‘The Bounties of Space, of infinite outwardness, were three: empty heroics, low comedy, and pointless death.’
— Kurt Vonnegut, The Sirens of Titan
Four physicists are eating lunch. It is a bright day in the summer of 1950 at the Los Almos National Laboratory in New Mexico, and the four physicists are the kind of physicists that get pretty cerebral in their lunch hour. For example, for a bit of fun, one of them asks, ‘But okay, how probable is it that within the next ten years we will have clear evidence of a material object moving faster than the speed of light?’ Wowzer. What a radioactive Q. This riles them all up. This creates electricity, hubbub. This moves tangentially into ironic, sardonic speculation about UFOs, since many a strange, saucerish light has been spotted in the sky of New Mexico in 1950. The physicists eat. Sandwiches. Fries. Tuna salad. And through the luncheon din, just because he is curious, really, Enrico Fermi says to the table something along the lines of, ‘Don’t you ever wonder where everybody is?’
One of the dangers of being a curious physicist is that at any moment you might accidentally get a paradox named after you. Enrico Fermi was not personally overly interested in the whereabouts of intergalactic superbeings, but neither was Schrödinger super into cats.
The Fermi Paradox is a niche but serious field of academia that tackles the conflict between the lack of any obvious evidence of extraterrestrial life and various high estimates for their existence. Bear with me. Actually, just strap in.
The Fermi Paradox
According to a thing called the Principle of Mediocrity—which by complete cosmic coincidence is also the name I go by when I freestyle rap—in the total enormity of the Milky Way Galaxy, our Earth is almost certainly a typical rocky planet, drifting through a typical solar system, far out in the uncharted backwaters of the unfashionable end of a totally unexceptional region of a perfectly boringly ordinary barred spiral galaxy. Our physical existence—our brains, our bipedalism, our digital watches—can all be explained by the immutable laws of evolution. If there is nothing discernibly cosmically special about us, then it is very possible, even likely, that in the grand calculus of Outer Space others might exist as well.
I sense reluctance. Withdrawal, even. Possibly you’re disgruntled. Please wait. Just at least humour the Fermi Paradox’s chain of reasoning:
There are billions, billions, of stars in the Milky Way similar to our sun.
With the use of really big telescopes and very hard maths, we have discovered that well over 300 million of these suns have planets in a circumstellar habitable zone—i.e. right size, liveable temperature, potential for liquid water.
Millions of these stars and planets are billions of years older than our sun, and if the Earth is typically mediocre, many of them may have developed intelligent life long ago. This is further validated by the probabilistic arguments laid out in the Drake Equation, which has nothing to do with Canadian singer-songwriter Drake.
Some of these civilisations may have had enough time to evolve and advance and develop interstellar travel or galactic colonisation, which seems like something vaguely on the horizon of Humankind via our various egotistical billionaires.
If even an infinitesimally minuscule percentage of intelligent civilisations successfully developed interstellar travel, we probably should have seen some evidence of their existence through our really big telescopes—radiation lines, asteroids with big holes in them, that kind of thing.
But we have not. Not a single shred of space junk. No amoeba, no electromagnetic emissions, no big green spaceships drifting lazily past the moon with ‘If lost, return to Betelgeuse’ stickers on them. Nothing. Nada. Zip! Here in lies the paradox.
I get the feeling that you’re still on the fence. Fair enough. Unfortunately, we’re running out of time, and I can’t sit around and explain astronomical equations that I do not myself understand all day. You can do some of your own reading, or, you can just suspend your disbelief for like… three minutes. Turn the gravity in your brain off. Have a bit of fun for once in your terrestrial life! And just realise that ultimately, whether or not you personally believe aliens could potentially exist is of no consequence to me going forward—like any good raving lunatic, I’m just going to rave at you either way.
So, where is everyone?
1. The Commute is Murder
Proxima Centauri, which is the nearest star to us, is 4.2 lightyears away—roughly equivalent to 9.44 trillion kilometres. The journey to the moon, the furthest human beings have successfully travelled in our solar system, is 0.0000004% of this distance. Using current technology it would take us 6,300 years to get to the next nearest star, let alone the nearest habitable planet—and with a litre of E10 going for $1.93 today, unless your spaceship is a solar-powered Tesla, you can basically forget about it.
As we adjust to a post-pandemic world, many of us are discovering that we did not much enjoy getting two trains and a bus to a building that’s always too cold. It’s possible that highly evolved extraterrestrial life has come to the same conclusion but on a galactic-scale—the most advanced and progressive civilisations are all no doubt working from home.
2. We’re Not As Interesting As We Think
If a rich, complex, space-faring extraterrestrial civilisation has existed in a beautiful utopia for millions of years, why would they would give one iota of a shit about our brains or geopolitics. Do you care about the ants in your garden? Do you try to communicate with them by scattering honey-coated leaf shards in a fibonacci sequence? No. Next.
3. It’s About Damn Time
We’ve been producing radio signals for like a hundred years, and venturing into the void of space for only fifty. That’s not even a fraction of a blip of a nanosecond of the history of our own planet, let alone the 13 billion years the Galaxy has been around.
Imagine a group of Alien Surveyors that routinely check habitable planets for signs of intelligent life. If they swung by the Earth eighty million years ago they would have found the dinosaurs who, though obviously terrifically street smart, knew very little about physics. Even if they made a note to circle back around to this part of the solar system every, say, one million years, they’re statistically unlikely to have crossed paths with anything smarter than a dolphin. Unless the dolphins are the Alien Surveyors… Uh oh.
4. They’re More Scared of Us Than We Are of Them
Have you ever seen a game of ice hockey? Yeah. I wouldn’t want to come to a planet that does that either.
5. Aliens Are Mean
Obviously the alien in Alien is a good illustrative example, as are the Predators, the Daleks, the Klingons, and so on. To maintain a galactic monopoly on resources, a pragmatic species of aliens might routinely annihilate any civilisation that tries to mine an asteroid. It could be the nature of intelligent life to destroy others.
We shouldn’t get too uppity about this, either, since we have to number our World Wars in order to tell them apart. It could be the nature of all intelligent life to destroy itself, through one or a combination of war, or climate catastrophe, or cardiovascular disease.
6. Aliens are Weird
There’s a base assumption in science fiction that extraterrestrial beings are at least roughly the same size as us, and breathe the same air as us, and create intelligible sounds at roughly the same frequency as what we can comprehend. This could be totally wrong. With different planetary conditions and billions more years of evolution, aliens could be completely incomprehensible to us, with brains that might work radically faster, or radically slower, than anything we can perceive. We might look at a nebula and think, ‘Gee whiz, what a cool nebula,’ when in reality this is a highly expensive and sophisticated attempt to ask, ‘Hello? Is this thing on?’
7. It’s Spooky Out There
It’s easy to forget that you’re actually stuck to the surface of a rock that is fragile and blue and hanging in a void of nothingness. Our sun is just one of a hundred billion stars in the galaxy, which is just one of hundreds of billions of galaxies out there. Just thinking about the giganticness of the cosmos is enough to drive you somewhat loopy, but actually travelling through it might be even worse. The vast oceans of nothingness, of vacuum. The interminable distance. The comparative bigness and beauty of everything around that reminds you how completely insignificant you really are.
The answer to the question of ‘Where are all the aliens?’ might be very simple: they’re all too crippled by debilitating existential crises to be interested in murdering us.
What do you reckon?
The observable universe is a horrifically big and beautiful place, full of exploding suns, waxing nebulae, clouds of superhot dust, planets made of poison and ice. I personally like the idea that we’re not all by ourselves in this humungous galaxy—I feel you frowning again. Well, I don’t care. David Brin says that, ‘Aversion to an idea, simply because of its long association with crackpots, gives crackpots altogether too much influence.’ So keep that gravity in your brain off for another five seconds and ask yourself, seriously, where do you think that everybody is?
I welcome any and all emails on the subject. If you'd rather start a rival tri-weekly blog and share your thoughts there, be my guest. It’s harder to come up with story ideas than you might think.
Three - and not just because of the Lizzo reference