Monday, February 02, 2009

The Physics of Extraterrestrial Civilizations

We can rank civilizations by their energy consumption, using the following principles:

1) The laws of thermodynamics. Even an advanced civilization is bound by the laws of thermodynamics, especially the Second Law, and can hence be ranked by the energy at their disposal.

2) The laws of stable matter. Baryonic matter (e.g. based on protons and neutrons) tends to clump into three large groupings: planets, stars and galaxies. (This is a well-defined by product of stellar and galactic evolution, thermonuclear fusion, etc.) Thus, their energy will also be based on three distinct types, and this places upper limits on their rate of energy consumption.

3) The laws of planetary evolution. Any advanced civilization must grow in energy consumption faster than the frequency of life-threatening catastrophes (e.g. meteor impacts, ice ages, supernovas, etc.). If they grow any slower, they are doomed to extinction. This places mathematical lower limits on the rate of growth of these civilizations.

In a seminal paper published in 1964 in the Journal of Soviet Astronomy, Russian astrophysicist Nicolai Kardashev theorized that advanced civilizations must therefore be grouped according to three types: Type I, II, and III, which have mastered planetary, stellar and galactic forms of energy, respectively. He calculated that the energy consumption of these three types of civilization would be separated by a factor of many billions. But how long will it take to reach Type II and III status?

Read more here.

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