Doom [updated] • 7 June 2007 • The SnowBlog

Doom [updated]


Back away; it's the return of the green P of politics.

Thought I'd contribute some perspective to the Olympic logo debate. You haven't seen overspending until you've seen this.

It's an article about U.S. 'defence' spending. Sounds a bit dull I know, but the staggering, gargantuan, cataclysmic madness of it makes it slightly more captivating reading. You know how journalists (at least British ones) like to translate things into numbers of football pitches and heights of double-decker buses? This is one of those articles that makes you want to do the same. Total up the number of 'islamofascists' who hate America and divide that into the number of tanks, planes and missiles the U.S. has. Or work out how many countries the U.S. could fight simultaneously. We are not far from the point where America could fight the whole rest of the world, providing they didn't restrict themselves to a ground war. They could certainly extinguish all human life. It's difficult to understand the need for those capabilities. (Although I'm certain the British government covets them.) And by what mental gymnastics do they manage to feel threatened? 911 isn't something you could prevent with thousands of tanks or by developing new nuclear weapons. And no one else has threatened the U.S., unless you count Saddam Hussein's plan to launch his stockpiles of deadly WMDs against us all, which I'm hoping you don't. And meanwhile we have a genuine global crisis that needs addressing (I'm not going to say which one; you should all remember by now.)

So from the outrageous to the kooky now because I want to talk about Fermi's Paradox and my favourite depressing solution to it. Fermi's Paradox starts by working out the chances of intelligent life arising. It's a tricky estimate to make because it's largely guesswork, but however small you decide the odds are, there are an awful lot of planets out there, and for each one you have to roll the dice. And we're helped by the fact we know life originated once, so clearly it's not impossible. 250 billion stars in our galaxy and more galaxies in the universe than anyone could ever count. The sheer amount of real estate out there with little rock-pools of chemicals bubbling away is astronomical; and once life takes hold, it does its best to keep evolving. Which means sooner or later it will presumably produce a technological species. And that's what leads to Fermi's Paradox. All those stars, all those planets, but where are the alien civilisations? Building the first radio telescope should have been like opening the door to a West End pub on a Friday night. There should have been (I think the technical term is) an almighty hubbub. But there wasn't. We didn't detect anything that seemed like signs of extra-terrestrial life. Our civilisation can't help emitting radio waves so where is everyone else's chatter and radiation? Give it a moment's thought and you can probably come up with your own solution to Fermi's Paradox. They're too advanced to use electricity. God made us unique. The sums are wrong and life is very rare. They are among us already. And so on. It's a nerdy intellectual game, but sort of a fun one.

But my favourite depressing solution goes like this: once a civilisation is advanced enough to generate electricity and produce radio waves - and thus to be detectable by others - it will also have the power to destroy itself. Which it promptly does. The idea is that the interval between a race generating its first radio waves and then wiping itself out is so short that each one is gone long before the next arises. Our first transatlantic radio transmissions occurred 105 years ago. As I read the papers today the world's only superpower is ploughing 50% of its vast resources into weaponry while ignoring an approaching mega-catastrophe set to destroy half the cities of the world and turn a sizeable chunk of Earth's population into hungry refugees. Is there any reason for us to behave this way? Not that I can see, but we are. Is the notion of working together so difficult and unappealing that self-destruction is simply the norm for technological species?

I tell you, it's all just a little bit heavy for a grey Thursday morning. But don't be depressed. I only brought it up to take your mind off the Olympic logo.

Update: Katherine, my view is that if we only used the military for defending against attacks and for peacekeeping, we could exclusively use NATO or a similar shared force. Conventional forces (not to mention ICBMs) are no use at police/detective/intelligence work, which is what chasing Al Qaeda requires. Western nations only need total control of an army if they want to go adventuring. If Europe, the U.S., Canada, Australia, Japan, etc shared a military force, there's no conceivable way someone could start dropping bombs on America or invading France (pretty much unthinkable events anyway) without their allies offering the full support of the shared force. And a shared military funded by so many nations would be unbeatable. It's only countering imaginary threats or launching pre-emptive attacks for which one needs one's own military, and those are exactly the campaigns I'm against.

Non-geeks, stop reading now. John, there have been multi-cellular organisms on Earth for 700 million years, so the universe has been making organisms that could have developed technology for at least half a billion years, most likely much, much longer. Half a billion light years takes in a lot of galaxies. Our local supercluster is only 200 million light years across and that contains at least a hundred galaxies. Granted, aliens might not use radio for communication, but if they switch large amounts of electricity they'd be putting out interesting radio waves. If you rule out using electrons to move energy or using photons for interstellar communication (which we haven't detected either), you're talking about a race that doesn't do its engineering with conventional matter much any more. Surely not everyone has become wispy entities composed of pure enlightenment. And even then, it would be nice if they dropped in to chat before we blow ourselves up.


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