Black Hole Sun, redux: are supercivs sucking at the event horizon?

Paul Raven @ 06-06-2011

Via Sentient Developments, here’s some brainfood for them as likes their high-concept cosmological hard SF. Y’know how SETI has yet to locate any alien civilisational traces by looking for large-scale exploitation of stellar energy sources? Well, perhaps they’re looking in the wrong cupboard; a new paper from Clement Vidal of the Evolution, Complexity and Cognition group at the Vrije Universiteit Brussel posits that black holes are the ideal energy source for an ultra-advanced civilisation, and that our own universe might actually be “a science fair project of an entity from an exo-universe”:

Energy-hungry galactic empires might skip tapping stellar energy and simply go to extracting energy from black holes. These collapsed islands of space-time are the universe’s ultimate Energizer Bunnies. They are far more efficient at converting mass to energy than are the fusion engines of stars.

But more than that, says Vidal, is the ability to control the microcosm as well. Today we can manipulate individual atoms via nanotechnology. But advanced alien physicists would tinker with elementary particles and the very structure of space-time itself.

Having mastered control over space-time, a super-civilization might want to fabricate their own black holes for a variety of tasks: waste disposal, starship propulsion, hyper-computing, maybe even time travel.

On the macro-scale, super-civilizations might re-engineer stars using black holes. The quest for immortality beyond a star’s lifetime would be a big motivation.

Suppose extraterrestrials manufacture a black hole to accrete material from a burned-out star, a white dwarf. This would provide abundant energy beyond the star’s fusion-burning stage.

It may be impossible to define sensawunda, but I can sure as hell point it out when I see it. *points*

Black hole sun: is there life beyond the event horizon?

Paul Raven @ 11-04-2011

A bit of light reading for the hard sf and cosmology geeks in the audience; via Next Big Future, arXiv has a paper which argues that life – indeed, even complex civilisations – may “inhabit the interiors of supermassive black holes, being invisible from the outside and basking in the light of the central singularity and orbital photons”. Stephen Baxter and Greg Egan, eat your hearts out. 🙂

A little closer to home (and also via Next Big Future), there’s a new start-up kicking around in Silicon Valley. Which isn’t news in itself, of course, but rather than designing the latest portable device or niche-focussed social network, MoonEx has scored a NASA contract that could be worth US$10m with a business model based on building autonomous robotic rovers designed to mine the Moon’s regolith for the increasingly rare metallic elements that our electronic systems depend upon. No doubt they’ll be keeping a close eye on SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy.

[ Any Monday in which you can squeeze a Soundgarden song into a post title is, by definition, a good day. ]

The Galactic Area Network

Paul Raven @ 29-06-2010

The wonderfully named John Learned of the University of Hawaii theorises that alien intelligences could use Cepheid variable stars as nodes on a sort of intragalactic communications network [via @spacearcheology, who retweeted @swadeshine]:

Jolting the star with a kick of energy – possibly by shooting it with a beam of high-energy particles called neutrinos – could advance the pulsation by causing its core to heat up and expand, they say.

That could shorten its brightness cycle – just as an electric stimulus to a human heart at the right time can advance a heartbeat. The normal and shortened cycles could be used to encode binary “0”s and “1”s.

The team says information could thus be shuttled around our galaxy’s network of 500 or so Cepheids – and out as far as the Virgo cluster of galaxies.

Because a civilisation capable of such engineering feats would be sure to turn them to the task of… er, using stars as Morse keys. This guy has made exactly the mistake that Sam Vaknin was on about.

The Ten Errors of Science Fiction

Paul Raven @ 28-06-2010

Ladies and gentlemen, start your engines – nothing tends to rile science fiction folk so much as folk from outside the ghetto loudly pronouncing that OMFG UR DOIN IT RONG, and this piece by Dr Sam Vaknin should provide great fodder for some hard sf advocacy and righteous ire. So fetch your popcorn, kids, as we find out the ten hidden and fallacious assumptions about extraterrestrials in science fiction!

In all works of science fiction, there are ten hidden assumptions regarding alien races. None of these assumptions is a necessity. None of them makes immanent or inevitable sense. Yet, when we read a sci-fi novel or watch a sci-fi movie we tend to accept all of them as inescapable. They amount to a frame of reference and to a language without which we seem to be unable to relate to all manner of exobiology. We evidently believe that life on Earth is a representative sample and that we can extrapolate its properties and mechanisms of action wide and far across the Universe. The principles of symmetry, isotropy, and homogeneity apply to the physical cosmos: Hydrogen behaves identically in our local galactic neighbourhood as it does in the furthest reaches of the Cosmos. Why shouldn’t life be the same?

“In all works of science fiction”? Vaknin must have a whole lot of reading time on his hands…

Snark aside, Vaknin’s major FAIL here is the classic outsider’s misconception of sf, namely that it’s supposed to be taken literally rather than allegorically*. In other words, he’s quite right in that sf makes assumptions about alien life, but quite wrong in thinking that it matters to sf’s function as a form of entertainment**. Put it this way: if you read science fiction for the pleasure (rather than as a stand-in for a doctorate in exobiology, say), I’d guess there’s a 95% chance Vaknin’s article is a classic case of TL;DR. SETI geeks with time on their hands may get a kick from it, though.

Anyway, George Dvorsky takes Vaknin at something closer to face value than I have the time, expertise or motivation to pull off, and manages to do a pretty good job of popping his tyres:

Sure, I agree that ETIs may be dramatically different than what we can imagine and that they may exist outside of expected paradigms, but until our exoscience matures we should probably err on the side of the self-sampling assumption and figure that the ignition and evolution of life tends to follow a similar path to the one taken on Earth. Now, I’m not suggesting that we refrain from hypothesizing about radically different existence-states; I’m just saying that these sorts of extraordinary claims (like alternative intelligences spawning different quantum realities) require the requisite evidence. It’s far too easy to fantasize about some kind of energy-based hive-mind living in the core of asteroids, it’s another thing to prove that such a thing could come about through the laws of physics [my example, not Vaknin’s].


Nice try, Vaknin, but the Great Silence problem is more complex than what you’ve laid out.

For all my bitching above, I do actually find things like the Fermi Paradox and the Great Silence to be lots of fun to think about. If you’re looking for an accessible introduction to the idea (and some of the hypotheses presented as solutions), Dvorsky’s blog is a good place to start… but I’d also recommend the book Where Is Everybody? by Stephen Webb, which is full of great starter seeds for Baxterian space opera stories.

[ * Yeah, yeah, hard sf is driven by scientific rigour and plausibility, sure, but it’s still stories told by humans about what it’s like – or may at some point in the future be like – to be a human in a big confusing universe; even Watts’ Blindsight speaks to the human condition and the state of our understanding of life in the universe more than it does the raw facts we have regarding life in the universe, and that’s about as hard an sf novel as I’ve ever read. You can argue that rigidly hard sf (factual to the detriment of story) is the apogee of the genre if you like, but you’d be wrong. ]

[ ** An essay deconstructing the false assumptions made about gender and race in science fiction, however, would be something worth writing, because humans are the true subject of human literature, even when they’re not the subject that takes the limelight on center stage. False assumptions about people need taking apart far more urgently than false assumptions about hypothetical beings we may never meet, IMHO. ]

Hawking advocates radio silence to avoid colonial alien incursions

Paul Raven @ 27-04-2010

Stephen Hawking is doing the promo rounds at the moment (hey, the guy has a new TV show to plug, you know how it goes), and his latest riff is that SETI is a risky business. After all, the arrival of Columbus didn’t work out to well for the indigenous peoples of the Americas, AMIRITE?

Hawking believes we would be well-advised to keep the volume down on our intergalactic chatter and do all we can to prevent any “nomadic” aliens moseying our way to take a look-see. Should they find us here tucked away in the inner reaches of the solar system, chances are they’d zap us all and pillage any resources they could get their hands on. Our own history, says Hawking, proves that first encounters very rarely begin: “Do take a seat. I’ll pop the kettle on. Milk? Sugar?”

“Such advanced aliens would perhaps become nomads, looking to conquer and colonise whatever planets they can reach,” says the theoretical physicist […] “To my mathematical brain, the numbers alone make thinking about aliens perfectly rational. The real challenge is to work out what aliens might actually be like.”

Sound familiar? That’s because it’s pretty much what one Simon Conway Morris was telling the Royal Society back in January. I guess we’ve always seen The Other as a mirror for the worst aspects of ourselves… perhaps this is a sign that we’re really starting to come to terms with our nasty colonial pasts. Well, some of us, anyway.

That said – and as the chap at The Grauniad points out – it’s a bit late to tell us to keep the noise down now, after a century of gradually-increasing planet-wide broadcast output. If alien life exists, and if it really is anything like us on a cultural level, we’d better just hope we don’t have anything of use to them.

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