The human race is doomed never to find extraterrestrial life, because we are about to wipe it all out in a manner that is unintentional, yet horribly unavoidable.
That’s the conclusion reached by physicist Alexander Berezin from the National Research University of Electronic Technology (MIET) in Russia, in a new and admirably parsimonious solution to Fermi’s Paradox.
Fermi’s Paradox is named after Enrico Fermi (1901–1954), an Italian-American physicist who created the world’s first nuclear reactor. Along with fellow physicist Michael Hart, he did some back-of-the-envelope calculations and raised a disturbing and apparently intractable issue at the heart of the subject of extraterrestrial life – or, rather, its absence.
There are, the pair stated, billions of stars in the Milky Way – never mind the rest of the universe – that are similar to the Sun, with some of them considerably older. Given this, there is an extremely high probability that Earth-like planets also exist in abundance and some of these, therefore, must host intelligent life.
So far, so logical. But, the scientists continued, if this is so, then some of the intelligent lifeforms must have developed interstellar travel – because humans are working on it, and humans, in this set-up, can’t be anything special.
Ergo, even at a slow pace, some of these civilisations should have completely crossed the Milky Way by now.
Ergo, where is everybody?
There has been no shortage of attempts to resolve the problem. Possible explanations have included the idea that we humans aren’t using the correct search techniques so keep missing ET; ET has worked out ways of hiding from our searching stares; the universe is so old that whole ET civilisations have risen and eventually gone extinct without overlapping; and the face-palm-inducing suggestion that all advanced civilisations are so busy listening for the signals of others than none have remembered to actually broadcast one.
Berezin, however, dismisses these arguments because they “invoke multiple rather controversial assumptions”.
In a paper published on the academic pre-print site Arxiv (and, thus, awaiting peer review) he advances his own tightly reasoned solution to the matter. It is not, however, something he does so much with pride as with deep sorrow.
“I argue that the Paradox has a trivial solution, requiring no controversial assumptions, which is rarely suggested or discussed,” he writes.
“However, that solution would be hard to accept, as it predicts a future for our own civilisation that is even worse than extinction.”
Just let that sink in for a moment: worse than extinction.
To reach this rather depressing conclusion, the physicist ruthlessly pares away most of the assumptions that have been used in the past to define possible extra-terrestrial civilisations. They need to be “substrate-invariant”, he says, meaning they could be biological, robotic, or distributed planet-scale minds.
All that matters is that they fulfil just three criteria: they reproduce, they grow, and they come close enough for us to detect them. That’s all well and good, but thus far there is no sign of any ET doing that. The paradox still stands.
And this is where things turn a bit ugly.
“What if,” Berezin proposes, “the first life that reaches interstellar travel capability necessarily eradicates all competition to fuel its own expansion?”
This is not, he quickly adds, to imply that ET is warlike or cruel.
“I am not suggesting that a highly developed civilisation would consciously wipe out other lifeforms,’ he writes.
“Most likely, they simply won’t notice, the same way a construction crew demolishes an anthill to build real estate because they lack incentive to protect it.”
Readers familiar with Douglas Adams’ novel Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy might be thinking at this point of the incident at the start of the story in which an ET species known as Vogons demolish Earth in order to clear a path for an intergalactic highway, expressing neither care nor interest for all the life upon it.
The comparison, in Berezin’s model, is not inapt – except for one small, but critical, difference. This time, we’re the Vogons.
To draw this conclusion, the physicist deploys one of the more troubling, but central, tenets of cosmology, known as the anthropic principle. This idea, first formulated in 1974 by theoretical physicist Brandon Carter from the UK’s Cambridge University, holds that conditions within the universe “must be restricted by the conditions necessary for our presence as observers”.
It’s a powerful concept – albeit one that challenges the equally important Copernican principle that holds Earth and humanity to be nowhere and nothing special – that even Stephen Hawking entertained.
Applied to the Fermi Paradox by Berezin, however, it becomes an instrument of cosmic damnation. There is, he concludes, only one reason why ET, in all the stellar multitude, has not so far been seen.
“We are the first to arrive at the stage,” he says. “And, most likely, will be the last to leave.”
In other words, we are the paradox resolution made manifest. It is us, our species, who will spread through the universe, demolishing anthills along the way. Avoiding this fate, suggests Berezin is impossible, because it will “require the existence of forces far stronger than the free will of individuals”.
At the conclusion of his paper, the author adds that he hopes he is wrong in his prediction.
“The only way to find out is to continue exploring the Universe and searching for alien life,” he adds – although many of his readers, perhaps, might conclude that this is not now the wisest course of action.
Andrew Masterson is a former editor of Cosmos.