What are the chances that humans are the only highly intelligent lifeforms in the entire galaxy? It would be hubris to think we are, and yet, we still haven’t found any evidence to the contrary. Despite the prevalence of aliens in our popular consciousness, we have yet to actually identify any. Put simply, there are many potential habitable planets, but we see no evidence of life. This conundrum is known as Fermi’s Paradox, named after the Italian physicist Enrico Fermi who famously asked: Where is everybody?
Even Albert Einstein, a contemporary of Fermi, asked a similar question in 1920: “Why should Earth be the only planet supporting human life?”
As it turns out, a team of American scientists may now have an answer for both Fermi and Einstein. In a new study published in the prestigious Astronomical Journal, the modern-day researchers have devised a solution: The extraterrestrials are out there, but they’re just taking their sweet time in communicating with us. Or, perhaps they’ve already visited Earth billions of years ago and have had no desire to come back. “The situation
is … equivalent to searching unsuccessfully
for dolphins in a small pool’s worth of ocean water and
then concluding the ocean was dolphin-free,” they wrote of the Herculean task of searching the expanse of the Milky Way.
Dr. Avi Loeb, who was not involved in this study, found it of particular interest. The Israeli physicist is the chair of Harvard’s Astronomy Department. He’s currently spearheading the Breakthrough Listen initiative, a $100 million effort to find aliens in outer space. He has published more than 500 scientific papers on the subject. “Currently we have no evidence for an alien civilization other than our own: no artificial signal from a distant star in the Milky Way galaxy, no alien spacecraft that crashed on the surface of the moon, and no relic from a visit to Earth over the past few million years, before geological activity would have scrapped the evidence and buried it underneath the surface,” he told From The Grapevine when we reached him today.
The question, according to Loeb, is what to make of this lack of evidence. “My conclusion is that we should keep searching for evidence since we might find it in unexpected places,” he said. “It is OK to explore without guessing, without having a prejudice. We are not supposed to know the answer in advance. But most people are impatient. They prefer to speculate. To me, what that does is formalize our ignorance – and that cannot take us very far. The best outcome of such an analysis is to show us the diverse range of possibilities, of which reality is just one.”
Loeb admitted that this exercise could be disheartening. “When I think about all possible amounts of money that I could have had in my bank account, I might get very excited. There is a possibility that I might be a billionaire,” he explained. “But going to an ATM and finding how much money I actually have will then have disappointing consequences. Perhaps the best approach is to go to the ATM first without thinking about all possibilities.”
Loeb said that the most likely reason we have not detected alien civilizations is that they are short-lived. “But this does not mean that we cannot find evidence for them,” he told us. “We should engage in space archaeology, searching for relics of ancient civilizations that went extinct by using our telescopes to dig into space. Progress will emerge from new data, not from thinking abstractly about all possibilities.”
To hear Loeb discuss more of his alien research, take a listen to our podcast interview when we visited his Harvard office.
This content was originally published here.