Hello,

We noticed you're browsing in private or incognito mode.

To continue reading this article, please exit incognito mode or log in.

Not an Insider? Subscribe now for unlimited access to online articles.

Emerging Technology from the arXiv

A View from Emerging Technology from the arXiv

Fermi Paradox Points to Fewer Than 10 Extraterrestrial Civilizations

The absence of alien probes visiting the solar system places severe limits on the number of advanced civilizations that could be exploring the galaxy.

  • July 30, 2009

The Fermi paradox focuses on the existence of advanced civilizations elsewhere in the galaxy. If these civilizations are out there–and many analyses suggest the galaxy should be teeming with life–why haven’t we seen evidence of them?

Today Carlos Cotta and Álvaro Morales from the University of Malaga in Spain add another angle to the discussion. One consideration is the speed at which a sufficiently advanced civilization could colonize the galaxy. Various analyses suggest that using spacecraft that travel at a tenth of the speed of light, a colonization wave could take some 50 million years to sweep the galaxy. Others have calculated that it may be closer to 13 billion years, which may explain why we have yet to spot extraterrestrials.

Cotta and Morales take a different tack by studying how automated probes sent ahead of the colonization could explore the galaxy. Obviously, this could advance much faster than the colonization wave front. The scenario involves a civilization sending out eight probes, each equipped with smaller subprobes for studying the regions that the host probe visits.

This is not a new scenario. One previous calculation suggests that in about 300 millions years, those eight probes could explore just 4 percent of the galaxy. The question that Cotta and Morales ask is this: what if several advanced civilizations were exploring the galaxy at the same time? Surely, if enough advanced civilizations were exploring simultaneously, one of their probes would end up visiting the solar system. So that fact we haven’t seen one places a limit on how many civilizations can be out there.

The numbers that Cotta and Morales come up with depend crucially on the life span of the probes doing the exploring (and obviously on the number of probes each civilization sends out). They say that if each probe has a life span of 50 million years, and if evidence of their solar-system visits lasts about a million years, there can be no more than about 1,000 advanced civilizations out there now. If, instead, these probes can leave longer-lasting evidence of a visit–evidence that remains for 100 million years–then there can be no more than about 10 civilizations out there.

Of course, we may not have discovered the evidence yet. But if we finally find a black obelisk on the moon, the paradox will be resolved.

Ref: arxiv.org/abs/0907.0345: A Computational Analysis of Galactic Exploration with Space Probes: Implications for the Fermi Paradox

Couldn't make it to EmTech Next to meet experts in AI, Robotics and the Economy?

Go behind the scenes and check out our video
Want more award-winning journalism? Subscribe to Insider Plus.
  • Insider Plus {! insider.prices.plus !}*

    {! insider.display.menuOptionsLabel !}

    Everything included in Insider Basic, plus the digital magazine, extensive archive, ad-free web experience, and discounts to partner offerings and MIT Technology Review events.

    See details+

    Print + Digital Magazine (6 bi-monthly issues)

    Unlimited online access including all articles, multimedia, and more

    The Download newsletter with top tech stories delivered daily to your inbox

    Technology Review PDF magazine archive, including articles, images, and covers dating back to 1899

    10% Discount to MIT Technology Review events and MIT Press

    Ad-free website experience

/3
You've read of three free articles this month. for unlimited online access. You've read of three free articles this month. for unlimited online access. This is your last free article this month. for unlimited online access. You've read all your free articles this month. for unlimited online access. You've read of three free articles this month. for more, or for unlimited online access. for two more free articles, or for unlimited online access.