I acknowledge the Fermi Paradox has been discussed ad nauseam, which means to the point that continued discussion of a topic makes people want to vomit.
Knowing this, I naturally decided it would be a great idea to write about it.
As with most articles on OTA, there should be rolling disclaimer: I'm not an astrophysicist or particularly qualified to write on this subject. But this is the internet. A place where the unqualified are the world's foremost authorities on the most complicated matters imaginable.
So trust me, I'm an expert.
In case you haven't heard of the Fermi Paradox, let me briefly bring you up to speed.
The guy that came up with the Fermi Paradox was Enrico Fermi. And let me tell you something, Enrico Fermi was basically a genius. Ok, I'll just say it.
He was a genius.
Born in Rome, Italy in 1901, Fermi was one of the world's most prolific physicists. He created the world's first nuclear reactor, won the 1938 Nobel Prize in physics, worked on the Manhattan Project, had the synthetic element "fermium" named after him, and was one of the few physicists in history that excelled in both theoretical and experimental physics. Fermi died in Chicago, Illinois, in 1954.
It only makes sense then that Fermi coined the Fermi Paradox, a topic that has been studied and discussed countless times over the years, over lunch in 1950. It was at this lunch when Fermi asked several colleagues, "Where is everybody?" referring to intelligent extraterrestrial life.
Based on Fermi's calculations (according to accounts of others at the lunch), it was incredibly likely that intelligent alien life existed due to the number of galaxies and planets in the universe and, as a result, that we should have had contact with alien life many times over. If that's the case, then why haven't we?
Hence, Fermi's Paradox.
If you want to read more about the Fermi Paradox before you go any further, check out Wait But Why. You can also watch Part One and Part Two of Kurzgesagt – In a Nutshell's videos on the Fermi Paradox.
Over the years, the Fermi Paradox has become the springboard for arguments on why intelligent life doesn't exist. In that way, Enrico Fermi's original intent may have been hijacked. The accounts from the famous lunch recall that Fermi suggesting we hadn't seen any signs of intelligent life because interstellar travel might not be possible, or if it is, always judged not to be worth the effort. Fermi even thought it might be because technological civilizations become extinct before they could ever travel in the first place.
So this article is really addressed to what the Fermi Paradox has become: a mechanism used to assume, without any doubt, that no other intelligent life inhabits the known universe. For example, stuff like this:
The Fermi Paradox Isn't a Paradox
Yeah, I said it. And I'll explain.
I became frustrated every time I read an article or blog post about the Fermi Paradox (with certain exceptions here and here). This is why:
The Fermi Paradox, and most discussions about the Fermi Paradox, tend to anthropomorphize or humanize some fundamental assumptions about alien life and advanced alien civilizations.
We project our emotions, appearances, concepts, desires, etc. when discussing or thinking about other intelligent life. Again, some of that is unavoidable. I mean, if there is an alien civilization out there made of plasma fog, there's no way I could visualize such a thing (if plasma fog is possible, that is).
But it goes too far when definitive statements are made based on human views or experiences. The Fermi Paradox's central question, "Where are they?" carries with it an expectation or assumption that we would see or make contact with advanced alien civilizations. Or that other intelligent life would have similar goals as humanity.
A few things first.
I believe that it's a virtual certainty there is intelligent alien life somewhere in the universe. To me, saying no alien life exists is like jumping into a swimming pool in your backyard and declaring, "Nothing lives in the oceans!"
But there's more to it than that.
Borrowing Tim Urban's math: "there’s a potentially-habitable Earth-like planet orbiting at least 1% of the total stars in the universe—a total of 100 billion billion Earth-like planets. So there are 100 Earth-like planets for every grain of sand in the world." Remember this.
Ultimately, it's impossible for some degree of anthropomorphism to creep into our views because we are human after all. But it should be curtailed as much as possible when discussing things like advanced alien civilizations or the Fermi Paradox.
Ok. Now that's out of the way, I can explain myself.
Teleport back to jolly old England.
To go forward, we have to go backward. All the way to 1817, two-hundred years ago.
In 1817, the Industrial Revolution was in its infancy. Humanity was beginning to harness steam power and iron making, but had yet to begin to use electricity. In the western world, life expectancy hovered around 35. In fact, we hadn't even begun to use ether to knock people out for surgery (that wouldn't happen until 1846).
I want you to try your best to imagine being teleported back to 1817. The blinding light subsides and you find yourself in the middle of a field in the English country-side (no, this isn't just like Monty Python and the Holy Grail). Some distance away you see a man nearing retirement age (a regular AARP member at 25). Let's call him Oliver.
Now imagine trying to explain the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) to Oliver.
You: Hi, Oliver. Before you ask, I have no idea how I teleported either.
You: Ok, well since I'm from the future and I just appeared out of thin air, the first thing I'm going to do is talk about the Large Hadron Collider. It's simple really. The LHC consists of a 27-kilometer ring of superconducting magnets with a number of accelerating structures to boost the energy of the particles along the way.
You: I get that may have been a bit much. Let me break this down for you.
You see, inside the accelerator, two high-energy particle beams travel at close to the speed of light before they are made to collide. The beams travel in opposite directions in separate beam pipes – two tubes kept at ultrahigh vacuum.
The particle beams are guided around the accelerator ring by a strong magnetic field maintained by superconducting electromagnets. The electromagnets are built from coils of special electric cable that operates in a superconducting state, efficiently conducting electricity without resistance or loss of energy.
But - and pay attention to this part, Oliver - this requires chilling the magnets to ‑271.3°C – a temperature colder than outer space. For this reason, much of the accelerator is connected to a distribution system of liquid helium, which cools the magnets, as well as to other supply services.
Voila. That's all there is to it.
You: Oliver, are you with me?
Alright, we'll leave Oliver alone.
While this example might be extreme (I mean, particle beams, c'mon), you could run through this exercise with many things that we have today: the internet, iPhones, space exploration, memes, you name it.
It would be impossible to describe the most basic technologies we have today to someone 200 years ago. And we can't even begin to predict what our technology will look like in 200 years (for more on why that is, read the OTA article on exponential growth and artificial intelligence).
What if there is an alien civilization out there whose technology advances at the same rate as humans? What if that alien civilization is 1000 years older than humanity?
When you think about the sheer number of planets and galaxies (100 Earth-like planets for every grain of sand in the world), and the age of the universe (13.8 billion years), it's just as likely there are alien civilizations that are millions or even billions of years older than humanity.
So just try to imagine what our technology will look like in 1,000 years. Or even one million years. What will we be capable of?
This segue's into my next point.
The Fermi Paradox isn't a paradox because anything is possible.
One definition of paradox is: a statement or proposition that, despite sound (or apparently sound) reasoning from acceptable premises, leads to a conclusion that seems senseless, logically unacceptable, or self-contradictory.
The Fermi Paradox assumes: (1) that advanced alien civilizations have the desire to explore the universe; and, (2) because humans have not been contacted by alien civilizations or because humans have no evidence of alien civilizations, that there must be something amiss.
Using our definition, the Fermi Paradox is based on unsound reasoning from unacceptable premises. At least to me, the world's leading authority on advanced alien speculation.
The assumption, "advanced alien civilizations have the desire to explore the universe," is a prime example of anthropomorphizing something.
We are genetically programmed to explore the unknown (watch this incredible video called "Wanderers," it's awesome). But is it fair to assume that an alien civilization would have the same desires? Is that enough to create a paradox? I don't think so.
The second assumption, which is more interesting to me, is framed in humanity's conception of technology as it exists today. Arthur C. Clarke's well known quote is helpful here: "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic."
Essentially, anything is possible in the realm of advanced alien technologies, which is why the second assumption is not enough to create a paradox.
An alien civilization that's one million years older than us, and with technology that advanced at the same rate as ours, might be able to observe planets in great detail from enormous distances.
And why do we assume we could detect an advanced alien civilization that's capable of interstellar travel or its technology? Considering we currently have technology that makes a 600ft warship look like a fishing boat on radar, I would think an advanced alien civilization might be able to avoid detection.
Just because these things are impossible based on our current understanding of physics, doesn't mean it will be impossible in the future.
Is it really that crazy to think our understanding of physics may advance over the next 1,000 years? Is it really that crazy to think that in 1,000 years we might be capable of doing things that seem impossible today?
Not to me.
Obviously, physicists are scientists, and saying things might change (or are even likely to change) in 1,000 years does nothing for them. Thankfully so.
But the Fermi Paradox is a thought experiment, not a real experiment. And it assumes advanced alien civilizations exist. Based on that, there are almost limitless reasons why we haven't seen or detected advanced alien life.
It could be even as simple as alien civilizations having no idea that we're here at all. Our galaxy is mega-fucking big (mega-fucking big = approximately 100,000 light years in diameter). And, that's just our galaxy. There are an estimated 2 trillion galaxies in the universe.
So if there are countless explanations for why we haven't detected advanced alien civilizations, is the Fermi Paradox really a paradox at all?
The Fermi Paradox is awesome.
You might be thinking, "Wait, you just made me read your diatribe on why the Fermi Paradox isn't a paradox, and now you say its awesome?"
Yes, the Fermi Paradox is awesome.
It's awesome because it has provoked an untold amount of people to think about space, intelligent life and our place in the universe. It hopefully gives people perspective into how small our Earthly squabbles seem when you think about how big "out there" really is.
As astronaut Ed Mitchell put it, "You develop an instant global consciousness, a people orientation, an intense dissatisfaction with the state of the world, and a compulsion to do something about it. From out there on the moon, international politics look so petty. You want to grab a politician by the scruff of the neck and drag him a quarter of a million miles out and say, ‘Look at that, you son of a bitch.'”
So yes, the Fermi Paradox is awesome because it, and things like the Fermi Paradox, make people ask questions. And sometimes, those questions can change our world. Think that's an exaggeration? I'll leave you with one more quote:
Elon Musk: Tesla, SpaceX, and the Quest for a Fantastic Future by Ashlee Vance
Ok, I'll take my PhD in speculation and go home now.