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The Fermi Paradox – We seem to be Alone (Part 1)

Updated: Jul 24, 2023

Everyone loves talking about aliens. By everyone I mean people who are constantly surrounded by the X-Files theme song, which manifests spontaneously from the ether. Others love to mock and criticize the aforementioned people.

Astrobiologists are scientists who study the possibility and likely evolutionary paths of extraterrestrial biological entities. Their field is, naturally, all theoretic. Because there are no aliens, right?

According to the math, there should be a lot of life in the Universe. Physicist Frank Drake worked out a now famous equation to figure out how many intelligent civilizations there should be.

But why, if life is supposed to be so abundant, are we so very – crushingly – alone?

The Drake Equation – Let's Get Math-y

Math, especially the theoretical kind, can get very technical, very quickly. Frank Drake's equation is no different. Just look at this thing:

The Drake Equation
Pure gibberish

Let's break it down.

N stands for the number of technologically advanced civilizations in the Milky Way galaxy.

R* is the average rate at which stars form in our galaxy. Our planet's life is highly reliant on the star we orbit. It stands to reason that this would be necessary for all life. We can, after all, only extrapolate from what we know.

fp refers to the amount of stars that have planets orbiting them. Life needs something to form on.

ne is the number of planets orbiting said stars that can sustain life.

fl refers to the number of planets that are suitable for life that actually end up producing life.

fi is the fraction of those planets that develop life, where that life gets smart enough to create a civilization.

fc is the number of those planets where the civilization develops the technology to communicate between stars using radio waves. This form of communication, which is the best that we can do, is terrible for such long distance communication.

L stands for the average lifespan of such a civilization. Which we calculate using our understanding of human history and speculations about how far into the future we'll go.

If civilizations ultimately destroy themselves soon after discovering radio transmission technology, then the answer to the Drake equation is 1. Us. Alone in the cold void.

Otherwise, should even 1% learn to live with the capacity for self-extinction, then we're looking at something like 1,000,000 intelligent civilizations in the Milky Way. This would place our nearest neighbor only a few hundred light-years away.

Any message sent from such a distance would take more than one human lifetime to deliver.

Frank Drake came up with his famous equation in 1961. Eleven years earlier, a lunchtime conversation would give us the impetus for this equation's existence.

Light Lunch Chat

Enrico Fermi was one of the big brains working to create the atomic bomb. Following WWII, he stayed on at Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico, USA, to continue his work.

While there, he formed a bit of a lunch club with three other physicists – Emil Konopinski, Herbert York, and Edward Teller. They would discuss various thought experiments and spend their afternoons in fantastic contemplation.

One day, Enrico Fermi blurted out the question: ”Don't you ever wonder where everybody is?”

Herbert York remembered, in a paper by Eric M. Jones, the subsequent discussion going something like this:

“followed up with a series of calculations on the probability of earthlike planets, the probability of life given an earth, the probability of humans given life, the likely rise and duration of high technology, and so on. He concluded on the basis of such calculations that we ought to have been visited long ago and many times over.”

The paradox in this case being that the math and the observable reality don't match up.

We'll cover possible explanations for the Fermi Paradox in Part 2.


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