Kardashev Confusion

On a scale of one and up, how advanced do you think your species is?

The Kardashev Scale, apart from having one of the coolest-sounding names in existence, is also one of the coolest measurements in existence. It’s a scale for measuring the general technology level of entire civilizations. It only measures power usage, not effectiveness of their technology, or whether they’re a dystopia, or anything else. Just power usage.

A level one Kardashev civilization is one that uses or can use approximately a planet’s worth of power. This is defined, or at least approximated, by the amount of power that reaches Earth in the form of sunlight. (About 10^16 or 10^17 Watts.) If the entire Earth were covered in solar panels, and those solar panels were all perfectly 100% efficient, that number (ten or a hundred  billion megawatts or so) is how much power it would collect. This is what is required to rank as level one.

A level two Kardashev civilization can harness all the power produced by a star. If you thought the last thing was impressive, this is a lot more so. Imagine if the Sun were surrounded by those perfectly efficient solar panels. Every photon of light coming out of it gets absorbed and turned into electricity. Whoever built that sphere would get around 10^20 megawatts from it.

Level three, as you might have guessed, means being able to use an entire galaxy’s production of energy. Like if you do the Dyson sphere thing to every star in the galaxy. It’s a lot.

So, pick your favorite technological civilization and see how they stack up! Take humanity, for instance. According to Wikipedia, as of 2008 they used an average of about 15 million megawatts. It’s presumably more now, but it’ll still be somewhere in that ballpark.  15 million is, as you might have noticed, less than a hundred billion. So the puny Earthlings do not reach level one because they haven’t even managed to take over their own planet yet. They’re something like a 0.7, which sounds pretty good but actually means one tenth of one percent of the power usage of a level one.

With the explanation of exactly what the scale means out of the way, we can compare some other examples.

The Death Star superlaser has a power output of 2.4*10^26 MW. This number is from the Star Wars wiki, where it is marked “citation needed,” but this actually is about the amount of power it would take to blow up an Earth-sized planet in one second. It is also an awful lot. It can give them a pretty big rank on this scale just by itself.

The actual formula for approximating Kardashev levels is log(MW)/10. So the Death Star, with a power of 2.4*10^26 MW, places the Galactic Empire at log(2.4*10^26)/10, or a 2.63 on the Kardashev scale. This one weapon uses as much power as the amount produced by over a million stars. If you ever see that coming at you, I recommend immediately using a good pair of running shoes.

But of course this isn’t the full extent of the Galactic Empire’s power. They have a galaxy full of resources, and it’s not like all of them were focused on building the planet destroyer. In fact, they even managed to build a second one within a few years of the first one being destroyed. It’s hard to guess just how much power they have available, but it’s definitely at least towards the high end of type 2. Scary.

For those of you who paid attention to the math stuff, you might have noticed that it’s a logarithmic scale. So it’s not like a scale of one to ten where there’s a maximum; it’s mathematically possible to keep going indefinitely. Just very, very hard.

The entire observable universe is estimated to have an energy output of around 10^39 MW. Plus or minus a few orders of magnitude. By a nice coincidence, this is pretty close to where we would want it to be so that we can say that a Type 4 civilization can use all the power in the universe. Practically speaking, you aren’t likely to use any more than that. Offhand, I can’t think of anyone with that kind of power output except for Phineas and Ferb and God.

And not one of those wimpy secondhand gods, either. It’s got to be the real thing. For instance, Quetzalcoatl could manage being the Sun, but his brother and rival Tezcatlipoca wasn’t good enough. The question of how they were going to keep the Sun shining was one that gave them some difficulty, so it’s safe to say that the Aztec pantheon is (at best) more or less a Type 2. They certainly couldn’t manage to do the same thing billions of times simultaneously.

Or look at the Greek gods. You might think that since they move constellations around on a whim and put the Milky Way Galaxy there by accident, they would be at least Type 3. But it’s a bit more complicated than that. Or less complicated, depending on how you look at it. In Greek mythology, the heavens were an actual bronze roof over the world. The stars and planets and things were basically decoration on the inside of that. So when they put, say, the constellation Orion in the sky, they were just moving some twinkling points around. They were definitely not doing anything involving gigantic nuclear furnaces that dwarf the Earth. (Side note: I feel like there’s an excellent “your mom is fat” joke in there somewhere, since in that mythology the Earth is a maternal goddess and Zeus’ grandmother and is also the size of, well, the Earth. But I couldn’t think of a good one.)

The answer will be relatively low, but we do have a way of estimating their power. The sky is (at least, was) held up by the giant Titan Atlas. This is manageable for him, but pretty darn hard. And the Olympians fought the Titans to a standstill before finally beating them, so they’re on the same scale as far as power level goes. So, how much power would it take to handle a bronze dome over the world? Quite a bit. Enough that you probably don’t want to get in a wrestling match with this pantheon. But only planetary amounts of power. Not stellar scales, let alone galactic ones.

But wait! The Greek gods are in charge of a sun, too! So surely they must be at least a Type 2? Nope. Their sun is just a flaming chariot, intimidating but much less of a power source than any actual star. The same probably goes for the Aztec sun, since the real Sun is fairly impressive and it’s hard to describe a pantheon as having powers that the myth writers can’t imagine. This is why they can only manipulate continents at most. Not even planets, really. Although, to be fair, humans can’t do either of those yet.

Point is, most alleged gods are actually pretty weak. Picture Thor swinging his magic hammer as hard as he can. He’s aiming at the giant Skrymir, but his enemy blocks the blows by interposing a mountain. The three gorges that the hammer left are visible to this day, and this is supposed to be impressive. Seriously. Their strongest god, using his best equipment as powerfully as he can, managed to scratch a mountain. That’s something that humans can do right now if they want to. Look at Mount Rushmore, where they did pretty much exactly that except better.

In other words, the Empire from Star Wars is way more powerful than any mythological pantheon. Easily. Thor might register on the Richter scale, but the Death Star is measured on the Kardashev scale. “More powerful than the gods themselves can possibly imagine” might be literally applicable here.

Keep in mind, though, that the Empire is “only” about a three. They’re nowhere near the upper limit of sheer power.

To be a Type 4, someone would have to basically be able to control all the power production of the universe. That’s kind of a big deal. It’s less like the Valar and more like Iluvatar. That’s where you’re talking about serious power. Read Job 38 for an example. The general tone is “you cannot comprehend my power; to rub it in here are some descriptions of impossible-sounding things that are easy for me.” It’s actually some pretty intimidating bragging. The specific metaphors used are mostly only talking about Kardashev Level 1 stuff, with some stars and constellations thrown in. Since I don’t know what or where Job thought the stars were, I can’t say if that’s below level 1 like it would be if the Greeks said it or level 2-3 like it would be if I said it. But unlike the previous cases, it’s emphasized that none of this is hard for the person doing it. After all, anyone who can actually create the universe ex nihilo is pretty much automatically a big deal. Too big to be measured on this, even.

The Kardashev scale is…let’s just say kind of big. A human (unaided by technology, which admittedly kind of defeats the point) ranks a little below a negative five. Physical condition barely matters; that number isn’t getting any better or much worse. But at least you get to say that you personally register on a scale used for measuring gods and advanced civilizations.


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