The Fermi Paradox – Motivation Behind Project Daedalus
When people read about The British Interplanetary Society Project Daedalus they usually marvel at the boldness of the idea and the amount of thought that went into the engineering calculations. Indeed, the major objective of Project Daedalus was to carry out a feasibility study for a simple interstellar mission but using only present day technology and with reasonable extrapolation to near future technology. However, it is not immediately apparent why Project Daedalus was undertaken in the first place.
One of the reasons was to investigate the Fermi Paradox first postulated by the Italian Physicist Enrico Fermi in the 1940s. This supposes that there has been plenty of time for intelligent civilizations to interact within our galaxy when one examines the age and number of stars, as well as the distances between them. Yet, the fact that extra-terrestrial intelligence has never been observed leads to a logical paradox where our observations are inconsistent with our theoretical expectation. This original question from Fermi seemed to also reinforce the prevailing paradigm at the time that interstellar travel was impossible.
Project Daedalus was a bold way to examine the Fermi Paradox head on and gave a partial answer – interstellar travel was possible. The basis of this belief was the demonstration of a credible engineering design just at the outset of the space age that could in theory, cross the interstellar distances. In the future scientific advancement would lead to a refined and more efficient design. The absence of alien visitors would therefore require a different explanation because Project Daedalus demonstrated that with current, and near future, technology, interstellar travel was feasible. Therefore, another solution to the absence of extra-terrestrial visitation was necessary. Although Project Daedalus was ostensibly focused on designing an interstellar flyby probe, the underlying motives were to frame discussions about the Fermi paradox.
In the years after Project Daedalus, a member of the Daedalus team Alan Bond plunged himself into researching biology to understand how species evolve from a single celled organism to something as complex as human beings. He argued that historically pure guess work had been used to determine the number of intelligent civilizations in our galaxy. The culmination of his research resulted in the publication of a paper ‘On the improbability of intelligent extraterrestrials‘ in 1982 in the Journal of the British Interplanetary Society. He concluded that organisms with the complexity of human beings may be rare and only occur with a probability below much less than once per galaxy.
This startling conclusion was based upon the development of a biological model assuming an observed exponential growth in the complexity of biological life in the fossil records over time. Bond had addressed the probability of Earth-like planets with Carbon based biology existing in our galaxy. Proteins, the complete set of genes which pass from a parent to an offspring, were seen as the fundamental mechanism of biochemistry on all worlds. The genome would increase in size over time and the establishment of intelligence would require a certain level of intelligence and therefore a minimum size of genome; the more complex an organism then the larger the genome required for its specification. Attainment of an intelligence level like us would take merely a few million years, for species which had a similar genome size.
Bond himself stated in the paper that a lot of assumptions had been made with inaccurately known parameters and that more work needed to be done. He said further that there was clear potential for an order of magnitude variation around the estimates that were derived. His actual numbers suggested that a planet with the development level of the Earth only occurs once in 50,000 galaxies.
He concluded that “whilst we are sufficiently rare to inhibit contact, at least with the Galaxy at its present age, we are not so rare as to defy phenomenological explanation”. The conclusions of this paper are a disappointment for those who believe intelligent life to be prolific. But it is interesting that in the Cosmos television series Carl Sagan also expresses the view that although life may occur purely as a function of chemistry and on most worlds where the environment is suitable, intelligent life in complex beings like us may be rare. When two great thinkers share a similar vision this requires contemplation. The rare intelligence hypothesis paints a very different picture of intelligent life in the universe to that of shows like Star Trek.
As a literature search on the internet shows, there are many potential answers to the Fermi Paradox and it may remain unresolved for some time. Although, advances in observational techniques for looking at distant extra-solar planets may lead us to an answer sooner than we think. One thing is for certain though, the contribution of Project Daedalus to the debate was first rate, demonstrating the possibility of star travel and forcing us to consider other more profound answers. It was no surprise that Alan Bond would also be one of the pioneers in searching for alternative explanations. There is one way we will know for sure, and that it to build something like Daedalus or Icarus in the coming decades, and then go see for ourselves.
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