Overview:

Even if cosmic alien beings exist "out there" somewhere in space, the search for extraterrestrials is almost certain to disappoint.

Reading Time: 6 minutes

“Where is everybody?”

Italian-American physicist Enrico Fermi, reportedly once threw out this seemingly offhand question to colleagues during a lunch hour in 1950. But there was nothing offhand about it; the question is one of humanity’s most burning, ageless questions.

“[Fermi] wondered, given that our planet was relatively young compared to the universe, we might have expected someone to have visited us by now—but we had no evidence of that ever occurring,” space and science journalist Jonathan O’Callaghan wrote in a Livescience online article last year.

This curiosity has come to be known as The Fermi Paradox.

If we are alone in the Universe, it sure seems like an awful waste of space.

The father of protagonist Dr. Eleanor “Ellie” Arroway in the 2011 movie “Contact”

Fermi’s hunch was that other much older planets in the universe theoretically have had far more time to develop life and civilizations far more advanced than ours—so advanced that, perhaps, they might have had technology astonishing enough (to us) to locate and reach Earth in the seemingly infinite expanses of space. Yet—and this is the paradox—they have yet to show up.

Human beings’ compulsive search for extraterrestrials is rekindled with every alleged UFO sighting or, more to the point with this article, every discovery of yet another exoplanet (a planetary world beyond our own galaxy).

Some 4,000 exoplanets found so far

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) reports that more than 4,000 exoplanets have been discovered to date, and thousands more are candidates that require further study to confirm. The project is building steam. Since astronomers first discovered these remote cosmic outposts in the early 1990s, the number discovered and confirmed has doubled about every 27 months.

However, space experts are still just scratching the surface of possibilities regarding the plethora of planets. To give a sense of proportion, there are believed to be roughly 100-200 billion planets and countless stars just in our own Milky Way galaxy, and one in five planets is believed capable of supporting life, at least theoretically.


Related: The James Webb Telescope, A Journey of Discovery


Astronomers recently discovered an Earth-sized exoplanet orbiting in the “habitable zone” of a “red dwarf” star somewhat dimmer than our own.

Alluringly, the so-named Kepler-1649c is a mere 300 light-years away (about 1,740 trillion miles). Which is to say, in cosmic terms, we’re practically next-door neighbors, although we can’t just pop over to borrow some sugar.

Wanna visit Kepler-1649c? Good luck with that.

But even if Elon Musk were to insist he plans to rocket human beings there (as he does, far more believably, to Mars), it’s best to ignore him. No earthly spaceship currently exists that can travel the speed of light, which is, practically speaking, the fastest known standard in the universe (except for some mind-bending, far-out caveats that, to me, are so utterly incomprehensible as to be useless to mere mortals).

Yet, even if such a super-craft existed that could flash along at light speed, it would still take centuries to arrive at Kepler-1649c—and many thousands of years just to reach the other side of our own galaxy. I mean, seriously, who has that much time off?

To put these cosmic distances in perspective, note that our rather modestly sized Milky Way galaxy, in whose outer limits the Earth resides, is 100,000 light-years across (a light-year is the distance light travels in one year). Some other galaxies—the unfathomably massive collections of stars and planets bound together by shared gravity—span multiple millions of light-years across. And that’s before you even arrive at their wilderness edges.

Search for extraterrestrials requires more than curiosity

The enormous romantic magnetism of these impossibly distant worlds within incomprehensibly gigantic galaxies in an infinite cosmos—and I’ll admit I get weak-kneed just fantasizing about visiting one—is just a cosmic tease. There’s simply (or even complicatedly) no way anyone living today or for endless eons hence will ever in all probability be able to reach any of them except in human imagination.

This is probably why, according to not a few space experts, humans have never experienced irrefutable “close encounters” with any aliens—intelligent or otherwise—from distant worlds. (Remember Stephen Spielberg’s 1977 sci-fi movie classic, “Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” the third kind being direct contact with extraterrestrial “animate beings”)?


Read: For all of humanity’s failings, we’ve never stopped wondering about the stars


Well, for the spaceship in that film to have reached Earth, the beings who piloted it would necessarily have had to come from a civilization seemingly impossibly more advanced than our relatively low-tech world currently has to offer.


Read: Preview images from James Webb telescope ‘moved me as a human being’


The search for aliens: We’re either alone … or not

The late British sci-fi writer Sir Arthur C. Clarke once described the Fermi Paradox thusly:

Two possibilities exist: Either we are alone in the universe or we are not. Both are equally terrifying.

A 2021 article on Livescience website—“What is the Fermi Paradox”—fairly notes:

[W]e are yet to find many planets that look exactly like Earth, orbiting stars like our sun — but upcoming telescopes are hoped to be capable of such detections in the coming decade or two.

Even then, the distances between star systems are enormous, making journeys between them difficult. Our closest star system for example, Alpha Centauri, is four light-years away. The distance from Earth to Neptune, for comparison, is 0.0005 light-years—a journey that would still take us decades with current technology.

So we would be silly to hold our breath for soon (ever?) reaching Earth-like exoplanets many light years away, or even four light years, in the case of Alpha Centauri. Might as well be in another universe, considering our present, inadequate, capabilities for space travel.

And finding other life forms—’Anybody out there?’—would be even sillier to hope for.

On the other hand, if a giant, impossibly elegant flying saucer the likes of the one in “Close Encounters” were to land near New York City, say, and if by some chance we could actually communicate with its crew (if it had one—AI, you know), they might be able to tell us the secrets to intergalactic travel we need to know.

Intergalactic travel remains the stuff of fiction

In the meantime, likely forever in practical terms, we will need to content ourselves with vicarious entertainment fiction the likes of Carl Sagan’s novel “Contact” (and the subsequent 2011 Hollywood film by the same name). In the film, aliens try to communicate with earthlings through visual abstractions.

The best line in that film was uttered by the father of the protagonist Dr. Eleanor “Ellie” Arroway (played by Jodie Foster) when she was a little girl enthralled with stars:

If we are alone in the Universe, it sure seems like an awful waste of space.

In the film, Dr. Ellie figures out that what the abstract images convey are plans for humans to build a spaceship to meet with alien leaders in some distant part of the cosmos. A possibility that instinctively beckons awe and wonder in moviegoers, including this one.

But a lot of cosmology experts and brilliant practical physicists suspect we may very well be alone—wasteful of endless space or not—and that a lack of evidence, in this case, may actually for once be evidence of absence.

Still, we wonder what’s “out there.” We wonder mightily and have for a long, long time.

An article on the website of Harvard University’s Graduate School of Arts & Sciences notes that,

What at first appears to be a very modern query is actually ancient in its origins. Since human beings began to ponder the ‘big questions,’ the desire to understand what exists beyond the confines of the Earth continually surfaces.

According to Michael J. Crowe (author of The Extraterrestrial Life Debate 1750–1900), no less a philosopher than Aristotle argued in the 4th century BCE that a so-called “plurality of worlds” could not exist because every solar system required a Prime Mover to keep it going, and he had trouble imagining an infinite number of those.

Around the same time, Epicurus penned a remarkably modern rejoinder to the Aristotelian perspective. He suggested that atoms were infinite in number and argued that “…there are infinite worlds both like and unlike ours.” Epicurus asserted that some of these worlds would sustain life similar to Earth.

Sounds reasonable, but do they really?

Late Cornell cosmology professor Carl Sagan, whose uber-popular 1980s Public Television series Cosmos rendered astronomy sexy for the masses, thought, as Epicurus did, that because our solar system and planets are unremarkable among billions and billions of stars and countless planets in the universe, other intelligent-life-sustaining planets were highly likely. (A recently updated Cosmosthe Neil deGrasse Tyson-hosted Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey—also has been critically and popularly acclaimed.)

‘Generating life’ is hard. Intelligent life harder.

But, as the Harvard essay explains, esteemed cosmologists John D. Barrow and Frank J. Tipler favored the “Anthropic Cosmological Principle,” which posits that even in a cosmos bursting with planets that “generating life on one is difficult—and it’s a big leap from single-celled organisms to large-brained mammals who can debate cosmology.” A lot of things apparently have to come together in exact proportions at the exact right time for life to emerge.

“We should therefore reserve judgment as to whether we are alone or only one overachieving species among many,” Frank White wrote in the Harvard essay.

Or among none?

But in the meantime, until more definitive evidence is in about our possible interstellar neighbors, if any, we should probably concentrate more on questions closer to home. Like how we might save our own planet before we inhabitants destroy it with our wasteful, wanton, self-destructive disregard for the perhaps unique-in-existence reality of its glorious gifts.

“Are we alone?” isn’t the most pressing question. It’s how can we best survive our hubris home alone before the Sun engulfs us a few billion years hence.

Yet, still, hope springs eternal. NASA’s new $10 billion James Web Space telescope, the “out of this world” successor to the astounding and still-operational Hubble Telescope, is now encamped in deep orbit and on Monday beamed to Earth the first full-color images of our universe in its vivid infancy some 13 billion years ago.

Why? NASA (and everyone else) wants to know if anyone’s out there.

Rick Snedeker

Rick Snedeker is a retired American journalist/editor who now writes in various media and pens nonfiction books. He has received nine past top South Dakota state awards for newspaper column, editorial,...