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Publisher's Summary

“The size and age of the universe incline us to believe that many technologically advanced civilizations must exist. However, this belief seems logically inconsistent with our lack of observational evidence to support it. Either (1) the initial assumption is incorrect and technologically advanced intelligent life is much rarer than we believe, or (2) our current observations are incomplete and we simply have not detected them yet, or (3) our search methodologies are flawed and we are not searching for the correct indicators, or (4) it is the nature of intelligent life to destroy itself.” (The Fermi Paradox)

As technological advances and the creation of flying aircraft became realities, the sighting of UFOs increased, as did the interest in potential contact with aliens. While incidents like the one at Roswell led to conspiracies and a craze among those who insisted the government was hiding proof of extraterrestrials’ existence, governments across the world were actually secretly studying UFO sightings by the mid-20th century.

Given all of that, it would hardly be groundbreaking for scientists in the 20th century to have a lunchtime discussion in which the search for extraterrestrial life arises, and the question of where it might reside is innocuous enough. However, a furor was created somewhat innocently when physicist Enrico Fermi voiced his “casual lunchtime remark” in the presence of colleagues in 1950. The august company included Edward Teller, a Hungarian physicist, Herbert York, am American nuclear physicist whose lineage included Mohawk heritage, and Emil Konopinski, a nuclear physicist of Polish origin. Fermi himself, an Italian-American born in Rome, was renowned for developing a statistical base for subatomic phenomena, work on nuclear alterations caused by neutrons, and for leading the first controlled chain reaction from nuclear fission. In pursuit of managing the atom, he created the first nuclear reactor. A gifted theoretician, he advanced the field of statistical mechanics, and won the Nobel Prize over a decade before he asked his important question. The four men represented a fair percentage of the research core during the Manhattan Project that developed and produced the atomic bomb.

Despite the sophisticated conversation that appears to have followed, Fermi’s oft-asked question soon became elevated within the scientific community as the Fermi Paradox. The subsequent musings on our search for extraterrestrial life have grown to such proportions that extensive lists of solutions to the inquiry proliferate with each passing year. Not only is the core of the question bombarded with speculative theory, but the viability of the term paradox is itself called into question. Merriam-Webster characterizes a paradox as “a statement that is seemingly contradictory or opposed to common sense and yet is perhaps true”. The definition adds to the same contradictory statement the caveat of appearing to be true at first. By every account of the Fermi conversation, the physicist raised a question as to where extraterrestrial life might be hiding, not a statement as to whether it existed. For a contradictory statement to be true on a first hearing would require a reversal for the case of extraterrestrial search, as it requires a first observable example. It must begin as an untrue statement, or one that is perceived so. Evidence-based science must proceed then, from the most skeptical position to a hopeful reversal. Similarly, the Merriam-Webster paradox requests a premise steeped in a reasonable model. With no external observations accomplished, our own is the only one available.

©2020 Charles River Editors (P)2021 Charles River Editors

What listeners say about The Fermi Paradox: The History and Legacy of the Famous Debate over the Existence of Aliens

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Short and to the Point

It's a short book, but really interesting. It makes you think on a different level about life here and the possibility elsewhere.