Fermi’s Other Paradox
Listen to a reading of “Fermi’s Other Paradox”:
In the summer of 1950, four nuclear physicists were walking to lunch from the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico. Their names were Emil Konopinski, Herbert York, Edward Teller, and Enrico Fermi.
One of them was not human.
On the walk the four discussed science, because science is what they always discussed. It’s what they lived, it’s what they thought about, it’s what they ate, slept and breathed. On this particular occasion they discussed the recent spate of reports about flying saucers, and whether or not an alien civilization could hypothetically have discovered how to travel faster than the speed of light.
Once they arrived at the Fuller Lodge for their meal their intense conversation was interrupted by the mundane activities of finding seats and ordering their food. After a brief pause, Fermi’s thick Italian accent broke the silence with a question that would later become famous.
“But where is everybody?” he asked loudly.
The way he phrased it caused the other three to burst out laughing; they immediately understood that he was asking, in his own inimitable way, why no signs of extraterrestrial life had been discovered.
They listened with rapt attention as Fermi’s luminous mind rapidly dissected the sheer mathematical improbability of humanity being the only intelligent life in this galaxy, let alone the entire universe, given the sheer number of stars and the likelihood that at least a small percentage of them would have habitable planets capable of giving rise to life. This question, and the peculiar exclamation with which it was first expressed, would go on to be known as the Fermi paradox.
The scientists joyfully batted around ideas with the Italian “pope of physics”, then finished their meal, returned to the laboratory, and they each went their separate ways.
Fermi worked late, as such rare geniuses often do. Out there in the world with small talk, politics, family and teenaged children, it was difficult to really feel at ease. But in the world of scientific adventure, discoveries and breakthroughs, he always felt in command.
The sunlight had long gone and the lab had gone still, and Fermi was scribbling away in his office, when there was a knock at the door. It gave Fermi a start; nobody ever interrupted him at this hour, that’s what he liked about it.
“What is it?” he asked in irritation.
The door opened. It was York.
“Hi,” York said.
“York,” Fermi replied.
“Can I come in?”
“Yes, yes come in.”
York closed the door.
“So,” he said. “Do you want to know?”
“Want to know what?”
“Do you want an answer to the question you asked at lunch?”
Fermi just stared.
“Enrico I can’t show you unless you say yes,” York said, with a curious tone in his voice. “Do you want to know where everybody is?”
“Yes,” said Fermi, gathering up the papers on his desk. “Tell me what it is you know.”
Looking up when he didn’t receive an answer, Fermi gasped. The papers fell from his hands and went everywhere, unnoticed. For perhaps the first time in his entire adult life, Enrico Fermi was not thinking about science.
The large frame of Herbert York had vanished. Where Fermi’s colleague had been standing was something else entirely.
“I’m not going to hurt you,” said a voice. But it wasn’t a voice. It was a thought in Fermi’s mind, very different in quality from any thought he’d ever had. Any thought he’d ever had on his own.
It was short, and its skin had a grayish color. Its head was oddly shaped, and it stared at Fermi with giant, jet-black eyes.
“Sei al sicuro,” said the voice in Italian. “You are safe.”
“What… are you?” Fermi asked after a pause.
“You know what I am.”
“Where is York?”
The creature pointed a long, nailless finger at itself.
“You? But.. but why?”
“That’s what I was going to talk to you about. If you’re still interested.”
“I want to know everything,” Fermi said as he sat down at his desk, his inquisitive mind again fully engaged. “Everything.”
The voice began telling Fermi a story, not as though it was speaking to one of the most brilliant scientists who’s ever lived, but as though it was speaking to a small boy. Fermi experienced strange visions in his mind’s eye accompanying the creature’s words, as though he was being read a child’s picture book, and he felt himself wrapped in a warm, loving energy that reminded him of sitting on his mother’s knee when he was very young.
The voice said:
“A very, very long time ago, on a planet in another galaxy, scientists were having conversations very much like the one we had this afternoon. ‘Where is everybody?’ they asked. They knew the mathematical odds suggested they couldn’t be alone, yet there was no sign of any life beyond their own planet’s atmosphere.
“Time went on, and scientific discoveries continued to unfold, but they didn’t get an answer to their question. The people of that world unlocked the secrets of their anatomy, of their environment, and of harnessing energy, leading to a level of thriving their species had never before experienced. But that scientific advancement came at a price: their planet’s environment couldn’t cope with the amount of energy they were able to produce, and as more scientific breakthroughs were made, weapons systems became more efficient at killing.
“It wasn’t long before that planet’s own Enrico Fermis began discovering how to tap into the secrets of the atom, leading to the invention of weapons like the ones your own breakthroughs gave rise to in your work with the Manhattan Project. As competing populations grew and became more powerful, it was just a matter of time before the inevitable occurred.
“It was only by sheer, dumb luck that any of them survived the war. A few hundred had anticipated what was coming early enough to create an underground shelter that was sufficiently sustainable to survive the nuclear winter, and they made it through that tortured existence for generations after many near-miss difficulties which could have easily wiped them all out. When they finally re-emerged and began to rebuild the world their ancestors had destroyed, they collectively made sacred, solemn agreements among themselves about how they would treat each other, their environment, and the temptations of technological advancement to ensure that such horrors would never be unleashed again.
“Using these sacred guidelines, they rebuilt their world, and rebuilt it far better than before. They devoted themselves not just to technological development for the good of everyone, but also to inner development to ensure that they would all have the maturity to wisely navigate all the coming scientific discoveries they knew they would make going forward.
“Those discoveries would eventually grant them the capability to travel between star systems, and then later to travel between galaxies. Once they had the ability to easily explore their universe, their scientists finally got a conclusive answer to that age-old riddle we discussed this afternoon.
“They discovered that they weren’t the first. On planet after planet after planet, all throughout the cosmos, they discovered the ancient ruins of alien civilizations that had long preceded their own. Intelligent life, it turned out, was every bit as common as their primitive calculations had first guessed all those millennia ago. It just consistently fell victim to its own technological development, just as theirs nearly had.
“This is all they found in their explorations throughout the entire universe. When it wasn’t dead worlds where the intelligent life had wiped itself out, it was intelligence that had not yet reached a level of technological sophistication to destroy itself. It’s like an ecosystem has a lifespan, just like the life of an individual organism, and eventually it reaches a level where it simply self-destructs. If it doesn’t obliterate itself with nuclear technology, it rapidly renders its ecosystem uninhabitable and the entire world dies a slow, miserable death.
“It was only by a pure, random fluke that this hadn’t happened on their home world, and theirs was the only planet in the universe to escape this fate. They were alone.
“The weight of this crushing realization caused anguish throughout their species. They began intensely studying worlds where intelligent life was nearly at the point of existentially threatening technology, and they watched in despair as they snuffed themselves out on planet after planet after planet, without fail.
“Over the ages, after much deliberation, it was decided that they should try directly intervening to see if they could keep an intelligent alien species from self-destructing. The earliest attempts failed spectacularly. Clean energy systems given to species at this juncture were quickly weaponized to disastrous effect. One species wiped out an entire star system in one great blue flash. If a species is still acting from its defensive, fight-or-flight evolutionary conditioning, it’s simply not collectively mature enough to handle technological gifts from a civilization millions of years more advanced than its own.
“But they didn’t give up. Over a very, very long period of time, they eventually found a system which worked: a very light-touch benevolent interventionism which protects a developing intelligence from its most self-destructive impulses while leaving it alone enough to learn from its mistakes and mature beyond its omnicidal tendencies. Covert operatives are sent in to teach them and nudge them toward maturity, as well as to monitor the development and deployment of dangerous technologies-”
“York,” interrupted Fermi, pointing at the creature.
“Yes, covert operatives like myself. Your scientific breakthroughs have helped advance human technological achievement by leaps and bounds Enrico, but they have also put your world in grave danger. As you know the Soviets have the bomb now, so we are monitoring things far more intensively than we were previously.”
“What happens if there’s a war like the one your people had?” asked Fermi.
“Those weren’t my people. Theirs is an ancient civilization which developed long before my ancestors evolved. My people were among those helped past the point of self-destructiveness by the program I am describing to you now; we’re just the ones who run operations on earth because we look more like humans than any of the others. An encounter with one of them could be very frightening for a human if they were accidentally seen.”
Visions of other alien races flashed through Fermi’s mind.
“Gahh!” screamed Fermi.
“Yeah alright alright, I get it.”
“So after a very long time and a tremendous amount of trial and error, a second species made it past the barrier of technological development, and joined the first in exploring life in this universe together. Then a third, then a fourth. Over millions of years a system was perfected where the signs of advanced life are mostly hidden from immature intelligences, showing them just enough signs of our existence to keep them curious and asking questions. We set up technologies around their star systems which hide our energy and communication signatures from their detection, and the area is cordoned off from everyone except those with authorized access.”
“Like a baby’s playpen,” Fermi said.
“Yes, or like an eggshell. You don’t open up an egg to help it grow, you merely keep it safe and provide it the conditions necessary for it to gestate and hatch.”
“Are you telling me we’ll be hatching soon? Maturing, as you say, and joining you in the stars?”
“I don’t even know if you’ll hatch at all, to be truthful. For all our best efforts, many civilizations still don’t make it. We’ll maintain an aerial presence around your nuclear facilities and any military infrastructure which could lead to nuclear war, and whenever it looks like such a conflict might be on the horizon we’ll redouble our efforts, but there are other ways your species can wipe itself out which our program has fewer options for dealing with. If you’re like other developing intelligences, you’re probably in for a long, rough road either way.”
“Why though?” asked Fermi.
“Well as I said, we can’t give you technologies which would help with your environmental-”
“No no, I understand all that,” Fermi interjected. “I mean, why have a ‘program’ at all? Why did the first advanced intelligence go out of its way to help a bunch of alien lizards or bugs or whatever develop in the first place? Why would they care? What do they get out of that?”
“It’s a big, cold, dark universe Enrico. It gets lonely. New intelligences always come at the experience of consciousness from wildly different angles than any which preceded them, and if they don’t survive, nobody else gets to enjoy those weird new perspectives. It would be so lonely going millions and millions of years with no other intelligences to talk to. I think we all kind of intuitively grasp that. Don’t you?”
“I- I think that I do,” said Fermi. “So, do you… enjoy us?”
“I love humans very, very dearly. I enjoy them immensely, and I consider myself quite fortunate to be able to interact with them. I enjoy you, Enrico. A great deal. It has been a true honor to have a mind like yours as a friend.”
“Is that why you are telling me all this?”
“Well, yes. And because you asked. And…”
The voice trailed off.
“I’m not sure if I should tell you. We have no rules for this.”
“Tell me,” said Fermi.
“Well, I don’t know how you’re going to take this, but my readings say you’re not likely to live much longer. A few years maybe. Looks like probably cancer.”
“Ah,” said Fermi, sitting back in his chair. “I see.”
“No, no I’m glad you told me,” he replied. “I prefer to know. I always prefer to know.”
“Yes. That’s the story of your whole life.”
“Yes indeed it is,” said Fermi, tears welling up in his eyes. “Well. Hmm. And I guess you’re also telling me all this because you know I could never ruin your program by telling everyone about it because I’d look like a madman and destroy my legacy.”
“I think we both know you wouldn’t do that anyway. You saw what happens without the program.”
The two organisms stared at each other for a moment. Fermi turned and looked out the window to the stars.
“So… I can tell only myself then,” he said. “For everyone else, this may as well never have happened. It happened, and yet at the same time, it did not happen.”
“That’s true,” Herbert York’s voice boomed in his ears, giving him a start. “But, again, you did ask. And you always prefer to know.”
“Yes,” Fermi replied. “Thank you so much.”
Herbert York walked out the door and pulled it closed behind him.
Fermi returned his gaze to the stars.