Fantasy Science Pt. 8: Solutions To The Fermi Paradox Part II
In this new Fantasy Science, we are revisiting the Fermi Paradox: if there are so many galaxies and planets out there, why haven't we found evidence of alien life?
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 eighth part of the series published on the second and fourth Tuesdays of every month, we are going to revisit the Fermi Paradox from Fantasy Science & Coffee Part 5. Let’s begin.
In part I, we had a chat about solutions to the million dollar question: if there are so many galaxies, stars, and planets out there, why haven’t we found evidence of alien life? You see, statistically speaking, we shouldn’t be alone in the universe. This is the Fermi Paradox. There are many possible solutions to this paradox, and, in the previous article, we only covered the tip of the iceberg. Let’s look at a few more, shall we?
We are in a simulation: The Matrix
This sounds almost like a conspiracy theory, but hear me out. If, somehow, superior beings have created a virtual reality for us, there would be no need to simulate extraterrestrial life. Perhaps the vast number of galaxies we observe aren’t real, or are simply reflections of the real universe, which might be teeming with life!
This artificial reality is portrayed in The Matrix, in which humans are imprisoned by intelligent machines to become a source of energy. Human minds are trapped in a simulated reality that looks an awful lot like our world. Spooky.
They have a Prime Directive aka the Zoo Hypothesis: Star Trek, Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy
Trekkies out there are no stranger to the important Prime Directive in the Star Trek franchise. It is an order given to the space faring, explorative Federation to not interfere with civilizations that have as yet to reach the stars. They are not allowed to interfere with the affairs of other races. In the words of Captain Picard:
The Prime Directive is not just a set of rules; it is a philosophy… and a very correct one. History has proven again and again that whenever mankind interferes with a less developed civilization, no matter how well intentioned that interference may be, the results are invariably disastrous.
In terms of the Fermi Paradox, this translates to something called the Zoo Hypothesis.
It has two interpretations. One: that a superior, technologically advanced race is observing us — not unlike we observe animals at a zoo — but is not making contact, allowing us to evolve naturally. Two: that we are subjects in a vast experiment conducted by superior beings a la the lab mice in the book series and film Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. These mice are actually pan-dimensional beings that only appear to us as mice. And while we think we are performing experiments on them in labs, they are, in fact, experimenting on us.
Intelligent civilizations inevitably destroy themselves: Wall-E, The Maze Runner
This one is fairly depressing. It goes something like this: species A is super intelligent, and makes leaping scientific advances. However, the rise in technology outpaces A’s ability to evolve socially and culturally, and things like political maneuvering and hostilities push the species to destroy themselves to the point of extinction. That is to say, there could exist a certain point beyond which it might be nearly impossible for an intelligent species to evolve.
This doesn’t solely mean nuclear destruction, though that appears to be a likely scenario for our own future. Take a look at the trash world in Wall-E and what we are doing to our oceans. Or look at the man-made virus caused by experiments in The Maze Runner book and film series, and compare it to the dangerously high levels of antibiotic resistance in our world today. In the words of physicist Brian Cox:
“It may be that the growth of science and engineering inevitably outstrips the development of political expertise, leading to disaster. We could be approaching that position.”
They are too far away: Farscape
In the previous article, we spoke about missing the time window between civilizations. A similar solution is that we are simply too far away. Even if we send out a signal — which we already have in the form of the Arecibo Message — it would take many, many years to potentially reach its target. I’m talking lifetimes. For instance, the nearest known galaxy to us is the Canis Major Dwarf Galaxy, at 236,000,000,000,000,000 km (25,000 light years) from the Sun. That means, if a message to that galaxy is sent at the speed of light, it would take 25,000 years to reach.
This is why in the series, Farscape, the humans on Earth know nothing about the existence of aliens. Astronaut John Crichton only came across them because he was accidentally hurled across vast distances on an experimental space mission.
Life is rare, because the universe is dangerous: Armageddon
Considering that our universe is bubbling with black holes, supernovas, asteroid belts, and all sorts of other dangerous things, it’s really quite a wonder how we were left untouched long enough to evolve as we have. (Our old Earth dinosaurs may have something to say about that.) So it isn’t far fetched to think that perhaps we haven’t made contact with aliens because we are a bit of anomaly. Other civilizations have been destroyed before reaching an advanced level of evolution.
In the 1998 film Armageddon, an asteroid roughly the size of Texas threatens to wipe out the human race on Earth. The only reason it didn’t was because we had the technology to stop it. If we were still stuck in the Stone Age, for instance, we would have perished.
Now that we have seen a few of more solutions to the Fermi Paradox, I’d love to know if any of these resonated with you! Tell me, which is your favourite? What other illustrations in film, tv, and books can you think of?
More to Explore
World Health Organization: Antibiotic Resistance (2018)
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)
Futurism: Brian Cox: We Won’t Be Hearing From Alien Civilizations (2016)
Forbes: The Philosophy Of Star Trek: Is The Prime Directive Ethical? (2015)
NASA: The Nearest Galaxies
SETI Institute: Arecibo Message
io9: 11 of the Weirdest Solutions to the Fermi Paradox (2013)
Opinions expressed in our articles are those of the authors and not of the Film Inquiry magazine.