Why Is Everyone Talking About the Fermi Paradox?
Why Is Everyone Talking About the Fermi Paradox?
Many of us have looked up at the stars and wondered if anyone else is out there. If you’ve ever wondered where everybody is, you’ve encountered the Fermi paradox. The best place to start to answer why the Fermi paradox matters is by explaining what the Fermi paradox is.
It’s named after an Italian physicist named Enrico Fermi. He created the world’s first nuclear reactor and won the 1938 Nobel Prize in Physics. He’s also one of 16 scientists to have an element named after him (fermium). The astrophysicist Michael Hart also expanded on the idea. There’s some dispute as to whether it’s really fair to attribute it to Fermi. But, the name is what it is.
The Fermi paradox is the idea that there’s a contradiction between two key realities. One, there’s a lack of evidence of extraterrestrials. Two, there’s a high probability that there are extraterrestrials. If it’s likely they exist, we should have encounter them.
This question is sometimes posed as “Where is everybody?” because we should expect other life to exist. The Twilight Zone even did an episode by that name about this concept.
Why Is It Likely?
Essentially, there are billions of galaxies. In each galaxy, billions of stars. Around those stars, there are planets, many of which are theoretically capable of sustaining life. Because the distance between some galaxies, it might be fair to start closer to home with our own galaxy.
The Milky Way, our home galaxy, has 400 billion stars. Of these, about 20 billion are sun-like stars. About a fifth of those (4 billion) have an earth sized planet in the habitable, or Goldilocks zone. Essentially, the so-called Goldilocks zone is the area in which a planet is neither too close or too far from the sun. If a planet is too close, it’ll be too hot. If it’s too far, it’ll be too cold. Hence the name Goldilocks.
If only 0.1% of the habitable planets in the Goldilocks zone had life, there would will be around 1,000,000 planets with life. Just in the Milky Way.
So What’s The Problem?
The idea rest with generation spaceships. These are spaceships that could support generation after generation of life. If humanity could survive this way on a ship for 1,000 years, we could reach nearby habitable planets.
If we continued doing so, we could rapidly expand across the galaxy. In fact, it would only take a few million years for us to colonize the entire galaxy. A few million years may sound like a lot, but the Milky Way has been around for 13 billion years. So we return to the question, where is everybody?
Proposed Solutions to the Fermi Paradox
While we don’t have an actual solution to the Fermi paradox, many have speculated. Beyond suggestions we just missed the signs, the answers get interesting. At times, they get frightening.
Travel between the stars isn’t possible. Essentially, everything outside solar system is so far away that travel there will never be possible. If interstellar travel isn’t possible, that would explain why no one has come a-calling. This assumes also that theoretical technologies like wormholes and warp drive can’t exist.
The Great Filter
This is one of the most popular and plausible answers to the Fermi paradox Basically there are some really challenging barriers for life to evolve and eventually reach interstellar travel. These barriers act as filters. And life either doesn’t often make it through or hasn’t yet. There are three potential ways for this to go.
First To The Party
In the first, we’ve passed those barriers already. In this case, it’s simply very very hard for complex life to develop. More complex than we ever realize. And the life on most planets doesn’t make it, or never develops in the first place. If the universe used to be more hostile and has only recently become susceptible to life, that could also answer the paradox. In that case human civilization could be one of the first, or the first at all, to make it this far.
If we’re the the first to arrive to the party, we’re basically just one of the first species to evolve this far and we’ll be the ones making contact. This is certainly possible. However, Earth is a relatively new planet in the Milky Way. This means it’s not overly likely that other planets that were capable of sustaining life all failed.
There’s More To Come
In the second scenario, which is scarier, those barriers have yet to come. Barriers like war or ravaging a planet’s national resources. Those could have caused other planets to be destroyed or other life to go extinct. And we may have yet to face those challenges. Or succumb to them.
It’s also possible a a powerful civilization simply eliminates civilizations that become sophisticated enough to challenge it. Maybe life exists on other planets but gets zapped anytime it learns how to do interstellar travel.
The Worst of Both Worlds
It’s also possible both are true. There are barriers that we’ve passed, and those yet to come.
But there’s another possibility believed by some luminaries like Elon Musk. And this solution is a bit scary…
The Fermi Paradox and Simulations
In this theory, the stars are basically like the stars in a video game. They’re pretty, but they’re not real. The video game character can never reach them because they’re not really out there. They’re merely programmed to look like they’re there. This definitely isn’t a theory that lets you rest easily.
There are many other solutions to the Fermi paradox. It could be all civilizations spend more time listening for messages then sending them. Or we’re being observed. Or we’re looking for signals the wrong way. Or any number of things.
The reality is that only time will tell. Regardless of the solution, merely thinking about the paradox changes your perspective. It places humanity as part of a much broader universe. It also makes life much more sacred. Perhaps the most important part of the Fermi paradox is how it opens us up to the possibilities of the cosmos.
While we can’t currently travel between solar systems, we may not have to wait that long.
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