TEOTWAWKI — Aliens was an episode first released November 3, 2017, and can be accessed here.

“Someday something’s coming /
From way out beyond the stars /
to kill us while we stand here /
It’ll store our brains in mason jars!”

— Lovecraft in Brooklyn, The Mountain Goats.

The year is 1561, and the people of Nuremburg are about to witness something pretty weird.
Here’s a quote from a contemporary newspaper:

In the morning of April 14, 1561, at daybreak, between 4 and 5 a.m., a dreadful apparition occurred on the sun, and then this was seen in Nuremberg in the city, before the gates and in the country — by many men and women…. In the sun, above and below and on both sides, the color was blood, there stood a round ball of partly dull, partly black ferrous color. Likewise there stood in a torus around the Sun such blood-red ones and other balls in large number, about three in a line and four in a square, also some alone. In between these globes there were visible a few blood-red crosses…. These all started to fight among themselves, so that the globes, which were first in the sun, flew out to the ones standing on both sides… Besides the globes flew back and forth among themselves and fought vehemently with each other for over an hour. And when the conflict in and again out of the sun was most intense, they became fatigued to such an extent that they all, as said above, fell from the sun down upon the earth ‘as if they all burned’ and they then wasted away on the earth with immense smoke. After all this there was something like a black spear, very long and thick, sighted; the shaft pointed to the east, the point pointed west. Whatever such signs mean, God alone knows.

God alone knows. But a lot of people since have interpreted this as… well, nothing short of a UFO battle over the city of Nuremberg. Occam’s Razor — the philosophy that says that the simplest explanation is often the correct one — might have something to say about that. For example; this single newspaper reporting this dramatic event, for which there are few sources, could be completely inaccurate. This could be some kind of freakish weather event — for example, Sun Dogs can cause unusual patterns of light in the sky, and are associated with ice crystals. And ice crystals might form under the same kind of conditions which lead to cryometeors — an unusual but natural phenomenon where massive crystals of ice, sometimes as much as 50kg in weight, form in the atmosphere and fall from the sky. These cryometeors have been responsible for mysterious events in the past. Remember that whole idea about the perfect murder being one committed using an icicle, because the murder weapon just melts away leaving no fingerprints and no incriminating evidence? This has actually happened with a megacryometeor, which destroyed a car and then melted — leaving the horrified owner with little explanation as to why their car had been wrecked so thoroughly. It’s not impossible, then, that this is some freakish weather event — which would explain why the orbs were seen “in rings around the Sun” (I’ll sing the same, my dream has come) — that’s what you might expect from a diffraction pattern, or refraction through ice crystals. Or it could be possible that this was some kind of meteor strike — maybe something pretty big fragmenting in the atmosphere, with the largest chunk causing an “impact” with immense smoke. This is, of course, if you take the whole account seriously and feel the need to explain it.

I’m in an odd position, I suppose; in the Fermi and Drake episode, I explained to you my conviction that aliens are real and ‘out there’ — somewhere — and the fact is, I don’t think this is nearly as irrational as you might think. Because the Universe is far stranger and harder to explain if there aren’t alien life-forms, if there never were — if we’re all there is. Because, then, like I say, all of our Copernican principles go completely out of the window — suddenly it looks like, in the whole practically infinite universe, the planet Earth is the one planet out of trillions that manages to play host to life? And, in this Universe, those two numbers — the number of planets and the probability of life emerging on a planet — cancel to give you exactly one? It doesn’t make sense — unless you believe that the Earth was created by a deity, along with humans, and that deity really, really, really liked focusing on the details of the background as well. Or unless you believe that ours is a simulated Universe of planets with the simulators setting the simulation onto “single player mode” — which, in a lot of ways, is indistinguishable from a God anyway, and really does just shift the question of how life came to be onto the simulator’s universe. So… you see the bind that we end up in, here. Of course, if you buy the whole simulation argument, then there’s a pretty decent chance that we’re in a Universe where aliens were simulated too. After all — maybe it’s supposed to be a replica of what the simulator’s universe looked like, millenia ago, before they developed the power to simulate universes… or possibly the whole thing is bunk and there are no simulations, and this is the only universe, but it should probably have some aliens in it somewhere.



So then to say that I believe intelligent life exists somewhere out there, or at the very least has existed at some point — or will arise after us! — and then also say that every UFO story is complete rubbish might seem like a contradiction on the surface. But that’s really only in the very tippy-top layer of the surface.

The thing is — there really isn’t a contradiction. The issue is that, compared to the distance between stars and galaxies, the speed of light isn’t all that fast. As we talked about in the Fermi and Drake episodes, to get to the nearest star takes 4.4 years. The Galaxy itself contains a hundred billion stars, and it’s a hundred thousand light years side to side. (Thank you, Monty Python.) So if we fiddle our parameters in the Drake equation to say that there are a hundred intelligent civilizations, all co-existing in the Galaxy, at any given time after the Universe has settled down a bit from its fiery beginnings… Now, remember that there’s a lot in the Drake equation about why intelligent life might not want to communicate with us, or how they might use different methods of communication. We really have no idea about *those* numbers; even if we never detect alien communication, then you could still never rule out that the window during which a civilization might actively try to communicate is too small for us to see any, or that we just got unlucky. Anyway, let’s assume there are a hundred, and they all want to talk to any other civilizations that there are out there. It makes sense, too; they probably have an alien version of Breaking Bad that we’ve not seen yet. But you might expect any communications to take thousands of years to reach across the void between the stars. The lower limit for what astrobiologists expect is the distance between technological civilizations is at least 100 parsecs, which means communications take hundreds of years. Humans have only had writing for six thousand years or so. And we’ve only been capable of signalling with radio — in a way that may one day seem desperately primitive — for a hundred odd years. So, if they’re looking out for signals to respond to, there is basically zero chance that they will have seen any of our broadcasts. They’re certainly not watching our TV — the signals fall off like the inverse square law, so a few light years out, they’re billions of times less powerful than they are on Earth — and indistinguishable from background radiation. Aliens would need some kind of giant array far bigger than any planet, and even then they’d probably just get static fuzz. So no good. Only very focused, concentrated, beamed radiation — directed at a star with a habitable-looking planet — has any hope of breaking through as a communication.

In fact, we have done this. In 1974, the very man who invented the Drake equation — with some help from Carl Sagan and others — fired off a message to the globular cluster of stars, M13. By the way — if you’re looking for pretty space pictures, my advice remains to google “planetary nebula”, but then — straight after you do — make sure to go ahead and Google “globular cluster” as well, because those things are very very pretty. A globular cluster is a decent target: they are essentially groups of stars that are much closer together than average, so, if you’re completely guessing as to whether anywhere might have a habitable planet — as we pretty much were in ’74 — then it’s a better place than most to guess that there might be a habitable planet, because there are so many stars in that region. But the message will take 25,000 years to arrive, and when it does, they’ll need some pretty good telescopes to distinguish it from a background signal. And far, far better ones if they’re going to work out what the message actually says.

What does the message say? Communicating with aliens is always a tricky one. We try to work out what we might have in common, and — maybe because physicists are often writing these messages — we assume that it’s physics. In fact, this is likely to be the only thing we do have in common with aliens — physics, and mathematics. There could be all kinds of bizarre differences between us that we can’t possibly comprehend — the usual portrayal of aliens as, essentially, weird megafauna of the kind you might find on a bizarro-Earth… it’s kind of unimaginative. They might not understand any of what we were trying to tell them. So the best way to communicate them was through mathematics, physics, and chemistry, which we assume to be more or less the same across the Universe. We list some numbers for the aliens; we give them graphics of humans, and also the chemical formula for DNA which could be of interest if it turns out that they’re made of something similar. And, helpfully, we also provide them a little sketch of the solar system with an indication of which planet sent the message: or, if you’re paranoid, AN INVASION MAP. These kind of pictoral and mathematical communications are our best hope, really. We should send them a Mandlebrot set or a fractal to show that we have an appreciation for the finer things.

Incidentally, I have to go on a brief aside here — one of the other (far, far less likely to be successful) attempts at communication was the golden record on the Voyager probe, which is currently sort-of exiting the solar system.

(There are LOTS and LOTS of definitions about where the solar system ends, and some of those boundaries technically move and change with time, so depending on who’s counting the Voyager probe has exited the solar system several times, as Randall Monroe of the xkcd comics points out.) Assuming that aliens have vinyl — and who knows, alien hipsters may well be a thing — they’ll be treated to greetings in all kinds of human languages, which will all be equally incomprehensible. In fact, if anything, if you think about how our scientists might try to ‘decode’ a new language… what you really need is a really big sample of ONE language, with consistent rules and vocabulary, rather than loads and loads of languages! That’s just confusing! But anyway…

But how it ended up working out was that they flagged down whoever they could find who was a native speaker of the language concerned, and told them to record a short greeting for extraterrestrials without a universal script. Which led to some pretty weird stuff being sent into space, depending on the sense of humour of the speaker.

The Bengali speaker was pretty positive:

• Bengali

“Hello! Let there be peace everywhere.”

The Hungarian greeting shows a degree of deserved pride in their notoriously difficult-to-learn language (hi, Viktorija!):

• Hungarian (Magyar)

“We are sending greetings in the Hungarian language to all peace-loving beings in the Universe.”

It’s like, yep. Greetings. And they’re in Hungarian. So deal with that.

The Gujarti speaker was maybe feeling a little bit lonely.

  • Gujarati
    “Greetings from a human being of the Earth. Please contact.”
  • Timmy. Darling Timmy. Please phone.

    The Greeks, meanwhile, display that they’re secretly spoiling for a fight.

    Greek
    “Greetings to you, whoever you are. We come in friendship to those who are friends.”

Yeah. Step to me and I’ll end you. Aliens, prepare to be Hellenized.

I don’t know if Indonesia got the memo, but the greeting is very sweet.

• Indonesian

“Good night ladies and gentlemen. Goodbye and see you next time.”

SLEEP WELL, ALIENS.

Whoever was in charge of Sweden’s message decided to make it all about themselves:

Swedish
“Greetings from a computer programmer in the little university town of Ithaca on the planet Earth”

So, you know, not a message from the whole species, or on behalf of the Swedish-speaking population. Just you. Okay. Fine. Leave us all out of it.

The Chinese extend an invitation on behalf of the whole species:

  • Mandarin Chinese
    “Hope everyone’s well. We are thinking about you all. Please come here to visit when you have time.”

You know, if you’re not too busy with alien stuff.

The Rajasthani speaker, on the other hand, is WAY, WAY LESS KEEN on it.

  • Rajasthani
    “Hello to everyone. We are happy here and you be happy there.”

I’ve drawn this line down the middle of the Galaxy…

I honestly can’t tell if the Turkish one is tongue-in-cheek or not, but I love it.

• Turkish

“Dear Turkish-speaking friends, may the honors of the morning be upon your heads.”


DEAR TURKISH-SPEAKING FRIENDS.

But everyone’s favourite message on the Voyager probe goes to the Amoy (Min dialect) from China.

• Amoy (Min dialect)

“Friends of space, how are you all? Have you eaten yet? Come visit us if you have time.”

You have essentially invited the aliens to eat us. And when they do, we all know who to blame

It’s okay, NASA justified this process beyond just giving nerds like me something fun to laugh about

After all, by sending a spaceship out of our solar system, we are making an effort to de-provincialize, to rise above our nationalistic interests and join a commonwealth of space-faring societies, if one exists.

but really how they *actually* justified it was as follows

We were principally concerned with the needs of people on Earth during this section of the recording. We recorded messages from populations all over the globe, each representative speaking in the language of his or her people, instead of sending greetings in one or two languages accompanied by keys for their decipherment.

Because really, those pragmatists at NASA know something that they could never admit to all of the poor people they corralled into recording greetings for aliens from outer space: the chances of aliens even detecting a powerful radio signal, travelling at the speed of light, aimed directly towards a likely star, is miniscule. The chances of them catching a PHYSICAL PROBE, dwarfed by the great vacuum of space, aimed waaaaaay out into the great wild yonder, that will take 40,000 years to even approach another star… it’s so, so unlikely that this will ever happen. The cross-section for capturing a tiny pebble that we flung out into space is miniscule. In all likelihood, the Voyager probe will drift forever, a speck in the eye of the cosmos, unseen by everyone. And it’s probably for the best — after all, based on those messages,they’ll probably get the accurate impression that humans are a confused hot mess.

END OF FREE CONTENT.



START PAID EPISODE

Hello, and welcome to this very very special bonus edition of the TEOWAWKI specials. If you’re listening to this, it probably means that you’re a Patreon subscriber, or an episode-purchaser, or you know someone who is — and I want to thank you from the very bottom of my cold, dead heart. When I first started this show, of course I had dreams, but I never really thought that people were likely to pay to listen to me witter on and on. Thank you, thank you, thank you. You make it possible.

So in the first part of the free episode, we talked about the mathematical reason why UFO sightings are very, very unlikely to be real. And in the rest of this episode, we’ll discuss specific encounters and incidents that are very, very unlikely to be real — and talk about *why* people are so willing to believe in this stuff.

We also talked about the Voyager space-probe, and how the communications aboard that probe are unlikely ever to be found. This is for the same reason that all UFO reports are so damn unlikely: sending physical objects through the vast sweep of outer space is really, really, really difficult. And it’s far from the most efficient way to communicate.

We can assume that aliens have better ways of detecting likely planets for life than our feeble attempts to signal to them, or our inadvertent broadcasts of Test Match Special that might make it out across the Universe… like, for example, what we do, which is looking for evidence of oxygen or water vapour in the atmosphere that might be indicative of the kind of conditions that would give rise to life. The advantage of this method is that then you have a far greater window for aliens to find us — any time during the last x million years when the Earth’s atmosphere had a similar overall composition — and flag us down as one of the Young Planets to Watch. But if they’ve identified us long ago, they might well hold off on communication for some time — until we’re both sophisticated enough to be worth talking to, and peaceful — or else the timelines might not sync up correctly. Think of it this way: even if they found us, and wanted to observe us, and had a way of doing so, or they wanted to communicate… their observations of us would almost certainly lag what’s actually happening on the ground by thousands of years, at the very least. Possibly millions of years. This is all because of the finite speed of light, which seems to be an upper limit for all communications, for reasons of causality. So, as far as they could possibly know, we still don’t even have written language. Not worth texting, then.

Even our attempts to search for communications from aliens have been limited. SETI, founded amongst others by Drake, has borrowed time on radio telescopes — and over the course of this we’ve found some pretty interesting astrophysical phenomena — but nothing that suggests a sustained attempt to communicate with us. Drake, at age 87, is still with us as I write this; I believe his logical argument that it’s likely there are aliens out there somewhere, but I think his attempt to search for communications has been fruitless and will continue to be fruitless for a long time. His precise numbers — assuming a civilization length of 10,000 years — suggest that there could be 1 in ten million stars that might have orbiting civilizations which would be interested in communication. (Of course, it could be billions of times less than that and there would still be intelligent life somewhere out there…) And SETI has only searched a few thousand, for a few minutes at a time, assuming that they have found us and want to talk to us as well.



And it’s ultimately this distance question that every UFO enthusiast has to answer. If you take your hypothesis that aliens not only know about Earth, but have visited us — that at least one UFO sighting is genuine — to be true, then there are all kinds of implications. What are the chances that this is the first visit, and that none of the previous visits left any kind of evidence? And why can’t we see evidence of their presence in outer space? Any species that’s that technologically advanced might well start “astro-engineering” — that is to say, moving stars and planets to their own advantage. We can imagine that, perhaps, in the future, we’d want to manouver stars to exploit them as the ultimate sources of energy for our civilization; yet, if the Galaxy is swarming with aliens, why haven’t we seen any evidence of this? And why on Earth do aliens behave in the bizarre ways that they seem to in all of these visitations? What are their motivations? If they have come out of curiosity or tourism to observe us — any species that has mastered interstellar travel would be more than capable of completely concealing itself from us, if that’s what they wanted to do. There would also be absolutely no feasible reason for aliens to abduct individual humans and return them to Earth: they would be capable of understanding everything possible about our biology through non-invasive means; humans are practically already there. Believing these stories requires some pretty perverse beliefs about the nature of things.

If you believe that at least one UFO encounter was real, then the burden of proof is all on you. You have to deal with the unavoidable fact that there are dozens of reported UFO sightings, many of which have been explained away by things like military tests, rare atmospheric phenomenon, or the Moon. This leads you to a kind of Bayesian logic: what’s the probability that my event is also not actually aliens? It must be pretty damn high, because if your thesis is that only 1–2 UFO sightings are real, then you have to explain away the fact that there are hundreds of cases where people are mistaken, lying, or mentally ill… and somehow give evidence that your specific case couldn’t be one of these three. And if you believe that most UFO sightings are real, then you really have to explain — since we’re so swarmed with aliens all the time — why they aren’t walking among us constantly. I mean, it just gets ridiculous.

You have to believe that, okay, aliens know about us and can easily navigate here — but rather than actually trying to communicate with the species, they just randomly torment specific individuals by swooping down, showing off some bright and completely unnecessary lights, and then buzzing off again. In the Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Ford Prefect calls it “buzzing” — great fun, you go down to a primitive planet, show them a whole bunch of flashing lights, maybe pick up some poor sap and strap some antenna to your head and go ooga booga at them… When alien pranksters is your best explanation for these kinds of ridiculous stories, you know you’re in trouble. Because, although it’s a funny story, I doubt anyone’s spending hundreds of thousands of years travelling across an interstellar wasteland to baffle us with a few crop circles.

Any particular individual story you want to focus on has a ludicrous number of holes in it. For example — perhaps the most famous ‘UFO’ case of all time — the Roswell air balloon crash in 1947. A balloon, that was really up there to monitor nuclear weapons testing, crashed in New Mexico; the US Government lied and said it was a weather balloon. The fact that it was really a nuclear weapons monitor balloon meant that there was some unusual debris, and the government acted slightly shadier than usual around it… there was a tiny bit of hullaballoo in the local news… and then, nothing, for thirty years.

This is kind of interesting; actually, 1947 was a peak year for people seeing ‘flying saucers’ — including an official investigation by the Swedish government into them. Obviously geopolitics in 1947 meant that there were two major powers who probably were experimenting with all kinds of aerial weapons that might well have been kept a secret from the public, such as missiles — which were new onto the scene of warfare with the Nazi V1 and V2 rockets of a few years before. And this also goes to show us another huge factor that feeds into these accounts: mass hysteria, and cultural suggestions. In 1947, there was a spate of reported sightings of “flying saucers” because there was a lot of buzz in the media about “flying saucers”.

*Saucers? YOU MEAN THE KIND FROM UP THERE?*

Ditto the fact that aliens are “little grey men” almost universally; these images somehow become pervasive and so when people have unusual experiences, or see something strange, the power of suggestion leads them to interpret these experiences in the same way: it must be a flying saucer. And then there’s the fact that, in a population large enough, you are statistically bound to have a few crackpots, attention-seekers, and liars; and all of these people are incentivised to report seeing the same thing as everybody else.

But Roswell caused almost no fuss and was barely discussed for thirty years; and when the story re-emerged, a lot of it was subject to the same kind of mutual reinforcement. One person involved would report seeing ‘things that were not of this world’ — and then it gradually evolved into seeing ‘alien bodies’. Elderly witnesses involved were pretty much hounded by Roswell and UFO investigators, determined to obtain evidence for their cash-in books, and in some cases agreed with what they were told. In other cases, the people concerned were unreliable for other reasons, with histories of exaggerations and embellishments. And you’d think that — just one of them might have considered telling their families at the time, or even just writing it in a diary… Some of them have declared that they were photographed with “alien material” that later turned out to be from… a weather balloon. There are plenty of psychological effects at play in the intervening thirty years that could lead people to believe that they saw things they didn’t, even if you believe that everyone concerned is on the level. People’s minds confabulate to fill in the gaps; and, in this state, people are very suggestible. As another physicist once said — if Roswell really is the most convincing case that UFO-logists have, then they should be very worried.

Completely ignoring the fact that there are dozens of stories about this nonsense, all of which contradict each other in major ways and contain gaping holes. The major one for me being — really? A civilization has interstellar travel — they’re capable of travelling across thousands of light years — and then they *crash* their spaceship because it was struck by lightning? And they’re all killed in the crash? Give me a break. We have planes today that don’t crash when they’re struck by lightning and we are far, far, far from technologically advanced enough to travel even throughout our own solar system, let alone between the stars.

The thing that frustrates me with some of these conspiracy theorists is how obvious it is that they want to believe, and the flagrant willingness to disregard so much common sense. If I claimed that I was abducted by super-intelligent monsters from under the sea, no-one would believe it — because there isn’t much cultural drive behind sea monsters abducting people. Yet in many ways, it’s far more likely; I mean — we know there’s life on this planet, and that intelligent life has evolved here at least once — and we still haven’t explored the depths of the Marianas trench…

They are willing to contort reality to such an extent that they can believe we’re visited by these incredibly technologically advanced creatures — and yet the only evidence is the dubious account of a single lumberjack who stood to gain financially from his nonsense. I can understand not trusting the government; but anyone who was able to prove these quite incredible claims has a huge incentive to do so, and not to cover it up. And I can’t understand how the testimony of so many reasonable people and experts can be wilfully ignored in favour of one or two singularly unreliable accounts — how sceptical people are of anything that contradicts the story, and how credulous they are when it comes to things that might support it. Extraordinary claims need extraordinary evidence. A lot of people are biased beyond belief in their approach to evaluating that evidence. But, you know, that won’t stop amazing publications like the Daily Express publishing as a headline that “an alien did crash in Roswell in 1947, but the truth would end the world.” Give me a break. People will dare to publish *this* as the account of an expert and then ignore genuine scientists who’ve studied in their field for years…

People will believe extraordinary stories with very little evidence, and they will refuse to believe stories with masses of evidence that are so inconvenient to them. On that article, 80% of the people surveyed said that they thought Roswell was a US government coverup; and Time/CNN polling in the 1990s showed that a MAJORITY of people surveyed thought that it was a genuine alien crash-landing. And I don’t understand how, if you believe that, it doesn’t completely change how you approach your life — how it’s not one of the most important issues out there; how you wouldn’t want to critically evaluate the evidence and its consequences for yourself. And how you then believe that, for example, the entire organization of NASA can universally cover up the existence of aliens; when the President of the United States couldn’t conceal the fact that he ordered a burglary, and anyone who provided the world with proof that aliens existed would become instantly incredibly wealthy, famous, and renowned… As with all conspiracy theories, Occam’s Razor comes into it, and a far simpler explanation is the one that… you know… most people believe.

There was a brilliant article published in The Atlantic in September 2017, by Kurt Andersen, called “How America Lost Its Mind”, which I urge you to go and read. Obviously it’s filtered through a left-wing lens, but some of the talking points are interesting for everyone:

“Only a third strongly disbelieve in telepathy and ghosts. Two-thirds of Americans believe that “angels and demons are active in the world.” More than half say they’re absolutely certain heaven exists. A third of us believe not only that global warming is no big deal but that it’s a hoax perpetrated by scientists, the government, and journalists. A third believe that our earliest ancestors were humans just like us; that the government has, in league with the pharmaceutical industry, hidden evidence of natural cancer cures; that extraterrestrials have visited or are visiting Earth. Almost a quarter believe that vaccines cause autism, and that Donald Trump won the popular vote in 2016. A quarter believe that our previous president maybe or definitely was (or is?) the anti-Christ. According to a survey by Public Policy Polling, 15 percent believe that the “media or the government adds secret mind-controlling technology to television broadcast signals,” and another 15 percent think that’s possible. A quarter of Americans believe in witches. Why? The short answer is because we’re Americans — because being American means we can believe anything we want; that our beliefs are equal or superior to anyone else’s, experts be damned. Once people commit to that approach, the world turns inside out, and no cause-and-effect connection is fixed. The credible becomes incredible and the incredible credible.”

Later on, he talks about some of the reasons:

“The great unbalancing and descent into full Fantasyland was the product of two momentous changes. The first was a profound shift in thinking that swelled up in the ’60s; since then, Americans have had a new rule written into their mental operating systems: Do your own thing, find your own reality, it’s all relative.

The second change was the onset of the new era of information. Digital technology empowers real-seeming fictions of the ideological and religious and scientific kinds. Among the web’s 1 billion sites, believers in anything and everything can find thousands of fellow fantasists, with collages of facts and “facts” to support them. Before the internet, crackpots were mostly isolated, and surely had a harder time remaining convinced of their alternate realities. Now their devoutly believed opinions are all over the airwaves and the web, just like actual news. Now all of the fantasies look real.

Today, each of us is freer than ever to custom-make reality, to believe whatever and pretend to be whoever we wish. Which makes all the lines between actual and fictional blur and disappear more easily. Truth in general becomes flexible, personal, subjective. And we like this new ultra-freedom, insist on it, even as we fear and loathe the ways so many of our wrongheaded fellow Americans use it.”

I think it’s important for me to point out a few things here, even while I say that I broadly agree with what’s in the article. Firstly: you’re within your rights to believe whatever you want, but not to have those beliefs utterly free from criticism. When the fact that we are all constructing our own reality impacts other people, you can no longer say that people’s beliefs are unimpeachable. And if you think that’s sacrilege, consider what you’d do about a paranoid schizophrenic who believes that they must kill their family members because they’ve been replaced by sinister doubles. Such a person’s beliefs must be challenged and cannot be enabled. And from there, it’s just a question of where you draw the line.

Secondly: I think we are *all* guilty of constructing our own reality and our own worldview, and selectively rejecting evidence that contradicts it and embracing evidence that supports it. We have to do this, to stay sane. Can you honestly tell me you’ve never convinced yourself of something that later turned out to be untrue, because it made your life easier to think that way? Can you honestly tell me now that everything you currently believe is based entirely on logic, factual observations, and not at all on emotions? This isn’t true for me *at all*. And maybe it shouldn’t be for anyone. Maybe no one can live like that. But I think it’s ignorant and wrongheaded to call people stupid for their beliefs. They may well be wrong. But there’s at least one Nobel Laureate in Physics who believes in extrasensory perception. He’s certainly not stupid. But he may well be deluding himself. Which we’re all very, very good at doing.

Thirdly: science is not a religion. That doesn’t mean some people don’t *treat* it like a religion, referring to the authority of “science” for all of the answers in the same way as zealots might refer to scripture. This should hardly be encouraged. And this doesn’t mean that it has all of the answers. It deals in the realm of provable things; testable predictions; observations of reality that can support or provide evidence against theories. If the overwhelming mass of evidence supports a theory, it is favoured; if it does not, the theory is discarded. The ‘beliefs’ are just ‘best guesses’ based on what we know. The guesses have to be logically, internally consistent; and they have to be consistent with the evidence; but that covers a lot of space.

Take the mass of the W boson. If it’s a little more, the Sun burned out millions of years ago. If it’s a little less, it’s not bright enough to warm the Earth. On such tiny parameters the Universe often seems to hang.
Some physicists will look at how fine-tuned the parameters of the cosmos are and see it as evidence that there is a deity. Others will say it’s clear proof we’re in a simulation. Others will say that the anthropic principle applies: we can only observe universes that seem fine-tuned for us to exist, or we wouldn’t observe them. But the PHYSICAL OBSERVATIONS — the science — don’t say anything about that. They just tell you the mass of the W boson, and what that means. All philosophical interpretations attached are your own.

But I think the fact that so many people believe in conspiracy theories should be troubling. Whether it’s symptomatic of an individualism that has gone too far — this belief that everyone’s opinion is equally valid, regardless of how many years they’ve spent studying something — or some deeper part of the human psyche… the fundamental irrationality that is necessary to survive in a Universe that would seem too hostile without it… I don’t know. Clearly the roots of conspiracy thinking arise from human psychology; the desire to believe that there must be more than this, than the surface explanations of the world; the desire to be part of an in-group, with special knowledge, and to be correct where others are wrong. But I will take the overwhelming consensus of scientists, and common sense, over the conspiracy theories; in just the same way as I would trust medical science to treat me if I was sick and not some ebook from the darkest corner of the web.

I love some of these stories as much as anyone else. And I love science fiction as much as anybody else — it’s one of the things that got me into physics in the first place. But there was a movement in science fiction — Mundane SF — where the idea was, let’s just restrict science fiction to the things that we know for sure can happen. It rarely involves interstellar travel or communication with alien civilization. The genre’s writers believe that warp drives, worm holes, and other forms of faster-than-light travel are scientific fantasies rather than serious speculation about a possible future. Mundane science fiction writers believe it’s unlikely that alien intelligence will overcome the physical constraints on interstellar travel any better than we can. As such, Mundane science fiction writers imagine a future on Earth and within the solar system and believe it’s highly unlikely that intelligent life survives elsewhere in this solar system.


And while these people are evidently some of the biggest killjoys ever to have lived, it’s also true that — as far as we know — this is the kind of view of reality we can expect. In the highly unlikely event that alien civilizations can contact us now, or have done in the last few hundred years, we’re far more likely to expect some kind of radio signals — which could take thousands of years between messages in the signals. I know what you’re thinking: this is a TEOTWAWKI special — so where is the end of the world?

Well, there is one hypothesis that is pretty chilling. Remember the idea of self-replicating nanotechnology destroying the world — the “grey goo” scenario?

This has been proposed as the most likely way of contacting alien life — you take a fairly simple kind of probe. What it can do is locate the things that make it — iron, or whatever — fly over to them, and start self-replicating. You can imagine that the probes would spread slowly at first — but they could multiply exponentially, until there were zillions of the things flying around. If you released one that didn’t care much about whether the planet it was strip-mining was habitable or not, you can imagine that it might kill whatever civilization was on that planet. Which means that the first species to invent a Von Neumann probe and release it on its journey of unstoppable reproduction and exploration… well, they could have doomed lots of other life-forms to extinction, in the ultimate cosmological dick move. And, you know, this would explain why there’s a Fermi paradox, and why we don’t see signals from intelligent life… maybe the probes have wiped them all out. MAYBE THEY’RE JUST AROUND THE CORNER.

This is one of those impossible probabilities to assess — we haven’t seen any evidence for these probes, and can only hope that any species advanced enough to develop them would also have a working knowledge of Wheaton’s law. But it’s still worth mentioning; I had a conversation the other day about TEOTWAWKI and my friend advised me that “It’s worth talking about this as a possibility; just so that, in case it happens, you can ring everyone up and say “I told you so” before dying in a horrible inferno.” So; just imagine it; you’re having breakfast and you see the probes raining from the sky, and your final thought is “I spent too much time listening to podcasts.”

So while I can look up and feel fairly confident that there is some kind of intelligent life, somewhere out there, beyond all the stars I can see… I can also feel pretty sure that the chances I’ll ever have a chat with one of them are astronomically slim. If it was easy, it would have been done already. I think it will always be one of those questions — like whether humans genuinely have free will, or if we’re all living in a computer simulation — that a lot of people… won’t understand the fascination with. And in some ways, they’re right, because — yes or no — it doesn’t affect all that much in our day-to-day lives, and is unlikely to in the future. But then again, if you only care about things that affect you in the day-to-day world… there’s a lack of imagination there. I think the Universe is surely infinitely more rich if we imagine that it could be teeming with millions upon millions of civilizations, different to us in ways that we can’t possibly imagine, even if most of them are incapable of communicating with each other. It’s sad, in so many ways. My best chances of meeting an alien are to take vast amounts of hallucinogenic drugs and go walking under the aurora. Which, if nothing else, sounds like fun.