The Fermi Paradox: Are We Alone in the Universe?
What Is the Fermi Paradox?
Where is everybody? This is the question physicist Enrico Fermi put to his colleagues in 1950 while pondering the existence of extraterrestrial life. Essentially he asked: If it is true that there is an extreme likelihood of alien civilizations existing in our galaxy, why does it appear we are alone? This is known as the Fermi Paradox.
Most astronomers agree that there are at least 200 billion stars in the Milky Way Galaxy, maybe more. Some of those stars have planets around them, and some not. Even if only a tiny fraction of those stars are orbited by habitable worlds that makes for an incredible possibility of life in our galaxy.
Keep in mind, a “habitable world” doesn’t have to be just like ours. Even here on Earth life can spring up in the most bizarre places. Alien life could exist in an almost infinite variety. And the universe is so old that surely many of them are far more advanced than we are.
In fact, the Drake Equation tells us alien life isn't just possible, it's probable. So, where the heck are they?
Fermi wondered about that all those decades ago, even before the Drake Equation. We continue to wonder today. The Fermi Paradox is obviously a theoretical question, as there is no way we can prove or know the intentions of beings we have never encountered. But we can theorize.
Here are a few possible explanations for why we've not encountered alien life, so far.
The Universe Is Too Big
Space is huge. Really huge. A trip to Mars would take us many months with our current technology, and reaching Proxima Centauri, the next nearest star, would take us over 150,000 years. Even our oldest radio signals have only reached about 90 light-years into space.
So, for right now anyway, we’re depending on any alien civilizations we might encounter to be technologically far superior to us. It also may be possible there are civilizations out there that are aware of us because of our radio signals, but there’s nothing they can do to make contact back.
Their superior technology and intelligence may not be enough to bridge the gap between them and us. We like to think that really smart aliens might be able to overcome all the things that we see as limiting factors to interstellar travel, like that darn speed of light thing, but maybe there is simply no way around that cosmic speed limit.
Maybe there are no worm holes, and warping space is impossible. If the very laws of nature are against them, it doesn't matter how advanced an alien civilization may be, they could simply be too far away to ever notice us.
The Extraterrestrials Have Destroyed Themselves
In many ways our own culture has been on the brink on annihilating ourselves since the advent of atomic weapons. Aside from that, we are slowly polluting our planet and using up its resources. Who is to say alien life would be any wiser than we are?
Even a culture that existed for a million years would be a blip in the timeline of the universe itself. Numerous cultures capable of making contact with us may have sprung up and extinguished themselves before we ever knew they were there.
Looking at it this way, not only would alien cultures have to be technologically advanced. They would have to be running along the same timeline as we are, accounting for the time it takes their signals to travel through space of course as well.
Or, they need to be wired differently, because without fail we see here on Earth that dominant species tend to overwhelm their environment. We're trying to fight against it, to care for our planet, but this desire seems to directly contradict our other needs such as progress and advancement
Perhaps it's simply an inconvenient cosmic truth that advanced civilizations outpace the planets they inhabit. Maybe once they reach a certain tipping point they begin to crumble.
Alien Societies Are Too Advanced
Why should an advanced alien civilization capable of identifying other life forms at such great distances bother with a culture that doesn’t even care about sending a manned flight to their next closest planet? To an alien race we would hardly seem like a worthy ally, and even though we think we are mighty important there are surely more interesting creatures to study in the universe.
If we’re really serious about making contact with alien races perhaps we need to step up our own space program, and show we’re eager to be part of the club.
Even then, the kids that drive the high-powered racing motorcycles don't hang around with the kids driving the Big Wheels. Why should an alien civilization pay any attention to us? They could be zipping through our solar system undetected and we'd never know it, at least not until they want us to.
So if this is the case, what do we need to do if we want to make alien contact? The fact may be that an alien race advanced enough for interstellar travel is probably advanced enough to know we are here already. We may just need to wait for them to decide its time to talk.
Earth Is Unique
Though is seems statistically improbable, is it possible that intelligent life is a fluke, and we are truly alone? Maybe, although there is mounting but somewhat controversial evidence in recent years that at least microbial life exists on other planets, and is even capable of surviving in space. Even if life is really, really rare, given the size of the universe it stands to reason that if it can happen here it has probably happened somewhere else too.
But maybe, just maybe, we're the apex of advanced life in all the cosmos. If so, there might be beings on other planets looking up at the stars and wondering if people like us really exist, and when we might be coming to visit them.
The bad news for them is, we won't be coming any time soon. Our space program has a long, long way to go before we're able to consider travel outside of our solar system.
However, astronomers are getting better and better at locating planets outside of our solar system, and can even determine if a planet might be Earth-like. But even if we spot a planet we're pretty sure could support life like us, it will be a very long time until we can do anything about it.
Maybe the Aliens Are Already Here
An extraterrestrial civilization capable of traveling such great distances would obviously be far superior to us. Perhaps they have been visiting our world for decades, centuries, or even since ancient times. Perhaps the history of UFO sightings, so easily dismissed, is the evidence we have been looking for the whole time, right here under our noses. This is only partially satisfying to most researchers. Even if they are here, they still haven’t made contact and embraced our people. Why not?
One reason could be that they are attempting to study us. They may wish to be as secretive as possible, as not to upset our natural habits and behaviors. Like when humans disguise themselves behind a blind to better study a wild animal, perhaps aliens prefer to remain hidden and are only seen under rare conditions. This is a reasonable theory, even if it does bruise our egos a bit.
Some conspiracy theorists believe the governments of the world are currently in contact with aliens, a fact they are hiding from their citizens. While there is no doubt that the UFO phenomenon is widespread, it seems unlikely that countries that don't agree on much else would be in cahoots when it came to hiding this secret.
A Few More Theories on Fermi's Paradox
Fermi Paradox Solutions
In the end there is no real answer to the Fermi Paradox, only more questions. Why? Why not? Where? Perhaps hundreds of years from now we will look back at the time before we began our relationship with the intergalactic community as the dark ages of humanity, before we saw the universe in a broader sense. Before we were enlightened by alien cultures. But for now we’re stuck with what we have, which is a little blue planet all alone in a massive galaxy, within an even more massive universe.