Reports of U.F.O. sightings were commonplace in the 1950s. The C.I.A. recently came clean, on Twitter, concerning its role: “Reports of unusual activity in the skies in the ‘50s? It was us.” Though not entirely—some of the hoaxes of flying saucer sightings, like the McMinnville U.F.O. photographs, were wholly home-made. They wound up inspiring a New Yorker cartoon, depicting aliens making off with some small town’s municipal trashcans, that would go down in scientific lore: The cartoon—along with the thought that, given the universe’s old age, E.T. should be commonplace—came up in conversation between four theoretical and nuclear physicists, at the Los Alamos National Laboratory, walking to lunch. That’s when one of the scientists, Enrico Fermi, suddenly (and famously) exclaimed, “Where are they?” Edward Teller, another one of the scientists, recalled, “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.” The Fermi paradox was born.
“Donald Trump—one of the most self-promoting guys out there—is making no effort whatsoever to send his message to the stars.”
It’s an “interesting, fascinating paradox,” Greg Laughlin, the Yale astronomer and astrophysicist, told us in his Ingenious interview. “There’s no good answer to why we don’t see manifestations of intelligence throughout the universe.” The universe is billions* of years old and there are billions of galaxies, each with billions of stars, some of them harboring planets, with some of them being Earth-like. Many won’t give rise to life, but many also have a chance of doing so, and out of those, intelligent life may emerge. If it’s lucky, chances are it’d become multi-planetary—as we are poised to do.
Nevertheless, Laughlin outlined at least one possible explanation for the apparent dearth of aliens as smart, or smarter, than us in the universe. It has to do with what can seem like a counter-intuitive result of our technological advance—the “signal leakage” of our communications is becoming more and more scarce, not more abundant. He brought to bear the example of a famous ego: the then-real estate mogul and now-president of the United States.
“If we look at what’s going on, here on Earth, even Donald Trump—one of the most self-promoting guys out there—is making no effort whatsoever to send his message to the stars,” Laughlin said. “He’s not building radio telescopes, he’s not broadcasting lists of his accomplishments to anyone but the people whose opinion he cares about—namely, everybody in the United States. And so, there’s nothing that we’re doing that would lead to our footprint being evident at interstellar distances. Indeed, a lot of the things we’re doing—even as we improve our technology—are leading to less and less of a signal leakage.” Broadcast television and radio leak information about us into the cosmos, but those means of communicating, Laughlin said, “are going away quickly, replaced by transmissions through fiber optic cable.”
If aliens have followed a similar trend, then their communications would be hard or impossible to spot.
Brian Gallagher is the editor of Facts So Romantic, the Nautilus blog. Follow him on Twitter @brianga11agher.
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*Correction: The universe is billions of years old, not trillions, as was originally stated.