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Our Galaxy Should Be Teeming With Civilizations, But Where Are They?
Project Phoenix ^ | 25 Oct 01 | Seth Shostak

Posted on 10/25/2001 9:13:53 AM PDT by RightWhale

Is there obvious proof that we could be alone in the Galaxy? Enrico Fermi thought so -- and he was a pretty smart guy. Might he have been right?

It's been a hundred years since Fermi, an icon of physics, was born (and nearly a half-century since he died). He's best remembered for building a working atomic reactor in a squash court. But in 1950, Fermi made a seemingly innocuous lunchtime remark that has caught and held the attention of every SETI researcher since. (How many luncheon quips have you made with similar consequence?)

The remark came while Fermi was discussing with his mealtime mates the possibility that many sophisticated societies populate the Galaxy. They thought it reasonable to assume that we have a lot of cosmic company. But somewhere between one sentence and the next, Fermi's supple brain realized that if this was true, it implied something profound. If there are really a lot of alien societies, then some of them might have spread out.

Fermi realized that any civilization with a modest amount of rocket technology and an immodest amount of imperial incentive could rapidly colonize the entire Galaxy. Within ten million years, every star system could be brought under the wing of empire. Ten million years may sound long, but in fact it's quite short compared with the age of the Galaxy, which is roughly ten thousand million years. Colonization of the Milky Way should be a quick exercise.

So what Fermi immediately realized was that the aliens have had more than enough time to pepper the Galaxy with their presence. But looking around, he didn't see any clear indication that they're out and about. This prompted Fermi to ask what was (to him) an obvious question: "where is everybody?"

This sounds a bit silly at first. The fact that aliens don't seem to be walking our planet apparently implies that there are no extraterrestrials anywhere among the vast tracts of the Galaxy. Many researchers consider this to be a radical conclusion to draw from such a simple observation. Surely there is a straightforward explanation for what has become known as the Fermi Paradox. There must be some way to account for our apparent loneliness in a galaxy that we assume is filled with other clever beings.

A lot of folks have given this thought. The first thing they note is that the Fermi Paradox is a remarkably strong argument. You can quibble about the speed of alien spacecraft, and whether they can move at 1 percent of the speed of light or 10 percent of the speed of light. It doesn't matter. You can argue about how long it would take for a new star colony to spawn colonies of its own. It still doesn't matter. Any halfway reasonable assumption about how fast colonization could take place still ends up with time scales that are profoundly shorter than the age of the Galaxy. It's like having a heated discussion about whether Spanish ships of the 16th century could heave along at two knots or twenty. Either way they could speedily colonize the Americas.

Consequently, scientists in and out of the SETI community have conjured up other arguments to deal with the conflict between the idea that aliens should be everywhere and our failure (so far) to find them. In the 1980s, dozens of papers were published to address the Fermi Paradox. They considered technical and sociological arguments for why the aliens weren't hanging out nearby. Some even insisted that there was no paradox at all: the reason we don't see evidence of extraterrestrials is because there aren't any.

In our next column, we'll delve into some of the more ingenious musings of those who have tried to understand whether, apart from science fiction, galactic empires could really exist, and what implications this may have for SETI.


TOPICS: Culture/Society; Editorial; Extended News
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That's how it looks. Looks like we are alone with our clash of civilizations. Whoever wins this one wins not just earth but the entire galaxy.
1 posted on 10/25/2001 9:13:53 AM PDT by RightWhale
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To: RadioAstronomer
bump of possible interest
2 posted on 10/25/2001 9:14:33 AM PDT by RightWhale
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To: RightWhale
There were other civilizations. But one-by-one, their liberals destroyed them.
3 posted on 10/25/2001 9:18:38 AM PDT by wny
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To: RightWhale
I doubt a galactic empire could exist due to the problems of communication and transport accross such huge distances. As to where everyone is, how do we know they aren't next door? All we can really say is we don't see them here, right now. Would it really be necessary for aliens to be visiting us right now if they exist at all? This seems like a leap to me.
4 posted on 10/25/2001 9:21:38 AM PDT by mlo
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To: RightWhale
Another possibility could be that at certain points in their advancement civilizations either revert or go on farther to a type of being that we would not recognize yet.
Basically a civilization would revert to savagery or kill themselves off, or might advance to a form not recognizable by less sophisticated civilizations.
Just a thought.
5 posted on 10/25/2001 9:21:59 AM PDT by Just another Joe
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To: RightWhale
Some even insisted that there was no paradox at all: the reason we don't see evidence of extraterrestrials is because there aren't any.

This is my belief. My corollary is that even if there are aliens wandering around, it doesn't matter--we'll never meet them.

6 posted on 10/25/2001 9:22:16 AM PDT by ShadowAce
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To: RightWhale
I'm still trying to determine if there is intelligent life on Earth. ;^)
7 posted on 10/25/2001 9:24:12 AM PDT by headsonpikes
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To: RightWhale
So what Fermi immediately realized was that the aliens have had more than enough time to pepper the Galaxy with their presence. But looking around, he didn't see any clear indication that they're out and about. This prompted Fermi to ask what was (to him) an obvious question: "where is everybody?"

Cigarettes killed them all.

8 posted on 10/25/2001 9:25:02 AM PDT by Lazamataz
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To: ShadowAce
Another possibility is that they are hiding their existence. They would have to be plenty potent to do so.
9 posted on 10/25/2001 9:26:55 AM PDT by Tymesup
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To: RightWhale
Maybe the aliens got a good look at us and started hiding.
10 posted on 10/25/2001 9:26:58 AM PDT by Gumlegs
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To: RightWhale
Maybe it's because if you took all the carbon in the universe and put on the face of the earth, allowed it to chemically react at the most rapid rate possible, and left it for a billion years, the odds of creating just one functional protein molecule would be one chance in 10 to the 60th power (that's a 1 with 60 zeroes behind it)?
11 posted on 10/25/2001 9:27:01 AM PDT by Rockitz
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To: RightWhale
Fermi realized that any civilization with a modest amount of rocket technology and an immodest amount of imperial incentive could rapidly colonize the entire Galaxy. Within ten million years, every star system could be brought under the wing of empire.

Their race better have a VERY long lifespan then. Why build an interstellar "empire" if you can't live long enough to enjoy it or even administer it? A race could colonize other systems, but since communications and travel are limited by the speed of light at best, political organization of an interstellar "empire" would be very hard or outright impossible. Basically, each system would be its own independent political entity and cultural "petri dish" evolving independently from fellow members of their species in other systems.

Perhaps therin lies the best hope for freedom there is. Just pick up and move to where nobody else is willing to follow you. I don't know how easy it'd be to do so, since there's a lot of variables (access to transport, willingness to leave the homeworld, availability of habitable planets, terraforming, etc.).

Hell, mabye every culture eventually evolves Democrats to muck things up?

12 posted on 10/25/2001 9:27:24 AM PDT by adx
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To: RightWhale
Fermi realized that any civilization with a modest amount of rocket technology and an immodest amount of imperial incentive could rapidly colonize the entire Galaxy.

Yeah, whatever. No sane person with even a rudimentary knowledge of physics, much less an expert, could possibly believe something this preposterous.

13 posted on 10/25/2001 9:29:01 AM PDT by jpl
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To: mlo
I doubt a galactic empire could exist due to the problems of communication and transport accross such huge distances

Agreed, totally. Even if the galaxy is uninhabited by other civilizations, when we finally get off this mudball and get out there, we will have to break up into separate self-rule entities. While we might spread out throughout the galaxy in a million years once we get moving, linkages to a central authority would be next to impossible.

14 posted on 10/25/2001 9:29:06 AM PDT by RightWhale
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To: RightWhale
Could it be that because we are waaaaaay out on the end of an inconsequential arm of our home galaxy, revolving around an ordinary star with no remarkable characteristics, save one, that we're here, it's just hard to find us?

I postulate, we just haven't been found yet!

15 posted on 10/25/2001 9:30:26 AM PDT by MarketR
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To: MWS
Self bump for future read...
16 posted on 10/25/2001 9:31:14 AM PDT by MWS
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To: jpl
Fermi realized that any civilization with a modest amount of rocket technology and an immodest amount of imperial incentive could rapidly colonize the entire Galaxy.

The galaxy isn't all that large compared to the speed of light. The galactic empire part is probably not going to happen, but human occupation of the entire galaxy in a million years is feasible.

17 posted on 10/25/2001 9:33:03 AM PDT by RightWhale
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To: RightWhale
Taliban got 'em...
18 posted on 10/25/2001 9:33:37 AM PDT by null and void
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To: RightWhale
One is on the way. Nephilim: Here they come! :^)
19 posted on 10/25/2001 9:34:35 AM PDT by #3Fan
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To: #3Fan
Again! :^)
20 posted on 10/25/2001 9:35:09 AM PDT by #3Fan
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To: RightWhale
The simplest answer is that, to get to another star system you have to adapt to living in an "interstellar ark" -- and once you've done so it's easier to just take what you need from asteroids and comets than to re-adapt to living on planets.

For all we know, there could be thousands of old mining traces in our own Belt.

21 posted on 10/25/2001 9:35:55 AM PDT by steve-b
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To: RightWhale
Maybe our civilization is the only one living in an Oprah world where reaching out to other civilizations is thought to be beneficial. Civilizations tend to war with each other on Earth.

Another point is that maybe they just don't want us to know that they are there for their own reasons. Perhaps we are too primitive to be taken seriously.

Another point is that space travel might not be restricted to speeds that our limited science understands in 2001 AD.

22 posted on 10/25/2001 9:36:12 AM PDT by OK
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To: RightWhale
I postulate that no other civilization has been able to solve the problem of faster than light travel. The distances are huge and the challenges immense.

It doesn't do much good to colonize a new planet, only to discover that it has a strain of flu that is 100% fatal.

Civilizations also have a nasty tendency to self-destruct, and species have a tendency to go extinct rather quickly.

23 posted on 10/25/2001 9:38:10 AM PDT by Dog Gone
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To: MarketR
we are waaaaaay out on the end of an inconsequential arm of our home galaxy

It's true we inhabit an ordinary star system in a minor arm of the Milky Way far from downtown. Our star is also in the middle of a vacuum bubble 500 light years across that was cleared out by a supernova sometime back. We're not only living in a rural area, but in a rural area that has been stripped of a lot of natural resources such as interstellar gas of various kinds.

24 posted on 10/25/2001 9:39:03 AM PDT by RightWhale
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To: jpl
Fermi realized that any civilization with a modest amount of rocket technology and an immodest amount of imperial incentive could rapidly colonize the entire Galaxy.

Yeah, whatever. No sane person with even a rudimentary knowledge of physics, much less an expert, could possibly believe something this preposterous.

Actually, contrary to those who think that the speed of light cannot be breached, it can be and has (quite recently in separate lab tests). Fermi's paradox is therefore alive and well.

25 posted on 10/25/2001 9:39:18 AM PDT by amordei
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To: RightWhale
"Earth: Mostly harmless"
26 posted on 10/25/2001 9:40:20 AM PDT by malakhi
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To: RightWhale
Space travel is not as easy as conjectured. Traveling at the speed of light is too slow to get you anywhere and requires massive amounts of energy. The probability of contact with life forms on other solar systems or galaxies is small. If there are other civilizations, they have no reason to even believe we're here. At the speed of light, they haven't even received our 50s TV sitcoms yet.
27 posted on 10/25/2001 9:41:58 AM PDT by RLK
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To: Just another Joe
"Basically a civilization would revert to savagery or kill themselves off..."

Carl Sagan believed this and felt that for a civilization to move to a period of galactic or even intergalactic exploration, they must be able to overcome this obstacle that we as a species now face.

28 posted on 10/25/2001 9:42:03 AM PDT by Bloody Sam Roberts
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To: steve-b
there could be thousands of old mining traces in our own Belt

Seeing as how we don't have much info on what happened right here on earth even 10,000 years ago, and we have just begun to look around the other planets and asteroids in the solar system, the possibility that others have come and gone many times cannot be denied. Just because we don't see them now doesn't mean they never passed through gobbling up this and that on the way.

29 posted on 10/25/2001 9:43:19 AM PDT by RightWhale
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To: RightWhale
"Our Galaxy Should Be Teeming With Civilizations, But Where Are They?"

Well, don't look here. Beam me up, Scotty.

30 posted on 10/25/2001 9:43:20 AM PDT by Don Myers
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To: Gumlegs
...aliens got a good look at us...

I agree. We're a "bad neighborhood" to be avoided.

31 posted on 10/25/2001 9:44:20 AM PDT by GingisK
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To: RightWhale
Isn't it obvious? The aliens observed our civilation, and determined that as a species, humankind are basically a bunch of a******s! So, they decided to stay as far away from earth as possible,until we eventually destroy ourselves!!This brings to mind a good question: How do we know that we really know that we want to have contact with alien life forms? What if they turn out to be more savage than we humans!?!
32 posted on 10/25/2001 9:44:25 AM PDT by Destructor
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To: RLK
At the speed of light, they haven't even received our 50s TV sitcoms yet.

That's only 50 years. Fermi was talking about 10 million. Why aren't we picking up their sitcoms?
33 posted on 10/25/2001 9:46:04 AM PDT by sendtoscott
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To: RightWhale
They considered technical and sociological arguments for why the aliens weren't hanging out nearby....

... and ignored all of the evidence packed into government files...

34 posted on 10/25/2001 9:46:38 AM PDT by GingisK
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To: amordei
a rudimentary knowledge of physics

The galaxy is about 100,000 light years across. The speed of light doesn't need to be exceeded to allow for a civilization to spread out and occupy the entire galaxy in 10 million years from GO! Or even 1 million years. Getting to the next galaxy [Andromeda] is a different story.

35 posted on 10/25/2001 9:46:54 AM PDT by RightWhale
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Comment #36 Removed by Moderator

To: RightWhale
Just like the earth, if the galaxy is conquered, there would end up being one superpower that makes the rules. Perhaps the one that makes the rules has ruled that earth is to be left alone for the most part.
37 posted on 10/25/2001 9:49:03 AM PDT by #3Fan
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To: RightWhale
As you know, it's theorized that those beings on any given planet who are the most intelligent sprung forth from predators.

In 100 years, every nation on this planet will have the ability to destroy all of humanity with ease. There will still be Osama Bin Ladens - I truly doubt that man will ever reach the stars because of these facts.

I believe Sagan was right when he posited that "advanced" civilizations, by definition, will wipe themselves out (long before interstellar travel is achieved).

38 posted on 10/25/2001 9:50:30 AM PDT by Senator Pardek
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To: steve-b
For all we know, there could be thousands of old mining traces in our own Belt.

Like the perfectly square tunnels of South America.

39 posted on 10/25/2001 9:51:51 AM PDT by #3Fan
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To: angelo
"Earth: Mostly harmless"

Excellent. You have obviously obtained a copy of The Guide that has Ford Prefect's updated entry for our planet in it.
I was unaware that he had been able to send off his report to Megadodo Publications. Where ever did you get it? =;^)

40 posted on 10/25/2001 9:52:42 AM PDT by Bloody Sam Roberts
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To: adx
Why build an interstellar "empire" if you can't live long enough to enjoy it or even administer it?

I agree -- you either solve the problem of faster than light travel OR increase life span to virtual immortality to make a galactic empire feasible.

41 posted on 10/25/2001 9:55:44 AM PDT by justanotherfreeper
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To: jpl
Depends on your definition of "rapid". In terms of "Galactic Time", one galactic year is the time it takes for one revolution on its' axis.

Given the SF "sleeper ships" (i.e. top speed ~.2c), and the time it take humans to fill and develop a planet to the point where they can send out a wave of their own sleeper ships( several hundred to a few thousand years, your guess is just as good as mine . . .), you could fill the galaxy in a couple of million years: an eyeblink in astronomic terms.

42 posted on 10/25/2001 9:56:32 AM PDT by Salgak
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To: Senator Pardek
Sagan also said that we should be responsible and put up big billboards warning all potential visitors to enter at their own risk for we will eat them.

re where are they: Everywhere. Just cloaked. Duh!

43 posted on 10/25/2001 9:57:32 AM PDT by That Poppins Woman
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To: adx
Their race better have a VERY long lifespan then. Why build an interstellar "empire" if you can't live long enough to enjoy it or even administer it? A race could colonize other systems, but since communications and travel are limited by the speed of light at best, political organization of an interstellar "empire" would be very hard or outright impossible. Basically, each system would be its own independent political entity and cultural "petri dish" evolving independently from fellow members of their species in other systems.

One wouldn't have much of an empire, true, absent some faster-than-light technology, or magic, or something. A civilization might realize, however, that it is likely not alone in the galaxy. It might understand, too, that all it would take is one other civilization to start colonizing the galaxy for the whole place to be occupied. Rather than risk getting overrun by aliens, this civilization might figure it's better for it to start colonizing. And there we are.

44 posted on 10/25/2001 9:58:20 AM PDT by Timm
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To: justanotherfreeper
Worm holes.

Didn't you guys catch the Learning Channel's special -- Hyperspace?

45 posted on 10/25/2001 9:58:33 AM PDT by That Poppins Woman
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To: Senator Pardek
I truly doubt that man will ever reach the stars because of these facts

It doesn't even have to involve a huge destructive war. Just look at how the Vietnam war sucked all the resources and interest out of landing on the moon, and how WTC911 has converted the space program to military goals already. And that is without any actual crippling damage to the infrastructure. How can we possibly go to the stars when infants such as bin Laden are whining for attention all the time?

46 posted on 10/25/2001 10:00:59 AM PDT by RightWhale
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To: RightWhale
You mean, we're not only liviing in the boonies, but we also live in the middle of a STRIP MINE?
47 posted on 10/25/2001 10:06:43 AM PDT by Just another Joe
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To: RightWhale
Read Kings of the High Frontier by Victor Koman.

From the Author
(From his Prometheus Award acceptance speech, delivered in San Antonio, Texas, Labor day weekend, 1997) Kings of the High Frontier has been part of my life for as long as I have been a writer. When I was a kid, I marveled at the idea -- in Robert A. Heinlein's novels and such movies as Destination Moon and When Worlds Collide -- that private funding could get us into Space. As a child growing up with NASA's space program, I saw that it took a lot of people, facilities, and money to get one, two, or three men -- and I mean men -- into orbit or to the Moon. No families in Space, lost or otherwise.

There had to be a simpler way. Heinlein wouldn't have lied to me!

I stopped being a NASA fan when they canceled the Moon flights in December of 1972. And I became an enemy of NASA when Skylab -- a better space station than MIR would ever be -- was allowed to disintegrate into scrap.

I felt that I was not alone in this rage. I knew that there must have been others who loved Space but despised or even hated the space program. What if some of them, I thought, worked for NASA? What if they took their expertise with them into a sort of Space Underground? What if NASA tried to stop them? We've recently heard about the Mars Underground, but this idea occurred to me two decades ago.

In the summer of 1976, I started work on a novel entitled Hidden Millions. The title suggested the laundered money that might flow into such a venture, but also the millions of people in the counter-economy who might be involved knowingly or unknowingly in the effort.

Suffice it to say that my abilities as a writer back then were raw and I shelved the 80 pages of the manuscript to concentrate on projects more appropriate to my skills...

It was in 1985 that I began to research a novel called Huntress, but at that time The Jehovah Contract was about to be published in the US and I only made some mental notes.

Then Challenger fell. And you note that I say "fell" and not "exploded." As we now know, the tank ruptured, but the spacecraft was not incinerated.

Shock turned to sorrow and almost immediately to rage. The disaster had killed seven astronauts and destroyed one fourth of Earth's space fleet. I knew that -- by then -- the scales must have fallen from the eyes of others both outside and inside NASA. After a brief year's detour to write Solomon's Knife, I began on the Dante-esque journey that was Kings of the High Frontier.

48 posted on 10/25/2001 10:10:27 AM PDT by sendtoscott
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To: RightWhale; mlo
I doubt a galactic empire could exist due to the problems of communication and transport accross such huge distances

Agreed, totally. Even if the galaxy is uninhabited by other civilizations, when we finally get off this mudball and get out there, we will have to break up into separate self-rule entities. While we might spread out throughout the galaxy in a million years once we get moving, linkages to a central authority would be next to impossible.

I Find Your Lack Of Faith Disturbing...

49 posted on 10/25/2001 10:11:24 AM PDT by Darth Dan
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To: RadioAstronomer; longshadow; VadeRetro; Physicist; Junior; *crevo_list
Where are they?
50 posted on 10/25/2001 10:11:50 AM PDT by PatrickHenry
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