The Fermi Paradox is a simple question posed by Italian physicist Enrico Fermi – with the countless number of galaxies and such potential for intelligent life in the universe, where is everybody?
Since we’ve had no alien contact, apart from difficult to prove encounters described usually by witness alone, and can see no sign of intelligent life in the cosmos similar to what we would expect from the signs that we emit; it’s a puzzling question. Below are some of the solutions that I find interesting.
We’re the first
I quite like this idea, as it’s a lot more hopeful than the others. It seems unlikely given the age of the universe, and how young our solar system is, but it’s possible that the conditions that support intelligent life have only recently been available. Because of the speed of light, it’s possible that the vast majority of galaxies are too far away for signs of life to have reached us yet. I will refer to Great Filters a lot in this article, so I’ll briefly explain now.
A Great Filter is an event that is inevitable in the progression of intelligent life, and/or in its ability to become space-faring. Great Filters wipe out the majority of species; they filter them out. We might be the first to have surpassed one. For example, it’s possible that travel develops faster than medicine for most species; so something like the Black Death can be transmitted across a species before it can develop a cure. That we developed Penicillin and antibiotics before affordable intercontinental travel might be incredibly rare.
If we’re the first then there’s the potential for intelligent life to develop across the universe and hope that humanity will survive.
Rare Earth Hypothesis
Similar to the last theory, but somewhat more depressing; it’s possible that intelligent life is actually incredibly rare, and we could be the only species ever capable of space travel. On Earth, we’re the perfect distance from the Sun, we’re protected from its radiation by an electro-magnetic field. We have a large moon that controls our tides perfectly. Jupiter’s gravity stops a lot of asteroids from hitting us and wiping out life. Our planet’s rotation stops it from becoming too hot or cold with regards to how long it faces the Sun. Extinction events led mammals to become dominant, and they might be more likely to be able to develop intelligence than other species categories. The list goes on…
With the vastness of the Universe, it could be that there our many planets like ours, but it’s also possible that for us to develop it has required such a specific set of steps that the chances of it happening elsewhere are still minimal.
The Great Filter is ahead of us.
It’s possible that to leave an indelible mark on the Universe, a species needs to develop a technology that wipes itself out. This is unlikely, because we’ve already displayed clear signs of life on this planet for outsiders to see… but maybe we haven’t, maybe we’re still insignificant in the cosmos, and before we can start to display an undeniable sign of intelligent life to other civilisations we develop a technology that destroys our planet.
Many people point to Nuclear power as being this, but it’s a bad answer to the Fermi Paradox, as it’s not inevitable that we will wipe all life off the face of the Earth; and even if we did create a Nuclear Winter, not all life would disappear, and a new species would eventually take over – with the possibility of so many iterations in the vastness of the Universe, and only one civilisation needed to throw out the Fermi Paradox, there would probably be one that didn’t destroy itself.
We’re looking in the wrong place.
Or rather, we’re looking for the wrong signs. A civilisation that developed to the point where it could harness the energy of its solar system (A Kardashev Type III Civilisation for all you pedants!), could be developed so far past our understanding that we wouldn’t recognise its signs, and we would be too uninteresting for it to try and contact us.
It’s possible that we have seen such a civilisation. There’s an interestingly empty region of space called the Bootes Void. It has been theorised by some that a Type III Civilisation exists there that has created Dyson Spheres (A structure that harnesses all of the power of its Sun) around a number of stars which means we can’t see them. That’s far from being proof, and we’ll likely never know, but it’s fascinating to think that we’ve already seen alien life, but just not been able to recognise it.
More depressingly again – it’s possible that all civilisations go extinct before being able to colonise its interstellar neighbours. The frequency of asteroids, developing diseases, war, climate change, etc might be inevitable after a few million years, which doesn’t destroy life, but prevents it from having enough time to reach the stage where it can become space-faring.
Space-Faring Civilisations can’t support themselves.
The most valid point, and the one I want to end on, is that it’s possible that inventions in technology prevent civilisations from being able to move forward, and so have to take a step back.
Consider what we’ve achieved in technology on Earth today, but then compare that to the amount of people living in poverty. Our economic systems are not far from collapsing under their own weight. Many people in the UK, for example, are too poor to feed and house themselves properly, and a lot of people don’t have the energy to do anything cosmically significant with their lives as a result. There’s a lot of anger at the gap between haves and have nots, and it’s possible that all civilisations keep reaching this point, but then cannot support themselves, which either results in a huge population reduction which halts technological progress, or a return to simpler living becomes a Hobson’s choice for the continuation of the species.
I end with this because I think it’s more likely than it’s given credit for. Economic systems are set up so that the vast majority of populations are wage slaves, and many humans never realise their full potential as they are under care of unfeeling governments. The key to human progression is to make sure everyone can contribute, and at the moment the vast majority of the population is being left behind by the wealthy.
Make no mistake, humanity will not survive if only the 1% are left. If humans can overcome this greed and segregation, then maybe, bringing us back almost seamlessly to my first point, we can become the first civilisation to climb out of the dirt!