Science – The Fermi Paradox

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I think I’ve mentioned before that the current work project I’ve got going allows for me to listen to lots of podcasts.  I’m caught up on most of the big ones that I listen to, and it’s nice to have 1 unplayed each week, instead of say, 40 unplayed and counting.  Probably best of all of them, I like being up to date on This American Life.  But rarely does an episode topic make me stop what I’m doing and get in touch with someone.  And I’m not entirely sure what made me do it.

You see, the main topic of the show was the Fermi Paradox.  A short summation of that idea is, if there really is life outside of earth somewhere in the universe, why haven’t we seen or heard evidence of that yet?  Are we alone?  A bigger explanation of the Fermi paradox and possible solutions can be found here.  That link I got from the Boy, because literally at the beginning of the episode I thought of him (he likes space stuff), and I realized we’d never had a conversation about big things like, “Do you believe in aliens/extraterrestrial intelligent life?”, and it seemed as good a time as any.  You know – random Monday afternoon text-conversation fare.

It turns out that he does believe in extra-terrestrial intelligence (as do I for that matter) and it’s one of the topics in which he is super interested and invested.  He introduced me to a new idea – the Great Filter.  Before he sent me the link to the Wait but Why piece, and before it became a topic on the TAL episode, he mentioned this as a thing during our texts, and I was so confused.  The quick and dirty explanation of the great filter is that one reason we may not have encountered other life out there is that there is some thing or process that blocks life from easily reaching the point where it can move about and communicate freely with the wider galaxy.  The theory goes that if we are on the right hand side of the filter – that is, if we’ve passed the “test” – and if it’s a difficult test, that might explain why we haven’t encountered any other species.  Perhaps we’re first, or we’re rare for passing through the filter.  Both of which are fairly lonely states to be in, but they leave us with hope that there are others out there like us.

The alternative – that we haven’t reached that great filter yet – is the scary one.  It’s the idea that we haven’t reached the point in our history as a species that decides whether we will go forward and communicate with the world beyond or not.  If he haven’t reached it, it could be difficult or impossible to pass, and we’re doomed as a species.

photo: NASA/JPL-Caltech

But the idea that there might be other life out there is exciting.  It’s the reason why when NASA finds not one or two but SEVEN earth-like planets that people get really really excited.  Maybe this is it.  Perhaps this is the moment that we begin to understand what it means to be living beings in the universe.  It’s hard not to look at that lineup of planets and not get a little excited about what the future may hold.

Discoveries like that one, and the discussion of Fermi’s paradox also make me want to go back and watch the movie Contact.  It’s such a ridiculously interesting movie, and has a baby Matthew McConaughey.  And while the ending is sort of nebulous, it’s also really hopeful.  This idea that perhaps there is life out there, and we’re just not quite ready for it yet.  How long will we have to wait until we are ready?

Ok – so that’s it for today.  What do you think?  Are you team “the sheer volume of planets in the universe and even with all the restrictions for formation of life, we can’t possibly be alone”?  Do you think we’re going to bump up against some technological barrier that makes it impossible to leave or communicate far outside our planet?  Or do you think that we are unique in the universe?  And how does it make you feel that so far we’re alone?  Lonely?  Sad?  Scared?  Hopeful?  I’m curious!

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