The Fermi Paradox illustrates the apparent contradiction between the high likelihood that there is intelligent life somewhere out there and our lack of contact (or proof of contact) with any of those civilizations. The Paradox rests on the ideas that there are billions of stars and galaxies much, much older than ours, and that many of them contain habitable planets (the Kepler telescope has confirmed this), and some of those must support life. And where there’s intelligent life, there’s technology, particularly in terms of interstellar travel.
The key question, then, of the Fermi paradox is: why haven’t we been visited by aliens? In a recent interview with Business Insider, astrophycisist Neil deGrasse Tyson shares some “unorthodox” thoughts about why that might be.
Maybe they have visited us, he suggests, but no one noticed — especially if they came to Times Square or to Comic-Con (aren’t they pretty much one in the same?).
More seriously, he argues that our “hubris forces us to think of ourselves as intelligent” because we’re smarter than other animals on earth. By way of analogy, he says that when we encounter other beings on earth, we don’t think about their intelligence — we only think about them as being inferior to us. So perhaps we have been observed by aliens, he says, but when they examined us, they concluded that there’s actually no sign of intelligent life on Earth. Ha! I love that theory, and if the aliens read the tabloids or watch reality television, it’s not difficult to see how they’d arrive at that conclusion.
He also argues that humans don’t have a sense of the scope of space at all. Clutching a globe, he puts everything into perspective. The International Space Station, for example, is about “3/8ths of an inch” from the surface of a globe. In other words, that ain’t space! The moon is about 30 feet away, and Mars is a mile away. Where is the nearest star system? “Forget it!” We drive around the block and aliens traverse real space, so they’re far more advanced than we are. Agreed, NdGT. Agreed.
He even poo-pooed what I thought was a pretty awesome space-dive (see below). “Can you see that? No, you can’t, because it’s only a sixteenth of an inch off the top of this globe!” Point taken, NdGT. There’s a lot we don’t know, and even more we don’t know that we don’t know. But still, I’d like to see you jump from a sixteenth of an inch into space.
Then he turns his attention to Stephen Hawking’s fear that aliens will “suck our brains out.” Hmm…I hadn’t heard that one, to be honest, but okay, sure. He likens it to all the times humans have colonized (i.e. destroyed) less advanced civilizations, and argues that Hawking’s fear reflects what he knows about humans, rather than what he might know about aliens. Makes sense, especially because, as far as I know, Hawking hasn’t made a love child with an alien.
To sum up, Tyson suggests that maybe the answer to the Fermi Paradox is that we’re just too stupid to be worthy of a visit from extra-terrestrials. Unless they’re ALF.
Neil deGrasse Tyson is an astrophysicist, author, and science communicator, as well as the host of StarTalk Radio, where he talks about everything from antimatter to faster-than-light travel. He was a student of and friends with Carl Sagan, and knew as a teenager that he wanted to study astronomy: “So strong was that imprint [of the night sky] that I’m certain that I had no choice in the matter, that in fact, the universe called me.” He has argued exhaustively to expand NASA’s operations, testifying before the U.S. Senate Science Committee that NASA’s annual budget is a joke, which I suppose is just further proof for his “stupid humans” theory.