Solaris and Fermi Paradox

Recently I read this interesting article by Sci-Fi author Karl Schroeder. He is talking about a possible solution to the Fermi Paradox. This perhaps needs some explanation before I continue.

Wow Signal

Is is the Wow Signal like someone sneezing before the big cosmic surprise party?

The Fermi Paradox is one of the great mysteries of the universe right now. It’s the baffling realization that we haven’t encountered any signs of the existence of alien civilizations yet. We are starting to get a better understanding on how life appeared on Earth. From what we know so far, there should be hundreds of thousands of other civilizations in our galaxy alone. But we haven’t found any signs of them yet. And I’m not even talking about UFO’s and galactic federations or anything like that. We haven’t even found simple radio signals. It is an important question that has immense implications on the understanding of ourselves and our role in the grand scheme of things. So naturally, having this huge mystery tied to it is very unsatisfying.

There are a lot of theories that try to explain the Fermi Paradox. After discussing yet another debunking of some of them, Schroeder suggests the following explanation, somewhat based on Clarke’s Law:

Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from Nature.

It basically means that every civilization inevitably and quite rapidly evolves into a state, which we currently may have very hard time recognizing as “life” or “intelligent”. At least not at great distances. It also means that we may be very well swimming in evidence of alien civilizations. We just don’t know how to recognize them. Hence, we can’t see anything.

I like that theory a lot, but there was something about it that seemed very familiar. It finally dawned on me when I read this tweet by Mikey Archimedes. Of course, this is the very idea that Stanislaw Lem explored in many of his novels!

In Solaris, a human expedition struggles and fails to determine the nature of a planet covered with a semi-biological ocean.

In His Master’s Voice, human scientists struggle to decipher a message discovered in a neutrino sequence from a pulsar. In fact, they never truly determine if the message is a message at all or just random noise.

In Golem XIV, a super computer is about to evolve into an transcendental state of existence. Before he “departs”, he theorizes on the existence of other transcendental beings encoded in the fabric of interstellar nebulas or encased in black holes.

In fact, it’s a running theme throughout a large portion of Lem’s novels. In some of the stories, Humans eventually recognize the alien beings, but their initial fallacious assumptions have disastrous effects (The InvincibleFiasco).

So what Schroeder put so elegantly into words has been actually around in the Sci-Fi community for quite some time now. Our civilization is still very young and we still develop incredibly quickly on a cosmological scale of things. Our understanding of what an advanced civilization would look like may be only a very thin, transient slice in a much longer discourse that is yet to come. Also, we haven’t been observing the skies for too long and we haven’t been investing any serious resources.

On the other hand, there is always that grim realization that the reason for the silence is that civilizations in general could be short-lived things that inevitably destroy themselves before they get off the ground. But as in House M.D., if you are still not sure what it is, start out by eliminating diagnoses you don’t have a cure for.

Krystian Majewski

Krystian Majewski was born in Warsaw and studied design at Köln International School of Design. Before, he was working on a mid-size console project for NEON Studios in Frankfurt. He helped establish a Master course in Game Design and Research at the Cologne Game Lab. Today he teaches Game Design at various institutions and develops independent games.

3 responses to “Solaris and Fermi Paradox”

  1. Robin Saunders

    I’m far from convinced that “there should be hundreds of thousands of other civilizations in our galaxy alone”. What evidence is this based on? Our understanding of the conditions necessary for the evolution of life, and especially intelligence capable of creating civilization (let alone communicating over interstellar distances) is extremely poor, and I don’t think it’s reasonable to try to estimate the expected number of civilizations in the Milky Way using the current data and get an answer within even a few orders of magnitude.

    Occam’s razor dictates that the most reasonable explanation for the apparent lack of nearby spacefaring civilizations is that there in fact aren’t any.

  2. Krystian Majewski

    Ah yes. Well, indeed I was a bit optimistic there. We can’t make exact predictions but we can do an educated guess. One famous example being the Drake Equation. And indeed, there is a lot of uncertainty involved depending on what estimates you have. Drake’s initial guess was that there were 10 communicating civilizations in our galaxy at any given time (+ hundreds of dormant ones). Wikipedia cites 2.31 as a modern, conservative guess. Some of the factors are getting more precise as we learn more. So for example, we can get much better estimates on the number of habitable planets as we discover more and more Exoplanets. This, in turn, puts emphasis on the other factors. Depending on what numbers you plug in, the result varies between almost 0 to hundreds of thousands.

    But the point is not the precise number of civilizations. The point is to discuss various models. And indeed things get tricky if you start factoring in ideas such as Von Neumann Probes, which the above mentioned article is referencing. This boosts the probability of encountering another civilization quite a bit. There needs to have been only ONE other civilization to have achieved a level of technology high enough to build ONE Von Neuman Probe in the entire history of the Milky Way. And yet there is nothing. And we are ourselves not far away from that level. It’s basically a Fabber on a rocket. So could have possibly stopped the others? Will it affect us as well?

    Applying Occam’s razor is problematic because all answers require additional explanations. Assuming there are other civilizations, we need to explain why we can’t find them. Assuming there are no other civilizations violates the Mediocrity principle and we need to explain why we are so special.

  3. sirleto

    great, thanks for posting!

    drakes equation and fermis paradox – especially the nice wikipedia articles on both – are absolutely great “science fiction” which kept me fantasizing years ago :-)

    i would love once in my life to create (or atleast play) an abyss/contact like game where a team of scientists works on these topics, not necessarily hard fiction style, but atleast rather “down to earth”.


The Game Design Scrapbook is a second blog of group of three game designers from Germany. On our first blog, Game Design Reviews we describe some games we played and point out various interesting details. Unfortunately, we found out that we also need some place to collect quick and dirty ideas that pop into our minds. Hence, welcome to Game Design Scrapbook. You will encounter wild, random rantings. Many of then incoherent. Some of them maybe even in German. If you don't like it, you might enjoy Game Design Reviews more.


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