Fermi’s Paradox, so-called because it poses several factors about the likelihood of intelligent life existing, which–if we accept the terms of the approximate infinities–creates a grand series of contradictions and leaves us scratching our heads over the question:
Where Are All the Aliens?
Hello, I am Mike Jack Stoumbos. I am not a scientist (or an alien life-form, as far as I know), but I am a novelist, a reader, a lover of science fiction, and an English teacher who often uses science fiction as the basis of social commentary–and, as a special added bonus, I have been told that I can justify anything.
Naturally, my super-power is tested when confronted with preexisting paradoxes like that of Enrico Fermi (whom I know more about through the play Copenhagen than any formal study). A student asked the question about intelligent life in the universe, (aside from ours truly), and I presented Fermi’s paradox, which goes like so:
If the universe is composed of billions of stars, orbited by trillions of planets, and has existed for billions of years (which we have concluded based on the available data), then it is logical to assume that some planets other than ours would have the means to sustain complex life (even if this possibility is only possible for 1 in 1-billion planets)–and because life sprang into being on one planet, it is logical to assume that it could on another–and if it could, it is logical to assume that with trillions of candidates, that it has, probably millions of years before humans started thinking–and if humans can think and invent and explore other planets, then other life-forms millions of years older already would have done so, and therefore someone, sometime would have reached our planet by now and we would have some kind of evidence that there is intelligent life out there…which we do not.
If you happen to agree with those things, the overwhelming statistical probability says that we are not alone, and then that begs the question: “Where is everybody?”
I did my best to explain this in simple terms–not because I doubt my students’ comprehension, but because I did not want to lose a bunch of class time to this tangential topic. I almost succeeded! Then the student asked me why we hadn’t heard from aliens yet–yes, they asked me to justify my way through Fermi’s paradox, and I took up the challenge.
Mike Jack’s List of Reasons Why Fermi’s Paradox is not so Paradoxical After All
Creationism! – (I’m not here to prove or disprove creationism, which probably can’t be proven or disproven, but I do need to include it as a possibility that might undo the paradox.) If a creator (such as a God or supreme being, not an alien life-form) made people to set on Earth, then it is possible that this creator did not create any other people anywhere else. It is possible that He/She/It/They/[Incomprehensible Pronoun] thought that Sol’s third satellite was the prettiest shade of greenish-bluish-brownish ever–and is very disappointed with the polution we have wrought and the fact that we named it “Earth.” (I suppose it’s also possible that we are not this creator’s first draft, and that he wiped out previous civilizations in Noah’s-flood-esque fashion when they dissatisfied him or when he bought the game Spore.)
Homo-sapien-centrism – Okay, I don’t know what the real word is, but the concept is basically that human beings are effectively the main point of all of life and matter as we know it, and nothing exists without their being able to perceive it. There are different versions of this theory, but basically, if we assume that the universe exists because humans imagined it into being, then there wouldn’t really be a need for other life forms beyond what we could reach and immediately perceive.
Those were the first two what-ifs I came up with to say that maybe we are absolutely, entirely, completely alone… and realistically, I can’t think of any others that work. So let’s assume that we are not alone. Then, where is everybody? Here are my favorite guesses:
Interstellar Travel is NOT Possible – So even though we’d like to think that we will one-day go to the stars, it is altogether likely that the reason neither we nor anyone else we are aware of has is because it’s actually not possible. Faster-than-light travel, folding space-time, finding wormholes–these are all just big what-ifs, and maybe if they ever could happen (or have happened), then maybe the forces were too much for any kind of vessel or the life within it to handle. We really have no idea what these forms of transportation entail, and maybe every species before us that has tried has disastrously blown itself up or collapsed in on itself or been sucked into a lifeless void known as “null space,” etc.
Space is just too big – In the words of Douglas Adams, “Space is big. You just won’t believe how vastly, hugely, mind-bogglingly big it is.” Okay, so let’s take the premise from #3. In theory, even without interstellar jump tech, if you built a ship that was fast enough to break atmo, had impeccable life support, carried enough supplies, could effectively dodge any space debris or gravity wells, and had the means of either suspending passengers or would let them breed for millennia, you could eventually reach another system. If you did this enough times, you might, maybe, one-day reach a planet that could sustain life, but such would take so many millions of years and failed attempts that it is unlikely that a rational and reasoning species would continue looking for meta-cognitive, bipedal, primates such as ourselves. There’s also the “different galaxies” theory. With all the galaxies there are, it seems likely enough to assume that at least one has the kind of dense population features in Star Wars or Star Trek. Maybe those exist, but maybe the beings in them still can’t (or just don’t) jump between galaxies. Considering that the universe still looks like it’s expanding (from our vantage point and through our particular temporal distortion), intergalactic travel might be even more impossible now and hereafter than it would have been millions of years ago.
Timing is everything… – Let’s say that the universe has existed for 100 trillion years, and let’s say that humans have been around for, oh, 200,000 years. (If I did the math right), that means that humans have been around for one 500-millionth of the universe’s time. 1 in 500,000,000 might be about the odds that any given planet might sustain life. Maybe aliens existed and then went extinct before we were advanced enough to look for them; maybe they explored our system five billion years ago and found no reason to stick around. How would we know if anyone had been here that long ago? Assuming there were advanced civilizations with interstellar travel a few billion years ago–which there could have been–it is also possible that some cataclysmic event wiped them all out, and we don’t yet have the science to determine what that might have been. Life might be just starting over on a few scattered planets that were shielded in the right ways from whatever blight took out the rest. Maybe life is just starting altogether (and by just I mean in the last couple billion years) because the universe has only recently cooled down or become stable enough for complex life to develop and evolve.
Assuming we start exploring other systems, we might find planets where beings have been extinct for millions or more years, and then we would find few or no signs that they ever existed. We expect to find buildings, vehicles, things made of metal, and other kinds of technological indicators of civilization, but the aliens might not work like that. In fact, they might not be anything like us…
They might not want to explore – Working from the “nothing like us” premise, let’s consider the possibility that aliens have no reason to explore other systems. Maybe they don’t feel as investigative as we do; maybe they’re scared; maybe they have no reason to leave their planet; maybe they’ve never determined that there is a universe beyond their atmosphere. We could postulate that there are alien species who are complex and advanced, and yet they are fine where they are. They might have some awesome lush ecosystem, with just enough kydifuvhih* to consume, and noghyeiuiudhgdi* to wtttyfgf* their gyfughsfhvs* (pronunciation guide needed). Why would they leave?
Yeah, sure, we think “the world is not enough,” but we have not found a single other creature–among the vast examples of species on our planet–that wants or needs to leave. Let’s play the numbers game again, and be mighty conservative with our estimates: Of about 1.5 million species of discovered animals on this planet, only 1 (count ’em, 1) is considered intelligent. Most animals (other than the 1) coexist effectively and do not exhaust ALL of the resources in their area. We have no good way to prove that “intelligence” also necessarily comes with imperialism, a drive to expand, a lack of consideration of available resources, and so on. Let’s postulate that 1 in 50 intelligent species will inevitably try to conquer their surroundings, that 1 in 20 of those will be stupid enough to drain resources without restoring them, and that 1 in 5 of those will succeed and complete deplete their environment. If only one in a billion planets could support life, and one in a million of those supports intelligent life, and only one in 5,000 of those might be like us and need to leave their planets to forage for more food and places to conquer… we might be the first of our kind.
They’re avoiding us on purpose – What’s to say that aliens haven’t found and studied us, but decided that we shouldn’t be tampered with. Maybe it’s a United Federation of Planets thing: they need to wait until we are able to explore space ourselves before making first contact. Maybe they don’t want to interact with us because they have seen how we treat our planet and each other.
Or maybe they have some rationale we can’t fathom, because we’re not them.
We’re just too damn different – When we think of aliens (we as humans and hollywood subscribers) as being fairly human-like. Most science fiction shows bipedal life-forms. Movies that go beyond the little-green-men concept, show creatures with mouths and eyes, who need to eat and breathe, who have two genders, who are from kingdom animalia, who are carbon-based–or made of solid and liquid matter at all! What if they aren’t? What if life can happen on other planets, but it doesn’t manifest anything like ours has? What if the basic single-celled organisms on other planets are gaseous or made of plasma–or what if they are not even on the material plane, or what if they out of phase with out reality or our time. They might perceive time in three dimensions and space in one! We don’t know, and we might never know, because there might never be a way for us to communicate or even recognize out mutual existence.
They’re already here – They came, they saw, they invaded effectively enough that we have no idea who or what they are. Maybe they live among us–and maybe they are doing so with completely benign intentions. Maybe they are hiding themselves, or governments are hiding them; maybe governments are them; maybe we are them. Yeah, that intelligent design theory: aliens came and planted the seeds that would eventually spring into sentient life, or they just prompted our pre-existing primates to evolve into sentient beings.
If we assume that interstellar travel takes extreme intelligence, then we might also assume that these really smart aliens can place themselves in our society undetected. My favorite “they’re already here” theory is this: Aliens came to earth, and found human beings so amusing that they planted their version of hidden cameras everywhere and made us into a reality show. Every now and again, when human-kind gets boring, they find a way to throw a wrench into our fragile societies, such as a minor plague, a major tsunami, or another president from Texas.
“D) All of the above” – Okay, so it’s a cop-out answer, but then again, the final item on most top-ten lists is a cop-out. Still, I needed to put it on here, because we started this by talking about the numbers, and we need to come back to them. The idea of Fermi’s paradox is that it would be almost impossibly improbable that we aren’t alone; it is also true that with trillions of opportunities both in terms of locations and time periods, that any and all of the above scenarios could have happened. As is the case in many restaurants, the combo plate really is the best deal.
This is where I stop. I have more theories, but many of them are variations on the same theme. Sure, the list is not comprehensive; you are encouraged to post other ideas and/or contradictions in the comments. Either way, good on you for reading this far! (As a high school teacher, I am very aware of the short attention spans of most readers.)
If you’re still curious about or unclear on Fermi’s Paradox, I recommend the following, charming “Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy”-style clip:
I hope you found this fascinating and funny more than frightening or offensive. On a personal opinion note, I have trouble believing that aliens would care to try to conquer us in the Independence Day or War of the Worlds fashion. I imagine that beings who would take the time to travel would be more likely to want to learn than to destroy, but maybe I’m just a cock-eyed optimist.