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Civilization: Beyond Earth and the Physics of Space Travel

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The search for extraterrestrial benevolence.

If the universe is as teeming with life as we expect it is, then why do we not have indisputable evidence of alien civilizations? Or, as physicist Enrico Fermi asked, "Where is everybody?"

This question is at the heart of the Fermi paradox. Science-fiction authors have proposed all sorts of hypotheses to address the paradox, but when we crack open John Scalzi's latest tome or play Homeworld or Mass Effect, we're not usually concerned with the boundaries of physics, at least as we currently understand them. A game throws out some science-y jargon to explain away the details, and we're fine with overlooking nature's fundamental constants. Who wants to explore a galaxy in which we're limited by the speed of light, and it would take thousands of years to reach other stars?

Civilization: Beyond Earth is, of course, mostly concerned with entertainment, not with the strict application of relativity and quantum mechanics, let alone Newton's laws. That doesn't mean, however, that developer Firaxis has thrown away scientific fundamentals. I recently attended an event at Chabot Space & Science Center in Oakland, CA, where I not only played Beyond Earth, but chatted with astrophysicist and San Francisco State professor Stephen Kane about the game's astronomy--and specifically, about the science of exoplanets.

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For me, this is a topic of particular interest, now that I'm pursuing further education in physics and its mathematical language. There's a particular kind of curse that follows in the wake of physics knowledge, however: I now notice far more often the way games and science-fiction in general gloss over the ramifications of intergalactic travel. It's a testament to Civilization's mechanical strength that I never once stopped to consider the game's physics or astrobiology while I played; I was only aware of how much fun I was having, and how likely I would be hooked upon the game's release this October. That didn't mean, however, that I didn't have lots of questions for Dr. Kane, who chatted with me at length about the astrophysics of Beyond Earth--and astrophysics in general.

And so we return to the Fermi paradox. In Civilization: Beyond Earth, humanity has left the solar system to colonize planets around other stars, and presumably, so have other civilizations. If such a thing were indeed possible, why are we still so seemingly isolated from other intelligent life? Kane suggests a few reasons for why that is so. "We know that life started on Earth very early--there's evidence that the first life came out on Earth about four billion years ago, not long after the earth cooled off. As soon as life could take hold, it did. It jumped in right away. That's a very good indicator that if you give life a chance, it will evolve. Another thing is that planets in the habitable zone [of a star] are extremely common. Putting those things together, you can make a reasonable argument that life must be common."

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But what about intelligent life? Kane points out that the evolution of life on Earth hasn't been linear; it's been subject to climate change and catastrophes. Had life continued to evolve unabated, we might, as Kane puts it, "all be speaking dinosaur." Evolution favors adaptation and reproduction, not necessarily high intelligence. Says Kane, "Just as long as you're able to survive where you are, that's enough." Life is probably common anywhere there is liquid water and a sufficient energy source. Intelligent life, well--we might not be alone, but we might very well be rare.

By the time I sit down with the game, it's clear that intelligent life may not be common in the universe we know, but it is certainly common in Civilization: Beyond Earth. The early moments of the game are similar to those in other Civ games, though your arrival is signaled with a dramatic planetside landing on your new terrestrial home, along with the most suspenseful space-music this side of Mass Effect. A digital advisor (called, of course, Advisr) fills me in some basics. He tells me that my society might evolve in one of three different directions called affinities: purity, supremacy, and harmony. He presents to me the Beyond Earth technology web, which is separated into larger categories called branches, and more specific categories called leaves.

I choose ecology, not because I have a grand plan, but because I fancy myself a space druid. I'm ready to be at one with the nature of this strange place. It's not a plan that goes all that well for me. Developer Firaxis is only giving me 100 turns worth of Civilization: Beyond Earth, and while peace is great if you're going for the long con, I need to shake things up if I'm going to have a lasting galaxy-spanning legacy.

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Not that I don't do my best to be peaceable where the alien life is concerned. I focus my initial turns on establishing explorers, which are units you use to uncover the fog of war and establish a presence in other regions. Once I build a few explorers and coax them across the unknown land, it becomes clear that while I wish to be friendly to them, the alien life does not wish to be friendly to me. A trio of giant alien flies with thorny green carapaces has descended upon my primary colony, which I have called "Central" because I lack creativity. Fortunately, I can fire my city's defensive weapons at the creatures, and they wither under my admittedly puny might.

From an astrophysicist's perspective, protecting ourselves from otherworldly life is not the first hurdle we face should we wish to head into deep space. I check in with Dr. Kane again to chat about all of the other obstacles we must overcome, and whether limits like the speed of light can ever be removed at all. In fact, just finding a suitable planet to colonize is a problem in and of itself. Kane's work is focused mainly on discovering exoplanets--that is, planets orbiting stars other than our own sun. We've got the technology to observe these planets in more detail than we currently do; the problem is that it costs a great deal of money and manpower to create powerful telescopes and place them in outer space. "We're almost there," says Kane. "It's just the resources of being able to launch these telescopes and do the observations." The James Webb telescope, currently scheduled to launch in 2018, is a start. But that instrument is a general-purpose telescope, not one specifically designed to observe exoplanets. Kane suspects it will be another 20 years before we have the instruments in place to take pictures of such planets for the first time.

Then there's the business of actually getting there. We've learned a lot in recent years: that earth-sized planets are common, and that most stars have planets. But what about the speed of light? After all, traveling faster than light would require new physics. As Kane says, "It's one of the most frustrating things, because we might be looking for something that isn't there. When you have something in your mind--'this is something that I know I want, I would like to be able to build a teleporter or something like that.' And then you try and go in the other direction and try to come up with the physics to do that, then that can be frustrating because you don't know if it's even possible." Of course, there are still countless unanswered questions in physics. Could a universally accepted quantum theory of gravity, or a better understanding of quantum entanglement, unlock the key to interstellar travel? Possibly. Kane points to experiments like those done at the Large Hadron Collider. We've discovered new particles, and are gaining a better understanding of elusive phenomena like gravitational waves. "Things like how spacetime bends, and whether you can break the speed-of-light barrier--that sort of physics is where I see that coming from."

We're almost there. It's just the resources of being able to launch these telescopes and do the observations.

Astrophysicist Stephen Kane

And so I return to the city of Central, which is surrounded by purple soil and weird foliage that makes me wonder whether it might eat my workers should they annoy the indigenous life. I get my workers busy, building roads and plantations so that I can start collecting resources and keep my citizens happy and healthy. My city is fine for now; my settlers, however, have disturbed the wildlife. Beyond Earth provides you specific missions to accomplish as you improve your civilization, one of which has me recovering scattered research pods. My explorers have discovered one of these pods, along with another one of those awful buzzing things, and the game tells me my puny explorers have no chance against this lord of flies.

It's time to put some soldiers in my construction queue, clearly. In the meanwhile, I've built a solar collector, an object I can launch into the orbital layer, where I can keep it for a limited number of turns before it's retired. (It's bonus to your food production can be a real boon.) Next, Beyond Earth introduces me to virtues, which take the form of a culture tree, where I can spend culture that I have earned to unlock helpful bonuses. I select frugality, which is the first option in the prosperity virtue, and allows me to retain some extra food when my city grows. It's not likely to help my bug problem, but part of me hopes I am able to prove myself a loveable space-druid.

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Alas, it is not meant to be. A space scorpion has crushed an explorer unit, and I've got two soldier units, which I am soon able to upgrade to marine units. The alien creatures prove to be an even match, more or less; I take them down, but all but one of my marine units bite the dust in the process. And as it turns out, the other civilizations that have arrived on the planet don't appreciate how I have been messing with the wildlife. Hutama of Polystralia (where I presume the citizens are into polyester) pops up with a message: "We have noticed your continued attacks on the aliens. We'd like to ask you to stop." I tell him I do what I want and he gets an attitude. Next to wag her finger at me is Elodie of Franco-Iberia, who says she is distressed by my actions. The Slavic Federation and the Pan-Asian Cooperative also develop a problem with me. Don't they know I'm trying to make the planet safe?

What they know is that by killing the bugs, I am just making them hate all of us. The space-flies and space-scorpions are the least of my problems; I have now incurred the wrath of a tentacle monster that is worming through the grand city of Central. I have heard that the Firaxis developers are big fans of the Dune universe, but I fancy myself Kevin Bacon in Tremors. My marines lay down fire and my city bombards the giant worm with missiles, just in time for the worst news imaginable: Firaxis is bringing the event to an end, and I have to abandon my civilization. Blast!

My annoyance at having to stop is a good sign: it means that Civilization: Beyond Earth is likely to be yet another absorbing entry in the long-running series, and the closest we're likely to get to an Alpha Centauri successor. I leave wondering what life on other planets might look like. Would they be like bugs, or lizards, or humans--or would they be completely unlike anything my imagination can conjure? It's too late to ask Dr. Kane what he thinks astrobiologists might one day discover, but something tells me that the reality is much more intriguing than anything I envision.

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