Are we the only living thing in the entire universe?
May 8, 2015 5:27 AM   Subscribe

 
Might this go in the recent thread here?
posted by leotrotsky at 5:50 AM on May 8, 2015 [1 favorite]


We're just figuring out and confirming out solar system contains lots of water, in various states. We're just discovering oceans under miles of ice on various moons.

In short, we don't know a lot about life or the universe, so we should probably shut the fuck up about the goddamn Fermi paradox. It's like an ant trying to describe the Moon.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 5:51 AM on May 8, 2015 [25 favorites]


Um, they're already among us!
posted by touchstone033 at 5:51 AM on May 8, 2015


They exist. They wisely hide from us. As a wise person once quipped, Earth is the asylum for the universe.
posted by Alexandra Kitty at 6:03 AM on May 8, 2015 [2 favorites]


Why do I hear Peter Jones' voice as that narrator?
posted by arzakh at 6:13 AM on May 8, 2015 [6 favorites]


That was very well done. I really liked the graphic design.
posted by oddman at 6:13 AM on May 8, 2015 [2 favorites]


In short, we don't know a lot about life or the universe, so we should probably shut the fuck up about the goddamn Fermi paradox. It's like an ant trying to describe the Moon.

Oh come on. The entire field of astronomy is an ant trying to describe the moon, and we've gotten pretty fucking good at it. I'm damn proud of astronomy as a field, and have basically no patience for any attitude of oh it's too hard, everyone shut up about that topic. Because that attitude has been proven wrong again and again and again.
posted by kiltedtaco at 6:32 AM on May 8, 2015 [28 favorites]


https://xkcd.com/638/

There is an xkcd for everything.
posted by sotonohito at 6:36 AM on May 8, 2015 [14 favorites]


I sincerely doubt Brandon Blatcher was denigrating astronomy as a field in any way.
posted by Navelgazer at 6:36 AM on May 8, 2015 [1 favorite]


Oh come on. The entire field of astronomy is an ant trying to describe the moon, and we've gotten pretty fucking good at it. I'm damn proud of astronomy as a field, and have basically no patience for any attitude of oh it's too hard, everyone shut up about that topic. Because that attitude has been proven wrong again and again and again.

So tell me about this dark matter again...
posted by wilful at 6:40 AM on May 8, 2015


oh it's too hard, everyone shut up about that topic. Because that attitude has been proven wrong again and again and again.

For this particular topic, about whether there is other intelligent life in the universe, there are currently simply too many unknown variables to have a useful discussion. There are a number of possible answers to the Fermi Paradox and no real way to currently determine which is right.
posted by Sangermaine at 6:44 AM on May 8, 2015 [10 favorites]


The entire field of astronomy is an ant trying to describe the moon, and we've gotten pretty fucking good at it

Yes, we have gotten pretty good at describing the Moon. But despite having put humans on it, there's little interest in spending the money to do so again. It's pretty easy to figure out why, it's too expensive with too little benefit.

Apply that idea to the Fermi Paradox and it starts to make more sense about not having seen spacefaring aliens. There just may be little actual point to doing so.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 6:47 AM on May 8, 2015 [1 favorite]


The whole thing seems to hinge on huge assumptions about the desireability and practicality of interstellar colonization. It's a cool speculative thought experiment, but "paradox" seems to be misleadingly strong as a name for it.
posted by thelonius at 6:49 AM on May 8, 2015 [5 favorites]


I've seen several science writer people say that we know less about Earth's deep oceans than we do about deep space, which stands to reason in a way. Just to suggest a different frame.
posted by sneebler at 6:53 AM on May 8, 2015 [1 favorite]


It's a cool speculative thought experiment, but "paradox" seems to be misleadingly strong as a name for it.

Yes, and several things that don't deserve the name "law" have been labeled with it. What are you gonna do.
posted by Steely-eyed Missile Man at 6:53 AM on May 8, 2015


Maybe they also have been spending their money on killing each other while crapping all over their planet instead of SETI research and space exploration?

Though I'm hopeful that we come up with a way to detect alien bacteria using Kepler or its successors, so that we know how abundant life is and how to target the search.

Also I'm wondering if a sufficiently advanced civilization's radio traffic would be so dense and compressed as to appear like white noise to us.
posted by RobotVoodooPower at 6:58 AM on May 8, 2015 [3 favorites]


Yes, and several things that don't deserve the name "law" have been labeled with it. What are you gonna do.

Appeal to Sturgeon's Law?
posted by thelonius at 7:01 AM on May 8, 2015 [4 favorites]


What are you gonna do.

Rant about it on the internet, of course.

The Fermi Idle Speculation brings up a decent question, but it's so riddled with conjecture that it's not even funny. "Hey, life should have evolved on other planets much sooner". Uh, what makes you think that? There's a sample size of one, which has taken 13 billion years to even start wondering about this question.

Advanced life forms developing a billion years ago on another planet sounds like a reasonable hypothesis, but so have many other things that turned out to be flat out wrong. It's possible that the Fermi Idle Speculation is correct, but we just don't know enough to be able to say much either way.

What we DO know is that space and other planets are completely hostile to any life as we know it, so there's little reason to actually go there. It would be fun and exciting, sure, and frankly I'm all for that, but from a practical perspective, there's little reason to do so.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 7:04 AM on May 8, 2015 [1 favorite]




"For this particular topic, about whether there is other intelligent life in the universe, there are currently simply too many unknown variables to have a useful discussion. There are a number of possible answers to the Fermi Paradox and no real way to currently determine which is right."

If being able to determine which answer is right the metric you have for determining whether we can have a useful discussion, you must have a really hard time deciding things like where to have dinner and where to go for vacation.

We are fated to merely infer in nearly every discussion that we might have.
posted by oddman at 7:23 AM on May 8, 2015


With a sample size of one, we don't know what conditions existed for sentient life to develop that were extremely improbable and fragile.

Take the size of the moon. Perhaps it has to be exactly that size. If it was any smaller, asteroids would knock out life quickly. If it was a bit larger then it would protect life too well and you get planets with dead-end non-sentient life like dinosaurs.

So, assume that is true. Add some more sensitive, improbable conditions (amount of radiation for mutations, magnetic fields, etc.) and you soon realize that, even the enormous size of the universe cannot compensate for these improbabilities. The only conclusion then is that we are alone.

Or I could be wrong. But my point is that we do not know enough to even begin to reason about this. We'll have to wait and see.
posted by vacapinta at 7:31 AM on May 8, 2015


From the video: The Milky Way is our own galaxy, it consists of up to 400,000,000,000 stars. That's a lot of stars, roughly ten thousands for every grain of sand on earth.

Pretty sure there are more than 40,000,000 grains of sand on earth. So as is often the case, I question the grand assertions of people who have trouble with basic arithmetic.
posted by tempestuoso at 7:32 AM on May 8, 2015 [1 favorite]


you must have a really hard time deciding things like where to have dinner and where to go for vacation.

Deciding where to go to dinner without knowing whether restaurants exist, where they are, or what they serve probably wouldn't be a very useful discussion either.
posted by Sangermaine at 7:32 AM on May 8, 2015 [8 favorites]


" There's a sample size of one, which has taken 13 billion years to even start wondering about this question. "

Modern humans have only been around for 200,000 years. Also, Earth is only 4.5 billion years old.
posted by I-baLL at 7:33 AM on May 8, 2015


It took 13 billion years to form the conditions that would let modern humans come to be.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 7:35 AM on May 8, 2015 [1 favorite]


"Hey, life should have evolved on other planets much sooner". Uh, what makes you think that?

We have a pretty good idea what life needs, chemically, to happen - carbon, water, various metals, etc - and we know life would do better with stable stars with long lifecycles, and we know when in the universe's timeline star systems capable of providing both started to appear.
posted by Slap*Happy at 7:49 AM on May 8, 2015


Take the size of the moon. Perhaps it has to be exactly that size. If it was any smaller, asteroids would knock out life quickly. If it was a bit larger then it would protect life too well and you get planets with dead-end non-sentient life like dinosaurs.

That's just super rude
posted by clockzero at 7:52 AM on May 8, 2015 [11 favorites]


Oh man, and I spent all this time writing a comment about the Great Filter over on that other thread. Commenting on the internet is too much work!
posted by RedOrGreen at 7:52 AM on May 8, 2015 [3 favorites]


Even if there are lots of reasonably advanced, outgoing civilisations out there (I think there almost certainly are), I wouldn't expect to hear from them.

1) Sending loud, omnidirectional transmissions to bounce around the planet and scream out into the universe is very wasteful as compared to, say, laying undersea cables, pointing satellites at the ground, or learning to use phased antenna arrays to tightly focus long-range transmissions. It seems reasonable to expect a very brief window of time in which a given civilisation is sending out strong EM indiscriminately.

2) Anyway, these unfocused transmissions travel a surprisingly few lightyears before the r3 law takes them below the universe's background noise. Space is big. Really big. If there are such civilisations that happen to be at the right technological stage, the odds of them being in our neighbourhood are much lower.

3) Highly compressed data looks a lot like noise (high entropy) unless you know how to decompress it. Even if we spotted a signal, would we recognise it as unambiguously artificial, and would we have any hope of understanding it?

It's kind of a reverse Fermi paradox in which, even if you assume that talkative aliens exist, as you stack up probabilities the odds of ever hearing from them become tiny.
posted by metaBugs at 7:57 AM on May 8, 2015 [5 favorites]


"It took 13 billion years to form the conditions that would let modern humans come to be."

The universe is 13 billion years old. Your initial comment was:

"There's a sample size of one, which has taken 13 billion years to even start wondering about this question. "

So when you say "sample size of one" are you referring to the human race, to the planet Earth, or the universe itself?
posted by I-baLL at 8:13 AM on May 8, 2015


I think "sample size of one" quite obviously refers to the human race. The universe existing is a necessary condition that would let modern humans come to be.
posted by Steely-eyed Missile Man at 8:17 AM on May 8, 2015


Deciding where to go to dinner without knowing whether restaurants exist, where they are, or what they serve probably wouldn't be a very useful discussion either.

No, it isn't, though after enough beers it always seems like it might be.
posted by Segundus at 8:20 AM on May 8, 2015


Still waiting for an idea cobbled together from various Science Fiction sources; a working writeup about our own evolution into digital domains, emerging into some sort of cyberspace (with the help of AI?) and then discovering that there exists some sort of universal wide internet based on tachyon/neutrino flow.

Us finally figuring out the protocol for it becomes the key to finally meeting E.T.'s who have been in that state for eons.

Then we learn that we can move our souls into that cyber/dreamscape and hook up with E.T. geek subcultures who explain how to anchor subspace sentience to the best planetary magnetic cores that will last for tens of billions of years.

Then once intelligent enough, we then join the massive thinkproject that is how to trap the universe into a flat state so everyone can work on exploring ways of peeking outside the universe to see if there are better ones for existence. Kugelblitzes everywhere!

I really loved the Gateway series =)
posted by Zangal at 8:20 AM on May 8, 2015 [5 favorites]


Let's postulate a different series of levels of life, shall we?

0 - Alive as we understand it.
1 - Capable of reproduction.
2 - Capable of intentionally directing, accelerating, and/or stunting the reproduction and evolution of other species.
3 - Capable of creating life from non-life.

Humans are Level 2 right now. Doesn't mean we're great at it or use that power ethically, but we can breed other species towards our specifications and can now even genetically modify them. All other life as we know it on Earth is level 1, basically. It is easy to assume that, whatever circumstances surround the creation of life to begin with, it dead-ends at zero the grand majority of the time, and we never get a chance to discover or classify it.

Likewise, we can imagine level 3, but we are, essentially, nowhere near breaking into it yet. Or maybe it could happen tomorrow. It's the next huge milestone.

Under this silly-ass framing, it makes sense that, as the only level-2 species we are aware of, our duty is to search the galaxy for habitable planets, find the level 1 species there, and shepherd their evolution. Should we ever arrive at level 3, we can just create those species wholesale where we choose.

And while this is a fun conversation here, it doesn't really get us anywhere, because it's all idle speculation and arbitrary taxonomy.
posted by Navelgazer at 8:54 AM on May 8, 2015 [1 favorite]


Advanced life forms developing a billion years ago on another planet sounds like a reasonable hypothesis, but so have many other things that turned out to be flat out wrong. It's possible that the Fermi Idle Speculation is correct, but we just don't know enough to be able to say much either way.

It's one thing to admit that we know next to nothing, it's another to therefore conclude that we should avoid talking about it altogether and give up. Maybe attitudes like that are the final Great Filter.
posted by Awful Peice of Crap at 8:58 AM on May 8, 2015 [2 favorites]


Talk about it! But assuming the Fermi Half Assed Theory is anything other than that is silly, imo. I wish people would stop taking it seriously, especially when humanity has shown little collective will in manned space travel.

Fermi seems predicated on scifi and very little science, logic or thought.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 9:07 AM on May 8, 2015 [1 favorite]


Also the title of this post is an incorrect application of the Fermi Paradox, which can't address whether we're the only life in the universe in general. I can't watch the video, but if the video is about the same thing it's also on the wrong track. The Fermi Paradox relates to the seeming absence of intelligent life that we might be able to have contact with or evidence for. The universe could be teeming with alien microbes or hamsters but we'd have no way of knowing since such creatures can't communicate with us, or produce signals we might catch.
posted by Sangermaine at 9:19 AM on May 8, 2015


It's one thing to admit that we know next to nothing, it's another to therefore conclude that we should avoid talking about it altogether and give up. Maybe attitudes like that are the final Great Filter.

Nobody is advocating a ban on discussing it. It is certainly good cocktail party chitchat. But it is not a well-defined or framed in a way that is scientific. What are the chances of life forming, given all the right ingredients? We have no idea. Given our current state of knowledge that question is like asking: What are the odds that you would have been born and that you are writing this post on metafilter? You can't reason about probability without having a defined state-space. And we don't have one.

We can of course continue research into the origins of life, the solar system, the universe etc. And we can do searches for intelligent life. But I don't believe it makes any sense to say: "Hey, there appears to be no intelligent life! Isn't that improbable?" It is neither probable or improbable. It just is.
posted by vacapinta at 9:39 AM on May 8, 2015


The whole thing seems to hinge on huge assumptions about the desireability and practicality of interstellar colonization.

Yeah. One of the "great filters" the video talks about may very well be democracy. Interstellar colonization seems to depend on a civilization deciding to spend a huge fraction of its GDP to develop and build colony ships that will provide little to no tangible value to anyone associated with the project, and continuing to do that for a long time. I'd like to see someone get that bill through Parliament.
posted by cosmic.osmo at 9:44 AM on May 8, 2015


The universe could be teeming with alien microbes or hamsters but we'd have no way of knowing since such creatures can't communicate with us, or produce signals we might catch.

With the speculation that there may be life under the ice sheets of various Moons, I wonder if there's intelligent life down there, but since it's a closed system of sorts, they see little reason to venture out. Or what if they're still in the equivalent of 500bc and not quite capable of reaching the surface or they have dogmatic beliefs that prevent them from even trying.

What if there are space hamsters, and they're really smart?
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 10:00 AM on May 8, 2015 [1 favorite]


Space hamsters would have to be pretty smart to survive in space. It's a very hamster-hostile environment.
posted by Naberius at 10:01 AM on May 8, 2015 [3 favorites]


Yeah. One of the "great filters" the video talks about may very well be democracy. Interstellar colonization seems to depend on a civilization deciding to spend a huge fraction of its GDP to develop and build colony ships that will provide little to no tangible value to anyone associated with the project, and continuing to do that for a long time. I'd like to see someone get that bill through Parliament.

As long as someone gets paid for it, they will build it. I mean we are putting our most capable, highest tech manufacturing and most skilled engineers and technicians on work that is sealed as secret forever, handing it to some of the best trained and motivated young people, sending them halfway across the world and setting it all on fire (including the people). All for the seeming benefit of a few already wealthy corporations because we lack the...Oh I see what you mean.
posted by bartonlong at 10:02 AM on May 8, 2015


What we DO know is that space and other planets are completely hostile to any life as we know it, so there's little reason to actually go there. It would be fun and exciting, sure, and frankly I'm all for that, but from a practical perspective, there's little reason to do so.

You were doing kind of okay up until this point. Basically, there are a lot of Walls coming (asteroids, mass extinction, waste heat, supervolcanoes, solar death, getting fried by a supernova, etc.) so it's pretty much leave or die, no matter what.
posted by a lungful of dragon at 10:13 AM on May 8, 2015 [3 favorites]


it's pretty much leave or die, no matter what
posted by Steely-eyed Missile Man at 10:20 AM on May 8, 2015


Alright: Leave or die sooner, rather than maybe die at some indeterminate point many many billions of years from now. The Universe seems too interesting to choose an early death, but whatevs.
posted by a lungful of dragon at 10:29 AM on May 8, 2015 [2 favorites]


You were doing kind of okay up until this point. Basically, there are a lot of Walls coming (asteroids, mass extinction, waste heat, supervolcanoes, solar death, getting fried by a supernova, etc.) so it's pretty much leave or die, no matter what.

When was the last extinction level event on Earth? Because A) we have no clue when another one would come, prompting B) we're not going to anything about it, because we really can't fathom such a thing happening, not to US. Sure, cave people, but not us and our highly technological society.

Which leaves us with C) Not even sure how we'd do it. We're been created to live on this planet, in this zone around this sun. Moving somewhere else presents all sorts of complications.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 10:29 AM on May 8, 2015


Not to mention, not a lot of people are going to see the point. I mean, sure, an extinction-level event will suck for the people who are alive when it happens, but that will be a tiny fraction of the number of humans who have ever lived. For most people, consciously or not, the world is what is in their heads, and an extinction-level event is guaranteed to happen to that world. My guess is, even if they grasped the "existential danger" to the species, they wouldn't really care, since they have been in their own existential danger from the time they were born. After they're gone, so what?
posted by Steely-eyed Missile Man at 10:35 AM on May 8, 2015 [2 favorites]


The Fermi thing only talks about physical things. Right now energy is exchanged between our visual receptors, sent to processors where we access memory to meet the energies glowing from the various screens where the others involved in the conversation process and send information as discreet packets of what, via processes complicated to our flesh realities, but real in effect. Yet across the whole, expanding, Universe massive energies in transit exist, energies in relation to one another exist, all on a scale difficult to interpret if the huge relationships between immense entities, are conscious on a scale incomprehensible to us. So material beings, since science must measure, the boxes of understanding determined by those given the task, look for life in material concepts.

It is like the six blind men and the cosmic gas station. Do they generate physical receipts, or is it all in the cloud? Ohhh it is like a snake, no like R-too D-too.

Here is the rub for me. We carry on as if this were a given, and given to a select few. Every single miniscule to redwoodian piece of inventory on this unique world, is necessary to every other and we treat the whole thing like our toilet. Money for astronomy, I am all for it, but we need to stop dumping in the oceans, and get the toxic ordinance back out. We bad assed monkeys need to reestablish that heaven on Earth of three hundred years ago, and go forward from there. The irresponsibiity of our current affairs is sanctioned by convenient belief.

Fermi principle sure thing. We need to work out the monkey shit principle. But, we are not going to, we will go forward with militarized, engineer, athlete explorers, or robotic explorers.

All this while beautiful women pick apart our rags, waiting for the death of the seas, and then our ultimate end.
posted by Oyéah at 10:38 AM on May 8, 2015 [1 favorite]


It's like an ant trying to describe the Moon.

Come on, colony. Only an aphid would believe the moon landing was real.
posted by zippy at 11:06 AM on May 8, 2015


Fermi paradox solution: they all had GOP majorities longer?
posted by BrotherCaine at 1:32 PM on May 8, 2015


It seems that life, given the right conditions, emerges from chemistry as surely as water flows downhill when it can. The universe, it seems, is chemistry as far as we can see. In the trillions of galaxies made of billions of stars.

Is there any question?

So, then ... irrepairably distanced from all those others ... what is our curiosity, if not to ask: what are we to make of it all? What are we being asked to give birth to? Skyscrapers and limpid pools of chicken-fat? Millenia of killing and being killed, building and collapsing? Pounding the ground flat, making the rough places plain? Games of Trivial Pursuit? What else is there?
posted by Twang at 1:59 PM on May 8, 2015 [1 favorite]


It's a bit silly to argue about the Fermi Paradox, because the real problem with it is that it isn't even really a paradox. It is a set of effectively religious assumptions about the Universe based on a sample size of 1, and science as we do it can't be done with a sample size of 1. It isn't based on any empirical analysis of (plural) data. If we want an answer, the only genuine, honest option is exploration. Everything else is Cargo Cult science.
posted by a lungful of dragon at 2:06 PM on May 8, 2015 [1 favorite]


What else is there?

Arguing on the Internet.
posted by Greg_Ace at 2:07 PM on May 8, 2015 [1 favorite]


C) Not even sure how we'd do it. We're been created to live on this planet, in this zone around this sun. Moving somewhere else presents all sorts of complications.

You mean like figuring out how to breathe air?
posted by Insert Clever Name Here at 2:32 PM on May 8, 2015


The trend of knowledge for the past several centuries has been inexorably toward the idea that the sun isn't special, the earth isn't special, and people aren't special. The idea that we're so not the center of the universe and yet we are somehow unique strikes me as risible, especially at a time when only a decade or three separates us from an era when entities like black holes and extrasolar planets were seen as highly speculative.

If we haven't seen anything in another hundred years, that might be a cause for worry. In a thousand years? If we survive that long and we still haven't seen anything, maybe we'll have enough of a handle on a few of the parameters of the Fermi equation to start speculating meaningfully. Until then it seems more likely that we aren't asking the right questions.
posted by wotsac at 5:15 PM on May 8, 2015 [2 favorites]


For the Fermi paradox to be an issue, you kind of have to assume easy interstellar spaceflight or at least interstellar communications. If these things don't exist, there's no problem; maybe there are hundreds of intelligent species in the galaxy, but there is ultimately no good way for them to either get to each other or communicate with each other.

Even things that we know are theoretically possible like generation ships might be so ruinously expensive or difficult to succeed with that that no species actually do them. Or success is very rare, so much so that the odds of us encountering a successful species are low.
posted by Mitrovarr at 5:35 PM on May 8, 2015 [1 favorite]


Metafilter: It's like an ant trying to describe the Moon.
posted by HighLife at 7:32 PM on May 8, 2015 [1 favorite]


You mean like figuring out how to breathe air?

That's the easy part. Surviving the radiation, temperatures, air pressure or lack of, dust, weightlessness and being cooped up like cattle will be the real problem.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 9:08 PM on May 8, 2015 [1 favorite]


My preferred* solution to the Fermi paradox is panspermia. If it only takes 4 billion years for life to evolve to intelligence, it's highly unlikely we're the first in our galaxy. But if it takes 10 billion years, and is easily disrupted or rolled-back and very hard to start, then it's not all that implausible that we're the first intelligent life in the milky way, but that the galaxy may be filled with other planets still at the precambrian or prokaryotic stage.

In addition to the Fermi paradox conversely counting as a possible argument for panspermia, there are other decent arguments too, including the lack of RNA-based or other pre-archaebacteria life, the immediate appearance of life on Earth almost as soon as it was possible, and that it's physically plausible to transmit life-bearing rocks even out of a solar-system. The idea that we invented life here seems like just another parochialism that is asking to be overturned.

(* Though by "preferred" I don't mean I necessarily believe this, just that I like it as a cool explanation.)
posted by chortly at 9:33 PM on May 8, 2015 [1 favorite]


I can't help thinking this discussion would be improved if more people read Stanislaw Lem's His Master's Voice. Not only is it a great novel, but I think he really gets at issues of the social construction of knowledge and the self-referential(?) problems around deciphering any kind of message from, let's say, outer space.

The idea that we invented life here seems like just another parochialism that is asking to be overturned.

Well put!
posted by sneebler at 3:42 PM on May 9, 2015


« Older Minority Reporting your comments section   |   ApoFree/FreeD Realms Newer »


This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments