Slow Galactic Colonization, Zoo Hypothesis and the Fermi Paradox

I couldn’t resist posting this today after reading it at Centauri Dreams. It’s extremely mainstream, by which the papers Paul Gilster discusses uses geological travel times for interstellar travel and the effects on the Fermi Paradox.

But he talks about the “zoo” hypothesis for our supposed lack of contact with ETIs ( no discussion of UFOs what-so-ever of course ) and I find that fascinating:

[...]

Many explanations for the Fermi paradox exist, but Hair and Hedman want to look at the possibility that starflight is so long and difficult that it takes vast amounts of time (measured in geologic epochs) to colonize on the galactic scale. Given that scenario, large voids within the colonized regions may still persist and remain uninhabited. If the Earth were located inside one of these voids we would not be aware of the extraterrestrial expansion. A second possibility is that starflight is so hard to achieve that other civilizations have simply not had time to reach us despite having, by some calculations, as much as 5 billion years to have done so (the latter figure comes from Charles Lineweaver, and I’ll have more to say about it in a moment).

Image: A detailed view of part of the disc of the spiral galaxy NGC 4565. Have technological civilizations had time enough to spread through an entire galaxy, and if so, would they be detectable? Credit: ESA/NASA.

The authors work with an algorithm that allows modeling of the expansion from the original star, running through iterations that allow emigration patterns to be analyzed in light of these prospects. It turns out that in 250 iterations, covering 250,000 years, a civilization most likely to emigrate will travel about 500 light years, for a rate of expansion that is approximately one-fourth of the maximum travel speed of one percent of the speed of light, the conservative figure chosen for this investigation. A civilization would spread through the galaxy in less than 50 million years.

These are striking numbers. Given five billion years to work with, the first civilization to develop starfaring capabilities could have colonized the Milky Way not one but 100 times. The idea that it takes billions of years to accomplish a galaxy-wide expansion fails the test of this modeling. Moreover, the idea of voids inside colonized space fails to explain the Fermi paradox as well:

…while interior voids exist at lower values of c initially, most large interior voids become colonized after long periods regardless of the cardinal value chosen, leaving behind only relatively small voids. In an examination of several 250 Kyr models with a wide range of parameters, the largest interior void encountered was roughly 30 light years in diameter. Since humans have been broadcasting radio since the early 20th century and actively listening to radio signals from space since 1960 (Time 1960), it is highly unlikely that the Earth is located in a void large enough to remain undiscovered to the present day. It follows that the second explanation of Fermi’s Paradox (Landis 1998) is not supported by the model presented.

There are mitigating factors that can slow down what the authors call the ‘explosively exponential nature’ of expansion, in which a parent colony produces daughter colonies and the daughters continue to do the same ad infinitum. The paper’s model suggests that intense competition for new worlds can spring up in the expanding wavefront of colonization. At the same time, moving into interior voids to fill them with colonies slows the outward expansion. But even models set up to reduce competition between colonies present the same result: Fermi’s lunchtime calculations seem to be valid, and the fact that we do not see evidence of other civilizations suggests that this kind of galactic expansion has not yet taken place.

Temporal Dispersion into the Galaxy

I can’t discuss Hair and Hedman’s work without reference to Hair’s earlier paper on the expansion of extraterrestrial civilizations over time. Tom had sent me this one in 2011 and I worked it into the Centauri Dreams queue before getting sidetracked by preparations for the 100 Year Starship symposium in Orlando. If I had been on the ball, I would have run an analysis of Tom’s paper at the time, but the delay gives me the opportunity to consider the two papers together, which turns out to work because they are a natural fit.

For you can see that Hair’s spatial analysis goes hand in glove with the question of why an extraterrestrial intelligence might avoid making its presence known. Given that models of expansion point to a galaxy that can be colonized many times over before humans ever emerged on our planet, let’s take up a classic answer to the Fermi paradox, that the ‘zoo hypothesis’ is in effect, a policy of non-interference in local affairs for whatever reason. Initially compelling, the idea seems to break down under close examination, given that it only takes one civilization to act contrary to it.

But there is one plausible scenario that allows the zoo hypothesis to work: The influence of a particularly distinguished civilization. Call it the first civilization. What sort of temporal head start would this first civilization have over later arrivals?

Hair uses Monte Carlo simulations, drawing on the work of Charles Lineweaver and the latter’s estimate that planets began forming approximately 9.3 billion years ago. Using Earth as a model and assuming that life emerged here about 600 million years after formation, we get an estimate of 8.7 billion years ago for the appearance of the first life in the Milky Way. Factoring in how long it took for complex land-dwelling organisms to evolve (3.7 billion years), Lineweaver concludes that the conditions necessary to support intelligent life in the universe could have been present for at least 5.0 billion years. At some point in that 5 billion years, if other intelligent species exist, the first civilization arose. Hair’s modeling goes to work on how long this civilization would have had to itself before other intelligence emerged. The question thus has Fermi implications:

…even if this first grand civilization is long gone . . . could their initial legacy live on in the form of a passed down tradition? Beyond this, it does not even have to be the first civilization, but simply the first to spread its doctrine and control over a large volume of the galaxy. If just one civilization gained this hegemony in the distant past, it could form an unbroken chain of taboo against rapacious colonization in favour of non-interference in those civilizations that follow. The uniformity of motive concept previously mentioned would become moot in such a situation.

Thus the Zoo Hypothesis begins to look a bit more plausible if we have each subsequent civilization emerging into a galaxy monitored by a vastly more ancient predecessor who has established the basic rules for interaction between intelligent species. The details of Hair’s modeling are found in the paper, but the conclusions are startling, at least to me:

The time between the emergence of the first civilization within the Milky Way and all subsequent civilizations could be enormous. The Monte Carlo data show that even using a crowded galaxy scenario the first few inter-arrival times are similar in length to geologic epochs on Earth. Just what could a civilization do with a ten million, one hundred million, or half billion year head start (Kardashev 1964)? If, for example, civilizations uniformly arise within the Galactic Habitable Zone, then on these timescales the first civilization would be able to reach the solar system of the second civilization long before it evolved even travelling at a very modest fraction of light speed (Bracewell 1974, 1982; Freitas 1980). What impact would the arrival of the first civilization have on the future evolution of the second civilization? Would the second civilization even be allowed to evolve? Attempting to answer these questions leads to one of two basic conclusions, the first is that we are alone in the Galaxy and thus no one has passed this way, and the second is that we are not alone in the Galaxy and someone has passed this way and then deliberately left us alone.

The zoo hypothesis indeed. A galactic model of non-interference is a tough sell because of the assumed diversity between cultures emerging on a vast array of worlds over time. But Hair’s ‘modified zoo hypothesis’ has great appeal. It assumes that the oldest civilization in the galaxy has a 100 million year head start, allowing it to become hugely influential in monitoring or perhaps controlling emerging civilizations. We would thus be talking about the possibility of evolving similar cultural standards with regard to contact as civilizations follow the lead of this assumed first intelligence when expanding into the galaxy. It’s an answer to Fermi that holds out hope we are not alone, and I’ll count that as still another encouraging thought on the day the world didn’t end.

I have a problem with this simply because of the economics involved; what is the motivation for ETIs to expand into the Universe to begin with?

Like, are they like humans in the sense that we go because “it’s there?”

Or are there more practical impulses involved like “can we make money” on these endeavors?

A commentor to this particular post wrote that before we colonize ( if we ever do ) the Moon, Mars and other planets in this Solar System ( and perhaps the closer stars ) that it’ll be cheaper to shoot small probes with micro cameras to these places ( NASA is already proposing sending tele-operated probes to the Lunar surface instead of astronauts ) and sell virtual reality tours. Expanded versions of Google Earth and Google Mars!

In other words, it’s cheaper to build Universes that have Star Trek and upload your mind into it than actually building such things as star-ships!

Could this be an answer to the Fermi Paradox?

New Models of Galactic Expansion

4 responses

  1. The Fermi Paradox is invalid because it considers only the extremes of possibility: EITHER they are here (1), OR they don’t exist (0). And how often is truth found in an extreme? The truth will be found somewhere between them.

    1. An extraterrestrial would only need to keep its activity anecdotal in order to elude scientists, since science in incapable of dealing with phenomena that don’t repeat. In this sense, science is a very weak tool where advanced beings might be concerned, since all they would have to do to keep their anonymity is make sure they didn’t do the same thing twice or repeatedly. Add to this the “Cry Wolf” factor, and it should be nearly impossible to slip up, which means that in order to make any real waves here they would have to do something so gross and obvious as to remove all doubt about their existence. But they’re not that stupid or sloppy (alas!). Peoples’ threshold for intelligent nonhuman activity has been raised incredibly high by UFOs and the like, all of which do a fine job of being impenetrable to us, assuming ANY of this is evidence of extraterrestrial intelligence/activity.

  2. I agree Robert, especially the “they don’t exist” meme.
    We need to learn how to identify stellar engineering projects. Maybe the SKA could find such things?

  3. [...] While by no means is this is a new theory, ( note the Jules Verne story ), it presents the scenario of the very slow spreading of intelligent biological life through-out the Galaxy ( see Slow Galactic Colonization, Zoo Hypothesis and the Fermi Paradox ). [...]

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