#106 June 1997
Section 188.8.131.52.106.of the Artemis Data Book
by Tihamer Toth-Fejel
The scientific and aerospace communities, along with newspapers all over the country, have made a big deal out of the recently discovered evidence for life on Mars.
Dr. Hugh Ross predicted five years ago that such a discovery was inevitable because of the meteoric debris that floats between planets. Robert Zubrin, Chairman of the National Space Society, has pointed out that Martian rocks have been landing on Earth at a rate of about 500 kilograms a year, and that Martian bacterial spores could have survived the trip. The reverse trip is also possible for over a hundred Terran bacteria, so why the big fuss?
We should send more probes to Mars to determine the issue completely, but I predict that any life we find will have DNA that looks terrestrial. This would only prove that we humans are not the only space-traveling species in this solar system, and that life is a bit tougher than we thought. Of course, such a discovery wouldn't solve the issue of where life really started: Earth, Mars, both independently in parallel paths of biochemical evolution, or some other common source, such as interstellar Space.
What bothers me is that an enormous unasked question underlies all this hoopla, and nobody in the popular or academic press is asking it, although physicist Enrico Fermi raised it almost a generation ago. He pointed out that at our current pace of technological growth, humans will soon be building star-ships and visiting neighboring stars.
Like the American explorers, some of them will settle where they land, while others (or their children) will move on to the next star for elbow room, religious freedom, or new opportunities. A conservative estimate of this process predicts that humans or their self-replicating robots will explore, settle, and develop every planet around every star in our Milky Way within 250,000 years, a mere cosmic eyeblink in the lifetime of the Universe.
We live on an ordinary planet that orbits an ordinary sun at the edge of an ordinary galaxy. Our "averageness" makes it extremely unlikely that we are the first intelligent species to leave our planet. Our best scientific estimates show that our galaxy contains up to a billion stars that could have developed intelligent life -- so at least half should have done it before us. Now it is conceivable that many of these alien species live on water worlds (and therefore never discovered fire), or blew themselves up in nuclear wars (because their technological power outstripped their moral character), or preferred poetry to engineering (inadvertently leading to their extinction when the next big meteor hit), so they never built their first starship.
But why has none of these possible aliens done what life has always done - expand into every niche available to it? And why have they left no trace of their existence?
An advanced civilization could leave at least three traces:
First, radio: Every viewer with a standard radio telescope within 35 light-years can watch "I Love Lucy", and Earth would be the brightest radio source in the sky. In fact, an Aricebo-sized radio telescope could pick it up from across our galaxy. But SETI has found no trace of anything.
Second, starship tracks: Physical objects traveling at significant fractions of lightspeed leave trails of Cerenkov radiation that would crisscross the sky for our detectors.
Third, Dyson Spheres: Surrounding a star with an enormous sphere would essentially turn an entire solar system into a giant space ship, and would multiply the living area and/or standard of living by a factor of a billion. Such a macro-engineered structure would block the visible light of a sun from our sight, but it would radiate heat as inferred light.
But physical presence and planetary development would be the most obvious. Everything we know predicts that aliens should have been here a long time ago, and they should have developed our planet out from under us. Out of a billion species that could have gotten here, there are many reasons that would keep many of them away. But there is no reason that adequately explains why none of them are here. That fact indicates that there is a gaping hole in our knowledge about the universe, and our place in it.
As Sherlock Holmes said, when the obvious is ruled out, then only the alternatives, no matter how fantastic, must be considered.
Are we in a cosmic wildlife preserve? Then where are the tourists and the poachers? Is Earth under some sort of universal interdict by an organization whose border guards cannot be tempted, reprogrammed, or overpowered? Is the emergence of intelligence an automatic death sentence to a biosphere because of the technological power it gives for self-destruction? Or does advanced technology mean that the race "moves on" into a Singularity? Do automated war machines from forgotten interplanetary wars roam between the stars? Does the Anthropic Principle, which shows that we are in a unique epoch since the Big Bang, predict that we must choose the final destiny of the Universe? Is our concept of "little green men in flying saucers from Alpha Centuri" adequate? Are our preconceptions of angels and demons too limited?
As we move off this planet to insure the survival of our biosphere, I'm scared of hard vacuum, meteorites, and fatal radiation, and I'm really scared of the dangers we don't even know about.
But what scares me the most today is that scientists and the media are refusing to address the real implications of life on Mars. By ignoring an enormous paradox in our knowledge, we will remain ignorant -- and our ignorance may be fatal. <TTF>
[Tihamer Toth-Fejel <email@example.com> (trouble with a capitol "Tee") is
a co-founder of the Ann Arbor Space Society, a chapter of NSS. "Tee" is
the editor of The Assembler, the newsletter of the Molecular Manufacturing
Shortcut Group, also a chapter of NSS.]
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