Your tax dollars at work: study posits how space aliens might solve climate change

From the Atlantic, by one of the authors of the study, Adam Frank:

The universe does many things. It makes galaxies, comets, black holes, neutron stars, and a whole mess more. We’ve lately discovered that it makes a great deal of planets, but it’s not clear whether it regularly makes energy-hungry civilizations, nor is it clear whether such civilizations inevitably drive their planets into climate change. There’s lots of hope riding on our talk about building a sustainable civilization on Earth. But how do we know that’s even possible? Does anyone across the cosmos ever make it?

Remarkably, science has now advanced to point where we can take a first step at answering this question. I know this because my colleagues and I have just published a first study mapping out possible histories of alien planets, the civilizations they grow, and the climate change that follows. Our team was made up of astronomers, an earth scientist, and an urban ecologist.

It was only half-jokingly that we thought of our study as a “theoretical archaeology of exo-civilizations.” “Exo-civilizations” are what people really mean when they talk about aliens. Astronomers refer to the new worlds they’ve discovered as “exoplanets.” They’re now gearing up to use the James Webb Space Telescope and other instruments to search for life by looking for signs of “exo-biospheres” on those exoplanets. So if we have exoplanets and exo-biospheres, it’s time to switch out the snicker-inducing word “aliens” for the real focus of our concerns: exo-civilizations.

We’re interested in how exo-civilizations develop on their planets. Given that more than 10 billion trillion planets likely exist in the cosmos, unless nature is perversely biased against civilizations like ours, we’re not the first one to appear. That means each exo-civilization that evolved from its planet’s biosphere had a history: a story of emergence, rising capacities, and then maybe a slow fade or rapid collapse. And just as most species that have ever lived on Earth are now extinct, so too most civilizations that emerged (if they emerged) may have long since ended. So we’re exploring what may have happened to others to gain insights into what might happen to us.

Of course, we have no direct evidence relating to any exo-civilizations or their histories. What we do have, however, are the laws of planets. Our robot emissaries have already visited most of the worlds in the solar system. We’ve set up weather stations on Mars, watched the runaway greenhouse effect on Venus, and seen rain cascade across methane lakes on Titan. From these worlds we learned the generic physics and chemistry that make up what’s called climate. We can use these laws to predict the global response of any planet to something like an asteroid impact or perhaps the emergence of an energy-hungry industrial civilization.

Full essay here

The paper: https://www.liebertpub.com/doi/10.1089/ast.2017.1671

The Anthropocene Generalized: Evolution of Exo-Civilizations and Their Planetary Feedback

Abstract

We present a framework for studying generic behaviors possible in the interaction between a resource-harvesting technological civilization (an exo-civilization) and the planetary environment in which it evolves. Using methods from dynamical systems theory, we introduce and analyze a suite of simple equations modeling a population which consumes resources for the purpose of running a technological civilization and the feedback those resources drive on the state of the host planet. The feedbacks can drive the planet away from the initial state the civilization originated in and into domains that are detrimental to its sustainability. Our models conceptualize the problem primarily in terms of feedbacks from the resource use onto the coupled planetary systems. In addition, we also model the population growth advantages gained via the harvesting of these resources. We present three models of increasing complexity: (1) Civilization-planetary interaction with a single resource; (2) Civilization-planetary interaction with two resources each of which has a different level of planetary system feedback; (3) Civilization-planetary interaction with two resources and nonlinear planetary feedback (i.e., runaways). All three models show distinct classes of exo-civilization trajectories. We find smooth entries into long-term, “sustainable” steady states. We also find population booms followed by various levels of “die-off.” Finally, we also observe rapid “collapse” trajectories for which the population approaches n = 0. Our results are part of a program for developing an “Astrobiology of the Anthropocene” in which questions of sustainability, centered on the coupled Earth-system, can be seen in their proper astronomical/planetary context. We conclude by discussing the implications of our results for both the coupled Earth system and for the consideration of exo-civilizations across cosmic history. Key Words: Anthropocene—Astrobiology—Civilization—Dynamical system theory—Exoplanets—Population dynamics. Astrobiology 18, 503–518.
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92 thoughts on “Your tax dollars at work: study posits how space aliens might solve climate change

  1. Adam Frank is Professor of Physics and Astronomy at the University of Rochester. He evidentially aspires to become Professor of Science Fiction and Astrology. I can imagine a foreign “civilization” (exo-civilization to the Professor) but have trouble viewing them as anything more than pond scum. Of course, if they fly here they would be advanced pond scum. The characters in Star Wars are fictional, Professor Frank. Also, if they are advanced enough to fly here they probably have figured out the controls of their environment and aren’t self-destructional. Of course if they fly here Mad Dog Mattis will shoot them down, or at least try to.

    • There is nothing in the paper supposing ‘exocivilizations’ might come here. The authors are simply thinking about what sort of scenarios might possibly unfold on other worlds. Given our increasing ability to study exoplanets, and in the near future to study their atmospheres, such conjectures may well produced insights into clues to look for.
      I’m OK with that – they’re inquisitive people and possibly put the paper together around the coffee urn, or over friday night drinks.
      Good on them!

      • Jack, inquisitive? If we do not currently possess the ability to study the atmosphere/environment of distant planets what are they studying? Your inquisitive is my baloney. It’s actually OK to study baloney, just not with tax dollars.

        • Well actually, the first papers suggesting that we CAN study exo-planetary atmospheres have already been published.

          Inquisitive gives us antibiotics for example. Or electricity.

      • If this is science, everything written by L. Ron Hubbard and Frank Baum is also science.

      • I’d rather they write their fiction on their own time and use taxpayer’s money more wisely. Searching for radio signals ala SETI and the Sagan novel “Contact” are already questionable uses of radio telescopes, but at least when you find something, it will be important, if not Earth shaking. But when you write a story and you call it research, all you have is a pointless and scientifically impotent story. Taxpayers don’t need more stories like that. We’re not paying for muddle headed rummies to write stories. We’re not paying to enable a class of privileged idiots to write propaganda. If they didn’t do this on their own time, BAD on them!

    • Since the Anthropocene doesn’t exist, Adam Frank clearly already is a Professor of Science Fiction and Astrology.

      Adam Frank science fiction…

      The Anthropocene Generalized: Evolution of Exo-Civilizations and Their Planetary Feedback
      Frank A. , Carroll-Nellenback Jonathan , Alberti M. , and Kleidon A.
      Published Online:1 May 2018

      Science fact…

      The ‘Anthropocene’ is not a formally defined geological unit within the Geological Time Scale. A proposal to formalise the ‘Anthropocene’ is being developed by the ‘Anthropocene’ Working Group for consideration by the International Commission on Stratigraphy, with a current target date of 2016.

      http://quaternary.stratigraphy.org/workinggroups/anthropocene/

      The Anthropocene Working Group (AWG) had a target date of 2016 to submit a formal proposal for their nonsense to the International Commission on Stratigraphy… It’s now 2018 and the doesn’t appear to have had any activity since January 2015.

      http://i0.kym-cdn.com/photos/images/newsfeed/000/715/142/f6c.jpg

      • In there defense, that kind of tera-forming would have made their presence on Hoth pretty obvious to the Empire.

  2. Adam Frank has spent the last decade promoting CAGW on NPR’s “13.7: Cosmos and Culture” “science” blog. He is immune to doubt or evidence (or the lack thereof).

    He is a celebrity scientist wanna-be who is more interested in establishing a public persona than his profession.

    His day job as a professor of astrophysics at the University of Rochester allows him to indoctrinate his unfortunate students. His NPR platform has been used to promote the CAGW conjecture.

    From the 13.7 website at NPR:
    ,,,when he was 5 years old…Late one night in the family library, the future Professor Frank found the keys to the universe sketched out on the covers of his dad’s pulp-science-fiction magazines. From astronauts bounding across the jagged frontiers of alien worlds to starships rising to discovery on pillars of fire, the boundless world of possibilities on those covers became the one he was determined to inhabit…

  3. From the Atlantic, buy one of the authors of the study, Adam Frank:

    It’s amazing what you can pick up on e-bay, though I suspect your predictive text got ‘by’ wrong.

  4. There seems to be an audience for this sort of nonsense.

    Ever notice how some people just love a new idea, no matter how crazy it is? They tend to be young, teenagers and young adults, self-styled “Progressives”, but some people retain this extreme form of naivety all their lives.

    They just want to be “special” – they want to think they are more open and thus more intelligent than their peers, but their fatal flaw is they fail to examine the evidentiary basis and the credibility of the hypothesis they have adopted – that would be too much like real intelligence; too much like real work.

    [end of rant]

    • These people would have spent their time more productively if they would have just kept on playing Dungeons and Dragons, or maybe Warcraft.

  5. Oh, wow, don’t Bogart that study. You’ve tied into some really good stuff. Let me have a couple of hits.

  6. “We present three models of increasing complexity:…(3) Civilization-planetary interaction with two resources and nonlinear planetary feedback ”
    TWO resources? seriously? like, food and flint, and that’s it? not even wood? That’s not even enough to account for a Neanderthal society, and the guy claims to study exo-civilization with that?
    Does the guy have any clue about the number of just the most basic resources we not-so-advanced-human currently use, and switch between as required by price and availability ?
    Even Club of Rome used a more complex model with 5 variables. 46 years ago. And that was already wrong.
    Jesus, such a poor work would deserve a kick out of university.

  7. Amazing. We can get rid of collecting evidence, developing hypotheses and testing them. We now have models to conduct scientific research.

    Of course, as no single form of life has ever been found outside the Earth, the journal Astrobiology is entirely a science fiction journal posing as a science journal.

    Also, the Earth-Moon binary system appears to have been the result of a very unlikely accident that may be responsible for some of the characteristics that have made the Earth so hospitable to complex life. Most exoplanets might have not been so fortunate, so it is possible that exocivilizations are extremely rare.

    • The Earth-Moon pair could be rre or maybe not, Javier.

      Secondly, I would not rule out the “Cameron” idea of a habitable moon circling one of those giant planets we see with Keple and hopefully with its heir. You know, Pandora for real, even without the Navi or unobtainium.

      Gums sends…

      • The Earth is a product of the impact that formed the Moon. Without that impact the Earth could be quite different. The Moon stabilizes the obliquity of the Earth, without it the climate of the Earth probably would not have been so stable for so long as to allow complex life.

        The Earth has too many unique characteristics to assume that there are plenty of Earth-like worlds out there capable of sustaining exocivilizations.

        • @Javier, I could give a rat’s about Cameron having an original idea or concept or…

          My point was the movie.depicted one possible scenario where the basic habitable planet/body did not have to be an Earth clone or a planet.

          I also feel that there are many planets out there that evolved as the Earth-Moon system. When you have zillions of particles orbiting a star, and maybe some early formations of large planets, then I can easily see the gravitational forces causing many collisions, and some could be big ones as our own Earth-Moon duo.

          So no, I really think that life in our own galaxy, much less the universe, harbors many abodes for all kinda creatures. And some are prolly way ahead of we Earthlings in terms of technology and societal evolution.

          I don’t think we are unique in the grand scope of things.

          Gums sends…

        • No. This is a selection bias. It’s easy to see giant planets close to their stars, so we see them easily. It does not mean that those are favored over other configurations.

  8. ‘ the runaway greenhouse effect on Venus’
    I will not even bother to comment on that……

    • Yeah, it’s nice to see that he ignores the constant volcanism underway on Venus, constant surface renewal and the fact that Venus has no moon to create a tidal pull that opposes the Sun’s tidal pull. And Venus didn’t get whacked like Earth did, so its rotation is much slower. But it apparently does have cold zones. There’s a probe going back there, I think, before too long.

    • I missed this one. You are right.
      the greenhouse effect on Venus is NOT runaway. Pretty stable, and totally coherent with its atmosphere weight and thickness.

      • Venus is hot today because it never cooled down enough for water vapor the precipitate out of it’s atmosphere.

        • Venus is hot today because it’s Atmospheric Pressure is 90 times Earth pressure at Sea Level. If Venus had an atmospheric pressure similar to earth, we could build a probe capable of surviving on the surface and perhaps even run around a little like Sojourner did on Mars

          • Venus’s atmosphere is 90 times the Earth’s because it never cooled down enough for water vapor to precipitate out of it’s atmosphere.

        • If I believe Wikipedia, Venus Atmosphere is
          96.5% carbon dioxide
          3.5% nitrogen

          0.002% water vapour

          Do you think it would change anything if this water precipitated out?

  9. A sci-fi film equally lunatic as your exo-civilization paper Prof. Frank but more entertaining. Your talent is useful as a scriptwriter for Hollywood sci-fi films but still below the level of Arthur Clarke and Isaac Asimov

    • ‘Useful as a scriptwriter…’ I”m not so sure.

      I think he completely lacks real imagination and is embedded in his own vanity. His attitude in that article is both condescending and snide. He could use being taken down, about a dozen pegs.

      • “I think he completely lacks real imagination and is embedded in his own vanity”

        Hmm, given the quality of most movies these days, that sounds like a good description of many of the people who wrote the scripts for those movies.

  10. … it’s time to switch out the snicker-inducing word “aliens” for the real focus of our concerns: exo-civilizations.

    I’m really really tired of being told what language I should use. It’s the Newspeak that Orwell warned us about.

    Name changes only work for a while. ‘Retarded’ started as a euphemism for moron. ‘Retarded’ eventually took on all the pejorative meanings of moron. It then had to be replaced, in turn, by other euphemisms like ‘intellectually challenged’. It’s called the Euphemism Treadmill. In other words, a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.

  11. Wow. If he ever meets the Kardasshians, (not the Cardassians – different species), he’ll be terribly disappointed. No imagination. None at all.

    Obviously, he thinks that his view is superior or something, when his scope/vision is so narrow that any species other than human would be viewed by him as something to put under a microscope. He’d put Mother Thing in a zoo, and keep Willis as a pet in a cage. I’ll just bet he thinks his genetic material is superior to that of any Tenctonese. He certainly is a condescending little gene snippet.

    Hominim! Frorrnri sinepis ladro talippet! Iq’eishi, AFrank. Iq’eishi buadda!.

  12. Sounds to me like Malthus/Marx without naming names. “Let us postulate a planet, which we’ll call ‘X’. The ‘civilization’ that arises greedily consumes the planet’s resources (while oppressing its female and other-gender identifying groups) according to the simple equation Y = A*t + B. Our team has shown that A and B, chosen correctly, always lead to planetary doom unless progressive measures are put in place.” Gee, what planet could they be talking about?

    What a crock…

  13. Seems like an interesting example of how to get grants.

    Find a way of incorporating the magic words “climate change” into a grant application that vaguely relates to ones speciality.

  14. “Of course, we have no direct evidence relating to any exo-civilizations or their histories. ”

    So, pure speculation.
    Their ‘study’ is no more scientific than an episode of Star Trek, or the lunatic writings of L. Ron Hubbard. Does this guy plan to start a cult “exo-religion” soon?

    • The Heaven’s Gate people were quite sure that aliens were coming to take them to a better place, so why not?

      • We don’t know that they are not in a better place, do we? They left their bodies, but who knows. Maybe the aliens uploaded them to new bodies.

    • Not yet, but when we convert the solar system into a Dyson sphere, that will cause beneficial climate change.

  15. Wanna make a bet that one of the resources is fossil fuels and the other one is food? Also wanna make a bet that the 3 models have CO2 softcoded in to automatically increase the atmospheric temperature with increased use of fossil fuels?

  16. Probably the most unscientific publication I’ve heard of, after Lewandowski’s 97%. Models all the way down, simplistic models at that. Why use a model when you are living in an ongoing experiment? Try understanding that first.

  17. And the professor still believes in runaway feedback, for shades of James Hansen’s most discredited predictions. Why not the luminiferous ether?

      • Thanks, Nick.

        And if I wanted a ticket on the first starship, I would train to be an “astrobiologist”. When we reach Pandora, we’ll need to dissect the ecology and biological environment so we don’t succumb to the little things as the Martians did in War of the Worlds.

        Gums ponders…

  18. I’m still waiting on a new movie where aliens come to destroy humanity because of, wait for it,
    “Climate Change.” And of course, those 75 “scientists” that make up the 97% are allowed to survive,
    since they had it right all along.

    • One of the Star Trek movies had a theme kind of like that involving whales and how evil we were to have destroyed them. We all die if Kirk doesn’t go back in time and get extinct whales to sing to save the planet. Hopefully, the new movie would be much more entertaining and less preachy.

    • I believe the latest remake of “The Day the Earth Stood Still” was about saving the Earth from environmentally destructive humans. I never saw it, so I can’t comment on how nonsensical it was.

      Jim

      • Very nonsensical. Why should aliens capable of interstellar flight care what we do with out own planet? At least in the original movie they came because we posed a potential threat to them!

  19. If aliens were to ever come here, and offer to assist us with our “Climate Change Problem”, it would be a sure bet they would be offering to help us eliminate our hydrocarbon dependence by taking away all our nasty hydrocarbon sources (coal, oil and gas). The way for sure to know they are on their way is that Titan will loose its atmosphere and hydrocarbon lakes first.

  20. “I know this because my colleagues and I have just published a first study mapping out possible histories of alien planets,” He’s a paid science fiction writer, in other words.

    I was trying to watch PBS last night on black holes, etc, but decided I was not in the mood for science fiction and gave up. Science really is fiction so very much of the time and we don’t seem to be bothered by it. Living in the Matrix, I guess.

  21. Rules himself out as a Planetary Scientists with this statement “watched the runaway greenhouse effect on Venus”.

  22. I imagine that an ideal “exo-civilization” would be leveraging an energy source that increases their life cycle’s base of the food chain when consumed.

  23. A moment of pause so as to consider all the other things that might have destroyed an emerging exo- civilisation would have served better than the knee jerkbrain reach for pop climate change. So sad in one so clearly otherwise enthusiastic.
    It interests me why this academic so readily assumes exo-life would be sufficiently like us to experience even remotely similar lines of development and civilisation building. There is much more interesting science fiction written than this must try harder effort.

  24. It is honestly perplexing that he assumes any Exo-Civilization would operate like an Ant Hill, booming and busting with one or two resources.

    Humanity has already shown that when a resource becomes scarce in intelligent species will look for a replacement, or even create more of it if possible (as with food and farming).

    If CO2 really were a threat to Civilization, then we COULD replace a large part of it… with Nuclear. If food production were truly in danger of being passed by Population, then we could grow more through greenhouses, irrigation, and others.

    And if somehow we did get hit with a shortage (probably through bad government like Venezuela) even that is unlikely to cause outright distruction. As we’ve seen, people often find a way to survive.

    • “If CO2 really were a threat to Civilization, … then we could grow more [food] through greenhouses, irrigation, and others.”

      Of course growing food requires CO2. Life consumes CO2. So, the ‘threat to Civilization’ is necessary for Civilization to exist.

  25. Producing a paper using no actual data… wow. It’s just a thought exercise, aka mental masturbation.

  26. “nor is it clear whether such civilizations inevitably drive their planets into climate change.”

    That one sentence gives away the whole reason for the study. Everything has to be linked to climate change to get published and pal reviewed.

    97% of climate science is a joke

  27. This guy actually believes that his fantasizing about what alien cultures may or may not be able to do, is “scientific research”.

  28. “watched the runaway greenhouse effect on Venus, and seen rain cascade across methane lakes on Titan”

    When exactly did we do either of these things?

  29. “Does anyone across the cosmos ever make it?”
    ________________________________

    Sure not. But “did anyone across the universe ever make it?”

    Don’t think so.

  30. That’s a good one:

    “We’ve set up weather stations on Mars, watched the runaway greenhouse effect on Venus, and seen rain cascade across methane lakes on Titan. From these worlds we learned the generic physics and chemistry that make up what’s called climate.”
    ________________________________

    Tell me “the generic physics and chemistry that make up what’s called climate.”

    prey.

    • The “rain” on Titan is methane, as are the snow and the ice.

      Titan also has seasonal changes, and occasionally, shows Saturn-induced warm spells.

      it’d be nice if AFrank paid attention to these realities.

  31. A truly ground breaking piece of research. They had a grant to study exo-civilizations, but there was a huge impediment to their work – there was no data. Old-style scientists (like some of us dinosaurs here) would have just given up and wandered off looking for other areas to study. But not these guys – they operate at the leading edge of science!! They laboured long into the night, shunned by colleagues who had data to play with, jeered at by students, put on notice by administrators that they had to publish or lose their tenure, warned by the funding foundation that they’d have to repay the grant (long since squandered on going to climate conferences in exotic locations) if they didn’t get their fingers out.

    Finally, they came up with a solution. And what a solution – it’s a whole new paradigm, a whole new way of collecting data, a whole new way of doing science!! They just made it up.

    Think of the benefits that this new protocol would give to climate science and climate scientists. No more tediously going through old weather-station records, adjusting, re-adjusting, homogenizing, re-homogenizing until they show the warming trend you want. No more days and weeks wasted tinkering with sea level data, adding a millimetre here, subtracting a millimetre there, till you get the right acceleration. No more days wasted wondering whether kriging is better than polynomial fitting to fill Africa and the Arctic with the right kind of temperature data. No more having to debunk the criticisms of those darned d3niers with their endless carping about how you mutilated the data, and it doesn’t show what you said it shows anyway. No more having to pester the zoology department profs for the names of cute and cuddly species that you can claim will go extinct if it warms by half a degree.

    No, with this new approach, your data will be clean and totally unambiguous. The trends it shows will be obvious, the blades of your hockey sticks will be at just the right angles, and they will start at just the right dates. Fortune and fame will be yours for the asking. Software billionaires will invite you to their beachfront estates for cocktails.

    And think of the cost savings. No more field work, drilling holes in trees in the Urals. No more getting stuck in the ice while you document how the ice is disappearing. You can use the savings to go to even more climate conferences

    Welcome to post-data data!!

    /sarc (because you never know)

  32. I read the phrase “building a sustainable civilization on Earth” and I immediatly think of the double standards of the First World. As an example, here in the UK, although we have fawning green politicians, yet we are importing skilled folk from 2nd world countries to enable our health service, while leaving their countries of origin short of skilled resources.

    I am convinced that nations should become sustainable but that is the opposite of what our hypocritical politicians and masters, keen to keep their servants, are actually doing.

    THe EU has punishing tariff barriers that prevent much trade with 2nd and 3rd world countries. We are encouraging solar panels on roofs in Scotland whereas it ought to be encouraged in Africa and Asia where the sun shines to help those countries to develop a post industrial sustainable infrastructure. etc etc etc

  33. The author wrote; “Does anyone across the cosmos ever make it?

    Remarkably, science has now advanced to point where we can take a first step at answering this question. ”

    Has the definition of science really fallen so low? It is speculation on the order of the notion floated in the 40’s that Venus was a tropical swamp world. Literally speculation based on observing a white featureless disk [as Sagan put it].

  34. “Your tax dollars at work”
    That isn’t clear. No grants are listed. Most people involved seem to be from University of Rochester, which is a private outfit. Oddly, Adam Frank (also UR) is not listed as an author.

  35. You only have to look at this planet’s civilisations to see a better model: very few have declined due to negative resource effects, decline, or misuse, it’s almost always politics. A few from natural catastrophes, a few from invasions, a few from climate change, but by far the most from human politics; internal corruption, overly rigid class structures stifling adaptation to change, useless conquests, and rigid ideologies which are out of touch with reality.

  36. How can one do any kind of analysis such as this and not include extra-planetary resources? Asteroid mining has been a staple of SF for decades, and several entrepreneurs are doing serious work in that direction now that SpaceX has managed to start a major cost-to-orbit price drop. Likewise orbital solar power satellites, leading to orbital habitats.

    Perhaps we are “the old ones”.

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