Wednesday, April 23, 2008

James Lovelock and the Fermi Paradox

I got this idea from John's essay on Southern politics and education, and because I was just listening to "The Dawn of Correction", by the Spokesmen, from 1965.

James Lovelock is the author of The Gaia Hypothesis, also from 1965. The Gaia Hypothesis states that the Earth is a complex, and ultimately self-correcting, interconnected ecosystem. According to some interpretations of this hypothesis, mankind represents a pathogen impacting the longterm health of the Earth, and ultimately the Earth will reject humanity, resulting in our extinction.

The Fermi Paradox is a counterpoint to the Drake Equation. The Drake Equation says that, based on the age of the universe, the potential (we could probably now say likely) number of possible habitable planets, and the process and potential for evolution of intelligent life, that there should be many thousands of intelligent civilizations out there in the cosmos.

The Fermi Paradox says "If the Drake Equation is true, then, based on the age and size of the universe, and the potential speed of space travel, why aren't all those space aliens here on Earth?"

It is a compelling argument. Even spotting the Klingons several billion years, they still have little or no excuse for their lack of appearance in our backyards.

But Lovelock's Gaia Hypothesis offers a possible explanation for the Klingon's truancy. If other, extraterrestrial, civilizations evolve and develop similarly to humanity, it might be that they destroy their habitats and become extinct before developing interstellar travel. Certainly that looks like the way we're going.

Serious readers of my old blog may remember my rants about the lack of progress in aeronautical and aerospace engineering since the 1960s. For those who missed it: We, as a species, have not flown higher, farther, faster, or lifted more payload, since the 1960s. The Saturn V, the 747, the C-5, the Concorde, the X-15, the SR-71, the XB-70, etc etc etc etc etc, were all 1960s technology. Since then, we've improved fuel economy, reliability, and navigation technologies, but we have only actually done LESS in real terms of aviation accomplishment. An objective alien observer, basing his evaluation of our potential as a species on our progress towards expanding our horizons beyond our own planet, would logically conclude we've peaked, and are on the way out, without having made it out of the orbit of our own moon.

So what if our experience is typical? What if other intelligent life forms throughout the universe have a similar experience? They develop, become sentient, build civilizations, then destroy their environment and eventually become extinct without ever moving beyond their own planet? That would explain the Fermi Paradox.

Perhaps we're a little more successful than most: we've at least launched tiny unmanned probes outside our solar system, along with some electromagnetic radiation. But it's a big universe, and it would take a very sensitive ear, and a lot of luck, for some distant civilization to receive the signals we've sent. It seems extremely likely, based on the work of the SETI Institute, and others, that there are not a lot of alien civilizations out there broadcasting a lot of radio, at least not where we can hear it.

Associated with Lovelock's theories and the Gaia Hypothesis is the current "global warming" fad. I use the word "fad" to express my scepticism with the whole concept. While there is no question that the earth's mean temperatures have shown apparent increases in the last few years, I always tend to want to put such increases into paleoclimatological context. That context reveals vastly greater swings in the earth's mean temperatures in much shorter periods of time - in both directions, warmer and colder - in previous eras when there was no question of any human impact on the climate. So while I do not rule out the possibility that humans have had some impact on the earth's climate, the evidence presented seems pretty unconvincing (and often blantantly politically manipulated) regarding the causes of recent climate trends. (I guess I should now make the disclaimer that I think the so-called science behind claims of global warming is heinous crud, although I remain agnostic about the underlying climatic trends.)

So now there is some evidence that global warming may soon be a pleasant memory. Several observers have noted that mean temperatures in the last year have shown the most rapid cooling in the climatic record. The current story is that solar activity has rapidly entered a low period, where there is a substantially smaller number and intensity of solar flares. Such "solar quiet periods" are known to have a substantial impact on planetary climatology.

Of course, one year's worth of data does not a climatological trend make. The last year could be a statistical anomaly, which happens routinely. The next year's data might return to the overall warming trend.

But my, very unscientific, observation recently has been that spring this year has come later than any year I can remember. I notice the amounts of foliage, and the temperatures at different points in the year, and this April has seemed more like March. Likewise I've noticed colder-than-usual ocean temperatures the last couple of years. These are not scientific observations, but I've often found that unscientific-but-experience-based observations can often be very revealing.

So what does it mean? To sum it up: it might be that the explanation for the Fermi Paradox is the Gaia Hypothesis. Alien civilizations might never get around to colonizing the galaxy because they usually destroy their own habitats before developing interplanetary travel. We might be doing the same thing to ourselves. Certainly we appear to be making more progress at destroying the environment than exploring the stars. But "global warming" might not be a good gauge of our impending demise, because larger-scale forces, like the sun for example, have a greater impact on our climate than our own abuse of the ecosystem.

What should we be doing about the situation? It seems obvious: We should greatly reduce our production of greenhouse gases, whether or not they cause global warming, because there's no question that we're destroying our environment in many other ways. We should redirect a lot of our energy and resources away from unsustainable development here on earth and towards exploration of the universe around us. Being alert to the potential arrival of the Klingons probably isn't a terrible idea, although that's a subject for another post. Mainly, however, I think we should be aware that it is entirely possible, and perhaps likely or even inevitable, that we will destroy our ability to continue as a species on this planet, and we should try to figure out, as a group of 6 billion, what we can do about it.


John the Scientist said...

Well, you know I think the Drake Equation is unscientific nonsense becuse there's no way of testing any of the numbers in it.

But related to this is a major logical failing of Carl Sagan. He postulated that a Star Trek like meeting of roughly technologically equivalent civilizations was extremely unlikely. I disagree.

Every technology is built on observable physical phenomena. Stagnat periods in technology correspond to periods where new phenomena are infrequently observed, either due to lack of information or infrequency of occurence.

At some point, in the vicinity of earth, we will run out of new pehnomena to observe and turn into technology. The phenomena that lead to FTL travel or other such things may only be obervable in special circumstances, so many cultures may reach similar plateuas and remain stagnant for millions of years.

If FTL travel is not possible, I don't see much paradox for Fermi, if it is but the phenomena that lead to it are rarely observable, the same thing applies.

dan said...

Great analysis, sir, am filing it awawy in my polar cities files. have you ever heard or seen images of my polar cities idea as refuge for survivors of global warming in year 2500 or so? take a look and maybe blog about them one day, pro or con. lvoe to hear your POV on this too. Lovelock agrees with me, he has seen them


Tufts 1971

CW said...

Dan: Fascinating stuff. I had heard the "polar cities" theory before. But it seems to me that if the lower latitudes are so hot and uninhabitable that it drives populations farther north, then the higher latitudes will be much more temperate than they are now, and the underground cities might not be necessary. For example, Northern Norway (which is pretty nice anyway, in my experience) might be much more like Southern France or Spain. So why not just live there in normal, above-ground dwellings.

Also, I still think, although my scientific credentials for holding this opinion are mostly lacking, that in the next 500 years we are more likely to see a shift towards an ice age than a "global warming catastrophe" involving greatly increased temperatures. Of course the sun will have the final say on that, so it could go either way.

John that's a good point about technological stagnation - so my question is what are we not looking for, or at, to achieve the next series of scientific and technological breakthroughs? The recent work in theoretical physics (such as that of Lubos Motl at Harvard - seems to offer quite a bit of hope for relativistic technology. It's just the getting from the theoretical to the applied that is so hard.

I'm not a big Carl Sagan fan either, although I respect him for getting people to at least think and talk about the rest of the universe. As for the likelihood of the Vulcans or the Klingons showing up, I'm still fascinated by all the strange things ordinary people see flying around every day. While I think nearly all of those represent explainable earthly phenomena, there are some that are pretty hard to explain (like the 14 park rangers in Washington state who saw a UFO absconding with an elk in 1999:

I'm a serious agnostic about the actual reality of contact with extraterrestrial civilizations, but it appears that astronomy will have detected and mapped extrasolar Earth-like planets (M-class, or Meshara Class, from the Vulcan taxonomy :) in the very near future. It seems intuitively very unlikely that our planet is unique in the universe, or that we are the only intelligence species to evolve. So I guess the really big question is whether there are space aliens out there who are really much more advanced than us, which would offer our apparently self-destructive species some hope for the future.

CW said...

I think it might be about time to get back to Strauss and Howe and the impending "4th Turning" - predicted by Star Trek in 1967 to occur about the same time in Strauss and Howe's theory (2020), and which, according to Star Trek, will result in the development of FTL travel. :)