The Fermi Paradox, or ‘Where the hell are they?’ and ‘They are made out of meat!’

Sputnik-1, Fermi paradox
The Fermi Paradox, or ‘Where the hell are they?’ and ‘They are made out of meat!’

The Fermi paradox is quite well known in the community of the scientists and pseudo-scientists alike. In simple terms, it simply does not make sense that we, as human beings, are the only intelligent life form in the universe. Seeing the vast amount of stars, probability of existence of other intelligent life forms beyond our planet stands in contradiction to our knowledge of them.

Enrico Fermi summarises it as such:

  • The Sun is a typical star, and relatively young. There are billions of stars in the galaxy that are billions of years older.
  • Almost surely, some of these stars will have Earth-like planets. Assuming the Earth is typical, some of these planets may develop intelligent life.
  • Some of these civilizations may develop interstellar travel, a technology Earth is investigating even now (such as the 100 Year Starship).
  • Even at the slow pace of currently envisioned interstellar travel, the galaxy can be completely colonized in a few tens of millions of years. (Wikipedia)

Seeing the undeniable possibility of other intelligent life forms, it becomes all the more questionable whether life on earth is unique.

To be sure, Fermi was a scientist, and a respected one at that; not just another conspiracy theorist with aims to blame the government for whatever reason once again. He is recounted to have come up with this paradox quite simply, in a way of a casual remark:

“The remark came while Fermi was discussing with his mealtime mates the possibility that many sophisticated societies populate the Galaxy. They thought it reasonable to assume that we have a lot of cosmic company. But somewhere between one sentence and the next, Fermi’s supple brain realized that if this was true, it implied something profound. If there are really a lot of alien societies, then some of them might have spread out . . . So what Fermi immediately realized was that the aliens have had more than enough time to pepper the Galaxy with their presence. But looking around, he didn’t see any clear indication that they’re out and about. This prompted Fermi to ask what was (to him) an obvious question: ‘where is everybody?'” (SETI).


The paradox has been thought about by so many people, that the web is filled with various hypothesis and possible solutions. So much so, that I will not be able to capture all of them even if I tried (which I didn’t, as that seems quite pointless). But here is a shot at some, split in 2 categories:

1. There simply aren’t any other civilizations with intelligent life in the outer space. Whatever the odds, the reality seems to be different:

  • We are simply that rare. And if you are a Christian, this seems rather straight-forward; if you aren’t, we could still be the chosen peoples, but then randomly chosen by sheer luck and some random variables.
  • Perhaps we are not that rare, but we are the first to evolve, and others have a lot of catching up to do.
  • We simply aren’t rare at all, just arrogant to think that we are because we are experimenting with space travel and presume to overcome the obstacles, which are physically impossible to overcome.

2. There is intelligent life in the outer space, but we are not really part of them or of no interest to them.

  • We have been visited, or communicated to, but it was way before we had the means to understand these messages.
  • Our part of the galaxy is too remote for interest by other civilizations.
  • There is no need for colonization by intelligent life, simply a different mentality that we humans have.
  • Intelligent life would not send out signals, out of fear of a big bad wolf.
  • The so-called super-predator theory: a civilization so advanced that it exterminates all other civilizations once they come close to positing a threat (and we do not).
  • We simply don’t know what we are transmitting in terms of communication; all of which could be picked up, but only as mere noise (or they communicate so much faster that our communication is simply too slow to be understood as communication rather than random noise).
  • Zoo Hypothesis: we are like a primitive protected species; we are being observed but like a national park, entry or communication is prohibited by some laws of the galaxy unknown to us.
  • Spies!: They are here, been here, and are going to stay here. We just don’t know it, cause they hide it well.
  • ‘Area 51’: or simply, there is evidence, but it is hidden from us.
  • Alien what?: Purely philosophically speaking, our perception of things may be rather different from what we think it to be. We could be in a Matrix of sorts, or our understanding of the universe is too primitive and rests on speculations too much…

The by far most amusing piece comes from Terry Bisson:

“They’re made out of meat.”
“Meat?”
“Meat. They’re made out of meat.”
“Meat?”
“There’s no doubt about it. We picked up several from different parts of the planet, took them aboard our recon vessels, and probed them all the way through. They’re completely meat.”
“That’s impossible. What about the radio signals? The messages to the stars?”
“They use the radio waves to talk, but the signals don’t come from them. The signals come from machines.”
“So who made the machines? That’s who we want to contact.”
“They made the machines. That’s what I’m trying to tell you. Meat made the machines.”
“That’s ridiculous. How can meat make a machine? You’re asking me to believe in sentient meat.”
“I’m not asking you, I’m telling you. These creatures are the only sentient race in that sector and they’re made out of meat.”
“Maybe they’re like the orfolei. You know, a carbon-based intelligence that goes through a meat stage.”
“Nope. They’re born meat and they die meat. We studied them for several of their life spans, which didn’t take long. Do you have any idea what’s the life span of meat?”
“Spare me. Okay, maybe they’re only part meat. You know, like the weddilei. A meat head with an electron plasma brain inside.”
“Nope. We thought of that, since they do have meat heads, like the weddilei. But I told you, we probed them. They’re meat all the way through.”
“No brain?”
“Oh, there’s a brain all right. It’s just that the brain is made out of meat! That’s what I’ve been trying to tell you.”
“So … what does the thinking?”
“You’re not understanding, are you? You’re refusing to deal with what I’m telling you. The brain does the thinking. The meat.”
“Thinking meat! You’re asking me to believe in thinking meat!”
[. . .]
“Good. Agreed, officially and unofficially. Case closed. Any others? Anyone interesting on that side of the galaxy?”
“Yes, a rather shy but sweet hydrogen core cluster intelligence in a class nine star in G445 zone. Was in contact two galactic rotations ago, wants to be friendly again.”
“They always come around.”
“And why not? Imagine how unbearably, how unutterably cold the Universe would be if one were all alone …”

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