The Man Who Sowed Irrational Fear and Created MORAL PANIC

On August 12, 1958, Congress passed Public Law 85-623, an “act to prohibit the introduction…into interstate commerce of switchblade knives…” This law became commonly known as the “Federal Switchblade Act,” and it was the culmination of a concerted effort by lawmakers backed by an outpouring of public support that can all be traced back to an article published in Woman’s Home Companion in November, 1950. The author of this article, titled, “The Toy that Kills,” was Jack Harrison Pollack, and he was well-known for his overtly inflammatory articles that preyed on the emotions of his readers, mostly women, tugging at their maternal instincts and unashamedly feeding their base fears.

Jack Harrison Pollack wrote and published more than a thousand articles for numerous magazines and periodicals in the 1950s and 1960s, many of them with inflaming titles like “They’ll Steal Your Vote,” “The Shame of our Local Health Departments,” “Six Ways Your Vote Can Be Stolen,” “Do Drinking Fountains Spread Disease?” and “Too Many Babies Die.”

The Toy that Kills was not written to espouse the dangers of children carrying knives. In fact, Pollack doesn’t seem to have a problem with kids carrying knives in general. He only has an issue with the “threat to our children’s safety,” the switchblade knife. He acknowledges that knives have utility and that society shouldn’t try to stop kids from carrying them. He writes, “(Authorities) don’t want to deny boys their pocket knives. They know that a knife to a growing boy is as important as a lipstick to a young lady.” In just one of the many quotes in the article that are attributed to some vague, unidentified figure, such as this one that he says is from “one of the nation’s top law-enforcement officers,” (whatever that means) he writes, “In a person’s pocket, a switchblade knife is a deadly concealed weapon—as dangerous as a dagger and at close quarters as lethal as a loaded revolver.” The article, which is filled with unsourced, vaguely attributed, unidentifiable quotes like the one above, was clearly meant to inflame its readers and to drive them to action.

In one paragraph Pollack claims to have witnessed an actual switchblade murder on the mean streets of Philly:

“I had no idea myself until I saw a youth stabbed with one on a Philadelphia street. Two young men were fighting with their fists. Suddenly one of them reached into his pocket. A second later his hand held an open knife. He jabbed the gleaming blade into his opponent’s chest. As the blood flowed, women onlookers screamed.”

In another, he has a direct quote from a deceased victim of knife violence:

“Recently—in more innocent spirits—two teen-age boys at a high school dance in a Newark, New Jersey, suburb were playfully showing off with a three-inch switchblade. Accidentally one was shoved against the tip of the knife, which pierced his heart. “You punctured me, Jim, please take me to a drugstore,” the wounded youth moaned and collapsed. His seventeen-year-old companion was aghast. But his sorrow couldn’t bring his best friend back to life.”

The article is filled with anecdotal stories from all over the country that are completely unsourced with no names attached and no references listed. Stories that have direct quotes from one subject to another as if the author witnessed the interaction first-hand. Stories that are quite obviously completely fabricated by Pollack who knows there is no way for his 1950s readers to verify or dispute these stories.

“At almost the same time, in Newark, New Jersey, a thirty-five-year-old woman accused her husband of being unfaithful. Before he had a chance to explain, she angrily yanked a switchblade from her stocking and stabbed her husband in the heart. The next day he died. “If she had only hit her husband with a dish or a rolling pin instead!” mused a police official. “A switchblade isn’t something for anybody with a temper to have.””

Immediately after publication of the article, with nobody of intelligence able to discern the obvious lies and fabrications throughout it, U.S. states began to take action, with New York becoming the first to ban these dangerous weapons. Other states followed suit, and after the federal ban against importation in 1958, the mass hysteria spread around the globe, with countries all through Europe, Asia, and the Americas taking their own steps to pass laws banning switchblade knives. And none of it was based on any sort of reality, data, science, or even logic.

In case you haven’t seen an actual switchblade knife before, I happen to own one. Here is a regular, modern pocket knife, completely legal throughout the country, side-by-side with a dangerous and scary switchblade knife:

And here is a video where I show the difference in the way these knives open:

Warning: Graphic content not suitable to the faint of heart!

As you can see, these two knives are nearly indistinguishable. Why did Pollack feel the need to fabricate his way through a story attempting to rouse his readers to take action against switchblade knives? It’s hard to say. Perhaps he was simply inspired to grow his readership in any way possible, or maybe the editors of Woman’s Home Companion preferred sensationalism to journalism. It’s quite obvious from this article that there was a clear and shocking lack of journalistic integrity in those days, at least in the magazines where Pollack’s articles flourished, his audience apparently enraptured by his histrionic prose. Whatever his intent, the article worked. After its publication, and with the release of films like Rebel Without a Cause, 12 Angry Men, and the musical, Westside Story, the public had seen enough of switchblade knives to know that they were a menace to society. Driven with fear by Pollack’s closing statement, “…don’t wait, either, until a youngster—it could be yours—is murdered with a “toy” pocketknife” the entire world went crazy.

Representative Sidney R. Yates, speaking to Congress before passing the switchblade act, was clearly taken in by the national hysteria surrounding the “deadly” knives:

“Vicious fantasies of omnipotence, idolatry… barbaric and sadistic atrocities, and monstrous violations of the accepted values spring from the cult of the weapon, and the switchblade knife is included in this. Minus switchblade knives and distorted feeling of power they beget – power that is swaggering, reckless, and itching to express itself in violence – our delinquent adolescents would be shorn of one of their most potent means of incitement to crime.” 

There’s no doubt that youth violence was a problem in the fifties, however, the switchblade knife was nothing more than a symbolism of that violence, a simple tool embodied in bloodshed by the media, and as such, it was targeted by activists who reacted on emotion rather than common sense.

When considering the Moral Panic created by Pollack against switchblade knives, it’s rather difficult to not draw comparisons to the current state of affairs with society’s Moral Panic about AR-15s. The AR-15 has become the weapon of choice for many of the most heinous mass shootings our country has witnessed in the last couple of decades, and as such, it has become bastardized by society. And yet, the AR-15 is nothing more than a symbol of gun violence. It’s not even the best choice of weapon if you want to create the most bloodshed, death, fear, and violence. A typical AR-15 shoots a tiny .223 round that, in many of its iterations, causes little damage when it strikes a human body. However, because the AR-15 has been used by so many shooters, it has become the target of activists and politicians who think that the murder problem of our country will disappear if the AR-15 is banned. They seem to have lost sight of the same logic missing in society in the 1950s. Banning switchblades didn’t curb youth violence, youths just continued to carry what were now illegal knives, or they just switched to similar knives that were legal. Banning AR-15s will just mean that shooters will choose a different type of weapon for their killing sprees. If I was writing this article sixty years in the future, I might write the previous paragraph this way:

There’s no doubt that gun violence was a problem during the turn of the century, however, the AR-15 was nothing more than a symbolism of that violence, a simple tool embodied in bloodshed by the media, and as such, it was targeted by activists who reacted on emotion rather than common sense.

Gersh Kuntzman is today’s version of Jack Harrison Pollack. In an article in the New York Daily News a few years ago titled, What is it like to fire an AR-15? It’s horrifying, menacing, and very, very loud, he writes the following lines:

The recoil bruised my shoulder, which can happen if you don’t know what you’re doing. The brass shell casings disoriented me as they flew past my face. The smell of sulfur and destruction made me sick. The explosions — loud like a bomb — gave me a temporary form of PTSD. For at least an hour after firing the gun just a few times, I was anxious and irritable.

Even in semi-automatic mode, it is very simple to squeeze off two dozen rounds before you even know what has happened. If illegally modified to fully automatic mode, it doesn’t take any imagination to see dozens of bodies falling in front of your barrel.

If you’ve ever fired an AR-15 you know what complete and utter nonsense this is. Squeezing off two dozen rounds requires a high-capacity magazine and 24 distinct and separate trigger pulls along with the corresponding “bruising” shoulder kicks, “disorienting” brass casings “flying past your face,” and “bomb-like” explosions. I’m pretty sure you can’t accomplish that “before you even know what has happened.” The AR-15 has one of the lightest kicks—a gentle tap to the shoulder—of any rifle you’ll ever fire. Youtube is full of videos of girls and boys under the age of 10 firing AR-15s with smiles on their faces, apparently unperturbed by this alleged bruising this full-grown man suffered from. The AR-15 is almost certainly quieter than every one of the handguns he claims to have fired, (loud like a bomb???) and definitely quieter than most other rifles, and his theatrical, melodramatic claim that he suffered PTSD after firing the weapon…let’s just say that did not sit well with members of our armed forces who took some issue with that, as seen in his retraction statement that was added to the bottom of the article.

Kuntzman’s attempt to summon the spirit of Pollack’s malicious writings through his hammy, histrionically contrived description of his experience firing the AR-15 have only one goal…to raise the ire of the ignorant readers of the New York Daily News by creating an emotionally distorted Moral Panic that will drive them to take action to ban these types of weapons that he sees as unnecessary and dangerous. His efforts to instill the image of “dozens of bodies falling in front of your barrel” should be completely transparent, yet a constant flow of disinformation and fear mongering about AR-15s by journalists and politicians alike would seem to indicate that it is not.

Magazines that publish articles like those by Pollack in the 1950s and Kuntzman today are blurring the lines between established and respected periodicals and sensationalist tabloids by their lack of editorial oversight or journalistic integrity. They care about nothing more than readership, and sensationalism-driven clicks and sales.

Moral Panic has reared its ugly head in numerous examples of legislation since Pollack started the trend. In the 1950s, Dr. Frederic Wertham went on a crusade to warn America about the dangers of comic book violence. He penned numerous articles, including “Seduction of the Innocent,” and “What Parents Don’t Know about Comic Books” in Ladies Home Journal. His completely unbased and unscientific, speculative assertions that comic books were a corrupting influence on youth, a public health problem, and a leading cause of juvenile delinquency created a Moral Panic that spread across the country. The Senate convened a special subcommittee to explore the matter, and legislation was enacted that forced government comic book censorship and “approval” stickers before they could be legally sold. At no time were any serious, scientific studies conducted; the subcommittee members relied almost exclusively on anecdotal evidence and “expert” testimony before coming to their conclusions.

In recent times, the media narrative that police kill minorities, particularly black men, at a higher rate than others, even that they have set out to intentionally murder black men as part of a racist crusade, has created a massive Moral Panic that is currently inflaming the public and dividing the country. This is a narrative that has been thoroughly and completely debunked by numerous scientific studies, and yet groups like Black Lives Matter and far-left media outlets continue to spew it, intentionally keeping America in internal strife as a means of forwarding their own nefarious agenda.  

Most of the Moral Panic in society today seems driven by the political left, however, the right is just as guilty. After the 1 October shooting at the Route 91 festival in Las Vegas, bump stocks became the new Moral Panic of society. A device designed to help disabled veterans and target shooters enjoy their passion was bastardized by a murderer and society reacted in sadly typical fashion. President Trump quickly blamed Obama for the legalization of such a deadly and dangerous device, and ordered the Department of Justice to ban them. This ban was issued in 2018 and went into effect in 2019, requiring owners to destroy them or turn them in to the ATF under penalty of ten years imprisonment and a $250,000 fine. And why? Because one person misusing something that was designed to be simply a tool created a nation-wide hysterical Moral Panic and politicians reacted. This ban was only struck down as unconstitutional a few months ago by the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals, and the legal battle is still ongoing.

Is there a difference between a spring-assisted-opening knife and a switchblade? Sure. The blade on a switchblade deploys a small fraction of a second quicker. The switchblade requires a very slightly less dexterous movement to open. And, it makes a slightly louder and scarier “snap” when it opens. (I get a form of PTSD every time I open mine, as well as visions of dozens of bodies falling under my deftly slashing hand as I cut my way through a crowd while the song, “Gee, Officer Krupke” plays in my head.) But are these differences great enough to justify one of the knives being completely legal while possessing the other one gets you sent to jail? That is quite hard to fathom yet that is our reality, thanks to the moral panic riled up by Jack Pollack’s article.

It’s really not until recently, more than 60 years later, that this fugue of nonsensical hysteria has finally begun to unravel. Although switchblades are still federally illegal to import or sell over state lines, most states have now repealed laws against them and made them completely legal to own and carry. I believe they are still illegal to own in 11 states (including Washington) with a couple others having some restrictions on blade length or concealed carry.

Moral Panic causes our society to react emotionally rather than logically to problems our nation faces. It causes us to legislate by fear, to act impetuously and impulsively when confronted with real, germane and critical issues. Whenever we make hasty, impassioned decisions based on an emotional reaction rather than a well-thought-out, logical, data-driven response to an issue, we are much more likely to get the solution wrong, and quite possibly to exacerbate the problem. So, what can we do about the detrimental effects of our emotional reaction to Moral Panic? The first step is recognizing and crushing the driving force behind this plague, namely the media and their incessant drive to generate clicks at any cost. By calling out and demanding an end to the nonsense of histrionic articles like the ones by Pollack and Kuntzman, we can calm the fear they’re attempting to inseminate in our psyche.

The second step is by electing more logical, intelligent leaders to Congress and the Presidency. Political media whores like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Marjorie Taylor Green, Bernie Sanders, and Donald Trump who thrive on bombastic speech and the susceptibility of their audience to Moral Panic need to be soundly defeated. We need a Congress that passes laws and reacts to situations by using logic, data, and a careful evaluation of facts rather than legislating through Moral Panic. Emotional reactiveness has been a massive detriment to our society and our country. It is the malevolent fiend that has fatefully led us through things like the Red Scare, wars on drugs and in Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan, the implication of a stolen election and widespread voter fraud, and uncountable examples of unnecessary and detrimental Congressional legislation.

It’s time we defeated the sixty-year-old demon known as Moral Panic that was summoned by Pollack and nourished by panicky, emotional simpletons through the decades. It’s time we moved on from the era of reactionary politics and to an era of logic, science, and data helping us drive all of our laws and our decisions.

Pollack, Jack, “The Toy that Kills,” Woman’s Home Companion, November, 1950. https://docplayer.net/209786811-The-toy-that-kills-woman-s-home-companion-november-1950.html 

The New York Times, Obituaries, October 2, 1984 https://www.nytimes.com/1984/10/02/obituaries/jack-h-pollack-69-author-of-books-and-1000-articles.html

Whitmore, Zac, “Why are Switchblades Illegal?” Blade Magazine. https://blademag.com/knife-history/why-are-switchblades-illegal

https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1002/ncr.4110450704

Kuntzman, Gersh, “What is it like to fire an AR-15? It’s horrifying, menacing, and very very loud.” New York Daily News July 14, 2016 https://www.nydailynews.com/news/crime/firing-ar-15-horrifying-dangerous-loud-article-1.2673201

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bump_stock

History of Comics Censorship, Part 1

An exciting week for Space Exploration!

This morning, the first of three spacecraft that have been headed from Earth to Mars in a cosmic convoy for the last seven months, successfully entered into orbit around the red planet. This flight, one which will become quite common over the next several decades as we see rockets firing off all over the globe every twenty-six months in preparation for a manned mission later this decade, was the first for the United Arab Emirates. Their orbiter, Al Amal, which means, “Hope” in English, successfully fired its six thrusters for a full 27-minutes in order to slow enough to enter orbit around Mars. Eleven minutes after the rockets shut down—the time it takes for a signal to reach Earth from Mars’ current position—NASA’s Deep Space Satellite Network received confirmation that the insertion burn was successful, no doubt to the great relief of the flight crew at Mohammed Bin Rashid Space Centre in Dubai. Historically, these types of missions succeed only about 50% of the time, a number that will necessarily have to be improved on for manned spaceflight to Mars to commence. The UAE becomes only the second nation in history to successfully achieve orbit around Mars on its first attempt, after India achieved that in 2014.

Al Amal orbiter

In their treks around the Sun, Mars and Earth reach their closest points—known as near opposition—every time Earth laps Mars, which happens every 780 days, a timeframe known as the synodic period of Mars. Although rockets could technologically launch for Mars any time, it wouldn’t be very economically efficient to try to send a spacecraft to meet Mars when it’s on the other side of the Sun, which is why we ended up with three spacecraft all enroute to Mars at the same time. It takes about seven months to get there using minimal fuel, so nations tend to launch their rockets about three-and-a-half months before closest approach, and the spacecraft arrive about three-and-a-half months after closest approach.

While Al Amal is an orbiter only, whose mission is mostly that of a weather satellite, the next spacecraft to reach Mars will be both an orbiter and a lander/rover. Tianwen-1, China’s first independent interplanetary mission, is expected to arrive at Mars sometime tomorrow. It will enter into a polar orbit where it will use subsurface exploration radar to measure surface soil conditions and look for water ice under the ground. Three months from now, in May, the lander will detach from the orbiter and attempt to descend to the surface where it will dispatch a rover to explore a crater known as Utopia Planitia, an area that some scientists think may hold sub-surface ice deposits containing as much water as Lake Superior!

A selfie taken by Tianwen-1 on its long journey through space

Finally, on February 18th, NASA’s Mars Perseverance Rover, launched from Cape Canaveral on July 30th, will arrive. This is a truly exciting mission with a number of firsts that, if successful, will prove our ability to send astronauts to Mars. The spacecraft will first enter Mars’ thin atmosphere using heat shields to protect it as it streaks through the sky. A parachute will then deploy to slow it further. The air pressure on Mars is less than 1% of Earth’s, so it’s impossible to slow a landing craft enough to prevent damage using just parachutes. NASA’s solution is to drop a sky crane carrying Perseverance from the belly of the sub-orbiter, and then fire rockets to slow the sky crane down to a hover where it will lower Perseverance to the surface on cables. Because any signal would take more than 22 minutes to complete the round-trip journey from Mars to Earth, there is no way for NASA engineers to take control of the mission should something go wrong, so the entire landing sequence is automated. Perseverance is the size of a small car, and its mission is to scour Jezero crater for signs of ancient Mars life while it collects and caches scores of samples for hopefully a return trip to Earth after the first manned mission sometime later this decade. Perseverance is also carrying a small drone which it will attempt to launch in the thin air to give us all some nice overhead shots of our newest rover exploring the only planet known to be inhabited solely by robots.

It’s an exciting week for spaceflight for sure, and I’ll be following it closely! You can read more about the Perseverance rover and its mission at this link: https://www.space.com/mars-rover-perseverance-landing-one-month

Check out this video animation of the full Perseverance landing sequence. It’s pretty cool! https://videos.space.com/m/WaNbcAAk/see-perseverance-land-on-mars-in-this-new-nasa-trailer?list=9wzCTV4g

The Fermi Paradox and the Great Filter theory – part one

If you live in a city, you might only rarely see a sight like this. But if you ever get away from the lights, into the darkness of the countryside, you’ve likely looked up and marveled at the number of stars in the Milky Way galaxy. You’ve maybe even tried to count them, wondering at just how many there are. Which is a great question. Just how many stars can you see out there?

If you’re in the darkest area on the planet, devoid of all light from the city, on a moonless night, with clear air and an unobstructed 360-degree view of the horizon, the answer is right around 4500 stars. That’s under the most ideal conditions. In places out in the countryside, the places where many people get out of the city to marvel at the blanket of stars, places where it’s dark enough to just begin to see the stripe of white that makes up an arm of the Milky Way, the answer is between 2000 and 2500 stars.

That’s still a lot of stars, and if you’ve stared up at the sight of all those glimmering points of light and considered that each of them represents a solar system, with many, if not most, having planets that orbit them, you’ve probably wondered about the possibility of alien life. Once you realize that for every star you see, there are approximately 100,000 stars you can’t see, just in the Milky Way galaxy alone, you realize how impossible it must be for us to be alone in the universe.

Think about the numbers here for a minute. Just in the Milky Way galaxy alone there are an estimated 200 billion stars. When we look up at the sky on those dark nights and marvel at all of the stars, we are seeing only a fraction of a percentage of our own galaxy. Like, one hundred-millionth of the stars in our galaxy alone. For every star we can see on a dark, clear, moonless night, there are around one hundred million stars we can’t see, just in the Milky Way galaxy. Think about that the next time you’re looking up at all those stars.

The furthest stars we can see with the naked eye are about 1000 light years away. The Milky Way galaxy is 100,000 light years across, which means we can only see around 1% (with regard to distance, not quantity) of it with the naked eye. All the stars we can see with the naked eye from Earth are the brightest stars within the little red circle in the picture below.

All of those stars in our galaxy, and we’re just one galaxy out of many in the universe. How many? Take a look at this picture taken a few years ago by Nasa using two different telescopes.

Every one of the points of light in this picture is a GALAXY. All different sizes, all different shapes, ranging from an estimated 50 million stars, to 100 trillion stars in size. There are approximately 10,000 visible galaxies in this photo, the most distant, nearly 13 billion light years away. And here’s the most amazing thing:

This picture represents an area of space the width of about 1/10 that of the full moon. A tiny, minuscule, fractional, sliver of space in our view plane and it contains at least 10,000 galaxies! The reason astronomers chose this area of space to train the telescopes, letting them gather all available light for days to get the image, was because it was the darkest area of space visible from Earth, where nothing could be seen with normal telescopes. And they found 10,000 galaxies hiding there. It’s hard to fathom that, and when you extrapolate those figures to the remainder of the universe, which is symmetrical and consistent in all directions, it’s estimated that there are somewhere between 200 billion and 500 billion galaxies in the observable universe. (Some scientists think it might even be as high as 1 trillion galaxies)

How many stars is that?

It’s typically estimated at between 1022 and 1024 stars. 1024 is this number:

1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000

That’s 1 septillion stars. A trillion-trillion stars.

To put that in another perspective, the estimated number of grains of sand on every beach on planet Earth is 1021.

That means for every grain of sand on every beach on Earth, there are 1000 stars in the universe. Think about that the next time you’re laying on the beach and decide to wipe the sand off your feet.

Even if we take the lower number of the total star estimate, 1022 stars, that’s still 10 stars for every grain of sand on every beach on Earth. 10 sextillion stars in the universe. That’s not a septillion by any means, but still kind of a lot.

Astronomers’ opinions about the number of Earth-like planets that might orbit these stars varies, with some saying it’s as low as 20% of stars that contain an Earth-like planet, and some saying it could be as high as 50%. In addition, not all stars are even capable of nurturing life as we know it—white dwarfs are small and hot, red giants are huge and cool. Astronomers estimate that the number of stars that are sun-like, with regard to size, temperature, and luminosity, might only be 10%-20% of all stars.

If we take a middle of the road approach…actually, let’s take a low-end approach, we’ll look at the bottom of the range of estimates for all three figures. We’ll say there are 1022 stars and 10% of them (1021) are sun-like, and 20% of those (2×1020) contain planets that are Earth-like, in the habitable zone, or “Goldilocks Zone” as it’s known, (not too hot, not too cold, juuust right!). That leaves the possibility of 200,000,000,000,000,000,000 – 200 quintillion – or 200 billion-billion Earth-like planets in the universe.

Okay, let’s put this in more reasonable numbers by getting rid of all the other hundreds of billions of galaxies and just focusing on our own Milky Way galaxy.

We’ll take the low-end numbers again and we’ll give an estimate of 100 billion stars in our galaxy, which is the lowest estimate I’ve been able to find. (The high range is 400 billion.) If 10% of those are sun-like, that’s 10 billion suns in the Milky Way. If only 20% of those contain Earth-like planets, that’s 2 billion Earths in our galaxy.

How many of those 2 billion Earth-like planets in the Milky Way might support life? Now we have to move from educated estimates to speculation. There is an equation for determining the number of intelligent civilizations that exist in the galaxy, known as the Drake equation, conceived by Dr. Frank Drake. The problem with the equation is it requires a number of pure guesses and speculation to solve, things like the fraction of planets on which life appears, and the fraction of those systems which become intelligent life. These are things we can’t really know, so we have to speculate. We can take some pretty careful and conservative numbers and input them into the equation, but in the end, it’s still nothing but a guess.

So, let’s guess. Of those 2 billion Earth-like planets in the Milky Way, let’s say that only 1% of those planets form any kind of life whatsoever, from single-celled organisms, to simple life forms, to tool-using mammals with big brains, all the way on up to super-intelligent beings. That would be 20 million planets with some type of life on them. Now let’s say that only 1% of those have more than single cellular life-forms, those that have evolved to intelligent, multi-celled life like fish and even dinosaurs or Neanderthals and other tool-users. That would be 200,000 planets like that. And let’s say just 1% of those advance to a civilization that’s at least as powerful and knowledgeable as human-kind, communicating and sending radio signals out into space. That would be 2,000 super-advanced civilizations in the Milky Way galaxy alone. And remember, this is speculating with tiny numbers. Tim Urban over at my favorite website, Waitbutwhy.com, used rather conservative extrapolation that actually came up with an estimate of 100,000 advanced civilizations in the Milky Way.

So where is everybody?

Welcome to the Fermi Paradox.

In the 1950s, while on a lunch break with several other scientists involved in the nuclear program, physicist Enrique Fermi postulated that question. If the math says there should be thousands (maybe tens or even hundreds of thousands) of intelligent civilizations in the galaxy, then where are they all? Because there has never been one single instance of provable contact or signal from an alien civilization.

When you realize that our sun is very young, it gets even stranger. There are stars in our galaxy that should support Earth-like planets that are hundreds of millions, even billions of years older than the sun. Our sun is about 4.5 billion years old, but the Milky Way is about 13.4 billion years old. For 9 billion years before our sun was even formed, stars and Earth-like planets were galivanting about in our galaxy!

In theory, some of those stars and planets should have created life millions or even billions of years before our planet was even born, while our sun was still a cloud of hydrogen gas floating around in space. There should have been hundreds of intelligent civilizations out there when Earth was just beginning to cool, and then millions of years later, when single-celled organisms were just forming in the primordial soup. By now, hundreds of millions of years later, those civilizations should be so advanced that we might not even be able to fathom their intelligence. They should be advanced enough that they’ve spread throughout the galaxy, colonizing other planets, exploring other stars.

Even if you say, “well, okay, but you’re guessing on those numbers. Life might not evolve at anything near the rate you think it does”, remember that there are hundreds of billions of galaxies in the universe. Maybe as many as a trillion galaxies. We can see galaxies out to a distance around 13 billion light years. That means the light from these galaxies has been traveling to us for 13 billion years. Radio signals travel at light speed. Even if you think my speculation is off by a thousand-fold, that would mean there were 2 intelligent civilizations in all the vastness of the Milky Way, but still hundreds of billions of those civilizations in the universe, many that should have been in existence for billions of years longer than humans have been around. Billions of years for those hypothetical radio signals to travel across the vast distances between the galaxies. Where are those signals? We’ve trained our radio telescopes at many of the galaxies nearest to the Milky Way and we’ve heard nothing.

So where are they all?

In the 1970s, the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI), a collective of scientific searches for intelligent life was formed to search for radio signals using deep-space radio telescopes like the Very Large Array shown here.

These types of arrays have been searching over the universe for decades and they’ve heard nothing. Not a peep from anything that couldn’t be explained as natural. (Other than this one mysterious signal known as the Wow! signal that we heard in 1977. It’s still unexplained.) In addition, we’ve sent signals out into space, broadcasting to all who might listen that we’re here and we’re looking for our neighbors. Nothing.

Incidentally, many scientists look at these intentional broadcasts into space as the equivalent of standing on the edge of a dark, unknown, and mysterious forest, and shouting loudly into it, (IS ANYTHING IN THERE? I’M RIGHT HERE AND I’M UNARMED!) They think it’s a pretty dangerous thing to do with the lack of knowledge we have, and, as the new kids on the block with regard to interstellar communications and technology, we should probably listen quietly for a while until we understand what might be out there. Of course, these messages will take hundreds or thousands of years to reach the systems they’re aimed toward, so unless a passing alien spacecraft happens to pick them up, we should be okay. Anyway, no response has ever been received to any message.

So again, where is everybody?

Science has a number of possible explanations for this lack of alien evidence. Some are very scary, such as there is one super-predator species out there that waits until a civilization advances to the ability to travel to other stars and then wipes them out, or assimilates them ala the Borg from Star Trek TNG.

Another theory is that advanced civilizations might have a Star Trek-like Prime Directive that enables them to observe us, but not to make contact or let us know in any way that they exist. (Known as the Zoo Hypothesis. We’re all just animals in a giant galactic zoo, folks.) A civilization that has the technology to travel the hundreds or thousands of light years between their home and ours would almost certainly have the ability to hide their presence from us. As an example, when you walk by an anthill, do the ants know you’re there? Do they have the ability to conceive of your presence, your purpose, your technology and intelligence? Civilizations that are millions or billions of years more advanced than humans might very well look at us the same way we look at ants. Their technology might be so advanced that we can’t even conceive of its purpose or its meaning, much like an ant could never conceive of what a car is, or what an iPhone can do, even if the ant was crawling right over it.

Another theorized solution to the Fermi Paradox is that super-advanced civilizations may have trapped all the energy of their home star in a type of hypothetical megastructure called a Dyson sphere

and that we can’t pick up their radio signals because they’re all trapped within this sphere. This theory, as outlandish and sci-fi in appearance as it might seem, could actually have some merit. Scientists have determined that there’s enough mass within the core of the planet Jupiter to build a sort of modified Dyson sphere, called a Dyson swarm, around the orbit of Mars. If we advanced far enough to develop the ability to dismantle Jupiter, we could build this Dyson swarm. Lining it with solar panels would give us the ability to harvest all the energy of the sun – unlimited free energy, allowing us to create a sort of inner solar system that would be completely controlled by us. If we broke up Mercury too, and built a full Dyson sphere, our sun and our radio signals would be completely undetectable to other civilizations that didn’t already know we were here.

There’s been some speculation that astronomers may have actually detected emissions from stars where Dyson spheres are currently under construction. (Or, more accurately, were under construction whenever the light we’re seeing was emitted from the stars, thousands of years ago most likely.) These stars are acting strangely, their brightness dimming periodically in similar fashion to the dimming that occurs when a planet in orbit passes between them and us, but to an extent that the object causing the dimming is way larger than a planet could actually be. You can read more about this interesting mystery here and here.

However, even if a civilization is advanced enough to build a Dyson sphere and hide all evidence of their presence, we still should be able to pick up signs of their civilization. Humans, for example, have been creating radio transmissions and projectile spewing them out into space for decades. Even if we advanced enough in the next hundred years to create a Dyson sphere (an unlikely rate of advancement), we would still have broadcast signals, both intentional and unintentional, for the previous 200 years. Those signals are traveling at the speed of light out into space, and, much like a bullet and a drunken comment, once it’s out there, it’s out there. You can’t retract it.

So, if a star suddenly disappears from our view because an advanced civilization closes up a Dyson sphere, we still should expect to have received some kind of radio signal from them over the last few decades we’ve been listening for them.

There are other theories and hypotheses that attempt to explain the Fermi Paradox, but the most popular one is The Great Filter Theory.

The Great Filter Theory basically states that at some point in the evolution of life, a filter is encountered, a filter that wipes out the advancing civilization, and that the filter is one that occurs for most, if not all civilizations at the same point in their evolution. Some may get through the filter, but most are destroyed by it. If just 1% of civilizations get through the Great Filter, that would mean there might only be 20 advanced civilizations out there, scattered throughout the 100,000 light-year-wide Milky Way, making it much more likely we wouldn’t have encountered any sign of their presence.

Now, the Great Filter is the leading theory at the moment, and many scientists think if there is such a thing, it must be behind us. We must have been one of the rare civilizations that managed to make it through the filter. They point to the asteroid or comet impact that wiped out the dinosaurs, and they say that that type of event could be the filter, that many civilizations may have been destroyed in that way, never recovering. Our planet did recover from that event, pushing us through the Great Filter.

Others, like renowned British professor and director of the Future of Humanity Institute, Nick Bostrom, think the Great Filter might be Nuclear weapons, that many civilizations, once they achieve the ability to harness the power of the atom, basically destroy themselves in war, something we actually came very close to doing in the 1960s. He thinks we might have made it through the Great Filter when we survived the Cold War.

Others think the Great Filter might be the challenge of life itself. That life doesn’t form as easily as we think it does, or that life only rarely passes beyond the zygote stage. Some think cosmic radiation, or chance, or some other factor stops life in the early, pre-intelligence stage, and that Earth, for some reason…luck, chance, or standard variance, faded that early death. As a gambler, I can appreciate the idea that we dodged the variance bullet, but the thought that Earth and our entire solar system might otherwise be as empty and barren as Mercury is a little disturbing.

Whatever the Great Filter is, we obviously have to hope it’s in our past and not in our future. When Viking 1 landed on Mars on July 20th, 1976, many scientists familiar with the Great Filter concept dreaded the idea that we might find signs of life on the red planet. If life had managed to form on two separate planets in this solar system alone, that would imply that the formation of life in the universe was easy and common, which would make the Great Filter theory the most likely explanation for the Fermi Paradox. If there had been signs of an advanced civilization on Mars – for example, the suspected canals that were big news in 1877, that might have indicated that the Great Filter lay in our future somewhere, a foretelling of our impending doom.

There are many people who believe the Great Filter is indeed in our future, and if that’s the case, it’s scary to contemplate, because it would mean we most likely have less than a .1% chance of avoiding the complete extinction of mankind.

I, unfortunately, am one of those.

Of course, I want to hope that’s not the case, and the optimist in me, and in many who write about this, wants to believe the filter lies in our past. After all, nobody wants to really contemplate the worst-case scenario, and it’s easy to believe we’re special, that we’re the chosen species who won the evolutionary Powerball jackpot, and that we’ll be the ones to eventually colonize and rule the universe.

But there’s certainly no evidence to support that hypothesis. It’s mostly wishful thinking.

Now, I certainly wouldn’t state that the Great Filter lies in our future if I didn’t have an idea of what I thought the Great Filter might be. And I’ll also state that the fact we’ve never found evidence of radio emissions from another civilization is pretty compelling evidence that the Great Filter, if it exists, is indeed in the past. However, that doesn’t mean that there can’t be two Great Filters, or even more than two. There may not be one Great Filter, there may be many Medium Filters. Maybe life is subject to extinction at multiple times throughout its evolution, and we’ve managed to dodge the bullets on several filters already. It’s possible that other civilizations have mostly fallen to one filter or another, with only relatively few surviving to where humans are today. Remember, alien civilizations with human levels of intelligence and evolution as advanced as we were in the 1800s for example, would not have thrown off any sign of their presence into the universe.

If there are many filters, then it’s possible that several of them lie in our future, and it might be worth examining what they could be, and when we’re likely to encounter them.

I think there’s a good chance that one of those filters could be Artificial Super Intelligence, and in part two, I’ll be taking an in-depth look into ASI, including exactly what it is, how far we are from achieving it (it’s almost certainly closer than you think it is), and why achieving ASI could be incredibly dangerous to the human race – dangerous enough even to result in our extinction.