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The Fermi Paradox Is Not Fermi's, and It Is Not a Paradox
Scientific American ^ | 1/29/16 | Robert H. Gray

Posted on 02/02/2016 1:30:21 AM PST by LibWhacker

Two big ideas often come up in discussions about the search for extraterrestrial intelligence, or SETI. One is the Drake Equation, which estimates the number of civilizations in our Galaxy whose signals we might be able to detect--potentially thousands, according to plausible estimates. The other is the so-called Fermi paradox, which claims that we should see intelligent aliens here if they exist anywhere, because they would inevitably colonize the Galaxy by star travel--and since we don't see any obvious signs of aliens here, searching for their signals is pointless.

The Drake Equation is perfectly genuine: it was created by astronomer and SETI pioneer Frank Drake. The Fermi paradox, however, is a myth. It is named for the physicist Enrico Fermi--but Fermi never made such a claim.

I'd like to explain why the so-called Fermi paradox is mistaken, based on my deep-dive research on the topic, because this mistake had inhibited the search for E.T., which I think is worthwhile. It was cited by Sen. William Proxmire (D-WI) as a reason for killing NASA's SETI program in 1981; the program was restarted at the urging of Carl Sagan, but was killed dead in 1993 by Senator Richard Bryan (D-NV). Since then, no searches in the U.S. have received government funds, even though thousands of new planets have been discovered orbiting stars other than our sun.

Enrico Fermi, a Nobel prizewinner who built the first nuclear reactor, never published a word on the subject of extraterrestrials. We know something about his views because physicist Eric Jones collected written accounts from the three surviving people present at a 1950 lunch in Los Alamos where the so-called Fermi paradox had its roots: Emil Konopinski, Edward Teller, and Herbert York (Fermi died in 1954).

According to these eyewitnesses, they were chatting about a cartoon in The New Yorker showing cheerful aliens emerging from a flying saucer carrying trash cans stolen from the streets of New York City, and Fermi asked "Where is everybody?" Everyone realized he was referring to the fact that we haven't seen any alien spaceships, and the conversation turned to the feasibility of interstellar travel. York seemed to have had the clearest memory, recalling of Fermi:

"... he went on to conclude that the reason that we hadn't been visited might be that interstellar flight is impossible, or, if it is possible, always judged to be not worth the effort, or technological civilization doesn't last long enough for it to happen."

Both York and Teller seemed to think Fermi was questioning the feasibility of interstellar travel--nobody thought he was questioning the possible existence of extraterrestrial civilizations. So the so-called Fermi paradox--which does question the existence of E.T.--misrepresents Fermi's views. Fermi's skepticism about interstellar travel is not surprising, because in 1950 rockets had not yet reached orbit, much less another planet or star.

If Fermi wasn't the source of this pessimistic idea, where did it come from?

The notion "... they are not here; therefore they do not exist" first appeared in print in 1975, when astronomer Michael Hart claimed that if smart aliens existed, they would inevitably colonize the Milky Way. If they existed anywhere, they would be here. Since they aren't, Hart concluded that humans are probably the only intelligent life in our galaxy, so that looking for intelligent life elsewhere is "probably a waste of time and money." His argument has been challenged on many grounds--maybe star travel is not feasible, or maybe nobody chooses to colonize the galaxy, or maybe we were visited long ago and the evidence is buried with the dinosaurs--but the idea has become entrenched in thinking about alien civilizations.

In 1980, the physicist Frank Tipler elaborated on Hart's arguments by addressing one obvious question: where would anybody get the resources needed to colonize billions of stars? He suggested "a self-replicating universal constructor with intelligence comparable to the human level." Just send one of these babies out to a neighboring star, tell it to build copies of itself using local materials, and send the copies on to other stars until the Galaxy is crawling with them. Tipler argued that absence of such gizmos on Earth proved that ours is the only intelligence anywhere in the entire Universe--not just the Milky Way galaxy--which seems like an awfully long leap from the absence of aliens on our one planet.

Hart and Tipler clearly deserve credit for the idea at the heart of the so-called Fermi paradox. Over the years, however, their idea has been confused with Fermi's original question. The confusion evidently started in 1977 when the physicist David G. Stephenson used the phrase 'Fermi paradox' in a paper citing Hart's idea as one possible answer to Fermi's question. The Fermi paradox might be more accurately called the 'Hart-Tipler argument against the existence of technological extraterrestrials', which does not sound quite as authoritative as the old name, but seems fairer to everybody.

As for the paradox, there is none, even in Hart's and Tipler's arguments. There is no logical contradiction between the statement "E.T. might exist elsewhere" and the statement "E.T. is not here" because nobody knows that travel between the stars is possible in the first place.

The Hart-Tipler argument, cloaked in the authority of Fermi's name, has made some people pessimistic about the chances for success in SETI. But the suggestion that we should not look for intelligent life elsewhere because we don't see aliens here is simply silly. There are some signs that the pessimism is lifting, most notably Yuri Milner's privately funded Breakthrough Listen project, which promises to contribute $100 million in funding over ten years. But searching millions of stars for signals at unknown frequencies might take more resources. Our searches typically 'see' a spot on the sky no bigger than the Moon at any moment, which is only a tiny fraction of the sky. If we want to find something interesting in our era, we might need to look harder.


TOPICS: Astronomy; Science
KEYWORDS: aliens; breakthroughlisten; carlsagan; davidgstephenson; drakeequation; dysonsphere; edwardteller; emilkonopinski; enricofermi; ericjones; extraterrestrials; fermi; fermibubbles; fermiparadox; fiddlesticks; frankdrake; franktipler; greenbankformula; herbertyork; losalamos; michaelhart; nasa; nevada; panspermia; paradox; redherring; richardbryan; seti; strawman; thenewyorker; ufos; wherearethey; williamproxmire; xplanets; yurimilner
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1 posted on 02/02/2016 1:30:22 AM PST by LibWhacker
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To: LibWhacker

So Fermi, who died in ‘54, was not here to defend his name when someone misappropriated it in to make the Fermi Paradox in ‘75.

At least the guy who wrote this article is setting the records straight.


2 posted on 02/02/2016 1:42:30 AM PST by Vision Thing (Vote Trump)
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To: LibWhacker

i would give me opinion on the mathematical odds that there is life on other planets and a percentage of those life forms can travel through the universe.

But I still dont know how to work the @#$@#$ing remote.

good luck.


3 posted on 02/02/2016 1:43:20 AM PST by dp0622 (I)
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To: Vision Thing

Sorry, that should have been: “when someone misappropriated it to make the Fermi Paradox in ‘75.”


4 posted on 02/02/2016 1:44:31 AM PST by Vision Thing (Vote Trump)
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To: LibWhacker

Defund Planned Parenthood - fund SETI!


5 posted on 02/02/2016 1:51:52 AM PST by eCSMaster (Hunga Tonga-Hunga.)
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To: LibWhacker

I will quote from Michael Crichton on the Drake equation, “The problem, of course, is that none of the terms can be known and most cannot even be estimated. The only to work the equation is to fill it in with guesses. And guesses - just so we’re clear - are merely expressions of prejudice.”


6 posted on 02/02/2016 1:58:35 AM PST by Dad was my hero
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To: LibWhacker

the question isn’t whether or not there is life elsewhere in the universe. since the universe is so vast, there MUST be life elsewhere.

stepping passed that, we get to the question of how -rare- life really is out there. well... since we’ve found evidence of microbial life on mars... MARS!! ... literally right next door... life goes from epicly rare to slightly above common.

that alone is stunning.

now the real question: how much life is out there that could make the trip to see us.

you see, for that to happen, not only would life have to evolve, it would have to be intelligent enough and lucky enough to make it to space travel. from there, it would have to have the motivation to look around. this significantly cuts down on the number of possibly lifeforms that could stop by...

now the big one: are any of these lifeforms close enough to stop by... and do they exist NOW.

you see, time in the universe is VAST. our existence on the universal timeline is a blip ... and our ability to travel to the stars or even comprehend beings from another planet... is the barest glow on the leading edge of that blip.

to have that sliver of time intersect with the sliver of time from another local, advanced race is VERY low on the probability scale.

BUT... that doesn’t mean we can’t be visited by something generated by their society, thousands or millions of years after that race died out.

and what would that be? would could exist beyond the race that created it?

artificial intelligence.

once a race creates an AI and that AI gets off planet, the odds of it dying drop radically ... since its existence isn’t nearly as fragile as our own.

and such an intelligence, wandering the universe for millions of years, could get lonely, if it has such a concept. it might enjoy passing itself off as human just to interact, as it could definitely assume any form it wishes.

and yes... to us, it would be almost god like

hey, Art Bell’s off the air again... someone has to don the cap-of-tin in the wee hours ;)


7 posted on 02/02/2016 1:59:29 AM PST by sten (fighting tyranny never goes out of style)
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To: LibWhacker
I'd like to explain why the so-called Fermi paradox is mistaken, based on my deep-dive research on the topic, because this mistake had inhibited the search for E.T., which I think is worthwhile. It was cited by Sen. William Proxmire (D-WI) as a reason for killing NASA's SETI program in 1981; the program was restarted at the urging of Carl Sagan, but was killed dead in 1993 by Senator Richard Bryan (D-NV).

I wonder if this the last time a Democrat actually worked to cut a government program.

8 posted on 02/02/2016 2:05:51 AM PST by Pontiac (The welfare state must fail because it is contrary to human nature and diminishes the human spirit.)
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To: sten
Would an alien species developed enough to travel through space have the intelligence and skill to create a portrayal that would blend in with a native environment? Since the space travelers have superior intelligence, one suspects so.

Another thought to ponder: are the germs of self destruction imbedded in the existence of all intelligent life? If humans are any indication, once a species reaches a certain level of development, it will self destruct.

(whew....time for that AM cup of coffee)

9 posted on 02/02/2016 2:13:08 AM PST by grania
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From the 1970s -- Thomas J Gold: "But I am not really willing to accept your premise, because it may well be that the means of communications they have are of a kind that we do not know how to receive, and that they would not have the means of communicating with sufficiently powerful radio or optical signals. That is something which, technologically, is too difficult for them but they would have some other means we would not recognize." and "What we can conclude from this is that we must think very widely as to what it takes to develop intelligence and not take us so much as a model of what is necessary." [Communication with Extraterrestial Intelligence, p 123; Sagan editor -- CETI was the old acronym]

10 posted on 02/02/2016 2:18:29 AM PST by SunkenCiv (Here's to the day the forensics people scrape what's left of Putin off the ceiling of his limo.)
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To: LibWhacker

has anyone noticed that if the Fermi Paradox was not postulated by Fermi, this, in itself, is a paradox, and that this may in fact be the true “Fermi Paradox’, a second order derivative paradox, which is somewhat rare in science.


11 posted on 02/02/2016 2:39:25 AM PST by beebuster2000
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To: LibWhacker

“Fermi’s skepticism about interstellar travel is not surprising, because in 1950 rockets had not yet reached orbit, much less another planet or star.”

I don’t think Enrico Fermi was that stupid, quite the contrary.


12 posted on 02/02/2016 3:19:41 AM PST by ifinnegan (Democrats kill babies and harvest their organs to sell)
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To: sten

“since we’ve found evidence of microbial life on mars... “

Completely untrue.


13 posted on 02/02/2016 3:21:22 AM PST by ifinnegan (Democrats kill babies and harvest their organs to sell)
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To: LibWhacker
I've always thought the idea of trying to communicate with aliens via radio was rather stupid. My guess is that radio is a short lived technology and that advanced civilizations will come up with some kind of communication based on quantum entanglement around the same time they start producing interstellar probes guided by AI robotics that can survive the thousand year trips.

Our radio transmissions might appear to aliens as some indian smoke signals would appear to an F-16 pilot passing overhead.

14 posted on 02/02/2016 3:26:25 AM PST by Sirius Lee (Cruz or Lose 2016)
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To: LibWhacker

I’m a writer of science fiction stories, but I don’t believe there’s any other life out there. The universe is just too big, too hostile; the speed limits too low.

And it’s flying apart as I write this.


15 posted on 02/02/2016 3:32:50 AM PST by trenton1776
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To: sten
...since the universe is so vast, there MUST be life elsewhere.

The second clause does not logically follow the first.

16 posted on 02/02/2016 3:50:10 AM PST by ShadowAce (Linux - The Ultimate Windows Service Pack)
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To: ShadowAce

If there is no life elsewhere in the Universe, then it’s just a big waste of real estate.


17 posted on 02/02/2016 4:16:45 AM PST by UCANSEE2 (Lost my tagline on Flight MH370. Sorry for the inconvenience.)
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To: sten

If we find life on Mars or Europa etc, it will be DNA, carbon based life moved via transpermia by asteroid strikes. Only interstellar life will prove life will form everywhere.


18 posted on 02/02/2016 4:21:20 AM PST by Vaquero ( Don't pick a fight with an old guy. If he is too old to fight, he'll just kill you.)
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To: UCANSEE2
That is your opinion, and you have every right to it.

In terms, of logic rules, though, I am correct.

19 posted on 02/02/2016 4:22:26 AM PST by ShadowAce (Linux - The Ultimate Windows Service Pack)
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To: ifinnegan

there’s a difference between evidence and proof. Anything hat reasonable suggests microbial life is evidence. Undeniably evidence is proof. Big difference. There is evidence the Eastern bunny is real but no proof.


20 posted on 02/02/2016 4:30:20 AM PST by muir_redwoods (Freedom isn't free, liberty isn't liberal and you'll never find anything Right on the Left)
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