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I usually work from home.

This has its good bits and its bad bits. The bad bits include clients who don't pay on time, not having health insurance (the United States as a society has decided that we want to discourage innovation, prevent people from taking risks, and stifle small business, and one of the ways we do that is to tie health insurance to employment, so self-employed people find it expensive and difficult to get), and higher taxes (the legions of the self-employed pay more for FICA than folks with normal office jobs do, and don't even get me started on the fact I pay more corporate income tax than General Electric).

The good bits include the ability to work from anywhere I have an Internet connection, which in the age of smart phones and tethering pretty much means anywhere that isn't Antarctica or the Libertarian paradise of Somalia, and I can work in my bathrobe.

Which is not to say that I was traveling in my bathrobe; that might've presented certain awkwardnesses. Instead, it meant that I was free to travel to Boston in the first place, with my clients none the wiser.

Day three on our journey began with some tension in our little group, which corresponded, through a matter of unfortunate timing, with a client who needed my attention. We left Denver, Erica behind the wheel and me behind the 8-ball on a rush urgent problem for a client, which the client thoughtfully neglected to inform me about until it was a rush urgent problem, the better to get the blood circulating in the morning.

The problems worked themselves out by the afternoon, as we sped through the scenic heartland of Colorado toward Kansas.

I'm not quite sure why they call the midwest "America's heartland." I think it has something to do with arteriosclerosis. Or maybe it's because of all the corn, which is processed into high-fructose corn syrup that is then distributed to children in order to promote diabetes and heart disease, I don't know. Whatever the reason, it certainly isn't because the landscape is so interesting that it warms the heart.

After many hours of driving, we were ready for any diversion whatsoever to break the monotony. So when we neared the border and saw signs for the Wonder Tower, we were primed--nay, more than primed--for a little wonder.
The Wonder Tower bills itself with the promise that its visitors can "SEE 6 STATES!"

I'm not sure which states this tower allows one to experience. I suspect they're Ennui, Tedium, Boredom, Lassitude, Apathy, and Monotony, but we never had the opportunity to find out; the place seemed utterly abandoned.

Fortunately, there was a vast field of millet nearby, which offered the opportunity for some frolicking. Claire mentioned, in a casual, offhand way, that she had a Viking helmet with her, and the deal was sealed.

Frolicking done, it was time to head into Kansas.

If there's one thing that can be said about Kansas, it's that it's boring. There is nothing there. At all. Anywhere. When we crossed the state line, the scenery looked like this:

After a few hours of travel, the scenery looked like this:

A couple hundred miles farther along, the scenery gave way to this:

In the face of such tedium, even the boldest must falter.

Fortunately, we live in an industrialized society, in which we pledge fealty to our corporate feudal lords in exchange for mountains of debt, an existence that's little more than grinding pointlessness, and iPads. And the nice thing about iPads is for just a little bit more debt, we can listen to audiobooks. Audiobooks! They're like books, without all that business of reading!

Claire had a copy of Bill Bryson's marvelous A Short History of Nearly Everything with her. If you haven't read it (or listened to it), I can't recommend it enough. It starts with the creation of the universe and along the way covers physics, chemistry, cosmology, paleobiology, geology, archaeology, and the rise of civilization, with several segues into the lives of some of the most famous scientists who ever lived. It proved to be a refreshing antidote to the soul-scorching tedium outside.

The book spends a little bit of time talking about evolutionary biology, which is a subject that everyone thinks they understand, but relatively few people actually do1. Of the bit that talks about evolutionary biology, some bit of that is devoted to the subject of how human beings came to be, which is understandable seeing as how it was written by a human being, and we human beings have a bit of a vested interest in the topic of human beings.

The book discusses, with some amusing side notes about archaeological fraud, the subject of our genus, and our closely related but now long-dead family members such as Homo habilis and Homo erectus.

One of the points the book makes is that evolution isn't goal-directed. We seem to think, with the conceit of an anthropocentric worldview, that the rise of tool-using, LHC-building, iPod-listening intelligence is an evolutionary inevitability; after all, evolution is all about the formation of better (stronger, faster, smarter) species from lesser species, right?

Well, err, wrong. In fact, quite a number of paleontologists reckon that, far from it, if you were to rewind history just a little bit--say, to H. erectus--and let it go again, sapience might never occur at all. It seems that the explosion of our enormous, radically accelerated, tool-using, Lady-Gaga-listening intellect depended on such an unusual confluence of events and genetic steps that given the history of the world all over again, it might never happen again.

Which suggests an answer to the Fermi paradox.

The Fermi paradox is pretty straightforward. There are billions of stars in our galaxy, and billions upon billions of galaxies in the universe. Given how rapidly and tenaciously life arose and spread on this planet, it seems quite likely that life is extraordinarily common in the universe. In fact, recent discoveries of life in deep-sea hydrothermal vents, life in arsenic brine, and life that can survive exposure to the vacuum of space without ill effect, most estimates of its prevalence are probably on the low side; the physical world suggests that not only does life spring up wherever it can, but the "wherever it can" covers a lot more territory than we imagine it does.

So where are all the extraterrestrial civilizations?

Even if you grant that relativity is forever an immutable law of physics that no science or technology can violate, and that the vast gulf between stars means that other species will never, ever visit us, where are they? We should be able to hear their radio chatter at the very least.

The problem is in the notion that because we exist, we must have been inevitable. I suspect, and that suspicion has become even stronger, that life may be far more common than we think it is, but sapient life is far less common than we think it is. Not only is our prodigious intelligence not inevitable, but far from it, it's actually extraordinarily rare. There is nothing in the competition of self-replicating molecules to suggest that sapience is a common strategy, and indeed, quite a lot of evidence (given how new we are on the scene, how long the world got by quite well without us, and how we happened so quickly there's still no evidence to suggest intelligence betters a life form's long-term odds of success) that it is not.

Fermi's paradox can be solved quite simply by letting go of the notion that we are the logical and inevitable pinnacle of evolution, and adopting instead the notion that we are something of an aberration, even on a cosmic scale.

Such are the thoughts that filled my head while we sped through Kansas. Fortunately, it was not long until we encountered signs for the World's Largest Prairie Dog...but that tale will have to wait until next time.

1 One quick and dirty test: If the first thing that springs to mind when you hear the word "evolution" is "survival of the fittest," you probably don't really grok evolutionary biology.


( 11 comments — Leave a comment )
Oct. 22nd, 2011 12:52 am (UTC)
Darwin actually used the phrase "survival of the fittest" quite a bit in The Origin of Species (which I just finished reading all the way through for the first time). But you're right, of course.

Another issue with Fermi's paradox is how much energy a civilization has to put into a signal before it can be detected by an arbitrary receiver, say, 100 light-years away. Can we expect a civilization 1000 years into the Atomic Age to have the technology to send such a signal? I don't know the answer—someone probably has a better answer than I could make.
Oct. 22nd, 2011 01:16 am (UTC)
Only in the fifth edition and later. The first editions didn't use the phrase; it was actually coined by a contemporary of his, if I recall correctly.

I'd suspect that any civilization that has advanced past the steam engine era to retain the ability to send radio signals; they're just too useful to give up. It's not like, say, a loom or a spinning wheel, I reckon, though I have no experimental evidence that that's the case. :)
Oct. 22nd, 2011 01:26 am (UTC)
Ah, yes, thanks; my copy is a very late edition.

I should have been clearer. I was wondering what the chance of a civilization developing the technology within 1000 years of developing a fission chain reaction (as a technological milestone); I wasn't thinking of the chance that it would collapse.
Oct. 24th, 2011 02:05 am (UTC)
My suspicion is that a civilization that uses tools up to the atomic age is absolutely going to discover radio somewhere along the way. I won't say that becoming atomic without discovering radio is quite as bad as getting to the steam age without discovering the wheel, but it's pretty close. Certainly any sort of electronics--which I would think will probably be a necessary prerequisite for atomic power or weapons--will discover radio interference if only accidentally, and it becomes fairly obvious from there.

Of course, I have no examples other than our own. :)
Oct. 24th, 2011 02:12 am (UTC)
Yes, I agree that discovering nuclear fission before radio would imply conditions of life that we couldn't fathom. The issue is with sending a strong enough signal to be detected from hundreds or thousands of light-years away. As Niven liked to say, we put out as much radio-frequency energy as a star; but that's spread out over thousands and thousands of sources, and you'd need an amazingly sensitive antenna to pick out one of them and see that it is a communications signal. But perhaps just the frequency spectrum would give it away—for example, the FM spectrum would have a spike every 0.2 MHz.
Oct. 24th, 2011 02:51 am (UTC)
Yes we put out as much power in the typical RF (1khz up to 4Ghz) bands as the sun does. However it's made up of millions of signals that together are going to be impossible to recognize as anything but static. Also any signals that do make it to another planit enhabited by a species that can receive radio signals is going to be in pretty bad shape. We like to think of a radio signal like a solid bubble moving away from it's source. But remember it boils down to individual photons. When you start getting a few hundred light years away there are litterally gaps in between the photons of the signal that are larger than your antenna is likely to be. There probably wont be enough photons from our signal hitting their antenna for them to get close to recreating the orrignal signal. Now take into account that the most powerful signals we send are all sent using transmission methods that aren't particualarly robust in terms of dealing with signal loss (the reason they are sent with so much power is specifically because that much power is needed just to keep them usable within the confines of our own planet). At best our alien friends are likely end up with something like the WOW signal of 1977. All the evidence might point to it being an un-natural signal, but it still wont really mean anything.

Oct. 24th, 2011 03:18 am (UTC)
It's definitely true that it's unlikely we'll pick up signals from any alien civilizations by accident. But there are certain frequency bands--most notably the 1420 MHz hydrogen band--that are quite free of noise and make logical frequencies on which to try to contact alien civilizations, or to communicate with very deep space probes.

The Fermi paradox assumes that if life is commonplace, then intelligent life is commonplace, and further stipulates that some percentage of intelligent life would quite likely try to communicate with other species of intelligent life. If all those things are true, then the 1420 MHz band (and others) could reasonably be expected to be filled with all manner of signals...but they're not.

It is quite unlikely that any of our signals would be picked up by an alien civilization, or any of theirs picked up by us, on the majority of frequencies--there's nothing to separate them from noise. But deliberate signals created for the purpose of making themselves plain to other civilizations are a different matter.
Oct. 24th, 2011 07:40 am (UTC)
Interestingly enough the WOW signal of 1977 was very close to 1420Mhz.

There are several problems with this theory.
We are one of those species that tries to communicate with other species of intelligent life. We've sent out around 25 signals who's only purpose was to say "Here we are!". However, 25 1.5 to 5 minute signals over 35 years really isn't much at all. If we were really serious about this we'd have a 10,000 watt 1.4ghz transmitter on a satellite running 24/7. Let's hope those other species that are trying to communicate are a bit more serious about it than we are. Also keep in mind that almost all of these were highly directional signals. So only a tiny percentage (<.001%) of the galaxy will have the opportunity to receive any of these signals.

And there is still the problem of distance. Power decreases to the square of the distance from the source. Even signals with an immensely powerful source would have almost no power after a few thousand (let alone million) light years. The only way to detect such weak signals is the use of highly directional antenna. The problem there is that there could be a hundred worlds sending signals right at us and the only way we'd notice is if we happened to point our antenna right at one of them. And as the man in the movie said, "it's a big ass sky". Now take into account that people rarely use their expensive radio telescope time to observe boring k-type stars, the ones we believe are most likely to result in life.

Mix all this together and you quickly come to the conclusion that the odds are next to nothing that we would happen to point a radio telescope right at a world at exactly the right moment to receive a signal they are transmitting that is specifically meant to be easily understood. Even if there are millions of other intelligent civilization in our galaxy.
Oct. 25th, 2011 03:44 pm (UTC)
What's even better is that compression and encryption both take out long repeating sequences, which are one of the things that we tend to recognize on some level as being indicative of intelligence ("The dolphins keep going 'aww blaw esspanol', do you figure that means something?"), or at least periodic interesting behavior (tides, seasons, pendulums, quasars, etc). The more efficient and more secure a signal is, the less likely it is to mean anything to anyone who isn't the intended recipient.

I suspect that the best signal we could send to indicate we're out here is something A) very simple and B) very loud.
Oct. 22nd, 2011 03:20 pm (UTC)
I have personal experience of things existing along I-70 in Kansas: I lived there for several years a little over a decade ago. Between Kansas City and Salina there are several trees and occasional small bumps in the terrain--sort of like hills. West of that not so much. But somewhere between Salina and my then home town of Hays, though, there is (or at least was) an emu farm. And you missed it by assuming that the nearly interminable boring terrain was in fact fully interminable.

Hays also has some odd and curious sandstone art and architecture and the fort where some guy historically shot himself as portrayed in Dances With Wolves, though the scene wasn't actually filmed there. And a herd of buffalo. And several local ghost stories that you might've found a little tedious. All of which are sort of things. The buffalo might have been a sorta interesting distraction, anyway.
Oct. 27th, 2011 08:27 pm (UTC)
Peter Watt's novel Blindsight (http://www.rifters.com/real/Blindsight.htm) has an interesting treatment of there being plenty of life in the universe, and almost all of it being sentient and sophont, but not sapient.
( 11 comments — Leave a comment )