The Most Important Question?

I spend my life cultivating and exploring questions at all levels from the inane to the putatively profound. Part of my job is asking questions–in fact, if you squint hard enough and look through enough lenses, you will be able to find a question or cluster of them behind every story I write.

As I prep to tackle the next round of The Antithesis Progression and another pair of SF novels later this year, I’m having fun wrestling with some biggies. Long story short, I thought it would be fun to share some of them with you guys, partly for the fun of the conversation, and partly to give you a peek behind the curtain for those of you who are interested in seeing the process that begins with a question and ends with a story or a novel.

So, to kick it off, here’s my nomination for one of the biggest questions anyone has ever asked.

“Where is everybody?”

Biggest question…seems kind of a grand claim, but I’m going to go a step further: I think it might be the single most terrifying, and the single most exciting, question anyone has ever thought to ask.

To illustrate why, I’ll give you a little context. This is the question that a man named Enrico Fermi asked when he turned his radio telescope at the heavens to listen in on television and radio broadcasts from alien civilisations, and found only static.

The universe is a big place. If carbon chemistry is common (as it seems to be), and if life bootstraps really easily, (which is now virtually certain), then in a big universe there should be at least some other folks out there who are building civilizations, and since all civilization is defined by energy use, they should be making some noise.

So…where is everybody?

It only took humans one generation between the invention of the radio (the ability to make cosmic noise) and the nuclear bomb (the ability to silence that noise forever, without reprieve). What if everybody eventually, inevitably, succumbs to self-destruction? Terrifying, isn’t it?

On the other hand, what if we’re the first? What if we are truly alone? This one’s terrifying too, but it sure is exciting–there’s a lot of universe out there that’s not being used, and oh, the places we’ll go!

But there are other answers, and some of them are very intriguing. Certainly, we haven’t figured out all the potential answers yet. I’ve got some ideas that I’m exploring in projects I’m currently working on, I’ve even got a few opinions.

It is a big question, though, maybe one of the biggest. Because whatever the answer is, it will forever define our relationship with the universe around us, and will profoundly affect the way our civilization unfolds as it winds out into the solar system and beyond.

Read more about this question here, then tell me…What do you think about this question?

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  1. Where is everybody? Well, they’re here and there. They’re everywhere. I’m sure you’ve seen the comparison between the observed age of the universe and the amount of it in which life has existed on earth. It’s all a matter of timing.

    Back before the age of instant contact when pagers and cell phones where still the thing of science fiction(Good times)it would be possible to dial a phone number and not get an answer. Think about it for a moment. You directed or tuned your device towards a location you had good reason to believe life existed and got nothing?

    Your home is full of life. Surely your home isn’t the only place life exists. So you dial another number at random, and another and still no answer. The phone just rings and rings. Then you cheat (or at least think you’re cheating) and dial a number you know works because your dad said as he left that morning that he’ll be at that number if you needed to reach him.

    Still no answer.

    It’s all a matter of timing.

    We may have already pointed our modern listening devices at the right sliver of the sky where life exists RIGHT NOW. Too bad any sign of it won’t reach us for a million or billion years. As arrogant as it may sound, why can’t we be the first? It takes the violent death of stars to created the elements upon which carbon based life exists. Oh and not just one or two stars either. What’s to say we’re not the first or at least part of the first wave of life in the universe?

    Frankly, I find the question a commonplace one of little importance, the answer to which equally meaningless based on our location in the universe. The only way to raise it’s significance would be to shorten the distance between the stars. Till then alone or not, what Mufasa said remains true.

    Everything the light touches is our kingdom.

  2. Personally, I think the answer is that while life may be ubiquitous, life that lives someplace as stable as Earth has been for the last few million years is rare.

    The real problem, possibly, isn’t genocidal war or technological accident, but cosmic upheaval. Stars swing past each other, disrupting the orbits of their planets. Stars explode. Galactic cores become active.

    Any of these events can eliminate all life on a planet, more efficiently than any technological event. And in many galaxies, and many regions of most galaxies, such cosmic events are common.

    Life may be common. Intelligent, technological life may be rare.

  3. Mr. Reed, it could be argued that intelligent life has yet to surface anywhere.

  4. If that’s the most interesting question we’ve asked then no wonder we haven’t gotten an answer yet.

  5. There still is a real plausibility that we would not recognize a civilization when we see it. If there are civilizations with the technology to navigate the distances between stars in a meaningful fashion, would we recognize them as such?

    Although I find XKCD’s take on it a bit condescending, I think it’s the clearest formulation of this idea that I’ve seen.

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