The Kardashev scale: classification of alien civilizations

What could we find: little green men or microbes? How could we find them: radio waves or strange chemicals in the planet’s atmosphere? Something no one has thought of yet?

Over the decades, scientists considering the possibility of life beyond Earth have pondered what that life would look like, how humans could identify it from afar, and whether communication between the two worlds might be possible.

That thinking has included developing classification systems ready to fill up with aliens. One such system is called the Kardashev scale, named after the Soviet astronomer who proposed it in 1964, and it assesses alien civilizations based on the energy they can harness.

Related: 13 Ways To Hunt Smart Aliens

What is the Kardashev scale?

The Kardashev scale is a rating system for hypothetical extraterrestrial civilizations. The scale includes three categories based on the amount of energy a civilization uses.

Kardashev describes type I as a “technological level close to the level currently reached on Earth”, type II as “a civilization capable of harnessing the energy radiated by its own star” and type III as “a civilization in possession of energy. on the scale of his own galaxy. “

Each type also includes a numerical limit for the energy involved, but those were not arbitrary cuts. “He used things that are easy to visualize,” Valentin Ivanov, an astronomer at the European Southern Observatory who has drawn on Kardashev’s work, told “I’m almost tempted to say it’s a publicity stunt, these comparisons that he uses to make it easier for people to understand.”

The Kardashev scale is included in a five-page article published in 1964 called “Transmission of Information by Extraterrestrial Civilizations.” (The article was originally published in Russian, but an English translation was published the same year.)

Although scale is what captured people’s imaginations, “Transmission of Information by Extraterrestrial Civilizations” focuses on calculating how powerful a light signal from any point in the universe would have to be for radio scientists at the time to detect it. . This value is also the numerical limit for the energy use of a type II civilization.

Who was Kardashev?

Nikolai Kardashev was a Soviet and Russian astrophysicist who died in 2019. Kardashev was more or less contemporary with the early search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI) leaders like Frank Drake, who published his famous equation three years before Kardashev’s article; Giuseppe Cocconi and Philip Morrison, who predicted what an alien signal would look like; and Freeman Dyson, who reflected on the ways in which extraterrestrial civilizations could overcome the limits of a planet.

In addition to its scale, Kardashev developed a technique called very long baseline interferometry (VLBI), which uses a global array of radio antennas like an Earth-sized radio telescope. Perhaps most famously, the Event Horizon Telescope uses VLBI to observe black holes, including producing the first image of a black hole, published in 2019.

Kardashev also proposed supplementing the Earth network’s VLBI observatories with space telescopes to further increase their observing power. He advocated for Russia’s RadioAstron mission, which launched in 2011, to do precisely this kind of work, according to a review of VLBI developments.

Where are the humans on the Kardashev scale?

If you work only within the basic categories, humans are a Type I civilization on the Kardashev scale (a civilization with a functioning Dyson sphere structure that collects light from its star would qualify as Type II). Literally speaking, because humans have not harnessed the equivalent of all the energy on Earth, other scientists have said that humans have a range of 0.7.

How is the Kardashev scale related to SETI?

Scientists and science fiction thinkers alike have referenced the Kardashev scale over the decades, praising and criticizing the system.

One of the benefits of the Kardashev scale is that it focuses on the detectability of a civilization by humans, rather than its large-scale technological advancement, many of which can come in ways that astronomers cannot observe.

However, it has also been called too simplistic, both when considering just one feature and its few broad categories. (Iconic astronomer Carl Sagan argued that Kardashev’s categories represented too large jumps in power consumption and proposed dividing each one into smaller categories: type 1.1, type 1.2, etc.)

The Kardashev scale’s focus on infinite growth as a measure of progress has also become difficult to grasp. It had its roots in the dominance of SETI at the time by radio astronomers, Ivanov said. “For radio astronomers, bigger is better,” he said. “Intuitively, for them, more power meant a more advanced civilization.” Yet over the decades, as humans have begun to experience the global chaos caused by our harnessing fossil fuels, the risks of romanticizing constant hunger for energy have become apparent.

Kardashev’s article also speaks to the continuing central tension of the search for life beyond Earth: is it more valuable to search for biosignatures, changes on a planet that only life on some scale, from microbes to manatees can cause, or to techno-signatures, signals like radio? Waves that depend not only on life, but also intelligent life with remarkable technology skills? “There is an ongoing discussion about which of the two is more important,” Ivanov said.

But while Kardashev’s work focuses exclusively on tech firms, it also acknowledges the side of the biological signature and suggests that each search can inform the other. “The discovery of even the simplest organisms, on Mars, for example, would greatly increase the probability that there are many Type II civilizations in the galaxy,” he wrote. “Radio astronomical searches could, of course, play a decisive role in solving this problem.”

The legacy of the Kardashev scale

However, the real heart of the article that includes the Kardashev scale was a broader statement on SETI. “It is often forgotten that what he did was estimate the technical feasibility of interstellar communications,” Ivanov said. “The classification he came up with is almost an afterthought for that article.”

And in the article’s conclusion, Kardashev argues that even if the calculations don’t hold up, the potential reality of interstellar communications should.

“We would like to point out that the estimates arrived at here are undoubtedly no more than a tentative nature,” Kardashev wrote. “But all of them testify that, if the terrestrial civilization is not a unique phenomenon in the whole universe, then the possibility of establishing contacts with other civilizations through the capabilities of the current physical radio is completely realistic.”

Looking back at the article 50 years after its publication, one researcher wrote that the Kardashev scale “was intended to represent a practical guide to what might be expected in the course of SETI searches, not a deep theoretical insight into nature. of extraterrestrial intelligence “.

And even when scientists question Kardashev’s ideas, scale remains an important facet of SETI’s work, Ivanov said. “Your name will stand.”

Additional Resources

Email Meghan Bartels at mbartels@ or follow her on Twitter @meghanbartels. Follow us on Twitter @Spacedotcom and on Facebook.

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