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A man standing on a country road looking at lights from a UFO

The Fermi Paradox: Where are all the aliens?


What is the Fermi Paradox?

‘So where is everybody?!’ That was the question posed to physicists Emil Konopinski, Edward Teller and Herbert York in the summer of 1950. It was put to them by their fellow eminent scientist, the Italian-American architect of the atomic bomb, Enrico Fermi. It was a question for which the men not only had no immediate answer, they needed time to even formulate any possible hypotheses.

Fermi offered his query out in earnest, casually blurting it out while the men strolled on their way to get lunch one afternoon. Yet as their conversation deepened, the innocent question began to take on more and more significance, eventually forming the backbone of what became known as ‘The Fermi Paradox’. It is now one of the most discussed, debated and pondered dichotomies in modern philosophical science.

What does it have to do with aliens?

When Fermi asked his friends and colleagues where ‘everybody’ is, he wasn’t wondering why the park they were strolling through was so devoid of picnickers. His question was referring, specifically, to aliens.

Why is it, Fermi puzzled, that we have never had any formal, confirmed or documented communication with extraterrestrial life? Surely, given that the universe is so incredibly ancient, so unfathomably large and so packed with inhabitable planets, contact with aliens should have been inevitable by now?

The Great Filter Theory: A possible explanation

Professor Robin Hanson's 'Great Filter Theory’ could help us understand the apparent absence of contact with extraterrestrial life. His idea suggests that there is a quite basic obstacle - or filter - in the way. Something that prevents life from progressing to the advanced stages of development needed for the kinds of space travel required. This filter could be a series of difficult steps that life must overcome in order to get to the point of becoming a fully-fledged space-faring civilisation.

Essentially, the theory suggests that all life in the universe has an intelligence cap. If the Great Filter means it's difficult for life to evolve into being capable of great feats of space travel, it will explain why we haven't found any other advanced civilisations in the universe. It would also suggest that we, as humans, will never hit the levels necessary to figure out the kinds of interspace or interstellar travel necessary in order to visit alien life on their own planets.

Some have proffered that Hanson's Great Filter could be the concept of 'abiogenesis', the idea of life coming out of lifelessness. This would suggest that life on Earth is something of an aberration and is so unlikely and rare that there is no - or very little - chance of intelligent life elsewhere in the universe.

What else might explain the paradox?

Since Fermi voiced his paradox, plenty of scientists and thinkers have put forward their postulations. Some seek to answer the question, others look to prove that the question itself isn’t valid. Whatever way those that seek to address the question do so, their theories add to the debate. Not only that but - sooner or later - one of them could be the answer to all of humanity’s questions surrounding the existence of extraterrestrial life.

Let’s explore some of the main possible answers to Fermi’s question.

Most advanced civilisations are wiped out before they invent intergalactic travel

This is the claim that, around the time of the development of space flight, advanced techno-civilizations may typically (and accidentally) kill themselves off. According to the astronomer Sebastian von Hoerner, two factors - the struggle for dominance and the desire for an easy time of things - affect science and technological advancement.

The latter, von Hoerner reckons, results in biological or mental deterioration, while the former could result in total destruction. Either way, it means never truly realising any capabilities that are developed. This can be applied to us humans as well as any alien life.

Earth is deliberately being left alone

This idea, the ‘Zoo Hypothesis’ likens Earth to a laboratory or a zoo. It puts forward the notion that humanity is being watched but that communication is intentionally avoided by those with their beady eyes on us. We’re currently in a monitoring phase as it’s been deemed that we’re not ready to be interacted with. That we’re yet to reach an evolutionary maturity to, effectively, be worth talking to. Slightly upsetting if true, but an interesting theory nonetheless.

We’re so different that communication is all but impossible

Maybe all the aliens went home after realising that civilisations and beings from such starkly different places simply cannot communicate, via any method of language. That includes mathematics, something that’s long been held as our possible means of communication with extraterrestrials. It’s perfectly possible that maths as we know is only really relevant or valid conceptually here on Earth.

Alien life is - quietly - already here

This theory would be backed up by the recent revelations heard in US Congress that claim UFOs have long cruised the night skies. It basically answers the paradox by saying, ‘they’re here, they’re just keeping a fairly low profile.'

Intelligent extraterrestrial life is incredibly rare

‘The Rare Earth Hypothesis’ disputes a fundamental tenet of Fermi’s Paradox. Those that buy into it say that alien life isn’t as likely as we’ve all imagined. Their perspective is that the conditions for life to evolve to the point of space travel only really exist in the perfect storm of various factors that have allowed humanity to get to the advanced stage that we’re at.

We’re living in a simulation and aliens aren’t part of the programme

Here’s the big hypothetical - the idea that we’re all living inside The Matrix. Fantastical to many, this theory has it that none of what we experience is real; our lives aren’t the tangible reality that we take them for. Our existence is merely a simulation played out in some form of subconscious realm. This fakery is programmed by some higher power or entity that has no interest in adding alien characters to the simulacra. It’s an idea that has theoretical and philosophical merit but is widely dismissed by many.

In conclusion

The Fermi Paradox is a fascinating idea, one which offers up as many further questions as it does potential answers. It’s a puzzle that’s particularly prescient at the moment, given all the talk of the possibility of the US government running secret UFO programmes which may have actually retrieved alien craft and ‘non-human biologics’.

We’ll leave you with a thought from another inspired science thinker, the late, great British writer, Sir Arthur C. Clarke. He summed up the issue by saying this:

‘Two possibilities exist… Either we are alone in the universe, or we are not. Both are equally terrifying.’