“Are You There, Fermi? It’s Me, Everybody!”
Hello and welcome to the first installment in what I hope will be a long-running series! To kick things off, I would like to tell people a bit about myself and why I started a blog dedicated to addressing one of the most pressing questions about existence.
For starters, my name is Matt Williams. I am a writer for Universe Today, Interesting Engineering, Stardom Space, Stellar Amenities, and the Director of Media and Communication for Mars City Design©. I’m also a member of Enterprise in Space, Humans to Mars, the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada, and a published science fiction author.
I have been a science communicator for the past seven years and am thrilled to be at a point in my life where I am able to do what I love. But what I especially enjoy is sharing that love of science with other people, especially those who share it. While I’m not a scientist myself or formally educated in physics and astronomy, I am a lifelong enthusiast with a background in education.
As to the purpose of this blog, it’s all about addressing one question:
“Are we alone in the Universe?”
That question has been burning a hole in our collective unconsciousness since we had the capacity to ponder it. As philosophical questions go, it’s right up there with “why are we here?” “where did we come from?” or “what happens when we die?” But unlike those, this is one question that could conceivably be answered with time.
But the fact that we haven’t found any yet, that is often a source of consternation for scientists. Given the sheer expanse of time and space and what we assume to be the statistical probability of extraterrestrial intelligence (ETI), why haven’t we found any definitive evidence for it?
This question lies at the heart of the “Fermi Paradox,” which refers to the discrepancy between the (assumed) probability of ETI and the complete lack of evidence for it. It takes its name from famed physicist Enrico Fermi, who is alleged to have asked it over seven decades ago. To this day, this question haunts scientists, especially those engaged in the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI).
“A Lunchtime Conversation”
In the summer of 1950, Italian-American physicist Enrico Fermi was visiting the Los Alamos National Laboratory, where he had worked a years before as part of the Manhattan Project. As the legend goes, Fermi and three colleagues — fellow physicists and veterans of the Manhattan Project Emil Konopinski, Edward Teller, and Herbert York — were making their way to Fuller Lodge (the laboratory’s mess hall and guest quarters at the time) to get some lunch.
As they walked, the conversation turned to the subject of UFOs and the possibility of aliens visiting Earth. As they sat down to eat, Fermi is said to have uttered three famous words out of the blue: “Where is everybody?” In spite of the fact that the question came out of nowhere (allegedly), his colleagues laughed because they knew exactly what he meant.
In what would come to be viewed as the “Fermi Paradox,” the question encapsulated a question that still dogs us seventy years later. Given the expansive nature of time and space, not to mention the fact that the elements of life exist everywhere we look (and in abundance), shouldn’t there be countless examples of intelligent life out there?
And if so, why have we failed to hear from any or find evidence of them?
For astronomers, astrobiologists, and people generally interested in the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI), this story is right up there with Newton’s Apple. That is to say, it’s a nice story, but one that is generally thought to be somewhat apocryphal. Since Fermi died in 1954, no one has ever been able to ask him whether or not this conversation happened.
However, in 1985, Dr. Eric Jones managed to do the next best thing. Having worked at the Los Alamos Laboratory for thirty years, he knew people who were old enough to remember the event itself.
“Thanks to the excellent memory of Hans Mark, who had heard a retelling at Los Alamos in the early 1950s, we now know that Fermi did make the remark during a lunchtime conversation about 1950,” Jones wrote. “His companions were Emil Konopinski, Edward Teller, and Herbert York. All three have provided accounts of the incident.”
The Big Question
There was some disagreement regarding the details, but thanks to Dr. Jones’ correspondence with all three scientists, certain aspects of their accounts were consistent with the legend. For starters, all three scientists agreed that the “lunchtime conversation” began while they were walking to Fuller Lodge. As they walked, the conversation turned to UFOs and speculation that aliens were visiting Earth. According to Konopski’s account:
“I do have a fairly clear memory of how the discussion of extraterrestrials got started-while Enrico, Edward, Herb York, and I were walking to lunch at Fuller Lodge. When I joined the party, I found being discussed evidence about flying saucers. That immediately brought to my mind a cartoon I had recently seen in the New Yorker, explaining why public trash cans were disappearing from the streets of New York City.
“The New York papers were making a fuss about that. The cartoon showed what was evidently a flying saucer sitting in the background and, streaming toward it, ‘little green men’ (endowed with antennas) carrying the trash cans. More amusing was Fermi’s comment, that it was a very reasonable theory since it accounted for two separate phenomena: the reports of flying saucers as well as the disappearance of the trash cans. There ensued a discussion as to whether the saucers could somehow exceed the speed of light.”
Teller’s account agrees with Konopski’s in many respects. Despite his recollection being “partial” (as he put it), he also remembered that it took place over lunch and began as a discussion about UFO sightings:
“I remember having walked over with Fermi and others to the Fuller Lodge for lunch. While we walked over, there was a conversation which I believe to have been quite brief and superficial on a subject only vaguely connected with space travel. I have a vague recollection, which may not be accurate, that we talked about flying saucers and the obvious statement that the flying saucers are not real.”
Second, there’s the issue of Fermi’s question and how its delivery took his colleagues by surprise. “It was after we were at the luncheon table,” Konopinski recalled, “that Fermi surprised us with the question ‘but where is everybody?’ It was his way of putting it that drew laughs from us.”
York, who didn’t recall the prior conversation about UFOs, did recall that “virtually apropos of nothing, Fermi said, ‘Don’t you ever wonder where everybody is?’ Somehow we all knew he meant extra-terrestrials.”
Teller’s recollection of this part of the conversation is the most detailed:
“The discussion had nothing to do with astronomy or with extraterrestrial beings. I think it was some down-to-earth topic. Then, in the middle of this conversation, Fermi came out with the quite unexpected question ‘Where is everybody?’ The result of his question was general laughter because of the strange fact that in spite of Fermi’s question coming from the clear blue, everybody around the table seemed to understand at once that he was talking about extraterrestrial life.”
Another point that all three accounts agree on is how Fermi and Teller began discussing probabilities. As lunch progressed, they apparently bounced numbers off of each other, trying to pin down the odds of extraterrestrial intelligence existing in our corner of the galaxy and whether or not aliens were likely to visit Earth in the near future.
While the details are subject to dispute and the vagaries of memory, Fermi nevertheless asked a question that would go down in the annals of scientific history: “Where is everybody?”
Decades later, astrophysicists, astrobiologists, and SETI-researchers (including famed science communicator Carl Sagan) began formulating theoretical arguments in response. Today, literally dozens (by some accounting, close to 100) proposed resolutions have been offered. And if you’ll indulge me, I would like to walk you through some and answer any questions you have regarding them.