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Alien life could be so advanced it becomes indistinguishable from physics (nautil.us)
415 points by dnetesn on Nov 19, 2016 | hide | past | web | favorite | 158 comments



Reminds me a bit of one of the points of the book Death's End (third part of the Three Body Problem trilogy by Cixin Liu).

A small spoiler follows.

The point raised in this book is - the Earth looks much different thanks to life it has than it would without it. Consider e.g. mountains that erode slower because there are forests and foliage that disperse the wind. Would it not be the case that advanced alien life existing in the universe also affects its evolution? So what if some of the physics we study is actually not how the universe looked at the start? Could the speed of light have changed because of aliens weaponizing physics in past wars? Could the curled up dimensions string theory postulates be actually be another consequence of powerful entities doing wide-scale manipulation of the universe? Maybe initially, before life, the universe actually had 11 full, expanded spatial dimensions?

I do highly recommend the book.


> So what if some of the physics we study is actually not how the universe looked at the start? Could the speed of light have changed because of aliens weaponizing physics in past wars?

Yeah I thought all those stars looked suspicious.

http://diyhpl.us/~bryan/papers2/physics/astrophysics/Starivo...

http://diyhpl.us/~bryan/papers2/physics/astrophysics/black-h...

http://diyhpl.us/~bryan/papers2/physics/astrophysics/The%20m... (starting at page 203, chapter 9)

http://www.xenology.info/Xeno.htm

previously on HN, https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=10252222

http://diyhpl.us/wiki/transcripts/seti-megastructures-jason-...


It would be quite funny if it turned out that religious people were sorta right and our visible universe is just a cell in some other dimensions' creature butt, for example.


Ultimately right, but for the very wrong reasons :). Happens sometimes. See e.g. Galileo.


The idea of changing the physics of the universe occurs several places in sci fi. E.g. the Heechee Saga has the Heechee hide themselves behond the event horizon of a black hole after they discover that some civilization appears to have made changes to the universe in order to trigger a big crunch followed by a new big bang with physics more to thir own liking.


See also Azimov's "The Gods Themselves".


Also; "The Last Question" by the same author. Its a short story with a similar premise.


The Xeelee Sequence deals with similarly ambitious plans for the universe.


yeah, the book was pretty mind blowing. That book blew my mind the way reading Philip K Dick did when I was 16. I didn't think books could do that anymore. I recommend this book to anyone who wants a further exploration of the ideas mentioned in this article.


You should try the short story "Story of Your Life" by Ted Chiang. Just finished reading it, it's the story that Arrival is based on. Haven't seen the movie yet, but the story managed to blow my mind in the same way Death's End did.


Bad news, the film is unwatchable if you know the plot. At least it was for me.


"Stories of Your Life and Others" Ted Chiang


On the off chance that there is any confusion, the story itself is titled "Story of Your Life," and it is also part of a collection of short stories published as "Stories of Your Life."


Is it possible to read the book without reading the first two parts beforehand?


naw, it's a 3-book long novel and none of the story would make sense without the first 2. The first 2 are good too


Death's End? I think it is, but previous books are amazing too.


> Could the curled up dimensions string theory postulates be actually be another consequence of powerful entities doing wide-scale manipulation of the universe?

So what you are saying is that there is a chance Godlike beings with advanced mastery over physics could exist?


Godlike power is a function of technology and what the universe allows. The universe allows for splitting atoms, and thus we've packaged that ability into a bomb that's l̶i̶k̶e̶ ̶L̶a̶n̶g̶h̶o̶r̶n̶e̶'̶s̶ ̶o̶w̶n̶ ̶R̶a̶k̶u̶r̶a̶i̶ a bigger direct display of power than almost anything the God of the Bible did post deluge.

Or consider we've fucked up the climate change problem and Earth suffers from runaway global warming. We all die. 500 years from now, an alien probe from Proxima Centauri passes through the Solar System. The aliens would see Earth and wonder how a Venus-like planet formed in (what we call) a habitable zone. Maybe they'd end up reconsidering their models of planetary evolution ("Surely it couldn't be aliens", they'd say, "that's ridiculous! There's no proof of other life out there except our own!").

Maybe the wide-scale manipulation of what we today consider fundamental physics is possible. Surely, a lot of popularly accepted sci-fi technologies would be able to do that if one would follow them to their obvious conclusions at scale (one shovel can dig you a ditch; a thousand shovels will dig you a great canal). And if it is possible, what's to say it hasn't already happened?


> Godlike power is a function of technology and what the universe allows.

Your comment reminded me of Author C. Clarke's third law:

3. Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Clarke's_three_laws


If you read the article, you'd notice that this reference is made in one of the first few sentences.


Note that Venus is in what we call a habitable zone.

So is Mars.


Thanks for the correction! I hope the general intent of my example is still somewhat clear though.


We should send carbon sequestration probes and contaminate it with life.


first thing i thought of too. really amazing book, though i think book 2 was the best of the three.


Whole article in a sentence:

"These possibilities might seem wholly untestable, because part of the conceit is that sufficiently advanced life will not just be unrecognizable as such, but will blend completely into the fabric of what we’ve thought of as nature. But viewed through the warped bottom of a beer glass, we can pick out a few cosmic phenomena that—at crazy as it sounds—might fit the requirements."

Meh :-)


What were the things?


You don't like beer?


Any sufficiently advanced new age theory is indistinguishable from rubbish.


Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from physical reality.


This is nothing but speculation, and represents the nullification of science by providing the answer: "It's Aliens!" It is functionally equivalent to arguing for intelligent design.


All science starts with speculation. The problem with the intelligent design 'hypothesis' from a scientific perspective is that it's not a testable hypothesis, and is therefore metaphysics, not science.

Dark matter as intelligence substrate is a testable hypothesis (though not to our present instruments), although there is no evidence to support the theory right now.

These two propositions are quite different, and there's nothing wrong with a bit of idle speculation, as long as one keeps in mind that it is unlikely to accrue evidence either way in our lifetimes. (Though I suppose inasmuch as our physical theories gain understanding of dark matter as a strictly physical process, that does reduce space for the 'dark matter as information-substrate' hypothesis even further).


Edit

Disclaimer: I am no expert on either ID or evolution theory. Most of my info comes from reading Meyer and Dembski, who are both pioneers of ID, so I'm clearly biased. Please take anything I say with a grain of salt.

Original comment:

Oh, and when did evolution theory come up with a "testable hypothesis" (not a simulation) for stuff like protein evolution, the Cambrian explosion, and DGRNs? Because until evolutionists can fully explain and demonstrate how and why the above don't contradict with the current model, evolution theory also reduces to metaphysics.

You can't claim that your theory is "proven" when there are aspects of biology that don't fit with your theory. It's like saying gravitation is true when there is 1 m^2 of area on Earth where gravity breaks down.


ID is a political movement. It's marketing, not science. Their goal is to increase the credibility of religious demagogues and not actually to understand the world.

They are not interested in the world. They are interested of persuading you that "something" created the world. They don't care of science, they care about crafting a message that will drive more peoples into churches.

Do note that Dembski does not feel this line of inquiry is interesting anymore[0], and Meyer's credentials of a doctorate are not in natural science but philosophy and history.

[0] https://billdembski.com/official-retirement-from-intelligent...


Evolution is routinely proven in laboratories around the world as scientists perform experiments on microbial resistance, insect behaviour, and numerous other experiments involving species with very short lives.

These short lived living things, routinely "evolve" in predictable and unpredictable ways, in front of the researchers proverbial eyes.

Evolution has been proven to be much more than a "hypothesis".


There are certain aspects that are proven beyond a doubt, such as microevolution. But to say that all of life is proven to have undergone both biological and chemical evolution because some microbes were seen evolving in a lab is a bit optimistic in my view.

Take the example of DGRNs (mentioned in my previous comment). It is proven that even a slight change in the structure of a GRN completely breaks embryonic development. In other words, if a random mutation is introduced during gene development, the embryo will simply die. So how do entirely new species form if embryonic development is basically impossible? The same applies to protein evolution.

I would be more accepting of chemical evolution if the time scale we were considering was much longer. Many people have computed the approximate probabilities required to get a functioning protein from random mutations, and it turns out that it simply isn't feasible given the age of the universe, and this planet.


> to say that all of life is proven to have undergone both biological and chemical evolution because some microbes were seen evolving in a lab is a bit optimistic in my view.

You're ignoring a huge body of evidence: the fact that all living organisms on Earth use the same genetic material and the same genetic code. This is strong evidence for common descent, and common descent is an obvious prediction of the theory of evolution and requires highly implausible ad hoc hypotheses on any other assumption.

> how do entirely new species form if embryonic development is basically impossible?

It isn't impossible; it's just unlikely, because beneficial mutations are rare. But this is part of evolutionary theory.

> Many people have computed the approximate probabilities required to get a functioning protein from random mutations

These computations ignore the fact that natural selection is not random. That means the sequence of events from one functioning protein to another is not a random walk through the space of all possible proteins, as the computations assume.

(Computations based on permutations and combinations of atoms also ignore the fact that chemical reactions are not random; only a vanishingly small fraction of all possible mathematical combinations of atoms actually occur, the rest are chemically impossible.)


Science advances two ways. On the one hand you come up with a hypothesis and test it to see if it matches the evidence you have and usefully predicts behaviour you've not yet seen. I.e. That it has predictive power. Evolution through natural selection has passed this test with flying colours. It successfully predicts outcomes in a vast field of experiments and observations in the wild.

This process builds up a cumulative pile of evidence supporting the theory. On the other hand you construct a test of the theory that can disprove it. So far no such test has been found to disprove evolution.

It's true that we don't yet understand every single biological mechanism and every single facet of developmental biology and how they relate to natural selection. However that's not sufficient to 'disprove' evolutionary theory. To do that you'd need to actually prove that evolutionary theory could not explain them - not that it's unlikely it could explain them, but that it's impossible. As it happens the number of thing evolution has not explained is getting smaller as we find the connections and demonstrate them.

So on the one hand we have vast troves of experimental and observational results successfully explained by evolution and this trove is increasing rapidly. On the other hand, we have some mechanisms or results where it's not yet completely clear if or how evolution explains them, but this number is decreasing. Finally we have no tests that have disproven evolution. At this point this makes Evolution through natural selection one of the most practically successful and predictive theories science has ever produced, right up there with quantum mechanics.

Has it predicted and explained everything in its domain? No. but few theories have yet done that. Even quantum mechanics still has some odd edge cases that are tricky to figure out.

So the thing about 'proving' scientific theories is that it's morevlike 'proving' a piece of forged metal. You test it to see if it breaks. Science is really about usefulness. It's test show whether a theory is useful in solving some call of problems. Evolution through natural selection has so far passed every test it's been given in which a colclusuon has been reached. That's encouraging evidence that it will pass the others as well.

Meanwhile ID has nothing to show whatsoever. It's an intellectual dead end. Personally, I'm very glad my Christian faith doesn't hinge on it.


What does your faith hinge on?


Part of it is the personal appeal of the Christian message of community, service and selflessness. Part of it is a personal feeling of spirituality and connection to people and the universe. Part of it is certainly cultural, if I'd been born in a Muslim country to Muslim parents I don't see any reason why I'd be anything other than Muslim myself, but then I'm ok with that. Same goes for Judaism, or Hinduism. My faith is a completely subjective experience, I don't give it objective weight or feel any need or desire to push it on anyone else. In that sense I'm a secularist.


I'm pretty sure the fact of microevolution goes a long way in justifying our belief in evolution generally. As far as I'm aware, the theory of evolution was developed by observing macro phenomena. Once the theory developed, the idea that evolutionary principles should apply to all levels of living organisms suggested -- in fact predicted -- that if we observed micro-organisms we would see the same principles at work. This became a prediction which could be tested, and which, once confirmed, greatly increased our justification for holding the entire theory (i.e., that evolutionary principles apply to all living organisms) true. That's the way (or one of the ways) that science works.


Technically, scientific theories are never proven. They are only supported or contradicted by testable, reproducible hypotheses. As far as I'm aware, there's many more hypotheses supporting evolution theory than there are supporting intelligent design theory.


I agree, evolution is more fleshed out than ID. The issue however is how neo-Darwinists have been selling evolution as a complete package. It is not a complete theory, not by a long shot. There is a lot of work to be done before we can say that evolution is undeniably the reason behind the formation of all lifeforms.

On top that, there has been a harsh dismissal of ID theorists by the evolution community, even though ID has been correctly pointing out significant flaws with evolution. For example, there was an incident a while back of a journal editor being severely reprimanded for accepting to publish a paper that slightly mentioned ID.

Of course, ID itself hasn't been providing alternative hypotheses to evolution that are, well, testable. It's important to note that ID theory in and of itself is not pushing for "God", but rather an intelligent entity in general. So for instance, ID would agree with the idea of the whole "universe simulation theory".


The Vagus Nerve[0] that controls every mammals voice box originates at the brain stem and travels through the abdomen, then back up to the larynx. It is also responsible for a multitude of functions from heart to the digestive track. Some people believe this is a clear case against ID, but to be fair, there are others who retort that statement[1]. It seems silly for a higher being/entity to create a central point of failure and "poor design" principals.

As you've stated, evolution is more fleshed out then intelligent design and the fact that it's a Scientific Theory means that it was well tested via the Scientific Method that is established to cast doubt[2]. Just that statement is so powerful because a group of folks actually attempted to disprove and/or prove via a method that is reproducible. ID is merely a suggestion that has almost no way to be proven/disproven. Centering an argument on a possibility is always entertaining when taken with a grain of salt, however, when a hypothesis becomes a counter argument to a Scientific Theory, credibility is difficult to achieve.

The crux of my issue with your comment is that you use the word "theory" interchangeably. While evolution is a Scientific Theory, ID is a theory[3] (lower case t), defined by "an idea that is suggested or presented as possibly true but that is not known or proven to be true". Comparing the two is disingenuous.

[0]https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vagus_nerve [1]http://evolution.binghamton.edu/evos/wp-content/uploads/2011... [2]https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Scientific_theory [3]http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/theory


> It seems silly for a higher being/entity to create a central point of failure and "poor design" principals.

Perhaps, but my thinking is that such a design choice could have a significant advantage we haven't noticed yet.

> Scientific Theory means that it was well tested via the Scientific Method that is established to cast doubt

This is a central issue I have with evolutionary science in general, and neo-Dawrinism in paricular. It has become somewhat of a "cult" within the scientific community. No single evolutionary biologist wants to risk his/her career attacking a particular aspect of evolution, which is partially why ID theorists are doing most of the attacking. Another problem is that evolutionists want you to present an alternative if you do end up attacking the theory. The argument I've seen is "don't attack if you can't come up with an alternative!". But if the theory is flawed in the first place and isn't able to explain a number of important issues, why should your theory be accepted as truth?

In a nutshell, evolutionary scientists don't want the scientific method to apply to areas where evolution is weak, to avoid discrediting the theory. Remember, if evolution theory is proven to be false, Darwinists (and naturalists) won't have an alternative.


Dude, you're simply a troll.

> In a nutshell, evolutionary scientists don't want the scientific method to apply to areas where evolution is weak, to avoid discrediting the theory. Remember, if evolution theory is proven to be false, Darwinists (and naturalists) won't have an alternative.

If a Scientific Theory is verified to discredit evolution, then all those Darwinists and Naturalists will have plenty of things to work on. Besides being Nobel Prize worth and exciting because of the possibilities.

I now regret replying to your comment and putting in the work. A shame.


When someone takes an idea as a core part of their identity, it gains power over them. An attack upon that idea becomes an attack upon themselves personally. A validation of that idea becomes a validation of themselves personally. This creates a perverse incentive to validate the idea wherever possible, even when the explanation makes no sense. Your thought patterns short-circuit, and you become unable to see the incongruity in your own arguments. In fact, this human failing is exactly why we developed the Scientific Method in the first place.

What I'm saying is: This person isn't actually a troll. He's not doing it to mess with you. He really does believe what he's saying, and you cannot convince him otherwise until he relinquishes the core idea that led to it, which in this case is his religion.


> What I'm saying is: This person isn't actually a troll. He's not doing it to mess with you. He really does believe what he's saying, and you cannot convince him otherwise until he relinquishes the core idea that led to it, which in this case is his religion.

That's a really good point. I partially hoped that at least there would be a good counter argument to gain an insight into why the individual has formed such ideas.

I even linked to the BYU paper that was counter to my beliefs, which had interesting points that can create a thoughtful conversation.

However, I didn't realize that regardless of how I said something, I was attacking a core idea of a person, which isn't a good way to start a conversation.


> This person isn't actually a troll. He's not doing it to mess with you. He really does believe what he's saying, and you cannot convince him otherwise until he relinquishes the core idea that led to it, which in this case is his religion.

What you are really saying is that is his/her core idea is wrong and this leads to behaviour that clothes itself as trolling ("cannot convince him otherwise until he relinquishes the core idea that led to it, which in this case is his religion").

He/she could easily say the same thing about your core idea, so I fail to see how this adds to the discussion.


> It has become somewhat of a "cult" within the scientific community. No single evolutionary biologist wants to risk his/her career attacking a particular aspect of evolution, which is partially why ID theorists are doing most of the attacking.

I'm fairly confident that the main reason that ID theorists push ID is because of religion. Like, extremely confident. Also, very few attacks against evolution theory are scientific. I'll explain why below.

> But if the theory is flawed in the first place and isn't able to explain a number of important issues, why should your theory be accepted as truth?

It is an accepted fact within the scientific community that all scientific theories are flawed. They are approximations at best. Einstein's theory of general relativity is probably one of the most complete & supported theories that we have, but there are things that Einstein's theory can't explain (like gravity).

This is why I said most of ID theorist's attacks on evolution theory are unscientific. Because pointing out what a theory doesn't explain is not enough. You must either find empirical evidence that contradicts either a supporting hypothesis or models based on the theory. These types of empirical contradictions are why Lamarkian evolution theory is no longer popular.

What's amusing to me is that the current process by which scientific theories are created, challenged, disproven, and modified very much resembles Darwinian evolution in action. The same goes for belief systems as they battle for resources (individual's attention and faith), the fittest ideological strains survive, and the strains that aren't able to replicate die out. Christianity itself is an amazing example of evolution over the centuries, having mutated into tens if not hundreds of different strains, all of which continually compete for resources, while some strains can only be read about in the history books such as the Byzantine Orthodoxy, the early Puritans, and the street preacher Methodists.


I'm a little cautious about asking but DGRN? A brief search gave me nothing.


Developmental gene regulatory network: https://www.wikiwand.com/en/Gene_regulatory_network


It doesn't represent the nullification of science; it only tries to question the basic axiom of physics that the laws of nature are the same everywhere, have always been and will always be. If you drop that axiom, consequences are interesting. If you allow for the ability of future more advanced humans to actually change some observable properties of the universe (like speed of light), then you have to allow for the possibility of past alien civilizations doing just that. And then it may turn out that what we're observing today is a universe that is not in a "virgin" state, but was affected by life in the past already.

This is a legitimate scientific question but - since we have pretty much zero evidence suggesting this has happened, we have to assume we're studying a "virgin" universe. But if physics was somehow manipulated by aliens, science should be capable of eventually figuring this out too - at the very least just because if you have a capability of doing something, then it's easier to notice evidence of someone else doing that thing in the past.


That is not a physical axiom, but a logical consequence of the principle of explosion, ex contradiction sequitur quodlibet.

The fallacy here is in the assumption we had a complete idea of an immutable theory of physics, the universe and everything, when that is clearly not the case. It's the same handwavery as from theologists, as dear as it might be, that many physicists aren't or weren't free of, as well.


Come on. I'm simply saying that the statement "laws of physics are universal - the same everywhere, at any time" is an axiom. It's something we can't prove. We assume it for the sake of our sanity, and the assumption seems to be holding pretty well so far.


>It's something we can't prove

Edit: TL;DR: An axiom is not something that is provably unprovable, it something that remains to be proved.

Yet you assume the axiom could have been proved wrong by aliens, which would give the opposite of the axiom as new universal law, which would be paradoxical. Thus, the axiom couldn't be wrong nor right, for it's not a statement, it's a paradox devoid of meaning. If that's what you implied, I might as well just be missing how that is useful. I understand that Hilbert's axioms of Geometry work the same way, so I am not dismissing the idea of axiomatics. I'm just saying that the axiom defines space and time under the presumption of an understanding of laws. Thus I think, obviously the conclusion, universal laws wouldn't exist or could be broken is rather unpractical, to put it mildly.

However, I am not (ever) sure what I am even saying. So take it with a pinch of salt. On the one hand, if axiomatics are part of our logic framework for laws, an axiom couldn't a priori define laws. On the other hand, I'm tossing the idea around for a while, that our understanding of logic arises by proving itself into existence, so we prove axiomatics a viable framework simply by using it to axiomatize.

In the likely case the the previous paragraph is written ineligibly: all I am saying is, that axioms should be self evident, so it isn't really worth the many words, except as an exercize in formalizing unfinished ideas in a dialog. Just to see if get any immediate push back, in case I am wrong, or ignorance, in case the topic is really self-evident or absurd or whatever.


> change some observable properties of the universe (like speed of light)

In your other comment:

> Could the speed of light have changed because of aliens weaponizing physics in past wars?

Because the speed of light is a dimensional constant, it doesn't make sense to say it could have changed in the past. Only dimensionless constants, like the fine structure constant, can hypothetically be different at other points in space and/or time. See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dimensionless_physical_constan...


According to this article:

https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Variable_speed_of_light

the idea had some pretty serious consideration of serious scientists though.

As for dimensionless constants, the way I see it, it simply suggests that something else must be changed to get a meaningfully different c.


Nautilus' main activity seems to be dressing bullshit up as intellectual depth.


"This is nothing but speculation"

Wasn't there some quote which went something like: "A good scientist gives the right answers. A great scientist asks the right questions."


No, speculation and arguing for something are fundamentally different.

Also, theorizing an entity beyond our understanding is fundamentally different from theorizing an entity beyond our universe.


> Also, theorizing an entity beyond our understanding is fundamentally different from theorizing an entity beyond our universe.

No, they are functionally and ontologically equivalent.


All simulation theories of the universe require an entity beyond our universe.


Not if the simulation container evolved spontaneously in its own universe.


It depends on the semantics of "universe". I consider a simulation to be its own universe, if you don't agree with that definition then it's a different universe - but it might be one with completely different physical laws.


Our language can be arbitrarily abstract and represent arbitrary information. If there is something fundamentally beyond our understanding, then it is intrinsically nonsense.


It's a trip. "What if ..." (now we fly). But i believe that if we can imagine something (like he's doing), this thing existed, exist or will.

The article is amazing, and remember us to be humble, because we don't have all the answers and there's a lot yet to be seen.

So there's no answers in the article: only questions.



The title, at least, does not nullify anything. It only presents a possibility.


We don’t directly see anything. Our brains are trapped inside our head. The whole concept of "reality" and solid things is just a useful construct for beings made of matter. We evolved to see in the visible spectrum because it mostly bounces off of stuff like us(not totally, put your hand up to a bright light).

We are beings of condensed energy. Would we be “real” to beings in the neutrino / dark matter world of physics? Or would we "nothing" in their reality? Even if they studied us, would a rock appear to be any different than a human when viewed from the realm of WIMPs? To hear physicists Dawkins and Krauss think about this and the concept of “nothing”:

https://youtu.be/CXGyesfHzew?t=1229


Yeah, I've totally had these thoughts before too. The interesting part would be proving any of them :)


To me it sounds like yet another attempt by materialism to get to grips with a non materialist view.

We all know at some level that the universe is not just full of "dumb rocks" (quoting Alan Watts). Evolution CAN coexist with the unknown. We're all mapping a sandbox from the inside, so to speak.

Evolution is a thing, physics is a thing, and it can all happen in consciousness.

But the notion of "god" and "intelligent universe" are so loaded these days, that a materialist has to find all kind of funny ways around it.

I think it's valuable, to try to express old ideas in a more modern language... But let's be honest theories like the "universe is a imulation", or that intelligence somehow pertains to alien life ... are just ways to postpone the hard problem of consciousness.

Potentially related:

The Physicalist Worldview as Neurotic Ego-Defense Mechanism

http://realitysandwich.com/320896/the-physicalist-worldview-...


> To me it sounds like yet another attempt by materialism to get to grips with a non materialist view.

I actually commend that. Opening up to the idea that physical reality is something far stranger than we've imagined is a great way to open oneself to the possibility that "physical reality" isn't at all the sort of thing we've long imagined it to be.

Same with the simulation hypothesis. There was this article recently: http://ieet.org/index.php/IEET/more/Edge20161030

And it contained this gem, which may actually get the right wheels turning in some minds:

  "If the universe is a computer simulation then we should look at the player, not the level."


Shane Carruth, the guy who gave us Primer and Upstream Color, wrote a screenplay for a movie that would have been called A Topiary. It's essentially an exploration of this idea. It starts with a traffic engineer in the 80's finding strange patterns in accident data, and ends with a group of adolescents building a device of non-human design. The key idea is that spectra are the manifestation that ties it all together. The screenplay is available online and would make an excellent SF novel.


Our universe might just be an alien's Docker container.


Although some have pointed out that the article is pure speculation, this is a topic that interests me. Are there any recommendable books that explore similar topics?

I've tried googling, but there's just too many "Alien" theory books out there. Hoping for some solid recommendations.


Cixin Liu's Three Body Problem trilogy explores this problem pretty strongly in the last book (Death's End), and also foreshadows it a bit in the first two. I recently binge-read them all and I give a very high recommendation for them. Calling the guy "China's Clarke" may not be a stretch.


I mentioned it down-thread, but my favorite part of the trilogy is his answer to the Fermi paradox (minor spoilers ahead): because of the universal limit of light speed, and exponential growth in technology, by the time you see evidence of advanced alien life, chances are they have developed to the point of being an existential threat to your own civilization. So the only logical behavior is to remain hidden and immediately destroy any civilization you detect. I haven't heard anyone propose this particular solution before, so I thought it was quite clever.


It might be overselling Arthur C. Clarke, who is largely known for strange stuff like 2001. Three body has a much more salient blend of pure hard sci fi and human drama. Maybe an Orson Scott Card? It is kind of a newer style.


Pohl's "Heechee Saga" books (”Gateway" and its sequels) end up with humans getting involved in wars between a couple different God-Like Ancient Aliens who wanted to change various cosmological constants in ways that would make intelligent life more or less likely to happen.

They don't show up until like book 3 of the series though.


The Xeelee Sequence of books addresses similar ideas, except I'd argue that the Xeelee and the Photino Birds are several orders of magnitude above the Heechee and The Foe.


After reading this article I was reminded of Isaac Asimov's short story "The Last Question".

http://multivax.com/last_question.html


If you are looking for fiction, Lem's Solaris is good exploration "too alien" concept.


Both. It feels as though both could offer interesting perspectives on alien intelligence. Since there's so much we don't know, I assume many theories would be labeled as fiction to be proven otherwise.


Lem's His Master's Voice is also in the same genre, but the section A New Cosmology from A Perfect Vacuum is much more specifically about this topic.


There's a lot of interesting stuff in the comments section of the article.


Not really a book but I recently stumbled across a Korean drama on Hulu, called "W" that I thought was pretty thought provoking in this type of train of thought, IMO.


"Diaspora" by Greg Egan explores a few concepts like this.


IIRC that was the idea of the book "2001" (not the movie). First the aliens developed starships and over time they used space directly and became one with it.


Personally, 2001 (the movie, haven't read the book) was the only depiction of aliens I actually like. IMO, FTL travel might require harnessing such crazy physics (negative energy, for instance) that any civilization advanced enough to do it would be completely different from anything we know, or might be even past the need of actually going anywhere.

But instead science fiction often makes spacefaring civilizations exactly like our own, but with spaceships intead of trucks.


May be they just wouldn't need FTL travel because sublight travel is fast enough for their perception of time and life expectancy.


Like the Outsiders of Known Space.


It's also a theme in some of Stephen Baxter's books, where lots of very "hot and fast" life developed almost immediately after the big bang in very extreme (to us) environments, and influenced cosmological history by doing things like changing the balance between matter and anti-matter. Human-like life, on the other hand, developed later and is physically larger, colder, and slower.


What are the title of those books? To search


The Xeelee Sequence books (Vacuum Diagrams, Raft, Timelike Infinity etc) or The Manifold Series, all by Stephen Baxter


Anyone ever read 2010? I thought the 2010 was way more interesting and filled with a lot more sci-fi "facts" than 2001.


2001 is a much better movie than book.

2010 is a much better book than movie.

The rest of the sequels are not great in any medium IMO.


I only watched the movie which made me lose interest in the book. May have to check again.


There was similar being in [it seems] earlier book, "The City and the Stars". Still one of my favorites among science fiction.


The article talks about the interesting apparent coincidence of timing b/w the formation of earth and the increased acceleration of the universe.

The article discusses a possible connection b/w life and expansion, but maybe it's more simple: perhaps it's only possible we can ask this question because had it not been for the accelerated expansion of the universe, we'd would have had neighbours close enough that they might not be too happy we popped in and were working on our own ideas about what to do in the neighbourhood.


If a life form can become so advanced that it becomes indistinguishable from what it observes, won't we too cross that border at some point, and if so, when will we know that we've crossed it?

If we've already crossed that border without knowing it, we could be observing our own life form in physics, and not that of "aliens".


We are parasitic electrical energy observing everything as we hitch a ride in the brains of these meat creatures.


I think if we were to cross that border (which is certainly necessarily going to happen even conditional on it being possible), we would be able to easily tell.


What makes you think this?

In dreamful sleep, we exist at a level of consciousness where what we observe is indistinguishable from ourselves. And yet we rarely notice.


I expect that we would continuously be an intelligent race that performs observations and does science the entire time, even as we evolve to unrecognizable forms, so, we'd just "think about it" as it's happening.

There's no analogy with dreaming.


typo: "is certainly necessarily" -> "isn't necessarily?


Does everything that can happen, actually happen?

I think, probably not.


If the universe were truly infinite then I think it may. Either way it's impossible to know.


Classically, there's no particular reason that a possible configuration of the things has to be reachable from the current configuration of things, even in an infinite universe.

(Extremely improbable quantum tunneling would allow it though.)


But there is no reason at all to think the universe is infinite. Plenty of evidence it isn't. The idea it is is entirely from either the religious or secular versions of "Dude, I'm going to blow your mind"


There's little good reason to think it is or isn't (there is not plenty of evidence to think it isn't). There is plenty of good reason not to claim you know one way or the other.


I certainly didn't claim to know. But at this point in history, if you want to have the highest chance of making the right guess: I would strongly suggest you go with the scientific consensus that the universe began with a Big Bang and is therefore not infinite, and the consensus of physicists that the observable evidence suggests the universe is not infinite for other reasons as well.

I kinda have to assume you didn't connect the facts that an infinite universe rejects the Big Bang model? Because there is definitely plenty of evidence for that model.

Yes, there are epistemic limits to science, that does not mean it's not evidence. And an infinite anything is an extraordinary claim. It's practically the most extraordinary claim.


My understanding is that the Big Bang model is compatible with an infinite universe.

That's still my understanding after some cursory googling to make sure I didn't totally forget something from college.


Fair enough, with the right distinction between universe and observable universe they are certainly compatible.

Any discussion of the characteristics of the universe outside the observable universe runs into some interesting epistemic problems around what constitutes evidence. Maybe it's turtles all the way down, or teapots. Good luck trying to estimate the prior probability of an infinite number of possibilities with an ape brain that evolved to hunt and gather on the Savannah.

I find a lot of pop science at the fringes of our knowledge (QM and astrophysics) relies a lot on infinities to justify cool stoner ideas that are unfalsifiable and chosen entirely based on human biases of what would be "awesome". I do have a very strong bias against these because of this obvious element of wishful thinking. The infinite-alternate-realities-of-the-gaps argument is just the god-of-the-gaps argument for the "I fucking love science" crowd.


I believe big bang theories rely on an initial infinitesimal.


Er?


Do you have a proof of that?

Could there be structures that are provably impossible to create after some time?


You already said "everything that can happen". I feel like that rules out things that are provably impossible.


Well some people think we live in a simulation anyway so provably impossible is just one hypervisor update away...


An intelligence that exists in the physical laws of the universe? Well that's not novel or science fiction, it's been posited by thinkers for thousands of years and is commonly referred to as "God"


:)


So, we're still living in the 'plain text' part of our universe. Everything open and visible to the ones who've moved to the encrypted dark matter. ;)


Epistemological point: if from the modern world you dropped in on Christopher Columbus with all your gadgets and tried to explain them, it might sound like magic. If from the modern world you dropped in on a hominid 100k years ago in his cave with all your gadgets and tried to explain them? You'd be a god.

Things that exist outside of our ability to have language to describe them are godlike. (There is an open question about whether the set of such things is irreducible or open to conquest at some point in time)

If the caveman trapped you and tried to figure out what you were up to? Yes, to him it would be physics. However -- this is just another way of saying that he'd have no symbols to grasp your behavior and would be forced to create various mental models that he could share with others.

Donald Rumsfeld famously talked about knowns and unknowns[1]. But there is another dimension of things we have no symbology to begin discussing. There be dragons.

1. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GiPe1OiKQuk


It gets even worse with aliens. Our brains have convinced us that they are universal computation machines, but consider that there are possibly true representations of the universe that are literally unknowable to us.


I fail to see how terrestrial life is distinguishable from physics.


If that were the case, there would be no need for biology. It's one thing to say that life is made up of physical stuff. It's another entirely to say it's indistinguishable from physics. That's a form of extreme reductionism that isn't born out by science, although one can adopt a philosophical view that physics is all there is. Epistemologically, we humans can't explain life only in terms of physics, thus the reason for biology.


I think just the opposite is true. Biology can not explain life without physics, there might not be a complete understanding yet, but physics and math are the only tools that will get us there. Chemistry too, needs physics all the time. I think separating science is a historical relic, everything we know is physics and math, even if it might be hard to recognize in some biological phenomena. But after all, they tend to be rather complex. I am not sure what indistinguishable from physics is supposed to mean, but it sounds philosophical to me.


It must be noted though that life is an emergent phenomenon, therefore the idea that it requires physics to explain it is clearly reductionist. For instance, if you were to simulate chemical (let alone higher-level) processes characteristic to life using a computer, you would definitely not need to start with Schrödinger's equation. Even organic chemistry can be modeled based on high-level "axioms" of its own, and those axioms, or principles, do not even have to be the same as those used in modeling general chemical phenomena.


I did not indent to convey that the empirical findings in biology/chemistry are not important. I agree that you do not necessarily need a quantum description to understand biological phenomena, but sometimes (eg single electrons in photosynthesis , bond breaking/formation) you do. Molecular simulations however were not what I was picturing when I wrote my comment. If I understand you correctly, you think because of the emergent character of biological systems, the physical approach is too reductionist. But the emergence we observe is due to (non equilibrium) thermodynamics, which is studied primarily in statistical physics. I guess what I want to say is that we should be aware that many interesting problems are found at the borders of disciplines which were shaped by historical happenstance. Example: there is immense overlap between chemistry and solid state physics, still they are considered as distinct disciplines.


My interpretation of his comment was that he's just poking fun at the title.

An alternative title might have been: "alien life might be found in observations physicists struggle today to explain."


Given the history of life on earth (3.5 B years of life, 100.000 or so of human covilization), I think it's much more likely that any alien life we discover would be very primitive - say, bacteria living on a moon in the solar system, or maybe plants on a planet somewhere.


That was part of the premise of the Three Body Problem (slight spoilers ahead): technology advances so quickly on a universal timeline, that in the time span between detecting an alien civilization and being able to do anything about it (assuming no FTL communication/travel), the detected civilization will have advanced to the point of being an existential threat to your own civilization, so the only logical response to detecting another civilization is to immediately destroy it if possible, or remain hidden otherwise. This is his answer to the Fermi paradox. I thought it was quite clever.


... or the detected civilization will just have died out in the same time span. How much time do we have left as a species? Given climate change and our current consumption of non renewable resources, I doubt any civilization that detects us today would be able to reach us on time.

Three Body Problem sounds interesting. Will check it out.


Probably true for alien life we discover. But also possible: any life that discovers us may very well be more advanced than us by a similar margin.


Otoh, most evolutional progress happened after global catastrophes, and maybe some worlds had it earlier. For example 3.3 B years of life, 800.000 or so of alien civilization.


> But if the surrounding universe ever got too warm—too filled with thermal refuse—things would stagnate. Luckily we live in an expanding and constantly cooling cosmos. What better long-term investment by some hypothetical life 5 billion years ago than to get the universe to cool even faster?

I'm not a physicist, but isn't that not how heat death works at all? Reducing temperature by spreading out matter doesn't help the "problem" that low-entropy energy becomes scarce.


This is pure speculation, or fiction. What is the real meat here?


It's just preparations for the impending first contact.

Now we'll be a little less surprised when they mention they've been around all this time.

Perhaps Kurzweil wasn't that far off after all..


this is an offtopic question: does anyone know, why online magazines like nautil.us, vox.com and many others still don't use https? certificates are free and the additional server cost is minimal nowadays, so why don't they encrypt traffic? are ads and tracking the reason?


Does the website stay blank on a mobile device for anyone else? (I'm using Firefox on Android.)


I have it blank too (edge, wp10)


Not sure what "physics" exactly means in this context, I presume that gravity, EM or nuclear forces are just products of some supreme alien technology? Isn't that just the same, and equally as (un)likely, as the concept of God that rules the Universe?


"only about 5 percent of the mass-energy of the universe consists of ordinary matter: the protons, neutrons, and electrons that we’re composed of. A much larger 27 percent is thought to be unseen, still mysterious stuff"

What about the other 68 percent?


dark energy and dark matter AFAIK: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:DMPie_2013.svg


The article reads like a wish for a god, or gods, underlying the fabric of the universe, within the scope of physics.


So there are intelligent living things that influence our world that we can't see and don't understand? Funny, that sounds an awful like a God to me.

Or what about, Musk's we're living in a virtual reality? That is, a reality defined and determined by unseen powerful forces.

Is Science finally preparing to offer Religion at the table of "What is Life? And Why?"


> So there are intelligent living things that influence our world that we can't see and don't understand? Funny, that sounds an awful like a God to me.

"influence" is an interesting word, because the difference is, if they influence or world in terms of nature, that's a wholly lot different than the concept of God, a powerful entity watching your every step, ready to place you on a burner for eternity at any point, if you don't please him or if he is just having a bad day.

Bacteria also influence our world, I would argue however, that they're quite removed from the concept of God.


There is nothing in this universe that is distinguishable from physics.


I know of an ancient book that has been saying this all along.


> Part of the fabric of the universe is a product of intelligence.

Look, it's simple: God made the whole thing. But you don't want to believe in God so you invent funny theories to explain away God.


God is t an answer. It explains nothing. It's the absence of an explanation hand waved away and given a name.

Even IF a god existed the same questions would still apply


And Hawking says humans will extinguish in 1000 years


fnord


Life is indistinguishable from physics.


Well, I seem to have no trouble with the distinction.


Well, I just got tired of hipster bullshit and memes.

There is the only one way to prove something - it is to show that there are logical truth of all the statements and implication all the way back to the starting assumptions. Students learn this in an undergrads AI class, leave alone the basics of mathematical logic.

This shit is full of gaps in logic, just a pile of memes upon memes (dark energy, my ass!) and bullshit all the way down. Just a single flaw in logic anywhere in the chain of statements is enough to throw away all the crap. A single failed assertion.

Things which are not confirmed by independently replicated experiments are beliefs not facts. Socially constructed memes. The people who speculate about unproven sets of beliefs are sectarians, not scientists.

This and similar bullshit is no different from the cosmology on the walls of Egyptian pyramids or the stories about angels pushing the planets to keep them moving on its orbits.


> "The people who speculate about unproven sets of beliefs are sectarians, not scientists." -@dschiptsov

The entire realm of astrophysics and particle physics would beg to differ with you. Just because we don't yet know the maths, or truths, behind the studies does not relegate the science to the realm of sectarians or religious figures.


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