Guest post: It’s not all bad being early

Guest post by Bruce Everett

Been feeling oddly Kantian lately, on account of some considerations about the Drake equation, red dwarfs, and the evolution of the universe. The imminent launch of the James Webb telescope is bringing this on as well.

Several terrible documentaries and an awful lot of bad science fiction makes a bit of a fetish out of the idea of “Ancient Aliens”, largely because the narrative of some kind of idealized past that can return to save us addresses a weird but pervasive need…

I can’t relate to it. I find it a bit puerile to be honest; quit an over-reliance on Sky Daddy; start looking for Space Daddy. Couldn’t stand Stargate, sorry.

And the kookiness of thinking Atlantis was any more real than Mordor, or that brown people can’t build monoliths, aren’t things to overlook, but the emotional need for there to have been Greys from Zeta Reticuli on Earth, stacking rocks and benevolently putting things up people’s bums in the early Holocene is something else, too. F***ing why?

We have a nice stable host star. For the time being at least. 100 million years from now it’ll bake our planet well before becoming a red giant. Complex life will clap out a bit earlier. But until then; nice.

What’s not nice are all those planets currently in the “habitable zones” of young red dwarfs. By which I mean “any red dwarfs” because on the timescale of a red dwarf, they’re all young. Young, cool, and unstable like a dirty burning flame.

So “cool”, planets have to be in close to the star for any heat, and as a result are tidally locked. And “unstable” as in anything that gets close is going to cop an all mighty-star parp to the face on a regular basis on account of really, really big solar flares. Flares that strip atmospheres.

The Milky Way is littered with red dwarfs. Stars like ours? Not so much. We’re odd. Even the configuration of our planets (no “super Earths”, nothing inside of Mercury’s orbit) is starting to look peculiar. (Our moon’s pretty spesh too).

Eventually, as the more common red dwarfs age and warm up, they’ll become more stable, and stop dropping huge star-parps. Their “habitable zones” will migrate outwards to where maybe there’s a chance of planets not being tidally locked. And we already know there are a good number of these systems where further out, there are exoplanets with water ice.

So warmth, water, possible rotation, and no atmosphere-scouring solar flares. Oh, and bonus; these red dwarfs will stay stable for billions of years more than our own star will. Plenty of time for life to establish. Could be easy living for the locals, and there’s a metric-fuck-tonne of these stars out there.

Downside: it’s not been even close to enough time for these red dwarfs to become stable. They’ll stay stable long, but they’ll take a long time getting there. Huge timescales. Longer than the present age of the universe. And certainly longer than our own star has left.

Earth will be long dead and gone before the first of these stars mature.

So… If the galaxy ever does wind up with abundant complex life living on a multitude of red dwarfs, it’ll be a long time from now, which makes us the “ancient aliens”. We’re quite possibly just too early to the neighbourhood to find any neighbours. Whether our descendants live long enough to find any neighbours isn’t certain either.

But it’s not all bad being early. The universe as it stands now is pretty interesting and special. There’s stuff we can witness now that will eventually be impossible to witness. The cosmic background radiation will eventually red shift so far it’s no longer visible – but right now it’s available. The observable universe will recede as accelerating expansion throws galaxy after galaxy out of sight. Large bright stars will form less frequently and our galaxy will cool, dim and redden – a number of the things we find beautiful will be gone.

The Milky Way and Andromeda will merge well before the first stable red dwarf becomes welcoming, so the sky certainly won’t be familiar.

A lot of knowledge will become unobtainable, or at least a lot, lot harder to come by. “Hubble flow”? Wot’s that? “Inflationary period”? Huh? “Andromeda Galaxy”? Who the what now? Wait, there are *other* galaxies?

How much of this knowledge winds up unobtainable depends on how far flung into to future we’re talking.

It seems feasible that we’re first cab off the rank, or at least one of the first, and yet there are people who’ve literally killed themselves over the prospect of there being older, wiser, guide-like space beings out there. There are people who still wish they could bring themselves to. The species that is about to launch the James Webb telescope is also the species that came up with the Heaven’s Gate cult. There’s a class in cosmic humility right there.

Perhaps the space-grown-ups could act like it a little more?

So yeah, the Kantian bit. We’ve stumbled our ape-selves into a position of privilege; the ability to witness the early universe. This may have left us all alone, but it just won’t be possible for most of the rest of the universe’s existence and may be far out-of-view by the time complex life becomes common out there (if ever).

I’m kind of feeling that humanity and its descendants owe any possibly intelligent life that follows in our sphere of influence the information that we gather. Let them make of it what they will, but at least they wouldn’t be deprived of the option.

Space-faring descendants, or space-faring artifacts; either way it’d be nice to pay it forward, knowledge-wise, if there’s anyone to listen. As far as finding meaning in an uncaring universe goes, I’d rate this pretty high as a strategy.

And in the meantime, maybe humanity could take its position in the cosmos a little less for granted. That’d be nice too.

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