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Arresting aliens
May 13, 2010 1:31 AM   Subscribe

Larry King questions Stephen Hawking's recent argument - that we should not try to talk to aliens - and other matters extraterrestrial with the physicist Michio Kaku, Seth Shostak of SETI, the science fiction writer and astronomer David Brin and the actor Dan Aykroyd (1, 2, 3) (Previous, previous)
posted by fearfulsymmetry (120 comments total) 15 users marked this as a favorite

 
Stephen's argument made no sense because it assumed that a species with superluminal travel can't figure out how to extract minerals, water, and gasses from other interstellar bodies.

There? Did I summarize the article I didn't read?
posted by clarknova at 2:02 AM on May 13, 2010 [2 favorites]


It's already too late, as advanced alien technology is keeping the Larry King biological entity alive.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 2:07 AM on May 13, 2010 [10 favorites]


What would happen if we discovered planet with 1) Resources we needed and 2) Life that was intelligent, but not quite as smart as us

My guess is that 2 wouldn't last long. Just ask a dolphin in a tuna net. So what happens if life that is smarter then us discovers humanity? Well, let's hope there's nothing interesting about earth.
posted by delmoi at 2:38 AM on May 13, 2010 [5 favorites]


Fools! Dan Aykroyd is the alien!
posted by chillmost at 2:40 AM on May 13, 2010 [2 favorites]


The "recent argument" should probably point here.

I hate it when the aliens come in and hang around my condo. I paid a lot of money for my condo, so I don't like these aliens coming into my neighborhood and telling me that they have a right to be there, just because they are from an advanced civilization with superhuman skills.

Try shopping for broccoli at the local convenience store. It's a hard job.

Who's the advanced species now?
posted by twoleftfeet at 2:44 AM on May 13, 2010


Hey. You wanna to see something really scary?

We can't know what the aliens might be like under the mask -- they could be tremendous assholes -- so it would be best to spread ourselves out a bit before encouraging them to drop by the only home we have. "Hello? Invincible and supremely cruel beasts from another world? Here we are! Do with us as you wish! Ouch!"
posted by pracowity at 2:52 AM on May 13, 2010 [3 favorites]


Just wait until the aliens get to Arizona...
posted by HuronBob at 3:05 AM on May 13, 2010


I know you're supposed to listen to the message, and not criticize the messenger, and I love Dan Akroyd, but his delivery in everything he's trying to say just screams "Paranoid UFO nut." If he would just take a couple deep breaths and realize he's got a few main points to make, he'd come off a good deal less crazy-cat-ladyish. Instead (like a good number of people trying to prove that THE MAN is behind some sort of conspiracy) he rushes his words, stumbling over them, trying to cram as much information into his short talking time as he can, giving an impression of making very little sense.

Delivery is important, people. Shouldn't Akroyd, an actor (and comedian) know better?

Or wait, maybe that's it! He's an actor! The secret conspiracy has actually hired him tomakepeoplewhowanttofindthetruthlookcrazyandhe'sactinglikethosecrazypeople!Butwe'reontohimbecausewedon'ttalklikethatatallandI'msurewecanmakeeveryoneunderstand!
posted by Ghidorah at 3:06 AM on May 13, 2010 [4 favorites]


I like Peter Watts's take on the extraterrestrial question. Depressing, distressing, but seems more likely to be right.
posted by aeschenkarnos at 3:23 AM on May 13, 2010 [3 favorites]


I've always been kinda curious...if we stepped out of a spaceship onto a planet which had similar lifeforms to us...cells, DNA, etc., etc...wouldn't we essentially fall over instantly from some massive fungal, bacterial, or viral infection that we had absolutely no defense against? Well, maybe not instantly, but you see where I'm going?
posted by maxwelton at 3:33 AM on May 13, 2010


wouldn't we essentially fall over instantly from some massive fungal, bacterial, or viral infection that we had absolutely no defense against

Those guys usually evolve alongside their hosts. It's rare that you get a virus (like bird flu, for example) that has the genetic code and protein machinery to infect multiple species.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 3:45 AM on May 13, 2010 [1 favorite]


Well, let's hope there's nothing interesting about earth.

Great, Lady Gaga will get us all killed.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 4:02 AM on May 13, 2010 [8 favorites]


the physicist Michio Kaku, Seth Shostak of SETI, the science fiction writer and astronomer David Brin and the actor Dan Aykroyd

One of these things is not like the others ...
posted by moonbiter at 4:09 AM on May 13, 2010 [9 favorites]


Just wait until the aliens get to Arizona...

I don't care how goddamn advanced the aliens are, there's no way they have rap technology superior to that of the Bomb Squad.
posted by DecemberBoy at 4:31 AM on May 13, 2010 [2 favorites]


Transcript of the segment is here, for anyone who can't play YouTube videos.

Why the hell is Dan Aykroyd in that interview? He takes up too much screen time on crazy garbage while the scientists are discussing the topic rationally.
posted by zarq at 4:49 AM on May 13, 2010


From "My Stepmother Is an Alien":

High-level bureaucrat: You look like a sensible man. Do you believe that there's life on other planets?

Jon Lovitz: I don't believe there's life in this room!

ba da boom
posted by blucevalo at 4:50 AM on May 13, 2010 [1 favorite]


There's a great SF short story about ETs coming to our planet and enslaving us up until they catch a cold. Niven? Sturgeon? H.G. Wells?

Actually, I think there's a few great SF stories about that.

Apparently the best defense against an extra terrestrial invasion is to wallow in your own filth and pick your nose frequently. BRB, rubbing dirty socks on my head.
posted by loquacious at 4:52 AM on May 13, 2010


Why the hell is Dan Aykroyd in that interview? He takes up too much screen time on crazy garbage while the scientists are discussing the topic rationally.

But... Ghostbusters 2?
posted by loquacious at 4:53 AM on May 13, 2010


Apparently the best defense against an extra terrestrial invasion is to wallow in your own filth and pick your nose frequently. BRB, rubbing dirty socks on my head.

I GOT IT COVERED. FOUND SPECIAL INSTRUCTIONS ON THE INTERNETS.
posted by zarq at 4:55 AM on May 13, 2010


David Brin covered the topic in more detail on his blog, after the show aired. It's a fun and interesting read.
posted by zarq at 5:05 AM on May 13, 2010


Why the hell is Dan Aykroyd in that interview?

He played a fake scientist in Ghostbusters. This Is CNN™.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 5:08 AM on May 13, 2010 [2 favorites]




Why am I covered in goo?
posted by loquacious at 5:22 AM on May 13, 2010 [2 favorites]


This reminds me of Larry King's late night radio show, which was some of the most entertaining radio, ever - top-tier experts speaking on important topics, and since this ain't no NPR, a top-tier crank to mix it up a bit. I thought Brin was going to burst a blood vessel trying not to giggle when Dan Ackroyd got going, and Kaku had this look of fascinated amusement, like my brother-in-law at one of our family gatherings. Awesome.

Larry's lost his touch, tho - he used to be able to reign in the crazies, and get them to be part of the discussion. Ackroyd may be too fast and intense a talker for a Larry gone soft on cable TV, in which case Art Bell or George Noory would have been a better guest.
posted by Slap*Happy at 5:28 AM on May 13, 2010


Aykroyd in the video so someone will watch it...sad, but likely true.
posted by sfts2 at 5:29 AM on May 13, 2010


MeFi led me to the Mysterious Universe podcast, which I've been listening to for fun. In an odd twist, they acknowledge that it would be a ridiculously energy-poor strategy to travel interstellar space to mine the Earth... but they might come to eat us instead.
posted by Durn Bronzefist at 5:31 AM on May 13, 2010


There's a great SF short story about ETs coming to our planet and enslaving us up until they catch a cold. Niven? Sturgeon? H.G. Wells?

It's that hidden and overlooked gem War of the Worlds.
posted by shakespeherian at 5:33 AM on May 13, 2010 [5 favorites]


Who's to say the aliens would want anything to do with us anyway?
posted by devinemissk at 5:37 AM on May 13, 2010 [1 favorite]


but they might come to eat us instead

Yup, I am betting that they come for meat and paper. And maybe strawberries. Earth grows some mighty fine strawberries.
posted by GenjiandProust at 5:38 AM on May 13, 2010 [3 favorites]


I know you're supposed to listen to the message, and not criticize the messenger, and I love Dan Akroyd, but his delivery in everything he's trying to say just screams "Paranoid UFO nut."

That is totally unfair. Characterizing Dan Akroyd as a paranoid UFO nut minimizes all the other things he's a paranoid nut about.
posted by Pope Guilty at 5:47 AM on May 13, 2010 [3 favorites]


Ray! When someone asks you if you're a god, you say yes!
posted by Sam Ryan at 5:49 AM on May 13, 2010


"If you've just joined us, we're with Tracy Jordan Dan Akroyd, who is giving guitar icon Peter Frampton enigmatic clues about a secret treasure. Stay with us."
posted by minifigs at 6:00 AM on May 13, 2010 [3 favorites]


Stephen's argument made no sense because it assumed that a species with superluminal travel can't figure out how to extract minerals, water, and gasses from other interstellar bodies.

I think it rests on a grand theory of survival that there is every kind of species out there imaginable, some that specialize in extracting water from remote locations and selling it on tap from gem-studded skull mugs to the superluminals.
posted by Brian B. at 6:09 AM on May 13, 2010 [1 favorite]


It's sad to see someone one fall so low... I mean Dan Akroyd thinks Indiana Jones And The Kingdom Of The Crystal Skull and The Day The Earth Stood Still remake are good movies!
posted by fearfulsymmetry at 6:12 AM on May 13, 2010


zarq's link to that David Brin blog post is worth reading:

I am trying to get people to stop leaping to unjustified assumptions and conclusions and especially to stop proclaiming that things are so, just because you made a glib sounding assertion. (Isn’t that bad habit doing enough harm, in Culture War?)

For example, Paul Davies and George Dvorsky and Michio Kaku and many other smart guys have asserted “if they wanted to harm us, they would have done so by now.”

Say What? Oh, this is just more blithe, dismissive nonsense, with so many sub-variations and counter-hypotheses to ponder you could shake a stick at them all day. Leaping to make such a generalized statement is no less than an expression of the most outrageous smugness and incuriosity, especially unworthy, coming from such smart fellows.

Just like the idiotic cliche that “I Love Lucy” has already made Earth a blaring beacon in the sky, so why bother restraining ourselves now? (Here’s an illustrative experiment: go to a lake with a rock and a laser pointer. Now drop the rock into the pond, making ripples. Then aim the laser pointer at the other shore. Which wave front will be detected on the opposite side? That is “I love Lucy” vs a high-power, colimated, coherent transmission from Arecebo. Sure, in theory, advanced scientists on the other shore, who are passionately eager and who know where to look, might detect the rock-ripples. But Jesus, have some scale and some sense, before you blithely declare that everybody on all shores will always detect all ripples!)

...Finally, some of the researchers in this field have expressed deep contempt for science fiction. This ready dismissal of the entire field of gedankenexperimentation by thoughtful and scientifically deep authors is nothing but flat out - and proud - ignorance. Such people dismiss - without having ever read them - mind-blowingly original thought experiments by the likes of Bear and Banks and Vinge (and me), which make up the only real library of what-if extrapolations that our committees could quickly turn to, in the event of a post-contact situation! To call such explorations "simpleminded" and unimaginative and based solely on copying the human experience is to declare openly "I am satisfied that B-Movies typify 'science fiction.' I have never cracked the spine of a grownup science fiction contact scenario... nor will I, ever."

That’s just dunderheaded and closeminded and especially unworthy of people who have earned great merit in other fields. People who now propose to represent us, if and when we meet the alien.

posted by mediareport at 6:15 AM on May 13, 2010 [4 favorites]


What would happen if we discovered planet with 1) Resources we needed and 2) Life that was intelligent, but not quite as smart as us

But the thing is, we wouldn't. Except in fiction where there can exist pure unobtainium on Pandora and nowhere else, anything you find on a planet you'll also find all over the rest of the stellar system. At which point there's no reason to go mucking about in the huge deep gravity wells of planets when you could just grab convenient rocks and comets in nice, clean vacuum.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 6:42 AM on May 13, 2010 [2 favorites]


There's a great SF short story about ETs coming to our planet and enslaving us up until they catch a cold.

Um, seriously? That would be War of the Worlds. Not exactly some obscure short story (or a short story at all).
posted by DecemberBoy at 6:49 AM on May 13, 2010 [1 favorite]


I find the entire thing to be a bit of a laugh. You have a network recently involved in doctoring interviews to create a more dramatic conclusion, and a researcher and author admitting that if the entire basis for his life's work (and that of most other physicists) is completely and utterly wrong, we might have something to fear from aliens.

So yeah, if there are aliens, and if General Relativity is wrong, and if there are resources worth exploiting on Earth that can't be found elsewhere, we should be very afraid. And if the Grinch steals our roast beast, we should probably hold hands and sing anyway.

It's hard to tell from the transcript Akroyd is crazy or just playing crazy for laughs. On the one hand, he seems to be directly on the alien abduction conspiracy message, but then he drops lines like:

"We've made some pretty good movies about this, ... 'Coneheads' ..."

"And honestly, I don't think they're a mass threat, but I do believe they're breaking the law. I'm serious, Title 18, 1202.... The FBI should be on that right away."

So I don't know. This is the guy who spent much of the last 30 years in character as an orphan and blues musician after all.

On preview: Pfeh. Brin is blasting everyone else for reaching the same tentative conclusions he himself advances and entertains. (If aliens were interested and capable of exploiting the Earth's ecosystem, they've had a few billion years to do so.) Science fiction isn't rigorous gedankenexperiment, it's fiction with a pretense of being science, and often involving simplistic and one-dimensional analysis of the factors involved.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 6:49 AM on May 13, 2010 [1 favorite]




Why the hell is Dan Aykroyd in that interview?

Is it Ghostbusters 2? Hey, THE METHOD WORKED!
posted by ersatz at 7:01 AM on May 13, 2010 [2 favorites]


Isn't Larry King that thing that popped out of that guy's chest in the first "Alien"? Or am I confusing him with someone else?
posted by Kskomsvold at 7:02 AM on May 13, 2010


I am betting that they come for meat and paper. And maybe strawberries. Earth grows some mighty fine strawberries.

I suppose that Kaylee is technically an ET.
posted by Durn Bronzefist at 7:14 AM on May 13, 2010


First off, I have to say that as simplistic as it is, i find Hawking's reasoning about the existence of ET life fairly plausible. The sheer size of the universe, taken along with what we now know to be the relative commonality of planets (and what we can detect so far is likely a conservative estimate) makes it seem unlikely that something analogous to life on earth has not developed elsewhere.

To me the question is not if, but when and how far. The universe contains an enormous number of stars, but it also OLD and spread out. So it is less obvious to me that any intelligent life has developed A) near us and B) at the same time as us.

Of course, there is absolutely nothing we can do to affect those factors, so assuming that we MIGHT one day encounter other intelligent life, the most interesting question is how we would handle them and what they might be like. Which leads me to an argument my brother has made for some time that I find interesting:

Any life sufficiently advanced to physically visit earth would likely be the sort of species we would not want to encounter. The reasoning goes that the qualities necessary for a species to A) dominate its own planet and B) organize its civilization effectively enough to develop interstellar travel are the same qualities that would make such a species both fairly aggressive and effective.

I can see how this argument might be considered a little pessimistic in that it embodies a certain amount of biological determinism and discounts the possibility that moral or cultural forces might be sufficiently strong to restrain the presumed biological imperatives to compete. But I still think its a useful way of looking at a speculative question.
posted by syntaxbad at 7:16 AM on May 13, 2010


On preview: Pfeh. Brin is blasting everyone else for reaching the same tentative conclusions he himself advances and entertains.

I don't think this is the case. It seems to me that he's blasting everyone else for declaring those ideas a foregone conclusion while dismissing other possibilities.

Science fiction isn't rigorous gedankenexperiment, it's fiction with a pretense of being science, and often involving simplistic and one-dimensional analysis of the factors involved.

Frederick Pohl once commented that exploring consequences is something that science fiction does better than any other literary genre. Good, thoughtful, in-depth science fiction is practically by definition a gedankenexperiment. Some of it is indeed rigorous: Kim Stanley Robinson's Mars' series. Iain Banks' Culture series. Simmons' Hyperion series. Even Brin's Uplift series. All of them create stories with exceptional depth and decent character development, then establish complex scenarios and carry them forward. Some of them even obey the laws of physicis. :)
posted by zarq at 7:16 AM on May 13, 2010 [4 favorites]


I am betting that they come for meat and paper. And maybe strawberries. Earth grows some mighty fine strawberries.

I just found my new secret passphrase question.
posted by rokusan at 7:33 AM on May 13, 2010


Frederick Pohl once commented that exploring consequences is something that science fiction does better than any other literary genre.

One of the things that's turned me off to classic sci-fi is how many of those consequential relationships turn out to be "increasing technology -> human beings become weak and spoiled".
posted by Pope Guilty at 7:36 AM on May 13, 2010


Science fiction isn't rigorous gedankenexperiment, it's fiction with a pretense of being science, and often involving simplistic and one-dimensional analysis of the factors involved.

I know I'm being trolled, but can you name any conventional fiction that portrays a credible gedankenexperiment?
posted by 0xdeadc0de at 7:39 AM on May 13, 2010


This argument seems kind of silly. We're almost able to detect habitable planets around stars near the sun now - I fully expect us to have that capability within 20-30 years. There's nothing fundamentally harder about doing it from a longer distance away, you just need a bigger telescope. Trying to hide the Earth kind of assumes aliens are thousands of years ahead of us in spaceflight technology but aren't also a hundred years ahead of us in telescope technology.

Of course, being the pessimist I am, I tend to think faster-than-light travel is fundamentally impossible and will never occur, and I really don't think aliens are likely to launch conquering armies in generation or sleeper ships. And the mass restriction on conventional spacecraft tends to limit the size of invading armies.
posted by Mitrovarr at 7:52 AM on May 13, 2010 [1 favorite]


Steven Hawkings should question why he's even talking to Larry King.
posted by stormpooper at 8:04 AM on May 13, 2010


Man, ho boy this thread has been a *hoot* letmetellyou, you guys go on and keep your theories about what happens when you meet the aliens. I'll just be up here, in low-orbit, minding my own business with my new friends.
posted by The Whelk at 8:32 AM on May 13, 2010 [1 favorite]


People have trouble understanding just how fucking far apart stars are and just how fast the goddamned speed of light is. If you want resources, there's no practical way to get in a ship, accelerate to high speed, travel to another system, stop, get out your mining/death equipment, fight off the aliens, take their stuff, accelerate to high speed, travel back to your home world, stop, and wind up with more resources than you used in all that running around. I got into an argument with a guy once, I said that relativity makes doing this harder, he said easier. So I sat down and did the equations (it's not difficult). Turns out he's right, although there's not much difference either way. If you want the space traveler to get to a distant place in a certain perceived time, both methods predict about the same fuel requirements. So forget the speed of light. Assume Newtonian physics, and just do the rocket equations to see how much fuel you're going to have to burn. Now imagine that there's a magic rocket fuel dispenser in another solar system, and calculate how much more energy you've "gained" when you get back. This scheme is the height of stupidity.

Easier to stay at home, mine the insane amounts of material any star system has, maybe recycle. Of course if you recycle, the liberal aliens win, but even if you're going to go blasting all around the galaxy in a futile attempt to harvest materials, I'd think your typical miner would like to leave the "fighting hostile aliens" step out of the above list. If for no other reason, it means less stuff you have to haul there and back, and that translates to MASSIVE savings in fuel. So. Wasteful alien miners will probably avoid inhabited systems, even if they're evil rapacious capitalists. Just not good for the bottom line.
posted by Humanzee at 8:34 AM on May 13, 2010 [4 favorites]


Not saying *who* but a comics writer recently was talking about that Humanzee, where for a large enough civilization the real trade good would be information exchange - news basically - to prevent areas from becoming isolated.
posted by The Whelk at 8:37 AM on May 13, 2010


In a world where praseodymium is the new Pabst Blue Ribbon...
posted by Tube at 8:46 AM on May 13, 2010


I'll just be up here, in low-orbit, minding my own business with my new friends.

If you'll steal some of the anal probes, I'll split the profits from selling the world's most expensive sex toys with you.
posted by Pope Guilty at 8:59 AM on May 13, 2010


zarq: I don't think this is the case. It seems to me that he's blasting everyone else for declaring those ideas a foregone conclusion while dismissing other possibilities.

Sure, if you ignore the shitload of caveats and qualifiers that Hawking (and others) used to pad their conclusions.

zarq: Frederick Pohl once commented that exploring consequences is something that science fiction does better than any other literary genre. Good, thoughtful, in-depth science fiction is practically by definition a gedankenexperiment. Some of it is indeed rigorous: Kim Stanley Robinson's Mars' series. Iain Banks' Culture series. Simmons' Hyperion series. Even Brin's Uplift series. All of them create stories with exceptional depth and decent character development, then establish complex scenarios and carry them forward. Some of them even obey the laws of physicis. :)

If by "rigorous" you mean, "ignoring or fudging inconvenient facts that get in the way of the literary premise." Good science fiction is fiction that's well-written. It doesn't particularly matter that Asimov's premises on robotics or predictive sociohistory were wrong and naive, he still told some rocking good stories based on them. Both Robinson's teraforming and Brin's galactic civilization requires substantial handwavium in order to work.

I don't consider that to be a bad thing about science fiction, but it does make me roll my eyes when Brin attempts to claim that his chops as a science fiction author qualify him as an authority on potential outcomes of human-alien contact.

0xdeadc0de: I know I'm being trolled, but can you name any conventional fiction that portrays a credible gedankenexperiment?

Here you've switched out rigorous for credible. Hamlet is a pretty credible account of how a person might act if he was told by a ghost that his uncle is guilty of fratricide. Brin's Uplift novels are a pretty credible account of what might happen if humans found themselves near the bottom of a galactic caste system in a universe with cheap violations of general relativity. I happen to consider ghosts and violations of general relativity to be cheap plot devices to get the action rolling. As Roddenberry once wrote, the Enterprise is a plot device for getting the characters from conflict to conflict, don't think too hard about how it works.

And at any rate, good thought experiments are often provocative rather than predictive. Einstein's superluminal train and Schrodinger's cat are not meant to be predictive of real-life situations. Billy Pilgrim has become unstuck in time isn't about the possibilities of time travel, but about non-linear memory and storytelling.

Science fiction is fiction first and science second. I roll my eyes at Brin's self-inflated claims that his adventure stories of mankind finding a unique truth about sentient life in the galaxy make him an authority on human-alien contact.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 9:05 AM on May 13, 2010 [4 favorites]


I need to call attention to shakespeherian's mind blowing link. Dan Aykroyd is selling motherfucking diamond filtered vodka in a glass skull. While this is something you might expect a rapper to do, and market it by saying "Hey, motherfucking diamond vodka in a skull, you already want to buy it." he goes on a 20 min long psychobabble spiel about mystic crystal skulls.

So, ah yeah. I think the crazy he's talking about here is real.
posted by fontophilic at 9:14 AM on May 13, 2010 [3 favorites]


So when Dan Akroyd played Mother in Sneakers he wasn't just pretending to be paranoid? "Cattle mutilations are up."
posted by kirkaracha at 9:14 AM on May 13, 2010 [2 favorites]


and the actor Dan Aykroyd

To be fair, he did marry one.
posted by Afroblanco at 9:22 AM on May 13, 2010 [1 favorite]


I roll my eyes at Brin's self-inflated claims that his adventure stories of mankind finding a unique truth about sentient life in the galaxy make him an authority on human-alien contact.

But... but fans are slans! I've been assured of this by several fans!
posted by Pope Guilty at 9:22 AM on May 13, 2010 [1 favorite]


So when Dan Akroyd played Mother in Sneakers he wasn't just pretending to be paranoid? "Cattle mutilations are up."

"Dan thought Ghostbusters was a documentary" - Bill Murray (allegedly)
posted by fearfulsymmetry at 9:23 AM on May 13, 2010 [1 favorite]


Um, seriously? That would be War of the Worlds. Not exactly some obscure short story (or a short story at all).

It's that hidden and overlooked gem War of the Worlds.



Most sarcastic. Sci Fi nerds. Ever.
posted by Kirk Grim at 9:31 AM on May 13, 2010


If by "rigorous" you mean, "ignoring or fudging inconvenient facts that get in the way of the literary premise." Good science fiction is fiction that's well-written. It doesn't particularly matter that Asimov's premises on robotics or predictive sociohistory were wrong and naive, he still told some rocking good stories based on them. Both Robinson's teraforming and Brin's galactic civilization requires substantial handwavium in order to work.

I'm interpreting the word "rigorous" here as "works within the established parameters," meaning that the universe being created by the author does take some leaps of faith -- it is fiction, after all -- but doesn't introduce so many glaring scientific impossibilities and illogical twists that the entire thing becomes trite and unbelievable. If we are to take "rigorous" to mean, "only that which we currently know to be possible" then most scifi would be very boring.

Science fiction always requires a certain amount of suspension of disbelief. You're obviously aware of this from the rest of your comment.

Asimov's work was fun, but simplistic and predictable. Even in later life, his characters weren't terribly deep. In that, his novels resembled Michael Crichton's. Both did tell good stories. But personally I'd much rather sink my teeth into the characters and plots in Green Mars than The Robots of Dawn. The Mars' series Coyote was far more interesting and realistic a character to me than Elijah Bailey.
posted by zarq at 9:32 AM on May 13, 2010


But... but fans are slans! I've been assured of this by several fans!

Gleeks.
posted by zarq at 9:34 AM on May 13, 2010


zarq: Science fiction always requires a certain amount of suspension of disbelief.

Certainly, but having done so, you can't turn around and say, (as Brin does), that science fiction can predict the consequences of first-contact with alien life. As those predictions involve everything from total annihilation to romance, it's almost a certainty that at least one work will be hailed as visionary after the fact.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 9:44 AM on May 13, 2010


Aykroyd is awesome, and this is consistent with what I've read about him for years--conspiracy nut, loopy, and fun. I can't believe it was not he who mentioned the film Contact. Though the book is better.

I'm going to have to see this Hawking thing where he mentions sUFO claims to see and hear the context.
posted by artlung at 9:44 AM on May 13, 2010


I was always amused that in Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle's Footfall the US government sets up a brains-trust of top science fiction writers to quiz the alien they capture... yeah, I can see that happening.
posted by fearfulsymmetry at 9:53 AM on May 13, 2010


Stephen's argument made no sense because it assumed that a species with superluminal travel can't figure out how to extract minerals, water, and gasses from other interstellar bodies.

Yeah really. Perhaps Hawking was just having some fun at the expense of the media and the general public, because I can't think of any other explanation for this position. Considering all the far-out space things we like to imagine ourselves doing in science fiction, most of our public discussions about alien visitation seem to revolve around the idea that they either want to steal our stuff or mess with our private parts.

What I worry about is that we get visited by the alien equivalent of Werner Herzog and Klaus Kinski. They come to our planet to make a 4-d movie, fight some epic battles and trash a few of our most beautiful cities in the process, before making a few speeches about our beautiful simplicity and leaving again. After that, a few earth people are invited to intergalactic cultural events on a regular basis, but we're not allowed to play with any cool alien stuff because it would mess with our crumbling social structure, which the aliens agree ought to be preserved.

Nevertheless, after 50 years have gone by pretty much everyone on Earth wears cheap used exoskeletons donated by well-meaning beings from Orion who feel vaguely guilty about the fact that they've quietly siphoned off most of the Oort Cloud.
posted by anigbrowl at 10:38 AM on May 13, 2010 [6 favorites]


Stephen Hawking actually started a sentence with the phrase "To my mathematical brain..."! That's hilarious. Especially when he goes on to talk about aliens traveling the galaxy in big ships because they've exhausted their planetary resources---something that is in no way mathematical. I think I'll start prefacing my comments with that phrase too.

To my mathematical brain, I believe that I need another cup of coffee.
posted by painquale at 10:40 AM on May 13, 2010


I need to call attention to shakespeherian's mind blowing link. Dan Aykroyd is selling motherfucking diamond filtered vodka in a glass skull. ...
So, ah yeah. I think the crazy he's talking about here is real.


Oh he's absolutely batshit - the vodka itself is total garbage, too. Barely drinkable in the best of conditions. I'd recommend getting the bottle used off of ebay and pouring a better beverage in yourself.

no i didn't buy it myself it was a gift, seriously
posted by FatherDagon at 10:49 AM on May 13, 2010


I have an antique liquor bottle that I inherited from my grandmother for that purpose, FatherDagon.

She kept mouthwash in it.
posted by Pope Guilty at 10:57 AM on May 13, 2010




The Whelk: why so cagey?

I got almost all the way through that Aykroyd commercial before it got to be too much. For me, drinking out of a skull is just way to strong a symbol to ignore. You can't just smile and talk about filling the skull with "fun". In fact, I think the only stronger symbol would be fucking the eye sockets of a skull. Hey wait. I have an idea for a new business model. No, not that you sick fucks. You send in a picture of someone you hate, and they make a replica severed head for you to drink out of. eh? Whaduya think? The U.S. Presidents series would be HUGE.

Hawking was the real deal when he was younger, but I think he went a bit nuts awhile ago. Happens commonly to older physicists, even ones with less extreme life difficulties than him. Sometimes it annoys me, but then again, maybe he's earned it. And hey, it would be nice if more scientists got to spend their golden years being fawned over by the media.
posted by Humanzee at 11:03 AM on May 13, 2010




Dan Ackroyd isn't an alien. He's from France.
posted by Pope Guilty at 11:11 AM on May 13, 2010


i think the point is less that aliens would come to target us specifically for our resources than that they would be completely indifferent or oblivious to our existence as intelligent creatures. considering that we (and the organization of our intelligence) have formed over millions of years of evolution, with any number of points at which different paths might have won out, we are creatures very specific and unique to a set of given environmental circumstances. given the size of the universe, i think there is other intelligent existence, but i doubt that, from our limited perspective, we could conceptualize what forms it would take or how to interact with it. i wouldn't expect that we could communicate with it any more than we can communicate with bees or trees.
posted by fallacy of the beard at 11:46 AM on May 13, 2010


Steven Hawking: "[Aliens] are bound to have a mouth opening, because they will have to take in nutrition, and they will probably have legs, because they will need to move around, and they will need eyes."

Yeah, no failures of imagination on display here from one of our "top minds": and they will have marriage, because they will need to raise children; and they will probably have credit cards, because they will have to pay for food somehow, and they will need SUVs because many will be too embarrassed to drive around in little pussy cars.

Give me entertaining Aykroyd spazzing any day over this stunted, uninspired pseudo-insight.
posted by dgaicun at 1:29 PM on May 13, 2010 [3 favorites]


Yeah, it's a real stretch to assume that intelligent life will require sensory input, nutrition, and mobility.
posted by Pope Guilty at 1:40 PM on May 13, 2010


Yeah, it's a real stretch to assume that intelligent life will require sensory input, nutrition, and mobility.

That's not what Hawking said, though. He said "legs", "eyes" and a "mouth".

Those structures aren't essential to nutritional or sensory intake or mobility.
posted by zarq at 1:48 PM on May 13, 2010


Well, if we can assume that the aliens in question live on the surface of a planet with a transparent atmosphere that at least sometimes comes within rotational view of some illuminating body, then we can probably assume they've evolved eyes, because it's apparently pretty easy to do so, having done so independently anywhere from 50-100 different times on earth, and given the above assumptions, they're pretty useful. However, those are still some assumptions we're having to make.
posted by shakespeherian at 1:57 PM on May 13, 2010


A mouth and limbs of some sort are also evolutionary probabilities given the metabolic requirements of intelligence are fairly high, probably higher than can be accommodated by a sessile organism. So you'll almost certainly have specialized organs for moving to energy (often limbs), organs for manipulating and collecting energy (often limbs), and organs for storing raw energy and processing energy (a mouth and gut).

Which are also features that appear to have evolved independently in multiple lines.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 2:29 PM on May 13, 2010


I do think there are far too many assumptions leading to the necessity of eyes, though.
posted by shakespeherian at 2:36 PM on May 13, 2010


A mouth and limbs of some sort are also evolutionary probabilities given the metabolic requirements of intelligence are fairly high, probably higher than can be accommodated by a sessile organism. So you'll almost certainly have specialized organs for moving to energy (often limbs), organs for manipulating and collecting energy (often limbs), and organs for storing raw energy and processing energy (a mouth and gut)

I'm aware of this. He mentioned specific structures: an eye, a mouth and a leg or legs. All three of these do not have to be present in a single species for it to be intelligent or interact with its environment. Legs are not present in sea-based fish and mammals that are not also amphibious. By all accounts, whales and dolphins are reasonably intelligent.
posted by zarq at 2:39 PM on May 13, 2010


zarq: Um, dolphin and whale fins are modified legs. And I'm not certain where you actually disagree with Hawking given his statement was loaded with probabilistic hedges.

(Although there is a strong argument to be made that for things like building rocket ships, some form of leg is probable.)
posted by KirkJobSluder at 2:52 PM on May 13, 2010


Hawking is a theoretical physicist. Who cares what his thoughts on biology are, xeno or otherwise?

Well, Larry King presumably did, but that raises the question, who the heck cares what Larry King thinks?
posted by Sparx at 3:30 PM on May 13, 2010


zarq: Um, dolphin and whale fins are modified legs. And I'm not certain where you actually disagree with Hawking given his statement was loaded with probabilistic hedges.

Whale and dolphin flippers and fins are rudimentary (not "modified") limbs, not "legs." Here's the difference: A limb is any sort of appendage, usually jointed, which may have any of a variety of anatomical functions / purposes. A leg is a weight-bearing structure that is used for locomotion.
HAWKING: They are bound to have a mouth opening because they will have to take in nutrition. And they will probably have legs because they will need to move around. And they'll need eyes. But don't expect them to look like Marilyn Monroe.
I'd argue that Hawking is saying we should expect them to have all three structures.
posted by zarq at 3:42 PM on May 13, 2010


(Although there is a strong argument to be made that for things like building rocket ships, some form of leg is probable.)

Mobility is probably essential. But I don't think legs would strictly be necessary.
posted by zarq at 3:43 PM on May 13, 2010


Certainly, but having done so, you can't turn around and say, (as Brin does), that science fiction can predict the consequences of first-contact with alien life.

I interpret this as he's saying we shouldn't dismiss science fiction entirely, just because its speculative. But, I could be misreading his intent... I know he's written on the topic before and haven't really paid much attention to his position. Completely agree with you about authors not being experts, though. I wouldn't exactly put science fiction authors in charge of a First Contact committee. For one thing, Harlan Ellison would sue the aliens for plagiarism before they'd even landed. ;)

Paul Davies is an astrobiologist, theoretical physicist and cosmologist. He chairs SETI, and would most likely be the first person tapped for a First Contact team. He seems pretty well-qualified for the job.

As those predictions involve everything from total annihilation to romance, it's almost a certainty that at least one work will be hailed as visionary after the fact.

Let's hope it's not "To Serve Man." :)
posted by zarq at 3:55 PM on May 13, 2010


I’ve always thought that aliens – sort of like from the film Alien Nation or District 9 - were perhaps the worst possible enemies we could have.
In many cultures, your friend is the stranger from the other side of the world. Your enemy is the guy next door because he’s who you compete with for resources.

What if they show up and (in a twist) they need us? What if we can’t deal with that? In addition, what if we can’t deal with them existentially? What do we do to them, or ourselves?
Even if it’s just radio contact (Vinge’s work aside), what do we say to them? What’s our end of that conversation?
In predicting real events, science fiction may not be so useful. In exploring the varieties of human response, probably not so bad.

What’s scary is not what the aliens might be, but who we may become in response. Can we survive that – adapt in a positive way to a change of that magnitude - should be the first question. Seems to me Hawking is saying ‘probably not for a while.

Ackroyd seems to be the strongest support for that statement. Not so much his words as his subtextual hostility and willingness to subvert anything for entertainment’s sake. He pretty much says so. At best he’s a cynic. Fun, maybe, but helping, no.

I’ve always thought altruism was a good survival trait and a decent response for any biology to have to what is essentially a continually harsh environment (we have skin). I don’t see why any other successful species shouldn’t run along the same lines. So the ‘for your own good’ reasoning behind lack of alien contact works ok for me.

If only because we’d screw ourselves up competing to talk to them or insist on attention for our own corner of the world. What’s the line from MiB? A person is smart. People are dumb, panicky dangerous animals.
posted by Smedleyman at 4:15 PM on May 13, 2010


zarq: Pectoral fins are modified legs. They have all or most of the same bone structure as legs. And in relatively recent evolutionary time, they were load-bearing structures. It's a really ignorant argument to the contrary that doesn't support your point. (You really should have used cephalopods instead.)

Furthermore. Hawking quite clearly didn't say that legs would be strictly necessary. And given that you agree that all three structures are probable, I'm still not certain why you need a straw-Hawking here to argue against.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 4:16 PM on May 13, 2010


Hawking said "bound to have," not probable. I don't hold it against him; it's a tossed-off statement I'm sure he'd qualify, but still: the idea that a single mouth opening and eyes are probably going to be on any alien we encounter really *is* a pretty good example of a failure of imagination.
posted by mediareport at 4:27 PM on May 13, 2010


Here you've switched out rigorous for credible.

You know what they call a rigorous gedankenexperiment? An experiment.

Science fiction is fiction first and science second. I roll my eyes at Brin's self-inflated claims that his adventure stories of mankind finding a unique truth about sentient life in the galaxy make him an authority on human-alien contact.

That is because you are ignorant. He was trained as an astrophysicist and has been participating in SETI discussion for over two decades. Years ago he put forward the argument Hawkins is now making, but without the sensationalism and sci-fi absurdity.
posted by 0xdeadc0de at 5:54 PM on May 13, 2010


"And they will probably have legs because they will need to move around. "

And, he didn't say anything about the number of mouth openings.

I don't hold it against him; it's a tossed-off statement I'm sure he'd qualify, but still: the idea that a single mouth opening and eyes are probably going to be on any alien we encounter really *is* a pretty good example of a failure of imagination.

Why? Sure, it's nice to think about Horta and sentient gas clouds but that's pure fantasy. It's handwavium only one step removed from Hogwarts. The facts are that rudimentary intelligence independently evolved in at least four different clades across two sub-kingdoms. All of them have guts, eyes, and limbs. Eyes and limbs certainly evolved independently in mollusks and chordates, and it's likely that guts did as well.

It's not that we lack eyeless, limbless, or gutless organisms. But few of them appear to have very complex behavior, and those that do appear to have lost one or more features due to evolution (snakes and blind fish).

And the reason why makes perfect sense when you think of the evolutionary pressures that drive and limit complex nervous systems. Eyes set off a complex arms race around pattern recognition. Limbs set off an arms race for coordination and control. Guts are a metabolic prerequisite.

The wild cards in this are things like self-aware insect hives, and machine intelligence. But we don't have much evidence that any of the hundreds of social insects (or mole rats) have a collective emergent intelligence in spite of their massive parallel processing, and computer intelligence thus far seems perfectly happy with the constraints of grinding climate models for cycles.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 6:01 PM on May 13, 2010 [1 favorite]


You know what they call a rigorous gedankenexperiment? An experiment.

Well no. Einstein's flashlight on a train didn't depend on stating up-front that the evidence he was trying to understand was wrong. He assumed that Maxwell and Michelson-Morley were correct, and tried to figure out what the consequences would be under extreme conditions.

Pretty much all Science Fiction depends on saying at some point that the science is fundamentally wrong in defiance of overwhelming evidence. Almost always it's general relativity. There's nothing wrong with that, but having just jumped into the same boat as "creation scientists," you can't claim that your work has some sort of predictive rigor.

That is because you are ignorant. He was trained as an astrophysicist and has been participating in SETI discussion for over two decades. Years ago he put forward the argument Hawkins is now making, but without the sensationalism and sci-fi absurdity.

I'm not arguing with his claim that he has credibility on this issue because he's contributed to peer-reviewed research in the field. I'm disagreeing with his claim that science fiction is a uniquely qualified and considered field in this area. Most of the first-contact stuff involves fairly liberal and gratuitous violations of general relativity to set up its heroic human adventure tales, and even the ones that don't (I'll give credit here to Stross's idea that we're more likely to see alien software than alien wetware) are burdened with a literary bias that ties them to 21st century human concerns.

Hawking might be talking out of his ass on this for publicity. But science fiction invented and made a profession of it.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 6:46 PM on May 13, 2010


I am trying to get people to stop leaping to unjustified assumptions and conclusions and especially to stop proclaiming that things are so, just because you made a glib sounding assertion. (Isn’t that bad habit doing enough harm, in Culture War?)

Oh, would that it were possible. But good luck with that, David. I'd invite you to come to MetaFilter and pursue that laudable goal, but I'm afraid your head might asplode.

And then, apparently to provide an example of what Brin was talking about, we have this:

The sheer size of the universe, taken along with what we now know to be the relative commonality [sic] of planets (and what we can detect so far is likely a conservative estimate) makes it seem unlikely that something analogous to life on earth has not developed elsewhere.

Given that you have no idea whatsoever how life "developed" on Earth, how can you say anything about the probability of its having developed elsewhere?

Now, look. I read We Are Not Alone* when I was a kid (and swallowed it uncritically, as kids will), and, later, Sagan and Shklovskii's Intelligent Life in the Universe. I've loved science fiction for just about all my life. I think SETI is worth spending money on, even though it's produced nothing of any significance (except maybe the WOW! signal) so far. I think it would be super cool if we made contact with extraterrestrial life forms. (And, yes, frightening also. And awe-inspiring. And potentially destabilizing. Even so, come, ET.)

But there is a difference between science fiction and science, and there should be. And highly speculative, essentially unfounded notions based on one's philosophical biases about how one would like to believe life came about—are not science.
__________________
*By Walter Sullivan.
posted by Crabby Appleton at 7:13 PM on May 13, 2010


I don't think its fair to say that we have "no idea whatsoever" how life developed. Certainly there's a lot missing, and it would be difficult to calculate a probability. So you have a valid point. But we do know many of the chemicals that were likely involved (water, amino acids, etc) and they have been found to be fairly common (water is damn near everywhere, amino acids are in asteroids and comets. So one could argue that it's plausible that any warm wet world that occasionally gets hit by asteroids or comets will have a good chance of developing life. Intelligent life that develops high technology and is close enough to us and chooses to communicate with us in a way we recognize... that's a different matter. There I think we truly have no idea.

SF doesn't just dismiss general relativity, they always wave away special relativity. General is almost certainly a little wrong (at very small scales or very strong gravitational fields), special relativity is probably just plain correct. Nothing makes sense without it, not electricity and magnetism, not modern quantum mechanics, nothing. Plus we can observe its predictions directly in myriad ways. If I had to pick a scientific theory that I had to bet my life on, I would choose special relativity, and I wouldn't be worried.

The way I think about things, there's no fundamental distinction between SF and fantasy. People invent a world with completely different rules than our own. Sometimes it has space ships, sometimes it has magic. On rare occasions, both. With good SF or fantasy, it doesn't matter, because even though the world is a little strange, they have good characters and stories, and their interaction with their environment gives it verisimilitude.
posted by Humanzee at 7:48 PM on May 13, 2010 [1 favorite]


Yes, consequences that are testable and verifiable by real experiments. But that doesn't matter, because you don't get to tighten the definition of gedankenexperiment when you've already used it to invoke Slaughterhouse Five. You know damn good and well what Brin means by the term. A subject area that exists as pure speculation does not require rigor, only plausibility informed by a strong knowledge of modern science. As you said, the point isn't to predict, but to provoke thought. There will be plenty use for rigor when and if this shit becomes real.

Pretty much all Science Fiction depends on saying at some point that the science is fundamentally wrong in defiance of overwhelming evidence.

Pretty much everything you have said on this topic is fundamentally wrong in defiance of overwhelming evidence, but it's not like I'm going to change your mind, what, when you've already made yourself out to be a caricature of the attitude Brin calls out. Though I guarantee you, writers such as Brin, Gregory Benford, Greg Egan, and Stephen Baxter (who is on Paul Davies' SETI post-detection taskgroup) are vastly more knowledgeable of physics than you are. And those like Charles Stross, Vernor Vinge, Peter Watts, and Alistair Reynolds are certainly capable of engaging in the SETI debate on equal terms with the experts.
posted by 0xdeadc0de at 7:57 PM on May 13, 2010


There will be plenty use for rigor when and if this shit becomes real.

It might be a little late for it then. (Or do you mean as in mortis?)
posted by Crabby Appleton at 8:10 PM on May 13, 2010


I don't think its fair to say that we have "no idea whatsoever" how life developed.

Maybe "no idea whatsoever" is a little strong. But the fact is, we don't know how life actually developed the only time it has ever developed (as far as we know). My sense is that in the existing hypotheses, too many steps are missing. If we had even one other example, it would make the argument more plausible (because the development of life becomes a non-unique event). I just don't think we're in a position to make any credible pronouncements about it.
posted by Crabby Appleton at 8:21 PM on May 13, 2010


Crabby: The trouble is, the speculation, however wild, are required to even begin thinking about the issue of alien contact. If the scientists are too busy wringing their hands over impossibilities, they'll never get to the issue of the aliens. You have to start somewhere.

And what is the big deal about suspending some science, in order to make a story work? So relativity is violated. It's a plot device to get from point A to point B. That's not the important part. The important part is they are here, or we are there, and what happens as a result.

Adding speculation about the likelihood of intelligent life developing elsewhere is not very applicable to the discussion of what they might be like. I find no fault with Hawking's speculation of any importance, as regards the whole legs/mouth/eyes thing. Yea, maybe they slither instead of walk, the real essence is that they aren't planted in the ground like trees, or stuck to rocks like lichens. A mouth is just a place to insert nutrition. Eyes are just organs to detect light to some degree of detail. Maybe, given enough time and stability, intelligence could develop in an environment absent of light, but that intelligence would then develop instrumentation to do the same thing as eyes.

Far more valid are the speculations about what they might want. Eat us? Maybe, but it seems more likely, at this point, we'd be far too full of toxins to be worth the trouble, due to our own technology. Seems more likely they'd value our creative output, particularly music. To get that, they needn't bother with direct contact, they can just suck up the radio waves, or wangle an internet connection, and use bittorrent :-)

Perhaps they'd not be completely bad guys, and would value our garbage. w00t! Radioactive "waste"? Sure! They'll be happy to take it off our hands! Laughing all the way to whatever they use for banks. In return, maybe a handful of magic beans. Careful now, those beans might be far more useful than first meets the eye-stalks. With care and the proper fertilizer, they grow Galactic Libraries.
posted by Goofyy at 10:49 PM on May 13, 2010


0xdeadc0de: A subject area that exists as pure speculation does not require rigor, only plausibility informed by a strong knowledge of modern science.

Yes, and alien-contact scenarios involving supeluminal or relativistic travel are highly implausible according to modern science. There's no easy way to get around that other than to give them a magic box that allows them to do so. But once you've done so, your gedankenexperiment becomes, like Slaughterhouse Five, more philosophical and literary than predictive.

And there's nothing wrong with philosophical or literary thought experiments. It's why I read science fiction. But you can't turn around and say that your entire series of novels that are physically impossible (according to modern physics) make you uniquely qualified to talk about real SETI science.

Goofyy: The trouble is, the speculation, however wild, are required to even begin thinking about the issue of alien contact. If the scientists are too busy wringing their hands over impossibilities, they'll never get to the issue of the aliens. You have to start somewhere.SETI science is doing a great job of focusing on areas that are much more likely to yield fruit. Push our extra-solar research program so we can start identifying potentially life-supporting worlds and do spectrographic analysis. Look at the EM frequencies to find possible broadcast signals. Figure out better ways to analyze mass volumes of radio data.

Goofyy: And what is the big deal about suspending some science, in order to make a story work?

Absolutely nothing. But then, you can't turn around and say that your impossible stories make you particularly qualified in the field as well. (And writing mysteries doesn't make you a detective, and writing urban fantasy/horror doesn't make you a vampire hunter.)
posted by KirkJobSluder at 11:56 PM on May 13, 2010


Imaginary FTL travel in no way invalidates the mountains of thought that have gone into scenarios involving alien intelligence. To suggest it does is, at best, intellectual snobbery.

The detection of alien life remotely is fascinating science. It has nothing directly to do with possible interactions with aliens when we might meet them. Speculation is the only means of considering what that event might be like, and the science-fiction people have been doing that for decades.
posted by Goofyy at 1:54 AM on May 14, 2010


Goofy: Where do you draw the line at reasonable and plausible speculation? What separates alien encounter scenarios based on FTL travel from alien encounter scenarios where they fly to Earth on broomsticks or appear in the center of fairy rings? Now that I think about it, that's not that far fetched. Looking at alien encounters as a form of folklore easily explains why we have few reports of European abductions by Greys before Whitley Streiber became an international best-seller. However, I don't think that either Whitley Streiber or aliens-as-fairies (David Bowie and Klaus Nomi aside) tell us much about the kind of alien civilizations we're likely to encounter.

We can speculate, but not all speculative hypotheses are equally plausible. Chemistry suggests that other life is probably carbon-based (carbon has the right energy and quantum shells to build complex molecules) and physics suggests that FTL is impossible and relativistic travel is extremely expensive with reasonably large masses. Invading hordes of Horta appear to be about as plausible as a zombie holocaust. And I think that if you say, "physics be damned, aliens might be able to invade the solar system" you can't blithely dismiss the claims of Akroyd, Streiber, and Icke that they already are.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 4:17 AM on May 14, 2010


Yes, and alien-contact scenarios involving supeluminal or relativistic travel are highly implausible according to modern science.

What the fuck are you gibbering about? It's like you think they think FTL is real. People with real credentials, some with fucking PhD's in astrophysics, and you're tut-tut'ing them as if one flight of fancy invalidates any and all speculation on the nature and existence of extraterrestrial life and intelligence.

But you can't turn around and say that your entire series of novels that are physically impossible (according to modern physics) make you uniquely qualified to talk about real SETI science.
But then, you can't turn around and say that your impossible stories make you particularly qualified in the field as well.

Turn around. (Every now and then I get a little bit tired of listening to the same trollish refrain.)
Turn around. (Every now and then I get a little bit angry that you're inserting "uniquely" to mischaracterize Brin's statement.)
Turn around. (Every now and then I get a little bit hopeless that I've only been wasting my breath.)

Do you know what qualifies someone to comment on contact scenarios? Actually thinking about contact scenarios. Hardly anyone has done that, and no one has done that as long and hard as science fiction authors. Without them, the "state of the art" in that regard would be the reefer Carl Sagan was smoking, optimistic woo that assumes the "Encyclopedia Galactica" will answer all our questions and bring the golden age of peace and long life. Forget the Singularity, this was the first nerd rapture. (And you know how he popularized that idea? With science fiction.)

People who do science and nothing but science don't develop the imagination. They either refuse to speculate, like a good cautious empiricist, or they assume the most beneficial consequence, because you don't keep grant funding warning about the kind of thing senators imagine as B-movie schlock.

Even now, the actual scientists advocating what Brin (and Hawkins) are warning against are holding SETI's credibility hostage with talk about "Darth Vader", oblivious to the fact that they are assuming the existence of Yoda.
posted by 0xdeadc0de at 5:23 AM on May 14, 2010


And the reason why makes perfect sense when you think of the evolutionary pressures that drive and limit complex nervous systems. Eyes set off a complex arms race around pattern recognition. Limbs set off an arms race for coordination and control. Guts are a metabolic prerequisite.

Right, but complexly intelligent organisms on earth share some environmental similarities that apply common evolutionary pressures. We can't assume that every planet capable of supporting life will feature these same environmental pressures.
posted by shakespeherian at 6:36 AM on May 14, 2010


Although there is a strong argument to be made that for things like building rocket ships, some form of leg is probable.

but what if the life form is the rocket ship? personally, i'm hoping for something piss-pants shocking, like jupiter all of a sudden breaking orbit and heading our way to say hello and give us a hug, only to completely annihilate us in the process. if we're all going to die anyway, can't it be this awesome?
posted by fallacy of the beard at 6:43 AM on May 14, 2010 [1 favorite]


but what if the life form is the rocket ship? personally, i'm hoping for something piss-pants shocking, like jupiter all of a sudden breaking orbit and heading our way to say hello and give us a hug, only to completely annihilate us in the process. if we're all going to die anyway, can't it be this awesome?

That must be some definition of "awesome" I haven't yet encountered.
posted by zarq at 6:48 AM on May 14, 2010


Do you know what qualifies someone to comment on contact scenarios? Actually thinking about contact scenarios. Hardly anyone has done that, and no one has done that as long and hard as science fiction authors. Without them, the "state of the art" in that regard would be the reefer Carl Sagan was smoking, optimistic woo that assumes the "Encyclopedia Galactica" will answer all our questions and bring the golden age of peace and long life. Forget the Singularity, this was the first nerd rapture. (And you know how he popularized that idea? With science fiction.)

People who do science and nothing but science don't develop the imagination. They either refuse to speculate, like a good cautious empiricist, or they assume the most beneficial consequence, because you don't keep grant funding warning about the kind of thing senators imagine as B-movie schlock.


This is an excellent point. Well worth repeating.
posted by zarq at 7:03 AM on May 14, 2010


I think that the lack of rapid travel really does matter for interspecies relations. Consider instances in Earth's past when different cultures meet for the first time. Oftentimes its friendly at first, but turns hostile quickly when one group realizes they can come by and take the other group's stuff. Sometimes it stays friendly, and they just trade goods. There are settlers, intermarriages, etc. None of that would be possible in a universe where travel is impractical. If no one can make a round trip, then trade is impossible, and conquest is pointless. It doesn't mean that no one could possibly brainstorm what would happen, but the vast majority of science fiction writers aren't doing that (at least not in their published works) because it doesn't make a very compelling story synopsis.

When I hear writers talking about the craft of writing, most will quite readily admit that when realism gets in the way of telling a good story, realism goes out the window. And I suspect that most writers value truth of character-character interactions much more than society-society interactions, since in fiction, the latter is primarily a backdrop for the former.

Anyway, given how terrible we are at understanding and interacting with fellow humans of a different culture, I think it's a given that we will spectacularly fuck up with dealing with aliens. Fortunately, I think it's highly unlikely we'll ever have to.
posted by Humanzee at 7:13 AM on May 14, 2010


like jupiter all of a sudden breaking orbit and heading our way to say hello and give us a hug

PBF115 + PBF041.

if we're all going to die anyway, can't it be this awesome?

There is the remote yet entirely plausible and in no way contradicting known science possibility that our first contact with life elsewhere will be massive iron missiles moving at a significant fraction of the speed of light, which sterilize the planet by cracking open it's crust and blowing off much of the atmosphere. Of course, we'll be incinerated by the heat of the impacts before we know what is going on, much less where they came from, but I still find the possibility exciting.
posted by 0xdeadc0de at 7:27 AM on May 14, 2010


That must be some definition of "awesome" I haven't yet encountered.

the most awesome part, i think, would be the messages jupiter would send us along the way:

"...i've been monitoring your transmissions and have finally learned how to communicate with you...would like to pay a visit...how about 2017 at 3:00 p.m.?...;-)..."

"...LOL Io...right in the red spot..."

"...asteroid belt was a blast, but what i've lost in gas i've more than gained back...FML!..."

"...i can see you...can you see me?..."

"...i agree that the seventh lady gaga album is her best yet...who knew you could bring banjo to the dance floor?..."

"...you sound worried...really, this is going to be fun!..."

"...almost there...why have i not heard from you in a while?..."
posted by fallacy of the beard at 7:39 AM on May 14, 2010


I suppose that's better than "IM IN UR ORBIT DISRUPTIN' UR SATELLITES" :D
posted by zarq at 8:13 AM on May 14, 2010


Of course, we'll be incinerated by the heat of the impacts before we know what is going on, much less where they came from, but I still find the possibility exciting.

Cheery thought. A tiny singularity dropped into the earth's core would be so much more sporting, though. Plus it could conceivably provide ample entertainment for any observing alien entities.

"Next time, on Wild Universe: We've doomed another planet! But can their most intelligent species survive before their home is destroyed? Tune in next time to see how if "dolphins" have what it takes, in a Wild Universe! ;)

Also see Brin's Earth and Simmons' Hyperion.
posted by zarq at 8:21 AM on May 14, 2010


0xdeadc0de: Well gee, there's a ton of misunderstanding most of it probably intentional.

I'm pointing out that implausible claims are not scientific hypotheses. Claims that METI poses a risk of alien invasion depend on showing that an alien invasion is theoretically plausible. Hawking admits this up front and I don't think Hawking really fears an alien invasion because he knows that it would mean his life's work is badly wrong.

And as I've said multiple times, there is nothing wrong with speculating about the implausible. Kafka's Metamorphosis, Lee's Spiderman, and Romero's Night of the Living Dead are all works with something to say about human nature. But there's very little effort being spent to justify transformation into a bug/vermin, superheroes, and the zombie apocalypse as scientifically relevant.

Science fiction writers should be writing about galactic civilizations and city-sized flying saucers appearing over our heads. They shouldn't pretend those plot devices are realistic.

0xdeadc0de: Do you know what qualifies someone to comment on contact scenarios? Actually thinking about contact scenarios. Hardly anyone has done that, and no one has done that as long and hard as science fiction authors.

Actually, contact scenarios are ubiquitous in science fiction. The problem is that if you open the door to science fiction without setting some standards on scientific plausibility, you get cat women, ethical strawmen, BEMs, gods and prophets, fuckable women in rainbow colors, buggering greys, coded race villains, alien space bats, and smeerps as well. You can't wiggle your fingers and say "science fiction, but not Spock, Ming the Merciless, and Cylons."

0xdeadc0de: Even now, the actual scientists advocating what Brin (and Hawkins) are warning against are holding SETI's credibility hostage with talk about "Darth Vader", oblivious to the fact that they are assuming the existence of Yoda.

He's not assuming the existence of Yoda. He's pointing out that you can't entertain the idea a hostile invasion force without entertaining the idea of potential allies. Both of course, require that we set aside the very real problem of how would either physically travel to our solar system. Something that's stated up front.

0xdeadc0de: People who do science and nothing but science don't develop the imagination.

My what a stupid statement. First, it's a strawman. Of course, scientists should be writing fiction, composing symphonies, and making visual art. However Herschel's symphonies don't become more sciencey because he also became England's leading professional astronomer.

And second, it's categorically wrong because science as a practice demands a great deal of imagination and creativity. Kepler's ellipses and Einstein's miracle year papers are incredible triumphs of the imagination and creative insight.

Third, it's just a reiteration of the old and tired argument that form and structure stifle creativity. Basho created brilliant haiku, Shakespeare brilliant sonnets, and Mozart brilliant minuets.

shakespherian: Right, but complexly intelligent organisms on earth share some environmental similarities that apply common evolutionary pressures. We can't assume that every planet capable of supporting life will feature these same environmental pressures.

Certainly, we can't assume that every planet capable of supporting life will feature these same environmental pressures. But it's a reasonable hypothesis given what we know about organic chemistry and energy.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 8:52 AM on May 14, 2010 [2 favorites]


There is the remote yet entirely plausible and in no way contradicting known science possibility that our first contact with life elsewhere will be massive iron missiles moving at a significant fraction of the speed of light, which sterilize the planet by cracking open it's crust and blowing off much of the atmosphere. Of course, we'll be incinerated by the heat of the impacts before we know what is going on, much less where they came from, but I still find the possibility exciting.

It's a crying shame Freddy Mercury is dead, and can't record the soundtrack for this.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 8:53 AM on May 14, 2010


Science fiction writers should be writing about galactic civilizations and city-sized flying saucers appearing over our heads. They shouldn't pretend those plot devices are realistic.

Why not? Many honest-to-goodness inventions were only made real after someone speculated about them in science fiction: Space travel. Cell phones. Robots. EBook readers, handheld PDA's and laptop computers. Submarines. Satellites. The internet.

It works in the opposite direction, too. See: "frankenstein complex."

Advances in technology have clearly allowed us to grasp that which we previously believed to be unrealistic. I see no reason why we should restrict ourselves out of a lack of imagination.
posted by zarq at 9:21 AM on May 14, 2010


you have to consider that for every science fiction writer we have who illustrates a friendly handshake at first contact, there could be science fiction writers on the alien side who illustrate the customary greeting of a benign vomiting of acid upon our heads. i hope it is at least televised, though.
posted by fallacy of the beard at 9:41 AM on May 14, 2010


zarq: This is an excellent point. Well worth repeating.

While I love reading hard science fiction, I really hate the high level of self-aggrandizing shit flung by hard science fiction advocacy. Science and scientists suffer from a lack of creativity. Really? DaVinci absolutely had no creativity? Darwin, the guy who did a research project where he bet tough guys in bars that he could make them sneeze, had no creativity? Herschel suffered from a lack of creativity? Really? Do you really think that Dewey, James, Skinner, Einstein, and Dawkins needed hard science fiction to prompt exploration of philosophy? My goodness, it's as if hard science fiction advocates believe their worst literary cliches about both the people and the process.

Scientists had no problems with creativity a long time before the hard sci-fi advocates started making a pretense of rigor. Meanwhile more inspiration has come from the blatant pulp of Star Trek, a series that had Scotty banging on pipes labeled "Goes Nowhere, Does Nothing" to fix an impossible warp drive fueled by crystals of handwavium than the collective gedankenexperiments of the relatively young hard science fiction movement.

Why not? (In regards to the realism of giant flying saucers.)

Well, why not call Metamorphosis, Spiderman, and Night of the Living Dead realistic as well? If you're going to disregard basic physics, why not disregard basic biology?

Most science fiction writers/creators/producers worth buying will openly admit that flying saucers are an unrealistic literary plot device for setting up the conflict. Roddenbery admitted that the Enterprise was just a plot device to get characters into a different conflict every week. When you treat them as a prediction about future technology rather than a plot device, you risk missing the point.

Many honest-to-goodness inventions were only made real after someone speculated about them in science fiction: Space travel. Cell phones. Robots. EBook readers, handheld PDA's and laptop computers. Submarines. Satellites. The internet.

Invention isn't necessarily science either. But this generally comes from the fact that with hundreds and thousands of stories produced every year over a century, you'll eventually have some good hits. And even so, we don't use either de Bergerac's or Verne's ideas about space travel. Cell phones come via a process of iterative innovation military radios->Star Trek->Motorola. Personal computing looks very little like Vanevar Bush's analog system. Modern robots bear only a superficial resemblance to early science fiction about robots, and the early science fiction about robots as predictive of robotic technology rather than wrestling with issues of morality, ethics, and cognition is missing the point in a big way. The internet also was a process of iterative development over a century, with telegraph, automated telegraph, radiotelegraph, and RTTY as critical precursors.

Bush was engaging in deliberate fortune-telling, but Roddenberry though needed convenient plot devices to let Kirk communicate with the Enterprise and McCoy deliver exposition.

There's a lot of science fiction gizmos we're unlikely to see in reality (personal flight belts and full-meal nutrition pills come to mind). There are also collections of weird and wacky patents that we've not seen in science fiction. The centrifugal birthing machine hasn't become a sci-fi idiom yet, and I hope it never does. It's simply not the case that inventors are lost and directionless without science fiction, or that science fiction writers are creating their gizmos in a technological vacuum.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 10:36 AM on May 14, 2010 [1 favorite]


You can't wiggle your fingers and say "science fiction, but not Spock, Ming the Merciless, and Cylons."

Of course you can. Only a moron would assume otherwise. In fact, not only can one distinguish between fantasy and conjecture, even in the same story, there are those who actually believed in (and were motivated by) fantasies who nonetheless produced meaningful contributions to science and natural philosophy. Consider Newton's alchemy, Kepler's numerology, and Herschel's belief that all the planets were inhabited.

Sagan may be right about the beneficent aliens, or he maybe horribly, terrifyingly, apocalyptically wrong. Or they may only exist in science fiction.
posted by 0xdeadc0de at 10:59 AM on May 14, 2010


Science and scientists suffer from a lack of creativity.

In the realm of SETI, yes indeed. Stick to the context, troll. I've already mentioned the reasons for that reluctance to publicly speculate, but there is also a physics / engineering parochialism informing their knowledge of biology. SETI researchers as a rule are no more credible at theorizing about the nature of alien life as science fiction authors, since they generally have the same background.
posted by 0xdeadc0de at 11:11 AM on May 14, 2010


0xdeadc0de: Of course you can. Only a moron would assume otherwise. In fact, not only can one distinguish between fantasy and conjecture, even in the same story, there are those who actually believed in (and were motivated by) fantasies who nonetheless produced meaningful contributions to science and natural philosophy. Consider Newton's alchemy, Kepler's numerology, and Herschel's belief that all the planets were inhabited.

Well, let's set aside for a moment the problem that Netwon's and Herschel's beliefs were reasonable conjectures given the lack of a good theoretical framework for chemistry and data about other planets.

My objection here is that from 35 years of reading science fiction, fantasy is ubiquitous in regards to this topic. What usually happens is one or more of the following:

1: It fails to address the physical constraints limiting interstellar travel.
2: It addresses them with magical devices. Call it an Infinite Improbability Drive because that's one nice bit of satire that Adams got bang on. When hard science fiction writers explain their magic boxes, it always sounds like an IID.
3: The aliens are stand-ins for some sort of human political or moral problem.
4: The aliens are humans with a different skin tone, ears, and philosophy (Spock).
5: The aliens are elves/orcs/goblins (First Encounters of the Third Kind).

I don't mind as a reader as long as the author delivers good fiction. And in fact, I think the sub-genre of space fiction pretty much demands that the author play fast and loose with the science to make the fiction work. I just can't accept Brin's plea that we consider a literary genre where straw-aliens and IIDs are endemic to be an authority on these issues. Specific works by specific authors might qualify (although I can't name any without saying, "look at this and ignore that".) But as a general statement, no.

I can't take threats of alien invasion seriously without a credible and plausible mechanism for getting them into our solar system. As a result, I don't think their psychology or disposition towards us matters that much except for determining the probability of a message back.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 2:59 PM on May 14, 2010


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