Wednesday 30 December 2015

fermi’s paradox or good fences make good neighbours

In the 1950s astrophysicist and futurist Enrico Fermi posed the question that encapsulated not whether we were alone in the Universe but rather where is everybody, and given his lack of the cosmological observations of the present, put forward a pretty stupendous conjecture that’s but puzzled over since. Granted that at the time, many of the important criteria were know—the extreme old age of the Universe, its size, the commonality of stars but significantly, the commonality of stars harbouring planets, approaching one hundred percent and it would probably be more unusual for a star not to have a solar system, still the expectation remained that there ought to be alien life out there in abundance. This postulate has inspired a lot of debate by individuals with far superior credentials but I think it’s a very worthwhile exercise to try to imagine the counterintuitive:

  • Intelligent life is something rare or unique—seemingly unlikely across the eons and vast distances, populated with stellar and planetary bodies, though natural cataclysm might account for relatively short-lived civilizations
  • It’s in the nature of intelligent life to destroy itself and others—more likely given our track record (seminal events like harnessing the destructive power of atom or bad environmental stewardship) and the fittest life forms to evolve would force out the weaker
  • We’re listening but not too chatty ourselves—the totem space-invaders depiction of the Arecibo Message represents one of the few times humans have intentionally reached out
  • The Earth is dismissed as something too exposed—hardy humans don’t hide within Dyson spheres and those with more delicate constitutions could not imagine that place being hospitable or like us, they’re turning in on themselves, content with virtual reality, fantasy and vicarious living or worried about economic and social disruption as exploitative schemes become unsustainable
  • Humans are intentional kept at bay—we are excluded as inmates of an alien zoo, they fear us given that our imagined portrayals of contact are often brutal, xenophobic and catastrophic
  • Aliens are too alien—their sense of timing or scale may be totally out of sync with ours or our symbols, glyphs and patterns go unrecognised like theirs do for us

What do you think? Do you have any theories? We don’t have any basis of comparison of course, except ourselves and though unlikely to disburden ourselves from esteem and bias, it is rather extraordinary that in the time that humans have existed, physiologically and intellectually recognisable as humans, all of recorded history—rounding it off to a segment of ten thousand years—could have repeated nearly two dozen times or more already, if allowed to play out from its inception to conclusion. All that fits into just the last few million years and does not even touch the billions that came before. The paradox itself could be responsible for this silence as a sort of self-propagating disbelief across the galaxy that surely we cannot be the first to reach out or be contacted.