Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Recently Watched: Happy Feet

I recently watched Happy Feet, mostly because it was the movie that beat Pixar's Cars at the academy awards, which to me seemed to be a rather significant accomplishment. It may have deserved it, it was very good, although I got the feeling a rather large portion of the movie could have been edited out, still made the same point and tightened up the pacing quite a bit.

I'm not here to critique the movie, though.

One of the main plot lines in the movie is that aliens (humans) are stealing the penguin's food supply (fish) either selfishly or unwittingly. From the penguin's perspective (and these are singing / talking / dancing penguins now), humans are simply beyond comprehension. At the same time, penguins are (to some humans) stupid, worthless birds, so why not take all of their fish?

I've been seeing articles fairly frequently recently about Fermi's Paradox (see here and here) and this got me to thinking about the existence of alien life, and what it would likely do if it encountered us. The problem we face is that, if life is even remotely as probable as suspected, and the odds of a technological space-faring race evolving is at all probable, the aliens should be here and everywhere else already.

One of the posts in the second link above suggested that any race sufficiently advanced to travel between stars must be so advanced that they've solved all energy, food and mortality problems. That seems a bit ridiculous, presumably from the perspective of 600 years ago you could believe the same thing about a civilization that could cross the Atlantic. Or the Pacific. Or circumnavigate the globe. In an aircraft. Well, our fabulous civilization has done all of those things, and so many more, but those problems are more than a little way from being solved.

It seems that our perception of an alien race is some race so advanced that it is impossible for them to make a mistake. Crashing in Roswell would simply be impossible for a race that has traveled the stars, despite zero-g space travel and landing in a rather significant gravity well with an atmosphere being two fairly different problems. I think we have to admit it's at least possible for alien races to make mistakes, for machinery no matter how advanced to fail, and that we have only slightly more insight into how to build an interstellar spacecraft than penguins have about how to build a fishing trawler.

So, it's back to the penguins again. Perhaps we are the penguins. Perhaps the purposes of alien life is so beyond our understanding that humans are of little interest beyond the occasional alien zoologist, who might drop in to catalog us, and then be on their way. It is supreme arrogance to assume that we are so intelligent and advanced that a space-faring species would feel compelled to drop in and start a conversation? Penguins can communicate after a fashion, but it seems it would be scarcely worth the effort to communicate with them. Taking part in their mating ritual hardly seems compelling. Even if they were more intelligent, discussing the consistency of snow and ice and how tasty raw fish is would only be novel for about a week.

Perhaps one of the biggest problems we have is that we have never met another species with even remotely our level of abstract thinking. If other species had arisen that we could interact with (and we could resist wiping them out) perhaps we would understand a thing or two about other intelligent species - and perhaps that once you have done so, meeting others isn't quite as cool as we think it would be. No denying, it would be big for us. Maybe not so much for them if they've done it hundreds, thousands or millions of times with species a lot more advanced than we are.

There are lots of potential reasons why Fermi's Paradox isn't a paradox at all. Maybe they are here, and they're either hiding, or they just don't care. Of course, maybe the chances of a technological society arising are absurdly small. Life has existed on this planet for a very, very, very long time. We are the only species known to have even been able to create fire in all that time. What did happen to our evolutionary path that brought us to that point that every other species seems to have missed, and why did it take so long? Or maybe it was fast, and nobody else really is there yet. It's entirely possible there are billions of worlds exactly like ours, minus us, so the universe is filled with life trapped on their worlds until their stars explode and the whole thing starts all over again. The odds of life arising may be small, so far there has only been one verified case of human-level intelligence ever, despite billions of years of evolution, and that's us. (I might be willing to provide an exception to some of our parent and sibling species, but regardless there is only this one line that has even approached a technological society, and only one that has achieved it.)

To finish up, I liked the movie, not only because it was well done, but because it makes me think about all of this stuff, and that's just good nerd fun. It gave me a new perspective on how aliens might perceive us, and gave me a bit of a reality check on some of the exceedingly arrogant perceptions we might have of ourselves as a technological society.


HawkOwl said...

"Even if they were more intelligent, discussing the consistency of snow and ice and how tasty raw fish is would only be novel for about a week."

Speak for yourself! You have no idea how long we can talk about snow, ice and fish and not get bored. And that's nothing compared to the Inuit. :)

inverse said...

You have no idea how long we can talk about snow, ice and fish and not get bored.

There are just so many perfectly terrible things I could say in response to that...

I suppose if you broke up the monotony with discussion of alcohol and the relative merits of different welding rod gauges, it might be possible to not go completely mad. But then that's not precisely what I was suggesting. :-)

HawkOwl said...

It's all right, city slicker. We'd all get cabin fever living your life, I'm sure. LOL