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Despite millions of UFO sightings, and dozens of claims that people have actually met with extraterrestrials, there's still no hard evidence that any advanced alien civilisation has ever contacted mankind.
Author Arthur C Clarke memorably said “Two possibilities exist: either we are alone in the Universe or we are not. Both are equally terrifying.”
In a galaxy teeming with stars, many of which we now know to have planets, there should be dozens of civilisations much like our own.
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Physicist Enrico Fermi emigrated from Italy in response to Mussolini's anti-Jewish laws. He settled in America and was one of the key scientists behind the atomic bomb project.
But he's best-remembered known today for the Fermi Paradox, summarised in his remark "But where is everybody?” It's a question we're still asking today.
Fermi suggested that even if a civilisation was only slightly more advanced than our own, given enough time it should have colonised the galaxy.
Following the Pentagon’s UFO revelations earlier this year, bookmakers Paddy Power shortened the odds on aliens being discovered by the end of 2021 to just 20-1, down from 200/1 just six months ago.
A Paddy Power spokesman told the Daily Star how they calculated the odds: “We don’t have any extra-terrestrials working for us, but our bookies are out of this world and having analysed the betting on this for a number of months we feel odds of 10/1 show that there’s a chance we could be visited by aliens.
“Given we sent the fella from Amazon up to have a poke around their ends recently," they added. "We now price a retaliatory sighting at 10/1.”
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Konstantin Batygin, a Professor of Planetary Sciences at Caltech, says that it’s “obvious” that life exists elsewhere in the Universe. The only challenge is working out how far away it is.
“Regarding the search for extraterrestrial life in the universe: the question of whether there is, or there is not, life beyond the Earth is in my opinion is not an exciting question,” he told the Daily Star.
“This is because the answer is obviously yes," he said. "Surely some planets are better potential life hosts than others, but any specific system discovered by Kepler or any other mission is not that important for answering the question regarding the existence of extraterrestrial life.
“Rather, it’s the finding that planets are as common as they are, that solidifies the notion the non-existence of extraterrestrial life somewhere in the universe is a statistical impossibility.
"The sharper question is: where is the closest extraterrestrial life? Is it somewhere in the solar system – for example Europa, or Enceladus, etc?… or is it parsecs away?”
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Astronomer Frank Drake devised an equation to estimate how many alien civilisations exist in our galaxy at any given time. Even putting quite conservative numbers into Drake’s formula suggests there should be quite a few.
But maybe humans are more special than we thought. Certainly as yet we haven’t seen any hard evidence of extraterrestrial life. The Royal Astronomical Society’s Michael Hart wrote in 1975: "We observe that no intelligent beings from outer space are now present on Earth.
“It is suggested that this fact can best be explained by the hypothesis that there are no other advanced civilisations in our galaxy.”
That’s certainly one of the answers offered for the Fermi Paradox. Others include the somewhat gloomy prediction that all technological societies are doomed to destroy themselves, if not with nuclear war then with climate change.
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Planetary scientist Alan Stern suggests that if a nearby alien civilisation emerged on a water-world, it would be almost impossible for us to detect.
"If they have technology, and let's say they're broadcasting, or they have city lights or whatever,” he said, “We can't see it in any part of the spectrum, except maybe very-low-frequency [radio].”
Perhaps the wildest explanation for the Fermi paradox is the Zoo Hypothesis.
Put simply, the hypothesis states that advanced alien civilisations have a law, something like Star Trek’s “Prime Directive” that forbids them from interacting with “primitive” species like ours until we have reached some pre-set threshold – either by establishing a single world government, for example, or developing our own functional interstellar craft.
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MIT Haystack Observatory scientist John Allen Ball proposed a modified version of the idea, called the laboratory hypothesis.
He thinks the Earth could essentially be a giant lab, with aliens abducting and experimenting on humans the way that we might experiment on mice or monkeys.
If that concept isn't depressing enough, Paddy Power are offering a pretty reasonable 500/1 that we’ll be involved in an interplanetary war by 2030.
It’s somehow more comforting to just think we are alone in the universe.
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