Fermi and the Great Filter. Or, Some Thoughts on Why We Haven’t Heard from Aliens (Yet!)

Fermi and the Great Filter. Or, Some Thoughts on Why We Haven’t Heard from Aliens (Yet!)

In recent weeks, I’ve been writing a lot about Fermi’s Paradox (“Where is everybody?” aka. where are all the aliens?) As you can imagine, this has involved a lot of research! So much has been said and so much ink has been spilled on the potential reasons why humanity has not found evidence of cosmic counterparts, despite seventy years of looking and the sheer vastness of the Universe.

Today, I thought I might share some of my own thoughts and speculations on that front. In terms of which hypothesis is the most likely, my thoughts are pretty simple and straightforward. But in terms of which hypothesis I think is the coolest and most mind-blowing (in part for the sake of science fiction writing), that’s where things get a bit crazy!

Most-Likely Scenario:

I think that Robin Hanson summarized it best with his Great Filter Hypothesis. Basically, if the ingredients for life are everywhere and there’s no shortage of places for it to have emerged – and enough time has passed that some of it ought to be colonizing entire galaxies! – then there must be something that in the evolutionary process that keeps life from reaching advanced stages.

According to Hanson’s theory, the evolution of life on Earth can serve as a template for addressing Fermi’s big question. If we assume that life follows a similar course in all parts of the Universe, then we can boil that down to a multi-step process that might look something like this:

  1. A star system with potentially habitable planets and organic molecules
  2. Reproductive molecules (e.g. RNA)
  3. Single-cell life
  4. Complex single-cell life
  5. Sexual reproduction
  6. Multi-cell life
  7. Tool-using animals with intelligence
  8. An advanced, technologically-dependent civilization (we are here)
  9. Colonization of space

As the argument goes, wherever you place the filter in this process will have inevitable implications for humanity and life on Earth. If the filter is at an early stage, it means life has beaten the odds just by getting this far. If it is at a later stage, it means humanity could be nearing a precipice. Neither of these scenarios is particularly cheery because they mean that we’re either likely to die soon, or we shouldn’t be here in the first place!

Given the challenges and existential threats that life on Earth is facing today, there are many theorists who argue that the filter belongs between steps 8 and 9. As intelligent species grow and multiple, so will their dependence on technology and their impact on their natural environment. Eventually, they will reach a bottleneck, where they will either get off-world, or they will collapse before they get the chance.

Now for the Crazy Stuff!

Hands down, my favorite proposed resolution to the Fermi Paradox is the Transcension Hypothesis. This theory has deep roots but owes its existence largely to cosmologist and theoretical physicist John D. Barrow – who passed away on Sept. 26th, 2020. In 1998, he published a study called “Impossibility: Limits of Science and the Science of Limits” where he proposed a revised version of the Kardashev Scale.

For those unfamiliar, Kardashev proposed that civilizations could be divided into one of three categories based on how much energy they could harness:

  • Type I civilizations could to harness the energy of an entire planet
  • Type II civilizations could harness the energy of their entire sun
  • Type III civilizations could harness the energy of an entire galaxy

In contrast, Barrow observed that humans have benefitted far more from extending their abilities into increasingly smaller scales rather than larger ones. Therefore, he proposed a scale that extended downward, where civilizations would be capable of manipulating matter from the scale of objects, down to the genetic, atomic, subatomic, and finally, space and time itself.

By 2002, John M. Smart, the CEO of Foresight University and founder of the Acceleration Studies Foundation, synthesized Barrow’s work and the increasingly-popular theory of the Technological Singularity to propose another resolution to the Fermi Paradox. In a paper titled “Answering the Fermi Paradox: Exploring the Mechanisms of Universal Transcension,” he claimed the “Great Silence” could be explained by technological evolution.

He updated these arguments in a 2011 essay titled “The transcension hypothesis: Sufficiently advanced civilizations invariably leave our universe, and implications for METI and SETI.” In summary, Smart argued that the process of evolutionary development (evo-devo) will inevitably guide species to optimizing their space rather than attempting to expand and fill more of it.

Rather than trying to colonize more star systems, they will be more likely to convert matter within their own system. This could include disassembling planets to create clouds of computronium, shedding their physical bodies to live out their lives in simulations, and soaking up all the energy they need from their sun. Or, as Smart offered, they might relocate to live around the Event Horizons of black holes!

Black holes could be the ultimate source of energy since matter that falls into rings around them is accelerated to relativistic speeds (near the speed of light) and they also emit energy in the form of Hawking Radiation. Beyond that, black holes allow for all kinds of revolutionary physics that only a super-advanced species would be able to harness.

Bottom line, a species that has reached this state of evolutionary development would likely be “radio-quiet” and undetectable by conventional SETI means. Moreover, they would likely lose interest in broadcasting their existence to the outside Universe and would prefer to observe it passively.

Honorable Mention

If you really want to get into the weird and scary theories that make you paranoid and want to question everything, there are few theories better than the Planetarium Hypothesis. This theory states that the reason there’s the “Great Silence” is that humanity is living inside a simulation or engineered environment (that would be the “planetarium”) built by a super-advanced species.

This species could have emerged millions (or billions) of years before we did and is making sure we’re unaware of their existence by making sure the simulation presents us with no evidence of intelligent life beyond Earth. And all the while, they are watching and studying us, maybe for the sake of research, maybe for entertainment, maybe because they created us, or maybe just to keep us controlled so we never threaten them.

It’s like a cross between the Truman Show, The Matrix, and 2001: A Space Odyssey. It’s also akin to the Zoo Hypothesis, which states advanced civilizations are avoiding contact with humanity (and any other less-developed species) out of some version of the law of non-interference (think of Star Trek’s “Prime Directive“.) You could say the Planetarium Hypothesis is the Zoo Hypothesis’ evil sister!

Some theorists have raised the question of how we might test this hypothesis. It’s been suggested that the physics of a simulated universe would have tell-tale signs of structure (“lattices”) that would indicate that it’s artificial. This theory takes its cue from the concept of Lattice Quantum Chromodynamics (QCD) environments, where quantum-level interactions are harnessed to create artificial environments (think of a “Holodeck“).

However, this approach is based on the idea that the physics model that is used in the simulation would be reliable – or at least the same as what exists in the real Universe. An inevitable counter-argument arises from this: if the laws of physics (as we perceive them) are part of our simulated reality, how can we trust them to reveal that it’s just a simulation?

That’s what makes this hypothesis so intriguing, as far as I’m concerned. If the very laws of physics were written as part of the simulation, it would make sense that those laws would be in place to prevent us from ever finding out. Even more mind-boggling is the idea that they could be specially-tuned to limit humanity’s growth.

When it comes to becoming an interplanetary and interstellar species, there are two forces that are holding us back: Gravity and Special Relativity. To break free of Earth’s gravity, one needs to generate an escape velocity of 11.19 km/s (6.95 mi/s), which takes a LOT of energy. As for Relativity, it establishes that the speed of light (299,792,458 m/s) is constant and a physical absolute.

One of the consequences of this law is that the faster an object gets, the more massive it becomes. As a result, it takes progressively more energy to accelerate the closer you get to the speed of light. In order to actually reach it, you’d have to generate an infinite amount of energy. Because of all that, traveling to even the nearest star is prohibitively expensive and could take many decades (at least).

That’s what makes this hypothesis interesting to me, from my perspective anyway. If I were a super-advanced species and in the habit of keeping less-advanced species confined in an artificial environment, I would include a physics model that imposes these very kinds of limitations. In other words, I am intrigued by the Planetarium Hypothesis because it’s exactly what I would do!


No spoilers, but all this research also gave me some big ideas for future novels. I would preview what these are, but I prefer to do that when the idea is in the works, and that won’t happen for a long time! I got a few standalone books to finish in the meantime, a trilogy that’s waiting on the release of the third installment, and then a second trilogy to prepare for.

Speaking of which, more new on that front will be coming soon! Stay tuned!

Beyond Fermi’s Paradox Series!

Beyond Fermi’s Paradox Series!

A few weeks ago at Universe Today, I started a series that takes a look at the Fermi Paradox. For those who are not familiar, this refers to the contradiction that was observed by famed Italian-American physicist Enrico Fermi. This contradiction can be summarized as “if life is statistically so likely in the Universe, why haven’t we found any evidence of it yet?”

Or, if you prefer the short version, it can be summarized as:

“Where the hell are all the aliens?”
Continue reading “Beyond Fermi’s Paradox Series!”

The Colonizing Mars Series Over at Stardom!

The Colonizing Mars Series Over at Stardom!

Hey all! As I mentioned in a previous post, I recent joined the good folks at Explore Mars and began making regular contributions to their affiliated website – Stardom! In addition to doing a series on the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI), I also completed a series on the colonization of Mars.

It’s called “Making the First Martians,” and deals with the different aspects and challenges of creating a permanent human presence on the Red Planet. Here’s the full list:

Coming soon, a series on colonizing the entire Solar System!

The SETI Series Over at Stardom!

The SETI Series Over at Stardom!

Hey folks! Recently, I joined the Explore Mars organization, which is dedicated to advocacy, science education, and promoting the exploration of Mars by the 2030s. And as a perk, I also get to write for Stardom, a space news site that is an affiliate.

Recently, I completed a series on the subject of the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) that I wanted to share. It comes in seven parts, which starts with the conceptual stuff, moves into the speculative realm, and then takes a look at the history of our efforts and what we’ve been found.

If you’re interested, head over to Stardomspace.com and have a gander:

This series is one of many that I’ve done or am in the process of doing. More on that soon!

This is My Must-Read List. There are Many Like it, But This One is Mine!

This is My Must-Read List. There are Many Like it, But This One is Mine!

Recently, some friends and I were talking about books that made a significant impact on our lives. These included all the books that changed the way we saw the world, taught us something about ourselves, and/or inspired us to action! I really liked this exercise because it made me think of the literature that has stuck with me over the years.

Continue reading “This is My Must-Read List. There are Many Like it, But This One is Mine!”

Berserker Hunter-Killer Robots!

Berserker Hunter-Killer Robots!

Good day, all! Today, I wanted to share some thoughts on a subject that is not only a staple of science fiction but is also in danger of becoming a reality! I am talking, of course, of killer robots! Machines that are capable of fighting, killing, thinking for themselves, and maybe even reproducing!

As concepts go, it’s a pretty time-honored and thoroughly explored one. But as with most tropes and/or things that we might consider to be cliche, there’s a reason for it. The idea that the very machines we create to make our lives easier will someday turn on us, that’s more than just your garden-variety technophobia and sci-fi pulp.

Continue reading “Berserker Hunter-Killer Robots!”

Tenth Review for The Cronian Incident’s Audiobook!

Tenth Review for The Cronian Incident’s Audiobook!

Good news! The Cronian Incident (the audiobook version on Audible) just got its tenth review. And as you can probably tell, this person is real’ positive! I wish I could reach out to them and let them know that the series is no complete, so all the cliffhangers and threads get resolved.

This book is so good!! I enjoyed it immensely. I loved the world, I felt for the main characters. The tech was impressive. The mystery was complete and total. And then that blasted ending. AURGH!!

Politics reign supreme in the new world and them’s that’s got, keeps. The story was incredible! I was so engrossed in the story that I did not see the ending coming. It broke my heart. Thank goodness there is a book two!!

The narration was excellent, in every sense of the word. The main character, Jeremiah Ward, was an ex-intelligence officer, turned con, then private investigator. There was some gruffness and wide-eyed exasperation to Ward learning his new role and figuring out what was going on. The narrator nailed it. There were Russians (natch) and incredibly powerful female characters amongst a host of other voices. The narration made this story real.

I’m glad there is a second book in this series. I need some vindication!”

Writing About the Near-Future

Writing About the Near-Future

Hey again, fellow writers and readers! How is everybody doing? As for me, I’ve spent the past few weeks picking up my life in one place and depositing it in another. Translation: the wife and I recently moved. Yes, we bought our first house and now we’re living in our dream neighborhood. It only took five years!

But now that we’re settled (more or less), I can get back to work on my next two novels. If you recall, I recently finished writing my third novel – the Frost Line Fracture – which is the final installment in the Formist Series. The manuscript is now off to the publisher for edits and revisions!

With that project all but complete, I began wondering what to write next. I was torn between two options, but on the advice of my publisher, I decided to work on both simultaneously. Not long ago, I described one of them (Transverse) in some detail. But it’s been a while since I said anything about the other one – Reciprocity.

So I thought that’s what I would do today. And I thought it would be fun to discuss the social, political and economic context in which the story takes place. It’s the late 2030s in this story, after all. Stuff will be happening!

Continue reading “Writing About the Near-Future”

Advise for Aspiring Writers

Advise for Aspiring Writers

Good morning! There’s something I’ve wanted to do for a long time now but never got around to it. And that is, share some tidbits of wisdom that I have learned over the years about writing. Most of these tidbits are things I learned from people who really knew what they were talking about, so I was sure to listen! Some others are just things I concluded along the way.

Continue reading “Advise for Aspiring Writers”

Writing No-Go List

Writing No-Go List

Hey folks. For starters, I want to emphasize that the following is an attempt at satire. It was inspired by a skit I recently saw on the Baroness Von Sketch Show (good show, btw!) about a writing class where they are hoping to avoid the usual cliches. It got me thinking about sci-fi cliches, and what I would tell a writing class if I were in charge.

I would love to teach such a class and someday. And so I would consider the following list canon if anyone were to actually look to me for writing advice.

Continue reading “Writing No-Go List”