Monday, June 4, 2012

Big, Long, and Pointless... An Ode to Pagelism

DisclaimerThis post is long and pointless. It’s to answer points brought up by Briane Pagel in a comment to something I had posted elsewhere on the internet. Yes, a post so self-referential only I, and maybe Briane, will be able to follow. Do yourselves a favor and stop reading. It’s really that boring. You won’t hurt my feelings.

Enrico Fermi was considered by many contemporaries as, perhaps, the smartest man alive during his time as a citizen of earth. He certainly had a reputation as being the quickest wit in the western world. The guy was no dummy.

Briane Pagel is also no dummy. And he and Fermi are is a disagreement regarding what, ironically, might end up being Fermi’s lasting contribution to pop culture (Not many folks can name off Fermi’s scientific contributions). It’s a shame, but that’s just how it works.

So, since that mega-mind of insight can no longer defend himself, I have to take it upon myself to do so in his behalf. That’s a little like Lois Lane protecting Superman I suppose. But, she must have been doing something right because she did have her very own comic book for a while, so if I were to stretch this analogy well beyond its breaking point, that means I might not be capable of a real defense but that won’t stop me from being in the middle of things anyway. I hope my time spent in the 90’s as a semi-professional internet debater will allow me to out argue Briane, the ever famous lawyer who has successfully sued to have more blue M&M’s per package (he didn’t actually do that, but he could have). I plan to mask my ignorance with name calling and subtle misdirections.

Where are all the humans?
I made my peace with that part of me a long time ago. It’s how I win disagreements. It’s all I’ve got.

Anyhow, about a year ago I wrote a brief blog post about the Fermi Paradox for author Stephen Tremp’s blog. Last week he reposted it on the A-Z challenge blog as part of his ongoing series about aliens. When Mr Briane Pagel, esquire, mentioned to me on Twitter that he is scared of my super spider of doom that I put up last week, I told him to please check out my post over at the A-Z blog.

And boy, he sure did. After reading, he went on to look at each of my points made there to try to explain why there is no paradox. Which, whether he means to or not, indicates that I’ve wasted a whole lot of my brainpower over the years (*ahem* decades) thinking about a paradox that doesn’t exist.

In case you’re wonder what that paradox is we’re discussing, it’s the conundrum surrounding the lack of alien invasions humanity has experienced… you’ll just have to go find my original post if you really want more.

So, according to Braine, I could have been putting my not-so-considerable mental might towards combating disease, or thinking about the mystery of the circle… instead, it’s all wasted – much like that time I wasted the better part of a year exploring this riddle:

Three weary travelers stop by an inn one night, looking for lodging. They ask the innkeeper for a room to share. The innkeeper charges them $30 for the room. Each man contributes $10.

Then men make their way to their single room, and the innkeeper chuckles because he’s made money off the imbeciles, the room was supposed to be $25 dollars.

Stop me if you’ve heard this one… anyone?


Well, the innkeep’s wife discovered his deceit, and forced her wicked husband to return the $5 dollars he stole. The innkeeper, as well as being a crook, was also bad with math, and didn’t know how he could split the five dollars three ways.

So the wicked, greedy man, slipped $2 into his pocket and knocked on the men’s room. He proudly told them that they received the group rate and the cost of the room was only $9 per person. He hands them each a dollar refund and walks away, happy that he’s made them happy, and happy that he’s made his wife happy, and happy that he’s made himself happy.

Except, there was just one little thing.

Each man ended up paying $9 for their share – for a total of $27.

He had $2 in his pocket.

That’s $29… There is a dollar missing. Where did that missing dollar go?

Okay, now where was I? Oh yes, Briane thinks I’m wasting my time thinking about the mysteries of the universe. He made many, many points, several of which I’m sure are red herrings, intended to wear me out should I go through them one at a time. Of course, that makes me want to do just that.

Just remember, my goal isn’t to win - it’s to prove he’s wrong. Wait, that didn’t come out right. I mean, my goal is to demonstrate why I disagree with his logic.

Pagel point #1: Pagel admires me for thinking about ‘this stuff.’

My Rebut: That sounds suspiciously like my mother, who admires me for my willingness to continue to draw pictures of men who wear capes and pirate boots during my spare time, despite the fact that I’m a middle aged man. Yes, quite admirable.

Pagel point #2: Humans arose 2.7 million years ago.

My Rebut: Paul Simon might not be the most rigorously scientific lyricist. I appreciate that he wrote Call me Al and I love that song. So I am all for giving him respect. However, the range of dates for when humans first appear (meaning something like modern humans, that have a cranial capacity that is more or less indistinguishable from our own) is around 200,000- 400,000 years ago. That’s just morphologically indistinguishable from modern humans, things like cave paintings, jewelry, trinkets (like those ugly, headless, fertility goddesses) they all show up between 30k – 50k years ago. Some folks think that’s when we really started developing language and the ability to discuss abstract concepts, a key component in intelligence. Since Briane seems to be basing a lot of his argument on that date… it’s feels like it would be significant to point out that 2.7 million years seems to be pretty arbitrary.

Pagel point #3: Life arose 2.7 million years ago.

My Rebut: Sigh. Paul Simon again? Dammit, quit using his song lyrics like they’re science textbooks.  I didn’t pass calculus by memorizing the lyrics to Wake up, Little Susie. Unless your point is that humans arose at the same moment that life itself did, I’m not sure if I follow here. Did you mean to say that?

Again, the dates for Life on earth go back at least to the oldest rocks we’ve found. The story that most often gets told by sciency types (that means actual scientists, not singer/songwriters) is that as soon as the earth cooled enough for the rocks to solidify, something was living there.

Now that’s interesting, and it does lead to making assumptions.

Like, for just under 4 billion years (that’s billion with a ‘B’ in front, not an ‘M’) of things living on earth and we’ve only been unequivocally human for maybe 40,000. We’ve only had enough understanding of how the universe works in order to send a hunk of metal into orbit in the past 50 years.

So I agree with his larger point. Being toolmakers that are interested in math, science, radio dishes, and spaceships, is not inevitable. Steven J Gould fought hard to fight the common belief that intelligence is the inevitable conclusion of evolution. His take (which I agree with) is that intelligence is more of an experiment (not a guided one, it’s just a form of speech he used). His point that instead of nature investing all of its resources into making us faster, stronger, armor plated, better at hiding, etc., it made us smarter. In our case, it worked. It worked so well that it makes sense to think that if it happened before, at any time, we’d see evidence of that in the fossil record.

But after Briane’s conversation about the Drake equation a few weeks ago, that might be enough of a clue about how the universe works (regarding the emergence of intelligence) to put a tentative number in that part of the equation (if a planet that has life on it, what is the likely hood it will develop technology? Why, that would be once every four billion years).

Pagel point #4: Conditions for life have not been optimal for much of the time of the universe.

This point which actually was made before points 2 and 3, but I skipped this and am coming back to it now.

I do follow, common wisdom is that Sol is a third generation star. That means that the first stars formed, blowed up, then next generation stars formed, which included a lot more stuff than simple hydrogen and a bit of helium. Second gen stars had traces of heavy elements, and third gen stars had way more.

Continuing to follow that old wisdom, first gen stars probably wouldn’t have planets, well, they wouldn’t have rocky planets. Any life that might have arisen during this time wouldn’t have the raw materials they needed to build stuff (well, and there would have been a real lack of much of anything outside of Hydrogen, Helium, and just a touch of Lithium).

But the lifetimes of those first generation stars were relatively short when compared to second and third gen. Second gen stars could have had rocky worlds, and could have something vaguely earthlike arising billions of years before our solar system formed. It wouldn’t have to happen frequently, we’re just talking about it happening at all - anywhere.

And by anywhere, I mean, there are a few hundred billion stars in the Milky Way alone. We know that out of the only solar system we’ve explored (our own) intelligent life showed up at least once. If we start playing a numbers game again that puts the odds of intelligent life showing up at about once for every 8 planets (if we can watch them for 4 billion years).

I’m relatively confident that I’m several orders of magnitude off in that calculation, but whatever. The point is that science makes assumptions, too, assumptions that many people don’t like, but these are just default assumptions that get made when there is a severe lack of data on a subject (for example, if we find microbial life on Venus, Mars, Europa, Titan and Enceladus  - all of which some scientists think is a real possibility, then we have to change our assumptions to match (once in four billion years no longer seems accurate if life has existed in those other places that long and we aren’t seeing their equivalent to Gilligan’s Island reruns, so we have to assume they’re not that smart. So our odds of intelligence emerging on planets with life on them drop to one out of six (per four billion years) – and we could probably note that life only appears on bodies between the sizes of Enceladus and Earth – we can ignore the gas giants, but then we’d have to include moons, figure out if the appearance of water is the common factor, of just a soluble liquid that can serve as a medium for chemistry to take place.


Or whatever, that’s just with info from our solar system. What about all those extra solar planets that keep turning up? Again, the more data we can collect, the more confidence we can have in our assumptions.

One of those assumptions, and the most important one for us here today, is called the Copernican principal. The reason it’s important is that it makes the assumption that whatever we observe about a phenomena is probably not unusual.

It’s like, if I traveled to northern Arizona and saw a McDonald’s, if I were to order a hamburger there I can assume that it will serve as an indicator of what a hamburger purchased at an Idaho McDonald’s would be like.

It’s an assumption, but that assumption is that when we observe something, like our solar system, that we are not seeing something terribly uncommon. Assumptions aren’t bad things in of themselves; it’s assuming that things are uncommon without bothering to check to see if those assumptions are valid that leads to funky conclusions.

If Briane wanted to dive into my analogy and tear it apart, he could. Analogies only really work as illustrative tools – they tend to fall apart if examined closely. But since we’re talking about McDonalds burgers, he might question why we would assume that there were any other McDonalds anywhere else in the universe if we only know of one. And that is a good point. Or he could argue that other McDonald’s are extremely similar in form and function, and use that to point out his idea about all intelligent life in the cosmos being at the same technological place in their development. And that would be another good point. But again, the idea is for you to see what I want you to see, not what he wants you to. And that also shows why using analogy to explain things isn’t always a good idea.

Why did I go on like that? I forgot what point I was trying to make. So I actually agree with his statement thatthe laws of physics and chemistry are the same throughout the cosmos – But that doesn’t mean that all life in the universe started at the exact same time 2.7 million years ago and all life followed an identical evolutionary path – again, to assume that is the case is surely some sort of logical fallacy. I know that’s the way Star Trek implies it goes, but I don’t buy it. I mean, here on earth, we’ve got people that live in societies that are little changed from what they were like ten thousand years ago. But we also have people that live in outer space too. That’s a great deal of disparity between folks of the same species. It doesn’t follow that an entirely alien society would be on par with us. If fact, that would be surprising in the extreme.

I’d be much more comfortable with some sort of universal law that said once a species discovers quantum theory they blow themselves up in a nuclear disaster, or a nano-bots run amok scenario.

I know there were other points he made, especially the one about the island hopping pacific islanders – and that’s something I’d really like to explore in some detail, but I can’t now, because A) I don’t like arguing analogies for reasons I stated before, and B) because I mostly don’t have the time. Mostly, it’s B. Actually, it’s entirely B. In fact, I’m tempted to say reason A is a lie. But that’s such a strong word, I think I’ll stick to saying that it’s a reason I don’t want to talk about it, but it’s really not.

Hell, working on this post in starts and stops for several days and I’ve ended up skipping over tons of stuff I would have liked to have said – but since they would require me actually looking stuff up I decided to leave them alone. Yes, I would have gone on for much, much longer, had I only had the time/desire/motivation/lack-of-laziness.

However, I'll unfairly end with this - the pacific islander analogy was the right one to use - Fermi didn't use that one, I did. Although I'm sure I stole it from somebody. But I've totally ran out of gas... I would love to go over this in more detail, so Briane, feel free to call start a series on these... I'll give you a guest post if you want.

In conclusion, I disagree with Briane’s disagreement of my original post, but I choose not to truly articulate why because of the $29 dollar riddle I mentioned earlier. Because, the point of that riddle is that if you read it and you don’t think it’s a paradox, then you need to go back and read it over and over until it stops making sense.


Andrew Leon said...

It's easy; the wife ended up with the missing dollar. Kind of like what happens with socks in the dryer.

As for the island hopping... well, let's put it like this, some of those people sat on those islands for 1000 years before someone else came along, and that was just in dealing with travelling on our own planet. Maybe there are other races out there doing their own hopping around, but we're still in out "1000 years." Or, maybe, we really are unique.

The real issue is not getting stuck on a particular idea and being open to change as we discover new data.

Lara Schiffbauer said...

Returning to reading blogs after the last month of laser-focused editing, I have to say: That's a hell of a spider, So sorry for that burn (ouch!), and you and Briane boggle my mind. I think it's so cool you guys even think about stuff like this post. :)

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

I won't go into the depth of what you two discussed. I'll just stick with what I believe. And since I am a Christian, you probably have a good idea what that implies.

Jo said...

I think you have some valid points. Although someone pointed out that island hopping on earth was only done by a few people, not the whole of the human race. I liked your point about the discrepancies between people living the same way forever and others living in space.

Rick said...

Obviously both of your attempts at science are skewed by your mutual inattention to the Weekly World News, which is, in fact, the universe's only coherent presentation of facts.

And frankly, if Fermi were all that bright he would not have been twice rejected by them as a cub reporter.

No wonder neither of you are invited to parties. Alien invasions occur regularly in repeatable, predictable cycles if you properly combine the geometry of crop circles with the call letters of any popular FM station.

And if I may add, the Copernican theory is irrelevant in most ways and in others is like the old saying "Too much string theory ties you in knots."

Trisha said...


I'd never think your brain power was wasted on this kind of thing - I certainly don't have the kind of brain that can think about it, so I'm glad there are people like you out there who can do all that thinking for me!

I think about other things instead, like fluffy bunnies and chocolate and the sheer pointlessness of existence :)

Anonymous said...

You just made me do math... on paper. I hate you, Rusty. You just lost coolness points with me! LOL

Don't let anyone tell you you're wasting their time. They can go pound sand!

Deborah Walker said...

I'm confused. Are there aliens or not? They certainly crop up in my stories often enough, so they've got to be real, right?

Brinda said...

I sat down to this masterpiece with the full intention of taking notes and passing the quiz. I found no quiz at the end. I'll admit that my head began to hurt around the hotel room algebra question. I could not figure out when the trains might pass in this tale or if there might suddenly be a goose, fox, and a bag of corn on the side of a riverbank. Anyway, I missed the guest post at Tremps and must find it because you left no link and I have very little brain power left after reading. :)

Rusty Webb said...

@ Andrew - You're right. Bottom line is that we all want to know if aliens, intelligent, ray gun making, spaceship flying, sort of guys are out there. IF they are, we can't find them. Which calls into question some of the assumptions I was talking about.

@ Lara - that'a pretty much all I think about. My wife certainly doesn't appreciate it when I want to talk about this kind of stuff at a romantic dinner. It's not always such a great thing.

@ Alex - well said, sir.

@ Jo - thanks for stopping by, actually that point you raised about only few people island hopping is very good. That is part of the conundrum, every alien doesn't have to go colonizing the galaxy... just one species does it and we should see it. It's a long story. Maybe I'll have to do a real post about it later.

@ Trisha - I'm glad you're glad that I think about it. Now if I can only convince my wife it's worth so much of my time.

@ Kim - so sorry it's been so long since I visited. Thanks for stopping by today. I've never bothered to whip out a piece of paper before. That's innovative thinking on that riddle.

PT Dilloway, Superhero Author said...

Huh, that riddle is going to mess me up all day. I mean if you work it with subtraction it makes sense (30-2-3=25) but if as you say you work it forward then it would be (3*9=27+2=29) which just proves it's easier sometimes to go backward than forward.

I think when we talk about aliens our biggest misconception is thinking they'll be like us. That's how it's always presented in Star Trek and the like, though mostly that's for budgetary reasons. Really "life" can develop in just about any way on another planet from amoebas to humanoids to creatures that are pure energy or purely gaseous.

The only thing I won't accept is that we're alone in the universe. The universe is much too big for humans to be the only "intelligent" life out there. Like Tommy Lee Jones said in the first MIB movie, "500 years ago we KNEW the Earth was flat" and however the rest of that goes. The point being a lot of those assumptions we make end up getting tossed out once new evidence is discovered.

The truth is out there! We'll just probably never find it and it probably won't find us either. Again it's a big universe.

Rusty Webb said...

@PT – I took that riddle to a few people I thought should know over the years. And yes, the problem can be worked to the correct solution if you subtract, but common sense – and the way I was taught arithmetic – say I should be able to solve the problem either way. The closest thing I ever got to an answer was from my calc prof who eventually said something along the lines of, “Math ain’t perfect.” Maybe I should have taken that to a philosophy prof instead. I wonder if that would have given me a more satisfying answer.

Anyhow, I think the question of how like us would aliens be is something that most common folk might not think about, but SETI folks are pretty familiar with that problem. They are pretty open about the fact that they are looking for something LIKE US in a few regards: They will have to be the tool making, math capable sort of aliens. That’s what they are looking for.

Because, really, that’s how we think of intelligence, and it’s my belief, really, that the real goal isn’t to find a new kind of thing we can make belts or boots out of, but instead find something we can talk to. Although the methods SETI uses is scientific, and the tools used to determine success or failure are scientific, the underlying compulsion to even bother with the search is more religious than anything.

And I’m okay with that. It’s those fundamental questions that are most interesting, even if coming up with meaningful answers are impossible, or in this case, really hard.

Anyway, the larger question I think I have, and probably SETI types have, and the real crux of the Fermi Paradox, is: Where are the aliens I can have a conversation with? Our assumptions (again with the assumptions) about how life works, about the universe, leads many to think the universe should have things in it enough like us that we can communicate, and based on some mathematical models of expansion, we should have even had visitors by now.

The logic is something I think anyone can follow, but the chain that goes from A-B is really long, and has a lot of steps. Seth Shostak (big time SETI scientist) says that he thinks we don’t need to revisit our assumptions for errors just yet – but if we don’t see some success with SETI in the next couple of decades (I can’t recall how long exactly) then we will have looked at enough possibilities to begin thinking we’ve missed a step somewhere in our logic train.

Briane P said...

Wow. Between you and Andrew, you're killing me today. I've got a brief to do. I sit down to eat my pizza for lunch (at 10:30, I told Sweetie I'd never make it to lunch time, and I didn't even make it to MY lunchtime, which is 11:00) and I read this and I have to sigh and take up the gauntlet...

...we should make this a series of posts, because I have been reading about Fermi's paradox since reading your well-written article; I've been reading it while I read everything else I read, and it's made me think a lot, mostly about how scientists are wronger than ever about "assumptions".

So here's two quick thoughts:

Actually three:

@Alex: I'm a Christian, too. I believe a lot of what I learned about in the Bible. I don't think that excludes the possibility of intelligent life on other planets. A: We only have OUR story; why would God bother telling people about other planets' stories. B: The Bible may not be 100% accurate. My love for God makes me more certain, not less, that the Universe is a strange and wondrous place in which we are not alone.

As for evolution: it doesn't work on specific lines. Evolution is random, driven by sexual reproduction combining genes in random ways (which is why males exist). When a new combination of genes works well, it tends to create more variations on that combination that keep on going. When it doesn't work well, it dies off.

So dolphins haven't developed many tools yet, because they don't need to: they've filled their niche pretty well, but to the extent that dolphins find intelligence very helpful to their continued survival, dolphins are probably getting smarter and smarter.

Evolution may or may not exist on other planets at all; evolution is in part driven by changing environments. If an environment is static, evolution may cease. So life may have evolved to the caveman stage on other planets and then not needed to evolve beyond that -- that's yet another possibility that scientists don't seem to be thinking about as I read up on Fermi's thoughts.

As for the math problem: The paradox arises solely from the order of operations. Remember that we do math left to right, excepting that things in parentheses need to be worked out first, and then we do multiplication, and then division, and then addition, and then subtraction... left to right.

So when you reverse that flow, you need to reverse the entire equation, not simply do it backwards, because doing it backwards reverses ALL OF MATH: When the Farmer gives the money back, that's a new equation; saying that you're simply reversing it is to say "I"m going to go right to left and then do subtraction and then addition and then division and then multiplication and then parentheses and see what happens!" and expect the same answer.

It's as if you took a sentence and completely reversed it and expected it to make sense:

:esnes ekam ot ti detcepxe dna ti deserver yletelpmoc dna ecnetnes a koot uoy if sa s'tI.

Those two sentences are not the same thing, and your farmer taking the money and giving it back aren't the same equation. You've successfully compared apples to oranges and confused a lot of people. But me? I know my apples, and I know my oranges, and I am going to finish my brief and eat pizza.

But I will address this all on some post at some point, and we can make this a thing, because I respect your intelligence. You've made me think, which I vowed never to do.

Briane P said...

Also: I love the title. I take it personally, which is why I love it.

Andrew Leon said...

Well, the other assumption there is that we haven't already been visited. And I don't mean crop circles and probing, either. Like with the island hopping analogy, how do we know aliens did not stop by our island at some time in the past and just keep going because we weren't of any real interest to them at that point? Or we've just forgotten because we didn't recognize them for what they were and it's just become myth and legend?
But, really, assuming that life developed here as soon as it was possible to do so, and scientists usually make that assumption, and life developed anywhere else as soon as it was able to do so, I think we're just in that 1000 year time period of living on our island all alone.

lizy-expat-writer said...

Well, I did as instructed and jumped to the end, only to discover 15 other people thought it worth reading, so I shall come back and have another look when I'm too bored to do anything else!

Andrew Leon said...

You and your math language stuff prompted a comment in response to Briane on my current post.

The Golden Eagle said...

This post may be long, but I'd say it wasn't pointless. Now you've got me thinking hard.

M Pax said...

Hardly boring ... Why wouldn't they visit us? For all the reasons you mentioned, and it's a big galaxy. Not only that, our star is dim and not easy to see outside our solar system.

We have yet to figure out how to get past the Moon and spend large amounts of time in space -- the whole gravity thing.

And now that we have come to the age where maybe we can figure such things out, resources run low. And ever growing population puts stress on the planet ... Perhaps other worlds have run into this same paradox. Shrug.

I believe other life it out there.