Useful Notes: Fermi Paradox
The Fermi Paradox is an observation/question by physicist Enrico Fermi: The universe is very old. Life (from a scientific viewpoint) seems to be relatively simple—simple enough that, given the unimaginable size of the universe, there should be millions of planets with life scattered out there. And even without Faster-than-Light Travel, an intelligent spacefaring species should be able to spread across the galaxy in a relatively short amount of time. So where are all the aliens?
We should be able to see all kinds of signs for intelligent alien life when we look at the stars, or possibly even evidence of alien life visiting Earth. But we don't.
There are numerous proposed solutions to this question, which break down into two broad categories:
- Absent Aliens is the simple solution, and makes for a fairly straightforward story: the entire universe is essentially uninhabited, and out there for us to settle freely.
- Invisible Aliens is more tricky, as there may be all kinds of reasons we might not see the aliens that are out there. Even if life is common, intelligent life might be rare for any of a number of reasons. And even if intelligent life is common, it might be hiding, or it might not last very long. If they're bizarre Starfish Aliens, we may simply not recognize what we're looking at. If they're Sufficiently Advanced Aliens, we may not even have discovered the technologies required to detect them. And if they're more than sufficiently advanced, their intelligence might have led to some sort of transcendence that we can't detect, even in theory. Alternatively, they may be perfectly visible already, but The Men in Black are making sure the general public doesn't realize it.
Related to the paradox is the Drake equation
, one attempt to quantify the elements required to actually discover other intelligent life forms out there — unfortunately, most of its terms are unknown, and can never be
known for sure until after we resolve the Fermi Paradox one way or the other: either by finally contacting an alien civilization, or by exploring enough of the universe to say convincingly that they don't exist.
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Works that mention or discuss the paradox:
- Extra Credits devotes a two-parter to this subject and the Drake Equation. Available here and here.
- Stephen Baxter's three Manifold novels investigate three different solutions (using the same characters in each novel):
- The band Tub Ring has albums named Fermi Paradox and Drake's Equation.
- One strip of xkcd suggests that the solution to the paradox is that fun trumps survival.
- Another offers an alternative solution, they're all hiding
- A favorite subject of David Brin's:
- "The Fermi Paradox is Our Business Model" is the name of a short story by Charlie Jane Anders.
- Discussed by an astronomer and a possible answer provided in Variable Star. As a Generation Ship leaves Earth, the astronomer on the ship sees something odd about the sun. A quarter of the way through their trip, the sun explodes, destroying the entire solar system. The inhabitants of the ship conclude that this was done on purpose by an alien race, resolving the paradox Abusive Precursors style.
- The Fantastic Four: Omnidisciplinary Scientist Reed Richards researched this problem once. The answer? Planet Eater Galactus.
- More Information Than You Require proposes a solution: that the aliens are merely very far away. Possibly even... on other planets. It's also implied that Fermi himself was an alien.
- Mass Effect Zig zags this. An Eldritch Abomination species called the Reapers eliminates all space faring species once every 50,000 years but with the space transportation technology available, any number of species humanity does encounter could have visited us prior to our space age. In fact they did visit a pre-space age species and give them space travel so that they could help in a war, which led to disastrous results. So the reason we aren't visited is a combination of implied Alien Non-Interference Clause and Eldritch Abomination.
- In A Miracle of Science Mars re-established contact with the rest of humanity after going out into the universe and finding no aliens, they were all dead.
- George Carlin half-jokingly suggested that we haven't discovered aliens because they know exactly how bad we are as a species and are actively avoiding us.
- Alastair Reynolds' Revelation Space universe at first appears to be a case of Absent Aliens as humanity finds many worlds with life, and the ruins and relics of numerous advanced interstellar civilizations, but only a few rarely encountered, sparsely distributed interstellar species. As the series progresses, however, it turns out there's a very good reason for this...
- In Charles Stross's A Colder War short story, some characters discuss the fact that they're pretty sure they've solved why the paradox exists. It's not very pleasant.