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ETpro's avatar

The Fermi Paradox asks, "Where is everybody?" Could intelligent life be mostly self extinguishing?

Asked by ETpro (34202 points ) December 30th, 2011

This will be the last of the Strange Universe Series—2011 questions.

Conservative columnist and Fox News commentator Charles Krauthammer wrote an unusually thoughtful piece in today’s Washington Post on this question. Please read his musings here then weigh in. So, Where is everybody? Why isn’t the Universe with its vast, near infinite number of stars filled with radio waves from alien cultures. What explains the strange silence?

Here are the previous Strange Universe Series—2011 questions.
1—How do you envision space in more than 3 dimensions, then rotate it to see what happens?
2—How can we be certain the Uncertainty Principle is certain?
3—If the universe is infinite, how big is what it is expanding into?
4—In an expanding universe, how do separate galaxies manage to collide?
5—Since space is expanding and is linked to time, isn’t time expanding as well?
6 —How can space expand between individual hydrogen atoms?
7—True or False? When you’ve seen one entropy, you’ve seen them all?
8—What’s the matter with matter?

The entire 20 Questions Strange Universe Series—2010 can be found here.

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8 Answers

SavoirFaire's avatar

It’s a good piece, and the overall thesis is worth thinking about. Still, it seems to me that there are several alternatives to the pessimistic hypothesis that intelligent life extinguishes itself.

1. Alien life may not use radio waves. We have no idea whether or not intelligent alien life would follow the same path of technological evolution as we did. Even if a planet is like Earth as far ad conditions of habitability are concerned, after all, it may not be the same in terms of distribution or accessibility of material resources.

2. We may be the first intelligent species to have developed, meaning that other intelligent species may not yet have developed the capability to signal to anyone else that they are nearby. Moreover, technological advancement is in part a result of chance (when geniuses are born, how life inspires them). Thus even a slightly older species could be slightly behind us in certain fields.

3. Radio waves dissipate over time, eventually becoming indistinguishable from the background noise of the universe. If an alien civilization is too far away, then, whatever signals it may be sending our way could have been reduced to nothing before getting anywhere near us. Consider how far away the sun is, then think about how far away a civilization in another solar system—or even another galaxy—would be.

Mariah's avatar

Radio waves move at the speed of light, and most stars are thousands of light years away. It could be that the radio waves haven’t reached us yet.

Also, what ^he said.

LuckyGuy's avatar

Radio waves spread out with the square of the distance from the transmitter. The signal you receive from a transmitter 1 light year away will be 1/7,500,000 of the signal if that identical tower was located at the sun (impossible, of course. ) A star that is 1000 light years away will receive a signal 1/1,000,000 of that. If we think about something in our nearest neighboring galaxy, 2.5 Million LY away, that signal will be 1/6,000,000 of that. Background noise is much larger.

Jaxk's avatar

An interesting dilemma. We know that natural disasters will eventually extinguish higher forms of life whether intelligent or not. Humans will eventually go the way of the dinosaur unless we figure out a way to avert that fate. The sun will fade or an asteroid will hit us or as you postulate we may destroy ourselves. But whatever fate awaits, unless we can migrate to other worlds, we will not last. Intelligent life may have come and gone on other worlds. Or it may be in it’s infancy awaiting it’s own eventual demise. What ever has developed elsewhere, unless it has attained the ability to migrate beyond it’s own planet, it will be a brief existence in terms of the infinity of space. I don’t believe that intelligence creates that fate but rather is the only way to avert it.

SmashTheState's avatar

The problem is one of shortsightedness. We’re in the position of 19th century scientists wondering why the coal smoke and phlogiston from the alien civilization on Mars doesn’t rise up into the luminiferous aether where we can see it. Even with our dim understanding of the Universe around us, we can see that it makes no sense at all to screw a bunch of hairless primates into a can full of huge quantities of fuel, food, water, and oxygen, and blast it out into space. I doubt advanced species are flying around in warpspeed starships crewed by 1960s stereotypes in sea boots and miniskirts, They’re more likely to be machine intelligences inhabiting “starships” the size of a pinhead with zero-point energy engines powering wormhole generators or other equally difficult to detect technologies.

Mariah's avatar

@LuckyGuy Ooh, I didn’t know that. Thanks for an interesting post.

ragingloli's avatar

Assuming there are alien civilisations out there doing interstellar communication, I think it is pretty safe to assume that they wouldn’t use radiowaves.
Radiowaves expand spherically, so they lose their signal strength faster than Gordon Ramsay loses his temper on Hell’s Kitchen. Just a few lightyears, and they become a bitch to pick up.
A step up would be highly focused high powered lasers. They keep their intensity better than radio waves, but they still are limited to the speed of light.
But with lasers we already have the first reason why we can’t hear the conversation: Earth would have to be in the precise path of that laser beam and then we would need equipment to intercept it. We don’t have the tech, and the chances of Earth being in the beam’s path are next to zilch.
Next step could be beams of tachyons, which I think are theoretical particles that move at speeds greater than c. Again, same problem as with the lasers, earthlings don’t have the tech to pick up tachyons and the chances of actually intercepting a beam are practically nonexistent.
My personal favourite, and the way I would do it, is to create microwormholes whose endpoints are at the respective planets where the signal originates and is sent to, and transmit the information through the wormhole.
Instantaneous interstellar communication without having to send signals through millions of lightyears of dirty space, meaning no unwanted listeners.

To paraphrase Michio Kaku, we could be in the middle of an interstellar chatroom and we would not even know it.

ETpro's avatar

@SavoirFaire Thanks. I enjoyed reading it too, and that’s why I shared it. It is thought provoking. Since we have managed to avoid mutually assured destruction now for 65 years and counting, I am more sanguine about our immediate prospects than Mr. Krauthammer appears to be. If we are to go by means of a self inflicted wound, then I suspect it That he is right that it will be a religious zealot convinced his act of mass suicide will launch him and those who share his faith into a heavenly realm and not oblivion.

All three of your points on why we may not have heard from our nearby neighbors are valid.

@ariah Thanks. I’d just note that the Universe is about 13.75 billion years old. Galaxies began to form toward the end of its first billion years. In contrast, our solar system formed about 4.5 billion years ago. That means that other habitable planets (who even knows what habitable means?) were likely formed well over 8 billion years before ours. So alien life may have had a significant head-start on getting intelligent, and may have sent some form of messages out a very long time ago.

@LuckyGuy Excellent point.

@Jaxk That’s an interesting response. Very true. If nothing wipes us out before the end of our sun, as it runs out of fuel it will transition into thermonuclear reaction of heaver materials. As it does, it will become a red giant with its corona expanding to engulf the entire earth, instantly vaporizing all water here and destroying all life. And so it goes for other stars as well, THe large ones supernovae, with instant devastation in their local area. The smaller ones like our sun become red giants and swallow up, often melting and eating all planets out to their “habitable zone.” So to last any significant time, life must rapidly evolve to be intelligent enough to move on. And moving across thousands of light years isn’t a non-trivial task.

@SmashTheState I take your point on technology. Very true. Oh, and what’s wrong with space explorers wearing sea boots and mini-skirts. I personally hope that if they visit us, they are attired in perfect Star-Trek manner. If they have been reviewing our old media broadcasts on the way to us, they just may be. I’m ready for a ship full of Deanna Troi (Marina Sirtis) look-alikes to arrive any time they want. :-)

@ragingloli Given the almost infinite vastness of the Universe and its number of galaxies and stars, I think the it is safe to assume that life is out there—even intelligent life. And it is further safe to assume there are lots of examples. While communications via tachyons or through wormholes is currently highly speculative, with no proof existing that there is any such thing, it does further highlight a point a number of other posters raised other posters. We may be sitting in the midst of a chatroom and yet missing all the chatter because we have no receivers for it, or because it isn’t being directed to us. Now why didn’t Fermi know that?

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