Alien civilisations - less likely?

Discussion in 'SFF lounge' started by Anthony G Williams, Jun 5, 2011.

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    Anthony G Williams

    Anthony G Williams Greybeard

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    A couple of years ago I posted a review of a non-fiction book by Stephen Webb: Where is Everybody? Fifty Solutions to the Fermi Paradox (http://sciencefictionfantasy.blogspot.com/2009/05/where-is-everybody-fifty-solutions-to.html). In this book, the author considers the Fermi Paradox; that given the number of stars in this galaxy alone and the length of time it has existed, there should be swarms of high-technology Extra-Terrestrial Civilisations (ETCs) around, so why haven't we detected any? He examines a wide range of possible explanations before concluding that our planet is uniquely fortunate and may host the only technological civilisation in the galaxy.

    My own conclusion was slightly different from the author's, in that I speculated that given the age of this galaxy, with the average age of its stars being some two billion years older than our sun, there have probably been plenty of ETCs around but that it could be rare for more than one to be in existence at any one time, since they may not last all that long.

    One of the unknowns, until very recently, was how many stars have planets - particularly planets like ours, rocky and in the CHZ (continuously habitable zone): which is to say, at the right distance from its sun for the billions of years needed for not just life (or our understanding of it) but advanced intelligence to evolve. The habitable zone is popularly known as the "Goldilocks" zone: not too hot and not too cold for liquid water to exist on its surface (i.e. average surface temperatures within the 0-100 degrees centigrade range). However, this gap in our knowledge is rapidly being filled by astronomers who, by using highly sensitive instruments and sophisticated data processing techniques, have discovered over 1,200 exoplanets orbiting nearly 1,000 stars, with the numbers steadily growing. What they have discovered so far has been summarised in a couple of recent issues of the New Scientist magazine (Astrobiology supplement by Caleb Scharf, 7th May; and No Place Like Home by Lee Billings, 14th May) and is discouraging to those keen to find ETCs.

    First, I had better summarise the three different indirect methods by which exoplanets are detected (even the biggest of them around the closest stars are far too small to observe directly).

    The first method used is the Doppler or radial velocity technique. This relies on the fact that planets do not, strictly speaking, orbit their stars. The planets and their stars orbit a common axis whose position is determined by their relative masses; if a star and planet were both of the same mass, the axis would be half-way between them. Generally, stars are vastly more massive than any of their planets so the common axis is within the star, but not in its centre. The star therefore wobbles slightly as the planet moves around it, and this can be detected. The speed of the wobble indicates the period of the planet's orbit and therefore its distance from the star; the size of the wobble indicates the relative mass of the planet. Obviously, if a star has several planets, each exercising its influence on it, then its pattern of wobbles can be very complex and require lots of number-crunching to resolve. This method favours the discovery of large planets orbiting very closely around their stars, as these create the biggest wobbles. This may mask the existence of smaller planets further out.

    The second method is known as transit photometry, which is based on measuring the slight dip in a star's brightness as a planet passes in front of it. The degree of the dip indicates the planet's size, the time period involved indicates its speed and therefore distance from the star. This method also has its disadvantages. An obvious one is that the planet's plane of orbit has to be side-on to us, otherwise it wouldn't pass between its star and our planet, so any planets with different orbital planes will fail to be detected. It is also necessary for three transits to be observed to be certain that this is a genuine effect, which in the case of a planet the same distance from its star as ours means that it will take two to three years to confirm. Jupiter's orbit takes twelve years, so confirming the observation of a similar planet would take 24 to 36 years. So once again, bigger planets close to their stars are the easiest to detect.

    The third method is called gravitational microlensing, which relies on the fact that massive objects bend the fabric of space. In practical terms, it means that a star exactly in between us and a far more distant star will act as a lens, focusing the light of the distant star. If the nearer star has planets, these can produce a subsidiary focusing effect which can be analysed to determine the planets' masses and orbital distances. However, the opportunities for such observations occur very rarely.

    I find it amazing that no only can such miniscule observations result in confident estimates of the size and mass of planets orbiting distant stars but that the nature of the planets can also be deduced: whether they are rocky worlds or gas giants. Data from their stars also allows astronomers to deduce whether or not a particular planet is within the habitable zone.

    At first only the largest planets were observed, but more recently (and especially with the use of the Kepler telescope launched into orbit in 2009) it has become possible in some cases to start building up a picture of entire solar systems, identifying the number, size and orbits of several planets orbiting the same star. The results are demolishing some long-held beliefs.

    The theories of solar system formation which have developed over the centuries have of course all been based on a sample of one: ours. They tended to conclude that all of the planets will be more or less in the same orbital plane with close-to-spherical orbits, and that planets in close orbits will be small and rocky, with gas giants further out. All of these conclusions have turned out to be flawed.

    What astronomers have observed so far might be summarised as follows: planets and panetary systems are the norm, but while some systems have an even more regular structure than ours, others can best be described as chaotic. Gas giants are found in close orbits, the most spectacular example being Upsilon Andromedae which has a planet 1.4 times the mass of Jupiter so close to the star that its orbital period is just 4.5 days! Furthermore, that same star has a super-massive gas giant, 14 times the mass of Jupiter, with its orbital plane at a 30 degree angle to the first one. And there is a third giant in that system, 10 times the mass of Jupiter, in an extremely elliptical orbit with a different orbital plane again. This kind of chaotic structure would have a huge effect on any smaller planets in the system, wildly disturbing their orbits and making it impossible for them to remain in the habitable zone for any length of time.

    One possible consequence of such gravitational instability is that planets can end up being flung out of their solar systems altogether, presumably accounting for the recent discovery of many such homeless planets floating around our galaxy, only detectable via their gravitational lensing effect. In fact, a later New Scientist news item suggests that so many of these loose planets have now been discovered that they must be considerably more common than planets which are still orbiting stars.

    This is really significant since in order for life to evolve to a human level of intelligence on any particular planet, that planet has to remain within the Goldilocks zone for billions of years. And that means above all that stability is required. Not only does the orbit of the planet have to be fairly circular and the star itself be stable, but other planets in that system have to be in stable, near-circular orbits in more or less the same orbital plane.

    Of the 1,200 planets detected so far, only 366 are rocky and of Earth or super-Earth size (the initial requirement for supporting Life As We Know It). Of these, just six are in the habitable zone. While most seem to be in reasonably stable orbits at present, that does not mean that they have been, or will remain, in that zone for the length of time required to develop intelligent life.

    Exploration continues and conclusions are sure to change as more data comes in, but initial indications are that our Earth's characteristics and history have been unusually favourable to the development of intelligent life. Which suggests that it is unlikely that other civilisations exist anywhere near us.

    (An extract from my SFF blog)
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    Vertigo

    Vertigo Mad Mountain Man

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    That's very interesting Anthony, I might have to get a copy of that book for a read. It seems to be pretty much in line with my own thoughts, though I hadn't realised that we seem to be finding chaotic systems to be the norm. When combined with the problems of the galactic centre and the galactic fringes it really does seem to me that our system is proving to be the exception rather than the norm. Not a bright prospect for the discovery of alien civilisations.
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    J Riff

    J Riff The Ants are my friends..

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    Fabulous. We live right next to a major tourist attraction and aren't even allowed to talk about it, let alone go there.
    Theoretically - there should be an equasion for the possibility of Aliens not finding our system. I'd place the odds somewhere near zero.
    I guess, the Earth kids still aren't ready for Mars, too depressing yknow..... that was the reason bion, but... things change.
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    J-Sun

    J-Sun Active Member

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    william b

    william b New Member

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    Very interesting. Maybe we are getting a better idea of what the chances are, but there are always those times of discovery when the universe turns out to be different than we think, we discover some interesting fact that opens up new doors.
    All it takes is one discovery.
    And actually, I'm of a mind that a truly advanced civilization might not want to meet us. We act like we're the cheerleader everyone wants to date, but isn't that a little arrogant? Maybe we are one of the unpopular kids in the universe. Or at least too immature to hang out with the cool kids. I'm willing to bet that there are still many secrets in our universe.
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    Anthony G Williams

    Anthony G Williams Greybeard

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    Unquestionably - if you intend "secrets" to mean "things we don't know". It is important to keep an open mind and to be receptive to new evidence.

    However, it's also important to stress the need for objective, validated evidence in forming our theories and understanding. There is no evidence which suggests the existence of other technological civilisations anywhere at all - not a shred of it. So while it's interesting to speculate about why this is so, it is important to bear in mind that it is only speculation.
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    Stephen Palmer

    Stephen Palmer author of novels

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    Very interesting... we know so little. :rolleyes:
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    Vertigo

    Vertigo Mad Mountain Man

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    Very well put Anthony, a nice summary of where we are on this today! As you say there is no evidence to suggest the existence of other technological civilisations and of course there is also no hard evidence to suggest their non-existence either. However a lack of evidence does suggest a lack of existence more strongly than the reverse.
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    J Riff

    J Riff The Ants are my friends..

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    As always, human beans will put profit ahead of truth, a virtual Law, if you will, of nature.
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    RJM Corbet

    RJM Corbet Never Sure

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    What' all this about Mars, Riff? C'mon. I won't tell anyone, I promise ...
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    Null_Zone

    Null_Zone Member

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    I can't help feeling the answer to the Fermi Paradox is:-

    Just like humanity is out there exploring the stars.
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    Vertigo

    Vertigo Mad Mountain Man

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    My pessimistic side tends to agree with you there Null Zone. Maybe there is no convenient get around of our known laws of physics, and without FTL (or maybe even with it) the economics of star travel make it prohibitive for any technological race. It's hard to imagine there are any significantly different resources out there than we don't already have here in our solar system (us being already unusually high in heavier metals). So what would you trade to make it worthwhile? Think of the cost in resources and time for transport and the risk of going out there and never finding anyone to trade with.
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    J Riff

    J Riff The Ants are my friends..

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    Trade?
    Conquer! Enslave. That's what humans'll do, innit?
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    Stephen Palmer

    Stephen Palmer author of novels

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    We do love, as well.
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    J Riff

    J Riff The Ants are my friends..

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    Half do, the other half overrun and dominate, and they don't go away cos you are a love-god! And I oughter know.
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    Anthony G Williams

    Anthony G Williams Greybeard

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    Is that because you're an unappreciated love-god? :confused:
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    J Riff

    J Riff The Ants are my friends..

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    No, it's because I live in Canada.
    I'm reading Uninvited Visitors -a biologist looks at UFOs,
    and it talks about OOPOs- out-of-place objects -
    stuff that fell on Earth, in the times before the Media was completely leashed, and the list is awesome.
    Blood, metal cannisters, animals, weird things that took weeks to die, all kinds of junk. Barns carried away, Angel-hair, all sorts fun stuff floating down.
    The best ones, which we heard about when it happened, were the chunks of living....stuff, that took weeks, or in one case, two years to die.
    It gets crazy. Chickens disappear, then fish rain down. Were 'they' trying to be nice and pay back for stealing the chicken coop?
    Also, the Philadelphia Experiment letters are looked at. What the h*ll happened there?
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    Metryq

    Metryq Cave Painter

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    With all those chaotic planets out there, the mission of the Dark Star is sounding more plausible. Just be wary of bomb number 20.

    Ha! What a thought. The Orion slave girls are always greener on the other side of the fence? After incredible breakthroughs in physics and a massive economic and engineering effort, the first starships from Earth find a plentitude of intelligent life subsisting at pre-industrial levels. Given the opportunity, they'd all come to our Solar system as the prime real estate anywhere.
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    Vertigo

    Vertigo Mad Mountain Man

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    Ah well I wasn't considering Orion slave girls when I made the post...

    But seriously we have a solar system unusually high in all the elements including the heavier ones. It is just hard to think of anything that would be worth transporting at such high cost. Seeds of useful alien plants perhaps, though that probably wouldn't be allowed. The only other thing I can think of that might be worth trading would be technology - knowledge rather than artifacts.

    Compare with good old Earth; even here as transport cost continue to steadily rise, more and more effort is made to use local produce rather than incur those high costs and their carbon footprint. And that's just transporting a few thousand km rather than light years. Maybe that will change if we can ever develop some kind of cheap FTL drive but frankly I doubt it.
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    clovis-man

    clovis-man Prehistoric Irish Cynic

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    I'm sticking with the current mantra: If there were anyone else out there, they would have dropped in by now. So, by definition, they cannot exist.

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