Thursday, April 02, 2009

Presentation Review: Travis Taylor

Travis Taylor, Ph.D. (with about 5 other degrees) gave a return performance at HAL5's monthly meeting this evening. I say a return performance because he was presenting on his book, Introduction to Planetary Defense. Here's the review I wrote back in December 2006:
The Aliens Are Coming
(No, Really!)

Bart Leahy

On July 6, the HAL5 Society gathered at the Huntsville-Madison County Library to hear Travis Taylor, Ph.D. (University of Alabama-Huntsville) explain why humanity needs to take the threat of alien invasion seriously. Taylor did not speak of conspiracies or UFOs, but rather about the military realities of an invasion from beyond the solar system and what we could feasibly do about it.

The book he wrote with three others, An Introduction to Planetary Defense: A Study of Modern Warfare Applied to Extra-Terrestrial Invasion, actually grew out of a study he and his colleagues were conducting in connection with the War on Terror, particularly the insurgencies in Iraq and Afghanistan. Within the lifetime of most Americans, he pointed out, we have been the dominant power in the world, so we aren’t used to thinking like the underdog. Right now, the only way Americans could become an underdog is if we were subjected to an alien invasion. This background—plus the authors’ experiences with the military—results in a very composed military assessment of possible alien invaders. To Taylor, this is no joking matter.

Taylor’s book begins by getting the audience to take the alien threat seriously. Two theoretical “equations” have developed in the search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI) community and have been used to explain why we haven’t heard from, much less been invaded by, aliens. The first, “Drake’s Equation,” was developed by SETI co-founder Frank Drake to describe the potential for finding life in the galaxy.

When Drake first presented his equation in 1961, we had not yet detected planets around any other stars. Today, we have detected planets around over 150 stars; they almost seem common. Given what we know today, Taylor estimated that there are potentially around 340 extraterrestrial civilizations in our galaxy capable of detecting Earth’s civilization, close to Drake’s original guess of 1,000.

Taylor then took on the “Fermi Paradox,” wherein noted atomic physicist Enrico Fermi asked “Where are they [aliens]?” Fermi assumed that life tends to expand at an exponential rate and that if other civilizations existed, they would long since have overrun the Earth looking for living space. Taylor insisted that “Fermi’s paradox is just stupid.” Fermi was a physicist, he explained, and used a physics equation. However, biological systems tend to expand up to a certain point and then level off rather than on an exponential curve. Thus it is possible that civilizations have existed, but died off before we ever contacted them.

Using Gaussian Variable Statistics (the more formal name for the mathematics that produce the “bell curve”) Taylor anticipated that civilizations would have a “mid range” of both technology and hostile intent, with extremes at both ends. The civilizations that would concern us are the ones on the higher end of the curve for both technology and hostility.

Taylor applied military assessments of mass (of men and equipment) and “force multipliers” to a potential invasion. For instance, if the aliens wore shields able to withstand any bullet or carried guns that never missed, one of their soldiers might equal five humans. Taylor showed charts depicting the attrition rate in various scenarios, based on varying levels of troops and force multipliers.

Taylor did not seem to hold out a lot of hope for human survival except through sheer attrition—meaning that we could win, but only by slowly killing off the enemy and destroying its equipment while growing our own forces as much as possible. For instance, if the aliens built a spacecraft capable of traveling across vast stretches of space at near-light speed, that spacecraft must have a hull capable of absorbing large amounts of kinetic energy. Any soldier wearing armor made of such material would be impenetrable to the most powerful nuclear weapons ever built. And, of course, using such weapons would have a terrible impact on our home world. He suggested that the United States continue developing exotic weapons, including orbiting nuclear weapons and powered armor, like in Robert A. Heinlein’s Starship Troopers. Even then, weapons still might not be enough.

Otherwise, individual survivors will need to depend on their wits in the wilderness, as it is a safe bet that the aliens could drop asteroids on any city or into the ocean. To that end, Taylor recommended that the audience become acquainted with survival skills through books and the Internet.

Some audience members questioned whether any human countermeasures could be concealed from truly advanced aliens, either because of tapping into the Internet or through congressional leaks. Taylor seemed confident that, when push comes to shove, “we can still keep some secrets.” I suspect that many aspiring science fiction writers—including me—will read his work hoping to “get it right” when they write the next big alien invasion thriller.

Bart Leahy is a long-time NSS member and recent addition to the HAL5 family, as he now works as a technical writer for NASA Marshall Space Flight Center.
So what was different about this evening's talk? Well, for starters, Taylor was able to get through more of his presentation (he still has too many slides for a 1.5-hour program). Last time he got hung up on the probabilities of finding aliens and didn't get into the military aspects of his book. What interested me were some of the texts and sites he referenced, including:

These are just some of the items Taylor touched on this evening. The guy is seriously smart. Some of the items above relate to means of defending ourselves; others are theories that explain the potential presence of aliens and how they might act in war. Taylor provides a lot of food for thought, and he opens up a very different perspective on the likelihood of encountering aliens, whether they're friendly or not, and how we might fight them if they get here. Right now, if they were to show up tomorrow, we're in big trouble, and we need to get prepared. And, as an extra bonus, the tools we develop to consider such an invasion would advance the state of our military technology to address problems here on Earth. They might come in peace, but if they don't shouldn't we be prepared? Travis Taylor makes a good case for it.

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