Uncommon Sense

September 24, 2019

The Fermi Paradox and Other Aspects of Wishful Thinking About Aliens

Filed under: Reason,Science,Technology — Steve Ruis @ 12:17 pm
Tags: , ,

Famous physicist Enrico Fermi once uttered something along the lines of “Well, then, where are they?” in a discussion of the possibilities of there being alien life. Fermi’s exact quote is uncertain, but the gist of it is plain. Since there are so many other places in the universe in which life could develop, why haven’t we been visited by aliens at this point?

Let’s look at this because there is so much bullstuff circulating.

Let’s consider time first. A recent Netflix documentary discussing this topic pointed out that the universe was 14-15 billion years old and the Earth was about a third of that old, 4.543 billion years old. So, there has been plenty of time for aliens to have visited us. WTF? No!

If aliens had visited us 2 billion years ago, how would we have any record of that? Maybe if an enduring alien spacecraft had crashed here and avoided being subducted below ground, there might be such evidence, but that is a rather far fetched scenario. We need to be reasonable and consider that Homo sapiens have been around for probably less than 300,000 years. Any prior visitation would not be noted in any way. We also have had a written language for less than 10,000 years, so any prior visitation could only have been recorded in the form of petroglyphs or cave paintings, and there are some rather bizarre figures that could represent such visitants, but I don’t see any consensus in the scientific community as to whether these are factual representations or imaginative ones.

And, it has only been in the last couple of centuries that we have had the means of recording images of such visitants and the images we have suggesting that possibility are of relatively low quality. Recently, some higher quality recordings have led to the possibility that we have, indeed been visited, but that enquiry is still going on.

So, when it comes to time . . . we have been in a position to document such a visitation for a few hundred years out of the 15 billion years of the universe’s existence, a very tiny (tiny!) fraction of the time involved. So, the time factor is quite disfavorable to the argument that we should have seen something by now.

Also, as a factor of time, have you seen the tiny blue dot illustration? Here it is.

The tiny blue dot represents how far radio waves (and TV, etc.) could have traveled since their invention here. Aliens traversing this blue zone would be able to pick up those signs of intelligent life. Again, this is about 200 years in time, 200 light-years in space. Look at how small that zone is compared to the volume of the entire galaxy. Prior to that time or outside of that space, those aliens would be looking for “signs” of life as we are doing now: indications of water in its liquid form and things like carbon dioxide or methane in planetary atmospheres. These searches may turn up “signs” but no conclusive proof of intelligent life.

Now let’s talk space. Clearly any aliens in other galaxies are just too far away to consider making a trip here. Our closest neighboring galaxy is the Andromeda galaxy which is 2.537 million light years away. If these aliens could travel at the speed of light, they would be entertaining a trip of two and a half million years . . . one way! If they could do 1000 times the speed of light, they would still be looking at a 2500 year journey . . . one way. So, intergalactic aliens should be considered to be completely isolated by time and space (unless wormholes of some other similar phenomena are proven to exist).

So, how about aliens inside our own galaxy? With hundreds of billions of stars and trillions of planets in our galaxy, surely . . . surely what exactly? Our galaxy, the Milky Way galaxy, is 105,700 light years wide. Traveling at the speed of light, currently thought to be impossible, would require 100,000+ years to go from one edge to the opposite edge, but let’s assume that “our aliens” are not that far away, that they are at least on our side of the galaxy, so their trip would be less, less than 50,000 years at the speed of light. Let’s be honest. If the trip takes more than a decade or so, what benefit would there be in making it? Trade is out of the question as the distances are too far. Trading technology with a less advanced species, again hardly worth the trip. So the only motivation would be a voyage of exploration, or maybe a desperate attempt to find a new place to live. Excluding the latter, because it would be problematic in the extreme (I would venture that those aliens no one wants to meet), let’s consider a voyage of exploration/discovery.

It doesn’t seem plausible that on such a voyage there would be just one stop, here. If I were planning such a voyage, there would be many stops, amplifying my chances of encountering something new. This would go a long way towards justifying the cost of such a voyage. Even if profit or money were not involved (say our aliens are a hive mind, to which such things would be incomprehensible) the amount of effort to be put into the creation of such a ship only to send it off on an “iffy” mission, possibly to be never seen again is an additional barrier to such a voyage. Think back on how many billions of U.S. dollars were expended sending astronauts to the moon, just 250,000 miles away. Imagine what would happen if President Trump were to announce an ambitious new project to explore some of the rest of the galaxy. The projected budgets surely would go into the trillions of dollars and the howls of fiscal irresponsibility would be heard on the moon.

So, the answers to the Fermi paradox seem rather straightforward.

  1. They came but were too early to see anything promising.
  2. They came and met some sapient Earthlings, but those Earthlings had no way of leaving an enduring, credible record of their visit.
  3. They came but we do not count the reports of their visits as being credible “alien encounters.”
  4. They are coming but haven’t gotten here yet.
  5. They looked for places to go, but outside of the tiny blue dot, there were only vague signs of life, certainly none of intelligent life, so we were just one of myriad possible sites to check out and they chose other places to visit.
  6. They considered coming but nixed the idea as there was no “upside” in the form of trade or technology transfers to warrant the trip.
  7. They have taken such voyages but we are too far away to travel here or to even communicate via EMR signaling.
  8. We were so far beneath them that visiting us would be the equivalent of us trying to communicate with a slime mold.
  9. They were planning such a voyage but the early cost overruns were too scary and they backed out of the project. (They are more advanced than us, remember.)
  10. They were on their way but had an accident and had to limp home.
  11. And, of course, the old tried and true opinion of many theists: “They don’t exist; we are alone in the universe, because . . . we . . . are . . . special!”

Of course, there is also the “Ancient Aliens theorists” conjecture that they came a long time ago and jiggered with our DNA to help create another sentient species in the galaxy. Would you want to meet such a species, one that would take such liberties with lower life forms, to whom we would surely still be a lower life form?


  1. The distances are vast, but just our Orion Spur (our backyard) has 80 million stars, and if we consider Von Neumann probes, then it is odd that we don’t see the huge areas already populated. It could be a technological problem, but I suspect time is the critical element here. The places may be populated, but the evidence just hasn’t reached us. Maybe they were populated, but have since fallen away.

    Liked by 1 person

    Comment by john zande — September 24, 2019 @ 2:29 pm | Reply

  2. If they were smart enough to make the trip, would they not focus on planets in the Goldilocks zone? That would improve the odds. How many have we considered in that range? Idk


    Comment by jim- — September 24, 2019 @ 2:59 pm | Reply

    • We have discovered a few thousand exoplanets … out of the many, many billions. Odds are still not in our favor.

      On Tue, Sep 24, 2019 at 2:59 PM Class Warfare Blog wrote:



      Comment by Steve Ruis — September 24, 2019 @ 9:13 pm | Reply

  3. Excellent commentary.

    If I’ve posted this link before, I apologize. But it gives a lot of information in an easy to under format on this very subject.



    Comment by maryplumbago — September 24, 2019 @ 8:24 pm | Reply

    • Thanks for the link. And again I am suspicious of the odds projected. I aslo love it when people estimate how many intelligent species there are “out there” to be found. We have inspected part of one solar system and found one intelligent species (us) … so far. Do you think the odds will continue at one-to-one? Maybe we should find a second intelligent species before we estimate how many there might be.

      On Tue, Sep 24, 2019 at 8:24 PM Class Warfare Blog wrote:


      Liked by 1 person

      Comment by Steve Ruis — September 24, 2019 @ 9:17 pm | Reply

  4. On the same day I’m reading this, another blogger (can you guess who?) is saying WE are actually extraterrestrials. Ahhh imagination. Such a fascinating trait.


    Comment by Nan — September 24, 2019 @ 9:44 pm | Reply

    • I don’t know about you, but I don’t consider myself extra. But many people, including the British ruling class around the time of the Revolution, considered many people to be “excess population.”

      On Tue, Sep 24, 2019 at 9:44 PM Class Warfare Blog wrote:



      Comment by Steve Ruis — September 24, 2019 @ 9:49 pm | Reply

  5. Isn’t the Fermi “paradox” usually about the fact that we haven’t detected alien signals, rather than physical space travel?
    It’s still not really much of a paradox, though. Our own civilization’s level of indiscriminate broadcasting has already started to decline compared to what it was 50 years ago, so it’s reasonable to guess that any civilizations older than ours just aren’t doing anything that we’d notice.

    Liked by 2 people

    Comment by D.T. Nova — September 24, 2019 @ 9:48 pm | Reply

    • Fermi’s comment (from which the “paradox” was drafted by others, was about the aliens and why were’t they somewhere to be seen. It seems like a variant of Olbers’ Paradox with aliens instead of stars.

      On Tue, Sep 24, 2019 at 9:48 PM Class Warfare Blog wrote:



      Comment by Steve Ruis — September 24, 2019 @ 9:52 pm | Reply

  6. There is also time to take into consideration. The universe is over 13 billion years old, while the modern human race has only been around for so short a period of time in comparison that the length of our existence is utterly insignificant. We’ve only had radio for about a hundred years. We’ve only had the ability to detect potential signals for – what? A few decades at most. When a lot of people look at Fermi’s Paradox they are assuming not only that there are multiple civilizations out there, but that they will exist for significant periods of time, on the order of many thousands of years. I’m not convinced that a civilization could remain stable that long. The point is that if there are other civilizations out there, the odds are that they will not exist at the same period in time that we are capable of detecting them.

    Then there is the interesting question of intelligence. We always talk about intelligent life, but the fact is that if you look at the success of species here on Earth, intelligence isn’t really all that useful of a survival trait over the long term. The species that have been around for the longest periods of time like the crocodilians, ants, and others, are certainly not “intelligent” as we define the term. What matters is successful adaptation to the environment, and intelligence is not required for that. The galaxy could be teaming with life, but intelligence isn’t required.

    Liked by 2 people

    Comment by grouchyfarmer — September 24, 2019 @ 10:47 pm | Reply

    • I did address time, but I forgot to add the nuance of the length of a civilization’s run. I am not aware of any earthly examples that have run a thousand years, are you?

      On Tue, Sep 24, 2019 at 10:47 PM Class Warfare Blog wrote:



      Comment by Steve Ruis — September 25, 2019 @ 8:32 am | Reply

      • I don’t know of any cultures on Earth that were consistently stable for more than a few hundred years. Ancient Egypt looks like it was a coherent culture for several thousand years, but that’s only on the surface. It was fraught with problems, rebellions, invasions, etc. A culture that could sustain any kind of interstellar ambitions would have to be not only stable but static for far longer than any society on Earth ever lasted. Even a relatively stable culture changes its priorities rather rapidly. Look at how quickly we gave up our plans for the Moon and Mars after the Apollo missions.

        Of course we’re speculating about an intelligent species other than human beings here, so all bets are off when it comes to guessing what might motivate them and how long their societies might remain stable enough. Life span would be another consideration. We’re relatively short lived creatures, us humans. If you had a species that had a lifespan measured in, oh, several centuries instead of a few decades, the aspect of spending 50 or even a hundred years to get to a nearby star might not be as daunting as it is to us.


        Comment by grouchyfarmer — September 25, 2019 @ 11:00 pm | Reply

        • So, you are still looking for intelligent life on Earth? :o)

          Even if beings live to be 400 years old, a one way trip of 100 years would be turning over half of one’s lifespan for boredom and tedium (imagine even being on a cruise ship that long). (Stopping to explore this place or that would simply slow the voyage, so a stop would have to be important.)

          On Wed, Sep 25, 2019 at 11:01 PM Class Warfare Blog wrote:



          Comment by Steve Ruis — September 26, 2019 @ 8:42 am | Reply

          • I’m not sure that expending a quarter of one’s life on a voyage like that would be a deterrent to some people. Back in the 1400s and 1500s the early explorers routinely went on voyages that lasted many years, and many of them thought they would never get back home at all. It all depends on one’s motivations and desires.

            But to come back to Earth for a moment, while it’s fun to fantasize about contact with other civilizations out there, that’s all it will ever be, fantasy, I fear. For us here on Earth, there is really no motivation for us to go beyond the solar system. It would require an investment that is mind boggling to even think of, would take so much time that by the time a spacecraft of ours arrived those who launched it would be dead, and there would be no real pay off. I suspect the same would be true for other civilizations out there.

            Liked by 1 person

            Comment by grouchyfarmer — September 26, 2019 @ 4:39 pm | Reply

            • I tend to agree with you … but time marches on and things tech always gets cheaper, so there is some hope.

              On Thu, Sep 26, 2019 at 4:39 PM Class Warfare Blog wrote:


              Liked by 1 person

              Comment by Steve Ruis — September 28, 2019 @ 11:38 am | Reply

    • This is an excellent comment


      Comment by maryplumbago — September 26, 2019 @ 7:46 am | Reply

  7. Or they are all around us, observing us, and we are completely oblivious.

    I think in the Born to Run book (or some other) there is discussion about outsiders traveling in Copper Canyon, going right pass indigenous houses, and never seeing anything other than desert.

    They could either deliberately blend into environments or simply be in a form so unexpected that we can’t distinguish them from natural phenomena.

    Liked by 1 person

    Comment by James Cross — September 25, 2019 @ 10:39 am | Reply

    • Or they could be invisible or … none of which is positive evidence for their existence.

      I am always mildly surprised that we think “since we have been looking for them and there are a lot more of them then they should have started earlier looking for us!” This is wonderful conjectural thinking … except there is no rooting in reality for any of it. I suspect the military knows a lot more than we have been told. They may be sitting on the evidence we would need to answer such questions, but because they think there is some competitive advantage in not letting us know this information, they have sat upon it. But, again, we have no definitive evidence to conclude we have been contacted in any way by aliens. (Circumstantial evidence, yes, we have lots of that.)

      On Wed, Sep 25, 2019 at 10:39 AM Class Warfare Blog wrote:


      Liked by 1 person

      Comment by Steve Ruis — September 25, 2019 @ 10:52 am | Reply

      • Or they could be invisible or …

        Long ago realised exploration to be impossible and retired to a digital existence inside virtual worlds.

        Liked by 1 person

        Comment by john zande — September 25, 2019 @ 12:28 pm | Reply

  8. Very interesting topic sir. I also enjoyed the comments, very thoughtful.
    I recall an old science fiction story, not who wrote it though (sorry) about a craft that was launched to get to some very distant planet we’d had communications with. The craft was sent off and just as the crew was waking from a long slumber heard on their radio of the welcome being planned for them. The crew was so happy, but that happy joy was almost like ashes in their mouths. In the long time since their launch, their society had developed a faster drive for inter-planetary travel. They were met with great joy on the planet they were sent to and also by the many crews from their home planet who had been making the same journey for many years if not decades.
    I agree with you all so far. We know of one planet that sort of has intellignet life, the one we all live on. I’d like to live long enough to find we had contact with another intelligent life form on some long distant planet, but not gonna happen. Well dolphins, Orcas, and other critters are quite intelligent. Cats know everything, but we cannot speak cat.
    On that last not, we know the earth is not flat. If it were, cats would have knocked everything off of it long ago.

    Liked by 2 people

    Comment by Walter Kronkat — September 28, 2019 @ 12:33 am | Reply

    • I remember that story, Walter, or at least one very similar to it. They spent decades traveling only to find that FTL travel had been discovered just a short time after they’d launched and there had been no way to contact them to tell them to turn around. They arrive to find that others had arrived decades earlier and had been waiting for them to get there. It was a very poignant story and rather shocking because this was a time when SF was generally still largely space operas where the good guys always won and the endings were almost always happy ones.


      Comment by grouchyfarmer — September 28, 2019 @ 10:28 pm | Reply

      • I miss those “happy” endings and the positive outlook of Star Trek, etc. Today, everything is post-apocalyptic or apocalyptic or we are all going to Hell in a hand basket.

        I think that technological progress is being undermined politically because science and tech are being portrayed as “always leading to ruin.”

        On Sat, Sep 28, 2019 at 10:28 PM Class Warfare Blog wrote:


        Liked by 1 person

        Comment by Steve Ruis — September 29, 2019 @ 9:56 am | Reply

  9. There’s lots of evidence from many different sources. Photos, video, multiple eye witnesses, ancient peoples carvings and writings back from before Egypt. I think there are species under the mantle, the ice and the ocean. Life is abundant. We re being kept as slaves .


    Comment by samuraimindset — December 30, 2019 @ 11:19 pm | Reply

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