Cosmic Silence

Fiala on ethics: Cosmic silence raises questions worth pondering

By Andrew Fiala

Fresno Bee, Friday, May. 03, 2013 | 05:57 PM

We have now discovered more than 100 planets orbiting distant stars. Scientists recently found three planets in the habitable zone — at the right distance from their stars to have liquid water. Thousands of other potential planets have been identified.

Astronomers estimate that there are 17 billion Earth-size planets in our galaxy. There are hundreds of billions of galaxies. Given these incredibly huge numbers, it seems likely that life could have evolved somewhere else.

So why have we not yet made contact with intelligent aliens?

This problem has been named the “Fermi paradox,” after the physicist Enrico Fermi. Given the likelihood of extraterrestrial life, and the fact that some stars and planets are older than ours, you would think that intelligent aliens would have left a trace of themselves in the cosmos. But Fermi wondered, “Where is everybody?”

Intelligent life may be incredibly rare. Single-celled organisms might live in an extraterrestrial ocean. But it’s harder to evolve brains big enough to build radios or rockets. Dinosaurs ruled the earth for 100 million years. It took another 65 million years for Homo sapiens to arrive. We’ve only had rockets and radios for a hundred years or so. We are extremely lucky to have made it to this level. But it may not last long.

Mammal species exist for a million years or so. A natural disaster could wipe a species out in a cosmic instant. Industrialization is also a threat. Mammal species are currently going extinct at an increased rate due to the effects of human industrial development.

This points toward a pessimistic answer to Fermi’s question, known as “the Great Filter.” As species develop the potential for interstellar communication, they may imperil themselves by developing self-destructive technologies. This filter may explain the “Great Silence” in the universe: sapient species may not be intelligent enough to avoid the adverse affects of their own development.

The life of intelligent species in the universe may be, as Macbeth lamented, a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing. Shakespeare reminds us that politics matters. Interstellar exploration requires centralized government, surpluses of resources, and social stability. Efficient social organization would be required to create a “Star Trek” future.

Shakespearean tragedy reminds us that human beings are not all that good at cooperative endeavor. Intelligent alien species may suffer from the same problems that we do: social violence, destabilizing inequality, political profiteering, inefficient bureaucracy and free-wheeling individualism. An alien Shakespeare may describe life on his planet as a tumultuous spectacle of egoistic ambition and hubris.

A more optimistic explanation of the Great Silence is that truly intelligent beings may want to avoid defacing the cosmos. In order to make it past the Great Filter, intelligent species may have overcome the desire to tag the universe with cosmic graffiti.

For an intelligent species to survive, it must find a way to manage its own planetary ecosystem. It would have to develop social and ethical resources that produce stability rather than violence and war. And it may want to avoid attracting the attention of more aggressive interstellar colonialists.

A species that could solve those problems may see no need for space exploration. Advanced aliens may have decided that the social and ecological costs of massive technological development are simply not worth it. Maybe they choose to live simply. Or perhaps they focus on virtual reality devices — the alien Internet — instead of interstellar exploration. They may also decide, like good cosmic campers, that it is better to leave no trace.

The deafening silence of the cosmos is a cautionary tale. Intelligent species may not last long enough to solve the problems that their own sapience creates. Maybe intelligence is inherently unstable, creating disequilibrium in a universe that is basically devoid of intelligence. Maybe the hubris of intelligence creates its own undoing.

It’s a wonder that we Homo sapiens have discovered alien planets. But we may not be wise enough to understand the ominous emptiness of the cosmic silence. Will we last long enough to fill the void with poetry, meaning and wisdom? Or like the dinosaurs, will we strut and fret for an hour on the cosmic stage and then be heard no more?