Touching The Limits Of Knowledge

Cosmology and our View of the World


Consciousness: Search for Life/Intelligence Beyond Earth
Lead: Christina Downs


Summary by Rachel Whitaker:


Search for Life/Intelligence Beyond Earth

The major sources used in this presentation were The Cosmic Connection by Carl Sagan and The Drake Equation, a complex equation taking into account all of the mathematical factors of the possibility of communicating with extra-terrestrial life to determine how many intelligent, communicating civilizations there are.

Christina opened with the reasons for exploration, which admittedly were only a sample of the reasons and not a complete list. Biology was the field of human endeavor listed as potentially gaining the most from the discovery of extra-terrestrial life. The discovery of a new form of life would open up an entirely new field of biology, allowing scientists to explore the similarities and differences between the two forms of life, and possibly answer the question of whether evolution is universal or planetary, and can explore further even the definition of life—as well as many other uses not spoken of. Another important reason for exploration of space that Christina mentioned was that of meteorology and weather forecasting. But the most important reason for exploring the cosmos for extra-terrestrial life is still a mystery, since we have never experienced an event like this one before, an ironic but true fact that was not lost in the discussion that ensued, discussing perhaps the benefits of not feeling “alone in the universe” and the effect the discovery of ET may have on religion.

Next, the question of should we be focusing (monetarily) on earth first was raised with regards to overpopulation, famine, and war. It was shown that the amount of money spent on space exploration is a miniscule fraction of the money spent on the military and defense.

Christina then used Carl Sagan’s book The Cosmic Connection to answer the question, “Would ET resemble us?” Sagan cites a list of civilizations, type I through type IV which he rates in terms of how much energy they could use for interstellar communication. A type I civilization uses the power of a planet to communicate, type II uses a power output equal to that of a star (about 10^26 watts) to communicate, type III is able to harness and use the energy output of an entire galaxy (10^36 watts) to communicate intergalactically. As a reference point, if a type III civilization were to beam their communication at us, we would be able to detect that communication from anywhere in the universe. A type IV civilization only talks to itself.

Professor Moebius then brought up the point that these types of civilizations and the way they communicate don’t make sense according to physics. Since a galaxy is about 100,000 light years large, it would take 100,000 light years to gather (harness) the energy of that galaxy, making it near impossible to use for a single method of communication. A discussion followed that raised other possible ways of gathering or harnessing this information, and no solutions were found until someone mentioned the possibility that other dimensions may be used to harness the energy. The table then agreed to allow for the possibility of these civilizations using other dimensions to harness the information and moved on.

Another way that Sagan separated civilizations in the universe is in how much information is stored in each civilization. These types were labeled A through Z, A being the smallest amount of information stored and Z being the supposedly unachievable highest amount of information to be stored. A type Z civilization is supposed to be impossible due to the lack of time in the universe for such a civilization to have evolved. Sagan listed Earth as a type .7H civilization, and claimed that the first detection of communication with ET would probably be with a civilization between type 1.5 J and 1.8 K. Within our galaxy, Sagan said that it makes more sense to look for a type I civilization—but intergalactically it makes more sense to look for a type II or III civilization.

Media which can be used to communicate were discussed next, a few of them being radio waves, telepathy, and black holes. And, of course, it was once again brought up that other dimensions may also be used.

The next topic of conversation was the potential of homogenizing galaxies into fully communicating civilizations. It was estimated that the homogenization of civilizations would take around 100 exchanges between the civilizations. One round-trip exchange between us and the center of our galaxy would take 60,000 years. That requires that in order for us to homogenize with a civilization in the center of our own galaxy would take 6 million of our years. Homogenization with another galaxy would take about a billion years, and it was estimated that homogenization with the next cluster of galaxies like our own would take a time that was longer than the age of the universe. Therefore, it was decided that if a) galactic civilizations “evolve upward from individual planetary societies” and b) the velocity of light really is the cosmic “speed limit,” then universal intelligence cannot exist.

Then, the possibility of other civilizations even existing in our galaxy was brought up using the Drake Equation. The Drake equation doesn’t actually present a numeric answer to the question of how many civilizations there are in our galaxy, but does make a pretty good point of emphasizing the extent to which certain conditions would have to coordinate in order for more than one civilization to arise. However, it was brought up that we have learned a lot since the Drake Equation was created, such as more information about star formation and the fact that a very high fraction, if not all, stars have planets surrounding them. It was then decided that the best bet to find any sort of answer to the question, “are we alone in the universe” was to just listen.

Then the implications of finding ET were once again brought up. Biology and religion were brought up again, but now the element of fear was added: if we were to “find” another civilization, chances are that we would be the less advanced society. In Earth’s history, less technologically advanced societies were wiped out!

So then, given this very humbling information, should we be concerned about communicating with other civilizations? Why should we (or other civilizations, for that matter) expose ourselves to the possibility of annihilation? If the discovery of ET may be dangerous, should we not be more concerned with the defense of our own planet, or should we keep quiet and hope not to be discovered? It is too late to keep quiet, as we have been sending out radio waves for years now. Are these concerns just the naïve assumptions of the human race, or are they valid? Sagan raises the point that messages from other civilizations may include information for preventing self-destruction. What implications would that have, and would we listen? The search for extra-terrestrial life is without a doubt a conundrum that can be argued for an eternity—and it was argued until about five after 8 when it was decided that all conversation must cease so that we could go home!