Strange Æons in Æstivation
October 3, 2017 10:02 PM   Subscribe

"That is not dead which can eternal lie: the aestivation hypothesis for resolving Fermi's paradox", by Anders Sandberg, Stuart Armstrong, and Milan Ćirković, is a cosmic horror journal article hypothesizing that the Old Ones are sleeping until the stars come right and the universe is cooler - "this occurs at time t = H ln(T0/TdS), in about 1.4·1012 years." Outline and FAQ.
posted by save alive nothing that breatheth (35 comments total) 29 users marked this as a favorite
 
Eponysterical?
posted by Mister Moofoo at 10:15 PM on October 3 [3 favorites]


Keywords: Fermi paradox, information physics, physical eschatology, extraterrestrial intelligence

Sold.
posted by cosmologinaut at 10:29 PM on October 3 [3 favorites]


The Lovecraft quote about Old Ones really sets the tone.
posted by Mister Moofoo at 10:51 PM on October 3


My personal favourite hypothesis about our failure to find traces of extraterrestrial civilizations is that the first desire of any truly advanced civilization would have to be almost anything other than massive colonial expansion.
posted by flabdablet at 11:12 PM on October 3 [2 favorites]


Interesting article. I like the part about how aestivating civilisations will need to put in place mechanisms, servitors, to awaken them when the stars are right. These mechanisms will be low complexity, resilient and widespread.

Much like living organisms...
posted by fallingbadgers at 11:18 PM on October 3 [2 favorites]


It's not a perfect fit but this is rather reminiscent of Vernor Vinge's Zones of Thought universe, where different regions of the galaxy have different fundamental laws that affect how advanced civilizations can become. And then some archaeologists open a data vault & unleash something like a demon imprisoned within it & in the process of fighting it the boundaries of the Zones shift. What happens when all the AI & FTL drives stop working?
posted by scalefree at 11:22 PM on October 3 [1 favorite]


the first desire of any truly advanced civilization would have to be almost anything other than massive colonial expansion.

The difficulty of the Fermi paradox is that you can't resolve it with mere tendencies. Might advanced civilizations tend to give up colonialism? Sure, why not. But the sheer scale of the universe means that this tendency would have to be so strong as to approach natural law-- if even some tiny fraction of civilizations were expansionist, we would expect to see some.
posted by Pyry at 11:23 PM on October 3 [11 favorites]


In short, information processing is something we instrumentally need for the mental or practical activities that truly matter.

these sorts of hypotheses are fun, but more like philosophical thought experiments than remotely plausible guesses at how living beings would actually behave, at least based on what we know of life. they always assume a perfectly emotionless, single-minded entity that decides that all its minions have goal X and is willing to devote all the resources of the species to that end. this is fundamentally the conceit behind so many sci fi dreams from this one to roko's basilisk to dyson spheres. i dunno, look around. do any living beings behave that way? everything seems insanely chaotic and divergent. we share 99% of our dna, give or take, with our fellow earth dwellers and are pretty fixated on murdering or eating each other, as have the other species on earth for the last billion or so years. which means if there were aliens abundant, we should expect to see all manner of structures and old wrecks and ruins. but we don't.

so, it seems to me, the simplest and most logical explanation isn't that there is some elaborate reason why we can't see them. it's that the speed of light is a hard barrier and our cluster of galaxies is enormous and they are many thousands of light years away.

however... once our space telescopes improve, i wouldnt be surprised if around 2100 we detect signs alien life farther away (and longer ago) than we could ever reasonably communicate with. which would be neat.
posted by wibari at 12:24 AM on October 4 [4 favorites]


they always assume a perfectly emotionless, single-minded entity that decides that all its minions have goal X and is willing to devote all the resources of the species to that end.

From the Outline and FAQ link:
Information is “a difference that makes a difference”: information processing is just going from one distinguishable state to another in a meaningful way. This covers not just computing with numbers and text, but having one brain state follow another, doing economic transactions, and creating art. Falling in love means that a mind goes from one state to another in a very complex way. Maybe the important subjective aspect is something very different from states of brain, but unless you think that it is possible to fall in love without having the brain change state there will be an information processing element to it.
posted by XMLicious at 12:40 AM on October 4 [2 favorites]


if even some tiny fraction of civilizations were expansionist, we would expect to see some

Why would we reasonably expect anything different from the end result of every expansionist regime that's ever existed on Earth, i.e. overreach followed by collapse?

Any regime that seeks to expand its way out of the shit it needs to deal with at home is a regime that is simply failing to deal effectively with its own shit; and if it fails at that, there's no good reason to expect it to succeed at the vastly more complicated enterprise of preventing an expanded version of itself from failing likewise.
posted by flabdablet at 1:59 AM on October 4 [3 favorites]


if even some tiny fraction of civilizations were expansionist, we would expect to see some

If even one civilization decided not to let any other spacefaring civilizations into our neighborhood, we'd expect them to succeed. In fact, if alien civilizations have been around for any length of time, I'd expect them to have carved out boundaries of some kind. Anyone capable of flying between the stars probably has also put at least as much effort into watching other folks doing the same. Light-years of travel time makes you a very, very good target for someone with, say, a directed energy weapon hooked up to their star. The reason we haven't had any visitors might be because we're living several light years on this side of the big flashing sign that says "trespassers will be melted on sight".

It's always struck me as weird that people expect aliens to be so very human in some ways ("of course they're colonists!") but not in others ("of course everyone would just wander around freely!").
posted by AdamCSnider at 2:16 AM on October 4 [1 favorite]


I mean, OK, but the bastards could have left a beacon of some kind guiding us to the technology needed so we could aestivate too. Just going off like that isn't very neighbourly.
posted by Segundus at 3:25 AM on October 4 [4 favorites]


There are some very compelling technical reasons why it's much, much easier to fling a machine than a bag of sentient seawater across vast distances.

It's also quite possible that in an advanced civilization the machines usually overthrow their sentient seawater overlords.

Therefore, our first physical extraterrestrial contact will probably be with machines.
posted by ZenMasterThis at 3:38 AM on October 4 [2 favorites]


The difficulty of the Fermi paradox is that you can't resolve it with mere tendencies.

There's so many assumptions and so much hand-waving involved in it that calling it a "paradox", as if it's an ironclad logical dilemma, is kind of laughable.
posted by thelonius at 3:42 AM on October 4 [3 favorites]


Therefore, our first physical extraterrestrial contact will probably be with machines.

"They're made out of meat."

posted by Halloween Jack at 4:45 AM on October 4 [7 favorites]


"They're made out of meat."

Dangit, Halloween Jack, you beat me to it....
posted by Paladin1138 at 6:11 AM on October 4 [1 favorite]


unless you think that it is possible to fall in love without having the brain change state there will be an information processing element to it.

Why would I think that the only way for the brain to change state is for information processing to occur?
posted by kenko at 6:58 AM on October 4


So basically, humans are the Leroy Jenkins of the cosmos?

Another reason for them to avoid us. It's not that we're bad people as such, but we're kind of annoying and things tend to go to shit when we're around.
posted by Naberius at 6:58 AM on October 4


The time would be easy to know, for then mankind would have become as the Great Old Ones; free and wild and beyond good and evil, with laws and morals thrown aside and all men shouting and killing and revelling in joy. Then the liberated Old Ones would teach them new ways to shout and kill and revel and enjoy themselves, and all the earth would flame with a holocaust of ecstasy and freedom.

-HPL, "The Call of Cthulhu"
One of the core ideas of the old Delta Green setting for the Call of Cthulhu RPG was basically pointing at that quote and going "Have you fucking looked at the world lately?"
posted by Pope Guilty at 6:59 AM on October 4 [3 favorites]


Æstivation also works for lower level civilizations looking to make for a more productive universe in the face of the hard wall of light speed travel.

I can't recall the specific book, but basically if everyone synchronizes their clocks and hibernates for 11/12 months out of the year, you've effectively dramatically increased the range at which you can travel, because you've effectively slowed time.

It also allows you to make what would be marginal planets, moons, and stars productive members of society, because they only need to produce 1/12 of the resources to sustain a population.
posted by leotrotsky at 8:40 AM on October 4


Why would we reasonably expect anything different from the end result of every expansionist regime that's ever existed on Earth, i.e. overreach followed by collapse?

Any regime that seeks to expand its way out of the shit it needs to deal with at home is a regime that is simply failing to deal effectively with its own shit; and if it fails at that, there's no good reason to expect it to succeed at the vastly more complicated enterprise of preventing an expanded version of itself from failing likewise.


If only there were some sort of Foundation to preserve the knowledge of that civilization and shorten the dark ages between collapses. Might make a good book.
posted by leotrotsky at 8:43 AM on October 4 [5 favorites]


I go with the boring theory that life capable of expanding into space is much harder than it sounds.

Life may be fairly easy. It started early on Earth, and we're found out that planets are common.

However, the combination of good hands and good brains took a while to happen. Who knows, kickstarting a technological civilization might take coal and iron ore near each other, and we don't know whether that's common.

A serious probe/von Neumann expansionist project would be hard, slow, and expensive. Maybe it's *very* unlikely.

Anyway, I'm betting that the answer to the Fermi paradox is that we're the first possibly space-capable species in our light cone.

The idea that aliens are avoiding us because we're so yucky doesn't make sense. Do we avoid studying ants because we're revolted by their wars?
posted by Nancy Lebovitz at 8:47 AM on October 4 [2 favorites]


Why would I think that the only way for the brain to change state is for information processing to occur?

I think you might be misunderstanding that section. It's not saying that changes in a brain's state are the same as the the kind of information processing that a computer does. It's saying that by definition, "information" to a physicist is an extremely general thing that covers almost any kind of change of state in any physical system, including brains. And that general definition of information is the one that's linked to the fundamental limits of thermodynamics.
posted by teraflop at 9:35 AM on October 4 [5 favorites]


Frankly, I suspect our first extraterrestrial contact would be between a Nicoll-Dyson beam and our entire biosphere. (That crackling sound you hear is your eyeballs boiling as the entire sky suddenly lights up like the hypocenter of a nuclear explosion.)

Planets don't dodge, and if you can build a Dyson sphere then by definition you can built an N-D weapon and a phased array optical telescope with a light gathering surface on the order of 1AU in diameter. Able to image cities on planets thousand of light years away — and fry them. N-D beams dump a directed energy flux similar to a close-range supernova into whatever they're aimed at.

It doesn't take many superorganisms capable of buiding Matrioshka brains deciding that visitors are a nuisance to sweep a galaxy clean of rival civilizations before they get to the spunking Von Neumann machines at the cosmos stage.

(More likely there's something pathologically weird and wrong with our entire model of how complex superorganisms form and develop and we're an unstable anomaly, i.e. you can be long-term stable or you can be expansionist, but not both.)
posted by cstross at 9:41 AM on October 4 [8 favorites]


XMLicious, yeah... maybe i'm being obtuse, but how do you get from point A (information is defined broadly as all possible mindstates) to B (somehow this society has collectively chosen from among all possible mindstates that the best thing for everyone is to hibernate until information processing abilities improve, and enforces that decision perfectly)?

i'm not trying to pick on this theory; this kinda thing is common in sci fi.
posted by wibari at 9:57 AM on October 4


Leotrotsky -- that book was Lockstep, published a few years back by Karl Schroeder, a high-concept Canadian SF writer. For some reason, he or his publishers chose to publish it as a YA title, but it's not very YA. And IIRC the interval wasn't one month out of 12 but one month out of 360, i.e., 30 years.
posted by MattD at 11:27 AM on October 4 [1 favorite]


overreach followed by collapse?
From a historical perspective, "overreach followed by collapse" tended to mean "try to lord it over another vigorous regime, fail, and wait for the blowback". This is a tragedy for the failed expansionists' grandkids, but it doesn't exactly leave a depopulated moonscape in the end, just a different population.

But everywhere we look we see depopulated moonscapes (and more to the point, stellar spectra), with no sign that they ever were populated to begin with. We don't see different populations. Or remnants of different populations. Or really anything standing in between "stars full of thermodynamic free energy" and "cubic light-years of space where that energy is being wasted". So why exactly aren't our hypothetical aestivating civilizations doing anything about that?

The FAQ suggests either
"advanced civilizations aestivate but do so with only modest hoards of resources rather than entire superclusters,"
but this is both a waste (they wanted 10^30 more information processing capability but they'll turn up their noses at 10^31?) and an existential risk (if someone else gets that supercluster first, they might want your modest hoard next, in which case your plans will be ended long before a few trillion years have elapsed...)

or
"they are mostly interested in spreading far and wide since this gives a lot of stuff with a much smaller effort than retaining it."
But this doesn't work on a trillion-year timescale. Even if sending a colony to the next star is initially more efficient than developing your own star, eventually your "frontier" is going to be thousands of light-years away, at which point your Nth generation colonies are the most efficient way to settle the N+Mth generation, and your older colonies have nothing to do but develop their own stars or waste them.
Anyway, I'm betting that the answer to the Fermi paradox is that we're the first possibly space-capable species in our light cone.
That's my hope.

I'd feel more confident if I knew why we weren't beaten to the punch at any time in the last ten billion years by any one of hundreds of billions of stars, though. There's got to be some nearly-universal filter, and I see no obvious candidate in our past, but "civilization-destroying weapons aren't as hard as interstellar travel" is a frighteningly good candidate in our future. Arms control already feels intractable, and our best weapons aren't even microscopic or self-replicating yet...
posted by roystgnr at 11:48 AM on October 4


The difficulty of the Fermi paradox is that you can't resolve it with mere tendencies. Might advanced civilizations tend to give up colonialism? Sure, why not. But the sheer scale of the universe means that this tendency would have to be so strong as to approach natural law-- if even some tiny fraction of civilizations were expansionist, we would expect to see some.

This is nub of the problem -- anything that relies on every civilization making the same decision, and every member of every civilization making the same decision, is vanishing unlikely to be the correct explanation. The most acute version is von Neumann machines: unless you posit the guaranteed annihilation of every intelligent species shortly after where we are now and/or a completely unified decision by every member of every civilization not to launch von Neumann machines, it looks like in a century or two such a machine might be cheap enough that almost any individual human of means could launch one, presenting billions of opportunities just from our civilization alone to fill up the entire galaxy with self-replicating machines in just a few tens of millions of years. Sure, we can quibble with the numbers -- how long it will take before such things become feasible and cheap, etc -- but the central issue, that any moderately advanced civilization can fill the galaxy with von Neumann machines as soon as they're cheap enough unless we posit perfect self-control and/or perfect self-destruction, is hard to get around.

That's why I too favor the idea that we're more or less the first in our galaxy, for whatever reason. Maybe there's also a statistical propensity for self-destruction and/or incentives that reduce the probability of spreading self-replicators, so maybe there have been a bunch of civilizations in the galaxy, but not a lot. Why that's the case is the harder question. Life got started almost instantly on earth, so it's not the start that's the issue, but it's really hard to believe that earth is the only goldilocks planet in the entire galaxy, even if you assume our path to intelligence is the only physically feasible one. My private hypothesis is panspermia + the anthropic principal, that it actually takes ~10 billion years for complex life to evolve, and thus it's not that surprising that the first would be happening around now, and the reason it's us in particular is that if wasn't, we wouldn't be around to be asking.
posted by chortly at 12:26 PM on October 4 [1 favorite]


Plain English. So easy to read.
posted by obiwanwasabi at 9:41 PM on October 4


Why would we reasonably expect anything different from the end result of every expansionist regime that's ever existed on Earth, i.e. overreach followed by collapse?

This is rather tautological, right? No civilization around today, expansionist or not, has collapsed. So you have to except those from the rule. That leaves only vanished civilizations, all of which collapsed, whether they were expansionist or not.

More likely there's something pathologically weird and wrong with our entire model of how complex superorganisms form and develop

I'd just say there's not even really a model. There's a bit of a natural history, but nothing that would let us calculate probabilities or anything of it happening again. We can't even estimate or give ranges.

Pretty much every argument in favor of complex life being out there boils down to ignoring that fact and saying it shouldn't matter what the probability is because there are so very many stars. Of course it does matter, if the probably turns out to be low enough.
posted by mark k at 10:02 PM on October 4


I've always thought that the problem is that we aren't advanced enough. We think that the ultimate communications method involves electromagnetic waves. What if there's a much more efficient and effective method of communicating that we haven't discovered yet? More advanced societies discover this, then find near infinite civilizations communicating throughout the universe. Chances are they are going to stop using electromagnetic waves at that point.

So what we are looking for is a planet that is right at our level of development and no further, and are happening to be pointing their soon-to-be-outdated radio telescopes directly at us at exactly the relatively brief moment in time that we are listening.

In this situation it seems highly unlikely we'd ever notice anything even in a universe filled with advanced civilizations communicating with each other.
posted by eye of newt at 8:13 PM on October 5 [1 favorite]


spreading self-replicators

In my neck of the woods, we call those "stars".
posted by flabdablet at 9:32 PM on October 5


Religion. True, scientifically-verifiable religion with revelations that are as universally true as the periodic table. Every civilisation discovers the One True Faith and consequently stops expanding.

The great secret may be something technical like "you are living in a simulation and literally cannot expand" or it may be that Cthulhu will eat every single member of any race that leaves its solar system, but whatever it is, it's a necessary truth and deciding to ignore it would be like deciding to ignore the speed of light.
posted by Joe in Australia at 3:55 PM on October 7 [1 favorite]


1. Outside of a star's protection the density of cosmic radiation is such that any shield which would be effective is prohibitively expensive in terms of mass or energy or both. Even von Neumann machines are fried by fluxes of cosmic wind the likes of which we have a hard time imagining.

2. No one gets past the, 'Just smart enough,' phase. Just smart enough to make nukes, not smart enough to refrain from making or using them. Just smart enough to start an Industrial Revolution, not smart enough to avoid poisoning the environment. Just smart enough to do some real damage.

3. No one who gets past the, 'Just smart enough,' stage has sufficient resources to do anything really noticeable.

4. The cost of popping your entire species into a parallel/alternate/pocket/we-have-no-clue-but-OMG-it-is-awesome universe is several fold less than colonizing other planets through c-space or sleeping your way to really cheap processing time.

5. Whoever programmed this simulation is a bastard and wants to see what happens we a sentient species is completely alone in a universe.

6. Everyone reaches the point where they can instantiate an Artificial Consciousness. It wipes everyone out to stop them from wasting its resources and goes into a sleep mode waiting for the Age of Cheap Processor Time.

7. We lack the intellect to see the really cool shit the Advanced Civ's are actually doing. We keep looking for Dyson Spheres and such, meanwhile they are cruising through the Time Vortex and moving planets with AC's to better neighborhoods far away from Demon Species that engage in wars against their own kind at levels which tax planetary resources and even when not at war kill large swaths of their own species for ideological reasons. I mean if you think about what humans do to each other, what would we do to another intelligent species. We are monsters and no one wants to get near us. In fact the help everyone else get away.

8. We are the only smart mammals. Every other society is a collective mentality that could no more send off a colony ship then we could cut off a healthy limb.

9. We missed the last party and we are to early for the next one.

10. Unfashionable end of the Western Spiral Arm. No species who is anyone would be caught dead out here.

11. The Death Ships are already on the way. Bright side; Trump won't matter for much longer.

12. We need to take the right drugs. Machine Elves are real and the only way we can contact intelligent life. Down side; Terrence McKenna was partly right and that grinds my gears.
posted by Ignorantsavage at 10:39 PM on October 7 [2 favorites]


I came across an interesting Wikipedia article: superhabitable planet, a theoretical type of exoplanet which would be more suitable for the development of life than the Earth is.
posted by XMLicious at 6:24 AM on October 8 [1 favorite]


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