The Fermi Paradox

Ours is a science-fiction family.

That fandom probably explains our fascination with the possibility of extra-terrestrial life, and conversations in which we exchange theories about why no representative of other civilizations has ever contacted us. (I continue to assume that reports of alien abductions and Roswell conspiracies are evidence of something other than intergalactic visitations.)

Which brings me to an article my middle son recently shared about the “Fermi paradox.”

The article begins with the math. Using the most conservative estimates, there are 500 quintillion, or 500 billion billion sun-like stars, a 100 billion billion earth-like planets, and 10 million billion potentially intelligent civilizations in the observable universe. If we limit the calculations to our own galaxy, and use the lowest estimate for stars in the Milky Way (100 billion), that would come to 1 billion Earth-like planets and 100,000 potentially intelligent civilizations in our galaxy. (The bases for these estimates is in the article.)

So: why hasn’t anyone called? Written? Why hasn’t SETI picked up any signs of such civilizations?

Welcome to the Fermi Paradox…

In taking a look at some of the most-discussed possible explanations for the Fermi Paradox, let’s divide them into two broad categories—those explanations which assume that there’s no sign of Type II and Type III Civilizations because there are none of them out there, and those which assume they’re out there and we’re not seeing or hearing anything for other reasons.

For his part, my son is convinced that civilizations get to a certain point in their development and destroy themselves–that technological innovation outstrips social progress/maturation, and they self-destruct. (As he notes, perhaps they are unable to combat climate change in time)… In the Fermi Paradox, this theory is called The Great Filter.

The Great Filter theory says that at some point from pre-life to Type III intelligence, there’s a wall that all or nearly all attempts at life hit. There’s some stage in that long evolutionary process that is extremely unlikely or impossible for life to get beyond.

There are more comforting theories.

Super-intelligent life might have already visited Earth before we were here. Sentient humans have only been around for about 50,000 years (assuming we can consider humanity sentient–see Wednesday’s post)…Or we might live in the galactic equivalent of “the sticks”–some out-of-the way part of the galaxy. Perhaps civilizations that endure  lose interest in exploration. Or on the other hand, maybe there’s only one such civilization, and it’s a “superpredator”  (the Borg??) devoid of what we would consider ethics, that exterminates (or assimilates) other intelligent civilizations once they get past a certain level.

Or maybe there’s plenty of activity and noise out there, but our technology is too primitive to hear it, or because we’re listening for the wrong things.

Like walking into a modern-day office building, turning on a walkie-talkie, and when you hear no activity (which of course you wouldn’t hear because everyone’s texting, not using walkie-talkies), determining that the building must be empty. Or maybe, as Carl Sagan has pointed out, it could be that our minds work exponentially faster or slower than another form of intelligence out there—e.g. it takes them 12 years to say “Hello,” and when we hear that communication, it just sounds like white noise to us.

Of course, it’s also possible that super-intelligent civilizations have created a tightly-regulated galaxy–sort of like Star Trek’s Federation– in which Earth has been labeled a “no go” zone because we’re part of a strict “Look but don’t touch” rule applicable to still-uncivilized planets.

As the author of this explanatory piece notes in his conclusion,

Beyond its shocking science fiction component, The Fermi Paradox also leaves me with a deep humbling. Not just the normal “Oh yeah, I’m microscopic and my existence lasts for three seconds” humbling that the universe always triggers. The Fermi Paradox brings out a sharper, more personal humbling, one that can only happen after spending hours of research hearing your species’ most renowned scientists present insane theories, change their minds again and again, and wildly contradict each other—reminding us that future generations will look at us the same way we see the ancient people who were sure that the stars were the underside of the dome of heaven, and they’ll think “Wow they really had no idea what was going on.”

Hard to say.

I’m just hoping my son’s theory is wrong–and if it’s right, that we don’t hit the Great Filter for a while…


24 thoughts on “The Fermi Paradox

  1. From personal experience I happen to know that the middle child is always the troublemaker. Great essay and article.

    Happy New Year to you and your readers and this year I REALLY MEAN IT!! ❤️☮️

  2. Yes. Happy New Year. BTW, our galaxy, the Milky Way, is about 100,000 light years in diameter. To your son’s point, there are billions of galaxies strewn about something like 15 billion light years of diameter in our universe… and it’s getting bigger every second.

    In Rebecca Costa’s masterpiece, “The Watchman’s Rattle”, she explains how we humans are rapidly moving toward that societal collapse because, for one reason, our brains are still locked in survival/tribal behavior instincts. Our social evolution as bar far outstripped our biological evolution, thus the paradox.

    Only when humans exercise their sci-fi level intellects can this problem be observed and, indeed, dealt with. If we weren’t able to do that, we’ve had made ourselves extinct centuries ago. Imagine the intellectual energy it took to realize that recreating the sun on Earth was a bad thing and to make treaties to curb its use.

    That said, the lack of social intellect among Republicans and their policy of rejecting science spells out the way in which this society, at least, will collapse under the weight of its own intellectual sloth.

  3. I forgot to mention that the universe, as we know of it, is almost 3 times older than the Earth that is barely adolescent at 6.7 billion years old. Therein lies the rub. Light travels, in a vacuum, at about 186,000 miles per second. A light year is about 6 trillion miles long. A nanosecond (billionth) is the time it takes light to travel about 11 inches.

    So, extra-terrestrial intelligence could have already passed us by even before our solar system was a thing. That intelligence, if smart enough to travel near the speed of light, probably wouldn’t have a rear-view mirror.

  4. I believe the original movie, “The Day The Earth Stood Still” explains why we haven’t been contacted; or have been but didn’t recognize it. Those who disbelieve the possibility of life on other planets probably number the antivaxxers among them. H.G. Welles wrote science fiction in his day; today we have jet planes to anywhere in the world and submarines to protect us in war times as well as study life in the ocean depths. And we have walked on the moon in the 20th Century. Those who disbelieve cannot prove their theory that there is no life beyond this earth; they are probably also among those who do not believe Climate Change and Global Warming exist as we continue destroying what life we have now.

    They are also those who gather in masses, maskless, spreading the virus and raising case and death numbers to unbelievable levels but disbelieve we are in a deadly Pandemic which medical science has yet to fully understand. A virus which changes form to avoid detection and current vaccines. Is this shifting antigen virus man-made or nature fighting back against our self-destructive life on plant earth? Science fiction takes many forms and is not only in the past or the future, we appear to be living it today, “…future generations will look at us the same way we see the ancient people who were sure that the stars were the underside of the dome of heaven, and they’ll think “Wow they really had no idea what was going on.”

  5. Everybody knows that Earth is the planet where the intelligent beings from all the other planets send their cast offs, their ignoramuses, their mean, thoughtless, selfish egomaniacs. We provide entertainment for all the universe, you know. Centuries of non-stop incredulity and laughter. “Did you see the latest? That Nero guy thinks he’s a god! They think their planet is flat? The white ones are making slaves of all the other ones. They actually made a weapon so powerful that they cannot use it without destroying themselves, yet they threaten to do just that. A disease is killing them off by the hundreds of thousands, but many will not take precautions against it. There is no end to these fools.”

  6. There are a few explanations for why no contact has been made. First, it is highly likely that life forms exist on some planets in some galaxies. But one could argue that their degree of development may be no different than the dominant (as far as numbers go) life form here. Namely bacteria. We are just “outliers” as far as numbers go.

    Second, the speed of light (which also governs all kinds of electronic transmissions, appears to be an impenetrable barrier. So, signals from a planet a million light years away would take a million years to reach us. But we have been telling “others” of our existence with radio transmissions, for only about 100 years, so they don’t know about us yet.

    Third. Neil de Grasse Tyson suggested that if they have managed to solve the speed of light problem, they would be so advanced relative to us that they might consider us no more interesting than bacteria, and therefore nothing to bother with.

    Fourth, when speaking to Fermi once, the Hungarian physicist, Leo Szilard said that the super-intelligent beings live quietly among us. “We call them Hungarians.”

  7. Interesting thread today!

    One of my favorite subjects, an article that I’ve read not that long ago and saved in my collection of scientific observations, it states that, there are about 1200 habitable worlds that have direct line of sight capability of earth. 1000 of those, can actually see the earth uninterrupted and 200 intermittently.

    So, that’s just in our region of space, and just what has been discovered so far. They’ve also just uncovered radio signals from a band which should be devoid of radio signals originating from earth, they said it is a possibility of ancient communications from a distant planetary system.

    That being said, it’s a possibility that humanity is the touchstone civilization in the galaxy. Of course the amount of galaxies out there, I would imagine there are plenty of civilizations which are much more advanced in their specific regions of space. But in this galaxy, humanity could really be the touchstone.

    What I mean by the touchstone, is that humanity is turned against its own, it murders its own, it conquers its own, it exacts vengeance on its own, it fails to learn lessons from its own, it repeats its mistakes made by its own.

    Does this civilization as we call it really deserve respect from any others that could be observing us? I highly doubt it, and we could truly be the Galactic touchstone. (a standard or criterion by which something is judged or recognized)

    Civilizations might not want themselves to be revealed to humanity, these other civilizations could consider humanity a virus, and uncontrollable infection that would be an infection to the entire Galactic order.

    It really is not against Scripture to believe in life across the universe, I was especially fond of this particular Scripture in Proverbs 8:30-31, which reads; “Then I was beside him as a master worker. I was the one he was especially fond of day by day; I rejoiced before him all the time, I rejoiced over his habitable earth, And I was especially fond of the sons of men.

    So, there are other Scriptures that allude to this, but, if this master worker was especially fond of the sons of men, who were the others that he was comparing the sons of men to? Interesting!

  8. “Far out in the uncharted backwaters of the unfashionable end of the western spiral arm of the Galaxy lies a small, unregarded yellow sun. Orbiting this at a distance of roughly ninety-two million miles is an utterly insignificant little blue green planet whose ape-descended life forms are so amazingly primitive that they still think digital watches are a pretty neat idea.”

    ― Douglas Adams, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy

  9. Carl Sagan in his epic series Cosmos, delves into the scenario of humans now have the power to destroy ourselves. He mentions in a part the amount of bomb tonnage dropped during WW 2. He goes on to say that when Cosmos was made if there was a full nuclear exchange at the time Cosmos was made – We would have a WW2 every second for the length of an afternoon. Since WW1 we have developed chemical and later biological warfare.

    For nearly 100 years our radio transmissions having been traveling out into space. A blow by blow description of a fight by Joe Louis is out there.

    At least in our point of development the speed of light would be a barrier to actual space exploration. There are other barriers to human space flight. The storage of food and water. We know from experience from the space station long term exposure to zero gravity has deleterious effects on the human body.

    The solution for some presuming speed of light barrier can be exceeded, is using robots to explore rather than humans. We are using robots now to explore Mars.

  10. As we travel into the light of multiple suns, one item not yet explored is TIME WARP, a scientific possibility. Consider traveling into the space/time warp approaching the speed of light for 10 years and returning to earth whose time has reached 30 years. Now we have found our children older than we and our contemporaries quite mature. I’m not into theoretical math so my numbers may be far askew, but the reality of space/time travel will have the traveler’s time be considerably less aging than the earth time with its aging inhabitants.

  11. It would be the height of hubris to assume we are the only intelligent (?) life in the universe. It also doesn’t make sense to think that only M Class planets can support life, when we have no idea what life actually consists of outside of our limited realm.

    If you were advanced enough to travel the galaxies, would you spend time speaking with people who elected Donald Trump?

  12. JoAnne,

    Thanks for reminding about The Day the Earth Stood Still. As it so happens, my wife and I watched it just recently and it certainly resonated with our times.

    Wishing all and our country a much better 2021.

  13. Back in 1978 there was a wonderful series aired on PBS called Connections by James Burke.

    Per Wiki: It took an interdisciplinary approach to the history of science and invention, and demonstrated how various discoveries, scientific achievements, and historical world events were built from one another successively in an interconnected way to bring about particular aspects of modern technology.

    Burke also explores three corollaries to his initial thesis. The first is that, if history is driven by individuals who act only on what they know at the time, and not because of any idea as to where their actions will eventually lead, then predicting the future course of technological progress is merely conjecture.

    The second and third corollaries are explored most in the introductory and concluding episodes, and they represent the downside of an interconnected history.

    If history progresses because of the synergistic interaction of past events and innovations, then as history does progress, the number of these events and innovations increases. This increase in possible connections causes the process of innovation to not only continue, but also to accelerate.

    Burke poses the question of what happens when this rate of innovation, or more importantly ‘change’ itself, becomes too much for the average person to handle, and what this means for individual power, liberty, and privacy.
    The computer is a good example of change. Back in 1978 when this series aired the office I worked in had rows of typists using carbon paper. Slowly, at first with word processors and finally with computers the need for rows and rows of typists (and typewriters) diminished. Toss the dictionaries we now have spell check.

    We give little thought to those rows of typists who could type 70 words plus a minute with no mistakes who lost their jobs when computers entered and finally took over the work place.

    No need for filing clerks to file paper files, the files are electronic now.

  14. Monotonous, “when “change” itself becomes too much for the average person to handle”?
    Honey, I’m there already. I was there back when that I phone thingy first came on the scene.

  15. Happy New Year to you all and to Sheila whose daily writing enlightens me. All of the answers, well most of the answers, also makes me aware of other views and feelings. Happy New Year!!!
    🙂 🙂 🙂 🙂 🙂 Irvin

  16. The topic today is far beyond my pay grade to discuss, but I find Pascal’s first three posits quite interesting. If there is life as we define it beyond this third orb from the sun, and if some of the Newtonian laws have either been conquered or were otherwise inapplicable in another world or worlds ab initio, and if mitosis is unnecessary to replication. . . too many “ifs” here for me to come up with a Sagan-tested view of the possible, so I will comfort myself with the oft-expressed view of my old World Politics professor at IU, who refused to call our specie homo sapiens in favor of his expression that we are “homo saps,” and thus release my neurons to consider Pascal’s fourth posit that such aliens already live quietly among us. Trumps and Dahmers or Gandhi and the Buddha?

    Happy New Year to Sheila and all who participate in this blog!

  17. First, survivors of 2020, congratulations! This is a monumental achievement and we did it not only collectively but individually! To our way of thinking 2020 was a horrific year but what if, as time goes on, we look back to it as the last good year?

    I’m sorry, but I have no bandwidth left to even think about other life in the universe that turned out intelligent enough to avoid the mess we’ve made of things.

    We are life’s experiment to see if intelligence confers a survival advantage and it appears at the moment that it doesn’t. Oh it’s true that it does confer the once considered measure of that, differential reproductive success, but the issue is survival of the species which may be telling us that if population growth is the only measure than success is failure. The rest of the story is to only reproduce to the load on earth that is sustainable. Oops.

    This is a fine mess we got us in.

    Now that we have started the slow process of learning that are we intelligent enough to adjust?

    Stay tuned.

  18. We must continue our SETI efforts in the hope that the intelligence that we are searching for has created music so beautiful we will find it stunning, art so eloquent we are left speechless, beings so kind that we can see and understand what is possible, governments so supportive that they are honored by those they serve, systems replete with sustainability, philosophies that evoke a eureka feeling in every sentence, medicine that has abolished pain, and all the exquisite accomplishments that we might have achieved on our own if we had not buried our heads in the desert sand for 1400 years looking for eternal life, angels, miracles and saviors.

  19. Maybe the turning point in our history was the first tribal leader who found out that his tribe would follow better if he invoked priestly privilege as spokesman for a god.
    Short term gain in power, long term failure for stability.

    No, the Hungarians ain’t that smart. Their politics went to crap decades ago. Like Turkey and Israel. Theonationalism doesn’t work.

  20. I remember reading a series of Sci-Fi books where the main character worked for “BuSab”, or the Bureau of Sabotage. These guys got involved when local governments got too efficient and too controlling. So may be Trump was really an agent of the galactic BuSab?

  21. I think there is live scattered thru out the universe but I also think we are all a product of evolution and that we are most likely the only one of our specie along with all other warm and cold blooded creatures on this planet.

  22. Bluebook is an official project ro investigations of little green men or greys. All you had to do was to listen to George Orie late at night to know we are not alone. Of course we are a millenia behind those that are watching us and or experimenting on us. Remember not to drink too much tonight. It may not be a Happy New Year.

  23. I’ve always thought that the Fermi Paradox made too many assumptions about every part of the equation (what percent of solar systems have habitable planets, what percentage of planets develop life, what percentage go beyond bacteria, etc.)

    Pascal summed it all up nicely – and thank you for the Szilard quote – I always liked that guy

    Dirk – of course you would quote Doug Adams 8)>

    Happy New Year to all, with wishes for a much, much improved 2021.

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