The Fermi Paradox: ‘Fact A’

We’re alone in the universe, and that’s alright.

Ella Alderson
Nov 14 · 6 min read
Earth-like planets revolving around a foreign star would, on average, be 4 billion years older than Earth. Our sun and its system are still spritely and young, adding to the mystery of why we haven’t encountered life from these much older exoplanets. Above is a simulation of humans colonizing the galaxy 10,000 years in the future. Image by AdvancedConcepts / ESA.

In our search for alien life we can receive only one of two answers. Either we are someday able to find and communicate with another civilization or we unearth only more and more silence, many of us trying to remain hopeful in its stony presence. We receive a signal, or we don’t; either way we come to an important realization about our place in the universe. Not many of us want to believe — and not many of us do believe — that we are alone. To think that humans are so special embodies an air of arrogance and pride. Neither is it statistically supported given the bounty of star systems and habitable planets dangling in the data from our telescopes. And yet despite those great odds in favor of alien life, we remain empty-handed.

The word itself — alone — has a negative sensation. We do not want to be alone on any level, whether it be individual or as a species. But it may not be such a desolate truth to face. On the contrary, being alone could mean something remarkable for our future.

Finding another civilization out there in that velvety dark would mean that life on Earth was not so special as we’d thought. That is the advantage — a promise that we are not commonplace. And this promise is at the heart of ‘Fact A’: there are no intelligent beings from outer space on Earth now. Because they are not here then they do not exist. It is a simple observation named by astrophysicist Michael Hart in his paper from 1974. If intelligent beings were alive and bustling in our galaxy or any other, Fact A would not be our reality.

The fact is an argument against every explanation for the Fermi paradox (there are great odds aliens exist, yet why haven’t we heard from them?).

The most straightforward of these answers to the Fermi paradox is physical challenges. Interstellar travel is difficult but not impossible. We have already accomplished the feat with two separate spacecraft (Voyager 1 and Voyager 2), and while travel to another star system is more complicated than travel to the moon, they are essentially the same problems on different scales. Aliens — which may not be warm-blooded nor have lifespans as short as ours — can use suspended animation or freezing temperatures to preserve passengers on their long trips. Robots can captain a ship until arriving at its destination, whereupon frozen zygotes can create a new population of life on the foreign planet. Any craft undergoing interstellar travel will have to move away from chemical energy and into more efficient means, such as nuclear energy. As an example, a ship able to convert only .33% of its nuclear energy into kinetic energy will have to carry nine times its own weight in fuel. This ratio of fuel to payload can be reduced by traveling at slightly slower speeds or perhaps refueling using hydrogen atoms from the interstellar medium.

With our current technology and physics, colonizing the galaxy would take a mere 10 million years. The question is why no alien civilization has yet to undertake this kind of widespread growth.

The messy brushstrokes of life are difficult to hide. An alien civilization may give itself away by its biology, sending swirls of highly reactive gases like oxygen and methane into the atmosphere of their planet. If they orbited at just the right distance to have liquid water on their surface then the gases would indicate the ongoing tumult of life. Astroengineering projects, like Dyson Spheres that capture and radiate energy from the host star, would result in infrared spikes or gamma ray bursts, as in the case of annihilation rockets used for interstar voyages. When it comes to communication it’s uncertain whether a more advanced technology would result in their signals being more or less detectable than our own. Because we do not yet partake in any of these activities ourselves, we have no history on which to base our searches. Above is a model of a Dyson swarm collecting energy from the sun using individual panels rather than an opaque shell. Image by Aicrovision.

When it comes to sociological concerns — such as spiritual and political beliefs — there is one main flaw to all the hypotheses. They cannot apply to every race of extraterrestrials and they cannot hold true throughout all the years of that civilization’s history. With each new generation of mankind comes new revolutions in thinking, in morals, upheavals of our past ideals in order to move forward. It is true that the Self-destruction Hypothesis may apply to some advanced civilizations. We see it creeping up in our own society as Earth bears extreme weather and the weight of our nuclear arsenal. But even if most alien life did destroy itself or chose not to explore the universe for cultural reasons, this assumption can’t hold true for every single race of alien life.

Using ourselves as an example, we see that life is as flourishing as it is self-destructive. It sprawls into the most unexpected areas, unfurling in unlit caverns and churning in the stifling, fervent vents of the ocean floor. For every civilization that self-destructed there would be another civilization pouring itself out across the star systems. In order to endure, a civilization must be as wise as it is intelligent.

The above craft is the Gaia satellite, built to give us the most accurate map of the galaxy. It is located at the Earth’s L2 Lagrange point. These points are certain positions between two bodies — the Earth and the sun, in this case — which allow craft to stay in orbit without using very much fuel. This is due to the gravitational force of the two bodies. An alien civilization wanting to observe human behavior might keep a probe at such a Lagrange point, possibly reflecting radiation that we can detect in the process. Image by ESA.

The idea that aliens have not had enough time to reach us is also unlikely. If there were no breaks between voyages, colonies started today could expand exponentially and pervade the majority of the Milky Way within 650,000 years. Only if a civilization became space-faring less than 2 million years ago could we say that they haven’t had enough time to arrive on Earth. Except, the Milky Way is one of the oldest galaxies at 13.5 billion years old. For a space-faring civilization to arise less than 2 million years ago and for us to then evolve so shortly after that is a great coincidence. It means that for over 13 billion years there were no signs of advanced life, but then suddenly two separate instances occurred within a couple million years of each other.

The last main explanation for the Fermi paradox is really a refutal of Fact A: aliens are here, but we have not recognized them. And perhaps there is a pearl of wisdom in this. How would we recognize alien life? It may be so strange to us that we may not see it as life at all. But this conflicts with the ever successful Occam’s Razor, a principle of science which reminds us that explanations should be as simple as possible and only when all the simple solutions fail can more complex ones be invoked. To say that UFOs are the result of alien activity is to forget Occam’s Razor — there is no UFO evidence to date that cannot be explained by natural or manmade causes.

The Center for UFO studies received over 200 reports confirmed to be sightings of advertising craft, yet more than 90% of witnesses highly embellished their stories by saying that the craft was a rotating disk or that its top was a metallic dome. Reports of UFOs are constantly filled with misinformation. Above is a picture of the “Lubbock Lights” which were a phenomenon blamed on extraterrestrial activity. The claims were discredited by the government’s Project Blue Book, meant to be an inquiry into the 1900’s obsession with UFOs. Image by Bettmann/Getty Images.

Case IV is a — perhaps — bleak relative of Fact A. Suggested by radio astronomer and mathematician Ronald Bracewell, Case IV says that we are alone because if it were nature’s plan to create intelligence and have it diffuse across the cosmos, it need only succeed once. As per what has happened on our own home. The plan to spread intelligence did not depend on it developing across several species or several points in time or along several locations on the face of our grainy, textured planet. To succeed, it only had to do it well and do it once. From our ape beginnings came mankind, ambling out of the ruddy bushes and sunsets of Africa to explore and dominate even the coldest and most remote reaches of our landscape. It’s a model that’s as efficient as it is isolating. In terms of creating a galactic colony, our species could attain the heart of the Milky Way much faster than the four billion years it took for Earth to create mankind. There is no need for organisms to arise in any other place in the universe.

So then our search will be fruitless.

To accept Fact A or Case IV is to say that we are alone and have always been alone. But this is not a remark made out of arrogance, or pride. Nor is it one that’s necessarily as pessimistic as it may at first seem. As unpopular as the opinion is, admitting that we are alone in the vast, vast amazon of the cosmos presents us with a solitude, but perhaps also with the invaluable destiny of spreading the first roots of life and consciousness far beyond our home. It confirms the importance of our civilization — our descendants will inherit the fire, the toil, the fertile garden of the star systems.

Some way through the epic of Interstellar there is a line that sums up our purpose — if this is our purpose — in a single, resounding quote. “Our greatest accomplishments cannot be behind us, because our destiny lies above us.”

Predict

Ella Alderson

Written by

Physics student. A passion for language and the mysteries of our universe, our future, and our human condition. I can be reached at ella.aldrsn@gmail.com

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