Astrobiological Phase Transition: Towards Resolution of Fermi’s Paradox

Abstract

Can astrophysics explain Fermi’s paradox or the “Great Silence” problem? If available, such explanation would be advantageous over most of those suggested in literature which rely on unverifiable cultural and/or sociological assumptions. We suggest, instead, a general astrobiological paradigm which might offer a physical and empirically testable paradox resolution. Based on the idea of James Annis, we develop a model of an astrobiological phase transition of the Milky Way, based on the concept of the global regulation mechanism(s). The dominant regulation mechanisms, arguably, are γ-ray bursts, whose properties and cosmological evolution are becoming well-understood. Secular evolution of regulation mechanisms leads to the brief epoch of phase transition: from an essentially dead place, with pockets of low-complexity life restricted to planetary surfaces, it will, on a short (Fermi–Hart) timescale, become filled with high-complexity life. An observation selection effect explains why we are not, in spite of the very small prior probability, to be surprised at being located in that brief phase of disequilibrium. In addition, we show that, although the phase-transition model may explain the “Great Silence”, it is not supportive of the “contact pessimist” position. To the contrary, the phase-transition model offers a rational motivation for continuation and extension of our present-day Search for ExtraTerrestrial Intelligence (SETI) endeavours. Some of the unequivocal and testable predictions of our model include the decrease of extinction risk in the history of terrestrial life, the absence of any traces of Galactic societies significantly older than human society, complete lack of any extragalactic intelligent signals or phenomena, and the presence of ubiquitous low-complexity life in the Milky Way.

This is a preview of subscription content, log in to check access.

Fig. 1
Fig. 2
Fig. 3

Notes

  1. 1.

    We speak here of “life” in the most completely generalized context, without excluding the possibility (which we, indeed, consider likely) that most of the observers in advanced technological civilizations will be of postbiological nature (Dick 2003).

References

  1. Adams FC, Laughlin G (1997) A dying universe: the long-term fate and evolution of astrophysical objects. Rev Mod Phys 69:337–372

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  2. Alvarez L, Alvarez W, Asaro F, Michel HV (1980) Extraterrestrial cause for the Cretaceous–Tertiary extinction. Science 208:1095–1108

    PubMed  Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  3. Ambrose SH (1998) Late Pleistocene human population bottlenecks, volcanic winter, and differentiation of modern humans. J Hum Evol 34:623–651

    PubMed  Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  4. Annis J (1999) An astrophysical explanation for the great silence. J Br Interplan Soc 52:19–22, (preprint astro-ph/9901322)

    Google Scholar 

  5. Ball JA (1973) The zoo hypothesis. Icarus 19:347–349

    Article  Google Scholar 

  6. Baxter S (2000) The planetarium hypothesis: a resolution of the Fermi paradox. J Br Interplan Soc 54:210–216

    Google Scholar 

  7. Bostrom N (2002) Anthropic bias: observation selection effects. Routledge, New York

    Google Scholar 

  8. Bostrom N, Ćirković MM (eds) (2008) Global catastrophic risks. Oxford University Press, Oxford

  9. Bounama C, von Bloh W, Franck S (2007) How rare is complex life in the Milky Way. Astrobiology 7:745–755

    PubMed  Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  10. Brin GD (1983) The ‘Great Silence’: the controversy concerning extraterrestrial intelligence. Q J R Astron Soc 24:283–309

    Google Scholar 

  11. Bromm V, Loeb A (2002) The expected red-shift distribution of gamma-ray bursts. Astrophys J 575:111–116

    Article  Google Scholar 

  12. Caldeira K, Kasting JF (1992) The life span of the biosphere revisited. Nature 360:721–723

    PubMed  Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  13. Carter B (1983) The anthropic principle and its implications for biological evolution. Philos Trans R Soc Lond A 310:347–363

    Article  Google Scholar 

  14. Clube SVM, Napier WM (1990) The cosmic winter. Blackwell, Oxford

    Google Scholar 

  15. Cockell CS (2008) The interplanetary exchange of photosynthesis. Orig Life Evol Biosph 38:87–104

    PubMed  Article  Google Scholar 

  16. Conway Morris S (2003) Life’s solution: inevitable humans in a lonely universe. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge

    Google Scholar 

  17. Courtillot V (1999) Evolutionary catastrophes. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge

    Google Scholar 

  18. Ćirković MM (2006) Too early? On the apparent conflict of astrobiology and cosmology. Biol Philos 21:369–379

    Article  Google Scholar 

  19. Ćirković MM, Bradbury RJ (2006) Galactic gradients, postbiological evolution and the apparent failure of SETI. New Astron 11:628–639

    Article  Google Scholar 

  20. Ćirković MM, Vukotić B, Dragićević I (2008) Galactic ‘Punctuated Equilibrium’: how to undermine carter’s anthropic argument in astrobiology. Astrobiology (in press)

  21. Dar A, De Rújula A (2002) The threat to life from Eta Carinae and gamma-ray bursts. In: Morselli A, Picozza P (eds) Astrophysics and gamma ray physics in space. Frascati Physics Series Volume XXIV. INFN, Rome pp 513–523

  22. Davis WL, McKay CP (1996) Origins of life: a comparison of theories and application to Mars. Orig Life Evol Biosph 26:61–73

    PubMed  Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  23. Dick SJ (2003) Cultural evolution, the postbiological universe and SETI. Int J Astrobiol 2:65–74

    Article  Google Scholar 

  24. Duric N, Field L (2003) On the detectability of intelligent civilizations in the Galaxy. Serb Astron J 167:1–10

    Article  Google Scholar 

  25. Erwin DH (2006) Extinction. Princeton University Press, Princeton

    Google Scholar 

  26. Franck S, von Bloh W, Bounama C (2007) Maximum number of habitable planets at the time of Earth’s origin: new hints for panspermia and the mediocrity principle. Int J Astrobiol 6:153–157

    Article  Google Scholar 

  27. Freeman J, Lampton M (1975) Interstellar archaeology and the prevalence of intelligence. Icarus 25:368–369

    Article  Google Scholar 

  28. Galante D, Horvath JE (2007) Biological effects of gamma-ray bursts: distances for severe damage on the biota. Int J Astrobiol 6:19–26

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  29. Gerstell MF, Yung YL (2003) A comment on tectonics and the future of terrestrial life. Precambrian Res 120:177–178

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  30. Gies DR, Helsel JW (2005) Ice age epochs and the sun’s path through the galaxy. Astrophys J 626:844–848

    Article  Google Scholar 

  31. Gillman M, Erenler H (2008) The galactic cycle of extinction. Int J Astrobiol 7:17–26

    Article  Google Scholar 

  32. Gladman B, Dones L, Levison HF, Burns JA (2005) Impact seeding and reseeding in the inner solar system. Astrobiology 5:483–496

    PubMed  Article  Google Scholar 

  33. Gonzalez G (2005) Habitable zones in the universe. Orig Life Evol Biosph 35:555–606

    PubMed  Article  Google Scholar 

  34. Gonzalez G, Brownlee D, Ward P (2001) The galactic habitable zone: galactic chemical evolution. Icarus 152:185–200

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  35. Gott JR (1993) Implications of the Copernican principle for our future prospects. Nature 363:315–319

    Article  Google Scholar 

  36. Gould SJ (1985) The paradox of the first tier: an agenda for paleobiology. Paleobiology 11:2–12

    Google Scholar 

  37. Hart MH (1975) An explanation for the absence of extraterrestrials on Earth. Q J R Astron Soc 16:128–135

    Google Scholar 

  38. Jablonski D (1986) Background and mass extinctions: the alternation of macroevolutionary regimes. Science 231:129–133

    PubMed  Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  39. Jones EM (1985) Where is everybody. Phys Today 38:11–13

    Article  Google Scholar 

  40. Jones BW, Sleep PN, Underwood DR (2006) Habitability of known exoplanetary systems based on measured stellar properties. Astrophys J 649:1010–1019

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  41. Kaneko K, Akutsu Y (1986) Phase transitions in two-dimensional stochastic cellular automata. J Phys A 19:L69–L75

    Article  Google Scholar 

  42. Kardashev NS (1964) Transmission of information by extraterrestrial civilizations. Sov Astron 8:217–220

    Google Scholar 

  43. Kitchell JA, Pena D (1984) Periodicity of extinctions in the geologic past: deterministic versus stochastic explanations. Science 226:689–692

    PubMed  Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  44. Léger A et al (2004) A new family of planets? ‘Ocean-Planets’. Icarus 169:499–504

    Article  Google Scholar 

  45. Leitch EM, Vasisht G (1998) Mass extinctions and the sun’s encounters with spiral arms. New Astron 3:51–56

    Article  Google Scholar 

  46. Lem S (1977) Summa Technologiae. Nolit, Belgrade (in Serbian)

    Google Scholar 

  47. Leslie J (1996) The end of the world: the ethics and science of human extinction. Routledge, London

    Google Scholar 

  48. Lineweaver CH (2001) An estimate of the age distribution of terrestrial planets in the universe: quantifying metallicity as a selection effect. Icarus 151:307–313

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  49. Lineweaver CH, Davis TM (2002) Does the rapid appearance of life on earth suggest that life is common in the universe. Astrobiology 2:293–304

    PubMed  Article  Google Scholar 

  50. Lineweaver CH, Fenner Y, Gibson BK (2004) The galactic habitable zone and the age distribution of complex life in the milky way. Science 303:59–62

    PubMed  Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  51. Lovelock JE, Whitfield M (1982) Life span of the biosphere. Nature 296:561–563

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  52. Maher KA, Stevenson DJ (1988) Impact frustration of the origin of life. Nature 331:612–614

    PubMed  Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  53. McKay CP (1996) Time for intelligence on other planets. In: Doyle LR (ed) Circumstellar habitable zones. Proceedings of The First International Conference. Travis House, Menlo Park, pp 405–419

    Google Scholar 

  54. Melott AL et al (2004) Did a gamma-ray burst initiate the late Ordovician mass extinction. Int J Astrobiol 3:55–61

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  55. Mészáros P (2002) Theories of gamma-ray bursts. Annu Rev Astron Astrophys 40:137–169

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  56. Napier WM (2004) A mechanism for interstellar panspermia. Mon Not R Astron Soc 348:46–51

    Article  Google Scholar 

  57. Newman WI, Sagan C (1981) Galactic civilizations: population dynamics and interstellar diffusion. Icarus 46:293–327

    Article  Google Scholar 

  58. Olum K (2004) Conflict between anthropic reasoning and observation. Analysis 64:1–8

    Article  Google Scholar 

  59. Pavlov AA, Toon OB, Pavlov AK, Bally J, Pollard D (2005) Passing through a giant molecular cloud: ‘Snowball’ glaciations produced by interstellar dust. Geophys Res Lett 32:L03705.1–L03705.4

    Google Scholar 

  60. Peplinski A, Artymowicz P, Mellema G (2008) Numerical simulations of type III planetary migration—II. Inward migration of massive planets. Mon Not R Astron Soc 386:179–198

    Article  Google Scholar 

  61. Rampino MR, Self S (1992) Volcanic winter and accelerated glaciation following the Toba super-eruption. Nature 359:50–52

    Article  Google Scholar 

  62. Raup DM (1991) Extinction: bad genes or bad luck. Norton, New York

    Google Scholar 

  63. Raup DM, Valentine JW (1983) Multiple origins of life. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A 80:2981–2984

    PubMed  Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  64. Ruderman M, Truran JW (1980) Possible transfer of lunar matter to Earth due to a nearby supernova. Nature 284:328–329

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  65. Scalo J, Wheeler JC (2002) Astrophysical and astrobiological implications of gamma-ray burst properties. Astrophys J 566:723–737

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  66. Shaviv NJ (2002) The spiral structure of the Milky Way, cosmic rays, and ice age epochs on Earth. New Astron 8:39–77

    Article  Google Scholar 

  67. Thomas BC, Jackman CH, Melott AL, Laird CM, Stolarski RS, Gehrels N, Cannizzo JK, Hogan DP (2005) Terrestrial ozone depletion due to a Milky Way gamma-ray burst. Astrophys J 622:L153–L156

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  68. Thomas BC, Melott AL, Fields BD, Anthony-Twarog BJ (2008) Superluminous supernovae: no threat from η carinae. Astrobiology 8:9–16

    PubMed  Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  69. Thorsett SE (1995) Terrestrial implications of cosmological gamma-ray burst models. Astrophys J 444:L53–L55

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  70. Tipler FJ (1980) Extraterrestrial intelligent beings do not exist. Q J R Astron Soc 21:267–281

    Google Scholar 

  71. von Bloh W, Bounama C, Franck S (2007) Dynamic habitability for Earth-like planets in 86 extrasolar planetary systems. Planet Space Sci 55:651–660

    Article  Google Scholar 

  72. von Hoerner S (1975) Population explosion and interstellar expansion. J Br Interplan Soc 28:691–712

    Google Scholar 

  73. Vukotić B (2008) Quantifying the set of habitable planets. Earth Moon Planets (in press)

  74. Vukotić B, Ćirković MM (2007) On the timescale forcing in astrobiology. Serb Astron J 175:45–50

    Article  Google Scholar 

  75. Vukotić B, Ćirković MM (2008) Neocatastrophism and the milky way astrobiological landscape. Serb Astron J 176:71–79

    Google Scholar 

  76. Wallis MK, Wickramasinghe NC (2004) Interstellar transfer of planetary microbiota. Mon Not R Astron Soc 348:52–61

    Article  Google Scholar 

  77. Ward PD, Brownlee D (2000) Rare earth: why complex life is uncommon in the universe. Springer, New York

    Google Scholar 

  78. Webb S (2002) Where is everybody? Fifty solutions to the Fermi’s paradox. Copernicus, New York

    Google Scholar 

  79. Woosley SE, Bloom JS (2006) The supernova gamma-ray burst connection. Annu Rev Astron Astrophys 44:507–556

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

Download references

Acknowledgements

An anonymous referee has offered very useful suggestions resulting in significant improvement of the previous version of this manuscript. M. M. Ć. uses the opportunity to thank the Future of Humanity Institute, Oxford, UK, for the kind hospitality during the period this paper was conceived. This work has been supported by the Ministry of Science of the Republic of Serbia through the project ON146012. Useful discussions with Richard B. Cathcart, Anders Sandberg, Branislav K. Nikolić, Nick Bostrom, Brian Thomas, Tanja Berić, Robert J. Bradbury, Slobodan Popović, Ivana Dragićević, and Robin Hanson are also hereby acknowledged.

Author information

Affiliations

Authors

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Milan M. Ćirković.

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Cite this article

Ćirković, M.M., Vukotić, B. Astrobiological Phase Transition: Towards Resolution of Fermi’s Paradox. Orig Life Evol Biosph 38, 535–547 (2008). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11084-008-9149-y

Download citation

Keywords

  • Biogenesis
  • Extraterrestrial intelligence
  • Mass extinctions
  • Evolutionary contingency
  • Catastrophism
  • Galaxy evolution