(sotto voce) “is there anybody out there?”

There have been a few coincidental discussions on the subject of Alien intelligence. Probably the season for this sort of thing.

In particular, brainy, electrically powered Davros-alike Stephen Hawking has recommended that even if we suspect we are not alone, we should probably keep our head below the trench unless we want it taken clean off.

“If aliens ever visit us, I think the outcome would be much as when Christopher Columbus first landed in America, which didn’t turn out very well for the Native Americans.”

Simultaneously, Paul Davies’ latest book, The Eerie Silence, discusses the apparent fact that we can’t find any of them anyway, and suggests a number of reasons, mostly interesting variations on the theme of just how mind-bendingly large some of the timescales and distances are, and what this means in terms of the longevity of civilisations.

But a likely unoriginal thought occurs, are the two related?

Hawking’s main contention is that if anyone is capable of interacting with us in any meaningful way, the chances are that they’ve been around a lot longer. A lot longer means, in all likelihood, a lot more powerful in many different ways than we are.

And this presents us with a danger: what will the reaction be if we are noticed, and how capable are we of surviving it if it’s hostile – even unintentionally so?

In our own case, estimates for the emergence of intelligent life in the guise of Homo Sapiens place it at around 250,000 to 400,000 years ago. These are ancestors that we would recognise as perhaps grotesque, but at least possessing the necessary biological machinery for intelligence. They could use basic tools, but basically they spent their time crouching terrified  up a tree somewhere. Nevertheless, let’s pitch it in that generous period.

At this point, we’re estimating the age of the Universe at around 13.7 billion years. This is really quite old. And the significance is that so much stuff has happened before us that there has been a lot of time for others to pull ahead in the hostility and warmongering stakes.

So we got to be clever enough to estimate the age of the Universe, and Stephen Hawking has evolved to let us know that, given we haven’t been around for long, we’d best shut up.

And this sequence of events may have been repeated many, many times over as we go further and further back in time.

  • Intelligence emerges
  • It advances to the point where it’s capable of estimating the age of the Universe and it’s own insignificance by comparison
  • Various Cassandras caution against piping up and they maintain radio silence.

The further back you go, the better the odds are for the intelligence involved – there has been less time before them for a superior intelligence to emerge.

But it only takes one superior, hostile, unknown (and maybe unknowable) intelligence to suddenly discover you scrumping apples from their galactic orchard, and you’re picking the shotgun pellets out of your arse.

So each civilisation realises that piping up is risky, given the chances are that they are preceded by others, and silence and isolation is the result.

And we’re all crouching up our own trees.