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The Dark Forest (Or, Why We Should Keep Still and Not Look for Aliens)

posted by Jason Kottke   Dec 15, 2021

Inspired by the second book in Liu Cixin’s excellent Three-Body Problem trilogy, Kurzgesagt made a video about the Dark Forest solution to the Fermi paradox.

Confronted with the seemingly empty universe, humanity faces a dilemma. We desperately want to know if we are alone in the Milky Way. We want to call out and reveal ourselves to anyone watching but that could be the last thing we ever do. Because maybe the universe is not empty. Maybe it’s full of civilizations but they are hiding from each other. Maybe the civilizations that attracted attention in the past were wiped away by invisible arrows. This is the Dark Forest solution to the Fermi paradox.

I have The Dark Forest on the Kindle, so I looked up how this is explained in the book (spoilers, obvs):

“The universe is a dark forest. Every civilization is an armed hunter stalking through the trees like a ghost, gently pushing aside branches that block the path and trying to tread without sound. Even breathing is done with care. The hunter has to be careful, because everywhere in the forest are stealthy hunters like him. If he finds other life-another hunter, an angel or a demon, a delicate infant or a tottering old man, a fairy or a demigod-there’s only one thing he can do: open fire and eliminate them. In this forest, hell is other people. An eternal threat that any life that exposes its own existence will be swiftly wiped out. This is the picture of cosmic civilization. It’s the explanation for the Fermi Paradox.”

Shi Qiang lit another cigarette, if only to have a bit of light.

“But in this dark forest, there’s a stupid child called humanity, who has built a bonfire and is standing beside it shouting, ‘Here I am! Here I am!’” Luo Ji said.

“Has anyone heard it?”

“That’s guaranteed. But those shouts alone can’t be used to determine the child’s location. Humanity has not yet transmitted information about the exact position of Earth and the Solar System into the universe. From the information that has been sent out, all that can be learned is the distance between Earth and Trisolaris, and their general heading in the Milky Way. The precise location of the two worlds is still a mystery. Since we’re located in the wilderness of the periphery of the galaxy, we’re a little safer.”

That’s the basic idea, but there’s more to it…you should watch the video or, even better, read the series — I’ve read the entire trilogy twice and this makes me want to read it again! (I loved the Drive Easter egg towards the end of the video. Well played.)