This is either the worst or the best news I have ever heard

European astronomers have spotted what they say is the most Earth-like planet yet outside our solar system, with balmy temperatures that could support water and, potentially, life.

Here is the story.  That planet is only about twenty light years away.  Are earth-like planets so common?  That probably means lots more civilization-supporting planets than I had expected.  But where are the alien visitors?  As suggested by the Fermi paradox, we must revise our priors along several margins, one of which is the expected duration of an intelligent civilization.

We already have a civilization, so the added optimism on that front doesn’t help us much.  On the other hand, we don’t know how long our civilization will last, but now we must be more pessimistic. 

I might be happier if I were more altruistic toward possible alien races; right now my appreciation for them is mostly aesthetic (modally speaking, that is), not empathetic.  All you alien altruists should be jumping for joy.  Holders of selfish, planet-based moralities should despair.

No matter what the proper galactic welfare function, I suppose I should be wracked with emotion.  I’m not.


This discovery is indeed very interesting.
What's more interesting is that the mass of this planet is 5 times bigger than Earth's.
If there is intelligent life on that planet, they probably would not find us so easily, since our mass is five times smaller than theirs. The various other characteristics of their planet would probably be quite different from ours as well, and they are probably looking somewherelse for planets that are more similar to theirs than to ours.

One 'optimistic' resolution to the Fermi Paradox might be that, for whatever reason, more advanced civilizations pretty quickly stop using the EM spectrum the way we do. Though even then, for as often as the Fermi Paradox is invoked, I've never really heard anyone explain over what range we should be able to detect other civilizations that have a similar EM output to our own. That's probably a relatively simple inverse-square law calculation, but even that I'd take it with a grain of salt as our understanding of the structure of space-time outside of our own solar system isn't as great you might think (see dark matter and dark energy) or even within it (assuming there's still no adequate 'technical' explanation for the pioneer anomaly ).

This particular discovery doesn't really affect to the calculations too much, I don't think. It seems like they're always detecting smaller and smaller extrasolar planets pretty much as soon as the hardware and methodology are up to it, and nothing about 581 C really comes as a surprise. Unfortunately, beyond refining its mass/orbit a bit, it'll probably be a while before we can actually tell much else.

If there is intelligent life on that planet, they probably would not find us so easily, since our mass is five times smaller than theirs.

I think we could find a sufficiently intelligent civilization of cat-sized creatures.

- Josh

Josh, I believe Fabio was referring to the mass of our planet, not the mass of the average human. So it would be harder for extraterrestrials to find an Earth-sized planet, than it was for us to find this 5x Earth-sized one. I don't know how much more difficult, though.

P.S. The images evoked by your phrase "a sufficiently intelligent civilization of cat-like creatures" had me in stitches...

Fabio: A decade ago we could only find super-Jovian planets. Now we're at 5X earth's mass (and 2X earth gravity, so the residents could be Flores sized, not just cat-sized, giving them reasonable cranial capacity).

Tyler: Surely learning about the Doomsday Paradox was worse, no?

Even that pales compared to coming to an appreciation of how tiny the region of optimization-space inhabited by Friendly AI or other forms of human-meaningful optimization process is, relative to the whole of optimization space.

Of course, for those who have been theists there are probably larger disappointments still, at least in theory, but there are very few theists in the relevant sense.

Well, it's still a ridiculously long-shot. I still have some doubts about the science of determining the presence of planets by measuring the wobble in a star - I'm sure people have thought about it a lot, but there are just so main the 20 light years of space between us and Earth 2.0 (said sarcastically) that can gunk up our data.

And even saying that the planet *is* there, we don't know anything about the atmosphere, which might be ridiculously thick, making the planet too hot to support life. And even if the atmosphere is balmy, the planet might not be geologically stable. Or it might be bombarded with comets. Or just about anything.

I don't know that there's intelligent life out there, but I'm pretty sarn sure that if there is, we are currently incapable of finding it.

Well, the mystery is the SETI data, or lack thereof. It is now getting close to four decades, or maybe
even a bit longer, that we have been consciously beaming out all kinds of radio emissions aimed specifically
at communicating in a hopefully friendly way with alien "civilizations" close enough to our level that they
would bother with the EM spectrum. So far, no clear replies, and the net has now gone pretty far and

Besides the "there ain't nobody out there worth talking to" (quite possible) to the "they are not listening
to the EM spectrum because they are so super advanced" possibility is another one, more along the latter
line. This would be one that indeed there is a whole alien empire/civilization/superstructure that is out
there and watching us. It may have well-established bureaucratic way of dealing with emerging planetary
civilizations that involves keeping an eye on them and waiting for them to reach some appropriate level
before they are openly communicated with and invited to join the system.

The "evidence" for this is peculiar and not too reliable. It would be the fact that we had this huge
outbreak of UFO sightings in the late 1940s. Of course it is quite likely, probably very likely, that
these were all just a mass hysteria of the time, that there were not then and are not now any UFOs, or
at least any that were/are actual alien vehicles. But, suppose that outbreak reflected an actual
empirical reality, that we had a wave of alien visitors in the late 1940s? Well, this would be
consistent with an ordered bureaucratic galactic or whatever civilization keeping tabs. After all,
I would bet that if such a system existed, the achievement of nuclear power would be one of those
leaps that would trigger a closer watch. "Oh, those earthlings, now they have nukes; we had better
start keeping a closer eye on them, see if they can behave peacefully and responsibly or if they
will just go and blow themselves up." I would remind that 1945 was the year we reached that stage,
so a wave of such visitations for such observational purposes would be perfectly consistent.

"Only" twenty light years away?

Pshhht. This is irrelevant to us Earthlings.

It is now getting close to four decades, or maybe even a bit longer, that we have been consciously beaming out all kinds of radio emissions aimed specifically at communicating in a hopefully friendly way with alien "civilizations" close enough to our level that they would bother with the EM spectrum. So far, no clear replies, and the net has now gone pretty far and wide.

Even as very much of a SETI skeptic myself (though a hopeful!), this statement is completely false and misunderstands the SETI effort. SETI is concerned with detecting signals sent from another civilization - not sending out signals and waiting for a reply. At most, only ceremonial signals have been sent (one was aimed at a galaxy 25,000 light-years away so I can assure you nobody is waiting for a reply) to announce to someone that we are (or were) here, but they have nothing to do with SETI. Nobody is seriously "beaming . . . radio emissions aimed specifically at communicating" with another civilization.

Also, to say the net has gone far and wide would be nonsense even if there was a "net" being cast. If we were sending out signals and waiting for a reply (which we're not) the greatest distance they could have traveled and generated a reply which we would have received in 40 years is, quite obviously, 20 light-years which is hardly "far and wide" on a cosmic scale.

SETI is simply about finding evidence of another civilization. Not even the biggest SETI advocates believe there is any reasonable chance of actually communicating (i.e. two-way communication) with another civilization in any one person's lifetime. Distances are simply too great for that. That is why nobody wastes time sending out signals. It is also why I'm a SETI skeptic - the cosmic time and space scale is so vast beyond our traditional comprehension that the odds of picking up a signal seem to me to be extremely small at best. I would certainly love to be wrong about that, but I don't expect to be.

C.S. Lewis' view seems to be that we are the only fallen planet and the other races stay away from us because we are monstrous. I always liked that idea.

Another suggestion I read about in John C. Wright's The Golden Age is that if you extrapolate the trend of shrinking electronics far enough into the future, that there may be microscopic supercomputers floating around the earth right now that we cannot detect. They may be imminently close and we'd never know ... also cool.

I agree with George Carlin. We are the trailer trash of the universe. If there is intelligent life, why would they want anything to do with us.

Two academics and government consultants have written a book discussing the possibility of a hostile alien visitation. They revisit Fermi's Paradox and rename it "Fermi's Blunder", concluding that the possibility of alien contact is sufficiently non-zero that we should seriously think about how to respond to any extraterrestrial threat. I wrote about the book in a feature for Reuters.

This is great news. Now we have a planet 5 times the size of our own to rape of it's resources. Maybe this'll lower gas prices.

At five times Earth's mass, I reckon there is a serious risk that any civilization on such a planet might never develop the ability to get off the planet.

It could be that there is a fine balancing act between escape velocities of a planet. Too low (Mars) and you don't have an atmosphere. Too high and you can never get off the ground (without very advanced technology, which you can't develop without interplanetary resources before you fall into a Malthusian trap.)

There is also a psychological aspect. With higher gravity you get no natural flight (birds, bats) and so never THINK about getting off the ground.

Comments for this post are closed