According to “Dr. SETI“, H. Paul Shuch, from the official SETI League, “physicist Enrico Fermi, said to be a firm believer in the existence of extra-terrestrials, was frustrated by the lack of firm evidence of their existence”. Wait a minute, Fermi actually believed in the existence of aliens?
That may sound preposterous given that his famous Paradox is one of the most referenced arguments advanced against the existence of extraterrestrial civilizations, but amazingly, it probably is true.
Fermi unfortunately passed away in 1954, shortly after he formulated his paradox. He didn’t publish the concept in written form, rather it was just an idea discussed by him with colleagues at lunch. That was then often quoted and referenced by others for decades afterwards. This probably explains why his original idea came to be so misunderstood.
It was only in 1985 that someone seems to have decided to actually document the origins of the paradox, and sadly, even this work is widely ignored. That’s the report from Los Alamos National Laboratory, “Where is Everybody?’: An Account of Fermi’s Question“, by scientist Eric M. Jones.
Jones interviewed those present at that historic lunch at Los Alamos in the summer of 1950. They were Emil Konopinski, Herbert York and Edward Teller, and he provided accounts of the conversation by all of them.
Interestingly, the paradox was related to the cartoon seen above. Konopinski wrote:
“I do have a fairly clear memory of how the discussion of extra-terrestrials got started while Enrico, Edward, Herb York, and I were walking to lunch at Fuller Lodge. When l joined the party, I found being discussed evidence about flying saucers. That immediately brought to my mind a cartoon I had recently seen in the New Yorker, explaining why public trash cans were disappearing from the streets of New York City. The New York papers were making a fuss about that. The cartoon showed what was evidently a flying saucer sitting in the background and, streaming toward it, ‘little green men’ (endowed with antennas) carrying the trash cans. More amusing was Fermi’s comment, that it was a very reasonable theory since it accounted for two separate phenomena: the reports of flying saucers as well as the disappearance of the trash cans.”
Edward Teller also recalled:
“I remember that Fermi explicitly raised the question, and I think he directed it at me, ‘Edward, what do you think? How probable is it that within the next ten years we shall have clear evidence of a material object moving faster than light?’ I remember that my answer vas ‘ 1 o-6.. Fermi said, ‘This is much too low. The probability is more like ten percent’ (the well known figure for a Fermi miracle.) “
The discussion then went on to other topics, as they arrived at the luncheon table. It “had nothing to do with astronomy or with extraterrestrial beings. I think it was some down-to-earth topic. Then, in the middle of this conversation, Fermi came out with the quite unexpected question ‘Where is everybody?‘ … The result of his question was general laughter because of the strange fact that in spite of Fermi’s question coming from the clear blue, everybody around the table seemed to understand at once that he was talking about extraterrestrial life”, Teller wrote to Jones. “I do not believe that much came of this conversation, except perhaps a statement that the distances to the next location of living beings may be very great and that, indeed, as far as our galaxy is concerned, we are living somewhere in the sticks, far removed from the metropolitan area of the galactic center”, Teller added.
But York believes that Fermi was somewhat more expansive and “followed up with a series of calculations on the probability of earthlike planets, the probability of life given an earth, the probability of humans given life, the likely rise and duration of high technology, and so on. He concluded on the basis of such calculations that we ought to have been visited long ago and many times over. As I recall, he went on to conclude that the reason 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.” York confessed to being hazy about these last remarks.
Note how York confirms that Fermi assumed extraterrestrial civilizations existed, only that their non-arrival must have meant something stops them on their way. That’s exactly the position taken by SETI scientists to this day.
Eric Jones’ report can be downloaded at the FAS website:
It must be noted that in the 1950s, it had only been some years since more accurate estimations of the size and age of the Universe had been done. And Fermi’s paradox is essentially an argument of “scale and probablity”.
The Italian physicist famous for simple approaches to complex problems was the first to realize that those discoveries about our Universe had this deep implication. If there are indeed billions and billions of stars billions of years old, then even if the chances of intelligent life to emerge are extremely small, it must have happened numerous times. Not only that, it must also have had plenty of time to arrive not only here, but everywhere.
Later considerations on this simple yet deep question only reinforced its strength. At a fraction of the speed of light, the whole Galaxy can be colonized in a few million years, without breaking any known laws of physics. The recent discovery of the omnipresence of planetary systems may be one of the most important discoveries of the recent decades — not long ago, many believed our solar system was a freak accident of nature –, and it also deepens the paradox.
You see, it only takes one single civilization to have taken the task to colonize the Galaxy for a few million years, and then everywhere you looked there would be signs of its presence. Only one among hundreds of billions of planets, in billions of years of history. No need for warp drives, interdimensional travel, nothing of science fiction. This possibility is a scientific fact, as far was we know. It’s a scientific fact more established now than it was in the 1950s when Fermi first proposed the idea.
Fact is, however, that we don’t see any clear evidence of aliens. Not on Earth, not anywhere we can look for in millions and billions of light-years around us.
Maybe UFOs are evidence of alien spaceships, but that hasn’t been conclusively proven for a single case in more than six decades. You cannot ask “where are the illegal aliens?” without being slightly insane because it’s very easy to find illegal immigrants. But you can ask “where are the (extraterrestrial) aliens?”. In fact, you may spend your whole life trying to find conclusive proof of their presence.
So, Fermi’s question is really a paradox, “an argument that apparently derives self-contradictory conclusions by valid deduction from acceptable premises”. That’s a paradox, and it remains one to this day.
It’s not an argument that “proves” we are alone. That’s just one possible answer, and it’s not satisfactory exactly because of the paradox main line of reasoning.
The Fermi Paradox shouldn’t be derided by the believers. Fermi was one himself. Though one who would promptly admit, and then be puzzled, by the lack of conclusive proof that we are not alone.
He would still be asking, to this day, “Where is everybody?“.
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