Monday, December 21, 2015

Why Study Alien Civilizations – Part 3

The first part of this series talks about the amusement aspects of studying aliens. They are not funny people, but it is intellectually amusing to think about what they might be like. The second part of this series talks about the intellectual advantages of postulating some alien civilization and trying to reason what it might be like. Then do it again with some change in assumptions. And again. Pretty soon you are seeing some trend, or some relationship stands out that didn’t before, or some new question sticks its head up and demands to be answered. In other words, it is like a little idea laboratory where you can do mental experiments.

This part comes up with another reason to study aliens. There might be some.

This blog has discussed alien life-forms in all varieties, from simple chemotrophs up to those who inhabit networks of communicating colonies. Since we inhabit the same galaxy, and at least the upper end of the spectrum of possible alien life-forms, those who travel or have travelled to other solar systems than their own, might someday and somehow come into contact with us, we should do whatever we can to get ready.

Advanced alien civilizations range in what their opinion might be of us or any other life-form they happen to encounter in their touring of solar systems. Typically they would not have any reverence for life itself, just regarding it as another chance event in the galaxy, one that might get in the way of their colonization work. Others regard their mission in the galaxy as propagating it, irrespective of what kind it was. And there can be something in-between.

One viewpoint is that alien civilizations, and we mean alien to them, the ones who are traveling from star to star, are too much of a bother to deal with and simply ignore the ones they notice, and move on to more pristine planets, ones without some primitive intelligent life. That’s where we fit into their scheme of things.

Another viewpoint is that alien civilizations, meaning us, are simply another thing to clean up before settling down on a desirable planet and starting to build infrastructure that suits them. Maybe they have done this before, and we are another in a series of primitive alien civilizations that needs to be removed. Is it likely that we are easy to remove?

If they use the same DNA coding scheme as we do, they could simply fit into the ecology that was here initially. If not, the ecology is just a source of carbohydrates and other proteins, some of which might be indigestible to them, but not to their bacteria or whatever novel biological things they have developed to solve the conversion problem.

Among Earth’s life, about 20 different coding schemes have been developed, most of which differ only by a small amount. The differences appear in single celled life, and in mitochondria, which likely was a sort of single celled life before it was absorbed by a larger cell and converted into an energy processing globule inside the larger cells. This implies, but certainly does not prove, that evolution on our planet experimented early on with variants of DNA, before deciding on the one that the overwhelming majority of organisms on Earth use. If aliens evolved under somewhat similar conditions, back on their own home planet, their version of evolution may have also experimented with different varieties of DNA, and the same selection was made.

It is possible to make DNA out of other amino acids, but no one has ever succeeded in making DNA of a different coding variety reproduce itself. This may be because it is almost a useless exercise, and few science labs would want to devote time to it. Compare research into the origination of life. Little has been accomplished, and that certainly is a more prize-winning subject than figuring out that 10 other varieties of DNA can’t produce the complexity necessary for a cell.

If it is true, and as far as we know it is, our DNA is the one which works best, an alien ship visiting here might be content with simply eliminating us, leaving the rest of the life on Earth alone temporarily. Getting rid of us might be very simple, but removing other Earth life and replacing it with Planet X life would take much time, and have to be carefully done, as the biome has planetary effects. Our biome affects the albedo of some land areas, maintains the oxygen in the atmosphere, builds reefs, and probably more, so it shouldn’t be simply terminated suddenly. We have planetary effects as well, but none that the planet cannot do without.
So, one reason we might want to understand alien civilizations is to understand how likely it is that some could come here with colonization in mind, what methods they might have to do it, what their asymptotic psychology might be like, how they might do cost-benefit analysis to see if it is better to leave us alone, and possibly, how we might defend ourselves against termination.

It might be nice to understand what planets they would prefer, or to see if it is a selection process based upon the whole solar system, and maybe the star type as well. Perhaps we live in an undesirable solar system, and won’t have to worry about any but desperate aliens coming here to evict us.

If we ever figure out the mysteries of the origination of life, and can apply that to exo-planet distributions, we might find out that there are only a few places in the galaxy that can originate life, and none of them are nearby, and they have to be on the outskirts of the galaxy, meaning not very much older than we are. This would mean any other civilization’s colonization attempts wouldn’t be here before we graduate to star traveling ourselves, if we can make the grade.

We might also want to know if, for some reason we can figure out after a lot of thought, that colonization is simply not being done and never will be. Although we are not alone in the galaxy, nobody will ever visit. This probably would mean that our solar system is it for us, and when our sun gets a bit warmer, we are goners. This may not be something we even want to know.

So to summarize, learning about aliens through whatever means possible may be a useful activity, on the basis that we may encounter some of them someday, somewhere in the galaxy. Obviously, being prepared is not just for Boy Scouts.

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