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The Age of Curiosity 9

Michael Dayah wrote to us with a great essay, that I've included below. He addresses the issue of the Drake Equation and what Age we live in now.

The Age of Curiosity

Everyone has seen the famous Drake Equation on those educational astronomy shows--the equation that multiplies the nearly infinitely large number stars in the universe by several seemingly miniscule fractions--expressing the number of technological civilizations in the universe that have progressed to the point of radio communication. Despite this, it still always manages to produce some preposterously large number of intelligences from whom we should have already heard. So why isn't the sky saturated with these radio signals from extraterrestrials?

Two hundred years ago, we had no interest in listening for other forms of life on the edge of our galaxy. The scientific knowledge of the time was not developed enough to allow us to be curious about extraterrestrials and radio transmissions from space. Now, our civilization is at the height of its curiosity. On the edge of comprehending quantum mechanics but still searching for a "theory of everything", we understand just enough science to pique our interest--to make us hungry for more. We can see the amazing things--things like nanotechnology--that are possible but just out of our reach. Will this curiosity dwindle as more of this becomes possible--and real?

In our Age of Curiosity, we know computers can simulate our environment and predict what will happen given certain initial conditions. The universe operates under specific physical laws and--given starting conditions, such as the conditions of an early earth on which life arose, a computer could theoretically track the position of every atom as amino acids formed, the first cells divided, and the first creature came out of the water. What stops us from doing this now? Time. Our current level of computational speed is too primitive to handle but the simplest of prediction-type tasks, such as deciding how wind will interact with an airplane or how heat will warp a metal container. Even these are too complex to be calculated on the atomic level; we must use equations that describe the motion and flow of gasses and liquids on a large scale to run such simulations.

Will we still be as interested in contacting other life when computers are fast enough to simulate a million years of evolution in a few days? Who would want to wait a thousand years to get one response from a distant and potentially hostile civilization when we can converse in real time with our own computer-generated population simulated in a consumer-level computer? The only question is of when computer technology will reach this speed. Obviously, such computational speed is far beyond any amount of copper wire and almost any number of cubic miles of nanotechnology. It is not beyond quantum computing, if such a thing is possible on a large scale. How long will this advance take? Ten years? A hundred years? Two hundred years at the absolute most?

What if such a level of quantum computing proves to be impossible? Even if we cannot completely simulate large environments and watch evolution progress on the atomic level, we will have soon unraveled the mysteries of life. The Human Genome Project is nearly complete. Not too many years afterwards, we will know the purpose of every nucleotide of the human genome. Creating entire organisms from nothing but a graphical interface and gene-sequencing machine (which already exists) is no more than a hundred years away. Whether specific advances are possible or not is irrelevant. What is relevant is the eventual decline in curiosity as ability and technology increase. The above two advances are just examples.

When did our civilization have the greatest capability for destruction? Our curiosity about other intelligences and making contact piqued in about the same period as our ability to make atomic weapons. For all civilizations, the discovery of the destructive power of subatomic energy likely follows the discovery of radio communication; the scientific understanding required for both is closely related. Who would want to communicate with a potentially violent race in the prime of their destructive ability and the maximum of their naivety to use this destructive power?

Why is it when we think of other intelligences, we always imagine they are peaceful? We certainly are not. It is time-tested knowledge that when a stronger population encounters a weaker population, the weaker population is enslaved or killed. When human society reached industrialization, the environment and lesser species paid the price. Over one hundred species a day are still becoming extinct because of our actions. When the Europeans came to North America, they killed the Native Americans and enslaved the Africans. Why do we believe this would not hold true for interplanetary relations? Is it wishful thinking, since we will likely be the lesser race? Can you imagine us visiting a planet with Neanderthal-level inhabitants and not vastly exploiting them and their planet, even if just for natural resources? Other civilizations would likely have experienced similar problems in their past; it's not much of an incentive to broadcast your presence.

How long will we even use the current methods of radio communication? Knowing we are broadcasting our presence to many potentially hostile races within striking distance, won't we soon want to use better methods of communication (or, at minimum, bands of the electromagnetic spectrum) which are greatly if not completely dampened or reflected by the atmosphere? This would be perfectly acceptable for localized communications. Since satellite communications can be directed at specific points, there is no major concern about a sphere of electromagnetic noise broadcasting our presence. Certainly other civilizations realize this as well, further decreasing the chance of contact.

One hundred, or for the sake of argument, five hundred years of nominal curiosity about other civilizations is an extremely small slice of the eight billion years or so the universe has been hospitable for the creation and proliferation of life. If every civilization only concerned itself with making contact for a millionth of their evolutionary development, what are the chances of one civilization hearing another other at exactly the right time? If by some remote chance one planet in its Age of Curiosity received radio communication from another civilization and attempted a reply, the broadcaster would have already lost interest and stopped listening.

It is time to update the Drake Equation to include another miniscule fraction--the ratio of a civilization's Age of Curiosity to its lifetime. Will this addition keep the number of communicable civilizations optimistic enough for us earthlings, in our Age of Curiosity?

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The Age of Curiosity

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  • The author is wrong to think that there will come a time when human beings stop caring about what happens in the real universe, and will become absorbed with the artificial ones they can create.

    There will still be people wanting to create the devices that allow us to create yet more intricate artificial realities. In order to be able to do that, they are going to have to continue to research basic sciences. And the same people that have researched basic sciences for centuries are the ones that promote interest in the possibility of extra-terrestrial life.

    Yes, there was a time period for the Human race during which we could not possibly have signalled our presence to other species in the universe. Now that we have achieved radio transmission and nuclear power, we can announce our presence to the world. The idea that in the future we will lose the curiosity that caused us to identify ourselves doesn't make any sense. It wasn't our curiosity that sprung up. It was our technology. Our curiosity has always been there, and will always be there. It is the basis of our advancement as a race, IMHO.

  • As a scientist, I find it necessary to say, having read this, that it is almost entirely based in fiction. I apologize for the length of this response, but I'd like to cover just a few of the points the author makes which are so clearly not

    The author begins by claiming that peoples two hundred years ago were not interested in communicating with other worlds, based on the fact that they were unable to. In the same breath he claims that we are currently interested in things that we are not able to do (nanotech).

    The next paragraph clearly states that the only
    reason we cannot simulate exceedingly complex systems is based lack of time. This was clearly written by someone not familiar with modern physics. In fact, we cannot simulate even simple systems because we cannot know with any certainty the initial conditions that would allow a simulation to occur. Namely, knowing momentum obscures are precision with regard to position. In a complex system, ie: one in which time dependant events are exponentially dependant on initial conditions, predicting the outcome of even the simplest systems can be impossible. The study of nonlinear dynamics and chaos theory has shown time and time again, that even in dynamic systems which attract towards two or three steady states, fractal basin boundaries can make it entirely impossible to predict the final state of a system. These are systems as simple as pendulums, and oscillating circuits. To claim we could make perfect simulated replicas or predictions regarding whole worlds with thousands of dynamic elements is quite frankly, offensive.

    The human genome project will certainly take us much closer in many respects to understanding the human animal, but nowhere near understanding human biology completely. Again, the human body is a complex system. The heart for instance may normally oscillate in a predictable pattern- but it is by no means a completely stable system. Give slight perturbations, we know the heart's beats will move into a completely chaotic regime. This chaotic oscillation might settle down to regular, rythmic pumping, or as a chaoticist might say, stop all together under the external influence of a flapping butterfly's wing. What's important is that we are nowhere near understanding it all. Even if one person WAS, that wouldn't mean the whole world whould become uninterested. Claiming the whole world will become non-curious after the human genome project has been completed is actually pretty funny, but it has no actual merit.

    You recommend that the human population start using only sections of the electromagnetic spectrum which would be deflected at the atmosphere. I don't think it takes a scientist to know that this is just plain silly. What percentage of the electromagnetic spectrum does the author suppose to be deflected by the atmosphere? Would this be anywhere near the room our current communications reguire? No. Also, the author is wrong in assuming we can point electromagnetic radiation as accurately as we like. Quantum mechanics assures us that diffraction will always be a part of even the most precisely engineered equipment. Using the electromagnetic spectrum and bleeding out electromagnetic radiation outside of our atmosphere go hand in hand.

    I need to go take a nap.
  • Why is it when we think of other intelligences, we always imagine they are peaceful? Why is it that when we think of other intelligences, that they *are* intelligent. When you study evolutionairy biology, you will soon find out that intelligence is just *one* of the methods of survival, but not necesarily *the* way. Intelligence is definately not an end-goal of evolution, it's just one of the ways in which life can develop. What is relevant is the eventual decline in curiosity as ability and technology increase. I think it is a bit arrogant to believe that in the near future all the mysteries will be solved. There are many many problems that are completely out of our reach; for some problems it is feared that our brains will never be able to grasp them!

  • I think that one of prime ways the human has has defined itself, is by unbounded curiosity. Every time a new discovery is made, it prompts many more questions than it answers. No matter how thorough of a job a researcher does, there is always that fundamental question, "Well yeah, but if.... ".

    The theory of everything is a misnomer. There will always be more to know and people who what to find out. Who would have thought in the 1700's that things like fiber optics could even exist? Who knows what discovery is right in front of our noses, and is going revolutionize the way the world works? Combine revolutionary advances and the sheer satisfaction gained from learning something new, and the curiosity of our species will not wither away and die. On the contrary, the thirst for knowledge is entirely unquenchable and our curiosity infinte
  • While I disagree with much of what the author said, I believe he skated around a possible problem: the lack of curiosity in the general population. While the general population (those who don't realize that the 'whoosh' of the starship Enterprise flying through space isn't real) doesn't do the science or engineering, and may not motivate said work, they do pay for some of it. The astonomy that I am familiar with (I was an engineering intern for an instrument shop for Lick Observatories in California) is paid for publically. "Big physics" has a large public portion in the funding, and much aerospace engineering is sponsored by NASA or the DoD. The problem I see is that "they" (the general public) may not want to pay for science and engineering that doesn't benefite them now and in an obvious way. People are complaining about the expense of space systems now, while they watch the weather (pictures provided by a weather satellite) and talk on the phone to their friend on another continent (the voice data bouncing off of a communications satellite), after getting directions in their car from a GPS system. Never underestimate the power of stupidity, and the superior power of stupidity in numbers.

    Two things are needed: ways to make space more exciting, and ways to insulate important science and engineering from the general public and politicians. The former is likely people in space on a regular basis, and the opportunity for the general public to get into space, or near-space. (Near-space being looking out the window of a Trans-Pacific flight and seeing the stars from 100,000 feet. "Wow, Margaret, you've got to see this.") To insulate sci/engr from the public and politicians could mean private space firms, many governments involved in space exploration (so that the public in any one country won't ruin it for the species), a self-sustaining base (I know that it's not a near-term solution, but if there is a self-sustaining base when people decide to pull the plug, there might be hope) or some great benefit from the work in space (an orbital solar power station providing 20% of the power for the nation would be good).

    This won't be easy, but we can get ourselves into space in meaningful ways, and it can be done soon. I'm a graduating Mechanical Engineer, and I know that I'm going to be working on this for the rest of my life. Space is our next frontier, we just need a motivation to go there. (All other frontier work was motivated in some way: gold, self-determination, escape from something, or a chance for a new start with no baggage from your old life.)

    I'll see you on the Moon.

    Louis Wu

    Thinking is one of hardest types of work.

  • Within 10-20 years all our communications are likely to be digital, compressed, encrypted, and spread spectrum - totally different from the trivially modulated analog stream we sent out for about 100 years. From the outside it will probably end up looking like just a few minor bumps in Earth's thermal radiation profile, certainly nothing that can be decyphered by even the most persistant extraterrestrials.

    So except for that 100-year gap, communication between alien civilizations will likely only happen when each side deliberately puts in the effort. Luckily the discovery of planets around other stars is starting to give us at least some ideas of where to point our antennas. But my guess is we're more likely to find out about aliens through some physical artifact (possibly detected at great distance, though I wouldn't be surprised if first contact was rather close) than through radio or other electromagnetic means.

    The Drake equation already has a term referring to the average length of time a civilization is in existence. For SETI purposes, other than the deliberate communications side of it, that number probably shouldn't be counted as much over 100 years now, based on our experience.
  • Nice. For the top level of Lick Observatories, go to [], but the engineering facility I worked for is here []. BTW, UCOLick is the University of California Observatories/Lick Observatories. And Keck is a joint effort between UCOLick and Caltech? (I can't remember if it is really Caltech, don't trust that.)

    The Keck telescopes (10 meter main reflecting mirrors) are located in Hawaii, on top of Mauna Kea mountain, at 14,000 feet. When people from our lab went to install equipment, they had to write down what tools they were going into another room for, because the lack of oxygen would cause short term memory loss. It takes a few days to acclimate, which is about the time it takes to do an installation. So they left about the time they were ready to work normally.

    Hope that this helps, Louis Wu.

    Thinking is one of hardest types of work.

  • Within 10-20 years all our communications are likely to be digital, compressed, encrypted, and spread spectrum - totally different from the trivially modulated analog stream we sent out for about 100 years. From the outside it will probably end up looking like just a few minor bumps in Earth's thermal radiation profile, certainly nothing that can be decyphered by even the most persistant extraterrestrials

    Ummmmm... right now, we're beginning to be able to discover information about the very early days of the Universe by looking at "a few minor bumps in... thermal radiation profile" (of the CBR). Given that Moore's Law probably isn't just a terrestrial phenomenon, I suspect that an ET intelligent species with just a little curiosity and a couple of centuries' advance on us will be able to discover any communications we can think up -- even if they can't decrypt it, for not knowing anything about us. But it would still stand out as artificial, to someone who understood what the thermal radiation profile should look like...

    That said, it's clear that we can't always find the accidental emissions from more advanced races. There's also no compelling reason that someone a lot brighter (or even just a lot more advanced) than we are, would have any reason to talk to us... I remember (from many years ago) the best explanation I've heard yet for lack of extraterrestrials' contacting us: an Aussie pilot said (about UFOs), "Sure, I fly over kangaroos all the time -- but I don't stop to talk to them!"


  • I apologize for not being an active part of the discussion. I just found that it was posted; I thought the article was chucked into the trash (as many of you think it should have been).

    I am familiar with the Heisenberg uncertainty principle and realize the impossiblity of obtaining the initial conditions of any simulation. This is why I didn't make any such claim in the essay. The Principle, however, does not prevent us from generating our own initial conditions. Specific submolecular interactions and momentums of particles in, for example, an organic soup would not be all that important as they would soon be lost in the chaos of trillions of interactions.

    The use of chaos theory as a reason simulations could never be perfected is offensive. It is true that chaos theory prevents us from "stepping back" and calculating outcomes with simpler equations that describe collective behavior but this was already addressed. Such a "simulator" has no reason to worry about whether an outcome is converged upon; it would follow the situation as it progressed. Computer-simulated attractors do appear unpredictable on a higher level and may in fact be, but the same initial conditions always result in the same attractor and final outcome.

    Obviously, no such claims about the world losing interest at the conclusion of the HGP was implied. Nor was such an association made between any specific advance and the loss of curiosity. The idea I'm trying to convey with these examples is stated in the closing sentences of the fifth paragraph.

    The paragraph about using portions of the electromagnetic spectrum was badly written (I considered leaving it out) and probably should've been rephrased. I believe a previous comment conveyed my idea much more clearly than I could have when it made reference to the lower-power encrypted, compressed, spread-spectrum communications that would be used in the future.

Computer programmers do it byte by byte.