Fuck The Fermi Paradox

Put simply, the Fermi paradox states that if alien civilisations exist, then at least one of them would have already made contact with us – but as they haven’t, we have to ask ourselves: where are they?

The trouble is, this is a deeply flawed argument.

How long have we had radio? A hundred years? As I write this, I’m looking at a picture of Barred Spiral Galaxy NGC 1672, a dusty whorl of several hundred billion stars lying more than 60 million light years away.

If a single civilisation arose in NCG 1672 and saw fit to send (for whatever reason) a radio signal in our direction, would we have equipment sensitive enough to receive it? And even if we did, 60 million light years is a long way. In order for us to receive it now, in the relatively short period of time since we discovered radio, they would have had to broadcast it at around the time the dinosaurs were dying off on Earth.

But what if they evolved some time in the last 50 million years? Or in the last 2 million years? We’d never know.

After all, how long have we been around, as a species? 100,000 years? What if they discovered radio a thousand years ago? Perhaps we’ll find out… in 60 million years’ time.

One of the arguments put forward by proponents of the paradox is that by this time, a species should have arisen with the capability to colonise the entire galaxy, and so their absence is a great mystery. However, I can’t help thinking that this argument assumes too much. Firstly, why would a species want to colonise the whole galaxy? It seems a peculiar, manifest destiny kind of an assumption. There are other ways to control your population and energy needs than to simply spread across the sky like a virus. Secondly, it assumes that kind of civilisation should have arisen in our galaxy. With 100 billion other galaxies to choose from, this seems rather a blinkered assumption, unless advanced technological civilisations are so common that every single one of those 100 billion galaxies has one. If not, the odds of finding ourselves in the same galaxy as a species old and advanced enough to colonise it must be at least several billion to one. I’m not disputing that they might be out there, just that the chances of finding them on our galactic doorstep seem remote, to say the least.

So, fuck the Fermi paradox. The answer to the question Where are they? is simply: A really, really long way away.

Given the vastness of the cosmos and the distances involved, expecting alien signals to have arrived in the eye-blink since we invented radio seems ludicrous and self-important.

We may have to resign ourselves to the possibility that although there may be a million super-civilisations currently operating in the galaxies we see though our telescopes, we’ll never know.

Even if, for some unfathomable reason, they decided to send a signal our way, the human race would probably be long extinct by the time it arrived.

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8 Comments

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  1. Arajay says:

    it also doesn’t account for the possible existence of extra-dimensional organisms beyond our limited 4D perception.

  2. Mark says:

    But you’re assuming we were one of the first civilisations to exist. The universe is billions of years old, and although it couldn’t support life (as we know it) for all of that time, there could be civilisations hundreds of thousands, if not billions, of years old.

    Time is a bigger factor than distance.

  3. Subbuttegga says:

    Heh, you don’t get it. One of the main parts of the Fermi Paradox is that if just *one* civilization developed the technology to explore space, they could colonize the entire milky way galaxy over the course of less than 100,000 years with sub light space ships. Even if they are not around, there should in theory be an overwhelming amount of evidence of aliens around.

    Doesn’t help that the Earth and our solar system is located at the outer edge of the milky way. We need to get closer to the centre where all the cool kids hang out.

  4. Gareth L Powell says: (Author)

    Thanks for joining in, Subbuttegga (if that *is* your real name ;-)).

    The flaw in the Fermi Paradox is that there are a 100 billion galaxies. If a species arose in a galaxy apart from this one, we would likely never know, as their signals would take so long to reach us.

    The FP is dependent on the idea that intelligent life is common enough among those 100 billion galaxies that it will arise at least twice in ours. That implies that there must be at least 200 billion intelligent species out there.

  5. >>Where are they? is simply: A really, really long way away.

    Space is big. Really big. It suggests there are no easy answers to space.

  6. There are several other issues with the FP that should be touched on. First, we’ve only had radio for a few decades. The round-trip for a signal means that a species that could have listened and sent a message back by now could only live in a sphere of about thirty lightyears from Earth. That’s not a large volume when weighed against the rest of the galaxy. Even if you reached back to the industrial revolution and assumed that was the first time someone looking at the Earth could have seen our impact on the atmosphere, you’re still talking about only a 300 ly volume.

    Further, I seem to remember reading a study a few years ago that says any radio waves in the power range we’ve put out so far would only reach out to maybe a single ly before breaking down into the background noise of the universe and lost.

    But that’s not all. Radio itself seems like a highly unlikely candidate for interstellar communication. Laser coms are, from an energy budget and security standpoint, much better. They can traverse large distances without breaking down, and are not Omni-directional, giving you much more control over who hears your conversations. So it shouldn’t come as much surprise that we’re not swimming in radio chatter from distant civilizations.

    Indeed, our species own radio signature has been falling, not growing, over the last few decades as we move from radio broadcasting to satellite and cable driven methods. Radio may very well end up being a blip, a short-term transitional technology.

    So since radio probably isn’t the way interstellar races communicate, why are we surprised we’re not hearing them? More likely they use something we’re not searching for, at least not on any large scale. IF they are using lasers, (or something even more exotic) then there would be no way for us to eavesdrop. They would have to try to communicate with us directly, which brings us right back to the tiny sphere of stars that could even know we’re here yet, not to mention that we’d have to know what to look for.

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