The Fermi Paradox and Are We Alone in the Universe?

The Fermi paradox is something like this. The Universe is enormous, and there are an astronomical number of planets. Accordingly, the potential for intelligent life somewhere should be enormous, but we find no evidence of anything. The Seti program has been searching for decades and has found nothing. So where are these aliens?

What is fascinating about this is an argument from Daniel Whitmire, who teaches mathematics at the University of Arkansas and has published a paper in the International Journal of Astrobiology (doi:10.1017/S1473550417000271 ). In it, he concludes that technological societies rapidly exterminate themselves. So, how does he come to this conclusion. The argument is fascinating relating to the power of mathematics, and particularly statistics, to show or mislead.

He first resorts to a statistical concept called the Principle of Mediocrity, which states that, in the absence of any evidence to the contrary, any observation should be regarded as typical. If so, we observe our own presence. If we assume we are typical, and we have been technological for 100 years (he defines being technological as using electricity, but you can change this) then it follows that our being average means that after a further 200 years we are no longer technological. We can extend this to about 500 years on the basis that in terms of age a Bell curve is skewed (you cannot have negative age). To be non-technological we have to exterminate ourselves, therefore he concludes that technological societies exterminate themselves rather quickly. We may scoff at that, but then again, watching the antics over North Korea can we be sure?

He makes a further conclusion: since we are the first on our planet, other civilizations should also be the first. I really don’t follow this because he has also calculated that there could be up to 23 opportunities for further species to develop technologies once we are gone, so surely that follows elsewhere. It seems to me to be a rather mediocre use of this principle of mediocrity.

Now, at this point, I shall diverge and consider the German tank problem, because this shows what you can do with statistics. The allies wanted to know the production rate of German tanks, and they got this from a simple formula, and from taking down the serial numbers of captured or destroyed tanks. The formula is

N = m + m/n – 1

Where N is the number you are seeking, m is the highest sampled serial number and n is the sample size (the number of tanks). Apparently this was highly successful, and their estimations were far superior to intelligence gathering, which always seriously overestimated.

That leaves the question of whether that success means anything for the current problem. The first thing we note is the Germans conveniently numbered their tanks, and in sequence, the sample size was a tolerable fraction of the required answer (it was about 5%), and finally it was known that the Germans were making tanks and sending them to the front as regularly as they could manage. There were no causative aspects that would modify the results. With Whitmire’s analysis, there is a very bad aspect of the reasoning: this question of whether we are alone is raised as soon as we have some capability to answer it. Thus we ask it within fifty years of having reasonable electronics; for all we know they may still be asking it a million years in the future, so the age of technological society, which is used to base the lifetime reasoning, is put into the equation as soon as it is asked. That means it is not a random sample, but causative sample. Then on top of that, we have a sample of one, which is not exactly a good statistical sample. Of course if there were more samples than one, the question would answer itself and there would be no need for statistics. In this case, statistics are only used when they should not be used.

So what do I make of that? For me, there is a lack of logic. By definition, to publish original work, you have to be the first to do it. So, any statistical conclusion from asking the question is ridiculous because by definition it is not a random sample; it is the first. It is like trying to estimate German tank production from a sample of 1 and when that tank had the serial number 1. So, is there anything we can take from this?

In my opinion, the first thing we could argue from this Principle of Mediocrity is that the odds of finding aliens are strongest on earth-sized planets around G type stars about this far from the star, simply because we know it is at least possible. Further, we can argue the star should be at least about 4.5 billion years old, to give evolution time to generate such technological life. We are reasonably sure it could not have happened much earlier on Earth. One of my science fiction novels is based on the concept that Cretaceous raptors could have managed it, given time, but that still only buys a few tens of millions of years, and we don’t know how long they would have taken, had they been able. They had to evolve considerably larger brains, and who knows how long that would take? Possibly almost as long as mammals took.

Since there are older stars out there, why haven’t we found evidence? That question should be rephrased into, how would we? The Seti program assumes that aliens would try to send us messages, but why would they? Unless they were directed, to send meaningful signals over such huge distances would require immense energy expenditures. And why would they direct signals here? They could have tried 2,000 years ago, persisted for a few hundred years, and given us up. Alternatively, it is cheaper to listen. As I noted in a different novel, the concept falls down on economic grounds because everyone is listening and nobody is sending. And, of course, for strategic reasons, why tell more powerful aliens where you live? For me, the so-called Fermi paradox is no paradox at all; if there are aliens out there, they will be following their own logical best interests, and they don’t include us. Another thing it tells me is this is evidence you can indeed “prove” anything with statistics, if nobody is thinking.

Collusion, Treason, Evidence of Interfering With Elections

Yes, I know you have heard all this before, but maybe this is different? The last Presidential election in the US has a lot to answer for, but wait, there’s more! And with evidence to go with it! First, some background. New Zealand has a law that states that anyone with one New Zealand parent is automatically a New Zealand citizen. Australia has a law that states that to be a member of parliament, you must not be a citizen of another country. It turned out that an Australian reporter found out that the father of Barnaby Joyce (the Australian Deputy Prime Minister) was a New Zealander and therefore Joyce was a New Zealand citizen by descent. Barnaby Joyce was born in Australia and as far as we know has never been to New Zealand. The journalist wrote to Joyce’s office, the New Zealand High Commission in Canberra, and the New Zealand Department of Internal Affairs for clarification and got no response. A further relevant piece of information is that New Zealand is shortly to have an election and very recently, thanks to appalling poll results, the leader of the Lahour Party here, who are in opposition, was replaced by Jacinda Ardern, who is somewhat younger and more vibrant. Two weeks into the job the following mess descended on her.

It is less clear exactly what started this, but the New Zealand MP Chris Hipkins raised the issue of dual citizenship by submitting questions to the New Zealand Parliament, which is in its dying stages. Exactly why he did this is the unclear part. One story is that an assistant to Penny Wong, the shadow foreign affairs spokesman for the Australian Labour Party, primed Hipkins. Whatever the source or the reason, clearly Hipkins had a brain fade. You don’t start commenting on the constitutional aspects of another country if you are in Parliament; you don’t raise an issue formally (had he really wanted the answer as opposed to making a public statement he could have asked one of the legal aspects available to Members of Parliament) unless you have an objective, and finally if you don’t know where an issue might go, you do not raise it about six weeks before an election, especially with a new leader struggling to find her way. Ardern quickly lashed Hipkins, verbally at least, as soon as she had found out, but the fuse had been lit.

The Australian Prime Minister immediately accused Bill Shorten, the leader of the Australian Labour party, of conspiring with a foreign power. That accusation may have been the first Shorten knew of the issue. However, it left the average New Zealander in a funny position. On the whole, leaving aside sporting contests, we consider ourselves rather friendly with Australians, although I suppose the temptation of either side to give the odd raw prawn is still there. But fancy that – we are accused of being a power. First I’ve heard of that one. Then, obviously having got the rhythm, the conspiracy is to undermine the Australian government, and that is treason!

There was more stuff for this fuse to ignite. The Australian Foreign Minister, Julie Bishop, could not be restrained, and accused the Australian Labour Party of trying to use the New Zealand Labour Party to undermine the Australian government. Collusion and treachery! She was also quoted on TV (evidence!) as saying “New Zealand is facing an election. Should there be a change of government I would find it very hard to build trust with those involved in allegations designed to undermine the government of Australia.” That is effectively the Australian government intervening in the New Zealand election.

So, what of Jacinda Ardern? She seemed somewhat unfazed by these accusations. She certainly sent Hipkins to the dog box and she tried to diplomatically engage with Ms Bishop, so far with no luck. But she refused to apologise. So, will this have any effect on the election? We have to wait and see, but my guess is the only effect will be from Ms Bishop’s attack, and that will help Jacinda. As one of our previous Prime Ministers once said, New Zealand politicians don’t lose votes by refusing to bow down to Australian politicians. As for the Australian Labour politicians, I understand their response to accusations of treachery and collusion was to sit back and laugh, which is probably the only response worth making.

I have no idea what the average Australian thinks, but my guess it will be either shaking the head in disbelief or laughing. And in New Zealand? This morning’s newspaper had two items that probably represent our feelings. The first was a cartoon with an aboriginal sitting outside a hut and being told about this electoral law fiasco. His response” Wow! Pity they didn’t have that law 200 years ago.” There was also a letter to the editor, with the proposal that, in the spirit of good relations and friendship with our Aussie neighbours, that New Zealand immediately convey New Zealand citizenship on all Australian politicians.

What is nothing?

Shakespeare had it right – there has been much ado about nothing, at least in the scientific world. In some of my previous posts I have advocated the use of the scientific method on more general topics, such as politics. That method involves the rigorous evaluation of evidence, of making propositions in accord with that evidence, and most importantly, rejecting those that are clearly false. It may appear that for ordinary people, that might be too hard, but at least that method would be followed by scientists, right? Er, not necessarily. In 1962 Thomas Kuhn published a work, “The structure of scientific revolutions” and in it he argued that science itself has a very high level of conservatism. It is extremely difficult to change a current paradigm. If evidence is found that would do so, it is more likely to be secreted away in the bottom drawer, included in a scientific paper in a place where it is most likely to be ignored, or, if it is published, ignored anyway, and put in the bottom drawer of the mind. The problem seems to be, there is a roadblock towards thinking that something not in accord with expectations might be significant. With that in mind, what is nothing?

An obvious answer to the title question is that a vacuum is nothing. It is what is left when all the “somethings” are removed. But is there “nothing” anywhere? The ancient Greek philosophers argued about the void, and the issue was “settled” by Aristotle, who argued in his Physica that there could not be a void, because if there were, anything that moved in it would suffer no resistance, and hence would continue moving indefinitely. With such excellent thinking, he then, for some reason, refused to accept that the planets were moving essentially indefinitely, so they could be moving through a void, and if they were moving, they had to be moving around the sun. Success was at hand, especially if he realized that feathers did not fall as fast as stones because of wind resistance, but for some reason, having made such a spectacular start, he fell by the wayside, sticking to his long held prejudices. That raises the question, are such prejudices still around?

The usual concept of “nothing” is a vacuum, but what is a vacuum? Some figures from Wikipedia may help. A standard cubic centimetre of atmosphere has 2.5 x 10^19 molecules in it. That’s plenty. For those not used to “big figures”, 10^19 means the number where you write down 10 and follow it with 19 zeros, or you multiply 10 by itself nineteen times. Our vacuum cleaner gets the concentration of molecules down to 10^19, that is, the air pressure is two and a half times less in the cleaner. The Moon “atmosphere” has 4 x 10^5 molecules per cubic centimetre, so the Moon is not exactly in vacuum. Interplanetary space has 11 molecules per cubic centimetre, interstellar space has 1 molecule per cubic centimetre, and the best vacuum, intergalactic space, needs a million cubic centimetres to find one molecule.

The top of the Earth’s atmosphere, the thermosphere goes from 10^14 to 10^7. That is a little suspect at the top because you would expect it to gradually go down to that of interplanetary space. The reason there is a boundary is not because there is a sharp boundary, but rather it is the point where gas pressure is more or less matched by solar radiation pressure and that from solar winds, so it is difficult to make firm statements about further distances. Nevertheless, we know there is atmosphere out to a few hundred kilometres because there is a small drag on satellites.

So, intergalactic space is most certainly almost devoid of matter, but not quite. However, even without that, we are still not quite there with “nothing”. If nothing else, we know there are streams of photons going through it, probably a lot of cosmic rays (which are very rapidly moving atomic nuclei, usually stripped of some of their electrons, and accelerated by some extreme cosmic event) and possibly dark matter and dark energy. No doubt you have heard of dark matter and dark energy, but you have no idea what it is. Well, join the club. Nobody knows what either of them are, and it is just possible neither actually exist. This is not the place to go into that, so I just note that our nothing is not only difficult to find, but there may be mysterious stuff spoiling even what little there is.

However, to totally spoil our concept of nothing, we need to see quantum field theory. This is something of a mathematical nightmare, nevertheless conceptually it postulates that the Universe is full of fields, and particles are excitations of these fields. Now, a field at its most basic level is merely something to which you can attach a value at various coordinates. Thus a gravitational field is an expression such that if you know where you are and if you know what else is around you, you also know the force you will feel from it. However, in quantum field theory, there are a number of additional fields, thus there is a field for electrons, and actual electrons are excitations of such fields. While at this point the concept may seem harmless, if overly complicated, there is a problem. To explain how force fields behave, there needs to be force carriers. If we take the electric field as an example, the force carriers are sometimes called virtual photons, and these “carry” the force so that the required action occurs. If you have such force carriers, the Uncertainty Principle requires the vacuum to have an associated zero point energy. Thus a quantum system cannot be at rest, but must always be in motion and that includes any possible discrete units within the field. Again, according to Wikipedia, Richard Feynman and John Wheeler calculated there was enough zero point energy inside a light bulb to boil off all the water in the oceans. Of course, such energy cannot be used; to use energy you have to transfer it from a higher level to a lower level, when you get access to the difference. Zero point energy is at the lowest possible level.

But there is a catch. Recall Einstein’s E/c^2 = m? That means according to Einstein, all this zero point energy has the equivalent of inertial mass in terms of its effects on gravity. If so, then the gravity from all the zero point energy in vacuum can be calculated, and we can predict whether the Universe is expanding or contracting. The answer is, if quantum field theory is correct, the Universe should have collapsed long ago. The difference between prediction and observation is merely about 10^120, that is, ten multiplied by itself 120 times, and is the worst discrepancy between prediction and observation known to science. Even worse, some have argued the prediction was not right, and if it had been done “properly” they justified manipulating the error down to 10^40. That is still a terrible error, but to me, what is worse, what is supposed to be the most accurate theory ever is suddenly capable of turning up answers that differ by 10^80, which is roughly the same as the number of atoms in the known Universe.

Some might say, surely this indicates there is something wrong with the theory, and start looking elsewhere. Seemingly not. Quantum field theory is still regarded as the supreme theory, and such a disagreement is simply placed in the bottom shelf of the minds. After all, the mathematics are so elegant, or difficult, depending on your point of view. Can’t let observed facts get in the road of elegant mathematics!

Science and Sanctions

This may seem an odd title in that most people consider science far away from describing human activities. I am not suggesting the scientific method should govern all of human activities, but I think that a little more attention to its methods would help humanity (and I try to show a little of this in my novels, although I am unsure that most would notice). The first important point, of course, is to clarify what the scientific method is. Contrary to what you may see on TV programs, etc, it is not some super geek sitting down solving impossible mathematical equations. Basically, the scientific method is you form propositions, perhaps manipulate them, then check with reality whether they might be correct. The most important feature here is, check the evidence.

What initiated this post was news that the US House of Representatives has passed a bill that will impose new sanctions on Russia, including (according to reports here) the forbidding of any help with Russia’s oil and gas industry, and President Trump has signed it into law. So, what are the premises behind this?

The first one is that foreign countries will oblige and help carry them out.

The second, presumably, is that Russia will now fall into line and do whatever the sanctions are intended to make it do.

The third is, if Russia cannot export more oil or gas, their prices will rise.

The fourth is, removing Russian hydrocarbons from the international market will lead to further markets for US hydrocarbons. Note the US now has the capacity to be a major exporter, thanks to fracking.

The first two depend on each other, and obviously, seeking evidence of the future is not practical, nevertheless we can look at the history of sanctions. Are there any examples of countries “bending the knee” in response to sanctions when they probably would not have done it anyway? I cannot think of any. Obviously, sanctions are less likely to effective if foreign countries refuse to cooperate, which is why the two are linked. The two most recent examples of sanctions are Iran and North Korea. Both have been imposed for sufficient time, and the question is, how effective are they?

In the case of Iran, one objective is claimed to have been met in that Iran argues it no longer has the capacity to make nuclear weapons, however it also claimed that was never its intention. Everyone seems to delight in arguing whether either of those statements is true, but in my opinion nuclear weapons are a poor strategic objective for Iran. I also believe they are a poor option for North Korea, but seemingly someone has to show Kim that is so. For either of them, what would it gain? Iran has opted (if truthful) to avoid nuclear weapons, but then again, what has it gained from doing so? The sanctions America imposed are still largely there. As for the effectiveness of sanctions, it appears that Iran is doing reasonably well, and a number of countries are buying its oil, including China. So I conclude that sanctions are not particularly effective there.

North Korea does not seem in any immediate hurry to “bend the knee” to the US and while it has suffered the harshest sanctions, apparently over the last few years its exports have increased by at least 40%, mainly to China. President Trump has accused China of not helping, and he is correct, but being correct does not get anyone very far. The obvious question is, why is North Korea chasing after better weapons? The answer is obvious: it is at war with the US and South Korea. The Korean War never ended formally. The sides agreed to a ceasefire, but no permanent treaty was signed, so one of the actions that America could have taken in the last sixty years or so would have been to negotiate a formal peace treaty. You may well say, the US would never launch a preemptive strike against North Korea. You may well be right, but are you that sure? From North Korea’s point of view, the US has launched cruise missile attacks frequently against places it does not like, it has significant military bases in Syria, it invaded Iraq, and so on. You might argue that the US was justified because these countries were not behaving, and you may well be right, but from North Korea’s point of view, it is at war with the US already, so it has decided to do what it can to defend itself. One approach to end this ridiculous position would be to at least offer a treaty.

The third and fourth premises are probably ones the US Congress does not advertise, because they are full of self-interest. Apparently there is enough liquefied natural gas able to be produced to substitute for Russian gas in Europe. So, why don’t they sell it? Competition is a good thing, right? The simplest answer is price and cost. Europe would have to build massive lng handling facilities, and pay a lot more for their gas than for Russian gas. And it is here that these sanctions may run into trouble. The Germans will lose heavily from the loss of Russian gas, in part because their industries are involved in expanding the Russian fields and pipelines, and of course, they would have to pay more for gas, and some equipment would need changing for the different nature of the gas.

So, if we return to the evidence, I think we can conclude that these latest attempts at sanctions are more based on self-interest than anything else. There is no evidence they will achieve anything as far as pushing Russia around goes. It is true, if imposed, they would hurt Russia significantly, but they would also hurt Europe, so will Europe cooperate?