Why the Fermi paradox is anything but.
You and me and the kid next door. We all were lied to. By the ones we truly trusted: James T. Kirk, Spock, Yoda, and even E.T.
All the Star Trek episodes are big fat lies. AndStar Wars and E.T. They should have told us upfront: we will never meet intelligent aliens, become friends with them, or wage war against them. Never.
We might one day hear echoes of civilizations long gone, yet we will not meet them. Humans are condemned to eternal solitude by the rate of our technological progress, the span of life, and the scale of interstellar distances. As Princess Neytiri remarked in Avatar, “This is sad. Very sad only.”
The Neanderthals, with whom we mated and then exterminated, were our last Star Trek.
Here is the story of how we are quickly accelerating into solitude.
By any measure, the long history of life on Earth is a story of acceleration. It started slowly, taking over 3,000 million (3 billion) years to progress from single cells to primitive animals. It then took 400 million more years to move from primitive animals to mammals, then some 100 million years to early primates, and around 40 million years from first primates to our ancestors. Nearly 6 million years separate humans and chimpanzees from our common ancestor. We Homo sapiens are only 0.3 million years old. We have been able to speak for about 0.1 million years. Writing, and thus all recorded history, is less than 0.01 million years old.
On a human timescale, it took millions of years to develop speech, then 100,000 more years to develop writing. Only 5,000 years after that, we invented the printing press. From there, it took just 400 years to invent the telephone, 120 more to the World Wide Web, and just 10 years to Google. Feel the acceleration?
Let us now imagine that, by an incredible coincidence, two planets capable of supporting life were hatched right next to each other in the same galaxy at exactly the same time.
The planets’ stars were identical as were the compositions of the planets and their atmospheres. The evolution of life on both planets started simultaneously and progressed at an incredibly similar pace, with a difference of less than 0.1%. By today, this minute difference in the speed of evolution would amount to a 3 million-year gap in progress.
In other words, it would have been an astounding coincidence to be just a few millionyears away, in evolutionary terms, from a nearby civilization. However impossible the chance, what would this actually mean?
If our nearest neighbors were 3 million years behind us, they would be closer to chimpanzees than to Neanderthals. They would not have speech, could not use fire, and it would take them another million years to invent the stone ax. If their planet was orbiting the star closest to our Sun, Proxima Centauri, we could, within this century, observe them via tiny robotic spaceships, orbiting high above their planet. They would never know we existed.
Over time, this gap in development between us and our neighbors would widen. Over the next 100,000 years, our neighbors might develop slightly improved fighting sticks, but otherwise would not change. Meanwhile, over the same 100,000 years, humans would most likely either cease to exist or become gods - gods who can conjure chimpanzees and Neanderthals by simply wishing them.
We would probably grant our neighbors a chance to uniquely develop and never attempt to communicate with them. They would not be able to even comprehend the concept of us, because it would take millions of years to develop speech, and then more time to conceive of gods. And should humanity choose not to have a neighbor, they would never see it coming or realize what it was, no more than dinosaurs understood the asteroid that did them in.
If the same nearest star, Proxima Centauri, harbored a planet identical to Earth on which life developed 0.1% faster, our “twin” species would be about 3 million years ahead of us today. “All-powerful immortal bodiless beings, pondering the questions where Albert Einstein would not have understood a single comma…” does not even begin to describe the gap we would likely face. We just cannot imagine that far into the future.
Given the accelerating speed of evolution and technological progress, our neighbors, 3 million years ahead of us, would either have ceased to exist long ago or became so advanced that the difference in intelligence between them and us could be akin to the difference between humans and oysters. How do you communicate with oysters? Or, more pertinently, how do we, oysters, send a message to humans? Try that, SETI.
Whether we are a million years ahead or behind our closest galactic neighbor, the intellectual gap would be both insurmountable andwidening very fast.
Now, what if another civilization was developing more slowly or quickly than we were? Would we not catch up to them or they to us? While theoretically possible, we would have to be impossibly lucky twice, in both time and space.
If another civilization was developing more slowly than humans, they would, at some point, catch up with us and be roughly on the same level. The problem is that this parity could be achieved when we both had just invented the stone ax, some 1.5 million years ago or, much luckier still, when we both first made bows and arrows, some 65,000 years back.
It would be an incredible coincidence, with life developing over billions of years, and then two intelligent life forms shooting their first arrows the same year. Yet, you cannot shoot an arrow across the stars. And since this shared “equality” moment, the more slowly developing species would have fallen behind. By now, they could be brewing their first beers in their first village, a stage that humans passed about 10,000 years ago. By the time they develop the first telescopes and radio signals, we would be over 10,000 years ahead, which means we would either be long dead or would have become gods. Again, an incredible coincidence, but absolutely no Star Trek. And no communication.
Now, let us just imagine that there is, in our tiny corner of the Milky Way galaxy, a civilization that is at exactly our level. They got their iPhone X two years ago and watched The Incredibles 2last fall.
For this impossible coincidence to mean anything, they would also have to be very, very close in distance, because nothing travels faster than the speed of light, and our galaxy is 100,000 light years across.
Assuming the two contemporary civilizations are in the same 1% of our galaxy’s space, we would be, on average, 5,000 light years away from each other. So we would receive their first signal 5,000 years after they sent it. By that time, we could be dead or be demigods, and the signal sent so long ago would likely be what the smoke signal is to us today. Even if we received it and cared to reply the same day, their response would come back after another 10,000 years. Assuming they are still around and want to text us again. An information exchange with a 10,000 year delay. Fun.
To be able to communicate, two civilizations would probably have to be within roughly 20 light years, so information exchange would onlytake 40 years. The two civilizations would also need to be on roughly the same technological development level. The problem is there are only about 100 stars within 20 light years from us. And the chances of one of them having a civilization that is similar to our development level are none. Why none? Even without the (im)possibility analysis, if they had radio technology, we would have heard them by now. Thank you for confirming this, SETI.
It is not difficult to see why we should be on roughly the same technological level, within 200 years or less, development-wise. On Earth, 200 years ago marks the dawn of the industrial revolution in England, before the first public railway. Given the acceleration of progress, it would be harder for us to imagine the knowledge of 200 years forward than for Napoleon, trotting across a field at Austerlitz, to imagine live videos from Mars and peoplehabitually circumventing Earth in 90 minutes.
In essence, we could not contact a civilization that was 200 years behind us – think Napoleonic France. No radios and the fastesttransport was a horse. And if we were to blast a signal toward a civilization that is 200 years ahead, they would most likely ignore us, to allow us a chance to develop in our own unique way. Or, less magnanimously, they could send us a purpose-built virus or two and wipe us out.
Yet, even this tiniest of time gaps, 200 years (vs. the 3,500,000,000 years that life has existed on Earth), would be widening quickly as progress accelerates. There were no fundamental advances in Imperial Rome’s culture, economy, tools, or weapons between 1 AD and 200 AD. By contrast, the same 200-year difference between the 1800s (hello again, Napoleon Bonaparte) and today is unsurmountable.
If you enjoy visual illustrations, you could watch the Netflix documentary about the first encounters with previously uncontacted tribes in the Brazilian Amazon, First Contact. These tribes are exactly like us, Homo sapiens. Their bodies and brains are identical to ours, and they share 99.9999% of our history, having been separated from the rest of civilization for a few thousand years.
You may be able to exchange an imperfect greeting with tribe members through a chain of interpreters, and you may understand what they are talking about (or what the interpreters think they are talking about). The tribes have no written language of any kind and know no history older than 100 years. Yet they are exactly like us, Homo sapiens. Now, try to visualize communicating with species from another planet who are either ahead or behind us by 10,000 years - cavemen and gods, but noStar Trek.
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This is how the enormous span of life, the vastness of interstellar distances, and theaccelerating speed of our technological progress condemns humanity to solitude. We better get friendly with our fellow humans – we are about to experience an incredible ride, alone in the universe.