Fermi's Paradox and the Movie Interstellar
If you prefer to listen rather than read, this blog is available as a podcast here. Or if you want to listen to just this post:
After several political posts of varying intensity I thought it might be nice to take a break, and return to some of my other interests. In particular I wanted to return to a discussion of Fermi’s Paradox. If you haven’t read any of my previous posts on the topic you can find them here and here. I would recommend reading them first, but I also suspect you might not bother, so for those that don’t, allow me to provide a brief introduction, both to the paradox and to my specific take on it. In brief Fermi’s Paradox is the seemingly irreconcilable set of facts that on the one hand, we have not been visited or contacted by aliens despite, on the other hand, billions of planets on which life could arise and billions of years during which they could have visited Earth. As for my take on it I think the simplest resolution of the paradox is that we ARE communicating with aliens we just call the communication prayer, and the aliens God.
I have a couple of methods available for advancing this very unorthodox opinion (an opinion largely shared by no one else.) First I can show ways in which the beliefs of traditional religions (Mormonism in particular) fit in with the facts and even the speculations associated with the paradox. Or second, I can show how none of the other explanations for the paradox make sense, or at least show they make less sense than my explanation. Of course on top of all of that I have to be able to communicate my ideas period. Which is a bigger challenge than it appears even aside from the obvious limitations of being me. One of the ways to overcome that challenge is to piggyback on something from popular culture. And that is what I intend to do in this post, by discussing Fermi’s Paradox using the movie Interstellar.
I only recently got around to watching Interstellar. (I know. I’m behind.) And even though it never mentions Fermi’s Paradox it ends up lurking in the background nonetheless. The movie itself was interesting and beautiful, and engaging. It also about gave me an aneurysm. If you haven’t seen the movie and you don’t want to be spoiled then you should probably skip this post. But we’re also talking about an Oscar-winning movie (ok, it was just visual effects) from two years ago that made $675 million dollars worldwide. If you haven’t already seen it by now, can you really expect to not be spoiled? I certainly had no such expectations.
The point of talking about Interstellar is not to get into a detailed review of the movie. I’m more interested in talking about how the movie portrayed things like space travel, aliens, habitable planets, and the future of humanity, and tying that portrayal into a discussion of the paradox.
Let’s start with space travel. If you read my post from a couple of weeks ago you know how costly it is to get out of gravity wells. And indeed in Interstellar they needed a two stage rocket to get off of Earth, so there is some acknowledgement of what’s called the tyranny of the rocket equation. But after this brief nod to reality for the rest of the movie escaping gravity wells is trivial. In particular they have no problem either lifting off from a planet with 1.2 times the gravity of Earth or casually maneuvering in the vicinity of a black hole using just their lander. I have seen some weaselly answers about how the lander used a different fuel, with some people suggesting anti-matter. Ahh… yes those troublesome anti-matter engines are always flooding. They just cannot handle the tiniest bit of water. (That said the visuals of the giant wave were very cool.)
Moving beyond the physics of Interstellar the movie also implied that space travel had to happen quickly or it wouldn’t happen at all. Not to spend the entire post picking on the movie (though that may be where we’re headed) but as far as I could tell Cooper finds NASA and then launches into space the next morning, or maybe the next week? The timeline was a little unclear, but in any event it sure looked like he only had about 15 minutes to say goodbye to his daughter.
In reality any potential travel of the kind we’re talking about when we talk about the paradox, that is aliens spreading out across the entire galaxy, would happen over millions if not billions of years. Presumably this is one of the reasons why Nolan introduced the food crisis. For the movie to be dramatic there had to be some urgent reason to get off of earth. This is not to say there might not be some catastrophe that would make departing Earth both important and urgent, just that if there was, we’re probably screwed. As are the humans in Interstellar in the absence of the wormhole. Getting off the planet and creating a sustainable extraterrestrial colony (to say nothing of an extrasolar colony) would be the result of a slow grind lasting decades of not centuries. In other words if all other potential alien species are trying to get off their planet in the midst of a crisis while being sabotaged by Matt Damon, then it may make sense that we haven’t run into any of them, but I assume that’s actually fairly rare, particularly the Matt Damon part.
The next subject I’m interested in is the way the movie portrays aliens. Of course the paradox would be solved if we ever did encounter intelligent aliens. And they do just that in Interstellar. Though, once again, the movie ends up imposing a lot of implausible restrictions. To begin with it’s strongly implied that they aren’t aliens. That they’re humans from the future who’ve forgotten how to communicate with us. This is very convenient from the standpoint of telling the story, but it doesn’t make a lot of sense otherwise. Apparently they can understand humanity, and Cooper in particular, well enough to make a four dimensional copy of the daughter’s room (or maybe it’s even more than four), but not understand us well enough to actually have a conversation?
As it turns out, the inability to communicate is one favorite and common explanation for the paradox. When presenting this explanation people often use the metaphor of humans trying to communicate with ants. And it’s true that we are not great at communicating with ants. For instance we don’t have long conversations with ants about free will or the nature of the universe, but we can still communicate with them and we do so far more effectively than the aliens in Interstellar can communicate with humans. We can get ants to go where we want, we can move ants, we can kill ants, we can separate ants into their different roles, etc. I know that some of that doesn’t sound like communication, but trust me, getting snatched and moved someplace else communicates volumes. At this point we’ve seen zero evidence of intelligent extraterrestrials, while I think it goes without saying that ants have seen plenty evidence of us. And if aliens just wanted to let us know they exist there are plenty of things they could do to communicate that. In fact it would be difficult for them to not communicate it.
Instead, for some vague reason, these future humans have lost the ability to communicate with us. Also they wait to contact us (and I use the term contact very loosely) until the Earth is uninhabitable and we’re about to die. How are they sure this is when they should intervene? Were they ever worried about us during the Cold War? Does this have anything to do with the weird time-travel paradoxes? Perhaps, but in any event they intervene using their near godlike powers and set up a wormhole near Saturn. And this wormhole leads to a couple of planets that are essentially uninhabitable, and a third planet where nothing grows, but at least it doesn’t have 4,000 foot tall waves. And all of this is in another galaxy.. near a black hole so big they call it Gargatua...
This takes us naturally to the subject of habitable planets. I know I said I wasn’t going to spend the entire post picking on the movie, but perhaps it’s unavoidable, because it’s “stance” on habitable planets was kind of ridiculous. So we’ve got these aliens, or future humans, or whatever, and they want to rescue humanity, so they create a wormhole. I’ve already mentioned that we have to go all the way to Saturn to get to this wormhole. But to be fair perhaps they’re limited on where they can create these wormholes, and they can’t get it any closer to Earth than the orbit of Saturn. If so they must be really limited on the other side because, as I already pointed out, the only planets they can get near to on the other end are objectively awful. I’ve already mentioned the water planet with gigantic waves but in addition to that the planet is so close to the giant black hole that one hour there equals 7 years of time everywhere else.
The second is completely covered in ice, and based on the fact that there is no surface it probably isn’t even as good a candidate for colonization as Mars or Europa, which the ship passed on it’s way to the wormhole. The final planet appears to be a vast desert, whose main advantage appears to be that at least it has a breathable atmosphere?
If planets that can support life are really as rare as Interstellar makes them out to be (you have to go to another galaxy to find even a sucky one) it would be a great explanation for the paradox. Unfortunately we already know they’re not. Just looking at the planets we’ve found using Kepler (which by the way has only examined a tiny fraction of the galaxy, around one-millionth, if that) we’ve already found 3,565 planets, 34 of which are potentially habitable. If you do the math you’re looking at 34 million potentially habitable planets, without having to go to another galaxy (also I’m pretty sure that none of the 34 potentially habitable planets Kepler has found are anywhere near a black hole.) In fact the nearest potentially habitable planet is just the next star over. Which makes the choice of the wormholes’ end point even more baffling. All of this is to say that if Interstellar is your primary source of information about how common habitable planets then you’re going to end up with a lot of very wrong ideas.
The last element I said I wanted to examine from Interstellar is it’s vision for the future of humanity. I already mentioned that the food crisis is one of those things that is manufactured to provide urgency, but this is not to say that we couldn’t have some gigantic agricultural collapse. That certainly could happen, but the big problem with the scenario is that if we can’t grow crops on the Earth, we are unlikely to be able to grow them anywhere else. As I point out in the blog I already mentioned, nearly everywhere on Earth from Antarctica to the depths of the ocean, is more hospitable to life, particularly that life which evolved on Earth, than any conceivable extraterrestrial location. In Interstellar they lose the ability to grow okra. Let’s just say that if you can’t grow okra in Georgia you’re not going to be able to grow it on a lifeless desert planet in another galaxy.
Another fascinating element of Nolan’s vision of the future was the way in which they decided to declare the moon landings to be a hoax. First that represents something of a nightmare for me, so it definitely got my attention, second it implied a sort of collectivist mindset. None of us are going to escape unless all of us can escape. This is something else I talked about in my previous post on space colonization. There are a lot of noble ideals which end up not being compatible with the core value of saving humanity, and creating the illusion that we couldn’t even get men to the moon in order to help people to focus on Earth is definitely one of those ideals.
But of course the most consequential element of Nolan’s vision for the future of humanity was that we would someday transcend time, come back and save our past selves. This by itself is not that interesting. Nolan is not the first to imagine some sort of technological transcendence. Where it does get interesting is in how it relates to one of the leading explanations of the paradox. As I mentioned in one of my previous posts on the subject, many people favor the explanation that we are in fact alone. That despite billions of planets and billions of years that we are the only intelligent species in existence. By making the aliens future humans, Nolan comes to essentially the same conclusion. And it’s a conclusion with some terrifying implications. This is not the space to go into a full examination of all of them, but at a minimum it implies that there’s no one out there to save us. If, on the other hand, there are aliens you can always imagine that they my someday show up with the cure for cancer, unlimited free energy and super delicious donuts. You can also imagine something similar if God exists. But if neither exists then we have to save ourselves. And while some people may find that empowering (if they think about it at all). When I look around and see how flawed humanity is, I think if we’re all there is, then more likely than not we’re in a lot of trouble.
You may think that this is an awful lot of time to waste examining the ideas of a movie whose only goal was to entertain. Particularly since I agree that it was entertaining. But I read something recently (unfortunately I can’t locate it now) which made the excellent point that fiction, specifically movies and TV, are more and more taking the place of history as a guide for what might happen, or what should be avoided, or whether something is a good idea. To put it more bluntly we are being educated by entertaining lies rather than by reality. As I recall, the article used the example of a discussion about artificial intelligence. In any discussion of artificial intelligence you would not be surprised if someone referenced a Skynet scenario, drawing on the Terminator movies and the idea that a given artificial intelligence (in the movie it was Skynet) could come alive and immediately try to destroy humanity. Another example would be if someone (including myself) wants to talk about a post apocalyptic scenario they might reference Mad Max. This is in contrast to the past when people might talk about something being similar to Caesar’s rivalry with Pompey or they might draw inspiration from the Battle of Marathon (enough so that they created a race in it’s memory.)
In the past people were frankly inundated by history. A large part of schooling was learning Greek and Latin. This wasn’t so they could talk to people in Latin (or Greek) it was so they could read history in its original language. If you thought of history as their popular entertainment you would not be far off. But of course now, while history isn’t missing from our popular entertainment (The TV series Rome is a good example of this) it’s a pretty small slice. Entertainment these days is largely dominated by fiction (All superhero movies, Star Wars, anything animated) and present day navel gazing (essentially everything currently on TV). Using what has happened as a guide to what might happen, is no longer done. Instead we are educated (and I use that term loosely) by the fictitious imaginings of a few creative individuals with unclear (if not actively harmful) motivations.
There are two reasons for this change. First, there are certain situations, like a malevolent AI, or nuclear apocalypse which have no historical analogies. If you wanted to talk about some point of no return for AI, you could draw on history and use, say, Caesar crossing the Rubicon. But the Skynet example, despite being fiction, is a better description of what might actually happen. This first reason is generally harmless and possibly even useful. But there is another reason for people to draw on fiction rather than history, it’s more accessible and easier to understand. Unfortunately that doesn’t make it more accurate. In fact fiction is, almost by definition, less accurate. So in situations where there is something in history to guide us we should always draw upon that first.
What does this have to do with Fermi’s Paradox? Surely this is one of those things that has no historical analog and movies, even horribly misguided movies like Interstellar are going to be the best analogies we have. I know it seems that way, but with the paradox, that’s not the case. We have a wealth of history to draw on, in fact we have all of history.
While it is true that there are some who will argue that we have already been visited by aliens. (My own theories on alien divinity aside.) There is no evidence for an alien visitation as it is typically imagined. This is particularly true if you look at ALL of history, not just recorded history. Allow me to explain. There are various theories that Stonehenge or the Great Pyramid or the Nazca Lines were all built by aliens. But all of these are recent enough that humans could have built them. If we’re talking about aliens they could have left artifacts on Earth at any point in its 4.5 billions years of existence, now sure some of these might have been sucked into the mantel and destroyed, (or to avoid that they also could have placed them on the moon similar to 2001) but even accounting for that there were still millions of years for the aliens to leave some evidence of their presence. But they didn’t.
This is what I mean by using history not just popular culture when judging the likelihood of something. If you just pay attention to popular culture you probably think that aliens could show up any day now. That despite millions if not billions of years of not showing up, that it could happen next week. We see this conceit with Interstellar, and also with the more recent movie, Arrival. In fact I would I would be curious to see how people would respond if they were polled on the probability of aliens showing up. My guess is based on the enormous number of movies and TV shows depicting just that, that the probability would end up being quite high. Despite no evidence for it happening anytime in the last million years.
This is the danger of using fiction to understand the world. Any serious study of Fermi’s Paradox reveals that it’s one of the most important questions facing humanity. And if I’ve managed to convince you that the existence of God is tied up with it, then it only becomes more important. And yet people assess the probability of encountering or communicating with aliens based on a recent movie rather than on a sober assessment of reality.
The challenges humanity face are not trivial. The cannot be solved with an entertaining two (or in Interstellar’s case, three) hour movie. I think everyone should be hoping that God exists, because if not we most likely are on are own. And however much Anne Hathaway urges us to trust in love, if we are all alone in the universe I think it’s going to take a lot more than that to save us.
If you think I’m completely wrong about things then you should donate to this blog while you still can, because once the aliens do show up money will have no meaning.