Books written by Ray Sullivan

Sunday, 2 December 2012

A Brief Moment in Time

A group of researchers are pitching for public donations to provide them with funding into a hypothesis that suggests searching for CFCs in space will help prove or disprove the existence of Alien life.  The theory goes like this:

CFCs, or Chlorofluorocarbons if we're being formal, are a family of chemicals that don't occur naturally in the universe.  They were developed in the 1920s, based on earlier research, to be used as refrigerants.  They proved to be extremely good as a cooling medium but unfortunately also pretty cool at depleting ozone from the upper atmosphere.  And as we all know, ozone protects us all from harmful radiation.  If the researchers find CFCs it strongly suggests that developed alien life exists.

As an aside I'd like to lend a smidgeon of defence to the person considered responsible for the development of CFCs and also for putting lead in petrol.  Both products were introduced in the 1920s, both were known to cause environmental damage by the 1980s (and that's a generous acknowledgement)  and both were finally outlawed by the end of the Century.  The guy who introduced both of these innovations was Thomas Midgley, a chemical engineer who had nearly one hundred patents to his name.  Midgley did play fast and loose with the addition of lead and presided over a substantial number of industrial deaths in its development but I think it is fair to say he was part of a process that was trying to push the technology of automobiles forward and its reasonable to say it took governments one heck of a long time to regulate against his ideas.  The ozone depleting effects of CFCs weren't known until thirty years after his death, so I think it's fair to say that blaming him for the near destruction of the ozone layer is a bit uncalled for.

Midgely died after contracting polio in his early fifties, killing himself in an accident involving a device using pulleys and cables to lift himself up, managing to strangle himself in a contraption he designed himself.  Some have suggested that the horrible death suffered is rightful retribution for the environmental wrongs Midgley inflicted on the planet, but I think that is unfair.  Midgley did develop some products that have caused incalculable damage and deaths over several generations, but there are many more culpable persons in the mix.  If his developments had proven as effective as they were, but were otherwise harmless then he would be lauded as a hero.  He didn't set out to damage the atmosphere, destroy the ozone layer or affect the brain development of millions of humans, but governments and corporations allowed these things to continue years after it was known to be a problem.  They are the real culprits, in my opinion.

Anyway, I digress.  The researchers hoping to get an injection of publicly donated cash have a theory that all advanced planets will develop CFCs as they progress technologically, and they have methods for attempting to detect them - probably watching for the depletion of ozone in exoplanets, I guess.  I think there is a definite flaw in their theory and its one that has been noted for many years already.

You see, if you were looking at the Earth from another planet several light years away you would have had a pretty short window to spot us blowing CFCs into our upper atmosphere.  Anyone looking at us right now (or more correctly, in however many light years from now needed for them to observe us now) might see the end remains of our CFC experiments.  Looking at us in the coming decades they may not find the CFC evidence. A one hundred year window to identify intelligent life on a planet is a pretty small window.

A similar consideration was made about twenty or more years ago.  It was suggested that any planet going through the development process that included industrialisation, technical development and eventually the capability to travel into space might follow a similar technological path that we have, and that would include radio and TV broadcasts and the development of nuclear power.  Make that nuclear weapons.  Given the statistical number of stars that should have potentially inhabitable planets it was suggested that a significant number should be more technologically developed than ourselves, yet there was no evidence of life in the form of radio or TV broadcasts found.  The suggestion is that all societies will progress through the nuclear development phase at or about the TV broadcast phase but if they don't manage the nuclear angle they may end up destroying themselves pretty soon afterwards.  Which is why it is suggested that the reason we don't see any evidence of civilised life in the form of radio or TV broadcasts is because the same planets have long destroyed their own civilisations.  Maybe not simultaneously, but in astrological time-scales , as near as dammit.

So it may be that every time a planet gets smart enough to develop radio or for that matter CFCs, they will also develop nuclear weapons at about the same time and within a relatively short period of time annihilate the technology off the face of their world.  So unless we happen to be looking at the right place at the right time - and we're really only just starting to develop the right tools to look - then we may well miss the rise and fall of alien civilisations.

So I'll hold off my subscription to the researchers.  Not because I'm a defeatist but because I suspect the window they're looking for is too small to find.  I hope the other window idea, the one that suggests we're destined to destroy ourselves within a few generations of developing the bomb is wrong.  I know SETI - the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence - is actively looking for alien broadcasts.  If they track any it doesn't mean we'll ever meet our neighbours  or even strike up a meaningful conversation.  But at least it will show that planets can outlive the bomb as well as the CFCs.


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