If the Universe is Teeming with Aliens…Where is Everybody?: Seventy-Five Solutions to the Fermi Paradox and the Problem of Extraterrestrial Life  – ★★★★1/2
I am continuing with my Non-Fiction November Reading Challenge with this curious book on the Fermi paradox. This paradox states that, if there are billions of stars out there in galaxies, and they are similar to and much older than our Sun, there is a high probability that those distant systems have planets that resemble our planet Earth. In turn, the typical nature of our planet means life must have developed and accelerated on other planets too, and, if beings there developed interstellar travel, they should have visited Earth already (or at least sent their probes). The paradox is that we do not see/perceive any extraterrestrial activity. Dr Stephen Webb is a theoretical physicist who proposes and discusses seventy-five solutions to the Fermi paradox in this book, solutions which he divides into three sections: (i) Alien Are (or Were) Here; (ii) Aliens Exist, but We Have Yet to See or Hear from Them; and (iii) Aliens Do Not Exist. This is an enjoyable, mentally-stimulating book that impresses with the number and diversity of different solutions and theories that may explain the Fermi Paradox.
It is important to note from the outset that, although the book indulges in speculations on science, the topic of this book is not some kind of easily dismissible pseudo-science, but a perfectly scientific question that have been posed by serious scientists, including by Stephen Hawking. The paradox itself is named after Enrico Fermi, an Italian physicist and a Nobel Prize Winner, who came up with the proposition after a series of laborious calculations that left him to conclude that we should have been visited by extraterrestrials a long time ago. I will obviously not describe each of the seventy-five solutions proposed, but will comment and share my thoughts on some of the more convincing or interesting ones under each heading of the book.
I. Extraterrestrials Are or Were Here
In this section of the book, Stephen Webb provides ten solutions and most of them border fantasy, such as theories that aliens are watching us from UFOs or that we are aliens. It is true that there was much publicity in the past about Kenneth Arnold’s sighing of an UFO in 1947 or about the Roswell UFO incident, but there is no hard evidence so far to substantiate these claims or prove the existence of extraterrestrial life. Given this, the belief that God exists is probably the most convincing argument in this section of the book.
II. Extraterrestrials Exist, but We Have Yet to See or Hear from Them
This line of reasoning is the most convincing one in the book and it is the most popular theory among scientists. In this section, Webb explores solutions to the Fermi paradox that revolve around the idea that aliens are signalling, but we are not receiving their signal for some reason. He also explores theories that stars may be too far away or intelligence is not permanent. One of the convincing solutions in this section is that advanced civilisations have simply become too inward-looking, rather than driven by exploration and a colonist mentality. That is why we do not see their presence in our solar system. I think that, given that human beings already “live in the Internet”, it is not too far-fetched to suggest that advanced civilisations on other planets are information-driven, and may be living in an artificial reality. They may have different values than us, having moved beyond exploitive and colonist worldviews.
Another hint on a solution that I found convincing in this section is that, galaxies may be swarming with alien civilisations, but “differences in age, abilities, physicality, etc. might lead to a qualitative difference between our minds and theirs…[resulting in] communication being impossible” [Webb, 2015: 196]. Clement Vidal, a Belgian physicist, also proposed that aliens might have already learnt now to manipulate energy from stars and space-time, not to mention them having different mathematics or being capable of manipulating molecules and atoms [2015: 197]. They may know the secrets of the universe and have a perfect control over the mind, space and time. This means that they may be simply too advanced or different from us to make any contact. I also believe that we may be simply too different to even recognise what they are – us understanding or imagining them is like a cat being able to understand all the concepts in a philosophy book or a prehistoric man imagining a game played on an iPad. Humans are also confined to their senses and consciousness, and we cannot see the world through another apparatus than a human brain. Also, given that the universe is thirteen billion years old, humans may simply have not listened long enough for any signals since, given the universe time-frame, the intelligent life has only been on the planet some seconds out of one hundred years universal time.
“If such beings exist, they’ll presumably be the product of eons of evolution in unearthly environments and so possess senses, drives and emotions different from our own; or they might be artificial intelligences that have taken over from their biological creators. Or they could be of a form quite beyond our imagining”
[Stephen Webb, 2015: 153]
III. Extraterrestrials Do Not Exist
This section of the book also has some convincing arguments because we still do not know how special our planet is and how unique is life. Moreover, questions remain as to how unique consciousness and intelligence development are. It will only be possible to say for certain that extraterrestrials do not exist if we first answer this question – how precisely life started on Earth? There is still no definite answer to this question. Thus, in this section of the book, the author talks about such solutions to the paradox as “planetary systems are rare”, “planetary systems are too dangerous to live in”, “life’s genesis is rare”, “our moon is unique” and “high technology is not inevitable”. Exoplanets that have conditions that are similar to Earth are already said to exist, even though another argument is that “conditions on Earth have simply been too right” [Webb, 2015: 291]. Perhaps, there are conditions on other planets that make it possible for other life forms to emerge, life forms that do not need perfect-for-life-on-Earth conditions.
The unfortunate aspect of If the Universe is Teeming with Aliens is that it goes for breadth, rather than depth; the author is quick to dismiss theories that he personally finds ludicrous; and all the quotations that begin each solution come off as more unnecessarily pretentious, rather than insightful or helpful. Webb’s own solution at the end of the book is odd. It is like the author is trying to say: “I wrote a book on the Fermi paradox, proposing all these solutions, but I don’t believe in the paradox in the first place and do not think it should even exist”.
It is clear from reading this book that we still know very little to answer seriously such a big question as – do extraterrestrials exist? As Stephen Webb put it: “we have little idea about the nature of dark matter…and dark energy is a complete mystery….and we are still to reconcile gravity with quantum theory” [2015: 186]. If the Universe is Teeming with Aliens provides both more or less serious and science-fiction solutions to the paradox, and is really one mind-boggling journey into one of the mysteries of the universe that echoes the mystery of our own planetary existence.