This video is sponsored by CuriosityStream. Get access to my streaming video service, Nebula, when you sign up for CuriosityStream using the link in the description. They say in space no one can hear you snore… of course they also can’t hear you firing doomsday devices at their planets when you wake up to find your galaxy has been colonized by upstart apes while slept.
So today we are returning to the Alien Civilizations series to explore the concept of civilizations which spend a lot of time asleep or hibernating. This is one of the more common explanations we see for the Fermi Paradox in science fiction, as it explains a galaxy which is full of some ancient alien menace, but in such a way that we can somehow also exist to get in a fight with them. What you would normally expect is for them to have crushed us before we ever discovered fire, let alone rocketry. If on the other hand they go dormant for millennia at a time, waking sporadically, this works better and also better matches with our current observations of the galaxy, which is to say, it seems to be fairly empty of enormous and powerful alien civilizations.
We can see examples of this scenario everywhere from games Like Mass Effect, with the Reapers, the ancient Shadows and Vorlons of the science fiction show Babylon 5, or the Inhibitors from the novel Revelation Space, as well as any number of other examples. Indeed it’s a fairly central concept of the Cosmic Horror genre of fiction pioneered by folks like H.P. Lovecraft which often has these Sleeping Giants waiting to wake up and eat us.
However, it's not simply a Fermi Paradox explanation from Science Fiction but one with a lot of science fact potentially supporting it, as we considered in the episode on Sleeping Giants. Today we’ll revisit that concept to look at a few of the common hibernating and sleeping alien themes, asking why a civilization might pursue such a strategy, and what their civilization might look like as a result. As is usual for the Alien Civilization series we’ll try to keep things fairly light-hearted while trying to stay in the realm of known or plausible science, though what known science currently tells us about hibernation is that it is a very risky strategy, pursued in nature only as a desperate gambit or necessary tactic for survival, and never a preference. I think that’s something we’ll want to keep in mind for today, because on the one hand science and technology should permit a civilization to avoid a lot of the normal risk of hibernation – dying while you do it or being too weak to get back in the game – but on the other hand it doesn’t entirely avoid all those problems, many of which simply have a variant on what we see in nature that plays a similar role on the galactic stage.
Most noticeably that those who go to sleep will lose their territory to either arising alien civilizations or simply elements of their own civilization which opted not to sleep or woke early or returned from exile or similar. We always want to ask why some civilization or entity has chosen to hibernate, and if it’s a survival strategy, what their alternatives would be and how they would handle or detour around those hibernation problems. And we mostly mean lost opportunities or vulnerability to other civilizations or factions of their own civilization, not something like dying while you sleep.
We don’t actually know what the risks of technological hibernation like being frozen are yet but they should be manageable, like how the radioisotopes in your own body might give you radiation poisoning if you stay frozen for more than a thousand years. Consider, the sleeping predator alien we often see in stories is a play against our fears of the predator slumbering in its cave, emerging to get us, but most of the time this would not seem a logical strategy. Why go to sleep and leave the galaxy to grow new civilizations only to wake up and purge them occasionally? To keep the galaxy to yourself? Why not just colonize every planet then? There are a few reasons this might not work. For instance, there may only be a handful of you and you might like it that way. Your ‘civilization’ might only be a few million dark souls who each live in their own private Universes and only collect what resources they need when they need them.
They don’t really need much but they want no competition and they tolerate each other, only occasionally stirring from their personal throne world or virtual empire inside a computer to wipe out any new competitors. If I’m some ancient civilization devoted to keeping the galaxy clear of threatening civilizations, it would seem safest to simply sterilize every planet every few million years, or even disassemble them for their raw materials. It wouldn’t seem to be a good idea to just leave the galaxy be and emerge periodically to cleanse or harvest it, as we see for the Reapers of Mass Effect, or the Shadows of Babylon 5, where they essentially wake up every so many thousands of years to kill off new civilizations while leaving primitive ones and their precursors around.
Two caveats. First, if you are a billion year old empire controlling the galaxy, no civilization that’s only had space travel for a few millennia really represents any more threat to you than one that’s recently discovered how to work bronze and iron. Your tech is either genuinely maxed with nothing new to discover, or millions of years ahead of theirs, or both. If it's maxed out and just a few centuries ahead of ours now – which may be the case, we really might have unlocked all of physics in a few more centuries – then that just means it’s a technologically-even playing field and you’ve a massive developmental and strategic headstart.
Which is a reminder that while a technological edge might help you, equal technological levels doesn’t mean equal forces. A team of NFL linebackers and a team of 8 year olds playing little league might have equal technology, equally nice smartphones, indeed there’s a good chance the 8 year old’s are more tech savvy, but we all know what’s happening if their two teams are lined up when the ball gets snapped and it ain’t gonna be pretty and no heroic escapades are changing that outcome. Second caveat, while implied to be evil or at least utterly ruthless to the point of seemingly insane inefficiency, each of these purge events is really very tiny. Given the timelines of those civilizations and extermination intervals, thousands of years versus presumably at least hundreds of millions for them to emerge from either new worlds or brutally pulverized old worlds, these exterminations are presumably affecting about 1 in a million worlds that developed life independently during any given purge and maybe a hundred times that in their various small seedling colonies. It’s a humbling reminder that an empire of even a million worlds, like the juggernauts of the best known space operas, is really a flyspeck on the galactic stage of over a trillion worlds.
Even more so when compared against the sorts of juggernauts we contemplate with full Kardashev-2 civilizations around stars, not barely inhabited single worlds. This approach also rather ignores all the galaxies beyond ours too, where civilizations presumably arose and continue to grow who are unlikely to have some prior arrangement with your old and sleepy realm of monsters. Some extra-galactic invaders coming from some Kardashev-3 civilization are probably going to mop the floor with a quiet hibernating empire that’s left their galactic resources essentially untouched, and are not likely to be stirred to compassion on their behalf, assuming they aren’t worse. Of course while I often point out the various flaws in a given Fermi Paradox theory that’s essentially ignoring the super-majority of the Universe outside our tiny little galaxy, we probably should acknowledge that there’s a good chance our entire Universe is a tiny closet in the sum total of reality.
It might not be our galaxy such hibernating civilizations reap and sow, it might be our whole Universe and they might be reaping it for data or entertainment, or regular old power like the Goobleboxes generating power in the Microverse inside Rick’s spaceship engine in Rick and Morty. If you’ve seen that episode its a pretty good example of how futile fighting the layer above you in some hierarchical universe set up can be. We essentially look around at our galaxy and the apparent absence of K3 civilizations in neighboring galaxies and say either aliens don’t exist or they clearly aren’t interested in using all the resources in their galaxy. Problem is, that scenario is very dependent on not only our known science but the implied goals and strategic objectives we would anticipate aliens having based on that science.
As an example, if I’ve got very good self-replicating machines, I don’t need to cannibalize the galaxy to secure its resources for myself so other emerging aliens don’t get the chance. I can just wait for any local species to get on the stage in their tiny little corner of the galaxy, completely content that my little machines could, if necessary, cannibalize every solar system within a hundred light years or so of their home world with mere decades’ notice. I don’t need to Dyson Swarm them all, because I can do so selectively at need and realistically I won’t ever need to. It takes only a tiny fraction of that level of capacity to throw an armada consisting of a billion warships at some emerging civilization, each capable of obliterating an entire world on its own and each containing a billion murderbots if I want to invade instead.
Just because some civilization might get some vanguard left to watch them, it doesn’t mean they have any chance of going toe-to-toe with my ancient galactic empire anymore than someone successfully mugging an unexpecting Cub Scout is going to be able to go toe-to-toe with the combined might of NATO. And such an empire is probably not going to feel a need to mine out their own galaxy against that contingency anymore than we sit around worrying that we need to extract all the iron from the ocean floor in case dolphins or squid suddenly get intelligent and might one day build an invasion force against us land-dwellers. And again, that’s just in the context of known science and in-galaxy threats. It doesn’t pertain to some empire that manufactures Universes, simulated or generated, and occasionally harvests or stomps on them, or just unplugs them.
The Cosmic Horror genre of Lovecraft and Cthulu tends to contemplate those kinds of entities, critters so old they were driven mad by it long before our Universe ever popped into existence, and against which there simply is no hope of victory. When dealing with the folks whose computer hard drive your Universe is stored on, or who have that kind of godlike power, your technology isn’t helping much when they can simply say it doesn’t work that way now, because they’ve turned off gravity. Your defense armada means nothing to them because they decided the section of space it was in no longer had stable atoms, or simply deleted the fleet, or simply deleted your tendency to disobedience. We shouldn’t be ruling out that such hibernating entities aren’t hanging around the cold space of our galaxy, they might not even be hanging around in our time, or our Universe. They might be multiverse invaders or who knows.
We also shouldn’t assume they are hibernating from their own perspective. We’ll come back to the notion of slow subjective time in a bit but if they are some group of ancient narcissistic godlings, the survivors or conquerors of their own species or many other such species who just live in their personal utopia surrounded by their individual followers, worshippers, slaves, and cattle, monsters in loose coalition of non-aggression with each other and to wipe out new rivals, then they may be – with justification - utterly confident they can wipe out any new actors on the stage and only stir out of their personal paradise when it’s finally necessary, or challenging enough to be slightly amusing. They may feel they have all the resources they ever realistically need already and they just don’t want to share the Olympian Heights with any new threats or pretenders. That said, it's still a stretch to assume they just leave folks lying around, or leave resources lying around, since they clearly have the ability to easily manage either.
Of course they might not care, they may have access to better options for resources than mining a galaxy, like wormholes into other Universes that provide them an unending supply of resources and energy. On the other hand they might be hibernating and acting rarely because like most old and decadent empires what really worries them are internal threats and rebellion, not flyspeck primitive tribes on the edge of their irrelevant border. Or in other words, if I send a fleet off to spend thousands of years colonizing and fortifying and building up to handle emerging primitive empires, I have to worry they might lose their focus or interest in that job, and become interested in coming back to the capitol with those forces.
Or that all those millennia of divergence will not just make them lose their goals but become alien in nature not just motivations. Some multi-million year periodic purge requiring a million independent expeditions all lying around in wait for emerging alien threats is a great way to make alien threats. Realistically they represent a much bigger danger to your civilization, especially given that your civilization is presumably composed of ruthless genocidal fanatics and your fleets tasked with carrying that out are probably not your moderates. Sticking everyone on ice so they wake every few thousand years to check their sector out or when triggered by something like a radio signal is a good way to let that force remain essentially the same as millions of years roll by. This is much worse in the case of simulated or created Universes – a difference which is mostly semantic – as they might be using whole Universes as their Petri Dishes or models and presumably have to utilise fast-forwarding or hibernating to observe the results.
Of course from their perspective even some primitive species having hit the galaxy – or a galaxy - unchecked for over a million years and risen to K3 civilization status is hardly some personal threat needing pruning or rebooting. To you, they are still just a bunch of ants you can crush under your boot at whim. Now we’ve covered the reason why the ancient juggernauts might arise to smash us or other upstart civilizations and even why some barely unified collection of Cthulu-esque entities might band together to wipe folks out.
We have also previously examined the notion of civilizations or lone entities like planetary hive minds that may want to suppress other civilizations developing but have no interest in personal expansion beyond their little pocket of the galaxy. The hive mind might not be capable of operating outside of a set region because of the light lag issue. The civilization afraid of spawning children around new stars who may become mutant alien threats may want to avoid anyone, including themselves, colonizing the galaxy. And as we have discussed often in our Civilizations at the End of Time series, many civilizations may go post-biological and essentially run themselves as computers, which have their theoretical limits of efficiency based on temperature, such that a civilization running at half the temperature can calculate twice as much with the same energy – which is akin to saying think or live twice as much from the same energy, and a hundredth the temperature, they get 100 times the lifespan. Since the current preferred model of the fate of the Universe holds that we will get colder and colder as entropy marches on, saving your materials and energy for living in this cold and efficient period is the frugal option. It also tilts toward slow living since the colder you run, the longer you need to wait between each switch-flip – or thought to moment of personal subjective time – for the switches to cool again.
It takes an object way longer to cool from 10 Kelvin to 9 Kelvin than it does to cool from 1000 Kelvin to 999 Kelvin. Now that does assume that the Universe is going to end in that Heat Death scenario, and it also assumes they have discovered new ways around entropy or of escaping our Universe by then. It also represents a very different survival strategy than we would see in a case like the Big Rip, which we’ll be looking at as we return to the Civilization at the End of Time series later this Month. All right, so those scenarios aside, why might a civilization opt for Hibernation? Well, one set of scenarios is that they are mission-focused and that can include things beyond waiting for the stars to burn out or trying to wipe out nascent rivals on the galactic stage.
We also should keep in mind that civilization, in our modern context, is not necessarily universal. We kind of have to stuff all our rival ideologies and goals into the same geographic locations these days because we share countries but often don’t share opinions and perspectives. However, immortal empires of spacefarers might tend to cluster by goals and missions to the point that they do become the Planet of Hats or Space Elves tropes we often mock in this series, where we encounter a species of singular motivation or total enlightenment with no rebels or throwbacks. Which is to say, we wouldn’t really expect, based off Earth, to go visit aliens and find them terribly unified in behavior or goal, but there could be a tendency for civilizations to factionalize once no longer bound by any shared need or biological kinship or enforced cooperation of sharing territory. We arguably see some examples of that in the social groups allowed by modern social media.
In such a case, they are essentially undergoing speciation and that might include their societal stability. For contemplation, a civilization that breaks into two chunks, one obsessed with creating enduring legacies and one focused on enjoying current times and pleasures, the Enduring faction and the YOLO faction, as it were, it would seem like a time-skip into the future would find one of these more numerous than the other, which might even be extinct and if it weren’t, would probably classify as a periodically or constantly replenished sub-faction of the Endurers that broke off to YOLO. Which I suppose is also a good reminder that concepts and ideologies are not really great analogies for species. Still a lot of speciation is about two halves of a species mutating to pursue different survival strategies, all the way back to when one set of microbes opted to begin focusing on eating their cousins and started the predator-prey cycle. What are some possible motivations or missions requiring hibernation though? Well, research is one.
Hollywood and scifi often give folks weird ideas about how scientific progress is made but two things that help a lot are more resources and more time, and often throwing more people or money at a scientific or technological hurdle either doesn’t help or helps minimally or even sometimes harms by clogging a field with a lot of half-interested or second rate minds with other priorities. There’s often an assumption that a sufficiently powerful computer, if built, would know all the answers to Life, the Universe, and Everything within a mere moment of being turned on, simply by internal computation and contemplation. But a lot of science is about data collection and building the experiment to provide that data and it's likely that might not be an option for solving many problems.
And presumably after a while all the problems your civilization has left are the kind that can’t be solved by throwing money or manpower at them. As an example, if you need to nail some figure down that revolves around an event like a Supernova, and you need a million of them to get your sample and margin of errors down low enough, then you just have to wait till you get a million of them to happen. Or not. You might go ahead and build a million giant stars so you can observe each cook off and go bang or come up with more trustworthy models or bigger telescopes or portals to look into the past or future or alternate Universes. You’re an ancient spacefaring empire, you are presumably bound by the laws of physics but inside those you’re not very limited in what you can do or what you can dream up. Still the concept remains, they may need to wait things out.
They also may be all that remains of their civilization, just those focused on waiting things out. Maybe they had the job of maintaining their archives and history till the end of time or similar and so a faction of them noticed they tend to hemorrhage volunteers to other life pursuits and opts to adopt a long hibernation strategy to delay that. I’ve heard some suggest that one way to keep a civilization coherent over many light years in a non-FTL Universe would basically be just to periodically have the whole thing enter hibernation and exit. I can think of many reasons why this isn’t a great idea and few that extol the virtues of the approach, but there are a lot of dangers to any world on which life has arisen to going out and seeding the galaxy without maintaining unity. Your children of tomorrow can become your mutant alien invaders of next millenia.
Such being the case I could envision Earth opting to insist all of its colonies, out to however many light years, all go on a staggered freeze-wake cycle to allow messages to travel faster to Earth and back, in subjective time, then would normally happen. Like some big pulse out from Earth, rippling like a pond you threw a stone in, sleeping between ripple peaks. Of course if someone rebels and decides not to go on ice again, they have the advantage of effectively living in fast time to prepare their defenses or attacks. Though another option, and one that works well if the civilization is really just trying to mine new systems and bring resources back to a growing Dyson Swarm or Birch Planet back at their Home world, is just to have everyone else go slow but not their home system.
We also shouldn’t limit ourselves only to contemplating galactic empires and civilizations. As another example, if our planet got ejected from our solar system by something like a rogue planet, gas giant, or black hole passing nearby, we are not required to just lie down and die. There’s a good chance we will discover a method of making fusion work as a power supply for our civilization in the next generation or two, in which case our own oceans would provide us all the fuel we need to keep our world warm and lit in interstellar space and even to help push it to a new stable orbit around some other star one day. However, in the absence of fusion, all is not lost, as we have vast supplies of uranium and thorium and could keep some cities running in deep underground insulated caverns for many millions of years. That is essentially a hibernating civilization, one waiting till it arrives around a new sun or discovers a new technology or their world comes near some other rogue interstellar body they might mine for some new fissile material.
All at the same time, we could potentially freeze that population. It’s fairly cheap to keep folks on ice when your entire planetary surface is down to Pluto temperatures or lower, and you could maintain even low temperatures there fairly easily if you needed to be even colder. Things do decay when frozen but the colder the slower. You need some way to bring folks back but the great thing about freezing people is you do not need to know how to bring them back when you freeze them, so long as you don’t freeze everyone so research can continue.
Your big limitation on time is that eventually, after a few thousand years, people will get radiation poisoning from all the isotopes in their body like Potassium-40, but that can be countered by just putting a big effort into extracting those radioactive isotopes from your soil or hydroponic nutrients, via centrifuge. You can probably also repair that degree of radiation damage with the same technology and effort needed for restoring the dead corpsicle to life in the first place. This is an interesting scenario because one can imagine a world finding out a perturbing rogue object like a nomad planet was entering their solar system and was likely to eject their planet from their Sun, and opting to tell folks all their effort was going to be on preparing those underground cities, huge archives of data and DNA, stockpiles of uranium and thorium, and then big freezer banks to put people in and keep them cold as the planet froze until the surface was cold enough not to require that effort. In such a case you would have an entire civilization waiting on ice, hibernating till it lived again one day. We might even imagine civilizations attempting similar efforts to avoid or defeat entropy, going to sleep until their remaining experts either abandoned the effort or succeeded. Either waking them to a new dawn or waking them for one final one perhaps, to let them know they tried their best but it was time to say their goodbyes.
Though many might ask they not be awakened unless there was success, after all they will likely know going under that such an effort, just as it is in nature, is at best a course of desperation that fails as often as not. Still I suspect we would try that if such a scenario occurred, and such being the case, it makes one wonder if out there in all the cold space of the Universe there are any frozen worlds hibernating like that. And if there were and we found one, what should we do with it? What would you do? Wake them? Or leave them to their slumber? Or raid their frozen tombs for plunder? An awful lot of discussion involving possible hibernating aliens and their slumbering tombs is inspired by nature and the cold climates, and gave rise to stories like the scifi film classic, The Thing, the novella that inspired it, John Campbell’s Who Goes There? And of course the ancient ruins of HP Lovecraft’s At the Mountains of Madness, and all of those along with many other alien tales are set in Antarctica and with good reason. To this day it is mysterious and strange and alien, with things like massive subsurface lakes with life in them. Antarctica is a mysterious place and there’s a number of great documentaries on the topic, like Iceman: 200 years in Antarctica, over on Curiositystream.
We will also have an extended edition today over on Nebula to examine that specific hibernating alien notion, that they are hibernating here on Earth in a place like Antarctica, and what that might imply and how we could tell, and it has some very interesting Fermi Paradox implications we don’t see in other scenarios, like aliens from elsewhere being afraid to visit Earth or be seen by it lest they wake the sleeping monster, and again we will be having that as a segment over on Nebula. If you didn't know, Nebula is our streaming service full of awesome content from creators focused on informative but fun content. It’s designed to give creators more freedom than other platforms, and all our episodes of this show appear early and ad free on Nebula, and we many have extended editions too like today’s, as well as some Nebula Exclusives like our Coexistence with Aliens Series.
Now you can subscribe to Nebula all by itself but we have also partnered up with CuriosityStream, the home of thousands of great educational videos like Iceman and other Antarctic explorations, to offer Nebula for free as a bonus if you sign up for CuriosityStream using the link in our episode description. That lets you see the amazing content on Curiositystream, and all the great content over on Nebula from myself and many others. Just use the link in the episode’s description.
So that will wrap us up for today but not for the week as we’ll be having our mid-month Scifi Sunday episode on the classic scifi trope of Telepathy coming up on January 16th. After that we return to Civilizations at the End of Time Series for a look at the Big Rip, the cosmological model that might see the Universe torn to shreds trillions of times sooner than we normally expect things to end. After that we will explore the notion of using nuclear bombs to terraform Mars or other worlds.
Then we will close out January with our Livestream Q&A on Sunday, January 30th, at 4 pm eastern time. Now if you want alerts when those and other episodes come out, make sure to subscribe to the Channel and hit the notifications bell, and if you enjoyed this episode, please hit the like button, share it with others, and leave a comment below. You can also join in the conversation on any of our social media forums, find our audio-only versions of the show, or donate to support future episodes, and all those options and more are listed in the links in the episode description. Until next time, thanks for watching, and have a great week!