Sunday, September 28, 2014

The Fermi Paradox and the End of all Intelligent Life

Since the beginning, humans have always looked up and wondered.  They wondered what was up there, and as our knowledge of the Universe grew we began to wonder who might be up above.  What other creatures roam our universe, and do they look up and wonder as we do?  Is it truly possible that we are alone even with the over 300 billion stars that inhabit our galaxy, and the over 100 billion galaxies that fill our universe?

Once we started wondering those things, we started searching for any signs of life outside of Earth, and since then no proof of alien life has been found. In 1950, Enrico Fermi, a physicist, had an informal discussion where he questioned why, with all the billions of stars in our galaxy alone, we have been unable to find any evidence of intelligent alien life.(*)  Intelligent life would be the most likely for us to be able to detect, since the idea is that they would have and understand similar technology like radio signals and probes.  It is also theorized that the possibility of far more advance intellegent life should be high because many stars and planets have been around far longer than Earth, giving them far more time to evolve than us. Also, if there is intelligent life, it should go on to colonize the galaxy, just as we continue to push farther and farther toward exploring the galaxy.

The Fermi Paradox is the idea that since we have been unable to detect any alien life, and there is no evidence that our galaxy has been colonized in any way, there must be something that destroys 100% of all intelligent life before it gains the ability to go on to colonize and explore the galaxy and ultimately the universe.  Many people ponder what this destructive force may be.  Will we be our own worst enemy and destroy ourselves with our own technology? Perhaps our demise will come in the form of a massive asteroid.  Whatever the cause, all intelligent life must be destroyed, as it would go on to colonize the galaxy and no evidence of this has been found.

This paradox is fascinating to me, and I have spent some time discussing it with my husband, Andrew. Though the idea of a massive destructive force that destroys all intelligent life is interesting, I did have a few thoughts concerning the likelihood of this.  There are so many factors at play in the universe that we only understand that we don't understand most things.  Our knowledge of the universe is limited and what we do know about physics breaks down on the quantum level, demonstrating that some essential information about our universe is still being put together.  Because of this, one major flaw in the Fermi Paradox is the assumption that if other intelligent life in our galaxy exists it would be using technology similar to us.  It is very possible that any technology being used by intelligent life is far beyond any that we understand.  On a universal scale, humans have only been around for a microscopic amount of time.  Given a few hundred million years, or even a few billion, the technology of the day would be far more advanced than ours and possibly undetectable with our current level of technology.

Something else I thought about is that the Fermi Paradox makes the assumption that intelligent life is something that can happen on any planet in a habitable zone with enough time.  Perhaps Earth is lucky, and intelligent life is actually far rarer than we like to assume.  We have only catalogued about 2 million species on Earth currently, and it is estimated that there are 8.7 million species in total on Earth today.(*)  The amount of species that have ever existed on Earth is immeasurable and massive, and from what we know we are the only technologically advanced species.  Think how many species had to come along before we evolved into the intelligent life we are today.  If the evolution of intelligent and technologically advanced life is rarer than we like to speculate, it is possible humans are the first in this galaxy, or are one of the first to evolve.  It is very possible that there are components to intelligent life that are much more complicated than we care to admit, and that our understanding of the human body and mind is still extremely limited. What other factors have to be in play for intelligent life to have room to evolve?

Something I have noticed about many science authorities and historians, is that they have the tendency to underestimate the human race.  Although this is somewhat related to my previous point about the possibility that intelligent life is a very rare occurrence, I think it needs to be pointed out the there is the possibility that humans are a unique occurrence.  I personally believe this is far less likely, and intelligent life does exist out there.  None the less, there is that possibility that humans are, in fact, unique.  Perhaps our thirst for knowledge, and our tendency to always ask why, are something that requires a factor we do not understand. Humans have an ingrained curiosity for everything.  We ask how at every turn, and more importantly we are desperate to know why.  When you look back at the marvels of the world, like Stonehenge, we only have flimsy theories as to how they were created.  Since the beginning of our existence, our posterity have underestimated their ancestors, only proving to us more that what we think humans are capable of are just the beginning.

Perhaps there will come a time when humanity faces the Fermi Paradox and we will never get to truly explore the stars, but I like to think that one day we may encounter alien intelligent life and find them to be much like us, doubting their own abilities, wondering what amazing miracles exist in this beautiful expanse that we call the universe.

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