nrico Fermi was a man who contributed a significant amount to the space industry. Amongst other things, Fermi won the Nobel Prize in 1938 and played a key role in the Manhattan Project which developed the atomic bomb. Later in his life, he would introduce something to the world known as the Fermi Paradox.
“HE WAS SIMPLY UNABLE TO LET THINGS BE FOGGY. SINCE THEY ALWAYS ARE, THIS KEPT HIM PRETTY ACTIVE”.Robert Oppenheimer, On His Former Colleague Enrico Fermi
One day at lunch in 1950, this very intelligent man exclaimed to his colleagues: “where is everybody?”
He wasn’t inquiring about any missing colleagues. His question had wider implications and was one that many people have wondered before and since.
If we live on a tiny little dot of a planet in the middle of a vast universe, how is it possible that we are the only form of intelligent life in this place?
The Thinking Behind the Fermi Paradox
Fermi was a brilliant man. His outburst was not that alone. A fuller breakdown of his thinking went something like this:
- The Milky Way contains hundreds of billions of stars, and billions of them are similar to the sun.
- It is highly likely that some of these stars will have planets that are similar to Earth.
- If we assume – via the Copernican principle – that Earth is not particularly special, then intelligent life should also exist on some fraction of these Earth-like planets.
- Some of these intelligent life forms might develop advanced technology and even interstellar travel.
- Interstellar travel would take a long time, but as there are many sun-like stars that are billions of years older, there has been plenty of time for such travel to have occurred.
- Given all this, why haven’t we met or seen any trace of aliens? Where is everybody?
So this is how the Fermi Paradox came into being. When you clearly have so many logical reasons why some other form of life exists, how is it that we have never had contact with it, or them?
Answering the Question
In 1961, an astronomer named Frank Drake came up with a mathematical equation to work out the likelihood of the existence of other lifeforms in the universe. This Drake Equation is still the most commonly used equation today, but its application is quite controversial.
This is because some of the variables that go into the equation are not ones that we can be certain of.
L in the equation stands for the potential lifespan of a detectable civilization. Clearly any guess at this would be simply that and so the figure decided on for L is pretty arbitrary, and therefore not at all that scientific.
In 2000, astronomer and SETI co-founder Jill Tarter succinctly summarised the limitations of the Drake Equation with the following statement:
“THE DRAKE EQUATION IS A WONDERFUL WAY TO ORGANIZE OUR IGNORANCE.”
Jill Tarter, Astronomer & SETI co-founder
Aside from the attempts at forcing mathematical rigor onto the paradox, there are many simpler explanations as to why we have not encountered any other lifeforms so far.
It may be that interstellar travel is impossible. Or that other intelligent lifeforms are as silly as we are and have destroyed themselves before venturing out to find others.
Other people suggest that it could be that we do not understand the nature of aliens and that they are actually already among us. Or maybe they have taken a look at us and just don’t fancy getting any closer.
The very existence of the Fermi Paradox means that we will never have any answers right up until the point where we do, so everything else is just guesswork until then.
With things going so weirdly on this planet at the moment, perhaps we should stop thinking about other life forms at all and try to take better care of the one we have.
“IN ALL THIS VASTNESS, THERE IS NO HINT THAT HELP WILL COME FROM ELSEWHERE TO SAVE US FROM OURSELVES. THE EARTH IS THE ONLY WORLD KNOWN SO FAR TO HARBOR LIFE. … THE EARTH IS WHERE WE MAKE OUR STAND.”
Carl Sagan, Astronomer, During His Blue Dot Speech in 1990