Thursday, June 16, 2016

Revisiting the Fermi Paradox

     Everyone interested in space knows something of the Fermi Paradox.  It arose from a conversation among scientists working on the development of the atomic bomb -- and that detail is not without significance.  When many of the top physicists associated with Los Alamos research were speculating one day about the likelihood of alien intelligence, Enrico Fermi threw out the paradoxical question, "If they are out there and know more than we do, why haven't they contacted us?" -- or words to that effect.  A very natural statement from an Italian-American who would have found it hard not to want to have a chat with interesting visitors.  Indeed, Fermi's observation has stirred a lot of curiosity among those wishing to hear from aliens.  
     Earth has been broadcasting now for about a century, so arguably some of our transmissions may well have made it out as far as 25 parsecs or so into outer space.  Recent discoveries of exoplanets lead us to suspect that somewhere in that expanse, life is likely to have evolved.  Perhaps even intelligent life.  The apparent silence observed so far by our radio telescopes and listening arrays could lead us to conclude that we are alone in the universe.  
     But wait!  A scientific report disseminated this week by Cornell researchers Evan Solomenides and Yervant Terzian comes to a different conclusion.  Based on the vastness of the universe, they conclude that it may well take another 1500 years before we can expect to get an answer from intelligent alien life beyond our solar system.   That's a long time to sit by the phone waiting for a call.  
     The Cornell duo present a well reasoned discussion of the issue.  The realm of speculative science fiction adds other possible scenarios for the lack of first contact so far.  Consider, for example, the wonderful early film It Came From Outer Space, where an extraterrestrial craft (oddly resembling one described in Cyrano de Bergerac's 17th century novel, The States and Empires of the Sun) crash lands on our planet, forcing its crew to kidnap and imitate Earthlings in order to procure materials to repair their vessel and depart unrecognized.  They have no intention of announcing their presence to us primitives because, as they are forced to divulge, we are not ready to understand them and their ways.  
     Despite Gene Roddenberry's almost cock-eyed optimism about our species, the Startrek universe relies on an equally accidental cause for first contact.  The Vulcans, who had been nonchalantly ignoring Earth,  only deem it worth a stopover when they detect that we have achieve technology to produce a warp drive.  
    Now, one may argue that accidentalism is not a very good explanation for the lack of response to our communications so far.  Highly intelligent creatures might not be awkward enough to simply stumble across mankind, as in the Universal-International film, or neglectful as the Vulcans in Star Trek First Contact.  One may assume, on the contrary, that such a race would have its eyes wide open, especially as they may have more than two.
    And if they were watching, what would they see?  A planet full of inexplicably belligerent beings interested in exploiting space for military purposes!  Not content with proliferating nuclear warheads and various other horrors on the planetary surface, we have filled space with weapons.  True, we have sent out misleading messages of peace on some of our space probes, yet in reality we continue to advertise strife in ways that would become obvious to any intelligent observer.  After all, for every peaceful observatory that we point out toward the heavens, there are scores, if not hundreds, of ultra-sharp satellites peering right back on Earth to search for potential military targets.  Of the spaceworthy states on Earth, only the Japanese and the European Space Program seem to have any commitment to peaceful exploration.  All of the American missions are carried out by military personnel and even NASA has been essentially weaponized.  No sooner had it developed a robotic minishuttle than it was turned over to the Air Force. The X37 spacecraft is launched from a secret location, on a military rocket, for mysterious purposes known only to military personnel.  It is not delivering popsicles to the International Space Station or tweaking the Hubble telescope, that much is for sure!
     We can only conclude that any intelligent alien life observing Earth would be very reluctant to make itself and its science known to such nasty beings.  It would be like putting assault weapons in the hands of brutal drug gangs (oh, wait! we do that!).  Surely, though, we would have intercepted some bit of stray communication, wouldn't we?  Maybe not.  If we Earthlings are capable of jamming each other's radio, microwave, and other transmissions, would not a more knowledgeable civilization have even more sophisticated ways of masking its own messages from us?  Would we be even capable of deciphering their communications, given that we are listening for messages as simple as a Fibonacci sequence?  More probably, we will hear from them when and only when they are good and ready for us to do it.  In the meantime, it is plausible to assume, as did the viscous creatures in It Came From Outer Space that we are not yet ready.  Folks, that may be a very diplomatic way of putting it.