The Fermi Paradox

I was a sophomore in high school in my hometown in Iowa when Mr. Malcolm, my English teacher, was talking about writing fiction and explained why, despite the many stories about them, nobody will really ever build a time machine.

If people, some day, will be able to go back in time, why haven’t we met any visitors from the future?

I call it the Mr. Malcolm paradox. Or I have, ever since I read a book by David Brin called Existence, which introduced me to the Fermi Paradox. Like many books of science fiction Existence examined the possibility of life on other planets and the possibility that we may encounter it.

Enrico Fermi

Enrico Fermi was a great physicist who – the story goes – was discussing the possibility of extraterrestrial life with colleagues when he said… if alien races exist, “Where are they?” His larger question was this: If there is life on other planets, and interstellar travel is possible, we should have been visited by these space travelers long ago and probably more than once. We would have at least encountered their probes.

And yet, we have only the great silence of the cosmos.

Given the vastness of space and of time, any reasonable person must agree that there is other life out there. The vast nature of time tells us there’s a very good chance that other intelligent life was spawned much earlier than ours, possibly by millions of years.  Therefore they’ve had a lot more time than us to develop science and technology that would allow interstellar travel… if such a thing is possible.

Is it possible? All we know is so far is there ain’t no ET’s knocking on the door or calling us on the phone.

Of course, the physical realities that hold back space travel have no grip on our imaginations. We got to the moon so why not go further? Science fiction has created warp speed and “worm holes” that will allow us to bust through space at rates that will get us from here to there. In Star Trek and the like, humans and their galactic cousins are out there exploring the universe, colonizing other planets and forming political alliances with other groups of beings. But any reality check brings us back down to earth in more ways than one.

And it brings us back to the Fermi Paradox. What makes us think we can get there if they can’t get here? And as far as we know they never have.

It is possible that life, that’s evolved to the level of human thought, is extremely rare. It is possible that the distances between the stars and their planetary systems are so great it’s simply impossible for anything but light to travel that far.

Existence also offers the theory that there is a kind of “filter” that human-like races must pass through to continue thriving, innovating and surviving. Call it the nuclear bomb problem. The advance of human technology ultimately reaches that point where people have the ability to annihilate themselves or destroy their planet’s environment. That reduces even more the number of planets that harbor intelligent life because not all civilizations make it through the filter.

This stuff must be pretty depressing to a lot of people. The stars we see in the sky will never be places we visit. Space may be the final frontier but it’s one we’ll never really get to.

Maybe one answer to this dilemma is faith.

Faith in God allows us to believe there is a supreme intelligence in the universe that we can know and understand. There are people who have a similar faith in progress, which allows them to believe we will explore new civilizations and boldly go where no one has gone before, even if the evidence suggests otherwise.

Existence ends with the creation of a manned telescope in the far reaches of our solar system, which is much more powerful than any telescope we’ve ever seen. Even if we can’t travel to the stars, we can keep looking at them and learning and wondering. Maybe that’s enough.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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