Carina Nebula [Courtesy NASA] Passion facade of La Sagrada Familia cathedral, Barcelona, Spain [Photo by DHB, (c) 2011]

Where are the extraterrestrial civilizations?

David H. Bailey
9 Apr 2017 (c) 2017


While having lunch with colleagues Edward Teller and Herbert York, who were chatting about a recent cartoon in the New Yorker depicting aliens abducting trash cans in flying saucers, physicist Enrico Fermi suddenly blurted out, "Where is everybody?" [Webb2002, pg. 17-18]. His question is now known as Fermi's paradox.

Behind Fermi's question was this line of reasoning: (a) There are likely numerous other technological civilizations in the Milky Way galaxy; (b) if a society is less advanced than us by even a few decades, they would not be technological, so any other technological civilization is, almost certainly, many thousands or millions of years more advanced; (d) within a million years or so (an eyeblink in cosmic time) after becoming technological, a society could have explored or even colonized many distant planets in the Milky Way; (e) so why don't we see evidence of the existence of even a single extraterrestrial civilization?

Clearly the question of whether other civilizations exist is one of the most important questions of modern science. And any discovery of a distant civilization, say by analysis of microwave data, would certainly rank as among the most significant and far-reaching of all scientific discoveries. For one thing, it would lend credence to the suggestion by some that the universe is primed for the emergence of life. As Freeman Dyson memorably declared in 1979, "As we look out into the universe and identify the many accidents of physics and astronomy that have worked together to our benefit, it almost seems as if the universe must in some sense have known we were coming." [Dyson1979, pg. 250].

The question of the existence of intelligent life also has religious implications. As Paul Davies observes, "The search for alien beings can thus be seen as part of a long-standing religious quest as well as a scientific project." [Davies1995, pg. 138].

The Drake equation

One of the first conferences to study the possibility of extraterrestrial intelligent civilizations was held in Green Bank, West Virginia in 1960. Frank Drake recalls the following [Drake2003]:
As I planned the meeting, I realized a few day[s] ahead of time we needed an agenda. And so I wrote down all the things you needed to know to predict how hard it's going to be to detect extraterrestrial life. And looking at them it became pretty evident that if you multiplied all these together, you got a number, N, which is the number of detectable civilizations in our galaxy.

The result of these musings, further refined at the conference, now is commonly known as the Drake equation, which estimates the number of civilizations in the Milky Way galaxy with which we could potentially communicate:

N = R* fp ne fl fi fc L
N = number of civilizations in our galaxy that can communicate
R* = average rate of star formation per year in galaxy
fp = fraction of those stars that have planets
ne = average number of planets that can support life, per star that has planets
fl = fraction of the above that eventually develop life
fi = fraction of the above that eventually develop intelligent life
fc = fraction of civilizations that develop technology that signals existence into space
L = length of time such civilizations release detectable signals into space.

The values used by Drake in 1960 were R = 10, fp = 0.5, ne = 2, fl = 1, fi = 0.01, fc = 0.01, L = 10,000, so that N = 10 x 0.5 x 2 x 1 x 0.01 x 0.01 x 10,000 = 10.

The SETI Project

In the wake of these analyses, scientists proposed the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) project, which would search the skies for radio transmissions from distant civilizations in a region of the electromagnetic spectrum thought to be best suited (because of low background noise) for interstellar communication. Initially, the SETI project used existing radiotelescopes, but more recently it uses a large interconnected array devoted to the search for alien civilizations constructed in northern California, financed in part from funds donated by former Microsoft executive Paul Allen. The SETI project has by now searched the radio spectrum for several decades, at higher and higher frequency resolution, with ever-more-sophisticated equipment and computer processing facilities.

But the bottom line of all this effort is that after 50 years of searching, nothing has been found. If there are indeed numerous technological civilizations in the Milky Way, as suggested by Drake's equation, why haven't we yet been able to detect any signals or other evidence of their existence? At the very least, if some distant civilization exists, they certainly have not made it very easy for us to find them.

Similarly, in 2015, astronomers at Penn State University announced that after studying a set of 100,000 large nearby galaxies, none of them had any obvious signs, such as an infared signature of huge amounts of expended energy, of a highly advanced technological society [Billings2015].

Proposed solutions to Fermi's paradox

Numerous scientists have examined Fermi's paradox and have proposed solutions. Here is a brief listing of some of the proposed solutions, and common rejoinders [Webb2002, pg. 27-231]:
  1. They are under strict orders not to disclose their existence. Rejoinder: This explanation (often termed the "zookeeper's hypothesis") falls prey to the inescapable fact that it just takes one small group in just one extraterrestrial civilization to dissent and break the pact of silence. It seems utterly impossible that a ban of this sort could be imposed, without a single exception over millions of years, on a vast galactic society of advanced civilizations, each with billions of individuals (if earth society is any guide), dispersed over many star systems and planets.
  2. They exist, but are too far away. Rejoinder: Such arguments ignore the potential of rapidly advancing technology. For example, once a civilization is sufficiently advanced, it could send "von Neumann probes" to distant stars, which could scout out suitable planets, land, and then construct additional copies of themselves, using the latest software beamed from the home planet. In one recent analysis, researchers found that 99% of all star systems in the Milky Way could be explored in only about five million years, which is an eye-blink in the multi-billion-year age of the Milky Way [Nicholson2013]. Already, scientists are planning to send fleets of nanocraft to visit nearby stars such as Alpha Centauri [Billings2016]. And astronomers hope to soon be able to detect signatures of life on nearby exoplanets [Johnson-Groh2017]. So given that alien civilizations almost certainly have far more advanced technology than we do, why hasn't the earth been visited and/or contacted, many times over?
  3. They exist, but have lost interest in interstellar communication and/or exploration. Rejoinder: Given that Darwinian evolution, which is widely believed to be the mechanism guiding the development of biology everywhere in the universe, strongly favors organisms that explore and expand their dominion, it is hardly credible that each and every individual, in each and every distant civilization forever lacks interest in space exploration, or (as in item #1 above) that a galactic society is 100% effective, over many millions of years and over many billions of individuals in numerous civilizations, in enforcing a ban against those who wish to explore the galaxy or communicate with emerging societies such as ours.
  4. They are not interested in making contact with such a primitive species as us. As with #1 and #3, while the majority of individuals and civilizations might not be interested in a species such as us, surely among this vast society at least some individuals and some civilizations are interested. By analogy, while most humans and even most scientists are not at all interested in ants, a few researchers are very interested, and they study ant species all over the world in great detail. Also, we are now learning how to communicate with many species on earth, great and small.
  5. They are calling, but we do not yet recognize the signal. Rejoinder: While most agree that the SETI project still has much searching to do, this explanation doesn't apply to signals that are sent with the express purpose of communicating to a newly technological society such as us, in a form that we could easily recognize (e.g., by microwave or light signals). And as with item #1, #3 and #4, it is hard to see how multiple galactic societies could forever enforce, without any exceptions, a global ban on such targeted communications. Why are they making it so hard for us to find them?
  6. Civilizations like us invariably self-destruct. From human experience we have survived 200 years of technological adolescence, and have not yet destroyed ourselves in a nuclear or biological apocalypse. In any event, within a decade or two human civilization will spread to the Moon and to Mars, and then its long-term existence will be largely impervious to calamities on earth.
  7. They visited earth and planted DNA. Rejoinder: Although the notion that life began elsewhere (i.e., "directed panspermia") has been proposed by some scientists, detailed analyses of DNA have found no evidence of anything artificial, and, what's more, this does not solve the problem of the origin of life -- it just pushes it to some other star system.
  8. WE ARE ALONE, at least within the Milky Way galaxy and possibly beyond. Rejoinder: This hypothesis flies in the face of the "principle of mediocrity," namely the presumption, dominant since the time of Copernicus, that there is nothing special about earth or human society. More importantly, it also flies in the face of virtually all of the recent discoveries in this general arena -- extrasolar planets, ancient life, molecular biogenesis and more -- which suggest that life is pervasive in the universe.
Numerous other proposed solutions and rejoinders are given at [Webb2002]. A more recent review of these issues is given in [Gribbin2011].

Extrasolar planets

Two key terms in the Drake equation are fp (the fraction of stars that have planets) and ne (the average number of planets that can support life, per star that has planets). Scientists once thought that stable planetary systems in general, and earth-like planets in particular, were a rarity. But beginning in the 1990s, scientists detected unmistakable evidence of planets orbiting around other stars. More recently there has been a veritable explosion in the number of detected extrasolar planets. For example, NASA's Kepler spacecraft searches for planets circulating other stars by measuring small fluctuations in their light reaching earth.

Until quite recently, though, there was scant evidence of earth-like planets in habitable zones that potentially could support life. A breakthrough came in September 2010, when Steven S. Vogt of the University of California, Santa Cruz, and R. Paul Butler, of the Carnegie Institution in Washington, discovered evidence of a planet only three or four times the mass of earth orbiting in the "habitable zone" of a star (i.e., at a distance from a star where water could exist) about 20 light-years away from earth [Overbye2010; Overbye2011d].

Since then, many more Earth-like planets in habitable zones have been identified. A November 2013 report found that roughly 20% of all sun-like stars (which constitute 20% of all stars) have Earth-like planets in the habitable zone, so that there are possibly as many as 40 billion such planets in the Milky Way [Overbye2013a]. A March 2015 analysis concluded that many billions of planets in the Milky Way have 1-3 planets in the habitable zone [SD2015a]. And the number of specific confirmed exoplanets in the habitable zone continues to grow. In January 2015, a team of astronomers announced a total of over 4,000 confirmed extrasolar planets, including eight new planets in the "Goldilocks" zone about their respective suns (where liquid water is possible) [Overbye2015a]. There are even efforts to confirm "exomoons" where life might exist [Aron2015].

In short, among the factors in the Drake equation, two that have proven amenable to experimental study so far have been found to have entirely reasonable values, roughly in keeping with what Drake and his colleagues first estimated in the 1960s. If anything, the terms fp (the fraction of stars that have planets) and ne (the average number of planets that can support life, per star that has planets) appear to be somewhat higher than estimated by Drake.

As mentioned above, radio astronomers have been searching for extraterrestrial radio signals for 50 years, but so far have found nothing. Along this line, researchers at U.C. Berkeley selected a sample of 86 stars from a list of 1,235 known extrasolar planets and then used a large radio telescope to search for high-intensity, narrow-band radio signals, which presumably would only be produced by intelligent civilizations. They found none, and then concluded, based on a statistical model derived from their results, that fewer than one in one million stars in the Milky Way fit the category of being able to transmit such signals [Sanders2013]. On the other hand, given that there at least 400 billion (and possibly up to one trillion) stars in the Milky Way, this means that there still may be many thousands of such civilizations.

Exploration of the Milky Way

One frequently proposed solution to Fermi's paradox is that such extra-terrestrial civilizations may in fact be numerous in the Milky Way, but they are too far away for us to detect them using radio telescopes, and too far away for any of them to have visited us or to have left any trace of their existence. However, researchers point out that a distant society could deploy "von Neumann probes," namely self-replicating robotic spacecraft that travel to a nearby star system, then send video and scientific data back to the home planet. These probes would then land on a suitable planet or asteroid, extract necessary materials, manufacture several copies of themselves, and launch these craft to even more distant systems.

Von Neumann probe scenarios have been studied at length. In the latest such analysis, researchers at the University of Edinburgh employed a computer simulation to explore the scenario where each probe travels at fairly modest speed under powered flight (roughly 10 km/sec), but employs a "slingshot" technique (i.e., passes by one star to give itself a gravitational boost to another star) to enhance its speed and reduce its need for fuel (as several spacecraft, including Voyager I and II, have already done). These researchers found that with this scenario, 99% of all star systems in the Milky Way could be explored in only about five million years, which, as mentioned above, is an eyeblink in the multi-billion-year age of the Milky Way [Nicholson2013].

"Exploring" the Milky Way telescopically, at least for reasonably close stars, is even easier. SETI pioneer Frank Drake observes that we could do this by taking advantage of the fact that the sun can act as a "gravitational lens," according to the equations of general relativity. All that is required is to transport the equivalent of the Hubble Space Telescope (although a more modest version would do), together with a facility to relay images and messages back to Earth, to a point beyond the solar system that is the focal point of the sun's "lens" for a given distant star. With such a facility, which is nearly feasible at the present time, we could obtain rather high-resolution images of distant planets, and even listen in to their microwave transmissions, such as from the equivalent of cell phones, and respond in kind [Lanxon2010].

Such technologies may seem futuristic, but keep in mind, as emphasized above, that other technological civilizations are almost certainly many thousands or millions of years more advanced than our own. So where are they? Why have they made no attempt to contact us? Why have we been unable to even detect even "passive" communications or other evidence of their existence?

The search for life on other planets in the solar system

There is also continuing interest in exploring the planets and moons of the solar system, to see if they harbor (or have harbored) any kind of life, even primitive life. Such findings may shed light on the value of the Drake equation term fl (the fraction of habitable planets that actually develop life).

One very intriguing possibility along this line is that life may exist (or may have existed) on Mars. In 1976 NASA's Viking spacecraft performed experiments that produced tantalizing results, but which were subsequently interpreted as not indicative of life. Some researchers, however, were never satisfied with these findings. Interest in these results was revived in September 2010, when scientists analyzing results of NASA's Phoenix mission in 2008 found that a highly reactive perchlorate compound was present in the Martian soil. Since the Viking spacecraft had heated its samples to high temperature, it is likely that organic material, if present, would have been destroyed in the process. In other words, the original conclusion "no organics present" is drawn into question by the existence of this perchlorate compound in the Martian soil [Kaufman2010a].

In 1996, NASA scientists David McKay and Everett Gibson announced evidence that the ALH84001 meteorite, which had previously been established as having originated on Mars, may have once fostered living organisms. For example, the following photo shows structures reminiscent of primitive bacteria (courtesy NASA):

image #1

But other scientists were not convinced. They argued, for instance, that these structures could have arisen from carbonate materials decomposing under high temperatures, such as during the impact of a large meteorite on Mars that may have ejected the ALH84001 sample. But just as with the Viking findings, some scientists were not so sure about this negative conclusion. Their view was bolstered in 2009, when a new study by McKay's team found that there was no plausible geological scenario that would be consistent with the claim that these structures arose from carbonate materials decomposing under high temperatures and pressures [Fisher2009]. Final resolution of this dispute will most likely need to await a Mars sample return mission, now scheduled for launch in 2018 (with return of samples in 2020-2022).

Other planets and moons are also being investigated as possible havens for life. In 2010 a team led by Darrell Strobel of Johns Hopkins University found that acetylene is anomalously absent from the surface of Titan (Saturn's largest moon), and hydrogen is anomalously scarce there, lending strength to a 2005 conjecture by Chris McKay of NASA's Ames Research Center that microbial life might exist on Titan [Shiga2010].

Non-biological intelligences

In 2010, physicist Paul Davies published an extensive analysis of Fermi's paradox, together a detailed discussion of the potential philosophical and religious implications of a discovery of extraterrestrial intelligence [Davies2010]. Davies, in agreement with several other observers, concludes that the question of whether the universe is primed for life is central to the debate. Davies contrasts the view of French biochemist Jacques Monod, who declared "The universe is not pregnant with life nor the biosphere for man," with that of biologist Christian de Duve, who declared that there is a "cosmic imperative" for life [Davies2010, pg. 25].

One intriguing possibility mentioned by Paul Davies is the notion that extraterrestrial intelligences exist, but have advanced to a "post-biological" or even "post-material" state, and now exist only as an extremely advanced computer program somewhere, possibly spending their time exploring and proving ever-more sophisticated mathematical theorems [Davies2010, pg. 160-168]. SETI astronomer Seth Shostak recently expressed a similar idea: "Once any society invents the technology that could put them in touch with the cosmos, they are at most only a few hundred years away from changing their own paradigm of sentience to artificial intelligence." [McCormack2010]. If so, perhaps the solution to Fermi's paradox is simply that we have nothing useful to say to such advanced entities.

The great filter

Some writers have suggested that there is a "great filter" that explains the silence -- some major barrier to a society becoming so advanced that it can thoroughly explore the Milky Way. Possibilities here range from the hypothesis that it might be extraordinarily unlikely for life to begin at all, or that the jump from prokaryote to eukaryote cells is similarly unlikely, or that our combination of planetary dynamics and plate tectonics is exceedingly unlikely, or, as suggested above, that civilizations like ours invariably self-destruct, or that some future calamity, such as a huge gamma-ray burst from a nearby star, invariably ends societies like ours before they can explore the cosmos.

One disquieting aspect of this line of thinking is that it then follows that either (a) we are first such technological society (the great filter is behind us), or else (b) we are in deep trouble (the great filter, possibly a great catastrophe, is still ahead of us). Along this line, Nick Bostrom, among others, hopes that the search for extraterrestrial life (e.g., on Mars) comes up empty-handed, because if found, this would reduce the number of possible candidates of the great filter being behind us, and it would increase the likelihood that the great filter is still ahead of us [Bostrom2008].

Religious implications

The search for extraterrestrial intelligent life has always resonated rather strongly with modern religion. As Paul Davies (mentioned above) notes, "The search for alien beings can thus be seen as part of a long-standing religious quest as well as a scientific project." [Davies1995, pg. 138]. Along this line, it is quite ironic that the "zookeeper's hypothesis," which is the most commonly proposed solution to Fermi's paradox by prominent non-religious-believing scientists such as Carl Sagan, is precisely the hypothesis that is most akin to Judeo-Christian theology. After all, the "zookeeper hypothesis" strongly implies a universal system of laws (including a strictly enforced edict banning communications with Earth), which in turn implies a central galaxy-wide or universe-wide entity of enormous power and authority. If this isn't "God," it is an excellent facsimile of one.

If someone eventually does discover unmistakable evidence of extraterrestrial intelligence, many believe this would shake up the world's religious faiths. It is true that few religious movements have seriously discussed the implications of other civilizations. Paul Davies discusses this topic at length, and then concludes "Christian theology is in a frightful muddle when it comes to extraterrestrial beings," and "a positive result from SETI would immediately open up a horrible can of worms. ... In any event, it is clear than any theology with an insistence on human uniqueness would be doomed." [Davies2010, pg. 192-193].

On the other hand, these concerns may be overblown. A 2010 study conducted by Ted Peters, Director of the Center for Theology and the Natural Sciences in Berkeley, California, found that while such a discovery would be very interesting, only 8% of Americans surveyed felt that such a discovery would result in a personal crisis of faith. An evangelical Christian commented in the survey "Why should we repudiate the idea that God may have created other civilizations to bring him glory in the same way?" An Islamic participant commented "only arrogance and pride would make one think that Allah made this vast universe only for us to observe." A Buddhist speculated that "ETs would be, essentially, no different from other sentient beings." Several LDS participants responded that their religion already accommodates extraterrestrials [Griggs2010; Peters2010].


With every new research finding of extrasolar planets or potential life-friendly environments within the solar system, the mystery of Fermi's paradox deepens. Indeed, "Where is everybody?" has emerged as one of the most significant scientific and philosophical questions of our time.

Paul Davies concludes his latest book on the topic by stating his own assessment: "my answer is that we are probably the only intelligent beings in the observable universe and I would not be very surprised if the solar system contains the only life in the observable universe." Nonetheless, Davies reflects, "I can think of no more thrilling a discovery than coming across clear evidence for extraterrestrial intelligence." [Davies2010, pg. 207-208].

John Gribbin, a prominent British scientist, agrees with Davies' stark assessment. He concludes his recent book on the topic in these uncompromising terms [Gribbin2011, pg. 205]:

On a planet like the Earth, life may only get one shot at technology -- we have exhausted the easily accessible supplies of raw materials, so if we destroy ourselves the next intelligent species, if there is one, won't have the necessary raw materials to get started. There are no second chances. And that is the last piece of evidence that completes the resolution of the Fermi paradox. They are not here, because they do not exist. The reasons why we are here form a chain so improbable that the chance of any other technological civilization existing in the Milky Way Galaxy at the present time is vanishingly small. We are alone, and we had better get used to it.