Most people I know are enthusiastic about the idea that other intelligent races exist in the galaxy. Contact is assumed to be an inevitable and probably profoundly good thing, with the exchange of knowledge possibly leading to serious advances in our own culture. This can lead to a weighting of the discourse in favor of our not being alone. The ever popular Copernican principle swings in: We can’t be unique, can we? And thus every search that comes up empty is seen as an incentive to try still other searches.

I’m going to leave the METI controversy out of this, as it’s not my intent to question how we should handle actual contact with ETI. I want to step back further from the question. What should we do if we find no trace of extraterrestrials after not just decades but centuries? I have no particular favorite in this race. To me, a universe teeming with life is fascinating, but a universe in which we are alone is equally provocative. Louis Friedman’s new book Alone But Not Lonely (University of Arizona Press, 2023) gets into these questions, and I’ll have more to say about it soon.

I’ve thought for years that we’re likely to find the galaxy stuffed with living worlds, while the number of technological civilizations is tiny, somewhere between 1 and 10. The numbers are completely arbitrary and, frankly, a way I spur (outraged) discussion when I give talks on these matters. I’m struck by how many people simply demand a galaxy that is alive with intelligence. They want to hear ‘between 10,000 and a million civilizations,’ or something of that order. More power to them, but it’s striking that such a lively collection of technological races would not have become apparent by now. I realize that the search space is far vaster than our efforts so far, but still…

Image: The gorgeous M81, 12 million light years away in Ursa Major, and seen here in a composite Spitzer/Hubble/Galaxy Evolution Explorer view. Blue is ultraviolet light captured by the Galaxy Evolution Explorer; yellowish white is visible light seen by Hubble; and red is infrared light detected by Spitzer. The blue areas show the hottest, youngest stars, while the reddish-pink denotes lanes of dust that line the spiral arms. The orange center is made up of older stars. Should we assume there is life here? Intelligence? Credit: NASA/JPL.

So when Ian Crawford (Birkbeck, University of London) was kind enough to send me a copy of his most recent paper, written with Dirk Schulze-Makuch (Technische Universität Berlin), I was glad to see the focus on an answer to the Fermi question that resonates with me, the so-called ‘zoo hypothesis.’ A variety of proposed resolutions to the ‘where are they’ question exist, but this one is still my favorite, a way we can save all those teeming alien civilizations, and a sound reason for their non-appearance.

As far as I know, Olaf Stapledon first suggested that intelligent races might keep hands off civilizations while they observed them, in his ever compelling novel Star Maker (1937). But it appears that credit for the actual term ‘zoo hypothesis’ belongs to John Ball, in a 1973 paper in Icarus. From Ball’s abstract:

Extraterrestrial intelligent life may be almost ubiquitous. The apparent failure of such life to interact with us may be understood in terms of the hypothesis that they have set us aside as part of a wilderness area or zoo.

That’s comforting for those who want a galaxy stuffed with intelligence. I want to get into this paper in the next post, but for now, I want to note that Crawford and Schulze-Makuch remind us that what is usually styled the Fermi ‘paradox’ is in fact no paradox at all if intelligent races beyond our own do not exist. We have a paradox because we are uneasy with the idea that we are somehow special in being here. Yet a universe devoid of technologies other than ours will look pretty much like what we see.

The angst this provokes comes back to our comfort with the ‘Copernican principle,’ which is frequently cited, especially when we use it to validate what we want to find. Just as the Sun is not the center of the Solar System, so the Solar System is not the center of the galaxy, etc. We are, in other words, nothing special, which makes it more likely that there are other civilizations out there because we are here. If we can build radio telescopes and explore space, so can they, because by virtue of our very mediocrity, we represent what the universe doubtless continues to offer up.

But let’s consider some implications, because the Copernican principle doesn’t always work. It was Hermann Bondi, for example, who came up with the notion that we could apply the principle to the cosmos at large, noting that the universe was not only homogeneous but isotropic, and going on to add that it would show the exact same traits for any observer not just at any place but at any time. The collapse of the Steady State theory put an end to that speculation as we pondered an evolving universe where time’s vantage counted critically in terms of what we would see.

Our position in time matters. So, for that matter, does our position in the galaxy.

But physics seems to work no matter where we look, and the assumption of widespread physical principles is essential for us to do astronomy. So as generalizations go, this Copernican notion isn’t bad, and we’d better hang on to it. Kepler figured out that planetary orbits weren’t circular, and as Caleb Scharf points out in his book The Copernicus Complex: Our Cosmic Significance in a Universe of Planets and Probabilities (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2014), this was a real break from the immutable universe of Aristotle. So too was Newton’s realization that the Sun itself orbits around a variable point close to its surface and well offset from its core.

So even the Sun isn’t the center of the Solar System in any absolute sense. As we move from Ptolemy to Copernicus, from Tycho Brahe to Kepler, we see a continuing exploration that pushes humanity out of any special position and any fixed notions that are the result of our preconceptions. I think the problem comes when we make this movement a hard principle, when we say that no ‘special places’ can exist. We can’t assume from a facile Copernican model that each time we apply the principle of mediocrity, we’ve solved a mystery about things we haven’t yet proven.

Consider: We’ve learned how unusual our own Solar System appears to be; indeed, how unusual so many stellar systems are as they deviate hugely from any ‘model’ of system development that existed before we started actually finding exoplanets. This is why the first ‘hot Jupiters’ were such a surprise, completely unexpected to most astronomers.

Is the Sun really just another average star lost in the teeming billions that accompany it in its 236 million year orbit of the galaxy? There are many G-class stars, to be sure, but if we were orbiting a more average star, we would have a red dwarf in the sky. These account for 75 percent, and probably more, of the stars in the Milky Way. We’re not average on that score, not when G-class stars amount to a paltry 7 percent of the total. Better to say that we’re only average, or mediocre, up to a point. If we want to take this to its logical limit, we can back our view out to the scale of the cosmos. Says Scharf::

The fact that we are so manifestly located in a specific place in the universe — around a star, in an outer region of a galaxy, not isolated in the intergalactic void, and at just this time in cosmic history — is simply inconsistent with ‘perfect’ mediocrity.

And what about life itself? Let me quote Scharf again (italics mine). Here he works in the anthropic idea that our observations of the universe are not truly random but are demanded by the fact that the universe can produce life in the first place:

…a Copernican worldview at best suggests that the universe should be teeming with life like that on Earth, and at worst doesn’t really tell us one way or the other. The alternative — anthropic arguments — require only a single instance of life in the universe, which would be us. At best, some fine-tuning studies suggest that the universe could be marginally suitable for heavy-element-based-life-forms, rather than being especially fertile. Neither view reveals much about the actual abundance of life to be expected in our universe, or much about our own more parochial significance or insignificance.

So when we speculate about the Fermi question, we need to be frank about our assumptions and, indeed, our personal inclinations. If we relax our Copernican orthodoxy, we have to admit that because we are here does not demand that they are there. Let’s just keep accumulating data to begin answering these questions.

And as we’ll discuss in the next post, Crawford and Schulze-Makuch point out that we’re already entering the era when meaningful data about these questions can be gathered. One key issue is abiogenesis. How likely is life to emerge even under the best of conditions? We may have some hard answers within decades, and they may come from discoveries in our own system or in biosignatures from a distant exoplanet.

If abiogenesis turns out to be common (and I would bet good money that it is), we still have no knowledge of how often it evolves into technological societies. An Encyclopedia Galactica could still exist. Could John Ball be right that other civilizations may be ubiquitous, but hidden from us because we have been sequestered into ‘nature preserves’ or the like? Are we an example of Star Trek’s ‘Prime Directive’ at work? There are reasons to think that the zoo hypothesis, out of all the Fermi ‘solutions’ that have been suggested, may be the most likely answer to the ‘where are they’ question other than the stark view that the galaxy is devoid of other technological societies. We’ll examine Crawford and Schulze-Makuch’s view on this next time.

Caleb Scharf’s The Copernicus Complex: Our Cosmic Significance in a Universe of Planets and Probabilities is a superb read, highly recommended. The Ball paper is “The Zoo Hypothesis,” Icarus Volume 19, Issue 3 (July 1973), pp. 347-349 (abstract). The Crawford & Schulze-Makuch paper we’ll look at next time is “Is the apparent absence of extraterrestrial technological civilizations down to the zoo hypothesis or nothing?” Nature Astronomy 28 December, 2023 (abstract).