The Fermi paradox or ‘Where is everyone?’
According to Sci-fi literature, films and TV shows our galaxy is teeming with life, and, more specifically, with intelligent life. It states that if only we were capable of interstellar travel, we would stumble upon alien civilisations where ever we went. We haven’t mastered interstellar travel just yet, but logic states that other species might have, or at least interstellar communication. And still – we haven’t heard as much as a peep from any alien species.
If you think about it, this is rather odd. We have billions of stars that support planets, and millions of planets that support life. Surely at least a few thousand of those would have given rise to intelligent life? So with potentially thousands of civilisations, why hasn’t anyone dropped by? Or, as the Italian physicist Enrico Fermi famously stated – ‘Where are they?’.
This is the Fermi paradox. The presence of potentially thousands of civilisations in our galaxy alone, and still not a trace of any spacefaring species, colonised solar systems, robotic space probes or interstellar messages. Are we missing something here?
Well, first of all we haven’t been looking for very long. We only really started taking the idea of extraterrestrials seriously after the end of World War II. That’s just 65 years ago. Not a very long period even in our own history, let alone on a geological scale. Who knows what we will discover in another 100 years time?
Secondly, we might be looking for the wrong things, or in the wrong way. There are no laws stating that all civilisations have to use radio waves to communicate, or build grand structures that can be visible from space. Or that they, if they were to visit us, would use recognisable spacecrafts. Perhaps they’re using nano-probes on the molecular scale and we literally wading through them as we speak. But let’s stop there before any conspiracy theorists overheat and suffer meltdowns.
Thirdly, they might not want to visit us or let us know they exists. They might keep us isolated to ensure our own safety, or the safety of the rest of the galaxy. Or, if they are a bit more advanced than us, they might find us as interesting to talk to as we would find a collection of ants.
Finally, there might not be anyone else out there. Perhaps not because other civilisations never have existed or ever will, but because of the time scales involved. Thinking about our own planets evolutionary history, we’ve only been around as a ‘civilised’ species for a few thousand years. Trying to pinpoint that time slot is like watching a 3.5 hour film where our whole human civilisation take place within a single frame. Blink and you’ll have missed it. Even with potentially thousands of alien civilisations, the probability of one co-existing in time with our own is miniscule.So, we might be it. That is a rather sobering thought: the human race – the most advanced civilisation in our galaxy. A bunch of conniving, aggressive, over-sexed and superstitious monkeys throwing sticks and stones at each other across made-up lines in the sand. Time for a change of game plan, anyone?