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As far as anyone knows, we have always been alone. It’s just us on this pale blue dot, “home to everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of,” as Carl Sagan so memorably put it. No one has called or dropped by. And yet the universe is filled with stars, nearly all those stars have planets, and some of those planets are surely livable. So where is everybody?

The Italian physicist Enrico Fermi was purportedly the first to pose this question, in 1950, and scientists have offered a bounty of solutions for his eponymous paradox since. One of the most famous came from Sagan himself, with William Newman, who postulated in a 1981 paper that we just need patience. Nobody has visited because they’re all too far away; it takes time to evolve a species intelligent enough to invent interstellar travel, and time for that species to spread across so many worlds. Nobody is here yet.

Other researchers have argued that extraterrestrial life might rarely become space-faring (just as only one species on Earth ever has). Some argue that tech-savvy species, when they arise, quickly self-destruct. Still others suggest aliens may have visited in the past, or that they’re avoiding us on purpose, having grown intelligent enough to be suspicious of everyone else. Perhaps the most pessimistic answer is a foundational paper from 1975, in which the astrophysicist Michael Hart declared that the only plausible reason nobody has visited is that there really is nobody out there.

Now comes a paper that rebuts Sagan and Newman, as well as Hart, and offers a new solution to the Fermi paradox that avoids speculation about alien psychology or anthropology.

The research, which is under review by The Astrophysical Journal, suggests it wouldn’t take as long as Sagan and Newman thought for a space-faring civilization to planet-hop across the galaxy, because the movements of stars can help distribute life. “The sun has been around the center of the Milky Way 50 times,” said Jonathan Carroll-Nellenback, an astronomer at the University of Rochester, who led the study. “Stellar motions alone would get you the spread of life on time scales much shorter than the age of the galaxy.” Still, although galaxies can become fully settled fairly quickly, the fact of our loneliness is not necessarily paradoxical: According to simulations by Carroll-Nellenback and his colleagues, natural variability will mean that sometimes galaxies will be settled, but often not—solving Fermi’s quandary.

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Category: Science