Stay with me till the end, it gets interesting.
The Fermi paradox has become almost common knowledge these days. The question is so fundamental and frustrating and even those with no scientific curiosity would have still thought along those lines at some point. Given the colossal size and age of the universe, with the number of planets possibly running into billions, how come no evidence of life beyond us has been found? How can we possibly be the only ones around?
The cover infographic pretty much explains most of the possibilities, if you’re interested click here for a much higher quality version and read for yourself. We’ll get the basics out of the way at first. I refuse to believe the zoo hypothesis, what’s referred to as the fishbowl in the image which states that the alien overlords don’t fuss much about us because we aren’t really worth it. There is logic to it; we humans aren’t exactly dumping all our resources into developing tech that would allow us to communicate with say, fruit flies. We did study them, learn their anatomies, chances of them carrying diseases but we’ve pretty much left them to themselves beyond that. However, fruit flies know humans exist. They share the consequences our actions have on this world. If the zoo hypothesis was the case, we should be seeing some signs of other lifeforms. With so many stories online about people getting abducted by flying ships and experimented on, this might still be a possibility but nothing ever gets proven, does it? It is also interesting to note that as man’s technological prowess increases, these claims of UFO sightings and abductions parallelly decrease as well.
I also refuse to believe that they are already among us living in secret. For one, how disappointing will that be? Secondly, what will be the point of such an existence? Why would they even do that? They could either come in peace or come to colonize us. Either way them being here implies their technology is highly advanced than ours. So if they are peace-loving space tourists here to experience life the homo sapien way, they might as well come waving sparkly banners and maybe share their means of travel with us, make for a cool intergalactic alliance. I would kill to go study in a university on Blargon-5, Sector VII. If they are a bunch of war-mongering space colonizers they could just take us out in an instant instead of secretly infiltrating our ranks and making us turn on each other ultimately leading to the nuclear annihilation of the planet at the hands of its own people. What is this, a Zack Snyder production? So, no they aren’t here, they aren’t watching us, the American president isn’t secretly being controlled by lizard people. No.
I personally like the ‘rabbit hole‘ hypothesis a lot. As part of my engineering curriculum, I often had to run many computer simulations for days at a stretch. Part of every simulation is defining the boundary and initial conditions – a set of constraints that I am imposing on the problem to make it best resemble the real case scenario that I hope to simulate. I know the reasons for these conditions, but the computer does not. The variables that my simulation uses pop into existence when I hit start, contain only values bounded by my constraints, the processes strictly follow the laws of the physical phenomenon that is being simulated as programmed into the software by me and cease to exist once the simulation is complete. Should the ‘variables’ develop their own sense of sentience and attempt to discover what there was before the simulation began or to find meaning and reason behind why their ‘world’ seems to follow all these sets of rules, they wouldn’t know. It is simply the case because I deemed it so. I often wonder if this is how the ‘real’ universe is as well. We are clueless as to what there was before the big bang. We use numerous ‘constants’ in math and physics – the universal gravitational constant, Plank’s constant, pi – they all have fixed values but there is no explanation as to why they must have that particular value except for the fact that if they were any different, life as we know it wouldn’t exist. Maybe we are all variables in a sub-par simulation that is running about in a much-advanced life-form’s laptop and it would only pay attention to us when the simulation runs out and the results are in. So nothing we do has any meaning, yay. Or it could also be a Matrix type situation where we exist in the real world but our experiences arise out of simulations. But then there is a compelling argument against that hypothesis –
Food, politics, quality of life…everything. Hence the ‘sub-par’. If this is all indeed a simulation, I guarantee you the alien schoolboy working on this probably used inches in the geometry but didn’t notice that the meshing was done using millimetres. I guarantee it.
Nevertheless, all my love for the red pill still can’t make it seem palpable. It is a theory, it fits certain gaps very well but it still sounds too imaginative. Thinking I’m too sexy and women who want to secretly approach me eventually choose not to out of intimidation is a pretty neat theory that matches the singlehood observed but something about it begs the question of there being a simpler, much more plausible explanation for the phenomenon. Applying it to our problem of alien life, the most plausible explanation seems to be that of the great filter. What is ‘The Great Filter‘? Glad you asked.
Right now the hypothesis of how life crawled out of inanimate lava lakes is that, drumroll please, we are an accident. Mamma Earth got tipsy one night on primordial soup and didn’t realise the electricity in the thunderstorms had no protection on and could trigger previously unknown chemical changes and bam! Protein chains were formed. As scandalous as that or not, probably not, for whatever reasons, life seems to have spontaneously appeared out of our oceans some 4.4 billion years ago. While orderly linking of molecule chains to form meaningful DNA and RNA might seem to go against the notion of universe loving chaos and forever wanting a ‘bigger entropy’, You and me both, universe. You and me both, there have been suggestions that temporary order is necessary to bring about larger chaos in the long term thus increasing the entropy of the universe anyway. Whether this was the case, or not, certainly some naturally occurring phenomenon gave rise to the formation of life and this definitely has to do something with the dispersion of energy and the subsequent increase in entropy, as seems to be the underlying cause behind literally any independent, naturally occurring event. Since the laws of the universe hold true everywhere, given enough time, any planet with life-sustaining resources must ultimately reach this point and give rise to extremophile microorganisms. Where there is life, there is competition for resources and survival of the fittest ensues, eventually leading them along very similar, if not the same path of evolution that has led to me typing this right now. Given the large number of ‘Earth-like’ planets being discovered almost on a monthly basis now, most of them orbiting older stars, being much older than Earth, having had plenty of time for life to evolve, the universe should be teeming with life – bringing us back to the Fermi Paradox. The Great Filter theory, to quench this paradox, states that even if aliens did exist, they basically get wiped out before they can make any contact with other lifeforms. Stay with me here.
The way I understand it, life, no matter where it evolves in, goes through a certain predictable set of milestones in time. There is a certain progression to life – it begins single-celled, then these unicellular beings develop sexual reproduction which leads to multicellular life, which then evolves further reaching greater intelligence. The intelligence allows the species to modify its surroundings, spreading across the planet and once they’ve conquered the planet, they naturally seek to colonize space. Any event that deters this progression could count as the filter for that particular race. For instance, the existence of a planet that could sustain life in itself a great filter that countless imaginary races failed to pass that could’ve existed otherwise. Time is another huge filter. Maybe there was a planet perfect for life to form given another couple billion years but it was with a much older star and eventually got annihilated by the red giant. There is a dirty joke in there somewhere but I’m too deep in the zone for distractions now. Dinosaurs were the previously dominant species on the planet, there is even a school of thought among palaeontologists that had they not gotten wiped off, many species of dinosaurs were well on the path to developing considerable intelligence. But unfortunately, the asteroid was their filter. Simply put, there is such an abundance of such filters, such unpredictable and cataclysmic events in the universe, that it just doesn’t allow for life to exist and intelligence to evolve to the point of space colonization, which is required for us to be aware of them. The process is simply too slow and too sensitive. That is why we don’t see star destroyers and imperial light cruisers anywhere.
Now the consensus on those who think this theory might be the most probable, including yours truly, is that mankind is the luckiest bunch of ’em all. That we are the ones who’ve managed to get by the filter for the longest simply ’cause we are still here and there seems to be no sign of long-dead alien civilizations out there. That is the beauty of the size of the universe. Any event that has even the smallest probability to succeed will succeed at some corner just because the universe is so large. Say the probability of life to thrive successfully on a planet is one in ten billion. Not a problem, the milky way alone has 100-200 billion planets. And that’s the lower limit of the estimate. That would allow at least 10-20 planets to harbour life in our own galaxy. And estimates say there are ten trillion galaxies. So tiny probabilities become quite common when the sample space is as large as the cosmos and it is believed that mankind is one such tiny probability that has seen success and hasn’t been filtered out yet. Keyword : Yet. Clearly times, they are a-changin’.
While our ancestral microbes lead a simple and short life from birth to maturity to cell division, those that came after had more complex goals proportionate to their level of intelligence. Fishes need to find partners and protect their eggs, animals socialise and form groups with a chain of command, man seeks adventure, belonging, and the title-release and maybe a trailer for the next Avengers movie. Being the most intelligent species on the planet, we might as well be our own filter. We’ve sucked the life out of this planet as it is, and we continue to do so relentlessly. The energy requirements of feasible, manned space travel and subsequent colonization of other worlds are herculean and this would require us to climb further on the Kardashev scale.
We can, to some extent, harness the energy from the sun that reaches our planet, albeit not efficiently or entirely. So we could count as a partially Type I civilization. Any further steps require enormous leaps in terms of technology and that takes time. Lots of time. It is highly likely that we deplete the planet well before we reach any closer to such advancements. Perhaps this is the ultimate filter. Perhaps countless civilizations have existed and lived up to this point, looking up, wondering if they are alone, only to fade away trying to escape to the stars. To think about it, could we have done this any differently? Research on climate change, population explosion and the limitations of fossil fuels have been out since post-industrial revolution times. Had we listened and paced ourselves, limited our population, we would have consequentially slowed down the pace of our technological advancement as well and we wouldn’t even be where we are right now. If we continue to rush on, the earth would give up too soon. This bottleneck between the time required for the technology to grow and the sustainability of the means to attain said technology seems to be our greatest filter. I would like to remain optimistic, I really would, but all facts point otherwise. This seems like the ultimate constraint of this simulation – “all variables must be bound to their parent regions at all times. Any attempt to spread afar results in termination of parent region.” Sadistic alien schoolboy. We could really use a Thanos snapping right about now, or some more practical means of giving the planet room to breathe without major fallout or deceleration of science. ‘The last question‘, a short story by Isaac Asimov explores just how far mankind could grow into and I’d say everyone must give it a read, it’s sheer brilliance. I don’t see mankind growing a collective conscience anytime soon though and I very firmly believe we are running out of time. So I say we’ve come this far, we either go big or die trying.
P.S – Do check out the links I’ve left throughout this post to fully appreciate all the possibilities. The best of my understanding is still quite far from what actual scientific writings would impart. Should my understanding be flawed or you think you got a cooler theory, let me know in the comments.
P.P.S – Clicking on the ‘great filter’ link, however, would redirect to this same blog post because I want you guys to read my stuff. C’mon.