Tomorrow Happens

...trends slamming at us from the dark

David Brin

David Brin
San Diego, California, USA
October 06
Bio David Brin’s novels have been translated into more than twenty languages, including New York Times Best-sellers that won Hugo and Nebula awards. His 1989 ecological thriller, Earth, foreshadowed cyberwarfare, the World Wide Web, global warming and Gulf Coast flooding. A 1998 Kevin Costner film was loosely adapted from his post-apocalyptic novel, The Postman. ............................................ Brin is a noted scientist, futurist and speaker who appears frequently on television (Life After People, The Universe), discussing trends in the near and far future, on subjects such as surveillance, technology, astronomy, and SETI. His non-fiction book, The Transparent Society, deals with issues of openness and security in the wired-age. ............................................. David Brin web site: Twitter: Facbook:

Editor’s Pick
MAY 4, 2010 3:37AM

Perspectives on SETI and Aliens

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Responding to Stephen Hawking's new Discovery Channel program, I debated the "alien threat" on Larry King Live with Michio Kaku, Seth Shostak, and actor Dan Aykroyd (who pushed UFOs.)

The format - four smart. sure-of-themselves egotists, being interviewed by a fifth - made for some very short but avid sound bites. (See part 2 of the debate and Part 3)

In this field, as in the furor over Transparency, my attitude is one of fierce moderation. My fundamental point is that nobody knows a damned thing about aliens!  Alas, that doesn’t keep almost everybody from behaving like children, weighing in with their “of course” explanations for how advanced sapient races would “naturally” behave, or why ETs haven’t been seen, or what they would do if we encountered them.  I know a lot of very bright people who have opined in this field, and nearly all of them proceed to sigh and roll their eyes, expressing contemptuous disdain for anyone daring to have a different notion about Alien Life.

Sure, one explanation comes to mind -- any field suffering from a complete lack of data can become a mirror, in which even (especially) bright people see only a reflection of their own dreams and biases.  Still, please! Does the reflex have to be followed by everybody? Frankly, watching the same phenomenon occur over and over, I am getting fatigued.

But let me try one more time, since the topic is public and hot right now. I've been at this a long time.  Back in 1983, my Great Silence paper was... and remains... the only genuine review article ever published in the SETI field. Because almost every other paper has had a particular axe to grind, I attempted to catalogue and compare 100+ theories, covering the wide range of possibilities, re alien life, thus demonstrating just how little we yet know. While suggesting some avenues for research, I concluded by pleading for a tentative, contingent, openminded attitude, of the sort we’ll desperately need, if contact ever does occur.

For a general, popularized account see "Xenology."  More recently I argued against messages” to ETI in "Shouting at the Cosmos"  and pungently suggest "what to say to an ET lurker."

But, as I just stated, it seems this topic brings out the amateur sci fi author in every person who touches it.  Hence, Stephen Hawking, Stephen Jay Gould, Jared Diamond and Freeman Dyson... four of the very smartest human beings who ever lived... have all recommended that we not shout into the cosmos to draw attention to ourselves, because it might be dangerous -- (I agree so far) -- only then each of them goes on the fantasize some particular simplistic scenario for why aliens could be hostile or dangerous. In Hawking’s new show, for example, he posits that super-advanced civilizations might come charging in to exploit our solar system’s resources, use them up and then move on, leaving us in a trashed wasteland.

Now, at one level, Hawking’s fear is not entirely off target. I’ve pointed out elsewhere: “All living creatures inherently use resources to the limits of their ability, inventing new aims, desires and ambitions to suit their next level of power. If they wanted to use our solar system, for some super project, our complaints would be like an ant colony protesting the laying of a parking lot.”

In contrast to this trend that’s seen across nature, we now have a new, tentative value system that’s arisen in the most recent generation of the Modern West, wherein some initial signs of self-restraint and satiability have started to appear.  We relish this new trait of altruistic self-control and wishfully imagine that we’ll do even better, in our Star Trek future.  Moreover, we hope that aliens will do the same, progressing in this new direction that we dream for ourselves -- toward universal altruism. And sure, I deeply hope this will turn out to be true.

On the other hand it ain’t necessarily so. This projection of our present culture’s idealized trend onto ALL star travelling races could be viewed as incredibly arrogant cultural myopia, even chauvinism! (Will the descendants of pack carnivores or stalking predators or paranoid herd beasts view such things the same way as we descendants of gregarious apes?)  In fact, “altruism” is rare in nature, compared to Darwinistic predation or opportunism, or even quid pro quo.  Those who declare that “of course” aliens would “outgrow all that” are engaged in bizarre wish projection, without any basis at all, other than their hopes.

On the other hand, Hawking’s scenario isn’t just about aliens rapaciously using up solar systems. It is about us foolishly attracting aliens who thereupon do such things. And this makes no sense at all. The Earth has been prime real estate ever since it got an oxygen atmosphere, a billion years ago.  If ETs wanted a nice planet to colonize, or a system to loot, they could have come during any of that time. Paul Davies makes this point in his new book THE EERIE SILENCE, as I did in my 1983 paper.

A foolish METI “yoohoo!” message from us isn’t going to make them come for resource rapine. Though, in fact, Hawking’s scenario does have some plausibility as an explanation of the Great Silence (Fermi Paradox), along a different path of logic. Ponder this; if such a wave of greedy exploitation DID once pass through our region of the galaxy, and it just happened to miss Earth, then that might explain our current loneliness... the paucity of other new races around us.  Because that prairie fire knocked down every other promising race or planet in the region, leaving Earth like an isolated oasis in a desert.  I talk about this scenario (and many others) elsewhere.

No, Hawking’s reasoning does not make sense as a reason not to shout. On the other hand, there are dozens of other possible reasons why a Yoohoo Message could be dangerous  I could go into lots of them...

... but I won’t!  Not here. Because I am NOT trying to argue that METI will cause invasion or directed havoc.  Personally, I think the odds of that outcome are low. 

No, I am trying to get people to stop leaping to unjustified assumptions and conclusions and especially to stop proclaiming that things are so, just because you made a glib sounding assertion. (Isn’t that bad habit doing enough harm, in Culture War?)

For example, Paul Davies and George Dvorsky and Michio Kaku and many other smart guys have asserted “if they wanted to harm us, they would have done so by now.”

Say What?  Oh, this is just more blithe, dismissive nonsense, with so many sub-variations and counter-hypotheses to ponder you could shake a stick at them all day. Leaping to make such a generalized statement is no less than an expression of the most outrageous smugness and incuriosity, especially unworthy, coming from such smart fellows.

Just like the idiotic cliche that “I Love Lucy” has already made Earth a blaring beacon in the sky, so why bother restraining ourselves now?

(Here’s an illustrative experiment: go to a lake with a rock and a laser pointer. Now drop the rock into the pond, making ripples. Then aim the laser pointer at the other shore. Which wave front will be detected on the opposite side? That is “I love Lucy” vs a high-power, colimated, coherent transmission from Arecebo.  Sure, in theory, advanced scientists on the other shore, who are passionately eager and who know in advance exactly where to look, might detect the rock-ripples. But golly, try to employ some scale and some sense, before you blithely declare that everybody on all shores will always detect all ripples!)

 These positions are arrant nonsense and deeply illogical. Here’s another. If we’re “already blatantly visible” out there, then what the heck is METI trying to accomplish, by deliberately making our Earth SEVEN orders of magnitude brighter? Hm? Ever study logic? Isn't the "we're already seen" point an argument against METI? 

I do not have time to get into this vast topic in detail.  I have spent decades on it, exploring countless ramifications like --

Why we might be alone (a popularized account):

Or, (for the real scholar) the much deeper and more scholarly 'classic' review of the field -- The Great Silence -- which appeared in the Quarterly Journal of Royal Astronomical Society, fall 1983, v.24, pp 283-309,

Or might a lurker probe already be here?

Or a sci fi novella that thoroughly explores the variants of possible Von Neumann self-replicating interstellar probes.

Or my answer to UFOs.

Or a dozen other stories illustrating unusual possibilities for alien life.

But the crux is this.

Stop assuming that asserting something makes it so!

It doesn’t. Nor does positing an "of course" pre-explanation of the Great Silence make you wise.

 In fact, it’s time for a much wider conversation about this, bringing together our best minds from dozens of fields and opposing viewpoints.  This is a topic where nobody is right, who blithely rolls off cliches and says “of course the answer is this."

PS... re my suggestion - on Larry King - that SETI shift from one expensive and ridiculously over-specialized telescope to 10,000 net-linked backyard receivers... the SETI League is a real outfit that tries to do this. They believe the "WOW" signal would be detectable by a few thousand dollars worth of electronics attached to a 12-ft satellite dish. They're all about getting thousands of amateurs into the SETI field. While the sensitivity could never match the Allen array, the Allen array cannot hope to cover the entire sky, full time, over the entire radio spectrum. Only a large number of receivers give us any chance of detecting signals beamed our way.  (By the way, on Larry King I should have pointed out a side benefit... that such a system would also help catch Dan Ayckroyd’s UFO saucer guys!)

Finally, some of the researchers in this field have expressed deep contempt for science fiction. This ready dismissal of the entire field of gedankenexperimentation by thoughtful and scientifically deep authors is nothing but flat out - and proud - ignorance.  Such people dismiss - without having ever read them - mind-blowingly original thought experiments by the likes of Bear and Banks and Vinge (and me), which make up the only real library of what-if extrapolations that our committees could quickly turn to, in the event of a post-contact situation! 

To call such explorations "simpleminded" and unimaginative and based solely on copying the human experience is to declare openly "I am satisfied that B-Movies typify 'science fiction.' I have never cracked the spine of a grownup science fiction contact scenario... nor will I, ever."

That’s just dunderheaded and closeminded and especially unworthy of people who have earned great merit in other fields. People who now propose to represent us, if and when we meet the alien.

======ON TO MORE SCIENCE =====

And while we’re on a similar topic.... According to a new book by astrobiologist Dirk Schulze-Makuch and science writer David Darling, we’ve had good evidence of microbial life on Mars since NASA’s Viking missions in the late 1970s. Now, they argue, all that’s needed to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that we are not alone is another ambitious mission to Mars—one that, like Viking, carries a life-detection experiment.My friend Joe Miller (prof. USC) has been saying this for years... that Viking found life on Mars, back in the 1970s.) 

Solar Sails At Last? With its May 18 launch date fast approaching, Japan’s  hybrid sail mission is at last getting a bit of press attention, long overdue in my opinion. The Daily Mail, at least, has just run a  on IKAROS, which will combine two mission concepts within a single spacecraft. Its solar sail works conventionally, using the momentum of photons from the Sun to accelerate the craft. But the JAXA designers have added thin film solar cells on the sail membrane. These produce the electricity that could be used in future (and larger) iterations to drive an ion engine.

Oh and for you lazy Sci Fi fans... a Brightness Reef promo -- in case you need to be convinced to start the Second Uplift Trilogy.

Science and Tech Miscellany

HP Designjet 3D Printer Now On Sale, Churns Out Solid Plastic Objects From the Desktop.

Wow! “Anesthesiologist Lakhmir Chawla of George Washington University Medical Center and his colleagues recently published a retrospective analysis of brain activity in seven sedated, critically ill patients as they were removed from life support. Using EEG recordings of neural electrical activity, Chawla found a brief but significant spike at or near the time of death—despite a preceding loss of blood pressure and associated drop in brain activity....The jolts lasted 30 to 180 seconds and displayed properties that are normally associated with consciousness, such as extremely fast electrical oscillations known as gamma waves. Soon after the activity abated, the patients were pronounced dead. Chawla posits that the predeath spikes are most likely brief, “last hurrah” seizures originating in brain areas that were irritable from oxygen starvation. If these seizures were to occur in memory regions, they could explain the vivid recollections often reported by people who are resuscitated from near death, Chawla says.”

Leaking Oil Well Lacked Safeguard Device.

See a way-cool student film “preview” of Rendezvous With Rama by AC Clarke. 

Quickie T-Shirt advice for making contact with an alien.

Instead of fast food, we need fast fuel. A new time-saving recipe for bio-fuel: Make an algae soup. Heat to 300 degrees in a pressure-cooker for one hour. The result: crude bio-oil -- without waiting millions of years as in nature’s original formula. A possible replacement for today’s fossil fuels?

Did extinction events nearly wipe out humans–-causing a population bottleneck, as measured by decreased genetic diversity?  One may have occurred 1.2 million years ago, when there were only 55,000 members of genus Homo. Another - an enormous eruption 70,000 years ago near Sumatra. At these bottlenecks, genetic mutations have had a greater likelihood of being passed on…and shifting the course of human evolution.

Just rediscovered a classic: Mr. Tompkins in Wonderland (1940) by physicist George Gamow. A bank clerk, Mr. Tompkins attends a lecture on relativity, falls asleep & dreams of a city where the speed of light is only 6 mph. He experiences the effects of relativity in everyday life, i.e. riding a bicycle: “if I step harder on the pedals city blocks become shorter and shorter.” Charming even if a bit dated.

A new solar driven method to de-oxidize magnesium. 

It is officially described as an orbital test vehicle. However, one of its potential uses appears to be to launch a surge of small satellites during periods of high international tension. This would enable America to have eyes and ears orbiting above any potential troublespot in the world. The X37B can stay in orbit for up to 270 days, whereas the Shuttle can last only 16 days. This will provide the US with the ability to carry out experiments for long periods, including the testing of new laser weapon systems.

Piezo-electric, shoe-based battery charger. 

Or else... an energy-harvesting device using stacked thermocouples that generates a few microwatts of electrical power from body heat or any environment where there is a temperature gradient.

The brain's power will turn out to derive from data processing within the neuron rather than activity between neurons.

A Russian company is marketing a devastating new $10-20 million cruise missile system that can be hidden inside a shipping container, giving any merchant vessel the capability to wipe out an aircraft carrier.

Everyone in America pays some sort of taxes, which may take the form of income, sales or property taxes imposed by state and local governments, in addition to federal income, payroll and excise taxes. Citizens for Tax Justice (CTJ) estimates that the share of total taxes (federal state and local taxes) paid by taxpayers in each income group is quite similar to the share of total income received by each income group in 2009. For example, the share of total taxes paid by the richest one percent (22.1 percent) is not dramatically different from the share of total income received by this group (20.4 percent). (Nevertheless... I feel there should be some kind of MINIMUM tax. Everfybody, even the poor, should have to fork over something... and thereupon care where it goes.  Even better, ,make it $100 when the budget is in surplus. and $300 when in deficit.  Then even the poor will want a balanced budget!)

John Peterson suggested this one:
"I like the dreams of the future better than the history of the past." - Thomas Jefferson

Ah sci fi....



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That's a lot of info for my tiny brain to process.

Thank you for the brain food.

Have you ever considered that you may actually be an alien and not know it? You grew up thinking you're human, so obviously you wouldn't have a point of reference for thinking otherwise. :)

I consider the possibility of other sentient life wonderfully intriguing.

Thanks for this very thoughtful post, now I'm off to write something silly.
Mr Brin, your position that we can't know is most reasonable, but does not bring us closer to a decision on what to do in regards to METI.
If the possiblity is there, even if vanishingly small, that some sort of avanced race could come and wipe us out, then does it make any sense whatsoever to even attempt to contact them?
Better to use our resources on solving our other problems first, without potentially getting ourselves into even more hot water.

I found your statement on science fiction authors to be not only accurate, but moving. Those scientists who dismiss the most bold of imaginary pioneers are merely jealous of the author's ability to connect with actual humans.

All in all, well done. Thank you.
New Uplift trilogy! Yayyy!
Although this muddled and at times fried my brain, and I didn't even click the links yet, I would presume that you would be a delightful and interesting dinner guest. I am not generally a sci fi fan, although I guess being a lover of Star Trek, Star Wars, Independence Day, etc. I guess I am. I do believe that Thomas Jefferson had something there. I am glad you made it to the cover so I may know of you and continue reading your ideas and work. Interesting. Very interesting. R.
Maybe they're waiting for the CO2 levels to be get enough to support life? Anyways intriguing post.
"Stop assuming that asserting something makes it so!" Thank you for saying that. Great article. xox
We have been sending radio signals for around one hundred years in a form that an intelligent species would see as non-random. That cat is out of the bag.
I have a question, maybe you can answer, you seem to have thought of so many good points... why does there seem to be an assumption that any advanced life forms would be lacking in morals and ethics, somewhat like our own? we tend to ascribe a lack of them to people who don't have our interests in mind, but that doesn't make it so. It is as if one would have to be non-theistic (for lack of better term) in order to become advanced enough to fly to another solar system? If there is a "godlike entity", wouldn't it be overarching in the universe, or is it only local to our sun? DNA units are the same in all the species, wouldn't it be likely they would be similar elsewhere, and our "image" be comparable to what/who ever would be sophisticated enough to develop to the point of extraterrestrial visitation?
Oryoki and Don, I appreciate your visit. But kindly actually read articles, before you comment on them.

Oryoki, "everybody" does NOT assume the worst about aliens. The world seems split between those who leap to assume ET will be all-wise and those who leap to cry out in fear. My entire article was about how foolish such leaps and assumptions and assertions are.

Nature and its creatures are all brutally competitive. We now hope that our civilization can become less brutal and there are signs we may indeed be heading that way. We can hope that ETs have gone farther.

But there is no proof.

Don, just read the article. Your point is entirely disproved by science. It is a lazy truism without basis. Just because everybody says something doesn't make it so.
"In Hawking’s new show, for example, he posits that super-advanced civilizations might come charging in to exploit our solar system’s resources, use them up and then move on, leaving us in a trashed wasteland."

I think the aliens waited too long. We have already trashed our planet.
Why would anyone with the technology to get here come here? We're hopelessly primitive by comparison. The resources required to get here would be comparable to the resources that could be gained. Can aliens be smart enough to get here, and dumb enough to bother?
You're working for our future alien overlords aren't you? YOU CAN'T HAVE MY ADRENAL GLAND!
there R things i could say but i will maintain the grate silence
We've been pumping out radio and television noise for decades. What's done is done.
Again, here's Gordon ironically proving my point about fact-free ignoramuses commenting about things they know nothing about, and chiming in about articles they haven't bothered to read (except maybe the title.)

Gordon. Even the SETI guys have done the calculation. You, are wrong.
It is my supposition that the Universe in not only queerer than we imagine, is queerer than we can imagine.
John B. S. Haldane

To suppose we can assume to comprehend the thoughts and motives of an advanced civilization other than our own when we have difficulty understanding the mind of a chicken is a nice example of human hubris. How would you explain dark matter to a bright dog? Or baseball to an oyster?
In the parlance of the ignorant, far out (pun intended). Great piece of work here. While Dr. Hawking et al have a valid point, the truth would seem to be that we would seem to have ample ability to pick up an alien signal, we wouldn't know one if we got it unless by some miracle it happened to be designed along the lines of our own methods of communication, or if it happened to be in binary. Likely too is that those ETs wouldn't know they were receiving us either. Or if they did what exactly we were trying to say. There are too many variables to put anything more than a blind guess about all of this. Some very educated blind guesses but, blind none the less.
I cannot imagine that those things that fell together to start the life function here did not combine elsewhere in the universe so I do not doubt that there may be others looking, listening and making blind guesses as to the intentions of those that may find them. I for one would like to say to them, "you live your life and I will live mine and I won't waste a lot of time worrying about it."
Sorry I missed the debate on Larry King Live. Sounds like it was terrific.
Hm. At the risk of being castigated, your position in the paper seems to be that everyone's opinion is a crock because they just don't have a clue what aliens might really do or think. I'm tempted to agree (if tha is really what you are saying), but it does seem reasonable that should aliens ever pop up here, at least one of the opinions of the "experts" self-proclaimed or otherwise is in all liklihood going to prove to be true.

Steven Hawkings is getting a lot of press right now because he is such a well known theoretical physicist, but his theory isn't new to him, and as you point out, he doesn't know any aliens (so far as we know, anyway.)

Another theory on the subject has been proposed by the guy who wrote "The Bible Code," Volume 2 of which but not Vol. 1 I read, in which he claims essentially that we are the aliens; that our dna was brought here via a spacecraft that is still buried on a peninsula jutting into the Dead Sea, as revealed through the Bible Code.

Sounds just as plausible a theory as any of the others. Or implausible. Another of his Bible Code revelations was that Arafat would be gunned down by some of his own fellow Arab henchmen.
I find Bible code mystics tedious and poster boys for the word "tendentious."

I do NOT say that no one can be right. My role has been the opposite, I am the only person in the entire field who actually cataloged, compared and weighed ALL the physically possible theories without declaring an "of course" winner. Your accusation is diametrically opposite to the clear meaning of this article.

In fact, there are tons of added notions and scenarios explored in science fiction, including plot twists showing how reality might surprise us. It is depressing that the current head of the SETI post-detection committee has dismissed ALL science fictional thought experiments as completely irrelevant. Thus ironically illustration the point of my essay (above.)
Accusation? What accusation? What are you being so defensive and abrasive about? You've jumped on several people here for apparently not understanding exactly what you are trying to put across. Maybe we have misuderstood you. Maybe even it isn't our fault, entirely. Ever think of the possibility that maybe you aren't putting across your ideas as clearly as you seem to think?

As for the Bible Code books, I discount them too, having read that part about Arafat being gunned down by his own side, which he wasn't. But the part about our DNA arriving via interstellar visitors certainly seems as reasonable as any other theory including Hawking's, yours as stated elsewhere, or anybody else's about possible interstellar visitors and their impact and intent, tendentious or not. And no, that isn't my theory about extra-terrestrial life. It's just one I found interesting and so I mentioned it. I have no ax to grind, unless it's pompous idiots who can't have a conversation without trying to put somebody else down as inferior intellects.
I leave it to others to judge whether your tone was aggressive. I've shown this exchange to three, who all told me in effect, don't engage that rude $%$#.

But we are all the heroes of our own dramas. I withdraw my side of any escalation.

Still the core point of my essay was emphatically repeated and I am known for clarity. My hypotheseis for the misunderstanding is that you committed the modern fault of skimming, then leaping.
Yes, I was maybe a "rude $%$#." My response was resultant as much or more from your response to some others here as it was to me. If I was a "rude $%$#" I think maybe I was in some pretty good company, here. And still, nothing I said was in any way an accusation. It was accompanied with qualifiers. But you are right, in that I didn't read your paper as thoroughly as I might have done, just as you have apparently likewise leaped to an erroneous conclusion in reading accusation into what I said.

Perhaps I shouldn't have used the word "crock" in saying that "your position in the paper seems to be that everyone's opinion is a crock because they just don't have a clue what aliens might really do or think." Or maybe it would be more accurate to say that the certainty of their opinion is what should be labled as a crock, because none of them know. And maybe from your point of view I'm still not getting it. That is a possibility too.

In any case, I'll be more careful in any possible future interactions. I tend sometimes to have a "certainty" of opinion sometimes, as you obviously do as well in this topic, though I do think that we do agree that no one knows what any actual encounter with extra-terrrestrials woud be like and what would result.
"your position in the paper seems to be that everyone's opinion is a crock "

That was an accusation.

You are obviously not a person who shares what I call a concept of logic. Let's just agree that we perceive differently, and this misunderstanding was among humans. The difference is that you were a guest here, and leaped all over another person based upon an article that you did not even read. I would be within my rights to hope that you will never come back here again.

Take this behavior elsewhere, please. Dismiss me as unworthy to talk to, if that's what it takes for you not to return. A sincere request. And live long.
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