Aliens Don’t Need Patience. They Probably Have Something Stronger.

Posted on | October 2, 2022

I was listening to NPR yesterday and there was this guy debunking the whole UFO thing, and at one point he starts going into the whole nature of what intersteller travel entails. He says, “Look, we’ve been over this. There really is a speed limit to the universe. My degree was in physics and I worked on atom smashers, where we accelerate particles to very close to the speed of light. Our best day, we reached 99.999954% of the speed of light. And you could put twice as much energy into accelerating those particles and they would just go a tiny bit faster, but they wouldn’t go past the limit. So no matter what, it would take a minimum of four years to get from the nearest star to here, and there’s all sorts of limits on accelerating to that speed and decelerating enough to visit our solar system in any meaningful way. So it would take a long time. Aliens who want to travel between stars would have to be very patient.”

It was the word ‘patient’ that perked my interest because, here’s the thing: patience is an emotion.

Impatience is human restlessness. In the 1920s, this was identified as “The Permanent Problem:” regardless of your bent about evolutionary psychology, human beings in the aggregate have three fundamental drives: how do I get enough food, how do I form a community for mutual support in acquiring food and shelter and survival, and how do I find a mate to help both of those into the future? (It was called “The permanent problem” because the food thing was being solved– there really are enough calories for everyone– so what does humanity do now?)

That’s built in. There are many and wide deviations from those, which is how we get eating disorders and psychopaths and, yes, homosexuality. Some of those are morally neutral and require communal acceptance, some are personally harmful and require intervention, and some require stricter controls.

Evolution is constantly emitting new variants of the human platform, some of which are useful, and some are not. The “nots” get exapted out. And along the way we’ve developed a far more vast and complicated collection of responses to the world around us, even creating a world inside ourselves where we think about how the world works and how other people might react to our ideas, and we call this world “consciousness.”

Patience is the ability to hold on and wait while all that restlessness is poking at us, because human beings are complicated creatures who can think into the future and realize that patience has a payoff.

There’s every reason to think that aliens, especially aliens capable of crossing the vast gulfs of space, with all the biological, physical, cybernetic and even cognitive hardening that might entail, would come with a different set of emotions, a different emotional framework.

In a lot of the science fiction I write, the good parts cribbed from Greg Egan and his early short stories like “Tap” and “Jewel,” human beings have developed the ability and knowledge to reach into their own minds and twiddle with some of the knobs. One of the most commonplace adaptations is called the Canon. The Canon is basically a nightly reset. It’s an emotional Groundhog Day. You wake up every morning with all the memories of the day before, but your emotional state can only be affected by it so far; there’s a range outside of which the Canon will not let your feelings go. The most common use for a Canon is between lovers who want limerance, the sensation of being madly in love, to never fade away between the two of them.

There’s no reason to think that a species capable of interstellar travel couldn’t have that same ability, and make “patience” a moot point in their emotional frameworks as they maintain their vessels and pilot between the stars.


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