The Fermi Paradox

March 3rd, 2006 by Potato

The Fermi Paradox is a very neat concept when considering extraterrestrial life. It goes, quite simply, like this: “Where are they?” If life is abundant in the universe, and the natural goal for any technologically developed civilization is to spread to the stars (not only expanding for expansion’s sake, but also spreading out so that a global catastrophy doesn’t wipe out the species), then why have we not yet seen any evidence of extraterrestrial life? Our knowledge of Von Neumann probes, exponential growth, etc., tells us that by all rights they should be crawing all over us by now. Even if the odds are low that life will form, and lower yet that they’ll become intelligent, the galaxy is a really big place and there’s been enough time. So, are we the first? While someone would have to be first, it seems like that’s about as likely as us being the only life in the universe. Could we just not be looking for evidence in the right way? That’s entirely possible: while we’ve been beaming out huge amounts of radio for the last century or so, we’re starting to replace a lot of those communications with point-to-point microwaves and fibre optics. It might be that a civilization only bothers with broadcast radio (that can penetrate the ionosphere) for a few hundred years, and after that settles down to more energy-efficient, clearer, point-to-point transmissions (or even faster-than-light tachyon type communication). But what about their physical presence? Even a totallitarian galactic government imposing some sort of Star Trek-like non-interference Prime Directive couldn’t keep every religious nutjob or escaped prisoner from trying to touch down on Earth (and indeed, this happened quite a bit on Star Trek).

I’ve been reading Permanence lately, and they have another take on the matter (similar to the inevitable biological/nuclear holocaust type scenario)… but that’s actually something to talk about another time. No, today I’m not really going to talk about aliens, I’m going to talk about love.

The Fermi Paradox of Love

I’ve come up with a version of the Fermi Paradox that goes like this: if there are billions of people on the Earth, and more people being born than we can hope to comfortably sustain, then where are our mates? We’re getting close to the age at which we’d like to start having kids, and despite keeping an eye out for the better part of a decade, talking to thousands of people, and possibly dating some… we still find ourselves asking the question “where are they?”

If we’re meant to have one and only one soulmate, then why hasn’t the Potato or Flying Spaghetti Monster pushed them towards us with Its all-knowing tentacle? And if that’s just a silly romantic notion, why haven’t we managed to find someone who, while not perfect, is certainly close enough? If there are plenty of fish in the sea, where are they?

Now, I’m no Drake, but I could potentially throw out some variables anyway. Let’s say that the number of ideal candidates for you is N. Then, we can determine an approximate value of N by:

N = P · G · A · L · S · C · D

P = total population of the planet
G = portion of population that is of the appropriate gender and orientation
A = portion within your age bracket who are available
L = portion who meet your gross limits (the sort of things you could filter out with a simple questionnaire, eliminating those who may have tatoos, drive drunk, molest children, vote conservative, smoke, or otherwise not meet whatever personal, non-negotiable limits you may have)
S = the smacktard quotient; in other words, the proportion who seem ok when you first meet them, but turn out to be utter smacktards when you get to know them a little bit (acutally, mathematically it’s the number of people who aren’t smacktards, so 1 – % of smacktards)
C= portion who meet your more subtle requirements (the ones you may not even be conscious of — the sort of things that you only find out about after you get to know someone fairly well, in other words, your compatability)
D = the “dumb luck” modifier, which includes factors such as happening to meet someone if they do exist, not having something traumatic happen at a bad point in the relationship (for example, getting a new job in another city while the relationship is too young to ask someone to move with you, or turn down the opportunity for them, or to sustain extended periods in long-distance limbo; or having your ex call in the middle of your third date wanting to get back together)

Taking a rough estimate, we have:
P = 6 billion
G = 45% (the gender part is easier than trying to guess what proportion also meets the orientation part)
A = 5% (assume that about 10% of total people are in the proper age bracket, and about half of those are available)
L = 20% (sounds about right, but who knows)
S = 25% (I think this is probably still being generous)
C = 5% (this one’s hard to judge, but I think that of the people who were in my age group, available, met my gross criteria, weren’t smacktards after getting to know them a bit, only about 1 in 20 would be compatable enough to keep trying with)
D = (assuming no other dumb luck, let’s say you meet 60 000 people in the “looking out” phase of your life) 6×10^4/6×10^9 = 10^-5

Which gives: N ~ 4

This is part of the fun of being a xenobiologist or SETI member. You get to just take a wild guess at a number, and if you’re right to anywhere within a few orders of magnitude then you’re doing pretty good.

Of course, there are other problems, paralleled with the search for extraterrestrial intelligence, which revolves around the question of how to go about your search. For SETI, we primarily scan the skies for radio transmissions, but what if broadcast radio gets replaced by point-to-point (narrowbeam) communication in an extremely short amount of time (relatively speaking). It harkens back to the question of “why do girls seem to date total jerks far more often than should be possible statistically?” When we pull out the spectrum, we immediately see why: nice, shy guys are invisible. You’ll need special tactics and tools to find them.

The Electromagnetic Spectrum of Jerky Guys

Interestingly, as you get older, this equation changes, and not for the better, I should think. The smacktard quotient S probably increases as people mature a bit, or at least learn how to better hide their inner jerk (this latter part will be compensated for by a decrease in C, since you’ll still find out, it’ll just be later in the relationship). The C factor can change fairly dramatically in either direction, partly because as you get older you deal with problems better, and thus the range of people you can be compatabile with increases, but at the same time, you can have more bad memories that make you go “no, I like you and all, but that totally reminds me of something my ex used to do and I can’t deal with that.” Also, since you have less time left in your life, you may not be willing to commit to a promising relationship to see if it will in fact work out. Most dramatically, A will change from the influence of two factors. First, as you get older you will find your age bracket expands (a 19 year old likely won’t consider dating someone younger than 17 or older than 25 — an 8 year span — whereas a 30 year old might date someone from 22 to 38 — 8 years in either direction), and second, as you get older, the number of singles decreases. While the divorce rate is atrocious, there are still a significant number of people who get married and stay married.

Naturally, as we get older we also realize that things in life aren’t perfect, and that our long-held plans and/or dreams will simply have to change. Sometimes this just involves fairly minor compromises (found the right person and just wanted to wait until you were actually making more money than those on welfare to propose? Well, they won’t wait forever, so if that point in your life is still 5 years distant, you might need to jump-start the process a bit). However, some people are finding that they face darker decisions. I’m not saying I know anyone thinking of this, but some girls have given up on trying to find the right guy and settle down before having kids. Sperm is cheap, being a single mom isn’t so unusual anymore, so why not just get pregnant when you’re ready and fertile, and let the guy come whenever the fates decide? It does influence your odds of finding a guy, since now you also have to figure in the number who, despite liking kids, aren’t so keen on helping to raise some that aren’t their own, and you also have to deal with a drastic decrease in time available for romance. But it does completely bypass the issue of getting married (or merely pregnant) partially out of desperation, and then having to deal with joint custody and messy breakups.

And for the low, low cost of monthly bleed-outs, you too can have this kind of reproductive freedom!

4 Responses to “The Fermi Paradox”

  1. Netbug Says:

    Long but funny. I’m betting a maximum of 3 comments. ;)

  2. Potato Says:

    It’s long AND there’s math. There will only be 3 readers, and your sole comment.

  3. Ben Says:

    So what you’re saying is that my love-life sucks because I’m bad at math! Finally it all makes sense!!

  4. bakarocket Says:

    Discounting Potato’s comment we now have 3 comments. M.le pomme, the Male Spectrum was amusing.