The farm paradox describes the apparent contradiction of not being able to find evidence of extraterrestrial life when, logically, it should have already been discovered.
It is named after Enrico Fermi, a Nobel laureate and nuclear physicist who is sometimes referred to as the “architect of the atomic bomb.” The paradox is based on a 1950 conversation between a celebrity scientist and his colleagues at the Los Alamos National Laboratory over lunch, followed by a comic book about unidentified flying objects published by The New Yorker.
The farm is said to have performed rough calculations to estimate the spread of human-like technologies around the world. Based on approximate numbers, he argued that extraterrestrial civilizations had already visited Earth.
He is said to have asked, “Where are they?”
A similar but more detailed equation for the farm paradox was developed by American astronomer Frank Drake in 1961, which drew much attention at a meeting on the Wise Earthly Search (SETI).
Based on statistical combinations, the equation suggests a number of civilizations close enough to be fixed to us.
These include the number of planets suitable for life and the chances of life evolving to be able to transmit information over long distances, in a reasonable amount of time.
More than half a century has passed since the farm paradox was proposed, and in the meantime, we have learned a great deal about the diversity of exoplanets and their stars. However, there is probably still a long way to go before we can draw accurate conclusions about the evolution of life beyond Earth from afar.
Where are the extraterrestrial civilizations?
At present, there are several potential “solutions” to the farm paradox, including the following:
- Our estimate of the prevalence of intelligent life in the world is exaggerated.
- We overestimate the desire of some form of life to pass on information with pleasure.
- Information exists, but we either simply do not see it, or we do not understand it.
- Information existed, may still appear, but people have only recently begun to search for such signals.
- Humans must first move to the interstellar stage, before it is too early to detect other civilizations.