Most of us have heard of the Fermi Paradox, allegedly uttered by Enrico Fermi during a lunch discussion with some of his colleagues at the Los Alamos National Laboratory back in 1950. It’s a question that haunts every Sci-Fi reader and writer. The question basically boils down to “With the size of the universe, why have we not encountered alien life” or as Sagan croons…
It could be that there is no paradox because We are alone.
Rarity of Elements:
It has been suggested that life can only begin when the universe contains a certain abundance of complex molecules and systems. Maybe we have only recently [relatively speaking] reached that point. It may be that we are alone because we are the first to reach this point, or maybe one of the first groups and dispersion across the universe is only just beginning.
Rarity of Worlds:
We know there are a lot of suns, but many are too hot, too cold, or too unstable. Likewise we are finding more and more worlds, but between acid atmospheres, diamond rain, and no atmosphere, maybe there just aren’t that many that are sheltered enough to allow the formation of the complex chains that we think are necessary for life. Good sun, good planet, and in the goldilocks zone, even given the sheer number of planets out there, maybe these are rarer than we think.
Rarity of Security:
Say that life begins, that’s nice. Amino acid chains or their equivalent in the primordial soup from which life springs. Nice, but not enough, more importantly that life needs a protected environment in which to develop. Earth had the lightning storms and thick atmosphere, the water medium and a moon to wash minerals into the oceans and stir the mix. Even so life here hasn’t been that safe, with 5 (that we know of) Extinction Level Events washing the planet clean. Sure we have a gas giant to catch the projectiles the universe spits at us, but even so life has risen and then been extinguished here numerous times. Maybe it’s a fluke we’ve gotten this far, certainly if we want to continue our species indefinitely we can’t remain on this rock forever, its only matter of time before something makes it inhospitable for us. Maybe life elsewhere never gets that chance.
What is reality?
Maybe there is nothing ‘out there’ because the folks who coded the simulation that we are inhabiting didn’t bother to code it. Procedurally generating few trillions of worlds, that’s easy. Playstation games can do that right now! On the other hand, complex life forms are just hard to make realistic, much less the whole backstory you’d have to generate. Space exploration sucks when you’re an artificial intelligence within a procedurally generated universe is yourself.
It could be that We are not alone.
Rarity of Intelligence:
We mammals have been on this world for about 70 million years, a fair time you might say, but our technological progress was incredibly slow until the development of the printing press in the 1400’s and the industrial revolution in 1800’s. So really we have had 200 years to observe the wider universe, learn about it in any detail, and it wasn’t until the space race began in the 1950’s that we even began to dream of stepping off our little rock. Before us sea creatures ruled our world until something (maybe an ice-age) happened 443 million years ago, the Devonian came to an end 359 million years ago, and in the process pretty much emptied the oceans of anything bigger than bacteria. The Permian extinction happened 248 million years ago, and we owe our existence to the 4% of surviving species that would one day lead to us. Then 65 million years ago the universe dropped a rock on the dinosaurs and cleared the biosphere enough to give us mammals room to rise.
In all that time, given much of the same resources and opportunities none of those epochs developed advanced tool-using civilisations (as far as we’re aware). Maybe intelligence isn’t the evolutionary advantage we like to think it is, certainly we seem to be the first species on our world to develop the technological tools to end our own existence. It may be that life is common, but self-awareness is the anomaly.
Rarity of Materials:
Recent technological advance has been largely powered by the energy-rich and easily accessible fossil fuels. We have powered our advanced with the fossilized remains of the generations of life that came before us. Yes, we know these are bad for us in the long run, but could we have had our sudden technological leap forward without access to them? Many people think not. In a twisted way, coal really is good for humanity. Surface deposits of metals and minerals also helped, so our planet’s geology also helped. These are all advantages that may not have been available on other worlds and may have stunted their development.
Rarity of Interest:
Maybe there is life out there. Maybe it’s safe on a little planet with an unthreatening sky, nd young sun that will last out the species lifetime. It could be that they in a symbiotic relationship with their world, rather than an exploitive one. With no need for more territory, more materials, why would they want to leave? Maybe they have a thick atmosphere and have never seen the stars, and never ask the necessary series of questions that lead to the desire to explore out there. Maybe the idea of leaving their world is somehow abhorrent (don’t laugh there are people that die never having travelled more than 50 miles from their place of birth). Maybe their Heaven is down, and their Hell is up and they don’t want to risk demon attacks. Maybe they’ve developed their own versions of the Mass Effect games, linked to fully interactive VR, and are simply too busy with their home entertainment systems to care about the wider universe?
Rarity of Opportunity:
A civilisation rises, it flourishes and it dies. Perhaps the universe is littered with the corpses of dead civilizations, dead worlds, abandoned moons. We’ll stumble across their radio transmissions one day in the future, detect their nuclear detonations and stumble across their broken probes in the vast void between stars. Maybe they have yet to rise and will instead stumble across our remains one day and wonder why we hung metal art in orbit over our world, search our soil for the faint traces we may have left behind so long ago. The universe is big, and time is broad, so the chances of two civilisations rising at approximately the same time, and close enough to reach each other seems pretty low.
It’s a what now?
Alien life, how about maybe it’s so alien that we may not even recognise it or be looking in the right places. There are massive seas of water, giant gas clouds, and even oceans of rum, all floating out in the void well away from any planets, could life arise there? Could life be silicon-based, or so long lived that we wouldn’t be aware of its aeon spanning reactions. Maybe gas based creatures swim through the atmosphere of Jupiter at pressures where even our best technology can’t penetrate, or being of pure magnetic energy are observing us from the surface of the suns. Too often we say alien, and think humans with bits of plasticine on their faces (yes I blame Trek), but alien might be so alien that it’s unrecognisable to us.
The Oops Factor
In 1966, Sagan and Shklovskii speculated that technological civilizations will either “destroy themselves within a century of developing interstellar communicative capability or master their self-destructive tendencies and survive for billion-year timescales”. If that seems a bit pessimistic, look at how humanity is going. We discovered nuclear fission, which almost ended us. Other advanced are equally placed to better our existence or end it. Nanotechnology, Artificial Intelligence, genetic manipulation, are all double edged swords. There is even some concern that technology like the internet that allows instant gratification and communication may lead to lower birthrates and civilisation decline. “Go on a date? Why? I’ve got all I need right here in my comfy little pod.” Even space flight itself could be devastating if the energy requirement calculations for near-light speed travel are correct. Not much point spreading out if your engine backblast is going to melt your homeworld or blast apart your destination.
There are other options of course.
Maybe there is life out there but we’re too violent, or too primitive to contact. They’ll be back to check in on us in a few thousand years, see if we’ve grown up without destroying ourselves. Maybe we don’t know what to listen to and our neighbours have been trying to get our attention for ages. Or maybe the Von Neumann machine intelligence simply has no interest in us, after all we’re still made of meat and unable to take the steps necessary to transcend the flesh. Last but not least, what if we are seen as the invaders, an infection in their personal universe and they’re on their way to wipe out our blasphemous existence. In 1981, cosmologist Edward Harrison argued that “such behavior would be an act of prudence: an intelligent species that has overcome its own self-destructive tendencies might view any other species bent on galactic expansion as a threat.” Not all species play well with others, even on this world.
Von Neumann probes Seven ways to control the Galaxy with self-replicating probes
What even IS life How Earth’s ‘Extremophiles’ Could Aid Alien Life Search
Where Are They?: Why I hope the search for extraterrestrial life finds nothing.
The Fermi Paradox — Where Are All The Aliens
Now I hit publish and notice all the typos and grammatical errors.