Since the dawn of humanity, we have gazed up to the stars and wondered what else is out there. For many people, it seems certain that we can’t be alone in the universe… But will the extraterrestrials out there be good or evil? And how come we haven’t found evidence of them yet? Well, a Russian physicist has devised a theory about all this. And if it proves to be accurate, we should probably be thankful that we haven’t met any visitors from other worlds.
The man behind this hypothesis is Alexander Berezin. He’s an expert on theoretical physics and works in Russia’s National Research University of Electronic Technology. And the scientist wanted to address why we haven’t found proof of alien life yet. To do this, he had to face up to an improbability known as the Fermi Paradox. But don’t worry, this idea is actually really simple.
The paradox is named after the Nobel Prize-winning physicist Enrico Fermi. In essence, the theory wonders why we can’t find evidence of extraterrestrial life despite living in such a large universe. We might sum the paradox up in the form of a question supposedly posed by Fermi himself: “Where is everybody?”
It was this riddle that Alexander Berezin sought to grapple with. And, eventually, he reached his own conclusions. But even though the theoretical physicist argued that his idea was uncontroversial, he acknowledged that people might be reluctant to agree with it… And he was certainly right about that.
In a paper – titled ‘First in, last out’ solution to the Fermi Paradox – Berezin explained his thoughts as to why people might sweep his hypothesis aside. In his own words, “It predicts a future for our own civilization that is even worse than extinction.” So, not unreasonably, the expert suspects that this might be a hard pill to swallow.
Yet the possibility of alien life on distant planets has long been a source of human fascination. And the notion that extraterrestrials might visit Earth has also captured the collective imagination. The modern-day UFO phenomenon properly took off after 1947 when a civilian stumbled upon some strange wreckage in Roswell, New Mexico.
The Roswell event occurred as the Cold War was kicking off, at a time when some newspapers were already running stories about so-called “flying saucers.” This particular account, however, was seemingly confirmed as reality by the Roswell Army Air Field itself. Soon after, though, the U.S. military became involved and instead asserted that the discovered wreckage had derived from a crashed weather balloon.
Many people remained suspicious of the weather balloon account, though, and the Air Force eventually conceded the point. In 1994 it released a report admitting that the wreckage had once been a secret military spying appliance. This instrument was made up of balloons and audio recording technology, with an aim to floating it above the Soviet Union and picking up sound waves.
So the Roswell incident appears to have an earthly explanation. Yet general theories about UFOs have continued to thrive. And in 2017 believers of extraterrestrial visitations received what they surely saw as something of a vindication. That year, you see, the Pentagon acknowledged that it had once run a program looking for alien tourists.
Then in April 2020 perhaps the greatest official indication yet for the existence of UFOs was provided by the Pentagon. It all came down to a series of videos depicting “unexplained aerial phenomena.” These clips had been circulated before, but the footage hadn’t ever been officially confirmed as genuine. Now, though, they had.
One of the videos was shot by Navy pilots in 2004, and it depicts a strange, round entity floating above the Pacific Ocean. The other pair of clips were taken in 2015 and present unusual bodies traveling through the sky. One of these objects starts revolving, much to the shock of the onlooking pilot who exclaims, “Look at that thing, dude! It’s rotating!”
The Pentagon released a statement in 2020 to address these clips. It read, “[The Department of Defense] is releasing the videos in order to clear up any misconceptions by the public on whether or not the footage that has been circulating was real, or whether or not there is more to the videos. The aerial phenomena observed in the videos remain characterized as ‘unidentified.’”
Of course, these videos are far from unequivocal proof that extraterrestrials have been visiting Earth, and much more mundane theories have been posited. Some believe the unexplained aerial phenomena in the clips are merely manmade airplanes and balloons. So it’s only thanks to optical illusions created by the cameras filming the objects that they appear more otherworldly than they really are.
Of course, it’s not certain that these videos depict alien spacecraft, but the possibility of extraterrestrial life remains. And this is a persuasive notion when we consider the sheer number of potentially livable planets in our galaxy alone. According to astronomers from the University of British Columbia, there could be up to five stars similar to our Sun for every one Earth-like planet in the Milky Way.
A planet needs to be rocky and similar in size to our home planet to be considered Earth-like. It must travel around a star similar to our Sun – such entities are referred to as G-type stars. The planet must also be far enough away from its G-type star so that it can accommodate water in liquid form.
University of British Columbia astronomer Jaymie Matthews offered his thoughts in an interview with Science Daily in June 2020. He said, “Our Milky Way has as many as 400 billion stars – with 7 percent of them being G-type. That means less than six billion stars may have Earth-like planets in our galaxy.”
From our perspective here on Earth, six billion might seem like a huge number of planets potentially capable of harboring life. But if this is the case, shouldn’t we have stumbled upon some evidence of aliens by this stage? Well, this is the very question at the heart of the Fermi Paradox.
The theory itself goes back to a lunchtime chat in 1950. Enrico Fermi had been having an informal conversation about UFOs. And because the caliber of his scientific achievements had been quite astonishing, we can assume the chat was rather sophisticated. After all, Fermi was responsible for the first-ever nuclear reactor. So what did he have to say about aliens?
Fermi is said to have formulated a few broad calculations to support his paradox, but he never actually considered it in earnest. Rather, an astrophysicist named Michael Hart thought about it more carefully – publishing a paper on the subject in the mid-1970s. So some believe that the paradox belongs more to Hart than Fermi.
The paradox is based on a simple enough premise. That is, we can say that there are a large number of Earth-like planets in our galaxy. And if we presume that our planet isn’t exceptional – as understood from the perspective of the Copernicus principle – then it stands to reason that lifeforms should be present on some of these other worlds.
We might then suggest that some of these aliens exhibit intelligence and that over time they improve their technologies. This means that these beings should eventually be able to develop the ability to travel through space. Of course, such excursions would take a long time. But given that many of the other Earth-like planets in our galaxy are much older than our own, enough time should surely have now elapsed to allow aliens to reach us. But that still leaves a big question: why haven’t we noticed their existence yet?
The Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) Institute is a California-based non-profit organization looking for alien life. And the group considered Fermi and his paradox in an online article. It wrote, “Fermi realized that any civilization with a modest amount of rocket technology and an immodest amount of imperial incentive could rapidly colonize the entire galaxy.”
The post continued, “Within ten million years, every star system could be brought under the wing of empire. Ten million years may sound long, but it’s quite short compared with the age of the galaxy, which is roughly ten thousand million years. Colonization of the Milky Way should be a quick exercise.”
And yet we remain ignorant, despite all these points suggesting that we should be aware of extraterrestrial civilizations. And therein lies the paradox. So, what does all this mean? It could simply indicate that the Copernicus principle doesn’t hold up and that the Earth is genuinely unusual in that it bears intelligent life. Or maybe it shows that large-scale interstellar journeys can’t be completed by us or any other beings in the galaxy.
Another proposed solution to the Fermi Paradox has suggested that we’re perhaps unable to identify extraterrestrial lifeforms as living things. This idea is rooted in the notion that aliens are so far from what we understand about life that we wouldn’t even recognize the beings if we saw them. Yet another theory argues that alien communities are purposely keeping us ignorant of their existence.
But in 2018 Alexander Berezin added his own creative thoughts into the mix. The Russian theoretical physicist laid out his reflections in a paper and referred to his solution as “First in, last out.” This work, however, had not yet been reviewed and critiqued by any of his peers.
First off, Berezin considered the possibility that we earthlings define life in far too limiting a manner. He reflected on the sheer variety of living things on Earth alone and argued that we can’t grasp the range of conditions in which life could potentially emerge. It just wouldn’t be possible to take note of every living thing in our universe.
After all, Berezin has suggested, alien life could exist in a variety of forms. It might be biological in some way – much like us here on Earth. Or it could be more akin to artificial intelligence. In his paper, Berezin even suggested that aliens might be comparable to the obscure, planet-sized intelligent entity that appears in the classic Soviet sci-fi film Solaris.
Berezin noted the potentially obscure nature of alien life and suggested that we should focus on one thing in particular. He wrote, “The only variable we can objectively measure is the probability of life becoming detectable from outer space within a certain range from Earth. For simplicity, let us call it ‘parameter A.’”
Berezin argued that parameter A can be arrived at only after a civilization develops the capacity for interstellar travel. And this is where Berezin’s theory takes a darker turn. He’s suggested that any civilization capable of building technologies that can undertake such journeys would wipe out all other alien lifeforms in the galaxy.
At a glance, this might seem like quite a drastic and strange conclusion to draw. But Berezin did stress that this destruction of life wouldn’t necessarily be the developed civilization’s intention. In his paper, he set out an interesting analogy to help illustrate his point.
Berezin explained, “I am not suggesting that a highly developed civilization would consciously wipe out other lifeforms. Most likely, they simply won’t notice – the same way a construction crew demolishes an anthill to build real estate.” This, the author wrote, is a comparable notion to the tragedy of the commons.
Put simply, the tragedy of the commons refers to the idea that people will use up a resource at the cost of others. When followed to its logical conclusion, it means that the material will eventually be exhausted. So, in essence, Berezin has applied this rationale on a galactic scale.
Berezin went on, “The incentive to grab all available resources is strong, and it only takes one bad actor to ruin the equilibrium.” So a highly developed civilization with the capacity to undertake interstellar travel might still not have come across extraterrestrial life forms. Instead, it may have inadvertently destroyed all other life.
However, Earth and the Sun are still intact, and it leaves us grappling with an interesting question. Human beings are still active in the galaxy – working away here on Earth. And our civilization has already started the process of interstellar space travel. So what exactly does that mean within the context of Berezin’s outlandish theory?
Well, we humans can say that we are, in fact, the most advanced civilization in our galaxy. And as our space-traveling technologies improve, it is us who will inadvertently destroy all other life surrounding us. As Berezin phrased it, “We are the first to arrive at the stage. And, most likely, [we] will be the last to leave.”
Not everyone is convinced by Berezin’s eccentric ideas, though. SETI Institute astronomer Dr. Seth Shostak, for one, has his reservations. He has compared the Russian’s theory to The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy – the sci-fi franchise conceived by Douglas Adams. In 2018 he wrote in an NBC article, “It’s the same basic idea. But unlike Adams’ story, Berezin’s doesn’t make much sense.”
Shostak also took umbrage with the Fermi Paradox more broadly. Though he acknowledged it as an interesting point of discussion, the expert ultimately expressed his belief that the paradox has little genuine value. And, he said, the question’s inadequacies will be laid bare if evidence of alien life ever emerges.
“The paradox continues to fuel many lunchtime conversations, which at least is a nice diversion from gossip or politics,” Shostak went on. “But if we someday find a signal from space, Fermi’s question will become nothing more than a historical curiosity. A bit of misplaced musing that confounded Homo sapiens for a few decades.”
As for Berezin, he hopes his theory proves to be inaccurate. He wrote in his study, “What can we do to prevent this? Most likely, nothing. But I certainly hope I am wrong. The only way to find out is to continue exploring the universe and searching for alien life.”
Mind you, it could be that we have already found it. In 1991 Helen Sharman made history when she became the first British person to leave planet Earth. Then, after heading off into the atmosphere, the research chemist spent just over a week on board the space station Mir with a team of Soviet cosmonauts. So, she knows more than most about what lies beyond our planet. And when Sharman gave her surprising thoughts on the likelihood of extraterrestrials, they made plenty of headlines.
Of course, Sharman isn’t alone in speculating upon alien life. Ever since humans first studied the stars, we’ve been asking ourselves the same question: are we alone in the universe? Hoping to find the answers, scientists began actively experimenting with ways to communicate with distant planets back in the 19th century. And this fascinating field of research continues hundreds of years later.
A major breakthrough came in the early 1960s, when an astronomer named Frank Drake came up with an intriguing formula – one that is still used by scientists today. He claimed that by multiplying seven unique values together, researchers could predict the number of intelligent civilizations that are able to communicate across space. Nevertheless, many of these factors – such as the total of Earth-like planets in existence – are open to interpretation.
And, interestingly, the Drake equation has produced an extremely wide array of estimates as to the number of intelligent civilizations out there – ranging from billions to zero. To many, then, it’s viewed as little more than a theoretical tool. But if the upper estimates of intelligent life are true, how close are we to understanding these alien civilizations?
In any case, there have been some investigations that have yielded what seem to be promising results. In 1976 NASA’s Viking Project became the first mission to successfully arrive on the surface of Mars, and while there the landers recorded some startling information. According to an experiment, nutrients in the soil were being metabolized into methane – suggesting the presence of organic life.
And while none of the Viking landers’ other experiments supported those findings – meaning NASA eventually dismissed them – there are still some who believe that the 1976 mission really did find evidence of life on Mars. Then, 20 years later, more proof emerged to apparently support these claims.
You see, in 1996 NASA researchers claimed to have identified nanobacteria on a meteorite that had originated from Mars. Then, six years on, a team of Russian scientists announced that a type of microbe now found on Earth may have originated on the Red Planet. And in 2004 there was perhaps the most encouraging news to date.
This time, three separate institutions revealed that they had discovered traces of methane on Mars. And although the gas could have been produced by geological activity, there is a high chance that its presence is the byproduct of an organic process. Currently, scientists plan to send equipment into space to test their theory. But it should be known, though, that the Red Planet isn’t the only potential source of alien life.
Just one year after the Viking missions landed on Mars, researchers at Ohio State University detected something known as the “Wow!” signal. This burst of radio activity is believed to have originated somewhere in the vicinity of the Sagittarius constellation, and it continues to baffle specialists to this day. In 1984 the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) was also founded to search for and study any future transmissions from space.
Then, in 2003, researchers from SETI trained a giant telescope on the sky in an attempt to track down the source of some 200 previously recorded signals. And while the majority of the transmissions had faded, there was one that remained – beaming out of what appeared to be an empty spot in space. According to many experts, this is the closest that humans have ever come to communicating with extraterrestrial life.
Yet researchers have picked up other possible indicators on planets a little closer to home. For example, in 2002 astrobiologists at the University of Texas suggested that microbes may just account for chemical anomalies in the clouds above Venus. The following year, researchers in Italy theorized that the sulfur present on Europa – a moon of Jupiter – could perhaps be evidence of organic activity.
In 2001 experts also revisited the Drake equation, using new techniques to refine the factors first outlined 50 years beforehand. Now, they were able to more accurately estimate many of the elements used to make the calculation. And the team eventually concluded that the number of potential alien civilizations capable of communicating with Earth was actually in the hundreds of thousands.
Still, as scientists have studied and debated the potential for life on other planets, others have taken a more hands-on approach to solving the mysteries of the universe. Since the Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin became the first person in space in 1961, over 550 astronauts have journeyed to the stars.
Today, in fact, there are about half a dozen people on the International Space Station at any one time. But space was a far less populated place back in 1989, when Helen Sharman first began contemplating a change of career. At that time, the much more basic Mir station – maintained by the Soviet Union – provided a home for astronauts away from planet Earth.
In Britain – where Sharman lived – there wasn’t even a space program to speak of. However, with the Cold War drawing to a close, the powers that be were searching for ways to bolster the country’s relationship with the Soviet Union. And as a result, they hit upon the idea of Project Juno.
Essentially, Project Juno was Britain’s attempt to piggyback onto the success of the Soviet cosmonauts – booking a spot for a homegrown astronaut on their next mission. At the time, the authorities had hoped that this initiative would help to foster a connection between the two nations. Now, all they needed was a willing volunteer.
Of course, that task eventually fell to Sharman. She had grown up in the English city of Sheffield with an interest in science from a young age. And even though she’d been warned by a teacher that chemistry and physics classes were dominated by males, Sharman decided to pursue her passion. Then, after graduating from Birkbeck College in London, she found a job as a research chemist in Slough.
And after two years working for the confectionery company Mars Wrigley, Sharman happened to hear a radio advertisement seeking participants for Project Juno. This announced, “Astronaut wanted. No experience necessary.” Intrigued, the chemist joined 13,000 individuals all keen to become the first British person in space.
Slowly, the team behind Project Juno filtered through the applicants and eventually came up with a shortlist of 150 candidates – including Sharman. And although she did not have any previous experience, her foreign language skills, scientific education and personal fitness level helped propel her to the top of the list.
Then, after an intense period of assessments and tests, the shortlist for Project Juno was whittled down to just two candidates. And to her surprise, Sharman was one of them. Competing against her for the coveted spot was Major Tim Mace – a helicopter pilot with a background in aeronautical engineering. Together, the pair would travel to Russia to begin training.
For 18 months the two hopefuls prepared for the mission, with neither of them knowing which one would actually go into space. Then, finally, a decision was made: Sharman would be the one to accompany the Russian cosmonauts to Mir. And in May 1991 the 27-year-old boarded a rocket in Kazakhstan and began her incredible journey.
For eight days, Sharman lived and worked on Mir, conducting a number of experiments in space. As well as studying the effect of microgravity on crystals, she carried out a number of biological tests. When Sharman wasn’t immersed in scientific work, however, the Sheffield native used a radio to communicate with curious children back on Earth.
And while conditions on the ISS are relatively luxurious – astronauts enjoy state-of-the-art communications technology and even gourmet food – they stand in stark contrast to life on Mir. According to Sharman, meals there consisted of canned meat and soup, and it was common for power cuts to leave the entire station in the dark.
But before long, it was time for Sharman to return to Earth, where she found herself propelled into the spotlight as a symbol of space-age Britain. Still, this fame was short-lived; unwilling to become a celebrity, the one-time astronaut withdrew from the blaze of publicity. Instead, she simply returned to normality.
Then, 24 years after Sharman’s visit to Mir, European Space Agency astronaut Tim Peake embarked on a mission to the ISS. By that time, Project Juno had been all but forgotten, and so many regarded him as the first official Briton in space. His predecessor, meanwhile, had begun working as operations manager at Imperial College London’s Department of Chemistry.
Yet while Sharman appears not to overly court publicity, she has spoken about life in space in the years since her time on Mir. And in January 2020 a conversation published in The Guardian thrust the pioneering astronaut into the limelight once more – as she had surprising things to say about aliens.
During the interview, Sharman discussed the notion of life on other planets from the perspective of an astronaut who has seen first-hand the enormity of space. And, shockingly, she confirmed that she was indeed a staunch believer in the existence of extraterrestrial civilizations. What’s more, she claimed that aliens may already be here.
“Aliens exist. There [are] no two ways about it,” Sharman readily proclaimed. “There are so many billions of stars out there in the universe that there must be all sorts of different forms of life.” The former astronaut acknowledged, however, that extraterrestrial beings may look completely different from what we would assume.
“Will they be like you and me, made up of carbon and nitrogen? Maybe not,” Sharman continued. “It’s possible they’re here right now, and we simply can’t see them.” That said, on her website, she is quick to point out that she does not believe humanoid aliens are currently residing on Earth.
On a separate page dedicated to the topic of alien life, Sharman’s website details the former astronaut’s beliefs. This reads, “The Earth – along with some spacecraft that humans have sent into space – supports all life we know. [But Sharman] agrees with the view of many scientists that it is possible for meteorites to have brought to Earth molecules that were – or could be – precursors to life and perhaps even something we might consider to be life itself.”
Perhaps unsurprisingly, Sharman is far from the only astronaut to speak out about the possibility of alien civilizations. In 2018 director Darren Aronofsky released One Strange Rock – a National Geographic documentary exploring life on Earth. And while promoting the series, a number of astronauts were interviewed by the press.
Some, it seems, were reserved when discussing the prospect of alien life. In a 2018 interview with Mashable, astronaut Mae Jemison explained, “We have to think through things to find the evidence.” By contrast, others such as Jeff Hoffman – who has clocked over 1,200 hours in space – were more enthusiastic.
“I believe there is life elsewhere in the universe,” Hoffman told Mashable. “But as a scientist, I look for evidence. And as yet, we have [none]. So, I have nothing to support my belief, but I still believe it.” Meanwhile, famous Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield pointed out the sheer size of the universe and, in doing so, highlighted the difficulty inherent in searching for alien civilizations.
Furthermore, while there is the possibility that our planet is completely unique and the only one in the universe capable of supporting living creatures, most experts believe that such a scenario is incredibly unlikely. According to Hadfield, it may instead be the case that while “life is relatively common, complex, intelligent life is rare.”
Hadfield also noted that just a single discovery would open up an entire realm of possibility in the search for alien intelligence. He told Mashable, “If we can find one fossil on Mars, or one little tube worm deep under the oceans of Europa or Enceladus, then the universe is full of life.”
And in September 2019 former NASA astronaut Michael Collins spoke out during a question-and-answer session on Twitter. Half a century earlier, he had made history as the third person on the momentous Apollo 11 mission to the moon. While Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin had become the first men to walk on the lunar surface, Collins had piloted the command module that would bring them all back to Earth.
Throughout the session, fans seized the opportunity, then, to ask Collins a number of probing questions. But one commenter took things even further – inquiring of the former astronaut whether he believed in the existence of alien life. And the answer, astonishingly, was a resounding yes.
Unfortunately, Collins did not elaborate on the reason for his claim that aliens exist, but it seems probable that the astronaut and Sharman found such life an inevitability when confronted with the vastness of space. And on Twitter, his answer was met with a flurry of comments – each agreeing with the likelihood of extraterrestrial intelligence existing somewhere in the universe.