The Fermi Paradox

Everyone feels something when they’re in a really good starry place on a really good starry night and they look up and see this:

Stars

Some people stick with the traditional, feeling struck by the epic beauty or blown away by the insane scale of the universe. Personally, I go for the old “existential meltdown followed by acting weird for the next half hour.” But everyone feels something.

Physicist Enrico Fermi felt something too—”Where is everybody?”

________________

A really starry sky seems vast—but all we’re looking at is our very local neighborhood. On the very best nights, we can see up to about 2,500 stars (roughly one hundred-millionth of the stars in our galaxy), and almost all of them are less than 1,000 light years away from us (or 1% of the diameter of the Milky Way). So what we’re really looking at is this:

Milky Way

Galaxy image: Nick Risinger

When confronted with the topic of stars and galaxies, a question that tantalizes most humans is, “Is there other intelligent life out there?” Let’s put some numbers to it—

As many stars as there are in our galaxy (100 – 400 billion), there are roughly an equal number of galaxies in the observable universe—so for every star in the colossal Milky Way, there’s a whole galaxy out there. All together, that comes out to the typically quoted range of between 1022 and 1024 total stars, which means that for every grain of sand on Earth, there are 10,000 stars out there.

The science world isn’t in total agreement about what percentage of those stars are “sun-like” (similar in size, temperature, and luminosity)—opinions typically range from 5% to 20%. Going with the most conservative side of that (5%), and the lower end for the number of total stars (1022), gives us 500 quintillion, or 500 billion billion sun-like stars.

There’s also a debate over what percentage of those sun-like stars might be orbited by an Earth-like planet (one with similar temperature conditions that could have liquid water and potentially support life similar to that on Earth). Some say it’s as high as 50%, but let’s go with the more conservative 22% that came out of a recent PNAS study. That suggests that there’s a potentially-habitable Earth-like planet orbiting at least 1% of the total stars in the universe—a total of 100 billion billion Earth-like planets.

So there are 100 Earth-like planets for every grain of sand in the world. Think about that next time you’re on the beach.

Moving forward, we have no choice but to get completely speculative. Let’s imagine that after billions of years in existence, 1% of Earth-like planets develop life (if that’s true, every grain of sand would represent one planet with life on it). And imagine that on 1% of those planets, the life advances to an intelligent level like it did here on Earth. That would mean there were 10 quadrillion, or 10 million billion intelligent civilizations in the observable universe.

Moving back to just our galaxy, and doing the same math on the lowest estimate for stars in the Milky Way (100 billion), we’d estimate that there are 1 billion Earth-like planets and 100,000 intelligent civilizations in our galaxy.[1]The Drake Equation provides a formal method for this narrowing-down process we’re doing.

SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) is an organization dedicated to listening for signals from other intelligent life. If we’re right that there are 100,000 or more intelligent civilizations in our galaxy, and even a fraction of them are sending out radio waves or laser beams or other modes of attempting to contact others, shouldn’t SETI’s satellite array pick up all kinds of signals?

But it hasn’t. Not one. Ever.

Where is everybody?

It gets stranger. Our sun is relatively young in the lifespan of the universe. There are far older stars with far older Earth-like planets, which should in theory mean civilizations far more advanced than our own. As an example, let’s compare our 4.54 billion-year-old Earth to a hypothetical 8 billion-year-old Planet X.

Planet X

If Planet X has a similar story to Earth, let’s look at where their civilization would be today (using the orange timespan as a reference to show how huge the green timespan is):

Planet X vs Earth

The technology and knowledge of a civilization only 1,000 years ahead of us could be as shocking to us as our world would be to a medieval person. A civilization 1 million years ahead of us might be as incomprehensible to us as human culture is to chimpanzees. And Planet X is 3.4 billion years ahead of us…

There’s something called The Kardashev Scale, which helps us group intelligent civilizations into three broad categories by the amount of energy they use:

A Type I Civilization has the ability to use all of the energy on their planet. We’re not quite a Type I Civilization, but we’re close (Carl Sagan created a formula for this scale which puts us at a Type 0.7 Civilization).

A Type II Civilization can harness all of the energy of their host star. Our feeble Type I brains can hardly imagine how someone would do this, but we’ve tried our best, imagining things like a Dyson Sphere.

Dyson Sphere

A Type III Civilization blows the other two away, accessing power comparable to that of the entire Milky Way galaxy.

If this level of advancement sounds hard to believe, remember Planet X above and their 3.4 billion years of further development. If a civilization on Planet X were similar to ours and were able to survive all the way to Type III level, the natural thought is that they’d probably have mastered inter-stellar travel by now, possibly even colonizing the entire galaxy.

One hypothesis as to how galactic colonization could happen is by creating machinery that can travel to other planets, spend 500 years or so self-replicating using the raw materials on their new planet, and then send two replicas off to do the same thing. Even without traveling anywhere near the speed of light, this process would colonize the whole galaxy in 3.75 million years, a relative blink of an eye when talking in the scale of billions of years:

Colonize Galaxy

Source: Scientific American: “Where Are They”

Continuing to speculate, if 1% of intelligent life survives long enough to become a potentially galaxy-colonizing Type III Civilization, our calculations above suggest that there should be at least 1,000 Type III Civilizations in our galaxy alone—and given the power of such a civilization, their presence would likely be pretty noticeable. And yet, we see nothing, hear nothing, and we’re visited by no one.

So where is everybody?

_____________________

 

Welcome to the Fermi Paradox.

We have no answer to the Fermi Paradox—the best we can do is “possible explanations.” And if you ask ten different scientists what their hunch is about the correct one, you’ll get ten different answers. You know when you hear about humans of the past debating whether the Earth was round or if the sun revolved around the Earth or thinking that lightning happened because of Zeus, and they seem so primitive and in the dark? That’s about where we are with this topic.

In taking a look at some of the most-discussed possible explanations for the Fermi Paradox, let’s divide them into two broad categories—those explanations which assume that there’s no sign of Type II and Type III Civilizations because there are none of them out there, and those which assume they’re out there and we’re not seeing or hearing anything for other reasons:

Explanation Group 1: There are no signs of higher (Type II and III) civilizations because there are no higher civilizations in existence.

Those who subscribe to Group 1 explanations point to something called the non-exclusivity problem, which rebuffs any theory that says, “There are higher civilizations, but none of them have made any kind of contact with us because they all _____.” Group 1 people look at the math, which says there should be so many thousands (or millions) of higher civilizations, that at least one of them would be an exception to the rule. Even if a theory held for 99.99% of higher civilizations, the other .01% would behave differently and we’d become aware of their existence.

Therefore, say Group 1 explanations, it must be that there are no super-advanced civilizations. And since the math suggests that there are thousands of them just in our own galaxy, something else must be going on.

This something else is called The Great Filter.

The Great Filter theory says that at some point from pre-life to Type III intelligence, there’s a wall that all or nearly all attempts at life hit. There’s some stage in that long evolutionary process that is extremely unlikely or impossible for life to get beyond. That stage is The Great Filter.

 

Great Filter

 

If this theory is true, the big question is, Where in the timeline does the Great Filter occur?

It turns out that when it comes to the fate of humankind, this question is very important. Depending on where The Great Filter occurs, we’re left with three possible realities: We’re rare, we’re first, or we’re fucked.

 

1. We’re Rare (The Great Filter is Behind Us)

One hope we have is that The Great Filter is behind us—we managed to surpass it, which would mean it’s extremely rare for life to make it to our level of intelligence. The diagram below shows only two species making it past, and we’re one of them.

Great Filter - Behind Us

This scenario would explain why there are no Type III Civilizations…but it would also mean that we could be one of the few exceptions now that we’ve made it this far. It would mean we have hope. On the surface, this sounds a bit like people 500 years ago suggesting that the Earth is the center of the universe—it implies that we’re special. However, something scientists call “observation selection effect” suggests that anyone who is pondering their own rarity is inherently part of an intelligent life “success story”—and whether they’re actually rare or quite common, the thoughts they ponder and conclusions they draw will be identical. This forces us to admit that being special is at least a possibility.

And if we are special, when exactly did we become special—i.e. which step did we surpass that almost everyone else gets stuck on?

One possibility: The Great Filter could be at the very beginning—it might be incredibly unusual for life to begin at all. This is a candidate because it took about a billion years of Earth’s existence to finally happen, and because we have tried extensively to replicate that event in labs and have never been able to do it. If this is indeed The Great Filter, it would mean that not only is there no intelligent life out there, there may be no other life at all.

Another possibility: The Great Filter could be the jump from the simple prokaryote cell to the complex eukaryote cell. After prokaryotes came into being, they remained that way for almost two billion years before making the evolutionary jump to being complex and having a nucleus. If this is The Great Filter, it would mean the universe is teeming with simple prokaryote cells and almost nothing beyond that.

There are a number of other possibilities—some even think the most recent leap we’ve made to our current intelligence is a Great Filter candidate. While the leap from semi-intelligent life (chimps) to intelligent life (humans) doesn’t at first seem like a miraculous step, Steven Pinker rejects the idea of an inevitable “climb upward” of evolution: “Since evolution does not strive for a goal but just happens, it uses the adaptation most useful for a given ecological niche, and the fact that, on Earth, this led to technological intelligence only once so far may suggest that this outcome of natural selection is rare and hence by no means a certain development of the evolution of a tree of life.”

Most leaps do not qualify as Great Filter candidates. Any possible Great Filter must be one-in-a-billion type thing where one or more total freak occurrences need to happen to provide a crazy exception—for that reason, something like the jump from single-cell to multi-cellular life is ruled out, because it has occurred as many as 46 times, in isolated incidents, just on this planet alone. For the same reason, if we were to find a fossilized eukaryote cell on Mars, it would rule the above “simple-to-complex cell” leap out as a possible Great Filter (as well as anything before that point on the evolutionary chain)—because if it happened on both Earth and Mars, it’s almost definitely not a one-in-a-billion freak occurrence.

If we are indeed rare, it could be because of a fluky biological event, but it also could be attributed to what is called the Rare Earth Hypothesis, which suggests that though there may be many Earth-like planets, the particular conditions on Earth—whether related to the specifics of this solar system, its relationship with the moon (a moon that large is unusual for such a small planet and contributes to our particular weather and ocean conditions), or something about the planet itself—are exceptionally friendly to life.

 

2. We’re the First

We're the First

For Group 1 Thinkers, if the Great Filter is not behind us, the one hope we have is that conditions in the universe are just recently, for the first time since the Big Bang, reaching a place that would allow intelligent life to develop. In that case, we and many other species may be on our way to super-intelligence, and it simply hasn’t happened yet. We happen to be here at the right time to become one of the first super-intelligent civilizations.

One example of a phenomenon that could make this realistic is the prevalence of gamma-ray bursts, insanely huge explosions that we’ve observed in distant galaxies. In the same way that it took the early Earth a few hundred million years before the asteroids and volcanoes died down and life became possible, it could be that the first chunk of the universe’s existence was full of cataclysmic events like gamma-ray bursts that would incinerate everything nearby from time to time and prevent any life from developing past a certain stage. Now, perhaps, we’re in the midst of an astrobiological phase transition and this is the first time any life has been able to evolve for this long, uninterrupted.

 

3. We’re Fucked (The Great Filter is Ahead of Us)

We're fucked

If we’re neither rare nor early, Group 1 thinkers conclude that The Great Filter must be in our future. This would suggest that life regularly evolves to where we are, but that something prevents life from going much further and reaching high intelligence in almost all cases—and we’re unlikely to be an exception.

One possible future Great Filter is a regularly-occurring cataclysmic natural event, like the above-mentioned gamma-ray bursts, except they’re unfortunately not done yet and it’s just a matter of time before all life on Earth is suddenly wiped out by one. Another candidate is the possible inevitability that nearly all intelligent civilizations end up destroying themselves once a certain level of technology is reached.

This is why Oxford University philosopher Nick Bostrom says that “no news is good news.” The discovery of even simple life on Mars would be devastating, because it would cut out a number of potential Great Filters behind us. And if we were to find fossilized complex life on Mars, Bostrom says “it would be by far the worst news ever printed on a newspaper cover,” because it would mean The Great Filter is almost definitely ahead of us—ultimately dooming the species. Bostrom believes that when it comes to The Fermi Paradox, “the silence of the night sky is golden.”

 

Explanation Group 2: Type II and III intelligent civilizations are out there—and there are logical reasons why we might not have heard from them.

Group 2 explanations get rid of any notion that we’re rare or special or the first at anything—on the contrary, they believe in the Mediocrity Principle, whose starting point is that there is nothing unusual or rare about our galaxy, solar system, planet, or level of intelligence, until evidence proves otherwise. They’re also much less quick to assume that the lack of evidence of higher intelligence beings is evidence of their nonexistence—emphasizing the fact that our search for signals stretches only about 100 light years away from us (0.1% across the galaxy) and suggesting a number of possible explanations. Here are 10:

Possibility 1) Super-intelligent life could very well have already visited Earth, but before we were here. In the scheme of things, sentient humans have only been around for about 50,000 years, a little blip of time. If contact happened before then, it might have made some ducks flip out and run into the water and that’s it. Further, recorded history only goes back 5,500 years—a group of ancient hunter-gatherer tribes may have experienced some crazy alien shit, but they had no good way to tell anyone in the future about it.

Possibility 2) The galaxy has been colonized, but we just live in some desolate rural area of the galaxy. The Americas may have been colonized by Europeans long before anyone in a small Inuit tribe in far northern Canada realized it had happened. There could be an urbanization component to the interstellar dwellings of higher species, in which all the neighboring solar systems in a certain area are colonized and in communication, and it would be impractical and purposeless for anyone to deal with coming all the way out to the random part of the spiral where we live.

Possibility 3) The entire concept of physical colonization is a hilariously backward concept to a more advanced species. Remember the picture of the Type II Civilization above with the sphere around their star? With all that energy, they might have created a perfect environment for themselves that satisfies their every need. They might have crazy-advanced ways of reducing their need for resources and zero interest in leaving their happy utopia to explore the cold, empty, undeveloped universe.

An even more advanced civilization might view the entire physical world as a horribly primitive place, having long ago conquered their own biology and uploaded their brains to a virtual reality, eternal-life paradise. Living in the physical world of biology, mortality, wants, and needs might seem to them the way we view primitive ocean species living in the frigid, dark sea. FYI, thinking about another life form having bested mortality makes me incredibly jealous and upset.

Possibility 4) There are scary predator civilizations out there, and most intelligent life knows better than to broadcast any outgoing signals and advertise their location. This is an unpleasant concept and would help explain the lack of any signals being received by the SETI satellites. It also means that we might be the super naive newbies who are being unbelievably stupid and risky by ever broadcasting outward signals. There’s a debate going on currently about whether we should engage in METI (Messaging to Extraterrestrial Intelligence—the reverse of SETI) or not, and most people say we should not. Stephen Hawking warns, “If aliens visit us, the outcome would be much as when Columbus landed in America, which didn’t turn out well for the Native Americans.” Even Carl Sagan (a general believer that any civilization advanced enough for interstellar travel would be altruistic, not hostile) called the practice of METI “deeply unwise and immature,” and recommended that “the newest children in a strange and uncertain cosmos should listen quietly for a long time, patiently learning about the universe and comparing notes, before shouting into an unknown jungle that we do not understand.” Scary.[2]Thinking about this logically, I think we should disregard all the warnings get the outgoing signals rolling. If we catch the attention of super-advanced beings, yes, they might decide to wipe out our whole existence, but that’s not that different than our current fate (to each die within a century). And maybe, instead, they’d invite us to upload our brains into their eternal virtual utopia, which would solve the death problem and also probably allow me to achieve my childhood dream of bouncing around on the clouds. Sounds like a good gamble to me.

Possibility 5) There’s only one instance of higher-intelligent life—a “superpredator” civilization (like humans are here on Earth)—who is far more advanced than everyone else and keeps it that way by exterminating any intelligent civilization once they get past a certain level. This would suck. The way it might work is that it’s an inefficient use of resources to exterminate all emerging intelligences, maybe because most die out on their own. But past a certain point, the super beings make their move—because to them, an emerging intelligent species becomes like a virus as it starts to grow and spread. This theory suggests that whoever was the first in the galaxy to reach intelligence won, and now no one else has a chance. This would explain the lack of activity out there because it would keep the number of super-intelligent civilizations to just one.

Possibility 6) There’s plenty of activity and noise out there, but our technology is too primitive and we’re listening for the wrong things. Like walking into a modern-day office building, turning on a walkie-talkie, and when you hear no activity (which of course you wouldn’t hear because everyone’s texting, not using walkie-talkies), determining that the building must be empty. Or maybe, as Carl Sagan has pointed out, it could be that our minds work exponentially faster or slower than another form of intelligence out there—e.g. it takes them 12 years to say “Hello,” and when we hear that communication, it just sounds like white noise to us.

Possibility 7) We are receiving contact from other intelligent life, but the government is hiding it. This is an idiotic theory, but I had to mention it because it’s talked about so much.

Possibility 8) Higher civilizations are aware of us and observing us (AKA the “Zoo Hypothesis”). As far as we know, super-intelligent civilizations exist in a tightly-regulated galaxy, and our Earth is treated like part of a vast and protected national park, with a strict “Look but don’t touch” rule for planets like ours. We wouldn’t notice them, because if a far smarter species wanted to observe us, it would know how to easily do so without us realizing it. Maybe there’s a rule similar to the Star Trek’s “Prime Directive” which prohibits super-intelligent beings from making any open contact with lesser species like us or revealing themselves in any way, until the lesser species has reached a certain level of intelligence.

Possibility 9) Higher civilizations are here, all around us. But we’re too primitive to perceive them. Michio Kaku sums it up like this:

Lets say we have an ant hill in the middle of the forest. And right next to the ant hill, they’re building a ten-lane super-highway. And the question is “Would the ants be able to understand what a ten-lane super-highway is? Would the ants be able to understand the technology and the intentions of the beings building the highway next to them?

So it’s not that we can’t pick up the signals from Planet X using our technology, it’s that we can’t even comprehend what the beings from Planet X are or what they’re trying to do. It’s so beyond us that even if they really wanted to enlighten us, it would be like trying to teach ants about the internet.

Along those lines, this may also be an answer to “Well if there are so many fancy Type III Civilizations, why haven’t they contacted us yet?” To answer that, let’s ask ourselves—when Pizarro made his way into Peru, did he stop for a while at an anthill to try to communicate? Was he magnanimous, trying to help the ants in the anthill? Did he become hostile and slow his original mission down in order to smash the anthill apart? Or was the anthill of complete and utter and eternal irrelevance to Pizarro? That might be our situation here.

Possibility 10) We’re completely wrong about our reality. There are a lot of ways we could just be totally off with everything we think. The universe might appear one way and be something else entirely, like a hologram. Or maybe we’re the aliens and we were planted here as an experiment or as a form of fertilizer. There’s even a chance that we’re all part of a computer simulation by some researcher from another world, and other forms of life simply weren’t programmed into the simulation.

________________

 

As we continue along with our possibly-futile search for extraterrestrial intelligence, I’m not really sure what I’m rooting for. Frankly, learning either that we’re officially alone in the universe or that we’re officially joined by others would be creepy, which is a theme with all of the surreal storylines listed above—whatever the truth actually is, it’s mindblowing.

Beyond its shocking science fiction component, The Fermi Paradox also leaves me with a deep humbling. Not just the normal “Oh yeah, I’m microscopic and my existence lasts for three seconds” humbling that the universe always triggers. The Fermi Paradox brings out a sharper, more personal humbling, one that can only happen after spending hours of research hearing your species’ most renowned scientists present insane theories, change their minds again and again, and wildly contradict each other—reminding us that future generations will look at us the same way we see the ancient people who were sure that the stars were the underside of the dome of heaven, and they’ll think “Wow they really had no idea what was going on.”

Compounding all of this is the blow to our species’ self-esteem that comes with all of this talk about Type II and III Civilizations. Here on Earth, we’re the king of our little castle, proud ruler of the huge group of imbeciles who share the planet with us. And in this bubble with no competition and no one to judge us, it’s rare that we’re ever confronted with the concept of being a dramatically inferior species to anyone. But after spending a lot of time with Type II and III Civilizations over the past week, our power and pride are seeming a bit David Brent-esque.

That said, given that my normal outlook is that humanity is a lonely orphan on a tiny rock in the middle of a desolate universe, the humbling fact that we’re probably not as smart as we think we are, and the possibility that a lot of what we’re sure about might be wrong, sounds wonderful. It opens the door just a crack that maybe, just maybe, there might be more to the story than we realize.

 

To humble you further:

Putting Time In Perspective

More from Wait But Why:

Why Generation Y Yuppies Are Unhappy
7 Ways to be Insufferable on Facebook
Why Procrastinators Procrastinate
How to Name a Baby
How to Pick Your Life Partner
Your Life in Weeks
10 Types of 30-Year-Old Single Guys
The Great Perils of Social Interaction

Sources:
PNAS: Prevalence of Earth-size planets orbiting Sun-like stars
SETI: The Drake Equation
NASA: Workshop Report on the Future of Intelligence In The Cosmos
Keith Wiley: The Fermi Paradox, Self-Replicating Probes, and the Interstellar Transportation Bandwidth
NCBI: Astrobiological phase transition: towards resolution of Fermi’s paradox
André Kukla: Extraterrestrials: A Philosophical Perspective
Nick Bostrom: Where Are They?
Science Direct: Galactic gradients, postbiological evolution and the apparent failure of SETI
Nature: Simulations back up theory that Universe is a hologram
Robin Hanson: The Great Filter – Are We Almost Past It?
John Dyson: Search for Artificial Stellar Sources of Infrared Radiation

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  • Maddy

    WOW! What a read! It's shocking how much of what we consider science fiction is actually real science too.

    Please keep it up. I look foward to this blog every week.

    • Mick

      ALIENS ARE ALREADY VISITING THIS SHITTY SLAVE PLANET. There is no Question of “if” aliens exist , what the fuck do most of the readers of this blog think FUCKING ufo’s are ? There is enough UFO evidence on utube to sink a battle ship. If only 1 of the thousands of UFO videos on utube are real then that 1 ALIEN Space ship is your proof that Aliens exist and are here and most of the blog is pointless nonsense. Wake up you Freaks , Intelligent species are already here, lending you money at interest !!!! .

  • Nathanael

    And this, ladies & gentlemen, is called "science". Make no mistake, "science" IS the new religion.

    • Nic

      What? I don’t get it… What is your point?

      • Alyssa

        Yeah, I can’t tell if he’s mocking the whole article or what.

      • Matt

        A misconception, most likely. While some basic tenets of science might be considered subjective like verything we know (some consider mathematics to be a product of the human mind), the scientific method, allowing to develop consistent models to explain observations/evidence, results in scientific theories which have enormous predictability power (and are not mere hypotheses; scientific theories are not the same as the colloquial word “theory”). Understanding these models is knowledge, not faith. That said, it’s normal for imaginative minds (which we are) to fill the gaps in knowledge with beliefs and to resort to philosophy and hypotheses, making the Fermi Paradox very interesting.

        • Rick

          Mathe3matics is a concept of the human mind. A way to try ti explain what we experience. If there weren’t humans, would there be mathematics? It wouldn’t change everything to chaos, but would the concept of mathematics, or any concept, exist?

    • no

      Unlike religion, it’s explicitly clear that all of these possibilities are just conjecture, and nobody is saying that any of these options are empirically-based, definite, or the truth. Religion comes up far more preposterous conjectures *and* claims them to be absolute truths. That’s a huge difference.

      • ben

        I guess science is getting a little closer to what Christians have been saying about the Type III civilization (God and his hosts). Maybe in 100 years science will admit that religious folks were right after all. It is funny actually that a lot of questions being raised in the Fermi Paradox, there are direct answers in the Bible already. The problem with science and religion is that both speak very different language when talking about the same thing. A lot of scientific jargon in this article can be translated into religious speak. It is amazing how far scientists are behind in their conjecture versus the religious folks.

        • macacanadian

          Hardly, religion offers nothing more than variations of ‘throwing a virgin into the volcano in hopes that the crops will flourish’. Bizarre rituals for the ignorant.

        • some yankee

          see, that’s why religion still has a foothold. would you say believing in leprechauns has equal merit to the theory of gravity? if I could produce al old book, which was dictated to a man by a leprechaun, would that make it equal? no. religion asks the wrong questions, and any conclusions reached using religion are by their definition untestable, and don’t predict anything. science is testable, makes predictions, and IS NOT even remotely related to religion. science is a process, not an ideology. saying they “look at different sides of the same coin” is like saying mathematics and finger painting are the same thing. ridiculous.

          • Garrybry

            Look at how far the Mormons have gone with a magic hat and gold plates. . .

        • use ur brain

          “It is funny actually that a lot of questions being raised in the Fermi Paradox, there are direct answers in the Bible already.”

          So we never should have studied evolution because the origin of species was in the bible already? We never should have developed laws and philosophies because the answers were in the bible already? We never should have created archaeology because the bible told us all of history already? We never should have studied weather because the causes were in the bible already?

          The whole point of science is to say “No, we don’t have the answers already. Let’s go out and find them.” Claiming that we already have all the answers will not advance humanity. If you think living happily in ignorance is better than accepting that we don’t know everything and seeking the truth for ourselves, then be my guest. But understand that many people are not content to just hear “this is so” without hearing “this is why.” You will not lay our curious minds to rest by talking down to us. Even if you believe that you have found the perfect truth, understand that we do not think there even is a perfect truth.

          I have nothing against religion or religious people; I think that we can all coexist. But if you have already chosen faith over observation, then understand that others have already chosen observation over faith.

      • sigh

        sadly u need to look at this with a complete open mind. attacking any aspect of our being is naive. its all a part of who we are. and until we know better as a whole those comments u made just continue to prolong our struggle in becoming one and and figuring out what the big picture is. you can pretend to be unbiased but u are just portraying yourself as sorta dumb. we get from your post that you hate religion and thats about it. well that and u dont know which of these options stated u really believe in. i think its a huge part of human nature to believe. so stop persecuting one belief or another and lets just all get past that great filter plssssssssssssssssssss

        • GC

          That “human nature to believe” *IS* the Great Filter. (Or one of them, at least.) Right now it is running amok in the Middle East, destroying every scrap of civilization it can reach and brutally killing anyone who believes anything even slightly different. In the U.S., it is helping to dumb down what is left of an educational system and acting to make sure that we go on to make the planet uninhabitable.

          If we as a species can’t get beyond that and the accept the world as it is instead of as some desert nomads centuries ago wanted to see it, we’ll never get off this planet – and shouldn’t. Combine that with tribalism, and the chances are slim.

    • Uh

      You obviously don’t know the definition of science or religion. Go back to school.

      • Nah

        re·li·gion noun \ri-ˈli-jən\
        : the belief in a god or in a group of gods

        : an organized system of beliefs, ceremonies, and rules used to worship a god or a group of gods

        >>: an interest, a belief, or an activity that is very important to a person or group <<

        To speculate that some people treat Science as a religion is not beyond the definition of the word, or reason.

    • Bill

      Having read every word, I know no more than I did. It is science but to me it’s mainly Greek.

  • Bradley

    Hands down the most fascinating thing I've read all year. Beautifully done. I'm gonna need to walk this one off for a while.

  • Tomás Magalhães

    Very interesting as usual nerds.

  • CC

    Great, now my goosebumps are permanent.

  • Adam

    Don't forget about the 'Wow Signal'.

    • Has

      If that actually was an intelligent civilization it’d put us in the “early” camp with us being on of the first few intelligent civilizations, and I’m not sure if that’s a good thing or not.

  • Bill

    One completely unprofessional theory I have has to do with both aliens and the feasibility of faster-than-light travel.   If there were lots of alien civilizations AND FTL travel was cheap enough to be affordable by the top 0.5% of a civilization, then we would been visited by dumb or crazy representitives of an alien race by now.  Perhaps the obnoxious kids of some alien billionaire come to do the equivolent of TPing Earth's lawn, or a crazed alien evangelist out to bring we lowly humans the word of some alien god. 

    • Anonymous

      your humanizing a possible alien race so so hard.

    • Anonymous

      Oh, I don’t know… The Transfiguration in the Bible, and Garuda, the Bird of Heaven from the Bhaghavad Gita sound spookily like some sort of supra scientific alien visitation rationalised by our ancestors as best they could in those particular eras.

  • Jeroen

    Thanks very much for this interesting read, Tim. Well worth the wait, this post has truly boggled my mind. I probably have to reread it to grasp the implications completely. You excel at putting facts in perspective.

    • Wait But Why

      Thanks Jeroen and others who enjoyed this one. This is basically my favorite topic and has been since I was three—and now that I know a non-comedic, 4,500 word post on science with almost no drawings can apparently go over well, I may dig into this kind of thing a bit more in the future. How delicious/upsetting is the universe.

      • cristeis

        The Bunny Manifesto also shows how delicious/ upsetting the universe is….cloud bunny is just as mind blowing as the idea of super-intelligent life.

      • rob

        That’s all nice and dandy but there are few considerations that will make another intelligent life form in the universe NOT very likely despite the statistics that suggests otherwise
        1) Despite the possible “naked” number of potentially Earth like planets you need way more than that for an intelligent AND industrial civilization to emerge let alone surpass us (for example u need OXIGEN in the atmosphere in order for metallurgy to take place and we know of NO OTHER PLANET that has it)
        2) a planet maybe similar to Earth but without a Jupiter plane more or less in the same position ay potential life form would be wiped out by comets and asteroids long before any intelligence has any chance to emerge and grow
        3) planets similar to ours but that have a planet wide ocean will NOT produce any cosmic faring intelligent civilization
        The whole argument of a myriad civilizations wondering from galaxy to galaxy is always made on the back of the statistical probability of the existence of an Earth like planet and everybody jumps on the star trek bandwagon but that is just wrong. There need to be a lot more for an intelligent specie to arise (and a lot of luck for IT not to be wiped out as soon as it emerge)but that aside the argument for a lev 3 civilization that’s peaceful and nice is definitely BS. The 2 principle of thermodynamics clearly states that’s not such a thing as free lunch, no matter how much energy they control they will need a lot more than they’ll have so we better be prepared to become lunch if we ever meet an alien.
        Tis aside life has existed on this planet for as long as the conditions were good enough for it’ s development (4.2billions years give or take a week?) and yet intelligence has emerged only once that alone should point to how rare any intelligent creature will be, add to that the evolution of language (without it the number of individuals would never have passed a few millions and cooperation among us and complex structures in society would have not have any chance of development), the invention of agriculture (most likely an accident so not necessarily a must in the evolution of a specie) and the likelihood of being wiped out by natural disaster, wars or diseases , the chance of anyone being out there are almost zero
        Great article but the premise (that just because there could be billions of Earth like planet there must be a lot of Earth like civilizations) is a bit wobbly at best

        • sigh

          u are thinking on terms and laws that earth needs for all this to happen. maybe its different and actually easier for all this to happen on another planet. u dont know/understand/grasp it at all and I FOR SURE have no clue about it. just dont make ignorant posts pls

        • sigh

          (that just because there could be billions of Earth like planet there must be a lot of Earth like civilizations) is a bit wobbly at best

          zzzzzzz

        • Frank

          You are most likely right Rob. While I would love to think the universe is teaming with advanced alien life the facts indicate otherwise which is exactly what Fermi was pointing out.
          We are probably extremely fortunate to be here and if anyone ever does colonize the galaxy/universe it will be us or more likely our descendants.

      • Pakosis

        What is a Buddha?

        • BugoTheCat

          Masagin!

  • Mike

    Great post, best so far I think!

    • Jasmine

      I second this. It’s truly mindblowing and I’d never have looked it up or understood it if not for this post!

  • Janna

    I’ve been reading Wait But Why since September 2013 and this is my favorite yet. I had maybe 30 interesting thoughts while I read this. You pick the best post topics and present them so perfectly. LOVE.

  • James

    This is a planet where the most reprobate souls go for a final chance … You’re not allowed to know anything and no communication with the outside is allowed !

    • me

      Sounds like a premise for a good sci-fi flick…

  • Damon

    Excellent recap!

  • Monika

    This post made me donate 50 dollars to WBW. I have no words to express what I feel and think right now. Then again, finding the right words to express things is Tim’s specialty, not mine! Keep up the amazing amazing AMAZING job. You’re most definitely Type III civilization.

    • Wait But Why

      Hugely generous. Thank you!

  • jason marschner

    Read stephen baxter’s manifold series. It covers this topic very well. aliens existing but not what we thought (not malevolant but they don’t really care about humans), the universe has a reset button and a bunch of alien species know this and are trying to fix it (over a period of billions of years and multiple resets) and another where there is life, but very scattered and in small supply and the universe moves toward a slow heat death. isn’t science cheery

  • Dennis

    I’m rooting for Group 2 Possibility #8, where one alien who is in charge of reading all blogs in English is chuckling at this whole post until he/she/they/it gets to the Group 2 Possibility #8 part of your post, and then says “Oh shit” and has to push a big red alien button because we’ve caught on, but then his manager comes in and berates him for the false alarm because plenty of humans have postulated Group 2 Possibility #8 but there’s no real way for humans to actually know. Wouldn’t want him to get fired though, since it sounds like this is a new gig for him.

    • Wait But Why

      I thought about that and even added in a note to a potential researcher god in Possibility #10 just in case. But now writing this, I’m annoyed with myself because my note was a joke, and if he/she/it actually does read this, I just wasted a huge opportunity to ask about the possibility of brain upload (my new thing as of today, as well as apparently being a religious person for the first time as of today too).

      • Dennis

        Actually, I spend a lot of time worrying about brain upload these days, but mostly in the context of not understanding the technology my future kids will be using. Sort of like how looking back I’m bewildered that I was allowed to be on AOL 2.0 and chat with strangers, because my parents didn’t understand all the horrors the internet could bring to a child. I’ll still be using Facebook and my kids will be like “LOL DAD IS THE WORST” but not actually using words since they’ll be uploading it to the ThinkCloud, though I’m sure the even using the word “cloud” will be as funny as someone buying a VHS tape today.

        Then again I’m probably overestimating the speed of technology, like most films and books do. What are they trying to do – be accurate? Star Wars was the smart one, by placing itself in Possibility 1 or 2.

        OK, now I am rooting for Possibility 1 or 2, combined with Possibility 8, combined with Star Wars coincidentally being real, and the real Han Solo watching Star Wars and being happy that at least Harrison Ford played him in the movie. If you’re going to ask about brain upload please ask Han what he thinks about the upcoming movies.

  • Brandon

    This is amazing, not just because of your humbling perspective and the content, but because of the massive amount of research you’ve done. It’s insane. Did you do all of the research this week? And was it completely on your own, or do you have scientist friends who pointed you in the right direction?

    • Wait But Why

      A few readers have asked about various parts of a post-creation process, and this seems as good a place as any to share. Here’s a full rundown of what goes into a post:

      1) Topic selection. A stage when my Instant Gratification Monkey is in full rebellion. Every topic that seemed so tantalizing when I first conceived it and wrote it down on my grand idea document suddenly seems disgusting and impossible, because I’m not in “This is Future Tim’s problem!” mode, I’m in “This is my current problem” mode. For this week, I first wanted to do a post on putting size into perspective, from the quark up to the multiverse (kind of like the size version of the Putting Time in Perspectives post). Then I called WBW co-founder (and kindergarten friend) Andrew so I could procrastinate from doing anything by discussing post ideas with him. He wasn’t that enthused about the size idea and came up with the idea to dig into some funny NYC-related phenomenon, something we’ve been talking about for awhile. This was interesting, so I brainstormed for a few minutes, but I was disappointed because I had gotten all excited about doing something with astronomy, so I went back to that. I started thinking up two other ideas too—one is a long cartoon with no text (about an alien discovering our tiny universe by shrinking himself), the other was the Fermi Paradox, something that’s been sitting in the doc for a bunch of months. After much idiotic deliberation between those three astronomy posts, I settled on Fermi.

      2) Research. There was a ton to research because there are so many different theories and principles and hypotheses to get a good handle on. I did about 25 hours of reading, pulling quotes or terms or ideas into a Word doc as I went. Since I only pick topics I’m excited to learn about, research is usually the most fun part of the process (unless I’m behind schedule and hurried). When I finished, the Word doc was 15 pages long.

      3) Outlining/Structuring/Planning. This is always by far the hardest and ickiest part of the process. This stage is where I take a billion scattered thoughts and ideas and potential structures and have to figure out how to make them into a post. This is where the most important and creative work happens—by the time I’m done with this stage, most of the jokes/thoughts/drawings/etc are worked out in my head. This is the really important part because often a post isn’t working and it’s because the structure is wrong (i.e. should it be a “15 Things That..” post or a story-telling type post or a mostly visual post or another 10 possibilities). And when the structure is right, the whole thing just works. Because I have a weird personality, I refuse to write one word or draw one thing until the outline is completely finished and every corner of things is worked out in my head—which sometimes leads to me watching hours and even days go by as I stare at the screen, despise my outline, and despise myself. If I’m really late with a post, it’s usually because this stage took way longer than I planned for it to. For this post, outlining was easier than normal, because all the theories didn’t leave me with too many options other than listing them—although the Great Filter was messing everything up by being part of a few different theories, so this held me up for awhile. I finally came to the two major groupings structure, which solved the problem, but that was about my 6th crack at categorization before something finally worked. The other part of this stage was weeding out about 75% of what I had researched. Even with only 1/4 making the cut, it was a ridiculously long post. Decisions here center around things like including the Type I/II/III Civilizations thing or not. I could have left that out and put a whole other thing in and it would have been a different post. This time, this stage only took about 5 hours, but it’s often the longest part (especially for any posts on life/happiness where I’m inventing a lot of terms for it).

      4) Writing. This is my second favorite part after researching, because A) I get to lie down while doing it, B) Since the outline stage already did all the hard thinking, this is just me spitting it out. And I get to do fun parts like intros and conclusions where I get to pretend I’m a real writer. This usually goes by fairly quickly, although sometimes I spend a ton of time on one section—in this post, I just couldn’t get the conclusion the way I wanted it, and I still don’t like what I came up with. Because this was so long and I had to verify facts a bunch of times, the writing took about 10 hours.

      5) Drawing. Mercifully, there were very few in this one. I have a blurry memory of drawing squiggly green lines, one by one, in the Great Filter diagrams at 6am this morning, having not yet slept. I got extra behind on this post because an unexpected thing took up half of Monday and half of Tuesday, so I slept about 3 hours Tuesday night and nothing Wed night to get this done before work starts on Thursday (Thursday doesn’t qualify for Tuesday(ish). Anyway, drawings are not mentally challenging the same way outlining is, but they’re physically grueling. I’m an extremely untalented artist and need to draw things over and over again to get them right, and so much of the comedy of a stick figure is in the tiniest part of the way a mouth curves or the exact shape of an eye dot, so sometimes I’ll draw a face 50 times before I get it right. I have to shake my hand out a lot since for some reason I clench my drawing pen like a mother desperately clinging to her baby’s wrist as it dangles over a cliff. And sometimes I decide to draw landscapes or backgrounds, which is weird because they take a ton of time and add very little for the reader. A common experience is looking at a blank canvas and having to draw something like a couch or grass or a chair and just having no idea how to do that. Part of the problem is that I’m overly anal and I’ll do things like spend an hour on a Venn diagram to make it pretty and perfect, when again, that doesn’t do much for the reader so it’s a weird use of time. This post had almost no drawings, so those only took about 3 hours, part of which was spent hideously drawing hundreds of star dots, one by one, for the feature photo for the front page. But on a typical post, drawings take 10-20 hours.

      So the total here was 40 hours. Typical post takes 35 – 60 hours.

      • Kimmo Rouvari

        WOW! I’m blown away! Totally! Your post was just perfect and describing your working method was a sweet dessert. I haven’t read this blog previously, but from now on, I am. Thanks!

      • Jason

        I found that fascinating to read about. I’m shocked/impressed that so much goes into each post and amazed that you can do one of these every week. I hope it’s your only job…

        I love Wait But Why because most sites/writers don’t have the time/resources/desire to do posts that take 40-60 hours to do. If it doesn’t kill you, please keep it up for a long time. It’s a special thing.

      • Olivia

        I like the backgrounds!

      • Brandon

        Thank you so much for responding! It’s honestly really nice to hear that the key parts of your product are hard work and ambition. I greatly relate to your methods in that I rely on hard work for my writing to make up for me not being an insanely talented person.

      • Francis Tapon

        Thanks for sharing the time it takes to write a post. As a blogger myself, I know that most of my readers completely underestimate how much time it takes to write an epic post (or any post, really). And they don’t don’t realize that you’re doing it for free. They think, “Oh, but he sells thousands of T-shirts!”

        Wrong.

        Blogging is a labor of love, not a money machine (for 99% of bloggers). In your case, you could turn this into a money machine, but choose not to. More ought to donate, even if it’s just a little, to help you out. I just sent you a few bucks, as a thank you. I never do that, but given that I’m running a Kickstarter campaign now, I figure I should give just like I’m asking others to give.

        I’ve read about 10 of your posts and I love them all, but this is my favorite one. The one thing that disappointed me is that you didn’t conclude the post by sharing what you think is the best explanation for the Fermi Paradox. Or perhaps you would simply admit that you have no clue.

        I’m an Explanation Group #1 guy and believe the Great Filter is evolving into a high intelligence. I suspect simple life is everywhere where conditions permit, complex life is relatively abundant, but that crossing the chasm to technologically advanced species has only happened once. The 10 explanations of Group #2 don’t convince me. What about you?

      • Henrik

        Just finished reading the post and then your explaination of the pre-process. Thank you for describing how you go about with your work! I find that really interesting in life in general. I guess we often only see the final product of things, but all the work behind is interesting and inspiring. Thanks again!

        Finally a short comment on # 5 the “super predator” theory. For me it seems unlikly that such a controlling civilization would be able to last. Something tells me that they would eventually implode upon themselves. Like the Nazis would probably destroy themselves if the weren’t beaten i WWII.

  • Tomas

    Awesome, dude.

  • wobster109

    An excellent post. You touched on a couple things – I’m very curious how a Wait But Why on immortality might turn out. We’re actually getting really close as a species, like next 200 years close.

    • Wait But Why

      A) Great post idea.
      B) No. I refuse to have 200,000 years of humanity go by and then I come around JUST before they figure out immortality. Imagine being the last person to die. So annoying.

      • Cliff

        Ugh. Me too! This is my #1 hypothetical pet peeve, that I might *just miss* the immortality bus. Honestly, I’m not even looking for immortality — a couple thousand years will do. I figure by then my fear of oblivion will have subsided, and I will have contributed to my species in at least one meaningful way.

      • Anonymous

        Jaret Leto made a movie about it.. You should watch it. Its great

        • Anonymous

          Mr. Nobody?

  • newton

    “Where are they?”

    Meanwhile on another highly intelligent alien planet:

    Alien 1: “Hey Tom, I visited earth again the other day, just for shits and giggles.”
    Alien 2: “Oh yeah, where’d you go this time?”
    A1: “I think it’s where they call the United States. I hovered for about a minute in the silver cruiser and I think at least a few humans saw me. They even put their primitive video footage on their so-called internet but still no one is believing our existence.”
    A2: “Haha those humans are so cute.”
    A1: “Hey you wanna head down there and go scramble their fighter jets sometime?”
    A2: “Sure I should be free Sunday.”

    • Maro Pisani

      your story is really great – I had such a laugh – I think it is exactly to the point!!!!

  • daChipster

    Depending on who you are asking, there’s a whole bunch more dimensions in spacetime than the four we group together as the here-and-now. Call it 10 all day, although I saw one theory with as many as 26, in a brief survey of string theory. Anyway, where are the other people? Maybe they’ve advanced to where they only interact in the 6 we can’t see. Hey, look at that blob over there! Well, yes, to you in regular spacetime, he looks like a blob, but in the other 6 dimensions, he looks like a really intelligent, handsome blob. And he’s totally hooking up with multiple SMOKIN’ blobettes on the 1-800-hotblob party-line, which to us is known as dimension 9.

    OR… going with possibility 6 up above – maybe they communicate and broadcast using quantum entanglement, which solves the problem of instantaneous communication over large distances. We have no way of listening in, and they probably don’t even have the equipment to check radio communications anymore, except for some old stuff lying around in the blob flea market the way 8-track and betamax players pile up here on earth.

  • aliyakadyrova

    Wow! Discovered this blog recently and so glad I did. This post is best so far.

  • daChipster

    BTW, in case you all missed it, we left our heliosphere almost 2 years ago. Last fall, Voyager 1 was confirmed to be in interstellar space as of 8/25/12. How COOL Is That?

    It is expected to reach the Oort cloud in another 3 centuries.

  • Amanda

    This was absolutely fantastic. Thank you so much for your hard work and your uncanny talent for putting things into perspective and sharing things that are not only cool and interesting, but make your readers think intelligently about what they’ve read even after they’ve finished reading!

  • Angela

    BRILLIANT! Just freaking BRILLIANT! I’ve just been watching the re-make of Carl Sagan’s Cosmos: A SpaceTime Odyssey, and this has made that a thousand time more real to me. And now I truly feel insignificant! But my mind is blown in so may ways. Thank you for this! Best post EVER!!!!

  • Ben
  • Bill L

    My prevailing theory is that Earth is a penal colony and the civilized ones who put our ancestors here want nothing to do with us. How else can you explain our behaviour? Tens of thousands of generations of inbred criminals.

    • daChipster

      Like Australia?

      • Bill L

        Yes, just like Australia.

        • Aussie

          Bull. crap.

          • Bill L

            Aussie, I didn’t mean that the way it came out. I meant the way Australia started. Not any of the other. Cheers.

  • Robert

    Great post! I hope you do a similar article on the multiverse idea.

    While it is fun to discuss such things, I think there is one key point to always keep in mind. Towards the beginning, the phrase “Moving forward, we have no choice but to get completely speculative…..” was used because there are so many moving variables that we have no knowledge of and limited comprehension of.

    In all honesty, I don’t believe humanity will ever answer the question,…….just a great mystery that will go on forever. But still fun to discuss :-)

  • Ted

    I tend to think we are alone. I think as our science has advanced, we oversimplify how utterly complex even a single celled organism is and we have no idea how or what animates life to begin with.

    A large part of that is because we have successfully mapped the human genome (and dozens of other animals and plant life). So we know the blueprints, the environment and the ingredients necessary for a living organism; or at least an organic living organism on earth…….but that’s all.

    Many people believe life was an accident. Billions of years of all the ingredients in one pot, stirred in the right environment trillions of time and presto…….LIFE.

    But having the right pieces and environment doesn’t guarantee life.

    Think about it this way……say you loaded a 747 with: lumber, concrete, glass, wiring, carpet, shingles, cabinets, plywood, fixtures, etc and pushed them all out of the plane simultaneously from 50,000 feet. You could do it 100 billion trillion times and never end up with a new house. And building a new house is child’s play compared to giving life to a single celled organism.

    • Says

      But chemical systems don’t work like pushing stuff out of an airplane…

      There’s no reason to think that natural selection only works for life. *Anything* that replicates that is best suited for an environment will persist. You can end up with replicating “loops” of chemicals that can evolve under the pressures of natural selection just like life and create the biological building blocks. This would make that chances of eventually turning into life much greater than just throwing a bunch of stuff together.

  • Mark

    Your presentation includes an unexamined assumption. You have assumed that once a civilization achieves the technological ability to “listen” for signals from extra-terrestrial civilizations it will not only persist, but continue to develop. We have had that technological ability for a mere 50 or so years. An unpleasant possibility is that our technological civilization will not persist for more than another 50 years. We could succumb to global warming, for instance, or warfare caused by shortage of resources (water and oil are two obvious possibilities). So a possible analogy is fireflies: technologically-capable civilizations blink into an out of existence, at remote distances. The probability that any two blink on at the same time and persist long enough to communicate over vast distances might be impossibly small.

    • Daniel

      I think that would be a version of the great filter hypothesis. A future great filter wouldn’t necessarily imply certain doom for a technological species in that it would be the author of its own extinction. It could be that the technological and physical requirements to successfully and persistently bridge interstellar distances isn’t possible for the massive majority of species. It may also be that it’s just not worth it. The tremendous amount of resources needed to ferry materials or lives those distances could be so enormously expensive or impractical that any pay-off derived from arriving at a new system is less than the cost of going there. Many civilizations might colonize their local systems extensively and just hit a kind of equilibrium since making the next leap would require orders of magnitude more energy that is not economical to exploit in such a way.

    • Greg

      To me that’s really the most plausible explanation to the paradox. We are just too small and our lives are too short in the grand scheme of things. Requiring civilizations to be millions of year old and is mind boggling and seems impossible. So it’s likely that at this current time we are alone in the galaxy, it is sad but that’s the most likely solutiin.

      At the same time, if such civilizations did exist the technology they would possess is utterly unamiginable to us and they might capable of anything maybe even traveling to other galaxies, so who knows ? We know nothing.

  • Colin

    I think, having read that, a post on summarising existential philosophy would be apt, considering the number of existential crises you’ll have triggered today! It’s bedtime where I am, off to stare at the ceiling for 8 hours!

  • Baelnor

    Strangely enough, the amount of “faith” required here matches the amount of “faith” required to believe in God and a Creator.

    Thanks Mr Wait But Why, you are turning me religious….

    • Simon

      I agree! It’s funny how atheists call faith a great cop-out when really, everything requires faith. If you look at the complexity of a single human cell, you would need a whole lot of faith to believe that there is no intelligent creator and it just came about by pure chance!

      • Says

        Haha. I don’t think anyone every claimed that something like a cell came about by pure chance; that would be stupid. It came about from evolution by natural selection, which is about the opposite of pure chance.

        It’s true that it require a great amount of faith to believe that a cell came about by pure chance (as to opposed to evolution, which only takes evidence, not faith). But I think it requires even more faith than that to believe it came about by a creator whose existence is wholly unexplained and who has never been observed.

        And that really funny thing here, is that you are taking the items listed in this post and assuming that this is what people actually believe. It isn’t! These are all *clearly* just conjectures and postulates, and nobody puts their faith in them. If you don’t see that it’s because you’re looking for a way to defend your own baseless beliefs by saying that the beliefs of others are also baseless, when in fact they are not the beliefs of others. That’s a stupid defense anyway, even if it were valid. “I’m not wrong because you’re just as wrong as me!”.

  • Bill L

    You touched on the concept of differing timelines. I firmly believe that due to time infinity (rather than space infinity) that species making contact is nearly impossible. The odds are just too great that they could rise to a level capable of all that is required to make such contact AND do so within the time frame that both species exist. They simply never overlap. Extinction is a bitch.

    • RAD

      I agree with this. There was no radio on Earth in the year 1 million B.C., but in universe time, that is a small fragment. What example did they use on Cosmos, that we are in existence during the last second of the last day of the universe’s year? We could have been visited way back then, or will be visited in a million years from now when we are extinct. These calculations need to be multiplied into the 1% of 1% (etc.) calculations mentioned in this article. I believe that life exists on other planets, but it doesn’t have to be radio transmitting yet (one ant on another planet would count), and we may never hear from them.

      But you can also consider me freaked out by Hawking’s Columbus quote. Never of thought of that.

  • Terry.

    Has anyone considered that God created all of this. The entire amazing whole thing. Why? To show us how amazing He is and how small we are and yet how much he loved us. I know a lot of you will doubt and choose to believe in a “Big Bang”. Great show. Horrible theory. Sounds silly to me to hear people that believe we were made by accident not a Creator. Every look at a great piece of art or a beautiful building and think hey look at that accident. It’s beautiful! Then why look at the universe that way. God loves you. Enough to make this world and all the galaxies around. He also loves you enough to send His son to die for your sins. Next time you look at the stars please don’t make the mistake to think what a beautiful accident.

    • Sir

      +1

    • ME!

      So just the christian God then? Not Allah? Zeus? How about Ra? Maybe it was Krishna? Theres a few reasons for ya why no-ones positing your theory.

      • Matt

        Or none of those, because those are all anthropomorphic and were claimed to particularily care about Homo Sapiens. But all the evidence shows that so far we are left to ourselves, and that we have simply evolved from other animals. Those are the ancient deities of people who claimed humans were created at their image, while science demonstrates that they were actually created by humans, the inverse. And interestingly, anthropogenic effects on the climate, as well as global warming, were one of those critical events which could not be predicted by the alleged-prophets of those traditions…

    • God

      I didn’t do it.

      • Jesus

        I can testify that.

  • Derek

    One of my favorite thought experiments is imagining what a human 3000 years from now would think of a CD. It’s shiny, has artistic patterns on it, and is circular. Were humans from circa 2000 AD using these as decorations? Some form of currency? Maybe they used them as jewelry. Would somebody, even 3000 years from now, understand that there is data stored on there? And if not, what data from 3000 years ago are we missing?

  • Roger Stevenson

    An intelligent Creator is the only answer that will disprove all of your conjecture!
    He claims the Bible is the way and answer to this life we know and inspired his creation to explain it for anyone interested in learning!
    God claims he put the stars in motion for humans to be able to tell time and navigate in this finite existence in a infinite universe and we can tell where we are and when from this perfect clock but other life forms are much more likely in a Coocoo clock than our universe!

  • Speechless

    Monkey time!! Oh dear – I am zooming all over the place learning about all these things you have put in this post.
    Faith? of course – religion? yep. Speechless? uh-ha.
    You stretch and manipulate our minds to places we wouldn’t go to on our own.
    Please continue …… I think :)
    How cool are we that we can dance, cry and learn? Far out!!!!!!!

  • Rhybon

    “Some say it’s as high as 50%, but let’s go with the more conservative 22% that came out of a recent PNAS study.”

    Heh heh, you said PNAS.

  • L

    Wonderful! Waiting for you to (seriously and careful/ humble as always) engage with the topic of religion and the what-if of God.

  • Eric McCarty

    My favorite blogger writing about my favorite topic. Just like you, I talk and ramble with anyone that will listen about the Fermi Paradox, it’s been my favorite topic of discussion for years. While I usually have to point them to Wikipedia if they want a summary, this post has replaced it.

    What I think is truly fascinating, is that you made me feel wildly insignificant….AND wildly significant in the same post. Brilliant.

  • Alex

    Great post! this remind me of a (very) short story from Terry Bisson on the exact same subject which give you a explanation, it’s called “They’re made out of meat”

    http://www.terrybisson.com/page6/page6.html

  • Jarod

    Extraordinary great post!
    But please note that for a post of that length, a table of contents might be useful.
    Greetings from Munich! :)

  • Tim Iredale

    Just to add to the much deserved congratulatory hubbub: super excellent post – well done and thank you.

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  • Anca

    This is a great post. When I first saw it I was like “ohhh… to much to read” but then I had a quick look, thought it looks interesting and now I`m sad that it was so short. You are great writer.

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  • Rob

    Type III Civilization – Heaven. Principle Resident there – God. He did visit Earth about 2000 years ago… Wasn’t treated that well… Seems to be waiting to see how wretched we become before we hit the Big Filter…

    • Anonymous

      Great post!

  • Q

    This is my favorite blog ever and I look forward to reading it and being educated every week, so after seeing what goes into one of your posts – all the time and effort – I went to the wait but why store and ordered T-shirts from all my favorite posts! You are brilliant. Thank you for being the best teacher I’ve ever had.

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  • John Schepers

    This did not take into account that as our planet was being born a star exploded giving us the magnetic feild we needed to ward off radiation. Or that our moon is the perfect size and orbit. Both are needed to give us the life we need. With these odds the chance for life diminishes to the possibility that we are the only ones and that is because a force not yet recognized wanted it this way. Only when we figure out what force creates a black hole will we know the meaning of life. To me infinity is impossible in time or space

    • Dan

      “a star exploded giving us the magnetic feild we needed to ward off radiation.”

      Where do people come up with this stuff?

      p.s. We do know the force that creates a black hole. It’s called gravity.

  • Benji

    What about the possibility that we’re last? The final Noah’s Ark of the galaxy?

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  • Jeroen S

    Truly fascinating, as always. This is the first article I’ve ever read on cosmology that doesn’t leave me behind with the uneasy feeling that life is utterly pointless.

    The great Dutch comedian Theo Maassen makes it even simpler though (he might have been joking…): “there are only 2 options: either they’re smarter than us, or they’re more stupid than us. If they’re smarter, they’ll find us first; if they’re more stupid, then I don’t want to have anything to do with them anyway!”.

  • Eric Truth

    Speed of light. thats why.

  • Mark Hayes

    Sorry but as funny as #3 is, that dog doesn’t hunt and here is why. Anyone who hits 21st century Earth is broadcasting noise to the cosmos. Which means we should hear them and all others or at least someone. We got nothing. So, the great barrier thing is probably not in front of us.

    • Jase

      Well that’s not quite right, for two reasons:

      1. If the Great Filter is in front of us and most civilizations that reach our level die out at some point afterwards, there would probably not be very many of them around at any one given time. If 21st century Earth civilizations lasted 100,000 years on average (which would be a serious success considering that we’ve only been at this level for under a century and there is already dangerous nuclear technology), that would mean there would be two of them in the galaxy at any one time. If they lasted 10,000 years on average, there would only be a 20% chance that there’s even one of them alive in the galaxy at any point in time. So the only way the galaxy would have many broadcasting civilizations at once would be if they lasted for millions of years. But if there were a Great Filter in front of us that killed off advanced civilizations a few thousand years in, it would make the galaxy so sparse we would likely not exist with many, or any, others simultaneously.

      2. The radio signals we broadcast are very faint and not detectable to any but the most immediate stars in our galaxy. So there could be a number of similar civilizations broadcasting similarly and we wouldn’t detect them.

      In other words, the Great Filter could definitely be in front of us…

  • Bad

    First: 99.99+0.001=99.991

    Second: You treat 1% as though it’s a generously small number to assume at crucial times when it is not small at all. Just because in common parlance 1% has a sense of being as small as it gets,
    the same just isn’t true for scientific conjecture, even in Fermi estimations.

    Third: Your assumption that finding something on Mars that happened on earth would render the event not a one in a billion event needs further support.

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  • 3fun

    hei guys,

    so many statistics, so many comments but no one even thought about UFO’s? How come?
    We are looking for signals from an extraterrestrial civilization, we find none but when they visit us so many times we cannot believe it? :)

  • Maxime

    Wow whoever wrote this article is a genius.

    I think AI might be a serious possible Filter.

    • Jeremy

      Shared this with my physics classes today – students, as well as, I thoroughly enjoyed it. It opened up great conversation and debate. It was refreshing to read something full of such complex theories, yet so well written that each of my students could follow and pay full attention. Thank you

  • Anonymous

    Who’s the author? you’re asesome!

  • Anonymous

    Correction–awesome :)

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  • Joonas

    I think it’s highly unlikely that there are any predator species out there. If there were, why would they be keeping silent instead of trying to lure us in communicating with them? Like this: http://deepseanews.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/01/finding-nemo_deep-sea-creature-600×450.jpg

    • Aditya

      Perhaps we dont see the bait yet, perhaps we are not ready to be preyed upon yet :) . Actually, even the term ‘predator civilization’ has a very terrestrial association. It’s very much like humanizing the aliens, just a little better. Just because the earth life developed a process where energy consumption happens by forcing other energy sources to give it up (predator – prey), this might not be the course of events elsewhere. In fact it is more probable to assume that energy utilization might evolve with complete co-operation from the source. The other beings might be appalled (humanizing, of course) to see the predatory nature that exists here.

  • Mathew

    A beautiful post, it will be interesting to see how close these estimations correlate as our understanding develops further, and better still, if we are ever lucky enough to exist for long enough for it to be proven. Just a minor point on what you have written: if for every grain of sand there is 10,000 stars out there, of which 5% are sun-like (or 500 per grain of sand) and 1% of those have Earth-like habitable planets. That would make 5 Earth-like planets for every grain of sand on our world? If you missed the intermediary fraction in your analogous representation.

  • Luigi Acerbi

    Tim, this is excellent work. Being interested in the topic and in things at the boundary between science and science-fiction, I am quite familiar with the subject — but I have never found such a clear, flawless exposition. It’s not just the content, but the clarity of thought that reflects in the logical structure of the piece.
    Please keep posts like this coming — you may have the skills to move to the mainstream topics that were thought to be for “geeks-only”.

  • Anonymous

    Phenomenal post. WBW is the best!

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  • Nich

    Awesome read! Well written!

  • 42 pacifiers

    Nice article!

    Regarding possibility#7: “We are receiving contact from other intelligent life, but the government is hiding it.”

    This is really good for our own well being. Not idiotic, but more like a cabinet-door safety lock, i.e Pandora’s box.
    We all may presently be like small kids engaged in regional beliefs with regional vested interests, some with long-term focus.

    Should the cabinet door suddenly open, pandemonium will certainly follow as (some) values and beliefs collapse/implode.

  • Tel

    Surprised that nobody has mentioned the ability of life to survive Mass Extinction Events as a good candidate for your Great Filter.
    If conditions in other planetary systems are similar to our Solar System, then recurring mass extinctions would considerably reduce the likelihood of intelligent life evolving & advancing to the point where it could survive such a cataclysmic event, in the time between any 2 such events.
    It is thought to have been between 5 and 20 mass extinctions of life on Earth, of varying degrees of severity, in the last 540 million years alone. It is also estimated that upwards of 98% of all species’ that have ever evolved are now extinct. How might stats like these affect the calculations about the number of alien worlds that could currently support intelligent life?

    • GatorALLin

      I liked your comment and the Great Filter could be that there are mass extinction events so often that advanced forms of life are forced to reboot and thus never fully develop. However, in looking at earth we could even consider the opposite… that mass extinctions are required to get to the next level of complexity.. maybe if not for that big asteroid 65 million years ago we would still be just lizards here now…

      I always wonder that if given enough time would intelligent life always form…. is life gaining complexity as part of evolution and thus eventually intelligent beings are an inevitable part of evolution …. or are humans just a crazy accident that normally does not occur on other worlds (regardless of time/chance)?

      Life seems happy to stay the same unless under stress… why did humans get buy with basic stone tools for so long? OK, a few minor differences over 10,000 years, but very little advancement in stone tools….. why (what is good enough?). Mother nature moves so slow… eventually you have a mass extinction and thus life hits a reboot and may never have enough stable time to allow for that last critical step (where a lifeform creates enough technology to leave their own planet and also take control of their own DNA to survive long term in space, or be able to terraform another planet.

      I think there could easily be a dozen very big “great filters”…. like time. Every Earth like planet out there is running out of time… (assume that red dwarfs put out too little energy or are tidally locked, thus only sun like stars create life), you have only 6-7 billion years max to create life…. advance it…then leave your planet before it is destroyed. What if life normally takes 8 billion years to develop… and Earth just got lucky with having a giant moon that stirred the life pot a lot faster than normal….here we are early by billions of years. Other Earths the intelligent life shows up just as their oceans boil off… or just as super volcanos destroy their planet, or before they get an asteroid protection program up and running… (game of lowest common denominators).

  • retsofh

    I smell coffee

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  • Russel

    I kind of have a different opinion about the “paradox” because there is a huge assumption underlying the whole argument. It’s that technology will advance exponentially. It certainly seems to be doing so now, and we often extrapolate that it will continue to do so. The entire type I, II, III presupposes exponential growth. What if the growth we are currently experience is just a short spurt of new technology, and the growth eventually slows down to polynomial speeds. It might take billions of years to get halfway to type II from where we are now. Same with lightspeed. Sure, with sub-lightspeeds we could still do an awful lot, but we are nowhere near the tiny percentage of lightspeed we would need to even make a dent. Technology progresses in ways that we never expected, and totally fails to move in the expected ways. Air travel technology hasn’t changed all that much in the past few decades (despite much speculation in sci-fi). But who expected wikipedia?

  • “>

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  • Vincent A. Lazaro

    Enjoyed reading this article!

  • Believer

    You always post about what if’s and the “questions to life,” but the answers are available to you. The only reason why there is not any other life in the universe except for us is because God wanted a family. Not multiple different things across vast space chasms, but a single group that He could love and take care of.

  • Ramy

    Possibility #11, there are a multitude of planes of existence (read: multiple parallel universes), there are other type III’s, but they travel all over the fucking place, in different planes of time, possibly in the same exact location. There could be a type III civilization living on earth right now in a parallel universe, or there could be a parallel earth where we have been visited by other life. If you think of the sheer number of planets in the universe, multiplied by the number of possible universes, and if a type III civilisation could travel between these possible universes, the odds of them ever visiting us is infinitesimal, smaller than the odds of guessing the ncaa bracket perfectly, which also hasn’t happened since we started looking for intelligent life…

  • Eannis The Moist

    Survey the subterranean oceans, to find us. Not on planets or stars, these are simply engines. Look to the moons, and the planetoids outside of the noisy engine-rooms you call solar systems. When you have repaired your number system you may begin the journey.

  • Burk

    Given the sheer size of space, I’m inclined to lean towards the rural back country hypothesis and that no one’s come by yet. Also, if indeed the speed of light can’t be broken, civilizations could never evolve past type 2, and would forever be tied to their local star system. I do believe type 2 is possible though! Scientists recently announced they may be able to convert light into matter. The implications of that are insane. Combined with 3d printing you could have an army of robots replicating themselves and constructing a Dyson sphere. Only thing with a Dyson Sphere is, how do you deal with the green house effect and external impact of space debris.

  • Suraj

    Yes , and russia got crimea.

  • victor_ludorum

    You nailed it – sleepless nights and distracted days await me. I live in a country where this kind of science hasn’t really kicked in. My next goal: forward this link to as many as possible… Love from Nigeria!

  • Marg

    YES. I love you.

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  • Jess

    This was probably the best thing I ever read while stoned. I feel humbled.

  • Doug Green

    Possibility 10) We’re completely wrong about our reality. Not damn likely! There are tests for this.

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  • Earthling

    Great article. More additions to filters behind us:
    1) The Oxygen Catastrophe–luckily for us something evolved to consume the oxygen in time–and the ensuing ice age.
    2) Earth has an iron core creating a magnetic field, which helps deflect enough of the suns rays that we can have an atmosphere.

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  • Luke

    This is one of the most inspiring and fascinating articles I have ever read.

    My comment: As it probably falls under Possibility 10, but wouldn’t the first III types of civilizations suggest there could would be a Type IV Civilization? One that harnesses the power of universes?

  • Don Quijote

    You should partner up with V-Sauce, watch his channel in youtube

    • Big Papi

      I totally agree, you would make the best partners! I’m sure you can collaborate in many ways, and keep spreading the knowledge

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  • Fatah

    We are created by God.
    God only created us.

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  • Austin

    Another Great Filter might be reptilians. If a meteor hadn’t crashed into earth killing dinos, would we have been able to evolve? I have no idea if that’s actually true.

  • Michelle Linares

    WOAH. I love this post, I felt like in a Doctor Who episode. Really long but I didn’t felt it. I love scientific theories, they are all so beyond our imagination. Nice post. Now I’m addicted to this website. Yei.

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  • Me

    Thanks to the GRA (Galactic Rifle Association) the reason we do not observe intelligent life in the universe is that sentient life culminates in the ownership of personal firearms resulting in deranged paranoid fits of self-destruction.

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  • Threedee

    For a sideways look at this issue I suggst the book “Lost in the Cosmos” by Walker Percy.

  • Jas

    After having read this and trying to understand as much as possible, I have come to the conclusion that belief in God creating the heavens and earth, man and everything we know and dont know is just as valid as subscribing to one or more of any scientific theories which has yet to be explained or proven either.

  • GatorALLin

    It still blows my mind that insects were invented only 320 million years ago by mother nature.

    Flowers were just invented 125 million years ago…

    This planet has been working on complex life for 4.54 billion years (ok, now 60 million years older than we thought…thanks moon).

    125/4,540 so in the last 3% of the time here on earth… evolution figures out flowers.

    bipedal primates 200K (maybe less). 200/4,540,000 or a fraction of that…

    we reached the Americas by only 15,000 years ago… so a fraction of that…

    we started using metal tools… just a fraction of that…

    … we invented computers in just a fraction of that … then connected everyone in the world together in a fraction of that time…

    ..only a matter of time before we crack all the secrets of DNA and can manipulate lifespans/heath and expand brain power or merge with machines (or find out we are but stepping stones within evolution and machines or next level biology awakens to take life to the next level of complexity).

    …(at this pace) only a matter of time before we can unlock most/all the secrets of physics and the universe.

    …the singularity is near

    …I still think we are trapped by the physics of distance and we have yet to understand just how ridiculously far away other solar systems are to us and how hard it is to have carbon based life forms survive in deep space over long periods of time.

    …does it count if they are out there, but are too far away to ever contact us (and they don’t survive). Does it count if we never can find them, or them us? What if they are too busy (like us) just trying to survive or get off their own planet?

    ..I always hated that question… If a tree falls in the woods, but no one is there to hear it, does it still make a sound?.. Yes, silly, the laws of physics still exist… maybe the question is, does it still matter? I say yes. So does it matter if a twin earth out there gets all the way to intelligent life and then gets destroyed 10 billion years later when their sun expands and swallows them up and they never escape to a new planet or spaceship?

    what is the meaning of life…?

    The question is the answer of course……

    …to give life meaning….. so, if you are an intelligent species and you unlock all the secrets of physics and the universe, but all of that knowledge is destroyed with you, does your existence really matter?

    Yes, but it would be nice to pass that info on, or share with others…

    It would be fun to find someone else out there.

  • Kelly

    This is one of the best things that I have ever read. I now feel that everyone who is important to me must read this right away. Thank you for giving clarity to complicated ideas. You truly have a gift.

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  • Winchupuata

    Fantastic read

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  • Harold Smith

    What if every planet where there is or was “life”, has or had Jews, i.e., a Satanic collective whose evil machinations cause the planet to self-destruct after its technology advances to the point of producing nuclear weapons?

    In other words, do Jews exist only on earth, or does the diaspora extend to other planets throughout the universe? If so this could explain things.

    • Ukin Blome

      You’re an idiot.

  • Meebzork

    There are many credible cases of UFO observations by credible persons, yet we see no evidence of those UFOs communicating so- do they not communicate or do we not know how to look for it?!
    More when I return to your planet,
    bye

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  • Infinite being

    Could be Possibility 10. None of life as we know it is real. We live in a hologram. Who created it? Someone that intended to encase infinite beings into human bodies that are limited to only perceiving the universe as we know it and not beyond it. A deception of unimaginable cunning and cruelty. Have not sages and shaman from our ancient past not said that life is an illusion? We can only perceive from a three dimensional perspective and through our five human senses. This is by design. Everything in our entire universe is a prison from which we have never known true reality. We are all infinite beings that have been incased (incarnated) in human instruments over and over again with no escape. Our bodies are designed for the explicit purpose to keep us in a limited perspective and in separation from what and who we truly are. We believe we are our bodies and nothing is so further than the truth. Even upon death we are not free. The designer of this prison also created the astral planes upon death as a holding platform until we become recycled (reincarnated) and born as a baby to continue this form of existence with a perpetual amnesia of our true selves. We have never known reality whilst in this dimension. You are infinite.

  • Ratdog Willie

    I don’t believe in the “Big Bang” theory. I believe the was no beginning….there was an always there Universe…..no beginning and no end…..just always….forever.

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  • Jesse Naylor

    This is one of the best blog posts that I have ever read. Excellent work, I’m fascinated by it all. I keep thinking about all this stuff almost on a daily basis for years now, and suddenly I come accross this Fermi Paradox on your blog and there are loads of other people thinking about this very same stuff. Amazing, I don’t feel so alone any more xD

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  • A guy

    Space is really big. Time is really big, too.

    Perhaps advanced civilizations do develop, flourish, and go extinct, and none have been sufficiently close in space and time to communicate with us before we (or they) go extinct.

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  • NormM

    Explanation Group II reads like applied SciFi, complete with the Prime Directive! I find Group I much more compelling, because it seems so unlikely that any Group II explanation would apply to all 100,000 civilizations one might expect in our galaxy. The Klingons wouldn’t obey the Prime Directive, and not everyone would be cautious enough to keep quiet. Not all would be so advanced or fast or slow that we could see no sign of them.

    I think by far the most likely explanation is that we’re the first in our galaxy. Someone needs to be first! Once we get a foothold on other planets, we’re unlikely to completely destroy ourselves. And it would take a relatively short time to seed life throughout the galaxy, comparable to how long it took humans to take over the earth. Whoever is first is very likely to already be everywhere before the second develops.

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  • Aurelio

    Excellent post , there is one thing that got me perplexed though, you say “there should be at least 1,000 Type III Civilizations in our galaxy alone” but if a Type-III civ is one that harness the entire power of their galaxy shouldn’t then be possible for just one Type-III civ to exist in a given galaxy?

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  • andy matthews

    I’d also like to mention something that others have said. You leave off the possibility of a supernatural higher power; i.e. God. I admit and respect that nothing that I say would likely change your mind about the existence of God so I’d like to recommend a book to you. It’s called The Language of God by Francis S. Collins (http://www.amazon.com/The-Language-God-Scientist-Presents/dp/1416542744). Francis Collins is world-renowned geneticist and currently the director of the National Institute for Health. He is also one of the people credited with mapping the human genome.

    You did so much research into this topic and your article was amazingly well written and reasoned. This book approaches the topic of God from a completely empirical and scientific way. Would you consider reading it?

  • Mr. Bee

    This entire article is nonsense. You don’t understand the Fermi Paradox at all.

    • Mr. Bee

      By that I mean that you have stated the question incorrectly and then made a leap to a different topic (messaging), that isn’t actually included in the paradox in the first place.

  • James

    Let me sum up a few thousand years of human thought on the matter, especially as it has been expressed in the on-going search for truth, which existed millennia before the scientific method yet was still a reasoned exploration of truth:

    Humanity has largely decided (whether they are consciously aware or not) that we are generally in Explanation Group 2, with humanity favoring Possibilities 3, 4, 5, and 8, with less popular agreement of 9 and 1 (all held simultaneously in a harmonious arrangement).

  • Duderonymous Bosch

    Questions: Why do you assume extinction = “we’re f–ed?” In purely rational terms, death is of neutral value, but it’s everywhere. It’s a part of nature, for crying out loud.

    Which brings me to #2: Why do you give a shit about transcending mortality?

    And then #3: WILL future generations really look at us and be aghast at our ignorance? Assumption of eternal progress, or The Scientist’s Folly.

    Still, enjoyable read. Well done.

  • Erich Krueger

    My fear is that the great filter is ahead of us, and it’s a simple one: whether or not our world collapses into civilization-ending warfare over dwindling resources before we gain the technological expertise to leave it.

    Imagine if we do succeed at becoming an interstellar species, only to find scores of dead planets – their peoples unable to escape the bonds of earth before they fell prey to their own over consumption.

  • e3k

    thank you for that article. however i found the wiki explanation in a few rows much shorter. anyway this theory corespondents with my world/space of view.

    in the section of answers i see a lot of chaos. in my point of view all of those answers are possible.

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  • Jason

    Cool blog!

    My preferred explanation is:

    1) Interstellar travel is challenging
    (and necessarily slow if it is to be in keeping with special relativity)

    2) The cosmos is vast

  • Anonymous

    Something that has always bothered me about the whole understanding the universe question is, what if we are simply not intelligent enough to understand. The brightest brains in the world seek a “theory of everything” but what if it is like explaining quantum theory to a snail… impossible! Not a nice thought but certainly possible, if not even probable.

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  • John Thomas

    Loved most of the post – very thorough in almost all respects.

    But I disagree with the author’s answer to Possibility #8. Not because I think the government is suppressing things, but because I think most people (including the author) shut down the possibility without ever resorting to anything approaching scientific inquiry.

    In fact, the question of whether the government is suppressing evidence or not isn’t really the scientific question. The real question is, is it scientifically acceptable to take a position that there is evidence of extraterrestrial visitation? If the answer is no, and it’s career suicide to even suggest this – regardless of the potential evidence that might be cited – then we have a situation where we can’t know if the government or anyone else is suppressing it or not, because almost all valid scientific inquiry into the subject is suppressed by the scientific community itself.

    I would argue that we are in this situation, where no valid scientific inquiry into evidence of AGIs is going to happen in the current climate. In fact, the author of this post literally brands even the idea of potential suppression as “idiotic” – which I think proves the point. No offense, but branding people as idiotic without even hearing the arguments isn’t very scientific. We need to get past the emotions and name calling and deal with it scientifically. What’s the evidence for it? What’s the evidence against it? The only thing idiotic is not listening to and researching both sides.

    With regards to government suppression in particular, it’s worth noting that in countries other than the U.S., airline pilots are required to report any abnormal occurrences, and do so regularly – including many contacts which are very weird, and are officially unidentified flying objects. But in the U.S., the same reports are frowned on at best, and can be career-limiting for pilots at worst – even when the reports are corroborated by multiple pilots and other observers. Although this is not suppression of concrete evidence of AGIs, it is suppression of the science, because it suppresses information which could be used in scientific inquiry. Does that mean there’s a hidden UFO at Area 51? No. But it does mean that governments have their own agendas, and they are already suppressing some level of information now, so we shouldn’t be too trusting of their motives or explanations of events. If we dismiss the concept of government suppression out of hand as idiotic, we’ll never know what suppression might actually be happening.

    So I would say the author’s answer to possibility #7 is incorrect. Not because I believe we’ve been visited by extraterrestrials, but because in our current climate, any evidence that we have been visited would not be accepted. So before we can even answer possibility #7, we need to eliminate the prejudice against the topic. We can’t answer it until scientists are free to ask and investigate the question without fear of backlash and ostracism.

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  • Ben

    this blew my little mind…

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  • Victor

    Although you mention many reasons to explain the Fermi paradox, among them some wildly speculative, you did forget an important possibility, one that I consider most likely.
    Namely, civilizations elsewhere are at maximum as complex as we are, and as such are only recently beginning to explore the galaxy.

    So, just like the first protons, the first Helium atoms and the first heavy atoms formed everywhere at the same time, so did the more complex molecules, multicellar life and eventually civilizations form at the same time everywhere.

    Actually, I think only 2 conditions would be needed for this to be possible. 1 Complexity growth is unperturbed by local events, such as planetary forming and mass extinctions. 2 Complexity growth should be governed by a Constant, unchanging both spatially and temporally.

    For the first there is some proof, e.g. as is shown by mr Kurzweils singularity hobby horse http://www.singularity.com/images/charts/CountdowntoSingularityLog.jpg , where accellerating return seems independent on major catastrophic events. On this and the a possible value for the Constant governing complexity growth I have written an article you can find here:
    http://humansrunderrated.wordpress.com/2013/04/18/70/

  • Philip

    You state “our search for signals stretches only about 100 light years away from us (0.1% across the galaxy)”, but this is incorrect. A reply to our first radio transmissions can only come from within 100 light years, but a random, unsolicited signal can come from anywhere, provided the civilization has been broadcasting long enough for it to cover the distance. Indeed, SETI has two search programs: one that targets nearby, sun-like stars, and one that does not target anything but instead listens to the entire sky, so that on the off chance that there’s a civilization 1000 lightyears away that has been transmitting for at least 1000 years.

    There’s a limitation as to the signal level we can detect, which is fairly close assuming a signal like our TV broadcasts, but a Type II or III civilization would presumably be using much stronger transmitters for solar system-wide or galaxy-wide communications, which would allow us to detect the signals from much farther away.

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  • Tim

    If I were a member of an advance civilization, I wouldn’t communicate with Earth, for the same reason I avoid Mississippi.

  • Dan

    T. rex went extinct “only” 67 million years ago – shouldn’t that point be much closer to present day on a 3.46 billion year timeline?

  • rick_povero

    …once we discover…intelligent life on Earth…finding it elsewhere…will be easier

  • Clay

    A couple of other possibilities may be that the other civilizations have come and gone in waaaay different time frames – think “Long ago in a galaxy far, far away……”. And those burgeoning civilizations, like ours, may have developed methods to destroy themselves – like atomic weaponry – and used them. Or….. like us, we are on the verge of killing off our species by wallowing in our own garbage. This is the mindset of the people these days who think climate change is a liberal plot against them and their religious beliefs.
    To be sure, Earth will continue on without us. Mother Nature will hardly notice us passing.

  • Ric

    I find this discussion fascinating, especially as I was watching the movie Contact just last night. So many scenarios to contemplate. So many times I’ve looked up at the night sky and wondered if someone on another world, or multiple other worlds, in multiple other galaxies were doing the exact same thing, wondering about me. What they look like, how they communicate, how they live, work, travel. I wonder if they have forms of art, culture, music, religion, war, poverty, racism, humanitarianism.
    I don’t believe that we are alone. As was stated in the blog, the odds are too great against it. And as, was quoted in the movie last night, “if we are the only ones out here, then it’s a terrible waste of space.”

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  • laurence

    If civilizations rise and fall in what looks like a scintillation pattern (across time as well as space), the chances of two specks appearing close enough in space and time to interact might be very small. Those interactions may span the range from altruism to genocide. In rare cases they may include the wisdom to stay where you are and colonize nothing. “Manifest Destiny” is a facet of human vanity; we can hope it does not afflict truly civilized species. Perhaps failure to outgrow this parochial arrogance is the true Great Filter.

  • Bradford Wells

    The very first problem I have with this is that we do not have a working definition of intelligence. We define intelligence as us. We are not looking for intelligent life in the universe, we are looking for ourselves. Until we can find intelligent life on Earth, we will never find it in outer space.

  • doug

    being jealous of another civilization’s digital immortality is one of the dumber things i can imagine. not only do we already essentially have that now, but it’s such a bizarrely meaningless concept that it shouldn’t matter anyway.

    if digital immortality matters, then life itself does not.

  • la voce della ragione

    As long as science is`justified by so many unproven theories, it will always be the intellectual realm of math equation based robot thinkers who cannot see beyond what we know and try to apply it to the unknown. The reason why radio signals are nowhere to be found in the cosmos is that perhaps the method of communication has not been discovered or utilized by other alien civilizations. And the reason why we have not had contact is that the vast distances between life supporting planets are much too far for survivalist travel. The sheer size of never-ending space allows for a concept of eternity or forever. And this is why there may be no need for a such thing as God. Because there is too much transient chaos in the universe to think it was created by a special someone or something that cares.

  • la voce della ragione

    Very well put.

  • Bill Buttuls

    I Believe there are 3 types of Beings in the universe: physical, which we are all familiar with – our spiritual counterparts, which exist in the spiritual Medium, surrounding the Void in the infinite Medium (space) – and a third type which we have labeled Aliens – I Believe Aliens are the ‘mechanics’ of the universe, who are responsible for maintaining orbits, checking on life types, etc etc. Aliens have the unique ability of being able to travel through both ‘worlds’. They travel through the ‘spiritual’ Medium ( dark matter) because it is timeless. They use dark energy (reverberations of the Big Bang) for propulsion because it can travel faster than the speed of light — is it just a coincidence that our moon fits perfectly over our sun? No, it’s because the sun is 8 times bigger, but also 8 times further away – an arrangement by our Alien brothers!

  • Schmo hawk

    Everyone on earth is Jewish and other intelligent civilizations are anti-Semitic….this explains why they won’t talk to us. Cosmic galactic racial prejudice…. Pure and simple!

    • Harris Lenowitz

      one, at least, is well aware of the origins of yr punning on “schmuck”

  • Steven U.

    An outstanding article. Civilizations can produce filters without knowing it. One filter might be surviving your own pollution or even climate changes (global warming) caused by humans. Another obvious one could be preventing extermination from a meteor/comet impact. Both of these filters would require intelligence, global cooperation, and technical ability. We probably passed a filter when we did not destroy ourselves with nuclear weapons.

  • Mike

    This completely ignores the possibility that there really is a God. A type III civilization would seem very Godlike.

    • Ben Jones

      Then it wouldn’t be GOD as in the all mighty creator, but just another species of life that is more advanced than us. It would lead to the possibility that the human race has the chance to gain the same levels of power. In that respect that would throw the current theory of GOD out the window.

      If you mean GOD as the creature, entity or intellect that sparked the creation of the human race then you would be correct. But they live in the same universe as you and I, making the chances of them creating it implausible.

    • Arya

      The possibility of existence of God is extremely narrow and hopefully, with the progress science is making, it is getting more and more unlikely.

  • Uh … Duh

    There is evidence for possibility 6 (that we are listening for the wrong things), but a lot more evidence for possibility 7 (that the government is hiding contact) — the only possibility that the author dismisses as “idiotic”. How many books have been written about this, how many people have come forward talking about it, how many craft have been sighted by ordinary people — compared to the other possibilities mentioned? I guess compared to pure speculation, such happenings amount to nothing.

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  • Edwin Stamm

    I’m sure it’s this one: “Possibility 7) We are receiving contact from other intelligent life, but the government is hiding it. This is an idiotic theory, but I had to mention it because it’s talked about so much.” It’s not idiotic because of witness reports like these: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7tvfOo947fc and http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EGlsFMq8Kjg

  • Edwin Stamm

    Retired military personnel sharing their experiences.

  • Billy Shears

    Love this post. You are the best blogger in the universe, no matter how small or big it may be.

  • Dave Wotherspoon

    I vote for Group 2 Possibility 9. I was hoping I was the only one who thought of it, but that’s typical of we humans isn’t it.

  • mrieker

    Let’s explore 2.7 a little. It essentially presents the hyposhesis that if there currently is contact from an ET civilization, we don’t know about it because the government is covering it up. But what if there are other possibilities as a result of current contact from ET cvilizations? Seems to me there are.

    So I propose amending 2.7 to something like:

    Possibility 7) We are receiving contact from other intelligent life and …

    …a) The government is hiding it. This is an idiotic theory, but I had to mention it because it’s talked about so much.

    …b) The ETs hypothesize that open “on the White House lawn” contact would be very disruptive to our current society. And so they show their ships only very rarely so rare photographs are the only evidence, plus the occasional trace radiation evidence left behind where they do an even more rare landing. Sometimes there are simultaneous radar, photographic and eyewitness observations. Although this evidence is authentic, it is obscured by other people making fake photographs and wild stories to sell books or have a good laugh. Yet the ET presence is gradually introduced into our civilization rather than a sudden shock event such as a landing on the White House lawn.

  • morn1960

    Would you want to be discovered by a blood thirsty violent race of primates with the capability to destroy all life on their home planet and have none of the common sense not to do so?

  • Anonymous

    What happened to the theory that once a race reaches a certain technological advancement it kills itself tragically ? We’re all doomed because no amount of state fascism will stay some nut from releasing the end plague yada yada yada….

  • jamie dufour

    I believe that its because we are the invasive species (aliens) on this planet and have not learned to be intelligent. Humans have done nothing but base their existence on greed and power forfeiting real abilities such as knowledge, cohabitation with the other species on earth and sustainability of the environment we exist in.

    Lets suggest that we were put here far, far, far away from everything else in the Universe to protect it. We would not recognize intelligence if it was right in front of us…because most don’t have a way to look past our greed and thirst for power….

    Think about it…

  • MysticNebula

    Thank you, for inspiring us :) Sometimes we need to remember how amazing our life is.
    Althought i just feel so sad everytime thinking about not being able to live till the day when we can know the correct answers…

  • Chris n Stuff

    This is absolutely great.

  • Alex

    What an exceptional read! This is the caliber of work we need. Something that exercises the mind – gets people thinking out of the box.

    I introduced my son to Huffington Post and now my son just introduced me to this site. Faved!

    Thank you for this mind-blowing piece!

    Sincerely,

    Arroyo family out of Las Vegas, NV.

  • Gary Carter

    Through history intelligent life has only consumed other life. What do you think we did to each other?

  • JAG

    Perhaps the paradox is explained by the singularity. As an intelligent species evolves, since we all have access to the same materials, a singularity moment is reached fairly early on in technological development (if we reach in 2045 it took us just under 100 years). Once the singularity is reached it isn’t long until AI and machines identify the home species as an unpredictable virus and exterminate it. No group makes it long past the moment the singularity is reached.

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  • Nate G

    Great article. I agree with others though that the author is too dismissive of the idea of the government having knowledge about UFO’s. Given the impressive depths to which the author is willing to research and analyze everything else, they are surprisingly (and to me, unfairly) dismissive of that one.

    As with others, I don’t say this because I have a firm belief in some government conspiracy – I don’t. It just doesn’t seem like an implausible premise. We know the government has many secrets. If UFOs have indeed visited Earth, the US government is probably the most likely to know about it on this planet, given their technological resources. And the whole point of the article is that intelligent life outside Earth is highly likely. So…I really don’t understand why the idea is “idiotic.”

  • Alfred

    Are you serious? The idea that government is “hiding” their contact with the aliens is NOT a dismissive idiotic theory. It’s actually one of the most plausible ideas because it ACTUALLY has some evidence (unlike the great filter theory, etc…) Do enough research or speak to any serious astronomer (hint: become close friends with him first) and he will tell you the stuff he and his buddies see and know while all the sceptic fools out there are bathing in blissful ignorance. People who know it = know it. People who write about it based on their 1-week internet search = spread ignorance. Simple as that.

    There are many who know that humans always had and currently have interactions with beings not-from-this-earth on REGULAR basis. Do some research about some to-the-point factual information about our constant contact with the aliens and you will understand how foolish you are saying that “that theory is idiotic.” Good luck, just don’t fall into the sceptic trap where all the idiots are currently having their ignorance orgy.

    • Mick

      Spot on – ALIENS ARE ALREADY VISITING THIS SHITTY SLAVE PLANET. There is no Question of “if” aliens exist , what the fuck do most of the readers of this blog think FUCKING ufo’s are ? There is enough UFO evidence on utube to sink a battle ship. If only 1 of the thousands of UFO videos on utube are real then that 1 ALIEN Space ship is your proof that Aliens exist and are here and most of the blog is pointless nonsense. Wake up you Freaks , Intelligent species are already here, lending you money at interest !!!! .

  • chusmacha

    I’m here and so are you. Let’s talk.

  • Bruce K

    In the beginning, God created. Period!

    • Roberto Lorenzo

      I pray to god that you become an atheist :D

  • Bob

    The reason we haven’t “found” intelligent life in the universe is because we are not as intelligent as we think we are. 1) “intelligent” life in the universe may be beyond our comprehension of what intelligence is or can be; 2) how can our species be “intelligent” when we devote so much of our resources in acts that will destroy our civilization, i.e. increasing the number and power of weapons, and decreasing our life-sustaining resources.

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  • Zak

    I had a lot of fun reading this, but I feel like our top scientists are missing the point. Thinking of the advancement of a species in strict terms of energy consumption and suburban sprawl can be limiting.

    Is it possible that the universe itself is alive, not a desolate wasteland, but a living creature made of living parts? Maybe all of these parts have their own experience in their own section of space and time just as unique to them as ours is to us. Our scientists should consider the possibility that the earth is alive and therefore meets the requirements for type 1, and the sun is alive and conscious therefore meeting the requirements for type 2, and the milky way itself is a creature and so on… I would even argue that the life force that exists in us and in the insects and in all the cells, exists in the very electrons themselves, making them some crazy type of creature/civilization that no one has any idea on how to classify.

    Our oldest human cultures spoke of the connectivity in all things and revered the earth the moon the sun and the stars as guiding spirits. Some of these cultures have survived the worldwide trend of genocide and colonization of the last 10,000 years. These cultures, along with many of our prophets, thinkers, and artists throughout time protest the worlds governments and power structures and urge the need to care for our planet and each other.

    We might not have to exploit the resources of other planets to advance. We might need to maintain a loving relationship with our own planet to survive.

    In all likelihood, everything that could possibly happen is happening and we’re just too small and too fast to be fully aware of the gargantuan infinity of it all.

  • the crustybastard

    Enjoyed the hell out of this article. Have a small quibble, though.

    You wrote, “sentient humans have only been around for about 50,000 years…”

    I cannot agree. Our species of hominid was hardly the first to be “sentient.”

  • Benny

    Nice article — the only part of the article I didn’t like was:

    “Possibility 7) We are receiving contact from other intelligent life, but the government is hiding it. This is an idiotic theory, but I had to mention it because it’s talked about so much.”

    Why inject an opinon (“idiotic theory”) in a fact/information piece? Author should’ve just explained the theory instead of dismissing it as idiotic

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  • xref

    One problem with the Zoo Hypothesis that might be worth noting is, as my astronomy professor put it; “it only takes one ET to break the embargo”

    http://abyss.uoregon.edu/~js/cosmo/lectures/lec28.html

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  • Type III – Photo of the “Hand of God”

    A couple of the Hubble Photos show Type III activity in progress, including a spectacular picture of the “Hand of God”. Anyone else besides me recognized that yet? I can’t believe that I’m the only one …

  • Octf

    I don’t know if you guys care about entertainment industry, but it
    seems Mass Effect’s intricate story stems from the predator theory from group ii.

    So here goes the famous quote that expresses my feeling:
    Shepard: “This is my favorite blog post on the citadel.”

    Thanks for the article.

  • rick_povero

    #14 Earth is under divine quarantine

    …C. S. Lewis knew his medieval iconography…Earth…is Thalia Surda…Thalia the Deaf…insensible to the music of the spheres…see her unheeding visage…with eyes closed…in the lowest circle (least exalted)…of the nine muses [wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/7/7f/The_music_of_the_spheres.jpg]

    …because of Eve’s sin…(Lewis like Tolkein had an Oxford donnish disdain…of womankind generally)…and Adam’s foolish complicity…God quarantined Earth…lest its “sinfulness” infect…a radiant…innocent Being…the World Soul…no wheels and gears…for Lewis like Tolkein…found the Industrial Revolution…had left England…in the image of Mordor

    …thus Out of the Silent Planet…we humans…can not but infect…the Divine Mystery…with our presence…beyond the scarred Moon…witness to war in the Heavens…to Satan’s Fall

    …Earth is not so much silent…as silenced…our moral opacity…keeps us from hearing or being able to respond to…the discourse of sinless beings…on other worlds

  • Joe Astronomer

    Interesting that he left out the “Boom” hypothesis (nuclear war), which was at the top of Sagan’s list of reasons why there might not be anybody out there. If all life is a competition for scarce resources in the context of an evolutionary process which includes the race to develop better weapons (extrasomatic in the case of human beings), then it is hardly a surprise that we are alone.

    Interesting also that the word “industrial” appears nowhere in the article, as our alleged ability to ferret out civilizations orbiting other stars depends entirely upon this characteristic of our current civilization. We were “intelligent” for many millennia before we had radio telescopes and space probes, remember. And industrialism and it continuance depends entirely upon the planet’s energy endowment, which (excepting solar energy) is finite. It could be that all intelligent civilizations go through an industrial phase and then “run out of gas.”

    They don’t necessarily have to collapse, but may instead go on being “intelligent” at a lower level of complexity, one that does not make contact with other civilizations a viable possibility. This is called the “sustainability” solution to the Fermi Paradox, and given what we are currently learning about life and ecology it seems to me to be the most likely solution. (There is a paper about on the Web somewhere; sorry, don’t have a link).

    • til

      i would like to add, that “intelligent” in the whole article is used in industrial and technological context. also, “lower level of complexity” is in an technological context. what about, hit me for that, spiritual complexity? look at buddhist monks, they have an incredible level of complexity and can perform spiritual task western people can hardly grasp. it could be possible that an highly advanced civilisation is much more complex in spiritual terms than humans can understand. at last, reality is a very complicated thing

    • WSSNW

      Actually he does discuss it in the “we’re fucked” section.
      “Another candidate is the possible inevitability that nearly all intelligent civilizations end up destroying themselves once a certain level of technology is reached.”

  • ManAboutDallas

    There’s a huge sign on the dark side of the moon that says “No intelligent life on the nearby planet. Avoidance highly recommended.”

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  • Ray Van Dune

    Let me see if I understand: you are saying that the one obvious solution to the paradox cannot even be considered, even though possible observations of this phenomenon have occurred millions of times in history, and the only way this phenomemon could fail to explain the Fermi Paradox is if every single one of those reported observations is false, and despite that fact that our understanding of the universe.says this phenomenon should be frequetly observed… which is in fact the source of the Fermi Paradox!

    Do I have that right? Before you go off on an ad hominem rant, please do me a favor. Please list the specific reasons that observations of UFOs are “Idiotic”. “Reasons” do not include insults and name-calling. All I ask is specific and clear examples of why you feel that reports of UFOs are idiotic. Anything you can assert so strongly must have a number of compelling pieces of evidence behind it, so please just list them for me, if you would.

    And don’t forget that I said that “every single one” of UFO observations must be false in order for the Fermi Paradox to remain a paradox, and I meant it – one “real” observation and the paradox goes “poof”!

    • WSSNW

      He never said UFO sightings are false. He said a government cover up is idiotic. First you know about them so how good is this government cover up? Second by what means would a government have to cover up the existence of a civilization that could harness the power of solar system and travel faster than light? To assume that your government could cover that up is idiotic.

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  • casualsheik

    How does Einstein’s Relativity come into play with the Great Filter theory (i.e. it being “behind” us, or “ahead” of us in time) in the sense that Relativity says there is no past, present, or future, only space-time?

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  • Ralph Hammond

    Remember that we have only effectively been searching for a very tiny portion of time. Not only do we need to be able point in the right direction at the right time to receive any quantifiable & verified signal, we have to be in the right place relatively speaking at the receiving end of a broadcast, intentional or not. So as we develop stronger and more technically proficient ways to look for an intelligent broadcast, we will be able to filter more information at one time. Lets give it another 100 years or so:)

  • David

    You didn’t mention that maybe we’re tiny little meaningless creatures and that maybe this form of life is 1000 times bigger (just think about how big dinosaurs appear to us… in this tiny planet, because we know for sure this is a tiny planet). And they just can’t notice us, and we may be very well getting in trouble trying to contact them…

    Maybe if you think it the other way round it would make sense… we are looking for life the way we know it, but in some other planet it may be so so small that we can’t notice them.

    Well, having dinosaurs on Earth some years ago, it makes me think that IF there are different civilizations, they all may vary in size, and maybe a lot more than you can expect.

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  • Jane

    So by “existential meltdown followed by acting weird for the next half hour” do you mean feeling completely terrified/panicked and excited/in awe at the same time?

  • Til

    Great, great post. liked it very much. but, why is option 7: “We are receiving contact from other intelligent life, but the government is hiding it. This is an idiotic theory, but I had to mention it because it’s talked about so much.”

    an “idiotic” theory. i mean, you speculate that we could live in an hologram, or are part of an galactic zoo. or the dyson sphere. so why ist possibility 7 “idiotic”?

    • robertinventor

      You can understand the government hiding it. But what’s in it for the ET? Why would they want to communicate only with the US government? Don’t tell me that they crash landed on Earth. After a few billion years of technological progress into the future, or even a few thousand, their spaceships won’t crash.

      For that matter their first flights to Earth surely wouldn’t be themselves, but rather telerobotic or biotic avatars. While they remain in orbit or nearby – if they come here at all themselves – and wouldn’t send their one and only telerobot – they’d build a few more from resources in the asteroid belt first if they happen to be down to their last telerobot or avatar – the whole thing just doesn’t hang together at all from the ETs point of view.

  • Lois

    Greetings from Florida! I’m bored at work so I decided to check out your blog on my iphone during lunch break. I enjoy the knowledge you present here and can’t wait to take a look when I get home. I’m amazed at how fast your blog loaded on my cell phone .. I’m not even using WIFI, just 3G .. Anyways, wonderful blog!

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  • Steve

    A fine summary of the arguments. Pity though that it also has to include foul language. It’s a bit like listening to an enthralling account from someone who also has bad breath.

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  • Gwydo

    Super interesting article!!! But I really don’t get why the author rejects the conspiracy theory as “idiotic” (simply outlining it, as done with every other theory, would be far more scientific than imposing personal value). Furthermore, its the one theory, which is easiest comprehensible and seems to have some kind of evidence.

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  • Jacob

    I’m not sure where you are getting your information, but great topic. I needs to spend some time learning more or understanding more. Thanks for magnificent information I was looking for this info for my mission.

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  • Ben Rich

    Nice blog. Funny and thought provoking.

    It’s good to see an article like this which gets people thinking about the bigger picture for a while. It makes a nice change from Candy Crush Saga and Kim Kardashian’s incredible expanding ass, if only for a few minutes.

    Your “discussion” of possibility 7 however, let’s the article down.

    Just to write off the notion that “We are receiving contact from other intelligent life, but the government is hiding it” as “an idiotic theory, but I had to mention it because it’s talked about so much.” is weak to say the least.

    It’s not even factually accurate. There is only one government which officially denies any knowledge of extra-terrestrial visitations that being the US. Nearly every other government (including the UK) in the world keeps a very open stance on the matter and furthermore admits that there are often objects which penetrate their airspace which goes way beyond what is considered technologically possible by our contemporary standards (see Nick Pope formerly of the MOD or the GEPAN committee in France, Belgium, Mexico etc)

    Moreover any official scientific study on the subject has always lead the scientists involved (if not the official authorized conclusions) to become acutely interested in the reality of the phenomenon. Even J Allen Hynek who lead the American investigations in the UFO phenomenon for 20 years was ultimately convinced that there was an unexplainable (at least in ‘rational’ terms) reality to the multitude of reports of aerial sightings from all kinds of witness, including military personnel, civilian pilots and radar operators, despite the fact that as he himself admitted, this study was always required to offer an arcane explanation to each case (see Project Blue Book).

    Whether or not these reports are indeed sightings of extra-terrestrial craft or even something else (like inter-dimensional craft) is up for a very valid debate. Furthermore, given the secrecy around US and other military black projects (which they say is usually around 15-20 years more advanced that what the rest of the world enjoys) makes it virtually impossible to arrive at any certainty but that does not mean we should write off the discussion as unworthy. Only close minded simpletons would rather not tackle a subject that had no definite outcome as it’s the very questioning of issues beyond our current ken, that leads mankind to strive for further knowledge.

    In any case, reality as we understand it in the old Newtonian sense of the physical mechanics of the world, has been completely blown out of the water by Quantum Physics which shows that (at the nano-scale at least) our world is a lot more mysterious and uncertain than we would like to believe and it opens up the possibility of all sorts of things which we would have previously considered impossible.

    Our current scientific understanding of the physical world around us does not limit possibility only our ability to recognise or realise said possibilities. Possibilities, 6, 8 and 9 are therefore not mutually exclusive of possibility 7 which, in my humble opinion, you have been hasty to write off. I suggest you give that subject a short period of serious and open minded examination. There is plenty of non-tin-hat-derived information available, the possible conclusions of which could be quite staggering.

    Go down the rabbit hole, and then ask yourself… wait, but why?

    • BugoTheCat

      There is a theory among few UFOlogists that the phenomena exists but it’s not probably aliens, but something else we don’t have the tools to detect yet, that manifests as different kind of mythologies every time. It’s aliens nowadays, fairies in the past, etc. Some of these UFOlogists believe the the field has deteriorated into the majority forcing the alien hypothesis of UFOs, creating all this neomythology of Area51, government hiding all information, etc. Of course the government has worked on projects trying to identify these objects since it could still be a threat to airspace, but according to some of the skeptical UFOlogists, they are not hiding much, there is no great government-alien conspiracy, they just know as little as the scientists, they are equally puzzled and may have left the subject since those unknown objects appear and dissapear, fly around but mostly don’t consist as a danger.

      So, yeah, I do also not believe in the government hiding real alien visitations, it’s not impossible, you are ok to say it would be nice to be analyzed, and maybe my small analysis (which is mostly one side of the story I am more inclined to believe) is above. There are some disturbances, maybe not alien, nobody knows what their real nature. Unless we go with the other argument on the list that says maybe the nature of aliens is so alien we don’t even know we are visited. And those UFO phenomena have high strangeness sometimes. But doesn’t answer why they appear, disappear, they troll air pilots, but never never do real contact. Maybe zoo hypothesis or alien logic.

    • WSSNW

      I think you’re mixing up two things. He did not dismiss the possibility that aliens have visited earth. The dismissed the possibility that aliens have visited and the government has covered it up. You sighted a bunch of sources. Are these sources “covered” up by your government? Are they not accessible to you? By what means exactly would a government have to stop an advanced civilization from revealing itself to general public?

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  • Joe

    When I woke up this morning, I decided to tackle the Fermi paradox. Well at least now I have a new favorite blog.

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  • Ravisundar

    How can you assume so many different species at ‘starting of life’ line at the left?

    It will appeal to logic if you start with one, branching out to so many at ‘a’ point of filter, one or more survive after filter, which branches again to yet another so many and so on … till such a huge impact filter when nothing survives.

    And what about the chance that one ‘intelligent’ species like Man, which learns how to exploit every resource faster and faster till exhaustion bringing about its own end before learning to control exploitation?

    The real filter for Man appears already on and no one who has a say is looking for it. It sounds as a very real possibility when the wheelchair guy gave just 100 or 200 years for Humanity.

  • Ringtail

    What if we would turn this discussion on it’s head?

    We are now one of a vast multitude of intelligent civilizations residing in this visible Universe, or perhaps in an adjacent one. Each has passed through the Great Filter, but in doing so has recognized that the greatest barrier is not a natural planetary event, or even an external one, but the intelligence which has permitted each to contemplate such things. To arrive at this pinnacle each has had to overcome the inherent aggressiveness which permitted dominance of all other competing species, yet would prove to be the greatest threat to continued existence.

    Given this unique perspective, we now observe untold numbers of other civilizations struggling as they approach this barrier.

    How should you react?

    Should you intervene to assist in order to make their transition successful?

    Who would you make contact with?

    Given that these worlds are fragmented into multitudes of aggressive, conflicting cultures would any external intervention resolve problems? Probably not, as past situations have so graphically shown. The terrible truth is that each world must face this on its own. It will come to a critical decision point where one path will lead to a flourishing civilization and the other will lead to decline, if not extinction.

    From this perspective, all you can do is observe.

  • p_soto

    I picture the Great Filter as that event where someone in the species yells “We did it!” or “It worked!” And boom, they are no more…

  • Asshat900

    They are also fighting over oil.

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  • Not Anonymous

    Though I know nothing about the subject, especially when put into the perspective of people who have Doctorates in Theoretical Physics, it seems to me that a point beyond the evolution of intelligent life is the Great Filter. And that we’re not to the Great Filter yet.

    Evolution has no longer become necessary for the survival of humanity, and any genetic mutation that is beneficial and not shunned will only be passed on to a small (ridiculously small – there are more than 7 billion of us now) percent of the population. These people won’t have any more advantage or likelihood to live as the rest of us. Perhaps slightly, but the rest of us aren’t going to go extinct.

    We might need to evolve from an intelligent species to a species that is also strong or quick, or detail-oriented. But the strong or quick or detail-oriented members of our species aren’t going to carry us there themselves. Evolution is now unnecessary, and is rendered, for lack of better words, impossible in humanity. If the Great Filter calls for being detail-oriented (and by detail-oriented I mean you memorized how many lines are in the King’s beard at the top of this page), then we’re screwed.

    Now this doesn’t mean we’re exactly to be extinct end, but we’ll never harness the power of out galaxy, maybe getting up to 1.6 or so. We’ll be small or insignificant in the grand scheme of things, not being able to advance further. And small and insignificant things are crushed. But they might also be spared. Maybe these aliens are naturally benevolent? Or maybe they just don’t care about us because we’re so tiny and insignificant, unable to reach beyond 1.6 because we’re not detail-oriented enough. And they were.

  • Lanny Buettner

    Fascinating stuff. Regarding the possibilities why we haven’t met advanced civilizations assuming they exist, I am reminded of a quote from a science fiction author regarding typical ways aliens are depicted in movies: “What civilization has the advanced technology to travel across the vast distances of space and take over earth, yet doesn’t have anything better to do?” I suspect we may be pretty boring to the advanced civilizations and hence we haven’t had a visit from any of them. If they can get around faster than light, they probably don’t need to send radio signals to communicate. So we may have no way of detecting them. Carl Sagan’s “Contact” has an intriguing possibility about how advanced civilizations might contact us.

  • Nico

    I liked the quote ““Here on Earth, we’re the king of our little castle, proud ruler of the huge group of imbeciles who share the planet with us.”
    The Kings of course being Mr. Urban and ME of course hehe.

  • Nico Again

    I think there are billions of planets like us and their inhabitants may have reached even higher form of living.
    In my mind though no one has ever reached such height as to be able to travel beyond their own “solar” system for example and never will, if the planets are more or less of the same making, there is a limitation as to the biological composition here on earth and in all other planets in the galaxies.
    Our destiny is to die off in one manner or another.
    We’re fucked but who cares?
    I’ve got much bigger worries like for example having to die….

  • some guy

    posibility 8! Technological advancement may proceed ethical or spiritual advancement, but not over thousands of years … So more evolved civilisations are way more evolved ethically and spiritually aswell. Hence they know better than to interfere, though they may well be guiding, helping, supporting us in some ways, there are indeed rules not to spoil the game. And these rules don’t just apply for them, it’s the same for us.

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  • wayan imade pesek

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  • Romeo Gutierrez V

    Who is building and flying the so called Flying Saucers?

  • james h

    lol “were rare, were first, or were fucked”… XD

  • the dude

    Pretty sure this idea has been brought to light somewhere on this message board but it could be possible we ARE in the midst of the colonization of the milky way galaxy and we ARE the type 3 species. Given the amount of stars and planets, the most practical way would be to implant the building blocks and/or genetic materials like spores to habitable zones. We are the “first out” species from this galaxy, version something astronomical. All life on this planet could be cut from the same cloth as the very first species that became aware in the milky way, just crafted and molded by Earth’s environment. This would be advantageous for time and effort purposes of the host species as well as for overall health of life in this galaxy. Having variable life would be as valuable for the galaxy as it is for each individual planet.

  • journ

    possibility 7 is NOT idiotic you idiot!

    • WSSNW

      yes it is you idiot.

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  • Uri

    Why haven’t you considered the possibility that civilizations Type 2 and 3 are in fact impossible by physics laws?

    • WSSNW

      Bingo! Type II and Type III civilizations are science fiction fantasies that people (mostly futurist) except as an eventuality.

    • Nolan Uribe

      Do you know how many times technologies that we consider commonplace now have been written off as physically impossible by renowned scientists before?

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  • Neemus

    You forgot to mention distance. Proxima Centauri is our nearest neighbor and it would still take over 4 years of travel at light speed to reach it. What if the closest intelligent civilization is 1000 light years away and FTL travel is impossible? We would never meet or be able even to detect their transmissions, even if we both existed for billions of years.

    • WSSNW

      I agree. I’m always amazed when people discuss the Fermi Paradox they never address the simplest answer. No matter how advanced a civilization gets, traveling faster than light may just be impossible. That includes warp drives, wormholes etc.

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  • Stu James

    “Possibility 7) We are receiving contact from other intelligent life, but the government hiding it. This is an idiotic theory, but I had to mention it because it’s talked about so much.”
    Not so fast, this topic or possibility deserves deeper exploration. I believe the universe is teeming with life. There are a growing number of highly credible witnesses who confirm this is in fact the case. I’m not talking about Joe farmer in the mid-west who sees lights in the sky… do some research, you’ll discover that many former NASA employees, astronauts who have walked on the moon ie Edger Mitchell, cosmonauts, various top Navy and Air force brass from around the world not just US, former intelligence community officials who’s security oaths have expired, numerous politicians including Canada’s former defense minister…The honorable Paul Hellyer, not just some guy who worked in the mail room. FAA Division Chief John Callahan, Nick Pope former British intelligence agency and ministry of defense… the list of credible people coming forward just in the last few years is hard to ignore and what they have to say is mind blowing… it can’t all be BS. I do believe there are type 2 and 3 civilizations that have and continue to maintain an interest in our little blue planet and us and that this fact is being kept from the general public for various reasons some quite reasonable… I also feel that Possibility 8) Higher civilizations are aware of us and observing us (AKA the “Zoo Hypothesis”) is also in affect. There is a broader “hands off” rule that advanced civilizations respect for the most part, however the day is fast approaching when the peoples of Earth will know and accept as fact that we are not alone…. I’m not saying that everyone is going to meet an ET, but at some point there will be a global acceptance of their existence and eventually it will be no big deal.

    • WSSNW

      If you believe in Zoo Hypothesis how exactly would there be a government cover up? What would the government have to cover up? So the civilizations (type II/III) are so advanced that they’ve mastered super luminous travel, quarantined us off from the rest of the universe but can’t figure out how to hide themselves from these “credible people” you’ve listed. That’s idiotic. In almost every other facet of life people think of governments as barely competent except when it comes to this. If aliens wanted to study us undetected why would your government be able to detect them?

  • Johnny Tremain

    Since it’s all speculation, here’s my ‘possible explanation’. We ARE special. In fact, we are unique… placed here by an infinite Creator, who in the beginning, created this vast heaven and this specially outfitted planet Earth. He may or may not have placed life on other planets… but that is ultimately irrelevant. He placed us on THIS planet for a reason… for a purpose.

    • WSSNW

      Look around. We look special to you?

  • Eric

    Overall a fantastic article, thought provoking and well written. But your dismissive comment regarding Possibility 7 (We are receiving contact from other intelligent life, but the government is hiding it) that it is an “idiotic theory” leaves a very noticeable dent in an otherwise very well polished article.

    Instead of calling it “an idiotic theory”, you could have simply written “I personally find this highly doubtful”

    For the record, I do not believe that “the government” is hiding something, but I am open to the possibility. There’s nothing idiotic about the theory.

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  • badjek

    They are coming!

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  • GM

    I believe!
    Let’s say planet X exists and has, as we have, sent out electromagnetic waves into space at the time where it was on the same technological status as we are (and later of course), which would be 3.47 billion years ago. These waves would then until now have traveled 3.47 billion lightyears. If we are further away than this, which is actually very probable since the observable universe has a size of about 93 billion lightyears, the signal just hasn’t reached us yet. In fact, the universe only has an age of 13.7 billion years, which makes it very probable that there are species out there, that in the lifetime of the universe wouldn’t have been able through any medium to reach us, e.g. which would live further away from us then 13.7 billion lightyears. A simple calculation shows you that only 0.27% of the universe lies under that threshold. Maybe I’m completely wrong here, but isn’t that a good explanation?

    • GM

      I have to correct myself, it would be 7% (not 0.27%), since 93 Gly is the diameter, not the radius!

  • Douglas

    Man, your posts entertain me in a way that no other reading does. I don’t enjoy reading books or most big articles I come across just cuz I’m lazy. Your posts on the other hand, keep me stuck to the screen until I get to the end for some reason.. can’t really say why. Anyways, just wanted you to know that you are a fucking awesome writer and your blog is unlike any other I’ve come across. Keep up the good work!

  • giemore

    Amazingly fun article to read. I’ll be back for more! That being said, your outright dismissal of a government coverup, of some sort, on some scale is frankly pretty lame. One thing humans have proven here is that they like to control other humans…There are so many reasons why the government would do this, but we can just start with people completely flipping the fuck out… Maybe it’s protocol for a class II -III type species to make sure that shit doesn’t happen., Why wouldn’t the government cover that up? If I were in charge I sure as fuck would.

    • WSSNW

      So all the advanced civilizations have the same protocol? You’ve been watching too many scifi movies. If the type II/III protocol was to be secretive so no one would “flip the fuck out” then why would the government know? Because the government would have technology that could penetrate the type II and III civilizations technology? Think how absurd that is.

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  • Anshuman Kumar

    This is so epic!

  • Scotty

    Amazing how unbelieving scientists look to the start for a radio transmission, when a binary code exists in our genes, and precise motors and micro machines exist in microbiology. Rather than concoct some convoluted logic, I propose the hypothesis that the reason we share so much similar DNA with animals and primates is because we were made by the same maker, in the same way, the most efficient way. Just like there’s only one shape of a wheel, and two people on opposite sides of the earth make a wheel the same way, doesn’t mean that one wheel descended from the other. Much too, our biological and biochemical systems, while similar, mean nothing. other than we were designed by the same designer. I’m an expert in hematology, and it’s a field where we’ve barely scratched the surface of complexity. If alive, Darwin would shoot down his own theory. Having been to Medical University myself, I’m not keen to being called a right winger or a lunatic believer. I’m a believer like Isaac Newton was a believer, and I believe that at a minimum, and intelligent person must be at LEAST agnostic. I believe the persistent faith in evolution lies mostly in folks wanted to get ahead in life, simple human nature. They want grants and their PHD’s and don’t want their lifes work debunked. But that’s not real science.

    • WSSNW

      I can’t understand why you religious nuts don’t find something else to do. Why do you spend your precious time trolling the internet posting on topics you don’t believe. Find a nice religious site where you can talk with the people about your magic sky king.

      • Scotty

        The problem with discussing metaphysical things with people like you, is you have no respect for my beliefs or ideas, or the time I spent studying to come to my beliefs. You start from the premise that you’re right, and I’m a nut, as if you are the judge of judges. Well you’re on a message board just like me, no better or worse. However, the odds are that I’ve had much more science classes than you and yet, I treat you with respect, and don’t call you a nut for grasping at straws, sending little ships out to the vast nothingness, looking for the reason for earth being here, and how life began. If you think life is an accident, and the universe is absurd (as in absurdism), that’s your right. I have just as much right to post here, and you’re not the judge of who or what gets posted. If you followed the scientific method, which is what we’re supposed to do when looking for facts, you’d probably come to the same conclusions I have, but you’d rather not invest the time, I guess the concept that there is a purpose to life doesn’t exist in your world, so you might call yourself an existentialist, but don’t call me a nut.

    • kitsunde

      Scientists look at everything. Different scientists have different interests and fields. Astrobiology is looks at the things you’re talking about, you might like this: http://www.reddit.com/r/science/comments/2i9tla/science_ama_series_im_maxim_makukov_a_researcher/

      Take a breather homeboy.

  • TK

    The graphics for scenario 1 and 2 of the Great Filter are switched (We’re rare and We’re first) . Great article though!

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  • NeHoMaR

    My explanation to this paradox is easy: We are dreaming, everything is an illusion.

    • Vivek Jindal

      possibility 10

  • Thorack

    I have three claims for you that will blow your mind and give you chills.

    1: Consider this as a fact: We are the only inteligent lifeform there is in the universe, think about this for a litte while (1min or so), all alone…. we are the smartest there is….

    2: Consider this as a fact: We are not the only inteligent lifeform there is. This raise alot of questions ofc. Think of them for a little while (1min or so)….. Mind blowing isn’t it?

    3: One of the two above claims are true! O_O

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