From Nuclear Weapons to Death Stars

A low autumn sun illuminates white-tinted grasses and lichens, each covered in beads of ice from the first deep frosts of winter. A lone Arctic Fox treads lightly on freshly fallen snow, making its way south towards the treeline where the last minks might be grazing. This is the desolate Kola Peninsula in northern Russia which, on October 30th 1961, witnessed the single most destructive force humanity has ever released.

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It was named the Tsar Bomba: a 58 megaton nuclear bomb. When it exploded 4km above Siberia, it released more than 2000 times more energy than the weapons used at Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945, sent a mushroom cloud to the edge of space, broke windows 900km away and sent seismic waves around the earth more than three times. This was the single most energetic event in human history, releasing as much energy as the UK uses in more than 10 weeks in the blink of an eye.

While such a destructive event is not cause for celebration, it is remarkable to think about the rapid technological advancement that led led to it. It was only 50 years previously that the nucleus of atoms been discovered. 100 years earlier and electricity and magnetism were still mysterious, far-from-unified concepts that could capture public imaginations but certainly seemed to have little public applications.

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From this rapid development, it would seem to be that our species is likely in its infancy as a technologically capable civilisation. The vastness of space, and remarkable frequency of earth-like planets in the universe, also suggest that we are not the only ones. With trillions upon trillions of potential habitable worlds in the universe, it is almost impossible to conceive that other, remarkably advanced civilisations are not out there.

Given the track record of our own species, and our ability to turn technology into devastatingly destructive weapons, it only takes a short leap of the imagination to picture hyper-intelligent aliens doing the same. Except, rather than the desolate russian tundra, they might use interstellar space for their weapons testing grounds. While I would be the first to admit that this sounds like science fiction, there is certainly a case that such explosions might well be observable. In that one fateful second in 1961 the Tsar Bomba generated millions of times more energy than all of the power stations on Earth. Maybe, shining like a short-lived new star, there could be evidence of these interstellar ballistic missiles out there in the cosmos.

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The interesting thing is that we haven’t seen anything of the sort. Famously the Fermi Paradox asks why, if intelligent life is out there, hasn’t Earth been colonised yet? Maybe the non-detection of great alien weapons, or Death Star Paradox, has a simpler answer: either hyper-intelligent civilisations wipe themselves out in adolescence, or they don’t seem too intent on destruction. And, with the world becoming a more peaceful place over the last few decades, we can be hopeful the answer is the latter.

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