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If they're not here...
Aliens, humans and the Fermi-Hart paradox
(a short story)

If an alien scientific mission had approached the Earth 200 years ago, they would have detected neither radio broadcasts nor electric street lights... Could they have overlooked us humans altogether... even if they landed?

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The Fermi paradox is the apparent contradiction between high estimates of the probability of the existence of extraterrestrial civilizations and the lack of evidence for, or contact with, such civilizations... it is sometimes referred to as the Fermi-Hart paradox.
If... there were intelligent beings elsewhere in our Galaxy, then they would eventually have achieved space travel, and would have explored and colonized the Galaxy, as we have explored and colonized the Earth. However... they are not here; therefore they do not exist.
Michael Hart 1

If an alien scientific mission had visited Earth 200 years ago, what might they have found?

First impressions

"It's a case of good news and bad news," said the chief scientist. "Plenty of free oxygen, significant carbon dioxide, some ice and snow. Plus, we've detected chemical anomalies in the atmosphere consistent with the presence of life."

"A promising beginning," said the captain. "And what about the bad news?"

"Firstly, we've checked for electromagnetic signals, and found nothing. Secondly, the average surface temperature is clearly higher than we'd normally associate with a habitable world... Actually, it's so hot that much of the H2O is molten."

"Molten H2O is dangerous stuff," said the captain soberly. "Do you really think it's worth a landing? And are you game to lead one?"

"Yes and yes," said the scientist. "It's what I'm here to do."

Research procedure

The captain stayed on the mother ship, preparing for the next leg of the journey through the stars, while the much smaller landing vessel carried out its mission.

The landing took place in a region in the southern hemisphere: a region named Continent A by the chief scientist, and chosen because the heat there seemed to be somewhat less overpowering than elsewhere on the planet. At least the precipitation was likely to be in familiar forms like snow, rather than the scalding, liquid version expected nearer the equator.

The research team spent several months on the ground, studying the region's meteorology and geography, and paying particular attention to living things. They then returned safely to the orbiting ship.

Afterwards, the captain and the chief scientist went over what had been found...

What the landing party saw

"We discovered a range of living organisms," said the scientist. "Some microscopic, others comparable in size to ourselves. Also a few much larger ones, moving about in the hot liquid."

"Did you find anything intelligent?" asked the captain.

"Some of the larger life-forms in the liquid do seem to have big brains, " said the scientist. "However, they don't have limbs that can grasp, so there is little or no capacity for use of tools."

"Anything on two legs?"

"Yes, " said the scientist. "On the coast, much to our excitement, we encountered bipeds, standing upright over a meter in height. They were walking and lying about in considerable numbers, sometimes going into the liquid for a swim. We liked the looks of them: they had smooth curved bodies, flexible necks, and a beautiful downy covering. What really impressed us was their heads -- there were long slender snouts that looked (at least from a distance) very like our own proboscides..."

The scientist fell silent.

"Convergent evolution," remarked the captain.

"Yes," said the scientist. "Still, it felt like a miracle..."

"And naturally you approached them with gestures of goodwill and fitting words?"

"Of course."

"And did they take you to their chief scientist?"

"No, initially they ignored us completely. As we came closer, there was a range of reaction, from mild curiosity to moderate alarm. Some made loud inarticulate noises. As they got used to our presence, they began to ignore us again."

"What conclusions did you draw?"

"Well, it didn't seem like very intelligent behaviour... Still, we suspended judgement, and continued to observe the bipeds, while being careful to avoid any provocation. They seemed to interact quite a lot with one another, in ways that were largely incomprehensible to us... One thing we did ascertain, is that their forepaws are adapted for swimming, not for grasping."

"But what about those snouts of theirs? Are they true proboscides, capable of intricate work?"

"Unfortunately, no, captain. The snout is actually quite rigid, has a sharp point, and lacks prehensile tendrils. We think they use it like a set of pincers, for seizing small organisms in the liquid and gulping them down."

"Despite these discouraging observations, you of course looked about for physical evidence of intelligent activity. What was the inventory?"

"We saw no artificial implements, either crude or sophisticated."

"Did you scan the ground for fossils?"

"Yes, and we found a number of fossilized organisms. But complete absence of ancient tools, zero remains of buildings... In short, nil artifacts."

"Your conclusion?"

"Well, we're looking, after all, for Category One life -- the class dexterous and creative enough to take part in the great work. Could it evolve there in the future? Perhaps. Is it there now? Clearly not."

If they're not here...

The captain had a further question: "The fact remains, that we've only looked at one land mass. What about the others? Even if they're hotter..."

"My colleagues and I have considered that," said the chief scientist. "Theoretically, yes, it is possible that a range of biota may have evolved on other continents, hot though they are. Such life forms would be adapted to very high temperatures, and might even find Continent A too cold."

"And could such life-forms conceivably be intelligent?"

"There's a simple but convincing scientific argument which says that intelligence -- the sort of intelligence we are looking for -- just doesn't exist on this planet at present. Yes, it is quite conceivable that the inarticulate bipeds we met might have slightly smarter cousins elsewhere. But they would not be the sort of inventive, adaptable life-forms that could work as we do, spreading science and civilization through the galaxy."

"A significant conclusion," said the captain. "Now, where is your simple and convincing argument?"

"Well," said the chief scientist, choosing the words carefully... "Truly intelligent life-forms have an inherent disposition to expand and explore... First they master their own planet -- that's the easy part -- and then they start to go further, out into space..."

"Yes, that is the character of Category One intelligence."

"Now. Let us suppose there were truly intelligent beings on this planet. They might or might not have started on Continent A. In any case, they would quickly establish a presence there."

"But didn't you suggest they might find it too cold?"

"They might indeed. But could they be considered intelligent, if they weren't able to devise strategies for coping with a colder-than-usual environment? I mean, of course, colder-than-usual for them... One obvious strategy would be to wear artificial clothing, just like we do when we need to move about in exceptionally low temperatures..."

"Would they be able to cross the fluid to get to Continent A? I know the species you saw can swim quite strongly. But what if our hypothetical smarter ones can't swim at all?"

"Yes, that too might be a challenge for them... But again, how could they be regarded as intelligent, if they weren't capable of building vehicles that could fly over the liquid, or float on its surface, or glide through its depths? It is an interesting technical question exactly how they'd do it... but surely a trivial challenge compared to interstellar space flight."

"And so," said the captain, "because these hypothetical intelligent beings clearly haven't reached their own planet's south polar region, we may safely conclude that they don't exist at all."

"Yes," said the chief scientist. "That is how I see it."

"I agree," said the captain. "Now let's take a look at another planet."

Colin Robinson
August 2010

1 Zuckerman, Ben and Hart, Michael; Extraterrestrials: Where Are They?; Cambridge University Press, 1995; p 1

© Colin Robinson 2010


12 August 2010

Kara Colin,

Mi ĝuas la rakonton. Vi havas bonegan imagon kaj lertan verkon.

Miaj gratuloj al vi.


Di Mitchell

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