Monday 19 February 2018

Fermi's Paradox . . . But What If?

Posted by Keith Tidman

Seven decades ago, the physicist-of-atomic-bomb-fame, Enrico Fermi, pondered with his lunchtime companions at Los Alamos whether other intelligent life forms populate planets around the Milky Way, and if so, why we have no evidence of them? He purportedly asked, “Where are they?”, meaning, of course, the alien beings. Because if other complex, intelligent, technology-clever life forms have even a fraction of humankind’s proclivity toward curiosity and, let’s say, colonization, then why is there no evidence of them having acted on these instincts throughout our galaxy? From that conundrum, Fermi’s Paradox emerged.

The American astrophysicist, Frank Drake, later thought about which factors might be necessary to address Fermi’s question and, in particular, how many technological civilizations, emitting electromagnetic signals, might exist among the stars of just our galaxy alone. These became known as Drake’s Equation, and offer a way to calculate the number of civilizations in the Milky Way based on seven variables.* Although scientists can’t yet insert firm numbers for the variables, I think Drake’s effort remains a worthy first attempt at eventually quantifying an answer to Fermi’s question. Especially given that the physical laws of evolution could well differ among far-flung, unfamiliarly diverse chemical, biological, and physical conditions and constraints, yielding singularly different intelligent species.

Many ‘what if’ hypotheses exist by way of possible answers to Fermi’s deceptively simple question. For example, perhaps technology-based civilizations and species with sophisticated intelligence are too far separated by space and time, measured even in thousands of light-years to reveal any presence. Or perhaps, because of the finely grained conditions necessary for life with high intelligence to evolve (the ‘anthropic principle’), civilizations are so rare and scattered that it’s difficult to find each other. Certainly it seems that our own sending-receiving (and space-faring) technologies are too primitive to matter much yet in the sophisticated game of cosmic outreach. Or just perhaps other civilizations have spotted us, but regard humankind as too biologically and intellectually primitive a species to bother with whom to show their hand. Or perhaps they regard humankind as a prototypically warring species, never-endingly engaged in small-minded, lethal belligerence over territory, resources, and power. Perhaps all intelligent species tend toward self-isolating wariness that outweighs curiosity about ‘the other’. Perhaps Thucydides’ thesis that established and rising powers are compelled to go to war applies even on the interplanetary scale.

All that said, should there eventually be confirmation of alien intelligent species that are endowed with far higher levels of consciousness and intelligence than humankind — qualities having evolved over histories hundreds of thousands or millions of years older than ours — then the consequence would be culturally tectonic shifting. As a species, perhaps lulled by so easily triumphing over so many of our Earthly competitors, we’re prone to indulging in flights of ‘exceptionalism’. We’re predisposed to looking at our reflection in life’s mirror and — more often looking down, not up — seeing only reasons to preen over our capacity for rationality, creativity, and imagination. To be unseated, with a thud, by an alien species’ cognitive prowess — and the benefits to its civilization — could prove unsettling for humankind’s indulgences in unchallenged exceptionalism.

At the very least, discovery of our sudden non-uniqueness might compel reexamination of basic principles. It might lead to fundamentally questioning religious texts, customs, tenets, rituals, codes of morality, ‘spirituality’, and dicta. If so, the result may be to rethink and rewrite the underlying explanations and descriptions, widening out the aperture of religious philosophy and theology to take into account the new realities of not being alone in the galaxy and in larger cosmos. At the heart of such teleological investigation and reinvention might be questions, which never go away, about humankind’s purpose: about why we are here.

The stunning space-time topography of this universe isn’t hubristically ours alone. I venture it’s a matter of when, not whether, the ‘code’ to Fermi’s Paradox will be cracked.

*Drake’s equation, as in our image, is typically shown as follows:

N = R* fp ne fl fi fc L,

Here N is the number of civilizations in the Milky Way whose electromagnetic emissions are detectable; R* is the rate of formation of stars suitable for the development of intelligent life; fp is the fraction of those stars with planetary systems; ne is the number of planets, per solar system, with an environment suitable for life (the habitable, ‘Goldilocks’ zones around their suns); fl is the fraction of suitable planets on which life actually appears; fi is the fraction of life-bearing planets on which intelligent life emerges; fc is the fraction of civilizations that develop a technology that releases detectable signs of their existence into space; and L is the length of time such civilizations release detectable signals into space.


The Converse Trilogy said...

Well said. I just read the science fiction book "Dark Forest" (2nd in a trilogy) which explored the idea that higher intelligences have learned that it's best to keep quiet about their existence. It's a plausible theory; look what Europeans did to the native Americans. This also brings to mind one of my favorite quotes by Asimov: “Two possibilities exist: either we are alone in the Universe or we are not. Both are equally terrifying.”

Unknown said...

"Or just perhaps other civilizations have spotted us, but regard humankind as too biologically and intellectually primitive a species to bother with whom to show their hand. Or perhaps they regard humankind as a prototypically warring species, never-endingly engaged in small-minded, lethal belligerence over territory, resources, and power. "

This was my favorite part. I sat here imagining this highly evolved species finding us and then looking to each other calmly and saying, "Actually, never mind!"

Thanks for the incredibly fascinating article!

Keith said...

Thank you, Craig Brown, for reminding me of that wonderfully poignant quote: “Two possibilities exist. Either we are alone in the universe or we are not. Both are equally terrifying.” A paradox of its own, perhaps? I’ve always felt Clarke’s words hang in the air, begging for serious navel gazing.

Thank you too, Christopher Westcott, for your interest in the discussion. That you wondered if an advanced species might conclude, “Actually, never mind!” is a nicely succinct, descriptive way to speculate on one possible outcome. Such dismissiveness might prove rather unsettling for our egos, were we to find out about it.

By way of a follow-on point, curiously there are no formal protocols — master plans — as to what to do in the event of discovering that "we’re not alone." Regardless, it’s conceivable that a civilization with orders-of-magnitude advanced knowledge might insist upon (autocratically) steering what happens next, such as ground rules for interactions. The many stressors may test the ability of people to cope rationally and dispassionately, leaving the question whether the response might be to fracture into diametrically contesting groups, or to unify and comport.

docmartincohen said...

"We’re predisposed to looking at our reflection in life’s mirror"

Thanks, Chris and Craig for that. My own eye cuaght this quote. Do we somehow need other species able to be able to appreciate us, to make us feel more important?

The story is that we will be 'humlbed' if we find other intelligent life. Dream on!

Thomas O. Scarborough said...

Perhaps Drake's equation is a function of the number of possible answers to Fermi's paradox. If there are a thousand possible reasons why, say, Joe walked to the boat shed this morning, then something is amiss.

I'll venture a new possibility. Perhaps the anthropocene and its cosmic equivalents have a very short half-life -- they are a flash in the pan -- before civilizations decide that it is in their best interests to abandon science.

Keith said...

Your ‘anthropocene/flash-in-the-pan/abandon-science’ hypothesis, Thomas, indeed poses a fascinating model to reflect on. Certainly, the ecosystem is undergoing human-caused stress. And it just might be that other intelligent species elsewhere in the cosmos experience similar ‘alienpocene’ (?) epochs. But I view ill-advised policy — including its sometimes misapplication of science — as having been more the culprit. I therefore believe that science might well prove to offer a gateway to solutions — should policymakers take wise note.

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