On Tuesday, 12 July 2022, the first full-colour images from the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) were released during a televised broadcast from NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. At long last we were allowed a mind-boggling glimpse of a sharper image of the universe. The JWST is the largest telescope in space and due to the measurements in the infrared range, we can now perceive stars or even planets which were too distant for the good old Hubble Space Telescope to discover. The images are staggeringly beautiful and awe-inspiring. They immediately stirred a memory in me. As a young boy I used to bury my nose in books about the solar system. I dreamed about our neighbouring planets and what I might find there. While glancing at pictures of the planets, learning their names and order by heart, I used to think “if Pluto is the last planet (in those days Pluto was still classified as a planet), what comes after it?”. Later I learned of other star systems and galaxies and of the theories of more habitable planets. If there are so many stars, so many planets, chances must be high that there is alien intelligent life in the galaxy and that we are not alone. This begs the question: “So, why haven’t we heard from anyone yet?”
This question is known as the Fermi Paradox. About 70 years ago, the physicist and Nobel laureate Enrico Fermi, was discussing aliens with his colleagues over lunch – as one does. His colleagues were convinced that the galaxy was teeming with extraterrestrial life. They argued that as the Milky Way is billions of years old and thousands of light-years across, then it should be possible to colonize the galaxy many times over, even with spaceships reaching merely a fraction of the speed of light. But Mr Fermi retorted, in that case, why haven’t we heard from any intelligent life forms? We haven’t seen hide nor hair of a little green alien. And still to this day we look and listen, but the night sky remains empty and silent.
An excellent science fiction book series which addresses the Fermi Paradox is the “Remembrance of Earth’s Past” trilogy by Chinese author Liu Cixin. The first book of the series “The Three Body Problem” was translated into English in 2014 and became the first Asian novel ever to win a Hugo Award for Best Novel. By applying a concept taken from game theory, Mr Liu offers a compelling solution to the Fermi Paradox. You will have to read the second book in the series, “The Dark Forest”, to discover what I mean.
It is a recurring theme in Science Fiction books and movies that, when the human race is confronted with alien intelligent life, hostile or friendly, all the everyday worries of the humans suddenly cease to exist. The bad day at the office, the lost opportunity at winning or the crappy break up. All these things seem trivial when confronted with alien life from a different star system. Suddenly our planet Earth becomes insignificant in the grand theme of things. Maybe the idea that we are not alone in the galaxy might bring comfort. Who knows, the JWST might even provide an answer to the Fermi Paradox sooner rather than later. Stay tuned.
Also, I encourage you to stay tuned for future articles by me. I am a huge fan of Science Fiction in many art forms, but especially books and movies. In coming articles, I plan to introduce or remind you of the many masterpieces out there.
Written by Jesse Lieberman