Thursday, December 11, 2014

The Fermi Paradox

The Fermi Paradox

A few words on topics about which I know little. But that has never stopped me before! This time it’s about gamma-ray bursts and the Fermi Paradox, and I refer you to this article for a better review of the topic.
The point of the original article was that a gamma-ray burst may have been responsible for one of Earth’s “Five Great Extinctions.” While that is fascinating, my takeaway from the whole business was complete and utter amazement. I did not know that the gamma-ray burst is the largest known explosion in the universe, that they can last from less than two seconds (short) to a few minutes (long) and that one gamma-ray burst can emit as much energy in seconds as the sun does in its entire 10-billion-year life.
If a gamma-ray burst were to occur in the Milky Way galaxy and be aimed in the direction of the Earth, it could cause damage that would range from scorching the surface on the side facing the blast to altering the atmosphere to the point that ultraviolet radiation would make the earth unsuitable for life.
Moving on to the Fermi Paradox:
Enrico Fermi was an Italian physicist, best known for his work on Chicago Pile-1, and for his contributions to the development of quantum theory, nuclear and particle physics, and statistical mechanics. (Wikipedia)
I know so little about any of this that I had to copy and paste from Wikipedia, but one of the thoughts that came from that magnificent brain has been known as the Fermi Question, “Where are they?” referring to extraterrestrial life and based on the Fermi Paradox. The paradox is that there are billions of stars, probably with billions of planets and they have existed for about 13.8 billion years. Given that scale, the probability of life elsewhere in the universe is likely, but there is no evidence. A paradox.
Of course, you and I are not the first to be fascinated by gamma-ray bursts, extraterrestrial life, mass extinctions or the Fermi Paradox, but some really smart people have done additional research that connects these dots. Their basic premise is that stars are more numerous and closer together at the center of galaxies and the likelihood of collisions (one of the apparent causes of gamma-ray bursts) is more likely in that environment, so life, if it formed, would be fried out of existence in short order.
Adding up (or multiplying?) a bunch of factors surrounding life and these astounding emissions of energy, the odds start to become much smaller: 
·         Our kind of life could only exist in solar systems located in the outskirts of galaxies like the Milky Way since the inner parts are too dangerous

·         Most long gamma-ray bursts (the most dangerous) occur in galaxies that are different than the Milky Way in that they have a low level of elements heavier than hydrogen and helium

·         Formation of life is estimated to only have occurred in the last 5 billion years as before that the galaxies were closely packed, lots of activity and a high probability of high-energy blasts

·         Due to these factors, life could only exist on less than 10% of galaxies according to the researchers
On a personal note (Hey, it’s my blog, therefore my rules), my first introduction to gamma rays was the 1964 play, later made into a movie, “The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds” about a dysfunctional family that deforms and stunts the characters, like the effect of gamma rays on flowers. But the marigolds, deformed and stunted, remain hardy and beautiful and the main character, a young girl, continues to believe that everyone is valuable.
Pardon me for a moment of “HOLY MOLEY” time. All of this is a bit large to contemplate, but it does come down to the fact that life as we know it on this small blue marble floating around in the vastness of the known universe is miraculous and worthy of our awe. Pretty crazy, eh?

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