Super Civilizations: What Do They Really Want?

Highly advanced aliens seem MIA, according to a recent study by astronomers at Penn State University. These researchers checked out a huge gob of cosmic real estate — roughly 100,000 galaxies — and failed to find clear evidence for any super-sized alien empires.

At first blush, this is an astounding result, given that the universe is more than 13 billion years old. Surely that’s enough time for at least a few ambitious alien species to establish the type of galactic-wide imperium so beloved by sci-fi fans.

Could it be that no one is out there? Are we now free to declare ourselves the acme of brain power in this part of the cosmos, and certify that everything out to 50 million light-years is Klingon-free?

That may be a bit overmuch. Let’s consider what the Penn State folks really did. In a truly clever piece of work, they used NASA’s WISE (Wide-Field Infrared Survey Explorer) space telescope to measure the infrared light coming from all those galaxies. Infrared is produced by anything warm — by heat.

The second law of thermodynamics mandates that heat is the final product of just about any type of engineered activity. Your auto shoots warm gases out the tailpipe, the local utility plant dumps waste heat in a pond, your TV gets warm… Waste heat is the elephant graveyard of all processes using energy, which is to say, all processes. Even writing a byte of data onto your hard drive produces some heat. So does erasing it.

Now where there’s heat, there’s light (at least of the infrared variety), so the Penn State astronomers were hunting for galaxies that generated far more than the usual amounts of infrared. This could be a tipoff for what’s called a Type III civilization — the black belt of all societies —> Read More