|Fermi Paradox: Why haven't we seen this?|
I need to introduce the Fecund Universe Hypothesis (otherwise known as Cosmological Natural Selection) developed by physicist Lee Smolin. In brief, this states that black holes produce (or sometimes are able to produce) new universes. Therefore our "big bang" was perhaps the consequence of a black hole from a previous universe, and, in turn, the black holes in our own universe may produce worlds of their own, and so on, ad infinitum. At each "birth" of a new universe, the constants of nature (such as say the speed of light, or the magnetic moment of the electron) get "mutated", and so there is a sense in which universes "evolve" and the ones that "succeed" are the ones that have the most black holes, in order to be able to produce the most offspring. Accordingly the world we live in is "selected" to be "good at" producing black holes. What does this have to do with the Fermi Paradox? Ah, but now the rabbit hole goes deeper.
Stephen Hawking demonstrated that black holes produce radiation, that they are not truly "black" but give off radiation due to quantum mechanics, and (over enough time) may entirely radiate away and disappear (on something like the order of 10 to the power of 100 - a google - of years). What this means is that black holes are thermodynamic objects, that is to say, they have very high entropy. One difference between your coffee mug and a black hole is that black holes have far higher entropy than does your coffee cup - a black hole radiates away energy with far less efficiency than the efficiency with which your coffee cup cools off (hence if you microwave it too long you must wait a long time before you drink it but not millions of years either - it is say medium-level efficient at cooling off, but the efficiency of a black hole emitting energy is even worse because it has much higher entropy than does your coffee cup). In fact, black holes have the highest amount of entropy (adjusted for things like surface area) than any other thing known in nature.
|Animation of Hawking Radation - here negative energy (blue) falls into the black hole while positive energy (red) flys away from the black hole, causing the black hole to slowly lose energy over time, until it eventually will entirely vanish.|
Now, Jeremy England, a physicist at MIT, has developed a theory to say that living entities (from simple cells to multi-cellular organisms) are different from non-living entities precisely because living entities are good at producing entropy. A bacteria cell or a piece of grass will have higher entropy than say a rock will have. (For the purposes of this essay, we can simply define "entropy" as an inverse of the efficiency with which something gives off energy, so the lower the entropy, the better a thing is at giving off heat or energy, and the higher the entropy, the less efficient the thing is at giving off heat or energy.) The details of this are a little beyond our scope here, but let us suffice it to say that living entities are much "better" at entropy production than non-living entities. If as stated above, the universe is somehow "adapated" to being "good at" producing systems of high entropy, then it stands to reason that life, at least simple life, is also perhaps prevelant around the cosmos, inasmuch as black holes are prevelant around the cosmos.
Exentending this further, there are recent studies to suggest that conscious systems (like the human brain) have high levels of entropy, specifically higher than non-conscious systems. So, just as living organisms have higher entropy levels than non-living things, so do conscious living systems (like say jellyfish) have higher entropy levels than living entities that may not be conscious, or at least, not very much so (like say trees).
So, we can now say that the universe is adapted to producing lots of black holes, which means lots of entropy, which means - perhaps - lots of those entropy-producing machines known as living organisims, including those very-efficient entropy-producing machines we know as living organisms containing nervous systems (be they very primitive, such as sponges or sea anemones, or more complex such as dolphins or primates).
But now, you may ask, have not we now only made the Fermi Paradox worse? If we now take it that the universe is somehow adapted to be good at producing living entities, than, well, where are they? Here, however, is the big "but" to the statement that the universe is well-adapated for the production of biological life. Let's go back to black holes. They are actually not the simple systems portrayed in popular literature, with a boundary - "event horizon" - and in the interior of this boundary an undefinable area of gravitational maximal force known as a "singularity", they are actually more complex than that. Outside the event horizon there is a sort of "outer horizon" - you can think of it as a city having a wider outer wall and a smaller inner wall. In between these two walls or boundaries of a black hole, there is much activity going on. You have quantum activity that gives rise to the radiation that Stephen Hawking discovered, and, you also have gravitational wave activity. To be brief, gravitational waves (disturbances in the metric of spacetime that distort the shapes of objects) basically "bounce back and forth" between these "inner and outer walls" of the black holes, sometimes emerging periodically through the "outer wall" such that these "pulses" of gravitational wave emissions from a black hole (every, say, second or so) can actually be detected via very sophisticated optical devices built for detecting gravitational waves. The point is not here to get into all the details of black hole mechanics, but simply to say, these are rather complicated entities, not just the simple gravitational sinkholes portrayed in some popular literature. I would posit that black holes may well have some - very slight - form of consciousness due to their nature of being highly complex entropy-producing entities. Back of the envelope, I'd say a typical black hole has the same "amount of consciousness" as say your typical sponge. Not a lot, but also non-zero.
You may see now, where we are going with this. Yes, the universe is good at producing black holes, and living forms, and even entities of one form or another with some non-zero amount of consciousness (defining that roughly as a being that can make simple "calculations", like a sponge can close its valves in the presence of toxic water, and re-open them again in the presences of clean water). I won't get into the weeds on black hole mechanics, but due to the above-mentioned complexity of black holes, I think they may be complex enough to be seen as able to do simple "calculations" on the order of those of a sponge, which would "qualify" black holes as having some primitive and inchoate form of consciousness. HOWEVER, here is the rub. You don't "need" say dolphins, or primates, or, for that matter, SkyNet, to produce high levels of entropy. All you "need" are say sea anemones, or sponges, or, well, black holes.
And now here we are. The universe has adapted to being good at black hole production which means it is consequently good at producing simple living forms including ones we may posit to have simple levels of consciousness, because all these things are direct or indirect consequences of the universe being able to reproduce via black holes. But it matters not a whit - it does not help in any real way - for the universe to be good at producing complex forms of conciousness, like, well, ourselves. Evolution will produce "just enough" complexity to solve a problem, and no more than that. Sea gulls have very lovely glider-like wings to enable them to soar or glide vast distances off shore in order to be able to find food. Maybe if their wings were twice as long they could glide further, but this would not help them much because if they went even further out into the ocean they would not find a consequent amount of more fish to compensate them for going much further out than they already do, so they are better off sticking relatively close (within a few miles) to the shore. They have "just good enough" wings to do the job and no more than that.
So the universe is good at producing things like sponges and jellyfish and bad at producing things like primates. Thus we - on Planet Earth - are something of a cosmic anamoly - certainly in any given universe in the ensemble there may be one or two solar systems with highly complex organisms just from the luck of the draw, but there is no reason to think that such types of organisms are plentiful, and in fact it is much more likely that they are rare indeed. Accordingly, looking out upon the vast ocean of stars and galaxies, we may well not be surprised to find that we cannot detect any "alien civilizations" out there, because complex life may well be the proverbial black swan - something that happens, but only very rarely. On the other hand, if we were to ice fish on Europa, the ice-covered moon, we ought not to be shocked to see some sponges down there. In fact - there are many more "ice worlds" - like Europa - than liquid-water-on-the-surface-containing planets such as our own, from over 20 years of observing exo-planets, further supporting the hypothesis that any life to be found in the observable universe is much more likely to be something like a sponge, rather than to a primate, or even a vertebrate fish.
I would hope that this knowledge of the rarity of sentient life should make we as humans take all the more care of our planet, and work to for example do what we can to halt climate change, because it could well be the case that our planet contains the only complex life forms in the entire observable universe, and it could be not until the next generation of universes produced by the black holes in our own universe, before the ensemble (or a local part of the ensemble) of universes will see complex - or intelligent - life again.
|Earth as seen from the Voyager spacecraft.|
On a personal note, as a lifelong fan of shows like X Files and Twin Peaks, and as somebody who to this day has the SETI screen saver on my laptop (which parses signals from space looking for radio transmissions from other civilizations) I of all people would enjoy finding evidence of sentient beings on planets other than are own, however, taking all things into account, it may well be the case that while life may be plentiful, sentient life may not be.
Far from being chagrined at such a state of affairs, I think we should find this uplifting, because we on earth are unique in the vast cosmic trajectory of time - Earth, unlike so many other planets out there, hosts sentient beings vouchsafed with the ability to ask these kinds of questions. Knowledge of the solitary nature of sentient beings, esconced as they may well be, here, alone, on this our only planet, should empower us all to be partners, not conquerors, but partners with the ecosystem of Earth, for it is perhaps the only ecosystem which is the proscenium for sentient life, suspended in the illimitable void somwhere between that primal black hole of ages past, and that consummating black hole of ages hence.