Science in Popular Fiction: Fermi’s Paradox is Preying on my Mind

First up:  Apologies for another huge gap between posts!  It turns out that trying to keep up with a Master’s degree course whilst juggling hobbies, (small) jobs AND trying to think up ideas for blog posts is quite the challenge.  Fortunately, astrophysics and modern popular media make for a wellspring of ideas, especially when the two combine.

I want to start this post off by talking about the popular media part – Prey (2017) by Arkane Studios.  I could use many words to describe it:  Spooky, serious, sad, sublime, silly… occasionally all five of those things at once.  But what really sparked my interest, however, is the setting:  a parallel timeline where the Americans and Russians didn’t have a space race, but instead worked together after the failed assassination of JFK only strengthened the World’s resolve to reach the stars.

Of course, things aren’t all peachy – the Russians discovered something in space… aliens that look like something from the Rorschach Inkblot Test and have an unfortunate tendency to perfectly mimic everyday objects whilst simultaneously devouring all human life for… plot reasons.  But never fear!  Evil megacorporations being evil megacorporations means that soon the alien is harnessed for research, with only one or two horrendous disasters along the way – and that’s where your character comes in.

Now I’m not going to go on and on about the plot of a video game here, but what I do want to talk about is one of the central themes – a subtle one that is so incredibly easy to miss but is nonetheless there from the very first moments:  Fermi’s Paradox.  The game doesn’t ever talk about this to your face – nothing more than a book lying open your character’s coffee table and their computer password, but is woven indelibly into the plot.

Fermi’s Paradox is a simple question:  If the Universe is infinite, and thus has an infinite number of stars, implying an infinite number of habitable worlds with an infinite number of intelligent beings… why haven’t we met any of them yet?  This is an extension of the far more fundamental Olber’s Paradox:  If the Universe is infinite then why is the night sky dark and not infinitely bright?

The answers to these questions are grappled with in the field of cosmology – the study of the Universe on a meta scale (the parallels between the Universe on its largest and smallest scales can have some quite unsettling implications – perhaps the topic of another post).  Students of cosmology are much like Prey’s Player Character in that they have no frame of reference:  no outside source to compare with;  no real way to tell exactly what is going on, when it happened or even if it happened.

The only thing that you can be reasonably sure of in either is that it has a beginning, and if there is a beginning then that implies some sort of ending.  The evidence for a Big Bang beginning our stream space-time causality is there, but it is dogged with errors, leaps of logic and some good old plain guesswork (see Inflation Theory for one such example (Guth 1981 – Inflationary Universe:  A Possible Solution to the Horizon & Flatness Problems).

This brings me back to Fermi’s Paradox – cosmology assumes three universal truths:  Homogeneity, Isotropy and Flatness.  In other words: matter is the same everywhere regardless of direction and there are no clumps of the stuff that would have a significant impact on a Universal scale.  So if we are to assume that these are constant, perhaps the biggest paradox then is ourselves?

Copernican Principle suggests that we as a species inhabit no special or favoured place in the Universe.  As a species we are almost unquestioned masters of our World (let’s just avoid the awkward topic of deadly plague bearing rats…  or the Great Emu War of ’32…).  If this is true, then there must be others like us.  And since the Universe is spread uniformly on a cosmological scale, they must be reasonably close.

What I want to suggest, then, is this:  We are looking for life on our terms, and in an infinite Universe of infinite possibilities, this is a very blinkered approach (yes there is an infinitely high chance that there is a creature looking just like me typing this exact essay at this exact moment somewhere else in the Universe but there’s an even more infinitely high chance that there isn’t).  Take Prey:  within the confines of the game’s world the characters and creatures are intelligent.  They behave appropriately to their circumstances, have goals and ambitions and carry these out whilst adapting rapidly to the creative approaches to puzzles and combat that you as the player are forced to take.  They do not, however, have any concept of you as a person “beyond the screen”, they feel only the effects of your actions.

By extension, the inverse is true.  Rooting around in the quiet, art deco hallways of Prey’s Talos-1 you can never be sure if you’re alone in a room with a roll of toilet paper or if that toilet paper is watching you back.  If it is watching you back then how quickly is it going to scuttle towards you to try and eat you?  And if it is scuttling towards you, how the heck is it doing it?  This is Fermi’s Paradox in action:  In the world of Prey I cannot distinguish between that which is living and that which is mundane

The point of the essay, then, is this:  We’re not truly alone in the Universe: mathematically it’s almost impossible – so impossible that it has its own paradox.  But just because we’re not alone doesn’t mean that we should want to find this life, and it’s entirely possible that something we dismiss as mundane could harbour a terrible truth.

Be careful what you wish for.

Physicists:  Creating problems you didn’t know you could have in ways you can’t understand