If you had asked me what my greatest fear was when I was five, I would have said the dark. Scary things lived in the dark, monsters with claws and tentacles that I could feel climbing towards me when I went to sleep. This was easily fixed; Mum just kept my bedroom light on at night and I wasn’t scared anymore.

If you had asked me what my greatest fear was when I was ten, I would have said murderers. I knew that there was one living in our attic and he slept directly above my bed. When he turned over, I could hear the floorboards creak. This was easily fixed; Mum showed me the boiler and how it sometimes made strange noises that could sound like a person. It took a while, but eventually I wasn’t scared anymore.

If you had asked me what my greatest fear was when I was fifteen, I would have still said murderers. I had just begun to wander around London on my own and, even worse, men had started to notice me wandering around London on my own. They had catcalled me when I was younger, but not like this. Sometimes, I felt my eyes following me from across the street and wondered what would happen if one of them actually did come after me. This fear was not so easily fixed, but it also wasn’t sustainable. Eventually, I had to learn to shove it to the back of my mind and to walk with my keys slotted between my knuckles, pretending that I was not scared.

If you ask me what my greatest fear is when I am twenty, I will probably say the dark. There is so much darkness in the universe, so much emptiness in between the stars, that I am scared that Earth could be the only planet that harbours sentient life. This is not so easily fixed, my mother can do many things, but I highly doubt she can solve the Fermi paradox. Perhaps, if she did, I would be even more frightened.

For those who have not just had a quick Google out of embarrassment (believe me, I have been there), the Fermi paradox plays two ideas against each other:

  1. The universe is flipping massive – for every grain of sand on Earth, there are estimated to be ten thousand stars, and five to twenty percent of those are said to be ‘sun-like’. That’s five hundred quintillion stars of this type. A PNAS study in 2015 estimated that 22% of these could have Earth-like planets (similar temperature, possibility of water and atmosphere, etc) orbiting them. That means that there are a hundred Earthish planets for every grain of sand in the world. That is a lot of planets, but you already know that. You can feel the magnitude of the universe on any starry night, when it becomes clear just how small you are.
  2. However, despite this vastness, we have seen no sign of alien life. None. Nada. This is ridiculously unlikely, given how many planets could be habitable. Our galaxy alone should have at least a few hundred creatures of our level of development, if we think of the speed with which humans have evolved. This is the problem – we haven’t found any, despite our best efforts. Think of how improbable this is: logically, we should have some reasonably advanced galactic neighbours, but we have seen nothing. If there were other space-exploring species nearby, don’t you think we would have noticed them by now?

Are you scared yet?

Please say that you are, it would be a great comfort to me. So, as with any philosophical problem, let’s dive in with a couple of incredibly simplistic explanations that cannot possibly capture the nuances of the situation. Are you onboard? Great – let’s go! From the get-go, we are going to assume that human technology is somehow able to contact aliens, if the aliens happen to be there. That’s lazy thinking, I know, but I don’t get paid to write these articles so I am going to let it slide.

Explanation One – The Alien Civilisations Are There, We’re Just Stupid.

This is what I like to call: Humanity Misses the Point, Yet Again

The Fermi paradox doesn’t seem to cover a wide range of scenarios such as: aliens having already visited Earth whilst it was a desolate space-rock and ruling it out as a habitable planet; or us living in a particularly sparsely populated area of the galaxy (dissertation title: Earth is Space Wales); or even the idea that aliens don’t care about us. I mean, it’s highly hubristic to think that aliens care about contacting us.

What if our entire space program is the astronomical equivalent of a slug at the bottom of your garden really wanting to make contact with you? Would you bother, or even care, about the humdrum life of a slug when you have so many cool things going on in your own life? Unlikely. There you have it, we could be space slugs. However, that is not my fear. I am satisfied to be a space slug in some cosmic garden, chewing on the lettuce leaves of information that NASA are able to give me (I definitely took that metaphor too far, but you get where I am going with it).

Explanation Two – We are Alone in the Universe

This is what I like to call: My Greatest Fear

Here we have it, the source of my existential dread. What if we are either the last or the first or the only intelligent creatures in the universe? I will be honest, even typing this sends a shiver up my spine. The infinite vastness of space seems a lot emptier now, doesn’t it? For hundreds of thousands of years, mankind has looked up at the stars and dreamt of what lies beyond. My greatest fear is that the answer to that is… nothing. No aliens, no interdimensional beings, no gods. What if humanity is just an aberation, a brief flash of sentience in an otherwise cold and uncaring universe?

It just seems like such a waste.

Homer, Aristotle, Shakespeare– meaningless.

The wars that humanity have waged ever since we figured out how to hold sharp rocks in our hands– unnecessary flourishes of cruelty.

This theory means that every thought that anyone has ever had, ever, is as transient and meaningless as a dandelion seeds floating past on the breeze. It happens, it moves along, and it’s gone. Nothing matters but, worst of all, we do not know that nothing matters. We continue to hate each other and treat each other cruelly, desperately searching for some higher meaning and context for our actions when none exists.

I guess what I am trying to say is that my greatest fear in this case is not the darkness itself, but the stars that it contains and the hope that they symbolise.

Just think about it and I’m sure you will agree.

It’s a terribly sad image of ourselves: hundreds of millions of people staring at the skies and looking for meaning, asking ourselves who we are even though we don’t want to know the truth of the thing, that we are just an isolated astronomical coincidence who, unable to look at ourselves, stare longingly out into the blackness.