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One summer’s day in 1950, the great Italian-American physicist Enrico Fermi was having lunch with the physicists Edward Teller, Emil Konopinski, and Herbert York at Los Alamos when the conversation turned to a flood of recent UFO sightings all over the United States. There were also, coincidentally, reports of trashcans going missing in New York City at the time. A New Yorker cartoon connected the dots and accused interstellar visitors of the misdeed. In the relaxed atmosphere of that lunchtime conversation, Fermi remarked that the New Yorker’s solution, by proposing a single common cause of two independent empirical phenomena, was in the very best traditions of scientific methodology.

The lunchtime chat stayed on the topic of ET. While they obviously didn’t take seriously the reports of flying saucers, Fermi and his companions began to earnestly discuss things like interstellar—and even superluminal—travel. Then, after some delay—and, one might imagine, in the midst of some tasty dish—Fermi allegedly asked his famous question. Where, indeed, is everybody? Where are the extraterrestrials?

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