Gamma Ray Bursts: Another Threat To Extraterrestrials
August 3, 2010 2 Comments
By J.R. Mooneyham
The Fermi Paradox basically asks “where are all the aliens”?
Well, just maybe the answer is natural cataclysms which have been sweeping the entire galaxy clean of higher life forms every few million years up until recently.
I’m talking gamma ray bursters here folks. Those mighty galaxy-shaking explosions that have been mystifying scientists now for about 30 years. Long-time readers might remember me writing here maybe a couple years ago that these enormous explosions and gamma radiation baths might be terrible news for the inhabitants of whatever galaxy where they occured. Now mainstream researchers are starting to say the same thing in their papers. The gist is that these awful radiation bursts may have been occuring just often enough to stop the development of potential star farers in their tracks, throughout all of the history of the universe so far.
Apparently the only adequate protective measure for land-lubbers is being on the shadowed side of a planet when such a radiation bath occurs. Only life sheltered by many tons of seawater might survive on the gamma lit side.
Luckily most bursts won’t usually last very long, so an entire planetary hemisphere (the shadowed half) worth of land-based life might escape more or less intact in many cases. But of course then the biosphere has to cope with half a dead planet; an entire hemisphere of dead and rotting corpses, of both plant and animal matter, and likely much dead in shallow sea waters as well. Imagine the awesome forest fires where entire continents of deadwood are set ablaze by lightning storms for decades afterwards. The smoke from these fires might create a brief global nuclear winter type condition, leading to even more death. It’s likely a world would lose 30-50% of its total species in the event (since many species exist only locally, and half a world would be killed). And the rampage of disease…! It’s a pretty good bet that the planet’s climate would be changed significantly for centuries, maybe millennia, after the event. And the overall biosphere? At best it might only be set back by some 5 to 50 million years or so.
But there’s still more to consider. In our own case, for millions of years, humanity’s predecessors existed on a single continent on one side of the planet: Africa. If that side of the Earth had been fried by gamma rays during that time, present-day humanity likely wouldn’t exist at all.
Similar ‘dead-ends’ in the evolution of intelligent life galaxy-wide could also have happened over the past several billion years. And remember that a single gamma ray burst severely damages the entire galaxy all at once in this fashion. So hundreds or even thousands of potential sentient races could have been wiped out or set back by a single burst at any time during the past. And apparently there’s been not merely one gamma burst over that time, but possibly hundreds or thousands, and possibly with a frequency of one every few million years in the earlier history of our galaxy. So the great majority of potential intelligent races in our galaxy have almost certainly been killed off or at least severely stunted in development during much of past galactic history.
Now though, finally, the frequency of gamma bursters looks to be decreasing, and thereby giving folks like us a chance to actually crawl out of the muck and into space in a significant way, before we get wiped off the map. And not only us, but perhaps many other races throughout the galaxy too.
It could well be that the gamma ray bursters have forced many intelligent races throughout the galaxy to begin reaching for the stars all more at less around the same time.
Yes, we’re talking the parallel, roughly equivalent development technologically of at least dozens to hundreds of different civilizations now, in something similar to how the Terrans, Vulcans, Romulans, and Klingons seem to have developed in the Star Trek TV series, where none (or few) have a truly decisive headstart over the others.
Yet another implication of all this though would seem to be that sea-based intelligence (which might enjoy better wholesale protection from gamma bursters), might have enjoyed a vastly greater continuity of evolution and technological development than land-based civilizations like our own during the onslaught. In extreme scenarios of virtually 100% ocean worlds, where intelligent squids or something similar lived typically fairly deep in the seas, the core civilizations might have been damaged very little if at all– with only outposts on land, orbiting stations, and spacecraft/aircraft in transit suffering casualties from any burster in passing.
[Image Details: Short Gamma-Ray Bursts Localized]
So the most advanced civilizations in the galaxy might turn out to appear pretty darn alien to us after all, if we ever encounter them.
Why can we still not rule out extinction or high calamity from gamma ray bursters? Because we continue to discover new ways they can come into being, as well as new reasons a gamma burster source could pop up without warning right on top of us.
The closer a gamma burster source was to us, the more dire its consequences could be. Even the briefest and weakest of bursters happening too near Earth could be devastating. And we can’t be positive Earth hasn’t been struck this way in the past. Because there appears to have been multiple mass extinction events of varying degrees on Earth during its history. And the more we look, the more evidence we uncover for more such events than we’re aware of today.
The true causes for most of these past extinction events remain highly theoretical at present. So ‘short’ but close gamma bursters could one day be implicated for some of them. And only after that could we determine any sort of time frame by which to predict the probable schedule of future events of that kind.
However– barring some extreme bad luck– we do seem to probably be safe from any ‘long’ gamma burster threat, based on current knowledge.
It appears unlikely humanity will be destroyed by one of the most powerful bursts, as these occur so rarely, and their destructive power is narrowly focused in a beam. While that beam may possess a killing range long enough to encompass the diameter of an entire galaxy (meaning a burster on the opposite side of our galaxy could still destroy all life on Earth), it’d pretty much have to be aimed directly at us. The farther away from us the ‘big’ burster (and up to now all have been immensely far away), the more precisely targeted Earth would have to be, to suffer.
So the biggest bursters seem to be far less of a threat to us statistically speaking than comets, asteroids— or ourselves. The smaller, weaker, and shorter bursts may be another matter entirely. Because at the moment we know of no potential sources near enough to do us harm. Note that that particular comforting thought could change with the very next newscast, or scientific paper.
So add nearby ‘short’ gamma bursters to the astonishingly long list of reasons why humanity should renounce its age-old practice of ‘trickle-up’ subsidization of the already wealthy from primarily taxing the non-rich, enabling those wealthy to farm and slaughter the rest of us like cattle for their own gains.
No, instead, our governments and corporations should be forced to operate more in the interest of benefiting all mankind, and better deal with the many real threats to our civilization and species, rather than fantasies dreamed up merely for the sake of war or business profits, and the killing of helpless innocents.
Of course, as a malevolent faction of the super-rich would be one of the first groups to suffer from such a profound change in society, it’ll likely require a major social upheaval to get such reforms instituted.
One final note: Recall my statement above about “…barring some extreme bad luck– we do seem to probably be safe from any ‘long’ gamma burster threat…”.
Now consider this: SETI (the search for extraterrestrial intelligence) as well as others, have by late 2007 never detected a single verifiable sign of any sort of other civilizations existing in our own immense galaxy, of perhaps over 100 billion star systems: or in a handful of our neighboring galaxies of roughly comparable size. Given the overwhelming evidence (presented on this site) that simple life must be widespread throughout the galaxy and universe– and the seeming inevitability of intelligence arising from that life, wherever sufficient opportunity is available– the silence of the heavens seems ominous.
For based on everything we know today, civilizations like ours appear to be inordinately UN-lucky, where long term survival is concerned. Whether the source of such consistent misfortune lies in ourselves, or in natural events like gamma ray bursters, remains to be seen.