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Guest Editorial

Where Is Everybody?
by Dan Duda
from the March 2023 issue of Penn Central,
the monthly newsletter of Central PA Mensa,
used by permission

“Humans could theoretically colonize the galaxy in a million years or so, and if they could, astronauts from older civilizations could do the same. So why haven ’t they come to earth?”    Enrico Fermi

The Fermi Paradox is a clear statement regarding the cosmological and broader scientific enigma about our total lack of contact with any extraterrestrial lifeform, let alone sentient life, in this incredibly vast universe. Fermi’s pithy comment says it all: “where is everybody?”

The scientific community is rife with possible answers, but none rise to the level of a theory. The Drake equation, proposed by cosmologist Frank Drake, provides a mathematical formula for calculating the number of sentient species we should expect to exist in the universe.

You may remember the entertaining presentations of the Drake Formula by SETI League Executive Director H. Paul Shuch. Armed with his guitar and slides, he sings about all the factors in a way that has us looking at the night sky as we leave for home. It would require more space than we have here to detail all the elements like Paul does, but if you’re interested, check out this reference:

Now for a few of the possible answers to Fermi’s question. We haven’t been contacted by extraterrestrials because:

  1. The distance between stars is too great to overcome.
  2. Few life forms have advanced far enough to communicate.
  3. Most life forms have advanced beyond us and find us uninteresting.
  4. Advanced civilizations have surpassed us in communications technology (i.e., radio) and find us easy to overlook.
  5. Civilizations tend to advance to a point where they destroy themselves with technology.

A new idea (at least to me) has recently been proposed. That’s Levinthal’s paradox addressing the problem of protein folding. It states that "it would not be possible in a physically meaningful time to a protein to reach the native (functional) conformation by a random search of the enormously large number of possible structures.

Remember, protein folding is necessary for the evolution of life. But because of the degrees of freedom involved, based on statistics it would require longer than the age of the universe for the first protein to get started. How's that for an answer to Fermi? We beat the statistical odds here on Earth. To expect it to happen elsewhere is dreaming — that is, if Levinthal’s thinking is completely accurate.

I’d like to segue a little here and focus on Number 4 (above). Recently an asteroid (Oumuamua) thought to have come from outside our solar system was scrutinized for possible signs of extraterrestrial life. In a program on the Science Network a scientist said that we’ve closed the book on that possibility because we made a thorough scan with radio telescopes and found no radio signals. To me that presents a serious problem with our science. In a civilization a million or more years advanced compared to us, wouldn't it be likely that they would have communications technology far beyond our radio?

Fermi summed up his concern with 3 words: “Where are they?" And I think most real scientists apply another 3 words to most of the mysteries we deal with: “We Don't Know.” That should have been the final assessment of Oumuamua.

In the words of Max Planck “Science cannot solve the ultimate mystery of nature. And that is because, in the last analysis, we ourselves are part of the mystery that we are trying to solve.

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in editorials are those of the individual authors, and do not necessarily reflect the position of The SETI League, Inc., its Trustees, officers, Advisory Board, members, donors, or commercial sponsors.

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