The Fermi Paradox: Where Is Everyone?
I first learned the name of Enrico Fermi, the legendary Italian physicist credited with creating the first nuclear reactor, when a college professor suggested I apply for a job at Fermilab in Batavia, Illinois. Mathematics research was a potential career path for a star math student like myself, and Fermilab – originally named National Accelerator Laboratory and renamed in Fermi’s honor in 1974 – was as good a place as any to start. I opted instead to pursue a career in music in nearby Chicago.
It was that career in music that many years later lead me to enjoying several martinis in a hotel bar with Mickey Dolenz, singer of The Monkees and a genuine pleasure to know. He had learned of my mathematics background and was excited to “talk shop”. Dolenz did not disappoint, and his recall of specific cosmic distances and travel times (assuming current day technology) after a couple of stiff drinks is truly impressive. What stuck with me from that conversation, though, was the Fermi Paradox.
The story goes something like this: in 1950 Fermi was having lunch with some physicist colleagues and the subject of intelligent life in the universe came up. Given that there is nothing especially notable or uncommon in the formation of our solar system and planet relative to the rest of the known universe, and given that there are about 125 billion known galaxies with perhaps 10-100 billion solar systems in each, the odds that Earth is the only planet that developed intelligent life is statistically impossible. Furthermore, an intelligent race on another planet with a modest evolutionary head start of even 100,000 years – a blink of an eye in cosmic terms – could possess technologies that are unthinkable to us. Certainly at least some portion of other species must have advanced to the point of space exploration.
During this conversation, a profound thought came to Fermi: if we must certainly not be alone in the universe and a sufficiently advanced species should be capable of traversing the stars, where is everybody?
There are a lot of plausible ideas to explain the lack of contact from other intelligent life. Perhaps it is too costly to travel from one galaxy to the next, or that space farers got tired of the journey before they reached Earth. Another possibility is that the galaxy is already well populated, but that we simply live in an isolated “neighborhood”. However one slices it, though, there simply is no answer; the Fermi Paradox remains a paradox.
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