The Fermi Paradox

Asad Tariq, Year 12


Are we alone in the universe?

Are we alone in the universe?

There are a lot of big questions in life that the news barely covers and between Maths and French on a Tuesday afternoon almost none of us care. One of those questions that for some reason keeps me up at night is: Where are all the aliens? Now some of you may not really care about this. You might say to me that — hang on Asad — we’ve only been looking at space with massive telescopes and radio dishes such as SETI for the last 50 years. That’s an insanely short amount of time in the grand scheme of things to find something as potentially rare as life. But let me throw some numbers at you: our galaxy alone has about 1 billion Earth-like planets. This means that the planets are the perfect distance from the sun in the so-called Goldilocks zone, potentially contain liquid water and potentially contain oxygen. Let’s say that life is incredibly rare — no actually let’s say that intelligent life is rare (by which I mean organisms like me and you, that can talk, reason, appreciate Tottenham being robbed on the weekend etc). That would still leave 100,000 intelligent civilisations out there in our galaxy alone.

A 100,000 civilisations just like us. Where are they all hiding? It gets even more crazier. Our sun is relatively young in the lifespan of the universe. Imagine a planet — let’s call it Planet X. Planet X was born 8 billion years ago — for reference our planet was born 4.5 billion years ago. This means that the intelligent organisms on Planet X have a 3.5 billion year head start on us. We can barely imagine the technological advancements we will undergo in the next century, think about 3.5 billion years in the future. Surely with all this time, this super-advanced civilisation should have colonised the galaxy, creating colossal megastructures that would splatter the black canvas of our skies. And this is just one of the 100,000 supposedly intelligent civilisations that basic probability suggest should be present in our galaxy. Where are all these aliens? This enigma, this conundrum, this illogical fallacy… is known as the Fermi Paradox.

Being a paradox, naturally there is no solution to the big question of ‘Where is everybody?’. The best we can do is “possible explanations” some of them more entertaining and realistic than others. One theory suggests that the reason we cannot see super advanced civilisations like the Planet X I mentioned earlier is because they don’t exist. And the reason they don’t exist is because we are the first “intelligent” life to ever grace the universe. This could be for lots of reason that our current science can barely understand. Maybe the universe has been too hostile for life to form until very recently. Another reason why there is no intelligent life is that life itself could be much much more rare than we thought in the first place. The conditions to create and maintain life are extremely difficult to determine. It could be that our planet Earth through some cosmic stroke of luck is somehow the only or one of the only planets that can support life.

Other people think that these super advanced civilisations do actually exist out there and that there are some logical reasons why we cannot see them. There could be plenty of alien activity out there but our meagre technology could be too primitive to pick up on anything. Imagine if you walked into a modern-day office building with a walkie-talkie. You’d hear no activity whatsoever and assume the building was empty. Another fairly depressing and humbling reason why aliens might not contact us is that we are simply too irrelevant. Did any of you crouch down to go talk to the ants in your garden? Did any of you slow down to kick over that anthill? Did any of you bother to explain the complexities of the school’s behaviour policy to the spiders that inhabit the various corners of your room? No! Of course not. That anthill was entirely irrelevant to you and any attempt to explain anything would have been utterly futile. In this theory, we are the ants. Just like the ants would never comprehend you getting in your car to get to school, we could never comprehend the motivations of the advanced beings of Planet X. In other words, we are simply too stupid to notice any super advanced civilisations that may be lurking in our galaxy.

Whatever the real reason why we cannot see any alien activity whatsoever: any solution to the Fermi Paradox would be terrifying. Would you rather live in a universe teeming with life of all kinds, their intentions, wants and needs unknown; or would you prefer living in a universe that is empty and desolate, with the only flame of life carried on a mudball planet— third from its impeccably average star— in the forgotten spiral of a just another galaxy.