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What's Out There?: Fermi's Paradox and Life in the Universe

Updated on February 14, 2015
Enrico Fermi, the origin of the Fermi Paradox
Enrico Fermi, the origin of the Fermi Paradox

Introduction: Alone in the Abyss

Minds have always wondered if we are alone in the universe. In recent decades it has become a distinct attempt to connect or communicate with others like us, while those in ancient times and the years building up to the modern era often thought of it as a search for God or a validation of various cultural creative myths.

This is where Fermi's Paradox comes in. The paradox, in a nutshell before we dive too deep into it, is as follows:

The contradiction between the probabilistically high chances of their being life other than ours in the universe versus humanity's lack of direct contact thus far with said life.

In another way, all of the odds work in the favor of their being something else out there, but using that logic, humans should have made contact by now.

While this question has been posed before Enrico Fermi did so in the mid-20th century, it was after his questioning; and the subsequent examination by Michael Hart in 1975, that the question began to be widely circulated in the scientific community, as well as the general populace.

Positing such a theory has lead to many attempts to find that life, using both technology and the old-fashioned 'eyes on the sky'. But before we dive into how the paradox is being put to the test today, it would help to examine the variables which alter the probability in more detail.

What are the Odds?

Fermi's Paradox works under a few core points of argument, as put forth by both Fermi and Hart:

  • Out little solar system is fairly young by comparison to the age of the universe. As such, there are stars and presumably solar systems out there billions of years older.
  • Of all of these billions of stars, there is a chance that an Earth-like (i.e. life sustaining) planet is present.
  • Based off of our own history, chances are good that some of these civilizations are working on, or have developed, interstellar travel.
  • At a practical pace of travel (nothing necessarily crazy like magic worm-hole travel or what have you) the galaxy should have been colonized in a few ten million years.

Some additional clarification. The tens of millions of years seems immense, but the position of the claim is that there are much, much older suns, planets, and solar systems than our own. This would provide the necessary time for a civilization to grow and prosper and technologically advance enough to travel space (based off of our human history and technological progression).

However, no solidly scientific reports of visit or colonization have been recorded, and amongst all of the radio messages and communications sent into the universe (more on that shortly), no responses have been heard.

Thus the questions was asked, are we alone?


Are We Alone?

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Frank Drake

Adding Details: The Drake Equation

In 1961, a decade after Fermi first introduced the 'Where are they?" question in the world, a man named Frank Drake attempted to develop an equation to better solidify the understanding and attempt to mathematically 'clean-up' the gritty details of the Paradox.

Drake himself stated that the equation itself was more about trying to put things in a semblance of order than actually trying to 'solve' anything per se, but the Drake Equation does try to place some variables within the Paradox framework that help with analyzing the probabilities therein.

The main formulaic points are as follows:

  • The rate of star formation in the galaxy
  • The fraction of those stars in which habitable planets exist
  • The fraction of those habitable planets that sustain life
  • The fraction of sustained life that is also intelligent
  • The further fraction of intelligent life that created detectable technology
  • And finally, the length of time such civilizations exist

The obvious problem is that the majority of these variables are unknown and currently untestable...we can't be sure how many habitable planets can support technologically advanced life as we (meaning Earth) is the only existing model of such an occurrence happening.

This attempt left people somehwat embittered, it simply provides research points to possibly come up with a nice number that is still uncertain. As such, since Fermi's original discussion in the 1950s an alternate method has been underway...reaching out to the stars and attempting to create a communicative bridge.


The Search For Life Today

Today, much of Fermi's thinking is no longer considered as valid as once thought.With the advent of higher technology and more robust and well-rounded ways to search the cosmos for life, theoretical what-ifs are not considered a very productive way to contribute to the search.

But, it should be said, that ideas and concepts such as Fermi's Paradox provide a valuable stepping off point wherein academia began to actually consider extraterrestrial life, rather than the thought being relegated to the dime novel or sci-fi flick.

As humanity continues to look out amongst the stars and evaluate our own place in the universe, remembering Fermi, his paradox, and the core concepts within is essential. It not only assists in providing that all too valuable element of self-analysis, but also assists in putting humanity as a whole in universal terms.

When we eventually do find that life, much of what was theorized may very well come to the forefront of popular discussions once again.

The Cosmos

Our expansive galaxy, one among an infinite number in the universe as a whole.
Our expansive galaxy, one among an infinite number in the universe as a whole. | Source

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