“After searching the skies for Earthlike planets for centuries, cosmologists have, in the last two decades, broken open the cosmic piñata. Today they estimate as many as 500 billion billion sunlike stars, with 100 billion billion Earthlike planets. The more we learn about the universe, the more absurd it would seem if all but one of those bodies were bereft of life. To my mind, this is both the least likely answer to Fermi’s Paradox and the only one that fits all the evidence currently available to astrophysicists.”
Humanity may be as few as 10 years away from discovering evidence of extraterrestrial life. Once we do, it will only deepen the mystery of where alien intelligence might be hiding. Enrico Fermi was an architect of the atomic bomb, a father of radioactivity research, and a Nobel Prize–winning scientist who contributed to breakthroughs in quantum mechanics and theoretical physics. But in the popular imagination, his name is most commonly associated with one simple, three-word question, originally meant as a throwaway joke to amuse a group of scientists discussing UFOs at the Los Alamos lab in 1950: Where is everybody?
Fermi wasn’t the first person to ask a variant of this question about alien intelligence, continues Derek Thompson in The Atlantic . But he owns it. The query is known around the world as the Fermi paradox. It’s typically summarized like this: If the universe is unfathomably large, the probability of intelligent alien life seems almost certain. But since the universe is also 14 billion years old, it would seem to afford plenty of time for these beings to make themselves known to humanity. So, well, where is everybody?
In the seventh episode of Crazy/Genius, the new podcast from The Atlantic on tech, science, and culture, puts the question to several experts, including Ellen Stofan, the former chief scientist of nasa and current director of the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum; Adam Frank, a writer and astrophysicist at the University of Rochester; Anders Sandberg, a scientist and futurist at the University of Oxford; and Tim Urban, the science essayist at Wait But Why.
Proposed solutions to Fermi’s Paradox fit into three broad categories. One: They’re nowhere—and no-when. Two: Life is out there—but intelligence isn’t. Three: Intelligent life is abundant—but quiet.
The image at the top of the page: Retired Cmdr. David Frav
n for Earth’s 6th Mass Extinction