Seirawan on Fermi, feedback from our readers

4/10/2010 – Seriously: are we turning into a science blog? It could certainly look that way, after we published a story on April 1st on the Large Hadron Collider, and then a week later a follow-up with a proposed solution to the Fermi paradox by GM Yasser Seirawan. This in turn has generated a spate of new letters and messages from our readers. We share with you the most interesting speculations.

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Feedback to Seirawan on Fermi paradox

GM Yasser Seirawan's answer to the Fermi paradox was the simple and obvious one: advanced extraterrestrial societies became virtual. They built expansive virtual worlds of astonishing beauty and complexity. They have learned to put their bodies in solar-powered machines of cryonic states so that they could extend their life cycle and avoid injuries or death. They have created complex avatars of themselves in their virtual worlds that were far more resilient than their own bodies.

Seirawan's speculations have led to another spate of letters and messages. One that was particularly welcome was a Skype discussion with IM Almira Skripchenko, Paris:

"The probable answer to the Fermi paradox is that we may be the avatars of another intelligent civilisation and their virtual world," Almira told us. She has been reading Hawking, Einstein and Le Monde the French newspaper has recently been carrying multiple articles on the Large Hadron Collider and black holes. Also after years of "Friends" she now watches "Big Bang Theory", a comedy show that increases her expertise on the subject.

Feedback by other readers – with our comments indented and in italics:

Nicolas Doyon, Quebec, Canada
I work as a researcher in biology and think that the Fermi paradox rest upon a false assumption which is: planets similar to the earth have good chances to develop intelligent life mastering advanced technology. This is only guessing since we have absolutely no clue to which conditions are necessary for the evolution of intelligent animals. Furthermore, intelligence may very rarely lead to technological advances. Judging by brain comparison, dolphins are smarter than yet unlikely candidates for space travel.

True, intelligence may very rarely lead to technological advances. Or it might very often do so. But even if it is a seldom case the time scale for colonizing the galaxy is so small – fifty million years – that even rare occurrences of technical civilsations should leat to aliens being in our system.

Alex Gorbounov, Cary, NC, USA
Thanks for publishing the article on LHC and spurring such a lively debate about the Fermi paradox, black holes, etc. I love the humour of your articles and your general "outside the box" approach to journalism. That's why is one of my favorite places to visit.

We must, however, make an effort to prevent this site from turning into a science blog.

I want to give my two cents on this paradox, if you don't mind. First of all, interstellar travel. In the admission of many scientists, celestial distances and the cosmic debris would be two very big obstacles to overcome for any civilization, no matter how advanced, the debris being the bigger one perhaps. If you try to reduce the travel time by increasing speed, than the impact of tiniest particles on the ship would be magnified exponentially and would lead to a statistically unavoidable destruction. OK, but that premise, however likely correct, may not necessarily be the reason for the stated absence of evidence of alien visitation, because we don't really know what future technologies will be capable of achieving, it may as well turn out that space debris and distances will be a piece of cake in a couple of hundred years.

Or a couple of thousand, or a couple of million. The Bussard ramjet, ´which can solve the problem of interstellar debris, has already been concieved in our time.

Next, let's examine the other postulate of this paradox, which is the alleged fact that we haven't been visited. I think a lot of people will disagree with that statement. Just that it's not a proven scientific fact, since science requires this "reproducibility" criterion for acceptance of anything as a fact (but how can you ask for a reproducibility of something that is absolutely outside of anybody's control), does not rule out the possibility that we have been visited. Look at all the documented, eye-witnessed encounters with flying objects of unexplained origin (better known as UFOs) and a lot of other things that may qualify as alien evidence of alien visits.

We have written about the probability of "UFOs" being proof of visitation by alien species. There are many reasons to doubt this: (1) It is not easy to imagine why interstellar travellers would cross gigantic distances, which is very, very hard, and then try, more or less unsuccessfully, to hide themselves from the native species. What is the point? (2) It is difficult to believe that alien spaceships, which have apparently been sighted in many millions of instances, and have indeed conducted countless abductions with the infamous body probes, have never left the equivalent of a Hershey Bar wrapper for us to find and analyse. (3) It is puzzling why the creatures described in cases of abduction tend to have great similarity with the comic book and movie aliens of the corresponding countries and for relevant eras: tall, slender aliens visit Europe and Scandinavia, reptilian beings land in Japan and the Far East. Over the last fifty years or so the aliens have mutated in synch with science fiction movies.

But the key problem is the following: if we assume there have been alien landings, the people who would best know about this are the military, scientists and politicians. Each would have a tremendous motivation to bring the information to public attention. Scientists have trouble keeping anything a secret – they are dying to announce discoveries and publish papers. The military knows that the moment they can confirm the visit of some reclusive alien beings with space ships and, in all likelihood, powerful weapons, the defence budget would be doubled and tripled. And finally politicians know that this type of "crisis" inevitably leads to the widest possible support for those currently in power – people need their leaders to steer them out of danger. It is difficult to believe that all three groups would join forces, as never before in history, to suppress the vital information of alien presence, and would do so for the one reason that is usually cited: "to avoid world panic".Sorry, we just don't buy it.

One more assumption in the paradox can also be challenged. A bunch of other civilizations may exist, but what makes anybody think that they are at the advanced technological state that makes the interstellar travel possible? In all likelihood, the majority of them are at about the same technological level as we are. Because if you assume that a certain chronology of astronomic events with similar timeframes needs to be followed for intelligent life to develop, then other alien worlds will be practically confined to a similar developmental stage as us.

The chances that any alien civilisation is at about the same technological level as we are is infinitely remote. Our current technology is a few thousand years old – a couple of hundred, actually, if you look at the bulk of scientific and engineering discoveries. With the age of the universe being 13.7 billion years we would expect the average galactic civilisation to be, statistically, millions if not hundreds of millions of years ahead of us. Enough time to discover forms of interstellar travel which our fledgling civilisation has not yet dreamed of.

Samir, Portugal
My solution to the Fermi Paradox: the aliens are here but they are undetectable because of advanced invisibility and cloaking technology. Their craft are undetectable with human technology. This seems to me a simple and effective solution to the Fermi Paradox.

Pal G., Avondale, AZ, USA
Please, please let us know if GM Yasser Seirawan's write-up regarding the Fermi paradox was written on April 1st. His commentary is so unbelievable that I am confident it is composed in jest. If not, I recommend he seeks professional help, and spends less time in the theatre.

Andrew Greet, Glasgow, UK
I would like to propose a simpler and, dare I say, more rational answer to Fermi's so-called Paradox. Your article states that the paradox is based on the assumption of "overwhelming statistical odds for intelligent civilisations in our galaxy". With all due respect, this is nonsense. The truth of the matter is that – leaving aside any tales of alien abductions, conspiracy theories etc – we have had no contact with any form of extraterrestrial life, intelligent or otherwise. Therefore we are in no position to estimate the probability of life occurring elsewhere. We can try to make intelligent guesses based on the chemical composition of distant planets, but it is still guesswork. We still do not know exactly how life got started on this planet, and the likelihood of a similar process occurring elsewhere. We also have no idea about the probability of microscopic organisms evolving into complex ones (bearing in mind that life on this planet consisted of not much more than bacteria for billions of years). So, the bottom line is: we have no idea how likely it is that intelligent extraterrestrial life exists, which as far as I can see, renders the Fermi Paradox redundant.

We would like to address this directly, but the next reader has done is for us.

Dr. Ray Bagley, St Cloud, Minnesota
I read with interest the different views about LHC and also off-world life. It is true that after many years SETI has not found messages from off world life. As a first thought one might read Peter Ward and Jon Brownlee's book "Rare Earth" as why they think we have no visitors. The real and true answers to the questions are of course unknown, we can guess and try ideas. One of the main problems is that we may not know enough to ask relevant questions. Sort of like trying to explain the Santa Claus method of fast world travel to a small child and hope that the child has any idea at all what you are talking about, or even know what you are trying to answer. There are many possibilities. Some very clear potential ideas never seem to be even mentioned among the many viewpoints I have heard, or read about. I find that just as odd as Fermi's Paradox. I am a scientist and mathematician. In progress I am writing a book that will explore these ideas of other life so we can understand better why the situation is not at all strange. In science we have to be very careful to limit our speculations for it is easy to create pure fantasy rather than good science. In mathematics I like to prove theorems or create mathematical structures. The process can be slow and even perfectly valid lines of logic and reasoning can suddenly reach a dead end. So you start again on another path. It all becomes worth it if you discover a good set of proofs and begin to understand what the problem or structure really is. Then you can make the ideas and concepts beautiful and clear for others to appreciate.

The LHC is a wonderful project and I hope we will learn many exciting things from this effort. For those people that have less knowledge and are willing to read in order to understand what we are trying to learn I recommend a good place to start is reading Lisa Randall's book "Warped Passages". Lisa is not just a good writer she is a great physicist who has gained tenure from three of the best universities in America (Harvard, MIT, and Princeton).

James, Canberra, Australia
Although the visible universe is monstrously large, the passage of light from all the regions of space means we can actually see the evolution of the universe unfolding from the present to 14 billion years into the past. There is no recognisable or physical signature of anyone being out there, in this galaxy or elsewhere, or indeed any evidence that there ever has been. To suggest that this is because all the trillions of possible sapient species in the universe would develop the same technology as us, or follow even a vaguely similar technological trajectory, and then engage in exactly similar end use of information technology to create avatars while their "real" bodies are in cryogenic suspension seems even less likely than there being no-one out there. The truth is out there: it's just that we have no idea what it is.

It is conceivable that a survey of the galaxy would reveal that life almost always forms on temperate planets with water and carbon; that it starts out with single-cell forms that inhabit the planet for a few billion years; that at some stage mulit-cellular organisms develop, always in water; that the process of evolution then kicks in to develop more and more complex species; that at some stage one of these species is able to construct digital electronic machines; and that, in all systems surveyed, the biological systems inevitably migrate into the electronic ones. It is conceivable.

Luvin C., Philippines
My answer to the Fermi Paradox, (perhaps this is just additional paradox – I am just wondering if ants really know humans exist): Is it not possible that other life forms not similar to humans can exist, that makes it the reason why we cannot detect their existence. We keep assuming that human life is the standard, that if there are other life forms they should be something similar to humans. The truth is, different environments creates different life forms with differing communication or perhaps no communication. Perhaps other life forms exist in solitude, and other in more advance form. Our existence may just be like the pawns and other pieces on the chess board. I don't know if the pawns are aware that we ever existed. But we know they do.

Very few scientists assume that alien life forms will be similar to humans. That is the crime of movie producers, who in most cases depict aliens in pure bipedal human forms, down to limbs, joints, muscles, digits, organs and skin (in Star Treck they usually have some slight abnormality of the forehead). Aliens don't even have the diversity we find within the phylum Chordata. There are, of course, exceptions, where realistic alien lifeforms are portrayed.

Xenobiology by Abiogenisis – well worth an extensive visit to this gallery

One of our earliest encounters with exotic aliens was ages ago, when our chief science advisor John Nunn gave us a book by Robert Forward called "Dragon's Egg", which describes life on the surface of a neutron star. The most intelligent species there are called cheela and have about the same mass as a adult human. However, the extreme gravity of the neutron star compresses the cheela to the volume of a sesame seed. They live and develop at a much faster rate than humans: a "day" on Dragon's Egg is about 0.2 seconds, and a typical cheela's lifetime is about 40 minutes. The entire history of cheela civilization spans from 22 May 2050 to 21 June 2050. Fascinating, with surprisingly plausible ideas.

Julian Wan, Ann Arbor, USA
Yasser Seirawan's "solution" to the Fermi Paradox falls into the category of an "inward looking solution." Roughly there are these possible answers to the paradox:

1. Outward solutions: there are stellar civilizations but hide or ignore us because we are either not ready for contact or are so different that we are like insects to them and we aren't yet recognized as being sufficiently advanced. These solutions argue that there are stellar civilizations but they don't want to see us or don't consider us ready.

2. Catastrophic solutions: Stephen Hawking is quoted in the article discussing the possibility that the length of time it takes to become a stellar civilization puts a planet at risk for a catastrophic asteroid collision. Other variants include global nuclear war, ecological disaster or inability to create a global government. Catastrophe overtakes civilizations before they can become starbound.

3. Inward Solutions: travel between the stars is very difficult due to the vast distances, time involved and the barriers imposed by the light speed limit. Civilizations which develop stellar level powers therefore turn inward and explore other options. Seirawan argues for a virtual universe. Others like Freeman Dyson have proposed that these worlds create massive artificial worlds (radius of the world is the orbital radius of the earth) surrounding their suns to full capture the light for energy, and living surface area (so-called Dyson Sphere). Very interesting article by Seirawan and the ChessBase team!

Aniket Basu, Hyderabad, India
May I suggest that a proof that extra-terrestrial civilizations of superior intelligence exist is that none of these civilizations has bothered to try and make contact with us? (Tongue firmly in cheek)

Rune Friborg, Copenhagen, Denmark
While your story and different views on the 'Fermi-paradox' was entertaining, my formal philosophical education obliges me to protest. The most obvious and likely solution to the 'problem' was unfairly neglected in your article and so I must bring it to your attention. The answer that I'm speaking of is this simple one: It is all a bunch of rubbish. The information on which the 'paradox' is based (number of stars, probability of life evolving, etc.) is so uncertain and inaccessible that it simply renders the whole idea of speculating on a 'solution' to the problem utterly and completely useless. What I read was entertaining, sci-fi speculation – not anything that could (even remotely) resemble serious science, and as a news-channel, I feel that you should have pointed this out for your young readers, who might not be able to judge the validity of what they read.

Why is scientific speculation "utterly and completely useless"? The speculation on alien intelligence has spawned SETI – the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence – on which hundreds of millions have been spent, with much more to come. Incidentally, one of the conclusions already being drawn by SETI scientists is that earlier speculations about the distribution of intelligent life in our galaxy may have been too euphoric or optimistic. "In light of new findings and insights," writes Peter Schenkel, "it seems appropriate to take a more down-to-earth view ... We should quietly admit that the early estimates – that there may be a million, a hundred thousand, or ten thousand advanced extraterrestrial civilizations in our galaxy – may no longer be tenable."

Karsten Balogh, Budapest, Hungary
After reading the article "Seirawan on physics, Feynman on chess" I can't but add my own thoughts. The whole avatar idea is obviously not new, but to believe that our very future is going to be a virtual reality based on the fact that we haven't been visited by extraterrestrial intelligent life-forms so far (and as far as we know) is grotesque! Concerning human nature, this whole virtual reality thing is a disease. Technology should not 'serve' us, but rather be the mean to achieve a goal; the exploration of the universe for example. If we do no more than shape a world of ignorance to hide in, than we have forgotten the original purpose, the source of our drive to push technology into new dimensions. For all I know mankind is not better off now than it was in the Stone Age. When I read about the LHC and the hugely debated possibility of the annihilation of mankind, I must say that we lightly took our chances. Out of unstillable curiosity or rather because our current way of life isn't worth enough to be handled more cautiously? I have tons of other unorganized thoughts on this, but will spare you from further outpourings.

"For all I know mankind is not better off now than it was in the Stone Age." That is correct. Except for the teeth, which we retain beyond the age of twenty-five. And the lifespan, which is longer than thirty years. And the 60,000 diseases for which we now have known treatement. And sanitation, and shelter, and the increase of our travel radius from dozens of miles to all over the globe. And writing, and communication, and TV, and computers, the Internet, the iPad. But apart from these things we are probably no better off than our ancestors. Sounds a bit Pythonesque, doesn't it?

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