Seirawan on physics, Feynman on chess

4/8/2010 – Our April 1st story on the Large Hadron Collider was not a joke: it generated a lot of feedback – some quite profound. GM Yasser Seirawan sent us his thoughts on the Fermi paradox, while other readers entreated us to carry more such "enlightening stories that explore the connection of chess to other areas of human endeavor". Don't miss Richard Feynman's story at the end of this feedback page.

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My answer to the Fermi paradox

By GM Yasser Seirawan

We remind you: the Fermi Paradox is a thought experiment, conducted by the physicist Enrico Fermi in 1950, that raises the question why, in spite of overwhelming statistical odds for intelligent civilisations in our galaxy, we have not encountered any alien artefacts or creatures. It is unreasonable to believe that the 300 billion stars in the Milky Way have spawned less than many thousands of civilisations, which will require just five to 50 million years to colonize the entire galaxy. So if we are not the only life form (monumentally unlikely) then hundreds of alien civilisations should have already visited earth, a fact that should, of course, be immediately obvious to us. But this is not the case. At the very least we should be receiving microwave communications from them. But again this has not occurred.

My answer to the Fermi paradox is the simple and obvious one: advanced extraterrestrial societies became virtual. They built expansive virtual worlds of astonishing beauty and complexity. They learned to put their bodies in solar-powered machines of cryonic states so that they could extend their life cycle and avoid injuries as well as viruses. They created complex avatars of themselves in their virtual worlds that were far more resilient than their own bodies.

The avatar selves didn't require food, drink or rest. If they wanted to hunt, draw, read, write, create, build or explore every possible sensory pleasure, all of these possibilities existed in their ever-expanding virtual worlds. Their avatars could be a dolphin trolling ocean depths while chasing schools of sardines or they could soar like eagles flying and nesting over scenic landscapes lasting fifty years. Avatars could be a humble worker bee or an ant living for a few days or a week.

Avatars were limited only by their imaginations. Dangerous beings could conquer and rule in any virtual world they wanted. Loving beings could experience every stage of pregnancy, if they wished, for as long as they wished. Beings could have their avatars experience diseases and viruses long since conquered. Popular programs included having their avatar bodies pierced with swords and other weaponry, as well as being blown to small pieces and enjoy the sensory feedbacks of doing it all over and over again. Beings who believed in deities could create gods and angels from their own ancient mythologies while deterministic programs meant they could debate the purpose and meaning of life for centuries without repetition. Avatars could enjoy states of Samadhi for centuries.

Some beings defied their physical laws by multi-tasking, having numerous avatar bodies performing in virtual worlds simultaneously. The impossibility of being in two places at once became being in thirty worlds at once. In short, advanced extraterrestrial societies turned internal instead of exploring the dangerous external. The controlled microcosmic became more interesting than the unknown macrocosmic.

Fermi wasn't to blame for not having the answer to his own paradox. The Internet didn't exist in his day. Today we have massive multiple player games supporting 500,000 users at a time that are cartoon-like. A decade or two from now we will look at the games of today and wonder how they were ever attractive at all. Just as we now look at the simple game of "Pong" in bemusement. We have only just started on our discovery as well as creation of virtual worlds. Interfacing will be done without any physical connection rather through reading patterns of brainwaves. Generations of technological advancements from now the new virtual worlds of tomorrow will become so visceral and mimic reality in ways that are so close we will wonder about reality. Indeed, new senses of heightened awareness in virtual worlds will be created. In a strange feedback loop we won't understand, we will become telepathic. In virtual worlds we will become gods. To illustrate the powerful magnetic attraction of virtual worlds I'll point out that recently a Korean couple was charged with ignoring their own baby while pampering a virtual one.

Finally, "The Matrix" trilogy was a fun series which I highly recommend. The Matrix got a lot of things right about our future, but missed the mark by a really long shot.

Yasser Seirawan is the author of a new instructional DVD "My Best Games" which Michael Jeffreys calls "the chess DVD of the year." You can order it in our ChessBase shop.


Further readings

  • Runaway consumerism explains the Fermi Paradox
    In this article Geoffrey Miller says: "I suggest a darker solution to Fermi's Paradox. Basically, I think the aliens just get addicted to computer games. They forget to send radio signals or colonize space because they're too busy with runaway consumerism and virtual-reality narcissism. They don't need Sentinels to enslave them in a Matrix; they do it to themselves, just as we are doing today."
  • Stephen Hawking: Asteroid impacts the biggest threat to advanced life in the Milky Way
    Hawking believes that one of the major factors in the possible scarcity of intelligent life in our galaxy is the high probability of an asteroid or comet colliding with inhabited planets. The general consensus amongst scientists is that any comet or asteroid greater than 20 kilometers in diameter that strikes the Earth will result in the complete annihilation of complex life – animals and higher plants. The KT event which occurred 65 million years ago and destroyed the dinosaurs, was the result of an asteroid (or comet) six to ten miles in diameter hitting the Earth (the Yucatan region of Mexico) at 25,000 miles an hour. The asteroid that hit Vredefort, South Africa, dates back two billion years and has created an impact crater with a radius of 190 km, making it the world’s greatest known single energy release event known to science.

    Through Earth's history such collisions occur, on the average every one million year. If this figure is correct, it would mean that intelligent life on Earth has developed only because of the lucky chance that there have been no major collisions in the last 70 million years. Other planets in the galaxy, Hawking believes, on which life has developed, may not have had a long enough collision free period to evolve intelligent beings. Even if life evolves somewhere in our galaxy, it will be utterly destroyed by such an impact before it can reach the level of intelligence.

  • Are supernovas destroyers of life in the universe?
    A massive white dwarf star in our galaxy may become a supernova several million years from now, and could possibly destroy life on Earth. Many astronomers believe that one of the plausible reasons we have yet to detect intelligent life in the universe is due to the deadly effects of local supernova explosions that wipe out all life in a given region of a galaxy. Certain rare stars, type 11 stars, are core-collapse hypernova that generate deadly gamma ray bursts (GRBs). These long burst objects release 1000 times the non-neutrino energy than ordinary "core-collapse" supernovae.

    A white dwarf star in the T Pyxidis system is known to be a recurrent nova, undergoing thermonuclear eruptions around every 20 years. The most recent were in 1967, 1944, 1920, 1902, and 1890 (astronomers do not know why the there has been a longer than usual interval since the last nova eruption). These explosions are the result of an increase of mass, as the dwarf siphons off hydrogen-rich gases from its stellar companion. When the mass reaches a certain limit a nova is triggered. If the mass builds up to the so-called Chandrasekhar Limit the dwarf would become a Type 1a supernova. In this event the dwarf would collapse and detonate a massive explosion resulting in its total destruction. This type of supernova releases 10 million times the energy of a nova.

More reader Feedback

Rafa Perez, Monterrey, USA
About your latest article "LHC goes online – chess grandmasters worried": Okay, Friedel, I wasn't worried by the occurrence of a catastrophe produced by a micro black hole in the LHC, but after reading your article and your solution to the Fermi-Paradox, well I have to say that it really makes sense. Thank you very much. On the other hand if there were any civilisation with the technology to produce a LHC, they should also have been sending, unintentionally, and before their disappearance, radio waves from their communications, and we haven't received any of these. Maybe they're too far away, who knows?

Reply: The microwave bubble generated by our own civilisation, is now about seventy light years in diameter. If we switch to fully digital close circuit communication, e.g. with fiber optics and tight wireless beams, then the bubble may end in less than a century and the Earth would revert to silence. It is likely one has only one very short and highly unlikely opportunity to detect microwave transmissions from other systems. The subject is wonderfully explored in Carl Sagan's book Contact.

Rune Vik-Hansen (philosopher), Tromsø, Norway
I read your item on the LHC and the possible possibility for black holes etc. Further down Frederic wrote about Fermi's Paradox, which, strictly speaking is no paradox, but rather a confusion points of view. Frederic wrote: "So if we are not the only life form (monumentally unlikely) then hundreds of alien civilisations should have already visited earth, a fact that should, of course, be immediately obvious to us. But this is not the case. At the very least we should be receiving microwave communications from them. But again this has not occurred."

Why do we think other possible civilisations should visit us? This is OUR perspective, probably due to narcissistic traits we tend to think we are the centre of the universe, even when not, and therefore merit the attention of other possible existences, and that all, and according to the thought experiment, technological superior civilisations SHOULD come to visit US. However, this may not be the case at all; THEIR perspective may be entirely opposite: "Hey, guys, you see the planet over there? We SHOULD NOT, and I repeat, go there!" There is no reason to think this thought would not have struck a technological superior civilisation. We think we are worthy of other possible civilisations' visits, whereas in reality, their perspective may be totally different. There is no logical or apparent reasons as to why other possible civilisations should pay us a visit. The whole "paradox" is founded on a confused point of view.

Reply: You are right, Rune, there is no logical or apparent reasons as to why other possible civilisations should pay us a visit. But there is also no logical or apparent reasons as to why they should not. If there are a thousand civilisations in our galaxy, and just one percent of them see some reason for conducting interstellar space exploration, then we should have ten alien species crawling around the solar system. If there are ten thousand civilisations amongst the 300 billion stars in the Milky Way, there we should have 100 alien forms here on earth.

James A. Grange, Centre for Cognitive Neuroscience, Bangor University, UK
I really must protest at your recent article regarding the Large Hadron Collider – such fear mongering in the press only serves to suppress the remarkable achievements in science today. There is much naivety in the public domain regarding the risks involved in the LHC experiment, compounded by fatuous media coverage. The chances of a black hole forming – as Vera Spillner explained in your article – are terribly small; the media would do well to highlight the wonderful work being done at CERN and the advances in physics made possible by this work. And why do we care what chess GMs think about the LHC? You report that Teimour Radjabov is "quite concerned with the LHC"; if I want his opinion on anything, it will be about the Kings Indian Defence, not theoretical physics.

Paul Leyderman, Chicago, USA
I applaud your story on Large Hadron Collider reaching the energy of 7 trillion electron volts (now I actually know what "TeV" stands for!). It was thoroughly educational and entertaining. It contained great explanations of scientific concepts, reactions from the worldwide physics community, pictures, and illustrative videos, and it explored very interesting and thought-provoking (even if somewhat controversial, such as the Friedel Conjecture for solving the Fermi Paradox) connections to the topics as wide-ranging as the life on other planets and environmentally-friendly scientifically-inspired art.

Naturally, you also emphasized how interested the leading grandmasters are in the questions of particle physics and science in general. It's great to see that they are well-rounded erudite individuals. As Magnus Carlsen said in his Spiegel interview, to which you referred in another article, "Chess should not become an obsession. Otherwise there's a danger that you will slide off into a parallel world, that you lose your sense of reality, get lost in the infinite cosmos of the game. You become crazy." If only Bobby Fischer had heeded this advice when he was younger and spent his spare time in the company of bright and beautiful ladies like Vera, Yisel and Aruna, . how much happier he would have been.

Please keep putting together enlightening stories that explore the connection of chess to other areas of human endeavor, and keep doing it more often! I remember that once by reading your article I learned a great deal about hippocampus and the structure of the brain in general, and somehow that article was also in the beginning of April. So what about other times?

Reply: Alright, Paul, let us continue with the following wonderfully enlightening explanation of how we discover the laws of physics and the universe, by Richard Feynman, who uses images that every chess player will easily comprehend.

Feynman on Physics and Chess


Physicist Richard Feynman explaining physics with the chess allegory

Richard Phillips Feynman, 1918–1988, won a Nobel Prize in 1965 for his work on quantum electrodynamics and is known for his his work in quantum mechanics. He developed a widely used pictorial representation scheme for the mathematical expressions governing the behavior of subatomic particles, which later became known as Feynman diagrams. He assisted in the development of the atomic bomb and was a member of the panel that investigated the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster. In addition to his work in theoretical physics, Feynman has been credited with pioneering the field of quantum computing, and introducing the concept of nano-technology (creation of devices at the molecular scale). During his lifetime, Feynman became one of the best-known scientists in the world.


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