Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Where is Everybody? A New Approach to the Fermi Paradox

"Where is everybody?" is the question the physicist Enrico Fermi made to his colleagues in 1950.

The Fermi paradox (or Fermi's paradox) is an observation regarding the scale of the universe and probability that intelligent life should arise in the universe prolifically given the age and size of the universe yet, oddly enough, the lack of extraterrestrial evidence contradicts the statistical predictions of abundant intelligent life. Hence the paradox.

For example, if we crunch the raw numbers, there are an estimated 200–400 billion (2–4 ×1011) stars in the Milky Way. There are approximately 70 sextillion (7×1022) stars in the visible universe. That's like a sagan multiplied by a sagan squared, a number so ludicrously large that we can't even begin to wrap our minds around it.

Here's the thing though, even if intelligent life is capable of occurring on only a fraction of a percentage of life sustaining planets around these stars, simple probability suggests there should still be a great number of extraterrestrial civilizations extant in the Milky Way galaxy.

Even so, when we look up at the evening sky with our powerful telescopes, we see nothing to reflect this prediction of abundant life let alone signs of intelligence proliferating our universe.  This very realization led Fermi to his famous question, "Where is everybody?"

With an observable universe (that is the stars, planets, and galaxies within our purview) of 46 billion light years, it stems to reason that it is a statistical anomaly that we haven't yet detected any signs of intelligent life. No contact with Bracewell probes and no traces of any Von Neumann probes either, although the universe is old enough for the statistical probability of the existence of such devices.

In fact, like the episode of Star Trek the Next Generation called "The Inner Light" where Captain Piccard has an encounter with a Bracewell probe which relays to him the information of an extinct civilization, we should have at least contacted a probe containing information of, at the least, a bygone civilization. But still nothing. 

Personally, I find the question fascinating, as well as the implications. The implications being, either intelligent life is much rarer than we realize, or that something is fundamentally wrong with our observations and subsequent calculations. Then again, it could be both these considerations. It's really hard to say, since our data is extremely limited.

However, I am inclined to think the solution lies somewhere in realizing our limitations. 

Allow me to explain it another way. Because our telescopes can only view the ancient past of other galaxies, let alone our own galaxy, and only within a 93 billion light year sized sphere, it stems to reason we are experiencing an optical limitation. 

Our eyesight into the universe is extremely far-sighted. It stems to reason we need to devise a bi-focal type of lens--and by lens I mean technology--which can work in tandumn with other technologies to allow our multiple images of the universe to converge showing us both the ancient past of space-time as well as the more recent, or current, state of the universe.

The telescope is an invention of the 17th century, and as such it is rather difficult to get an accurate image of the universe as it currently is. The light a telescope detects when observing the universe is from the ancient past, the beginning of the universe. Not the present. The only way to see "further" beyond the horizon of sight would be to magnify past the point of the singularity. This is impossible using devices like telescopes--or even probes--since we are not capable of faster than light travel. In fact, we may never be able to break the light speed barrier, so theoretical physicists must brainstorm about new ways in which to get past this cosmic sized hurdle.

So, as we well know, telescopes are inadequate devices to see the universe as it is currently developing right now due to the physical laws such as the speed of light, a limiting factor which dictates the speed at which information can travel.

So we cannot see those distant galaxies as they are but only as they were billions of years ago. There is no method of "seeing" them as they are now by using age old technology like a telescope.

One of the problems with the Fermi paradox, as I see it, is that it views the question "Where is everybody" as an equivalent to "Why haven't we seen anybody?" The Fermi paradox is assuming we are still thinking in terms of what we can see using telescopes and radio-waves, both ancient technologies as of the present.

Could such a thing as a clunky set of lenses and a big tube of metal wrapped around them see far enough into the universe to detect E.T.? It's not out of the realm of possibility, but it's not very likely either. Not unless E.T. was standing on our doorstep knocking on the door asking for us to let him in--but then there would be no paradox. It's precisely because E.T. is missing that we must heed Fermi's paradox and seriously consider what it is trying to tell us.

Radio-waves  as a means of sending information between star systems are also highly inconvenient. The expanse of space and the time it takes for radio-waves to travel is simply far too great to make intergalactic communication efficient, which is why things like Bracewell probes, Von Neumann probes, or subspace (also called hyperspace) relay stations were postulated in the first place. 

But these too rely on the same outmoded appeal to ancient forms of technology. In addressing the Fermi paradox I firmly believe we have to realize an upgrade in our technology as well as our thinking is necessary if we are ever to solve this riddle.

Although I fancy myself a science-fiction writer, and not a scientist, I think one such answer might be found via the realm of quantum mechanics, namely the area known as quantum entanglement.

Recently, scientists have figured out a way to create space-time crystals. They also have postulated how to give the crystals different spins. Instead of utilizing resource costly things like Bracewell and Von Neumann probes, or the seemingly impossible attempt to create man-made wormholes like we see in science-fiction shows like Stargate, I speculate that some brilliant future scientist(s) will figure out a way to create binary messages using the spins they give to space-time crystals, and then using quantum entanglement they will create messages which will be capable of populating all regions of the universe (a nice feature of quantum mechanics which we could exploit).

In fact, one might assume that other intelligent alien civilizations have already done so, and the messages are out there waiting for us to discover them, much like how we discovered the cosmic background radiation of the universe. 

We just have to look harder, not look further. That's the key to unraveling the Fermi paradox.

Using quantum entanglement in this way, to bypass optical limitations  would effectively allow us to detect messages, both past and present, which may be permeating all of space and time this very instant.

1 comment:

  1. It's more likely, IMO, that the Fermi Paradox simply overestimates the probability of intelligent life to begin with.

    For every star with a life-bearing planet, there are probably many more with empty, dead planets. And among those that do have life-bearing planets, exceedingly few would evolve intelligent life at all, in many cases simply because of the lifespan of the star itself. And then, even among those that do develop intelligent life, even fewer would likely evolve technology anything like ours.

    I think the universe is probably teeming with life. Intelligent life like ours? Probably not so much and, if it's out there, it'll be nigh impossible to find.