by Omar M
On a warm summer night in 2007, nestled under a Cars-themed blanket on the backyard lawn, I gazed upon the starlit canvas above. The night was painted with what seemed to be infinite twinkling diamonds, each one telling stories from galaxies far, far away. The backyard lights seemed to become dimmer as I accepted the warm embrace of the cosmos above.
Before I could fully bear the gift of a peaceful slumber under the stars, a celestial marvel graced my view. What I could only describe as a comet streaked the gleaming canvas of space with its radiant tail. Unable to contain my excitement, I dashed back into my house, called my parents and pointed to the blazing spectacle.
“It’s the Millenium Falcon, or maybe it’s Darth Vader’s TIE fighter!” I exclaimed, my imagination erupting like a supernova. My hopes and dreams of witnessing a spaceship duel among the stars were soaring higher than any starship.
I was lost in anticipation, dreaming of epic clashes between good and evil, Jedi against Sith, and Republic against Empire. Just as I was about to share these fantasies with my mom, she burst into laughter. Disheartened by her laughter, I retreated to my room and, without saying a word, allowed the thoughts of possibility and myth to lull me into sleep. As I drifted off to sleep that night, the question lingered in my, yet innocent, 7-year old mind: Why couldn’t it have been an alien?
This question stayed in my head for years upon years. As I grew older, it evolved into a deeper curiosity about the vast expanse of space and time that we’ve named the universe. Why haven’t we found alien life yet? The human race has managed to make 17 Marvel movies, iPhones the size of an apple, and paintings that would baffle even Picasso, but have yet to find aliens?
Despite all these achievements, there remains one massive cosmic head-scratcher for the human race: the Fermi Paradox. It asks the age-old question: “why haven’t we met any extraterrestrial friends for all-night cram sessions and endless rounds of cosmic beer pong?”
Scientists have been exploring this question for years. Back in 1961, physicist Frank Drake developed a mathematical equation to help solve it: dubbed the “Drake Equation,” it yields the number of intelligent civilizations within the Milky Way. (Sierra, 2016). It also provides a framework for addressing the probability of intelligent alien life existing in the galaxy by accounting for things like the pace of star formation, the proportion of stars with planets, the number of habitable planets, and the chance of life arising on them. (Howell, 2018).
Delving deeper into our cosmic enigma, scientists employ the Kardashev scale which essentially acts as a “sorting-hat.” This universal yardstick classifies intelligent civilizations into 3 different types. Type 1 is planetary, and can effectively use and control all its available resources on its home planet. Unfortunately, we are still a few hundred years away from becoming a full fledged Type 1 civilization. Then, there’s the impressive Type II crowd: civilizations that have mastered the art of taming and harnessing the boundless energy of their very own host star. (Creighton, 2019). Think of it as having the sun on a speed dial. And if that doesn’t blow your mind, Type III civilizations take it up a cosmic notch, possessing energy resources that rival the power of their entire host galaxy. (Creighton, 2019).
In the era before the Drake equation and the Kardashev scale were established, many scientists were confident about the existence of intelligent civilizations, believing they were practically everywhere in the universe. However, this paradigm came to a close during a famed lunchtime chat among astrophysicists in 1950. Enrico Fermi, relishing a sandwich that made even their cosmic mishaps seem like small-talk, unleashed a galactic stumper, one that would leave scientists bewildered for years to come. (Adler, 2023). Fermi posed the very question that had occupied my thoughts on that fateful night back in 2007: “Where is everyone?”
This triggered a plethora of theories that arose in an attempt to make sense of why we have yet to find this universal potluck. One of the most prominent and agreed upon is the Rare Earth Hypothesis, which states that “Earth-like,” planets are exceedingly rare. This hypothesis was proposed by Peter Ward and Donald Brownlee in their book “Rare Earth: Why Complex Life Is Uncommon in the Universe.”
Ward and Brownlee suggested that Earth is an extraordinarily uncommon and lucky planet in terms of its capacity to host sophisticated life due to its unique mix of features, including a steady star (the Sun), an ideal distance from that star, a huge moon, plate tectonics, and a protective atmosphere. (Ward, 2000).
This theory has never truly sat right with me. Consider the ever-expanding vastness of the universe. The notion that Earth might be the only oasis of life in an infinite cosmos is a truly horrifying thought. But it raises another question: Why is the universe apathetic towards life? Are we the only candle flickering in this ever-growing cosmic darkness?
Let’s venture into a different realm with another theory that could unravel Fermi’s paradox, thrusting humanity into a spine-chilling fate.
Let’s say that there were advanced Type 2 and 3 extraterrestrial civilizations, adopting a pre-Drake and pre-Kardashev view, and that these civilizations were just as abundant as the amount of nighttime stars.
And what if these advanced extraterrestrial civilizations had collectively decided on a code of silence, one that is enforced across the galaxy? This eerie code would command that any civilization that has reached a particular level of technological advancement must be silenced. Imposed not through brute force, but through a sinister form of psychological manipulation. These ancient extraterrestrial entities may possess the ability to infiltrate our consciousness, guiding our thoughts, actions and beliefs as a collective. They subtly shape our thoughts, mold our actions, and dictate our beliefs while we, the human race, dance to their sinister symphony like marionettes. We may never realize the extent of their manipulation until our civilization becomes history—another eerie chapter in the galactic silence directive.(Ćirković, 2018).
Although we cannot disprove this spine-chilling theory, we cannot prove it either. This prompts us to explore the equally-terrifying great filler hypothesis, a theory suggesting the existence of one or more incredibly unlikely and challenging steps or filters in the emergence and evolution of intelligent civilizations. (Adler, 2023). These filters could be events or conditions that make it arduous for humans to become a spacefaring civilization. If such filters existed and were placed at various stages of cosmic development, they could explain the rarity of advanced civilizations in the universe.
Some propositions of filters include the emergence of life from non-living matter (abiogenesis), the development of multicellular life, the transition from simple to complex organisms, intelligent life, and the challenges of sustaining advanced civilizations over long periods. The thing is that if any one of these steps were exceedingly difficult or rare, it could significantly reduce the number of civilizations capable of attaining a level of technological advancement that would make them detectable in the cosmos. (Ćirković, 2018).
This theory offers a more scientifically grounded explanation for the Fermi Paradox: it suggests that we may not have discovered extraterrestrial civilizations because the path from simple to advanced life and spacefaring societies might be fraught with obstacles and rare occurrences that most potential civilizations fail to overcome. This theory suggests that there exists one or more challenging barriers to the evolution of intelligent civilizations. These filters could be events or conditions that make it extremely difficult for life to advance to the point of becoming a spacefaring civilization.
For example, life’s initial emergence from non-living matter, abiogenesis, requires extremely specific environmental conditions and chemical processes to give rise to self-replicating molecules. In order to thrive, multicellular organisms need a consistent and generally benign environment. Early multicellular life might have been wiped out by catastrophes like asteroid strikes, supervolcanic eruptions, or dramatic temperature changes. (Ćirković, 2018). This leaves me with one hair-raising thought, one that lingers about in the cosmic abyss.
If such filters exist, how close are we on Earth to them? In this vast expanse, her gargantuan mass spanning billions of years and countless galaxies, what’s the chance that we, one planet out of innumerable, are an astronomical anomaly.
Alternatively, if we consider the sheer scale of the universe, even the probability of life elsewhere is a far more plausible notion. Every star, planet, and galaxy in the cosmos represents a roll of the cosmic dice. In an ever-expanding universe with countless opportunities, what we once perceived as impossible gains a new perspective. The sheer vastness of the cosmos offers an almost limitless canvas for the emergence of life, making the quest for extraterrestrial intelligence an even more captivating enigma.
The silence of the cosmos may be a testament to our unaccompanied footprint. The possibility that we, the human race, are the pioneers of intelligence in the cosmos, highlights the immense responsibility we have. Are we destined to stand alone against the immensity of the universe? Will we one day encounter the cryptic civilizations that may very well be hiding in the cosmic shade? More importantly, as Fermi pondered, when will our act in the cosmic theater of existence come to a close?
These questions hang like shadows over our achievements and aspirations, constantly reminding us that our final act remains engulfed in the cold, harsh and unforgiving enigma of the unknown.