Where are the aliens? A new study may finally solve the Fermi Paradox

A new study proposes a possible solution to the Fermi Paradox, suggesting why we may not detect advanced alien civilizations.
Paul Ratner
3D illustration of a starship travelling through deep spaceGrandeduc
  • A new study offers a possible solution to the Fermi Paradox.
  • The Fermi Paradox wonders why we haven't encountered aliens yet.
  • Advanced alien civilizations may be pulling back from space exploration to avoid collapse, predict the researchers.

With the sheer vastness of space, it seems quite conceivable that there should be more intelligent civilizations out there besides us. After all, some estimates peg the observable universe to contain at least 2 trillion galaxies, with each such galaxy having approximately 100 million stars on average but with some like our Milky Way Galaxy estimated as having as many as 200 billion stars and 100 billion planets. We are talking astonishing numbers in quintillions or sextillions for the total number of planets in the universe.

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Given such mind-boggling math, it is hard to believe that we are so unique that no other life could have sprouted in the far reaches of the cosmos. This conflict between the possibility of life and the fact that we haven’t seen any aliens around was famously encapsulated in the so-called “Fermi Paradox” by the celebrated physicist Enrico Fermi, who reportedly asked in a 1950 conversation with fellow physicists Edward Teller, Herbert York and Emil Konopinsky something like “But where is everybody?” referring to potential extraterrestrials.

In a recent paper, published in the Journal of the Royal Society Interface, two astrobiologists — Dr. Michael Wong of the Carnegie Institution for Science and Caltech’s Dr. Stuart Bartlett — attempt to provide a possible answer to the Fermi paradox. Their explanation – advanced alien civilizations likely reach what they dubbed the “burnout horizon,” which forces their societies to scale back growth and interstellar exploration or face destruction.

Two paths for alien civilizations

By studying the history of human civilizations and large cities, the researchers came upon a hypothesis they called “superlinear scaling” which describes the limit of unbounded growth of societies. There’s almost always a point of collapse or crisis the scientists termed “singularity”. They believe distant alien civilizations which have spacefaring capabilities may face two distinct choices at some juncture of their growth.

In one possibility, a planetary civilization will continue to expand until becoming one “virtually connected global city” which then leads to “asymptotic burnout,” with an increasingly overwhelmed system facing dwindling resources and the need to innovate that’s unable to keep up with the growing population and requisite energy demand. This would eventually lead to the outright demise of the civilization.

On the other hand, a civilization may understand its trajectory and try to change it, going into “homeostatic awakening” when expansion further into space is no longer their goal.

In both cases, the aliens end up in a state that would make it very unlikely we would ever detect them.

Information vs Energy

In their paper, the authors propose that one could look at life itself as a feedback loop between flows of information and energy. Life can be described as systems “where fluxes of mass and energy lead to the production, transmission, and utilization of functional information,” write the researchers. The “dynamic interplay” between free energy and information is an essential feature of any system’s longevity. An important aspect that allows the system to keep going is its ability to innovate. Even evolution can be thought of as “a series of innovations in the units undergoing selection, energy transduction, and information processing.”

The authors connect these ideas to the lifespan of a human society, which they argue is “shaped and reshaped by innovations that accelerate and widen the spread of information”. Our inventions of the printing press, computers, and the internet have all had a tremendous impact on our ability to spread information and, on the health of our societies as a whole. We have made particular advancements in this ability over the past 100 years, during which we also made great strides in harnessing the energy necessary for such innovations, acquiring the ability to capture solar energy, nuclear energy, wind energy, and more.

Where are the aliens? A new study may finally solve the Fermi Paradox
Civilization growth chart

But as great as we seem to be doing, like a distant alien civilization, we likely have a limit of just how far we can keep this growth of our society going, propose the scientists. The more information we create and process, the more energy we need.

The analysis by the scientists illustrated that human cities and the civilization at large tend to reach the eventual case of unbounded growth, “leading to infinite population (and hence infinite demand on resources) in a finite time.” If this so-called “singularity” is approached by the civilization “unchecked”, then “the system will eventually exceed its energy supply and collapse (or significantly regress).”

Only serious changes or “innovations” can prevent the demise of such systems, leading to resets and changes in the direction of growth, favoring the maintenance of homeostatis over growth, what the authors call "homeostatic transcendence" or awakening.

The aliens we may be able to detect

The paper does provide one instance of extraterrestrial presence that we may be able to detect. The researchers believe remote detection of “planetary-scale technosignatures” may be possible from civilizations nearing burnout or right after their “awakening”. These technosignatures may consist of electromagnetic transmissions, industrial changes to their planet’s atmosphere, or the artificial structures that such a society may have placed in space.

The study proposes that such a civilization near burnout may be the easiest type to detect since it would have dramaticaly changed its environment and would be “dissipating free energy in a wildly unsustainable manner,” emitting strong signals. One caveat, say the scientists, is that such civilizations may be intelligent “though not yet wise”.

The takeaway for citizens of Earth

The limitations of the somewhat speculative work of Dr. Wong and Dr. Bartlett are clear, as they base their conclusions about extraterrestrial worlds on what they know about Earth. On the other hand, they believe that these faraway societies may ultimately be “subject to the same governing principles as human civilization, even if they do not share our particular material or historical details.” 

We cannot yet check if the researchers are right about the aliens but we can use their insight to look with apprehension at our current world, which has become extremely interconnected due to the tremendous growth of information technologies in the past 100 years. Are we on our way to becoming the interconnected global city moving straight towards a singularity? Given our struggles with climate change and already-overstretched resources, and seemingly endless energy consumption, that may be the biggest lesson here — humans need to focus on what we can do to avoid collapse ourselves as we ponder the fates of distant civilizations.

The researchers actually point out several instances of humanity already having some “mini-awakenings” such as our efforts to protect the Earth’s ozone layer through international cooperation and the banning of some harmful substances. Other instances of humans recognizing our own destructive path are the efforts to deescalate the arms race, especially via the nuclear arms agreements that came into existence after the Cold War, as well as the international whaling moratorium of 1982, designed to protect whales from extinction due to hunting.

For more possible solutions to the Fermi paradox, from the Zoo Hypothesis and the Transcension Hypothesis to the Aurora Hypothesis and more, please check out this article.

Study Abstract:

Previous studies show that city metrics having to do with growth, productivity and overall energy consumption scale superlinearly, attributing this to the social nature of cities. Superlinear scaling results in crises called ‘singularities’, where population and energy demand tend to infinity in a finite amount of time, which must be avoided by ever more frequent ‘resets’ or innovations that postpone the system's collapse. Here, we place the emergence of cities and planetary civilizations in the context of major evolutionary transitions. With this perspective, we hypothesize that once a planetary civilization transitions into a state that can be described as one virtually connected global city, it will face an ‘asymptotic burnout’, an ultimate crisis where the singularity-interval time scale becomes smaller than the time scale of innovation. If a civilization develops the capability to understand its own trajectory, it will have a window of time to affect a fundamental change to prioritize long-term homeostasis and well-being over unyielding growth—a consciously induced trajectory change or ‘homeostatic awakening’. We propose a new resolution to the Fermi paradox: civilizations either collapse from burnout or redirect themselves to prioritizing homeostasis, a state where cosmic expansion is no longer a goal, making them difficult to detect remotely.

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