William M. Briggs

Statistician to the Stars!

What scientific or technological advance would you most like to see in your lifetime?

The real geeks among us long for synthohol. Only Class A nerds know, or admit to knowing, what it is, too.

But I have to tell you, your potential partner’s drinking it won’t make you any better looking. Better to stick with the real thing.

I’d surely like to see cheap, readily available fusion power. With unlimited energy comes unlimited possibility.

Medical advances never really grabbed my interest. Probably—and luckily—because I don’t have any sicknesses.

Would be good to see genetics progress to the point where we can reliably clone humans so that we don’t deprive the world of another me.

Proofs of various unsolved problems in math would be, as Martha says, a good thing, but, eh. Math will never cease, there is no natural stopping point, no real goal.

I can go to my grave—not happily, but resignedly—without knowing what the unified theory is, or whether string theory or something deeper is true.

But what I’d really like to know—I mean know, for certain—is whether life exists, particularly sentient life, on other planets.

When I was younger and, if it can be imagined, even dumber than I am now, I used to think such a discovery would put a lot of people in their place. I didn’t then appreciate the resiliency of belief.

cluster AGC-11H

So now I would like to know just for myself. For reasons I can’t quite explain, finding extraterrestrial life would make me very happy. I would feel like all is right with the universe.

When I was a kid, we didn’t know that other stars had planets. We suspected, of course: Because there were so many stars, there surely had to be other planets. But it wasn’t until recently that we had external proof.

The same sort of reasoning suggests there are extraterrestrial life forms. Certainly life is tenacious here on Earth. Kill it en mass with rocks from outer space or choke it with planetary-wide volcanic gas, it always bounces back stronger than before.

The ease with which life forms exploit any potential niche here at home is reasonable evidence it can do so elsewhere. Still, we haven’t even figured out if life made it on Mars. We’re not done looking, but it’s at least obvious that life wasn’t extraordinarily fruitful on the red planet. Well, we still have Io to explore.

We have looked for signals from space. I hope we get lucky with this, but any communication we do find won’t be an accidental one. That is, it is very unlikely we’ll be able to ear whig an alien conversation.

There is some fancy math that shows the more efficient a signal gets the more it looks like noise. Species that are more advanced than us are likely to communicate efficiently, and even in ways we don’t yet know, so overhearing gossip on an interstellar hydrogen-line party line is unlikely.

Thus, the signals we do eventually capture almost certainly will be broadcasts saying, “We are here, we are here, we are here!” The people at SETI are keeping their ears open.

Then there is Enrico Fermi’s question, sometimes called a “paradox”, which it most certainly is not. Fermi wondered that, since there are so many possibilities for life to have evolved to the point of technological superiority over us, why haven’t we noticed any of them?

To call this a paradox is to make the assumption that all other sentient life is as gregarious as our species. Or it assumes that we are interesting enough for superior beings to take notice of us. Or that our betters haven’t figured out how to duck into the multiverse. Or whatever.

But Fermi’s question is a good one all the same. We haven’t notice any Bracewell or Von Neumann probes, for example. (Probably better not to have seen any of the later.)

Nor have we seen the spectral signal of any Dyson spheres, or even Niven-like ringworlds. In short, no eternal evidence at all of any extraterrestrial civilization. So far.

I’ve got maybe 30-50 years left (my clan appears long lived), so I still have hope.

Still, it wouldn’t be all bad if we were the first sentient species. Our descendants, if they make it that long, would have bragging rights among the other species that eventually evolve. We’d be able to say, “We’re number 1! Eat that, proto-virus from cluster AGC-11H!”

That’s my desire. What’s yours?


  1. Here is a design that may make your dream of seeing fusion in your lifetime more likely:

    Bussard’s IEC Fusion Technology (Polywell Fusion) Explained

    Why hasn’t Polywell Fusion been fully funded by the Obama administration?

  2. Well space travel is something that is not only interesting but necessary .
    Who would bet his multi million year survival on a single mud ball that could be hit anytime by some giant asteroid on chaotic orbit who’d decide to fluctuate just a tiny bit ?
    I can’t understand why we are not on Mars yet .
    Farther our we’d need to win a factor 10 000 on propulsion (or to find something about gravity and space-time that , per definition , nobody suspects yet) so I do not think that we’ll see that during our life time . If it ever happens .
    As for the Fermi paradox .
    I think the right assumption is “darwinian” .
    If the alien intelligence has been developped by a darwinian process (aka evolution) then the paradox is indeed a paradox .
    The engine of evolution is adaptation to a changing environment coupled to a selection that kills the unadapted and leaves the adapted live by some appropriate process (f.ex DNA) .
    But if our Alpha Centauri feral flying meduses have evolved and developped intelligence then they had to interact with the environment for a long time and win in the end .
    They had to fight , especially with the humpbacked voracious wasps and through fighting discover the wisdom of knowing things .
    Now an intelligent being aware of its environment , changing it , appreciating the value of knowledge and wanting that the state of things lasts would UNAVOIDABLY smurk to the skies .
    I say smurk for lack of a better word because the feral meduses have no eyes .
    They smurk instead of looking .
    They also do a dozen of other things , especially the very impressive curaning what involves extendable protoplasmic appendices curaning low frequency vibrations .
    Well having smurked and curaned , they’d want to go out there for obvious reasons .
    Knowledge , survival and excitement being the most important .
    Of course technology being basically only a very efficient extension of individual abilities (f.ex it is better to touch a humpbacked wasp with a stick instead of a tentacle) , our meduses posess technology too .
    Combustion , quantum mechanics , general relativity , Bayesian inference as well .
    Now as they evolved 100 millions of years before us and didn’t visit their next star (e.g us) then 4 possibilities :
    – they did but only a drowsing mamuth saw them and they didn’t find the place interesting enough to come for a second time . There were 100 billions of other stars to visit only in our own Galaxy anyway .
    – they almost did but wiped themselves completely out (experience that went wrong , a world war or teh wasps’ revenge) just before they built the space engine
    – there is nothing beyond string theory (or loop quantum gravity if that’s your preferred variant) and all the available relevant scientific knowledge (well 99% of it) needs only about 200 years to be developped . The technology has an asymptote and we’re already there . The meduses were there 100 million of years before us and are there today still . There will never be interstellar travel .
    What the meduses developped after science instead was an incredibly astute religion that we could never understand . Among others it interdicts fast movements .
    – we are alone in the Universe

  3. I’d like: a computer that does exactly what I want, quickly, every time. As a friend of mine once remarked, “Technology is great! It works most of the time”. All present devices conform to the specification of the Sirius Cybernetics Corporation: their superficial design flaws mask their fundamental design flaws.

    I’m have some difficulty grasping the idea of being alone while jammed in with six billion other people…

    And Wikipedia thinks it’s “synthehol”.

  4. I would really like to see a surfeit of sentient life on this planet. But call me wild and crazy.

    David C.

  5. Briggs

    March 23, 2009 at 12:14 pm


    Your not doing yourself any favors by admitting to know the “proper” spelling.

  6. I’d go with Tom. I say Fermi wins this round.

    Just think about it this way. Remember the astronomical technological progress we’ve seen in the 20th century. Some people say that 21st will be even faster. Imagine google and the internet inside our brains.

    Yeah, I know.

    This in 100 years. Now if some ET species were about to occur and survive, they would, within 1000-10000 years go to space. It’s inevitable (if they survive, that is). A conservative calculation could be 1.000.000 years to conquer the entire galaxy. Okay, multiply it by ten. It would be unavoidable.

    Now, the galaxy is probably 10 billion years old. There’s no reason to believe that all sentient ETs will arrive at the scene at the same aprox time that we did. So if they’re out there,

    a) They’re too stupid (not sentient at all)

    b) They’re too smart.

    It can’t be other way around. Now, a) is uninteresting. And b) would mean they would have conquered the galaxy within 10 my. But they have a window of a few thousands of million years!

    Come on, this is a probabilistic problem, you should work it out!

    So I submit that most probably, we are alone at the big milky way.

    Answer your question, I’d say what I’ve just said. Google in our brains. And eternity. Too ambitious? Well not at all. I’d say these aren’t my best wishes. My best sci tech wish is to be wowed every single year about new glamorous, incredible stuff.

    And you know what? I already am.

  7. The obvious one for me is life extension. I’ve got less than twenty years to go till I reach my parent’s age when they died, so if the biochemists could conjure up some boosterspice, (or nanotech or whatever), to boost my age by twenty years, and in that twenty years make another breakthrough to give me another fifty and so on I’d be very grateful.

    The main reason I’d like this is I really want to see what happens next.

    If a human being can grow from a single cell to a full size human in twenty years, then surely it’s only a matter of chemistry. Of course I realise it’s pretty complex chemistry, but come on guys. Get busy!

    As far as alien life out there is concerned I’m pretty sure they’re there. The universe is awfully big, (even if there’s only one of them), so the accidents that brought us about are almost certain to have happened somewhere else in some form or another.

    Why haven’t we found them, (or they haven’t found us)? Well maybe the Prime Directive is in Galaxy wide force and us late-comers aren’t quite ready yet, or maybe it’s just because space is so bleeding huge. Or maybe we haven’t found the right strings to pull.

    Let’s hope that when we do meet them they’re not like the Posleen, or even the Darhel. Indowy would be nice. Lots of cool tech, but not too assertive.

  8. The aliens make public contact. My intuition says they might be too far away to ever contact, or maybe there are already thousands of civilizations in our galaxy. It is hard to say. If they are all here, there is probably a grand hierarchy, and the higher levels look to us like “angels”. I’m sorta in Babylon 5 territory here, but there are also other references. Gurdjieff, writing in 1900, talks about the alien angels and how they travel “by the law of falling” (ie. gravitational propulsion).

    One reason they might have decided not to reveal themselves en masse to the world is that most of the world is still struggling with myths and struggling with industrialisation. Aliens turning up would upset anybody religious and severely disrupt those worldviews. The fabric of societies might crumble. Most of the world would be sitting with their arms out waiting for the aliens to “save” them. It would get ugly.

    On the other hand, we’re starting to unite globally, in some ways, so perhaps we are almost ready.

    Life extension would be cool, but not just cool, for it would have implications for culture. Consider how much you change in 50 years. Now imagine having new experiences for 500 years. You would get awful bored with all the usual pursuits in life. How many people can you sleep with in 500 years? Even quite a few celebrities. People’s meaning in life would go into new areas, we’d take a much broader and open view on things. People could spend the first 150 years getting rich and satiated, and then their minds could really begin to open up. The Buddha probably did in 20 years what most of us would take 400 years to do. Well… maybe we’ll have the chance.

    Reincarnation. Some interesting thinkers see that if there is any such thing, then there must be some form of material aspect to it. Hundreds of years ago we didn’t know about X-rays and brain waves. We didn’t know about a lot of stuff that we can detect today. At some point we may be able to detect even subtler forms of matter and energy, and we may actually detect using equipment, “something” moving or being transmitted from a physical body. We still won’t know what that really means, but that alone would open up a whole new view on things.

    Correct nutrition. Kinda amazing that we’ve been scientific for hundreds of years and we still don’t know what’s genuinely good for us to eat. There are those who point out that decades of advice from nutritionists about healthy eating, has accompanied an epidemic of obesity. Some people blame people for lacking will power. Maybe the advice is just wrong. But it is difficult because you can’t experiment with humans much. Wonder what the aliens recommend?

  9. Unlimited Free Energy.

    Screw OPEC, screw Exxon et al., screw the Texans who think they are hot sh^t just because there is grease under their sandy *sses.

    I grew up with Star Trek (the original. never really saw any of the new series. I had gotten rid of my TV by then.)

    The utopian ideal in ST is that money is non-important. It can keep track of things, but it is unnecessary since energy is free. With free energy you can make anything you want. Do anything you can imagine. The only thing that limits you is yourself.

  10. I’ll lower my horizons and suggest something boringly practical: the Shipstone.

    We already have unlimited free enery, which Izzy wants. The problem has always been that it is in the wrong place, available at the wrong time, and is not conveniently transportable. The Shipstone solves all that. Daylight solar energy can be conveniently time-shifted. Nuclear-generated electricity can be made useful for motor vehicles.

    Unfortunately, inventing the Shipstone seems to very difficult.

  11. SteveBrooklineMA

    March 23, 2009 at 7:15 pm

    Synthehol? I say pass the Romulan Ale!

    Fusion would be great. It would be a tremendous step toward raising the standard of living world wide. An end to poverty would mean the end of
    a number of the world’s most serious problems.

    I don’t want to live forever, but if I could get a couple more decades of healthy life, that would be wonderful.

    There are other medical advances I would like to see. How about a cure for cancer?

    Hey M. Simon reads your blog! Nice.

  12. My hopes are a little closer to home. I wish for breakthroughs in the ecological sciences of historical landscape geography, paleo-ethnobotany, and anthropology. Our understanding of our own (human) history and human influences on the environment are pathetically inadequate and woefully myth-prone today.

    When did Homo spp. leave Africa, and how? How did humans get to Australia 60,000 years ago? Why are there so many identical ethnobotanicals in SE Asia and S. America that seem to date to a dispersal of 50,000 to 100,000 BP? What inferences can we draw from terra preta (ancient anthropogenic soils) that cover an area the size of France in the Amazon? What was the population of the America’s in 1491? In 15,000 BP? Where and how did the Pleistocene and early Holocene residents manage landscapes? When was fire domesticated, and by what Homo sp. (hint: it was long before “sapiens”). Where and when was the atlatl invented? What are the historical parameters and ecological effects we can attribute to the Keystone Predator and Firestick Bearer?

    I don’t mean to belittle dreams of space exploration, but I do think humanity would benefit more from exploration of our own past. There are secrets waiting to be discovered right in your own backyard. The dominant paradigms of ecology, such as the balance of nature and ecological succession, are teetering atop foundations rotten with anomalies. The next advance is backwards, to discover just who and what we are.

  13. Nice to know that there are others out there that ponder the same things I do. I’m not alone and that’s a good feeling. Thanks Matt.

    Having grown up in the 50s and having watched all the launches of Mercury, Gemini, Apollo and many space shuttles, I am, like Tom wondering – what happened? I thought we would be on Mars too. So now my desire is to live long enough to see what is under the ice of Europa. If I have my mothers genes (as it appears I might) they have 28 years to get there. The way things are going, I doubt I will see a Mars landing.

    And I often think like Kevin B:

    “The main reason I’d like this is I really want to see what happens next.” It’s a bummer, but look at all I missed before I was born!!

  14. Been lurking on this wonderful site ( congrats Mathew!)for a long time so thought I would bite the bullet and post.What would i like to live long enough to see? ALL of the above for sure.Fermi’s paradox doesnt faze me at all- the sheer incomprehensible vastness of interstellar space is the major stumbling block to aliens showing up.People conjecture that advanced civilizations will have a technological fix to overcome this problem( and therefore should have shown up by now) but, quite possibly, there may be no technological fix ( or the biological limitation)that overcomes travelling these vast distances(limits of physics and biology?)Maybe Von Neuman machines are a wonderful thought experiment that has yet be realized yet by our alien counterparts. Of course then there is timing. Our particular species has been around for only a few hundred thousand years our genus maybe 3 million.We are only now in a technological position to start the search for ET’s.Would be a real shame if our closest ET neighbours ( who were incredibly advanced went extinct say 500 years ago from an asteroid impact ( before we had any signals drifting off into space that would give them a direction to investigate and before we had the ability to detect theirs). All immensely interesting. I should also admit at this point that i am totally statistically illiterate but am drawn to this site just as Dr Smith was drawn to the staff of the Keeper–cheers brett

  15. Singularity

  16. Louis Dias
    “a) They’re too stupid (not sentient at all)

    b) They’re too smart.

    It can’t be other way around. Now, a) is uninteresting. And b) would mean they would have conquered the galaxy within 10 my. But they have a window of a few thousands of million years!”
    Not sure .
    Don’t forget that if you travel near speed of light (what is necessary to go far) , millions of years go by in the Galaxy while you experience only decades or centuries in your ship .
    So if the special relativity is the end of all things then there are serious problems with going far fast .
    If you go slower , you get rid of this very annoying side effect that your civilisation has been extinguished for dozens of thousands years when you land but you pay it by travelling for unreasonably long times .
    So you have to introduce a very very small multiplicative coefficient in your probability .
    That’s why I mentioned the possibility that the science has an asymptote and we’re already (almost) there .
    Nobody can imagine what would be “beyond” string theory .
    Obviously that is proof of nothing but IF it was the end of all things then interstellar and even more intergalactical travels would be practically impossible in reasonable time frames .

  17. Tom. My estimate of 10 my is good. The entire galaxy spans in 100.000 light years. This means that if you take aprox ~0 years to colonize a planet and launch more ships from that planet, you’d not take much more than that (if you travel at light speed). Perhaps 300.000 years. Now I gather that it wouldn’t take more than 100 years per planet at the beggining, and the thing would go exponentially (like the genome project, where in the first 7 years, a full 1% of the genome was decoded, and in the next 7 years, 99% of it was decoded).

    So it could take about 5my to get 1% of the galaxy. But in 10, all of it would be conquered. And in the next 5, it wouldn’t be left anything else.

    There could be an asymptote. And it would be generated by a “barrier”. There’s the earth’s gravity as the hugest barrier of all. I don’t think we, albeit a total collapse, will be barred from the skies in the next million of years, do you?

  18. PS: you are conflating the “end” of physics theory with the “end” of technological improvements.

    I’d say otherwise, that we have enough physics to radically change everything we have.

  19. I’d like to see the brain and nervous system understood to the point that you could make machines that actually allow you to step into someone else’s “shoes”, look through their eyes etc.

    An offshoot invention of this technology would be a wonderful machine that has 2 seats: one for you and one for the doctor. When you both sit down and run that machine, the doctor gets to feel your pain.

  20. I’d suggest something more practical. Like a spell-checker for Briggs’ next book or reprint of the current one 😉 Sorry, I couldn’t resist.

    On a more topical note, I’d love to see a system where the legislative branch is only responsible for writing the bills, the populace votes on them. Sure would make me feel like I actually have a say.

  21. Have really enjoyed thinking about the goals mentioned here, but am concerned that because of Gordon Brown’s leanings and the urging of Brit “environmentalist” [new code name for Nazi, according to Wiki] Jonathon Porritt that the most pressing need we face is discovering a workable recipe for producing sufficient quantities of Soylent Green.  How else will the UK be able to reduce it’s population by half?

  22. 49er,
    This is what happens when you mix red and green,,
    “I think we will work our way towards a position that says that having more than two children is irresponsible. It is the ghost at the table. We have all these big issues that everybody is looking at and then you don’t really hear anyone say the “p” word.”

  23. I hope we, the human beings, will be the ones who actively establish the extraterrestrial contact; in this case, we will probably be more civilized and technologically advanced.


    In Star Trek, after Dr. Cochran built the first warp ship, the Vulcans established the First Contact (movie) with humanity, and thereby it spawned a new era of prosperity for mankind. However, if it was Borg who established the First Contact (TV series:TNG), we would all be assimilated by the Borg and … what a horrible thought this is!

    The sky is the limit? ^_^

    I would like to have (not just see) all the things that Iron Man has! For example, the cool computer system he has and …. And “Yeah, I can fly.” Oooh darn, I will need money though.

  24. Personally, I could use a cure for mitochondrial disease.

    Impersonally, a means for the human race to spread on at least a galactic scale. There are too many things that can wipe us out on one planet, or even in one region of space. All that other stuff is meaningless if you’re extinct.

  25. Wow, Joy, mixing those two basic colours brings up Gordon, doesn’t it? Such a shame. LOL

  26. Flash Gordon?

    I’m in the dark.

  27. Luis,
    Gordon Brown, and he’s not flash.
    Labour is red, Green is green.
    Tory is Blue, Liberal, yellow?

  28. I’m with John Gorter, a “Technological Singularity” may explain Fermi’s question.

    As we become ever faster compared to the outside universe, it will become ever less important to future denizens. We will be “expanding” inward, not outward, perhaps it is a common, or universal outcome of intelligent life.

    Personally, I want a jet belt.

  29. Why would ET’s be able to communicate with us any better than we humans communicate with other life forms here on this planet?
    So my wish would to be able to communicate meaningfully with the animals (and plants).
    Who knows what we might learn.

  30. The fat pill.

    Sure, I want fusion, and room-temperature superconductors, and batacitors (I got your reference, right here), and artificial intelligence, and whole-organism genetic design and simulation, and direct brain virtual reality interfaces. But the fat pill would make people happier the fastest. Not to mention healthier and wealthier.

  31. For me the “fat pill” has already been invented. It’s called the Paleo Diet (eat as our hunter gatherer ancestors of a million years were adapted to eat, before agriculture invented processed carbs 8000 years ago.) Eat as much as I want of meat and fruit and veggies, and lose weight and gain energy and improve mood. Works for me. (Unfortunately it means conventional dietary wisdom is just wrong.)

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