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Where is Everybody?

If you go out into the country at night, you might find a spot far enough away from our glaring towns and cities to allow you to see the apparently innumerable twinkling points of light which remind us that our sun is only a minor star in a minor star system. Scientists tell us that even in our own galaxy, the Milky Way, there must be at least a hundred billion stars. The Milky Way is just a small and unimportant galaxy. Altogether, the astronomers say, there are probably something like ten trillion galaxies in the universe. That is, in the universe which we are able to observe; there may be a lot more galaxies out beyond the edge of our knowledge. To write out the number of stars in the observable universe you would need a one, followed by twenty-four noughts – that is, a million million million million stars. And very many of those stars are now believed to have habitable planets circling round them. So some, in fact a vast number of those planets might have developed intelligent life. Scientists have been trying for years to pick up any signals from alien civilizations, but have drawn a complete blank.

This situation has puzzled scientists for a long time, and as long ago as the 1950s the physicist Enrico Fermi demanded – where is everybody? In such a fantastically enormous universe, it’s just not possible that we should be alone. Now two physics professors, Brian Cox and Jeff Forshaw, have written a new book, Universal: A Guide to the Cosmos, which offers an explanation. When they get to a certain point of development, the authors write, all civilizations probably produce both extraordinarily powerful weapons, and also destructive greenhouse gases. But (so the theory goes) they do not produce a political or social system which can handle these things. And so, either by ruining their own atmosphere by pollution from industry and transport, or by engaging in mutually destructive warfare, each civilisation destroys itself. So that’s why we on the Earth, in defiance of all rational expectation, are on our own. All other developing civilisations either have not got to the point of trying to communicate, or have destroyed themselves.

 According to the Daily Mail (9 October) Professor Cox said:

‘One solution to the Fermi paradox is that it is not possible to run a world that has the power to destroy itself and that needs global collaborative solutions to prevent that. It may be that the growth of science and engineering inevitably outstrips the development of political expertise, leading to disaster.’

Does it sound familiar? It would not need much imagination to see our planet going the same way. We should at least ask ourselves whether the devastating power which the human race now possesses is already beyond the control of humanity’s poor efforts at statesmanship. The countries which have already had their industrial revolution are trying to limit, sometimes not very successfully, their pollution of the atmosphere; countries which are now going through an industrial revolution feel they should be allowed to emit the same amount of pollution that other countries did years ago. As for the other way in which these authors think all other civilizations have probably killed themselves, the world has potentially reached that stage as well. As each capitalist state fights to preserve its territory, its trade, its position in the world, each armed with hydrogen bombs and other fearsome weapons, it is unfortunately quite possible that some hot-headed maniac (and there are plenty of those who have manoeuvred themselves into power in various countries round the world – can you imagine what a ‘President Trump’ might decide to do?) could plunge us all into nuclear hostilities which could destroy or cripple the entire human race. So we desperately need ‘global collaborative solutions’ and ‘political expertise’ to avoid disaster. If you look at it this way, socialism – which would end the pollution of our atmosphere, and also extinguish the competitive hostility which capitalism inevitably entails – is not only a desirable alternative, but the only one.

 ALWYN EDGAR