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The Engineer

The Life and Times of Donald F. Simmons

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Terrific Lecture by local SF writers

The U of T space club ASX had a wonderful event Tuesday night with local SF authors Peter Watts and Karl Schroeder, talking about life on other worlds and the Fermi Paradox, respectively.

Saw Peter shortly before the evening began, and he was pretty nervous (his comment on seeing me was that he had hoped no one who know anything about this stuff would actually show up), but his talk was great (he is a great speaker) and I learned a lot. Peter veered a little from the main topic to talk about something he's been writing about for a while now, what it means to be sentient, and why it's not all it's cracked up to be, but no one minded that.

Karl's talk on the Fermi Paradox was also great. The Fermi Paradox (first formulated by Erico Fermi, who built the first nuclear reactor) is "If there are technologically-advanced aliens out there, why aren't they here?" Stated more formally, it's not hard to show that even without faster-than-light drives, a single advanced species could settle all the inhabitable worlds in the galaxy in a million years, and at least survey them all sooner than that. Since that's a small fraction of the lifetime of the galaxy, the Earth should have been settled by someone else long ago, or at least there would be recognizable traces of previous alien presence scattered about the solar system. But so far there's nothing.

Karl (and the Wikipedia) had a good rundown on some of the possible answers to this (civilizations tend to blow themselves up, intelligent life is very rare, conditions in the galaxy (i.e. gamma ray radiation levels) only allowed the development of advanced life in the past few billion years, so we're one of the first races to come along) but the one he's done a lot of work developing (both in his fiction and in some scientific papers he's had published) is that becoming tool users is not necessarily the end point of evolution, it's one possible answer and maybe not the best one. If you need a tool to do something, then you're not well adapted to do it. Should you become better adapted, you don't need the tool anymore, and maybe you don't need to be a technological civilization anymore.

I'm explaning both there thesis badly here, so read their books if you want to done properly. It was one of the best talks I've been to in a while.