We might be the first intelligent life

The Economist this week reports on the work of Tsvi Piran and Raul Jimenez, calculating the frequency of gamma-ray bursts. This is not an arcane question.
Gamma-ray bursts are incredible yet short-lived generations of energy, cause as yet unknown, great enough to kill all life on a planet as close to the blast as 10,000 light-years (just shy of six quadrillion miles). The closer you get to the center of a galaxy, the more frequent gamma-ray bursts are — and thus, the more inhospitable that region is to life.
Douglas Adams described our home star as being in “the unfashionable end of the western spiral arm of the galaxy.” Turns out, the galactic suburbs may be the only place life could survive long enough to become intelligent.
But wait, there’s more. By Piran and Jimenez’s reckoning, our galaxy is one of the ten percent of galaxies with a high “metallicity” — meaning, with stars full of elements other than hydrogen and helium. In metal-rich galaxies, gamma-ray bursts are rarer. So, not only are we made from the ashes of older stars, but we live in a place with enough star-ash that we are less threatened with gamma-ray extinction.
In short, we might be among the first intelligent life forms.
This is a lovely, trippy idea, made earthier and more bitter by our recent brush with nuclear armageddon. It is also an idea almost completely unexplored in fiction or myth.

Our oldest religions make us wayward and infantile creations — besotted by apples, Bronze not Golden, seeking Boddhisatvas to get past the angry gods between us and enlightenment. Lovecraft had us used viciously by elder species; Clarke had them remove our training wheels. We are protected by the last son of Krypton. Even in Star Trek, our most hopeful science-fiction, we are the new kids in the warp-speed frat house, notable mainly for our fecundity (sex more often than every seven years!) and collegiality, not our wit or strength. SETI and Voyager start with the assumption that we are late to a long party.
But maybe we’re the first ones to arrive, and throwing the party to boot.
It’s not often a brand new meme comes around for both cults and writers to explore. Props to James Cameron for getting to market early with Avatar, but colonialism isn’t much of a stretch for us. There are plenty more fictions and myths awaiting us.
Perhaps one day my grandchildren will shave the spirals of the First Creations into their scalps, causing much consternation at Thanksgiving. But then we’ll eat pie and watch that new sitcom Mentoring the Aliens. That blue dude is hilarious…

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Anthony Dobranski Posted on

Novelist, writer, game designer, skier.


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