Blog: The Fermi Paradox

by Michael Lauck

Summarizing the Paradox

DrakeEquationThe Fermi Paradox, which is sometimes referred to as the Fermi-Hart Paradox, is an intellectual exercise addressing the possibilities of advanced, intelligent life in the universe. Simply put it states the since our solar system is fairly young there should be much older planetary systems that support life, some may have intelligent, advanced species possibly a billion years older than Earth. If this is the case and they have discovered interstellar travel then the entire galaxy could be colonized in less than 100 million years. The Earth, therefore, should have been colonized or at least visited and yet there is no credible evidence of contact which leads one to ask where are the advanced civilizations? The paradox is that all the available evidence (such as the size of the universe, its age, the relatively common occurrence of the elements believed to be necessary for life) suggests that there should be multiple advanced alien civilizations and yet
there is no evidence such civilizations exist.

Who was Fermi?

enrico-fermiEnrico Fermi was a brilliant physicist who is perhaps best known for his contributions to the Manhattan Project. Fermi was born in Italy but came to the United States in 1938, the same year he was awarded a Nobel Prize in Physics, because his Jewish wife faced persecution by Mussolini’s fascist government. An expert in radioactivity, Fermi was soon recruited into the American effort to create an atomic bomb and was instrumental in the development of Chicago Pile-1, the nuclear reactor created as part of the Manhattan Project. In the field of physics Fermi was known for being both a talented theoretical and experimental physicist. He often applied unexpected and unorthodox techniques to quickly find solutions to various problems. It is said that at the first atomic bomb test he torn a paper into small, confetti like pieces as the team awaited the detonation. To others this appeared to be a nervous tick but when the bomb went off he threw the pieces in the
air, observed how far they were blown by the shockwave as they fell and used this information to accurately estimate the power of the blast.

Implications of the Fermi Paradox

drake-equation2If the conditions set forth in the paradox are valid, there are some rather staggering implications. According to many interpretations of the Drake Equation (the mathematical formula suggested by Dr. Frank Drake to estimate the number of observable, advanced civilizations in the universe at present) there should be many advanced and detectable extraterrestrial civilizations. Assuming the Drake Equation is valid then in light of the lack of acceptable evidence for alien contact we must conclude that either no other advanced life exists that is more advanced than ourselves or interstellar travel simply does not exist. Either of these possibilities, if true, imply that human beings are effectively alone in the universe.

Is Fermi’s Paradox Actually Valid?

et+finger+touchAlthough the conditions set forth in the Fermi Paradox appear to be sound the Paradox itself may not actually be valid. First of all it makes several assumptions about the character and motivations of alien civilizations that simply may not be true. For example, even though an alien race with the capability of interstellar travel may be able to colonize the entire galaxy in a finite amount of time there is no guarantee that such a race would be motivated to colonize. They may simple explore and observe without establishing a permanent presence outside of their own planetary system or local area. This could be due to some type of religious belief or other ideological reason or because an advanced civilization may not have the ever expanding population needed to populate a large scale colonization effort. Another point that may not be valid is that an advanced civilization is detectable. Currently Earth, the only planet we can currently observe with any
type of technology, is moving away from technologies that are easily detected. For example, although there are more television channels than in the past the technology has changed so that their signals are often transported via closed systems (such as coaxial or ethernet cables) instead of broadcast over the air.

Of course one major premise of the Fermi Paradox is that there is currently no credible evidence of extraterrestrial visits to the Earth. Many, of course, would argue that this is simply not the case. Even though Fermi’s Paradox is often cited by those arguing against the possibility extraterrestrial visitors, it actually seems to support the idea that otherwise unexplainable and unknown technological objects are, in fact, alien in origin. If one believes the other conditions, such as the large number of technologically advanced alien races we should expect to find in the universe, to be true then perhaps the solution to the riddle presented by paradox is that there has been contact and that there is no paradox.

2 thoughts on “Blog: The Fermi Paradox

  • April 20, 2013 at 5:58 am
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    Excellent point in that last paragraph, Michael. I’ve never really thought of it that way. I’ll have to remember that.

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