Tag Archives: Space

Is Time Us, Space Them?

(This post co-authored by Robin Hanson and Katja Grace.)

In the Battlestar Galactica TV series, religious rituals often repeated the phrase, “All this has happened before, and all this will happen again.” It was apparently comforting to imagine being part of a grand cycle of time. It seems less comforting to say “Similar conflicts happen out there now in distant galaxies.” Why?

Consider two possible civilizations, stretched either across time or space:

  • Time: A mere hundred thousand people live sustainably for a billion generations before finally going extinct.
  • Space: A trillion people spread across a thousand planets live for only a hundred generations, then go extinct.

Even though both civilizations support the same total number of lives, most observers probably find the time-stretched civilization more admirable and morally worthy. It is “sustainable,” and in “harmony” with its environment. The space-stretched civilization, in contrast, seems “aggressively” expanding and risks being an obese “repugnant conclusion” scenario. Why?

Finally, consider that people who think they are smart are often jealous to hear a contemporary described as “very smart,” but are much happier to praise the genius of a Newton, Einstein, etc. We are far less jealous of richer descendants than of richer contemporaries. And there is far more sibling rivalry than rivalry with grandparents or grandkids. Why?

There seems an obvious evolutionary reason – sibling rivalry makes a lot more evolutionary sense. We compete genetically with siblings and contemporaries far more than with grandparents or grandkids. It seems that humans naturally evolved to see their distant descendants and ancestors as allies, while seeing their contemporaries more as competitors. So a time-stretched world seems choc-full of allies, while a space-stretched one seems instead full of potential rivals, making the first world seem far more comforting.

Having identified a common human instinct about what to admire, and a plausible evolutionary origin for it, we now face the hard question: do we embrace this instinct as revealing a deep moral truth, or do we reject it as a morally irrelevant accident of our origins? The two of us (Robin and Katja) are inclined more to reject it, but your mileage may vary.

(This is cross-posted at Meteuphoric.)

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The Mysterious Desert

How bright is our future? That depends greatly on how feasible is interstellar travel. And we don’t really know that, because we are still pretty ignorant about what lies between the stars. Oh it all looks pretty empty, but looks could be deceiving. If you look at a logarithmic map of the universe, the scales on which we seem the most ignorant (below 10Bly) are the three orders of magnitude between the furthest planets and the nearest stars. Now we see clues that unexpected and powerful things happen there:

Between May 2009 and May 2010, IceCube detected 32 billion cosmic-ray muons, with a median energy of about 20 TeV. These muons revealed, with extremely high statistical significance, a southern sky with some regions of excess cosmic rays (“hotspots”) and others with a deficit of cosmic rays (“cold” spots).

Over the past two years, a similar pattern has been seen over the northern skies by the Milagro observatory in Los Alamos, New Mexico, and the Tibet Air Shower array in Yangbajain. … It’s a mystery because the hotspots must be produced within about 0.03 light years of Earth. Further out, galactic magnetic fields should deflect the particles so much that the hotspots would be smeared out across the sky. But no such sources are known to exist.

One of the hotspots seen by IceCube points in the direction of the Vela supernova remnant … almost 1000 light years away. Cosmic rays coming from such large distances should be constantly buffeted and deflected by galactic magnetic fields on route, and should thus have lost all directionality by the time they reach Earth. …

There could be a “tube” of magnetic field lines extending between the source and our solar system, funnelling the cosmic rays towards us. … [This] theory is highly speculative. … Others have proposed that … solar magnetic field lines cross and rearrange, converting magnetic energy to kinetic energy – could be accelerating local cosmic rays … creating the observed hotspots. … “That’s also crazy, but it is at least less crazy than other explanations.” (more)

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The SETI Game

When listening for signals from aliens, it isn’t enough to just point an antenna at the sky. One must also choose details like directions, angles, frequencies, bandwidths, pulse widths, and pulse intervals. Apparently most SETI searches assume that for a given signal power density, aliens would pick details to make it as easy as possible for us to detect their signals. So standard SETI searches are optimized for such easily-seen signals. Two excellent papers, published back in July, instead consider what sort of signals would be sent by “beacon” building aliens, who seek to create the maximum possible power density at any given distance away from them.  (One of the authors is SF author Greg Benford.) Such signals are quite different, and most of today’s SETI searches are not very good at seeing them:

Minimizing the cost of producing a desired power density at long range … determines the maximum range of detectability of a transmitted signal. We derive general relations for cost-optimal aperture and power. … Galactic-scale beacons can be built for a few billion dollars with our present technology. Such beacons have narrow “searchlight” beams and short “dwell times” when the beacon would be seen by an alien observer in their sky. … Cost scales only linearly with range R, not as R2. … They will likely transmit at higher microwave frequencies, 10 GHz. The natural corridor to broadcast is along the galactic radius or along the local spiral galactic arm we are in. …

Cost, spectral lines near 1 GHz, and interstellar scintillation favor radiating frequencies substantially above the classic “water hole.” Therefore, the transmission strategy for a distant, cost-conscious beacon would be a rapid scan of the galactic plane with the intent to cover the angular space. Such pulses would be infrequent events for the receiver. Such beacons built by distant, advanced, wealthy societies would have very different characteristics from what SETI researchers seek. … We will need to wait for recurring events that may arrive in intermittent bursts. …

A concept of frugality, economy. … directly contradicts the Altruistic Alien Argument that the beacon builders will be vastly wealthy and make everything easy for us. An omnidirectional beacon, radiating at the entire galactic plane, for example, would have to be enormously powerful and expensive, and so not be parsimonious. … For transmitting time t, receiver detectability scales as t1/2. But at constant power, transmitter cost increases as t, so short pulses are economically smart (cheaper) for the transmitting society. A 1-second pulse sent every 10 minutes to 600 targets would be 1/600 as expensive per target, yet only *1/25 times harder to detect. Interstellar scintillation limits the pulse time to >10-6 s, which is within the range of all existing high-power microwave devices. Such pings would have small information content, which would attract attention to weaker, high-content messages. …

Cost-optimized beacons … can be found by steady searches that watch the galactic plane for times on the scale of years. Of course, SETI literature abounds with consideration of the trade-offs of search strategy (range vs. EIRP vs. pulse vs. continuous (continuous wave, CW) vs. polarization vs. frequency vs. beamwidth vs. integration time vs. modulation types vs. targeted vs. all-sky vs. Milky Way). But, in practice, search dwell times are a few seconds in surveys and 100–200 seconds for targeted searches. Optical searches usually run to minutes. And integration times are long, of order 100 s, so short pulses will be integrated out. …

Behind conventional SETI methods lies the assumption that altruistic beaming societies will send persistent signals. In searches to date, confirmation attempts, when the observer looks back at a target, in practice usually occur days later. Such surveys have little chance of seeing cost-optimized beacons. … Distant, cost-optimized beacons will appear for much less time than as assumed in conventional SETI. Earlier searches have seen pulsed intermittent signals resembling what we (in this paper) think beacons may be like, and may provide useful clues. We should observe the spots in the sky seen in previous work for hints of such activity but over year-long periods. (more)

Of course both the usual assumption that aliens will pay any cost to make a given power density signal easy for us to see, and the new assumption that aliens ignore our costs and merely seek to maximize power density, are both somewhat unsatisfactory. It would be better to model this interaction as a game, where each side has a limited budget and seeks to maximize the probability of at least one successful communication, holding constant the behavior it expects from the other side. Each side would of course also have to integrate over possible locations and budgets for the other side.

I’m very interested in working with (sim, math, or physics) competent folks to more formally model this SETI communication game.

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On Berserkers

Adrian Kent is getting a little publicity for posting his ’05 paper on the berserker hypothesis, “that evolution has very significantly suppressed cosmic conspicuity”, i.e., that many aliens are out there, but hiding from each other. He advocates taking the hypothesis seriously, but doesn’t actually argue for the coherence of any particular imagined scenario. Kent’s excuse:

It would be very difficult to produce a model that convincingly predicts the likelihoods and spatial distributions of the various strategies, since the answer surely depends on many unknowns.

He instead just claims:

The hypothesis is certainly not logically inconsistent and it seems to me not entirely implausible.

So what then is Kent’s contribution? Apparently it is a bunch of strategy fragments, i.e., strategy issues that aliens might consider in various related situations. It is not clear that these are much of a contribution, at least relative to the many contained in related science fiction novels. But, well, here they are: Continue reading "On Berserkers" »

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Earth Is Not Random

The great filter is whatever obstacles stand in the way of simple dead matter eventually giving rise to a visibly expanding interstellar civilization. It is now confirmed that a non-trivial chuck of that filter is in planets having special orbits that let climates be stable over time:

Planetary anthropic selection, the idea that Earth has unusual properties since, otherwise, we would not be here to observe it, is a controversial idea. This paper … [compares] Earth to synthetic populations of Earth-like planets … [for] high (or low) rates of Milankovitch-driven climate change. Three separate tests are investigated: (1) Earth-Moon properties and their effect on obliquity; (2) Individual planet locations and their effect on eccentricity variation; (3) The overall structure of the Solar System and its effect on eccentricity variation. In all three cases, the actual Earth/Solar System has unusually low Milankovitch frequencies compared to similar alternative systems. All three results are statistically significant at the 5% or better level, and the probability of all three occurring by chance is less than 10^-5. It therefore appears that there has been anthropic selection for slow Milankovitch cycles. This implies possible selection for a stable climate, which, if true, undermines the Gaia hypothesis and also suggests that planets with Earth-like levels of biodiversity are likely to be very rare. Continue reading "Earth Is Not Random" »

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Are Gardens Fertile?

Cosmologists tend to think that the physics we see around us is not universal. There is instead a vast “landscape” of possible ways a local physics could be, and different (large far away) places in the universe embody or express these different physics.

When adjacent space-time places have different local physics, there must be a common “meta” physics that describes their border. This meta-physics will say how often places of one type lead to places of other types nearby, including “ends” where nothing is nearby.

Let us distinguish two special kinds of places:

  • Gardens support life and possibly civilization.
  • Fertile places tend to lead to more fertile places nearby.

The existence of any fertile place implies an expected infinity of connected fertile places. Thus when meta-physics maintains a one-to-one state map across a time dimension, there should be no finite upper bound to the entropy of a fertile place. Thus the entropy at a fertile place is always vastly lower than is possible, and entropy would increase in some local time direction. Since this low entropy should infect adjacent places, non-fertile places “close enough” to fertile ones should also have entropy increasing away from the fertile side. Thus we can explain our local “arrow of time” by assuming that our place is connected to a fertile place in our distant past.

Is our garden fertile? If both gardens and fertile places are rare, and these properties are not very correlated, then fertile gardens would be especially rare – it would be quite unlikely that our garden is fertile. In this case, while our universe is infinite, our future is finite, and will see and influence only a finite amount before our space and entropy run out.

Cosmologists today, however, tend to think that fertile places are not very rare. They expect places with a “positive vacuum energy” and a “low vacuum decay rate” to generate many “baby universes”, and that many of these baby universes also satisfy this description. In fact, they guess that our place here satisfies this description, and so is fertile. (This is, basically, Sean Carroll’s account of our arrow of time.)

But a whole lot of guess work goes into all this. For example, it could be that vacuum decay rates are much higher, and that baby-universe-generating rates are much lower, than they’ve guessed. My guess is that this property of being fertile is rarer than cosmologists now guess, which lowers the chance of our garden being fertile.

A correlation between being a garden and being fertile might result if civilizations tended to work to increase the rate at which their places lead to more places nearby. But it might be that for most gardens there isn’s much civilizations can do.  In which case if fertile places are rare, then most gardens are not fertile, our future is finite.

Finally, even if our place is fertile, it might be that the border between our place and other different places has no “hair” letting us send specific influences from here to there. In this case, our future influence would still be finite.

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Aliens Not So Strange

If the Martian life form transpires to be eerily similar, this might only show that Life … in reality has very few options. … No sentient forms weaving their existence in vast interstellar dust clouds, farewell to bizarre filamentous species greedily soaking up the intense magnetic fields of a crushingly oppressive neutron star and on even Earth-like planets no forms that we might as well call conceptualized pancakes. … Contrary to received neo-Darwinian wisdom, life on Earth at any level of organization—from molecular to societal— will provide a remarkably good guide as to what ought to be ‘out there’.

So argues Simon Conway Morris, from inside view considerations. I think he’s mostly right, but based on an outside view.

Here it is: when relevant parameters can vary by large magnitudes, the most common type of thing is often overwhemingly more common. For example, processes that create and transmute elements vary greatly in their rates. So even though there are over a hundred elements in the periodic table, over 90% of all atoms are hydrogen, so the odds that two randomly selected atoms are the same element is >80%.

Similarly, since the influences on how many eyes a human has vary greatly across eye numbers, most humans have the same number of eyes: two. Most humans do not have the same last name, however, since rates of gaining or changing names do not vary by huge factors.

The same principle applies to life. Life might have evolved in a great many kinds of environments, based on a great many sorts of elements, and using many types of organization. To the extent that some environments are far more common, or are far more supportive of high rates of biological activity, most biological activity in the universe should occur in the few most common and supportive environments. Similarly if some elements or organizations are far more supportive of biological activity and innovation, most life should use those elements and organization.

I expect cosmic environments to vary enormously in both volume and in support for biological activity. I also expect some types of elements and organizations to be far more supportive of biological activity and innovation. I thus expect most life to be based on similar elements and organizations, to originate and be active and innovative in places similar to where our life orginated and is most active and innovative.

This view is supported by the fact that the assumption that life originates via the entropy of sunlight hitting “dust” predicts many cosmological parameters. In ’08 I reported:

This causal entropic principle so far successfully predicts dark energy strength, matter fluctuation ratio, baryonic to dark matter ratio, and baryonic to photon matter ratio! … A simple reading of the principle is that since observers need entropy gains to function physically, we can estimate the probability that any small spacetime volume contains an observer to be proportional to the entropy gain in that volume. … Exclud[ing] entropy of cosmic and black holes horizons, … ignor[ing] future observers getting far more efficient and aggressive in using entropy, … they estimate that, aside from decaying dark matter, near us most entropy is made by starlight hitting dust, and most of that is in the past.

Our life probably started from sunlight hitting “dust” (including planets). More quotes from Simon Conway Morris: Continue reading "Aliens Not So Strange" »

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Cosmic Coordination

The universe looks dead. If it is actually teeming with ancient advanced life, why don’t any of them use all those resources we see? Yes, there might be other even more attractive resources we don’t see, but it still seems odd none specialize in using what we do see. Yes everything might be under the control of a unified collective, who agree on a preference to keep the universe looking dead. But pretty much any observation could be explained as due to a vast unified ancient power with an arbitrary preference to make the universe appear a certain way. (more)

I’ve posted before that coordination is harder than most folks realize. Today I’d like to emphasize that coordination on the largest scales of space and time, across the entire visible universe, should be the very hardest. Our far minds tend to assume that stuff at this furthest scale is the simplest, with the fewest relevant details, suggesting easy coordination. After all, if there’s just a few kinds of creatures, each with a few kinds of preferences and ways to act, then a simple mechanism might well be up to the task of coordinating them. But in fact creatures the size of stars or galaxies could have vast complex detail, diverging immensely across the universe, and changing greatly over billions of years. Their ability to monitor each other and enforce any agreements must surely be challenged by the vast distances and times involved. And for agreements to not use ample resources, there would remain great temptations to use such resources secretly, perhaps to support a breakout from the coordination regime.

Yes, billions of years also offer a long time to find and implement the best possible coordination mechanisms. But if those mechanisms must be in place before substantial expansion begins from some central origin, that seems to require maximal development of coordination technology at a cosmically very early development stage. If coordination is hard, that seems an extremely high hurdle.

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Berserker Breakout

The universe looks dead. If it is actually teeming with ancient advanced life, why don’t any of them use all those resources we see? Yes, there might be other even more attractive resources we don’t see, but it still seems odd none specialize in using what we do see. Yes everything might be under the control of a unified collective, who agree on a preference to keep the universe looking dead. But pretty much any observation could be explained as due to a vast unified ancient power with an arbitrary preference to make the universe appear a certain way.

Moving to scenarios where many powers compete, one proposed explanation is that we are in a berserker equilibrium, where everyone hides for fear of being destroyed by others in hiding. For example:

The Inhibitors from Alastair Reynolds’ Revelation Space series are self-replicating machines … dormant for extreme periods of time until they detect the presence of a space-faring culture and proceed to exterminate it even to the point of sterilizing entire planets.

Or consider the zoo of competing self-replicators from David Brin’s story Lungfish:

The Anti-Maker … does not waste its time destroying biospheres, or eating up solar systems in spasms of self-replication. It wants only to seek out technological civilizations and ruin them. … Berserkers, … wreckers of worlds, were rare. … And there were what appeared to be Policeman probes, as well, who hunted the berserkers down wherever they could be found. … Harm … did not seek out life-bearing worlds in order to destroy them. Rather it spread innumerable copies of itself and looked for other types of probes to kill. Anything intelligent. Whenever it detected modulated radio waves, it would hunt down the source and destroy it.

I have an open enough mind here that I think Earth should keep quiet until we’ve studied this issue more. But I really have trouble seeing how this could be a stable equilibrium for a billion years among competing space species.

First, when something becomes visible, your killing it would seem a “public good” act which benefits all species, but mainly costs yours. Your killing action takes up your resources, and risks making you visible to be destroyed by others. Unless you think this new visible thing is especially likely to compete with your siblings, relative to other competitors, you’d rather wait and let something else destroy it.

Second, it must be possible to reproduce in order to compensate for wear and tear. After all, if the mere act of reproducing yourself made you so visible that you’d probably be destroyed, on average population sizes would fall to extinction. But if reproducing to compensate for decay works on average, why not reproduce more to grow in number? If observers can’t tell the purpose of a reproduction, then only density dependent death could keep populations in check. The ability to find and kill others without getting killed yourself in the process would somehow have to rise naturally with the density of creatures.

Once the local density of creatures had risen to some local limit, the most common species there could consider attempting a “breakout,” via a burst of rapid aggressive reproduction to overwhelm the ability of other species to contain it. Once enough copies were created in a large enough volume, the low density of other nearby species might be insufficient to stop the breakout species from expanding indefinitely.

There are many more complex strategies that seem attractive, compared to a simple direct breakout.  For example, fake breakout attempts could be created to induce retaliation by other species, depleting their resources and revealing their locations. One might then target them for attack before making one’s main breakout attempt in the now weakened region.

I’m not saying it is obvious that a long term berserker equilibrium is impossible, but I do have great doubts. And I’d love to see (and even help with) attempts to find stable equilibria within computer simulations of such scenarios.

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At Least Two Filters

Where lies the great filter, i.e., the obstacles that make it extremely unlikely that any one chunk of pre-organic matter originates a visibly expanding interstellar civilization? While it seems unlikely our ancestors passed through much of a filter in the last half billion years, our descendants may face a big filter in the next few thousand years, and there may have been big filters associated with the origin of life, the spread of life, the invention of complex cells, sexual reproduction, or multicellular life.

In many folks eyes, an elegantly simple resolution, which is likely because of its simplicity, is to assume there is just one huge filter: the origin of life. Assuming that first step is enormously hard allows one to think all the other steps are pretty easy. They wouldn’t be sure things of course, but conditional on a big enough origin-of-life filter, one wouldn’t have a strong reason to fear that common analyses underestimate future filters.

Unfortunately, the elegantly simple hypothesis that the great filter is mainly a big origin-of-life filter seems at odds with our best evidence. Why? Because if the spread-of-life step had the weakest possible associated filter, then life spreading must be easy. Over billions of years life could have spread to many star systems from its place of origin:

Life could spread across a galaxy via giant molecular clouds reliably collecting life from the stars they drift near, and then passing that life on to a few of the thousands of new stars they create.

If over billions of years life spread to many hundreds, or even billions, of star systems, and no substantial filters stood between arrival of life near a star, and its eventual development of advanced technical civilizations like ours, then why would we now see no any evidence of other civilizations? Yes it is possible that we are the very first, but that hypothesis is of course unlikely by default.

It seems to me that if the great filter is to consist of just one big step, the only plausible possibility is the development of multi-cellular life. All the steps before that one seem able to spread to other star systems via single-celled life hidden in dust, and it seems we haven’t had a big filter step since the multi-cellular innovation.

So if the idea of just one big filter appeals to your sense of elegance, you’ll have to presume that life, including complex life with sexual reproduction etc., is very common in our vast universe, but that Earth is one of the handful of places in all that vastness with multi-cellular life.

If you don’t find that plausible, well then you’ll have to grant there are at least two filters. And if two, why not three? So you must find the possibility of a third filter in our future plausible; beware future filters.

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