Sunday, May 3, 2020

Can Bioterrorism End Alien Civilizations?

'Terrorism' is used here to refer to small-scale groups attempting to achieve some political ends through the use of terror attacks, which are attacks designed not necessarily to cause great destruction, but to induce terror in a significant part of the population of a target region, which will then bow to the political demands of the terrorist group. Technological determinism says that technology dominates social change, and it may also dominate terrorism, one facet of a civilization.

In the early eras of technology, where knives and poisons were the only available weapons, assassination was the only type of terrorism that could occur. Directed against leading members of the alien civilization's government or economic structure, a terrorist group could hope that concessions might be made to their cause if the leadership felt unable to protect themselves. Infiltration of the ranks of those with guardian capability might be one of the social tools such a group might use, and suicide attacks might inspire the terror they needed to accomplish their ends. 

The invention of controlled combustion might lead to projectile weapons, but these simply make assassination easier. Bombs, however, open up a new avenue for terrorism, and that is attacks on infrastructure or on the public themselves. These weapons have the most effect in crowded places, and the obvious countermeasure is control of those entering these places, with some sort of measures designed to detect such explosive packages, along with the ability to carefully search the areas, arenas or whatever places a particular alien civilization likes to attend in large numbers, to eliminate such weapons from being installed and hidden prior to the crowd's arrival, for places with sporadic use. Continuously used places would have continuous checking in place or lockdowns during non-used times of the day. 

The advent to nuclear technology, in the middle of the industrial era, does not change much for terrorism. Nuclear weapons are very difficult to design and assemble, requiring specialists of many varieties, and terrorist groups are unlikely to be able to obtain such a quorum. They also require multiple unique materials, some very difficult to make from other, more easily available ones. Since nuclear weapons contaminate great areas of any planet where they are used, all regions on any exo-planet with an advanced alien civilization would be motivated to cooperate in restricting access to these end-materials. The costs of a nuclear weapon program are great, and if terrorism is something small groups would use, they would neither have such resources nor be able to deploy them, if they found a donor. The weapons are also large and hard to move and hide, and they give off telltale radiation, which can serve as another means of detection. Thus, the advent of nuclear technology into the collection of useful technology does not make terrorism any more powerful or easy to apply, just the opposite.

The beginnings of biology, specifically the biology of infectious organisms, may be a different story. The ability to capture an existing infectious organism, and mutate it, requires little money or expertise. Even a single talented individual alien might do this as the technology is not complicated to understand or utilize, once society gets some basic knowledge into its storehouse of scientific understandings. Recall that psychology and neurology come later on, so that the ability of the society to detect some mentally disturbed alien, having such a capability, is limited. This means that an alien society in this particular phase of its industrial era can be victimized by individuals or small groups who concentrate on contagious organisms. 

This capability exists even below the level of a terrorist group. Curiosity or some sociopathic desires could motive individual aliens to explore what they could do in this area, as there may not be any knowledge yet about how to train young aliens to prevent their involving themselves and others in dangerous activities when they grow older and more informed and educated. Neither would politics be a solved science by this time, so there may be personal or political disputes that could motivate such talented individuals.  They might develop some organism, protect themselves and those they care about, and release it to see what happens. If it was based on an infectious organisms, the mutated version might be contagious as well. 

If amateur biologists can create mutated viruses, what could a terrorist group do? They might be able to operate in two stages, one: where they try all types of viruses in different locations to see which ones might serve as a terror weapon, and two:, bioweapon where they induce some cases of their chosen infectious organism into some locale that they have access to. 

A bioweapon attack, even on a small scale such as a terrorist group could manage, requires social controls to be put in place, rapidly and severely, if the contagion is to be controlled at a very low level. Those regions which can do this might be relatively immune to bioterrorism, but those which are not, for any of several reasons, could be held at risk by a bioterrorist group. After one or several bioterrorism attacks, it might be clear to all regions that they need to prepare themselves against such attacks. One way might be to scour the whole exo-planet for biology laboratories that bioterrorists might exploit, but since they can be quite small and do not need exotic unique materials, finding them all might be difficult. The other way, if the region has the resources and the governmental excellence to do this, is to organize a reaction to any attempts at bioterrorism, all the while reducing the locales at which it could be done. 

If these countermeasures against bioterrorism, in attacks or in threats of attacks, are quite expensive to a region, it might try to negotiate its way out of them with one or more bioterrorist groups, but since they can form easily, this might not be a long-term solution, and the expensive countermeasures are the only solution. If the costs are so large that the alien civilization suffers a reduction in affluence, in living standards, and in the means of survival, then perhaps the civilization will begin a slow collapse. 

The other solution that might be taken is technological suicide, where the alien civilization as a whole seeks to ban biological knowledge from being gathered, collected, or disseminated. This means that asymptotic technology will never be reached, the ability to diffuse bioterrorism will never be accomplished, and the civilization will go into stasis and collapse. A solution near to that is to strongly limit the knowledge of biology to tiny numbers of aliens, in the hope that this knowledge will not diffuse out to potential bioterrorist groups. This would seem to be a more rational solution, as it allows work on automatic generation of antidotes and antigens to continue. Thus, bioterrorism might certainly slow down the progress of an alien civilization, but it is unlikely to destroy it, and would therefore not be the method by which aliens are prevented from reaching Earth.

Biowarfare and Alien Civilizations

Warfare has been so common through the last several millenia on Earth that it might be thought to be inevitable that it would occur on all exo-planets with thriving alien civilizations. The killing of other individual aliens and the destruction of their property, on a large scale, can be motivated in many ways. It might be the equivalent of envy, hatred, greed, love of destruction, desire for power, wishing to spread one's world-view or religion, fear, and likely others. Since there are so many reasons for having a war, wouldn't there necessarily be some?

The antecedents of mankind's love for war might be their evolution as hunters. Killing large game and killing other aliens is not so much of a jump in direction as eating only fruits and vegetables and then starting to kill other aliens. Can only omnivores evolve intelligence and eventually a civilization, or could herbivorous creatures do so as well? 

Perhaps this question should be asked in a reverse manner. Can herbivores who develop tree-climbing ability and then grasping appendages stay herbivores, or would the ability to reach nests start them on the path to eating eggs, newborn animals, young animals, and lastly full-grown animals? Raiding nests on the ground might start them off on the same evolutionary track. Given the nutrient value of eggs and young animals, this track provides significant advantages, and therefore it is likely that such creatures would not stay herbivores, but would evolve, step-by-step, into hunting animals, and then into tool-using hunters. This is the likely step before killing one another, and then as groups form, so does the concept of warfare. Warfare is therefore likely in the history of most alien civilizations in the galaxy.

Technological determinism says that society is shaped by the level of technology it has achieved. Warfare, as one feature of society, is also determined by technology, and as technology travels from stone and wood tools, to metals of ever increasing strength-to-weight ratio, to combustion in various forms, and onward to machinery, so do the tools of war. In the later stage of the industrial era, on planets with uranium in the ground not already decayed into too much U-238, nuclear weapons should be invented, and then the society would quickly realize the disutility of weapons of so much destructive power and requiring so much expertise to use. 

There is likely an overlap between the genetic era, when biology is being understood in many of its details, a precursor to genetic technology, and the last stages of the industrial era, that of electronics, automation and robotics. Breeding of plants and animals would have been proceeding for the whole age of the society, using trial-and-error techniques, and as the understanding of disease becomes widespread, the concept of bioweapons does also. One can use trial-and-error methods to breed disease organisms as well as socially useful organisms. Initially, the analogous use of bioweapons would be tried, similar to chemical weapons, such as by explosive canisters or sprays, applied on the front lines of armies, but these methods have quickly-discovered drawbacks of self-contamination and countermeasues, such as personal protective equipment.

Contagion is a more appropriate use of spreading a bioweaponized virulent organism. If one region has a particular and unique type of crop, which provides a substantial fraction of the nutrition for this region, then an enemy region could attempt to devise infectious organisms which would spread widely through the crop, eliminating its value. If the crop was annual, the yield would plummet. If it was a perennial, the productive plants would fail to grow the product, or even die. No such type of attack would work if all regions grew the same range of crops, however. Analogous arguments would work for animal husbandry as well.

If there was some unique genetic characteristic that most of the inhabitants of one region possessed, and it were possible to breed an infectious organism that would only attack those inhabitants with the particular feature in their genes, an analogous attack could be made. However, if this genetic dissimilarity is not wide-spread, or no organisms can be made to focus on one that exists, biowarfare can only be accomplished through a more organized and insidious means. If contagion is the means by which the infectious organism spreads, then the attacking society must somehow have some characteristics that allow it to be only slightly affected, which the opponent must have the opposite characteristics. If the disease is mediated by insects which live in unhygienic environments, a hygienic region could attack a unhygienic one. The reverse is obviously not true, but if there is any infection-carrying options, such as pets of some particular type, these might serve as the vectors for the disease contagion. 

If the disease spreads only from dead bodies of victims, then burial details might make one region more susceptible to being the target of a biowarfare attack. However, this is something that could quickly be recognized and altered, so such an attack is problematic at best.

If the disease spreads only through direct sharing of bodily fluids, such as blood to blood, it is not likely that it could be transformed into a bioweapon. There might be the equivalent of Earth's mosquitos on some particular exoplanet, but insect control is not difficult in an industrial civilization. Thus these diseases also would not serve well as bioweapon candiates. But if the disease could spread through indirect sharing of bodily fluids, or even without bodily fluids being used on the whole transmission path, then there might be a possibility of a bioweapon. If the infectious organism can spread through touch, or live on any kind of common surface for a period of time long enough for mutiple aliens to touch it, or travel on dust particles or water micro-bubbles, then the disease could act to have a large degree of contagion. 

If the attacking region has a way to prevent such sharing because of social customs or other social controls, and the target region has different customs or no ability to install social controls, then the opportunity for a bioweapon war might be possible. It would not look like any other type of war, as there would be no battleground or front lines, no armies involved in mass attacks, no industrial war machines being used, and perhaps even no declaration of war. The only thing that would happen would be one region would succumb to a high level of fatality, while another would not. Then economics would finish off the struggle between these two regions.

Could one or more biowarfare wars doom an alien civilization to collapse and never reaching star travel? This is not likely to happen, as social controls can defeat a bioweapon attack or serve as a protection of an attacker, so society might have some economic disruption during the period of the attack, but the attacker would not lose their grip on technology, nor suffer a great deal of economic disruption, and would be able to control the other region or regions and continue to pursue technology and eventually get to asymptotic technology. After this point, infectious organisms are easily controlled and no biowarfare would make sense, as antidotes and antigens could easily be generated as soon as the infection was noticed.

Recovery from Epidemics in Alien Civilizations

If an epidemic sweeps through an alien civilization, reaching all corners of the planet, and is lethal to some percentage of the population, the main drivers of the civilization's progress are not affected. Population count is not a direct cause of technology progress, and it will continue after some delay caused by the epidemic. What is important to maintaining the progress is having a quorum of intelligent, problem-solving individuals who can organize their work to push the envelope of science forward, and then to apply it to the productive activities of the population. If there is some fraction of deaths, maybe even as high as 90%, this does not mean that the genetic resources that are needed to produce the future generations of scientists and engineers are lost, it means the numbers are reduced and progress will be slowed down, or even degraded for a period of time. But it does not mean a permanent halt, and the timeline for this society to be able to make star travel work might be delayed for a few generations. 

To kill off the civilization as far as permanently eliminating their future progress, there would have to be a lethality level near to 100%, enough to eliminate so many of the population that there was a genetic reduction in intelligence. Is such a lethality level possible? Something lower than that might render the civilization incapable of maintaining its living standards, or even to preserve the existing level of technological know-how, but physical records and memories passed on to young aliens would lead them back to the standards they once had, and allow a resumption of the progress toward star travel.

Can an epidemic kill 100% of a population? This means that the contagion spreads world-wide, and that takes time, during which awareness of what is happening would travel all over the planet. Some response would be made, and the figure would drop below 100%. In the industrial era, when epidemics are possible because there is world-wide transportation and not yet rapid genetic developments of antidotes and antigens, there are still recourses to reduce the impact of the epidemic. Furthermore, with a wide mix of genetics for the immune systems, optimality having not yet been accomplished or even understood, there might be some aliens who are naturally immune, constituting some fraction of the population. And there might also be some individuals who are mostly resistant to the infectious organism's effects, recoving from it in more or less unimpaired condition. So, the achievement of 100% or very close to it lethality is unreasonable to suppose.

Before assuring ourselves of the recovery capability of a generic alien civilization, we might ask if there are any circumstances in which such a recovery might not happen. Regrowth needs resources, and if the civilization has already harvested the easy to gather ones, the minerals near the surface for example, could there be a barrier set up so that the civilization is bound down to a lower level of technology, one not capable of difficult extraction situations for critical items? Technological progess and resource development go hand in hand, and if the latter is impaired by what happened before the epidemic, could there be a strong barrier, sufficient so that the civilization would remain at some level, industrial or agricultural, forever? 

This is a question related to the particular planet upon which the civilization resides. Does the planet have large, relative to the usage rate of the population, amounts of most necessary minerals and energy resources? Or is the planet, owing to where it developed and the history of supernova generation of heavier elements in the clouds nearby, rather short of resources? If the latter instance, could the near exhaustion of resources in the industrial era could leave the surviving civilization with only too-hard-to-obtain resources remaining? This means that, during this alien civilization's industrial era, no one noticed, or if it was noticed, no one responded to the problem, and the resources available to the civilization were rapidly diminishing and growing harder to locate and recover, and instead of the obvious solution toward reducing usage with a world-wide reuse plan, they simply continued to work toward an early resource exhaustion. 

This does not make sense to rational people, but could there be some economic system which drove resource exhaustion heedlessly and recklessly. Could such an economic system stay in place when the costs of resources mounted steadily and significantly? This is an excellent question about the unbreakability of some economic systems. Can they be so firmly embedded in the culture that they would be blindly followed to near-term self-destruction of the civilization? Economic systems are in place because those who have the power to determine the ones to be used benefit from them, and so this question is, could these leaders of an alien civilization be only concerned with their own short-term benefits, and dismissive of what will happen to the civilization as a whole in only a few generations? 

This question takes us further afield. Recall that the science of training children, which involves setting goals for them in the deep subconscious, may be completely unknown to the civilization, and child-training and goal-setting left to random choices by those responsible for that training. Thus, short-sighted goals might be preserved, generation to generation, including the goals that those who become leaders have. This particular realm of science is likely only able to arise in the later part of the industrial era, that of electonics and automation, or even in the early part of the genetics era. 

There may be other mechanisms by which an epidemic could put an end to the future of an alien civilization, barring them from space travel, but this is one. It would only occur on a planet with less abundant resources, measured by how long they last during the industrial era, and only in situations where the neurology and training area of science happens to blossom late in this era. In this particular and possibly rare situation, a world-wide epidemic could have indirect effects that could collapse the civilization unrecoverably. But not only would these two requirements have to be in place, the epidemic itself would have to be at the limits of lethality, via both the disease effects and contagion. It might be that the evolution of such an infectious organism is extremely unlikely, and only by some early efforts at genetic engineering, at the level that would be possible in the later industrial era, could it arise and be, possibly accidentally, released.

Disease and Contagion in Alien Civilizations

The two aspects of epidemics are disease, what the effects of the infectious organism are within an alien's body, and contagion, which is how the infectious organism migrates from one alien to another. There are relationships between the two, but it is convenient to think of them separately at first.

When the infectious organism is inside an alien's body, that body serves as the source of sustenance for the organism. Somehow the infectious organism needs to get access to those substances that will allow it to survive and multiply. Cellular walls surround useful substances everywhere but in a few locations, such as the digestive tract and the equivalent of the blood system, meaning whatever in an alien's body transports nutrients, including oxygen, from the source locations within the body which access them from the outside. In Earth land creatures, those source locations are the lungs for oxygen and the digestive tract for everything else. So, an infectious organism that does not need oxygen directly can live in the digestive tract; otherwise it must somehow obtain its own nutrients from the body of the alien. There are nutrients in the blood system equivalent, and if the organism can somehow penetrate the walls of that system, it might find a place to survive and multiply. Thus, moving from the entry point on the alien's body to the blood stream has to be done in one way or another, and through a wound is one. Wounds should be uncommon, however, and so they would only play a part in diseases which cannot become epidemics. 

This means that the infectious organism has to have one unique capability: penetration of cell walls, either directly into cells themselves or between them into organs which have fluids, such as the equivalent of blood vessels. This can be done by toxins, which cause cells to die, or direct microchemical attack on the cell walls or their adhesion system, which binds one to another. This elementary categorization simply serves to show that the functionality of infectious organisms is not very diverse nor very complicated, and that there is no obvious reason they could not evolve on any exo-planet with animal life. It also means that there might be a multitude of types of disease-causing organisms on any exo-planet of this kind, where the next level of specification is by the type of cell in the alien's body which is attacked by the organism. 

There would be cellular defenses against infection, and also body-wide defenses, which are the equivalent of our immune system. Cellular defenses involve resistance to toxins which kill cells and resistance to penetration attacks on the cell walls and on the connections between cells. Body-side defenses involve organs within the body which produce cells specifically designed to attack and destroy infectious micro-organisms. Evolution continues to improve and adapt both sides of this battle, and while there is a degree of randomness in what evolution has produced at any given instant in time, over long ages everything gets tried that can be tried.

Every disease-causing organism would like to graduate to being an epidemic, as the numbers of the organisms would be multiplied by something quite large. Thus, evolution would also work on micro-organisms to enable their transfer from one host to another. However, there is no biological equivalent to inter-host transfer, so evolution has no way to arm the larger organisms against this in any direct way; instead defense has to be left to each large organism to defend itself against the infection. 

One piece of knowledge that is widely understood is that highly and quickly lethal organisms have a hard time spreading from host to host. There is no evolutionary advantage for a micro-organism to kill its host quickly if it can live within the host for a long time, while propagating to other hosts. If the micro-organism has evolved to overcome the first line of defense of the host, the cell walls, it can live until the immune system rises up to eliminate it. Since this takes time, measured in the rate of transfer of cells around the body of the host and the growth rate of the different types of cells that make up the immune system, there is a duration of infection that should not be shortened by evolutionary mutations within the infectious organisms; otherwise the micro-organism works to its own disadvantage. The longer the duration, the more multiplication of micro-organisms that can take place, before the immune system eventually reduces them again. 

The method of contagion plays a role here. One route for the micro-organism to spread between hosts is via death of the host and spread of the organism from the dead body of the host. If the micro-organism can live for a long time in water, any host which dies in water can spread it. If the micro-organism dehydrates the host, the host would seek water and perhaps die in contact with it. If the micro-organism infects hosts which are carrion-feeders, and cannibals to boot, this would provide another route for re-infection. This, of course, is only for wild creatures living in natural surroundings. For intelligent aliens, burial customs can influence contagion in a somewhat advanced alien civilization. Using dead animals as feed for live animals of the same species can also be involved. In such instances, lethality of the micro-organism might be higher than otherwise optimal for its propagation. 

Otherwise, the game is played by set rules, the host should live until the immune system kicks in, or would have, had the host not died from the infection. The infectious organism has to have ways to propagate, either while the host is alive and infected, or while dead and not buried, or both. These are categorized into respiration-related, touch-related including sexually transmitted, and surface-transmitted. Third parties, such as insects, can also serve as the route for contagion. For primitive alien civilizations, all of these would be in play until enough technology is gained to block them. After that, one by one they are shut down, by eliminating the insect hosts, by disinfection methods, by identification of carriers and their isolation and possibly others in special cases. So, epidemics can strike an alien civilization in analogous ways to ours, and the question about whether epidemics could be the reason alien civilizations are not visiting us depends on whether or not, at any era within the development of the alien civilization and its technology, there would be enough planet-wide transportation before anti-epidemic technology was developed. In other words, which technology stream comes first. 

Lastly, there is the question of the finality of an epidemic. Given that one happens in an alien civilization, can it recover and get back on the road to star travel, with only a delay of a generation or two or three? This might be a much more important question that the possibility of a single monstrously severe epidemic at just the right time in the technology development cycle.

Can Epidemics End an Alien Civilization?

Recently, a well-known blogger facetiously proposed a possible solution to the question of missing aliens: could epidemics have killed them off? This deserves some detailed examination.  This post and the next four all attempt to dig deeper and to provide some overview of the possibility.

Would there be infectious organisms on exo-planets harboring advanced alien civilizations? What helps us answer this is one of the main principles of alienology: convergent evolution. This principle says that the number of mutations that happens on a planet is much, much larger than the number of possible mutations; in other words, every mutation is tried out many times. Since evolution favors the more efficient at survival and reprodution, we would see on each exo-planet that has originated life and undergone billions of years of evolution, all the same niches of life filled. There might not be, at any instant in time, rose bushes on Planet X, but there would be flowers, thorns, pollination in different ways, fragrances emitted, and so on. Everything that works here would have been found and worked there, subject to lots of randomization. The principle works the other way as well, as anything that evolution could have come up with on Planet X, it could have come up with on Earth. The details are all scrambled, but the niches are occupied, the various functions are all there, and so on. 

That means that multi-cellular organisms on Planet X, where “multi” means billions, would be good homes for both infectious single-celled organisms and semi-alive RNA/DNA/protein globs which we call viruses. This has to be tempered with the realization that immune systems would have evolved in the organisms on Planet X as well, and that means that each organism there is actually a battleground between cells and viruses that would like to colonize it, and the organism's immune system cells, which are bent on getting rid of these things. The immune cells have to be able to communicate with whatever organ makes them, so they can call up large numbers when a virulent invasion hits, and so they are unable to go everywhere in the body of the organism, particularly not in the digestive system and the outside of the envelope or “skin” of the organism, plus a few other places. So infections would hit the organism in the digestive tract or on the skin of the organism. The oxygen supply system would also be an area where the immune system cannot easily patrol in large enough numbers to repel a large invasion. 

Another principle of alienology is asymptotic technology, which says that technology is an accumulation of scientific knowledge and engineering principles which builds on itself over time in a society of intelligent organisms, and has to follow some fairly well-developed paths based on how knowledge fits together and how engineering of various tools allows the next stage of technology to be developed. Iron tools allow deep mining to be accomplished; computers allow DNA to be investigated; and on it goes in a reasonably coordinated way. This way comes to an end when all technology is understood, and that does not take very many generations of aliens, perhaps something of the order of a hundred. The final stage is called asymptotic technology, meaning it is the final end or asymptote of technological progress. 

Genetics is one of the last pieces of technology to be brought under complete control of an alien civilization, as it depends on the pre-existence of much other technology to enable all the experiments that have to be done. An alien civilization which has reached asymptotic technology does not have any worries about epidemics of single-celled organisms or viruses. Any individual who become infected can be examined and equipment used to determine exactly what is the infectious agent and what does the technology library say about how to get rid of it quickly. We are not at the stage yet of knowing how to do this, but we can imagine some possibilities, none of which have to be discussed here. What is important, is that there is no mysterious illnesses possible with a sufficiently advanced alien civilization, meaning no epidemics, even locally. All bets are off on an exo-planet which has had its civilization collapse for other reasons, but one which is in the golden age of its existence will have no problems.

This means that epidemics occur only with younger alien civilizations, ones which have not yet passed the genetic grand transformation, after which genetics is wholly understood, and the technology for dealing with it developed and deployed. An alien civilization in the electronics era, the one prior to the genetics revolution, does not have the ability to analyze almost instantaneously genetic blueprints and fabricate antidotes. Instead, such a more primitive alien society must grope around, using trial and error, in the hope of finding a cure for any widespread infection or a vaccine to prevent it by giving the immune system a head start. However, if infections can produce a sufficiently widespread and catastrophic effect on such a early civilization, it would not have a chance to reach the genetic grand transformation, and would relapse into some earlier stage. 

Could an epidemic occur in an alien civilization which has not even reached the electronics or industrial age? This would be a civilization in the agricultural era, where there are few small cities, and the population is spread out over the planet in regions where agriculture is efficient and seasonality not too severe. There might be a slowly moving infection, but with very limited numbers of individuals moving from one area to another, there would not be anything to produce a catastrophe. If the infection was highly lethal, news of it would spread faster than the infection itself. If it were rarely lethal, it would simply become part of the arsenal of the resident aliens' immune system. Thus, epidemics occur in industrial civilizations that have mastered transportation to some degree, not in earlier or later ones.

So the question resolves to: can an alien civilization which falls victim, over the whole planet, to a single type of novel infection, recover from it and with some delay, return to its progress toward the further stages of technology? If the infection is sufficiently lethal, its spread is inhibited. If the infection is not very lethal, it becomes part of the immune system's library of known invasive organisms. Exactly what lethality is needed for a collapse after which there is no recovery, even after a century? If it is too high when it arrives, carriers do not carry it far before expiring. However, if there is no immune system response possible, in other words, if the attacking organism can defeat the immune system of the individual aliens so they do not develop immunity to it, and can then invade and re-invade and re-invade until lethality results, but with plenty of transmission between individuals during the intermission between successive invasions, this might do it. So, an epidemic which attacks the immune system or which is 'immune' to the immune system, which damages individuals on the first attack instead of killing them leaving them more vulnerable to future infections, and which is easily contagious, might eliminate the alien civilization, and prevent it from ever building starships and coming to Earth. Such an infective organisms, a triple-headed threat, might be stopped with social measures in an alien civilization in the industrial era, but that is another question to be answered later.

Thursday, March 26, 2020

Peak Technology and Asymptotic Technology

To avoid confusion about the definition of these terms, both of which are important in alienology, it might be useful to clarify them here. Peak technology is what happens when an alien civilization runs into a problem, and is unable to sustain the growth of its scientific knowledge. Problems might be some catastrophe that causes shortages, like the alien civilization's bad luck to be on a planet with minimal resources, and try as they might to use them sparingly, they run out before they get to a complete knowledge of technology, a point which is called asymptotic technology, and their civilization begins a downturn. Science begins to be forgotten, or becomes unusable. There might be knowledge preserved in some sort of records, but there are too few people around who can learn it, so, as far as the whole society goes, it is forgotten. To use an extreme example, a planet with only agricultural villagers remaining after a golden age is one where peak technology has come and gone, no matter what type of recordings of past scientific knowledge there is locked away in some vault in a cave. 

Problems can arise from external sources, such as the famous example of an asteroid impact which is large enough to cripple the civilization and prevent it from recovering; the population is reduced below the critical mass needed to maintain technology, let alone progress in it. Problems can arise from internal sources, such as if biological terrorism leads to the extinction of a large fraction of the population. There are a host of other examples in each of these categories. An encounter with a passing star, enough to alter the orbit of the alien planet is one; the star does not have to get so close as to throw the planet out of its solar system, just close enough to make the orbit more eccentric, so that the whole land mass is covered with ice during aphelion, and it doesn't melt during perihelion. A supernova sufficiently close could do it. Basalt flooding could do it. Incessant war could do it. The desire of a ruling elite to maintain itself, coupled with a fear of social change due to more technology could do it. Even persistent, extreme affluence might do it. 

When a civilization suffers a problem such as this, not all technology is forgotten. Depending on how severe the collapse is, there might only be agricultural expertise left. Or transportation equipment at some level might be maintained, depending only on whatever original resouces are left plus renewable ones. The general idea is conceptualized as this graph:

There is no need for the curve to be smooth; it could just as well be bumpy at any section of it. The duration of time that the civilization spends near peak technology is a function of its population, the planet's natural resources, and many other factors. The slopes of the two sides might be of the same order, or they might be different: for example, the rise might be quite steep, as technology's rate of change feeds on itself, but the loss of technology can be slowed by the struggle to maintain it as long as possible.

If nothing goes wrong, technology just keeps accumulating until there isn't any more that isn't known. This is a very finite process. Sometimes someone makes a comment that implies that technology keeps accelerating forever, but this has no meaning whatsoever. Knowledge of details, such as how much sand is on some beach on some exo-planet, might be accumulated, but data is not science or technology. Science is a matter of understanding how the universe operates, and there is certainly some data involved in it, but it is largely a matter of theories explaining phenomena, patterns that exist, cause and effect relationships, and other things; in general it is the compaction of the ability to explain things that happen or that exist. The compaction starts with generalization which often grows into quantitative expressions describing almost anything. 

Asymptotic technology speeds up as early theories are found and validated, which allow more general questions to be asked. At some point, all the easy concepts are found, and the remaining ones grow harder and harder to develop. Thus, the curve of technology looks like an exponential during its earliest phases, and then tips over and continues to slow in its rate of progress, towards an asymptote of total understanding. This is a description of the general form of the technology-time curve, which looks like this:

The height of the asymptote is always the same, for every alien civilization. It is complete knowledge of science and technology. This simple fact is critically important for the study of alien civilization, in absentia. The coupling is done by the principle called technological determinism, which says that technology dictates the forms that a civilization can take, and since the asymptotic technology for every civilization is the same, the form of all the different alien civilizations in the galaxy will have very much in common. If we can understand how technology will progress, we will have an important tool for the study of all alien civilizations. 

One aspect of technology that assists in the understanding of its eventual progression is that technology builds upon itself. Different areas of technology do not progress at the same rate, but instead, one area will go slowly until another area has passed some threshold where the second area can facilitate progress in the first. Thus, technology evolves in stages, which means that the forms of societies will also go through stages. The most all-encompassing of these stages might be called grand transformations, and these appear to involve, in approximate sequence, fire-making, wood and stone use, agriculture and husbandry, metal use, fossil fuel use and the industrial consequents, electronics and its end-effect of artificial intelligence, genetics and psychology and then interstellar space flight, if the civilization is up to it.

Each of these stages might take different amounts of time to come to full blooming. It might be possible to understand them all separately, using the same model of asymptotic understanding. Early learning is relatively faster than late learning. This means that the middle portion of alienology, after the planet-building and origination and evolution of life and before interstellar travel, where civilization develops, has some principles that can be used to gain insights. This is one of the fundamental bases of this blog.

Wednesday, February 5, 2020

Does the Drake Equation Make Sense? Part 2.

If life originates, and the planet where this happens continues to reside in the liquid water zone, does it evolve to intelligent life? Are there certain conditions which are prerequisites for intelligence to evolve? Would they be common among such planets, or rare?

In this blog, and certainly elsewhere, it is supposed that tool use, starting with fire, then stone and wood, leads to the increasing capacity of the brain of some dominant organism. An equation, similar in form to the Drake equation can be written for this process, involving the evolution of increasingly complex organisms, starting from the first thing to form which constitutes life, a membrane enclosing some proteins that reproduce in some way, and which also produce more membrane. The steps might include the formation of more complex cells, with different features, the ability to exist in different environments and to consume different chemical energy sources. Then the shift to multicellular organisms has to happen, and many steps of evolution might be inserted into the new formula for the progressive development of capabilities of multicellular organisms. Then, back to single celled organisms, a step has to exist to be able to take energy from photons from the star, with the development of some primitive form of chlorophyll. And it goes on and on, as evolution is a horrendously complicated sequence. Regrettably, we do not understand the sequence completely, not even the conditions on the surface of the planet which are required to allow them to happen. The overall probability of producing intelligent species might be 1.0, meaning inevitable, or 0.000001, meaning intelligence is not a particularly useful capability for most creatures on an exo-planet.

The rise to intelligence is perhaps the most difficult of the probabilities in the Drake equation to estimate, as the evidence of most forms of life does not last for billions of years, with only a few exceptions. It should be one of the first orders of those who study it to come up with the new sets of probabilities, so that these can be studied from a normative sense, and then the whole combined into the Drake factor measuring it.

From intelligence to a civilization, mastering technology up to electronics, is another opportunity for sub-probabilities to be estimated. Here it is much easier, as there is history of our development, and it serves as one example, and a base upon which tangents may be followed. This blog includes, in many of the posts, speculation on the steps involved. There seems to be a natural order by which technology progresses, one stage depending on the previous, and there also seems to be a drive, reminiscent of evolution, which pushes creatures to develop successive stages of technology. Figuring out the steps up to the stage of civilization that we currently inhabit is not so difficult, but the postulation of what happens next is extremely controversial. There seems to be a tendency among modern-day humans to forecast dooms that might be imminent, and if one such doom really exists and is universal among intelligent species, reaching broadcast capability might be chancy, and staying there more chancy.

Another of the assumptions inherent in the Drake equation is that broadcasting is the end point of technology, and it would continue for some long period. It hasn't. There is still some, but the term, L, in the Drake formula may be very short as better ways of shipping large quantities of information around the planet have been found and have displaced broadcasting. This seems likely to continue, so L may be, for us, less than a hundred years. With that short a time, being so lucky as to be listening during the particular century out of billions of years of planetary existence is almost impossible to expect.

The Drake equation, if used with the retrospection of all the decades that have passed since it was first written down, may well indicate that the SETI project is hopeless and should never have been attempted. Many people's lives and careers were involved in it, and certainly some, perhaps many, were overwhelmed by the feelings that if they were successful, their fame would be writ large on the pages of scientific history. Some of the participants talked about the success of the project being a grand changer of the direction of human civilization. With such a result, it is not hard to see how the Drake equation was mis-evaluated in many ways so as to provide a justification for the search. Who wants to have their hopes of a glorious legacy be dashed?

The Drake equation, and indeed the SETI project, did have the value of focussing the attention of many individuals, scientist and non-scientists, on the various steps in the formula. It raises the interest level and provides some motivation for doing the hard scientific work necessary for our continued progress. There is little work going on in some very important areas, such as questions of the origination of life, but there might be even less if the burst of energy and excitement that the SETI project ignited had not happened. Understanding evolution is a continuing scientific task, and it might not have been greatly affected by SETI's popularity, but perhaps as the gaps and uncertainties in Drake's formula become more clear, there will be some effect, and some new Darwins will enter the field and erase the dark gaps in the theory.

Mankind has always tried to understand history, and the nature of man and the nature of civilization, but the Drake equation takes all this non-scientific palaver and demands that it be turned into a quantitative measure of how civilization develops. Historians typically do not make much use of the theory of technological determinism, which says that civilization is forced to adapt to technology, which is forced to follow a certain pattern of temporal stages. If history becomes scientific, this might be the result of the Drake and SETI activity with the greatest influence on the future of humanity. Once history becomes more scientific, a better forecast of the potential futures can be given and we would not have to resort to choosing between a dozen different predictions of dooms.

To summarize, the Drake equation inspires work in the following areas: orbital stability for small rocky planets, origin of life from either a unique event or ordinary conditions, the evolution of life through the millions of steps needed to lead to intelligent creatures, and the transformation of history from an art to a science. With the retrospective understanding we now have, the probability of success of the SETI project likely starts with many zeros, and there does not seem to be any redeeming factors in the equation which would raise it even to the order of a few percent or more. Given the amount of effort that was put into it, it was a good start, insofar as it provides motivation for more good science, and also makes non-scientists aware of the possibilities that we are not alone, and with a good amount of further work, we might know just how not alone we are.

Does the Drake Equation Make Sense?

The Drake Equation was developed in the infancy of the SETI project. The Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence was a US-sponsored project starting over sixty years ago, designed to listen for any kind of electromagnetic broadcasts than another intelligent civilization might be emitting. The equation is simplicity itself, just a product of conditional probabilities. Here it is:
N = R*.fp .Ne .fl .fi .fc .L
and N is the number of detectable alien civilizations in the galaxy,
R* is the rate at which stars form in the galaxy,
fp is the fraction of stars which develop planets,
Ne is the number of planets within a planetary systems which have the right conditions for life,
fl is the fraction of planets with the right conditions for life which develop life,
fi is the fraction of planets which develop life up to the level of intelligence,
fc is the fraction of planets with intelligent life that build systems to radiate electromagnetic waves,
L is the length of time such civilizations persist in their radiation.

There are a number of assumptions made which permit the formula for N to be expressed this way. Let us discuss a few of them.

First, the Milky Way galaxy is chosen as the basis for measuring everything. We only know that life can originate on a spiral arm, far away from the bulge and the black holes which inhabit the center. It seems quite reasonable that life needs billions of years to evolve to the stage where a civilization emerges and starts emitting radiation, and in the bulge, distant stellar encounters happen much more frequently than in the spiral arms. A stellar encounter can create a gravitational pull on a planetary system to disturb it, and a planet which had conditions for life prior to the encounter may be moved either inward or outward relative to its star, where the conditions do not hold. Two solutions might be done for this, either change R* to only count spiral arm stars or modify all the subsequent probabilities to take into account the different conditions between the spiral arms and the central bulge.

Second, the term detectable can be defined a number of ways. Since radiation dies off as the square of the distance travelled, without absorption, and worse with absorption, does detectable mean detectable with some particular equipment? Imagining a ten kilometer aperture radio dish out beyond Neptune's orbit, and compare that with the original SETI equipment. If one wants to be able to detect a civilization's emissions from the other side of the Milky Way, assuming the central bulge does not intervene, something huge would be required on both ends.

Third, the equation seems to be assuming roughly isotropic radiation, spreading equally in every direction, including the one direction that heads toward Earth. Why would any civilization do that? There might be some transitory period when they were broadcasting for their own planetary uses, but if they wanted to communicate from solar system to solar system, they would develop a narrow beam system that would require only a tiny fraction of the power of an isotropic radiator. But then detectable means that Earth is in the beam of such a system. That would be rather fortuitous.

Fourth, the fraction of stars which develop planets might be, as we now know, approximately one, but developing planets does not mean life can evolve on one of them, or certainly not to the threshold of EM emissions. Stars heavier than our star burn out quickly, and if one included them in the count, they could have planets and one could have the right conditions for life, but these conditions would soon change as the star evolved and died. On the other end of the scale, M dwarfs, the most populous kind of star, doesn't have enough energy output to have a planet with the conditions for life, except if it is close in, and there it would be likely phase-locked, with the same face always directed at the star. There are good objections to assuming life could evolve in such a system.

For the mid-range of stars, where our sun resides, there might be planets, and one or two with the conditions for life, but we know little about the migration of planets, even without the evolution of the parent star. Do smaller planets keep their orbits for billions of years in any planetary system, or does it take billions of years for them to gradually migrate inward or outward? If we change the definition to having a planet of the right size in the liquid water zone for billions of years, the number might drop from about 1.0 to 0.00001. Figuring out long-term stability of orbits should be a fairly simple task for the current state of mathematical astrophysics, but it does not seem to have been done in a comprehensive way that enables on to figure out this term in Drake's equation.

Fifth, exactly what does the “conditions for life” entail? If it is made very loose, the corresponding probability would be high, and the subsequent probability would be less to make up for the looseness. If it is made tight, the inverse happens. At the time the Drake equation was written, mankind did not know how life forms, nor what were the conditions needed for it. Now, sixty years later, the same situation exists. We don't know. It is appalling that so little work is done on the origination for life. One particular question is that, are there some conditions in which life forms over a period of time, something large compared to human lifetimes but small compared to solar lifetimes, like a million years? Or is the situation completely opposite, life only forms if some event happens, and the probability of the event might be very, very small.

Just suppose, as hypothesized in this blog, a mild collision with a large planetoid, which becomes a satellite, is necessary for life. The collision would have occurred in the early part of the solar system's existence. Earth-like planets which did not have that collision in their history might be similar in many conditions to ones which did, but, if the hypothesis is correct, only the latter could have life. There are certainly other events in the history of a planet which might affect the origination of life, such as the chemical composition of the crust, volcanic heating, and asteroidal bombardment.

To be generous, life originated three or four billion years ago, and we do not know the conditions of the Earth's surface, so we are limited in imagining how life could originate. The delay in life origination work might be caused by the delay in planet origination work. Neither is in a good state. There is no reason to think that current conditions on the Earth could lead to an origination of life, assuming all consequences of life were removed. One of the conditions discussed in this blog is the existence of organic oceans on the surface, able to nurture membrane formation as well as complex protein formation. Where might they come from? The mild collision hypothesis is a possibility for this.

Monday, January 27, 2020

Chromosome Genetics

Knowledge abounds here on Earth about the number of chromosomes humans have and how gender is determined by whether a fertilized egg cell has an XY or XX chromosome pair. It's less well known that cell division includes the opening up of all nuclear DNA pairs and the splitting of them into two batches before replication. Even less well known is how hard it is, given today's technology, to separate chromosomes so they can be accessed individually.

It is not exactly clear if there is any other way of harnessing the protein synthesis control capabilities of DNA so that alien cells might have a different way of doing it. Nor even is it known if there are alternatives to DNA to carry genetic information. Genetics in this area is like exo-planetary studies before any exo-planets were discovered. Everything is speculation.

These two questions are somewhat independent. If an alien planet had non-DNA genomes, that still does not mean that they would not have all the genetic information divided up into chromosomes. The alternatives are to have more than one nucleus in the cell, with perhaps one chromosome in each, or to have one nucleus with only one chromosome pair having all the DNA or its equivalent. Why did Earth evolve multiple chromosomes, or rather, why don't all species have just one large circular chromosome as do many single-celled organisms? What is the evolutionary advantage and would it be universal, meaning on other planets as well?

Among contemporary bacteria, there are some with one, two or more circular chromosomes, some with linear chromosomes, and some with a combination. After billions of years of evolution, the competition for a chromosomal shape has not been won by any arrangement, so for bacteria and other prokaryotes at least, there must be little evolutionary advantage between them. This is not true for eukaryotes, multi-cellular organisms, which all seem to have linear chromosomes. Most eukaryotes also have some legacy circular chromosome material, located in the mitochondria or elsewhere, which reproduce independently of the nuclear DNA during cell division.

One advantage is obvious. To have genetic information for many different types of cells, as well as the signaling information for organizing them, there must be much more information, and a circular chromosome or a single linear chromosome with all this information would simply be too large to fit into the nucleus, or for the meiotic proteins to handle. Having everything in large numbers of diverse mitochondria also seems evolutionarily difficult, for the organization of cell replication. So, using DNA or anything else, it appears likely that alien species will have multiple linear chromosomes.

Alien geneticists may run into the same problem that Earth geneticists have: separating chromosomes is difficult. The processes within the cell are quite complex, and there is not enough information on them to allow them to be replicated or imitated in a genetics lab. Neither have there been any simple mechanical solutions to separating chromosomes. Perhaps we are missing the right discovery. By the time asymptotic technology arrives in the genetics area, however, this problem will have been solved.

It's not clear that the ordering of advances and inventions in the genetics grand transformation will make much difference in how an alien civilization will develop. The end result would be the same. But chromosome separation would allow some cost-savings in making genetic changes to organisms, or to the creation of synthetic organisms. If this cost-savings is large, it would emphasize the possibility of having genetically modified or created organisms throughout the civilization.

All we can do now is map the genome of humans and other organisms, and use that information for diagnoses, or in plant and animal breeding. There is some work being done on inserting novel genes into existing plant and animal genomes, but it is very slow. If it were possible to isolate chromosomes rapidly and inexpensively, this would speed up the process. It would also make the process of genetic modification more certain, as a laboratory could simply work with one chromosome and modify it, without having to worry if the modification methodology would accidentally make a modification in another chromosome, with a similar stretch of DNA.

One interesting question to ask is how would an advanced alien society prepare the genetics of their successive generations of their population. Suppose there is an inexpensive way to separate chromosomes. Then, the alien society could simply decide to choose the best set of chromosomes from the copies available. If there is some optimal set, then all the aliens in later generations would be like clones. Alternatively, if the selection was out of the set of a pair of parents (assuming two genders), a wide variety of individuals would remain, but there would be a trend toward more healthy individuals with better capabilities.

Similarly, if there were pairs of parents with some genetic deficiency in one chromosome, specifically in one of the parents, then that chromosome could be eliminated in the resulting next-generation individual. This would result in the gradual elimination of genetic diseases and other problems, although errors in replication remain possible and there would always be a risk of some new mutation arising.

There are many syndromes which arise because of the improper copying of whole chromosomes, meaning extra copies, and with chromosome separation technology, these would be reduced or eliminated as well. Broken chromosomes could be sorted out as well, and mutations arising from copying errors would be detectable and removable. Reading the genome would be less computationally intensive and less prone to mistakes, if each chromosome was read individually. The current Earth method of batching all the chromosomes together and then sorting them out after all the fragments have been read is clearly something that can be improved on.

The technology to separate chromosomes does not seem to be on the horizon, meaning the old methods would be used here for a decade or so. Microbiological investigation into how to make a cell nucleus separate and then how to create microtubules to reach into the mixture and connect to individual chromosomes needs to be done. Once it is well understood how nature accomplishes this task, it would be more reasonable to expect that genetics laboratories can come up with some combination of biological and physical equipment to accomplish chromosome separation. After this, we might see genetics jump forward very fast in potential applications, and this will give us a much clearer idea of what an advanced alien society might be doing with their own technology in this area.

Friday, January 17, 2020

Mineral Planets

Let's use the term mineral planet for planets that an alien species could turn into a sustainable habitat. These are a far cry from an origin planet, which is one which could give birth to life by evolving its own first cells. It is a far cry from a seedable planet, which is one which could not evolve its own starting cells, but which could take a seed of some sort of cells and have them multiply and eventually evolve into something interesting, like an alien civilization. Instead, a mineral planet is one where an advanced civilization could establish mines and habitats, on the surface or below it, and thereby produce enough resources, energy and minerals, to sustain an alien colony without any continuing support from the home planet. It has to persist for a long period. 

There may be very few origin planets in the galaxy, and somewhat more seedable planets, and maybe a huge number of mineral planets. One implication of such a lopsided ratio would be that mineral planets can be stepping stones for an alien civilization to cross the galaxy. Note that some or all alien civilizations may adopt the goal of seeding as many seedable planets as they can, following a philosophy that life is its own goal, and that just like planet-bound species try to disperse as much as they can, alien civilizations try to spread life as much as they can. Traveling 300 light years from a civilization's origin planet to the nearest seedable planet might be simply too much to do, and so finding a network of mineral planets in the general direction of that seedable planet would allow them to gradually work their way over to it, and when close enough, to accomplish the seeding effort with more payload and duration in orbit that they could have if they had to travel 300 light years.

Reliability might play a role here. If a speed of 1% of the speed of light is used as a guess of the maximum speed the civilization might attain with its colony ships, this means 1000 years of reliability is necessary to go to the nearest mineral planet, but 30000 years would be necessary for the closest seedable planet. If the probability of enough equipment lasting 1000 years can get raised to 98%, a risk the civilization might be willing to take, the same equipment has a probability of the same quorum still working after 30000 years of travel of only 55%.

Monitoring a seedable planet is also easier from 10 light years away than 300. It might be that seeding a planet is necessarily a very chancy situation, and multiple visits are the only way to accomplish it and verify that it has been accomplished in such a way that a billion years of evolution or two can follow without total extinction. Maybe seeding can only be handled by landing a small colony on the planet, and staying there for a long period. This could also be accommodated better from a nearby solar system than from a distant one.

Is there anything which can be credibly said about the prevalence of mineral planets? The formation of stars seems to leave a disk of matter revolving around it, which can turn into planets. This is a matter of the disposition of angular momentum, and how hard it is to collect it all in a central body. Everywhere we look we see planets, and our ability to find them is not so great right now, so there are probably many more per cubic light year than we have discovered in our locality. If there are several planets on the average per star, how likely is it that at least one of them is a mineral planet?

To be a mineral planet, the planet has to be mineable and habitable. Planets too close to the star are too hot on the surface to establish a colony, and the temperature below the surface would be higher than the average temperature at any latitude. The orientation of the planet would indicate the spread of temperatures over the planet, from pole to equator, and indicate if there was any latitude above which a colony ship could land and stay without thermal damage. Phase-locked planets provide a different criteria, but if the north pole of a non-rotating planet is designated as the closest-to-star point, then again, there may a latitude beyond which the ship could land.

Too much atmosphere would interfere with colonization, and planets might be excluded on this basis. Since smaller planets cannot long hold onto the atmospheres they have at formation, size is an indicator of this problem. The maximum size depends on the distance from the star, as it is easier to hold onto an atmosphere if the planet is far from the star and the atmosphere is very cold. Cold gases evaporate much more slowly.

Another question to be asked is the radiation level. If the star is a very active one, the colony ship would not even be able to come in close to it, unless some sort of shielding was build into the hull. Perhaps advanced engineering could figure out a way to get a mine dug, and alien colonists down into the mine without receiving too much radiation. Once under the surface, all the radiation is absorbed before reaching them. This is an interesting project to be considered.

With all these factors eliminating candidates, how much might be left? Our surveys of exo-planets are too limiting to calculate this number, but it might be that 90% are no good, meaning one in three stars, of middle class, has a candidate. There is more to being a mineral planet that simply being mineable with a surface not too lethal. There has to be the right mix of minerals.

An alien body has certain needs for elements, and alien technology has a different set of requirements for elements. Together they comprise the shopping list of elements, or rather minerals from which the needed minerals can be extracted. Some small molecules might also be extracted, principally water and carbon dioxide, maybe some others. The distribution of elements on a planet is a result of the original composition of the gas cloud, which comes from the effect of nearby supernovas in the cloud's history. Then there is the condensation question and the diffusion question, with minerals forming as elements and condensing into dust, and then being filtered by the solar wind and light output from the star over millions of years. After that, when the planet forms, geology plays a role in determining which minerals are at the surface.

The only planet we have any experience with is Earth, and it can provide us with a model problem. Suppose there was a planet in a state just like modern Earth but without any atmosphere, without any fossil fuels, no life, and of course no people, meaning no mining. Could an alien colony ship find the right minerals, in accessible form, so that it could produce a sustainable colony here? Perhaps U-235 is the key. We can mine uranium ore, refine it, enrich it, build a reactor, and extract more energy than was needed to construct the reactor and keep it fueled. Alien reactors should be even more efficient in the use of fissionable and fertile fuel than ours are, as we have had only a few decades of experience with fission power. Perhaps the guess of one solar system in three having a mineral planet is not too far from the truth. 

Sunday, November 24, 2019

Choosing Colony Planets

An alien civilization with a philosophy of life requiring it to spread and disperse life throughout the galaxy, as far as it can, would need to be very circumspect about where to send a seedship. This adventure would require a great amount of effort from the civilization, and perhaps a good fraction of the resources available to it. On Earth, we have not even begun to figure out how this might be done, but we can assure ourselves this is not going to be easy for any civilization. As little would be left to chance as possible.

If we ask ourselves about the possibility of our civilization encountering another one, knowing where they would likely be is a critical question. They start on their origin planet, but then where do they go? We have learned over the last decade or two that there are huge numbers of exo-planets in the galaxy, but of these, which ones might be even initial candidates for an alien civilization's colonies? What are the characteristics of a possible colony planet? If we know that, then we can concentrate our search for alien life, or rather alien civilization, on that class of planet, and spend less on others.

What we cannot assume is that they will only go to other planets which have already originated life. If their philosophy and reason for continuing their existence is to spread life throughout the galaxy, an origin planet would be low on their list – it already has life and there is no need to go there and seed it. That would be superfluous. Instead, they would want to go where there is no life and is not likely to be if the planet is left to itself. Not just any planet would do. There are certainly some detailed criteria for a reasonably nearby planet, within a hundred or two light years, to even be considered as a possibility.

Many planets might only support the alien civilization itself, and not some ecology of plants, animals, microbes or whatever on it.  Their mandate is to spread life, but if the only way that can be done is to establish a colony, then that is the solution to the lack of planets which might be harbors for primitive life.  The alien civilization can set up colonies in many places, but needs to discriminate as to what distinguishes one possibility from another, as far as spreading life goes.  

One dominant aspect of the choice is sustainability. Sustainability means, for some particular alien species or collection of them, the ability to live for a very long period, measured in lifetimes, on the resources and energy located near and accessible to them. It includes the idea that the population should be able to grow up to some minimum value and still live there for that long period. It is about resources existing on the planet, near the surface, but also about being able to extract enough materials to make an energy source that produces much more energy than all the energy needed to collect and process the materials used in the energy generation and distribution process. There must be enough surplus energy for the other half of the problem, providing all the components, such as habitat and food, needed to sustain the new alien population.

The colony starts out with only the equipment that can be carried on the seedship. The development of the colony would consist of several preliminary stages before the uniform growth stage expands the colony up to the desired population. The first stage involves the landing of whatever is necessary to initiate power production with a minimally sized power reactor, create a habitat, and locate and start to mine and process all necessary mineral deposits. A central manufacturing complex would need to be created that can produce, from the ores found, all the specialized items needed for all the operations of the civilization.

Control of this process is not so critical. Can this be done in an automated fashion, or is it necessary to spend time in orbit, gestating the first generation of aliens, before sending them down with the initial lander? Whether the seeding operation is under AI control or under alien control, much the same steps have to be done. The principal difference is that habitats need to be made for the alien landing party, or some additional manufacturing facilities need to be made to enable expansion of the AI capability.

The question of sustainability is not easy to calculate in advance. Yet this is what an alien civilization must do before attempting to spread its population to a new planet or satellite in a distant solar system. They must make an estimate of whether or not a colony could survive on an exoplanet before taking the extreme expense of sending a seedship there The question is not just can the colony survive for a while, but survive and build a large civilization on the planet. The ultimate question involves the possibility that an alien colony, on a colony planet, could create a civilization large enough to send out its own seedship. If the colony planet was a dead-end, without enough resources for the civilization to grow large enough for the project of going out yet further to another colony planet, it should not be chosen.

The calculation depends on what goes along with the seedship. How much energy does it carry to support the transition from nothingness on the planet to a viable colony? Before this is used up, a seedship must arrange for native energy sources on the planet. This might seem to mean a uranium mine, but the uranium metal is actually a small part of what is needed to build an energy-producing fission reactor. Some parts for the first reactor might come from the ship, and this means that sustainability in energy is going to be developed in stages. The energy from the first reactor would need to be deployed toward a variety of tasks.

Total sustainability means that all mandatory mineral resources are present in the planet's crust, easily accessible, and with not too large a cost in transporting them from their mining site to the central location where the colony's initial population will be centered. For an alien civilization attempting to create a very credible and accurate estimate of this, which they would need before a launch, they would have to first collect all possible information about the planet and the solar system it is located in. The only way to do this from their planet is to build huge telescopes, and it also means asymptotic technology as far as planet formation goes, i.e. having geology completely understood, from the time of the gas cloud through all the changes that go on with the crust of the planet. They would need to be able to tell from the spectrum of the star what the gas cloud that created it contained, as for different elements and the relative concentrations of each.

At this point in Earth science, we have not attempted to make any such calculations, and so we don't really know if it is possible, or how accurate it might be. The accuracy is likely a function of the age of the star, as mixing will take place over its history, and the origination elements will also be burned up as they go deeper into the star's core. Light comes from the star's corona, where elements will linger the longest and where transmutation would be slowest.

Data is also available from the spectrum of the planet itself, where it is simply the reflected spectrum of the parent star. This might tell what was in the atmosphere, and what the large areas of the surface have, to a degree. Reflection spectroscopy is necessarily more difficult that emission spectroscopy, but if the telescope is large enough to portray the planet across many pixels, then some information might be gained from each one. Planets rotate, but that should not interfere with the data collection, once the images start coming in. A telescope of large size, perhaps ten kilometers or more in aperature, would be needed.

Information about the nature of the gas cloud that formed the target exo-planet might be gained also by looking at the other planets of the solar system containing it. A gas cloud which undergoes the great transformation from a rotating self-gravitating glob of dust and gas into a proto-star and spinning disk would also have undergone much diffusion, and this implies that at the radius where the target exo-planet condenses there would be some distribution of elements, but at the radii where other planets condense, there would be a different one, and knowing each of them helps the alien scientists to determine the larger picture of the composition and evolution of the cloud.

One kink in this process is that planets don't necessarily stay at the radius where they condense. The effect of the largest planet or the largest few planets might, in some instances, drive a smaller planet to a different orbital radius. The largest planets might also mutually share angular momentum, and drift to different radii as well. Can this be determined from telescopic observations so that the data from all of the planets can be put to use? A good question, and one we on Earth have not begun to fathom.

None of the scientific steps needed seem to be impossible, even from the viewpoint we have now, with our very limited science. An alien civilization a few hundred years further in science than ours should be able to accomplish them, as far as it is possible. Once this mass of data has been collected, perhaps over a century of observation, the estimation of which visible planet would be best to seed can be done.

Saturday, October 12, 2019

Affluence in Two Eras of an Alien Civilization

Recall, for reference, that the early history of an alien civilization is divided into eras based on technological change. Some creature on an origin planet evolves intelligence and manipulative skill, and begins to use objects as tools, such as rocks, sticks, fire, and possibly others. This makes the brain grow, and that species is on the road to having a civilization.

On Earth, this early era is called the Stone Age, but that may be because only stone has lasted for the long period of time since this era began. In this blog, eras are divided by what has been labeled grand transformations, as technology completely reworks the civilization and causes most aspects to adapt to it. Provided the planet has animals, the next phase would be hunting in packs or groups, which give rise to the need for communication, and language results, which also makes the brain grow. They would be developing tools for hunting, and for many other tasks as well. Clay or some other formable material might be used here. There is no mandatory ordering of tasks, as one does not depend on the other. Hunting weapons can be developed without having clay pots. This era might be called the Hunting Weapon Era, and much technology gets developed during this period, as the species has been getting smarter and smarter, and more options will be visualized.

After that, assuming climate is reasonably benign and evolution has been doing what it does in the plant kingdom, there would be an Agricultural Grand Transformation. This is where agricultural tools are developed, and the nomadic species, slowly and gradually, settles down so that some of them live in permanent settlements. These tools would be adapted to whatever plants and crops are first conquered by the species, and this might vary by location on the planet. Different areas should have quite different potential crops, as the alien species adapts wild crops to ones which can be reliably grown.

The next era occurs after another transformation happens, the Industrial. Sources of energy are tapped in this era, starting with wind and water if they are available on the planet, and biomass used with fire in a controlled sense. There would likely have been the use of fire for heating of dwellings and for metal working, and the next step is to use it for other purposes. If there are surface quantities of hydrocarbons, they might be used as well. The first engines might be developed to substitute for wind and water power in areas where they are not available and biomass is.

The Industrial Era gives way to the Electronics Era, which runs all the way from the first development of electical communication up through robotics and automation. It depends on the energy sources of the Industrial Era and must therefore come later. Following that the Genetic Grand Transformaion happens, which must also be even later, as it depends on a large amount of computational power being available.

Affluence can be a corrosive influence during these two intermediate eras, the industrial and the electronics, but the bad effects happen in two different ways. It is generated as technology ramps up productivity, and there soon appear many goods, starting with agricultural ones, but soon moving into a panoply of goods satisfying other needs of the members of the civilization. Since any society in a primitive agricultural situation is worried about population growth outrunning agricultural production, with an additional concern possibly arising because of weather or climate changes, the motivation to continue to work in an affluent period would be diminished. If that reduction spreads to the groups which develop technology, the growth rate slows and it might even stop. This represents a potential halt to this civilization's advance to space-faring.

During the electronics era, a second aspect of affluence might set in. Prior to the Genetics Grand Transformation, there might be no ability within the society to improve the genetic mix. This result has been titled idiocracy, and refers to a differential reduction in the per capita intelligence in the civilization. Again, this would permeate all parts of society, including that sector which produces genetic advances. If it stops for this reason, or for a combination of this and the previous reason, technology never reaches the starship level.

How could an advanced alien civilization not notice that this was happening, and do something about it? One possibility is there are no measures in the civilization to measure motivation or average intelligence. This needs to be combined with the gradualness of these changes. The civilization would have no alarm bells going off, only a slight sense that things were deteriorating. And there are so many other things that happen in a society under rapid technological change, that these effects might escape notice completely.

Another possible answer to this is to ask if life in an alien civilization in these two eras will be calm and coordinated or chaotic and divisive? Calmness would come when basic societal questions have been answered, such as what political and economic arrangements should be in place, what goals the civilization should adopt, how should children be educated, and more. At least in the early part of these two eras, what might be called the social aspect of the grand transformation sequence will not have been worked out. There will be a period during economics, politics, education, and psychology become real sciences, with proper definitions, theories, and deductions. But that period may be delayed for various reasons, such as factionalism based on location, background, profession or other divisions. They will also be delayed until what might be called the neurological revolution takes place, and provides the society with a complete explanation of how the brain works. Thus, these two eras may be so disruptive, in the area of social arrangements, that there is no chance that the two ill effects of affluence are even noticed and certainly paid the proper attention.

One way to summarize this is to say that the side effects of affluence, which is the successful application of technology to the problems of the alien civilization such as the provision of food, shelter and other necessities, overwhelm it and cause the rate of progress in technology to gradually slide lower and lower, and the progress itself becomes more and more inconsequential in the innovations it comes up with. This means that the alien civilization will never get to star travel, and never get to visiting Earth.