Visitors from Afar

Zoo Earth and Interdimensional Television

Ever go to the zoo? From ages 3 to 11 I lived in Omaha, and we’d visit Henry Doorly Zoo a couple times a year. School trips, family trips, birthday parties. Good times. Wonderful zoo. Lots of incredibly interesting animals. Lots of older, prior-generation zoos were absolute disasters for animal health, socialization, and psychology, but some zoos, like Henry Doorly, took responsibility for the happiness and comfort of their animals. They invested a lot in building great environments that were representative of the animals native environs, to the best of their ability. But some animals need so much space, so much stimulation, that it borders on impossible.

The purpose of a zoo is to let us observe these animals that we would not otherwise have a chance to see, whether for edification or enjoyment, in a safe habitat that doesn’t present any risks to the observers, and provides for the opportunity to witness the most-natural-possible animal behaviors. You have the zoo, the habitats, the animals, and the zookeepers, and the visitors, and a lot of money goes into developing environments for each. We have to be very careful the lions, tigers, and bears (oh my!) don’t get out and eat our faces. These are, after all, dangerous wild animals.

Think about how much human effort goes into this. We have to invest in building the zoos, in training the keepers, in capturing and caring for the animals. It’s very expensive. How well developed does human society need to be in order to afford zoos, at least, zoos of the kind that are less-than-actively-harmful for the animals involved?

Human society benefits from something called the division of labor, which leads to specialization. And the more specialized our labor becomes, the more sophisticated things we can build. You may be able to get a few thousand agriculturalists to act as season laborers to drag giant stone blocks around and build pyramids or temples, but if you want to build a factory you need a heck of a lot more. You need the miners, the refiners, the smelters, the steelworkers, you need every single element of society that supports civilization up to that point, and then you need a surplus of labor above that so that people can specialize in the tooling, machines, equipment, design, engineering, and anything else required to actually build and operate that factory, whatever it’s making. Say cogs and gears, pretty basic, but you still have a minimum population level to divide and specialize labor to get to that point.

And keep going. You move from gears and cogs to engines and automobiles, and the level of sophistication, and therefore population level, goes up again. The more the sophistication goes up, the more education people need, so the larger the academic system gets. You have all these related needs like communications, supply chains, sophisticated agriculture to feed everyone. It’s a self-reinforcing, compounding system that relies on the labor surpluses, education, craftsmanship, and skills of billions of people just to build a rocket to launch a satellite.

Now we have 8 billion people on this planet, and we are getting kind of ok at satellites and low-orbit spaceflight. It took ten thousand years of compounding, collective human effort to get to reusable rocket launches. How many people, how many experts, how much education are we going to need in order to build an actual spaceship that can take humans to the other planets in our systems to explore, investigate, research, and harvest resources? What will it take to begin mining asteroids and collecting resources there? And then, what will it take for our economic and academic potential to take us beyond the boundaries of our sun, safely into interstellar space?

Tens of billions of people, devoting millions of person-life equivalents, to build a single starship? To take a single crew to another star system to explore and study and learn more?

Technology helps dramatically, and some people take the attitude “well AI will solve these labor demands for us”, but AI requires its own labor. The design and fabrication of ever more sophisticated means of constructing software, computer chips, and the facilities to build those computer chips. Advanced robotics has similar demands and challenges. Every time we scale up our abilities, even when considering the reduction of individual labor-unit-demand to deliver a single sophisticated component, the total amount of labor contribution to the entire system continues to increase.

Let’s do some very basic math, not as science, but as a concept. The development costs of the SpaceX Falcon 1 and Falcon 9 rockets were $390 million, and a single launch of a Falcon 9 is $62 million. This is orders of magnitude more efficient than prior NASA systems, reflecting the improvements of education and automation over time. But if our median income in the United States was $31k in 2019, that means that it took 12,581 person-year income equivalents to develop those rockets, and 2,000 person-year income equivalents to launch just one time.

And that’s for one of the simplest, least-capable systems that humankind has yet produced!

We can say, loosely, that a bus begets an airplane begets a rocketship begets a spaceship begets a starship. This is very broad, but there’s not much way to improve yet. And I chose bus, not car, because the intent is to move at least a few dozen people, not just 2-4. Yes, a rocketship does not crew a few dozen people. Like I said, we’re being loose.

An average car costs $48,000, which means it costs approximately 1.5 person-years to build. A public transit bus costs $500,000, or about ten times as much, more like 16 person-years. A passenger 747 is $418 million, or about 13,500 person-years. Keep in mind these 747s carry about 250 people, or 63 times the number a Falcon 9’s Dragon capsule carries, and about 8 times what a bus carries. These figures aren’t exact, I’m not trying to be. The point here is to watch how the number of person-year equivalents increases as the sophistication of the system goes up.

If we keep a linear relationship between the crew size and the cost to develop and fly, and again, this is not intended to be exact, just a thought exercise, it would cost about $24.375 billion to develop a rocketship capable of lifting 250 people off Earth’s surface, and $3.875 billion to actually launch it.

That’s 125,000 person-equivalent years of investment and labor productivity to get a 747 sized load of people just into low earth orbit for a few days.

We’re seeing a pretty linear relationship in these figures (in part because of the way I’m estimating) and I want to scale us back to a single seat, just to make it easier to grasp.

A car carries 4 people.  Rarely, but that’s what it’s designed for, so a car moving one person is about 1/3 of a person-year to deliver. A bus carries 60 people for 16 person-years, or about 0.27 person-years (less than a car, which is what transit advocates have been trying to say for ages, but I digress). A plane takes 54 person-years per seat. A Falcon 9, about 500 person-year equivalents per seat.

0.27 to 54 to 500 person years per person along for the ride. We can estimate then, again quite loosely, that it would take somewhere in the range of 5,000 to 50,000 person-year-equivalents per person to launch (not design, build, or crew, just launch) a space ship to travel within our solar system, and around 50,000 person-year-equivalents to 500,000 person-year-equivalents for each seat on the ship, to launch a star ship that can reach another star.

That, my friends, is a huge goddamn investment. And it will take a civilization of tens of billions of people to be able to create the economy, education system, industry, and economy required to support that level of investment to get one ship to one star with a handful of people on it.

How willing would you be to take risks with that kind of investment? Space travel is extremely dangerous as-is, and star travel will surely prove to be even more dangerous. We haven’t even established parameters here, either. For a starship to get to another star, are we talking some kind of warp drive, jump drive, wormhole drive, something that gets us there faster than light so we can go in a single lifetime? Or are we talking a generation ship that takes so long to reach its destination that it needs to carry an entire reproducing civilization inside it so that there’s someone left to notice when the ship finally reaches its destination?

For the purpose of argument, let’s assume some kind of FTL, just so that the effort is more usefully productive for our theoretical passengers. Well, that’s scaling up the requirements by another order of magnitude if not more to get that job done, right? Even if we devise some trick, we’re still pushing against millions of person-year-equivalents just to launch the damn thing.

And to get to a distant star, you’re going to need incredible sensors and optics that let you collect data and images that are far beyond what humanity’s very best lenses, scopes, and sensors can resolve at the moment. In addition to a million other things that will far exceed humanity’s abilities. And the crew itself will have to be so well educated, so well trained, so incredibly capable, to operate these systems that they will themselves represent an enormous investment.

This is a very, very expensive endeavor, and you are not going to be inclined to take any risks to your ship or the people on board unless you absolutely have to.

If you can do all of this, it’s unlikely that your visit to another star is for resources. You can get those easily anywhere, if you can traverse intergalactic space. You won’t need habitat, you can provide that yourself. You won’t need anything from your destination, except information and novel experiences. If your destination is a populated planet with a society and civilization, the whole point is to satisfy curiosity about how other creatures in this great existence of ours live and behave.

Which is the same reason we visit zoos, isn’t it? To see the wild animals in a safe way.

If our society and civilization were to invest this much time and energy into being able to visit other planets, and observe other civilizations, we’d be well beyond the need to invade, pillage, or harvest. It would be pure curiosity. But we’d bring some damn good weapons, just in case, in the same way that a zoologist needs a means to defend themselves against the animals they’re studying. You may bring a tranquilizer gun to investigate lions and tigers and bears, but you bring a damned powerful gun, too, because the tranq is an option but not one to bet your life on.

What if you invest a million person-year-equivalents in a journey and find yourself at risk at your destination? What if the civilization you’re visiting can hurt you? You wouldn’t risk a single person of your crew, the education, training, and experience they represent is impossible to replace. So you’d send a drone, whenever possible. And you wouldn’t risk your ship, it’s too valuable, so you’d stay far away from observation, hidden, and work with cheap intermediaries – again, like a drone.

Why would any aliens visiting earth do any different? We are obviously a very dangerous, violent, and extremely irrational species. It would be nearly impossible, with our behavior and track record, to safely interact with us at this point. Maybe when we’re far more developed and mature as a culture and civilization, but not yet. And maybe there’s some safe members of our species that could be interacted with, with reasonable confidence, but they would have to be carefully chosen.

That’s the crux of the zoo earth hypothesis: That we are so damned dangerous that aliens treat us like a barely-caged animal, and watch us from a distance. They may occasionally try to interact with us in safe ways, or observe us closer using disposable vehicles, but for the most part they have to stay far out of range of danger.

But there’s another side to it, too. Surely by now you’re familiar with the many-worlds hypothesis, alternatively called the multiverse, or parallel universes. The basic idea is simple – this isn’t the only reality, that there are countless realities overlaid on top of each other like pages in a book. We exist in one version of reality, the one we experience. And every tick of the clock, every single step of time, every single possibility branches – all potential realities that could exist, do exist, all overlaid on top of each other.

How long would it take for us to develop technologies that would allow us to take a peek at those other pages? We’ve come a long way in 10,000 years, from wild persons to a semi-domesticated, “mostly harmless” species. But “mostly harmless” in the same way that most lions never eat a single person, and even fewer eat more than one person.

How far could we advance if we had another 10,000 years to evolve? Or a million? Or 10 million years of sustained technological and cultural progress? Could we peek across the pages of the book of reality, and see other versions? Other civilizations?

We’d surely like to know what would happen in our own lives if we made different choices – is there a point in your life you’d like to peek at the what-ifs? A decision you made that you’ve questioned and doubted? What if I’d say yes, or said no, or not done this or that? What could have happened? And you could look and see, because all of those versions exist.

But eventually, after flipping through the pages and seeing the different outcomes of your choices, would you look further afield? What about larger things that had nothing to do with you? What if Hitler went to art school, for the classic example? What if the South had won the Civil War? What if the Brits won the Revolution? What if the Anglo Saxons won the Battle of Hastings? What if Julius Caesar wasn’t murdered? What if, what if, what if, a billion trillion times over, for every key turning point in human society. What if humans never invented beer? Never harvested grain? Never left the savannah? Never differentiated from chimps?

Is there any key event in our history, way back in the depths of time, that may have changed things further?

What if the Chicxulub asteroid had missed earth 66 million years ago? Would that have changed the course of history?

In all of these nigh-infinite pages of this book of possibilities, there are entire branches of existence where that happened. And in some of those branches, some stem group of dinosaurs continued evolving intelligence. And in some of those branches, they domesticated themselves, like humans have, and began building societies, and culture, and civilization. And in some of those branches, their culture survived long enough to start developing the means to look past their page to the other pages, and saw all of their permutations of their own lives and society. And surely one of them noticed that, in at least some number of versions of reality, they had been wiped out. Wouldn’t you be curious about that, if you learned that in no small number of realities, your own civilization never existed? Wouldn’t you look about and wonder what went on?

In some terribly distant version of reality, some of the dinosaurs survived, got smart, and started to look across reality, and they found us.

And aren’t we fascinating?

Imagine if you were in their shoes – to discover that your civilization never existed, but long, long, long after, a new animal evolved that was like you – smart, social, somewhat domesticated, somewhat civilized. Wouldn’t you like to study that? To see what these hairless apes were up to?

I’m sure it would be fascinating.

And if you could peek in on that wildly advanced dino-society, and see what the hell is going on over there, wouldn’t you? It would be the greatest reality TV ever conceived of – watching the alternative reality of your own existence, and flipping through every version.

And, I believe, that’s that, folks. The evolved dinosaurs from another reality figured out how to create a lens that can peek across reality, not just to our version of existence, but to every version of existence that includes us, and countless ones that don’t. And they watch, and they learn, and they’re fascinated and amused by what we do.

Now imagine that you’re an alien civilization that visits another planet, and finds it populated by an intriguing but violent people, so you treat them like a zoo. And while you’re watching them, you realize that someone else is watching them too – a society that never existed, at least not in this reality, watching across the boundaries of existence.

Wouldn’t that be the most incredible thing you’ve ever conceived of?

And in my humble opinion, that, dear reader, is what unidentified flying objects are, and where the aliens are hiding. We have aliens from across the galaxy watching us like zoo animals, waiting for us to evolve enough we can have a conversation, and all the while there’s evolved dinosaurs from another reality watching it happen like the latest season of their favorite reality TV.

That’s what unidentified aerial phenomena is. That’s what so many of these things we don’t understand are: observers from beyond space and time, who want to learn from us, maybe even want to meet us and talk to us, and who want to bear witness to what we’re doing, to try to see if we’ll ever learn, if we’ll ever mature, and if it’ll ever be safe enough to come out of hiding and say hello.

Let’s grow up, put on our big boy pants, act responsibly and respectably, and head out to say hello to our friends and neighbors. Just imagine what they can show us, imagine what we can learn from them, from the aliens and dinosaurs, if we would just figure out how to grow up and stop acting so damned violent all the time.