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In Space no-one wants to hear you.
June 28, 2007 10:32 AM   Subscribe

"Should we ever hear the space-phone ringing, for God's sake let us not answer". First we are told Space Colonisation is a stupid and expensive idea. Then that contact with space aliens is inadvisable. Maybe David Bowie was right, the government would just ruin it anyway. That's why we can't have nice things.
posted by takeyourmedicine (92 comments total) 5 users marked this as a favorite

 
MetaFilter: A collective hard-on for David Bowie.
posted by phaedon at 10:35 AM on June 28, 2007


Apologies, I haven't revised the "common history and in-jokes" lately.
posted by takeyourmedicine at 10:39 AM on June 28, 2007


Moctezuma had a hard time believing the Visitors From Across The Sea were hostile, and look what happened there.
posted by davy at 10:41 AM on June 28, 2007


I've always thought that any alien civilization that could make real contact with us (beyond exchanged messages through space) would very likely be peaceful. It seems to me a warlike civilization would destroy itself before it could achieve the technology to leave the planet it evolved from, much as the most virulent viruses kill too quickly to spread far. It might happen to us. I have higher hopes than that.
posted by SaintCynr at 10:52 AM on June 28, 2007


Counterpoint: If aliens wanted to, they would have destroyed us by now, by George Dvorsky.
posted by Arturus at 10:56 AM on June 28, 2007


Perhap's our own cstross,sci-fi author and author of that first link, might show up to comment here. I saw that essay of his on Slashdot a little while back, but I don't think we more enlightened ::cough:: folk here on MeFi had a chance to discuss it.
posted by Sangermaine at 10:59 AM on June 28, 2007


I give you the Antenna Stench-slugs of Beta Echelon X. They have been imprisoned by their warring neighbors for millenia, and they have nothing else to do but to send out powerful Space Signals with their in-developed bio-antenna networks, and since, as a class, absolutely nobody ever, ever wants to talk with them, they are always up for a good conversation with just about anyone.
posted by nervousfritz at 11:04 AM on June 28, 2007


we all know that if you travel far enough in a space ship, you will fall off the edge of the universe

i note that the thesis of the first article directly contradicts the thesis of the second article ... if just getting to another solar system is impossibly uneconomic, so is war ... i also note that the first article glosses over the possibility of building the habitats in space

i don't think solar system colonization is impossible or in time, uneconomic ... even the author admits that there is a niche for human workers on a lunar colony ... and that's all one needs at first

one step at a time ... proxima centari will still be there 10,000 years from now and as long as we learn how to live sanely and sustainably in the solar system we're in, starting with earth, we have lots of time and ample opportunity to work all that out

first the moon ... then near earth habitats ... worry about the rest of the stuff later
posted by pyramid termite at 11:05 AM on June 28, 2007


Which would be less bad: annihilated by alien invasion, or snuffed out by climate change? I think the former; at least that way someone will note our passing.
posted by BitterOldPunk at 11:14 AM on June 28, 2007


Davy - that would be the Outside Context Problem.

Also, even if space colonisation is economically unferasible I'm still all for buildign a big space cannon to fire all the Libertarian space enthusiasts into orbit, where they can dodge taxes in peace. Just so long as they don't build a railgun and start firing steel-encased copies of the Baen science fiction library back at us.
posted by Artw at 11:15 AM on June 28, 2007 [3 favorites]


Is there life on Maaaaaaarrrrrrrrssss?
posted by Viomeda at 11:19 AM on June 28, 2007


The late Carl Sagan, the American astronomer who died a decade ago, also worried about so-called "First Contact". He recommended that we, the newest children in a strange and uncertain cosmos, should listen quietly for a long time, patiently learning about the universe and comparing notes.

LURK MOAR
posted by Greg Nog at 11:24 AM on June 28, 2007


Remember that scene in the new version of Dawn of the Dead, where the occupants of the mall used a white-board to talk with the guy on the roof of the gun store?

That is how I imagine, if we ever do discover sentient alien life, that our conversations will be held. Assuming we can figure out a way of actually understanding one another, that is.

Not that such communication wouldn't be unbelievably amazing, and capable of changing an enormous amount of how we perceive the world around us. But there is such an inhospitable gulf between us that I suspect that conversing from afar is about all we would ever do.
posted by quin at 11:27 AM on June 28, 2007


its the chicago way
posted by nervousfritz at 11:28 AM on June 28, 2007


How long?
posted by Viomeda at 11:28 AM on June 28, 2007


I think that for the reason in cstross's essay, even if we did make contact with an alien species, they'd find us not worth the effort, unless we managed to find a war fleet passing nearby.
posted by empath at 11:30 AM on June 28, 2007


The late Carl Sagan, the American astronomer who died a decade ago, also worried about so-called "First Contact". He recommended that we, the newest children in a strange and uncertain cosmos, should listen quietly for a long time, patiently learning about the universe and comparing notes.

This planet was deleted for the following reason: This is not really what this arm of the Milky Way is for. You might want to try MilkyTalk. - m'ath-o'wi:e
posted by EndsOfInvention at 11:34 AM on June 28, 2007 [7 favorites]


The aliens have designs on the loins of our earth chicks.



Some of those designs are rather nice.



posted by Mister_A at 11:37 AM on June 28, 2007


So these aliens, they can be deported?
posted by dhartung at 11:50 AM on June 28, 2007


"The aliens will contact us when they can make money by doing so." -- David Byrne</small?
posted by neuron at 11:53 AM on June 28, 2007


Stupid HTML.
posted by neuron at 11:54 AM on June 28, 2007


Ronnie knew they are coming our way.
posted by Burhanistan at 12:07 PM on June 28, 2007


Unless and until we discover something that changes the nature of the Universe as we presently believe it to be, aliens should be the very last thing to worry about. Space is unbelievably gigantic, and light travels very slowly.

If there truly is no way to break the lightspeed barrier, then we'll almost certainly never see an alien in person. We might manage a 'conversation' over thousands of years, but that's gonna be it.

No ET. No anal probes. No outside benevolence coming to save our sorry asses from the mess we've made here. No Berserkers. Just the vast dark with the occasional, tiny radio whisper.
posted by Malor at 12:10 PM on June 28, 2007


The aliens have designs on the loins of our earth chicks.

Well, earth girls are easy.
posted by Ynoxas at 12:12 PM on June 28, 2007


SaintCynr - I've always thought that any alien civilization that could make real contact with us (beyond exchanged messages through space) would very likely be peaceful.

But what if those aliens had religion - and their religion tells them that all other lifeforms in the Universe are unclean and must be destroyed?
posted by porpoise at 12:13 PM on June 28, 2007


Space is unbelievably gigantic, and light travels very slowly.

who needs to travel faster than light? spooky action at a distance--that's the name of the game... just exploit quantum entanglement to teleport there. gee, it's easy.

/whimsy
posted by saulgoodman at 12:16 PM on June 28, 2007


But what if those aliens had religion - and their religion tells them that all other lifeforms in the Universe are unclean and must be destroyed?

Worse yet, what if their religion was right? Between what we've done to the planet, to life on it, and especially to each other, it's kind of hard to brag about it when guests show up.
posted by FormlessOne at 12:20 PM on June 28, 2007 [2 favorites]


>>But what if those aliens had religion - and their religion tells them that all other lifeforms in the Universe are unclean and must be destroyed?

It's just a theory until something happens. I'm not predicting it, just hoping my reasoning was correct. We'll see or we won't.
posted by SaintCynr at 12:21 PM on June 28, 2007


I've always thought that any alien civilization that could make real contact probably wouldn't be mad at us, so much as disappointed.

Still, they probably would be very peaceful; as any farmer can tell you, animals that have been harried and stressed prior to butchering make for tough eating.
posted by Alvy Ampersand at 12:26 PM on June 28, 2007 [4 favorites]


>>But what if those aliens had religion - and their religion tells them that all other lifeforms in the Universe are unclean and
must be destroyed?

Lets just hope the technology, and rational required to develop ludicrous speed crafts comes hand in hand with a certain degree of intelligence the downfall of alien religion.
posted by takeyourmedicine at 12:27 PM on June 28, 2007


Well, what if science IS their religion?!?
posted by Alvy Ampersand at 12:31 PM on June 28, 2007


From Arturus' linked Dvorsky article:

"The article, which was very well researched by astronomer David Whitehouse, examines the issue of whether or not human civilization should announce itself to the larger galactic community."

Too late, dude. We've been radiating highly-modulated high-power radio frequency energy for close to a century.

Anyone within a sphere about 180 light years in diameter who's got their ears on already knows we're here, and that sphere will continue expanding since we can't pull the wavefront back.
posted by zoogleplex at 12:34 PM on June 28, 2007 [1 favorite]


The Independent article has a very silly literature list on first contact. The best fiction imho grappling with it is several novels by Stanislaw Lem: Eden, His Master's Voice, (of course) Solaris, but especially Fiasco.

I recall an old SF short story about an encounter by an Earth science ship with an alien vessel near the Crab Nebula. They are wary, and try to reach some modus operandi -- and end up swapping ships. An optimistic story, unlike Lem's.
posted by lathrop at 12:41 PM on June 28, 2007


Just to maybe put that in a little perspective, if someone 50 light years away had started radiating like we were doing 50 years ago at the same time, it could easily be picked up by even a medium-sized radio telescope. Our biggest RTs are so sensitive they can pick up incredibly small amounts of energy from billions of light years away; pulling in TV-strength broadcasts from, say, Capella or Fomalhaut would be like walkie-talkie range for Arecibo.

This planet is really, really loud at certain wavelengths - how many 100,000-watt-plus radio stations are there?

We're already shouting at the top of our "lungs," pretty much.
posted by zoogleplex at 12:43 PM on June 28, 2007 [3 favorites]


Kneel to Zod!
posted by A189Nut at 12:43 PM on June 28, 2007


Well, what if science IS their religion?!?

OH NOES! we'll all be forced to turn atheist and have abortions!
posted by saulgoodman at 12:44 PM on June 28, 2007 [3 favorites]


Too late, dude. We've been radiating highly-modulated high-power radio frequency energy for close to a century.

We're already shouting at the top of our "lungs," pretty much.

Yeah, it kinda seems like the suggestion to "keep quiet," at this point, is like being a deer in the middle of the road at night.

"Ah, shit! Something huge and bright is coming at me. I bet it hasn't noticed me yet, though. I know! I'll just stand really, really still, and it'll all be cool."
posted by Greg Nog at 12:48 PM on June 28, 2007


We're already shouting at the top of our "lungs," pretty much.

And, like any other loud neighbor, they're probably just tuning us out. Let's hope they're passive-agressive - I'd prefer that to having our nearest neighbor grab the shotgun and pay us a visit, so to speak.
posted by FormlessOne at 12:49 PM on June 28, 2007


"...passive-aggressive..." Sigh.
posted by FormlessOne at 12:49 PM on June 28, 2007


So, basically, the reason we haven't heard back from any alien civilizations is because they have Caller ID.
posted by zueod at 1:04 PM on June 28, 2007 [9 favorites]


Do our radio signals degrade/deteriorate over time and distance? I know they do in our atmosphere, but in the [insert boomy echo voice] VACUUM OF SPACE do the signals go, literally, forever?

In other words, in a few thousand years could someone a long ways away be watching "I Love Lucy" broadcasts?

Surely it would take more power than a remote TV truck to blast a signal all the way across the galaxy?
posted by Ynoxas at 1:09 PM on June 28, 2007


You should read this article over at the Atomic Rocket website.

Relativistic Weaponry is nasty, nasty stuff. So nasty, in fact, that if an alien civilization detects us, it may be in their own best interest to take us out before we can spread to other worlds. Currently, we do not have the technology to develop such weapons but in two or three centuries we might.
posted by smoothvirus at 1:22 PM on June 28, 2007


Inverse-square law.
posted by Artw at 1:23 PM on June 28, 2007


Truly I think that any intelligent alien civilization would realize that most of Earth's problems are caused by our primitive system of goverment which favors powerful, selfish power structures (and feeds the vicious cycle of sociological problems, such as anti-intellectualism and poverty). I don't know whether aliens adhere to a prime directive, but I think the biggest gift they could give us is a honorable form of government, and the power to adopt it. As individuals, we can hardly be blamed for a lot of Earth's contemptible problems, though I will not argue that a lot of people are stupid or were raised stupid. I don't think that makes them bad though.
posted by rolypolyman at 1:29 PM on June 28, 2007


And on top of inverse-square, there's all sorts of natural RF interference out there, so yeah signals do degrade over distance. There's a practical limit to how far our signals will reach.

However, at certain frequencies, the earth is the brightest object within many light-years. I think our signals are still well within that practical range, even assuming that the listeners are at a similar level of radio telescope tech to our own, possibly even less.

Plus, on top of sheer wattage, our signals are regular and modulated in a way that would be impossible to interpret as anything other than artificial. Even if someone can't make out the data being transmitted, they can sure measure that the signal power changes with sine-wave regularity. They could even tell how long our day and year is, from signal changes over the rotation and orbit of the earth. A lot of information can be gotten about us without deciphering a single word or image of what's being said.
posted by zoogleplex at 1:44 PM on June 28, 2007


I have no trouble believing in the existance of intelligent aliens... but if they do exist, the chances that they're similar enough to us for any kind of real communication to even be possible is a HUGE stretch. They would probably not even have our five senses. I doubt, for example, that they talk like we do- by using a complex system of air chambers to create resonant waves which are picked up by drum-like organs- because, seriously, what are the odds of that? Maybe they talk to each other by radiating waves of some energy we haven't even discovered yet.

People in this thread are positing that these aliens would have concepts of war and religion and government, concepts that I'd lay money would be- not just alien- but absolutely incomprehensible to any non-earthling.
posted by showbiz_liz at 1:46 PM on June 28, 2007


smoothvirus,
Why would it be in their best interests? It seems like there is absolutely no reason at all to be hostile towards anyone else we find out there. Wars have always been fought for either space or resources, but the universe if full of both. No need to fight over anything, one side can just go elsewhere, unlike on Earth where there's finite space and finite routes of movement. The only reason to fight would be if the aliens had a religious reason as porpoise mentioned, because otherwise it would just be a total waste of resources. All the energy spent fighting a war could be used to just go off to some other place and get what you need without the potential harm.
posted by Sangermaine at 1:47 PM on June 28, 2007


We will be out of luck, if "they" get here first, traveling in tin porta potties, arriving here because we have something that they want. If they get here first, and they are at all like us, we are in trouble.

I rather think that "they" will travel as light. Their contact will be like a dream sequence. Maybe "they" will materialize out of a close dimension, and ask us to keep it down, the RF waves are waking the baby, etc.

I somehow sense that the whole universe is as it is at the moment, and any change to the physical structure brings change to the whole phenomenon. I think that any "visitors" to this place, are likely time traveling history buffs, or future powers, back engineering the past on a continuing basis.

We are liable to find out, that "they" only speak on their terms, and may have spoken already, maybe the universe speaks to us in intuitions, maybe we are well organized dust, and just not ready...
posted by Oyéah at 1:51 PM on June 28, 2007


Remember that scene in the new version of Dawn of the Dead, where the occupants of the mall used a white-board to talk with the guy on the roof of the gun store?

That is how I imagine, if we ever do discover sentient alien life, that our conversations will be held
.

-----------------------------
| ZAPHOD BEEBLEBROX |
-----------------------------
posted by dreamsign at 1:52 PM on June 28, 2007


And following dreamsign, the obligatory:

"We'll be broadcasting to all intelligent life forms out there, and for the rest of you, the secret is to bang the rocks together, guys!"
posted by zoogleplex at 2:05 PM on June 28, 2007


Sangermaine you make many assumptions. Perhaps space isn't so full of space, but regulated by some alien governments, putting a premium on life supporting planets. And perhaps fighting a war would not be necessary or expensive to rid the universe of humans. Just toss a custom virus into the atmosphere that kills all humans. Who knows.
posted by parallax7d at 2:08 PM on June 28, 2007


Showbiz_liz, vibration seems to be the universal medium with which organisms communicate. It would be difficult to imagine an alien species with whom it would be impossible to translate their vibrations to ours.

And as far as our concepts be incomprehensible to aliens, I think you may find that masters of intergalactic travelers could understand these simple concepts just as we understand an animals simple concept of fight or flight.
posted by parallax7d at 2:12 PM on June 28, 2007


THIS guy says he's got another, more important perspective:

http://www.greatercommunity.org/mvs.php


have fun!
posted by oigocosas at 2:13 PM on June 28, 2007


Wow, non proofreading FTW :)
posted by parallax7d at 2:13 PM on June 28, 2007


Counterpoint: If aliens wanted to, they would have destroyed us by now, by George Dvorsky.
posted by Arturus at 10:56 AM on June 28 [+] [!]


So you're saying they think we're mostly harmless?
posted by lysdexic at 2:25 PM on June 28, 2007


Aliens will only be interested in our pizza delivery technology.
posted by Midnight Creeper at 2:27 PM on June 28, 2007


whoa, parallax!
we posted the same meme almost simultaneously!
you dont, perchance, live in montreal, DO YOU?
posted by oigocosas at 2:35 PM on June 28, 2007


guess not. (checked the profile.) portland.
posted by oigocosas at 2:41 PM on June 28, 2007


"So you're saying they think we're mostly harmless?"

Nope, just made out of meat.
posted by thecaddy at 2:49 PM on June 28, 2007


But we do have digital watches! They're pretty neat!
posted by zoogleplex at 3:09 PM on June 28, 2007


parallax7d,
I think you misunderstand. What I meant is, the universe is filled with resources in any direction you travel. If they can get here, they can get anywhere, and in space you can move in 360 degrees. You don't have to go "through" someone's "territory" to go somewhere, and the distances are so vast as to make territory in the sense of a continuous sovereign entity meaningless. Just pick a direction and go, and you'll come across something. It's not like there are a handful of stars and planets and everyone needs to fight over them in the way that there is only so much land and so many resources here on Earth. There is literally an unlimited amount for everyone and no need to fight over them. And why even risk confrontation when there is no need? If you spot a planet, see it's inhabited, why not just pass by and find one of the other billions of planets that aren't? The human attrocities of history have been driven by either a fight for scarce resources, or religious zeal. Space at least removes the scarce resources part.
posted by Sangermaine at 3:26 PM on June 28, 2007


I can't see how you can look beyond the 'keep quiet and watch closely' credo at this point in our development. We sure as hell can't go anywhere else, and anyone who can come here clearly would have capacities well beyond our own. Even if you endow such an alien with the best of intentions, the consequences of our interaction are not predictable and may not be pleasant. Should their intentions be more aggressive, then who knows....who wants to be part of Charlie's Festival?
posted by Jakey at 3:26 PM on June 28, 2007


vibration seems to be the universal medium with which organisms communicate.

Yeah, but all of the organisms we've observed evolved here, on earth, from the same common ancestor as everything else, including us. That's a pretty limited sample. Maybe these hypothetical aliens can't even detect sound waves at all. Why would they? Think of all the waves WE can't detect.
posted by showbiz_liz at 3:27 PM on June 28, 2007


In the sense that we could communicate by talking about math, then physics, then chemistry, with some astronomy and universal concepts (everyone will have something like cooperation versus competition, as resources are finite and have to be allocated in some manner), we could interact. But what would we have to talk about? What would they come visit for?

It takes ridiculous amounts of energy, planning, and time to cross even fifty light-years. I just don't see anyone coming to call. It certainly won't be for materials: any rare elements, ores, and so forth, would be less energy-intensive to make by old home fusion than by trucking about the galaxy, unless there's some awfully unlikely fashion of punching holes in spacetime.

Information? Maybe, if Nylund's Signal to Noise is true. The occasional mathematical theorem they haven't thought of (how likely is that?) or some novel biochemistry we could describe sufficiently for them to make. Still, I doubt it. Their biochemistry will be different enough that, while organic molecules are all over the place, most of them just won't be that handy to them. Those that are, they would already know about.

We could potentially get idle explorers, missionaries, or those with a philosophical beef against other lifeforms. So, we're left with boredom, religion, and xenophobia as the prime motivators. And the species-extermination could be conducted by tenacious low-level AIs (Reynold's Inhibitors, from Revelation Space and on). It wouldn't be contact so much as *splat*.

Barring the above, any conversation would go something like:

EARTH: Hi! Hi! Hi! Hello! Yo! (Year 0)
BORED ALIENS: Hi, yourself. We heard you. Here's the codebook. Hope you've got carbon and basic math. (Year 50)
EARTH: OMG this is so awesome where is the chatroom? (Year 100)
BORED ALIENS: You're [unintelligble], right? There's some folks broadcasting GalactiWikiPedia if you point your telescopes over there. They're in the middle of a revision war, though, through the last full spin of the galaxy. Also, the latency's a bitch. (Year 150)
EARTH: Got any FTL? Warez? Ansible? (Year 200)
BORED ALIENS: Nope, sorry. Not that exciting. You got physics pretty much right. Here's a minor correction to the fine structure constant in the 50th decimal place. We converted one of our gas giants into an accelerator large enough to figure that out. Oh, and those guys from the nearby dwarf galaxy, do not build anything they send you. Seriously. (Year 250)
EARTH: O RLY? (Year 300)
BORED ALIENS: Yes really. In fact, some neighbors of ours in the same system were dumb enough to *statichisssssss* (Year 350)
EARTH: Guys? Guys? (Year 400)
XENOPHOBIC ALIENS: Greetings, substandard species! Please remain in your solar system to await the glorious arrival of Unex, The Destroyer, He Who Gobbles Whole. Those civilizations opting for mass suicide, please preserve your carcasses according to the following instructions, or we will reconstruct you from scraps of your genetic code and your gibbering broadcasts, then torture your species until your Sun burns out. All hail Unex! (Year 410)
EARTH: *whimper*
posted by adipocere at 3:39 PM on June 28, 2007 [17 favorites]


They're Made Out Of Meat

Or, Dragon's Egg.

And best of all, Blindsight.

All very interesting takes on how aliens might view us, or what kinds of alien lifeforms might be out there. Blindsight is great because it brings a different view of what extraterrestrial life might be, rather than "intelligent" in the sense of self-awareness, a life-form more apt to be described as an interstellar shark, something that does not need or want to talk to you, it just wants to eat you (or your planet or whatever). No central authority to negotiate with, just an existence that is so utterly alien that in order for it to survive, we must die. There's also the whole Ender's Game thing, with the hive aliens and the misunderstandings that would happen if the aliens don't view individual humans as unique sentients, but cells/drones that serve the collective biomass of humanity.

And really, space exploration is not going to be about finding other aliens. It's going to be the leap from the cradle, and carrying the seeds of life to lifeless realms of space. It will not be an economic, political, or any of the other fantasies we may harbor now in our dreaming state. It will be because we have reached the level of control of our physical world that we can extend it beyond our planet. Though really, the odds are against that and most likely we will become another layer in the fossil record. But that's just me pooping on most would be star captain dreams.
posted by daq at 3:52 PM on June 28, 2007 [1 favorite]


I also forgot, Alive in Joberg, which is an awesome interstellar visitors who, um, ran out of gas and decide we've got stuff they can use, but don't really ask if they can use it.

Kind of an Alien Nation theme meets Cops, but a really thought provoking look at how our current political/social system might handle things.
posted by daq at 3:56 PM on June 28, 2007


I remember reading some sci-fi story that had people trying to deal with a technical problem over a great distance and having to contend with the lag inherent in the system (something says it was a couple of hours worth,)

A clever person got the idea to just start talking. Talking about everything that they could see, rather than asking for something specific and waiting for a response. The odds being that at some point in constant stream of information, your answer would pop up.

It would present a high noise to signal problem, but if you have enough people/ equipment to monitor it, you could pass huge amounts of information, lag or no.
posted by quin at 4:00 PM on June 28, 2007


Sangermaine

Resources is not the problem. As you've pointed out, there's pretty much enough out there for everyone.

Mars does not need women.

The purpose for attacking us would be this: Humans are fucking dangerous. They're intelligent, utimately adaptable, and have the capacity to be very violent. Let me quote from the article I posted:

When we put our heads together and tried to list everything we could say with certainty about other civilizations, without having actually met them, all that we knew boiled down to three simple laws of alien behavior:

1. THEIR SURVIVAL WILL BE MORE IMPORTANT THAN OUR SURVIVAL.
If an alien species has to choose between them and us, they won't choose us. It is difficult to imagine a contrary case; species don't survive by being self-sacrificing.

2. WIMPS DON'T BECOME TOP DOGS.
No species makes it to the top by being passive. The species in charge of any given planet will be highly intelligent, alert, aggressive, and ruthless when necessary.

3. THEY WILL ASSUME THAT THE FIRST TWO LAWS APPLY TO US.


So if the aliens detect us, is it better for them to ignore us, and play the wait and see game, or wait for us to discover them, and then possibly attack them? They will not know what our intentions are.

I was thinking about this and it occurs to me that the key here is communication. If the two races can communicate with each other then it probably would not be worth attacking each other. But, it's likely that we will be vastly different from each other - so finding a way to communicate could be extremely difficult.
posted by smoothvirus at 4:05 PM on June 28, 2007


Aliens will only be interested in our pizza delivery technology.
posted by Midnight Creeper


That would be the fist sign of interest ever given for drummers in struggling rock bands.
posted by micayetoca at 4:43 PM on June 28, 2007


SPOILERS

"Humanitarian" does not mean what you think it does.

FURTHER SPOILERS

"To Serve Man" Is actually a cookbook.
posted by Artw at 4:45 PM on June 28, 2007 [2 favorites]


One of the most interesting question asked in this thread is about the "singularity" of aliens. Not "singularity" in the Kurzweil-Accelerando sense, but as "being of one mind". For example, everybody seems to posit that, if aliens have a religion, they have "a" religion: only one.

All that we know about sentient beings is what we know about ourselves. And, as members of the same species, we generally don't agree on much besides science. As individuals, as groups, as cultures, we are more defined by what make us different than by what we have in common.

The best news about meeting aliens would be to define us, our species, as a singularity: what makes us different? What is this "one mind" that we have that is different from the "one mind" that they have?

The other defines us, and as long as there is no "other", we don't know who we are.
posted by bru at 4:45 PM on June 28, 2007


Yeah, I've always believed that aliens who stumbled upon us would almost certainly wipe us out.

"You humans are nice and all, in a third stage evolutionary quaint sort of way, but you're not really what the galaxy needs right now."
posted by nixerman at 5:00 PM on June 28, 2007


Well, it seems to me that the most likely thing to happen is that the lost Twelve Colonies will be the first to contact us. Or the Cylons. They have a plan, you know.
posted by Midnight Creeper at 5:11 PM on June 28, 2007 [1 favorite]


Showbiz_liz, vibration seems to be the universal medium with which organisms communicate.

While vibration is certainly a popular one, it is also certainly not the only one. Chemical comes to mind, either by directly sensing chemicals or by smell. Then there is sight, be it color or sign/body language. Take your cuddle fish for example. They rapidly flash colors to communicate with one another.

And that's just what we have here, and likely I'm forgetting something. But vibration is certainly not the "universal medium" for communication. And I'd be hesitant to label anything universal in a discussion such as this, when you're talking about an earth specific trait.
posted by [insert clever name here] at 5:14 PM on June 28, 2007


The only reason to fight would be if the aliens had a religious reason as porpoise mentioned

Or what if they're communists?
posted by scheptech at 7:15 PM on June 28, 2007 [1 favorite]


Signs point pretty strongly towards the conclusion that our entire civilization is built on a singular moment in the energy-history of our planet. Within a century, or two if you're really generous about our ability to convert solar energy to kinetic and high thermal energy (essential for most of our industrial processes) we'll have exhausted all the easily consumable sources of energy on this planet, not to mention other essential mineral resources.

Since this limitation can be expected on other planets in our galaxy, it's almost a stroke of luck for us, since it makes it very unlikely that we'll share this brief moment in time with any neighbours capable of detecting our presence and/or long distance phone calls and responding. They've either already had their singularity and gone back to living in caves, or they're still invertebrates in a priimitive sea.

We don't have the energy resources now to make more than a token push beyond our planet, and we're sitting on the high point at the moment. So relativistic weaponry here or elsewhere appears very unlikely. From this moment, with all our new energy and mining technologies, we'll still just be fighting the slide all the way to the bottom, and interstellar contact will not matter much at all.

However, should we wish to pretend otherwise vis-a-vis our impending demise from resource starvation, in a universe where relativistic weaponry is possible, game theory requires that any civilization advanced enough to detect others in the galaxy MUST destroy their neighbours before they have the opportunity to do the same. If your neighbours can develop and deploy relativistic weapons against you, you must destroy them while you have the chance. It's a cold realism, but it's the only way to guarantee your species' survival. It's a shame the article was so larkish and didn't actually dig into the meat of why our potential alien neighbours might prove to be so aggressive.
posted by kowalski at 7:26 PM on June 28, 2007 [2 favorites]


I've alerted George Clinton: this thread is full of people who will not be getting funked up when the mothership arrives.
posted by lord_wolf at 8:26 PM on June 28, 2007 [1 favorite]


EARTH: Got any FTL? Warez? Ansible? (Year 200)
posted by adipocere

Olmy, is that you?
posted by Tubes at 9:03 PM on June 28, 2007


"Within a century, or two if you're really generous about our ability to convert solar energy to kinetic and high thermal energy (essential for most of our industrial processes) we'll have exhausted all the easily consumable sources of energy on this planet, not to mention other essential mineral resources."

YAY!1! I'll drink to that! Especially since you're talking aboiut the HUMAN species and its superfluous and parasitic technological niche. A toast to the coming Stone Age, when the rest of the planet will get a reprieve from us, and to a large extent we'll get a break from ourselves.

The question is whether we embrace cannibalism from a position of strength as a strategy against decline or stoop to out of desperation when decline is not only unavoidable but well-greased with tears. Of course knowing what idiotic fuckups the rest of you are I'm sure you'll manage to botch anything you try, so I'm damn glad I'll be gone long before then.

Before cannibalism, however, I suggest you bring back slavery. Choose White slaves and "non-white" Masters this time; it's not you don't have good reason. And don't forget to chain the engineers and sysadmins to posts in their cubicles, unless you've found a way to implant the necessary electronics in their heads. (If so spruce up the control software with FX of exploding subways and blondes with big nipples and they'll think technoslavery is a really fun game.)
posted by davy at 9:05 PM on June 28, 2007


"Pot, meet Kettle."

Gee, I wonder why we're worried about alien visitors. We've always been so nice to the new people we meet.
posted by The Light Fantastic at 9:06 PM on June 28, 2007


"All that we know about sentient beings is what we know about ourselves."

What do you mean "we," etc.?

"And, as members of the same species, we generally don't agree on much besides science."

Who says even humans who have some idea what "science" might mean even agree on the subject? Or haven't you heard that Adam named the dinosaurs and Eve rode one to the 7-Eleven?

And by the way, when the Mothership comes it'll find I'm plenty funked up enough already. I got so much groovy funk I been partyin' like it's 1999 since 1974. Those of you who are afraid of being caught up short when the Reckoning comes best stick close to me: I got so much extra funk it'll be slopping around all over, just bring some pots and pans to collect up my excess. Just remember one thing: when they say "Take me to your leader!" don't y'all dare step back and start pointin' at me -- if you don't start listening soon I won't be helping you then.
posted by davy at 9:16 PM on June 28, 2007


"If an alien species has to choose between them and us, they won't choose us. It is difficult to imagine a contrary case; species don't survive by being self-sacrificing."

What would make one assume their self-sacrifice need be intentional? Ours isn't.
posted by davy at 9:21 PM on June 28, 2007


"A clever person got the idea to just start talking. Talking about everything that they could see, rather than asking for something specific and waiting for a response. The odds being that at some point in constant stream of information, your answer would pop up."

Welcome to the World Wide Web!
posted by davy at 9:22 PM on June 28, 2007


showbiz_liz: They would probably not even have our five senses.

Why? It's not as if ours are particular to our way of life or even our chemistry. Think about it:

1. Sight - Detecting electromagnetic radiation is a mechanism for comprehending one's environment that is extremely useful in nearly every setting. Perhaps the aliens will go for a different spectra, but perhaps not - there's a reason that terrestrial organisms primarily use visible light (it's the major component of the emissions spectra of most main sequence stars.)

2. Hearing - Assuming the alien is either aquatic or lives in an atmosphere, detecting waves in the physical medium is another obvious way to pick up information about the environment.

3. Smell - Again, this relies on the alien to live in a physical medium (gas or liquid) but picking up dissolved materials in it is a fairly obvious strategy.

4. Taste - Assuming the alien feeds on chemical matter, determining the constituents of that matter is paramount.

5. Touch - Detecting physical contact, obviously useful for any creature that is capable of movement.

Now, I think it's entirely possible that an alien might be missing one or two of the above, and also possible that it might have other senses (such as electrosense, like a shark, or magnetic orientation like many birds.) However, the laws of chemistry and physics are the same everywhere and the ways that evolution has guided life on Earth to derive information about the environment are some of the most obvious and simple. It's silly to think that life on other planets will miss obvious things like the ability to detect electromagnetic radiation and go for weird lovecraftian senses that we can't comprehend.
posted by Mitrovarr at 10:24 PM on June 28, 2007


Thank you dag. Blindsight is truly fantastic. I think you've shown me a new favorite author. Here are several of Peter Watts' books and short stories in PDF.
posted by aeschenkarnos at 11:08 PM on June 28, 2007


[insert clever name here]: I was thinking exactly the same thing about the universality of vibration of communication. You could, at a stretch, make the argument that colour, as a side-effect of different light wavelenths, was type of vibration, but it's pretty iffy. Body movement also - "That dog's tail is vibratin' I tells ya"

But even just ants, which make up (according to wikipedia) 15-20% of earthly animal biomass, are chemical communicators - even their antennae are for detecting pheramones (they're not waving at each other). So universal vibrations are pretty much counted out.
posted by Sparx at 1:07 AM on June 29, 2007


Why do you guys have to start up the interesting conversations while I'm in bed?
posted by cstross at 3:57 AM on June 29, 2007


My personal theory:

1) We'll find a mechanism by which radioactive materials can be recharged or cleansed via the input of enormous amounts of energy
2) Enormous amounts of energy will be acquired by unfurling massive solar-conversion sails in space
3) The resulting "charged" radioactive material will be sent down to earth, to run a plant for n years.

IOW, Nuclear-as-battery.

Short term, of course, algae.
posted by effugas at 5:20 AM on June 29, 2007


Peter F. Hamilton's Commonwealth Saga has a fun alien in it. When it captures a couple of humans it barely knows where to start, not even recognising them as intelligent individuals. The scene when it picks a person apart trying to work out what it is sticks with me more than any other (and there are a *lot* of scenes in these books ;)

What we're going to meet, if anything, I think is going to be significantly influenced by what magic wands are feasable. FTL, easy wormholes, and magic reaction/fuel-less drives, I think are likely to come significantly later than, if at all, nanotech, AI, uploads, etc, if only because the latter don't clearly need some significant change to physics as we understand them.

With that in mind, I see it as less likely that we'll encounter actual, meaty aliens, and indeed unlikely that we'll be exploring much of the cosmos in our silly meaty sacks-of-mostly-water and monkey brains. More likely we'll be drifting around in hunks of smart matter, not necessarily much more human than any alien we might encounter.
posted by Freaky at 8:01 AM on June 29, 2007


We don't have the energy resources now to make more than a token push beyond our planet, and we're sitting on the high point at the moment. So relativistic weaponry here or elsewhere appears very unlikely. From this moment, with all our new energy and mining technologies, we'll still just be fighting the slide all the way to the bottom, and interstellar contact will not matter much at all.

Well, thanks for that buzz-kill, Cap'n Doom-and-Gloom. I may have to make it my mission to create a FPP that is so robust and craftily constructed that no one can jam in yet another of these "All our powers will be lost" warnings about the coming energy apocalypse and the impending complete collapse of civilization. But if such a thing is inevitable, I think our solution is to digitize ourselves to become virtual consciousnesses and then set our supporting mainframes to massively overclock so that nano-seconds are subjective days. Then we can lead complete Matrix-type lives in mere hours, and it won't matter that the juice to our uber-Cray will soon run out.
posted by Midnight Creeper at 9:42 AM on June 29, 2007


...the ways that evolution has guided life on Earth to derive information about the environment are some of the most obvious and simple. It's silly to think that life on other planets will miss obvious things like the ability to detect electromagnetic radiation.

Over and over, you keep describing these ways of recieving information as 'obvious', but of course these things are obvious to you- you're a human! The five types of information we can easily detect are only the most obvious choices to us because... we can easily detect them! I'm not saying that aliens COULDN'T have senses similar to ours, mind you, but to say "of course they would, it's obvious" sort of misses my whole point. We can't assume that aliens communicate like we do, and we can't expect that it will be easy, or even possible, to actually communicate with them.

One example from science fiction that I like is in Children of the Mind, by Orson Scott Card. At the end of the book, they encounter a race whose members communicate with viruses that they can construct. So any possible communication between us and them involves taking one of these viruses, examining its composition, somehow translating it into human language, and then translating our reply into a diagram of a virus and sending it back. Can you imagine trying to figure something like that out? That's just one example, but the point is- don't think it'll be as simple as translating from one human language to another.
posted by showbiz_liz at 9:53 AM on June 29, 2007


At the end of the book, they encounter a race whose members communicate with viruses that they can construct.

Yikes. What a horribly slow and energy-inefficient way to communicate. Dangerous, too, unless they also have much, much better immune systems than we do.

I haven't read that book since I was a kid (though I've re-read Ender's Game several times since then). Did Card come up with a plausible explanation for how such a system would arise? Since some of his stories (including the Ender trilogy) involve faster-than-light telepathy, I doubt it, but I don't remember.
posted by Thoughtcrime at 1:09 PM on June 29, 2007


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