Space: the Fermi Paradox or Why Aren't We Getting More Christmas Cards?
Surely most science fiction devotees have been stumped at some time by Enrico Fermi's famous skeptical question about the possibility of intelligent life outside our atmospheric cocoon. In a conversation about the topic with Edwin Teller and two other physicists, Fermi is said to have brought speculation to a halt by speculation by interjecting, "But where is everybody?"
Indeed, it is clear that efforts to detect signs of extraterrestrial intelligence by such means as radio telescopes and scans by space probes have revealed no contacts. Numerous people have already remarked that this silence may be due to our own patterns of communication. After all, some of the earliest electromagnetic transmissions from Earth to include video centered on speeches by one Adolf Hitler -- not a very encouraging beginning for anyone out there monitoring us. In addition to this stumbling opening, I was drawn recently to another factor during a discussion with family members.
"Why aren't we getting Christmas cards any more?" moaned one relative. "There are hardly any in the mailbox these days." Christmas cards, after all, are relatively simple phatic communications for the most part, despite the recent tendency to turn them into yearly reports. They are a rough equivalent of "Here we are, we come in peace." Pessimists (including those espousing Robin Hanson's Great Filter scenario) would say that our kinsmen may be a lot more numerous than extraterrestrial civilizations and therefore we should not expect greetings in our electronic mailboxes. Optimists might counter that research in exoplanets has boosted the predictions by people such as Carl Sagan and his colleagues who hypothesize the possible existence of millions of civilizations spread across the universe.
We suggest perhaps a tighter focus on the nature of communication itself, a closer look at these cosmic Christmas cards. To answer my relatives, I would point out that they are getting fewer cards because that is an eclipsed form of communication. Fewer an fewer of those missives can really be called Christmas cards, since only a small minority contain any reference to the religious significance of the holiday. A card with a cute cardinal or polar bear may not spark an interest in the receiver. There is even a fear on the part of some people to send Christmas cards because they might be considered offensive by any number of social groups. Economics weighs in, as postal prices have steadily increased. However, perhaps the biggest factor is that print (and even more so handwritten script) is essentially a "hot medium," to use Marshall McLuhan's terminology, one that requires deeper mental work than many are willing to give. It is no accident that an increasing fraction of Christmas cards are not really cards at all, but a photograph that is designed to elicit an immediate emotional reaction rather than any processes of thought. Unfortunately, the days of the Christmas card may be numbered.
Could the same be true of our current forms of electromagnetic communication? If interplanetary civilizations necessarily develop faster-than-light transportation, would they not also need a faster-than-light form of communication. Long-range railroads quickly needed the telegraph. They couldn't have operated practically with only visual semaphore as a way to stay in touch. This necessity would be even more crucial in space.
How could spacefarers deal with this problem? We know as little about this question as we know how to get to our sibling planets in a rapid way. Science fiction has not neglected the issue. The 1956 movie It Conquered the World features Lee Van Cleef as a scientist who manages to communicate instantaneously with Venus without even changing the use of radio very much. Many sci fi stories revolve around the employ of some kind of "sub-space" transmissions that conveniently cross the limits of the speed of light. Perhaps advanced civilizations have long ago left behind our relatively slow forms of communication, just as we have abandoned semaphore signals and, more recently, telegraph wires.
Not only that, but what if there are civilizations out there that expect us to do so? In the StarTrek universe, the Vulcans do not bother to try to communicate with humans until Ephraim Cochran develops a warp drive. Wouldn't it be even more practical to make the criterion of contact translight communication? It would be more sensible to avoid a physical presence in first contact, which could lead to all sorts of problems avoided by a more rapid and perhaps more precise form of messaging.
Let's push the prospects one step further. For a truly advanced civilization, why not do away with instramentality and go straight to thought? Could aliens already be sending out messages directly to our thought systems? Of course, we would have to be able to recognize these emissions in order to respond, but that would presume sufficient cerebral development to deal with the finer points of interplanetary messaging. As early as 1951, John D. McDonald's novel Wine of the Dreamers posits a situation where an alien race unwittingly begins to communicate with humans telepathically while dreaming. Unfortunately, this circumstance leads to terrible results, since neither the senders nor the receivers realize what is going on.
Physical science, science fiction and language sciences require more interplay with each other before these sorts of problems can be more completely understood. It will mean a much deeper dialogue than currently used by the government as they exploit military sci fi writers to suggest future terror weapons. Human culture delights, on the contrary, in pitting the thinkers in different nations and situations against each other, rather than coordinating their work. The solution to this fragmentation lies in courageous action by the thinkers themselves, as Professor Barnhardt undertakes in The Day the Earth Stood Still. It may not prove easy, but we cannot hope to achieve communication with extraterrestrials until we do a better job of communicating among ourselves.
Just a couple of remarks after viewing this 2000 movie, which I believe came out while I was recovering from a heart problem.
It is a pretty engaging techno-thriller, well-paced and competent in its editing. Director Brian De Palma was skillful in using his cast, playing off Gary Sinise's rather wooden, soldierly tendencies against the emotionalism of his younger counterpart Jerry O'Connell and the always-reliable Don Cheadle, who provides depth of representation as the marooned survivor of the first unfortunate mission. Tim Robbins provided more relief as a master of expression beyond the script, especially in the scenes where he sacrifices himself to save the other members of the rescue mission after the explosion of their spaceship.
These comments hold true for most of the film, up until its rather disastrously incongruous ending. Just at the moment when the discovery of an extraterrestrial civilization should provide a jolt of eerie drama, Sinise goes nearly catatonic and a Disneyesque music swells up that could have been out of Bambi. Perhaps De Palma was powerless to exclude these out-of-place franchise elements from his movie -- I am hopeful that this was the case, because it was a colossal let-down in what was otherwise a creditable, if less than brilliant, example of cinema. Or perhaps it was just bound to happen in a movie intended to promote an amusement park attraction and rake in secondary revenue. At any rate, it sadly detracts from what could have been a high moment for sci fi and for De Palma.
Our second Forlani Saga novel, Spy Station, is essentially a mystery set on a background of possible interplanetary war. It owes much to the greater history of mystery novels and films that unfolded in recent centuries.
Lately, readers and thinkers have been placed in a puzzling situation where mystery plots may offer a pathway to achieving some measure of epistemological understanding. I refer to the multiple events produced by the conflict in the Ukraine.
I became aware of this while enjoying the classic Charlie Chan novel by Earl Derr Biggers entitled The Black Camel. As in many similar novels, Chan faces a bewildering profusion of possible suspects and motives for the murder of a movie star in Honolulu. He and his police colleagues remark again and again that the problem is not a paucity of information, but rather an overwhelming barrage of information that is always partial and distorted by self-interest from the sources, who are all simultaneously agents in the drama surrounding the murder.
This scenario is comparable to what we readers face in trying to make sense of the reports coming out of the mess in Ukraine. Blocking of news sources and echo effect from those still available have amplified the difficulty of making sense of all the "clues" or explanations that are offered by various still-functioning media sources. Evaluating the "news" (which is often, in reality, just a form of speculation or puff) places us in the position of a fictional detective trying to unfold the details of a mystery plot.
Just as in The Black Camel, accounts of events in Ukraine are distorted by self-interest in most circumstances, resulting in a plethora of counter-accusations and baffling inconsistencies. Red herring revelations abound, while key points of information are occulted. False lines of inquiry abound. It is the task of us to try to sift the true from what is seemingly true, patently false, or the product of illusion or misinterpretation.
I have found that the only way to solve this enigma is to follow the Chan method and consult a wide variety of sources of information in order to construct a picture not only of events themselves, but of the human heart that produces the often horrific and deadly results of conflict. This line of inquiry involves the widest possible array of source information.
Standard news sources, I have discovered, are not good witnesses. They are few and their modalities are defective. Almost all American newspaper or broadcast sources rely on three main sources for their information: CNN, AP, and Reuters. These wire services tend to create an echo effect by repeating and "re-evaluating" what the others have said, rather than adding pertinent facts. Their own reports often rely on writers who are not on the scene of events and who are often unable to master the intricacies of the Ukrainian and Russian languages, leaving them reliant on press releases by governments that form the discourse based on their own self-interest. It is like dealing with the accounts of Chan's murder suspects, who are primarily driven to find alibis for their own actions and to incriminate others.
I have found that consulting various other sources: Radio France Internationale, Deutsche Welle, Al Jazeera and Japanese NHK, for example, allows me to get a more satisfactory understanding of what is going on. Of course, all the above-mentioned sources are state information agencies that are not without their own prejudicial priorities and agendas. However, like Charlie Chan, we can balance one testimony against another and ferret out inconsistencies that often reveal interesting explanations. For instance, Deutsche Welle has a vested interest in a German government that is hook, line, and sinker devoted to a uniquely Ukrainian perspective on events. Nevertheless, their reports often reveal economic details (they are German above all!) of how German arms firms have a vested interest in deepening the Ukrainian conflict because they stand to gain billions of euros by providing Ukraine with tanks, anti-aircraft systems, and other war materials. These sorts of details have been totally lacking in reports from CNN, AP, and Reuters that make a point of hiding the involvement of American and British arms manufacturers in promoting a proxy war. Similarly, Al Jazeera (who woudda thunk it?) provides much better insight on how oil and gas manipulations are deeply involved in the outcomes of Ukraine, undoubtedly because their operations take place in a part of the world where energy is king.
Of course, there will always be gaps and holes in our ability to access reliable information. Unlike a Biggers murder mystery, which is constructed to produce in the end a coherent explanation, international politics does not promise to tie up all the loose ends. Quite the contrary! We know that relevant facts will be hidden for years. My own fascination with certain aspects of military history in World War II has shown me that it is almost impossible to reconstruct even the most outstanding elements of campaigns where the identities of whole units were classified as top secret for decades and human witnesses have now passed beyond this Earth. The creation of "embedded journalism" during our Middle Eastern Wars has not clarified this type of confusion, but may actually have deepened it, as reporters scrambled to ingratiate themselves to their hosts and superiors. We know much less about matters now than we did in the more open media coverage of Vietnam.
Like Charlie Chan, we are forced to admit that the black camel of Death has come to kneel in the Ukraine and that many hideous things cannot be undone. Yet there is still hope that the details of the violence will eventually come to light as a result of diligent information-gathering. Only by nourishing hope in the discovery of further data that could almost magically unlock the mystery and cause elements to fall into place could Honolulu's legendary sleuth look forward to solving his case. We modern history "detectives" must nourish this same hope, remain observant, avoid too hasty conclusions, and use all our senses to reconstruct the facts, if we are to reach an adequate understanding of the vast murder mysteries of our era.
This world has been too much with us lately, as almost everyone seems to have been behaving badly and disgust has weighed heavily on most of us. Nevertheless, we have to break free eventually from the all-too-predictable patterns and occupy ourselves with a bit of forward-looking thinking. Other than financially-centered space tourism for the very rich, most projects appear to be stalled and both science and fiction struggle to make progress in a fragmented world. So it is with gladness that I read of China's plans to complete their orbital space station with their next taikonaut mission. As the (less and less) International Space Station, from which the Chinese have been systematically excluded, spins toward a likely re-entry around 2025, their project assumes more and more importance for those interested in the future of space. It will be most interesting to see how the station develops -- whether it will lead to cooperation with other nations or stay an essentially nationalistic endeavor. That may partly depend on events on this side of the Pacific, as the relationship between America's NASA and the newly-formed military Space Corps, as well as corporate ventures, becomes clearer. Surely the war in Ukraine will have some effects on the course of exploration, as well. Already, the international movement of such key materials as titanium, cobalt, and rare earths has become more dicey. Eventually, this may come to affect rocket engine supply. As the spate of politically-imposed trade and banking sanctions expands, some projects face likely delays. Some of the players, such as the European Space Agency, are already feeling the results of the international tensions, since sanctions have eliminated the role of Russia in missions launching from Kourou, French Guyane. All the money being directed to a massive rearmament in Europe, coupled with economic deterioration in the wake of what promises to be a protracted state of war or near-war in Ukraine and other areas, is bound to siphon off funds that could otherwise be pointed toward scientific exploration. As cyber warfare heats up between East and West, this situation may grow more acute. Will there be a Zephram Cochrane out there somewhere who may push us forward despite our petty savagery? It will be interesting to see how the future unfolds, for there is bound to be an unfolding, for better or for worse.
Sorry, but we're not very good at writing with kanji. But we wanted to say hello to those new viewers in Japan who have been dropping by lately. Please feel free to leave some comments on sci fi events in Japan, where I know there are many, many fans with very sophisticated ideas. Welcome!