Editor’s Note: Earlier in 2015, I went to a lecture by a Columbia University astrophysicist who suggested something I’d been thinking about a lot lately, which is that our continued existence is no sure thing, and may not even be a long-term thing. Humanity’s technological advancement has surged way ahead of our psychological, ethical and spiritual development, as evidenced by the fact that, right at this moment, Pakistani Muslim fundamentalists, who would be more comfortable in the 12th century than the 21st, are armed with modern weapons of mass destruction. This frightening reality makes one wonder whether human beings are destined for a long reign as the Earth’s dominant life form, or are more likely to go the way of the dinosaurs, only after a much shorter life span.

What the Fermi Paradox Could Mean to Our Future


Living past 60 can give you a somewhat jaundiced view of humanity. Seeing ISIS, the Charleston shooter and Antonin Scalia on the same evening news broadcast is enough to make one question whether human history and evolution actually represent progress.

No wonder much of the world’s population is hoping for some divine manifestation that will make the Earth a better place. A billion Muslims expect the Mahdi to bring a Jihad that will usher in a caliphate of Islamic righteousness. And, for thousands of years, the Jews have been praying for a Messiah, while Christians are still awaiting a different Messiah’s second coming.

However, many of us with no religious aspirations also yearn for celestial visitation, which probably explains why I’ve seen “Close Encounters” a dozen times. I have the same doubts about UFOs as I do about a supreme being, but I’m still hoping ET turns out to be real, because the more history I witness, the more depressing I find the possibility that we humans represent the “crown of creation.” I think most people hope we aren’t alone in the universe.

In 1961, Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) astronomer Frank Drake derived a formula, 

N = R* • fp • ne • fl • fi • fc • L,

for estimating the number of civilizations in the galaxy advanced enough to communicate with us (N). The Drake equation began largely as guesswork; however, scientific advances are now filling in some of the gaps.

For example, we have up-to-date estimates of the number of stars similar to our sun that have formed in the Milky Way (R*). Discoveries by NASA’s Kepler Space Telescope show that the fraction of stars that have planets (fp) is larger than astronomers had thought, as is the number of those planets that are of an earthlike (i.e., habitable) size (ne).

Biologists searching for flora and fauna in some of Earth’s most-hostile environments have concluded that life is more hardy and more likely to develop than previously believed. Hence, the fraction of planets on which life arises (fl) could be larger than had been thought. (The fraction of life forms that evolve intelligence [fi] and the fraction of those that develop electromagnetic communications [fc] remain difficult to estimate.)

With approximately 200 billion stars in the Milky Way, and large numbers of exoplanets (bodies orbiting stars other than our sun) being discovered, the idea that life has developed only here on Earth grows ever-more statistically improbable. The galaxy has existed for some 13.2 billion years, and, based on human history, it takes only a small fraction of that time for a species to achieve man’s current technological level. Hence, the Drake equation would seem to indicate that the Milky Way should be teeming with intelligent life.

Nevertheless, after decades of searching for radio signals, SETI hasn’t detected evidence of any kind of encounter, close or otherwise (despite the endless number of alien visitation programs on the History Channel). Famed physicist Enrico Fermi’s troubling question, “Where are all the alien civilizations?” has given rise to the Fermi paradox, which suggests that, although there’s been ample time for intelligent beings to evolve and spread throughout the Milky Way, our inability to detect them may imply that there’s simply no one out there.

According to Columbia University astrophysicist Dr. Nicholas Stone, who studies relic exoplanetary systems around dying white dwarf stars, the Fermi paradox draws a dividing line between the first six components of the Drake equation, which are historical, and the final number in the series (L), which is all about the future. The first five tell us how we got where we are, whereas L denotes the life span of an advanced civilization and deals with how long we might be expected to survive.

Even if technological species have proliferated, those that are short-lived (i.e., have a short L), relative to the vastness of cosmic time, may not overlap sufficiently with ours to allow for contact. Could it be that advanced civilizations are fragile — arising, then rapidly destroying themselves? If so, what does that say about the future of mankind?

The deranged government of North Korea has a stockpile of nuclear weapons. Once the Israelis acquired WMDs, proliferation in the Mideast became a foregone conclusion. When Iran’s Shi’ites have them (and they will), the Sunnis (e.g., Jordan, Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf States) will want them too. Dangerously unstable Pakistan already has what it calls the “Islamic bomb,” and proliferation creates the oxymoron of religious fanatics with a seventh-century mentality wielding 21st century destructive power. This does not bode well for humanity’s L.

In the U.S., the Religious Right — which still rejects evolutionary biology that has been settled science for more than a century in the rest of the developed world — won’t even consider the idea that manmade climate change is possible, despite the vast majority (approximately 97%) of scientists who warn of its danger. Even if conservatives could be convinced it’s happening, the oil companies would never allow the science-denying political party they own jointly with the fundamentalist Christians and the gun lobby to do anything to address the problem.

Pollution, nuclear winter and the greenhouse effect are all manifestations of man’s power to destroy most life on Earth, as our technological advancements outstrip mankind’s moral and spiritual development, as well as our common sense. Complicating matters still further, many evangelicals believe we’re in the End Times, and are actually looking forward to Armageddon.

Stephen Hawking, arguably the world’s pre-eminent scientist, predicts that we’ll be undone by our innate aggressiveness, which no longer serves a useful survival function. Dr. Hawking warns, “I don’t think we will survive … without escaping our fragile planet.” However, this suggestion demands the sort of long-term planning for which politicians have little patience.

It’s possible that, someday, aliens whose Drake equation contains a long L and have managed to survive their own technological adolescence could arrive on our planet. Will they find a thriving civilization or just the fossils of the perhaps ironically misnamed homo sapiens? Based on the nightly news, it’s hard to be optimistic.

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