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For me the answer is simple: The distances are enormous and the speed of travel is slow in comparison. I think statements, like Fermi's are simply naive. I used to be very amused by the Star Trek films showing stars rapdily passing by. I'd have to check but I think the nearest star is something like 9 yrs away at the speed of light. Which means at the speed of light, for nine yrs, we would not pass a single star. Course at "warp 4" it would only take 2+ yrs but you get the point.

In addition, to think we are worth visiting is more than a bit arrogant. After all, we are still in a very primitive,intertribal warfare stage of development. We really, really need to get over ourselves.


Is it truly technologically feasible to become a space faring and colonizing civilization? Hypothetically sure, but really?

Perhaps intelligent species have a very limited window of resource availability and technological sophistication that would allow such development, and perhaps most intelligent species miss such a window.

But I don't know, I'm hardly an expert.

Dave Cohen


"Getting over ourselves" as you so eloquently put it is a subject of future posts, not this one.

FYI, the closest star to our own is a red dwarf called Proxima Centauri. It is about 4.2 light years away.

The question of whether interstellar travel is possible obviously looms large in any discussion of Fermi's question. Technological optimists -- are there any other kind? -- want to believe humans will be colonizing the galaxy in the far-flung future. Whenever I hear this, I can't stop laughing.

-- Dave


"In short, one solution to Fermi's paradox says that all intelligent species self-destruct, coming into being and then disappearing in far less than the blink of an eye on cosmological time scales."

I'm reminded of something Ernst Mayr said: the human form of intellectual organization may not be favored by selection. The history of life on Earth refutes the claim that it is better to be smart than to be stupid, at least judging by biological success: beetles and bacteria, for example, are vastly more successful than humans in terms of survival. Mayr also made a rather somber observation that the average life expectancy of a species is about 100,000 years.

The Practician

Maybe, just maybe, there is intelligent life in the galaxy that hasn't screwed up their own planet and is doing just fine not exploring the galaxy. Honestly It seems a bit more likely than faster than light travel to me.


"Maybe, just maybe, there is intelligent life in the galaxy that hasn't screwed up their own planet and is doing just fine not exploring the galaxy."

Of course, that's it! I've been musing on this for years too but had never considered a world populated by populations of beings with the same considerations, culture and intentions as, say, the Inuits, Australian Aborigines or American Indians.
That has to be the answer. Thanks.

Dave Cohen

@Paul, @ The Practician

Sorry, but making a romanticized appeal to the supposed virtues of hunter-gatherers don't get you out of this.

Read Jared Diamond's Guns, Germs And Steel for more insight.

If Inuits ran the world and they had the technology, the story would be largely the same. They drive motorized vehicles and over-hunt game species too.


I should add that I too would like to think there are technologically advanced species living gracefully without colonizing the galaxy.

-- Dave

Mike Roberts

I guess this has already been covered by other comments but it may just be that interstellar travel, for humans, is impossible. There may be practical reasons (perhaps that filter that was talked about in the video) why it's just not possible to colonise other planets, especially ones that would take generations to reach. Maybe it's like those early settlers to my country, New Zealand, who would have set out in their small boats not know if they would reach any habitable land mass. If humans eventually reached Proxima Centauri and found there was no habitable planet there, where would they then go, for a further multi-generational journey? It could be that any species can't exist for very long in an artificial ecosystem. It could be that there isn't a propulsion system that can reach across tens of light years.

The other aspect is the notion of "intelligent life". This assumes, I think, that we are somehow "intelligent". But how is that measured? If there was an objective measure of intelligence, would humans come up to the mark?

Isn't speculation wonderful? I wonder if humans are the only species that is capable of speculation.

Charlie Brown

Lucy, in a Peanuts column, when asked if she believed in extraterrestrial life, answered no, and when queried why, replied:

"Because they haven't tried to contact me."



"technologically advanced species"
If that is the metric, yes I am quite willing to entertain the possibility that there are no other planets in this galaxy inhabited by beings doing the things we do. We are unique in this respect even on our home planet. Even the very closely related Neanderthals we interbred with did not build radio transmitters. And our own brief little experiment with technological sophistication is ending badly.

I also agree that interstellar travel is beyond our species and possibly beyond any species due to the problems of energy, time, and distance.

"The other aspect is the notion of "intelligent life". This assumes, I think, that we are somehow "intelligent". But how is that measured?"
Indeed. Whatever metric of intelligence one adopts, it is impossible to isolate humans from several other species on this planet. Even some birds seem able to learn to use symbolic language in context, and memorize hundreds of words of vocabulary, and the New Caledonian crow is a clever tool user. Not to mention the impressive brains and cognitive skills of the cetaceans and elephants. Some ethologists would argue that we are not "alone" on this planet Although we eventually may be if we damage the Earth's environment so severely that the more complex lifeforms all go extinct. It is a sad commentary on Homo sap that we now have the capability to spy on all human communications all of the time but have not used the supercomputers to analyze dolphin vocalizations.


I think even scientists do not properly estimate how rare earths really are. Why isn't there signs of complex life on mars?
1. Mars has no molten core and cannot stop the onslaught of particles from the sun.
2. Mars moon is too small and so mars flips over on it axis all the time, i.e. the north pole sometimes practically faces the sun.
3. The moon is believed to have formed from an early planetary collision that was just the right angle to blow off the top of the earth, which makes it perfect for all the heavy stuff to be relatively near the surface of the earth instead of buried deep. Making it perfect for industrial civ.
4. Some scientist conjecture that our moon is of the proper size and distance to soak up a lot of asteroids that would have done serious damage to life's chances.
5. The bad for future intelligence on earth if we don't make it: Our moon is leaving us, the water is getting locked up in rock formations, most primary suns in our galaxy burned hot and fast and then exploded killing any life in near by stars and a big star near by could do this to earth.
Just saying that maybe life really is more rare than we think.


Hi Dave,

Fabulous topic.

On your post of Jan 17, commenter RobM linked to a presentation by Eric Smith called Ineveitable Life (very grateful to Rob).

Although I haven't yet had the chance to give Smith's work the time and attention it deserves (for me, at least), I found his ideas fascinating and initially persuasive (my degree is in biochemistry).

Taking the step of accepting those ideas as having some basis in science, we can infer a universe teeming with life; by necessity. I love taking that step since it blends with what I have "known" intuitively as far back as I can remember. And it's fun.

I really love this shit Dave - looking forward to your "far more to say". As I have pondered all this, much music has come to mind - but I won't go there here.

Here is that link in case anyone's curious:



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