Taking a long walk in the early morning hours (and I do mean ‘early,’ as I usually walk around 4 AM – Orion is gorgeously high in the sky this time of year in the northern hemisphere), I found myself musing on terminologies. The case in point: The Fermi Paradox. Using that phrase, the issue becomes starkly framed. If there are other civilizations in the galaxy, why don’t we have evidence for them? Much ink, both physical and digital, has been spilled over the issue, but I will argue that we should soften the term ‘paradox.’ I prefer to call the ‘where are they’ formulation the Fermi Question.
I prefer ‘question’ rather than ‘paradox’ because I don’t think we have enough data to declare what we do or do not see about other civilizations a paradox. A paradox is a seemingly self-contradictory statement that demands explanation. But is anything actually demanded here? There are too many imponderables in this case to even frame the contradiction. How can we have a paradox when we are fully aware of our own limitations at data gathering, to the point that we have no consensus on what or where to target in our searches? Possibilities for technosignatures abound but which are the most likely to be productive? Should we truly be surprised that we do not see a clear signature of another civilization?
We make our best choices based on the technologies we have. On the galactic scale, that means looking for anomalies that might flag a widespread Kardashev Type III civilization. We know that such a civilization’s technologies would far surpass our own and its communications might involve methods – the use of gravitational waves, for example – that are far beyond our capabilities to detect. The Fermi Question tells us about our limitations but doesn’t point to a genuine conundrum. We should also keep in mind that although all the debates on this matter have elevated its status, the statement Fermi made could be considered relatively light lunch-time banter.
On the scale of the Solar System, it would be better to say that we do indeed lack evidence of extraterrestrial visitation, but also that we really have only begun to look for it. A lengthy book could be written on where or why another civilization might plant a ‘lurker’ probe in our Solar System, conceivably one that could have arrived millions of years ago and could even today be quietly returning data on what it sees. We have yet to examine our own Moon in the kind of detail now available to us through the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, and as my friend Jim Benford never tires of pointing out, we know almost nothing about other nearby objects such as Earth’s co-orbitals. Until we sift through actual data, we’d better use caution about these matters.
So while I don’t think it rises to the level of a paradox, the Fermi Question is an incentive to continue searching for data whose anomalous nature may be useful. And while we do this, working the borders between SETI and philosophy seems inevitable. Because when we discuss extraterrestrial civilizations, we’re talking about behaviors that can be detected, without having the slightest notion of what those behaviors might be. What we call ‘human nature’ is hard enough to pin down, but how truly alien cultures would address the issues in their realm is purely imaginative conjecture.
I’m reminded of something Milan Ćirković said in The Great Silence: Science and Philosophy of Fermi’s Paradox (Oxford University Press, 2018):
As we learn more, the shore of the ‘ocean of unknown’ lengthens, to paraphrase Newton’s famous sentence and, while we may imagine (on some highly abstract level) that it will eventually contract, this era is not yet in sight.
Thus, we have another prediction: there will be many new explanatory hypotheses for Fermi’s paradox in the near future, as the astrobiological revolution progresses and exploratory engineering goes farther and farther.
Pondering Smaller Stars
That said, I note with interest a paper from Jacob Haqq-Misra (Blue Marble Space Institute of Science, Seattle) and Thomas Fauchez (American University) that makes the case for low-mass stars as the logical venue for expanding civilizations. If we wonder where alien civilizations are, the question might be resolved by the idea that if such cultures expanded into the cosmos, they would select K- or M-dwarf stars as their destinations. Here we’re squarely up against issues of philosophy and sociology, because we’re asking about what another species would consider its goals.
But let’s go with this, because the authors are perfectly aware of all that we don’t know, and also aware of the need for shaping our questions through broad theorizing.
Why smaller stars? Here we’re dealing with an interesting hypothesis, that G-class stars are the most likely place for life to develop in the first place. Haqq-Misra has written about this before (as have a number of other scientists referenced in the paper), and here makes the statement “We first assume that technological civilizations only arise on habitable planets orbiting G-dwarf stars (with ∼10 Gyr main sequence lifetimes) because either biogenesis or complex life is more favored in such systems.” And the idea is that stars like our Sun have lifetimes far shorter than the trillions of years available to M-dwarfs or the 17 to 70 billion years for K-dwarfs.
That’s a big assumption, but it leads to a conjectured motivation: A civilization will choose to maximize its longevity, just as an individual human will try to stay alive as long as possible. A culture that manages to become long-lived will have to cope with the eventual loss of its home G-class star and will look for longer-lived destinations that can serve as more lasting home worlds. And while I’ve mentioned M-dwarfs, the K-class seems to hit the sweet spot, so that the authors title a section of their paper “The K-dwarf Galactic Club.”
K-dwarfs are plentiful compared to G-class stars like the Sun, accounting for about 13 percent of the galactic stellar inventory (G-class stars comprise about 6%). M-dwarfs are the most common star, at about 73 percent, according to the authors’ figures. We’ve already seen, though, that K-dwarfs offer significantly longer lifespans than G-class stars, and because of their size and the nature of habitable orbits, they offer possible living planets without tidal lock.
If the authors are correct that life is more likely to arise around G-dwarfs, then it could be said that a K-class star offers a living experience closer to that of the homeworld for any civilization that chooses to migrate to it. This is because the spectra of these stars are much closer to G-star spectra than to M-dwarfs. With M-dwarfs, as well, we have to contend with higher stellar activity than on the more quiescent K-dwarfs. Planetary environments are thus much closer to G-dwarf norms than around M-dwarfs.
The problem of what we might call exo-sociology looms large in this discussion, and it’s one the authors frankly acknowledge. Whether or not life exists anywhere else remains an open question, and we have no knowledge of what extraterrestrial civilizations, if out there, would consider important or desirable as guides to their activity. But if we’re asking philosophical questions, we can ponder what any living intelligence would consider its primary goal, as the authors do in this excerpt from their paper:
Newman & Sagan (1981) performed a detailed mathematical analysis of population diffusion in the galaxy and concluded that only long-lived civilizations could have established a Galactic Club; however, such a possibility was excluded because the authors “believe that their motivations for colonization may have altered utterly.” Although it remains possible that long-lived technological civilizations do not expand, it also remains possible that such civilizations pursue galactic settlement in order to ensure their longevity. The numerical simulations by Carroll-Nellenback et al. (2019) found solutions where “our current circumstances are consistent with an otherwise settled, steady-state galaxy.”
Image: M31, the Andromeda Galaxy. What might drive the expansion of a civilization outward from its native system, and how can we, with no knowledge of other civilizations, plausibly come up with motivations for such activity? Credit & Copyright: Robert Gendler.
We have a scenario, then, of long-lived civilizations preferentially expanding to particular categories of stars to ensure the survival of their species, but otherwise not expanding exponentially into the galaxy. Such a scenario would fit with what we see, being a level of activity that would not necessarily announce itself through contact with other civilizations. Cultures like these would be content to mind their own business as long as their survival could be ensured, but we might or might not expect them to actively probe stellar systems as relatively short lived as those around G-class stars. We should look in our own system, say the authors, but a failure to find evidence of extraterrestrial travelers might simply reflect a preference to visit other types of star.
This makes identifying these cultures a tricky matter indeed:
We can exclude scenarios in which all G-dwarf stars would have been settled by now, but the possibility remains open that a Galactic Club exists across all K-dwarf or M-dwarf stars. The search for technosignatures in low-mass systems provides one way to constrain the presence of such a Galactic Club (e.g., Lingam & Loeb 2021; Socas-Navarro et al. 2021; Wright et al. 2022; Haqq-Misra et al. 2022). Existing searches to-date have placed some limits on radio transmissions (e.g., Harp et al. 2016; Enriquez et al. 2017; Price et al. 2020; Zhang et al. 2020) and optical signals (e.g., Howard et al. 2007; Tellis & Marcy 2015; Schuetz et al. 2016) that might be associated with technological activity, but such limits can only weakly constrain the Galactic Club hypothesis. Further research into understanding the breadth of possibilities for detecting extraterrestrial technology will become increasingly important as observing facilities become more adept at characterizing terrestrial planets in low-mass exoplanetary systems.
Thus the value of the Fermi Question at highlighting the staggering depth of our ignorance about what is actually out there. I enjoy creative solutions to conjectural problems and am all for applying what I might call ‘Stapledon thinking’ (after the brilliant British philosopher and science fiction writer) as forays into the darkness. We can expect many more ‘solutions’ to the Fermi Question as our capabilities increase. The outcome we can hope for is that one of these days a present or pending astronomical instrument will deliver data on a phenomenon that will resolve itself into a true technosignature (or even an attempt to communicate). Until then, these stunningly interesting questions will drive thinking both philosophic and scientific.
The paper is Haqq-Misra & Fauchez, “Galactic settlement of low-mass stars as a resolution to the Fermi paradox,” accepted at the Astronomical Journal and available as a preprint. Be aware as well of Michaël Gillon, Artem Burdanov and Jason Wright’s paper “Search for an Alien Message to a Nearby Star,” Astronomical Journal Vol. 164, No. 5 (27 October 2022). Abstract. And for all things Fermi, see Milan Ćirković, The Great Silence: Science and Philosophy of Fermi’s Paradox (Oxford University Press, 2018).