Follow the reluctant adventures in the life of a Welsh astrophysicist sent around the world for some reason, wherein I photograph potatoes and destroy galaxies in the name of science. And don't forget about my website,

Saturday 30 April 2016

The Most Boring Thing In The Universe

I once read a popular article on mathematics that stated that if it was possible to calculate how boring each number was, there must be a Smallest Boring Number. Which would thereby make it interesting, so the next smallest boring number would claim the title and become interesting, and so on. Therefore, all numbers must be interesting.

Let's be honest - setting them on fire hasn't helped, has it ?
Sorry mathematicians, but - no dice. Being superlatively uninteresting doesn't make something fun, not even if you set them on fire. If that were true, football, cricket, golf, sewing, ironing and Formula 1 racing would be considered spectator sports fit only for adrenaline junkies. They're not.

Excepting the rare crashes, how is watching a car go round a track fifty seven times in any way shape or form considered to be exciting ?
The Universe isn't without its duller moments too. Some people spend their entire lives studying cosmic dust, despite the fact that it is objectively extremely dull*. Or baryon acoustic oscillations, whatever those are. Or the dynamics of star clusters, which have all the excitement of kitten wrestling except that the kittens are replaced with small and particularly inactive pieces of toast.

* Well what did you expect ? It's dust.

But there's one thing which is much less interesting than any of those : aliens.

To be more accurate, it's not really that aliens are boring. It's just that I am bored of aliens - both kinds. Both ? Yes, both. There are only two. First, there are the purely fictitious kind that are supposed to have visited earth and done unspeakable things to American farmers that would have had them arrested in most Arabic countries. Second, there are the entirely speculative distant kind who live way off in space, possibly watching our old TV shows or maybe just quietly living under a stone, no-one is quite sure.

I find that both of these types of aliens fill me with the same excitement as does a small tub of lard.

That's What They Want You To Think

Doctor Who isn't boring at all, obviously.
First, the kind who are supposed to visit or have visited us. Please no more of this, it's just stupid. It's my own fault, I suppose. I grew up on a diet of all things paranormal, from the Loch Ness monster to Nostradamus and Mothman (yes really, Mothman for crying out loud*). I've even got a signed copy of The Orion Mystery probably still hanging about somewhere.

* With hindsight it was probably Mothman that started me thinking that the whole thing was just too bloody far-fetched.

This was all tremendously interesting to the younger me, but what exactly have we learned since then ? What new compelling evidence of aliens from the Pleiades cluster has turned up ? What's the point of the cattle mutilations, the anal probing, and of course all those lovely crop circles ? What Mayan prophecies have been vindicated ? What, given the massive rise of smartphones, new high-quality photographs have emerged of all those spaceships from species apparently intent on both absolute secrecy and massive incompetence ? What benefit has all the ongoing research been to humanity ?

None. It exists only for the benefit of the researchers' egos : the competition is so fierce because the stakes are so low. Oh, they won't agree, obviously. Many of them are really sincere in their beliefs that because a rock on Mars looks a bit like Bigfoot from a certain angle, the entire planet is awash with beautiful princesses. Whereas the other lot are equally sincere in their belief that the entire operation is yet another NASA hoax and that the Mars rovers don't even exist.

Stop it. Just stop it. Not all of parameter space is worth exploring every time some blurry photograph appears on the internet. The Illuminati aren't coming to mutilate your cows or spray you with chemtrails because there's a fuzzy blob in a photo some dude posted on the interweb. You aren't going to be herded into death camps because a politician fiddled their expenses claims. The fact that a Renaissance painting looks absolutely nothing whatsoever like the Orion nebula, which in turn looks absolutely nothing whatsoever like a brain*, proves precisely 100% finely distilled nothing. With perfect accuracy.

* I'm not sure if the Google Plus link will be preserved, which is something of a shame. The thread featured a protracted discussion with a complete nutcase claiming to be a geometry teacher who had no idea what pattern recognition is. Links provided included this one and this one. The word "coincidence" was used.

One of the arguments that used to convince me about the whole UFO thing was that while 95% of cases are obviously mistaken identity, the remaining 5% aren't so easily explained. And if just one of them turned out to be something interesting, then that would be the greatest discovery in history. The problem is that it's a complete fallacy to imply that if you have a lot of things at least some of them must be interesting by sheer numbers. It's entirely possible to have a huge number of boring things, such as every game of cricket that's ever been played or every single episode of The Wire.

You're not fooling anyone mate.
Such people will often invoke the idea that "lots of people can be wrong" to suggest that the establishment view that flying saucers don't exist could itself be wrong. Yes, that's possible. So could all those stupid fuzzy blobs on Mars. Having a lot of dodgy photos does not mean you must have at least some interesting ones - statistics just doesn't work like that. 1% of nothing is still nothing.

Of course, there are varying levels of belief in flying saucers : from the casual, "maybe there have been a few alien visitations" down to, "snake women from Jupiter are using chemtrails to make us all believe the Earth is round !". If you put a gun to my head I suppose I could be persuaded to admit the possibility of a few alien visitations that have been captured on camera*. But a large-scale cover up which only a few (generally speaking) uneducated and incoherent people on the internet can expose** ? No. That shouldn't even need a rebuttal, because it's buggeringly obvious why it's just stupid.

* Bearing in mind that, "admit the possibility" and, "think that's a load of tripe" aren't mutually exclusive.
** Of course They let them have their YouTube videos exposing the truth as part of a multiple-bluff. Layers within layers within layers. Such people wouldn't understand Bill's Razor if it gently trimmed their nose hair while they were sleeping.

It's not really that I find the idea of alien visitors boring. It's just that the same overblown arguments are made again and again and again on the basis of the same dodgy "evidence". It's just tiresome. If you want to keep researching this stuff, then fine - but I won't accept anything less than a flying saucer landing on the White House lawn or in the gardens of Buckingham Palace*. Those are my terms. I don't think that really solid in-your-face proof is too much to ask, especially considering that there's not a lot I could do about a global conspiracy anyway.

* And no, you twerp, President Obama isn't a reptile. 

In other words, unless your UFO video contains something like this I'm just not going to bother evaluating it any more.

Aliens, Schmaliens

On then, to the second kind of aliens : those who haven't visited Earth at all but are just "out there" somewhere. An equally originally interesting idea which has become less exciting than watching a tortoise hibernate in slow motion. At least with UFOs there is some evidence to debate, even if the photographic quality is such that it makes a celebrity sex tape look like a Stanley Kubrick masterpiece of cinematography. With the non-visiting aliens, however, we've got absolutely zilch. At least zilch in terms of solid proof - which puts us back on exactly the same terms as for the alien visitors.

I suppose Eyes Wide Shut is the closest we'll ever come to seeing what would happen if Stanley Kubrick directed a celebrity sex tape. Unsurprisingly, it was dire. It consists solely of Tom Cruise not having sex for two and a half hours.
I have absolutely no idea if aliens exist or not. "But they must, there are so many stars, it would be an awful waste of space !" Blah blah blah blah blah. Or, "If they existed they would be here." Or you can harp on about how unlikely it is that intelligent life will evolve, or come up with some dribble (it's like drivel but worse) about the difficulties of interstellar travel, or deliver a magnificent sermon on how life might be unrecognisable to us or be so infinitely more advanced that it wouldn't care about us.

The point is we have no actual data. We can keep discussing the same stuff over and over again if you want, but new arguments for and against appear to have long ago stagnated. Sure, the mathematical probability of life arising may or may not be very high, but then again it also seems pretty reasonable to assume that life will try and spread itself. Which of these wins ? We have no idea. No idea at all. It doesn't matter how sophisticated the models are we use to make predictions, they're all just speculation until we have hard numbers.

Which is not to say that we shouldn't try and produce any of those sophisticated models, or that the ones we have weren't worth producing. Not at all. Speculation is an extremely valuable exercise... it's just that the speculations have all become variations on a theme. Every so often a headline emerges with a claim that there's a "new" solution to the Fermi paradox, or a new model about why earthlike planets should either be rare or so common it's a wonder the Earth itself isn't bashing into them every five minutes. All of them are just new ways of expressing the old ideas.

OK, I'm bored of aliens - but that doesn't mean you should be. If you haven't heard the various arguments a dozen times, many of them are extremely interesting. It's just that we're apparently stuck with this God-awful mystery and the theoretical side of things appears to be moving as slowly as a paralytic slug being chased by a sloth that took an arrow to the knee. There are two ways to make this interesting again :

1) A genuinely new theoretical argument, rather than yet another nuanced solution to the Fermi paradox. None of the proposed solutions are particularly convincing and all debates degenerate into "well, maybe the aliens blah blah blah." Yeah, maybe. Without knowing anything about the aliens you can speculate any solution you like.
2) Observational constraints. We don't have to detect aliens, but if we had some limits on how common they are then at least our speculations would be informed. E.g. if we detected no earthlike planets or artificial signals (of comparable strength to our own) within 50 light years, we could begin to say how common aliens are. And don't blather on about only looking for life as we know it - how the hell do you expect us to look for life as we do not know it ?

And aliens are also used as a sort of ultimate-level justification for space research. "You may not understand why I'm putting this shrimp on a treadmill today, but you'll thank me when I work out how to contact aliens tomorrow". Talking to aliens is seen as an end in itself with no further justification needed. Why is China building a giant radio telescope ? To talk to the aliens. Why do astronomers look for extrasolar planets ? To work out where the aliens live. Why do we study star formation ? To see how common planets (and thereby aliens) might be. Gamma ray bursters ? Might be nasty for the aliens. Dust ? Important in planet (and thereby alien) formation. Hydrogen line ? Best way to listen for aliens.

Aliens are depicted as a singularity event - something of such awesome mind-expanding potential that whatever happens after contact is completely unpredictable. Knowing that we're not alone in the Universe will either cause us to unite and form a global utopia or becoming angsty emos who are too depressed to get out of bed. But would it ? Would it really be such a revelation given that we're already intensely familiar with the concept, indeed have been for many centuries ? I rather doubt it. Despite the total lack of any evidence, most people overwhelmingly favour the notions that aliens do exist rather than that they don't*. It would be a bit like finding out about government spying programs : lots of hoo-hah,very little that actually happened as a result, and consequently one of the least surprising discoveries of all time.

* Furthermore, a huge swathe of the population just don't care.

Sci-fi is supersaturated with aliens. We've considered them as overlords and conquerors and invaders and refugees and parasites and gods and ordinary people. They've been super-intelligent, very stupid, factionalised, united, had pointy ears or been formless energy clouds. There's really not much more of parameter space left to explore. If and when we finally do make contact, it will almost certainly be a massive anti-climax. Instead of aliens landing on the White House lawn to mutilate our women and steal our cows (or possibly the other way around), it's likely to be some kind of transmission. And unlike in Contact, it will take years or decades to decode and won't contain any instructions for building a wormhole machine. It will, in short, be really really boring.

Yet aliens are being sold as this incredibly profound event, presumably by lazy public outreach types who can't be bothered to try and understand or explain scientific projects for their own sake. Now, my being bored doesn't necessarily mean that the whole thing is ridiculous, but we do have a few examples of how boring the discovery of aliens would be, of which the most famous is That Rock from Mars. You remember, the one with the fossils, right ? You probably do, since if you're reading this blog you're likely at least vaguely interested in science.

But it's very possible that you don't : I distinctly remember my sister's near-total lack of reaction. Massive controversy in the popular press which was sustained for considerable time, but twenty years later and its Wikipedia entry is shorter than that of Cardiff Bus. Doctor Who's blasé attitude, "it's them aliens again, I'll bet my pension", may well be far closer to the reality of contact that the singularities of other popular fiction.

The opposite question is much more rarely asked : what if it's just us ? Forget whether you think that's more or less likely or not, that's irrelevant. Rather, just consider the possibility. What does that mean for us ? Does it make us more or less special ? Would we still want to reach the stars if there was no-one there to meet ? Have you ever really stopped to even think about this before ?

Here's how I would handle the whole situation. Continue the research exactly as is being done right now (or heck, increase it - just because it's boring right now doesn't mean it wouldn't be interesting if we had some actual numbers), but with one teensy-weensy change : stop making major press releases whenever a tiny incremental adjustment is made. That could make the whole thing exciting again. Alternatively, I should take a holiday. One which doesn't involve radio astronomy in any way shape or form. That sounds nice.


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