September 2015 Archives

Solving Fermi's Paradox

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Do space aliens exist? Is there life on other worlds? Or are we alone in the universe? And what about the Ewok microbiome? Today's column on microbial oceanography addresses this tantalizing question, and whether we might some day have an answer. This is part n of an infinity-part series on microbial oceanography.

One orienting idea in the search for extra terrestrial life is Fermi's Paradox. In 1950, the physicist Enrico Fermi estimated the number of planets that should have intelligent life. Even with some very conservative assumptions, the galaxy should be crawling (or slithering?) with life. So, as the paradox provocatively asks, "Where is everybody?"

Lots of brainy people have answers to this paradox, and the answers are always suspiciously a reflection of their views on humanity. In a recent interview, NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden said that alien communications are all encrypted. More cynically, Stephen Hawking has offered up the idea that when intelligent life does arise, perhaps it quickly destroys itself. General Douglas MacArthur said that humanity would soon have to unite in a war against people from other planets. If you asked Jerry Seinfeld, he'd probably say that aliens are too absorbed in the trivial details of everyday life to bother with visiting Earth.

If all of these experts can weigh in, there must be a place in the conversation for the microbial oceanographer. Of course, I can't speak for all microbial oceanographers (most of them think I'm crazy), but since so few have spoken on this issue, I'm going to set the bar. Let's start with the basics: water is essential for life. If we start from that premise and look for water in our solar system, we find that most of it is buried in underground oceans. Something like ~95% of the solar system's oceans are hidden by thick crusts (See figure.) These oceans could be teeming with life--probably microbial, but possibly intelligent--with no idea that there is a sun or other planets or a funny 1990s sitcom called Seinfeld. In our quest for life on other worlds, we might not be able to just sit back and listen. If my theory is right, we'll need to actually visit these places. We'll need to send a drilling team, much like in the timeless film classic Armageddon, and when we make first contact, we'll want to make sure someone on that team is a microbial oceanographer.


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-Nick Record, signing off

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