Sorry, Folks, It's Not Aliens!

Now I know every thinking person already understands the recent UFO furore is just another distraction from whatever dumb shit the US empire is planning to do next (or maybe just a distraction from Joe Biden's broken campaign promises) but let's be honest here, we've all asked ourselves the same question: What if?

Personally, I would love nothing more than super-advanced aliens crossing the galaxy to overthrow our God-awful political leaders and fire them into the sun. After all, life under alien rule could not possibly be worse than life under Tory rule, but that possibility isn't just unlikely, it's absurdly implausible.

As I'm a sci-fi writer, America's latest distraction at least allows me a little self-indulgence and a fun diversion from my constantly angry political outbursts, so today I'm going to breakdown exactly why aliens aren't visiting us and almost certainly never will.

The Fermi Paradox

The Fermi Paradox goes something like this: our universe is unimaginably vast at 93,016,000,000 light years across and incomprehensibly ancient at 13,770,000,000 years old. There should be more habitable planets in our observable universe than there are grains of sand on every beach on Earth and that means a lot of opportunities for life to arise.

It would seem reasonable to assume that life is arising throughout the universe all the time and some of these lifeforms inevitably go on to build civilisations. Those civilisations should on average be much more ancient and therefore much more technologically-advanced than our own. The techno-signatures from such civilisations should be everywhere and yet we don't see a damn thing when we look into the night sky.

If an alien species is traversing the galaxy, then humans, even with our limited technology, should know about this well in advance of their arrival, and this is because, not only should interstellar spaceships be highly visible, but so too should their empires. Techno-signatures are not things you can simply hide with advanced technology either, not unless you have technology which breaks the laws of thermodynamics. 

The only possible workaround I can think of for the above would be as follows:

An alien species slightly more advanced than our own sent a bunch of unmanned (un-aliened?) space probes to check Earth out. We did not see the techno-signatures because the probes travelled slowly over a long period of time with a propulsion system not much more advanced than what humans currently have. Such a propulsion system would probably not be visible to our radio telescopes. 

Those space probes eventually reached Earth after hundreds of years, and they are checking us out, but they probably haven't sent messages home, because any sufficiently powerful signal should be easily detectable with our instruments. We are talking about signals orders of magnitude stronger than anything humans have ever sent. 

If we could not detect such a signal, it would suggest the aliens had some physics-breaking technology, but this would put them way in advance of humans. If the aliens were so far advanced, we would not expect them to have sent such slow and crappy space probes to Earth. 

If the aliens did have incredible communications technology, they would probably have impressive propulsion technology, and again, that should be highly visible, due to the energy it emits. Surely, if aliens went to the trouble of hiding their communications signals with advanced cloaking technology, they wouldn't leave their space probes so visible to our equipment. It would seem like an obvious contradiction.

If the aliens were not bothered about hiding, we would expect to have more than inconclusive, grainy footage which can plausibly be explained in other ways.

Also, we would expect such an advanced species to have a Milky Way spanning empire which would not only be easily observable, but would probably have colonised our solar system like Europeans colonised the Americas (or exterminated our species or decided to watch over us like interstellar foster parents.) But we're not dead and we don't see the obvious signs of a spacefaring civilisation.

So, if the UFOs truly are of alien origin, the most plausible explanation is we are being visited by space probes from a species of limited technology, which is not communicating with home. These aliens must not be capable of spreading beyond their own solar system and have reached a technological dead-end. This would seem unlikely, given the technologies we think are within our reach, such as nuclear fusion rockets, which should enable expansion beyond our solar system. 

This explanation presents some additional problems

For example, the likelihood there is one other sapient species in our galaxy and they just happen to be at a similar level of technological advancement to humans seems low. With so many planets and so much time for life to evolve, you would not expect this to be the case, because even technological plateaus should be overcome, given enough time, unless the laws of physics prevent further breakthroughs.

But perhaps aliens sent these space probes a long time ago and their species has since become extinct. This is a plausible scenario and fits with the Late Filter Hypothesis which I will get to later, but it begs the question of how space probes of limited technology would survive in space for so long.

Space is not just an empty void - there are dust grains and rocks and solar flares and constant radiation. Even if a space probe could survive the physical wear and tear from spending a long time in space, which is not unthinkable, it would also face the problem of radiation messing with its circuitry.

Think of computer code like DNA - whenever it interacts with gamma radiation, the computer code is likely to be damaged or altered, and the longer a probe is in space, the more of a problem this becomes. 

For a species which is only capable of sending slow-moving space probes and not able to leave its own solar system, this would pose a huge technological challenge. How would they make their probes and circuitry capable of surviving such a long and dangerous journey? It's probably not impossible, but would seem unlikely for a species which was reaching a technological plateau, given challenges like advanced propulsion should be no harder to overcome.

Things just don't seem to add up

So, we are being visited by space probes of a species which is probably extinct, and if not extinct, has reached a technological plateau and not moved beyond its own solar system, nor sent any radio or laser signal that we have detected (unless they were responsible for the WOW signal which we could not make head nor tail of.)

The slow moving, technologically-limited space probes have somehow survived hundreds or even thousands of years in space and still follow their original programming, but are probably not trying to communicate with home because we would almost certainly hear the signal. 

Doesn't quite work, does it?

Now you might think I'm getting ahead of myself on one or two points here, so let's go into a little more depth. 

If alien civilisations were arising and thriving, then we should see obvious signs in our telescopes such as the infra-red glow of waste heat from Dyson Swarms as stars vanish from sight. But we don't, so where are they?

The most likely answers to this question are as follows:

1. They aren't out there because the genesis of life is such an improbable event that we may well be the only sapient species within about five billion light years. We think the universe wasn't particularly suited for life more than five billion years ago because there were far fewer rocky planets and complex chemicals, meaning we would not expect to see civilisations more than five billion light years away. We are possibly alone in our patch of the universe, which is a depressing thought, I know, but the next possibility is even more depressing...

2. Aliens are out there, but they never reach a level of technological advancement much beyond where we are at now, either because we are very close to a technological plateau, or there is a "late filter" ahead of us.

Filters in this context are anything that reduces the likelihood of life evolving and developing into a civilisation-building species. A late filter is something ahead of us which will stop us - which stops almost all lifeforms - developing any further. This could be climate change wiping us out, or nuclear weapons, or a cloud of grey goo, or some technological experiment that creates a black hole and sucks in our entire planet (the last one seems highly doubtful!)

Here's the scariest part: if the genesis of life is common (and we should know if it's common in the coming decades) then it means a late filter almost certainly lies ahead of us. Otherwise, we would expect to see techno-signatures every time we looked into the night sky. And we don't.

All of the technologies we can imagine, from nuclear fusion to antimatter drives to black hole engines to Dyson Swarms could leave tell-tale signs, not just in our own galaxy, but possibly even in other galaxies. We should see something, even with our crappy technology, because these things would be LOUD but we hear only silence.

And remember, even if sapience is a rare evolutionary trait, if the genesis of life is common, the sheer scale of the universe and the endless opportunities for life means sapience becomes inevitable.

Let's say, for example, only 1 in 10,000 planets which hosted life would go onto host a sapient species. If there were 100,000 inhabited planets in our galaxy, we would expect to see about ten civilisations here, and we'd expect to see civilisations in some neighbouring dwarf galaxies and in the Andromeda Galaxy and in almost every major galaxy within about 5 billion light years.

And here's the thing: we would not expect such civilisations to remain confined to a single solar system. They would surely spread out, just like humans spread out to every continent and island on Earth.

Humans are probably close to the point of becoming a post-ageing civilisation, meaning we should be able to halt the ageing process within the next 50-100 years. If we can do that, other species should be able to do that as well. What this would mean is exponential population growth and with that comes unbearable pressure to expand.

A post-ageing population would inevitably be forced to stop reproducing until it finds more real estate, and it's difficult to imagine every member of every species would be happy to agree to never have children. If they could expand, many would, and this leads onto the next problem:

The Dyson Dilemma

With exponential population growth, you don't just face increased demand for living space but also energy. It would therefore seem logical for an alien species to follow the optimal path for harnessing energy and resources, which, barring any physics-breaking technology, like transcending to a more accommodating alternate universe, would mean following the path laid out by theoretical physicist Freeman Dyson.

It goes something like this: as room on your planet is running out, it's reasonable to assume you would start assessing the options in your solar system. And while many might assume that would mean colonising other planets like Mars, it would actually make way more sense to start building space stations.

You can build solar-powered rotating space stations, called O'Neill cylinders, which would have huge advantages over planets. The living area you can create, relative to the amount of building material is truly immense and the rotation generates artificial gravity. If the population of your civilisation is forever expanding, O'Neill cylinders are the most resource-efficient step you can take to house as many people as comfortably as possible.

And if you have automation doing the building work for you, it becomes far quicker to convert an entire Mars-sized planet into O'Neill Cylinders, than it would to terraform that planet. You would also be able to house orders of magnitude more people in those space stations than on the planet's surface.

It would seem an inevitable step for any advanced civilisation to surround their sun with solar collectors to harness energy and space stations to cater for their unfathomably large populations. Even if they opted to leave their planets intact, asteroids and small moons would provide more than enough building material for such a project. Whether this process takes thousands, or even millions of years, we would expect to see stars surrounded by these swarms.

They are called Dyson Swarms or Dyson Spheres.

And remember we would not expect any civilisation to limit its home range to its solar system of origin either. It would inevitably spread out, sending its robots to every asteroid to build more O'Neill Cylinders and then to neighbouring solar systems, with waves of colonists shortly behind. 

You don't need to undergo the arduous journeys of travelling from solar system to solar system to colonise an entire galaxy. Your species can travel from asteroid to asteroid and eventually it will colonise Alpha Centauri and solar systems beyond, just like if you travel from island to island from the Americas, you will eventually reach Asia and then the continents beyond. Lots of short journeys with relatively slow space craft still adds up to a huge expansion. You crunch the numbers and a civilisation should be able to consume the entire Milky Way via this process in about 10 million years. Indeed, this is the path we would expect humans to take.

The only reasons we wouldn't are as follows:

1. We found something better. Maybe we managed to create our own tailor-made universe and simply left this universe for good. This is an idea known as transcendence and it seems far-fetched, to say the least,  but it would be a neat solution to the Fermi Paradox.

2. A late filter lies ahead of us - meaning extinction is nigh. Given our penchant for destruction and our determination to destroy our own climate, I'd put the odds on this one at fifty-fifty. The Mediocrity Principle suggests you are probably a typical example of your species. This means statistically there are likely to be a similar number of humans born after you as have been born before you. At current birth rates, that would give us about 600 years until humanity either dies out or evolves into a posthuman species.

3. A technological plateau means we can never reach the necessary level of technology. This option seems unlikely because you don't need to be super hi-tech to start the process of building a Dyson Swarm, and indeed, we appear to be on the brink of starting that process, right now.

The key hurdles we need to overcome are the ability to mass produce advanced metamaterials, like graphene composites, which seems to be just around the corner, and following that, the development of space elevators to massively reduce the cost of escaping our gravity well and getting into space (which is what we need the metamaterials for). 

We don't even need some of the other expected technologies like self-replicating machines and nuclear fusion rockets, although such developments would help massively and make such projects far cheaper and easier.

If humans don't face a late filter, it's safe to assume we will build a Dyson Swarm over the coming centuries and millennia, and our first O'Neill Cylinder will probably come this century.

So assuming the Late Filter Hypothesis is wrong, it leads us onto another possibility - the First Born Hypothesis. You could reasonably expect the first sapient species to evolve in a galaxy would consume the resources of the galaxy, and probably neighbouring galaxies too, stopping any other technological species from arising in the process (bearing in mind such a species could become a dangerous rival).

All the above basically means either we're not being visited by aliens because all civilisations wipe themselves out with their own technology and we will soon. Or life is incredibly rare, and we are among the first technological species to arise within a radius of several billion light years.

Either we are about to become gods or we are about to die from our own stupidity. But one thing is clear, we are almost certainly not being visited by aliens.

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