The Fermi Paradox - Are We Alone?
Are we alone, floating on a pebble amongst the vastness of the universe? This question has endlessly plagued humanity since we possessed the advanced cognitive abilities to comprehend it, past our primitive knowledge of - rudimentary sharp sticks and fire. This ‘alien dream’ is alive and well, thriving and tantalizing within our puerile imaginations, films and our very instincts of curiosity. Scientists have explored the starry nights and unlocked the ‘secrets of this universe’, but this question seems to challenge their sophisticated minds. Yet, we are seduced by the idea that there is a surfeit of extraterrestrial civilisations littered across the universe.
The universe is enormous, and the task of measuring its breadth is onerous, but we accurately estimate the observable universe to be roughly 90 billion light-years in diameter. There are ‘‘approximately one hundred billion galaxies, each with an equal number of one hundred billion to one trillion stars - meaning for every grain of sand on Earth’’ , there are 10,000 stars in the universe teeming with trillions and trillions of habitable planets.
So then, where are all the little green men?
In 1950, Enrico Fermi, (an Italian physicist), questioned the very existence of aliens. The simple, yet inconceivable question during dinner “Where is everybody’’, polarised the tranquillity of the evening and burdened his very colleagues with this unprecedented quandary. This infamous question forged The Fermi Paradox, the Drake equation, and the Kardashev Scale.
Scientists have helped group intelligent species into three categories (the Kardashev Scale). A type one civilization is one that would be able to access the whole energy available on its planet. And, a type two would be a civilization capable of harnessing all of the energy of its home star - which is doable in principle, but currently science-fiction. Whilst, a type three is a civilization that theoretically controls its whole galaxy and its energy. If you are wondering, currently humans are at 0.73 on the Kardashev Scale - and should reach Type 1 status in 100-200 years. Our sun is relatively infant to the Milky Way, which is about 10 billion years old. This means a technology-wielding creature, (type-three civilisation), could in practice have copious opportunities to reach divine-like status - and beyond - within the 13.8 billion-years of the universe. Scientists believe that the ‘echoing-silence’ we suffer, is the result of the Great Filter, an evolutionary leap a civilization has to make, which is impermeable to most life. Where does our planet fit in the timeline of this “Great Filter”? Well, it depends, but we are left with three realms of possibilities.
We are first. This the first time life has had adequate time to evolve without a hitch, for example, a cataclysmic event such as Gamma Ray bursts and asteroids. We are unique. The Great Filter was at the beginning of life and it was merely the “jump from a simple prokaryotic cell to a complex eukaryotic cell". We are next: life at our sophistication exists everywhere in the Universe but it gets destroyed when it reaches a certain point - something prevents life from progression: this could be climate change or a nuclear war.
Or maybe a Type 3 civilization perceives the concept of colonization to be primordial and archaic to them, with all the energy of its galaxy, they could construct the Matrioshka Brain. This is an interesting concept of a ‘super-computer of such computing power that an entire species could upload their consciousness and exist in a simulated universe’. This could be a means of escapism from the cold, dark, empty universe where their needs and wants are fulfilled. In the galactic time scale, we are embryos astronomically small - sentient humans have only been around for 50,000 years, and recorded history: 5,000 years. Our extinct ancestors, the Homo neanderthalensis - could have experienced a type 3 civilization, but could not fathom the idea of it or had the means to tell the future. A famously formulated ‘law’ by Arthur C. Clark cited that “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic” . A universally sanctioned theory, however, is that our technology is extremely primitive and outdated and we don’t have the instruments to decode any information, yet. A morse code transmitter is an illustration of this, if you used this transmitter nobody would answer as it's ancient.
Some scientists even hypothesize of a ‘predatory species’ that monitors the universe and once it is reached an advanced enough level it gets eliminated - because to them, we are but a parasite ineffectively using the resources in our planet with a false sense of security to the inevitably of our death. Imagine the smartest ant you can. The idea of our ethics, culture and society is incomprehensible to the ant. From an ant's perspective, a colony and food are all that the intelligent lifeform like itself needs to survive. Therefore, when ants feed on our meal, humans mass slaughter whole ant colonies; it is barbarous. But we don’t slaughter them because we hate the ants, we just primarily don’t want a waste of resources, but the ant's wishes and the ant's survival are of no concern to us. A type three civilization may treat us similarly, and thus other civilizations may obscure their location and refrain from transmitting their location. As Stephen Hawkings foreshadowed to us: “If aliens visit us, the outcome would be much as when Columbus landed in America, which didn’t turn out well for the Native Americans.”
Us humans will eternally and profusely search for any evidence of extraterrestrials. Beyond the four-walls of our room, and beyond the mudball rock, we call Earth, we are but forever floating on a rock in the lonely universe. But, frankly, the future generations will gaze upon this very moment as we did to the ancient medieval people, who believed the earth was the centre of the universe, and they’ll have the answers to what we were looking for - or that we aren’t as smart as we think we are but whatever lies ahead, it will truly be “a step for mankind’’. With that said, that leaves us with the uniquely humbling thought: maybe we are alone.
Written and Edited by: Patrick Walsh
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