The bicycle whooshes past me at a good clip, my son’s little legs pumping furiously as he rides. I look up from my book in time to watch him run over some small, purple, golf ball-sized object that was carefully placed in the road by his older brother. “What is it that you’re running over,” I ask them. “Rotting plumbs,” my oldest son replies. I return to my book but only get a few words into a sentence before I look up again; the wind is blowing through the trees and I love that sound. It’s a cool breeze and it matches the coolness of the grass beneath my legs.
I’m sitting on my front lawn, enjoying the beauty of a cool day on a weekend. I catch the faint smell of someone cooking on a grill – hamburgers, I’d guess. It smells very good. The sun is getting low and shadows are growing. It’ll be dusk soon – my favorite time of day.
I look over to my left and see my daughter – my oldest child – carefully drawing something in her sketch book. From my vantage point I can’t see what it is, but she is moving her hand carefully back-and-forth across the page. She’s probably shading some object she’s been drawing. The sun glistens off her golden hair and I become painfully aware of what precious little time I have with her before she moves out. Children grow up so quickly. It sounds trite and is perhaps overused, but its overuse doesn’t change the fact that it is absolutely true.
Further to my left, from the corner of my eye, I see my wife is still sitting in her chair, writing some paper for a college class she is taking. She hates writing papers and this one’s about a Robert Frost poem. She’s deep in thought, I can tell; she’s doing that thing with her lip, where she softly bites down on her lower lip while curling one side of it up. She looks up at me and smiles, showing a bit of crow’s feet at the edge of her eyes. She hates those creases but I love them; it means she smiles often, and I love her smile.
I’m a space nerd. Anything to do with space absolutely fascinates me. I remember when I first saw the Hubble Ultra-Deep Field Image – the one at the beginning of this post. To create it scientists pointed the Hubble telescope at a piece of the sky devoid of any visible light and the approximate size of a 1 mm x 1 mm square piece of paper held at 1 meter away, leaving it there for nearly four months. There are approximately 10,000 galaxies in the image. 10,000 galaxies. When I saw that image it completely blew my mind. To find nearly 10,000 galaxies in one thirteen-millionth the area of the entire sky left me aghast. The scale of it all is incomprehensible.
So it was with interest that I read a recently published academic paper titled, “Dissolving the Fermi Paradox”, written by Anders Sandberg, Eric Drexler, and Toby Ord, researchers at Oxford University’s Future of Humanities Institute. If you are unsure of what the Fermi Paradox is, I’ll quote this introduction from the paper:
While working at the Los Alamos National Laboratory in 1950, Enrico Fermi famously asked his colleagues: ”Where are they?”. He was pointing to a discrepancy that he found puzzling: Given that there are so many stars in our galaxy, even a modest probability of extraterrestrial intelligence (ETI) arising around any given star would imply the emergence of many such civilizations within our galaxy. Further, given modest assumptions about their ability to travel, to modify their environs, or to communicate, we should see evidence of their existence, and yet we do not. This discrepancy has become known as the Fermi paradox, and we shall call the apparent lifelessness of the universe the Fermi observation. [Emphasis in original]
If you are into space and have a solid grasp of statistics, probabilities, etc., I highly recommend you read the paper. For those without such inclinations I’ll just sum it up: the researchers revisited the assumptions underlying the Fermi Paradox, especially the Drake equation, “which implicitly assume certainty regarding highly uncertain parameters”. They concluded that it is extremely probable we are alone in the galaxy and quite possible that we are alone in the observable universe. In short: there is no paradox.
We examine these parameters, incorporating models of chemical and genetic transitions on paths to the origin of life, and show that extant scientific knowledge corresponds to uncertainties that span multiple orders of magnitude. This makes a stark difference. When the model is recast to represent realistic distributions of uncertainty, we find a substantial ex ante probability of there being no other intelligent life in our observable universe, and thus that there should be little surprise when we fail to detect any signs of it. This result dissolves the Fermi paradox, and in doing so removes any need to invoke speculative mechanisms by which civilizations would inevitably fail to have observable effects upon the universe. [Emphasis in original]
I hear giggling from my boys out in the road. I turn to see that, using their bikes, they have squashed another one of the plumbs. They’re laughing at the sound made when the plumb is flattened by the bike tire. Their giggles turn into laughter, which turn into belly laughs, which then become roaring laughter, and, feeding off each other’s laughter, they begin to laugh so hard they are crying. The youngest can barely stand he is laughing so hard. He stumbles around and finally falls to his knees, tears streaming down his cheeks as he looks at his older brother, who is laughing equally as hard, and they both fall to the ground in a fit of laughter. Their laughter makes me smile. It’s a beautiful sound. I love that I get to listen to it.
Tears start to well up in my eyes as I consider how lucky I am to be around these particular people, on this particular rock, situated just-so from some random star in some random galaxy. Nowhere else in the observable universe is this event transpiring with these specific people. They are unique in the universe. Even if they had been identical twins, their consciousness – who they are – their being – would be unique. There is nothing like them in all of observable creation. Even if there is other intelligent life in the universe, these precious people would be unique. They are the only them. I consider that thought for a moment. I think of my parents, my siblings, my friends – all those who have touched my life and who mean so much to me. Each one of them is unique. This moment, sitting here with my amazing wife and precious children – knowing them – is vanishingly rare. I take a moment to consider that fact – to consider that they are the greatest things in all the universe. Tears flow. Love comes easily.