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"Are We the Only Technologically-Intensive Civilization in the Universe?" (Weekend Feature)

 

 

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"We have no idea how long a technological civilization like our own can last," says University of Rochester astrophysicist Adam Frank. "Is it 200 years, 500 years or 50,000 years? Answering this question is at the root of all our concerns about the sustainability of human society. Are we the first and only technologically-intensive civilization in the entire history of the universe? If not, shouldn't we stand to learn something from the past successes and failures of other species?"

Human-caused climate change, ocean acidification and species extinctions may eventually threaten the collapse of civilization, according to some scientists, while other people argue that for political or economic reasons we should allow industrial development to continue without restrictions. In a new paper, two astrophysicists argue that these questions may soon be resolvable scientifically, thanks to new data about the Earth and about other planets in our galaxy, and by combining the earth-based science of sustainability with astrobiology.

In their paper, which appears in the journal Anthropocene, Frank and co-author Woodruff Sullivan call for creation of a new research program to answer questions about humanity's future in the broadest astronomical context. The authors explain: "The point is to see that our current situation may, in some sense, be natural or at least a natural and generic consequence of certain evolutionary pathways."

To frame these questions, Frank and Sullivan begin with the famous Drake equation, a straightforward formula used to estimate the number of intelligent societies in the universe. In their treatment of the equation, the authors concentrate on the average lifetime of a Species with Energy-Intensive Technology (SWEIT). Frank and Sullivan calculate that even if the chances of forming such a "high tech" species are 1 in a 1,000 trillion, there will still have been 1,000 occurrences of a history like own on planets across the "local" region of the Cosmos.

"That's enough to start thinking about statistics," says Frank, "like what is the average lifetime of a species that starts harvesting energy efficiently and uses it to develop high technology."

Employing dynamical systems theory, the authors map out a strategy for modeling the trajectories of various SWEITs through their evolution. The authors show how the developmental paths should be strongly tied to interactions between the species and its host planet. As the species' population grows and its energy harvesting intensifies, for example, the composition of the planet and its atmosphere may become altered for long timescales.

The image below is a schematic of two classes of trajectories in SWEIT solution space. Red line shows a trajectory representing population collapse whereby development of energy harvesting technologies allows for rapid population growth which then drives increases in planetary forcing. As planetary support systems change state the SWEIT population is unable to maintain its own internal systems and collapses. Blue line shows a trajectory representing sustainability in which population levels and energy use approach levels that do not push planetary systems into unfavorable states.

 

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Frank and Sullivan show how habitability studies of exoplanets hold important lessons for sustaining the civilization we have developed on Earth. This "astrobiological perspective" casts sustainability as a place-specific subset of habitability, or a planet's ability to support life. While sustainability is concerned with a particular form of life on a particular planet, astrobiology asks the bigger question: what about any form of life, on any planet, at any time?

We don't yet know how these other life forms compare to the ones we are familiar with here on Earth. But for the purposes of modeling average lifetimes, Frank explains, it doesn't matter.

"If they use energy to produce work, they're generating entropy. There's no way around that, whether their human-looking Star Trek creatures with antenna on their foreheads, or they're nothing more than single-cell organisms with collective mega-intelligence. And that entropy will almost certainly have strong feedback effects on their planet's habitability, as we are already beginning to see here on Earth."

The image below is a plot of human population, total energy consumption and atmospheric CO2 concentration from 10,000 BCE to today. Note the coupled increase in all 3 quantities over the last century.

 

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"Maybe everybody runs into this bottleneck," says Frank, adding that this could be a universal feature of life and planets. "If that's true, the question becomes whether we can learn anything by modeling the range of evolutionary pathways. Some paths will lead to collapse and others will lead to sustainability. Can we, perhaps, gain some insight into which decisions lead to which kind of path?"

As Frank and Sullivan show, studying past extinction events and using theoretical tools to model the future evolutionary trajectory of humankind--and of still unknown but plausible alien civilizations--could inform decisions that would lead to a sustainable future.

The Daily Galaxy via University of Rochester

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Image Credit: Michael Osadciw/University of Rochester

 

Comments

It doesn't matter what we do to increase our chances of long term survival, as long as we don't rely on "God" or some other outside force to save us! It should be patently obvious by now that in this Universe there is no magic formula that will come to our rescue!
We sink or swim on our own!

These are interesting questions, but I wouldn't assume any straight line projections of energy consumption, utilization, and of course technology. Just think about the technology changes in the period since World War II and the energy efficiency phenomenon which is having a large and growing impact on energy consumed and enabling developing nations to access advanced technology with limited energy production. Moreover, our ability to access "renewable" energy sources -- particularly solar, give us the potential for unlimited energy for the life of the Sun. Of course, don't forget that assuming we don't kill ourselves off, humans will be expanding into the solar system and eventually beyond to the stars. That should give us an even longer projected life span. Finally, don't assume our futures are entirely tied to living on Earth or any other planet's surface. Space habitats along the line that were described by Gerard O'Neill offer a mode of living off the earth that gives humanity mobility and the ability to live virtually anywhere in the universe.

And, the first portion of my comment doesn't even take into consideration the virtual certainty that humans themselves will themselves change significantly over the next millennium. Our intelligence, our vulnerability to various diseases, even our physical form are all subject to change. The only thing that is certain, is that anything and everything can change. I for one am very optimistic about the future of the human race.


The electronic spectrum is vast and the assumption is that the rest of the universe is still operating on frequencies (based on economies of scale) that we choose to monitor. Any "superior" ET civilization that may have been using similar RF communications as us would most likely have upgraded to a different, more effective form of technical communication.The use of lasers (tight beaming) for extraplanetary communication within their home solar system might have been embraced (stealth) to ward off unwelcome attention. After all, if you're smart enough to have invented RF communication then you are certainly well aware of a certain scarcity of natural resources that, if known by the universe, may invite an invasion.

I am shocked at the disreguard for the saftey of our fellow citizens of the Earth that is based on racism, ignorance and hubris.

There are 2 things we ignore, at our own peril:

1) The REAL Universal Prime Directive (UPD) is: "Everything has to Eat".

As we move closer to being an innersolor civilization, the very use of the "limited" resources necessary to do so demand that we exploit the universe to continue. War is a necessary response to overpopulation by any society that uses their resources to move into outer space to gather MORE resources to sustain itself. This is just basic economics, not a political manifesto. Why should we assume that a technically superior ET civilization doesn't need the very "scarce" resources from Earth that allowed them to be scarce on their home planet(s)?

2) If we can't communicate with every living creature on our home planet after eons of opportunity to do so, how exactly are we prepared to communicate with an ET civilization when the mind numbing possibilities of evolutionary adaptation are truly taken into consideration? The means to make contact with ET may be simply beyond us and a byproduct of our evolution, meaning our Earth-specific senses, not our intellect. This "QUEST FOR ET" is even more daunting, foolish and limited in vision when we are, in fact, expending scarce resources looking for "white guys in space that live on an Earth analoge planet that may be slightly more or less advanced at warfare (UPD?)than we are at the present space/time...in the Milky Way"

Seriously...???

The reality is that ET could be screaming at us but it may be beyond our senses and hubris to ever recognize their screams.


This equation is simple.
On one hand you have the 20% of the world's population that uses and benefits from the 80% of the energy. They're activities are driving a global environment remodeling project. On the other hand you have the 80% of the of the world's population who want access to all of the benefits enjoyed by the lucky 20%. Throw in healthy amounts of greed, waste, ignorance, violence, and stupidity. What you end up with is a system where its far easier to fail than succeed.

After reading this article a few times, I think there are too many variables to reach any sort of reasonable answer to these questions. But in the realm of pure conjecture, it's fun to try!

Dinosaurs lived all those millions of years because of the natural balance in population.[Predators and prey]. The human race will destroy itself by overpopulation unless drastic measures are taken to control the population explosion that is happening.

It has taken 200,000 years of Man's evolution to arrive at this point where we can now make choices as to whether we take action to survive as a species or whether we continue to ignore the future and leave our destiny to fate.

Perhaps ultimately our destiny depends on education. It would be futile for a relatively small number of people to progress our knowledge and understanding of our place in the Universe if the vast majority continue to over exploit our planet, fight constant petty wars and remain in a relatively ignorant inward-facing mindset as that probably only has only conclusion, extinction.

It is only in our lifetime that the choice as to whether we ultimately leave this doomed planet or stay has become available. I'm hopeful that discussion, research and education will in time show us the way forward.

@Allan W Janssen The assumption is that the dinosaurs died out due to a stray meteor. What if they didn't? What if we're not the first civilisation to have walked the earth or over consumed its resources? Is there something to be learned there, I wonder? And if so, where would we find it?

The biggest threat to mankind is human stupidity. Our violent nature will eventually lead to be our destruction. People that are intelligent do not wage war with each other, they only laugh at the ones that do. It's humorous that science can be so intelligent in one respect and downright stupid in others. Just mention the word God and people that follow science go berserk and blow a gasket. Does anyone see the humor in this? I believe in God and also believe in science. Arrogance Limits Cosmology: I've never seen a lawyer yet that would selectively search for evidence they wouldn't make much money if they did grin. Denying the possibility of a creator is the ultimate form of naivety, how can you deny something if you can't prove it doesn't exist? Logic should tell anyone that there must be a reason for this selective thinking as it's not logical. It's not logical for people to kill each other in wars, yet people do it every day. It's not logical for people to love each other one minute then fight with each other the next, yet people do it every day. In the end proof of intelligence is being able to laugh in the face of ignorance, bias and arrogance.

Approximately 4% of Americans are sociopaths and another 4% are psychopaths. In a country of 300 million, 8% equals allot of mental illness. Why then is it to hard to imagine that most crime victims are sociopaths or psychopaths? The biggest threat to mankind is human stupidity and mental illness. Are we just stupid or somethin'? These people are missing the most basic human emotions like love compassion and empathy, they have no conscience and don't take responsibility for anything they say or do. What's horrifying is the fact that these people are amongst us every day and it's hard to tell them apart from anyone else. They are a major cause of the worlds violence yet nobody bothers to take this problem seriously. People are becoming more and more desensitized to the horrific violence they see on TV and the internet to the point that they no longer watch the local news. In America when applying for a gun the only requirement is that you fill out an application and you are not found to have a police record. However, no psychological testing of any kind is required. The biggest threat to mankind is human stupidity and mental illness. In the state of Florida I was at the Walmart and asked the guy behind the gun showcase what you needed to purchase a gun. His response, about 100 bucks grin

Neil DeGrasse Tyson is beginning to look like and anti-God preacher, video after video on YouTube talking about religion or the Bible. Who cares? Let's talk about science or cosmology. Does anyone see the obviousness here? The biggest threat to mankind is human stupidity. People that are highly intelligent do not wage war with each other they only laugh at the ones that do. It's humorous that science can be so intelligent in one respect and downright stupid in others. Just mention the word God and people that follow science go berserk and blow a gasket. Does anyone see the humor in this? I believe in God and also believe in science. Arrogance Limits Cosmology: I've never seen a lawyer yet that would selectively search for evidence they wouldn't make much money if they did grin. Denying the possibility of a creator is the ultimate form of naivety, how can you deny something if you can't prove it doesn't exist? Logic should tell anyone that there must be a reason for this selective thinking as it's not logical. It's not logical for people to kill each other in wars, yet people do it every day. It's not logical for people to love each other one minute then fight with each other the next, yet people do it every day. In the end proof of intelligence is being able to laugh in the face of ignorance, bias and arrogance.

Neil DeGrasse Tyson is beginning to look like and anti-God preacher, video after video on YouTube talking about religion or the Bible. Who cares? Let's talk about science or cosmology. Does anyone see the obviousness here? The biggest threat to mankind is human stupidity. People that are highly intelligent do not wage war with each other they only laugh at the ones that do. It's humorous that science can be so intelligent in one respect and downright stupid in others. Just mention the word God and people that follow science go berserk and blow a gasket. Does anyone see the humor in this? I believe in God and also believe in science. Arrogance Limits Cosmology: I've never seen a lawyer yet that would selectively search for evidence they wouldn't make much money if they did grin. Denying the possibility of a creator is the ultimate form of naivety, how can you deny something if you can't prove it doesn't exist? Logic should tell anyone that there must be a reason for this selective thinking as it's not logical. It's not logical for people to kill each other in wars, yet people do it every day. It's not logical for people to love each other one minute then fight with each other the next, yet people do it every day. In the end proof of intelligence is being able to laugh in the face of ignorance, bias and arrogance.

Technologically we can do lots of things, but morally we are not yet fully civilized as a whole !

God The Universe writes: " I believe in God and also believe in science." Which explains everything you preached.

Dude, you have no choice but to "believe" in god. Science doesn't require belief. It exists in evidence-based world.

Then you write "how can you deny something if you can't prove it doesn't exist?"

Which shows that you don't really "believe" in science. Go elsewhere and preach your derp.

"In the end proof of intelligence is being able to laugh in the face of ignorance, bias and arrogance."

No it is not. You should learn the meaning of words. It will help you see the error of your soft thinking.

I wonder at what point it doesn't matter because were all flying away from each other at speeds we will probably never be able to match.

If we cant see them now,we probably cant meet them later,unfortunately

It will be very interesting to see if technology can keep up to help with the impending changes that are coming. Exploding over population coupled with limited resources and abrupt climate change is a recipe for a very unpleasant time on this planet. Major Wars over resources, severe droughts and diseases created out of the rapid change in population and climate will be a true turning point in human history on this planet. I believe this to be our fate to come but hope that we can develop technology to help address these challenges in one way or another. I know we can save our selves and the planet if we just focus more on the problems that lye ahead. Hardships will come and we will be tested like never before but if we come through we will be infused with a fire to survive and to explore and expand our species through the cosmos. Godspeed.

I believe that chickens does not have a slightest idea that the eagles are hatching eggs too..
The same statement applies as an answer to the post question :)

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