If you haven’t heard of the Fermi paradox, here it is in a nutshell: Given the high likelihood of alien life, why hasn’t anyone gotten in touch yet? If there are so many other civilizations, perhaps far more advanced than we are, surely at least one of them has been sending messages, probes, or desperately looking for signs of life like us.
According to iflscience.com, responses to the paradox range from optimistic to downright frightening. Maybe we just haven’t searched long enough, nor emitting our own traceable signatures for aliens to find us yet. It is possible that aliens will never be able to make contact with other species, destroying themselves long before they get to advanced technology.
One of the more optimistic explanations is the zoo hypothesis . First laid out by MIT scientist John Allen Ball, it suggests that aliens exist and are aware of us, but are quietly watching the way you watch animals in a zoo.
MIT scientist John Allen Ball suggests that aliens exist and are aware of us, but are quietly watching, like you would observe the animals in a zoo.
“Among the currently popular ideas about extraterrestrial intelligence, the idea that ‘they’ are trying to talk to us has many supporters,” Ball wrote in his article. “It seems to me that this idea is hardly true, and the zoo hypothesis is actually the antithesis of this idea.”
“I believe that the only way that we can understand the apparent non-interaction between ‘them’ and us is to hypothesize that they are deliberately avoiding interaction and that they have set aside the area in which we live as a zoo.”
The theory is based on the assumption that several civilizations in our galaxy are at the same stage of development as we are. This may be a reasonable assumption, given the short span of time during which human civilization has developed.
Instead, for the theory to work, there would be primitive life out there, plus advanced civilizations which have survived long enough to be at development levels “perhaps comparable to what will be on earth a few million years hence”.
“Analogy with civilizations on Earth indicates that most of those civilizations that are behind in technological development would eventually be engulfed and destroyed, tamed, or perhaps assimilated,” he explains. “So, generally speaking, we need consider only the most technologically advanced civilizations because they will be, in some sense, in control of the universe.”
Ball says that even at our own level of technological progress, we carve out areas for natural development (from nature reserves to non-contact peoples that we deliberately leave alone).
“The perfect zoo (or wilderness area or sanctuary) would be one in which the fauna inside do not interact with, and are unaware of, their zookeepers.”
Perhaps hypothetical advanced civilizations are waiting until we are ready to make contact, or until they cross some technological or political threshold.
Annoyingly, the only real way to know if a theory is correct (still possible) is through a process of elimination.
“The zoo hypothesis predicts that we shall never find them because they do not want to be found and they have the technological ability to insure this,” Ball writes. “Thus this hypothesis is falsifiable, but not, in principle, confirmable by future observations.”
He describes it as pessimistic and psychologically unpleasant, preferring to believe that the aliens will actually make contact. Tucked away in Ball’s paper on the Zoo Hypothesis is a small tweak that he describes as “morbid and grotesque”: the Laboratory Hypothesis. In this version, aliens do not speak to us as we are part of an experiment that they are conducting on us.
“We may be in an artificial laboratory situation,” he writes. “However, this hypothesis is outside the purview of science because it leads nowhere, it immediately calls into question the premises on which it is based, and it makes no predictions.”
On the contrary, we could at least try to reach out to our zookeepers, as physicist João Pedrode Magalhães suggested in 2016.
“I propose to send a message using television and radio channels to any extraterrestrial civilization(s) that might be listening and inviting them to respond,” the author wrote.
“Even though I accept this is unlikely to be successful in the sense of resulting in a response from extraterrestrial intelligences, the possibility that extraterrestrial civilizations are monitoring us cannot be dismissed and my proposal is consistent with current scientific knowledge. Besides, issuing an invitation is technically feasible, cheap and safe, and few would deny the profound importance of establishing contact with one or more extraterrestrial intelligences.”