Revisiting: The Great Silence

Every third Saturday of the month I intend to re-post something I wrote for one of my assorted old blogs or tumblogs. I want to continue thinking about Fermi’s Paradox and Pascal’s firmament which does not speak, which I did in “The Great Silence” at Dreamtigers and Silent Skies.


Image source: Diana Robinson at

The Great Silence

One of the projects I’m working on is the Weekly Wonder, through which I post a brief entry on something I find interesting according to a five-week schedule of categories: prehistoric animals on Mondays, plants and fungi on Wednesdays, and so on. On Tuesdays I post ideas, and a while ago I posted about Fermi’s paradox; you can see the entry here.

Fermi’s paradox is the strange fact that, on the one hand, the chances that extraterrestrial life exists and is capable of communicating with us are objectively pretty high but, on the other hand, there is no concrete evidence that extraterrestrial life is out there, let alone has come here. Or, as the physicist Enrico Fermi reportedly put it, “Where is everybody?” This is a serious question, or at least a question which is seriously asked and which many people have tried to seriously answer. Some attempted explanations are quite interesting; you can go to the Weekly Wonder to learn about them. That’s not why I’m bringing it up, though.

Fermi’s paradox goes by a number of other names, two of which resemble my new tumblr name: the Great Silence and silentium universi, which is Latin for “the silence of the universe.” This refers to the universe’s radio silence; there is a lot of noise coming from space, but none of it seems like communication from aliens. But that phrase, the silence of the universe: it suggests so much more than just that there are no aliens. It suggests that the cosmos has nothing to say to us, that for all of its bursting supernovas and whirling comets and pulsing quasars, it is a cold mindless mass.

Maybe one of the reasons we find the idea of aliens so appealing is that it makes us feel less lonely. We ask, “Are we alone in the universe?” Those stars up there: does some intelligence lurk out there, or is it merely abyss? I don’t want to say this is the only reason we imagine there might be aliens; UFO hauntings can be terrifying visions of the Other, as well, with their cancerous radiation, their abductions, the greys’ emotionless eyes. These might even be expressions of the universe’s Otherness: as I discussed before, when H. P. Lovecraft wanted to depict “the vast gulfs of space and time and the resultant inconsequence of the human species,” he populated those gulfs with aliens which were indifferent to us, who violated our understanding and laughed at our values. He took those things which might give us solace in the face of space–aliens, and gods or other divine agents–and transformed them into symbols for the universe’s inhumanity and Otherness. It is a clever trick, but it might also be a cheat: if you are truly afraid of a silent universe, I am not sure that Cthulhu isn’t at least a little bit consolation as well as being a taunt. At least the universe deigns to laugh at you, to torment you; at least it isn’t empty; at least you matter to it in some small hideous way.

Of course, that is only one way of seeing the Other, of seeing those vast inhuman gulfs. I’ve said I prefer another: an opportunity for celebration, an opportunity to get out of myself, to remind myself that a world exists without me, that my troubles and limitations are only my troubles and limitations, that even if I fail to overcome them they will not trouble or limit the world. I unclench my fists, relax; my cramped selfishness opens. The world’s alien being is relief and solace to me, but also opportunity for love, a love measured by the fact that it cannot be returned. If there are aliens out there, I would love to meet them, but I hope to recall that they are alien; if there are none, the galaxy is no less wonderful. So, silentium universi: the world without us, a place of fear or solace, an occasion for love, a pair of open hands, a great quiet night sky.

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