Fermi Paradox

by talkbackty on Apr 6, 2012

Part 6 of the A to Z Blogging Challenge. To see all entries, click here.

The theme of paradoxes continues! And with all paradoxes it is best to conclude, even before beginning, that we, as a species, know absolutely nothing. With that pleasurable introduction, let us begin.

This particular paradox, noted by Enrico Fermi in 1950, states that given the statistical probability of life on other planets why have we not encountered any alien species. 

First we must address the claim of a "statistical probability of life."  Our observable universe hints at there being 200-400 billion stars in the Milky Way Galaxy. Even a child can realize that numbers 200 billion apart means that someone is just guessing, and that's accurate. So let's just stick with "a really, really big number of stars."

From that point you play the 1% game. Let's imagine that of 100 billion stars (so I low-balled the guess of the smartest humans on the planet) one percent have any type of life. From bacteria all the way up to god-like beings. The rest of the 99 percent are just desolate stars who's planets have no life whatsoever. Kind of depressing. But we are not done. That one percent gives us 1 billion planets with some type of life. Let's imagine that one percent of those 1 billion planets with life have intelligent life. That's 10 million planets with intelligent life. But intelligent life can include all of human history, and while we were intelligent, things didn't get really interesting until a hundred years ago. So play the game again. Let's say one percent of the 10 million planets have advanced-intelligence, either at or beyond our own. That is one hundred thousand planets with advanced intelligence. Now if we stopped right there that is an incredible statement. 100,000 planets with advanced intelligence. But play the game one last time. Of those 100,000 let's say that one percent have advanced so far ahead of us that they would not even be recognizable, a supreme, god-like species. That is 1000 races bouncing around the Milky Way who are so advanced we could not even comprehend their existence. 

Now back to the beginning. Remember how I low-balled the estimate? Well I did not even bother to take in to account a galaxy other than our own. Scientist believe there are as many as 400 billion other galaxies, each with their own 200-400 billion stars. So those numbers I gave are really just a fraction of the actual number. What we are left with are numbers so staggeringly large that the possibility of advanced, intelligent species is practically undeniable. 

So where are they?

That is Fermi's Paradox. Here's a song that explains if that is more your thing. (Yes, it is an incredibly nerdy song about Fermi's Paradox...this is why the internet exists.)

As you can imagine there are dozens of theoretical answers to Fermi's question. From the utterly depressing ideas that all advanced intelligences eventually kill themselves or that one of the supreme god-like species actively kills anything that threatens it's dominance. To the rather practical belief that vasts distances are just as challenging of problems to overcome for our alien brethren as they are for us. You could probably rattle off four or five theories of your own and, trust me, they will be about as good as the leading experts'.

My personal favorite is the idea that there are intelligent beings (because math tells us so) and that they are broadcasting signals all across the galaxy, the only problem is that we are not listening. Our current methods of measurement are based on human perception- sight (telescopes) or hearing (microphones). We listen for radio waves because that is what we sent out in the 1920's. We block out white noise from our instruments because we can't understand it. Our universal observations are based on the abilities of a species (us) designed to eat fruit and drink water. We are entirely unequipped to contemplate the vastness and complexities of the universe, but we are doing our best. However, there is no reason to believe that other species are excited to communicate with the best we have to offer. When was the last time you chatted up a squirrel? 

I like this concept because it implies that we are merely unaware of something amazing and transformative, and once we figure out how to listen, the changes will come faster than we can imagine. This is basically how we operate our entire lives. As young children we believe the world is much smaller than it is and are blown away when it is revealed how small an area we actually live in. The further we push our understanding, the more clear that pattern is. The more we discover, the clearer it is how little we understand.  

One day, maybe soon, maybe not- I think we will wake up. At that point it will be like looking back at ancient Egypt. We are the half-remembered past of some future generation. School children will giggle at how advanced we believed our technology was as they wake up in the Andromeda galaxy and beam over to Kepler 22-b (nerd alert: those are actual places).  

The Fermi Paradox remains unanswered, but at least it is not because we have stopped trying. It is the trying that eventually leads one person to see or listen in the right way and wake us all up from the lives we lead. Then the process begins anew.