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Derek Lowe The 2002 Model

Dbl%20new%20portrait%20B%26W.png After 10 years of blogging. . .

Derek Lowe, an Arkansan by birth, got his BA from Hendrix College and his PhD in organic chemistry from Duke before spending time in Germany on a Humboldt Fellowship on his post-doc. He's worked for several major pharmaceutical companies since 1989 on drug discovery projects against schizophrenia, Alzheimer's, diabetes, osteoporosis and other diseases. To contact Derek email him directly: Twitter: Dereklowe

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March 5, 2010

Friday Book Recommendation

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Posted by Derek

Here's another outside the field - in fact, it's outside of a lot of people's fields. Where Is Everybody? presents fifty possible solutions to the Fermi Paradox: if there are a lot of planets in the galaxy, and if life is pretty easy to get going, and if it's possible to travel or just communicate between solar systems. . .why haven't we seen anything? Enrico Fermi, in his typically disconcerting way, ran the math on this question during a lunchtime conversation in 1950, and realized that at least one of the common assumptions behind it must be off, and by a great deal.

I was thinking about this last night, because this weekend I'll have swarms of fourth graders and their parents looking through my telescope (if the weather cooperates), under the auspices of the Amateur Telescope Makers of Boston. And it's impossible to look at the night sky without wondering what life might exist out there and what form it might take. That Wikipedia article is quite good, but if you find it interesting, this book goes into the question in greater detail. I should note that a new book, The Eerie Silence, has just come out on the same topic, but I haven't seen that one yet.

Comments (27) + TrackBacks (0) | Category: Book Recommendations | Life As We (Don't) Know It


1. PharmaHeretic on March 5, 2010 3:43 PM writes...

When is the last time you had a meaningful conversation with an ant? If you observe human behavior with some detachment, it is very hard to empathize (let alone sympathize) with humans.

Plus, could humans perceive intelligence at a different level than theirs? Does an ant crawling on your feet know you can enjoy music or drive cars? It may recognize another insect, but has probably no concept of anything its primitive brain cannot process. The same also applies to humans.

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2. Tok on March 5, 2010 4:59 PM writes...

I'm guessing the majority of civilizations blow themselves up shortly after they gain the ability to observe and communicate over long distances. So yes, there are billions of potential planets, but our civilization has only been around a blink of an eye and we have to be looking at the right blink of an eye in some other part of the universe. Here's a question: given our level of technology, how far away could another civilization with our level of technology detect US?

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3. Epicanis on March 5, 2010 5:56 PM writes...

I recall reading an essay by someone (possibly Michael Shermer) discussing SETI and the "Drake Equation". The author pointed out that at least as far as listening for signals from other technologically-capable planets, the "Drake Equation" needs to include a term for how long the civilization in question broadcasts detectable, recognizeable signals. If one assumes that the technology gets more efficient, less of the signal energy escapes and heads out into space as time goes one even as a civilization gets more advanced.

The author had, as I recall, estimated about 100 years for the "detectably noisy signals" term and plugged it into the "Drake Equation" with some other numbers, and came up with a result for the "number of detectable civilizations in the galaxy" of about one. ("That must be us", I recall the author writing...)

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4. gippgig on March 6, 2010 2:23 AM writes...

I think one possible explanation is "Earthism", assuming that everything else is like us. We use radio to communicate so we assume extraterrestrials would too. In particular, we assume that ETs trying to make their presence known would choose radio and almost all our searches have been for a radio signal. However, visible light seems a better choice - while radio is best for propagating over interstellar distances, visible light is also good, it is much easier to generate a powerful signal (no need to build a transmitter; just blink your star's light on & off with something like Venetian blinds in stellar orbit), and, since stars radiate most strongly in the visible spectrum, astronomers are likely to do most of their observing in visible light so a visible light signal should have the greatest chance of being detected. I wouldn't be surprised if an intelligent signal has already been observed and written off as an irregular variable star! Another example of Earthism is assuming that life requires planets with liquid water - that might be true for life based on the chemical properties of carbon but what about life based on the electrical properties of silicon or the electromagnetic properties of a plasma? Note that in the only case where Earthism was tested it was totally wrong - contrary to what was previously expected, the arrangement of planets in solar systems is often totally unlike our solar system.
There are different ways of answering the question in #2. About the only way current technology could detect life on Earth is by detecting our radio waves. At the present time, this could only be done up to about 100 light years since we've been transmitting for only about a hundred years. However, a signal was deliberately sent (look up "Arecibo message" & associated links in Wikipedia) that, once it arrives, could be detected over 25,000 light years away. Note that in the near future it will be possible to measure the spectra of Earthlike extrasolar planets; detecting oxygen would be strong, but not absolutely conclusive, evidence for the presence of (nonintelligent) life since there is no known nonbiological mechanism to produce large quantities of oxygen in a planetary atmosphere (which, of course, doesn't mean it's impossible). This would make it possible to detect life at distances limited only by the power of telescopes.

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5. Charlie Abrams on March 6, 2010 7:24 AM writes...

The incorrect assumption is that communication between planetary life forms is possible. Think about this: you can build a scale model of the solar system (see Boston Museum of Science), but you can't build a useful scale model of the galaxy. For the former, if the sun is a basketball you can pick a small ball for neptune and put it walking distance away from the sun. For the latter, if you choose a grain of sand for as our entire solar system, the nearest star is so far away you can't put it anywhere on Earth to represent the distance!

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6. Morten G on March 6, 2010 8:18 AM writes...

TBH I don't think there is intelligent life anywhere else in our galaxy.
There's been life on Earth for at least 3.8 billion years - so a third to a fourth of time the universe has existed. In the beginning of the universe stars died fast and only light elements were present. The absence of heavier elements is not a detriment to the existence of advanced life (IMO) but the constant "bang bang supernova" would be.
Now on Earth it took around 3 billion years to build an oxygen atmosphere (IIRC) and I think that it is essential to multi-cellular life and also that multicellular life is essential to intelligence/sentience. 3 billions years is a long time for a planet to be stable enough to support bacterial life and I don't think it would have happened without the huge moon and molten core. Mars has neither and it is dead as the dodo.
If we then turn to the 3 branches of highly advanced multicellular life we have on earth. Plants, fungi, and animals. Only animals had the faculties to evolve sentience within the life span of the planet. What if it had only been plants and fungi? There certainly would have been a wealth of life here but no space shuttles. That might be a bit far out proposition since a mobile multicellular predator (anything not photo- or lithotrophic is a predator) seems very likely to evolve no matter what.
Then we come to the question of why an ape evolved sentience and why it hasn't happened earlier. The one thing that is different are the constant ice ages. Modern man evolved in the Pleistocene which has been a long series of really nasty cold periods. I would claim that the extra adaptability gained from intelligence allowed humans to handle the volatile climate better than other species.

So in conclusion: Any world unlikely to be able to sustain life for long enough for sentience to be possible and unlikely to have long drawn out death cramps promoting sentience as an evolutionary trait.

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7. milkshake on March 6, 2010 8:40 AM writes...

Have you been to a medchem project meeting recently? There are no signs of intelligent life in this galaxy.

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8. Sili on March 6, 2010 10:33 AM writes...

the "Drake Equation" needs to include a term for how long the civilization in question broadcasts
It does.
The incorrect assumption is that communication between planetary life forms is possible.
You forget that the timescale is every bit as a enormous as the spatial scale. The Pauli Paradox is as genuine conundrum. Yes, spacecraft move exceedingly slowly, but as long as just some of them survive, exponentional growth ensures that they'd really have to be everywhere by now. (I'm talking about the self-replicating robots scenario here - the only one that strikes me as a feasible means of communication.)

Morten, you assume and think a lot. A dangerous thing in this case. Remember that just because we're ugly bags of mostly water, that doesn't mean that that's the only way to evolve intelligence (Conway-Morris not withstanding).

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9. mitch on March 6, 2010 3:27 PM writes...

The Drake equation fails to incorporate Galactus.

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10. Morten G on March 7, 2010 11:27 AM writes...


I assume a lot but this is a thread on the possible existence of sentience other places in the galaxy than here - I think jumping to conclusions should be allowed. And I think the presence of life on Earth is a pretty good evidence for absence of space-faring civilizations anywhere else. von Neumann probes/Saberhagen Berserkers and all that:

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11. Frodo on March 7, 2010 10:33 PM writes...

We are geocentric and cannot escape that, no matter how hard we try. Any extraterrestrial communication is likely to be so different from anything we are familiar with we probably wouldn't recognize it as communication. I've always thought SETI was ridiculous. What are the odds that intelligent life elsewhere is going to evolve to use radio waves to communicate? And what are the odds that at the exact same moment in technological evolution both they and we happen to be using radio?

A great example are the phonograph records placed on Voyager I and II. They are encoded with analog versions of pictures from the Earth, plus some excerpts of a wide variety of music. Heck, find anybody today who even listens to LP's anymore. And the Voyagers were launched in 1975! I like to think that if the Voyagers were launched today we wouldn't be STUPID enough to put the recordings on a iPod. But we might...

For all we know, we've been "communicated at" for eons and just don't recognize the form of communication.

Besides, we are better off staying as far away from ET as possible. The history of life on our planet is that every time a weaker or less intelligent life form is contacted by a superior one, the weaker one is modified, enslaved, eaten or extinguished in short order. There are exceptions, but you get my point.

I'm afraid for too many people this search for extraterrestrial intelligence is a thinly veiled search for Meaning, or God. It is a bit like Kepler's attempt to fit the orbits of the planets into the five Platonic solids, a crazy-quilt of quasi-religion and science.

Just for the record, this subject is close to home. I'm a planetarium director. I've also found myself at odds with most of my colleagues on this subject.

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12. gippgig on March 8, 2010 4:01 AM writes...

A cartridge & phonograph needle and instructions are included with the Voyager records.

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13. Sen on March 8, 2010 6:40 AM writes...

I read blog article once that was a thought experiment on how inhabitable the earth really was, if you think about planet lifetimes and such *digs around old bookmarks*

In the grand scheme of things the chances of an intelligent life finding us in the few thousand years when we bothered to write things down are probably very small. Which is actually quite a depressing thought.

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14. Frodo on March 8, 2010 8:39 AM writes...

#12 gippig

We could provide them with an entire phonograph and speakers with 5.1 surround sound if we wanted to. Throw in a plasma tv to show it on. What if the ET's don't have eyes and ears? What if they utilize fusion for life function and live at the center of stars? What if they live as diffuse clouds of interstellar dust and use electromagnetic induction to carry on thought processes? Such a being might not know that a Voyager spacecraft was even present.

We assume life elsewhere will be something like us. Given the fantastically complicated chain of events that lead to us, the odds are astronomical that life elsewhere would be ANYTHING like us.

In my view, the search for ET is an academic one, and teaches us more about ourselves than anything else. It is sort of like discussing time travel or warp drive. Lots of fun, but it will never be more than a thought experiment.

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15. Bombauer on March 8, 2010 8:45 AM writes...

In a sense, humans are von Neumann probes (slow ones), and once we're detected by another intelligent species we'll be wiped out for being a galactic infection.

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16. mad on March 8, 2010 11:23 AM writes...

Its always fun to fly off the handle with this stuff but have you even had 1 data point and predicted and entire cuve?

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17. LeeH on March 8, 2010 11:26 AM writes...

It wasn't so long ago that people believed that it was possible that most stars did not have planets orbiting them. Now we know that planetary formation is the natural order, and it's now accepted that most, if not all, stars have planets around them.

And if you believe that the basic premise of science, that is that physical law operates the same no matter where you are, why is it so unbelievable that life should not, as part of the natural order of things, not be everywhere?

And given the physics of locomotion (and whatever other factors govern how life has to get around and generally survive), why wouldn't the overall form of most life mimic what we already see here on Earth?

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18. Frodo on March 8, 2010 12:29 PM writes...

#17 LeeH

Geocentricity is impossible to overcome. Maybe it is genetic... :)

In all seriousness, Fermi must have been right. One or more of our assumptions about life and intelligence must be in error. It would SEEM that carbon-based life should be common throughout the Universe. Carbon is very common, as are the other elements that make up us and tube worms and blue-green algae.

Maybe life is common, and intelligence isn't. Maybe intelligence results in self-destruction (Carl Sagan's bete noire.)

I love the concept of "Star Trek." The galaxy is one big family of humanoid life forms that all love beautiful women. Unfortunately, we project our desires on everything, and the search for ET is a prime example.

Look at Mars. First it was a god. Then it was a light attached to a crystalline sphere. Then it had channels. The channels became canals and suddenly Mars was inhabited by 12-foot-tall green fighting men. Then we landed on Mars and discovered that it has a yellow-brown sky and wacked-out peroxide chemistry going on in the soil. Now it's just a geological theme park that is damn hard to land on without crashing.

In the future, it will probably be a good place to go on your honeymoon. At that point, WE will be the Martians, and can call ourselves ET's.

Perhaps our ultimate destiny is to spread life throughout the galaxy. You've got to start somewhere.

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19. Frodo on March 8, 2010 1:42 PM writes...


... it wouldn't be so bad to have beautiful women on every planet, would it?

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20. Vader on March 8, 2010 2:01 PM writes...

My own feeling is that Earth is a protected nursery at this stage.

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21. Bored on March 8, 2010 2:45 PM writes...

#20 Vader

You are absolutely right. The aliens are waiting, like the witch in "Hansel and Gretel" until we are all 350 pound tubs of lard. Then they are going to swoop down and devour us in an orgy of saturated fat.

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22. Sili on March 8, 2010 3:51 PM writes...

My own feeling is that Earth is a protected nursery at this stage.
For the mosquitoes threatened by extinction, yes.

We are indeed the larders.

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23. Plan-9 from Outer Space on March 8, 2010 6:03 PM writes...

The Sun is at least a second generation star. Maybe all the life existed on planets orbiting first-generation stars.

Will the last life in the Universe please turn off the lights...

Geez, maybe that's us.

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24. metaphysician on March 9, 2010 5:30 PM writes...

I don't buy the "life will automatically be incompatibly different if it occurs elsewhere" argument. Parallel evolution occurs on Earth because, ultimately, the laws of physics are the laws of physics.

Will all extra-terrestrial life look like Earth life with funny colors? Unlikely. But if you find a sea of some liquid, odds are the active life forms will resemble fish, because fluid dynamics are fluid dynamics. Likewise, any technological civilization is most likely going to use radio waves as communication at *some* point. . . because its easy to generate radio waves.

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25. Frodo on March 9, 2010 10:02 PM writes...

#25 metaphysician

I get your point, I used to look at it that way.

Look at musical notes. There are only 12 of them in a scale. But there are nearly infinite combinations of them you can come up with within the parameters we call "music."

Likewise, the laws of physics are the same throughout the Universe. But I don't agree that all fish will more-or-less appear "fishlike" by the standards of Earth. Why couldn't fish evolve with propellers? Or achieve motility using the principals of a turbine engine? We do not yet understand why life actually got started here, much less why it looks the way it does. Someone above noted that you cannot determine a curve with a single data point. This assumes of course that a curve even exists.

What if the plot is just a scatter? "Life" may have to be re-defined many times in the future. Right now, we only know Earth-like life. It may turn out that Earth-like life is found only on the Earth.

By the way, you are quite correct that radio is a great way to communicate. Someone should tell the dolphins that....

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26. Madscientist on May 1, 2010 4:24 PM writes...

Why I am I suddenly getting this unbearable urge to smoke pot?

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27. William B Swift on January 12, 2011 7:04 PM writes...

You might find Rare Earth interesting. The authors review Earth's prehistory and biology to argue that primitive life (bacterial) is likely to be more common than previously thought, but advanced life (multi-cellular), and especially intelligent life, is probably much less common.

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