Wednesday, December 16, 2009

The Fermi Paradox Redux: Is Anybody Out There?

My blog post of March 18 -- entitled The Fermi Paradox -- detailed the genesis of the anthology Is Anybody Out There? that I am co-editing with Nick Gevers, to be published by Daw Books in June 2010. So far, it has been more than a two-year journey, and nearly three years will have passed by the time the book actually sees print.

In that initial post, I stated that Nick and I hoped to have the contents of the anthology determined by December -- which is, like, now! And, in fact, we have selected the stories to be included in the book. On December 13, I sent an email to all the authors with a listing of the contents. One of those authors posted the contents list on her LiveJournal, and then two other sites picked it up, and now I see that the information has spread from there -- so an appropriate web search over the past day or two would have yielded the results. But now that you are here, instead of there....

Submissions to this anthology were by invitation only; however, I think you will be surprised (and hopefully impressed in the end) with some of the "new" authors included in the anthology. We had 23 stories submitted, from which we chose 15 -- written by a total of 17 authors (two of the stories are collaborations). We also asked yet another well-known SF author to draft an introduction to round out the book.

But I'm going to keep you in suspense a wee bit longer while I mention a couple other items. Because of my involvement in this project, I occasionally receive links via email and Twitter for articles and such related to the Fermi Paradox. Recently @projectblackcat sent me a link to the January 2010 editorial in Sky & Telescope magazine. The editorial, entitled "Where Have All the Aliens Gone?" was written by Jacob Haqq-Misra (a Ph.D. candidate in meteorology and astrobiology at Penn State University) and Seth Baum (a Ph.D. candidate in geography at Penn State). The authors write: "If growth outstrips resources, human civilization may collapse. This could also explain the absence of extraterrestrials: despite the seeming vastness of the galaxy, perhaps exponential expansion is also unsustainable on a galactic scale." It's an excellent, albeit brief, editorial that tells us, in conclusion, that we had better "become responsible consumers and ensure our own long-term survival." The editorial is available via a
PDF, and can be found on the last page of the file.

So this got me hooked on Sky & Telescope. The magazine has a new article online entitled
"The Chance of Finding Aliens" by Govert Schilling (an astronomy writer in Utrecht, The Netherlands) and Alan M. MacRobert (senior editor of Sky & Telescope). It's a very lengthy (5 pages), detailed article, broken down into numerous sections. In one of those sections, the authors delve into -- and at great length -- each expression that comprises the Drake equation, which is used to calculate the potential number of extraterrestrial civilizations in our galaxy:

The article gets quite technical discussing each of these expressions, with calculations, graphs, and postulations -- and I'll leave this part of the article to those of you who might find this interesting. But it is the last page of the article that really piqued my interest. Schilling and MacRobert write:

And here is perhaps the most important point of all: the Fermi paradox turns the definition of "optimist" versus "pessimist" on its head when it comes to life in the universe.

If star-traveling intelligences are extremely rare or nonexistent, despite the abundance of planets where life can begin, there must be some kind of "Great Filter" that prevents the emergence of interstellar colonists. Is the Great Filter something in our past, or our future? If we've already passed it – that is, if the filter is the origin of life, or the leap from prokaryotic to eukaryotic cells, or the leap from single-celled organisms to large multicellular animals, or from animal brains to human brains -- then the great test is behind us, and our way is open to spreading to the stars.

But if the Great Filter lies ahead of us -- for instance, if technological civilizations arise often but always destroy themselves -- then we are doomed. We will never get to the stars. Because (by definition) we are extremely unlikely to beat the odds that have already filtered out all who made it as far as we have now.

So, if there is in fact some "Great Filter," is it behind us? Are we simply holding ourselves back by not investing enough funds -- and thus effort and technology -- in human planetary travel? Or, is the "Great Filter" in front of us, and we are doomed to extinction because we will inevitably destroy ourselves -- either through war of one form or another, or through the unrepentant, excessive consumption of all our natural resources?

Which brings me back to this anthology, but in a somewhat roundabout way. In March 1985, Dr. Eric. M. Jones, at
Los Alamos National Laboratory, published Technical Report LA-10311-MS entitled "Where is Everybody?: An Account of Fermi's Question." Dr. Jones obtained written accounts from many of the scientists who were present at the time of that momentous luncheon in which Fermi exclaimed his famous question, "Where is everybody?" In a letter to Dr. Jones dated August 13, 1984, Edward Teller relayed his recollection of the actual event:

...Then, in the middle of this conversation, Fermi came out with the quite unexpected question "Where is everybody?"... Fermi did not tie his question to any conversation which was then going on. 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. I do not believe that much came of this conversation, except perhaps a statement that the distances to the next location of living beings may be very great and that, indeed, as far as our galaxy is concerned, we are living somewhere in the sticks, far removed from the metropolitan area of the galactic center.

I can fully confirm that the question was brought up by Fermi, in Fuller Lodge, at lunch, probably before 1950.

It is this question by Fermi that led to the title for our anthology: Is Anybody Out There? So (finally!), here are the contents of the anthology, along with a mini description of each, courtesy of my co-editor Nick Gevers; the stories are listed in alphabetical order, by author:
Paul McAuley, "Introduction: Here Comes Everyone"
The history and implications of the Fermi Paradox.

Michael Arsenault, "Residue"
In a story made up entirely of dialogue, a man and a woman pitch Fermi Paradox solutions, including a shattering one based on universal amnesia.

Pat Cadigan (Twitter: @Cadigan), "The Taste of Night"
If only insane people can receive alien messages, the human species must revise its concept of itself.

Paul Di Filippo, "Galaxy of Mirrors"
In the distant future, the Milky Way, long bereft of intelligent alien life, suddenly swarms with non-human civilizations.

Sheila Finch, "Where Two or Three"
A teenage girl, at war with her parents, travels into the desert with an old astronaut in search of alien signals.

Matthew Hughes, "Timmy, Come Home"
If Earth is Hell, why should aliens ever come here?

Alex Irvine, "The Word He Was Looking for Was Hello"
Various possible explanations for the Fermi Paradox perplex a man in his relations with his psychiatrist and his family.

Jay Lake, "Permanent Fatal Errors"
Posthuman space travellers discover where the aliens have been hiding all along.

David Langford, "Graffiti in the Library of Babel"
The aliens don't visit us -- they write to us.

Yves Meynard, "Good News from Antares"
A burnt-out SF writer encounters an alien character from stories he wrote long ago, and must decide whether he wants a lonely or a crowded universe.

James Morrow, "The Vampires of Paradox"
An ingenious intellectual comedy in which a professor and some heretical monks redefine demons as aliens -- all in a good cause.

Mike Resnick & Lezli Robyn, "Report from the Field"
An alien field agent on Earth explains in comic terms just why humankind belongs in perpetual quarantine.

Kristine Kathryn Rusch, "The Dark Man"
A journalist in Rome monitors a mysterious apparition on the Spanish Steps.

When the aliens at last materialize, it'll probably be all about sex.

Ray Vukcevich, "One Big Monkey"
Astronauts and their twitter technology open stunning portals on the Fermi Paradox.

Ian Watson, "A Waterfall of Lights"
The aliens have been here all along, and are a part of us.
And that will be Is Anybody Out There? -- coming to a bookseller near you (or as close to you as the nearest net connection) -- though Nick and I still need to finalize the actual order of the stories. I hope you're looking forward to the publication of this book as much as I am. There is some really great stuff here -- I promise! And maybe, just maybe, these authors have answered Fermi's question.

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  1. The Great Filter is a doozy of an idea... I most fervently hope it's behind us.

  2. Thanks for your comment. And yes, it would be sad if we humans are doomed to reach no further that placing a man on the moon a few times, and only for a very brief visit.

  3. Nick Bostrom and Robin Hanson wrote papers on the Great Filter. I have been looking for a anthology on the Fermi Paradox. It's a huge mystery. I also hope we eventually venture out and become a multi- planetary species. It would be sad if the universe goes quiet and unconscious. Here's to reaching a post human state:-)

  4. Hi, Carson,

    Thanks for your comment, and also the Bostrom and Hanson references (better yet, referrals; I'll have to check these out). I hope you've found the Fermi Paradox anthology in Is Anybody Out There?

    - marty

  5. Marty-
    I was able to find Is Anybody Out There on amazon and wanted to let you know I found your blog from buying Alien Contact. I usually only read science books but lately decided I needed some fiction so I'm trying science fiction. Cannot wait to read Alien Contact. Just picked it up last week. Thanks for your work!

  6. Carson,

    Thanks again. Hope you enjoy the read(s).
    - m