This past weekend, I was a guest at CONtraflow here in New Orleans. (More specifically in Kenner, less than a mile from Casa Cerio) And had an absolute blast. The folks at CONtraflow really know how to throw a good, fun, literary convention. I was on a number of panels, including one about my participation in the 48hr Film festival, and the ever-popular "Super Heroes and the Law" panel. The highlight of the con for me, however had to be the fantastic panel given by Author guest of honor Vernor Vinge, Tom Trumpinski, and NASA scientist Les Johnson about the Fermi Paradox. Mr Vinge, for those that don't know, is one of those guys that the government calls when they need a "Futurist", and to hear his ideas about it was facinating. Tom Trumpinski has written a lot about the subject, and Mr. Johnson's view on the topic from having worked with NASA just made for a killer panel about a subject I love hearing about.
For those that don't know what the heck I'm talking about, the story goes something like this... one day, a bunch of supergenius physicists were sitting around having lunch and discussing the possibility of alien life in our galaxy. One of them did some quick calculating and realized that with our current understanding of physics and engineering, it would take a Von Neumann style probe approximately 100 thousand years to completely explore our galaxy. At this point, Enrico Fermi said "Well, then where the hell are they?" His point being that if intelligent life is commonplace in the universe, then where are the aliens? Humanity has only been technologically aware for about 10,000 years, and capable of leaving the planet for a little over 50. Surely there must be more advanced civilizations out there by now, right? So where the heck are they?
The question quickly became known as Fermi's Paradox, and is a great subject that all science fiction authors ask one another from time to time, so I loved hearing the insights of men really qualified to discuss the subject. There have been dozens of suggestions as to why the Paradox exists, but I think that it really boils down to what are the top :
1) Intelligent life isn't as common as we think. Meaning that we may indeed be alone, at least in our galaxy. Les Johnson pointed to the fact that it was such a crazy string of events that led to humanity's rise as a technologically advanced species that it may be pretty unlikely that it happens elsewhere. Random asteroid wipes out the dinosaurs, big moon and system gas giant protect us from similar impacts, we develop opposable thumbs and the brains to use them... it is pretty amazing that we're here, when you think about it.
2) The distances are just too great. The nearest star is 4 light years away. The nearest star with anything interesting around it is at least 20 light years away. A light year is approximately six trillion miles, which means it would take our fastest forms of propulsion something like 200,000 years to get there. Those are numbers so large that it's really kind of impossible for the human mind to conceive of them. To put it in perspective, if the sun was a grain of sand on home plate of a baseball diamond, the earth would be somewhere between home plate and the pitchers mound. Dwarf planet Pluto would be somewhere around shortstop, and the nearest star (Alpha Centauri) would be something like the gas station three and a half miles down the road. Gliese 581 would be the McDonalds about 17 miles away (in a different direction). That's a long way to go for a cheeseburger, folks. I bitch to Silverfox when she makes me take the trash down to the dumpster.
3) We're under quarantine. This is my favorite, and I've actually played with this concept a bit in my short stories. It's entirely possible that there are aliens, and they view us as very dangerous creatures, or so different that we could pose a serious problem for them if we found out we weren't alone. I personally think that the aliens interviewed Betty and Barney Hill, and realized us for the war apes that we are. It's also been suggested that they may have a non-interference rule like the Federation Prime Directive.
4) We are the first. This is actually the saddest to me, because I think that the universe is a whole lot of wasted space if this is the case... But it also means that we need to make damn sure we stay around for a while.
Whatever the reasons, it's possible that we will never know the answer to Fermi's Paradox. We will either encounter extraterrestrials or not. It's still fun to consider the question, don't you think? If you'd like to discuss the fermi paradox further, please feel free to hit me up on Facebook!