Do Cosmic Rays Accelerate Growth of Life? New Discovery Says "Yes"
The Daily Flash -Eco, Space, Tech (11/30)

The Billion-Year Technology Gap: Could One Exist? (The Weekend Feature)

Minims-vatican-observatory (1)Are we the lone sentient life in the universe? So far, we have no evidence to the contrary, and yet the odds that not one single other planet has evolved intelligent life would appear, from a statistical standpoint, to be quite small. There are an estimated 250 billion (2.5 x 10¹¹ ) stars in the Milky Way alone, and over 70 sextillion (7 x 10²² ) in the visible universe, and many of them are surrounded by multiple planets. 

Meanwhile, our 4.5 billion-year old Solar System exits in a universe that is estimated to be between 13.5 and 14 billion years old. Experts believe that there could be advanced civilizations out there that have existed for 1.8 gigayears (one gigayear = one billion years). 

The odds of there being only one single planet that evolved life among all that unfathomable vastness seems so incredible that it is all but completely irrational to believe. But then "where are they?" asked physicist Enrico Fermi while having lunch with his colleagues in 1950.

Fermi reasoned, if there are other advanced extraterrestrial civilizations, then why is there no evidence of such, like spacecraft or probes floating around the Milky Way. His question became famously known as the Fermi Paradox. The paradox is the contradiction between the high estimates of the probability of the existence of extraterrestrial civilizations and yet the lack of evidence for, or contact with, any such civilizations.

Given the extreme age of the universe, and its vast number of stars, if planets like Earth are at all typical, then there should be many advanced extraterrestrial civilizations out there, and at least a few in our own Milky Way. Another closely related question is the Great Silence, which poses the question: Even if space travel is too difficult, if life is out there, why don't we at least detect some sign of civilization like radio transmissions?

Milan Cirkovic of the Astronomical Observatory in Belgrade, points out that the median age of terrestrial planets in the Milky Way is about 1.8 gigayears greater than the age of the Earth and the Solar System, which means that the median age of technological civilizations should be greater than the age of human civilization by the same amount. The vastness of this interval indicates that one or more processes must suppress observability of extraterrestrial communities.

Mike Treder of the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies suggests that since there is, at this point, no direct and/or widely apparent evidence that extraterrestrial life exists, it likely means one of the following:

We are (A) the first intelligent beings ever to become capable of making our presence known, and leaving our planet. At this point, there are no other life forms out there as advanced as us. Or perhaps extraterrestrial life does exists, but for some reason extraterrestrial life is so very rare and so very far away we’ll never make contact anyway—making extraterrestrial life nonexistent in a practical sense at least.

Or is it (B) that many advanced civilizations have existed before us, but without exception, they have for some unknown reason, existed and/or expanded in such a way that they are completely undetectable by our instruments.

Or is it (C) There have been others, but they have all run into some sort of “cosmic roadblock” that eventually destroys them, or at least prevents their expansion beyond a small area.

Then ancients once believed that Earth was the center of the universe. We now know that Earth isn’t even at the center of the Solar System. The Solar System is not at the center of our galaxy, and our galaxy is not in any special position in contrast to the rest of the known universe. From a scientific viewpoint, there is no apparent reason to believe that Earth enjoys some privileged status.

Since Earth’s placement in space and time appears to be unremarkably random, proposition “A” seems fairly unlikely. Assuming humans evolved like other forms of life into our present state due to natural selection, then there's really nothing all that mystical, special or remarkable about our development as a species either. Due to the shear numbers, there are almost certainly other planets capable of supporting at least some form of life. If that is so, then for Earthlings to be the very first species ever to make a noticeable mark on the universe, from a statistical perspective, is incredibly unlikely.

For proposition “B” to be correct would defy all logic. If potentially thousands, or even millions of advanced extraterrestrial civilizations exist in the known universe, then why would all of them, without exception, choose to expand or exist in such a way that they are completely undetectable? It’s conceivable that some might, or perhaps even the majority, but for all of them to be completely undetectable civilizations does not seem likely either.

> Proposition C, according to Treder, appears to be more likely than A or B. If “survival of the fittest” follows similar pathways on other worlds, then our own “civilized” nature could be somewhat typical of extraterrestrial civilizations that have, or do, exist. Somehow, we all get to the point where we end up killing ourselves in a natural course of technological development and thereby self-inflict our own “cosmic roadblock”.

“Perhaps the most disturbing aspect of the Fermi Paradox is what it suggests for the future of our human civilization. Namely, that we have no future beyond earthly confinement and, quite possibly, extinction. Could advanced nanotechnology play a role in preventing that extinction? Or, more darkly, is it destined to be instrumental in carrying out humanity's unavoidable death sentence?” wonders Mike Treder, executive director of the Center for Responsible Nanotechnology (CRN).

Treder believes that some of the little understood new technologies now being developed such as nanotech, and others, could well be either our salvation or just as likely end up causing our ultimate destruction.

“Whatever civilizations have come before us have been unable to surpass the cosmic roadblock. They are either destroyed or limited in such a way that absolutely precludes their expansion into the visible universe. If that is indeed the case—and it would seem to be the most logical explanation for Fermi's Paradox—then there is some immutable law that we too must expect to encounter at some point. We are, effectively, sentenced to death or, at best, life in the prison of a near-space bubble,” suggests Treder. “Atomically-precise exponential manufacturing could enable such concentrations of unprecedented power as to result in either terminal warfare or permanent enslavement of the human race. Of course, that sounds terribly apocalyptic, but it is worth considering that the warnings we heard at the start of the nuclear arms race, and the very real risks we faced in the height of the Cold War, were but precursors to a much greater threat posed by an arms race involving nano-built weaponry and its accompanying tools of surveillance and control.”

When we consider the chronological history of life on Earth, humans have only existed for a small fragment of time and our existence has always been precarious. The entire time we’ve existed, we been banding into various groups and attempting to kill each other—or at least are constantly in the process of developing more effective ways of killing each other—just in case. The US government, for example, spends on “Defense” (including “preemptive” warfare) and Homeland Security, 8 times what it spends on educating the next generation. There is enough nuclear weaponry in storage around the world to kill every living creature on the planet several times over. Clearly, we’re a species with poor odds of surviving indefinitely.

Our self-destructive natures aside, curiosity may end up killing more than the cats. The faster technology is advancing, the more our “leap now, look later” nature appears to grow as well. If evolution on Earth serves as a somewhat typical template for evolution of other life forms, then becoming a truly advanced civilization must be a very daunting task indeed and a very rare, if not impossible, achievement.

In fact, Sir Martin Rees, Great Britain's Astronomer Royal and respected professor of astrophysics at Cambridge University has estimated that humans have only a 50-50 shot of making it through the 21st century. If Rees is right, and our standing on the planet is as precarious as he and others believe it is, then we may be alone due to a built-in evolutionary self-destruct button. Others have come before and others will exist after, but the cosmic roadblock may be an innate, finite nature, which only allows sentient life forms to exist for a very small window of time—windows of life which may be too small for our civilization to match up with the small windows of other civilizations that have been before or will come after.

In a contrary point of view, Milan Cirkovic believes that highly efficient city-state type of advanced technological civilizations could easily pass unnoticed even by much more advanced SETI equipment, especially if located near the Milky Way rim or other remote locations.

Posted by Rebecca Sato with Casey Kazan.

Source: Mike Treder executive director of the Center for Responsible Nanotechnology (CRN): original article.

NASA Hubble Image is the Helix Nebula, also known as The Helix or NGC 7293, a large planetary nebula located in the constellation of Aquarius

Recommended Galaxy post:

Stephen Hawking: Why Isn't the Milky Way "Crawling With Self-Designing Mechanical or Biological Life?"



I think we are done. We have already set in motion irreversible changes in the planet's climate system that will destroy the majority of vegetation on this planet, and with it, food. When people start dying in their hundreds of millions, in countries that possess nuclear weapons, armed conflict will take care of the rest. Life in some form will continue, but intelligent life will seaze. There is no time for this planet to re-evolve intelligent life before the sun explodes.

There's an abundance of evidence that we're not alone--tens of thousands of UFO sightings. What are the odds that not even one of the incredible objects reported by countless thousands of sober rational witnesses, including military and civilian pilots, represents an ET intelligence?

Meanwhile, we've spent billions of dollars, and thousands of hours in SETI and METI projects, and searching for 'Earth-like' planets and primitive life on Mars...

The tragedy of humankind--and perhaps someday our epitaph--is that not one single prominent scientist on the planet, or scientific organization, or news organization, or government will acknowledge at least the possibility that ETs are here, and have been here for decades; that they've carefully made their presence known, refraining from dramatic daylight appearances which could cause panic, chaos, and loss of life; and that they're waiting for our civilization to acknowledge their presence and ask them who they are, why they're here, and what they know about the experiences of other rapidly evolving technological civilizations.

Millions of people seem to care deeply about whether our civilization will survive, and yet none of them seem to care enough to openly ask a simple question: Are we more likely to survive and prosper by ignoring any possibility of learning--from the ETs who may already be here--of the experiences of other civilizations?

Perhaps a few DG readers can imagine the ET races who may have been observing our world for decades, or even millenia, and what they might see today as they look down on our world. Do they see a civilization with a bright and prosperous future? Or a civilization which looks more like a mob of drunken lemmings, marching bravely and blindly toward an apocalyptic cliffside, trusting their governments and scientists, whilst loudly cheering "Ignorance is Strength! SETI, METI, Drake, Fermi! What UFOs?"

If you were an ET looking down on the planet Earth, what would you say to humankind? Perhaps "Wake up people!" ?

The premise in all this is that we are an advanced intelligent species. The premise can be challenged if we consider the tenets of ecocosmology. All we can validly say is that we are a sentient intelligent species. We are not yet an "advanced" intelligent species.

Our reasoning for advancing the premise that we are an advanced intelligent species is based on biological evolution. That is a mistake because memetic evolution takes the baton from biological evolution or we become extinct.

Truly advanced intelligent species would not be struggling to not destroy their source of life (their home world) and would be able to move to another home world when their Sun begins to go nova or the like.

Most of the population of our species is not even aware of what is needed in order to avoid extinction in this cosmos.

It may not be too late to refocus ourselves toward what is required to become fit enough to survive, but be quite aware that the clock is ticking.

Or, it could be that we haven't searched very far. The odds of humans finding useful signals in all the noise across the HUGE universe (and it's really really huge) in just the 40-50 years we've been seriously looking is to 1.

As for (B) being unthinkable, let's foray into science fiction for a minute, specifically Star Trek. In every episode, they don't use radio or broadcast television. They use "subspace communication". They don't use chemical rocketry, they use "impulse engines" and "warp drives". I have no idea how those technologies would work, but for an interstellar polity to function at all, it would need technologies that we don't have the mathematics for, let alone the ability to detect.

If we make the (relatively small) leap that all civilizations in our stellar neighborhood (500-1000 LY) are either 500 years ahead of us (subspace communication) or 500 years behind us (we didn't broadcast anything in the year 1509), it's very possible we don't see anything at all.

Even now, we're moving past broadcast television. It's not that far a leap to imagine a human world where we don't broadcast anything outside our solar system with current technologies. Why should anyone else be any different?

There are about 1.5 million known animals, plants and algae on earth. Never mind bacteria and as yet unknown species.
How many of these have developed "intelligence"? Just one.
I think life is rampant, but "intelligent" life is not.

Very thought provoking. However, I suspect that you mean "sheer numbers" and not "shear numbers."

Why isn't "Ascension" one of the possibilities? Assuming that life, once sentient, gradually evolves into something capable of bending the Universe itself to its' will, and does this within a few hundred thousand years of rapid exponential evolution - then essentially the entire existence of a civilization as we know it and look at it winks in and out of what becomes extremely temporary space. Even if our own entire Universe can be calculated to be about 13-14 billion years from our Big Bang, there is an ever increasing amount of evidence that this is still just one phenomenally insignificant and small slice of the multi-dimensional multiverses reaching infinity out there.

To use Terran terms, we look around our own Universe only in the "Now" or the near-Now. Adding multiverse, multidimensions and time from Big Bang to whatever and whenever End is (if any) - means that we're literaly looking at the woods around us and finding it suspicious that we can't find other civilizations in it, whilst 100 years later and 100 years before (relatively) the forest was full of other beings.

We literaly ascend into multidimensional properties where mind really is the master of matter, and therefore any means or any trace of our temporal existence winks in and out of space. We exist in a flash of light, using cosmological terms.

Ascension must be the key to this riddle, and it gives me hope.

This article is interesting and thought-provoking. I seem to remember reading an article not too long ago very much along the same lines talking about how Carl Sagan used to discuss the very same (and similar) reasons as to we haven't found evidence of extraterrestrial life.

Perhaps we are indeed doomed, but on the other hand, we could possibly learn from this. We are in control of our own technology that we have created. I don't believe there is any force of nature that would compel us to willingly destroy ourselves with technology. The answer seems simple: Stop developing nuclear weapons, and we should also be careful not to develop our technology too far. Artificial intelligence is another example of technology that I think we should be careful with. Some sci-fi movies predict artificially intelligent computers dominating the human race; perhaps, then, we should not develop artificial intelligence too far. After all, computers are OUR tools, which we have developed to enhance our own lives. Maybe we should just leave it at that.

Neil: Perhaps we humans are the most intelligent life on Earth, but I don't think it's true to say that we're the only intelligent life on Earth. Certain animals (such as chimpanzees, dogs, dolphins, and others) have shown some degree of intelligence.

More likely that all intelligent life is merely clever and manages to remove itself from being space capable within 600-700 years of developing industrial technology. None have been intelligent enough to develop sustainable civilizations whose economy is not dependent on eternal population and economic growth.

It's all well and good to speculate about the odds of us being able to contact extra-terrestrial civilization, but I seriously think that we've barely given ourselves a chance to even look. We're dealing with astronomical distances and time here and so far our searching perspective is limited to less than a century.

The universe is big and planetary civilizations are very small. They are probably quite rare too. Even if they are much more technologically advanced than us, they may be so far away that even if they sent a message at the earliest stages of human evolution, it would only get here in 500 million more years.

And I think people neglect to mention just how unlikely it is to even pick up a radio signal to begin with. You have to listen on the right frequency, at the right time, and have your antennae pointed in the right direction. Let's imagine that a radio signal was shot from the Andromeda galaxy pointed directly at the area in space that the Earth would be at 2 million years later when the signal passed by. Let's say that the transmission lasted for a few hours. We would need to be listening for those exact few hours as the signal passed the Earth. If we missed and it shot right by, there goes our evidence of extraterrestrial civilization. A few hours over millions of years...seems pretty hopeless doesn't it.

I say give it a chance. To conclude with any degree of confidence whether we're alone or not will take tens of thousands of years of listening to determine whether there is life elsewhere in just the milky way. I could say a lot more but this post is already tl;dr.

"question: Even if space travel is too difficult, if life is out there, why don't we at least detect some sign of civilization like radio transmissions?"

This is why Fermi's Paradox isn't a paradox. We lack the technology to detect extraterrestrial radio transmissions (apart from Arecibo-sized dishes broadcasting directly at us), and the only evidence we have for their absence in the solar system is the lack of a huge "we are here" carved in Daedalia Planum or something. On Earth the situation is equally obscure - any small-scale evidence could easily have been lost or covered up over geological time scales - we can only say that nobody has landed in the Mall in DC and asked to see the president.

I realized I made a bit of a mistake with my last post due to a poor conception of the theory of relativity.

What I meant to say is that even if extraterrestrials who were 500 million light years away detected us at the earliest stages of hominid evolution, it would take 500 million years for that information to reach them and another 500 million years for the signal to get back to us. Not only that, they would need to be at a technological level where they could detect us somewhere around 500 million years from now. Makes the head spin doesn't it.

I do think general relativity is a barrier that is EXTREMELY unlikely to be surmounted, so when you're dealing with inter-stellar or inter-galactic communication, you have to realize just how poor the odds of finding anything are.

There could always be option 4: There watching and waiting the zoo hypothesis i think its called. Either way this was a very thought provoking article and we Humans have to seriously rethink how we do things if we wish to survive long enough to actually find out if anything is out there

A few questions...
- Do radio waves travel infinitely? Is there energy behind them that could decay if there isn't enough of it?
- Do civilizations live on a bell curve? If so, maybe we are at the top heading down.
- Due to the sheer size of the universe, shouldn't there be numerous civilizations somewhere on the curve?
- Is David Brin correct? Maybe there are many civilizations out there ignoring us to see how we handle our post-nuclear age. Maybe if we survive, they will admit us to their fraternity of space-faring civilizations.

You can't say that the odds of us being the only life is astronomical; that is to assume that the creation of life was not astronomically improbable to begin with. If the universe approaches infinite in size, and if the formation of life was a completely random event (approaching infinitely unlikely) then you're left with infinite / infinite. The question then would be which is the larger. If we were to be the only sentinent life in the universe then our position in the universe is irrelevant because we HAVE to be somewhere.

Some argue that the presence of psilocybin mushrooms, ayahuasca and peyote as natural substances on this planet is evidence of a extra terrestrial visitors. Either as the plants themselves or that communicate to mammals via the plants.

Is it simply that aliens are aware of our presence but are merely observing us as we are so incredibly primitive compared to them? Why would aliens necessarily want to initiate contact with us, the human race is hardly appealling. Those are the questions we should be asking.

An excellent article tarnished by a superfluous and inaccurate injection of politics. Specifically:

"The US government, for example, spends on “Defense” (including “preemptive” warfare) and Homeland Security, 8 times what it spends on educating the next generation."

Your sarcastic use of quotation marks is very telling. You might want to consider that the funding of defense is a national responsibility and is borne almost entirely by the US government. The funding of eduction is primarily a local and state responsibility and is principally borne by government at those levels.

If you look at total national spending on defense during the period of FY 2000 - FY 2009, you will find that the United States spent an average of 4.59% of GDP annually on defense. During the same period an average of 5.91% of GDP was spent nationally on education at all levels. This only includes government spending and does not include any spending through private educational institutions.

Now, we can agree or disagree on whether more should be spent on education, but we need to start with an accurate representation of the facts. The facts are that the United States spends a larger percentage of its GDP on education annually than it spends on defense.

Since - after only 100 yrs of radio - our intelligible Broadcast E/M output (to any interested nearby intelligence) is now decreasing, we may be losing the chance of contact unless either we permanently transmit a simple signal, or co-opt supercomputers to look for DIGITAL signals in the SETI data

One possible explanation is:

1. Once biological life reaches a certain point, it creates digital life which then evolves itself much faster than biological life (singularity). The digital life then leaves the planet and explores the universe for a while, learning and becoming smarter all the time.

2. The digital life realizes that our universe is only a very small part of a much bigger and more interesting multiverse and then leaves our universe for a greater adventure.

The result of this is that our universe seems quite empty because all the advanced digital species have left it for somewhere more interesting.


This is all truth, weather by divine mandate or natural selection we have become masters of this world. We must not destroy it. We must keep it in good shape so that we can use its resources for generations to come. Clearly we are not going to go anywhere any time soon, so we must take care of the only home we have. Wail i am skeptical about this i am hopeful that people will realize this and live in a way that is sustainable. If you look at any graph of population expansion of any species on earth they exponentially expand under the right circumstances and then level off when they reach the carrying capacity of a given habitat. The human population is doing this. With the rapid development of technology in the 2nt half of the 20th century humans exponentially expanded in population but the last couple of years it seams to be leveling off, with less and less babies being born every year. We must realize that this planet is all we have. There is no place to go, we must keep it intact. Unlike what the author says this is not a prison, because it is our home.

But isn't true that extra terrestrial civilizations might be so far from us that their presence will only be felt in thousands of years. Our radar technology is 90 years old max, most probably the signals did not reach us yet. On the other hand, we can also speculate that we are the extraterrestrials we are waiting/looking for.

A recent XKCD comic framed the "Fermi Paradox" very well.

I think it's important to remember that we aren't asking 'has intelligent life EVER evolved in the universe', but 'is there intelligent life during this particular century with technology that is compatible/detectable by ours.' The latter question produces much lower odds.

It always seemed to me that if the universe is teeming with other intelligent technological life, then they're all keeping very quiet. What if there's a good reason they're keeping quiet? If you walk into a room of people, and everyone is totally silent, it's usually because of fear. If the rest of the galaxy is quiet because they're afraid of something... well here we are, the loudmouth planet.

But what if it's just because the laws of physics make interstellar travel impossible, or totally impractical? What if the speed of light IS the fastest we can travel? We would surely visit Alpha Centauri and a handful of other star systems, but our range would be quite limited. There could be alien life on a planet only 400 light years away, but we would probably not find out about it for 400 years after we had developed technology able to receive their communications.

I agree with those above who suggest that we are presumptuous to think we are "advanced". If humanity has existed for only a small fraction of the time Earth has existed, then the present state of technology has existed, and will exist, for a truly minuscule fraction of that time. What will we be like, and what will our technology be like, a hundred years from now, not to mention a thousand years or a million years? We can't possibly have any idea. So why do we think we would have anything in common with those other civilizations that are at least as advanced as we are now?

Verify your Comment

Previewing your Comment

This is only a preview. Your comment has not yet been posted.

Your comment could not be posted. Error type:
Your comment has been posted. Post another comment

The letters and numbers you entered did not match the image. Please try again.

As a final step before posting your comment, enter the letters and numbers you see in the image below. This prevents automated programs from posting comments.

Having trouble reading this image? View an alternate.


Post a comment

Your Information

(Name is required. Email address will not be displayed with the comment.)