In 1950, during a lunchtime conversation with colleagues at the Los Alamos National Laboratory, famed physicist Enrico Fermi asked the question that launched a hundred (or more) proposed resolutions. “Where is Everybody?” In short, given the age of the Universe (13.8 billion years), the fact that the Solar System has only existed for the past 4.5 billion years, and the fact that the ingredients for life are everywhere in abundance, why haven’t we found evidence of extraterrestrial intelligence by now? This came to be the basis of Fermi’s Paradox, which remains unresolved to this day.
Interest in Fermi’s question has been piqued in recent years thanks to the sheer number of “potentially habitable” exoplanets discovered in distant star systems. Despite that, all attempts to find signs of technological activity (“technosignatures”) have come up empty. In a recent study, a team of astrobiologists considered the possible resolutions and concluded that only two possibilities exist. Either extraterrestrial civilizations (ETCs) are incredibly rare (or non-existent), or they are deliberately avoiding contact with us (aka. the “Zoo Hypothesis“).
In 1950, while sitting down to lunch with colleagues at the Los Alamos Laboratory, famed physicist and nuclear scientist Enrico Fermi asked his famous question: “Where is Everybody?” In short, Fermi was addressing the all-important question that has plagued human minds since they first realized planet Earth was merely a speck in an infinite Universe. Given the size and age of the Universe and the way the ingredients for life are seemingly everywhere in abundance, why haven’t we found any evidence of intelligent life beyond Earth?
This question has spawned countless proposed resolutions since Fermi’s time, including the infamous Hart-Tipler Conjecture (i.e., they don’t exist). Other interpretations emphasize how space travel is hard and extremely time and energy-consuming, which is why species are likely to settle in clusters (rather than a galactic empire) and how we are more likely to find examples of their technology (probes and AI) rather than a species itself. In a recent study, mathematician Daniel Vallstrom examined how artificial intelligence might be similarly motivated to avoid spreading across the galaxy, thus explaining why we haven’t seen them either!