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Are Habitable Exoplanets Bad News For Humanity? 608

An anonymous reader writes "The discovery of Kepler-186f last week has dusted off an interesting theory regarding the fate of humanity and the link between that fate and the possibility of life on other planets. Known as the The Great Filter, this theory attempts to answer the Fermi Paradox (why we haven't found other complex life forms anywhere in our vast galaxy) by introducing the idea of an evolutionary bottleneck which would make the emergence of a life form capable of interstellar colonization statistically rare. As scientists gear up to search for life on Kepler-186f, some people are wondering if humanity has already gone through The Great Filter and miraculously survived or if it's still on our horizon and may lead to our extinction."
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Are Habitable Exoplanets Bad News For Humanity?

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  • by werepants ( 1912634 ) on Thursday April 24, 2014 @06:07PM (#46836405)

    If Kepler-186f is teeming with intelligent life, then that would be really bad news for humanity because it would push back the Great Filter’s position further into the technological stages of a civilization’s development. This would imply that catastrophe awaits both us and our extraterrestrial companions.

    No it wouldn't, because then Fermi's Paradox is solved - Fermi's Paradox exists because we Earthicans are, by all appearances thus far, the only life that exists, intelligent or otherwise. If the first exoplanet we manage to check harbors intelligent life, then it would suggest that there is a lot of intelligent life out there, and it is just effing hard to communicate and travel over interstellar distances.

  • by Aereus ( 1042228 ) on Thursday April 24, 2014 @06:09PM (#46836433)

    The biggest issue I see happening is, we've used up all of the "easy resources" on the planet. So if for some reason we have some kind of global conflict that significantly sets back civilization/technology, we may lose our chance of ever exploring space.

    Trying to rebuild our industrial technology back up from scratch when the required resources are gone, require advanced processing, or the rest is now 5 miles deep; might make it impossible in any meaningful timeframe.

  • by ( 919212 ) on Thursday April 24, 2014 @06:28PM (#46836585)
    The basic problem with the Fermi Paradox is this, we don't really have a technology we ourselves would reliably use to communicate between stars, thus the fact that we can't find alien civilizations using a technology we wouldn't use proves nothing. Arguably the whole radio search is a waste of time since we have no reason to believe we will find anything, indeed we have one reason to believe we won't! For all we know, there could be lots of miniature alien probes all over our solar system right now, or maybe they communicate with wormholes, or it is impractical to communicate long distances, or who knows? Basically, we really don't even know what we are looking for in the first place, so the Paradox falls on it's face for lack of information.
  • by Intrepid imaginaut ( 1970940 ) on Thursday April 24, 2014 @06:39PM (#46836679)

    In a mere couple of thousand years we've managed to move from "indoor plumbing lolwut" for most of the planet to space flight and fast cheap intercontinental travel. I'd say we're doing pretty well.

    As for the great filter, one need only look at the number of mass extinctions that have occurred naturally. Even should the conditions for life as we know it be relatively common (as in life capable of interstellar exploration, not just subsisting under fifty kilometers of ice), the odds of intelligent life arising might be a tiny fraction of that. There could be an enormous array of variables in play, maybe local galactic conditions have only recently matured sufficiently to allow life to exist. Maybe we could simply be freak occurrences. Maybe nobody has managed to figure out FTL travel and they'll get round to us in a few millennia. Maybe nobody's got listening posts within the couple of light years it takes for our radio noise to peter out.

    Am I saying the Drake Equation is almost certainly full of shit? Why yes I am.

  • by CrimsonAvenger ( 580665 ) on Thursday April 24, 2014 @06:42PM (#46836709)

    If we need them (and have dug them all up), we can't mine them from the ground, but we can mine them from the landfills and buildings, like some are doing with copper now.

    It should be noted that as recently as WW2, Italy was "mining" the slag heaps from Roman-era iron mines. It had more iron in it than any remaining, easily accessible ore bodies in Italy.

  • by kheldan ( 1460303 ) on Thursday April 24, 2014 @06:50PM (#46836785) Journal
    You're far too kind. By the way the human race is behaving currently, we don't deserve to get off this dirtball anytime soon. For fuck's sake, look at us! We hurt and kill each other for stupid reasons. We have entire cultures that consider women (and others!) to be less than a human being. We have assholes who attack, seriously (and profoundly!) injure and kill little girls because they have the audacity to want to learn how to read and write. We haven't proven we can adequately care for the environment of the planet of our origin, why should we be allowed another viable planet to screw up?

    So far as I'm concerned it's a good thing we're far from the point where we can reach and colonize other planets because it's clear we're just not ready and won't be for quite some time to come. Hell, I wouldn't be surprised if our galaxy is teeming with intelligent, starfaring races, and they've quarantined us because we're so fucked up and shouldn't be let loose on the galaxy.
  • by MetricT ( 128876 ) on Thursday April 24, 2014 @06:51PM (#46836799)

    We've seen fossils of simple (prokaryotic, bacterial) life that are at least 3.8 billion years old. Basically the instant it became possible for single-cell life to exist, it did. That suggests that simple life is *easy*.

    It took evolution roughly a billion years to produce eukaryotic life, suggesting that step is hard. It also took 2 billion more years to produce a eukaryotic lifeform capable of space flight, suggesting that step is also hard.

    The sun is predicted to make life on earth impossible in roughly ~1 billion years. An oops anywhere earlier in the process, and evolution wouldn't have had time to recover. We're lucky to exist.

    So my suspicion is that the universe is relatively teeming with simple life anywhere it is possible (there are tentative signs that there *might* be life on Mars and possibly Titan too) but complex life is much rarer, rare enough that it's not surprised we haven't found any yet.

    Also, wanting to communicate and explore is inherently a human desire, and whatever neo-human-cyber-whatever descendants emerge from the Singularity might not have the same desires. And I can predict their desires much more accurately than I could an aliens.

  • by Firethorn ( 177587 ) on Thursday April 24, 2014 @07:06PM (#46836935) Homepage Journal

    Life itself is the 'original' Von Neumann machines...

    My theory on it is a bit different: If you posit that travel is indeed restricted to 'slow' speeds, IE 1-2% of light speed, and that habitable planets are rare enough that they're quite far apart, you run into that travel between solar systems with habitable planets can take sufficient time for significant amounts of evolution to take place.

    Summary: By the time the generation ship manages to reach the new system, it's significantly likely to have evolved to be more suited to live in space, not a planet. At which point it concentrates on colonizing the asteroid belt and such, not bothering with the planet that so interested their ancestors.

    Alternatively: We're becoming more and more concerned with conservation today. If this is a common function of intelligent life, our system could have been identified as a potential life-evolving one millions and millions of years ago and declared a nature preserve or something, in the hope that something like us would evolve.

  • by jafac ( 1449 ) on Thursday April 24, 2014 @08:10PM (#46837385) Homepage

    Even if the "Great Filter" exists; even if it were 99.999% effective at wiping out civilizations, that would still mean there have been billions of years, for billions of civilizations to arise, and of those billions, perhaps tens of thousands survived to colonize space.

    This is why I believe in the Zoo Hypothesis.

  • by Your.Master ( 1088569 ) on Thursday April 24, 2014 @08:50PM (#46837609)

    One, they got to the moon even faster with Communism! Nobody ever invented fire for the first time in 200 years. That's a ridiculous argument.

    Two, I don't know on what basis you claim capitalism started 200 years ago. In what sense was the Roman empire not capitalistic? Or the "barbarians" that opposed the Roman Empire? The Phoenicians are infamous ancient traders.

  • by gweihir ( 88907 ) on Thursday April 24, 2014 @09:09PM (#46837727)

    Actually, if you count deaths from malnutrition (overweight and starvation), lack of access to clean water and medication, etc. that balance tips in the other direction, and significantly so.

  • by The Grim Reefer ( 1162755 ) on Thursday April 24, 2014 @11:39PM (#46838355)

    Helium is "manufactured" by radioactive decay underground. Also, He is unnecessary for life. You only need it if you want a funny voice, or poor lift from something less flammable than H. Aside from some uses as a coolant, we wouldn't lose much if there was no He left.

    Helium has a lot more uses that you seem to understand. Particularly as a superconductor (not a coolant). Without it there would be no high field MRI scanners. As far as I know, there are not permanent magnet MRI scanners above .3T. The standard MRI in hospitals are 1.5T and 3T are becoming very common. These both require He. The 3T magnets use a lot of it. Particle accelerators need He, as do mag-Lev trains, rail-guns, etc. Obviously these aren't things that mankind can't live without. But unless we can find a suitable replacement to use as a superconductor, it will set back a lot of science and other advances.

  • by VortexCortex ( 1117377 ) <(VortexCortex) ( ...> on Friday April 25, 2014 @02:05AM (#46838779)

    Oh Yeah? Well in the 1970's and 80's I was using BBSs. Without any government or corporations we organized an email system called Fidonet because the design by committee ARPANET was taking too damn long. We used "best effort" packet routing too, store and forward via overlapping local calling areas.

    I won't go into details because some things may or may not have been kosher with the FCC, but a country-wide free anonymous wireless mesh network based on the same community design is also possible. It's too bad that Shortwave radios require licenses, because we have channel hopping and spread spectrum tech now, and can drop the gain to match data rate to allow channel reuse. A real shame the government won't give the public at least a deregulated section of each class of signal to use -- Spectrum is a public resource. Using a similar system for routing that ARPANET and Fidonet used and incrementing "hop counters" we could have the network self organize better routes, and heal. Store and forward means you pull from peers, get free collocation, no centralized bottle necks. Free anonymous wireless mesh would certainly fall afoul of the FCC regulations and Pentagon anti-activism spying initiatives) which expressly forbid store and forward use over wireless. It would be another 10 years before Distributed Hash Tables would be invented largely to facilitate Software Piracy, much as piracy was a significant component of the BBS boom, and was directly responsible for the Demoscene and countless contributions to SIGGraph and their graphical tricks made their way from impressive "cracked by" scrollers to the video game Industry. []

    Now NASA has finally gotten on board and is working on protocols for the Space Internet: Delay Tolerant Networking -- Store and Forward. For the past 25 years we have had the technology to never have service fees for our online wireless data, but it is prevented because commercial interests would rather charge $1,638.00 per megabyte of text messages. You could buy your transceiver, and join the mesh. Bigger cache and antenna, faster connection. Point to point links could be organized by community ran non-profits just like Fidonet was (and still is ran in 3rd world countries, because your "commercial" and "government" interests don't give a damn about brown people). The more people downloading a resource? The MORE AVAILABLE it is -- No congestion issues. No "Slashdot Effect".

    The Internet is a nice design but it wasn't the only game in town. Were it not for long distance fees and government oppression of wireless spectrum the Internet might never have come to be, and no one would be paying hundreds of dollars a month and getting bandwidth capped and overage charges and increased fees, AND content-provider protection racketed (see Netflix v Comcast "fast lane" BS). Bits are actually getting cheaper now than ever before, and the price they charge is increasing. The Web of Data Silohs is fucking moronic, and the folks who designed the centralized web were far from geniuses. [] I have a whole garage full of innovative equipment that can revolutionize the way we use data: A Distributed File System (originally designed for the wireless mesh) and cross platform OS made from scratch to utilize the decentralized Internet / mesh to its fullest. Guess what? I'm scared to even show anyone because the corporate anti-competitive patent trolls.

    The Internet's days are numbered. Store and forward means no spying on your browsing. The idea that a piece of "data" resides at a "URL" on a "Server" is fucking stupid. "Files" are just human readable names linked to a hash-code, on ZFS and BTRFS as it art in Bittorrent. The info hash can prevent link rot. "Websites" are unnecessary bottlenecks. Sign your content with your PGP key and let everyone have it, we never needed a centralized server system. The w

  • by fyngyrz ( 762201 ) on Friday April 25, 2014 @04:19AM (#46839073) Homepage Journal

    If you want to call Alcatraz Island a continent, yeah. Otherwise, no.

    Facts for you nuke hysteria types: So far, over two *thousand* nukes have been set off. On the ground. Over 500 in the atmosphere alone. In space. Under water. On the water. Underground. And, newsflash: No continents were lost. Many of these nukes were of considerable size; the Soviets had the record at 50 megatons in one shot, but that's not to say others weren't trying. Total nukage set off so far, about 600 megatons (conservatively.)

    Face it: Nukes surely do make big bangs compared to conventional explosives, and blown open power plants tend to make good sized parks as everyone runs screaming (although note the wildlife seems to do ok, all things considered), but in reality, nothing much significant happens consequent to a single actual nuke or power plant failure. Certainly not in proportion to civilization in general. And certainly not at the scale of continents.

    Another fact: There's more crap in the air you should be worried about from burning coal than there is from all man made nuclear activity, ever.

    We now return you to your regular channel, "The Hysteria Show"

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