Friday, September 2, 2016

There are no SuperAliens

Mankind has conceived of superbeings for as long as there have been clans and conversation. Once humans learned to talk and then to try and figure out the reasons for whatever they saw, they imputed some happenings to the work of superbeings. The earliest mental use of superbeings was to try and organize the world. Humans learned to conceptualize individuals, such as members of the clan, and then they connected things that happened with individuals which did them. It is only a short step to guessing there are other beings outside the clan that do other things. Animals were anthromorphized and thought to have thoughts and plans just like humans; some animals were thought to have powers beyond their actual abilities.

Humans and animals can hide or choose not to show themselves, so why wouldn’t there be superbeings that do the same thing. Now we get to Apollo, Thor, and a plethora of other humanoid superbeings with powers that humans do not have, or an exaggeration of human powers. These imaginary creatures allow a human to interpret things that happen, such as sunrise and lightning. Castes arise which claim to communicate with the superbeings, which just makes the beliefs in them more robust.

We have progressed beyond this level, but the huge amount of stories, books, videos, cartoons, and other media involving superbeings of various kinds testifies to the continuing attractiveness of such conceptual beings, even if there has to be a temporary suspension of disbelief during the telling of the story. The human brain is very capable of being inconsistent, and while we can understand the impossibility of flying people, that does not prevent large fractions of the people from enjoying Superman comics and movies.

Someone who doesn’t know the impossibility of a flying Superman might think that such a being was possible. Similarly, someone who doesn’t know the impossibility of aliens who have hidden machines at their beck and call to burn holes in walls or transport them anywhere in no time at all or tell them facts they have no ability to perceive or whatever, might think there might be such beings somewhere.

It takes a broad scientific background to appreciate what an alien or a civilization made up of aliens could actually accomplish and what would be beyond their capabilities. Traveling here from some planet a few hundred light years away is possible, just extremely difficult. Newton figured out the basics of this more than four centuries ago, and in that time, only high-energy exceptions have been found. There is a certain amount of energy needed to travel, and the energy requirements grow inversely with the time to do it. Relativity just says that the energy requirements get worse and worse as speed approaches light speed. General relativity says there might be some percentage shortening of path lengths if you have enough energy to make something like a large black hole. Would an alien civilization be able to muster up this level of energy, almost ridiculously large, and then expend it to have a few citizens take a trip to another star? Traveling at a fraction of light speed is certainly energy-expensive enough. Once it is understood that aliens would have a long travel time, the concept of superbeing shrinks in size down to something closer to human.

The same goes for the sending of information. Information has no mass, but it must be carried by something that has mass-energy, so the carrier is limited in speed. That means that aliens visiting us would not be able to call home. Another problem with communicating between stars is the r-squared law. Power density decreases as the square of the distance of communication. This is beaten down somewhat by having an antenna that squeezes the energy into a tiny angle, but antennas have diffraction limits and must be huge to do this. You don’t do it with a cellphone sized gizmo.

Antigravity poses a problem as well, in that the energy requirements are large and unmanageable for anything as small as a starship. This is only a problem for film production, however, as a little genetic manipulation should be able to make aliens who tolerate zero-gravity or simulated gravity well. There is a bit of overlooked difficulty in accelerating to high speed in short times, in that the g-load in a ship trying to do this would be large. It is possible to cushion biological organisms against some g-loading, but not a hundred times normal. The same would hold in deceleration. A ship making the trip from one star to another might have to commit long times for acceleration and deceleration. Sudden turns just don’t work well at high speeds as well.

Another aspect that creators of superalien stories like to give out is advanced intelligence. Intelligence is data processing, and if a huge database is needed, storing it in a neural network is pretty efficient. Maybe aliens could have genetically found ways to make neurons transmit pulses faster, but not that much, and how to make more branches work on some types of neurons, but not much. The human brain has a tremendous capability for data processing, although it is almost never used to its full extent. An alien brain might be better, but not by factors of ten. Data retrieval could be expedited by connecting the alien, via an internal communication device, to some sequential processing system, but then the communication mechanism creates a limitation on mobility outside of the networked area for this system. On an alien home planet, this might be fine and demonstrable, or even on a large ship if the aliens had the resources to build and send one out, but for wandering around far from anything substantial there would only be the biological capability.

For enjoyable stories, superaliens make great characters, but for a civilization like that of the Earth, thinking about preparing for the possibility that there might be some contact, superalien stories might be misleading and actually interfere with any planning for it. There is a great deal that can be figured out about alien potentials, as this blog tries to do, and realism is perhaps one of the most necessary attributes of any such planning.

1 comment:

  1. This article is misleading. No one said starships are as small as those which humans use; starships, if they do exist, would be simply excursion models of a mothership which, presumably,the beings live on. Therefore, those propulsion systems deemed inefficient for small craft would work perfectly for large-scale ships with thousands (if not millions) of excursion craft.