Saturday, 6 November 2010

Aliens: A Rant

There has been recently what I consider to be a rather fraught thread on this topic on the CBT forums, which I'm not going to link to for two reasons.  First it is has been moderated, and second it is dead.  My post here is a slightly revised version of my last post to that thread, which is as much about getting stuff off my chest as anything else.

I kind of assume that most people are au fait with the real world arguments for aliens.  I suspect this is a wrong assumption on my part.  The arguments around whether or not aliens should, or should not exist in the BattleTech universe, tend to be a discussion on what different types of aliens would add interesting opponent's to the boardgame.  The arguments then tend to degenerate into:

  • I'd stop playing BattleTech if aliens were added.
  • Aliens don't add anything to the game that can't be done with human protagonists.
  • The TPTB said no aliens.

I'm not interested in arguing the these points in any shape at all, because as I agree that it's either down to personal opinion, or taste.  Also, I have no control over the direction of the BattleTech product line at CGL.

What I do want to do is throw a big spanner into the works and prove that the probability of aliens existing in the BattleTech universe is high enough that some explanation for their non-existence has to be provided, which has to be better than "because we say so".  Though if they say "it's FASA's biophysics, move on nothing to see" I'd be okay with that, because we would at least have acknowledged that there is a problem, even if it can't, or won't be corrected.

Now let me start with three current ideas around aliens in our universe; the Fermi Paradox, the Drake Equations and Panspermia. I'm not going to expound on these at great length, but I will give a couple of links to help those whose Google Fu is weak, and or genuinely don't understand the concepts.

Fermi Paradox

Basically Fermi was a scientist who in 1950 asked why haven't we met aliens, given how long we've been around etc?  Worked from the optimistic assumption that even at slower than light speeds it doesn't take forever to actually explore the Milky way galaxy (about 300,000 years, which is a very long time, but it can be done.  Or as one NASA scientist allegedly said, "Getting to the stars is a biological problem, not an engineering one").

Quote, "The Fermi paradox is the apparent contradiction between high estimates of the probability of the existence of extraterrestrial civilizations and the lack of evidence for, or contact with, such civilizations."

Drake Equation

Once you read the Fermi Paradox link you will see mention of the Drake Equations.  Drake being another scientist who thought to himself it must be possible to calculate the probability of the existence of life on other worlds, and come to some conclusions about the chances of meeting aliens?  He was a bit more pessimistic than Fermi, because he assumed that technological civilisations will always destroy themselves, or have a natural life span that ends up with them dying out.

Quote, "The Drake equation (sometimes called the Green Bank equation or the Green Bank Formula) is an equation used to estimate the number of detectable extraterrestrial civilizations in the Milky Way galaxy.  It is used in the fields of exobiology and the search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI).  The equation was devised by Frank Drake in 1961."


Panspermia has to do with the origins of life in the universe in general.  It predates both of the above ideas by a considerable margin as it was first proposed around the 5th Century BC.  In the 1950s the astronomer Fred Hoyle promoted the concept, but tied it into "intelligent design", much to the detriment of his professional standing in the scientific community at the time.  In more recent years space probes have provided supporting evidence for panspermia.

Quote, "Panspermia (Greek: πανσπερμία from πᾶς/πᾶν (pas/pan) "all" and σπέρμα (sperma) "seed") is the hypothesis that life exists throughout the Universe, distributed by meteoroids, asteroids, and planetoids."

Three Theory Argument

Now in our real world all of the above is subject to a lot of problems from having what statisticians would call a "very sparse data set" i.e: life only known to exist here on Earth.  While we now have astronomical data on 200 or so extra-solar planets, we are still fumbling around in the dark that is the vastness of space, if you'll pardon the pun.

However, in the BattleTech Universe this is not the case, as we have a background where there are 2500 colonised planets, and IIRC, 7500 or so other explored systems with no life.  Even if these figures are wrong it hardly affects the basic answer, which is that we have (within the game) now tested the Panspermia hypothesis, and can put all of data into the Drake equation, which will answer the Fermi Paradox.

I know from reading various source book and novels that there are planets in the BattleTech Universe with dinosaurs, proto-humanoid hominids, and at least one tool using alien race called the Tetatae.  Now some of you might be thinking, but the Tetatae could be any where in the universe, not just the Milky Way galaxy.

Well actually no, because even though FASA physics suck, we do have some limits from in game sources about the limits of the jump drive.  We know from the Word of Blake (WoB) use of super-jumps, during the Jihad, is how far a jumpship can jump, given the energy it has stored on board.  From this we can make some educated guesses, on the upper limits, about how far a jumpship that has miss-jumped can go.

My best guess, using the worst case scenario, is that the miss-jump radius is within one or two orders of magnitude larger than 800 light years.  Based on the distances from the WoB super-jumps during the Jihad, this would mean 8,000 light years up to 80,000 light years away.  This is well within our Milky Way galaxy, and really not all that far in cosmological terms.  Assuming one order of magnitude, a missjump radius of 8000 light years is certainly within the possible travel distance of a jumpship in the BattleTech Universe (about 61 jumps to get to the Tetatae homeworld).  Given no other hard data in any of the sourcebooks, it is difficult to firm-up this educated guess.

Alternatively, even if you took the argument that the miss-jump in Far Country was a jump forward in time as well as space, this would still not invalidate the the existence of aliens in the BattleTech Universe, because the Drake equation looks at the statistical probabilities of aliens existing over a set period of time.  Given that we only have one reference in the source books to a jump-ship miss-jumping forward in time, it is hard to have any meaningful discussion of the physics of time travel in the BattleTech Universe.  My best educated guess would be a minimum of one year forward for every light year travelled, because this would fit in with what we know about time dilation and general relativity, and is a very rough approximate fit for the events as described the book Living Legends.

Statistical Probability of Aliens

Now I know that the mention of statistical probabilities tend to turn most people off, but such tools allow us to make educated guesses about the number of aliens that could exist in the BattleTech Universe.

There are minimum of 100,000,000,000 stars in the Milky Way.  This figure could be four times higher, and the astrophysicists will no doubt get back to us in due course when they've finished arguing over the numbers (I've taken the conservative position to make my argument stronger).

In BattleTech we have a distribution of life supporting planets per system that is approximately one in four (it was unclear to me whether there are 7500, or 10,000 star systems in the BattleTech's known space.  Taking the larger number makes my arguments stronger, because it reduces the chances of aliens existing). That is 10,000 known star systems with 2500 having "habitable" planets, very roughly one in four.

Using that data ratio, as our assumption for the Drake equation, we end up with 100,000,000,000 divided by 10,000 divided by four, which if I've done my maths right is 2,500,000 planets that are capable of supporting life.  That's a lot of planets.

From here we then go back and look at the number of planets that had life on them that developed life in the BattleTech known sphere before humans arrived.  A minimum of 5 planets (may be higher, but I'm being conservative here to strengthen my argument), but the number at this really doesn't affect the answer all that much.  So 10,000 systems divided by 5 equals roughly 1 in 2000 had an intelligent life form.  Arguable as just being humans in the BattleTech Universe.

Now, divide 2,500,000 by 2000 and we get a possible 1250 technological aliens species living in the Milky Way.

They're Dead Jim

Of course, as Drake suggests they may be all extinct, so the question becomes what would be the chance of that being true?  The answer again lies in the Drake equation, and handily enough he guesstimates that a technological civilisation will last about 10,000 years.

Human technological society may have arguably been around for about 8,000 years, in the BattleTech Universe, if you make the assumption that we became technological started around 5000 BC or so.  However, a different definition of technology based on social infrastructure to support artisans, would require moving the clock forward to the changeover from hunter gathering to formation of agrarian city states, rather than tool use per se.  Then we are talking around 2500 BC or so, which would make our human technological society about 5000 years old.  Pick a figure really.

Anyway, the "timey-wimey" thing.  Are all these aliens civilizations around at the same time?  Clearly not, but regardless there would be archeological ruins from dead civilizations to find.  Even so how many aliens might be around now?

All I can say is more than one, but less than 1250.

My best guess, maybe one in ten.  So maybe up to a 125 technological aliens exist in the BattleTech Universe Milky Way galaxy.  Probably with technology comparable to the Inner Sphere, in the time period that BattleTech is set.  Could be a lot higher number of aliens, or they could all be technologically much further advanced, or behind, depending on your assumptions and other variables.

What Are They Good For?

Now the aliens are not out there thinking "what do we add to the game of BattleTech ", because this is not a discussion of the merits of adding, or not adding aliens to BattleTech?  IMNSHO the aliens just exist.  One just has to accept that they may add nothing new, it is just inevitable from the assumptions that underpin the BattleTech universe as a place where "mankind can go forth, multiply and die".

If FASA had set BattleTech at a time when the whole galaxy had been explored, and the first empire had fallen during the long night, like Asimov did in the Foundation series, then FASA could say that there are no aliens in the BattleTech Milky Way galaxy.  FASA would still not be able to say that there are no aliens in the BattleTech Universe, because there are more galaxies in the universe than there are stars in this galaxy.  However, they didn't.

Hopefully I've demonstrated that aliens are like economics, physics, and other stuff that FASA made up a bunch of stuff about, holds very "little water" when you examine it closely.  I remain, neither for, nor against aliens in BattleTech.  I can see how if done badly they would suck.  OTOH I can imagine that if done well they would be good.  What I know is that unless there is a change of heart by TPTB at CGL then the introduction of aliens is very unlikely, which I think is bad, because I think an open mind is better than a closed one.

Disclaimer: All posts are condensed & abbreviated summaries of complex arguments posted for discussion on the internet, and not meant to be authoritative in any shape, or form on said subject, T&CA, E&OE & YMMV.


  1. Most intelligent alien probability estimates are made by physical scientists. They heavily overestimate the probability of (i) complex life and (ii) technological life. If you put in biological requirements then it is rather unlikely that two technological civilsation would ever exist together.

  2. John Lambshead: Wouldn't argue that as you may well be right, but in Battletech not so much the case as there is a plethora of planets with complex life forms.

  3. The humanity of the struggle that exists in CBT is what made the game so great. The big robots were the initial draw for me but it was the back story that made the universe feel "real" even when the Mech designs were so obviously unrealistic.

    Bringing aliens from the background fluff into game stats would simply reduce CBT to cannon fodder sci-fi.

  4. Timbo74: The idea of CBT canon fodder being cannonical sounds like the premise for an interesting blog post. I may have to give that some thought. Sorry for the play on your typo.

  5. The CBT universe doesn't really need aliens, but I agree it would still be an interesting storyline to explore.
    It's also notable that the known in the map of known worlds on the Inner Sphere (really the Inner Pancake), the only worlds we see are the human-habitable systems - a vast minority of all systems. There is PLENTY of room for an entire civilization of hydrogen-breathers to exist - in the same space - and yet barely interact with the oxygen-breathers (as in David Brin's Startide Rising series).

  6. Or as in C. J. Cherryh's Chanur books too.

    Anyway, my point is not about need, just really pointing out another FASA unintended problem that arises as a consequence of choice.

    Oh how Jordan et al must hate the geeks?

  7. I consider that when we look at other diverse life on our own planet it can not easily comprehend us for what we are. Consider the termite, which has an advanced hive life able to create complex air-conditioning in their mud buildings. I doubt they could comprehend or ever be able to communicate with us because they are too simple. If there is a very advanced alien civilisation, perhaps they are too far advanced to be able to communicate with us at a our level. I think we consider ourselves an advanced intelligent race but perhaps a race which has been beyond our level of technology for 100 Million years would have evolved beyond our understanding.