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Comments for the author of "Why don't we see the aliens?"

The commented article is on the website of the french magazine Le Figaro:

"Pourquoi ne voit-on pas les extraterrestres?"
Chronicle - in French - by Jean-Luc Nothias
April 12, 2006, (Sciences and Medecine section)

Why don't we see enough aliens?

You provide a good description of the circumstances which led Fermi to start this line of thought.

It might seem astonishing that the name of Fermi is more popular for an apparently casual discussion between colleagues concerning the question of extraterrestrial civilizations, than for his work in fundamental physics and their applications: the atomic bomb and nuclear power stations. But is this really astonishing? I think on the contrary that in spite of the ften heard scoffing at the matter, it is is quite simply one of the most fundamental matter we deal with. Perhaps, besides, the scoffing is only a sign of the importance of the matter.

Above: The fathers of the atom bomb
Edward Teller (left)
and Enrico Fermi (right)
at the time of
the famous discussion.

It was indeed, as you recall, by commenting on a cartoon of Alan Dunn in the New Yorker, that jokingly explained mysterious disappearances of dustbins in New York by imagining that the culprits are aliens, that prompted Fermi and his three colleagues to start their line of thinking on the aliens. The idea to associate both was not mere fantasy; the period had just seen a peak of UFO sightings reports.

Blow: The disappearance of dustbins
in New York allotted
to mysterious interest by the aliens.

On this, I want to open a sidenote. Beyond the joke and the reasoning it inspired, there is also something of fundamental: what we ufologists call "incommensurability". Incommensurability is what makes the perception and the interpretation of the facts of another civilization all the more difficult to realize that the two civilizations are culturally, technologically and biologically separate. This incommensurability can make the actions of the ones appear wrongfully absurd to the others. It can lead to misinterpretations of the deeds of the ones by the others. In the same manner it can prevent the ones to understand the nature or the very existence of the others. Let us just consider the unfortunate interpretation of the conquistadores by the Aztecs, the cargo-cults, the Valadolid controversy, and other situations where two civilizations however at least biologically identical meet for the first time.

You point out that the beginning of the discussion was about the chances that an object could move faster than the maximal speed, the speed of the light. The object was the flying saucer; that was about a discussion on one of the most naive forms of the thesis of the extraterrestrial visitors: is it possible that an extraterrestrial crew scrambles a saucer, comes to us, returns on their planet, in a reasonable amount of time? That can only happen if they have a certain tranportation technology of which we do not have the least idea since it is not possible for us in the current state of our techniques of space travel and in our current state of knowledge of physics. Such a voyage is excluded for us for the moment, and some plead that it is excluded in future times and excluded for everyone. It is interesting to note that it was not the opinion of Fermi. In the discussion, he asked Teller which would be, according to him, the probability of solving the problem involved in the maximum speed of the light in the vacuum within the next 10 years. Teller answered that there was a chance in a million. But Fermi answered that he was rather thinking of one chance in ten.

About the Fermi paradox itself, you provide its usual formulation, but it is not the right one.

The usual formulation is: "since statistically extraterrestrial civilizations exist and that some must be much older than ours, why aren't they seen?"

If this were the good formulation, the matter would be settled: it is then enough to note that there are many people who see them!

The correct formulation by Fermi was brilliantly clear:

"Where is everybody?"

Fermi knew that some were seen, or at least allegedly seen.

But the core of the case, the true paradox, was:

"Since, statistically, extraterrestrial civilizations exist and that some ought to be much older than ours, then, they should have colonized even the remote recess of the galaxy for a long time, we should have here and now as street corrner neighbors all kinds of representatives of many extraterrestrial races! However, if there are indeed many people who claim to have seen some extraterrestroal craft or occupants, obviously the Earth is not populated with a colourful extraterrestrial crowd."

That is the true paradox which intrigued Fermi: some UFOs are not enough, the Earth should be teaming with aliens for a very long time.

"Where is everybody?"

Thus, the solutions that you recall are not solutions.

I easily give up as you do the first solution, that of their non-existence. You consider it the least plausible since no evidence prohibiting extraterrestrial life is found. It is also as a sophism more than a solution: the paradox exists only on the predicate that the aliens cannot not exist.

However, if there were no solution, i.e. no possible scenario to explain the situation, that is, that our planet is not populated by aliens races, the common sense would dictate that in spite that it seems utterly foolish to think that we are alone, or the first, it must be so all the same.

A good solution to the Fermi paradox is therefore a scenario which respects the principle of banality at the base of the paradox of Fermi (we cannot be the first and only ones, that would be so much an extraordinary coincidence that it verges on the impossible), but also it must gives at least a possible if not likely explanation to the obvious fact that the earth is not populated of aliens settled here since one or two billion years.

This is why a many solutions are not valid. Some are advanced by ufologists who like myself, are willing to consider that some UFO sighting reports do not have a better explanation that of the extraterrestrial visitors. In this category, the worst solution is of arguing that the aliens are there since some are observed on our planet. No, for there are not enough of them. There is no plausibility in the idea that, for example, they would precisely be at the beginning of their colonization or exploration operations of the galaxy. Precisely now? In the 5 to 10 billion years that they had to start this, they would begin just right now? Here still, the coincidence is so improbable that it verges on the impossible.

We can eliminate some of the solutions that you list as also bad:

"They did not have made contact yet?"

But it is improbable to the impossible that in all the time they had, no civilization colonized the galaxy. It is improbable to the impossible that there are only two civilizations, theirs and ours, which would be right now at the time of making contact. It is improbable to the impossible that there is only one civilization, ours, but all the same difficult to imagine that that there are only two, ours and theirs. There must be a certain number of civilizations, and they all cannot have started exactly at the same time, and at least some exist for such a long time thatt they had akll the time to colonize the galaxy: even if that requires million years, the galaxy has billion years of existence, much more than enough.

The majority of the bad solutions collapse as follows: "they" are not colonizers? It is then necessary to postulate that none of all the extraterrestrial civilization has a will to expand, except ours. Are they so different from us that we do not see that they are here en masses, they are invisible to us? But here again, it is necessary to claim that they all have this characteristic, that none is sufficiently similar to us to be at least a little noticeable to us. We do not interest them, we are in an uninteresting part of the galaxy? Then it is necessary to postulate that we do not interest any of all the extraterrestrial civilizations, that the Earth and its neighborhood are without value since billion years for all extraterrestrial civilizations.

Thus collapse these solution you list:

"... We do not have (yet) the technologies to receive and decipher their messages ..."

But the neighbors in your streets should be of many aliens races, settled here openly for million years at least.

"... they are really too far ..."

But they had billions of years to colonize the galaxy. Your neighbors should be aliens settled here openly since millions or billions years.

"... they are not interested ..."

But at least some of them are forced to be interested in that if they do not want to be colonized themselves by more interested others. You should have as close neighbors those that are interested, setteld here openly since long.

"... they came and now they are gone ..."

But others should have come and go also, and others should have come and stayed. But should meet in your own street those that were interested in settlement, not just the galactic tourists but those having the colonist mind, setteld here openly since long.

The valid solutions are indeed those of which you write that they upset reason. They are indeed those answers that postulate that they are already among us, with this nuance that it is a question of considering that they already colonized the galaxy.

They have, and that is simply obligatory within the framework of the Fermi paradox, colonized the galaxy. However, they are not settled on Earth as are our human street neighbors but since much longer. However, people occasionally claim to have seen extraterrestrial craft and their occupants.

That, no more and no less, is the situation that must be accounted for by at least on possible if not likely explanation.

If there is at least one solution, a possible scenario, which is at least a little more plausible than the idea than we are alone, then the Fermi paradox is settled.

Even with that correctly posed, there are bad solutions. For example, I heard the proposition that there would be periodically gamma rays burst or other astrophysical catastrophes that would regularly sterilize the galaxy and would thus "reset the counters" for any life form in a sufficiently narrow time interval so that none could completely colonize this galaxy in the interval. Wrong! We do know that the life on Earth was never completely sterilized. Life on Earth has more than 3 billion years and never was completely destroyed, and lead to at least one biological species willing to travel in space and getting ready to do so. Whatever proposition can be made for galactic sterilizations, there still remains the this Earth has been thriving with life showing a continual evolution, with some smaller disaster, but never any full sterilization.

Are there solutions? I think so.

The first that I would like to present is a solution "ex principio". It is by no means brilliant, but it is enough that it is possible. This solution is that we can accept the idea that we do not understand the situation yet. It is enough to accept the idea that there is a certain missing parameter which distorts the reasoning around the Fermi paradox. It is enough to accept the idea that there is indeed an explanation to the situation, but that we do not see it yet. To explain why we did not see it yet, it is enough to accept the idea that we still have not seen certain parts of the puzzle. Is this unreasonable? I do not think so. On the other end it is obvious that to propose ignorance as solution, which is similar to solving a problem by calling it a mystery, will cause irrational scoffing, and is hardly satisfying intellectually. It can thus be wise to seek something better than that, to seek some solution having a content that can be exposed right now, all things considered, a solution based on current knowledge is more satisfiyng than mere claiming that there will be an excellent solution in the future.

Scenarii, or lines of thoughts, are there.

One class among them is that of the ecological considerations. We can speculate around such considerations starting from the example of our own planet.

We can look at rabbits as one of the colonizing species of our Earth. With their reproduction rate, one could be silly enough to imagine that the Earth should now mathematically be entirely covered with a layer of rabbits of several meters in height since ages. Or, of a layer of ants, or any other species, for what matters. It obviously proves that this does not happen. The species are almost all colonizing, they mathematically multiply at a vertiginous rate, but ultimately, of our billion species, none seems to have carried a complete overtake of the Earth. Better, some could be at a stage where from their point of view there is nothing more to colonize, whereas they do not massively occupy the totality of planet all the same, and are generally victims of the predation of other species. Some of our terrestrial species are predatory of others, but all sorts of situations are occurring: those eat the others, but the others live only thanks to others again, as parasites or in symbiosis. There is an ecology, in which we do understand why the Earth has not be covered with a layer of rabbits. It is quite possible that there is a galactic ecology, of which we do not know master the parameters to say the least, which invalidates the model in which if extraterrestrial civilization exist, then they should be on the Earth since ages.

Beyond these considerations, scenarii which are at least in thought possible solutions or even plausible to the paradox exist, and I want present one of them. In fact, it is enough to have a single solution to a paradox to solve the paradox.

It may be that what we regard as "us" is nothing else than the result of the colonization of the galaxy by the first, or few first, extraterrestrial technological intelligences.

The first extraterrestrial technological intelligence having planned to colonize the galaxy perhaps did that in a manner close to what von Neumann had proposed as the best manner: one cannot simply build million of rockets and send them in all the galaxy. It is necessary to be more refined. It is a matter of sending autonomous "machineries" in the galaxy, which need to self-repair, to multiply, to adapt. Thus, the basic cell, or the initial RNA, could be quite simply the von Neumann machinery of a certain extraterrestrial civilization. This basic machinery would colonize the galaxy for the benefit of its initial manufacturers, and it can be equipped with the programming needed so that this colonization is done "safely", making it possible to manage the risks that the machinery turns against its creators. No machinery can be entirely perfect, and our UFOs could then be for example the craft of the some remote emanations of the same von Neumann machinery that would have perhaps put in failure the safety measures to a certain extent, or function out of what was planned, the exceptions however being manageable at large by the initial colonizers who had billion years since their colonization to do that.

In this scenario, there is indeed an initial colonizer that occupies the galaxy, for it is probably really a question of getting a hold on the galaxy before others have achieved an ordinary colonization of it by massively occupying planet after planet, with the risk that others started it better. This is about first "mining the ground" against the competitors to come. To spread life in all the galaxy ensures a certain homogeneity of its evolution, limits the appearance of a competition of unforeseeable capacities by installing harmless controllable "troops" everywhere. This is, to some extent, galactic gardening. This is what I would do.

The integration of our UFOs, our extraterrestrial visits which are not massive and overt invasions, which are not colonizations even when these UFOs are periodically massively reported, can be done in such a scenario in the light of what precedes. All occurs as if our visitors did not want to undertake a massive colonization, as if they did not want to drawing the attention of a certain "galactic police force" by too overt actions. Here we have a variant what is often called the thesis of the "zoo", taking in account that just like with our zoos it inevitably happens that an animal escapes, that a child feeds animals in spite of prohibition, that the ants move into the monkeys' cage, and all kinds of incidents which can be dramatic or go unnoticed for this or that species in the zoo, but that however are overall well managed by the guardians, the dramatic situations being located and managed, while inevitably the smaller incidents are precisely hardly dramatic and thus do not justify an impossible search for perfect control.

The true Fermi paradox is not "Why don't we see the aliens?"; it is "why weren't we for a long time massively invaded by the aliens?"

At least one possible solution exists. One cannot thus claim anymore that we are alone nor that no UFO is alien on the basis of the Fermi paradox.

Patrick Gross - 2006

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