October 4, 2010

Gilese 581 discovered for the first time....again

I'm finding it very strange that everyone's all a tizzy about the discovery of a potentially habitable planet, Gilese 581. This planet was discovered over three years ago. I remember this because it was an important consideration in the Fermi talk I delivered in Chicago the same year. Its discovery also motivated me to write about the Rare Earth Delusion. I'm not sure I understand all the sudden attention.

** ADDENDUM: 2010.10.05: Okay, everything is now illuminated: As my reader Richard Leis, Jr. points out, "The discovery of Gliese 581 c was announced in 2007. Last week's announcement was Gliese 581 g. C was initially considered a good candidate for potential life, but later calculations suggested it was actually outside the star's habitable zone. G is considered a better candidate because calculations place it more firmly within the habitable zone." **

Well, whatever. What's important to note is that (1) it reaffirms the notion that we (likely) live in a biophilic Universe and (2) its presence deepens the disturbing nature of the Fermi Paradox. As a potential data point that works to increase the value of n in the Drake Equation, it serves to reinforce the suggestion that, while we find ourselves in a Universe that is likely teeming with life, it's not one that's teeming in space-faring civilizations. Consequently, its discovery is not exactly good news.

Here's what I wrote back in April of 2007 when Gilese 581 was first discovered:
Wow, the blogosphere has been absolutely gushing these past few days over the news that an Earth-like planet may have been discovered in the 'hood. This planet may boast a moderate climate that could conceivably support life and is only 20 light years away.

Not surprisingly, this news has caused a number of pundits to fantasize about jumping into their rocketships and bidding adiĆ³s to our polluted, war-torn and diseased planet.

But not so fast, amigos. While many have misguidedly jumped on the bandwagon to the stars, a number of bloggers have gotten it right.

In his article, "'Don't Pack Your Bags Just Yet", Jamais Cascio notes that, "By the time we have the technology that would make a 20 light year trip even remotely plausible (the fastest space craft yet made would still take thousands of years to get there), we probably won't be all that interested in living in a watery gravity hole anyway. Nope -- give us some nice, massive gas giants to convert to computronium!"

Michael Anissimov points out that we have a human hospitable planet right here that we’ve barely even begun to use. He also argues that "even if we did need to leave the Earth, there is a tremendous amount of raw materials for space colonies right next door in the form of carbonaceous asteroids, which make up about 75% of known asteroids." Moreover, warns Anissimov, "we should think carefully before sending off colonists to far-away places without ensuring that they’re capable of protecting the fundamental freedoms of their citizens." Specifically, he worries that a blight may come back to haunt us (which also reminds me of the Honored Matres of the Dune series).

And as Tyler Cowen noted, "Are earth-like planets so common? That probably means lots more civilization-supporting planets than I had expected. But where are the alien visitors? As suggested by the Fermi paradox, we must revise our priors along several margins, one of which is the expected duration of an intelligent civilization."

Indeed, Cowen is on the right track. A primary argument used to reconcile the Fermi Paradox is the Rare Earth Hypothesis. This line of reasoning suggests that we haven't been visited by ETI's because life is far too rare in the cosmos.

But if we have discovered an Earth-like planet as little as 20 light years away, it's not unreasonable to suggest that our Galaxy must be absolutely teeming with life. This would seem to be a heavy blow to the REH.

So why is this bad news? It's bad news because our biophilic universe should be saturated with advanced intelligence by now...but it's not. The Fermi Paradox is very much in effect as a profound and disturbing unsolved mystery in astrosociobiology, philosophy and futurism.

Are all civilizations doomed before getting to the Singularity? Or is there something else at work here?

13 comments:

Richard Leis, Jr. said...

The discovery of Gliese 581 c was announced in 2007. Last week's announcement was Gliese 581 g. C was initially considered a good candidate for potential life, but later calculations suggested it was actually outside the star's habitable zone. G is considered a better candidate because calculations place it more firmly within the habitable zone.

Peggy said...

Gilese 581 is the name of the star, which was discovered in 1957. The recent discovery is the sixth planet discovered in the Gilese 581 system. As Richard Leis points out, this planet is special because it's within the star's habitable zone.

More info at Wikipedia

Beach Bum said...

Are all civilizations doomed before getting to the Singularity? Or is there something else at work here?

Hordes of Saberhagen Berserkers roaming the galaxy listening for radio signals? After watching an episode of "Jersey Shore" I'd almost want them to come this way.

fallingupthesky said...

"Something else at work here" - like maybe, the ability to leave this universe entirely? Despite the fact that it seems particularly "fine-tuned" for life, there might be better ones out there. Or at least, better for civilizations which are already advanced but not so good for the initial formation of life. Hell, maybe they can even create their own "better" universe.

Or maybe there's something out in the void between the galaxies that makes it a better place to be than inside the galaxies, which we don't know about at this time. And would probably never suspect.

Maybe there's simply no freakin' point to developing a Kardashev type anything civilization, so we'd never detect one. For a sufficiently advanced people, harnessing the power of an entire galaxy (or perhaps even just a single star) to accomplish anything that's really worth doing might be like killing a fly with a nuclear missile. Wouldn't it make sense to try to do more with less if possible?

Or maybe one of the first spacefaring races in this galaxy turned into cosmic horrors that roam the stars, sucking up the majority of life from planets they encounter to fuel themselves for the hundreds of years between meals - so we're just lucky that Cthulu didn't eat us yet. Or maybe they did eat us, during the great Permian-Triassic extinction, and we're lucky they haven't come back yet.

Hey, it could well be that this galaxy (or even this universe) wasn't even very suitable for multicellular lifeforms until a billion or so years ago. And since evolution does not appear to favor sapient life (what, the dinosaurs ruled for like 150 million years and they failed to even make it to the moon?) it might be like a cosmic lottery, where, if you keep on playing, you'll win every 10 billion years on the average. We just happened to be incredibly lucky to win about 9 billion years earlier than average. So we're the first, or pretty close to being first.

Or maybe the joke about how once humans invent holodecks we'll go extinct has a ring of truth to it. Why even bother to explore the universe once you can become the God of a virtual one?

...I could go on forever, so I'll stop here before it gets too reachy. And it could be more than one thing, or different things for different civilizations.

fallingupthesky said...

I made a really long post of things that could be the "something else at work here" but I got an error message and the text was lost. Sigh. Also, it included this mildly humorous comment (or so I thought): "Dinosaurs ruled for something like 150 million years and they never even made it to the moon." (In a part about how evolution apparently doesn't favor sapience. At all.)

Duncan said...

After having read many contributions to the Fermi paradox discussion, and as a learned mathematician and physicist, I have come to the following conclusion: Interstellar travel is much more difficult than living on a planet's surface. A lot of people don't realize, how difficult, really difficult, interstellar travel would be.

I like science fiction stories very much -- they are amazing, inspiring, and fascinating --, but nearly everything these stories tell about interstellar travel is -- well, it's a little bit sad for me too -- completely unrealistic. And I don't say this lightly.

So, for me: Fermi paradox -- no surprise.

Duncan said...

After having read many contributions to the Fermi paradox discussion, and as a learned mathematician and physicist, I have come to the following conclusion: Interstellar travel is much more difficult than living on a planet's surface. A lot of people don't realize, how difficult, really difficult, interstellar travel would be.

I like science fiction stories very much -- they are amazing, inspiring, and fascinating --, but nearly everything these stories tell about interstellar travel is -- well, it's a little bit sad for me too -- completely unrealistic. And I don't say this lightly.

So, for me: Fermi paradox -- no surprise.

Phil Bowermaster said...

There may be other motivations for interstellar travel besides getting away from our polluted, war-torn planet.

George said...

Thanks everyone: I've added an addendum to the post.

Euan Christopher said...

I agree that it's silly to think of it as a place to go and live when you consider that the resources required to make the trip could be used to build habitats capable of supporting a huge orbital civilisation.
Still as a biologist If there was any evidence of of life there I would jump at the chance to go as a close up look at alien life would give great insight into the most interesting questions in evolutionary biology.

JohnHunt said...

> Duncan said...I have come to the following conclusion: Interstellar travel is much more difficult than living on a planet's surface.

It's very difficult for us not but not all that difficult for a civilization just 1,000 years in advance of ours. Such a civilization should be able to produce highly sophisticated small craft with the ability to heal, decelerate (with superconducting loops), and produce machines or even biologic organisms from information alone. Being small, they would be able to be launched in the billions using beamed energy (e.g. SailBeams) in a space of 1/4 the distance to the Moon.

Duncan said...

JohnHunt: "... not all that difficult for a civilization just 1,000 years in advance of ours"

The universe and physics is the same for them as it is for us, and because of that the difficulties are the same. In my conclusion I did already consider this (as far as I can tell ;-).

"Such a civilization should be able to produce highly sophisticated small craft with the ability to ..."

Where did you get this from? Why should they?

@George: Sorry for the double post. There was problem connecting through the internet.

Michael said...

Couldn't the Fermi Paradox be explained by a combination of rarity, distribution, and over reliance on scientific dogma? Elaboration:
(1) It took Earth like 4.5 billion years to come up with intelligent life, and if that's typical couldn't that mean intelligent life might be quite rare? And, technologically inclined intelligent life even more so?
(2) We have no idea how / where these presumably rare intelligent species are dispersed, or placed, within the galaxy. Well, we do know one thing, they're not right next door or we would have detected them. So that would suggest they're not only rare, they happen to live far away.
(3) I think we put too much faith, yes faith, in the Drake Equation. Even Drake himself says his equation is just a rough organization of our thoughts on the matter, an outline of what we don't know. It's being treated as scientific scripture. IT COULD BE WRONG.

The Fermi Paradox shows that one of our assumptions regarding ETI's is wrong, and I tend to think it's a matter of our underestimation of its rarity and distribution in the galaxy. If they're out there, they're likely just as bummed out as us that we're all so rare and far apart.