What we can learn from the Fermi Paradox

In 1950 over lunchtime, a couple of scientists were discussing extra-terrestrial life, which at the time was a new and mind blowing phenomenon. Among them were Emil KonopinskiEdward Teller, Herbert York and the famous Enrico Fermi. During the discussion, Fermi made the famous statement which came to characterize the now well-known Fermi Paradox. He asked his colleagues, “Where is everyone?” This statement was made in response to the visible lack of evidence for the existence of extra-terrestrial life in comparison with its high probability. I mean, let’s think about this for a minute basing on the following statements in chronological order:

  1. Our galaxy, the milky way has billions of stars similar to the sun and there are about two trillion galaxies in the observable universe. If we take the milky way galaxy to be typical, the number of stars in the universe is a number so vast we cannot comprehend it.
  2. Each of these stars has its own planets. Again assuming that the milky way galaxy is a typical galaxy, probability theory would tell us that there is a high probability for the existence of other ‘earth like’ planets
  3. The sun is not the oldest star hence most of the stars and their planets are much older than the sun. If we take the sun to be a typical star and earth a typical planet, there should be a high probability that many of these planets developed intelligent life millions of years ago.
  4. If intelligent life on earth is only investigating interstellar travel today, intelligent life on other planets should have developed space travel technology millions of years ago. Again we are working under the assumption that earth is a typical planet.
  5. At the slow human pace, the entire milky way galaxy could be traversed in a few million years.
  6. Many stars similar to the sun are billions of years old, the odds should really be high that by now, extra-terrestrial civilizations should have already crossed paths with earth.
  7. So where the fuck is everyone?
Enrico Fermi (1901-1954)

At some point in our lives, each and every one of us gets to that stage, a stage where we are constantly asking questions. ‘Who am I?’, ‘What am I doing on earth?’, ‘Why do we exist?’, ‘what is “to be”’ and many others. I don’t know about y’all so I will speak for myself. The universe is so vast the human mind simply cannot comprehend the extent of this vastness. So in that massive existence, what am I and how do I fit into that expanse?

When I was younger, I admired the adult life. My mom had this chauffeur who would pick her up every morning to take her to work. I always woke up early to watch him park this huge double cabin pick up truck, sit in the car and wait there silently. This guy should have been about  fifty and I admired him. In fact, at some point, I wanted to become a trucker. I was always amazed by cars. And this driver would sit in this truck like a king does on his throne. In our little rental home on those silent mornings, everything seemed perfect. ‘Mzee’( which means old man or grandpa ) who drove my mother to work on those mornings was some kind of hero to me. I honestly can’t describe the feeling of those mornings fully but I can tell you this; It was perfect. I know I felt alive. I know I was living. On some days I cried, on others I laughed, on some I screamed, I others I was quiet. I was living and the world had colour. So many beautiful colours

But then years went by and life happened. Yeap, It happened. I don’t cry no more, I don’t laugh genuinely either, I don’t scream, I don’t feel nothing. It’s kind of like the world is in monochrome. On many nights I can’t sleep. I toss and turn in bed, and when I sit up to think about why I can’t sleep, I cannot point a finger to the exact reason. It’s kind of like a spectrum of events just like colour that somehow manage to fit perfectly into one another that lead me to this point. Sometimes I try to think about what really happened. And it’s sad to know that as much as I may have some vague idea of how I got to this point, I don’t quite understand it fully.

Why am I alive? What is the point of all of this? What is my purpose? Do I even have a purpose? Is there an ultimate happiness? All these questions just running laps in my mind. I search for some sort of ideal happiness and yet funny enough, I have no idea what it is or if it even exists. I mean what’s the point of it all? We live, we die, our offspring lives, they too die and the cycle just continues on and on. Now, I admit that religion may provide some insight into this. In-fact, many have found solace in religion, a certain peace of mind that I crave. Well, I too once tried, but sadly for me that didn’t work out quite well. The emptiness within prevailed like darkness at sea. I feel the cold on many days within and I have no idea how to get rid of it. I write, I go to the gym, I play rugby, I read and study, I live everyday trying to be the best version of me. But why doesn’t it fill the void? I mean, there should be something more to this! Something about life I don’t understand well.

Its human nature to be curious, to search for answers. Primarily, it is why I chose to become a scientist, to understand how the world we live in works. How the universe functions. But what about those things even science can’t explain? What about those? Meaning, Purpose, Happiness! You know? For me, that’s where the biggest question mark is! What do I have to do to find that inner peace, the beautiful silence within? We roam this earth in search for answers, all sorts of answers! And humanity has come very far, at least in the things our minds can comprehend. It just baffles me that it  doesn’t give me any peace of mind. And I crave that peace of mind. I crave the answers to purpose, to meaning! What is the meaning of life? There are days I wish I could just freeze the memory of watching Mzee in his majestic truck parked outside our little home, seated, waiting. It was peaceful. I literally had nothing on my mind except this huge Mitsubishi truck with Mzee, the most peaceful man I ever saw, seated right there in silence. What a scene! And it sickens me that every passing day, the memory gets more and more vague. But it was beautiful, that I can tell you.

Enrico Fermi’s quote brings up a lot of feelings within. You have a man, who literally has all the theoretical evidence on his fingertips, a man you would think has figured it out! And yet the universe hits back in a very simple but mentally excruciating way. The universe says, “Nope, not today.” And believe me, that’s probably the most painful feeling. It hurts to try your best to figure something out, to put in the work and find yourself literally nowhere close to the end goal. On that lunch that fateful day in 1950, Fermi realised he was nowhere close to figuring it out. And that is life, that’s how the universe works sometimes. Sometimes you do figure it out, other times you don’t. I’m not going to say that that’s okay, but it is what it is. When I wake up every morning, I promise myself to be better that I was the day before, to be a better version of me. But it hurts that when the day ends, I enter my bed and can’t even get a good night’s sleep! I mean why? Is there some crime I commit everyday sub cautiously that I have to pay for? Or is that just the way it is? My guess is, it’s just the universe “being”. That sometimes it gives you the answers, you find that that ideal peace, that ideal happiness and other times you don’t. It’s just nature being nature.

Fermi (right) and colleagues at the university of Rome

My friend, Auriel, once told me over a few beers that instead of focusing on the ideal end goal, we ought to focus on the path towards it. And in that moment, I wanted to ask him, ‘What about if that path hurts?, What if the path simply hurts? So much that it numbs out all kind of feeling from within. So that one becomes like some moving piece of flesh, unable to relate to even the slightest feeling of genuine happiness?’ But I didn’t. I mean, I’ve been called strange, odd and weird. I just didn’t want that happening again. But to be honest, he had a good point. Think about it, 70 years later we have no fucking idea to what’s out there. Is there something? Is there nothing? No one knows! Now imagine living your life trying to figure that out only to die without having figured it out! What was the point then? So in essence, the journey is as important as the end point. And its important that we understand that. I know our journeys are all different, and there is no one journey same as another. But what a magnificent waste it would be to pass through this life without having had the best of it! To join the billions of dead souls in the dark out there with nothing but pain hovering over your soul. Now that is what bothers me! This constant search for that ideal happiness! What is it really? Does it exist? Where is it?

Its 2am on Christmas eve. I guess you can feel Irony right now! But yes, this is what my life turned out to be. From watching Mzee sit silently in a huge Mitsubishi truck waiting to drive my mom to work to having sleepless nights constantly bothered by our search for meaning, for purpose, for happiness! Roaming the world, numbed by the past, searching for answers! Our minds all get restless at some point in our lives, the flames start burning! And we are all dancing tango in the flames. But if there is anything I’ve learnt in my short stay on earth, It would be summarized in this line from Scent Of A Woman; “When you get tangled up, Just tango on”

Fermi’s final resting place in Chicago

Merry Christmas And A Prosperous New Year

Solomon

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