Updated: Sep 3, 2020
Movies like Star Wars makes it seems like there are an abundance of extraterrestrial life in the Universe. But where are they in reality?
(This article was written in collaboration with Jordan Tay for Wix Reads)
Okay quick disclaimer before we start: when I initially coined this article's idea in my head, I wanted to name it "A Potential Resolution To The Fermi Paradox" as it is the topic I actually planned on discussing. Clearly, the name itself would be a major turn-off and not to mention just plain boring that no one would click on it (I would know because even I wouldn't click on a title like that - and I'm the one writing it!). As such, I've decided to twist the title to make it more interesting. We will still be exploring the Fermi Paradox, but we'll see how a potential solution to this paradox could impact our understanding of the Universe we live in.
The Fermi Paradox
If you have never heard of the Fermi Paradox before, don't worry, it isn't some complicated mind boggling paradox like the Grandfather Paradox (which is another interesting paradox we'll be looking at in a future article). Named after an Italian-American physicist called Enrico Fermi, the Fermi paradox simply states the apparent contradiction between the various high probability estimates of extraterrestrial civilizations in our Universe and the lack of evidence of their existence. An example of such an estimate includes the famous Drake equation:
Where our certainty on the exact value of each term decreases as we progress along the equation. We can predict the average rate of star formation pretty accurately but estimating the lifetime of an alien civilization's communicative phase (the period in which an extraterrestrial civilization is willing and able to communicate with distant planets) is just taking a shot in the dark. As there are so many variables in the equation and assumptions needed to be made, it is extremely difficult to estimate the number of civilizations in the Universe.
One Monte Carlo simulation (a type of computational algorithm) of the Drake equation using the Milky Way's stellar and planetary model alone has resulted in the estimated number of civilizations varying by a factor of 100 . However, with larger values for each of the parameters in the equation, one can see that it is possible to have an abundance of extraterrestrial life elsewhere in the Universe.
This brings the Fermi Paradox into perspective: With billions of stars in the Milky Way being similar to our Sun; and some of those stars having high probabilities of hosting Earth-like planets; and a smaller set of those stars being older than our Sun meaning that intelligent life could have developed a long time ago; and an even tinier fraction of those intelligent life developing interstellar travel and fully exploring the Milky Way in a couple million years; taking into consideration that some of these stars have existed more than a billion years before the Sun giving them ample time to stumble upon Earth. An optimistic estimate of the Drake equation gives 15,600,000 extraterrestrial civilization in our galaxy.
But Where Is Everybody?
15.6 million definitely sounds like a big number. With so many potential civilizations out there, how come we haven't found solid evidence of their existence? This is the basis of the Fermi Paradox and we have been trying to come up with reasonable explanations to resolve it. In this section we will glance through a few interesting hypotheses before continuing on to a more in depth analysis of my personal take on the paradox.
One of the more well known hypothesis to the Fermi paradox is the Great Filter hypothesis. It proposes that there is a certain unidentifiable phenomenon or constraint that prevents non-living matter from evolving into living organisms and more so to expanding lasting life by colonizing the Universe. One proposed filter is that the abiogenesis (spontaneous generation) of life is itself so incredibly rare that life on Earth is one in insurmountable odds. This could explain why we still haven't found life on other planets, but as we are beginning to find complex life even in the most inhospitable parts of Earth, I find it rather hard to believe this.
Another suggested Great Filter theorized that there is in fact an abundance of intelligent life in the Universe. However, as a civilization starts advancing in technological prowess, its ability to harness and use an ever increasing amount of energy for the better or worse leads to a natural tendency for a civilization to self-annihilate itself before getting a chance to venture to other stars. Perhaps all intelligent life succumbs to the fallacy of inward conflict resulting in their own annihilation before gaining the necessary wisdom to set aside their differences and work together for the common goal of self-preservation (in that sense maybe intelligent life isn't so intelligent after all).
There are definitely other interesting filters to explore, but maybe that's for a future article. Let's take a quick look at crazier hypotheses of the Fermi paradox before concluding this section. The Zoo Hypothesis assumes the behavior and existence of a technological superior extraterrestrial civilization that refrains from communicating with us and instead watches our development from afar. In that sense we're like animals in a galactic zoo being watched through a one-way mirror by alien tourists - we don't even get peanuts. But to be honest, I rather not get peanuts than live in the Super-predator Hypothesis where a powerful alien civilization also exist but instead seeks to exterminate any other intelligent life they find to ensure that they remain unchallenged.
Apart from that nightmare, there's also the Water World Hypothesis that suggests that the percentage of landmass in planets that can harbor water is actually very small and that Earth is the only exception with such a high landmass of 32% . If most water worlds are those such as the subregion Polynesia, evolution of intelligent life may never reach a stage where prehensile (capable of grasping), multi-fingered appendage develops. Intelligent lifeforms may only exist in a way similar to whales, dolphins or squids who could never develop their own spaceship. Lastly, there is also the Simulation Hypothesis where the ability of mind-uploading exists and that extraterrestrial life simply chooses to live in a virtual world to obtain immortality. If living in a simulation piques your interest, check out my previous article here.
A Potential Resolution To The Fermi Paradox
With so many possible theories to the Fermi paradox, we'll never truly know for sure which is the right one till we found actual extraterrestrial life somewhere out there. For me however, I have subscribed myself to a particular resolution simply because it makes the most sense to me. We will now delve into it to see how this hypothesis could impact humanity's place in the Universe.
This potential resolution falls under the Great Filter category and was briefly touched upon by the late Stephen Hawking himself in his book Brief Answers To The Big Questions. The great filter in this sense is the development of "intelligent" life itself - note the quotation marks as there's many interpretation of the definition of intelligence and in this context we're comparing intelligence to something resembling that of modern day homo sapiens. The argument for this theory states that intelligence of this caliber is not evolutionary viable, the development of human intelligence from ancient primates was purely coincidental and lucky.
You might be wondering to yourself: what in the world is he talking about? Isn't it because of our intelligence humans are able to become the apex predator of Earth and develop the futuristic technologies and sprawling societies that we live in today? Yes, you're definitely right about that. Because of human intelligence we have certainly established ourselves as the alpha of this planet. However, you have to understand that in an evolutionary point of view, intelligence was never the norm as evolution solely drives the preservation of characteristics that guarantees the continued survival of a species. Human intelligence was a fluke as it doesn't actually ensure our species' survival. In fact, the progression of our intelligence has merely placed us in an even greater chance of extinction from nuclear war, overpopulation, global warming and other endless man-made issues.
Proper evolution should result in long-living species such as the Actinobacteria which can live to be half a million years old  and have existed for millions of years. Comparing their lifespans to our species' existence of a mere 200,000 years, it can be said for certain that if somehow we are unlucky enough to annihilate ourselves, there would still be a handful of evolutionary winners that will certainly outlive us.
Understanding this, we can actually breathe easier as it means that we could potentially be the first and only species to cross the great filter. We no longer need to cower in fear of an impending, unknown Armageddon pre-programmed to wipe us out before our dreams of intergalactic colonization are realized. We don't have to worry about a predatory, ancient alien civilization suddenly appearing out of nowhere and bringing Independence Day to our doorsteps. Sure, we might be the only intelligent life in the Universe, sending greetings to our galactic neighbors and never receiving a reply, but this doesn't mean that there aren't any extraterrestrial life out there.
The Intelligence Great Filter means that there are indeed an abundance of alien life in the Universe, they simply will never reach the level of human intelligence as the evolutionary odds of that happening are extremely slim. We can take solace in the possibility that life itself is common and that we do not need to feel alone in the Universe. When we finally put our differences aside and work together to develop the technologies needed for interstellar travel, I'm optimistic that we would find trillions of familiar yet alien-looking flora and fauna on the thousands (and counting!) of confirmed exoplanets we have discovered. We may never have a cute baby Yoda to cuddle, but believing that the fate of our species is solely in our hands and not on some upcoming filter gives me hope for a better future.
[ 2 ] Forgan, D. (2009). "A numerical testbed for hypotheses of extraterrestrial life and intelligence". International Journal of Astrobiology. 8 (2): 121–131.
[ 3 ] Why David Brin Hates Yoda, Loves Radical Transparency, Wired interview, August 8, 2012.
[ 4 ] Willerslev, Eske; Froese, Duane; Gilichinsky, David; Rønn, Regin; Bunce, Michael; Zuber, Maria T.; Gilbert, M. Thomas P.; Brand, Tina; Munch, Kasper; Nielsen, Rasmus; Mastepanov, Mikhail; Christensen, Torben R.; Hebsgaard, Martin B.; Johnson, Sarah Stewart (September 4, 2007). "Ancient bacteria show evidence of DNA repair". Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. 104 (36): 14401–14405.