Where is everybody? The silence is maddening

“My doctors tell me their best estimate is that I have only a few weeks left to live. This is the final verdict. My fight is over.”  Charles Krauthammer, June 18, 2018

Well it was barely a few days later. The Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist, Charles Krauthammer,  died on June 21, 12018. He was 68.

Perhaps now he will learn himself, if not tell us in a weekly column, if we are in fact alone in the universe.

As Krauthammer wrote in his October 2013 book, Things That Matter: Three Decades of Passions, Pastimes and Politics, a lot of things mattered a great deal to Charles.  Three of these things were Occam’s razor, Fermat’s last theorem, and in particular the Fermi paradox.  Why in particular the Fermi paradox? Well Enrico Fermi the Italian-American physicist and the creator of the world’s first nuclear reactor, had asked for himself, and for all of us.

With so many habitable planets out there, why in God’s name have we never heard a word from a single one of them?

How many habitable planets out there are there? In November of 1959 Harvard University astronomy professor Harlow Shapley speculated on the number of them saying “The universe has 10 million, million, million suns (10 followed by 18 zeros) similar to our own. One in a million has planets around it. Only one in a million million has the right combination of chemicals, temperature, water, days and nights to support planetary life as we know it. By this  calculation we arrive at the estimated figure of 100 million worlds where life has been forged by evolution.”

I take the following passages from Krauthammer’s op ed piece, Are we alone in the universe? from the Wash Post of 12/29/2011. He is writing about the Fermi Paradox: on why intelligence is lethal and politics is sovereign.

Huge excitement last week. Two Earth-size planets found orbiting a sun-like star less than a thousand light-years away. … As the romance of manned space exploration has waned, the drive today is to find our living, thinking counterparts in the universe. …this search betrays a profound melancholy — a lonely species in a merciless universe anxiously awaits an answering voice amid utter silence.

That silence is maddening. … As we inevitably find more and more exo-planets where intelligent life can exist, why have we found no evidence — no signals, no radio waves — that intelligent life does exist?

Carl Sagan (among others) thought that the answer is to be found, tragically, in the high probability that advanced civilizations destroy themselves….

Wrong hands, human hands. This is not just the age of holy terror but also the threshold of an age of hyper-proliferation. Nuclear weapons in the hands of half-mad tyrants (North Korea) and radical apocalypticists (Iran) are only the beginning. Lethal biologic agents may soon find their way into the hands of those for whom genocidal pandemics loosed upon infidels are the royal road to redemption….

Rather than despair, however, let’s put the most hopeful face on the cosmic silence and on humanity’s own short, already baleful history with its new Promethean powers: Intelligence is a capacity so godlike, so protean that it must be contained and disciplined. This is the work of politics — understood as the ordering of society and the regulation of power to permit human flourishing while simultaneously restraining the most Hobbesian human instincts.

There could be no greater irony: For all the sublimity of art, physics, music, mathematics and other manifestations of human genius, everything depends on the mundane, frustrating, often debased vocation known as politics (and its most exacting subspecialty — statecraft). Because if we don’t get politics right, everything else risks extinction….

It will determine whether we will live long enough to be heard one day. Out there. By them, the few — the only — who got it right.”


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