Sunday, November 20, 2011

Fermi's Q

While on the subject of UFO-denial conspiracies (see last post), what about Fermi’s Q? The conspiracy theorists will undoubtedly note that within days of the appearance of a White House denial that extraterrestrials exist, have contacted earth, or that we’re studying captured UFOs in hopes of finally developing a weapon that will work against both Al Qaida and the Taliban, National Public Radio has revived that long-forgotten canard, Fermi’s Question. NPR is part of the government, isn’t it? Now suddenly Fermi? In hopes of enlightening the public, here is the low-down on Fermi’s Question.

It’s summertime at Los Alamos, NM, the year is 1950 (although some say 1951, some 1952, and some even 1947—and the theorists will know how to interpret those ambiguities). Atomic physicists are having lunch. The weather’s balmy. Lunch drags on. The talk turns to space, to travel at or beyond the speed of light. Some opine, and some say that it’s Fermi who opines, that the odds of discovering a faster-than-light-speed means of travel are pretty darn good. This leads to speculation on who might be out there, how many other intelligent civilizations. Fortunately all there carry envelopes, and therefore some quick back-of-the-envelope calculations are easily made, and the upshot is that all present agree. There must be lots and lots and lots of other bright civilizations, so many, indeed, that a large number of them should by now have visited and, if that’s still difficult, at least communicated.

The lunchers are sitting in a moment of silence now, contemplating those large numbers, when Enrico Fermi breaks the silence, voicing his famous question. “Where is everybody?”

Good question, Enrico. One’s tempted to imagine that this question directly led to the SETI program later, but no. Turns out that the question’s been around for a while, at least since, in 1896, Nikola Tesla (another strange one mentioned recently on this blog here) suggested contacting aliens by radio. The question has been in the air, you might say, and perhaps literally so. Or so the conspiracy theorists will note. But the question is a good one because statistics tell us, aided by theories suggesting that life springs spontaneously from bits of water if the conditions are right, that life should be everywhere, on trillions of stars, and certainly hundreds of millions should have advanced enough to be communicating. So, therefore, where is everybody? Why hasn’t somebody checked in?

Enrico Fermi, who with Robert Oppenheimer, is viewed as the father of the atomic bomb, might have considered the possibility that, in the vector of life, inevitably, atomic bombs would be discovered—and discovered before faster-than-speed-of-light travel. And therefore, perhaps, most of those millions of advanced civilizations have managed to blow themselves to kingdom come.

A bomb with two fathers and no mother? Now there’s an interesting mystery to ponder.

3 comments:

  1. THE POSSIBLE ANSWER MAY BE THAT OTHER SPACE LIFE EXISTED, BUT LIKE THE CURRENT HUMAN RACE, IT CANNOT RISE TO THE HIGHER FORMS OF SCIENCE AND THOUGHT BEFORE IT DESTROYS ITSELF. BALDY.

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  2. Hmmm. Perhaps the question is "Where is all the communications being propagated at light speed?"
    Or "Where are these communications which are encoded in a manner similar to our communications so that we can easily recognize them as communications?"

    Do a Star Trek on it... assume the alien comm is encoded in a slow motion process... maybe it is encoded in the yearly evidence of growth within ponderosa pines over the last 4,000 years... and even that is a lengthy ambassadorial sequence equivalent to "Hello".

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  3. Was startled a moment ago when I saw in the keyword list one ENRICO FERNI.... Yes, it's merely a typo made long ago, but this editor thinks it should be corrected.

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