“Where is everybody?” the great Enrico Fermi asked, exquisitely stating the question that has vexed astronomers for centuries. If we are alone in the universe, where are the other civilizations and societies?
In this MIT Press Essential Knowledge Series book, acclaimed author Wade Roush provides a primer for those less familiar with the reasons why we (maybe) haven’t made contact yet. Billions of solar systems, trillions of stars, and millions of planets in the Goldilock zone should have resulted in some sort of contact by now. Roush acknowledges the inevitability of the conclusion of finding life early on by stating that:
“[I]f you’re reading this, aliens have not been discovered. If they have been, then the book is now a useless artifact of the precontact era.”Wade Roush, Extraterrestrials, MIT Press
The question that occupied my mind during much of the reading of this short book was concerned with that very question: are we now, or have we ever even been, living in the pre-contact era?
We’ve known for years that UV light and the right chemical conditions might be the key to life forming in a prehistoric, nutrient-rich soup, but that does nothing to aid the search of SETI, which is only concerned with searching for intelligent life. Searching for life on the cellular level, outside of the solar system, is like searching for a single speck of dust in a landfill. Further complicating matters is relativity and the speed of light. Assuming that all of the universe was formed in a single big bang, and that life evolves on other planets at roughly the same speed as here on earth, we may never find intelligent life unless it comes to us. We view distant stars millions of years ago and some of the signals which SETI monitors for, such as Fast Radio Bursts, also travel at the speed of light. The irony that we wish upon the stars, which may only be the ghosts of gas giants passed, is lost on the majority.
Roush walks the reader expertly through early history, noting Aristotle’s contributions, the devastating effect of Christianity in ancient times, and the lesser-known possibility that the Epicureans might have believed in multiple universes where there are perhaps “other worlds with other breeds of men.”
The backdrop to this is, of course, that US Government now has a Space Force. Why would that be if not for the existence of intelligent life?
Perhaps the answer is in the Netflix TV show of the same name starring Steve Carell as a bungling 4 star general forced to start the new agency, and John Malkovitch, the witty astrophysicist who must suffer working for a government agency that values missiles more than science. It’s a hilarious show that follows in the footsteps of Better Off Ted, where overlords want one thing, and those who know what’s what must begrudgingly follow orders and make the best of it.
In Space Force, it becomes clear that even though we may know that extraterrestrials are real, and we had proof, those in charge would certainly make the wrong decision.
I’d recommend both Roush’s book if you’re curious about whether or not it’s possible we are alone in the universe, and Space Force if you feel like laughing at the joke of a species we present to the rest of the universe,if indeed we are not alone, and leave you with this final thought: perhaps Fermi’s Paradox is a paradox because, while brilliant, it’s asking the wrong question.
In a universe with infinite resources, what would intelligent life want with us?