Civilizations are Probably Spreading Quickly Through the Universe

An illustration of cosmic expansion. Credit: NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center Conceptual Image Lab

The Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) has always been plagued by uncertainty. With only one habitable planet (Earth) and one technologically advanced civilization (humanity) as examples, scientists are still confined to theorizing where other intelligent life forms could be (and what they might be up to). Sixty years later, the answer to Fermi’s famous question (“Where is Everybody?”) remains unanswered. On the plus side, this presents us with many opportunities to hypothesize possible locations, activities, and technosignatures that future observations can test.

One possibility is that the growth of civilizations is limited by the laws of physics and the carrying capacity of the planetary environments – aka. The Percolation Theory Hypothesis. In a recent study, a team from the University of the Philippines Los Banos looked beyond traditional Percolation Theory to consider how civilizations might grow in three different types of Universes (static, dark energy-dominated, and matter-dominated). Their results indicate that, depending on the framework, intelligent life has a finite amount of time to populate the Universe and is likely to do so exponentially.

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Beyond “Fermi’s Paradox” XV: What is the Percolation Theory Hypothesis?

Artist's impression of the Milky Way Galaxy. Credit: ESO

Welcome back to our Fermi Paradox series, where we take a look at possible resolutions to Enrico Fermi’s famous question, “Where Is Everybody?” Today, we examine the possibility that Earth hasn’t been visited by aliens because interstellar travel is not very practical!

In 1950, Italian-American physicist Enrico Fermi sat down to lunch with some of his colleagues at the Los Alamos National Laboratory, where he had worked five years prior as part of the Manhattan Project. According to various accounts, the conversation turned to aliens and the recent spate of UFOs. Into this, Fermi issued a statement that would go down in the annals of history: “Where is everybody?

This became the basis of the Fermi Paradox, which refers to the disparity between high probability estimates for the existence of extraterrestrial intelligence (ETI) and the apparent lack of evidence. Since Fermi’s time, there have been several proposed resolutions to his question, which includes the very real possibility that interstellar colonization follows the basic rule of Percolation Theory.

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