Is there anybody out there?

I’m a regular listener to podcast ‘This American Life’. This week featured three acts about loneliness and while all three have great merit for very different reasons, I want to tell you about the first one by producer David Kestenbaum. You see Kestenbaum was feeling sad, I mean really sad, because of Fermi’s Paradox. The paradox concerns the high probability of the existence of alien life compared to the fact that we haven’t actually seen any. The paradox evolved from a casual conversation physicist Enrico Fermi had with colleagues while working on the hydrogen bomb in Los Alamos in 1950. When discussing the probability and extreme likelihood of alien life existing, Fermi stated ‘Where is everybody?’.

Kestenbaum become sad, truly sad, because he felt we were alone in the universe. Before turning to journalism Kestenbaum was a Nuclear Physicist. This might explain why Fermi’s Paradox resonated with him, why when he crunched the numbers the great uncertainty made him feel sad. When he raised what he’d been going through at a story meeting all his colleagues laughed. I understood that reaction, I laughed too, but I also really felt for Kestenbaum. He was looking outside the everyday existence of our reality and what he saw was a lonely lonely planet in the vastness of space. In the podcast, he turns to other physicists to discuss the issue and help with his feelings.

What Kestenbaum’s journey made me feel was not so much a sense of loneliness but a strange glimmer of hope. It seems terribly strange to me that our species, locked on this small blue ball, continues to be so horrible to each other and to the other living creatures we share this world with. Of course, on top of that, we are also extremely hostile to the very planet that makes our lives possible. I’m getting to the glimmer of hope, trust me, but first…

Is there other life in the universe?

In exploring all the possible options around the existence of alien life my mind was led to one question. First here are some of the options;

  • There are alien civilisations, but they are too far away
  • They are inherently like us i.e. self-destructive
  • They are so much smarter than us that they simply choose to stay away because we are dangerous
  • They are only microbes
  • They existed in the past
  • They will exist in the future
  • It’s just a matter of time until worlds collide (not literally)
  • Over the vastness of time and the distance of the universe all the above possibilities are also realities.

Glimmer of hope

Finally, here is my glimmer of hope. Will it take alien life, be it aggressive or benevolent, breathtakingly advanced or microscopic in nature, to make us finally realise we are all on the same side? Will proof of the existence of life on other planets pull us out of our collective funk, make us celebrate our diversity and our commonality? Not in a way that means we have to defend ourselves but perhaps more in a way that we like to project when we send probes into space that celebrate humanity. If only we could take on our ‘greatest hits’ that play on the Voyager probe’s golden record and drop all the other crap, we might just be a species that other life in the universe would want to get to know.

Perhaps Fermi’s right, but who really knows…certainly not us at this point in time.

Evan Shapiro
Author – Road to Nowhere


PS. The other two stories featuring Ester Perel and an equally amazing young girl who attempts to connect with her father are both compelling. They give me hope we are aliens worthy of knowing.
Here is a link to the show.

What do you think?