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The Fermi Paradox: A Blurry Line Between Sci-Fi and Security (1/2)

The Arecibo message, depicted above, contained information on everything from our solar system to the way we count to the very chemistry of our human genome.

“Edge of Tomorrow”; “Home”; “Interstellar”; “Jupiter Ascending”; “Guardians of the Galaxy”; 2014 is shaping out to be the year of epic science fiction movies, with a penchant for alien-themed thrillers. Hollywood’s sudden obsession with all things extra-terrestrial is by no means coincidental; this upcoming November will mark the 40 year anniversary of the Arecibo message, a pictogram sent via radio telescope towards the globular cluster M13. The message, composed of 1679 “bits” of colour-coded information, attempted to relay the few, crucial aspects of human life on earth; the way we count, what our solar system looks like, how our DNA works…

Given the estimated 25,000 years needed for the message to reach its final destination, many consider the Arecibo message to have been more of a demonstration of human technological prowess than a genuine attempt to snapchat E.T. Since then, however, scientists have continued to send out messages to the intergalactic unknown — a practice more formally referred to as METI (Messaging to Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence). In fact, last year’s “Lone Signal” project granted any individual with an internet connection and 25 cents to spare the chance to send a 144-character message to red dwarf star Gliese 526.

These short-coded bursts of attention, however, have yet to generate any sort of answer. Much like an overzealous teenager waiting by the phone, an anxious humanity has been carefully monitoring the cosmos for signs of attempted radio transmissions. To date, one could only cite the sensationalised “Wow! signal”, as being the interrupted, possibly imagined first ring of a long overdue return call. The 72-second narrowband radio signal, detected by Jerry R. Ehman in August 1977, became the subject of much media attention and scientific speculation. Its dispatch from an extra-terrestrial location would have allegedly required a 2.2 gigawatt transmitter — a technology much more powerful than any on earth.

Much like an overzealous teenager waiting by the phone, an anxious humanity has been carefully monitoring the cosmos for signs of attempted radio transmissions – to no avail.

This brief flash of excitement contrasted starkly with the otherwise constant radio silence scientists paced to tirelessly. Frustration quickly turned to worry as the Drake Equation gained momentum in the scientific community. The latter, written in 1961, uses probability to estimate the number of extra-terrestrial civilisations in the Milky Way. The equation originally drew much controversy and skepticism due to its use of many unknown values or ambiguous factors. However, a number of revisions slowly allowed the equation to produce more credible findings.

In November 2013, data collected during the Kepler space mission allowed astronomers to specifically place the number of potentially Earth-like worlds at 40 billion. These worlds would be orbiting in habitable zones, 11 billion of them dancing around similar, sunlike stars. Furthermore, astronomers believe some of these planets to be much older than our own, beloved Earth, whose condensation out of primal nebulae came about relatively late in the universe’ 13.7 billion years of existence. Intelligent life should therefore prove not only abundant, but much more advanced than ours given their elder age. Some would consider them to be Type II or Type III civilisations on the Kardashev scale, a method that evaluates a population’s energy utilisation to determine their level of technological advancement. To give a terrifying overview of what these levels means, our civilisation is currently working towards a Type I status, i.e. a civilisation capable of exploiting all planetary resources. Type II civilisations are those that have harnessed the energy of their local star (in our case, the Sun). A Type III civilisation has tamed its entire galaxy.

So why does it feel like we’re the only ones desperately shouting at the cosmos? This illogical lack of response, dubbed the “Fermi Paradox”, has led various individuals to put forward answer theories ranging from plausible to suspicious … to outright fantastical.

Tina Bouffet
Tina Bouffet is a Research Analyst for the NATO Association of Canada, having previously been the Program Editor for Society, Culture and International Relations. She recently graduated with a degree in International Relations and Human Rights at UCL (University College London), in the UK. Previously, Tina completed her year abroad at l’Institut d’Études Politiques de Paris, in France. Over the last few years, she has interned for a variety of organisations, including Amnesty International Israel and African Women International in Ghana. Her primary interests include international peacekeeping, conflict resolution and post-war law enforcement. She is particularly passionate about and hopes to work in the organisation of humanitarian interventions and the protection of vulnerable populations.