The Fermi Paradox
I used to love the Sligo train. I remember it from my days in college, taking it down nearly every Friday night or occasionally on a Saturday morning (what we used to call the hangover express). I loved the scramble to get the front couple of carriages in Connolly Station either for the heat from the engine on cold winter nights or for the shorter platforms along the line.
They were good times, and good memories associated with them. I must say that I was a little surprised when last year I walked into the station to take the five O’Clock train.
Gone were the old orange trains of my youth and to replace them were shiny new green trains. There were proper seats, good sized toilets, even wi-fi. I wanted to check over some work that my group said they were going to send to me while I was away.
But as soon as my laptop was opened two people, a couple in late middle age came up and sat across the table from me. I looked up to nod in greeting and as soon as they made eye contact they dragged me into conversation. I knew the type, probably up to the big smoke for a spot of shopping, even a few short hours anonymous in the city can so shock their system that they demand personal contact when the opportunity first shows itself. That meant that I had no chance to do any work and put my laptop straight back into my bag.
I didn’t mind, I relish the chance to sever my umbilical connection to the office from time to time. There was an announcement over the Tannoy (you could understand what was being said, wonders never cease!) that the train was leaving in a minute. There was another rustle beside me and a young woman, barely more than a girl sat beside me. There was a shudder as the engines started up and the train pulled out of the station. We were on our way.
As we gained speed leaving the built up regions of Dublin, the couple, Noel and Bridget, told their story. They were farmers from Longford, up to Dublin to buy a christening gift for their first grandson, a delightful handmade jumper. They told us of how they walked through the city, marveling some of the sights as well as having tea in Clery’s. They enjoyed it, they said “But ah.. It is a bit too big for me!”
It took me four sentences to say that. But oooooh, it took them a lot longer. Enfield had already past us by before they even deigned to let us speak and I think it was more out of politeness than anything else. The girl, she never said her name, only murmured a few responses, off to visit family near Boyle, taking a few days off school, and yes, she would like a biscuit.
I was a bit more involved however and I gave them the condensed version of the biography. From Drumcliff in Sligo, studies physics in Trinity, moved to the States and became an astronomy professor. Now come home, to give a talk in my Alma Mater and heading home to visit the folks and as an added benefit, give a talk in the school were my older brother is teaching. Me in a nutshell.
My profession always incites an interest in the Laity. Noel and Bridget thoroughly grilled me on the basics. “No I don’t work at night, I keep normal office hours” “No I don’t look much through the telescopes very much, they tend to be too far away.” “Yes! I have worked with NASA, I’ve used data from a few of their satellites in my work.” and so on and so forth.
Mullingar and Edgeworthstown passed us by and before we knew it, the tannoy announced Longford and Noel and Bridget had to leave.
The two of them waved at me while they walked the window and I waved back. I was so engrossed in seeing them off that I it came as a shock when I heard ” Do you think Aliens are real?” from behind me. I turned suddenly to find the unnamed girl, looking imploringly at me “Because I think that there are!”
I was a bit shocked at the suddenness of it all but was able to formulate a response. “I’m not sure. Either way. I’d be surprised if there wasn’t any life out there. But I doubt they come along visiting us.”
She pondered that for a minute. Then said “I have heard stories of sightings in Roscommon, around Boyle,” She took a pile of papers, printouts of websites, from her bag, “That is why I’m going there. Do you think there is anything in them?”
I considered my response for a few seconds and answered. “People see a lot of things which on closer examination turn out to be entirely different in reality. I would suspect that that is what these sightings were. If it were what they say then I would expect, justifiably so, greater, physical evidence. Which always seems to be lacking.”
The girl frowned “You mean the Fermi Paradox?”
“Well.. Yeah!” I replied, if there were aliens visiting us. Then they logically should have been doing so since long before there were any people. Their artefacts, their own bones would be everywhere, unambiguous, incontestable. But we haven’t found anything. And that either means, that they never have been here, or that there is something that is keeping them away. Whatever that is.”
“Maybe they want to keep us safe, like a park?”
“The zoo hypothesis?” I queried “That is an option, but it requires that every being out there conforms to a set of ethics or standards that would allow that and that none of them ever either accidentally, or on purpose to break that protection. Considering all that has happened with people, is that likely with aliens?”
“It could be.” She protested “Maybe they are better than people.” She looked at me with hope in her eyes. “Could that be?”
Now I have dealt with many kinds of students in my long career. There have been the bible thumpers who question everything I teach because because they know the universe is six thousand years old. There have been the liberal arts majors who have read a second-hand copy of Chariots of the Gods and now have definitive ‘proof’ to ‘blow my stuffy intellectual conservatism away’. They all seem to think that they know what the answers are and that they are doing us all a favour by telling us them.
But this girl was different. Rather than knowing what she said. I had a real sense that she needed it to be true. That it not being so would be a great shock to her system.
I decided to be lenient. “It certainly is possible, I wouldn’t want to make any definite statements either way.”
This seemed to placate the young woman, she smiled “I think they are better people, they must be. Anything must be!”
We talked a bit more, about some of the crazier theories going around, about the best way one may contact aliens and the like. Then, quicker than I expected Boyle train station came and she left.
I tried to follow her as she left but did not see her meet anybody at the gates. It concerned me but I had other things on my mind.
The next day found me sitting in the brother’s house watching the 6:01 news and trying to do as little as possible. Most of what was talked about was national stuff and was now so far from my experience that I hardly paid any attention. That was, until I saw the girl.
I immediately demanded that the volume be raised and I listened intently. The young woman, in reality a girl of sixteen called Deborah had been missing from her home for three days and the gardaí were looking for information. I told the brother what I knew and he agreed to take me to Sligo Garda Station after tea to give a statement. They said thank you and sent me on my way.
Deborah has still not been found by the time I was packing up to leave for the States. I followed the story as well as I could from my distant vantage.
I read with growing horror as the realities of Deborah’s home life slowly came into the public domain. The abuse, the violence, what had happened to her sister. In the end, no one would blame her for running away when she did.
As far as I know she is still missing. Another statistic with a particularly grisly story.
I think about what we talked about often. What was she trying to find in the Roscommon wilds? Was it peace? A fresh start?
Whatever it was. I do hope she found it.