How Many Civilizations Are Out There?

Michael Shrimpton discusses recent research on the number of intelligent civilizations in our galaxy, the Milky Way, and comments on developments over the past week.

Milky Way

As I explain in Spyhunter I can’t answer the really BIG questions – did Gilligan ever leave the island, were Hogan’s Heroes ever liberated from Stalag 13 and did Captain Parmenter in F-Troop ever get to marry his sweetheart? I can however attempt to answer some of the smaller questions, such as is there extra-terrestrial life and if so how many advanced civilizations are out there? Coronavirus is still with us of course, but it’s nice to talk about other stuff as well.

This column is prompted in part by a recent article in the Astrophysical Journal (Vol. 896, No. 1, 15th June 2020) by Christopher Conselice and Tom Westby, predicting that there might be as many as 36 CETI (Communicating Extra-Terrestrial Intelligent) civilizations in the Milky Way, our galaxy for the time being. (In about 2.4 billion years we may find Andromeda in our corner of the universe, but 2.4 billion years is long-term, almost enough time for Labour to work out that in order to increase the total tax take you need to cut taxes.) They concluded that the nearest CETI civilization might be as close as 17,000 light years away, not so far in cosmic terms, but not exactly somewhere to go for the weekend.

Their article attracted quite a bit of media attention in Britain, unsurprisingly. Conselice and Westby were attempting to answer the Drake Equation, postulated by Frank Drake (not to be confused with Sir Francis Drake) back in 1960. Drake came up with a list of seven variables. Depending upon how you crunch the variables you could end up with several billion CETI civilizations in the Milky Way or hardly any at all.

The article is a serious attempt to answer the Drake Equation and represents some of the deepest thinking yet on the question of extra-terrestrial life. I broadly agree with Conselice and Westby’s conclusions, bearing in mind that their headline figures fall within a wide range – 4 to 211, for example, in relation to the number of civilizations. I would be surprised if we found a CETI civilization closer than 17,000 light years away.

The Star Trek view of the galaxy

When Gene Rodenberry came up with the brilliant idea for the original Star Trek series he had an optimistic view of a galaxy teeming with life. Like most science fiction series, Star Trek has had multiple writers over the years, not all of whom seem to have watched previous episodes! (I’ve only ever been hired as a consultant to one TV series – Spooks – and the first thing I asked Kudos, who produced it, was to send me a complete set of episodes on DVD, so that I could get up to speed.)

It is not possible to extract a coherent set of performance figures for the various fictional classes of starship in the seven Star Trek series (to date, including Picard but not counting the animated series in the early 70s) and thirteen motion pictures. This is partly because no consistent set of figures is given for the location of the Vulcan system, Klingon home world and so on, partly because this, the greatest of all sci-fi franchises, has been written by multiple writers, none of them an astrophysicist, across a span of over five decades, partly because of the lack of internal consistency due to plot demands and partly because the writers have bought in to the worm hole theory, under which jumps through space are possible.

However in the fourth series the scriptwriters consistently gave USS Voyager a top speed, at ‘Warp Eight’, of about 1,000c, that is to say 1,000 times light speed, roughly seven trillion mph – enough to get you a speeding ticket on I-95 but not enough to cross the galaxy before you die of old age.

Whatever plot tricks, such as worm holes, are used and however many inconsistencies, one thing the Star Trek writers all agree on is that Einstein was wrong. You can go faster than the speed of light. Indeed you can, although you will need multiple fusion reactors, generating phenomenal amounts of energy, say 10 gigawatts each, in order to do so. You also need a system to cope with stray gas molecules and other interstellar debris. Hit a stray gas molecule on I-95 at 80 mph in a Chevy Caprice and you won’t even bend a fender. Hit one at Warp Eight in a starship (I don’t think even the Caprice with the L72 big block engine could do Warp Eight) and you risk disintegration to molecular level.

None of the writers envisaged Vulcan as being 17,000 light years away. The original Enterprise seemed to get there in days, and 17,000 light years in a few a days would have had poor old Scottie moaning about the strain on his engines. In galactic terms the fictional Vulcan was just around the corner.

I seriously doubt that Gene Rodenberry thought there might be only 36 intelligent civilizations in the Milky Way. Our spiral galaxy is after all vast – possibly 200,000 light years in diameter – with at least 100 billion stars. His assumption that the galaxy teemed with intelligent life was not unreasonable. It just turns out to have been wrong, that’s all.

Life on Earth

I respectfully agree with Conselice and Westby’s starting point that there’s intelligent life on Earth. It would be a mistake to focus too much on the Democratic Party. (I was astonished to come across a video, apparently real, of Joe Biden stating that poor kids are just as smart as white kids, as though all poor kids were black and Hispanic and all white kids were smart.)

We human beings are immensely complex creatures, with large brains, putting Joe Biden to one side for the moment (no offense intended), which absorb about 20% of our resting calorie intake. We are the end-product of an evolutionary process which may have begun as long ago as the Paleo-archean era, or, possibly, recommenced after the Late Heavy Bombardment (LHB) in the Eo-archean era (3.6 to 4 billion years ago) wiped out all life on Earth.

The primary evidence for the LHB, by the way, is contained in the lunar surface samples brought back by the Apollo astronauts – and yes, they did reach the Moon! (I’ve never met a man who walked on the moon, sadly, but I’ve met an astronaut who successfully achieved lunar orbit insertion – Captain Jim Lovell, Apollo 13 Mission Commander.) Modern humans only emerged about 300,000 years ago. Communication in the electro-magnetic spectrum only began about 120 years ago.

If Conselice and Westby’s central assumption is right it will be at least 19000 AD before another civilization detects our first signals and 38000 AD before we receive a reply, assuming they use the electro-magnetic spectrum. You can forget all those sci-fi movies about other civilizations finding a Voyager probe and popping along to check us out! (Voyager 1 only exited the heliosphere about six years ago.)

It has become increasingly clear in recent decades that the development of human civilization (and we are a pretty civilized lot on the whole – any civilization which produces Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony and I Love Lucy has the right to call itself advanced) has depended on a number of chance events. The massive collision with the proto-planet Theia seems to have produced the Moon, which in turn produced tides, which in turn seem to have played a major role in the development of life.

Thanks to the energy imparted by that collision our planet rotates. It is very difficult to see how life could develop in perpetual light or darkness. Jupiter and the other gas giants have played a key role since the LHB in attracting comets, which might otherwise have hit Earth.

One of the most successful forms of life on Earth – the dinosaurs – probably needed to be wiped out in order to allow mammals, including humans, to develop. The Jurassic Park movies are entertaining yarns, where the Bad Guys largely get eaten, but they illustrate the sort of problems early Man might have had competing with the likes of Tyrannosaurus Rex, indeed we would most probably have been lunch.

T Rex, by the way, was far from being the most fearsome predator in the Upper Cretaceous Epoch, indeed may not even have been that much of a predator at all. The great extinction at the end of the Upper Cretaceous can’t all have been down to one asteroid impact, big though it was, given the timeframe. However it clearly contributed.

The development of modern civilization has required a relatively lengthy period of solar and climate stability, indeed the last glacial maximum may have been the last – by the time the next Ice Age comes along humanity will have developed energy sources capable of melting the ice and storing the water inside mountain ranges, in pump storage facilities.

Relatively long interglacial periods seem to be necessary for advanced civilizations to develop. To sustain life a planet does seem to need to be in the ‘Goldilocks’ zone, that is to say not too hot and not too cold, with tolerable gravity and atmospheric pressures.

It’s easy to see why we’re not picking up extra-terrestrial versions of I Love Lucy and why there’s no credible evidence that extra-terrestrials have ever visited Earth, let alone phoned home. Think about it – the planet is about four and a half billions year old, yet there isn’t a single fossil that shouldn’t be there, nor a single alien artefact, however old, and we’ve explored nearly all of the planet’s surface, and dug up much of it.

The same goes for the Moon. There’s no indication whatsoever of alien visitation on any part of the lunar surface. I may be doing them an injustice, but I think that Conselice and Westby subscribe to Einstein’s wacky theory, advanced as part of his theory of special relativity, that the speed of light is a limiting velocity. If it were, a journey of 17,000 light years would be impossible.

What can intel specialists bring to the party?

Several things, as a nice rocket scientist at JPL in Pasadena found when they were sensible enough to consult me. Firstly as an intel specialist I am aware that Albert ‘von’ Einstein was the chief scientific adviser to German intelligence. In World War II he was their key man, along with Robert Oppenheimer, inside the Manhattan Project. He was the top atom spy of all time.

It follows that Einstein was not necessarily writing in good faith. Everything he wrote in Germany of course needed to be signed off in Berlin. I’m also aware that Germany ran a covert post-war space program and came up with the idea of UFOs to disguise it.

Since Dwight ‘von’ Eisenhower was also working for German intelligence it should come as no surprise that he was roped into the deception operation, the only one in history to give rise to a whole B movie genre and its own television series. All sorts of ‘secret’ documents were prepared suggesting that extra-terrestrials have visited Earth.

Area 51 is no particular mystery to me – a friend of mine flew from there, in a U-2. It was a just a secret CIA flight test facility, that’s all. There is nothing extra-terrestrial about stealth technology. I’ve visited the Lockheed Martin Skunk Works in Palmdale CA, where it was designed, indeed I’ve seen the prototype F-117 Nighthawk. It looks a bit otherworldly, but that’s all part of the radar defeating technology.

F-117A Nighthawk Stealth Fighter – the angles are there to deflect incoming radar energy.

Thirdly as an intel specialist I’m aware of the perversion of science by the DVD, for example over global warming. I’m not therefore as much in awe of scientific advice as say a politician might be. Conselice and Westby however are clearly writing in good faith, which is a pleasure to see.

Finally there’s the small matter of IQ. Entry level IQ for major players in the intelligence community is 175, a figure which many rocket scientists struggle to reach. We do therefore have something to bring to the party!

I think we will reach out to other intelligent civilizations, but I suspect it will be a case of us visiting them, not the other way around. I also suspect that as we explore the galaxy we will find evidence of lost civilizations, which might have flourished millions or even tens of millions of years ago. Could we get as far as 17,000 light years away? I see no reason why not.

Reading and Glasgow

Hot on the heels of last week’s shameful terrorist attack in Reading, which saw three gay men murdered, yesterday saw another mass stabbing incident, this time in Glasgow. This time it wasn’t terror-related – just another nutty asylum-seeker on the rampage.

The time has come to put a halt to this asylum racket. We used to reckon in the old days in the immigration judiciary that only about three percent of asylum applicants were genuine. I doubt that much has changed.

We need to move to a policy of regional asylum and withdraw from the obsolete 1951 UN Convention, which was designed to deal with the aftermath of World War II. Huge numbers of lives are lost, for example in leaky boats in the Med, to which must be added the lives lost in murderous attacks by asylum-seekers, as in Reading.

I’m not buying the ‘conversion to Christianity’ line, by the way. It’s a popular route to claiming asylum from Moslem countries and China. I once had a case where a so-called Christian thought that our Lord was born at Easter! In the case of Libya the Home Office don’t normally grant asylum, only temporary leave, as they’re too wet to return failed asylum-seekers to Benghazi.

There’s no reason why we shouldn’t, in RAF transport aircraft if need be. The RAF have a better safety record than the airlines, partly because they tend to lower the undercarriage before landing, unlike say Pakistan International Airlines. (I thought the decision to go around in Karachi was odd – if you do decide to land without lowering the undercarriage and end up bouncing along the runway you’re better off staying on the ground, since podded engines are vulnerable to ingested debris, indeed if you land on the engines you risk damaging the turbine blades.)

Coronavirus latest

The UK is at long last emerging from lockdown. The government are not denying reports, including from yours truly, that NHS patients were bumped off with lethal doses of Hydroxychloriquine in order to rig the trial, at WHO request.

Western governments continue to trot out dodgy death statistics in order to sow panic. I still think that official death estimates need to be slashed by about two-thirds. The UK Hydroxychloriquine trial should be disregarded.

This Week’s Movie Review – Driveways (2019, dir. Andrew Ahn)

This is a poignant movie, recently shown on Sky in the UK. Whilst not quite Brian Dennehy’s last, it is amongst the last movies he ever made before his untimely death in April. An actor to the end, Brian’s consummate professionalism shines through in this movie, despite his ailing health.

It’s a sweet-natured movie, which doesn’t descend into mawkish sentimentality, about the friendship between a young Hispanic boy and an elderly white vet. They successfully cross age and racial boundaries.

There’s no high drama – it’s a gentle movie, moving at a slow pace, but none the worse for all that. It’s a fine example of the movie-maker’s art and well worth watching, if only for Brian Dennehy’s timeless performance. We are going to miss him!


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  1. Haven’t been out of Low Earth Orbit (LEO) yet. Obama promised we’d do it by 2015, that’s come and gone, as has the promise from every past president since JFK. There’s something called the Firmament. It’s real and impenetrable. Operation Dominic of the 1950’s exploded hydrogen bombs against it to no avail. There may yet be some vids of the original footage remaining on you tube. Astronauts on the moon is a joke. By NASA’s own admission the lander was made of foil 3mm thick. If one dropped a screwdriver it would have caused a hole. Besides, there nothing: no notes, no records, no film, all gone. Zilch remains of man’s greatest achievement. It’s all gone, disappeared, all 17,000 boxes. As one NASA employee said: “I’d go to the moon in a nano-second. But we can’t, we don’t have the technology, everything’s gone, and it’s a huge paper process to get it back. NASA Never a straight answer.

  2. 17,000 lyr, at even 10% of C (if that is achievable) you take 170,000 years. nice trip. No we wont know or communicate with any other worlds. The light time is the end of the matter let alone travelling in interstellar space with all its hazards. Even close stars light time means any ‘aliens’ sending signals out would be dead long before we get them. This sort of thing is for navel gazers and sci fi books. read on..
    Oh and ‘ You can go faster than the speed of light. Indeed you can,’ NO Virginia you cant as light is already infinite, relative to itsself. Sorry you cant get around the Fitzgerald contraction. Houston we have a problem. You cant accelerate a baryon to C it takes infinite energy. Ask CERN. You cant travel on the light cone, period.

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