Definitions

spectrographic analysis

Fermi paradox

The Fermi paradox is the apparent contradiction between high estimates of the probability of the existence of extraterrestrial civilizations and the lack of evidence for, or contact with, such civilizations.

The extreme age of the universe and its vast number of stars suggest that if the Earth is typical, extraterrestrial life should be common. Discussing this proposition over lunch in 1950, the physicist Enrico Fermi questioned why, if a multitude of advanced extraterrestrial civilizations exist in the Milky Way galaxy, evidence such as spacecraft or probes are not seen. A more detailed examination of the implications of the topic began with a paper by Michael H. Hart in 1975, and it is sometimes referred to as the Fermi-Hart paradox. Another closely related question is the Great Silence—even if travel is hard, if life is common, why don't we detect their radio transmissions?

There have been attempts to resolve the Fermi Paradox by locating evidence of extraterrestrial civilizations, along with proposals that such life could exist without human knowledge. Counterarguments suggest that intelligent extraterrestrial life does not exist or occurs so rarely that humans will never make contact with it.

Starting with Hart, a great deal of effort has gone into developing scientific theories about, and possible models of, extraterrestrial life, and the Fermi paradox has become a theoretical reference point in much of this work. The problem has spawned numerous scholarly works addressing it directly, while various questions that relate to it have been addressed in fields as diverse as astronomy, biology, ecology, and philosophy. The emerging field of astrobiology has brought an interdisciplinary approach to the Fermi paradox and the question of extraterrestrial life.

Basis of the paradox

The Fermi paradox is a conflict between an argument of scale and probability and a lack of evidence. A more complete definition could be stated thus:

The first aspect of the paradox, "the argument by scale", is a function of the raw numbers involved: there are an estimated 250 billion (2.5 x 1011) stars in the Milky Way and 70 sextillion (7 x 1022) in the visible universe. Even if intelligent life occurs on only a minuscule percentage of planets around these stars, there should still be a great number of civilizations extant in the Milky Way galaxy alone. This argument also assumes the mediocrity principle, which states that Earth is not special, but merely a typical planet, subject to the same laws, effects, and likely outcomes as any other world. Some estimates using the Drake equation support this argument, although the assumptions behind those calculations have themselves been challenged.

The second cornerstone of the Fermi paradox is a rejoinder to the argument by scale: given intelligent life's ability to overcome scarcity, and its tendency to colonize new habitats, it seems likely that any advanced civilization would seek out new resources and colonize first their own star system, and then the surrounding star systems. As there is no conclusive or certifiable evidence on Earth or elsewhere in the known universe of other intelligent life after 13.7 billion years of the universe's history, it may be assumed that intelligent life is rare or that our assumptions about the general behavior of intelligent species are flawed.

The Fermi paradox can be asked in two ways. The first is, "Why are no aliens or their artifacts physically here?" If interstellar travel is possible, even the "slow" kind nearly within the reach of Earth technology, then it would only take from 5 million to 50 million years to colonize the galaxy. This is a relatively small amount of time on a geological scale, let alone a cosmological one. Since there are many stars older than the sun, or since intelligent life might have evolved earlier elsewhere, the question then becomes why the galaxy has not been colonized already. Even if colonization is impractical or undesirable to all alien civilizations, large scale exploration of the galaxy is still possible; the means of exploration and theoretical probes involved are discussed extensively below. However, no signs of either colonization or exploration have been found.

The argument above may not hold for the universe as a whole, since travel times may well explain the lack of physical presence on Earth of alien inhabitants of far away galaxies. However, the question then becomes "Why do we see no signs of intelligent life?" as a sufficiently advanced civilization could potentially be seen over a significant fraction of the size of the observable universe Even if such civilizations are rare, the scale argument indicates they should exist somewhere and some point during the history of the universe, and since they could be detected from far away over a considerable period of time, many more potential sites for their origin are within our view. However, no incontrovertible signs of such civilizations have been detected.

It is currently unclear which version of the paradox is stronger.

Name

In 1950, while working at Los Alamos National Laboratory, the physicist Enrico Fermi had a casual conversation while walking to lunch with colleagues Emil Konopinski, Edward Teller and Herbert York. The men lightly discussed a recent spate of UFO reports and a cartoon facetiously blaming the disappearance of municipal trashcans on marauding aliens. They then had a more serious discussion regarding the chances of humans observing faster-than-light travel of some material object within the next ten years, which Teller put at one in a million, but Fermi put closer to one in ten. The conversation shifted to other subjects, until during lunch Fermi suddenly exclaimed, "Where are they?" (alternatively, "Where is everybody?") One participant recollects that Fermi then made a series of rapid calculations using estimated figures (Fermi was known for his ability to make good estimates from first principles and minimal data, see Fermi problem.) According to this account, he then concluded that Earth should have been visited long ago and many times over.

Drake equation

While numerous theories and principles attend to the Fermi paradox, the most closely related is the Drake equation.

The equation was formulated by Dr. Frank Drake in 1960, a decade after the objections raised by Enrico Fermi, in an attempt to find a systematic means to evaluate the numerous probabilities involved in alien life. The speculative equation factors: the rate of star formation in the galaxy; the number of stars with planets and the number that are habitable; the number of those planets which develop life and subsequently intelligent communicating life; and finally the expected lifetimes of such civilizations. The fundamental problem is that the last four terms (fraction of planets with life, odds life becomes intelligent, odds intelligent life becomes communicative, and lifetime of communicating civilizations) are completely unknown. We have only one example, rendering statistical estimates impossible, and even the example we have is subject to a strong anthropic bias.

A deeper objection is that the very form of the Drake equation assumes that civilizations arise and then die out within their original solar systems. If interstellar colonization is possible, then this assumption is invalid, and the equations of population dynamics would apply instead.

The Drake equation has been used by both optimists and pessimists with wildly differing results. Dr. Carl Sagan, using optimistic numbers, suggested as many as one million communicating civilizations in the Milky Way in 1966, though he later suggested that the number could be far smaller. Skeptics, such as Frank Tipler, have put in pessimistic numbers and concluded that the average number of civilizations in a galaxy is much less than one. (Note that, even though there is at least one civilization in our galaxy, the average or "most likely" number of civilizations in our galaxy as described by this equation may still be smaller than one. In other words, the fact that there is at least one civilization in our galaxy does not mean that this was a likely outcome. This is an excellent example of anthropic bias. No civilization can use itself to estimate the average number of civilizations in a galaxy, since if there was not at least one civilization the question could not arise.)

Frank Drake himself has commented that the Drake Equation is unlikely to settle the Fermi paradox; instead it is just a way of organizing our ignorance on the subject.

Resolving the paradox empirically

One obvious way to resolve the Fermi paradox would be to find conclusive evidence of extraterrestrial intelligence. Various efforts to find such evidence have been made since 1960, and several are ongoing. As human beings do not have interstellar travel capability, such searches are being carried out at great distances and rely on careful analysis of very subtle evidence. This limits possible discoveries to civilizations which alter their environment in a detectable way, or produce effects that are detectable at a distance, such as radio emissions. Non-technological civilizations are very unlikely to be detectable from Earth in the near future.

One difficulty in searching is avoiding an overly anthropocentric viewpoint. Conjecture on the type of evidence likely to be found often focuses on the types of activities that humans have performed, or likely would perform given more advanced technology. Intelligent aliens might avoid these "expected" activities, or perform activities totally novel to humans.

Radio emissions

Radio technology and the ability to construct a radio telescope are presumed to be a natural advance for technological species theoretically creating effects that might be detected over interstellar distances. Sensitive observers of the solar system, for example, would note unusually intense radio waves for a G2 star due to Earth's television and telecommunication broadcasts. In the absence of an apparent natural cause, alien observers might infer the existence of terrestrial civilization.

Therefore, the careful searching of radio emissions from space for non-natural signals may lead to the detection of alien civilizations. Such signals could be either "accidental" by-products of a civilization, or deliberate attempts to communicate, such as the Communication with Extraterrestrial Intelligence's Arecibo message. A number of astronomers and observatories have attempted and are attempting to detect such evidence, mostly through the SETI organization, although other approaches, such as optical SETI also exist.

Several decades of SETI analysis have not revealed any main sequence stars with unusually bright or meaningfully repetitive radio emissions, although there have been several candidate signals. On August 15 1977 the "Wow! signal" was picked up by The Big Ear radio telescope. However, the Big Ear only looks at each point on the sky for 72 seconds, and re-examinations of the same spot have found nothing. In 2003, Radio source SHGb02+14a was isolated by SETI@home analysis, although it has largely been discounted by further study. There are numerous technical assumptions underlying SETI that may cause human beings to miss radio emissions with present search techniques; these are discussed below.

Direct planetary observation

Detection and classification of exoplanets has come out of recent refinements in mainstream astronomical instruments and analysis. While this is a new field in astronomy — the first published paper claiming to have discovered an exoplanet was released in 1989 — it is possible that planets which are likely to be able to support life will be found in the near future.

Direct evidence for the existence of life may eventually be observable, such as the detection of biotic signature gases (such as methane and oxygen) — or even the industrial air pollution of a technologically advanced civilization — in an exoplanet's atmosphere by means of spectrographic analysis. With improvements in our observational capabilities, it may eventually even be possible to detect direct evidence such as that which humanity produces (see right).

However, exoplanets are rarely directly observed (the first claim to have done so was made in 2004); rather, their existence is usually inferred from the effects they have on the star(s) they orbit. This means that usually only the mass and orbit of an exoplanet can be deduced. This information, along with the stellar classification of its sun, and educated guesses as to its composition (usually based on the mass of the planet, and its distance from its sun), allows only for rough approximations of the planetary environment.

The current methods for exoplanet detection are not likely to detect life-bearing Earth-like worlds. Methods such as gravitational microlensing can detect the presence of "small" worlds, potentially even smaller than the Earth, but can only detect such worlds for very brief moments of time, and no follow-up is possible. Other methods such as radial velocity and astrometry allow prolonged observations of exoplanet effects, but only work with worlds that are many times the mass of Earth. These seem unlikely candidates to harbor Earth-like life. However, exoplanet detection and classification is a very active sub-discipline in astronomy, with 241 such planets being detected between 1988 and 2007, and the first possibly terrestrial planet discovered within a star's habitable zone being found in 2007. It is hoped that refinements in exoplanet detection methods will lead to increased detection and prolonged observation of terrestrial planets. Such observational refinements would allow us to better gauge how common potentially inhabitable worlds are, and thus allow us a much better idea of how common life in the universe might be, which of course has profound influence over the expectations behind the Fermi Paradox itself.

Alien constructs

Probes, colonies, and other artifacts

As noted, given the size and age of the universe, and the relative rapidity at which dispersion of intelligent life can occur, evidence of alien colonization attempts might plausibly be discovered. Also, evidence of exploration not containing extraterrestrial life, such as probes and information gathering devices, may await discovery.

Some theoretical exploration techniques such as the Von Neumann probe could exhaustively explore a galaxy the size of the Milky Way in as little as half a million years, with relatively little investment in materials and energy relative to the results. If even a single civilization in the Milky Way attempted this, such probes could spread throughout the entire galaxy. Evidence of such probes might be found in the solar system—perhaps in the asteroid belt where raw materials would be plentiful and easily accessed.

Another possibility for contact with an alien probe—one that would be trying to find human beings—is an alien Bracewell probe. Such a device would be an autonomous space probe whose purpose is to seek out and communicate with alien civilizations (as opposed to Von Neumann probes, which are usually described as purely exploratory). These were proposed as an alternative to carrying a slow speed-of-light dialogue between vastly distant neighbors. Rather than contending with the long delays a radio dialogue would suffer, a probe housing an artificial intelligence would seek out an alien civilization to carry on a close range communication with the discovered civilization. The findings of such a probe would still have to be transmitted to the home civilization at light speed, but an information-gathering dialogue could be conducted in real time.

Since the 1950s direct exploration has been carried out on a small fraction of the solar system and no evidence that it has ever been visited by alien colonists, or probes, has been uncovered. Detailed exploration of areas of the solar system where resources would be plentiful—such as the asteroids, the Kuiper belt, the Oort cloud and the various planetary ring systems—may yet produce evidence of alien exploration, though these regions are vast and difficult to investigate. There have been preliminary efforts in this direction in the form of the SETA and SETV projects to search for extraterrestrial artifacts or other evidence of extraterrestrial visitation within the solar system. There have also been attempts to signal, attract, or activate Bracewell probes in Earth's local vicinity, including by scientists Robert Freitas and Francisco Valdes. Many of the projects that fall under this umbrella are considered "fringe" science by astronomers and none of the various projects have located any artifacts.

Should alien artifacts be discovered, even here on Earth, they may not be recognizable as such. The products of an alien mind and an advanced alien technology might not be perceptible or recognizable as artificial constructs. Exploratory devices in the form of bio-engineered life forms created through synthetic biology would presumably disintegrate after a point, leaving no evidence; an alien information gathering system based on molecular nanotechnology could be all around us at this very moment, completely undetected. Clarke's third law suggests that an alien civilization well in advance of humanity's might have means of investigation that are not yet conceivable to human beings.

Advanced stellar-scale artifacts

In 1959, Dr. Freeman Dyson observed that every developing human civilization constantly increases its energy consumption, and theoretically, a civilization of sufficient age would require all the energy produced by its sun. The Dyson Sphere was the thought experiment that he derived as a solution: a shell or cloud of objects enclosing a star to harness as much radiant energy as possible. Such a feat of astroengineering would drastically alter the observed spectrum of the sun, changing it at least partly from the normal emission lines of a natural stellar atmosphere, to that of a black body radiation, probably with a peak in the infrared. Dyson himself speculated that advanced alien civilizations might be detected by examining the spectra of stars, searching for such an altered spectrum.

Since then, several other theoretical stellar-scale megastructures have been proposed, but the central idea remains that a highly advanced civilization — Type II or greater on the Kardashev scale — could alter its environment enough as to be detectable from interstellar distances.

However, such constructs may be more difficult to detect than originally thought. Dyson spheres might have different emission spectra depending on the desired internal environment; life based on high-temperature reactions may require a high temperature environment, with resulting "waste radiation" in the visible spectrum, not the infrared. Additionally, a variant of the Dyson sphere has been proposed which would be difficult to observe from any great distance; a Matrioshka Brain is a series of concentric spheres, each radiating less energy per area than its inner neighbour. The outermost sphere of such a structure could be close to the temperature of the interstellar background radiation, and thus be all but invisible.

There have been some preliminary attempts to find evidence of the existence of Dyson spheres or other large Type-II or Type-III Kardashev scale artifacts that would alter the spectra of their core stars, but optical surveys have not located anything. Fermilab has an ongoing program to find Dyson spheres, but such searches are preliminary and incomplete as yet.

Explaining the paradox theoretically

Certain theoreticians accept that the apparent absence of evidence proves the absence of extraterrestrials and attempt to explain why. Others offer possible frameworks in which the silence may be explained without ruling out the possibility of such life, including assumptions about extraterrestrial behaviour and technology. Each of these hypothesized explanations is essentially an argument for decreasing the value of one or more of the terms in the Drake equation. The arguments are not, in general, mutually exclusive. For example, it could be that both life is rare, and technical civilizations tend to destroy themselves, or many other combinations of the explanations below.

No other civilizations currently exist

One explanation is that the human civilization is alone in the galaxy. Several theories along these lines have been proposed, explaining why intelligent life might be either very rare, or very short lived. Implications of these hypotheses are examined as The Great Filter.

No other civilizations have arisen

Those who believe that extraterrestrial intelligent life does not exist argue that the conditions needed for life—or at least complex life—to evolve are rare or even unique to Earth. This is known as the Rare Earth hypothesis, which attempts to resolve the Fermi paradox by rejecting the mediocrity principle, and asserting that Earth is not typical, but unusual or even unique. While a unique Earth has had historical support on philosophical or religious grounds, the Rare Earth Hypothesis uses quantifiable and statistical arguments to argue that multicellular life is exceedingly rare in the universe because Earth-like planets are themselves exceedingly rare and/or many improbable coincidences have converged to make complex life on Earth possible. While some have pointed out that complex life may evolve through other mechanisms than those found specifically here on Earth, the fact that in the extremely long history of life on the Earth only one species has developed a civilization to the point of being capable of space flight and radio technology seems to lend more credence to the idea of technologically advanced civilization being a rare commodity in the universe.

For example, the emergence of intelligence may have been an evolutionary accident. Geoffrey Miller proposes that human intelligence is the result of runaway sexual selection, which takes unpredictable directions. Steven Pinker, in his book How the Mind Works, cautions that the idea that evolution of life (once it has reached a certain minimum complexity) is bound to produce intelligent beings, relies on the fallacy of the "ladder of evolution": As evolution does not strive for a goal but just happens, it uses the adaptation most useful for a given ecological niche, and the fact that, on Earth, this led to language-capable sentience only once so far may suggest that this adaptation is only rarely a good choice and hence by no means a sure endpoint of the evolution of a tree of life.

Another theory along these lines is that even if the conditions needed for life might be common in the universe, that the formation of life itself, a complex array of molecules that are capable simultaneously of reproduction, of extraction of base components from the environment, and of obtaining energy in a form that life can use to maintain the reaction (or the initial abiogenesis on a potential life-bearing planet), might ultimately be very rare.

Additionally, in the nondirectional meandering from initial life to humans, other low-probability happenings may have been the transition from prokaryotic cells to eukaryotic cells and the transition from single-cellular life to multicellular life ("Cambrian Explosion").

It is also possible that intelligence is common, but industrial civilization is not. For example, the rise of industrialism on Earth was driven by the presence of convenient energy sources such as fossil fuels. If such energy sources are rare or nonexistent elsewhere, then it may be far more difficult for an intelligent race to advance technologically to the point where we could communicate with them. There may also be other unique factors on which our civilization is dependent.

Insofar as the Rare Earth Hypothesis privileges Earth-life and its process of formation, it is a variant of the anthropic principle. The variant of the anthropic principle states the universe seems uniquely suited towards developing human intelligence. This philosophical stance opposes not only mediocrity, but the Copernican principle more generally, which suggests there is no privileged location in the universe. It is also opposed by increasing evidence that humans are not the only intelligent/language/tool using/making species (or however else you define the concept) on our planet.

Opponents dismiss both Rare Earth and the anthropic principle as tautological — if a condition must exist in the universe for human life to arise, then the universe must already meet that condition, as human life exists — and as an unimaginative argument. According to this analysis, the Rare Earth hypothesis confuses a description of how life on Earth arose with a uniform conclusion of how life must arise. While the probability of the specific conditions on Earth being widely replicated is low, we do not know what complex life may require in order to evolve.

It is the nature of intelligent life to destroy itself

Technological civilizations may usually or invariably destroy themselves before or shortly after developing radio or space flight technology. Possible means of annihilation include nuclear war, biological warfare or accidental contamination, nanotechnological catastrophe, ill-advised physics experiments,, a badly-programmed super-intelligence, or a Malthusian catastrophe after the deterioration of a planet's ecosphere. This general theme is explored both in fiction and in mainstream scientific theorizing. Indeed, there are probabilistic arguments which suggest that humanity's end may occur sooner rather than later. In 1966 Sagan and Shklovskii suggested that technological civilizations will either tend to destroy themselves within a century of developing interstellar communicative capability or master their self-destructive tendencies and survive for billion-year timescales. Self-annihilation may also be viewed in terms of thermodynamics: insofar as life is an ordered system that can sustain itself against the tendency to disorder, the "external transmission" or interstellar communicative phase may be the point at which the system becomes unstable and self-destructs.

From a Darwinian perspective, self-destruction would be a paradoxical outcome of evolutionary success. The evolutionary psychology that developed during the competition for scarce resources over the course of human evolution has left the species subject to aggressive, instinctual drives. These compel humanity to consume resources, increase longevity, and to reproduce — in part, the very motives that led to the development of technological society. It seems likely that intelligent extraterrestrial life would evolve similarly and thus face the same possibility of self-destruction. And yet, for species self-destruction to provide a good answer to Fermi's Question, it would have to be very nearly universal. That is, this possibility would have a probability of very nearly 1.0. It has been suggested that a successful alien species would be a superpredator, as is Homo sapiens.

This argument does not require the civilization to entirely self-destruct, only to become once again non-technological. In other ways it could persist and even thrive according to evolutionary standards, which postulates survival as the sole goal of life - not "progress," technology or even intelligence.

It is the nature of intelligent life to destroy others

Another possibility is that intelligent species beyond a certain point of technological capability will destroy other intelligence as it appears. The idea that someone, or something, is destroying intelligent life in the universe has been well explored in science fiction and the scientific literature. A species might undertake such extermination out of expansionist motives, paranoia, or simple aggression. In 1981, cosmologist Edward Harrison also pointed out that such behavior would be an act of prudence: an intelligent species that has overcome its own self-destructive tendencies might view any other species bent on galactic expansion as a kind of virus.

The extermination of other civilizations might be carried out with self-replicating spacecraft. Under such a scenario, even if a civilization that created such machines were to disappear, the probes could outlive their creators, destroying civilizations far into the future. It is hard to imagine any intelligent species actually wanting to develop such probes as they are dangerous to the creators as well as to all other life. Furthermore if their aim is to colonize the galaxy first they can fulfill their aim simply by being the first to colonize as the colonization time for the galaxy is much less than the age of the galaxy.

If true, this argument reduces the number of visible civilizations in two ways - by destroying some civilizations, and forcing the others to remain quiet, under fear of discovery (see They choose not to interact with us).

Human beings were created alone

Religious and philosophical speculation about extraterrestrial intelligent life long predates the modern scientific inquiry into the subject. Some religious thinkers, including the Jewish rationalist commentator Rabbi Hasdai Crescas (c. 1340–1410/1411) and the Christian philosopher Nicholas of Cusa (1401–1464), posited the possibility of such extraterrestrial intelligence. On the other hand, at least some strains within the various Western religious traditions suggest the uniqueness of human beings in the divine plan and would counsel against belief in intelligent life on other worlds. Religious reasons for doubting the existence of extraterrestrial intelligent life resemble some forms of the Rare Earth Hypothesis. The argument here would be a teleological form of the strong anthropic principle: the universe was designed for the express purpose of creating human (and only human) intelligence.

They do exist, but we see no evidence

It may be that technological extraterrestrial civilizations exist, but that human beings cannot communicate with them because of various constraints: problems of scale or of technology; because their nature is simply too alien for meaningful communication; or because human society refuses to admit to evidence of their presence.

Communication is impossible due to problems of scale

    Intelligent civilizations are too far apart in space or time

It may be that non-colonizing technologically capable alien civilizations exist, but that they are simply too far apart for meaningful two-way communication. If two civilizations are separated by several thousand light years, it is very possible that one or both cultures may become extinct before meaningful dialogue can be established. Human searches may be able to detect their existence, but communication will remain impossible because of distance. This problem might be ameliorated somewhat if contact/communication is made through a Bracewell probe. In this case at least one partner in the exchange may obtain meaningful information. Alternatively, a civilization may simply broadcast its knowledge, and leave it to the receiver to make what they may of it. This is similar to the transmission of information from ancient civilizations to the present.

The problem of distance is compounded by the fact that timescales affording a "window of opportunity" for detection or contact might be quite small. Advanced civilizations may periodically arise and fall throughout our galaxy, but this may be such a rare event, relatively speaking, that the odds of two or more such civilizations existing at the same time are low. There may have been intelligent civilizations in the galaxy before the emergence of intelligence on Earth, and there may be intelligent civilizations after its extinction, but it is possible that human beings are the only intelligent civilization in existence now. The term "now" is somewhat complicated by the finite speed of light and the nature of spacetime under relativity. Assuming that an extraterrestrial intelligence is not able to travel to our vicinity at faster-than-light speeds, in order to detect an intelligence 1,000 light-years distant, that intelligence will need to have been active 1,000 years ago. Strictly speaking, only the portions of the universe lying within the past light cone of Earth need be considered, since any civilizations outside it could not be detected.

There is a possibility that archaeological evidence of past civilizations may be detected through deep space observations — especially if they left behind large artifacts such as Dyson spheres — but this seems less likely than detecting the output of a thriving civilization.

A related argument holds that other civilizations exist, and are transmitting and exploring, but their signals and probes simply have not arrived yet. However, critics have noted that this is unlikely, since it requires we are currently at a very special point in time, when the galaxy is transitioning from empty to full. This particular portion is just a tiny fraction of the life of a galaxy, so the odds we exist at such a moment are low.

    It is too expensive to spread physically throughout the galaxy Many assumptions about the ability of an alien culture to colonize other stars are based on the idea that interstellar travel is technologically feasible. While the current understanding of physics rules out the possibility of faster than light travel, it appears that there are no major theoretical barriers to the construction of "slow" interstellar ships. This idea underlies the concept of the Von Neumann probe and the Bracewell probe as evidence of extraterrestrial intelligence.

It is possible, however, that present scientific knowledge cannot properly gauge the feasibility and costs of such interstellar colonization. Theoretical barriers may not yet be understood and the cost of materials and energy for such ventures may be so high as to make it unlikely that any civilization could afford to attempt it. Even if interstellar travel and colonization are possible, they may be difficult, leading to a colonization model based on percolation theory. Colonization efforts may not occur as an unstoppable rush, but rather as an uneven tendency to "percolate" outwards, within an eventual slowing and termination of the effort given the enormous costs involved and the fact that colonies will inevitably develop a culture and civilization of their own. Colonization may thus occur in "clusters," with large areas remaining uncolonized at any one time.

A similar argument holds that interstellar physical travel may be possible, but is much more expensive than interstellar communication. Furthermore, to an advanced civilization, travel itself may be replaced by communication, through mind uploading and similar technologies. Therefore the first civilization may have physically explored or colonized the galaxy, but subsequent civilizations find it cheaper, faster, and easier to travel and get information through contacting existing civilizations rather than physically exploring or traveling themselves. In this scenario, since there is little or no physical travel, and directed communications are hard to see except to the intended receiver, there could be many technical and interacting civilizations with few signs visible across interstellar distances.

    Human beings have not been searching long enough

Humanity's ability to detect and comprehend intelligent extraterrestrial life has existed for only a very brief period — from 1937 onwards, if the invention of the radio telescope is taken as the dividing line — and Homo sapiens is a geologically recent species. The whole period of modern human existence to date (about 200,000 years) is a very brief period on a cosmological scale, while radio transmissions have only been propagated since 1895. Thus it remains possible that human beings have neither been searching long enough to find other intelligences, nor been in existence long enough to be found.

One million years ago there would have been no humans for any extraterrestrial emissaries to meet. For each further step back in time, there would have been increasingly fewer indications to such emissaries that intelligent life would develop on Earth. In a large and already ancient universe, a space-faring alien species may well have had many other more promising worlds to visit and revisit. Even if alien emissaries visited in more recent times, they may have been misinterpreted by early human cultures as supernatural entities. (As proposed by Erich von Däniken)

This hypothesis is more plausible if alien civilizations tend to stagnate or die out, rather than expand. In addition, "the probability of a site never being visited, even [with an] infinite time limit, is a non-zero value. Thus, even if intelligent life expands elsewhere, it remains statistically possible that such terrestrial life might never be discovered.

Communication is impossible for technical reasons

    Human beings are not listening properly

There are some assumptions that underlie the SETI search programs that may cause searchers to miss signals that are present. For example, the radio searches to date would completely miss highly compressed data streams (which would be almost indistinguishable from "white noise" to anyone who did not understand the compression algorithm). Extraterrestrials might also use frequencies that scientists have decided are unlikely to carry signals, or do not penetrate our atmosphere, or use modulation strategies that are not being looked for. The signals might be at a datarate that is too fast for our electronics to handle. "Simple" broadcast techniques might be employed, but sent from non-main sequence stars which are searched with lower priority; current programs assume that most alien life will be orbiting Sun-like stars.

The greatest problem is the sheer size of the radio search needed to look for signals, the limited amount of resources committed to SETI, and the sensitivity of modern instruments. SETI estimates, for instance, that with a radio telescope as sensitive as the Arecibo Observatory, Earth's television and radio broadcasts would only be detectable at distances up to 0.3 light years. Clearly detecting an Earth type civilization at great distances is difficult. A signal is much easier to detect if the signal energy is focused in either a narrow range of frequencies (Narrowband transmissions), and/or directed at a specific part of the sky. Such signals can be detected at ranges of hundreds to tens of thousands of light-years distance. However this means that detectors must be listening to an appropriate range of frequencies, and be in that region of space to which the beam is being sent. Many SETI searches, starting with the venerable Project Cyclops, go so far as to assume that extraterrestrial civilizations will be broadcasting a deliberate signal (like the Arecibo message), in order to be found.

Thus to detect alien civilizations through their radio emissions, Earth observers either need more sensitive instruments or must hope for fortuitous circumstances: that the broadband radio emissions of alien radio technology are much stronger than our own; that one of SETI's programs is listening to the correct frequencies from the right regions of space; or that aliens are sending focused transmissions such as the Arecibo message in our general direction.

    Civilizations only broadcast detectable radio signals for a brief period of time

It may be that alien civilizations are detectable through their radio emissions for only a short time, reducing the likelihood of spotting them. There are two possibilities in this regard: civilizations outgrow radio through technological advance or, conversely, resource depletion cuts short the time in which a species broadcasts.

The first idea, that civilizations advance beyond radio, is based in part on the "fiber optic objection": the use of high power radio with low-to-medium gain (i.e., non-directional) antennas for long-distance transmission is wasteful of spectrum, yet this "waste" is precisely what makes these systems conspicuous at interstellar distances. Humans are moving to directional or guided transmission channels such as electrical cables, optical fibers, narrow-beam microwave and lasers, and conventional radio with non-directional antennas is increasingly reserved for low-power, short-range applications such as cell phones and Wi-Fi networks. These signals are far less detectable from space. Analog television, developed in the mid-twentieth century, contains strong carriers to aid reception and demodulation. Carriers are spectral lines that are very easily detected yet do not convey any information beyond their highly artificial nature. Nearly every SETI project is looking for carriers for just this reason, and UHF TV carriers are currently the most conspicuous and artificial signals from earth that could be detected at interstellar distances. But advances in technology are replacing analog TV with digital television which uses spectrum more efficiently precisely by eliminating or reducing components such as carriers that make them so conspicuous. Using our own experience as an example, we could set the date of radio-visibility for Earth as December 12, 1901, when Guglielmo Marconi sent radio signals from Cornwall, England, to Newfoundland, Canada.. Visibility is now ending, or at least becoming orders of magnitude more difficult, as analog TV is being phased out And so, if our experience is typical, a civilization remains radio-visible for approximately a hundred years. So a civilization may have been very visible from 1325 to 1483, but we were just not listening at that time. This is essentially the solution, "Everyone is listening, no one is sending."

More hypothetically, advanced alien civilizations evolve beyond broadcasting at all in the electromagnetic spectrum and communicate by principles of physics we don't yet understand. Some scientists have hypothesized that advanced civilizations may send neutrino signals. If such signals exist they could be detectable by neutrino detectors that are now under construction. If stable wormholes could be created and used for communications then interstellar broadcasts would become largely redundant. Thus it may be that other civilizations would only be detectable for a relatively short period of time between the discovery of radio and the switch to more efficient technologies.

A different argument is that resource depletion will soon result in a decline in technological capability. Human civilization has been capable of interstellar radio communication for only a few decades and is already rapidly depleting fossil fuels and confronting possible problems such as peak oil. It may only be a few more decades before energy becomes too expensive, and the necessary electronics and computers too difficult to manufacture, for societies to continue the search. If the same conditions regarding energy supplies hold true for other civilizations, then radio technology may be a short-lived phenomenon. Unless two civilizations happen to be near each other and develop the ability to communicate at the same time it would be virtually impossible for any one civilization to "talk" to another.

Critics of the resource depletion argument point out that an energy-consuming civilization is not dependent solely on fossil fuels. Alternate energy sources exist, such as solar power which is renewable and has enormous potential relative to technical barriers. For depletion of fossil fuels to end the "technological phase" of a civilization, some form of technological regression would have to invariably occur, preventing the exploitation of renewable energy sources.

    They tend to experience a technological singularity Another possibility is that technological civilizations invariably experience a technological singularity and attain a posthuman (or postalien) character. Theoretical civilizations of this sort may have altered drastically enough to render communication impossible. The intelligences of a post-singularity civilization might require more information exchange than is possible through interstellar communication, for example. Or perhaps any information humanity might provide would appear elementary, and thus they do not try to communicate, any more than human beings attempt to talk to ants.

Even more extreme forms of post-singularity have been suggested, particularly in fiction: beings that divest themselves of physical form, create massive artificial virtual environments, transfer themselves into these environments through mind transfer, and exist totally within virtual worlds, ignoring the external physical universe. Surprisingly early treatments, such as Lewis Padgett's short story Mimsy were the Borogoves (1943), suggest a migration of advanced beings out of the presently known physical universe into a different and presumably more agreeable alternative one.

One version of this perspective, which makes predictions for future SETI findings of transcension "fossils" and includes a variation of the Zoo hypothesis below, has been proposed by singularity scholar John Smart.

They choose not to interact with us

    Earth is purposely isolated (The zoo hypothesis)

It is possible that the belief that alien races would communicate with the human species is a fallacy, and that alien civilizations may not wish to communicate, even if they have the technical ability. A particular reason that alien civilizations may choose not to communicate is the so-called Zoo hypothesis: the idea that Earth is being monitored by advanced civilizations for study, or is being preserved in an isolated "zoo or wilderness area".. Another possible reason has been discussed above under technological singularity- they may be too absorbed in pursuits of their own making.

Many other reasons that an alien race might avoid contact have been proposed. Aliens might only choose to allow contact once the human race has passed certain ethical, political, or technological standards, e.g. ending poverty/war or being able to master interstellar travel. They may not want to interfere with our natural independent progress. The Earth may have been set as an explicit experiment that contact would ruin, or it may be felt that it is too dangerous to make contact (for us or them). Perhaps advanced civilizations actively hide, not only from Earth but from everyone else, since the galaxy is a dangerous place.

These ideas are most plausible if there is a single alien civilization within contact range, or there is a homogeneous culture or law amongst alien civilizations which dictates that the Earth be shielded. If there is a plurality of alien cultures, however, this theory may break down under the uniformity of motive flaw: all it takes is a single culture or civilization to decide to act contrary to the imperative within our range of detection for it to be abrogated, and the probability of such a violation increases with the number of civilizations. This idea, and many others, become more plausible if we estimate that our galaxy has only a relatively small number of civilizations.

A related idea is that the perceived universe is a simulated reality. The planetarium hypothesis holds that beings may have simulated a universe for us that appears to be empty of other life, by design. The simulation argument by Bostrom holds that although such a simulation may contain other life, such life cannot be much in advance of us since a far more advanced civilization may be correspondingly hard to simulate.

    They are too alien Another possibility is that human theoreticians have underestimated how much alien life might differ from that on Earth. Alien psychologies may simply be too different to communicate with human beings, and they are unable or unwilling to make the attempt. Human mathematics, language, tool use, and other concepts and communicative capacity may be parochial to Earth and not shared by other life.

    They are non-technological

It is not clear that a civilization of intelligent beings must be technological. If an alien species does not develop technology, because it is difficult in its environment, because it chooses not to, or for any other reason, it will be very hard for human beings to detect. Intelligence alone, as opposed to life, is not necessarily visible across interstellar distances. While there are various remote sensing techniques which could perhaps detect life-bearing planets, none of them has any ability to distinguish intelligent but non-technical life from non-intelligent life. Not even any theoretical methods for doing so have been proposed, short of an actual physical visit by an astronaut or probe. This is sometimes referred to as the "algae vs. alumnae" problem.

They are here unobserved

It may be that intelligent alien life forms not only exist, but are already present here on Earth. They are not detected because they do not wish it, human beings are technically unable, or because societies refuse to admit to the evidence. It is possible that a life form technologically advanced enough to travel to Earth might also be sufficiently advanced to exist here undetected. In this view, the aliens have arrived on Earth, or in our solar system, and are observing the planet, while concealing their presence. Observation could conceivably be conducted in a number of ways that would be very difficult to detect. For example, a complex system of microscopic monitoring devices constructed via molecular nanotechnology could be deployed on Earth and remain undetected, or sophisticated instruments could conduct passive monitoring from elsewhere.

Many UFO researchers and watchers argue that society as a whole is unfairly biased against claims of alien abduction, sightings, and encounters, and as a result may not be fully receptive to claims of proof that aliens are visiting our planet. Others use complex conspiracy theories to allege that evidence of alien visits is being concealed from the public by political elites who seek to hide the true extent of contact between aliens and humans. Scenarios such as these have been depicted in popular culture for decades.

This theory was (jokingly) suggested to Fermi himself by his fellow physicist, Leó Szilárd, who suggested that "they are already among us - but they call themselves Hungarians".

See also

References

Further reading

  • Ben Zuckerman and Michael H. Hart, Extraterrestrials: Where Are They? ISBN 0521448034 Amazon
  • Savage, Marshall T. (1992). The Millennial Project: Colonizing the Galaxy in 8 Easy Steps. Denver: Empyrean Publishing. ISBN 0-9633914-8-8.
  • Webb, Stephen (2002). If the Universe Is Teeming with Aliens... Where Is Everybody?. Copernicus Books. ISBN 0-387-95501-1.
  • Michaud, Michael (2006). Contact with Alien Civilizations: Our Hopes and Fears about Encountering Extraterrestrials. Copernicus Books. ISBN 978-0387-28598-6.
  • Gold, Thomas (1998). The Deep Hot Biosphere. Springer. ISBN 978-0387952536.
  • Evolving the Alien: The Science of Extraterrestrial Life

External links

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