Strange…. Very strange.
I was sitting on the couch last night, thinking…“What do I write about for my No B.S. Friday blog?”
I was watching Beauty and the Geek… My mind was blank. No inspiration there.
Then this show came on called, The Happenings. First time I ever heard about it. It was about illusionists, tricksters, slight of hand artists and magicians conning an entire English town of 19,000 people that aliens had come and gone and are on their way back.
…Aha! I had an idea.
“Where are all the aliens?”
Oddly enough, this is one of the most intriguing questions of theoretical physics.
Sidenote: I never did Physics at school, in fact I joke with my kids and say to them that their goal in life is to surpass their dad’s HSC score of 84. That was an aggregate score over 2 years… I failed HSC the first time with a score of 34 and just got by the following year with a score of 50 (total: 84).
I never really started learning much that was of any use until I was around 23 or 24. Hence my curiosity as a sci-fi hack.
Back to the story…
It’s called the Fermi Paradox.
It more or less runs like this: In the scheme of things, our sun’s not that special. There are more stars than there are grains of sand on all the beaches in all the world. A lot of them are like ours.
If that’s true, then the chances of other planets like Earth – with life – are pretty high.
But our sun is relatively new in the scheme of things. Most stars in the milky way are billions of years older than ours.
And even with current technology (i.e no warp drives yet), it would only take about ten million years to colonise the galaxy (either directly or with self-replicating probes.)
So given the number of chances for a species somewhere to rise to the point of interstellar travel, and the great amount of time between the dawn of creation and now, why hasn’t Earth been colonised? Or at least why haven’t we seen any evidence of extra-terrestrial life?
Where are all the aliens?
All this started as a thought bubble by the astro-physist Enrico Fermi over lunch with some work-mates, but it’s become one of the most popular riddles in space science.
And from there it’s a short little hyper-leap over to science fiction. Star-Trek’s First Contact principle – where you don’t mess with a species until it’s developed to a certain technological level – started as a possible answer to the Fermi Pradox. Maybe the aliens are all hiding.
But the lines of thought I find most interesting are about reasons why maybe it’s an incredible fluke that any living species should evolve to our level of sophistication – in terms of art, science, culture, celebrity magazines.
Maybe some planets just never got past the plant stage.
Maybe on some planets, life never made the creep up out of the water.
Maybe on some planets, there was never a meteor to wipe out all the dinosaur-like creatures. There was no cataclysmic event that took out the big players and opened the way for mammals – that created an evolutionary niche for ‘soft and small but smart’.
On those worlds the biggest and most bad-ass continue to dominate. And mega-lizards have little interest in exploring space.
Or maybe it’s that we do live in some kind of Star-Trek universe, where intelligent humanoid species are a dime a dozen. It’s just that none of them have survived long enough to seriously turn their attention towards space.
To elevate civilisation to the point of serious space colonisation implies massive technological advance. But advances in technology always come with risk – the risk that like some sort of Frankenstein’s monster, it rages out of control.
Year after year, throughout the ages, we’ve invented new and creative ways to kill each other. And then we got nukes.
And apparently we got dangerously close to wiping our selves out completely with the Cuban Missile crisis and the cold war. Things seemed to have chilled out a bit since then, but only because the U.S effectively ‘won’ an economic arms race.
But peace could be short lived. All economics is an experiment. Fiat money and credit is an experiment. It’s been 40 years since we departed from the gold standard, but we haven’t ever reached some sort of peaceful equilibrium.
We continue to lurch from one crisis to another. No one really knows how it’s all going to play out.
And the US is top dog for now, but what happens if something brings down American civilisation? What happens then? Will we have China and Russia and Europe trying to slug it out for the number one spot? North Korea, India, Iran, Israel, Pakistan?
Who knows? My point is a nuclear holocaust isn’t imminent right now not because we’ve collectively evolved beyond solving our problems with violence. We just have a finely balanced tension of state-level blood-lust.
The threat of rouge technology still haunts us.
Or maybe we’ll just go the way of all plague-species. We could out-breed the Earth’s carrying capacity (given our own indulgent lifestyles). If it’s not global warming it could be resources, food or water.
And tensions over any of these ramp up the likelihood of violent conflict.
So maybe we’re at some hugely significant cosmic tipping point. In a few hundred years we’ll have the technology to seriously thrust into space (I reckon), but will we survive that long?
Maybe 1000s of species have come this far… and failed. There’s a chance we could actually go down in history as the first species to do it – to master ourselves and our technology. (c’arn the homo-sapiens).
But it really looks we’re really going to need to pull something miraculous together.
When I look at us, I see a fine balance of competing contradictions.
On one hand is a determined selfishness – an instinct to preserve and nourish ourselves. This is incredibly important. We wouldn’t have been able to get where we are without it. But you can have too much of a good thing, and I think we’re seeing that play out now.
On the other hand, we have an instinct to cooperate. An ability to work in teams has been central to our survival. But now we need to scale up in a massive way. Beyond Team Australia even – into Team Earth.
(In my vision of the future everyone wears lycra.)
I think our future will be determined by our ability to balance these two drives.
Can we do it?
Somehow I doubt it.
I can’t really see what could overturn an instinctual self-interest in favour of a global collective will.
But what do I know?
I’m willing to recognise a lack of vision here. I’m still an optimist. I still believe in the ingenuity of the human race. I just can’t see the road out.
But that doesn’t mean it won’t happen.
In the meantime, humanity will continue to skate that knife-edge between galactic pioneers and galactic compost.
What an exciting time to be alive!