In “The UFO Question (Part 1): NASA, Harvard, and the Pentagon are all taking UFOs seriously now,” we discussed new initiatives aimed at studying the possibility of extra-terrestrial life, as well as new investigations pertaining to UFOs mounted, often in secret, by governmental agencies.
Then, in “The UFO Question (Part 2): The Drake Equation and the Fermi Paradox,” we compared Drake’s estimates regarding the number of alien civilizations that could be expected to develop within our own galaxy to Fermi’s assertion that we’re likely alone because we have yet to hear or see any other forms of intelligent life.
To this point, what we’ve really been trying to establish is a bit of common ground. Part 1 was meant to convince you that it’s not just tin-foil-hat-wearing lunatics that are investigating the strange lights people keep reporting in the sky. Part 2 demonstrated how nothing about our planet is particularly special or unique — with both Drake and Fermi pointing to that as proof of their seemingly disparate beliefs. Now, I’m going to extend a bit beyond the work of these men to establish a new assertion that bridges the gap between the two: it’s my belief that the Drake Equation and the Fermi Paradox are not mutually exclusive. Alien life may well be common place — so common, in fact, that we’re just not all that interesting.
Drake argues that the building blocks of intelligent life are so common place throughout our galaxy that it’s statically impossible for life to only exist on our little blue dot. Fermi contends that, because the building blocks of life are so common place, there should be evidence of extra-terrestrial life all over the place. And since our search of other celestial bodies within our solar system and efforts to contact aliens using radio communications have all failed to find any conclusive evidence of life, it stands to reason that life is exceptionally rare or there’s some other barrier preventing us from discovering or engaging with our celestial neighbors — just as Fermi would contend, given the decades worth of exploration that’s taken place since he formed his theory.
Both of these arguments (maybe unintentionally) rely on two mutual suppositions: that a galaxy lousy with alien life would result in evidence we’re able to detect and that aliens capable of traveling through the massive expanse of space would be interested in meeting us. Let’s address the former first.
Programs like the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI), which uses massive radio telescopes to look for errant radio signals sent from far off worlds, or Messaging Extraterrestrial Intelligence (METI), which takes the proactive approach of broadcasting messages into space in hopes of garnering a response, are all based on the first of those suppositions: the idea that intelligent alien life would produce evidence we’re capable of detecting.
The problem with these endeavors is that they assume an advanced alien race capable of traveling interstellar distances would still rely on radio communications — notably beholden to the limits of the speed of light. Light speed communication has proven troublesome for our own space exploration efforts, exemplified by long waits between signal and response from rovers on Mars. Those issues would be exacerbated exponentially for a species capable of traveling between solar systems. A different form of communication would be required, and it stands to reason that a species capable of mastering space travel may also be able to utilize science we’re only now on the cusp of understanding, like quantum entanglement, to foster instant communications across vast distances.
If aliens are out there talking, we’re almost certainly not equipped to hear them.
We’ll explore the second supposition — that aliens capable of traveling through the massive expanse of space would be interested in meeting us — in Part 4.