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Understanding the Fermi Paradox

I’ve mentioned the Fermi Paradox in several articles over the months, mainly related to book reviews involving contact with alien civilizations.  But I never really felt the need to elaborate on the idea.  Everyone knows what the Fermi Paradox is, right?  I always assumed readers knew about the Fermi Paradox, but that may not be the case.  I relied on readers to scour the Googles to read and educate themselves on the topic.  This video just popped up on the web that does a good job explaining the concept in 6 minutes . . . and it requires almost no reading!  Yay technology!

The universe is a big, Big, BIG, BIG place.  So big, in fact, that even conservative scientific extrapolation (and exoplanet observation) says it should be teaming with life, including intelligent life.  So where is it?  Why do we feel so alone in a universe so vast that out minds can’t even comprehend the size?  Why haven’t we heard any voices coming from the darkness, or any visitors from the void?  Therein resides the paradox.

One thing that I would have like to see in the video is how the Drake equation relates to, and partially explains, the Fermi paradox.

N = R* fp ne fl fi fc f L


N = the number of civilizations in our galaxy with which radio-communication might be possible (i.e. which are on our current past light cone);

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R* = the average rate of star formation in our galaxy
fp = the fraction of those stars that have planets
ne = the average number of planets that can potentially support life per star that has planets
fl = the fraction of planets that could support life that actually develop life at some point
fi = the fraction of planets with life that actually go on to develop intelligent life (civilizations)
fc = the fraction of civilizations that develop a technology that releases detectable signs of their existence into space
L = the length of time for which such civilizations release detectable signals into space

The author of the video did explain that they would have a part 2 video in the next coming months.  Perhaps they’ll address the shortcoming there.

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Neal Ulen
Editor/Webmaster - Neal is a writer and recovering engineer who likes pizza, the insidious power of sarcasm (and pizza), and debating science fiction (and pizza). You can also find his writing on Omni, Geeks, and other media platforms.
  • bardolph

    We’re on the dawn of using quantum entanglement as a means of communication and computation. Space craft with clusters of entangled particles communicating with their corresponding hosts on Earth would permit continuity of contact across a vast expanse. There isn’t even a theoretical means of detection outside that system. So we ourselves are on the verge of going dark in the great expanse. So fc should read, “fc = the fraction of civilizations that develop a technology that releases detectable signs of their existence into space and which do not proceed to undetectable means of communication no matter how much more efficiently that new technology may function.

    So at this point, using ourselves as a model, there is a factor unforeseen by Fermi. It is the assumption that detectability increases parallel to advancements in technology. Wave form communications has been increasingly based on smaller waves and shorter and more focused bursts of encoded information. Laser transmissions and fiber optic transmissions are not detectable outside their systems.

    We could, as a thought experiment, assume that other civilization follow the same course, from modulated carrier waves to focused microwave communication along with closed system optics and then quantum methods. We may well only be able to seek out civilizations less advanced as ourselves, at least at the time their transmission began.