In 1950, while walking to lunch, Enrico Fermi and his colleagues were discussing the probability of extraterrestrial life in the cosmos. Fermi and others contended, and logically so, that there must be many forms of life in the cosmos, even intelligent life. Later, during lunch, the conversation shifted to other topics; and then, as the story goes; Fermi asked, “Where is everybody?”
Given the immense size of the visible universe, the quadrillions of star systems, certainly there must be intelligent life that has either visited or colonized- so where is everybody? In other words, where is the evidence?
This is known as the Fermi Paradox.
There are many interesting ways to approach this problem. The Drake Equation has become a useful formula to organize some of the variables. Many of the variables are completely speculative, so there’s not yet an answer, but it can be used as a helpful starting point. For reference, using the Drake equation I estimated a 1.26% probability, per year, of discovering extraterrestrial intelligence. That is, every year we might find something, and given what we know so far, I estimated each year we have a 1.26% chance of making the discovery. Speculation at its best!
All the speculation and wishful thinking still runs into this same paradox.
There is much discussion and wonderful speculations concerning this question; many attempt to dispel the various parochial biases (that is, using ourselves as the definition of intelligent life). It is very reasonable to wonder if the entire electromagnetic spectrum (not just distant radio waves) is alive with evidence of advanced civilizations and we simply have not yet understood the message. Perhaps it’s all around us all the time, perhaps the very laws of physics are covered in these messages.
But let’s be honest, that is not what we are hoping to discover– we are looking for life similar to ours, we are looking for the parochial-biased life that looks more like us than our own terrestrial relatives.
We don’t want to find a near omnipotent space sponge that takes thousands of years to say “hello”. We want to find cosmic brothers and sisters and other familial relations that developed independently in the universe. Hell, according to most science fiction, we want them to look attractive… green skin, if it’s sexy.
Just as every star produces heavier elements, we want other planets to produce idealized humanoids, or at least beings that think and communicate as we do.
What a strange way of extending our pathetic anthropic bias onto the cosmos.
It is as egocentric as assuming that we are the center of the universe — it is a perverse and distorted way of putting humanity back into cosmic religious significance; the pompous assumption that life, somehow, leads to human-like intelligence. The truth is quite opposite, it is not humans that are significant to the cosmos, it is the cosmos that is significant to humans. We depend on the cosmos, the cosmos does not depend on us.
Consider all the varied forms of intelligent-life on earth. We can barely recognize the intelligence of other primates, let alone other mammals; and we even have a hard time recognizing the intelligence of our own species, most of the time. For example, we see little intelligence in politics, in television programming, or even in most art and music– most of us discover a rare drop of wisdom in a sea of noise. And yet the earth is exploding constantly in life, and we ignore it while looking up into empty space hoping to find intelligent friends.
But let’s run with our anthropic bias for a minute, let’s not judge, let’s see where it takes us. Maybe the Fermi Paradox can help us forward, if it’s not something we can discover, perhaps it’s what we ourselves can become.
We use radio waves and attempt to find human-like aliens who would also be using radio waves. So far we’ve found no signs of human-like life, and certainly no signs of advanced human-like intelligence- but you need not look very hard to discover the lack of advanced human-like intelligence, consider the following:
When we see unspoiled and untouched land, what do we do? This is the best part of an anthropic bias, we don’t need to ask the Dodo birds, we know exactly what we would do!
If we had the power to create a string of stars that spelled out a message, even a stupid message, we would absolutely do so; imagine what we could build if we could move the stars. If we had the ability, we would illuminate our existence bright and clear for the rest of the universe to see for millions of years… if we could.
If we could we would create a series of dancing pulsars that rhythmically play an endless orchestra, we would do this for no other reason than to state, simply, “we were here”. Everywhere we go, everything we touch, we leave evidence, and the evidence gets brighter and louder the more technologically advanced we become.
At present, we see no alien hieroglyphs in the lonely stars.
We can’t do any of that ourselves, because we don’t yet know how. We do know how to send faint radio waves, we’d turn it up if we knew how. But we easily imagine advanced civilizations that could move stars– the very things we would do if we could, we see no evidence of… we see empty space; untouched snow that no one has stepped in or spoiled in any way.
A beautiful untouched silence, think of what we could do! A blank cosmic canvas.
If we could we would build a bright light to inspire all intelligent life, a beacon; exactly as we do in every environment we touch, we shape it in ways to mark our existence. On dangerous coastlines we shine a bright light. And into this dangerous cosmos where we could easily perish, we ought to build a beacon of hope as an inspiration to all life that intelligence can ascend beyond its own destruction.
Some wonder whether our technology will be our end. We write more doomsday mythology than optimistic future mythology. We are far past the point of turning back, without technology we will perish with certainty. And with technology we might perish by our own hand, and yet that same technology could be used to shine brightly as a constant reminder that it’s possible to survive and flourish; that it’s possible to live peacefully, part of and one with the cosmos itself.
That silly anthropic bias, imagine the alien message that if discovered would solve the Fermi Paradox; imagine the advanced technology, even sexy aliens; what we imagine is a reflection of ourselves and our undying aspirations for what we hope to become. We are shrouded with doomsday mythologies, but our technology is the sliver of hope in this pandoras box of chaos and cosmos.
We can and should light our beacons of hope, we can and should burn brightly into the cosmic night.