Space probe porn

Why we’re still alone

Various SETI efforts — the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence inside our galaxy, bien sur — have been ongoing for thirty years, with no success yet. If there’s intelligent life out there, we haven’t been able to detect it with our arrays of radio telescopes and funky parallel-processing screensavers.

But what if we’re simply looking in the wrong place? SETI projects tend to look for intelligent civilizations near stars, under the assumption that those energy sources are crucial to life. But in an interesting new paper (of which the PDF is here), the astronomers Milan M. Circovic and Robert J. Bradbury argue that any long-lasting intelligent civilizations will have intensive information-processing needs, and indeed may “be” information, having hit the Singularity and uploaded their consciousnesses into the aether. In that case, the authors suggest, alien civilizations would head out to the frozen outer regions of the Milky Way — where information-processing would be easier for thermodynamic reasons.

As far as I can make it out, the argument goes like this: Any computer, in the act of doing computation, generates heat and needs to be cooled down with a heat reservoir. Obviously, a civilization composed of information will be doing a monster truckload of computation. Thus, as the authors argue:

In the ideal case, no energy should be expended on cooling the computer itself, since that expense should be added to the energy cost … The most efficient heat reservoir is the universe itself, which far from local energy sources like stars and galaxies, has the temperature of the cosmic microwave background. [Italics in original]

If they’re right, we need to radically rethink our SETI strategy.

Heh. I love that sentence. “We need to radically rethink our SETI strategy.” I think I just won some sort of Blog Pompousness Award.

(Thanks to for this one!)

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I'm Clive Thompson, the author of Smarter Than You Think: How Technology is Changing Our Minds for the Better (Penguin Press). You can order the book now at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Powells, Indiebound, or through your local bookstore! I'm also a contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine and a columnist for Wired magazine. Email is here or ping me via the antiquated form of AOL IM (pomeranian99).

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