Are We Alone? – The Fermi Paradox

Featured Image Courtesy of Taymaz Valley at Flickr

This is a video post and if you are quite tired today, feel free to skip my speculations and take a look at the videos at the end!

“I call heaven and earth to witness against you today, 

that I have set before you life and death,

the blessing and the curse.

So choose life in order that you may live,

you and your descendants”

Perhaps one of the deepest questions one can ask about the universe is, “Are we alone?” Believe it or not, this type of pondering is not unique to the philosophers – scientists have been at it for centuries too!

One of the first attempts to formulate some mathematical description of the likelihood that other intelligent life exists out there somewhere was known as The Drake Equation. It essentially combines different estimates together – the number of stars in a galaxy, the fraction of stars with planets, the fraction of these planets that are habitable, how many of these planets develop life, etc. – to spit out a rough guess as to how many lifeforms we are currently sharing the Milky Way with.

Greetings, Neighbours! Source: [Wikimedia Commons]
Perhaps the most interesting aspect of this equation is that it also considers just how long intelligent and communicable civilisations last – whether they are destroyed through disaster or self-destruction. Some of the more conservative estimates suggest as many as 10 other civilisations right now in our galaxy alone, while more liberal numbers lead to 10000 or more!

So where are they? Why haven’t we heard from them by now? Surely they should have visited us.

Why is the Universe silent?

This particular problem is known as the Fermi Paradox – our universe should be teeming with life and yet we don’t observe it. So far as we know, we only have one case study that presents itself: the Earth, and this is far from representative!

A number of possible solutions present themselves (although none are truly satisfying):

  1. We are the first life forms to reach ‘intelligent’ status (someone has to be!) and it is our duty to reach for the stars and spread the stuff of life everywhere. Perhaps one day, it will be necessary for us to pass on our knowledge and experience to some other adolescent species!
  2. Other life exists but there is some kind of ‘non-interference galactic statute’. Such a statute would require aliens to leave any incidents of developing life well enough alone until a particular event occurs signifying that that planet is ready to join the ranks of ‘intelligent space-faring civilisations’. This is perhaps a little insulting, since it would suggest we don’t count as ‘intelligent’ by alien standards but at least we wouldn’t be alone!
  3. Perhaps our methods of communication are so primitive that aliens no longer use them! What if radio is just a phase in our adolescence that most aliens get over in a relatively short span of time, almost like growing pains?
  4. Lastly, perhaps most depressingly, life may inevitably self-destruct. Perhaps upon discovery of nuclear weaponry, it is only a matter of time before we kill ourselves in a nuclear winter, or maybe there is some unknown barrier that we have yet to run into.

Source: [Wikimedia Commons]
I find this last case the most exhilarating: right now, we could be teetering on the precipice of destruction, awaiting only a slight nudge in the wrong direction, and yet, we have the power to change this. We possess the ability to change the course of the future and propel ourselves into the depths of space!

This makes this one of the most exciting of times in human history, since our actions today could drastically alter our tomorrow. Make of that what you will!

One last possibility (which I left out since I consider it extremely unlikely) is that there is some malevolent god-like civilisation out there, that goes around destroying potential threats to its vice-like grip on our galaxy.

Not only is it incredibly expensive to do this, but it also puts very little faith in humanity itself! Since we appear to be struggling so intensely to live with one another, we assume aliens must be the same. But if you’re going to make it into space without self-imploding, you must have mastered co-operation and have the capacity to love (hence, why I find it unlikely)! If anything, aliens are more likely to be supportive of one another and eager to form alliances.

Check out the following two Kurzgesagt videos! Part 1 details the Fermi Paradox itself whilst Part 2 present possible solutions to the Fermi Paradox. Their videos truly are excellent and worth the watch – if only to see animated birds doing spacey things!


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