The Fermi Paradox Is Not Fermi’s, and It Is Not a Paradox

Feb 4, 2016

Photo credit: Colby Gutierrez-Kraybill/Flickr

By Robert H. Gray

Two big ideas often come up in discussions about the search for extraterrestrial intelligence, or SETI. One is the Drake Equation, which estimates the number of civilizations in our Galaxy whose signals we might be able to detect—potentially thousands, according to plausible estimates. The other is the so-called Fermi paradox, which claims that we should see intelligent aliens here if they exist anywhere, because they would inevitably colonize the Galaxy by star travel—and since we don’t see any obvious signs of aliens here, searching for their signals is pointless.

The Drake Equation is perfectly genuine: it was created by astronomer and SETI pioneer Frank Drake. The Fermi paradox, however, is a myth. It is named for the physicist Enrico Fermi—but Fermi never made such a claim.

I’d like to explain why the so-called Fermi paradox is mistaken, based on my deep-dive research on the topic, because this mistake had inhibited the search for E.T., which I think is worthwhile. It was cited by Sen. William Proxmire (D-WI) as a reason for killing NASA’s SETI program in 1981; the program was restarted at the urging of Carl Sagan, but was killed dead in 1993 by Senator Richard Bryan (D-NV). Since then, no searches in the U.S. have received government funds, even though thousands of new planets have been discovered orbiting stars other than our sun.


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10 comments on “The Fermi Paradox Is Not Fermi’s, and It Is Not a Paradox

  • Having spent years pondering the question of interstellar travel for a science fiction book I started writing I came to the conclusion that any advanced civilisation bound by the laws of physics as we currently understand them would decide not to even bother trying. The energy requirements to accelerate a craft of say several hundred tons, large enough to contain a decent sized crew and provisions for at least 10 years, to a reasonable percentage of the speed of light, slow it back down at the far end and then return home are stupendous. Even with 100% efficient matter / antimatter propulsion the fuel tanks would weight trillions of tons.

    To build and fuel such a ship for a single voyage would take the entire resources of a planet such as ours for maybe a hundred years if every spare member of the population worked on it. Even then the ship would only have to hit a very small object to be completely destroyed once it was travelling at high speed.

    Colonising a galaxy with self replicating drones is theoretically possible over a long enough time scale but pointless. Each colonised planet would still be effectively isolated from every other one or the home planet.

    Relativity and the light speed barrier might actually be the cruelest joke that the universe, or a very petulant god such as the one in the buybull if such exists, has played on us given that every advanced life form that evolves can see what’s out there but never reach it.



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  • @OP – The other is the so-called Fermi paradox, which claims that we should see intelligent aliens here if they exist anywhere, because they would inevitably colonize the Galaxy by star travel—and since we don’t see any obvious signs of aliens here, searching for their signals is pointless.

    There are many features of the Universe which would mitigate against any life-forms being visible to us. Some I have mentioned on other threads.

    The Rare Earth hypothesis, Stellar habitable (Goldilocks) zones. Galactic habitable zones. Astronomical time scales.

    Arkrid Sandwich
    Feb 4, 2016 at 5:39 pm

    I came to the conclusion that any advanced civilisation bound by the laws of physics as we currently understand them would decide not to even bother trying. The energy requirements to accelerate a craft of say several hundred tons, large enough to contain a decent sized crew and provisions for at least 10 years, to a reasonable percentage of the speed of light, slow it back down at the far end and then return home are stupendous.

    This is based on requirements of an active human crew.

    An alien crew might well have the capability to remain dormant in hibernation (either naturally of with mechanical assistance), or to exist as eggs for an extended period with minimal life-support requirements.

    Indeed some Earth organisms may well have these space travelling capabilities.

    This also assumes a “one shot from Earth”!
    There appear to be icy bodies which could be mined and used as refuelling bases orbiting our Sun, almost half way to the nearest stars.
    There would also be the possibility of using solar sails with laser beam boosters sited on some of the outer planets or moons, so the craft would not be carrying a large mass of propellant.



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  • 3
    Robert Firth says:

    I agree the Fermi Paradox isn’t. But then, the Drake equation is mostly speculation and handwaving. But SETI, in my opinion, is a dead end. It seems to me most unlikely that an advanced civilisation would emit radio waves. Building huge transmitters and generating VHF signals, when 99% of the energy ends up in empty space, is grotesquely inefficient, and it is one (of many) measures of our stupidity as supposedly sentient creatures that we do it.

    A truly advanced society will use communication technology that is essentially lossless, and hence there will be nothing on which to eavesdrop. We will perhaps get there when fibre optics replace radio waves, if progress continues. But I suspet we shall only encounter an advanced civilisation when it encounters us. Paging George Pal.



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  • I am sure we still don’t know enough physics to be able to know if it is practical for us to travel over interstellar distances.
    Also there is the alternative method where we evolve or make ourselves into something more like a machine so we could actually ‘switch off’ during the journey.

    Many theories have been postulated as to how one might get near the speed of light. But there are other ideas like the folding of space outside of the three main dimensions or creating a sort of hole in space by exceeding the planck energy within a very small volume. Most of them are just wild speculation but great for writing scifi stories.

    I’m sure the truth is that it must be possible but just way beyond us at the moment. Maybe the chance of getting to interstellar travel stage is just a lot smaller than the chance of getting to where we are now, the interstellar observation stage.

    We are now looking at gravity waves as well as electromagnetic as a method for observing the cosmos. It would seem likely we would soon start to observe if other more advanced beings were charging around the galaxy using vehicles that approached the speed of light or disrupted space-time in a significant way.

    It may well be the ETs are there but we don’t know ‘how’ to look for them. Great fun to speculate though.



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  • Tim Smith
    Feb 4, 2016 at 7:36 pm

    I am sure we still don’t know enough physics to be able to know if it is practical for us to travel over interstellar distances.

    I think we are near enough to recognise the possibility of sending probes to nearby stars.

    http://www.icarusinterstellar.org/project-icarus-and-alpha-centauri-b-b-target-found/
    The news that an Earth-mass planet has probably been discovered in orbit around alpha Centauri B has a big impact on Project Icarus. If this news is confirmed, then it means our nearest stellar neighbor has at least one planet. Overnight, alpha Centauri has potentially become a more interesting target for Project Icarus.

    Also there is the alternative method where we evolve or make ourselves into something more like a machine so we could actually ‘switch off’ during the journey.

    It would be theoretically possible to evolve or genetically engineer, intelligent life-forms which are much more resilient and compatible with space travel than humans. Issues such as dormancy, resistance to G -forces, resistance to radiation, body size, etc. – already exhibited in various Earth organisms, would be relevant.

    Many theories have been postulated as to how one might get near the speed of light.

    I think about 12% of light sped is possible with foreseeable technology.

    But there are other ideas like the folding of space outside of the three main dimensions or creating a sort of hole in space by exceeding the planck energy within a very small volume. Most of them are just wild speculation but great for writing scifi stories.

    This looks like the wilder speculative view.

    I’m sure the truth is that it must be possible but just way beyond us at the moment. Maybe the chance of getting to interstellar travel stage is just a lot smaller than the chance of getting to where we are now, the interstellar observation stage.

    Various study groups think probes, or even ships, could be sent within a century, if resources were directed to such a project.

    A lot depends on if we find habitable Earth like planets in star systems relatively nearby.



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  • Why would other intelligent civilizations spend the massive resources required to continuously send signals out into the universe, in all directions, at energy levels that could be detected tens of thousands to millions of light-years away? We don’t do it, because we’re smart enough not to. It would be utterly futile. Even allowing for the extremely remote possibility that aliens exist, compounded with the chance that they happened to pick up our signals, our civilization is unlikely to be around long enough to get an answer back, given the current rate at which we are destroying our planet. SETI and its ilk are a waste of time and money. Most of us are smart enough to realize that there are many other more pressing problems to be solved with the resources that we have.



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  • Speculations:

    They’re all hiding (because they know something we don’t… what are they hiding from?)
    They’re all dead (well, the ones that didn’t hide well enough).
    They are here but we fail to notice them (like Men in Black).
    They’ve posted a “Do Not Feed” sign over the earth, and all the visitors comply.

    It’s a personal preference, life is scarce vs life is plentiful. I like plentiful. Some people like scarce. There’s not enough evidence to determine which is right, so we can continue to have fun speculating. And as our knowledge increases, sometimes it tips the balance a bit towards “plentiful” (all those planets out there) and sometimes towards “scarce” (uninhabitable galactic zones).

    What interesting times these are.



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  • Technical tip: How to use the new @ function

    The new @ function allows you to address specific users, but you do need to be a little careful with it.

    It works here the same way as on Twitter, i.e. you need to use the person’s user name, which may not be the same as the display name.

    To find the user name, let your cursor hover over the name displayed beside any comment by the user in question. A long link like this will appear at the bottom of your screen:

    https://www.richarddawkins.net/members/[USER NAME]/
    

    For the @ function you just need the final bit of the link, i.e. the user name – without the / before and after.

    It is important to get it right, as otherwise the notification of your comment will be sent to the wrong person, which they will obviously find annoying!

    The mods



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  • Here’s a “Super Earth” which can be crossed off the “habitable list”!

    http://www.skyatnightmagazine.com/news/gases-detected-super-earth-atmosphere

    Gases have been detected in the atmosphere of a super-Earth planet for the first time.

    Astronomers analysed exoplanet 55 Cancri e using data gathered with the Hubble Space Telescope and found it has a dry atmosphere without any signs of water vapour, and that the atmosphere consists mainly of hydrogen and helium. 55 Cancri 3 is located about 40 lightyears from Earth.

    The team from University College London used the Wide Field Camera 3 on Hubble to analyse the atmosphere of the exoplanet, making it the first detection of gases in the atmosphere of a super-Earth.

    Super-Earths are so-called because they have a greater mass than our own planet, but are still smaller than the gas giants in our Solar System. They are thought to be the most common type of planet in the Milky Way.

    “This is a very exciting result because it’s the first time that we have been able to find the spectral fingerprints that show the gases present in the atmosphere of a super-Earth,” says Angelos Tsiaras, a PhD student at UCL. “The observations of 55 Cancri e’s atmosphere suggest that the planet has managed to cling on to a significant amount of hydrogen and helium from the nebula from which it originally formed.”

    55 Cancri e orbits close to its parent star, which is uncommon for the super-Earths that we know about. Its year lasts just 18 hours and temperatures on the surface are thought to reach about 2000°C. This proximity to the host star enabled the team at UCL to use a new method of analysis during its transits.



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