Enrico Fermi, one of the architects of the atomic bomb, famously put forth in 1950 his now oft-repeated question, "Where is everybody?" Fermi was referring to the fact that with potentially 100 billion stellar systems with planets in our own Milky Way galaxy — one galaxy among 100 billion others at least — extraterrestrials from somewhere should certainly have been expected to have dropped anchor at such a beckoning oasis as Earth by now.
Our planet, an extraordinary jewel possessing the most welcoming environment, should long since have been expected to be a port-of-call on any and all alien itineraries for hundreds of millions of years already — if they ever existed.
The evidence and logical extrapolations, unfortunately, don’t bode well for the idea that humanity will soon if ever meet and greet extraterrestrial comrades. For starters, our solar system can't be dismissed out of hand. Indeed, there may well be micro-organisms living beneath the surface of Mars and even bigger fish potentially to be found on Europa, Enceladus and Titan, moons of the outer gas giants.
That there might be advanced civilizations on Venus or Pluto or all the other celestial bodies in our immediate neighborhood though is too absurd even to address or consider.
However, with 300 billion neighboring stars in our own galaxy there must be hundreds of billions of planets in the Milky Way from which only one is needed to produce a society equal to ours. There is another mind-numbingly large number though that works against the proposition of intelligent alien life: the Milky Way is some 13 billion years old.
That deep time frame suggests something that might be uncomfortable to face; it implies that we are it, that we are alone.
It would be very implausible that the Milky Way shouldn’t be colonized from end to end if any space-faring civilization should ever have arisen in the past. Now that one has—us—the far future has been nudged in just that precise direction. The math is inescapable. Even at relatively tame interstellar speeds (10 percent light speed, for instance) any civilization striking out into space, expanding omnidirectionally, pausing a century or two at every new star system to catch its breath and strike out again, should start to run out of Milky Way long before it ran out of time.
It’s been estimated that two or three million years is all it might take to colonize the entire galaxy. And there have been many thousands of those few million year intervals that have come and gone without anyone anywhere doing anything like that at all. Our galaxy isn’t a bustling, crowded, super-society populated by a race of beings closer to demi-gods than animalia.
To the contrary, it’s cold, empty, dark and vacant. The physical evidence also screams the same deafening silence: nobody home. Every survey ever conducted has turned up nothing in the way of infrared signatures of Dyson spheres (an arrangement of statites hovering around a star to collect a great portion of its energy output).
Someday we’ll construct cupolas of uncountable numbers of gossamer-thin solar panels to hover around our Sun, balancing immense gravity against ferocious light pressure, harvesting colossal amounts of power for the home planet. But there doesn’t seem to be a single one anywhere else in the galaxy.
Our radio telescopes hear nothing, our orbiting telescopes see nothing, and our planet’s surface isn’t littered with millions of tons of space junk from tens of thousands of space-faring visits over the ages.
But, that still leaves 100 billion other galaxies, doesn’t it? The closest one though, Andromeda, is two million light years away, so the only way to interact with the Andromedans would be through worm-holes and other amazingly far-fetched avenues. Still though, isn’t it possible we may have some intergalactic company, somewhere?
In 2010, the Wide Field Infrared Survey was conducted, examining the closest 100,000 galaxies. If the million year run to completely colonize an entire galaxy wasn’t made here but in a neighboring galaxy the energy harnessed by that society would be stupendous, and the waste heat detectable in the infrared wavelengths. Granted, there are 99,999,900,000 more galaxies to check, but at this point the reigning champion of all civilizations discovered to date, the title holder of most advanced culture in the cosmos belongs to the inhabitants of a planet orbiting a G-type, main-sequence star about two-thirds of the way out in one of the spiral arms of the Milky Way galaxy.
Maybe Enrico Fermi was asking the wrong question. Perhaps the really amazing, incredible, and miraculous query isn’t where everyone else is, but simply to ask who we are. Because from everything we can tell, there doesn’t seem to be anything in existence quite like . . . us.
David Nabhan is a science writer, the author of "Earthquake Prediction: Dawn of the New Seismology" (2017) and three previous books on earthquakes. Nabhan is also a science fiction writer ("Pilots of Borealis," 2015) and the author of many scores of newspaper and magazine op-eds. Nabhan has been featured on television and talk radio all over the world. His website is www.earthquakepredictors.com. To read more of his reports — Click Here Now.
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