Worlds of Science Fiction

I’ve been study­ing the sci­ence behind the worlds of sci­ence fic­tion with the inten­tion of using it for world build­ing. I’ve writ­ten a series of arti­cles intro­duc­ing these sci­ence con­cepts.  My inten­tion as a sci­ence fic­tion writer was to build a set­ting where at first glance par­al­leled the real uni­verse. Con­se­quent­ly, I tried to use the results from SETI (Search for Extrater­res­tri­al Intel­li­gence) and relat­ed search­es to brack­et the extent and tech­nol­o­gy of alien civ­i­liza­tions that appear in my stories.

The worlds of sci­ence fic­tion are intro­duced in the arti­cle: World Build­ing for Sci­ence Fic­tion.

My approach mir­rors some of the dis­cus­sion pre­sent­ed in this Screen Craft arti­cle by Ken Miyam­a­to from 2021:  THE CRAFT AND RULES OF WORLDBUILDING IN SCIENCE FICTION & FANTASY.  I start from a real world present approach by ask­ing: what does sci­ence tell me about X?  X in this case is alien civilizations.

As some addi­tion­al infor­ma­tion, it might be use­ful to look at the SETI Insti­tute web site: SETI Insti­tute

Anoth­er arti­cle reports about some lim­its estab­lished my astro­physics stud­ies: Forbes Arti­cle

The Fermi Paradox

The Fer­mi Para­dox is an impor­tant ques­tion for worlds of sci­ence fic­tion, pro­vid­ing esti­mates of the expan­sion of a civ­i­liza­tion. I have con­tin­ued the arti­cles with this on specif­i­cal­ly on this ques­tion: It Starts With A Para­dox.

Sci­ence­Time has pro­duced an inter­est­ing video about the Fer­mi Paradox.

The Kardashev Scale

The Kar­da­shev Scale is a mea­sure­ment for worlds of sci­ence fic­tion, pro­vid­ing esti­mates of tech­no­log­i­cal progress. I have con­tin­ued the arti­cles with this on specif­i­cal­ly on this mea­sure: It’s All About Pow­er.

InsaneCu­rios­i­ty has pro­duced an inter­est­ing video about the Kar­da­shev Scale.

Drake Equation

The Drake equa­tion is the foun­da­tion for worlds of sci­ence fic­tion, pro­vid­ing esti­mates of alien civ­i­liza­tions. I have con­tin­ued the arti­cles with this on specif­i­cal­ly on this equa­tion: The Drake Equation

Andrzej Dud­nik has pro­duced a nice video that pro­vides a nice sum­ma­ry of the Drake Equation.


World Building for Science Fiction

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Part 1 — Introduction

I want­ed to share some insight into the world build­ing process that I am using in my sci­ence fic­tion sto­ries. First off, most would call my sci­ence fic­tion as ‘Hard’ sci­ence fic­tion because of my use of sci­en­tif­ic rig­or when devel­op­ing my sto­ries. For myself, it’s part of the rea­son for sto­ry­telling. The sit­u­a­tions I like to con­sid­er an inter­est­ing sci­ence or engi­neer­ing prob­lem as part of my sto­ry. As part of that effort, I try to keep the sci­ence as cor­rect as possible.

The ques­tion that every sci­ence fic­tion author faces at some point is how to han­dle aliens with­in the sto­ries. Their exis­tence con­sid­ered and the impli­ca­tions eval­u­at­ed. To eval­u­ate the exis­tence and impli­ca­tions, I rely on three con­cepts used by astronomers to dis­cuss alien life. They are: The Drake equa­tion, the Kar­da­shev scale, and the Fer­mi para­dox (DKF). The DKF con­cepts imply a lot for world build­ing in sci­ence fic­tion. They relate to the num­ber of civ­i­liza­tions, their tech­nol­o­gy, and the con­se­quences for the first emer­gent civ­i­liza­tion. It turns out that these three have inter­play with each other.

The first of the DKF con­cepts is the Drake Equa­tion, named for Dr Frank Drake who devel­oped it as a talk­ing point for the first sci­en­tif­ic meet­ing on the search for extrater­res­tri­al intel­li­gence in 1961. The equa­tion com­putes an esti­mate of the num­ber of civ­i­liza­tions in the galaxy at a time. It depends on 3 types of terms: astro­phys­i­cal terms, bio­log­i­cal evo­lu­tion terms, and civ­i­liza­tion tech­no­log­i­cal devel­op­ment terms. We can con­nect the terms to phys­i­cal process­es. These terms were spec­u­la­tive. How­ev­er, recent obser­va­tion­al results, specif­i­cal­ly about Earth-like plan­ets in the life zones of stars, have made the astro­phys­i­cal terms spe­cif­ic and mean­ing­ful. In future arti­cles, I will take each term and illus­trate the cur­rent esti­mates and how a sci­ence fic­tion assump­tion may alter the estimates.

The next DKF con­cept is the Kar­da­shev scale that estab­lish­es the lev­els of civ­i­liza­tion based upon their tech­nol­o­gy, named for the Russ­ian astro­physi­cist Niko­lai Kar­da­shev who pos­tu­lat­ed it in 1964. How­ev­er, the mea­sure of the lev­el depends upon the ener­gy usage of the civ­i­liza­tion. Typ­i­cal­ly, we talk about 3 lev­els: type 1 or plan­e­tary, type 2 or stel­lar, and type 3 or galac­tic. A plan­e­tary civ­i­liza­tion uses a pow­er of 1016 Watts (about the solar ener­gy land­ing on the sur­face of the Earth every sec­ond), a stel­lar civ­i­liza­tion uses the pow­er of 1026 Watts (the pow­er out­put of the sun), and the galac­tic civ­i­liza­tion uses the pow­er of 1036 Watts (the pow­er out­put of the milky way galaxy). We note that type 0 are sub plan­e­tary (1012 Watts the cur­rent lev­el of earth) and we could have a galac­tic clus­ter (Type 4 civ­i­liza­tion). Each of these kinds of civ­i­liza­tion can affect the terms of the Drake equa­tion, as the tech­nolo­gies can affect the envi­ron­ment. Even a class 0 civ­i­liza­tion can affect the envi­ron­ment either to their ben­e­fit or detriment.

The last DKF con­cept, the Fer­mi para­dox, gives a scale of activ­i­ty and the time it takes for their influ­ence to spread over a dis­tance. Enri­co Fer­mi pos­tu­lat­ed the para­dox in 1950 as a way of show­ing that the prob­a­bil­i­ty of extrater­res­tri­al intel­li­gence seemed high though there had been no detec­tion of its exis­tence. It bases the exam­i­na­tion of the prob­a­bil­i­ty of how quick­ly civ­i­liza­tions will come in con­tact with each oth­er, e.g. an expan­sion rate. Sup­pose that a tech­nol­o­gy makes it pos­si­ble to trav­el at 1 tenth of the speed of light, then the galaxy cross­ing time reduces to 1 mil­lion years. The scal­ing gives a trav­el time, then a time nec­es­sary to repli­cate the tech­nol­o­gy and trav­el to 100 bil­lion suns to find the oth­er civ­i­liza­tions. Or by exten­sion for a Type 4 civ­i­liza­tion, the time to explore the observ­able uni­verse. A sub-top­ic of the Fer­mi Para­dox is the galac­tic census—what have we observed and to what dis­tance. How long does an all-sky sur­vey take, and how much infor­ma­tion will they know?

Through these, they tie the whole ques­tion of an alien civ­i­liza­tion to the laws of nature. DKF are a sci­en­tif­ic way of enabling the dis­cus­sion of an alien civ­i­liza­tion in a math­e­mat­i­cal mod­el. Though we will keep the dis­cus­sion as sci­en­tif­i­cal­ly rig­or­ous as pos­si­ble, the rea­son for the arti­cles is for sci­ence fic­tion. We’ll look at past sci­ence fic­tion and impli­ca­tions for sci­ence fic­tion world build­ing for writ­ers and games. My plan is to explain the DKF, so expect mul­ti­ple arti­cles on this sub­ject. In some arti­cles, there will be some equa­tions. Unfor­tu­nate­ly, this is unavoid­able. How­ev­er I’ll try to warn the read­er to skip those sec­tions and go to the summary.

Next, we’ll take a look at the Fer­mi para­dox in detail. I expect a rate of about one arti­cle every two to three weeks.

It’s All About Power

Image by Pix­abay avail­able on Pex­els

Part 3 of World Build­ing for Sci­ence fiction

In case you’ve missed the pre­vi­ous posts in the thread, Part 1 begins here.

The pre­vi­ous post in this thread, Part 2 is here.


The Kar­da­shev scale mea­sures the tech­nol­o­gy of a civ­i­liza­tion.  It express­es the details in one para­me­ter: the pow­er gen­er­at­ed by the civ­i­liza­tion. The pow­er deliv­ered to the Earth from the Sun (approx­i­mate­ly 1016 W) is equiv­a­lent to 1 on the scale.  We call this a type I civ­i­liza­tion.  Since the pow­er lev­el is plan­e­tary equiv­a­lent, a type I civ­i­liza­tion refers to a plan­e­tary civilization.

The type II civ­i­liza­tion results in num­ber 2 that gen­er­ates the ener­gy from a typ­i­cal star (1026 W).  Anoth­er ten bil­lion times more pow­er is the equiv­a­lent of a small galaxy.  This type III civ­i­liza­tion has num­ber 3 on the Kar­da­shev scale.  The cur­rent lev­el of human­i­ty is about 0.7 on the scale.  (We pro­vide the detailed math­e­mat­ics of the Kar­da­shev scale here.)

An advanc­ing civ­i­liza­tion gen­er­ates more pow­er, which means build­ing big­ger things.  Ani­mal pow­er allowed human­i­ty to grow more food. Excess pow­er evolved into a trans­porta­tion sys­tem that dis­trib­uted goods to larg­er dis­tances.  This is true for advance­ments over the his­to­ry of humanity.

For our sci­ence fic­tion world build­ing, we assume that the same.  Admit­ted­ly, there are oth­er means of mea­sur­ing the tech­nol­o­gy of a civ­i­liza­tion.  For instance, sci­ence fic­tion role-play­ing games use a dif­fer­ent scale of tech level.

We expand on the idea to make anoth­er def­i­n­i­tion.  We define a scale of pow­er per indi­vid­ual.  This scale shows that a Type I civ­i­liza­tion and rough­ly Earth pop­u­la­tion has about 1 MW per indi­vid­ual.  We set this lev­el 0 on this new scale.  Pos­i­tive num­bers show more pow­er per indi­vid­ual and neg­a­tive num­bers show less  (see the math­e­mat­i­cal sup­ple­ment here).

As part of the Drake-Kar­da­shev-Fer­mi con­cepts, the Kar­da­shev scale sets the speed lim­its in the Fer­mi para­dox. It mea­sures the civilization’s abil­i­ty to change the lim­its in the Drake equa­tion.  We will explore this idea in future posts.

In the next post, we revis­it the Drake equa­tion and present a term-by-term overview of this famous equation.

It Starts with a Paradox

Part 2 of World Build­ing for Sci­ence Fiction

Part 2—It starts with a paradox


Pho­to by Rakice­vic Nenad from Pex­els



The Fer­mi para­dox tries to answer: Where are they (the aliens)? It looks at how fast trav­el is across the galaxy.  It says by infer­ence the time to explore the 100 bil­lion solar sys­tems with­in the galaxy. The para­dox assumes that the first civ­i­liza­tion to emerge will find itself alone the cos­mos.  Because they find them­selves alone, the civ­i­liza­tion will try to fig­ure out the answer to the ques­tion: Where are they?  This arti­cle will show pos­si­ble for a civ­i­liza­tion to answer this question.

First off, we show that this ques­tion is not an unrea­son­able one.  Using the laws of nature, a civ­i­liza­tion real­izes that anoth­er sci­en­tif­i­cal­ly advanced civ­i­liza­tion could exist else­where.  They’ll real­ize their star is one of 100 bil­lion with­in the galaxy.  They’ll build tele­scopes and dis­cov­er oth­er plan­ets orbit­ing those stars.  They’ll con­tem­plate life on those plan­ets and won­der about intel­li­gent life.  The first civ­i­liza­tion to emerge will lis­ten to the cos­mos.  Fail­ing to detect anoth­er civ­i­liza­tion, they’ll ques­tion their assump­tions. Even­tu­al­ly, they will ask and answer it.

To car­ry out the answer, the civ­i­liza­tion needs to explore every solar sys­tem in the galaxy.  Can this be done?  One solu­tion is by col­o­niz­ing every solar sys­tem and prepar­ing to explore as they move out­ward.  The home world sends out col­o­niz­er space­ships to two near­by solar sys­tems. Each of the col­o­niz­ers estab­lish­es a colony to build col­o­niz­ers that explore two more solar sys­tems and so forth.  If it takes 10 years to make the jour­ney and two gen­er­a­tions before the next col­o­niz­ers are ready, then the dou­bling time for explored sys­tems is 50 years.  So, 50 years at a pace, the num­ber of ships explor­ing dou­bles, and fifty years at a time, the num­ber of sys­tems dou­bles.  If the galaxy were spher­i­cal with the civilization’s home world at the cen­ter of the sphere, the dou­bling pro­ceeds for 1850 years until they explore 100 bil­lion suns.  Since the galaxy is not spher­i­cal, we must account for the size and shape of the galaxy in the calculations.

The diam­e­ter of our galaxy’s disk is over 100,000 light years. The light cross­ing time is 100,000 years.  If a rea­son­able largest speed (using Einstein’s spe­cial rel­a­tiv­i­ty) is half the speed of light, then the space­ship takes 200,000 years to cross it.  Using the fifty-year delay to set up the next colony, the cross­ing time is about two mil­lion years.  If civ­i­liza­tions last hun­dreds of mil­lions of years, two mil­lion years seems less than daunting.

An impor­tant con­sid­er­a­tion of this idea is look­ing at the escape speed of a solar mass star.  The escape speed is the speed leav­ing the solar sys­tem deter­mined from Newton’s uni­ver­sal law of grav­i­ty.  That speed for our sun is 42.1 kilo­me­ters per sec­ond (km/s).  Let’s use that speed to trav­el a light year or 6 tril­lion kilo­me­ters (that is 6 with 12 zeros or 6x1012 km).  We find it takes nine thou­sand years to trav­el that distance.

A space­craft leav­ing at the escape speed of the sun will take longer than human civ­i­liza­tion has exist­ed to trav­el the dis­tance.  Scal­ing up to the size of the galaxy makes the jour­ney across the galaxy at 900 mil­lion years. With the uni­verse being 13.5 bil­lion years old, 900 mil­lion years is short.  Even the Earth, at 4.5 bil­lion years old, is old­er than the time it takes an object to cross the galaxy at 42.1 km/s—such a speed means it can hap­pen over four and a half times over the cur­rent age of the Earth.

We will con­sid­er the trav­el times com­put­ed in the last para­graph with great inter­est when we exam­ine pansper­mia in a future arti­cle.  We real­ize that a long lived (bil­lion-year plus) civ­i­liza­tion will cross the galaxy at an eas­i­ly attain­able speed.  The key point of the Fer­mi para­dox is that thor­ough­ly explor­ing a galaxy is doable in enough time.
As an emerg­ing civ­i­liza­tion, human­i­ty has sent probes on inter­stel­lar jour­neys (e.g. Voyager’s 1 and 2).  Humanity’s largest speeds are on order of 42 km/s, slow­er than the 300 thou­sand km/s of the speed of light.  Going faster makes the journey’s short­er.  And short­er dis­tances make the explo­ration of the galaxy eas­i­er.  So, we can con­tem­plate our even­tu­al explo­ration of the galaxy.  If we con­tem­plate it, why could not anoth­er alien civ­i­liza­tion con­tem­plate it?  If they could con­tem­plate it, why is there no evi­dence?  Hence, this is Fermi’s para­dox.  The first civ­i­liza­tion might ask: Are we alone?

A recent tele­vi­sion sci­ence fic­tion series revolved around a space­ship strand­ed on the far side of the galaxy after acci­den­tal­ly trav­el­ing through a worm­hole.  The space­ship esti­mat­ed that their jour­ney time back home to take sev­en­ty years—an aver­age speed of 1,429 times the speed of light.  The series last­ed sev­en years for them to return home—an aver­age speed of 14,290 times the speed of light.

We can con­tin­ue with the sci­ence fic­tion exam­ple. We need to deter­mine the time to explore all the solar sys­tems in the galaxy using their tech­nol­o­gy. We first assume a neg­li­gi­ble time to explore a solar sys­tem and the aver­age star sep­a­ra­tion of 4 light years. The jour­ney will explore twen­ty-five thou­sand solar sys­tems. They cross the entire breadth of the galaxy. Explor­ing four hun­dred-bil­lion solar sys­tems requires six­teen mil­lion ves­sels to com­plete the task.

To dou­ble the num­ber of space­ships, to reach 100 bil­lion requires you to dou­ble the num­ber thir­ty-sev­en times.  But the num­ber of dou­bling to reach 16 mil­lion is twen­ty-four.  Now it becomes a mat­ter of how rapid the dou­bling takes place. In our orig­i­nal exam­ple at half the speed of light and a fifty-year dou­bling time, it takes 1850 years to dou­ble to 100 bil­lion, or 1200 years to dou­ble to 16 mil­lion. The con­clu­sion for cal­cu­lat­ing the dou­bling times is to show that some­times, such as the half the speed of light, the speed of trav­el is lim­it­ing.  But, with the super­lu­mi­nal speeds, the abil­i­ty to build inter­stel­lar space­ships (AKA the dou­bling time) is limiting.

The main take-away from this arti­cle is that a civ­i­liza­tion capa­ble of a jour­ney to the stars can vis­it every solar sys­tem in the galaxy in a short time com­pared with cos­mic time scales.  A rea­son­able con­clu­sion based on the size of the galaxy; some civ­i­liza­tion would have made this effort.  The para­dox is why we haven’t found the evi­dence for that occurring—and if we cre­ate a sci­ence fic­tion uni­verse, what is the evidence?

As a sci­ence fic­tion world builder, the first deci­sion is how fast can a space­ship cross the galaxy.  This amounts to mak­ing a hard choice.  Is faster than light trav­el pos­si­ble?  Once we know the largest speed, we find the time it takes a civ­i­liza­tion to explore the galaxy com­plete­ly. There are more con­sid­er­a­tions beyond these, but they will wait for future articles.

In future arti­cles, we will revis­it the Fer­mi para­dox.  We’ll try to esti­mate the expan­sion rate of a civ­i­liza­tion across the galaxy and what this will mean if mul­ti­ple civ­i­liza­tions exist. We’ll exam­ine at the Fer­mi para­dox as it applies to pansper­mia.  Next time, we’ll look at the lev­els of civ­i­liza­tions based upon their tech­nol­o­gy.  We know it as the Kar­da­shev scale.

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