Friday, February 12, 2016

Sochi or Moscow?

Let’s do a thought experiment to try and gain a deeper understanding of the goals of an alien civilization. Suppose you are a Russian citizen living in a little town, Musorberg, in Siberia. You have work there, a family, and no future outside of Musorberg. You can expect your whole life will be there, and you are resigned to it. You have friends, the food is okay, the weather is, well, Siberian, but you have adjusted to it.

One of your good friends gets a gift from a distant in-law of his who works on the Russian railroads. It is a free ticket to anywhere he wants to go. Before he even starts imagining where he would go, he realizes that he is the sole caregiver of his parents, who need him there. He cannot use the ticket. You have been his good friend since before schooldays started, and he gives it to you. You have to decide where you will go.

It boils down to two choices. You can go to Sochi, enjoy time on the seashore of the Black Sea, go see the Olympic Games facilities there, explore nature, feel a warm climate for the first time in your life, and go back to Musorberg with some lifelong memories. The trip would use up your savings and couldn’t be done a second time, so you do there whatever you wanted to for your own amusement and enjoyment. You might be able to borrow a camera and take pictures and bring them back to share.

The other choice is to go to Moscow, and try and get a job there. You have a couple of contacts who are positive about your chances, but it is no sure thing. You would have to have the hiring company bring your family there, but it is your only chance at moving out of Siberia. You are smart, hard-working, healthy, educated, and ambitious. And your family has no other chance and will have no other chance.

Where do you go?

You go to Moscow.

In your mind, there is no comparison between having a good time and accumulating memories, and going to another place where you can improve your life and that of your family and your later descendants. Even thinking of how deprived your life is of amusement opportunities, you still can not justify to yourself for a moment not using the resources you have accumulated, directly and by gift, to do something with lasting effects. True, your memories would be with you for your whole life, and any pictures you take would probably survive you and last longer, but they have little effect other than some pleasure when you think about them or look at the pictures. If you go to Moscow, you might establish yourself, and your life would be changed forever, and for the better.

This thought example is meant to portray, in Earth terms, the decision facing an alien civilization that is deciding how to spend the huge amount of resources on an interstellar flight. They need to decide where to go and what to do there. They could decide to take a group vacation somewhere and do things that amuse themselves. Or they could decide to establish a colony on another planet, well-suited to them. The example would be very different if star travel was cheap, but it is just the opposite. Given that the costs are very high, it would be a calculation of benefits available. There are few benefits to traveling for amusement purposes.

Another way of appreciating the situation that faces an alien civilization that has mastered the art of star travel is to think of someone contemplating taking a vacation. If the cost of the vacation is huge, several years of wages, they simply don’t go. Any sort of purpose that we might impute to an alien civilization has to be put to the cost test. Would they spend the large amount of energy and resources to do something for enjoyment purposes?

The same argument can be made for time. If someone is taking a vacation and it is going to take 10 years to get to the vacation spot, they simply don’t go. Amusement options don’t exist for star travel. In the world of science fiction, anything can be imagined, for example, instant, zero-cost travel to any planet in the galaxy, and in that world, all kinds of adventures and escapes can be also imagined. But that invokes magic. And this blog does not spend time on magic.

The same argument can be made for an investigation. Would an alien civilization travel to a distant solar system to investigate some details of a planet there? Sure, it can be labeled as science, but it is useless science. With a hundred billion planets in the galaxy, what possible use could there be to visiting one at immense cost and long delay to find out something about it that is not observable remotely. For the cost of a single starship, you can build a very large telescope and for the time of travel, you can collect a lot of data. So there are no aliens visiting here for the purpose of seeing how many beaches we have or counting the craters on the moon. Yes, that would be science, and no it would not pay off.

If someone, thinking about aliens visiting, uses the example of Columbus, they are right on track. Columbus did not voyage to the Americas to do science or to have a vacation. He went initially to find a shorter trade route to a known trading mecca, and when he found the estimate of the world’s radius to be off, he founded colonies there. There are no known trading meccas in space we know of, and no shorter route to them, but there are planets that some alien civilization might want to colonize. There does not seem to be any other reason for star travel.

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