The Fermi Paradox and Why You Should Talk to Your Kids

Are you listening to This American Life? If you aren’t, you should. Every week, they take a topic, and bring you stories about and around that topic. It’s marvelously produced, always interesting and sometimes touching; and, not for nothing, it’s the predecessor of some other smash-hit podcasts like Serial and S-Town. (Serial’s first-season was off-the-chain good, but its follow-up was less so. S-Town apparently had quite the following but left me more than a little frustrated in the end — too many bait-and-switches as it pretended to be about one thing when it was really about another thing, oh wait, no, it’s really about this thing over here. But I digress.)

This week’s episode is Fermi’s Paradox, which is a topic that — well. To say it fascinates me is undercutting things a bit, sort of like saying cats are fascinated by laser pointers. For the uninitiated, the Fermi Paradox is essentially this: If the universe is so mind-bogglingly vast, and the chances for alien life therefore so (theoretically) inevitable, then why have we yet to see any signs of any aliens? Or, put even more simply: we shouldn’t be alone, yet we seem to be all alone.

Personally, I fall squarely on the side that believes there must be life elsewhere in the universe, and (less obligatorily) that it is exceedingly likely that some of it should be intelligent. It’s the height of hubris, in my view, to think that we’re it. “Where, then, are the aliens,” you ask? Well, I take the view that Neil deGrasse Tyson takes (if I’m religious at all — and I’m not — then it’s about real, and really intelligent people like NDT), which is something along the lines of:

Given what we know about space, to say that ‘there are no aliens’ is like taking a bucket of water out of the ocean, seeing there are no whales in it, and concluding that whales do not exist.


This American Life is taking on the Fermi Paradox this week, but in typical This American Life fashion, it’s not just the story itself, but stories thematically linked to that story. In orbit, if you will, around the theme. And while I enjoyed the straightforward take on the Fermi Paradox (wherein the — reporter? storyteller? guy with the recorder? — speaks with a dean of physics and a head of SETI), what really got me was the last segment. Which had nothing to do with aliens; it was about loneliness.

Right? Because, where are the aliens –> are we alone in the universe –> loneliness is the worst.

So the last segment is about a father and his daughter, who at the time was nine, having this communication breakdown. He was a work-at-home type, and she was the precocious question-asking type (which is to say, perfectly normal), and she would always pester him with questions. Why this. Why that. How do birds fly? Why do we breathe? (I know this life. My son once asked me how we could put out the sun. I think XKCD addressed this once. [update — he did!]) And the father, like any exasperated father, got frustrated and tried to think of an easy way out.

“Look. Stop asking me these questions. If they really matter to you, write them down, and I’ll answer them then.” (Again, I know this life. Tell the kid to think about what they’re saying, and they’ll get distracted smashing some Lego constructions to bits and forget about it. This is how I solve most of my problems as a father. “Ask me again later” is the only way I survive most days.) He fully expected maybe a few questions and a drawing of a bunny. What he got, a few days later, was a fifty-question list, which he began to dutifully research and answer as best he could, citing sources like Kierkegaard for the philosophical ones and Einstein for the science. Laboring for months over his earnest responses to her earnest questions. Which he would then dutifully explain to her.

These answers, naturally, flew over her head for the most part. But that didn’t matter. The twist, of course, is that the daughter didn’t care about the answers to the questions; she just wanted her dad to talk to her.

Heartbreaking and adorable, and my two-paragraph summary doesn’t do any of it an inch of justice. I teared up in the car on the way to school. (But I didn’t cry. MEN DON’T CRY.)

And of course, it got me thinking about my own interactions with my own kids, and realizing that, you know, I should probably talk to them some more.

The segment in question starts around the 34-minute mark, but the whole episode is worth a listen.

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