Our galaxy has about three hundred billion stars, and Earth today has about seven billion people. Assuming only half as many useable planets as stars, we could combine these two numbers into an initial crude guess for the size of a galactic civilization, and define a “galaxy of people” to be a thousand billion billion (or 1021) people. Now consider some famous galactic civilizations in science fiction.
One of the most popular science fiction stories ever was Issac Azimov’s Foundation series. It tells of the fall and rise of a galaxy-wide civilization, whose capital, Trantor, was a planet-wide city a kilometer deep into the ground. Trantor’s population was said to be forty billion, in a galaxy with millions of populated planets and a total population of a million billion (or one millionth of a “galaxy” as defined above).
Star War‘s Coruscant is also a planet-wide city and capital of a galaxy wide civilization, with planetary population of a thousand billion, in a galaxy also of millions of planets and a total population of a million billion. Some say Coruscant’s buildings averaged two kilometers tall. In Star Trek‘s Federation of 150 planets a few centuries hence, which controlled a few percent of the galaxy, each planet had no more than about our Earth’s seven billion, though some say the Federation held ten thousand billion people.
These all seem like dramatic underestimates to me. If Earth were paved over with a city the density of Manhattan today (1.6 million in 59 square kilometers), Earth would have a population of 14 thousand billion. Since Manhattan now has an average building height of 25 meters, a two kilometer deep version could hold a million billion people, and a two thousand kilometer deep version (Earth’s radius is 6400km) could hold a billion billion people.
There is roughly another thousand times as much useable material nearby, in other planets, comets, and the sun itself, allowing a solar-system population perhaps a thousand times larger. This brings us to a thousand billion billion, or a “galaxy” of people, the same as my initial crude population estimate for an entire galaxy above, and vastly larger than most science fiction galaxy estimates.
Furthermore, android ems (whole brain emulations in simulated bodies) could take up a lot less space than humans. I once somewhat conservatively estimated that an em might stand at 1% of human height (and run one hundred times faster). Since such an em would take up only one millionth of a human’s volume, a two kilometer deep Earth city could hold a “galaxy” (or thousand billion billion) of ems. And a solar system civilization might fit a billion billion billion ems, or a million “galaxies.”
Of course we have a long long way to go, not only to generate such huge populations, but also to develop the energy, manufacturing, heat-dumping, etc techs to allow us to support them. And yes, eventually we would run out of energy and material near our Sun, and need to go elsewhere to grow.
But we have strong economic reasons to stay close to one another as long as there is enough energy and material nearby, and especially as long as we continue to innovate. So most of our descendants’ economy should stay close to our sun until congestion here gets severe. We may well have a solar system population of a billion billion billion before the time comes when most of our descendants are closer to other stars.
Most science fiction seems to vastly underestimate the population that a single planet or star can hold, and the strength of the economic pressures to keep an economy close together, rather than spread across vast distances. Someday we will learn to tell stories that treat planets and stars as the vast spaces of possibilities that they really are.
Added 11a: Even an unmodified sun radiates enough energy to cover the calorie consumption of over a hundred “galaxies” of humans, and far more ems.
The timescale to grow from today’s population to a “galaxy” of descendants would be 600 years at an industry-style 15 year doubling time, 40 millennia at a farming-style thousand year doubling time, and four years at at next-singularity-style monthly doubling time.