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?"



Um, When people don't know what they're talking about, they come across as stupid and lose all credibility.

One "gigayear" doesn't equal one billion years. For one a "giga" relates to bytes, not years. It's not base ten either.

One "Gigayear" would be 1,073,741,824 years.

1.8 "gigayears" would be 1,932,735,283.2 years in your base ten mind.

Is this post a joke? Who is the author? While this article covers a topic that is worthy of debate, is anyone really taking the suggestions in this article? This is sci-fi trash posing as scientific debate.

There's a condition that doesn't seem to be addressed when calculating the odds for a technological civilization (ok, it might not exist, I don't know how to quantify it): planets that 'could' support life may need a specific series of chemical events which is improbably rare. even though life may be (or not) locally self sustaining thereafter. It's like an upper middle class white boy wondering why everyone doesn't live off their portfolio.

I think there's a major flaw in the Great Silence paradox: if there are other civilizations out there then what are the chances that we are listening for the right type of communications signals that they would be using at their point in history? For example, do you think that we would still be transmitting radio signals into space 10,000 years from now (if we are still around that is)? We would probably be using some sort of quantum communications system using neutrinos or something and not radio signals. Also, chances are that any communications that advanced would be virtually indistinguishable from background noise - consider massive encryption, massive number of independent streams, distance, real background noise, etc. We may actually be listening to something we can't understand at this very moment.

So anyway, I think the Great Silence is really not relevant at all.

nostromo from

Suppose there are beings monitoring us. I think in that case it would be safe to assume two things 1. their technology far outclasses our own, and 2. that they would take measures to insure that they are not detected. I would stand to reason that it would be a fairly simple task for them to not only mask their presence here in our solar system, but also outside it as well.

Who is to say that ET wants to communicate with us? If you look at the history of the human race there has been much more self-destructive triumphs then there has been true advancements as a species. Sure our technology continues to advance, but how are we evolving as a species? We still have all of the same basic problems that have been around for thousands of years (hate, fear, war, etc).

Not to mention that the VAST majority of humans are really not that intelligent, and as a species are easily scared. If an alien race came to the earth for a visit and actually made contact, what do you think would happen? I'm guessing there would be mass panic, rioting, possibly war. Who's to say that this event did not already happen at some point in the past? Maybe ET is not contacting us because they already have experience contacting other worlds and know that doing so would create a huge disaster.

There is another point to be made about the time line of how long we've been searching for arbitrary signals as well.. The real statement is not even "We're looking for intelligent life during this period of time." It's actually more like "We're looking for signs of intelligent life during the period of time these signals originated from wherever they came from." Which could be any length of time up to, let's say 11-12 billion years ago? Assuming intelligent life evolved quite quickly in some remote location. Put into this perspective, makes it seem only that much more impossible.

I do agree that as a species we have a way of thinking of ourselves above everything else. Which is ironic considering that the still 70-80% of the world that is still religious is SUPPOSED to be nothing more then servants to a God of some kind.

Isn't our solar system located at the very edge of the Milky Way galaxy? Is it not possible that we are just so isolated from the rest of the galaxy and that explains why we have not found any evidence of extraterrestrial life? This theory was not proposed in the article, but I'm hoping someone can explain or debunk this hypothesis for me.

Insert random opinion here

Insert random useless opinion here

A week ago I was all for controlling or outright halting the march of progress to prevent us from reaching our self-annihilation point. The technology developed for weaponry and that developed for propulsion have, historically, been the same technology. With this being the case, at each advance in propulsion, we also increase our ability to self-destruct.

Assuming that all life struggles, other intelligent civilizations will have the same predisposition to war, and, gaining the technology to colonise their galaxy, would be much more likely to use it to destroy themselves first.

Halting the development of technology would seem like the only rational thing to do in this case, but we must also remember that our solar system has an expiry date. Despite the fact we are marching directly towards "almost certain" destruction, sun-death is "absolutely certain" destruction if we do not manage to get off-world first.

The author misses some potential reasons that we haven't noticed other civilizations. Most notably, isn't it likely that radio waves are an inefficient method of communication. We may be excluded from the cosmic community, simply because we are using radios, instead of whatever they use, quantum entanglement would be one avenue that would likely be a little more efficient, if one were able to master it.

2nd paragraph please edit: "exists* in a GALAXY***"

The pessimism of the scientific community never ceases to amaze me. Why does science always seem to come back to the "everything dies" theory? Is there no possibility that the human race gets a happy ending? I mean, we've not destroyed ourselves yet, that's something to be proud of, right?

Give it a few hundred years. It won't be long until the primitive technologies and scientific methods of today become obsolete. The primitive technologies and scientific methods of tomorrow are better suited to answering these questions anyway.

That was quite a mouthful just for the sake of stating our self-destruction skills. You don't have to go as far as out as the Universe to figure that out. Looking at histories of earth's empires will yield the same conclusion. If anything will be our downfall, it's the sin of hubris resonating from this article. We don't in fact know that much about this universe, galaxy, solar system or even this planet. We still have much to learn. I believe the fact we have not detected any other civilizations is more of an attribute of our limited resources than a cosmic roadblock. Even if there is a roadblock, statistically speaking, at least a fraction of the civilizations should be able to break through it. Are we really that vain and willing to believe one telescope in space and a distributed processing of radio signals will allow us to find life in space in less than a century?

This is a good article and I've saved it because I believe in its points, it provides very rational and logic arguments. In my opinion humanity is doomed, it will either disappear completely sooner or later or in the worst case will become something no one will ever like, a hive harvesting resources to survive (a kind of aliens like those from Independence Day :| ).
Most human think we are special and wouldn't like to accept the brutal true, but this is nothing new, as explained above we always thought we are the center of the Universe, loved by Gods and we will most likely continue to be irrational ignoring the known history of the live on Earth itself...

What is missing from this discussion is artificial intelligence. Are humans not destined to create a form of life that will surpass us all? And, if were deemed a threat to their existence, would we not be exterminated as we have done to so many other living things.

How can you dismiss proposition A so easily? Just because Earth's place in the universe is "unremarkably random" doesn't say anything about how rare life, let alone intelligent life, is.

Since we see the building blocks of life everywhere in our galaxy, I think the chance that life starts on planets where the conditions are right is relatively high. But the chance for higher animals, and for intelligent life, is probably very, very small. Look at life on Earth: it started about 3.5 Gigayears ago, but multi-cellular organisms have existed only for 900 million years or so (that's less than 25% of the time); intelligent life has been here for just 200.000 years (0.005%), and technology like radio is barely 100 years old.

Multi-cellular life is probably rare, and intelligent life is extraordinarily rare. I would not be surprised if we are the only intelligent life form in the Milky Way.

Simple: "In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth." Genesis 1:1.

Yes it is more likely that intelligent life may self destruct because of multiple reasons of its own making, given the fact that intelligence is often one-dimensional –technical - and suffers from many limitations. That is the reason why humanity is still infested with violence, global terrorism, nuclear weapons exploitation, and a myriad of evils. Even nationalism and patriotism are relics of our primitive tribalism - unintelligence. These deficiencies cannot be called qualities of intelligence that can prevent self-destruction.

It is reasonable to assume that any life form will have to pass through such hurdles inbuilt in the evolution of intelligence per se. There is no magic wand creating instantly super intelligence having higher moral dimension.

On the other hand, the principle of uncertainty governs intrinsically everything: life, planets, stars, galaxies and even the universe itself. Life on a planet can be destroyed either by a large asteroid, collision of planets, a rogue star or black hole, supernova or any such cosmic phenomenon. So there are numerous possibilities apart from the self-destructive roadblock for any intelligent life.

No wonder, detecting intelligent life elsewhere seems to be almost impossible, let alone the technological and distance barriers that any life forms would face.

Rajnish Roy

"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 [sic] 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."

There are far too many groundless assumptions here. First of all, the only example we have of 'life' is that which has evolved on Earth, and the only example of 'intelligent life' we have is our own species. Since statistically there might be millions of other examples of 'intelligent life', we're using a sample of one in several million: hardly representative! We have know way of knowing, and cannot possibly make the assumption, that we are in any way typical of what life is; whether we stray vastly or hug closely the norm for life, intelligent or otherwise, is something we cannot even guess.

Secondly, and I'm not advocating this argument, merely presenting it, if the odds are really so in favour of humanly observable extraterrestrial life, and the fact that we have never observed extraterrestrial life so unlikely, perhaps we must abandon the assumption that there is no mystical underpinning to the physical universe. Perhaps there is such a thing as destiny ensuring life blooms only once in the universe, or some other religious explanation. If the chances of our existence being singular are so slim, and yet to our knowledge our existence in the universe is singular, then we may have to consider that the universe is not run on tracks that follow the laws of probability, and that is difficult to explain without some form of mysticism. Of course, there's always the possibility that the universe is inherently, and unintelligently, irrational: why must the totality of the universe obey the synaptic limitations of one lonely half-ape species?

Thirdly, the article is presented as though (A), (B) and (C) were the only possible responses to Fermi's Paradox, which is ridiculous. There are many of options to consider, notwithstanding my first and second points.

For instance, it is possible that the conspiracy theorists are right - that Earth is in contact with other advanced species but this fact is hidden from the vast majority of our species for whatever purpose and by whichever powergroup your particular conspiracy theory blames for all the world's suffering.

Or, perhaps our solar system or section of the galaxy is being deliberately excluded from the rest of the Milky Way by civilisations with technology a billion years in advance of ours for whatever motives such civilisations have.

Yes, all of these are purely speculations, and I'm not saying any of them are the answer, but they are no wilder or more or less plausible than (A), (B) and (C).

And, finally, the biggest and I think most unfounded assumption this article makes is that intelligent extraterrestrial life would in anyway behave like or share the same psychology as humans. We do not even know the reasons fully for own behaviour, it is most arrogant to think human psychology is the set example for any other lifeform. To assume every species shares our death trip, or that other intellifent species would share our ambition to explore space, or any of our ambitions, neuroses or motives is untenable, not to mention unimaginative.

Sure, there may have been planets around before ours, but maybe we're looking at it in the wrong way. Perhaps, for life to get to the point where it is today, it needed the age of the entire galaxy or universe to get to where it is. For example, maybe life evolved on a different planet or through space itself before landing on Earth. So maybe the galaxy is full of life from the same source and they are all around the same level that we are at. Maybe we're all in one big race but we just don't know it.

I think the idea that intelligent civilizations destroy themselves before filling up the galaxy is a pessimistic view that doesn't seem very realistic to me. Lemmings that walk off of cliffs to die is a myth. Every creature deep down needs to survive, and if there ever were any species that could make it in this hostile universe, it would be the intelligent ones.

"our 4.5 billion-year old Solar System exi[s]ts"

Perhaps, as intelligence evolved elsewhere, it got to the point where civilizations realized that expanding beyond their planet would be an enormous waste of time, resources, energy and life.

They came to realize that life is a precious gift to be experienced on their own planet and that there's no good reason to try and go elsewhere.

Not a bad article but really of the proposed ideas as to why we have not made contact is surprisingly short and one of the ideas should at least be that if there are advanced civilizations out there capable of space travel, they likely just think of us as to primitve to make contact with. We are, as a species, consumed with war and fear of the unknown. While we can comment here as rational and intelligent people and discuss the possiblities of alien life, the majority of the human race would freak out if aliens just appeared and likely be hostile toward them.

Its interesting that the Russian govt (and at least the Belgian, I think) has officially accepted that we have been visited by alien spacecraft. Even if the craft were completely robotic, it still means it was built by another civilization at some point in time. Therefore the Russians have implicitly accepted that we are not alone. When will the US govt. acknowledge that UFO sightings are not 100% fabrications?

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.)