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Tuesday, September 18, 2018

The Drake equation reconsidered

The chances of space aliens developing advanced tech are slimmer than most people realize. Update: What was the FBI really looking for at Sunspot?

A ficionados of Old Nerd's Tales will recall that Sunspot, New Mexico, the site of last week's mysterious FBI evacuation, has long figured prominently in mythology about extraterrestrial beings living on Earth. The observatory was originally built by the military, and well before last week a whole mythology had been invented about Sunspot being an entrance to an underground military base where reptilians and grays were confined.

One conspiracy site claimed

Informants have mentioned underground tunnels and facilities in New Mexico at Dulce, Sunspot, Datil, Corona, Taos Pueblo, and Albuquerque.

Stories like this are a reminder how we are constantly re-inventing new mythologies to help us recapture our sense of mystery.

On September 16, The Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy released a statement saying

We became concerned that a suspect in the investigation potentially posed a threat to the safety of local staff and residents. ... The decision to vacate was based on the logistical challenges associated with protecting personnel at such a remote location, and the need for expeditious response to the potential threat. . ..

This is vague enough that the stories, fanciful as they may be, are likely to continue. It's the nature of mythology to evolve along the fringes of credibility.

But what is the likelihood that aliens with interstellar space travel could really exist? We can estimate it from the rarity of such life on Earth. While life might evolve easily, intelligent life faces many obstacles. We can only speculate on how life got started on Earth, but we know a fair bit about the conditions needed for the only species to have developed space travel.

  1. Trees Technology requires manual dexterity. Species that evolved wings and fins would face almost insurmountable obstacles. Even octopus and squid tentacles are unsuited for fine dexterity. On a planet with no trees, an intelligent species might evolve, but it would be unlikely to have much technology.
  2. Fire Fire was an indispensable element for technology. That doesn't necessarily mean oxygen; in a reducing atmosphere, such as hydrogen/methane, oxidized solids would react in much the same way as coal and oil on Earth. Chlorine is highly reactive as well. The only requirement seems to be that it must be gaseous. Sea creatures are once again at a significant disadvantage.
  3. Temperature There seems to be a rule that every science documentary has to say that Earth is in a “Goldilocks zone”, but the optimal temperature depends solely on the chemistry; in an ocean of liquid ammonia, life might still exist, but only at low temperatures.

It's possible that the only truly survivable life form is artificial. That doesn't necessarily mean robots; intelligent life could evolve in any system, even an electronic one, where spontaneous self-organization and unclaimed resources are possible. Electronic life would have the advantage of being able to travel at the speed of light. The catch is that they would still need a physical medium to effect change in the real world.

In some ways, mythologies are like that. The unclaimed resources they use are the unsatisfactorily answered questions in life. They mutate, grow, reproduce, and die much as an incorporeal life form would do.

Artificial life requires biological life. It could only evolve in a technologically advanced world, where excess unused processing power can be appropriated by a self-organizing system. We may be creating a suitable environment for that now.

All these obstacles could, in principle, be overcome, and that's the problem with the Drake equation. The Drake equation is simply a product of probabilities that planets exist, that life will form on a planet, and so on. The more we learn, the more we realize that we have no idea what those probabilities are. What's more, there may be possibilities we can't imagine.

Update (Sept. 21, 2018): The FBI now claims they evacuated the solar observatory for a week, searched the area, and flew in military-style helicopters to search for child pornography being downloaded to one computer over the site's wireless link.

This has to be the worst cover story in history. I would have believed a bomb threat, Chinese espionage, or an escaped convict. The idea of evacuating a building for a week to search for child porn, “protecting personnel” from the porn and calling it a “potential threat” is so implausible that it almost begs for a conspiracy theory to explain it.

So here is one. It's a link to a collection of tales of aliens in secret underground bases, including (it's claimed in Chapter 3) Sunspot. It might be complete fiction, but it sounds more or less credible if you accept the premise.

sep 18 2018, 5:32 am; updated sep 21 2018, 4:33 am
Categories: speculation, mythology, flying saucers

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