Fantasy Science Pt. 5: Solutions To The Fermi Paradox & Life Among The Stars In Film
Why haven't we found any signs of life out there in the universe, when statistically, there should be? This is Fermi's Paradox, and in this new Fantasy Science column, we cover some of the explanations offered for this paradox in movies and TV.
Extraterrestrials. Paradoxes. Interstellar travel. Have you heard terms like these flying around the science fiction sections of the film world? Have you ever wondered just how accurately these films portray real science? Well, my friends, today is your lucky day: this column, Fantasy Science & Coffee, aims to bridge the gap between science and science fiction in films and, occasionally, popular culture. My hope is to explain things in a fun way – like we’re chatting over coffee.
You may be thinking: who is this person, why does she think she can explain science, and why the heck would I want to have coffee with her? Well, I’m Radha, a researcher in India, currently pursuing a PhD in theoretical quantum physics. I quite like hot beverages. I’ll also pay.
In this fifth part of the series published on the second and fourth Tuesdays of every month, we are going to look at potential solutions to the Fermi Paradox, with examples from sci-fi stories in film.
Think about where our Earth is in this universe. We are a single planet, orbiting a single star, in a single galaxy — the Milky Way. In this galaxy alone, there are at least 200 billion stars, and in this universe, there are at least 200 billion galaxies. Research indicates that there could even be a whole lot more — up to 10 times more — than we think.
Feeling kinda small now, aren’t we? I promise there’s a point to this tiny mental exercise, and it isn’t to trigger an existential crisis. Let’s ponder statistics. Since our planet, our solar system, our Sun, and our galaxy are far from being alone, there’s a strong statistical possibility that there’s more life out there. Makes sense, right?
The question is: why haven’t we found any signs of life out there?
This is the “Fermi Paradox”. Basically, there should be life out there, but we haven’t found evidence of any.
There are many, many possible solutions to the Fermi Paradox, but to finish them all we’d probably have to go through at least five cups of that coffee I promised you. So, for now, I’ll stick to some of my personal favourites, with examples from film.
They are not space faring: Avatar
Suppose there is an intelligent civilisation out there. They may not be space faring at all, so neither have they found us, nor have we been able to detect their ships. They could lack the technological developments for space exploration the way we do, or they could simply have no interest in exploring the stars beyond their own intelligent conglomeration, the way the Na’vi in Avatar are.
Looking at the Na’vi in particular, I think it’s safe to say they are on par with our level of intelligence, if not more. They have no need or desire to develop our styles of technology; all their ‘devices’ are biological and are an underlying part of their community. Their ecosystem is self-sustainable, and they are content with how they live.
They protect themselves from detection: Avatar
Let’s look at the Na’vi once again: Since they know about species beyond their own planet, I’m sure they would be taking precautions against invaders after the whole humans-from-Earth-wanting-to-destroy-their-home fiasco. Intelligent races out there may mask their signatures from the rest of the universe, to protect themselves from more hostile, conquest-hungry space faring races. Heck, I know that I’d try to mask my planet if I knew Earth humans were making their rounds out among the stars.
They have no interest in Earth: The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, District 9, Home
There may be intelligent, space faring races out there, but they may not be bothered by Earth at all. In The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, for instance, Earth is considered so insignificant that it is marked to be destroyed to make way for a hyperspace motorway. There is some sort of evacuation notice in some ‘local’ space office, but no one bothers to consider the fact that humans have no knowledge of all that goes beyond their little world, let alone galactic municipal matters.
The two films District 9 and Home also involve space faring intelligent races who aren’t concerned with Earth until they are forced to seek refuge here. Had the planets they came from not been in need of evacuation, they may have not bothered with Earth at all. So, unless aliens need us or our planet, they won’t be coming ’round any time soon.
Our timelines don’t match: Star Wars, Battlestar Galactica
The famous words : “A long, time ago, in a galaxy far, far away.”
We know our universe is old. Really old. Even our own planet is super old, compared to the very short period of time modern humans have walked it. It’s estimated that modern humans evolved only a few hundred thousand years ago, while our planet is a few billion years old. In this time, many civilizations could have risen and fallen across the stars. Perhaps our windows just don’t match with theirs. The Star Wars civilization, if real (come on, let’s pretend it was real!), is now long gone. And since it took place far, far away, the chances of us finding traces of that civilisation are very slim.
The Battlestar Galactica civilisation was a thriving multi-planet human collective with technology superior to ours, in a different part of space than our own. When their civilization was destroyed, they sought a new home: Earth. Even if people like that could have been our remote ancestors, their technology and knowledge could very easily have been lost over the long time spans.
Life is different from what we can detect: 2001: A Space Odyssey, Interstellar
Here on Earth, life is in the form of carbon-based beings who need oxygen to survive. Our notion of life may be limited because this is all we recognize as ‘life’. There are already speculations of silicon-based lifeforms out there, which would be freaking cool if true. Another freaking cool theory is that there could be intelligent life out there far superior to us, the way there is in 2001: A Space Odyssey and Interstellar.
The Bulk Beings in Interstellar perceive five dimensions, not three the way we do. The beings who built the monoliths in 2001: A Space Odyssey seem to be a highly intelligent, non-corporeal race who has attained a sort of transcendence. Simply speaking, if beings like this exist out there, then we just don’t have the means to detect them. Moreover, they could be watching us without our knowledge. Kind of a spooky thought.
We’ve found them, but the knowledge isn’t public: Stargate
This one kind of sounds like a conspiracy theory, and while I’m far from a conspiracy theorist, I’m total mush when it comes to Stargate. (You may have picked that up from my earlier piece on wormholes.) The 1994 film and its subsequent tv series depict a scenario in which humans have discovered alien races, but the government thinks we are not ready to hear the truth.
I admit that I’ve found myself agreeing with their reasoning throughout the series. Mass hysteria and rivalry between countries are two of the reasons for keeping the Stargate program classified. They do plan on making the knowledge public at some point, though. I guess if this is the real solution to the Fermi Paradox, we ‘little’ people can’t do anything but wait and see.
This is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to Fermi Paradox. I will likely need a part 2 in the future. Now that we have seen a few of its solutions, I’d love to know if any of these resonated with you! Tell me, which is your favourite? Are there other examples in film you can think of?
The Fermi Paradox: More to Explore
The Atlantic: Was There a Civilization On Earth Before Humans? (2018)
Space.Com: Milky Way Galaxy: Facts About Our Galactic Home (2017)
Nasa.gov: Hubble Reveals Observable Universe Contains 10 Times More Galaxies Than Previously Thought (2016)
Science Magazine: Researchers take small step toward silicon-based life (2016)
Caltech: Bringing Silicon to Life (2016)
Universe Today: How long have humans been on Earth? (2015)
io9: 11 of the Weirdest Solutions to the Fermi Paradox (2013)
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