Excerpt from Chapter 3.
The Kardashev Scale
Chapter 2 had some things to say about “civilisations” and “advanced civilisations”. But what are those things? What do we mean by “an advanced civilisation”? The Kardashev Scale is there to answer that question.
Nikolai Kardashev is a Russian astrophysicist (he is still alive in 2017 at the age of 85). Born in Moscow in 1932, he graduated from Moscow State University at the age of twenty-two and began postgraduate studies in the University’s Sternberg Astronomical Institute, completing his PhD in Physical and Mathematical Sciences in 1962.
In 1963, Kardashev took part in the first Russian search for extraterrestrial intelligence. While examining quasar CTA-102, he developed his ideas about what form extraterrestrial civilisations might take. They could, he realised, be ahead of anything on Earth by millions, and perhaps billions, of years. He developed the Kardashev Scale to define levels of possible civilisation. The original Kardashev scale had three levels (later researchers have added more).
The most important thing to understand about the Kardashev Scale is that it is based on energy. As Kardashev sees it, the level a civilisation has reached can be measured by the amount of energy it consumes.
In addition to energy, Kardashev focused on communications technology. (Those later researchers have also included other factors). In his paper, Transmission of Information by Extraterrestrial Civilisation, Kardashev said that an advanced civilisation would be able to transmit radio signals over great distances in space. The levels of civilisation he defined were:
How far are we earthlings from being able to become a Type 2 civilisation, capable of building a Dyson Sphere? Not, as these things go, very far at all; estimates are that we may be able to construct such a thing, and thereby make use of all the energy the Sun produces, between 1,000 and 2,000 years from now. 1,000 years ago, the Chinese were the first to use gunpowder in battle (and they had flamethrowers!). King Canute married his cousin Emma of Normandy, laying the seeds for the invasion of England by the Normans in 1066. Emperor Hadrian set up the first postal system and built a wall between England and Scotland. A thousand years isn’t very long at all. You won’t be here to see it, but it’s still very imaginable. It’s in the progression to a Type 3 civilisation that the number of years involved becomes monstrous.
By the time our earthly civilisation gets around to becoming Type 3, it’s likely that it won’t be a human civilisation at all. Humans will have disappeared, replaced by some kind of mechanised being. There will be more to say about that before this chapter ends, but before we go there, let’s take a look at what other theorists have suggested might be added to the Kardashev Scale.
Kardashev listed only the three types of civilisation described above. Others have proposed more.
As it happens, some scientists have decided to add a Type 7 civilisation to the Kardashev Scale. What capabilities would a Type 7 civilisation have? There’s no point in even thinking about it.
Step back to that Type 3 civilisation, and these words:
By the time our earthly civilisation gets around to becoming Type 3, it’s likely that it won’t be a human civilisation at all.
What can that possibly mean? We’ll be looking at this again in Chapter 9, but here are some of the ideas that are floating around.
Read more about The Kardashev Scale here.
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Mark Rodger and Steven Lazaroff live in Canada.