Another Look at Fermi’s Paradox

ngc4414-hst NASA image of galaxy taken by Hubble Space Telescope and posted on AmericaSpace
If intelligent alien life is so abundant, then where is it? Image Credit: NASA / HST

Enrico Fermi was a theoretical and experimental physicist known for his work on the first nuclear reactor and his contributions to quantum theory, particle physics, and statistical mechanics. He won the Nobel Prize in 1938 and was widely known as the father of the atomic bomb, along with Robert Oppenheimer. One day over lunch, discussing the possibility of extraterrestrial life with Edward Teller, he made some calculations on a napkin and came up with a theory known as Fermi’s Paradox. It states that since there are probably many habitable planets orbiting stars that are considerably older than our Sun, intelligent extraterrestrial civilizations would likely be millions of years more advanced than us. Fermi theorizes than even at sub-light speed one or more of these civilizations would have had ample time to colonize the galaxy by now and we would have seen evidence of their presence. 

But we haven’t.

So according to Fermi, they don’t exist.

People, however, have been seeing weird stuff in the skies for a long time now, and many believe that UFOs could be the missing link in Fermi’s Paradox. There was recently a five-day symposium on the subject in Washington. It was chaired by six former congressman who were paid $20,000 each to listen to the stories of experts and witnesses laying out case linking UFOs to extraterrestrials. In the end, the conclusions drawn were inconclusive at best. After sightings by thousands of witnesses, including two presidents, there has never been a shred of proof of UFOs having a cosmic origin. Even those scientists who believe in life elsewhere aren’t buying it. Logic dictates that if aliens were coming here they would have either already said hello or have the technology to render their craft invisible to human eyes. As for the conspiracy buffs, I highly doubt we would be spending  billions trying to locate tiny microbes on Mars if we already had someone from out there, down here. The UFO movement has become more of a cult-based phenomenon and lucrative industry than anything grounded in scientific fact.

Seemingly more evidence supporting Fermi’s viewpoint.

The Fermi Paradox has for years been used as a fallback position for those scientists who believe the only advanced intelligent life in the cosmos is us. A principle as dependable and indisputable for them as the theory of relativity.

But are they right?

Yes and no.

Only someone like Fermi could instantly calculate that alien civilizations, millions of years old, would be able to colonize most of the galaxy by now, and he’s probably right. But when he concludes they don’t exist because we haven’t seen evidence of them, I have a problem with his logic. If an extraterrestrial civilization had colonized a large part of the galaxy, would we, as Fermi suggests, be aware of it?

I highly doubt it.

Any advanced civilization had probably long ago stopped using radio as a means of communication, and current telescopes would not be able to pick up evidence of their comings and goings. We could be receiving  their transmissions right now and probably wouldn’t recognize them for what they are.

There could be a galactic convention going on out there, and we probably wouldn’t know about it.

Arthur C. Clarke compares it to jungle savages listening for the beat of tom toms while the ether around them contains more words per second than they could utter in a lifetime.

There is a good chance that extraterrestrials have colonized a large part of the galaxy, and someday we will uncover proof of this.

That evidence could come in the form of something hypothetically known as a Bracewell Probe, that may have been be lurking for ages  in the far reaches of our Solar System, fully automated, highly intelligent, and ready to make contact at any moment. Or as depicted in the movie 2001, a device could have been on the Moon for eons, watching, waiting, and ready to send out a signal when discovered.  There could even be a complex system of tiny monitoring devices based on molecular nanotechnology here on Earth, observing us even now.

Science fiction becoming science reality.

Taking it a step further, we may eventually discover a string of satellites known in theory as a Dyson Sphere, constructed around a distant sun to harness the majority of that star’s energy output for whatever their needs might be. It may also be possible for an advanced alien race to create a black hole as an energy source, waste disposal, or even a means of transportation.

Even stranger still, some scientists think that there might be messages encoded in our DNA. Mathematical constructs that cannot be explained by Darwin’s theory of evolution. A kind of genetic WOW signal that suggests we may be products of alien engineering.

These kind of discoveries are still probably decades or even centuries in our future.

The difference between us and highly advanced alien civilizations could be so enormous that it might be like comparing the intellect of Albert Einstein to ants. Many scientists believe the gap to be even greater than that—an end result that at first glance may appear to look more like Fermi’s conclusion than anything else. Beings sophisticated enough to colonize the galaxy that are just too difficult for us to even recognize as a life form.

SETI’s 60-year search for narrow band repeating radio beacons at certain frequencies is admirable, but probably destined for failure from the beginning. When contemplating something truly alien, and advanced enough to traverse the galaxy, it is time to stop thinking of concepts in human terms and realize communicating with them may be comparable to attempting a conversation with a blade of grass. They might have become something more machine like than anything else, using forms of communication we can only dream of. Or perhaps even a society so technically proficient, they’ve morphed into beings that have retreated into their own Internet-like existence. There are even theories that some of the oldest lifeforms in the galaxy could become so highly evolved that they might develop the ability to transform themselves into something resembling vessels of pure energy, going where they want, no longer even needing spacecraft to traverse the vast distances between the stars.

So, as far as Fermi goes on this subject, I think he’s one for two.

They are out there somewhere. Of that I have no doubt. If they don’t find us first, we must eventually move out to the stars to try and locate them. The reasons are these: First, think of the answers to long-sought-after questions that will finally come our way; second, making contact will remind us that our world is inhabited by people who, despite their differences, are all the same, and perhaps hate, prejudice, and warfare will become a thing of the past; and third, if we can behave, we will become part of something greater and far more important than we could have ever imagined.

Members of the galactic society.

Very exciting.

The last one is not.

If we don’t learn to control our aggressive tendencies, long before we ever find aliens, one of Fermi’s other ideas might ultimately turn out to be our undoing. Then, all that we have achieved through the ages will be lost forever, as the human race is erased in the searing heat of nuclear annihilation.

Let’s not let that happen.


This is an opinion-based commentary. The thoughts expressed do not represent the views of

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  1. Let’s not forget that there might also be civilizations comparable to us technologically-speaking. We may very well find them well before any highly advanced aliens. I am convinced that the first great discovery will be microbial life beyond Earth.

  2. I wrote an article on this topic recently. Not trying to promote myself, but it was from a different perspective – the timetable required for the development of genetic complexity required for advanced lifeforms – that might add a little to this interesting discussion.

  3. It certainly would be amusing if, after the countless millions of gallons of blood that have soaked this planet in battles from Belfast to Baghdad to Botswana over God images and religious dogma, an eight foot tall purple and green scaled squid-like alien with one large yellow eye was to tell us emphatically that “God made me in his own image”. It would also be interesting to see whether, if we encountered aliens as far intellectually advanced over us as we are above cattle, would we gladly give to them the same liberties with us that we take with cattle.

  4. Thank you for posting this article. I think it’s good to get as many people as possible to think about these things as I believe were rapidly approaching a ‘make or break’ period in our history. That is to say, we are on the brink of either destroying all life on Earth or making the conscious decision to ‘clean up our act’ and move on to the stars. Both are within reach today.

    And, I have to agree with the idea that we will eventually find evidence for ETI within our DNA. I have posted as much at UT and other websites – toots his own horn. As above, I think it important to make ‘waves in the pond’ if only a ripple…

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