originally published July 29, 2013
“Where is everybody?”
So declared physicist Enrico Fermi over lunch with some colleagues in the midst of a discussion about the possibility of extra-terrestrial life on other planets. The ensuing talk led Fermi to conclude that by now (or, by then, in 1951) our planet should be splattered with the tentacle-prints of far-off civilizations, or at least a minor tourist stop on the side of some interstellar highway. Here’s Fermi’s logic:
The sun is pretty young; there are billions of stars that are billions of years older than our little yellow sky-ball. Some of those stars will have planets, and assuming Earth is typical and not a one-in-infinity happenstance, some of those planets may develop intelligent life. Since we’re looking into interstellar travel as the next (some would say ‘final’) frontier, we can assume folks on other worlds would feel the same. And once the hurdle of interstellar travel is conquered, the galaxy should be totally colonized in a few tens of millions of years.
So where the hell is everybody?
With all our years of star-scoping and Hubbling, we have yet to find any evidence of life elsewhere in the universe, and apart from the tales of some anally-probed farmers in the American Midwest, we have no trace of their presence here on earth. This is the heart of the Fermi Paradox – given the size and age of the universe, there should be a heap of intelligent beings scooting around, yet there is no evidence to support it.
The obvious solution to the paradox would be to discover some evidence of intelligent life from some other rock than our own. Dr. Frank Drake laid down a math groove back in 1961 in order to put this all into perspective. The Drake Equation factors in the rate of star formation in our galaxy, the fraction of stars that might spew out hospitable planets, the fraction of those planets that might develop life, the fraction that might develop intelligent life, the fraction of those who might be technologically intelligent, and then how long those civilizations stick around. Carl Sagan figured that could still mean as many as a million advanced civilizations in the Milky Way. Other astronomers felt the condition was so rare, there may only be one such planet per galaxy, if that.
There are a number of reasons that could possibly explain the paradox as it exists within our tiny little bubble of universal knowledge. So many possible explanations that I can only get through them by using a bullet-point list.
- The Earth is an anomaly. Maybe we really are special. Maybe there really isn’t anywhere else in the universe where the conditions are just right for advanced life forms to develop. Maybe we are the most important planet in the universe! And maybe America is the most important country in the universe! And New York is the most important city! And the Upper West Side is the most important neighborhood! In the universe! What a sweet place to have a paper route, I bet.
- They’ve destroyed themselves. Perhaps it’s the nature of any super-intelligent species to bring about its own downfall. We have certainly come close, with nuclear weapons, environmental devastation, According to Jim and so on.
- They’ve destroyed each other. Could be that the first civilization to master the act of cruising through the stars also loaded up on weapons because they wanted exclusive star-cruising rights. People start wars, so we should assume aliens would do the same.
- Natural disasters. ‘Extinction Events’, like the impact that wiped out the dinosaurs, may have clipped the kneecaps of any and every species out there before they’d managed to build a warp drive. If only we hadn’t been hogging Ben Affleck and Bruce Willis, noted asteroid-whompers.
- Intelligent design. Maybe we’re alone in the universe because God created us, and outside this little petri dish, there’s nothing else. I’m going to stuff this explanation near the bottom of the pile – I’m not ready to take on that discussion.
- Too much real estate. There might be a bunch of other civilizations out there, space-Vespa-ing all over the place. But there is simply too much space out there to bridge one technologically advanced society with another, let alone with the rest of the universe. Also, given the expanse of time, there might only be one or two technologically advanced planets right now.
- It’s too pricey. It may be too expensive for other civilizations to master the technology to jet out into space. Or maybe other beings have mastered ‘mind travel’, and they simply communicate and learn about other planets without the expense of building and fuelling a ship. Okay, this one’s another long shot.
- We haven’t looked long enough. Patience, folks. We’ve only been hanging around this world for about 200,000 years, and we’ve really only been scanning the stars for a few centuries. There are a lot of secrets out there we haven’t nailed yet.
- We aren’t listening correctly. Who’s to say the real-life Klingons (or whatever) use radio waves, or any other form of communication we’ve figured out? Maybe whatever they use can’t penetrate our atmosphere?
- Maybe we missed them. Radio signals – assuming that’s what they use – don’t stick around forever. We’re only a bit more than a century into the radio age, and we haven’t been tuned in to the cosmos for much of that time.
- They are too busy. Hey, it’s a big commitment, zooming through the stars and trying not to die in the process. Maybe the aliens have had a lot on their plate.
- They are too alien. They might not be little green men – they might be so vastly foreign from even the reaches of our species’ finest imaginations, we couldn’t comprehend the very form they take. So they stay away.
- They are there, but it’s all a big conspiracy. Roswell, people. Open your eyes – the government doesn’t want you to know about the aliens they’ve talked to, otherwise you’ll all want universal health care! Or something.
- They choose not to contact us. Well fuck them, then.
- They are following the Prime Directive. Remember, according to the Star Trek universe, which is probably the most awesome of sci-fi universes, we don’t get contacted until the space-able species see that we are technologically ready to venture to the stars.
- The Planetarium Hypothesis. Okay, maybe nothing out there is real. Maybe everything beyond our atmosphere, or beyond the tiny area beyond our atmosphere into which we have travelled, is a simulated reality. Nothing exists. We are all nothing.
- The Fermi Paradox actually prevents first contact. If we have this paradox, maybe other civilizations do too. So no one makes the leap and tries to contact anyone.
- They are here – we just don’t know it. Watch out for members of your community reaching for their neck to pull off their person-masks. We may have been infiltrated.
Something to pretzel up the mind, anyhow. The answer might be closer than we’d thought.