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Roger's Answer to Fermi's Question

Thoughts on the Fermi Paradox

by Roger Bourke White Jr., copyright July 2015, July 2018

Power Point



"Where is everybody?"

-- Enrico Fermi, 1950

The "everybody" in this quote is intelligent aliens who are engaged in interstellar space travel, and should have been discovered in some fashion by people on earth by now. This is the Fermi Paradox: the galaxy is a big place, filled with many stars which have many planets. Why haven't many of those planets developed civilized life, then interstellar space travel, and at least one of them made contact with people here on earth?

These are my thoughts on the paradox.

Where is everybody?

As astronomy improved during the 20th century, it became clearer and clearer that the Earth was orbiting a star, The Sun, and that The Sun was just one of billions in the Milky Way galaxy.

If The Sun was nothing special in the way of being a star, then there should be billions of planets orbiting those other stars, and if even one in a million was capable of creating civilized life -- the sort we have here on Earth -- then the Milky Way should be crowded with civilized life.

By 1950 it was clear that space travel was likely to come soon to humanity, and if humans could space travel, shouldn't many of those other beings also be capable of space travel?

This question is the root of the Fermi Paradox: If there are many interstellar space-traveling civilizations in the Milky Way galaxy, how come we Earthlings have not detected any?

The role of commerce

The answer I have to the Fermi Question is: "We haven't seen any others because no civilization has discovered space commerce, as in, discovered a way to move "things" (of some nature, any nature) from star system to star system for a handsome profit."

To see why space commerce is so important, look at the history of exploring Earth. Prior to the development of sturdy ocean-crossing merchant ships, the peoples of all continents were experiencing an earthly form of the Fermi Paradox. There were people on all the continents (except Antarctica), but the interchange between them happened rarely. If the peoples were separated by an ocean it happened once or twice a millennia, so infrequently that contact was routinely forgotten.

Then came the sturdy sailing ships, and commerce. Hundreds of sailing ships got built because there was huge profit in doing so. These sailed, and the cultures all over the earth were changed by lots and lots of contact with each other. They became much more aware of each other and much more interconnected. Today we call this globalization.

The important point here is: Commerce changed these cultures. Commerce made this contact happen on a large scale.

We are at a similar point in interstellar exploration. Without commerce, only a handful of ships will get built by any planetary civilization, and only a handful of star systems will get explored. (We are also at a similar point in interplanetary exploration. If we don't discover more ways of doing commerce between our sun's planets, moons, comets and asteroids, our interplanetary space traveling fleet will also remain small.)

The galaxy is a big place. If we are talking just handfuls of explorers and stars explored, it is not surprising we haven't been visited. The further implication of our not being visited yet is that both of these skills -- the traveling and the commerce -- are difficult to master, so few, if any, current civilizations in our galaxy have succeeded in doing so. This is a sad implication for a science fiction buff such as myself who loves the idea of the wonder of traveling to distant worlds.

The role of amazing life chemistry

Another obstacle is coming up with chemical systems that can support the complexity of reproducible and mutatable life. The system of having DNA/RNA be a library and proteins be able to construct molecules based on that library is... Wow! It's complicated! How many other chemical systems can support complexity of this sort? How many can evolve from a simpler system that was in a primordial soup?

This doesn't seem to be a routine occurrence on the planets of our solar system which means it's not likely to be routine on other planets in the galaxy.


The moral of this tale is that just developing ways of flying between stars is not enough for civilizations to spread across the galaxy. In addition to interstellar traveling technology, good reasons to engage in trade are also needed. And chemical systems that can support reproducible and mutatable life must also be numerous and widespread.

When reasons to trade between the stars are found, and many life forms have evolved to take advantage of these reasons, then we will get a positive answer to Fermi's Question.


--The End--

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