Friday, May 2, 2014

"Where is everybody?" -- The Fermi Paradox

One day in 1950, conversation among a group of physicists digressed at a lunch table at Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico. As the discussion facetiously turned to talk of UFOs and flying saucers, renowned particle physicist and mathematician Enrico Fermi abruptly exclaimed, “Where is everybody?” Fermi’s initial intuitions regarding the suspicious lack of extraterrestrial contact have proven to be alarmingly accurate. If the Universe is teeming with life, as has been indicated by current estimates, why has no contact been initiated? As the innovation of our own race continues and technological advancement rapidly progresses, humans will find it more difficult to ignore the silence of the Universe.

Following Fermi’s unexpected consideration, researchers and observers began to formally calculate the odds that such an interaction should occur. The widely known Drake Equation, which was drafted by astronomer and astrophysicist Frank Drake in 1961, provides an approximation of the number of current contactable civilizations in the Milky Way Galaxy. . The equation takes into account the average rate of star formation in the galaxy (R*), the fraction of those stars with planets (fp), the average number of planets resembling Earth (ne), the fraction of those planets that could support life (fl), the segment of that portion that supports the emergence of intelligent life (fi), the segment of those civilizations that have the ability to communicate (fc), and the lifetime of such a civilization (L) in a calculation neatly summarized as: N = R* x fp x ne x fl x fi x fc x L. While each factor is extremely variable, implying that the final result should not be considered concrete, the Drake Equation does indicate that the Universe is alarmingly inhabited. Under Drake’s original assumptions, the galaxy maintains upwards of 3,500 independent extraterrestrial civilizations; estimates involving more recent astrobiological and cosmological findings peg the count at more than double original estimations.

Only educated guesses can currently be used to explain the discrepancy between the number of active civilizations and the apparent emptiness of the Universe from Earth’s perspective. Some scientists note that the abundance of life on Earth may not be as common as the Drake Equation indicates. The Rare Earth hypothesis claims that countless elements were involved in the development of Earth’s life; rare conditions, random extinction by the Universe, or self-destructive tendencies might prevent civilizations from progressing far enough technologically to branch outward. The ideal conditions of Earth include not only its perfect distance from the Sun and its abundance of liquid water; the massive gas giant Jupiter prevents frequent and devastating asteroid collisions, plate tectonics replenish invaluable gases in the atmosphere and the Moon ensures a stable orbit. If these fortunate conditions are not met outside the Solar System, life cannot even begin to evolve. Even if ideal circumstances are met, facile and burgeoning life could quickly be eradicated by natural disaster or accidental self-destruction. If civilizations cannot progress technologically, no contact would be established.

If civilizations do exists beyond the bounds of the Solar System, physical constraints might be responsible for the blatant lack of contact; the vast nature of space, limits in transportation technology, and unfeasible time constraints might also erect barriers between distant inhabited systems. The massive size of the galaxy and the monetary and time limitations introduced as a result might simply be too substantial. Finally and most alarmingly, Earth could remain isolated intentionally; if a more advanced life form observes or manipulates the planet, extraterrestrial contact might be completely prevented. The eerily titled Zoo Hypothesis speculates that an advanced extraterrestrial life form deliberately interacts with or manipulates the developments of civilization on Earth. More intangibly, the human race could be the product of an immensely advanced computer simulation constructed by a technologically advanced life form. If either of these cases proves correct, Earth is being intentionally quarantined.

The likelihood of interacting with another civilization is unquestionably high; however, since Earth remains isolated in the Universe, scientists, observers, and amateurs are forced to speculate solutions to Fermi’s Paradox. As technology on Earth improves and we remain alone, the alarming nature of the Fermi Paradox will only increase. If Earth does prove to be the only body supporting advanced civilization in the Universe, an immense burden is placed upon the human race to survive and expand.
Laura Gunsalus