The question of whether extra-terrestrial civilizations exist has long since been the debate of scientists, and the premise of many science fiction stories. In a galaxy with billions of planets, we might find it extraordinary that, if such life exists, we have not yet met it. Surely, if advanced life is out there, we would know about it?
In the early 1950s, Nobel physicist Enrico Fermi lay down a series of explanations to this apparent paradox. He considered that in our galaxy alone, the Milky Way, home to some 200 billion stars, there were most probably (as we now know with greater certainty) several hundred billion planets orbiting them, many of which would be capable of sustaining life. If that is the case, why have we not yet been visited by at least one extra-terrestrial civilization?
Even if life exists on only a tiny fraction of those billions of planets, the shear size of our galaxy (about 100,000 light years across) means that a civilization like ours, which should soon be able to explore surrounding solar systems at an appreciable fraction of the speed of light, could possibly investigate a significant part of the Milky Way in less than a million years. This time frame is only about 1/10,000th of the age of our galaxy, which dates back some 13 billion years, or of the Universe, which is approximately 14 billion years old, so there has been plenty of time for other such civilisations to do the same. It would therefore follow as highly likely that our planet has been visited by several hundred different extra-terrestrial species, so where are they?
The table below represents the possible solutions Fermi proposed for this paradox. Some seem more credible than others, but what do you think?
Image: The Fermi Paradox
More recently, prominent scientists have offered a more specific answer to Fermi’s paradox. They claim that it all boils down to resources. Based on a modest 2% annual growth rate in the consumption of our resources, Earth’s supplies will have run out in a few hundred years, long before we have managed to cross the stars.
The argument goes that civilization acceleration is the real blocker, in that as a civilization grows, it rapidly accelerates towards its own doom by consuming resources at a greater and greater pace. The further a species advances, the closer it comes to self-destruction, or at the very least reaching a place where it can no longer survive. If you throw the endless cycles of violence that we see in most species, but most obviously our own, into this mix, it points to an inevitable destruction, long before we make that jump to interstellar.
We see these same principles at play in the theories of Charles Darwin, where resources are a key factor in evolution. Our planet’s history is littered with species destroying themselves though over consumption. There is no way of knowing which of our defunct ancestors might have evolved into great civilizations if not for their extinction. Having said that, we do know we are exceptional amongst the animals, and our progress has been remarkably rapid. In about fifty thousand years, we have moved from caves to reach for the stars, but are we still on that inevitable collision course? At what point do we over-stretch ourselves? Have we peaked, and are we already on the decline?
What seems certain is that life does exist out there. What is far less certain is whether any civilization will ever be capable of escaping the resource traps that limit them to their near space. Perhaps some do, but the chances are so infinitely small that none have yet wandered our way. What do you think? Please leave your comments in the section below.
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The future depicted in Hadrian’s Gate is one in which we are still masters of those resources, and have reached to the stars. Life has been found on many worlds, but no species to rival our own. However, the threat of alien civilizations still preoccupies the human race, and provided the historical catalyst for the formation of the Union. Despite peace, we find a military obsessed with growth and power, determined to dominate a united galaxy, ready for the threats hiding among more distant stars.
Updated 24 Jan 2021
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