Daily Archives: January 8th, 2010

The Alternative Fermi Paradox

The Fermi Paradox has been greatly discussed lately in scientific circles. With the discovery of five planets by the Kepler satellite/telescope (these were a calibration test) and James Cameron’s new film ‘Avatar’, interest in space is starting to come back into the public consciousness (for how long?).

Briefly, the Fermi Paradox is that if intelligence has arisen in the Galaxy previously hundreds of millions of years ago, where are they?

Surely if there are civilizations millions of years old, wouldn’t they have spread through the Galaxy and colonized the Earth/Solar System?

Let me state first that the Fermi Parodox was just a lunch-time thought experiment lark proposed by physicist Enrico Fermi back in 1952, he wasn’t really ready to bring it into serious discussion. He really didn’t care either way. Number two fallacy about the Fermi Paradox is that it is heavily anthropocentric culturally. How do we suppose that any alien culture/civilization would follow our pattern? Could we recognise an alien civilization if we stumbled across one? What would be the hallmarks, on and on, etc?

So, we shouldn’t imprint what aliens would do, even though we only have one sample size to compare against. Us.

One thing we’re finding out about the Galaxy, planets are fairly common. Just about every star we’ve studied there are planets orbiting them. Albeit most of them are super-Jupiters, but that’s because they’re big enough to be discovered using our primitive methods. As our methods improve, chances are excellent we’ll find an Earth-like planet or exo-moon orbiting a gas giant.

That doesn’t mean we’ll find intelligence right after that, oh no. But chances are in our favor of eventually running across a race of beings who happen to think just like us. At least one. Living or long dead.

And we better hope they’re long dead.

Because in the scheme of things, the Law of the Jungle applies to the wider Universe too.

And if a race knows there’s a potential competitor spreading out from their cradle, it might behoove the civilization to strangle the infant in its crib:

The game plan is, in its simplest terms, the relativistic inverse to the golden rule: “Do unto the other fellow as he would do unto you and do it first.”…

When we put our heads together and tried to list everything we could say with certainty about other civilizations, without having actually met them, all that we knew boiled down to three simple laws of alien behavior:

If an alien species has to choose between them and us, they won’t choose us. It is difficult to imagine a contrary case; species don’t survive by being self-sacrificing.

No species makes it to the top by being passive. The species in charge of any given planet will be highly intelligent, alert, aggressive, and ruthless when necessary.


Your thinking still seems a bit narrow. Consider several broadening ideas:

  • Sure, relativistic bombs are powerful because the antagonist has already invested huge energies in them that can be released quickly, and they’re hard to hit. But they are costly investments and necessarily reduce other activities the species could explore. For example:
  • Dispersal of the species into many small, hard-to-see targets, such as asteroids, buried civilizations, cometary nuclei, various space habitats. These are hard to wipe out.
  • But wait — while relativistic bombs are readily visible to us in foresight, they hardly represent the end point in foreseeable technology. What will humans of, say, two centuries hence think of as the “obvious” lethal effect? Five centuries? A hundred? Personally I’d pick some rampaging self-reproducing thingy (mechanical or organic), then sneak it into all the biospheres I wanted to destroy. My point here is that no particular physical effect — with its pluses, minuses, and trade-offs — is likely to dominate the thinking of the galaxy.
  • So what might really aged civilizations do? Disperse, of course, and also not attack new arrivals in the galaxy, for fear that they might not get them all. Why? Because revenge is probably selected for in surviving species, and anybody truly looking out for long-term interests will not want to leave a youthful species with a grudge, sneaking around behind its back…

You’re propably considering this rather harsh, but think about how Nature works on this planet.

The Survival of the Fittest.

Why wouldn’t this apply to the larger Universe in which we live as well?

Interstellar kinetic weapons? Exploding stars? Mysterious x-rays emminating from supposedly stable stars?

What about gamma-ray bursts? Are they a natural occurance, or funeral pyres of nascent civilizations?

Is the reason SETI radio telescopes aren’t detecting signals from other cultures is that they’ve been wiped out by an ancient super-civilization concerned about competitors?

Something to think about and something astronomers and astrophysicists should consider when conducting their search for exo-Earths.

So You Have Fermi Paradox’s Solution?