54 thoughts on “The Fermi Paradox

  1. Al

    Rare Earth + #11 Phase Transition + Earth somewhat unusual.

    The actual limiting reagent in humans isn’t water or carbon. It’s the supernova material. Meaning earlier generations of G-stars with water-zone ‘planets’ were still relatively disadvantaged. Add “large moon” and “late-moonstrike” depositing (or churning, or somehow leaving) exposed metals in the crust.

  2. George Turner

    If earlier generations of watery planets were also deficient in radioactive elements like K-40 and uranium they might have been unable to sustain tectonic processing that recycle carbon into the atmosphere, resulting in ecological crashes as plant life grew sparse. This is one area where observations of our local stellar environment might not be much help, as the region might be unrepresentative of the present, much less the past.

    And as you mention, without accessible metals technology might not ever develop.

    But if we are truly alone, that just means there’s more stuff for us to claim!

    1. Al

      And as you mention, without accessible metals technology might not ever develop.

      This has been a stable of SF for awhile. But I’m proposing something slightly tougher. Without accessible metals in decent concentrations, higher-than-amoeboid life might be tricky. Hemoglobin and haemocyanin, for instance, are relying on “higher element” chemistry. Tough to do when there isn’t enough around.

      A fair number of the chemicals along “the known route to life” are tricky to manage in gas-phase chemistry from a raw statistics standpoint. Solution chemistry … maybe. But enzymatic reactions and surface-catalyzed reactions that lower the activation barriers bring many into the realm of clearly plausible. If there’s things like, say, platinum around to do the catalysis.

  3. Paul Milenkovic

    D’ya think that maybe even within our lifetimes that exo-planet finding tech will advance to the point of finding Earth-sized planets-in-the-habitable zone, taking some spectrographic readings, and determining chemical compositions of their atmospheres to determine if they even have a biosphere?

    OK, OK, tell me that that is pie-in-the-sky, but such remote observation is a much more plausible future than Warp Drives.

    I mean for years and years there was that putative evidence of planets around Barnard’s Star that was later discounted as measurement noise, but since then there has been an initial “real” discovery of an exoplanet and now and explosion of discoveries. Not saying we will solve the Fermi Paradox, but maybe we will put some numbers into the Drake Equation?

    1. Tim

      Since I am an Occam’s razor kind of guy my take on Fermi’s paradox is this: The simplest explanation for lack of evidence of ET’s is obviously lack of ET’s. I think that intelligent technological species are just incredibly rare. Maybe they just don’t occur that much in the 1st place and/or don’t last long for whatever reason. Obviously there are plenty of planets, life also might be fairly common, but I figure for whatever reason complex multicellular life in general and intelligent life in particular are just extremely rare. Even without FTL if intelligent life were even fairly common the earth/solar system should have been found, colonized eons ago by successive waves of ET’s. The not insignificant possibility of warp drive (or some such plausible FTL) just make it orders of magnitude more likely.

      http://www.popsci.com/technology/article/2013-03/warp-factor

    2. Michael Kent

      “Hmmm, your comment seems a bit spammy. We’re not real big on spam around here.

      Please go back and try again.”

      After going back and trying again three times, I give up.

      1. Michael Kent

        “Three links and you’re out!”

        OK. Let’s try again:

        “D’ya think that maybe even within our lifetimes that exo-planet finding tech will advance to the point of finding Earth-sized planets-in-the-habitable zone, taking some spectrographic readings, and determining chemical compositions of their atmospheres to determine if they even have a biosphere?”

        This was the intent of NASA’s Origins program under Dan Goldin. First, the Space Interferometry Mission would prove out the technique while still advancing the science. Then the Terrestrial Planet Finder would locate Earth-like planets around other stars.

        To be continued…

      2. Michael Kent

        …continued

        Then the Terrestrial Planet Imager would image those planets. Finally, the Life Finder would use spectroscopy to determine the composition of such planets, potentially finding signs of life.

        Very ambitious, both in the science and the technology. Unfortunately, probably a little too ambitious.

    3. George Turner

      ^ Probably too many links in one comment. I’ve hit that before. I don’t know if the filter checks for “spammy” URL’s from some list, though.

  4. Larry J

    We may just be listening using the wrong technology. Our RF communications could be as primitive to an alien civilization as smoke signals. Had an alien civilization been directly broadcasting RF signals to the Earth even 100 years ago, it’s doubtful that we could’ve detected those signals with the primitive technology of the day.

    Given the evolution of radio communications technology, it may also be that there is a window of opportunity for detecting distant RF signals. As we matured our technology from low power, low frequency analog signals though higher powered, higher frequencies to today’s digital signals, the period of time where our own signals could probably be detected was only a few decades. Modern spread spectrum digital communications are already hard to distinguish from background noise. The evolution is also to more efficient means of communications (e.g. satellites directing their signals down to the Earth’s surface as opposed to powerful transmitters on the surface radiating in all directions.

    1. B Lewis

      Communication by signals propagating through an adjacent brane or continuum? Interesting idea. It reminds me of the “wave motion” technology posited in the anime series Space Battleship Yamato.

    2. Bart

      A) an advanced civilization couldn’t help but produce coherent radio signals. Just get the charges moving, and some of them are going to broadcast.

      B) There is no reason there wouldn’t be civilizations at every stage of development – the idea that they would all be super-advanced beyond us is at least as unlikely as us being the most advanced of all.

      1. George Turner

        Yes, but if civilizations are scattered across a 4 billion year time window, or some such, and only spend maybe a hundred or so years using something like radio and microwaves, then at any one time only one out of 40 million civilizations would be detectable that way. Given the inverse square law of radiated power, this makes it extremely unlikely that any two technical civilizations would ever detect each other’s presence during such a mutual window period, even in a galaxy full of technological civilizations.

        1. Bart

          I do not see it likely that any civilization, not matter how advanced, would give up using something so useful and fundamental as radio communications.

          1. George Turner

            We do it all the time, abandoning schemes like Morse code. How many of us listen to short wave radio these days? Radio as we used to know it becomes obsolete once you go to optical networks, WiFi, and other nifty techniques, basically solving bandwidth and power problems.

        2. Thomas Matula

          George,

          Yes, the sphere when it possible to see the radio signals is not all that large so unless another civilization is both close and at the same stage of development it is unlikely.

      2. Larry J

        Just as humans weren’t using radio signals 150 years ago, we may not be using them 150 years from now. Perhaps some better means of communicatons will exist by then. Or, as I tried to say in the previous post, the communications technology will be so efficient that there is little leakage radiating out into space and it’ll be hard to distinguish from background noise. Not all radio frequencies propagate equally over interstellar distances.

          1. Bart

            You can’t help it. Radio emissions emanate from a lot more processes than broadcasting, and you can’t stop all flows of charge, nor would you generally want to.

            Besides, the argument is a little like saying cars are obsolete because we now have airplanes. But, obviously, there are things a car is suited for which a plane isn’t. Just so, no advanced civilization is going to turn its back on the usefulness of one of the fundamental processes of nature. It is too useful in way too many forms.

          2. John Schilling

            Better than radio, at absolutely everything that radio does, for all extraterrestrial civilizations? For example, our civilization’s present detectibility across interstellar distances is IIRC dominated not by deliberate radio communications, but by missile-warning radars.

            Yeah, OK, coherent quantum gravity beams make for a better general-purpose communications mechanism, so that’s what all the cool kids do when they grow up. They aren’t going to stop generating radio waves, any more than we are going to stop generating smoke signals. And if their raw energy use increases with time and technology in at all the same way ours does, by the time they have the coherent quantum gravity beams even the leakage from their tertiary processes that still channel RF energy, should be readily detectable.

        1. Bart

          My point exactly. Radio may seem quaint and dull to us, conjuring as it does sepia tinted images of the family curled around the cathedral unit listening to FDR chatting at the fireside, but we still transmit high def feeds to our home theaters on radio frequencies, and it’s going to be around for a long, long time in our technology, almost certainly forever.

          Electromagnetism is part of the fundamental fabric of the universe. It’s definitely not going anywhere, and will never cease to be a fundamental part of any advanced civilization.

          1. Ed Minchau

            Damn near every house in North America is broadcasting radio waves: wifi, RC cars, the garage door opener, the remote car starter, bluetooth on every cell phone… hell, even the high tension power wires are broadcasting radio waves perpendicular to the current flow. If you’re moving electrons, you’re making radio waves.

      1. Larry J

        Why aren’t they here? Perhaps Einstein was right and the speed of light is the ultimate limit to how fast you can go. Perhaps warp drives and other such FTL ideas aren’t possible. Space is very big and even the nearest stars to our solar system are a very long way from here.

        1. Daver

          Space is not only very big, but very old. A civilization that expanded at only one percent of the speed of light would colonize the galaxy in twelve million years. That’s one tenth of one percent of the age of the universe.

          1. ken anthony

            Fermi was known for his mental calculations ability. Daver is exactly right. The paradox has nothing to do with, “why can’t we detect them” unless you assume they’re here and hiding and has nothing to do with the speed of light, since Fermi accounted for that.

            They should be here. They are not. That’s the paradox.

          2. Thomas Matula

            Daver,

            But consider how much it would develop in that time frame. But the time they got here they would be see just as being about as advanced as social insects. We probably wouldn’t recognize them at all.

          3. Thomas Matula

            True, civilizations may fall as well but they may be even more dangerous to locate. However its hard to imagine one that just stagnates at the same level for millions of years.

          4. Thomas Matula

            Ken,

            I thought civilization was supposing to be declining under him. Now you are saying it is just stagnate?

  5. B Lewis

    Uncle Occam says: the reason we don’t hear Brer Rabbit laughing in the brier patch is that there are no rabbits in the brier patch — and there never were.

    The evidence says that we’re it, that life exists only on Earth and that human beings are the only conscious, self-aware beings in the universe. I’d be willing to go further and bet that any life we find on other bodies in space will be found to be of Earthly origin.

    I think we’re alone in the Universe because God made us, but I could be wrong.

    In the end, we have to assume we are alone. Speculation can be entertaining, but until we see some evidence of life (especially conscious, self-aware life) external to our Earth, we have to assume a universe that is for all practical purposes anthropocentric.

    1. Rick C

      I don’t think the one necessarily follows from the other. Why would God create such a vast universe…and then leave it empty except for one corner?

      Perhaps everyone else is around the same technological level as us, meaning we’re one of the elder races.

      1. Daver

        It would be nice if the Klingons were a hundred years behind us rather than a hundred years ahead.

        The Sci Fi channel has what looks like an alien invasion series starting up soon; it might be interesting to see how they introduce star-faring alien conquerers that humans have a chance of standing up to.

      2. B Lewis

        Why would God create such a vast universe…and then leave it empty except for one corner?

        Why did He let us tack His son to a cross? Who knows? He obviously has His reasons. Any God worthy of the name would be incomprehensible to mere men, and His actions and reasons even more so. An amoeba might more easily attempt to grasp Aristotle than we fathom the Mind of God.

        Job famously asked God “Why?”, and received the only answer possible (which I’ll leave you to discover for yourself). I assume that such unanswerable questions will be answered to our satisfaction should we each gain an afterlife in Heaven.

        Be that as it may, I have yet to see a single iota of evidence that life of any sort other than Earthly life exists. I remain open to such evidence, of course, but my gut tells me that it’s just us chickens in this cosmic coop.

        1. wodun

          If you want to get religious about this, wasn’t there a part in the Bible where God said to Abraham that his children will be more numerous than stars in the sky? That could imply that humanity will spread its seed all over the universe.

          But that doesn’t mean there isn’t other life out there. The biblical God has a strange sense of humor and enjoys to watch humans struggle with challenge and adversity. Even non-religious people have to recognize that challenge and adversity are crucial aspects of what makes humans human. So who knows what awaits us outside the kiddy pool.

      3. ken anthony

        Why would God create such a vast universe…and then leave it empty except for one corner?

        Perhaps God understands Fermi’s math and WE will fill it?

      1. B Lewis

        Of course. I accept the existence of spiritual beings (angels and demons) as a matter of faith. I believe they exist because the Man I trust completely, Jesus, said so. These creatures can and do affect Earthly life. I sometimes wonder if there might be something much worse than mere aliens from another planet behind the UFO phenomenon.

        So far, however, I see no reason to believe in such interstellar aliens or extraterrestrial life.

  6. Bart

    All I know for sure is that a conversation of this sort is more fun the first time with some good weed. Too bad I can’t go back to college knowing what I know now and do it all over again.

    1. wodun

      You can always go back to college. It might not be your first time but it could be someone else’s…

  7. Andrew W

    I’ll go with the theory of it being rare that planets are ecologically stable over long enough periods of time to allow the development of complex organisms able to produce technological civilizations, followed by such civilizations that do develop either falling over, or else going though a technological singularity and evolving into something that doesn’t believe in, or isn’t interested in, chatting to primitives such as ourselves.

  8. ken anthony

    The whole point of the Fermi Paradox is not rarity. It only takes one other. They alone should have filled this galaxy long before we came on the scene. The question isn’t us or many. It’s us and few or just one other.

    Another solution would be us and two. The two wiped each other out, but for some reason left us.

  9. ken anthony

    The solution that others consider our solar system the low rent district doesn’t work either, because some would live in the low rent district.

  10. Thomas Matula

    The one assumption everyone is making is that advanced ETs want to be found. Why?

    As soon as you look at the possible outcomes of being found by a more advanced, or even same level ET civilization (all nasty, few nice) you see that any rational civilization will quickly go to ground and do what is necessary to hid their tracks.

    And if advanced ETs should run across another civilization they will likely study it from a distance for a very very long time in secret before even considering contacting it. And given the likely risks from contact, probably wouldn’t unless they decided to eliminate future competition for the galaxy.

    Yes, Robert Heinlein’s “Variable Star” is a good read. I am looking forward to the sequel from Spider Robinson :-)

    So where are they? Hiding in the depths of space and hopefully not yet aware of humanity…

    1. ken anthony

      That’s not the Fermi Paradox Thomas. It’s not a question of being found. It’s a question of why they aren’t hanging out at Starbucks. Oh… wait… that might explain it?

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