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When I was growing up, my family lived in a suburban raised ranch. The lower level was used as a family room, TV room & play area & my parents had their bookshelves there. One set of books that captured my young imagination was The Story of Civilization by Will & Ariel Durant, a series that purports to tell the history of humanity.

I never read more than bits & pieces, being more intrigued by the question: "What volume will come next?" So I ask: What title should we give to a 12th or 13th book in this series?

I.   Our Oriental Heritage (1935)
II.  The Life of Greece (1939)
III. Caesar and Christ (1944)
IV.  The Age of Faith (1950)
V.   The Renaissance (1953)
VI.  The Reformation (1957)
VII. The Age of Reason Begins (1961)
VIII The Age of Louis XIV (1963)
IX.  The Age of Voltaire (1965)
X.   Rousseau and Revolution (1967)
XI.  The Age of Napoleon (1975)

In today's diary I propose "The Age of Contact" as a title.

The Age of Contact

This title comes from Carl Sagan's novel "Contact" and the movie based on that book.

I assert that this "Age of Contact" began with the invention of radio by Guglielmo Marconi around the beginning of the 20th century and this "Age of Contact" shall end with one of three events:

(a) Humanity acquires indisputable proof of the existence of sentient life beyond the Earth; or

(b) Sufficient time passes with the stars remaining silent that we can be reasonably assured that sentient life (at least at a technological level) does not exist close enough to Earth for us to detect; or

(c) Our species becomes extinct.

My own personal thoughts are succinctly summarized by a cartoon strip I read long ago,Bloom County was the strip as best as I can recall. The cartoon was four frames in length. the images of two characters sitting on a hilltop at night looking up at the stars repeated in each frame. If my memory is accurate the text read more or less as follows:

Frame #1: Do you think there is anyone out there?

Frame #2: I dunno, do you?

Frame #3: I dunno.

Frame #4: Either answer is sobering, isn't it.

Is there anyone out there? I dunno, do you? And this of course is how the movie version of Contact ends.

Although I preferred the book version of Contact, the movie's Introduction (You Tube link) does feature a tremendous sequence depicting the expanding bubble of electro-magnetic radiation that began with the invention of radio and continues racing outwards even today. A second example of tremendous imagery was the evening gown Jodie Foster wore at that Washington DC function . . .

Anyway, Carl Sagan did much to popularize the Search for Extra - Terrestrial Intelligence (SETI), a program that achieved a measure of popularity even though SETI appears to have discovered little except a deafening silence, as of today.

The continuing silence of the stars draws me back to the Fermi Paradox, a formulation I find to be both poignant and succinct.

Given the extreme age of the universe and its vast number of stars, if the Earth is typical extraterrestrial life should be common. So, Enrico Fermi asked, "Where is everybody?"

Why I chose the "Age of Contact" for the title?

Before answering directly, I need to introduce something called the Kardashev Scale, something I would describe as a simple index to place hypothetical civilizations into categories. Wikipedia offers the following definitions:

Type I — a civilization that is able to harness all of the energy available on a single planet;

Type II — a civilization that is able to harness all of the energy available from a single star; and

Type III — a civilization that is able to harness all of the energy available from a single galaxy.

Humanity currently ranks at zero "0" on the Kardashev scale with current estimates placing us around 0.75% while it has been reported that back in 1973 Carl Sagan estimated humanity to be at 0.70% on this scale.

As we begin the 21st century our species may have the opportunity to become a Kardashev I civilization however there are several prerequisites:

We cannot extinct ourselves through warfare, including nuclear war. If we are to become a Kardashev Type I civilization, the billions of human beings living on this planet will need to get along with each other peaceably.

We cannot extinct ourselves by allowing catastrophic climate change. Anthropogenic global warming, for example, comes from carbon dioxide emissions associated with the human economy (both industrialization and clearing forests). Unless we acquire energy technologies that do not undermine climatic stability, we will never attain Kardashev Type I status.

We cannot extinct ourselves through other forms of pollution or by permitting mass extinction events that reduces the planet's bio-diversity to a point that makes our continued civilized existence untenable. Once again, unless we manage the planet in a sustainable manner that allows the Earth's eco-systems to function properly we will never attain Kardashev Type I status.

One explanation for Fermi's Paradox and the silence of the stars is the possibility that sentient or intelligent life is reasonably common through the galaxy, however a great many of these species extinct themselves rather quickly once they reach our current level of technology, whether by warfare or by destroying the planetary eco-systems that permit civilization to flourish in the first place.

Therefore, while our current age could potentially be called the "Age of Tyrants" (Hitler, Stalin, Mussolini, Tojo) of the "Age of Global Warfare" (WW1 & WW2 etc . . .) or the "Age of the Environment" (global warming, etc . . .) such categories   seem to fall within the larger question of whether our species shall survive long enough to:

(a) look for life on other planets and

(b) be available to be discovered by beings living on other planets.

This places us at at cross-roads. I also find it interesting that the Book of Genesis purports to command thusly:

New American Standard Bible (©1995)

God blessed them; and God said to them, "Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth, and subdue it; and rule over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the sky and over every living thing that moves on the earth."

Genesis 1:28

Today, with over six billion living human beings, it seems to me that we are very close to accomplishing this task. We also at risk failure if our numbers and our foolishness are permitted to engender disaster and therefore our current challenge is to establish balance and sustainability so that our multiplied numbers do not cause our extinction, whether by warfare (nuclear war in particular) or self induced environmental calamity.

If we achieve this, then we shall remain in a position to look outwards and discover whether we are alone in the cosmos, or not. And if we do achieve the task set out in Genesis 1:28, then what?

These are my thoughts for asserting that we are today living in the "Age of Contact"

Is there anyone out there? Drake's Equation

The Drake Equation is an attempt to estimate the number of extraterrestrial civilizations in our galaxy with which we might come in contact and Wikipedia describes the equation as follows:

The Drake equation states that:

   N = R* x fp x ne x f x fi x fc x L


   N is the number of civilizations in our galaxy with which we might hope to be able to communicate;


   R* is the average rate of star formation in our galaxy
   fp is the fraction of those stars that have planets
   ne is the average number of planets that can potentially support life per star that has planets
   f is the fraction of the above that actually go on to develop life at some point
   fi is the fraction of the above that actually go on to develop intelligent life
   fc is the fraction of civilizations that develop a technology that releases detectable signs of their existence into space
   L is the length of time such civilizations release detectable signals into space.

We cannot (yet!) assign values to these variables with any degree of rigor, however Drake's Equation does create a narrative framework to conceptualize the issue and explore our own preconceptions and prejudices. Some work is beginning as astronomers continue to find more and more extra-solar planets and theories are developed concerning "galactic habitable zones" as reported here by New Scientist:

One tenth of the stars in our galaxy might provide the right conditions to support complex life, according to a new analysis by Australian researchers. And most of these stars are on average one billion years older than the Sun, allowing much more time, in theory, for any life to evolve.

The concept of a "galactic habitable zone" (GHZ) for the Milky Way was first proposed in 2001. Now Charles Lineweaver of the University of New South Wales and colleagues have defined a life-friendly GHZ using a detailed model of the evolution of the Milky Way to map the distribution in space and time of four major factors thought essential for complex life.

But as we locate more and more planets circling other stars. Fermi' question returns. The peoples of Earth are hearing a deafening silence. Why is that?

Speculation reveals a number of possibilities:

No other civilizations currently exist and we are truly alone out here. Subsets to this assertion include:

(a) The "Rare Earth" hypothesis

The Rare Earth hypothesis argues that the emergence of complex life required a host of fortuitous circumstances. A number of such circumstances are set out below under the following headings: galactic habitable zone, a central star and planetary system having the requisite character, the circumstellar habitable zone, the size of the planet, the advantage of a large satellite, conditions needed to assure the planet has a magnetosphere and plate tectonics, the chemistry of the lithosphere, atmosphere, and oceans, the role of "evolutionary pumps" such as massive glaciation and rare bolide impacts, and whatever led to the still mysterious Cambrian explosion of animal phyla. The emergence of intelligent life may have required yet other rare events.

(b) It is the nature of intelligent life to destroy itself - The Doomsday argument

Technological civilizations may usually or invariably destroy themselves before or shortly after developing radio or space flight technology. Possible means of annihilation include nuclear war, biological warfare or accidental contamination, nanotechnological catastrophe, ill-advised physics experiments, or a Malthusian catastrophe after the deterioration of a planet's ecosphere.

(c) It is the nature of intelligent life to destroy others

Another possibility is that intelligent species beyond a certain point of technological capability will destroy other intelligence as it appears.

Or perhaps abundant Life does exist out there but Contact hasn't happened because:

(a) Human beings have not been searching long enough, so just keep at it;

(b) Human beings are not listening properly;

In essence, we are listening on the wrong channels

(c) Civilizations only broadcast detectable radio signals for a brief period of time

It may be that alien civilizations are detectable through their radio emissions for only a short time, reducing the likelihood of spotting them. There are two possibilities in this regard: civilizations outgrow radio through technological advance or, conversely, resource depletion cuts short the time in which a species broadcasts.

(d) Civilizations become inward looking.

I recently saw a criticism of space exploration expressed as "I'd rather have health insurance and a free SciFi channel" -- taken to a logical extreme and supplemented with advanced VR technology, perhaps they are "out there" but simply don't care.

(e) Perhaps they are already here.

It is possible that the belief that alien races would communicate with the human species is a fallacy, and that alien civilizations may not wish to communicate, even if they have the technical ability. A particular reason that alien civilizations may choose not to communicate is the so-called Zoo hypothesis: the idea that Earth is being monitored by advanced civilizations for study, or is being preserved in an isolated "zoo or wilderness area".

Re-framing Drake's Equation as Drake's Lottery

Michael Crichton has made a somewhat infuriating argument that the Drake Equation, Carl Sagan, SETI, global warming science and bans on smoking in public places (second hand smoke) all share a common anti-scientific foundation. His specific criticism of Drake's equation is as follows:

This serious-looking equation [Drake's equation] gave SETI an serious footing as a legitimate intellectual inquiry. The problem, of course, is that none of the terms can be known, and most cannot even be estimated. The only way to work the equation is to fill in with guesses. And guesses-just so we're clear-are merely expressions of prejudice. Nor can there be "informed guesses." If you need to state how many planets with life choose to communicate, there is simply no way to make an informed guess. It's simply prejudice.

To some extent this is legitimate criticism, however Crichton  seems to go on to propose that we act consistent with his own set of prejudices, because we cannot "prove" that his set of   prejudices are scientifically invalid. As for second hand smoke (for example) why can't a legislature assume that such smoke DOES cause health problems until proven otherwise? And even if 9 times out of 10 I can safely run with scissors, it remains a bad idea.

Nevertheless, because we are indeed largely unable to assign values to the variables found in Drake's equation (except through conjecture) I prefer to contemplate this topic from a narrative perspective rather than a scientific perspective.

This can be done by changing the frame from "Drake's Equation" to "Drake's Lottery" and continue by simply telling a story.

Let us start with a race of fictional super-beings more or less analogous to the Q character found in Star Trek: The Next Generation and related series. These fictional characters reside in something called the Q continuum that exists outside the normal space-time we experience. Such beings could observe the entire galaxy simultaneously without regard to pesky restrictions such as the principle that even information cannot travel faster than the speed of light. Once we assume the existence of such beings we can add a touch of anthropomorphism and we can speculate on their laying wagers on the different species that are perhaps scattered on planets throughout the galaxy.

Which planet shall produce life that can make Contact and be  capable of being Contacted in a sustainable manner? Which planet shall produce species that can travel beyond the planet if their origin and spread life to other lifeless celestial locations? Imagine (if you will) such Q-like beings drinking coffee and placing their bets.

What odds would you give our species in this lottery?  

Given the current levels of scientific knowledge, I believe we end up right back at that Bloom County cartoon and the final scenes from the movie Contact.

Is there anyone out there? I dunno. Do you?

But either way I find it all to be both sobering and exhilarating since I also believe Carl Sagan was simply correct when he said, ""We are a way for the Cosmos to know itself."

Perhaps this assertion is better seen as poetry than science, but what is wrong with that? While poetry should not trump science, if science leaves us with "I dunno" as the best possible answer we will necessarily follow our prejudices and poetry is a useful tool for our self-examination of those prejudices and preconceptions.

If we are truly alone, self termination of our species would be a great tragedy for the cosmos. At least in my opinion. If we are not alone, I would desire that my descendants have the opportunity to communicate with our cousins, out there.

Now what?

First, humanity must avoid extinction. I believe it would be tragic if the final volume in that series of books ended with the extinction of our species.  

But then what?

In November 2003, William Langewiesche wrote a well researched article for the Atlantic Monthly on the Space Shuttle Columbia disaster titled Columbia's Last Flight. This article was a solid piece of journalism from someone outside the usual circle of NASA or space policy reporters and Langewiesche has written powerfully and deeply on a wide variety of topics as his biography reveals.

Of greater importance (IMHO) than his November 2003 reporting on the Columbia disaster was a very short comment published in January 2004 titled "A Two Planet Species"

In the aftermath of the breakup of the space shuttle Columbia an important debate on the purpose and future of the U.S. human-space-flight program is under way, though perhaps not as forthrightly as it should be. The issue at stake is not space exploration in itself but the necessity of launching manned (versus robotic) vehicles. Because articles of faith are involved, the arguments tend to be manipulative and hyperbolic. If the debate is to be productive, that needs to change.

. . .

[In light of the Columbia disaster perhaps we should pause from human spaceflight. Barack Obama of course has suggested this same idea on the campaign trail.]

. . .

This would not mean, however, that the opponents of human space flight had won. It may be that a pause to regroup is precisely what a vigorous human-space-flight program now needs. One thing for sure is that the American public is more sophisticated than the space community has given it credit for. [b]In the event of a grounding the public might well be presented with a question now asked only of insiders—not whether there are immediate benefits to be gleaned from a human presence in space but, more fundamentally, whether we are to be a two-planet species. If upon due consideration the public's answer is "yes," as it probably should be, the solutions will be centuries in coming.[/b] Compared with the scale of such an ambition, a pause of a few decades now to rethink and rebuild will seem like nothing at all.

I dispute it will require "centuries" to become a two planet species even as I appreciate his understated comment that the public will likely answer yes, as it probably should. But whether it is a matter of decades or centuries the questions and the issues remain the same.

So, if humanity manages to evade extinction, how would you PREFER that the "Age of Contact" end -- with confirmation that we are very likely alone in the cosmos or one of a small number of cousin species on distant planets or one of a vert crowded galaxy teeming with life?

Remember, I am asking preference rather than prediction.

Originally posted to Bill White on Sun May 04, 2008 at 10:17 AM PDT.



If you had the power to "make it so" which scenario would you prefer?

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