Science in Popular Fiction: Fermi’s Paradox is Preying on my Mind

First up:  Apologies for another huge gap between posts!  It turns out that trying to keep up with a Master’s degree course whilst juggling hobbies, (small) jobs AND trying to think up ideas for blog posts is quite the challenge.  Fortunately, astrophysics and modern popular media make for a wellspring of ideas, especially when the two combine.

I want to start this post off by talking about the popular media part – Prey (2017) by Arkane Studios.  I could use many words to describe it:  Spooky, serious, sad, sublime, silly… occasionally all five of those things at once.  But what really sparked my interest, however, is the setting:  a parallel timeline where the Americans and Russians didn’t have a space race, but instead worked together after the failed assassination of JFK only strengthened the World’s resolve to reach the stars.

Of course, things aren’t all peachy – the Russians discovered something in space… aliens that look like something from the Rorschach Inkblot Test and have an unfortunate tendency to perfectly mimic everyday objects whilst simultaneously devouring all human life for… plot reasons.  But never fear!  Evil megacorporations being evil megacorporations means that soon the alien is harnessed for research, with only one or two horrendous disasters along the way – and that’s where your character comes in.

Now I’m not going to go on and on about the plot of a video game here, but what I do want to talk about is one of the central themes – a subtle one that is so incredibly easy to miss but is nonetheless there from the very first moments:  Fermi’s Paradox.  The game doesn’t ever talk about this to your face – nothing more than a book lying open your character’s coffee table and their computer password, but is woven indelibly into the plot.

Fermi’s Paradox is a simple question:  If the Universe is infinite, and thus has an infinite number of stars, implying an infinite number of habitable worlds with an infinite number of intelligent beings… why haven’t we met any of them yet?  This is an extension of the far more fundamental Olber’s Paradox:  If the Universe is infinite then why is the night sky dark and not infinitely bright?

The answers to these questions are grappled with in the field of cosmology – the study of the Universe on a meta scale (the parallels between the Universe on its largest and smallest scales can have some quite unsettling implications – perhaps the topic of another post).  Students of cosmology are much like Prey’s Player Character in that they have no frame of reference:  no outside source to compare with;  no real way to tell exactly what is going on, when it happened or even if it happened.

The only thing that you can be reasonably sure of in either is that it has a beginning, and if there is a beginning then that implies some sort of ending.  The evidence for a Big Bang beginning our stream space-time causality is there, but it is dogged with errors, leaps of logic and some good old plain guesswork (see Inflation Theory for one such example (Guth 1981 – Inflationary Universe:  A Possible Solution to the Horizon & Flatness Problems).

This brings me back to Fermi’s Paradox – cosmology assumes three universal truths:  Homogeneity, Isotropy and Flatness.  In other words: matter is the same everywhere regardless of direction and there are no clumps of the stuff that would have a significant impact on a Universal scale.  So if we are to assume that these are constant, perhaps the biggest paradox then is ourselves?

Copernican Principle suggests that we as a species inhabit no special or favoured place in the Universe.  As a species we are almost unquestioned masters of our World (let’s just avoid the awkward topic of deadly plague bearing rats…  or the Great Emu War of ’32…).  If this is true, then there must be others like us.  And since the Universe is spread uniformly on a cosmological scale, they must be reasonably close.

What I want to suggest, then, is this:  We are looking for life on our terms, and in an infinite Universe of infinite possibilities, this is a very blinkered approach (yes there is an infinitely high chance that there is a creature looking just like me typing this exact essay at this exact moment somewhere else in the Universe but there’s an even more infinitely high chance that there isn’t).  Take Prey:  within the confines of the game’s world the characters and creatures are intelligent.  They behave appropriately to their circumstances, have goals and ambitions and carry these out whilst adapting rapidly to the creative approaches to puzzles and combat that you as the player are forced to take.  They do not, however, have any concept of you as a person “beyond the screen”, they feel only the effects of your actions.

By extension, the inverse is true.  Rooting around in the quiet, art deco hallways of Prey’s Talos-1 you can never be sure if you’re alone in a room with a roll of toilet paper or if that toilet paper is watching you back.  If it is watching you back then how quickly is it going to scuttle towards you to try and eat you?  And if it is scuttling towards you, how the heck is it doing it?  This is Fermi’s Paradox in action:  In the world of Prey I cannot distinguish between that which is living and that which is mundane

The point of the essay, then, is this:  We’re not truly alone in the Universe: mathematically it’s almost impossible – so impossible that it has its own paradox.  But just because we’re not alone doesn’t mean that we should want to find this life, and it’s entirely possible that something we dismiss as mundane could harbour a terrible truth.

Be careful what you wish for.

Physicists:  Creating problems you didn’t know you could have in ways you can’t understand


Space, Astronomy & Astrophysics: Why I Think “Up There” is Important to us “Down Here”

First of all, apologies that it took so long to get my next post out!  The automatic publishing feature was supposed to get this out at the beginning of the week but that didn’t quite happen.  Hopefully next time I’ll figure out the widgets without angering our digital overlords so we don’t all have to spend the rest of eternity calculating pi or something like that.

So:  Space.  Not just space:  Humans in space.  Humans in space permanently.  Why is it important and why would we ever bother going somewhere else when we have Earth which seems pretty OK if not for all problems?

I once had a conversation with a lady on this very topic, and I tried to explain to her my deeply held belief that space exploration isn’t just important to us as a species, but possibly the single most important priority for every single person on the planet – whether they know, or indeed want it to be, or not.

“Oh no,” she said “Why would we ever want to go out there?!  There are too many problems for us to fix here.  If we can’t fund our NHS, our schools or our pension properly, going to space is a total waste!  A vanity project for people who can’t face up to our problems!” and with that triumphant flair the debate, it seemed, was over.

Now, the fact that the lady in question is a former banker and town councillor who, by her own admission, uses private health care, has a private pension and sent her children to private school notwithstanding, I would like to propose an alternative viewpoint:

In an isolated system, entropy will always increase.

Now, why am I quoting the Second Law of Thermodynamics at you?  What do I mean by that?  Well, here’s a different interpretation of that quote by who I regard as the greatest thinker of our time (Terry Pratchett, if you’re wondering):  Chaos will always win out over order because it’s better organised (Quote from the book Interesting Times).

Earth is mankind’s cradle.  There’s a lot wrong with mankind:  Violence and War;  Religious Zealotry and Intolerance – especially from those who claim to oppose such things so ardently;  Bureaucracy in all its forms.  There is however a lot of good with the bad:  The arts and music; our natural propensity for discovery and the pushing of boundaries;  The Full English Breakfast.

This is the point of this essay:  a child cannot stay within its cradle forever.  We denizens of Earth are at a point as a society where we have reached adolescence:  We have increased powers and freedoms that promise so much good, but also unleash destruction upon our hopes and dreams.  We openly acknowledge that there are too many people on our planet, we are damaging our environment and the other creatures that live here and also that many people are in positions of great power who can only do more harm than good (individuals such as Trump and Putin are debatable, but there are others such as Rupert Murdoch or Richard Branson who receive less attention and are potentially far, far more harmful).

Indeed, we stand at a point now where we threaten to turn back from the teachings of our youth:  The Enlightenment and all that it brought with it (freedom of speech, the scientific  method, the ability to debate an issue from both sides) is being forgotten;  The wars which we swore never to fight again after the early 20th century are resurfacing, their casus belli no longer ideological or “I want your back garden” but religious and the increasingly rare resources available to us; the methods of fighting them reliant on terror, psychology and economics rather than the bullet or valour.

To stop this, humanity needs a unified goal, something that every single person can unite behind and cannot be twisted by the demagogues of twisted and dangerous philosophies.  To many space exploration seems like the stuff of Hollywood:  Shining Knights fighting with laser swords atop metal beasts in the inky black of the abyss.

To me it is perhaps the best chance that we have of making sure that some of the good that humanity has accomplished is preserved before too long in the cradle twists our limbs and psyche completely beyond recognition.

A laser sword and dressing gown that’s acceptable to wear to all occasions would also be quite nice, thanks.