The Fermi Paradox: Are we alone in the universe?

"Where are they?" Despite decades of searching and listening, the famous question posed by physicist Enrico Fermi remains a mystery. Are humans unique?

This story begins with Joseph. Some of you might remember Joseph, the friend and fellow prisoner I wrote of in “Disperse the Gloomy Clouds of Night,” a post at my blog,  Joseph came into this prison six years ago with a “rep” that was very difficult to climb out from under in the gang culture of prison life. A young, street-tough, African American man, Joseph comes from an existence entirely alien to the world of my priesthood. My sole exposure to it has come from two places: television and prison, and the latter is a world I have never been prepared for. In this world, Joseph is not an alien. I am.

It’s an odd thing, the diversity of human life and experience. On the surface, Joseph and I are about as different as two human beings can be, and yet we are now the best of friends. For our two disparate worlds to communicate required finding some common ground that was not easy to discover. Joseph trusts no one – except me, he insists – and he thinks I trust everyone far too openly. I once described to Joseph what it was like trying to communicate when we first met. I said I felt a bit like Mr. Spock on the bridge of the Star Ship Enterprise, trying to open a channel to the Klingon battle cruiser hovering nearby. Joseph erupted in laughter.

It was funny, but since then I’ve learned that Joseph’s tough exterior masks a brilliant mind fascinated by science, and a soul in search of truth. We’ve had long discussions about the topic of this post, and Joseph can’t wait to read it. So humor me for a few moments, please. I’m not quitting the priesthood to apply to Starfleet Academy or anything, but there’s a new development in the sciences of astronomy and cosmology that you may have heard about in the news, and I have been caught in its tractor beam.

Resistance is futile! Don’t click that backspace button to close this post just yet. Of the nearly 140 posts I’ve written for These Stone Walls, only two have been about space science, my other preoccupation. “A Day Without Yesterday,” about the great Belgian physicist-priest, Father Georges Lemaitre, told the story of how he changed the mind Of Albert Einstein about the created universe. His concept of the origin of the Universe from the primordial atom or “Big Bang” was suppressed by some scientists because Father Lemaitre was a Catholic priest.

Today, his work is a cornerstone of modern cosmology. Coincidentally, this week’s Our Sunday Visitor has a great tribute to Father Georges Lemaitre by Barry Hudock entitled “Interplay of Cosmology Revelation” (OSV, January 29, 2012). IN another TSW post, “Does Stephen Hawking Sacrifice God on the Altar of Science?” I refuted some of the reviewers of Stephen Hawking’s book, The Grand Design, who saw in its pages a refutation of God Himself. I’m not even counting my post, “Phasers On Stun, Mr. Spock! Captain Kirk’s Star Trek Epiphany,” which was about science fiction and not science. So indulge me for a few minutes, please. I haven’t exactly inundated TSW readers with my amateur astronomy from inside a prison cell. Besides, my astronomical telescope is but another long lost treasure, and the night sky itself is just a memory.


What we know about the Cosmos is changing quickly. When I last saw freedom in 1994, astronomers theorized that there must be planets beyond our own Solar System, but there was no evidence of a single one. Over the last eighteen years, numerous distant planets have been discovered, but most are gas giants like the outer planets of our own Solar System, and others are either too close or too far from their host stars – their suns – to be habitable.

Over the past few months, a discovery by the Kepler Space Telescope has generated a wave of excitement among astronomers. It was best described in a recent Wall Street Journal article, “An Otherworldly Discovery: Billions of Planets” (Robert Lee Hotz, January 12, 2012). This is a phenomenal discovery that could drastically alter how we view our place in the Universe for centuries to come. Billions of planets – many very much like Earth – are revolving around billions of stars in the Milky Way Galaxy. Whether we are alone remains an open question, but our Earth most definitely is not.

One of these recent discoveries – given the not-so-romantic name, “Kepler 22-B” by astronomers, has been deemed to be in the “habitable zone.” A planet a lot like Earth, it is close enough to its sun to be nourished by it. If it were just a bit further, like Mars, it would be frozen and barren. A bit closer, like Venus, would make it a molten cauldron. Both would be inhospitable to the development of life as we know it. Kepler 22-B appears to be our first discovery of a planet that’s just about right for life to take hold and evolve.

But don’t plan to vacation there just yet. Kepler 22-B is 600 light years away. You may recall from “A Day Without Yesterday” that a light year is a measure of distance, not time. It is the distance light will travel through space in one of our years. Light travels at a measurable rate of approximately 186,000 miles per second. At that speed, light will travel 5.86 trillion miles  - that’s 5,860,000,000,000 miles or 9,460,000,000,000 kilometers  -  in one year. This distance is called a light year, and Kepler 22-B is 600 times that distance from Earth.  With the fastest rocket system ever developed on Earth, it would take 24 million years to get there.

This means that if someone living on Kepler 22-B had a super telescope that could see a close-up view of life on Earth, the Kepler 22-Being would see Earth and its civilization as it was in the year 1412. It would be another two centuries before Galileo first used a telescope to view the heavens from Earth. It would be another five centuries before Marconi demonstrated that electromagnetic waves could carry signals and communications in what would become known as “radio.” It would be five and-a-half centuries before humans could combine those two technologies into radio astronomy, the detection of radio waves traveling from elsewhere in our galactic neighborhood.

Using radio astronomy, science first learned of the existence of the quasar in 1964, and the pulsar in 1967. These features of our galaxy and others, and the stars they contain, emit naturally occurring radio waves that can be detected and measured.  One of the features we can measure is distance.  We have learned from radio astronomy that our galaxy is a disk of star systems about 100,000 light years across, and it is home to more than 100 billion stars.  We have learned that the light and radio signals we can observe from across our galaxy is many tens of thousands of years old at the time we observe it.

Until 1924, our Milky Way galaxy was thought to be the only one in existence. It comprised the entire Universe. By the time I was an eight-year-old reading Superman comics, there were 28 known galaxies. Now, thanks to the orbiting Hubble Space Telescope and its “Deep Field” observations, there are over 100 billion galaxies millions, even billions, of light years away. The Universe is very large, and it can make me feel very small.

And yet, as I pointed out in “A Day Without Yesterday,” Father Georges Lemaitre has demonstrated that all this creation, and time itself, came into being at a specific point in cosmological history, and on the day before that, there was absolutely nothing. Father Lemaitre lobbied Pope Pius XI to avoid using science to bolster statements of faith, but in my mind, and now my friend, Joseph’s as well – and Pope Pius XI agreed, too – Father Georges Lemaitre put science and faith on the same page, in this one crucial concept, a created Universe. It was this page:

 “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth. The earth was  without form and void, and darkness was upon the face of the deep; and  the Spirit of God was moving over the face of the waters.” (Genesis 1:1)


Working on the Manhattan Project in Los Alamos, New Mexico in 1943, physicist Enrico Fermi posed this question to his fellow scientists. It came to be known as “The Fermi Paradox” and here is the gist of it. Our galaxy is 10 to 15 billion years old, according to cosmologists, and contains over 100 billion stars. Fermi presumed them to have planets, and now we know that he was right. So in the course of over ten billion years, at least one civilization must have emerged somewhere that developed the technology for interstellar communication using a technology humans discovered a century ago: radio waves. The mathematics of scientific odds dictates that this simply must be. So, where are they? This became the basis of the SETI project, the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence.

The Fermi Paradox posed a challenge to science. Radio astronomy was developed in the 1930s, and by the 1950s science was devoting ample time and technology to the SETI project. If any other civilization exists out there, it will be discovered in just this way. The idea that little green men are visiting us, or have ever visited us, does not hold up against scientific reality. Einstein demonstrated a basic law of physics that nothing travels through space faster than light. If people on Kepler 22-B exist, it would take them thousands of years to get here despite the fact that their 600 light years distance from us places them in our own backyard in galactic terms. We would hear their signals thousands of years before we could possibly meet them. And the signal we hear will be at least 600 years old when we hear it. We won’t be trading recipes or playing space chess.


For nearly sixty years, we have had the ability to filter out all naturally occurring radio chatter to listen for something intentional. Rut to date, we have heard nothing but silence from every corner of the galaxy we have listened to, and we have listened intently. The silence is startling. There is no evidence whatsoever – not a shred – that points to the existence of anyone even remotely like us anywhere else but on Earth. Mathematics – the science of sheer odds – says there must be, but to date, at least, there is no one.

Whether or not we are alone in the Cosmos may never be fully answered for science, but I am not at all alone in my thinking about what these planetary discoveries mean and don’t mean for the discovery of extraterrestrial life. The late novelist-scientist-physician, Michael Crichton, had a great article, published posthumously, in the excellent Catholic journal, Annals Australasia (”Consensus Politics and Junk Science,” 25 October 2011). He had this to say about why SETI and science have parted ways;
 “SETI is not science. SETI is unquestionably a religion. Faith is defined  as the firm belief in something for which there is no proof. The belief that  God created the universe in seven days is a matter of faith. The belief  that there are other life forms in the universe is a matter of faith.  There  is not a single shred of evidence [for science] to maintain this belief.”

In purely scientific circles, the emerging news about new planets all over the galaxy is accompanied by a developing theory called the “rare earth” theory. I believe it has merit. There are aspects of our planet that may make it exceedingly rare, if not unique. Simply locating a planet like Kepler 22-B in “the habitable zone” near its sun some 600 light years away tells us nothing about life. There are  lots of other factors, and when you weigh all of them, the  mathematics – the sheer odds against life existing at all – are overwhelming. Life like us should not exist anywhere. But it exists here, and it’s a cosmological crime to squander it.

Here are a few examples from the “rare Earth” theory: Jupiter is a massive planet with a massive gravitational pull. It is placed in just the right position in our Solar System to prevent most life-extinction events that could have taken place on Earth through the bombardment of giant asteroids over millennia. Jupiter is like a Solar System vacuum cleaner that protects inner planets. The Shoemaker-Levy 9 Comet that gave Jupiter a mere black eye in 1994 could have utterly obliterated life on Earth.
Yet Earth has had just enough cosmic bombardments early in its life to create and maintain a spinning molten core that in turn creates a strong electromagnetic field that protects our planet from cosmic solar rays that would otherwise have destroyed Earth’s atmosphere – and all life – eons ago.

Earth’s Moon is just large enough, and at just the right distance from Earth, to stabilize our planet against the destabilizing gravitational influences of both our Sun and Jupiter. This has prevented massive shifts in Earth’s polarity and maintained tides and seasons while preventing too frequent global ice ages. The relationship between Earth, our Moon, and life is complex, ancient, and not yet fully understood. And is it mere chance that our Moon is of a size and distance that allows for a perfect solar eclipse? The odds against such a phenomenon are . . . well . . . astronomical.

I found some recent support for how these factors make life here unique in a new book by John Gribbin, Alone in the Universe: Why Our Planet is Unique (Wiley, 2012). There was a great review of it by Alan Hirshfield in The Wall Street Journal (”The Loneliest Planet,” Dec. 31, 2011 – Jan. 1, 2012) Summarizing the book’s conclusions, Mr. Hirshfield wrote:

 “As John Gribbin points out in his grimly plausible book, there is a world  of difference between ‘habitable’ planets and ‘inhabited’ planets . . . The  author’s conclusion: Earth is the sole abode of intelligent life in the  galaxy, the result of a profoundly improbable sequence of cosmic,  geologic, and climactic events . . .”
For Father Georges Lemaitre, for me, and now for my friend, Joseph, there comes a point when “a profoundly improbable sequence” of events crosses a border into the profoundly impossible. Science has promised a better explanation for centuries, but it hasn’t ever delivered one. Creation and our Creator become the sole rational explanation for what seems otherwise irrational and impossible: life itself, and not just life, us! – the impossible mathematical odds against the very existence with which we ponder Him.

And thus far, at least, we ponder Him alone.

“I want to know how God created this world. I am not interested in this   or that phenomenon, in the spectrum of this or that element. I want to  know God’s thoughts; the rest are details.” Albert Einstein


Rev. Gordon J. MacRae is a Spero News columnist.  Writing from the New Hampshire State Prison, he blogs at  His wrongful conviction case is sponsored by the National Center for Reason and Justice –

The views and opinions expressed herein are those of the author only, not of Spero News.
Filed under entertainment, religion, science, catholic, books, movies, television, Society and Culture


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