But, Seriously, Where Are the Aliens? – Derek Thompson | The Atlantic

But, Seriously, Where Are the Aliens?

Humanity may be as few as 10 years away from discovering evidence of extraterrestrial life. Once we do, it will only deepen the mystery of where alien intelligence might be hiding.

Derek Thompson | The Atlantic

Enrico Fermi was an architect of the atomic bomb, a father of radioactivity research, and a Nobel Prize–winning scientist who contributed to breakthroughs in quantum mechanics and theoretical physics. But in the popular imagination, his name is most commonly associated with one simple, three-word question, originally meant as a throwaway joke to amuse a group of scientists discussing UFOs at the Los Alamos lab in 1950: Where is everybody?

Fermi wasn’t the first person to ask a variant of this question about alien intelligence. But he owns it. The query is known around the world as the Fermi paradox. It’s typically summarized like this:    

If the universe is unfathomably large, the probability of intelligent alien life seems almost certain. But since the universe is also 14 billion years old, it would seem to afford plenty of time for these beings to make themselves known to humanity. So, where is everybody?

In the seventh episode of Crazy/Genius, a new podcast from The Atlantic on tech, science, and culture, we put the question to several experts, including Ellen Stofan, the former chief scientist of NASA and current director of the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum; Adam Frank, a writer and astrophysicist at the University of Rochester; Anders Sandberg, a scientist and futurist at the University of Oxford; and Tim Urban, the science essayist at Wait But Why.

Proposed solutions to Fermi’s Paradox fit into three broad categories.

One: They’re nowhere — and no-when. Aliens don’t exist, and they never have. This scenario might have seemed more likely in the universe imagined by Aristotle and Ptolemy — a small assortment of celestial orbs spinning around a singular Earth. But that isn’t the universe anybody lives in. After searching the skies for Earthlike planets for centuries, cosmologists have, in the last two decades, broken open the cosmic piñata. Today they estimate as many as 500 billion billion sunlike stars, with 100 billion billion Earthlike planets. The more we learn about the universe, the more absurd it would seem if all but one of those bodies were bereft of life. To my mind, this is both the least likely answer to Fermi’s Paradox and the only one that fits all the evidence currently available to astrophysicists.

Two: Life is out there — but intelligence isn’t. Ellen Stofan predicts that we’ll find evidence of simple life on Mars or a faraway moon within the next 10 to 30 years. But she’s imagining something more like microbes or algae, not underwater cities in the liquid-methane lakes of Titan. This shifts the question from “Where is everybody?” to a more sophisticated query:

What precisely is keeping an infinitude of dumb molecules from assembling to form an abundance of intelligent life?

Think about all the factors that add up to the creation of a human. First the spark of life, followed by the creation of simple cells, then complex multicellular organisms, then the formation of organs like brains. If humanlike intelligence is rare, one of these steps must be quite insurmountable. For example, it’s notable that Earth has several million species of life, but only one has produced a civilization — that we know of. The relative silence of the universe suggests some kind of “Great Filter” that is restricting the creation of more intelligent beings. More ominously, some scientists think it’s possible that this Great Filter isn’t in our distant past, but rather in our future; so, it’s not that intelligent life is rare, but rather that it pops into existence for a few thousand years before getting wiped out of existence for mysterious reasons.

Three: Intelligent life is abundant — but quiet. This possibility, known as the zoo hypothesis, invites some of the strangest speculation. Maybe humanity is still so basic and primitive that advanced civilizations don’t think we’re worth talking to. Or maybe those other civilizations have learned that broadcasting their existence leads to extermination at the hands of violent, intergalactic colonizers. Or maybe our solar system just happens to be located in a quiet, exurban cul-de-sac of the universe, an accident of cosmic geography. But none of these theories hold a candle to my favorite conjecture of all: slumbering digital aliens.

To understand why intelligent life might prefer to be based in a computer or cat-napping through the Anthropocene, check out the episode.

Anthropocene : The period during which human activity has been the dominant influence on climate change and the environment.

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  • panbrowne  On 06/26/2018 at 9:25 am

    For a brief while in the 70’s I worked at Fermi lab in Batavia Illinois.

  • Albert  On 06/26/2018 at 12:07 pm

    “the universe is unfathomably large” with “estimated 500 billion sunlike stars and 100 billion earthlike planets”

    Yet many of our brethren think they have a direct line to the creator behind it.

    Enjoy life. its all we have.

  • Ron Saywack  On 06/26/2018 at 2:22 pm

    Even though our space exploration is in its infancy, we have reached (to our credit) the plateau from where we can begin to ponder the immensity of space and time, the vastness of the universe, the possible existence of extraterrestrial intelligence, and our limitations.

    Carl Sagan, in the latter part of the previous century, explained the universe in language the common man may understand, both on television and radio and in print. His epic book Cosmos is a must-read for anyone wanting to garner a basic understanding of the mystery of life and the universe. It is one of the most amazing, informative pieces of literature ever written: one which I have read four times over the years.

    The curious may ask: if there is intelligent life in the universe, why haven’t we heard from them (or seen them) yet? First, you must begin to understand time and distance in order to put this question in perspectives. And that is a very difficult thing for humans to do. In fact, impossible.

    Light travels at approximately 186,000 miles per second. Think of how far it travels in a minute, then an hour, then a day, then a week, then a month and then a year. At this point, the mind begins to bend, to numb. A light year is a vast distance, yes, one light year is incomprehensible.

    But when we discuss the universe in terms of millions and billions of light years, who can wrap his or her mind around that? None!

    Alpha Centauri (a binary star system) is the nearest star (in the Milkey Way Galaxy) outside our own. It is 25.6 trillion miles away.

    Voyagers I and Voyager II were launched in August and September 1977 by NASA to explore the Solar System and beyond. Traveling at nearly a million miles a day, it would take more than a half million years to do a round trip. And that is to a star that is merely 4,37 light years from us. Think about stars that are a hunderd or a thousand light years away, then a million or a billion light years.

    Since the (ubiquitous) laws of nature are the same all over the universe, it is safe to assume that all life-forms will be finite (or having an expiry date). Thus it is possible for space vehicles to travel great distances in space and time, intact; but not the possible life-forms within. If there were extraterrestrial lifeforms ‘nearby’, why would they want to find us on a tiny, tiny speck of rock in a remote, ho-hum part of the Milkey Way? How arrogant of us?

    To cut to the chase, it is virtually impossible for us to find (or to be visited by) aliens, contrary to the nonsense continually being perpetrated by confident ‘space experts’ out there. Alas, when we come to grips with this humbling reality, the more awe-inspiring the mighty universe remains; along with our staggering limitations in unraveling its mysteries.

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