Scientists Have a New Theory on Why Aliens Haven’t Communicated With us Yet
Here is a thought: there are billions upon billions of stars in the universe similar to our sun. There is also a high probability that a number of these suns are orbited by planets very similar in mass and composition to our Earth. If we can assume that the ecological history of our Earth is typical, we can assume that some of these planets will develop life, some of which will go on to achieve intelligence comparable or even surpassing that of humans. It is also likely that any intelligent and technologically advanced species will seek interstellar travel, as we homo sapiens are currently seeking to perfect today.
So, why is it that we have never encountered nor heard a peep from intelligent alien life?
This train of logic is known as the Fermi Paradox, named for the Nobel prize-winning physicist Enrico Fermi, who examined the apparent contradiction between the high probability of intelligent alien life and the complete lack of evidence that it exists.
The quest to find and contact extra-terrestrial intelligence is a topic that has fascinated researchers since the earliest days of astronomy’s technological development. In the late 19th Century, Nikola Tesla suggested that a powerful version of his electrical transmission system could be used to contact intelligent beings on Mars. In the years since this proposal, astronomers have employed methods of passive radio detection, scanning the microwave spectrum, radio telescopes, and sent the Voyager probes hurtling to the outer boundaries of the heliosphere with messages on-board for any intelligent life they may encounter. Still, the silence continues. The most promising signal of extra-terrestrial intelligence thus far has been one inexplicable blip noted on Ohio State University’s Big Ear radio telescope in 1977, known as the Wow! Signal, which has gone unrepeated since.
Now, researchers from Oxford’s Future of Humanity Institute and the Astronomical Observatory of Belgrade have now put forth their own theory to satisfy the Fermi Paradox and it’s a rather unexpected proposal: the aliens are sleeping. Published in the Journal of the British Interplanetary Society earlier this month the authors, Anders Sandberg, Stuart Armstrong, and Milan Cirkovic outlined their Aestivation Theory. In its most simplistic form, the notion of aestivation suggests that intelligent extra-terrestrials would be able to conclude that the time is not ripe in this universe to explore and harvest for resources based on the energy expenditure in such hot and volatile conditions; they have decided instead to wait for a remote future when the universe cools.
Unpacked in layman’s terms in this blog post, Sandberg and Cirkovic explain that there is a thermodynamic cost to processing information, “in principle, running processing becomes 10 times more efficient if your computer is 10 times colder (measured in Kelvins)”. As the universe is expanding, it is also cooling and as a result, advanced civilizations with the ability to do so may simply be waiting out this period until they can maximize the potential of the energy that they are consuming, “there might be old and powerful civilizations around that are hard to observe, not because they are hiding but because they are inactive for the time being” state Sandberg and Cirkovic. The researchers theorize that extra-terrestrial beings could achieve energy efficiency 1030 more effective than what can be achieved in the current conditions of the universe.
The authors also outline a series of assumptions that are naturally associated with their Aestivation Theory, which certainly become increasingly tenuous but are an interesting exercise in thought experimentation nonetheless, including: “There are civilizations that mature much earlier than humanity”, “These civilizations can expand over sizable volume, gaining power over their contents”, “A civilization can retain control over its volume against other civilizations” and that “Aestivation is largely invisible”.
So, what are we to make of the sleeping aliens theory? Can we accept this as a factual conclusion to the Fermi Paradox? In two words: not really.
Sandberg, Cirkovic, and Armstrong do not suppose that they have satisfactorily answered Fermi’s observed contradiction, instead, they simply put forth aestivation as a possibility worth looking for in further research. Sandberg even states personally in the blog post that he personally believes “the likeliest reason we are not seeing aliens is not that they are aestivating, but just that they do not exist or are too far away”. The Aestivation theory was published on the basis that astronomical research needs to “cover as much of possibility space as possible”; the researchers state that it is important to consider as understanding the potential and limits of intelligence may well predict our own trajectory and chances of survival into the future.
Cover photo: Arrival