Life lessons found in questioning the Fermi Paradox
The Fermi Paradox is a fun way to fill awkward breaks in conversation on a first date with someone you never plan on seeing again. Basically it comes down to, physicist Enrico Fermi did some math and decided that space is really big and the universe is really old — so how come we haven’t met up with any extraterrestrials? TL;DR: the numbers say we probably should have crossed paths with tall, skinny grey beings by now. It’s definitely, totally a paradoxical thingy. And since Fermi did the math, we’ll name it after him.
Turns out it’s only a paradoxical thingy on paper, though. In reality, there’s no shortage of viable reasons E.T. and Elliot have never hung out in the real world. Not enough time has gone by. Too much space separates us. Homo sapiens might be a fluke. Natural extinction events keep setting us back a few steps. Could it even be that (gasp!) extraterrestrials want nothing to do with us? It’s not hard to imagine: a close encounter of the third kind might never happen.
That rascal Carl Sagan has his own grim idea as to why, too: Before any civilization advances to the point of being able to hop between stars in a galaxy… it’ll probably destroy itself.
See? Your date just high-tailed it to the bathroom, never to return. You can thank me later. Because for now, we have business to discuss. I’m not here to be a prophet of doom, though. Quite the contrary — this is a pep-talk.
To that end, we’ll set aside the tropes of early Spielbergian sci-fi and look at our real history of space travel. (And Kubrickian moon-landing conspiracy theories have no place here.) To do so, we need only go back to when my parents were teenagers. Sure, we’ve come a long way since Sputnik sped over the US in 1957. Twenty years later, we launched Voyager 2, which is currently, according to its Twitter account, 16 hours and 16 minutes of light travel from Earth. We’ve built habitable space stations and mothballed those in favor of better space stations. Mars is the only planet we know of to be inhabited solely by robots.
Which is all to say, we’ve done a whole bunch of cool stuff in just a couple generations of work. Good job, guys. And while six decades is the blink of an eye in human evolution, itself barely a blip in the 4.5 billion years of Earth, which is in turn a fraction of the 13.8 billion years since The Big Bang… it’s required patience. More importantly, it’s taken incremental progress.
Space travel started with a dog, then a monkey, then people. Low orbits to higher altitudes, eventually to the moon. We haven’t even sent anyone we’re annoyed with to nearby Mars yet. (The reasons for that aren’t even related to technology; Mary Roach brilliantly outlines why human frailties are what’s holding us back.) We’ll get there. But even that small step might not happen in our lifetimes — and it will never happen if we blow ourselves up first.
What I’m saying is, the search for extraterrestrial intelligence is a lot like dating. Or looking for a new job. Nobody’s gonna want you unless you’ve got your act together. I mean, think about it. “Hey, aliens. Hi! Come visit? Sorry, yeah, the place is kind of a mess. Ignore the wars and mass shootings and starvation and poverty and climate change over in the corner there. Here! We put computers in our phones! You can just touch the screen and see photos of what your friends had for lunch. Did you get a chance to watch Justin Timberlake singing at a football game? That’s still a no? Please? Please! Why don’t you love me, Karen?!”
We’ve got a lot to work on, personally and globally. And there’s no magic word or golden ticket or miracle of medicine that will fix everything forever immediately. It’s about incremental change, baby steps. Daily movement forward, progress to make tomorrow better. It’s stating the obvious, but we must remember: measurable change, no matter how small, adds up.
Otherwise, ‘everything’ will get overwhelming. Where do we even start? Start somewhere, anywhere. Just start. Astronomers and astrobiologists are still searching for intelligent life out there. But they’re not scanning the billions of stars and galaxies all at once. They’ll pick a small sliver of the universe and start listening there before checking elsewhere.
It’s a matter of focus, of controlling what you can control, staying within yourself. Focus on the task at hand. What’s one thing you can change positively, in your own home or your neighborhood or your office today? Then do it over again tomorrow. In short order, you’ll look back and see you’ve moved your life and the lives of those around you noticeably and positively forward. And in the meantime, you’ll be able to take pride in being where you are right now.
I say this because what sparked this post wasn’t the Fermi Paradox. It was a National Geographic article in which astronauts spoke about what it’s like to be in space, looking down on Earth, something only 556 humans have ever done. Turns out, it’s incredibly life-changing.
So no, we haven’t set foot on Mars. Laura Dern isn’t helming a faster-than-light-speed rebel ship outside of that fictitious galaxy far, far away. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Let’s take a moment to appreciate how far we’ve come, how rare and beautiful our current vantage point is. And in the meantime, let’s get everything in place to take the next step, always aspiring for something bigger and better. When the stars align. Until then, let’s get to work. Let’s make stuff better.