Neumann probes mentioned above, and noting that while interstellar travel was likely hard enough that civilizations practicing it might be rare, all it takes is one to eventually fill the galaxy with its artifacts. He found the notion that Fermi could be answered by saying we are the only high-technology civilization unlikely, but his reason for writing was to offer an entirely different suggestion based on practicality.
Lets assume a stable civilization arises that achieves extremely long lifespans, if not physical immortality — this may be too big an assumption, but there are those arguing that our successors may be a form of artificial intelligence for whom this could apply. Such a civilization naturally would explore its neighborhood, moving out to local star systems and gradually spreading beyond. Anderson saw this as a problem: The farther from home you go, the longer it takes you to return information. The galaxy itself is 100,000 light years wide, he noted, and that means most information would be utterly outdated by the time it spread throughout the disk.
And what of this self-replication idea? Anderson saw problems there too:
…self-replication would probably already have broken down. Quantum mechanics alone guarantees gradual degradation of the programmes, an accumulation of mutations generation by generation — without any natural selections to winnow out the unfavourable majority — until ultimately every machine is useless and every line of its descent extinct.
Can we conjecture a kind of self-healing technology that extends to fixing these errors to maintain the integrity of the expansion? Perhaps, but the data flaw remains paramount:
…long before this has happened, the sphere of exploration will include so many stars that the data flow from them saturates the processing capacity of the present civilisation. After all, with some 1012 stars in the Galaxy, a small fraction amounts to a huge number. Moreover, while they may fall into categories with predictable properties, we are learning in our own back yard that every planet any of them may have is a world, replete with mysteries and surprises. Every life-bearing planet offers endless matter for research, especially since the life will always be changing, evolving.
In short, Fermis they are not here because they are kept too busy within a few score light-years of their various homes.
If Anderson is right, then we can imagine a galaxy in which technological civilizations arise here and there, each of them gradually filling a sphere of exploration and colonization until a kind of equilibrium is reached and there is no practical advantage to pushing further. Earth, then, could be seen as being in the spaces between such civilizations, not yet aware of their existence, preparing over the next few centuries to begin its own expansion to nearby stars.
Is the galactic population sufficiently dense that such bubbles of expansion ever meet? Or is SETI our only chance to confirm the idea that the galaxy has brought forth other technological civilizations? If the latter, we may know them only by the whisperings of their local traffic, exchanging information and perhaps speculating as we do about still more distant suns.
Then there are the Freepers who just like to drop in to say, "Neener, neener, neener, scientists are a bunch of pseudo-intellectuals poopy heads who don't know nothin'." You can always count on them.
So if I don't get more than four replies, I'll be really surprised.
If you study cosmology and cosmetology, do you end up with stars in your eyes?
(sorry couldn’t resit) ;)
(sorry couldn’t resist) ;)
I read several of his books when I was a kid. I loved “Three Hearts and Three Lions,” “The High Crusade,” and several of the Flandry series. I’m sure I read several more, but it’s been a long time...
I think the data breakdown problem is not such a big deal as evidenced by DNA and its ubiquity - though genes change, they tend to remain functional through many millions of years.
You need to change your “or”s to “and”s, then you got me. I’m not an either\or person.
I love "what if's"! What if all the current civilizations in the universe started at exactly the same moment, I.E. The Hand of God? Maybe it's a race, like Starcraft.........
“So if I don’t get more than four replies, I’ll be really surprised.”
Yeah.... I don’t think you’re going to have to ask the question “Where are they?”
BTW, I just don’t believe it is practical to travel more than a light year or two at best, and that there is no intelligent life within several hundred light years at best. So Fermi’s Paradox never bothered me.
At the same time, I think the Drake Equation was wildly....wildly optimistic.
I wouldn't be the least bit surprised if it turned out that our nearest technological neighbor was in another galaxy....and that we'll never meet them nor be aware of their existence.
As long as there is curiosity, the bubbles will always expand.
Poul Anderson is just fantastic. His good buddy Jack Vance, in my opinion one of the best writers ever, is still kicking. I think he’s 93!
“There are just too many Freepers who either like scifi, or Poul Anderson, or Fermi’s question, or physics, or cosmology, or astronomy, or space, or interstellar travel, or Von Neumann probes, or SETI.”
Let us not forget those for whom it is “and” not “or”. ;)
All those you listed, and Operation Chaos. ;)
And the Star Fox..., and...
“BTW, I just dont believe it is practical to travel more than a light year or two at best,...”
Seems to me that to make interstellar travel & communications practical, you have to have harnessed space/time to your advantage, giving you relatively unlimited range. This may be why we never hear from others - they are transmitting at something beyond light speed while we are listening at light speed & below.
I agree with you. It's amazing the way Star Trek, more than any other space epic, took pure fantasy and created the illusion in the mind of several generations that it represented some kind of scientific extrapolation.
I've always thought this is the answer to "where is everybody?". Up until now, we've been looking in the radio spectrum for messages. Radio waves only travel at light-speed; so it'd be a pretty crummy means of interstellar communization. We're already on the verge of instantaneous communication via quantum entanglement (sometimes rather confusedly called teleportation). Perhaps when we latch on to whatever communication method might be out there we'll find the "airwaves" flooded with extra-terrestrial transmissions.
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