Clever Girl’s Guide to the Universe. Part 1. How to Reverse-Engineer Alien Technology

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Credit: Ellie Maloney

We all know what to do if an alien space craft crashes in our back yard. Let’s say it together. Ready… Go! No!!!! Not sell it to Russia! Reverse engineer it! Gosh. What were you thinking!

Credit: Yeah, I drew this embarrassingly silly depiction of alien technology.

Anyway, it is staple sci fi idea, that we can trace back the finished product to it’s basic elements, and thus to create a blueprint. But why did we assume we can? No, I am not talking about the limitations in our research methodology. Let’s say, we are 100% technically capable to reverse engineer every piece of technology. Is there a kind of technology (in principle) that does not obey the laws of dynamical reversible systems?

Sorry, the last three words were kind of a curve ball. So let me start from the beginning. Yesterday I wrote that I have an intention to master some level of theoretical minimum to quantum mechanics. Following the link, you can see that my self-study course is based on the seminal works of Susskind, Feynman and Dirac + a clever 50 page PDF of someone from Netherlands that contains notes and practical exercises.

Today I started with the Lecture 1 of “Theoretical Minimum” by L. Susskind. It is pretty basic stuff, that describes the ideas of closed and open systems, and the laws that govern such systems. Here’s the quick easy summary of the ideas.

System – is a collection of objects (any objects, everything that you can include in it). For example, your fridge is a system. It is a collection of all foods, good and spoiled, chilled and frozen, as well as the air molecules (particles)  and temperature (waves).

System can be open or closed. You guessed it. Just like the fridge.

Closed system – is an isolated system to the point that noting else influences it. In a sense, the universe itself (including multiverses, extra dimensions, and God, depending on your persuasions) is a closed system when we account for everything and assume that there is nothing to be added to it.

Open system –  is the system, open to external influences.

Systems consist of states.

Space of states is the collection of all states of the system.  Let’s look at the space of states in the fridge. Day 1: the leftovers are added to the fridge, the door is closed, and nothing is added ever since. The system is closed. State 1: leftovers are good. Day  4: The leftovers fermented and became smelly. Day 10: The leftovers developed a thick carped of bluish soft moss. Day 15: The leftover rot transferred to the nearby Thanksgiving turkey leftovers. Day 265: It is the beginning of the new link in the evolutionary chain: the Leftover Monster.

The system and it’s space of states is governed by the laws.

Deterministic laws: we know everything about the  system at a certain instant of time  and we know equations that govern the system. Example: Dude, you know damn well that the leftovers forgotten in the fridge will evolve into the Leftover Monster. That’s the Law! Cause and effect. Predictable.

Reversible laws: deterministic laws if the past and the future are reversible. Susskind did not link this to the laws of increasing entropy, but here’s how I think it is related. Entropy is a reversible law. I know that it may not look like it, when you encounter the Leftover Monster in the fridge, that by this time created it’s own eco system and is about to launch a presidential campaign, but the veggies cannot decide if he could be considered a natural born fridge citizen. So the entropy seemingly accumulated and there is nothing to be done about it. However we are told, that entropy is not the law of physics, but more like a statistical law, a law of probability. Given enough of time and enough of space of states in the fridge, the Leftover Monster may revert to the fresh Pad Thai, except you won’t  be  around to eat it. The conclusion is: even though there is a statistical probability that spoiled leftovers will become good again, don’t count on it and eat them when they are fresh, or timely dispose of them.

The number of states of any system is called degrees of freedom.

A dynamical (changeable) system of a coin that falls either on heads or tails has only one degree of freedom (either heads or tails).

Finally, dynamical systems may have finite of infinite number of states. It may be the case, that if you never come back for your Pad Thai, billions years later, it will be reading Susskind’s “Theoretical Minimum” and commenting on this post. (I bet the Leftover Monster’s ancestor would call me a homo sapient chauvinist and racist for demeaning portrayal of the evolutionary process of his species).

 This is the gist of what I wanted to share with you per the Lecture #1 of Susskind’s “Theoretical Minimum”. Now, let’s get back to reverse engineering the alien technology.

Based on what we’ve learned from Susskind, the system that can be reverse engineered must be:

  1. A closed system, or the sufficiently isolated system that any outside influence may be considered negligible. Let’s take an example of a flying saucer. We must be sure, that none of the environmental factors are influencing the ‘space of states’ of the saucer. In other words, we can break down the spacecraft in distinct discrete finite (or infinite) states.
  2. A system governed by deterministic laws.
  3. A system governed by the reversible laws.

Let’s think of a power source of the the alien flying saucer. It is likely that the alien technology would harness some advanced quantum mechanical principles, which are, in their essence, non-deterministic (the uncertainty principle prohibits precise measurement of position and velocity simultaneously; in other words, we cannot know and describe all states in principle.). Then, there is quantum superposition that also prohibits reversibility, because on quantum level, systems function in all possible states simultaneously.  Finally, for all we know, the alien technology may be, in principle, an open system connected to the fabric  of the universe on it’s basic level. It may never be possible to sufficiently isolate the system to study it’s states.

Where does it leave us? It leaves us with the possibility of mastering such alien technology and using it, but never able to replicate it. Ever. No matter how advanced our methods are. Kind of a bummer.

I am currently working on the final episode of the Season 1 of the “Million Deaths of Lt. Mazula” mini-series, where I am going to use this idea of a system that in principle  cannot be reverse engineered. Check it out in a few days and see what I came up with.

Copyright (2016) Ellie Maloney


  1. Reverse engineering often gets you only part way to an answer. Unless you’re able to analyse an object in multiple ways (which is often not possible) it’s very heard to fully understand what’s going on. Even with our own technology. Alien technology would be a whole other level of crazy engineering.

    1. Yeah. I finished the new x-files series, and yes, it was pathetic, but they had this idea that somehow they reverse engineered the alien spaceships. They made it look like its not a big deal. That’s partly where the idea for the post came from.

      1. Oh I see! I’m still a few episodes behind so I ahve to catch up to this. It is possible to reverse engineer. But you’re more likely to find out principles rather than the fine detail and wil have to finish the fine detail yourself. It would be a big deal!

        1. That was in the first or second episode, where Mulder walks in the hangar and there is this aircraft, and then it disappears in the thin air. And everybody around go: “Ah! Quantum gravity!” or something like this. Anyway, the day 1 of studying wasn’t too bad. 🙂

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