Fusion (off-topic): In October 2013, we were told about a positive energy balance at the National Ignition Facility near San Francisco, California. Today, The New York Times and everyone else spread hype about some further advances since October. I used the term "hype" because I didn't quite understand what the advance since October is supposed to be. The overall energy budget is still poor, only 1% of the energy burned by the lasers is recovered.The Daily Galaxy is among those who bring us the new E.T. gospel: SETI's chief astronomer Seth Shostak (*1943) promises that by his 97th birthday in 2040, SETI will find electromagnetic signals sent by the extraterrestrial non-resident aliens.
I am afraid that if he's around in 2040, people will have forgotten about his promise and if they will remember, they won't spank the poor 97-year-old man, anyway.
He builds the prophesy on the quantification of the number of planets that are being discovered and analyzed, their percentage in the habitable zone, and some amazing assumptions about the "straightforward" evolution of the intelligent life if not the technological singularity.
Stephen Wolfram agrees and adds some comments that these clever ETs produce so complex and sophisticated artificial products that they become indistinguishable from the natural objects ("very advanced cars start to resemble trees", he essentially says).
I tend to disagree with all these guesses.
First, I don't think that advanced cars will resemble trees. For quite some time, cars have been getting "smoother". Aerodynamics is one of the reasons. But even internally, carmakers don't want to flood cars (and other products) with lots of confusing details. The simplicity, at least the visual one, is one of the features that are favored by the natural selection in the world of technology.
Sometimes technology copies an idea from Nature. But we often see that animals and plants are suboptimal in many respects and when products are made from scratch, most of these seemingly useless imperfections may be avoided. So I would probably think that the converse of Wolfram's statement is much closer to the truth: the more advanced a civilization is, the more clearly its environment will differ from the natural background.
I am also ready to bet that by 2040, intelligent ET electromagnetic signals will not have been discovered. (If you wish, we may agree that the 1-to-1 bet will be active as long as both parties are alive.) Well, I just don't believe that intelligent life is that common.
Instead, I always agreed with Michael Crichton's view on these matters. He used the Drake equation as the original template for numerous kinds of the postmodern pseudoscience, including the global warming hysteria, in his speech
2005 edition of the equation contains dozens if not hundreds of factors – and all of them are mostly unknown. Some of them have huge uncertainties that may add or subtract many orders of magnitude. Even those that are only "somewhat" uncertain are so numerous that the product may be almost anything. Moreover, the product in the Drake equation is dominated by various fractions and percentages that are meant to impose a story on you.
It reminds me of a game we would play in the kindergarten. "What is pouring if you prick your finger?" – "Blood." – "What is pouring if you prick your thigh?" – "Blood." – ... – "What is the color with which you cross the road?" – "Red."
Try it. It really works. The repetitive questions at the beginning make you think about the blood. You become so brainwashed that you choose "red" instead of "green" as the answer to the pedestrian question. In a similar way, the Drake equation is deliberately containing lots of factors, some of which are arguably "large" or (in the case of the fractions) "of order one", and this makes some people brainwashed and assume that all of the factors must be large of order one. But the factors have nothing to do with each other, except that they were artificially and demagogically incorporated into an equation. One of them or several of them may be really tiny or de facto zero. Even though one factor that is tiny could be in a minority (most factors could be large), it would still decide about the result's being very small. It seems to me that people love to fool themselves with a trivial fallacy that "the majority of the factors" is what decides. It doesn't.
I think that intelligent life is rare – if not confined to the vicinity of the Earth – for many reasons.
One of them is that it may be very difficult to construct the simplest RNA/DNA molecules that may produce cells capable of reproducing the RNA/DNA code. There is no known code capable of doing such things that would contain just dozens of bases. Craig Venter's artificial cell has a million of bases in its DNA. Even Mycoplasma genitalium that is used due to its simplicity has over half a million pairs.
Also, I was sort of persuaded by the panspermial Moore's law suggesting that the life started before the Earth was created – because the extrapolation of the complexity of DNA codes seems to imply rather complex codes already 4.5 billion years ago. This belief of mine is strengthened by my realization – yes, I think it is an extremely important realization, overlooked by many – that the primitive life doesn't really need too strong gravitational fields (adhesion is OK) and the surface of a rock is enough. But the surface area is, unlike the volume or the mass of rocks, dominated by the surface of small meteoroids, comets, asteroids, if not dust in the Solar System and perhaps in the interstellar regions (smaller objects have a higher surface-to-volume ratio than the larger ones; this ratio goes like \(1/R\), of course). I think that this is probably where primitive life began billions of years before the birth of the Solar System. This primitive life just found the Earth to be a particularly hospitable place for further evolution – for concentrated progress.
Vast regions of outer space with dust and small meteoroids may have been needed to accidentally produce the smallest molecules that were needed for life to erupt. Only a small portion of the interstellar space may be "infected" by these tiny seeds of primitive life and only a small fraction of the infected regions may have the "right seeds" that may begin to flourish on the Earth. See that I am adding a structure or a story with extra factors, possibly very small factors, that were hiding behind a single factor in the Drake equation that was pretended to be large – without any evidence whatsover.
Moreover, I think that if it were really so straightforward to produce intelligent life and if it were so easy for a civilization to exponentially grow to conquer its cosmic neighborhood, and so on, we would have already seen signs of such extraterrestrial civilizations. The belief in "life is omnipresent trash" involves the belief in its nearly inevitable presence or birth on Earth-like planets; and in the subsequent exponential growth of the civilization that is nearly unlimited.
But if there were billions of planets with life in the Milky Way and if the growth of the civilization were this exponential and this unlimited, some of them would already have to become easily visible – even without the improvements in the telescope technology we will see by 2040. I feel that the belief that the ETs are not visible now but will be visible by 2040 is a belief in a "fine-tuning" of a sort. For this assumption to be true, the ET civilization must have been growing exponentially for many decades but they had to stop in time, to remain invisible to us in 2014. It is bizarre.
In other words, if one believes that the life is so easy and omnipresent, there should probably be many civilizations that are vastly more advanced than ours. But if this were the case, they would probably actively contact us before we would contact them. An advanced civilization out there – somewhere in the Milky Way – would almost certainly know about the Earth which is a rather bright "star" in the microwave spectrum. Some of these playful gay ET folks would probably send some strong signals directly to us to have some fun (even if their government preferred the "don't ask, don't tell" policy).
Well, this is of course only possible if the advanced ET civilization is at most several light decades from the Sun; the signals from more distant places couldn't have returned yet. But even among the more distant places where advanced civilizations may be living, they might know that the Earth was very promising for life – even millions of years ago. They could be sending localized signals in the direction of the promising hospitable planets and we should be already receiving lots of these signals.
In other words, if such a contact between two civilizations took place, the more advanced civilization would arguably be doing "most of the work" needed for the contact – because it's easier for it to do the work. We would be more likely to detect the more advanced civilizations than the primitive ones. That's why we should expect that they would have already "showed up" even if we remained relatively passive. In a universe full of advanced ETs, we would feel like the primitive tribes in the Pacific. They often see some signs of the more advanced nations (airplanes, International Space Station etc.). We don't see such things which indicates that we are not living in a universe flooded with advanced ET aliens.
But what really makes me upset about the "life is everywhere" paradigm is the same thing that was insulting Michael Crichton, namely that it is a religion. Or an inverse religion, if you wish. I mean a religion of scientism, scientology, or whatever these scientifically unjustified beliefs in something sold as "scientifically cool" should be called. Centuries ago, people would think that the Earth was the center of the Universe and played a special role. Copernicus and others showed that the Earth wasn't a special celestial object when it comes to the celestial motion. It largely orbits the Sun and there are many planets and stars and galaxies out there.
So some people love to "kick into the dead body of geocentrism" by trying to go to the opposite extreme. The Earth can't be the headquarters of life, either, they automatically assume. They believe that we have learned that the truth must always be the opposite thing than what the religion says. Except that these two types of "geocentrism" have a completely different status. The idea that the Earth is special as the center of the celestial bodies' orbits has been excluded; the idea that the Earth is where the Milky Way's life is concentrated is alive and kicking. There's no evidence of extraterrestrial life even though some people love to pretend otherwise. One of the claims is supported evidence, the other is not. Some people apparently want to hide this "detail" and this is just too flagrant a dishonesty in my eyes.
The idea that the life on Earth is the only intelligent life in this galaxy (or beyond) is perfectly compatible with everything we know about science. The only thing it is incompatible with is the science-inspired religion of "atheists on steroids" but that incompatibility is not a real problem of any sort.
A decade ago, I didn't quite appreciate it but now I do think that Crichton's insight that the Drake equation exhibits the same sloppy pseudoscientific thinking that has made the global hysteria possible decades later was a deep and true insight. It's the obsession with things that look like scientific equations but they are not scientific equations because they don't improve our quantitative knowledge of anything in any way; they're not even implying anything if we assume that they are "right". Equations that are meant to convey an ideology, not a useful calculation that tells us something verifiable, something that has been tested against the evidence. The Drake equation isn't science and the fact that this pseudoscientific construct has been sold by many people who were employed as scientists has loosened the expectations about the standards and it has allowed similar would-be scientists to talk about the threats for the climate posed by the CO2 and several other major preposterously unscientific idiocies. The scientific "beef" has completely evaporated from these science-inspired parts of our mass culture.
It started with the Drake equation and with the hype – helped by some of the modern media etc. – that the aliens have to be everywhere around us.