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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