Extraterrestrial Intelligence & the Fermi Paradox...
Where are the ET's?

Copyright MCMXCVIII by Derek Ross

Pretty well everyone agrees that there's enough stars out there (billions and billions) that the odds add up to create a good possibility of intelligent life evolving elsewhere in the universe. The alleged existence of fossil bacteria on Mars rocks further adds weight to the argument .

If one can assume that there is indeed intelligent life in the universe, the next question is: if there's life out there, then why can't we hear them? The following is a list of possible explanations, ranging from "we can't hear them, because they aren't there" to "we can already hear them, we just don't realize it".

This question is similar to the question posed by the Fermi Paradox, except that instead of asking "why can't we hear them", the Fermi Paradox asks "Why Aren't They Here Already".

Why can't we hear anyone else in the universe?

  1. We are truly alone in the universe
  2. Extraterrestrial intelligence is out there, but they don't really want to talk to us
  3. ETI is out there, but they don't use radio waves
  4. ETI is out there, but they are so efficient we can't hear them
  5. Maybe we can hear them, we just don't realize it
  6. We're not looking in the right place
  7. Unintelligible philosophy theories

And finally... If we could hear ET, what would we talk about?

We are alone in the universe
By "alone", I mean that there is no one else who uses radio waves to communicate.

Obviously, if no other forms of intelligence existed in the universe, then we wouldn't be able to hear them. But why should this be, if the odds indicate a high probability of life evolving elsewhere in the universe? Here are some speculations in point form. I am currently lobbying for SETI to recognize my theory names as an international standard.

The Highway to Hell Theory
Every civilization eventually destroys itself, by nuclear war.
20 years ago, the idea was in vogue, but now with the cold war over, global annihlation is not likely (imho). But who knows? Maybe a century from now, different superpowers will be in charge, and we will destroy ourselves.

The Farmer Theory
Every civilization reverts to a non-technological state. Maybe we're all destined to become farmers. It is well known that the Earth's ecosystem could not support a technological society (like the U.S.A.) if more than a fraction of the Earth's inhabitants practised it.

The Losing Lottery Ticket Theory
The odds are too low that intelligent life can evolve. Maybe we got our math wrong, and the probability of life is WAY, WAY lower than we think. (By WAY WAY lower, I mean that our estimates are off by a factor of a trillion or so).

The Dummy Theory
Intelligent life evolves, but they never invent radio communication. Maybe they never see a need for radio waves, because they're agrarians, for example.

The Smarty Theory
They discover some form of communication that is completely different, yet superior (like neutrinos).

The "The Early Bird Gets The Silence" Theory
We're the first intelligent civilization to evolve in the history of the universe. Others will follow.

The "Everyone Starts Talking at the Same Time, but They're too Far Apart" Theory
If every civilization popped up "simultaneously" in the universe, we wouldn't hear anything for a long time. The universe is so big, that radio waves could take thousands of years to reach Earth. So,  for example, if 10000  civilizations simultaneously popped up at our galaxy, the milky way, it would take 100000/100 = 1000 years for nearest signal to reach us.

The "Curiosity-Killed-the-Cat" Theory
Maybe every civilization that begins a discourse with another civilization ends up not communicating with radio waves (see The Highway to Hell Theory, The Farmer Theory, and The Smarty Theory).

The Angry God Theory
Humans are the only intelligent life in the universe, regardless of how probable/improbable it is. Easy to believe if you are religious. One can assume that if life DID happen to evolve by chance elsewhere, God would conveniently send an errant asteriod to snuff it out.

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There is ET, but they don't want to talk to us.

The Prime Directive Theory
Maybe international standards prevent communication with other life forms. Similar with humans desire to not interfere with the natural state of an environment, where wildlife is concerned. Anthropologists want to leave "primitive" peoples in a natural state, don't want to force modern high-tech onto the less-developed societies.

The Interesting Conversation Theory
Maybe they are so busy talking to other et's,  they don't have time to talk to Earth. For example, if Earth started up a dialog with another et, we wouldn't spend alot of time looking for more life, we would just have fun talking to our new-found friends.

The Clam Theory
AN EXAMPLE... what would happen if we heard a clear signal from another sol system? Would we send a response? I think we would debate the topic forever, and finally decide not to reply, or put it off indefinitely, mainly because the alternative is irreversible. Once we send a signal, there's no way of pulling it back. However, if we don't send the signal, we could always decide to send a signal at a later date. Also, fear could enter the equation. People might be fearful of the effects of opening a dialog with a extraterrestrial civilization.

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They communicate using a different medium

We're assuming that every other advanced civilization will choose to use radio waves to communicate. We could be wrong.

One communications medium that would be completely invisible to us would be neutrino transmissions.

Neutrinos are not easily stopped by matter. It would be possible to send neutrino signals clear through the earth. This would be efficient for communication, but we have no way to easily generate or detect neutrinos.

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They're so efficient, we can't hear them .

Theory proves that a perfectly compressed signal is undistinguishable from white noise, because all redundancy has been removed. The trend here on Earth has been to compress signals as much as possible before transmitting them. JPEG and MPEG are good examples of compressed still and moving images. Recent developments with digital radio and cellphones also use compression, in an attempt to fit more channels into a limited bandwidth.

Another recent development that could make interstellar eavesdropping more difficult is spread-spectrum radio. Spread-spectrum spreads the energy of the signal across a wider band than usual. The result is a signal that blends into the background noise, unless you know exactly what you're looking for.

Fiber optics are also becoming common for transmitting signals, eliminating the need for radio waves in some situations.

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Maybe we CAN hear them...

The "Can't See The Forest for the Microwaves" Theory
Maybe background microwave radiation (the noise that "proves" the big bang theory) is actually the communications leakage of millions of civilations out there.  The microwave background radiation could be so uniform because of the sheer number and evenly spaced distribution of civilizations out there.

To test this theory, point an antenna at a suitable star (one capable of supporting life) , tune to the same bandwidth of the uWave radiation, and start checking for any patterns.

The Conspiracy Theory
Some would argue that THE GOVERNMENT has been communicating with ET's since the forties, and THE GOVERNMENT is keeping it covered up for national security reasons, among other things. I'm not a great fan of conspiracy theories. First of all, I'm not paranoid enough. Secondly, I don't think THE GOVERNMENT (you pick the country) has the ability to cover up an event of such importance. Hell, they can't even cover up the misadventures of their own horny politicians.

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We're looking for the wrong signal.

We seem to be concentrating on one particular frequency range. Maybe that frequency is rarely used for communication. SETI uses 1 to 3 GHz, and is looking for a clear "lighthouse" type signal. We aren't currently sending out a specific beacon for other worlds... why would anyone else?

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The Unintelligible Philosophy Department

The following explanations could potentially explain the answer to the question.

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What would we talk about?

What would we talk about with ET? We would trade content... stories, art, poetry, music, knowledge, even TV and movies. If we're a relatively young civilization, we will be lagging in the knowledge department. We will have to rely on the great works of art and literature to trade. (For example, "will trade the complete works of Shakespeare for part 1 of the grand unified theory"). Technology innovations are relatively short lived and usually rely on existing physical technology, but the greatest works of art last for centuries.

It's too distant to trade physical goods, and too distant to go to war. I think Einstein was right about faster-than-light travel: it's impossible. Alot of people think Einstein is wrong, but I don't consider myself enough of a genius to argue with the guy.

QUESTION: What would a very distant (30 light years) observer hear if he/she pointed an antenna at earth? I think that all the radio signals would combine to create undecipherable noise. How would the earth sound from a million light years away?

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