There are a number of paradoxes in science and mathematics; and most are highly technical. One of those that is accessible to us is the Fermi Paradox.
First, a simple definition of paradox. A paradox is a statement that contradicts itself or a situation which seems to defy logic.
Enrico Fermi posited his paradox late in his life, by asking the question, “Where is everybody?” In other words, given the vastness and age of the cosmos why have we not detected other signs of extraterrestrial civilizations?
Fermi was a well-known Italian American physicist who emigrated to the United States to escape antisemitism (his wife was Jewish) after he received the Nobel prize in 1938. He was one of the influential scientists of the nuclear age, developing the mathematical statistics, exploring the implications of neutrons, and directing the first controlled chain reaction involving nuclear fission. He held many honors, including the Nobel Prize, the DEA Enrico Fermi Award, Fermilab (the National Accelerator Laboratory associated with the University of Chicago), and has an element named for him, fermium.
Fermi recognized that Earth was a fairly typical planet revolving around a fairly typical star. Logically, there should be civilizations out there older and more advanced than our own, some of which should have already mastered interstellar travel. Yet, to date, there is no conclusive evidence that they exist. His paradox is particularly compelling when we consider the vastness of a universe that contains over 200 billion galaxies.
So, what are the possible hypotheses to explain the Fermi Paradox?
One, is simply, there isn’t any intelligent life in the universe, we are a unique creation by God. This is proclaimed in our religious texts. And further, it is impossible to prove the null hypothesis; so therefore, while this may be true it cannot be proved.
Another hypothesis is that it simply takes a lot of time for signals to travel across the cosmos. Due to the limitations of the speed of light, their signals may not have reached ours, and ours may not have reached them. (The photos that we are seeing from the Webb telescope show galaxies as they existed billions of years ago.) Further, earth is situated in a rural part of the Milky Way galaxy. Advanced civilizations may be focusing their efforts on more accessible regions of the Milky Way.
Another supposition is that it is we have been receiving signals but do not have the capabilities of understanding or accessing them. There is no reason to assume that life elsewhere in the universe would look or operate like us. Our species has always been limited by our perception and our ability to measure. It is likely that there are other energies that we cannot perceive or access. Other advanced civilizations may be sending out signals, but we don’t have the technology to detect or decipher them. Their language, mathematics, realities, science, and consciousness could be completely different from ours.
The opposite could also be true; other life may not be as evolved as we are. It may be that intelligent beings like us are simply rare in the universe. It took billions of years for earth to create the society that we have today, so it makes sense that it would take billions of years for other species to become advanced enough for interstellar communication, intergalactic space travel, and possible colonization. Perhaps we are one of the first species to make it this far. After all, 99 percent of all species that have ever lived on Earth are now extinct, and we are the only species that has ever been able to leave the planet.
Closely related, the Phase Transition hypothesis proposes that the conditions to support life as we know it may have “just” fallen into place. Life may just be forming and evolving, uninterrupted by cosmic threats and astrological disasters, into an advanced civilization.
Another hypothesis is called the Transcension Hypothesis, namely they have already visited us, perhaps in our earliest formations and determined that intelligent life did not exist or that it was too primitive. There are many books, the most famous written by Erich von Däniken (Chariots of the Gods). Von Däniken argued that traces of alien visits were recorded in legends and artifacts of earlier civilizations (like the Nazca Lines, in Peru).
Another hypothesis, The Zoo and Planetarium Hypotheses, has proponents arguing that aliens are not only observing us from afar, but have us locked into a kind of “celestial cage,” leaving us off-limits from other advanced civilizations. Proponents contend that our understanding of the universe represents a mere illusion that has been created by civilizations that have the ability to manipulate matter and energy at cosmic scales.
Recently, in October 2017, Canadian astronomer Robert Weryk was reviewing images captured by a telescope and noticed a dot of light moving at almost two hundred thousand miles per hour. (A cornerstone of Einstein’s theory is that nothing can move faster than the speed of light…but is that an accurate assumption?) After ruling out all other possibilities, Avi Loeb, a Harvard astrophysicist, concluded that it was a byproduct of an alien civilization and represents the proof we need to conclude there are other civilizations in the galaxy.
He is one of the first highly respected physicists to become convinced that the 2017 sighting represents conclusive evidence of other extraterrestrial life. His conclusion is both controversial and ridiculed. For those who are interested, his book Extraterrestrial: The First Sign of Intelligent Life Beyond Earth published in 2021 is a work of courage. In his willingness to be ridiculed by the scientific community, he asks the question, “are we ready to confront the possibility that there are both more intelligent and less intelligent species outside of earth.”
He believes not.
There are many other paradoxes, a famous one is the liar’s paradox, which is, briefly: “Everything that I say is a lie.” But the Fermi Paradox is a lot more interesting. It allows us to be creative, think in abstractions, and humbly recognize our insignificance.
Angela Rieck, a Caroline County native, received her PhD in Mathematical Psychology from the University of Maryland and worked as a scientist at Bell Labs, and other high-tech companies in New Jersey before retiring as a corporate executive. Angela and her dogs divide their time between St Michaels and Key West Florida. Her daughter lives and works in New York City.