Fermi paradox

The Fermi paradox  is the apparent contradiction between high estimates of the probability of the existence of extraterrestrial civilizations and the lack of evidence for, or contact with, such civilizations. It is named after the physicist Enrico Fermi who, in 1950, questioned why, if a multitude of advanced extraterrestrial civilizations exists in the Milky Way galaxy, evidence such as spacecraft or probes is not seen. It may suggests that our understanding of what is a “conservative” value for some of the parameters may be overly optimistic or that some other factor is involved to eradicate the development of intelligent space-faring life.

Current Data

Our solar system if seen from a radio telescope within a few tens of light years away would seem unusual for the huge amount of radio waves being emitted from what appears to be an otherwise unremarkable main sequence star. One can presume that a similar solar system civilization nearby would be immediately characterized as unusual by us.

Radio and observational data have for several decades been collected and analyzed by such projects as Project Ozma, the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI), and the various projects searching for extrasolar planets.
So far the SETI data seem to indicate that we are the only radio-transmitting species in at least that portion of our part of the Galaxy that has been surveyed; there are no known main sequence stars with unusually bright radio emissions. In addition, to date, the majority of the extrasolar planetary
systems that have been found appear to be harsh environments for advanced life-forms.

Some people contend that these results probably have a significant amount of sampling error: that we are searching the wrong radio frequencies in SETI and that we can more easily find planetary systems with planetary orbits and configurations that are less stable than our own. Still other people contend that we are probably the only spacefaring species in at least our galaxy; otherwise we would be awash in their radio transmissions, and have already been overrun by early colonization efforts.

The Argument Over the Premise Behind the Fermi Paradox

Some of those who subscribe to the Fermi principle state that given enough time to develop, the radio transmissions of any sufficiently advanced civilization will begin to outshine their parent star in the radio part of the spectrum.

Further, the mediocrity principle states that physical laws are the same throughout the Universe and the development of anything within the Universe has to follow these laws. Since the use of the electromagnetic spectrum for information transmission is relatively cheap and easy, one would expect any technological civilization to take advantage of at least a part of this spectrum during their development. We have been actively searching for extraterrestrial signals for almost 30 years with projects such as SETI and have been passively listening to radio static for nearly 100. During this entire period we have yet to hear any confirmed alien broadcasts nor have we observed any main sequence stars with unusual electromagnetic radio signatures that might indicate a technological civilization.

Those that believe the galaxy has many technologically advanced civilizations counter that the extraterrestrials may simply be using a medium other than radio or they eventually choose to hide their transmissions for some unknown reason.

This could very well be so, proponents of the Fermi Principle say, but only if there are very few such civilizations in both space and time and they very quickly abandon radio as a means of data transmission. Either way, they say, if there were very many of these civilizations their transmissions would make a large impact on at least some part of the electromagnetic spectrum for at least some part of their development. They further state, that if there are as many advanced extraterrestrial civilizations as Drake and Sagan have estimated, then their presence would be made obvious by their transmissions.

The Anthropic Principle

The anthropic principle supports the Rare Earth Hypothesis by arguing the overall elements that are needed to support life on Earth are so fine-tuned that it is nigh impossible for another just like it to exist by random chance (note that these terms are used by scientists in a different way from the vernacular conception of them). With the Anthropic Principle, Fermi Principle adherents say, one can quickly point out that if a particular planet is the only planet out of the trillions that has intelligent life on it, it would be certain that the people there would assume that they couldn’t be the only planet with intelligent life. They would think that, given the sheer numbers of other worlds, there must be others like themselves in the Universe.  However, the Anthropic Principle makes it necessary to gather additional information before such an assumption could be made.

Freeman Dyson’s Contribution

Popularized by Dr. Freeman Dyson, a Dyson Sphere is an opaque shell around a star. Such a shell would be created by advanced alien civilizations that wished to harness as much of the radiant energy of their sun as possible. The exact design of the Dyson sphere was not specified; it could consist of billions of independent solar collectors and space habitats or be a single unified structure, but in any case it would be made of solid matter and would intercept most of the star’s emitted light to re-radiate as waste heat. A star surrounded by a Dyson sphere would thus emit a distinctive black body spectrum without the strong emission lines that incandescent stellar plasma exhibits, probably with its peak unusually far into the infrared for a star of its size. With this speculation, he advised astronomers to search the night sky for unusually colored stars, which, he postulated, could only signify highly advanced and intelligent life. No such stars have yet been found.

Some adherents to the Fermi Principle state that it is highly unlikely that all advanced civilizations would not eventually take full advantage of the power source of their home star, and in doing so changing the electromagnetic signature of their sun.

Dr. Dyson also proposed a type of invention which he deemed likely to appear within the life-span of an intelligent civilization, the absence of which tends to support the Fermi Principle. He said that he thought that it would soon be possible for us to create an explorer-device which drew power from its surroundings to propel itself through the universe in search of intelligent life forms. Moreover, it would be possible to create versions of this device which could create and launch vast numbers of copies of itself by the process of machine reproduction. Even allowing for the realities of vast distances between stars and the relativistic speed-limit, if intelligent life were common, stars in our own galaxy much older than our own would be within a range to have built and launched fleets of these automated exploration devices.

Extraterrestrial Colonization

Adherents to the Fermi Principle furthermore argue that, from what we know about life’s ability to overcome scarcity and colonize new habitats on our own planet, we can reasonably assume that life elsewhere will follow similar principles. Given this, Fermi Principle adherents state that any advanced civilization will almost certainly try to seek out new resources and colonize first their solar system, and then surrounding solar systems. Several writers have tried to estimate the amount of time it would take for such a civilization to colonize the entire galaxy. What they have determined is that it would take 5 to 50 million years to accomplish this feat [1] – which is a tiny amount of time on even a geologic scale (not to mention a Galactic one).