Tag Archives: Fermi paradox

In Memoriam Paleozoic

Alfred, Lord Tennyson, wrote his poem “In Memoriam AHH,” in response to the death of his friend Arthur Henry Hallam. Several cantos consider the bleak lessons of paleontology – not just the myriads of deaths, but the specter of species extinction. Tennyson finished the poem in 1849, a decade before “The Origin of Species,” when the possibility of non-divinely-directed evolution and the reality of mass extinctions like the end-Permian were becoming part of general awareness.

LV

Are God and Nature then at strife,
That Nature lends such evil dreams?
So careful of the type she seems,
So careless of the single life;

That I, considering everywhere
Her secret meaning in her deeds,
And finding that of fifty seeds
She often brings but one to bear,

I falter where I firmly trod,
And falling with my weight of cares
Upon the great world’s altar-stairs
That slope thro’ darkness up to God,

I stretch lame hands of faith, and grope,
And gather dust and chaff, and call
To what I feel is Lord of all,
And faintly trust the larger hope.

LVI

‘So careful of the type?’ but no.
From scarped cliff and quarried stone
She cries, ‘A thousand types are gone:
I care for nothing, all shall go.

‘Thou makest thine appeal to me:
I bring to life, I bring to death:
The spirit does but mean the breath:
I know no more.’ And he, shall he,

Man, her last work, who seem’d so fair,
Such splendid purpose in his eyes,
Who roll’d the psalm to wintry skies,
Who built him fanes of fruitless prayer,

Who trusted God was love indeed
And love Creation’s final law—
Tho’ Nature, red in tooth and claw
With ravine, shriek’d against his creed—

Who loved, who suffer’d countless ills,
Who battled for the True, the Just,
Be blown about the desert dust,
Or seal’d within the iron hills?

For one answer to Tennyson’s anguished question about human extinction, there’s an argument that says we can estimate how much longer humanity has got from just basic probability theory. It comes from astrophysicist Richard Gott, and goes like this: Homo sapiens has been around about 200,000 years. It’s not very likely that we’re living at the very beginning or very end of our species’ history, just like it’s not very likely that a name chosen at random from the phone book will come at the very beginning or the very end. Specifically, there’s only a 2.5% chance that we’re living in the first 2.5% of our species’ life span, and only a 2.5% chance we’re living in the last 2.5% of our species’ life span. So do the math, and there’s a 95% probability that our species will last somewhere between .2 million and 8 million years.

This might also explain the Fermi paradox – we, and other intelligent species aren’t likely to colonize the galaxy. But it’s only fair to add that a lot of other people (the physicist Freeman Dyson, for example) think this gloomily Tennysonian conclusion is an abuse of probability theory.

Rare Earth

4.75-4.49 Billion years ago.

A big day on Logarithmic History: the origin of our Solar System including planet Earth. First a note on what’s odd about our planetary system.

Two preceding posts wrestled with the Fermi Paradox: If the universe is full of advanced civilizations, why haven’t we seen any sign of them so far? One answer to the paradox might be that our solar system is wildly unusual, so that abodes for the evolution of complex life are rare. We can finally start to address this matter with some real evidence. According to the NASA exoplanet archive, we’ve now discovered 3440 exoplanets (planets outside our solar system), with many more unconfirmed candidates. This is enough to do some statistics, and indications are that our solar system might indeed be out of the ordinary.

grand-tack

Exoplanets smaller than Jupiter are overwhelmingly closer, mostly a lot closer, to their primary stars than Earth is to the Sun. And the same models of planet formation that have done a pretty good job predicting some of the wild variation we see in other systems – “Hot Jupiters” orbiting closer to their primaries than Mercury, “Super Earths” in between Earth and gas giants in size – don’t readily generate systems that look much like ours. One model that does seem to do a good job with our solar system involves something special, a Grand Tack, where Jupiter and Saturn are caught in an orbital resonance that carries them into the inner solar system and back out, shaking up inner-system planet formation in the process. Wild stuff, but the latest model is even wilder: at the beginning of planet formation, there may have been a generation of Super Earths in the inner solar system. The Grand Tack of Jupiter and Saturn would have sent these planets colliding into one another. The Super-Earths and most of the debris of these collisions would have fallen into the sun, but what the debris left would then have condensed into the unusual inner planets we know, Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars. And Theia. (Theia? you ask. See the next post).

If this model holds up, the formation of our solar system takes on some of the flavor of mythology. This isn’t quite the old story about Chronos slaying Ouranos, and Zeus slaying Chronos. Instead, in the new story, two giants, Jupiter and Saturn, travel closer to the sun and set a generation of Titans – their like will not be there again – to fighting and destroying one another. Jupiter and Saturn depart, and a new generation arises from the wreckage. An unlikely sequence of events, but then our planet could be a very unlikely place. And all the more special for that.

Where is everybody? Maybe we’re (some of) the first.

A followup to yesterday’s post on the Fermi Paradox, some reasons the Universe could have been less suitable for the evolution of complex life until recently, making us one of the first intelligent species to evolve.

1) Metallicity. Chemical elements heavier than helium are formed inside stars, after the Big Bang. Elements heavier than iron are formed in exploding supernovas. These elements have been building up over time. Maybe they had to reach a threshold abundance to make complex life possible.

On its own, it’s not clear this would have prevented intelligent life from arising long ago. The Sun has a high “metallicity” (concentration of heavy elements), but there are stars in the Milky Way older than the Sun with higher metallicities. But metallicity could combine with GRBs (below): toward the center of the galaxy there are more heavy elements but also more GRBs.

2) Gamma Ray Bursts (GRBs). GRBs are bursts of gamma rays (high frequency radiation) lasting from milliseconds to minutes, like GRB 080319B. (Check out tweets for January 11.) They are probably supernovas or even larger explosions with one pole of the exploding star pointed at the Earth. A major GRB could irradiate one side of the planet, and also affect the other side by destroying the ozone layer, causing mass extinctions. GRBs may have swept the Milky Way frequently in the past. The good news is they’re probably getting less frequent. This could be the first time in the history of the Milky Way that enough time has passed without a major GRB for intelligent life to evolve. If true, we should think about how to protect ourselves from the next one – lots of sunblock recommended.

If GRBs are such a threat, we might expect to find evidence that they have caused mass extinctions in the past (not wiping out all life obviously). For more on this, check out upcoming blog posts and tweets for the end-Ordovician, March 3.

3) Panspermia (life from elsewhere). Pretty much as soon as Earth could support life, we see evidence of single-celled organisms. Then life evolves slowly for a long time. The usual story about this is that the origin of life is easy, and it happens as soon as possible. But there is another possibility (illustrated below). It may be that the transition from simple replicating chemical systems to bacteria with genomes of tens of thousands of DNA base pairs is a slow process that happened over many billions of years somewhere off Earth. Then newly forming planets in the nebula that gave rise to Earth were “infected” by this source, by meteorites carrying early cells. (It would have been easier for meteorites to carry life from star system to star system when the Earth was first formed than it would be today.) Back when our hypothetical “Urth” was forming, a billion years before Earth, there might not have been any planets with cellular life on them as potential sources of life-bearing meteorites.

Untitled

Where is everybody?

Today, January 16, covers the period 5.62 to 5.31 billion years ago in Logarithmic History, beginning a billion years before the origin of our solar system. Back then, stars were forming at a fast clip in the Milky Way and other spiral galaxies. So let’s suppose… Suppose one of those older stars resembled the Sun, and had a planet like Earth orbiting around it – call it Urth. And suppose life originated on Urth more or less as on Earth and followed more or less the same evolutionary path. With this head start, intelligent life could have evolved a billion years ago, and today there could be intelligent Urthians (or their robot descendants) a billion years ahead of us.

There’s an urban legend that says that Einstein called compound interest the strongest force in the universe. Einstein didn’t actually quite say this, but it’s not a crazy thing to say. For example, consider how compound interest works, backward, on our Logarithmic History calendar. December 30 covers a period 5.46% longer than December 31, December 29 is 11.1% longer (because 1.0546 * 1.0546 = 1.112), and so on. At this rate of compounding we wind up with January 1 covering 754 million years. The same math implies that if we invested 1 dollar at 5.46% interest, compounded annually, then after 364 years we’d have 754 million dollars.

With even the slightest compound rate of increase, a billion year old Elder Race would have plenty of time to fill up a galaxy, and undertake huge projects like dismantling planets to capture more of their suns’ energy. Which raises the question, posed by Enrico Fermi in 1950: “Where is everybody?” There are more than 100 billion stars in our galaxies, more than 100 billion galaxies in the visible universe (actually, according to recent estimates, the number may be more than  1 trillion). If there are huge numbers of billion year old Elder Races around, why hasn’t at least one of them taken the exponential road and made themselves conspicuous?

There’s a large literature on the Fermi paradox. Here I consider just one sort of explanation. Maybe we’re one of the first intelligent species to evolve because the universe was somehow less suitable for the evolution of complex life before now. (To be continued).

In Memoriam, Paleozoic

Alfred, Lord Tennyson, wrote his poem “In Memoriam AHH,” in response to the death of his friend Arthur Henry Hallam. Several cantos consider the bleak lessons of paleontology – not just the myriads of deaths, but the specter of species extinction. Tennyson finished the poem in 1849, a decade before “The Origin of Species,” when the possibility of non-divinely-directed evolution and the reality of mass extinctions like the end-Permian were becoming part of general awareness.

LV

Are God and Nature then at strife,
That Nature lends such evil dreams?
So careful of the type she seems,
So careless of the single life;

That I, considering everywhere
Her secret meaning in her deeds,
And finding that of fifty seeds
She often brings but one to bear,

I falter where I firmly trod,
And falling with my weight of cares
Upon the great world’s altar-stairs
That slope thro’ darkness up to God,

I stretch lame hands of faith, and grope,
And gather dust and chaff, and call
To what I feel is Lord of all,
And faintly trust the larger hope.

LVI

‘So careful of the type?’ but no.
From scarped cliff and quarried stone
She cries, ‘A thousand types are gone:
I care for nothing, all shall go.

‘Thou makest thine appeal to me:
I bring to life, I bring to death:
The spirit does but mean the breath:
I know no more.’ And he, shall he,

Man, her last work, who seem’d so fair,
Such splendid purpose in his eyes,
Who roll’d the psalm to wintry skies,
Who built him fanes of fruitless prayer,

Who trusted God was love indeed
And love Creation’s final law—
Tho’ Nature, red in tooth and claw
With ravine, shriek’d against his creed—

Who loved, who suffer’d countless ills,
Who battled for the True, the Just,
Be blown about the desert dust,
Or seal’d within the iron hills?

For one answer to Tennyson’s anguished question about human extinction, there’s an argument that says we can estimate how much longer humanity has got from just basic probability theory. It comes from astrophysicist Richard Gott, and goes like this: Homo sapiens has been around about 200,000 years. It’s not very likely that we’re living at the very beginning or very end of our species’ history, just like it’s not very likely that a name chosen at random from the phone book will come at the very beginning or the very end. Specifically, there’s only a 2.5% chance that we’re living in the first 2.5% of our species’ life span, and only a 2.5% chance we’re living in the last 2.5% of our species’ life span. So do the math, and there’s a 95% probability that our species will last somewhere between .2 million and 8 million years.

This might also explain the Fermi paradox – we, and other intelligent species aren’t likely to colonize the galaxy. But it’s only fair to add that a lot of other people (the physicist Freeman Dyson, for example) think this gloomily Tennysonian conclusion is an abuse of probability theory.

Where is everybody? Maybe we’re (some of) the first.

A followup to yesterday’s post on the Fermi Paradox, some reasons the Universe could have been less suitable for the evolution of complex life until recently, making us one of the first intelligent species to evolve.

1) Metallicity. Chemical elements heavier than helium are formed inside stars, after the Big Bang. Elements heavier than iron are formed in exploding supernovas. These elements have been building up over time. Maybe they had to reach a threshold abundance to make complex life possible.

On its own, it’s not clear this would have prevented intelligent life from arising long ago. The Sun has a high “metallicity” (concentration of heavy elements), but there are stars in the Milky Way older than the Sun with higher metallicities. But metallicity could combine with GRBs (below): toward the center of the galaxy there are more heavy elements but also more GRBs.

2) Gamma Ray Bursts (GRBs). GRBs are bursts of gamma rays (high frequency radiation) lasting from milliseconds to minutes, like GRB 080319B. (Check out tweets for January 11.) They are probably supernovas or even larger explosions with one pole of the exploding star pointed at the Earth. A major GRB could irradiate one side of the planet, and also affect the other side by destroying the ozone layer, causing mass extinctions. GRBs may have swept the Milky Way frequently in the past. The good news is they’re probably getting less frequent. This could be the first time in the history of the Milky Way that enough time has passed without a major GRB for intelligent life to evolve. If true, we should think about how to protect ourselves from the next one – lots of sunblock recommended.

If GRBs are such a threat, we might expect to find evidence that they have caused mass extinctions in the past (not wiping out all life obviously). For more on this, check out upcoming blog posts and tweets for the end-Ordovician, March 2.

3) Panspermia (life from elsewhere). Pretty much as soon as Earth could support life, we see evidence of single-celled organisms. Then life evolves slowly for a long time. The usual story about this is that the origin of life is easy, and it happens as soon as possible. But there is another possibility (illustrated below). It may be that the transition from simple replicating chemical systems to bacteria with genomes of tens of thousands of DNA base pairs is a slow process that happened over many billions of years somewhere off Earth. Then newly forming planets in the nebula that gave rise to Earth were “infected” by this source, by meteorites carrying early cells. (It would have been easier for meteorites to carry life from star system to star system when the Earth was first formed than it would be today.) Back when our hypothetical “Urth” was forming, a billion years before Earth, there might not have been any planets with cellular life on them as potential sources of life-bearing meteorites.

Untitled

Where is everybody?

Today, January 16, covers the period 5.96 to 5.63 billion years ago in Logarithmic History, just over a billion years before the origin of our solar system. Back then, stars were forming at a fast clip in the Milky Way and other spiral galaxies. So let’s suppose… Suppose one of those older stars resembled the Sun, and had a planet like Earth orbiting around it – call it Urth. And suppose life originated on Urth more or less as on Earth and followed more or less the same evolutionary path. With this head start, intelligent life could have evolved a billion years ago, and today there could be intelligent Urthians (or their robot descendants) a billion years ahead of us.

There’s an urban legend that says that Einstein called compound interest the strongest force in the universe. Einstein didn’t actually quite say this, but it’s not a crazy thing to say. For example, consider how compound interest works, backward, on our Logarithmic History calendar. December 30 covers a period 5.44% longer than December 31, December 29 is 11.1% longer (because 1.0544 * 1.0544 = 1.111), and so on. At this rate of compounding we wind up with January 1 covering 751 million years. The same math implies that if we invested 1 dollar at 5.44% interest, compounded annually, then after 365 years we’d have 751 million dollars.

With even the slightest compound rate of increase, a billion year old Elder Race would have plenty of time to fill up a galaxy, and undertake huge projects like dismantling planets to capture more of their suns’ energy. Which raises the question, asked by Enrico Fermi in 1950: “Where is everybody?” There are more than 100 billion stars in our galaxies, more than 100 billion galaxies in the visible universe. If there are huge numbers of billion year old Elder Races around, why hasn’t at least one of them taken the exponential road and made themselves conspicuous?

There’s a large literature on the Fermi paradox. Here I consider just one sort of explanation. Maybe we’re one of the first intelligent species to evolve because the universe was somehow less suitable for the evolution of complex life before now. (To be continued).