It’s become a legend of the space age. The brilliant physicist Enrico Fermi, during a lunchtime conversation at Los Alamos National Laboratory in 1950, is supposed to have posed a conundrum for proponents of the existence of extraterrestrial civilizations.
If space traveling aliens exist, so the argument goes, they would spread through the galaxy, colonizing every habitable world. They should then have colonized Earth. They should be here, but because they aren’t, they must not exist.
This is the argument that has come to be known as “Fermi’s paradox”. The problem is, as we saw in the first installment, Fermi never made it. As his surviving lunch companions recall (Fermi himself died of cancer just four years later, and never published anything on the topic of extraterrestrial intelligence), he simply raised a question, “Where is everybody?” to which there are many possible answers.
Fermi didn’t doubt that extraterrestrial civilizations might exist, but supposed that interstellar travel wasn’t feasible or that alien travelers had simply never found Earth in the vastness of the galaxy.
The argument claiming that extraterrestrials don’t exist was actually proposed by the astronomer Michael Hart, in a paper he published in 1975. Hart supposed that if an extraterrestrial civilization arose in the galaxy it would develop interstellar travel and launch colonizing expeditions to nearby stars. These colonies would, in turn, launch their own starships spreading a wave of colonization across the galaxy.
How long would the wave take to cross the galaxy? Assuming that the starships traveled at one tenth the speed of light and that no time was lost in building new ships upon arriving at the destination, the wave, Hart surmised, could cross the galaxy in 650,000 years.
Even allowing for a modicum of time for each colony to establish itself before building more ships, the galaxy could be crossed in two million years, a miniscule interval on a cosmic or evolutionary timescale. Hart asserted that because extraterrestrials aren’t already here on Earth, none exist in our galaxy.
Hart’s argument was extended by cosmologist Frank Tipler in 1980. Tipler supposed that alien colonists would be assisted by self-reproducing robots. His conclusion was announced in the title of his paper ‘Extraterrestrial intelligent beings do not exist’.
Why is it important that Hart’s argument wasn’t really also formulated by the eminent Enrico Fermi? Because Fermi’s name lends a credibility to the argument that it might not deserve. Supporters of the search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI) want to search for evidence that alien civilizations exist by using radio telescopes to listen for radio messages that extraterrestrials may have transmitted into space. Interstellar signaling is vastly cheaper than a starship, and is feasible with technology we have today.
Hart drew public policy consequences from his argument that extraterrestrials don’t exist. His paper concluded that “an extensive search for radio messages from other civilizations is probably a waste of time and money”.
Our political leaders heeded Hart’s advice. When Senator William Proxmire led the successful drive to kill funding for NASA’s fledgling SETI program in 1981, he used the Hart-Tipler argument. A second NASA SETI effort was scuttled by congress in 1993, and no public money has been allocated to the search for extraterrestrial radio signals ever since.
Like Hart, Sagan concluded that “if colonization is the rule, then even one spacefaring civilization would rapidly spread, in a time much shorter than the age of the galaxy, throughout the Milky Way. There would be colonies of colonies of colonies…”. So why didn’t Sagan, like Hart, assert that extraterrestrials don’t exist because they aren’t already here?
The answer is that Sagan, unlike Hart, considered unlimited colonization as only one of many possible ways that extraterrestrial spacefarers might act. He wrote that “habitable planets lacking technical civilizations will frequently be encountered by spacefaring civilizations. It is not clear what their response will be…Perhaps strict injunctions against colonization of populated but pre-technical planets are in effect in some Codex Galactica. But we are in no position to judge extraterrestrial ethics. Perhaps attempts are made to colonize every habitable planet…A whole spectrum of intermediate cases can also be imagined”.
Besides assuming that interstellar travel is feasible, Hart’s argument is based on very specific and highly speculative ideas about how extraterrestrials must behave. He assumed that they would pursue a policy of unlimited expansion, that they would expand quickly, and that once their colonies were established, they would last for millions or even billions of years. If any of his speculations about how extraterrestrials will act aren’t right, then his argument that they don’t exist fails.
The evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould was scathing in his criticism of Hart’s speculation. He wrote that ”I must confess that I simply don’t know how to react to such arguments. I have enough trouble predicting the plans and reactions of the people closest to me. I am usually baffled by the thoughts and accomplishments of humans in different cultures. I’ll be damned if I can state with certainty what some extraterrestrial source of intelligence might do”.
In 1981, Sagan and planetary scientist William Newman published a response to Hart and Tipler. While Hart used a very simple mathematical argument, assuming that an alien civilization would spread almost as fast as its ships could travel, Newman and Sagan used a mathematical model like the ones that population biologists use to analyze the spread of animal populations to model interstellar colonization.
They concluded that the rates of expansion assumed by Hart are highly unrealistic. Expansion will be drastically slower, for example, if civilizations control their population growth rates on any given planet to avoid ecological collapse, if colonies have a finite life span, and if alien societies eventually outgrow expansionist tendencies. Hart’s assumption that an alien civilization would spread almost as fast as its ships can travel isn’t plausible. It’s possible to walk across Rome in a day, Newman and Sagan noted, but Rome wasn’t built in a day. It grew much more slowly.
If the evolution of intelligent life is at all likely, other civilizations could emerge before any hypothetical first wave of expansion swept slowly over the galaxy. If several worlds produced waves of colonization, they might encounter one another. What would happen then? Nobody knows. The history of the galaxy can’t be predicted from a few equations.
For Newman and Sagan, the absence of extraterrestrials on Earth doesn’t mean that they don’t exist elsewhere in the galaxy, or that they never launch starships. It just means that they don’t behave in the way Hart expected. They conclude that “except possibly in the very early history of the Galaxy, there are no very old galactic civilizations with a consistent policy of conquest of inhabited worlds; there is no Galactic Empire”.
So, Enrico Fermi never did produce a powerful argument that extraterrestrial intelligence probably doesn’t exist. Neither did Michael Hart. The simple truth is that nobody knows whether or not extraterrestrials exist in the galaxy. If they do exist though, it’s possible that discovering their radio messages would give us the evidence we need. Then we could stop speculating and start learning something.
References and Further Reading:
F. Cain (2013) Where are all the aliens? The Fermi paradox, Universe Today.
F. Cain (2014) Are intelligent civilizations doomed? Universe Today.
R. H. Gray (2012) The Elusive WOW, Searching for Extraterrestrial Intelligence, Palmer Square Press, Chicago, Illinois.
R. H. Gray (2015) The Fermi Paradox is neither Fermi’s nor a paradox, Astrobiology, 15(3): 195-199.
M. H. Hart, (1975) An explanation for the absence of extraterrestrials on Earth, Quarterly Journal of the Royal Astronomical Society, 16:128-135.
W. I. Newman and C. Sagan (1981) Galactic civilizations: Population dynamics and interstellar diffusion, Icarus, 46:293-327.
C. Sagan (1963) Direct contact among galactic civilizations by relativistic interstellar spaceflight, Planetary and Space Science, 11:485-489.
I. S. Shklovskii and C. Sagan (1966) Intelligent Life in the Universe. Delta Publishing Company, Inc. New York, NY.
F. Tipler (1980) Extraterrestrial intelligent beings do not exist, Quarterly Journal of the Royal Astronomical Society, 21:267-281.
S. Webb (2010) If the Universe is Teeming with Aliens…Where is Everybody? Fifty Solutions to the Fermi Paradox and the Problem of Extraterrestrial Life. Copernicus Books, New York, NY.