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Location: UFOUpDatesList.Com > 2007 > Dec > Dec 10

Aliens Apart

From: Diana Cammack <cammack.nul>
Date: Sat, 8 Dec 2007 12:04:51 -0000
Archived: Mon, 10 Dec 2007 07:49:10 -0500
Subject: Aliens Apart

Source: Space.Com - New York, New York, USA


06 December 2007

Aliens Apart

By Seth Shostak
Senior Astronomer, SETI

For years scientists have wrestled with a puzzling fact: The
universe appears to be remarkably suited for life. Its physical
properties are finely tuned to permit our existence. Stars,
planets and the kind of sticky chemistry that produces fish,
ferns and folks wouldn't be possible if some of the cosmic
constants were only slightly different.

Well, there's another property of the universe that's equally
noteworthy: It's set up in a way that keeps everyone isolated.

We learned this relatively recently. The big discovery took
place in 1838, when Friedrich Bessel beat out his telescope-
wielding buddies to first measure the distance to a star other
than the sun. 61 Cygni, a binary star in our own back yard,
turned out to be about 11 light-years away. For those who, like
Billy Joel, are fond of models, think of it this way: If you
shrank the sun to a ping-pong ball and set it down in New York's
Central Park, 61 Cygni would be a slightly smaller ball near

The distances between adjacent stars are measured in tens of
trillions of miles. The distances between adjacent
civilizations, even assuming that there are lots of them out
there, are measured in thousands of trillions of miles =96
hundreds of light-years, to use a more tractable unit. Note that
this number doesn't change much no matter how many planets you
believe are studded with sentients =96 the separation distance is
pretty much the same whether you think there are ten thousand
galactic societies or a million.

Interstellar distances are big. Had the physics of the universe
been different =96 if the gravitational constant were smaller =96
maybe suns would have been sprinkled far closer together, and a
trip to your starry neighbors would have been no more than a
boring rocket ride, kind of like cruising to Sydney. As it is,
no matter what your level of technology, traveling between the
stars is a tough assignment. To hop from one to the next at the
speed of our snazziest chemical rockets takes close to 100,000
years. For any aliens who have managed to amass the enormous
energy reserves and ponderous radiation shielding required for
relativistic spaceflight, the travel time is still measured in
years (if not for them, then for those they've left behind).

This has some obvious consequences (which, remarkably, have
escaped the attention of most Hollywood writers.) To begin with,
forget about galactic "empires" or more politically-correct
"federations." Two thousand years ago, the Romans clubbed
together an empire that stretched from Spain to Iraq, with a
radius of about 1,200 miles. They could do this thanks to
organization and civil engineering. All those roads (not to
mention the Mediterranean) allowed them to move troops around at
a few miles an hour. Even the most distant Roman realms could be
reached in months or less, or about one percent the lifetime of
your average legionnaire. It makes sense to undertake campaigns
designed to hold together an extensive social fabric when doing
so requires only a percent or so of a lifetime.

In the 19th century, steamships and railroads increased the
troop travel speeds by a factor of ten, which extended the
radius of control by a similar amount. The British could rule an
empire that was world-wide.

But here's the kicker: Even if we could move people around at
nearly the speed of light, this "one percent rule" would still
limit our ability to effectively intervene =96 our radius of
control =96 to distances of less than a light-year, considerably
short of the span to even the nearest star other than Sol.
Consequently, the Galactic Federation is a fiction (as if you
didn't know). Despite being warned that Cardassian look-alikes
were wreaking havoc and destruction in the galaxy's Perseus Arm,
you couldn't react quickly enough to affect the outcome. And
your conscripts would be worm feed long before they arrived on
the front lines anyway.

In other words, aliens won't be getting in one another's face.

There's a similar argument to be made for communication. We
seldom initiate information interchange that takes longer than
months (an overseas letter, for instance). More generally, we
seldom begin any well-defined project that lasts more than two
or three generations. The builders of medieval cathedrals were
willing to spend that kind of time to complete their gothic
edifices, and those who bury time capsules are occasionally
willing to let a hundred years pass before the canisters are dug
up. But what about a project that takes several centuries, and
possibly millennia? Who's willing to do that? Only Stewart
Brand's "Long Now Foundation" seems to have the guts for this
type of enterprise, proposing to build a clock that will keep
time for ten thousand years.

Clearly, these simple observations must have implications for
SETI which, as we noted, involves transmissions that will be
underway for hundreds to thousands of years. In particular, if
there are signals being bandied about the galaxy for purposes of
getting in touch, either (1) the aliens are individually much
longer-lived than we are, which =96 if you're a fan of circuit-
board sentience =96 implies that they're probably not biological.
Or (2) we're missing some important physics permitting faster-
than-light communication, and extraterrestrial signaling efforts
don't include burping light and radio waves into space.

Many readers will, in a display of endearing perversity, choose
(2). Maybe they're right, but that flies in the face of what we
know. And what we know argues something worth bantering about at
your next cocktail party =96 namely, that the time scales for
travel and communication are too long for easy interaction with
beings whose lifetimes are, like us, only a century or less. So
while the cosmos could easily be rife with intelligent life =96
the architecture of the universe, and not some Starfleet Prime
Directive, has ensured precious little interference of one
culture with another.

Listen to 'Strange Days... Indeed' - The PodCast



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