Sciency Words: Technological Geometrization

Today’s post is part of a special series here on Planet Pailly called Sciency Words. Each week, we take a closer look at an interesting science or science-related term to help us expand our scientific vocabularies together. Today’s term is:


In 1990, the Galileo spacecraft was on its way to Jupiter and needed to perform a gravity assist maneuver at Earth. This turned out to be a golden opportunity for science. Could a typical NASA space probe equipped with a standard suite of instruments detect signs of life on a planet where we already knew life existed?

In a 1993 paper, Carl Sagan and colleagues presented their findings in this “control experiment for the search for extraterrestrial life.” The paper explores all the things Galileo observed and, more intriguingly, some of the big things Galileo missed. Things like the “technological geometrization” of the planet’s surface, as the paper called it.

As far as I can tell, technological geometrization is not a term that’s stuck in the scientific lexicon, which is a shame. I think it’s a really good term. It refers to the way technologically advanced civilizations would tend to create geometric patterns on their surfaces of their planets.

The planet Coruscant from the Star Wars universe is a great example. The entire planet is urbanized, to the point that natural geological features are completely covered over. From space, all you can see are straight lines and perfect circles—efficient city planning on a global scale.

As another example, back in the 1800’s Percival Lowell and an embarrassingly large number of other astronomers thought they saw canals crisscrossing the surface of Mars. Those canals, if they really existed, would have been clear evidence of a technologically advanced society geometrizing their planet.

Earth’s surface displays only the faint beginnings of technological geometrization: rectangular patches of farmland and the grid patterns of streets and highways. These features are visible from space (Google Earth proves that), but you have to get fairly close to Earth to notice those kinds of details.

Apparently Galileo didn’t get close enough. At an image resolution of 1-2 kilometers per pixel, the technological geometrization of Earth was effectively invisible.

P.S.: That paper by Sagan and Company was a really good paper. It served as the basis for my recent “Alien Eyes on Earth” series.

14 thoughts on “Sciency Words: Technological Geometrization

    1. Definitely if the aliens get close enough, we’re very noticeable on the night side. But from light years away, it seems like they’re more likely to notice the spectroscopic signature of key biological chemicals in our atmosphere before anything else. (Of course, if we destroy our environment, that may be very noticeable, at least for a few thousand years.)

      Liked by 3 people

    2. You’re probably right, Steve, or at least I think you’re right. Based on the Galileo paper alone, however, I can’t be sure.

      The paper says that no usable visual data were collected of the nightside of the planet. I’m not sure what that means. Maybe there was a technical problem, so Galileo didn’t get any photos of the nightside; or maybe it did get photos, but the exposure wasn’t long enough to reveal anything.

      So I’m not sure. But I would think that you’re right, and that our city lights would at least make us a little easier to spot from a distance.

      Liked by 1 person

    1. Yeah, I have a hard time with the prequels and everything that’s been done since they came out. Still, Coruscant was in several Star Wars novels from before the prequels were made, so I’ve never had a real problem with it.

      Liked by 2 people

  1. Interesting…technological geometrization has an analogy in the growth of grains in metals. As you cool from the melt, grains nucleate and then grow. As they come into contact with each other you get boundaries forming because different grains are oriented in different directions. I wonder if you could use knowledge of metallurgy to make predictions about population growth and technology level.

    On a separate but related note, whilst I don’t have a reference to hand, I think I’m correct in saying that it’s a myth that you can see the Great Wall of China from space – it’s too narrow. On that basis then, it might not be a surprise that you can’t see cities/effect of technology from space: the microstructure bis to fine, it’s on a completely different length scale.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yeah, that’s what I’ve heard too: that the Great Wall isn’t visible. I know there are mathematical models for predicting population grown, and I’ve heard many of them have eerie similarities with other natural systems. Don’t know if it parallels your metallurgy example, but it wouldn’t surprise me if it does.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Fascinating concept. I’ve always been transfixed by the way fractal patterns occur so consistently in nature. Stands to reason sentient life would have a distinct and repeating pattern of it’s own.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. That’s something I was thinking about as I wrote this post. Not all geometric patterns are artificial, and fractals are a great example of that. They turn up in nature everywhere. I’d be wiling to believe in a planet with naturally occurring fractal patterns all over its surface.


  3. Andrew Probert’s video points out that geometric starships with perpendicular struts, nacelles, and secondary hulls have less strength than their organic, aerodynamic looking symmetrical counterparts. To my mind, this explains why some ships can withstand high speed, pressure and excessive temperatures and others not as much.

    Liked by 1 person

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