Alien Communication & More On The Fermi Paradox

I don’t know… maybe it’s because I’m a sci-fi nerd but the more I read about Enrico Fermi’s supposed “paradox” the more I want to call bullshit on it. When discussing the possibility of advanced extraterrestrial life, simply asking, “Well then, where is it?” seems like the kind of off the cuff remark your buddy who likes being an asshole might make.

“‘Where is it?’ That’s all you’ve got to add to this discussion? Yeah, thanks, Enrico. You’ve really made a point there.”

I bring this up because I was reading an article at The Daily Galaxy about methods with which scientists speculate such advanced civilizations might communicate. Methods which we may not even have the ability to listen to much less know about right now.

As is usually the case, it’s better to let Arthur C. Clarke do the explaining:

“The fact that we have not yet found the slightest evidence for life — much less intelligence — beyond this Earth,” said Arthur C. Clarke, “does not surprise or disappoint me in the least. Our technology must still be laughably primitive, we may be like jungle savages listening for the throbbing of tom-toms while the ether around them carries more words per second than they could utter in a lifetime.”

Hey now! And politically correct to boot! I love that guy!

Also from the article:

So far, we have no evidence to prove that we are not the lone sentient life in the universe. And yet the odds that not one single other planet has evolved intelligent life would appear, from a statistical standpoint, to be quite small. There are an estimated 250 billion (2.5 x 10¹¹ ) stars in the Milky Way alone, and over 70 sextillion (7 x 10²² ) in the visible universe, and many of them are surrounded by multiple planets.

Meanwhile, our 4.5 billion-year old Solar System exits in a universe that is estimated to be between 13.5 and 14 billion years old. Experts believe that there could be advanced civilizations out there that have existed for 1.8 gigayears (one gigayear = one billion years).

So… why haven’t we discovered any proof of advanced civilizations out there? I don’t know… because maybe space is a really big fucking place? It’s as if Fermi is expecting Earth to be pelted with space probes from every corner of the galaxy. But, really, that’s bullshit because it assumes two things that would seem pretty clear to a guy as smart as he is. First, it assumes that they’d even be interested in Earth or the Sol System amongst the billions of other stars just in our galaxy.

Given that, it would also seem to assume that they were somehow aware of us, making the whole space probe thing even worth the effort. Except that our own radio signals only go back about a century. If you consider when he made this groundbreaking observation, 1950, a civilization would’ve had even less time to hear us and send back a picnic basket. Light travels at what light travels at, after all.

But, also, because space is such a big place, couldn’t basic wear and tear account for the lack of alien probes raining down on us like monsoon season in India? I mean, it’s pretty incredible what NASA has done firing probes around our little solar system, missing asteroids and the like, and planning crazy flight paths that take a planet’s gravity into account when looping around Jupiter or Saturn to observe their moons. But that’s still basically in our own neighborhood.

Imagine firing a probe from light years away. You could predict the expansion of the universe and where Sol might lie in the decades or centuries it would take to cross the expanse but what then? What about the Oort Cloud? The Kuiper Belt? Do they even know how many planets are in the Sol System? And if they do, have they already predicted their orbital paths so that their probe doesn’t fall into Jupiter’s gravity well like a common comet or asteroid? And what about our Asteroid Belt. Do they know about that too and how to get around it?

Even if you’re talking about a really advanced civilization that doesn’t have anything better to do with the budget of its nation, planet, star empire, whatever, than to send probes to say hello to distant planets that maybe have life… and even if you figure they would build enough intelligence within a probe to handle the above circumstances… and even if you assume they have come up with a cheap fuel necessary to make these navigational corrections… well… That seems like a lot to just be asking, “So where are they?”

Paul Davies - Physicist

Anyway… the article, of course, doesn’t go on to offer any real possible solutions for why we may not be hearing from aliens, or the kinds of communications they might be using. But, it does quote Paul Davies, who I mentioned in a post last year about the World Science Festival and who I’ll be seeing again at this year’s festival, this Saturday actually, entitled, “Alien Life: Will We Know It When We See It?”

And, if you haven’t read it and are interested in physics but don’t know where to begin, I highly recommend Dr. Davies book How to Build A Time Machine, a great primer on practical applications of relativity. I’ll be bringing my copy with me for him to sign this year and will report on the panel after I’ve attended.