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The Fate of the Earth and Fermi’s Paradox

Look at a full-resolution version of the picture above, the first image from the James Webb Space Telescope. According to NASA, this incredible vision is of a patch of sky the size of a grain of sand, held at arm’s length. The telescope shows us some relatively nearby stars along with a clutch of galaxies more than four billion light years away, whose mass distorts the space around them so that we can see others yet further away, including one more than thirteen billion light years away—which means we are also looking most of the way back to the beginning of the universe. Our own galaxy contains around one hundred billion stars, and how many galaxies are there in the entire universe, if we can see so many in this grain of sand? According to the European Space Agency, the estimated number of stars in the universe is a one followed by twenty-two, or maybe twenty-three or twenty-four, zeroes. A number we can write out, but in no way imagine.

And in all that vastness, silence. No sign of life anywhere. Or at least, no sign of intelligent, self-aware life that communicates with electromagnetic radiation (radio waves) as we do.

It’s known as Fermi’s Paradox, after Enrico Fermi, the Italian-born physicist who worked on the atomic bomb project. He knew about the silence of the universe, and he asked, “Where is everybody?” There is still no answer to his question. Nobody knows how common life itself is; whether it is everywhere, or evolved once and only once here on Earth, or what the case may be. Then again, even if life is more or less common elsewhere, how often does intelligent, self-aware life arise from it? Still less can we answer that question, but the silence is deafening. Nasty suspicions arise, and are not easily banished. Everyone knows that we’re in deep trouble, and that if our civilization collapses, we’re likely to take most of the living things on Earth with us. What if this happens everywhere, every time intelligent, self-aware life appears?

We can easily explain why that would be the case, if “intelligent, self-aware life” behaves like Homo sapiens sapiens everywhere it arises. Mutually hostile, territorial tribes compete with each other and prey on other living things. Every advance in knowledge and skill and societal organization is turned toward ever-greater slaughter. Eventually you have planet-spanning empires that behave like super-tribes. Just short of inventing technology that could span the stars, we and all the other beings instead invent the means to wipe themselves out and trash our planet so badly that life will never get another chance to produce another race of intelligent, self-aware beings before the host star burns out. Or else, we and they trash the planet and its biome even without that final war, simply from our blind greed.

In the absence of any evidence, though, this is merely a compelling story, not an inevitable doom. We can look at the James Webb deep-field image and, instead of letting our awe turn into creeping dread, let it deepen as we realize that at least for now, the only home of life in this dizzyingly vast and expanding universe is right here on this tiny speck of an Earth. And we can vow to treasure it and redouble our efforts to protect it from its greatest enemy, which is ourselves.


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