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Monday, 30 April 2012

My Thoughts on the Fermi Paradox

Enrico Fermi famously asked why, if our galaxy really does contain other intelligent, technologically capable species, we haven't seen any trace of them. Against the great age of the galaxy, the time required for a civilisation to explore every single star system in it is relatively small, so we should have encountered a probe or something by now. That we haven't would imply that in fact intelligent life is not very common.

Speaking personally, I would very much like there to be intelligent extra-terrestrial life. I largely grew up on Science Fiction, so the possibility of humanity one day making contacts with aliens featured highly in my formative years. Ironically, I automatically assumed that ET would be friendly towards Humanity, despite this rarely being the case in SF films and books.

To rebut the Fermi Paradox I used to reason that ET would very likely be thousands or even millions of years more advanced than us, and so would have little interest in making contact with a such primitive species as we would seem to them. Indeed, they might not even recognise us as being intelligent enough to be contactable. A second line of defence was that perhaps we have observed evidence of them, but have wrongly constructed naturalistic theories to explain the evidence.

Recently a third possibility has occurred to me. I wonder if we're being a bit parochial in our assumptions about what an advanced civilisation would do. Sure, it seems natural to us that they would expand out from star system to star system, building that Galactic Empire I used to read about, but maybe your needs and aspirations change as your civilisation advances. When our culture looks into the future we typically have a time frame of no more than a few decades. Many of our politicians seem to look little further than the next election, so that's probably not surprising. I'd hope, though, that this would change eventually. A sufficiently advanced culture might conquer problems like ageing and death, and start to think on a far longer scale. When your potential lifespan might be measured in millions of years, and remote possibilities morph into inevitabilities, you might become rather risk-averse. Galaxies contain supernovas, wandering planets, and who knows what other perils. Sure, their advanced technology might allow them to, say, relocate away from a star that would one day explode, or maybe even dismantle the star to stop it going off at all. But an easier solution might be just to leave the stars behind.

I wonder now if the missing alien civilisations aren't to be found in intergalactic space, millions of light years from anything that could harm them. According to David Deutsch in his book The Beginnings of Infinity (an excellent book, by the way), the density of matter is thin indeed out there, but a volume the size of the Solar System would still contain over a billion tonnes of matter, mostly Hydrogen. A sufficiently advanced civilisation, perhaps one that has moved from organic lifeforms to some form of miniaturised cyber-existence, might manage quite well.

'Might' seems to be the operative word in this post, so I'll permit myself to finish with another piece of even wilder speculation. Maybe a sufficiently advanced civilisation gets the option of abandoning ordinary matter completely, and migrates to dark matter. Then passing threats can be ignored as they'll just pass straight through you.

Additional: maybe this is how you'd do it.

Sunday, 29 April 2012

Isaac Asimov on Life-long Learning

Sometimes you stumble upon someone who's thinking exactly the same as you, only expressing themselves far better.

Here's Isaac Asimov in a 1988 interview with Bill Moyers, in which he explains, among other things, what it'll be like once the internet comes into our homes (sadly he just missed seeing it come about). This bit about his love of learning new stuff really struck a chord for me:

I think it's the actual process of broadening yourself, of knowing there's now a little extra facet of the universe you know about and can think about and can understand. It seems to me that when it's time to die, and that will come to all of us, there will be a certain pleasure in thinking that you had utilised your life well, that you had learned as much as you could, gathered in as much as possible of the universe, and enjoyed it.

Saturday, 21 April 2012

Tom and Jerry

As a child growing up in the 60s and 70s one of the pleasures of early evening television was the Tom & Jerry cartoon. The BBC used to show at least one of these every evening (if my memory serves me right) for a while, certainly long enough for me to get to see a good many of them.

Fast forward to about 2004. By the miracles of digital technology the entire Tom & Jerry collection is now available on six DVDs, and under cover of getting them for my young son, I purchase the whole set. Often when I go back to something I loved as a child I find that three decades or more of experience and growing up have robbed it of the charm it once had for me. Not so Tom & Jerry: all the cartoons I remembered laughing at before I still found funny, and do still, even after repeated viewing. (And if you don't understand why the viewing is repeated, wait until you have a small child in your home.)

Of the six DVDs, four and a bit contained the episodes I loved; the rest were mostly ones I'd never seen before. According to their Wikipedia entry, the cartoons were originally done by Hanna and Barbera for MGM. After those two set up their own company in 1957, 13 Tom & Jerry cartoons were made in Eastern Europe, then a bunch more made by Chuck Jones. The difference in production companies is painfully obvious

In the earliest cartoons, Tom is very much a cat, running on all fours or curling up in a basket, for instance. Quite quickly though he matures into the classic Tom, who walks like a human, stretches out on a hammock, and can play a mean game of tennis. There is huge charm in these cartoons, which feels as if it has been almost surgically removed in the later episodes. There the jokes are rarely funny, and are usually telegraphed well in advance to minimise the risk of laughing at them. The physical appearance of the cat and mouse have also been altered, not for the better.

So much for my opinion.

Here's a thought though: if some enlightened soul at MGM commissioned a DVD's worth of new cartoons made in the same style and to the same quality as the ones from the 40s and 50s, I would be more than willing to pay full price for a copy of them. The continuing popularity of these cartoons on TV networks around the world would surely also provide enough income to justify the expense. And sixty years on the production cost of making cartoons like this must have gone down a bit? All it would take is a production team that loved the originals and didn't (apart from steering clear of outdated racial stereotypes, please) feel the need to update the characters.