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Humor Science Fiction aliens Female Scientists

The Fermi Loneliness Problem

By Beth Goder
May 10, 2019 · 4,914 words · 18 minutes

Photo by Greg Rakozy via Unsplash.

620 million years ago                                                                                                                  

The first aliens to visit Earth were the Catalogers.

At the time, the planet was covered in blue slime, gently undulating bacteria, and sponges. None of the bacteria noticed the ship, although some of the sponges were troubled by the black splotch in the sky.

The Catalogers only stayed long enough to note Earth in their records. "Small planet. Blue. Not very interesting."

This brief interaction is a fitting start to our account of alien interest in Earth, even though it occurs millions of years before the birth of Mathilda Snodwell.

But why this account?

Many people have wondered, "Are we the only ones here?" in that egotistical way typical of humans. Of course, a bevy of intelligent species exist in the known universe. There are trillions of stars, and around those stars are planets, and some of those planets are home to aliens strange enough to want to visit places like Earth. This account is an answer to that question, a question that all intelligent life must ask at some point. "Where is everyone?"

They are, in fact, trying to communicate with you.


330 million years ago

            The Ear-Flaps popped into orbit during a time in Earth's history when large dinosaurs were snuffing about in the undergrowth, eating vegetation, and stomping on smaller dinosaurs.

 The Ear-Flaps surveyed the Earth. Their motives were varied--exploration, conquest, locating partners for a friendly game of Snarf-Ball.

The commander flapped the skin covering her five ears. "Lovely little planet, isn't it?"

"The atmosphere is all wrong," said her subordinate.

"Easily fixed," said the commander. "Put this one on the list. We'll be coming back."

If these aliens knew that we referred to them as the Ear-Flaps, they would be quite offended. Of course, they didn't think of themselves in that way. I find it necessary to assign nicknames as a way to distinguish between the many alien species that came to visit Earth. Most of their true names are unpronounceable, and all translate to some version of "the people."


 50 million years ago

            The Slow Ones were the first aliens to land on Earth. Over the course of several decades, four aliens lumbered out of their ship and set up camp in what is now China. The Slow Ones were huge creatures, with several mouths splitting the middle of their bodies. Because of their decelerated movement and coloring, they strongly resembled moss-covered hills.

            The leader gave an entirely reasonable three-year speech. The crew appreciated his brevity, for they didn't have much time for the Earth project. They would need to return to their home world soon for the Meditation.

            The Slow Ones opened their huge side mouths. Dust blew around them in swirls, then swept forward, traveling as if carried by the wind.

            Perhaps you've noticed something strange about our account, aside from the absence of Matilda Snodwell. By this point, three alien species had taken an interest in Earth, and humanity hadn't even shown up yet. No human had looked up at the stars and wondered what all those bright dots were and if anyone interesting lived nearby.

            The universe is big, but we are separated by more than physical space. Time is the great divider. Whole alien civilizations have risen and fallen in the time it took humanity to figure out what a wheel was and if it was useful. It is a wonder that any aliens have been able to meet at all.


90,000 years ago

            For some time, not much of interest happened. Life flourished on Earth. Some primates got very good at using tools. 

During this time, a family of Flickers popped into Earth's space, entirely by accident. They were on their way to the much trendier Blarnagorn, a planet of deep bogs frequented by the large Kerfuffle butterfly.

            The two larger Flickers blinked a series of light patterns, showing displeasure.

            "I told you to spin up into the seventh dimension, then left," blinked one.

            "Think of this as a scenic stop," blinked the other. "Look at that weird little planet down there."

            The smaller Flickers emitted flashes, roughly translating to, "Are we there yet?"

            Their ship popped back into nine-dimensional space, leaving a puff of blue gel in its wake.


2000 BC

            The Ear-Flaps returned with a fleet of ships. By this point, humanity had emerged from the shadows of undocumented eras. They'd developed improvements such as writing, agriculture, flutes, and not getting eaten by bears. Humanity felt they were really coming up in the world. Sure, there were still problems, like disease and inefficient systems of government, but at least they'd solved the whole apex predator thing. Mostly.

            The Ear-Flap commander stationed the fleet over Finland. The ships exuded the welcoming smell, a simulation of the great oceans of the Ear-Flap home world. The smell, alien in origin, had no Earth analogue, although if I had to describe it, I would say it smelled faintly of bananas.

            The commander had prepared for all contingencies. If the humans were violent, a bubble would descend and freeze large sections of the planet. If the humans projected an appropriate smell back, they would be welcomed onto the ship. If the humans had the correct number of arm joints, they would be invited to a rousing game of Snarf-Ball.

            The people in the area didn't know what to make of the banana smell. Several looked around hopefully, as if expecting fruit to fall from the sky, while the more practical among them set about making dinner.

            While observing the humans, the commander received a message. The fleet was to return immediately to the home system. A war had broken out among different polities of Ear-Flaps, and all ships were needed.

            It would take a professor of xenopolitical studies to properly explain the complexities of the Ear-Flapian governments, including the interactions of the various polities and cultural groups, so I'll sum up. The main problem seemed to be that one group of Ear Flaps had five ear flaps, all positioned on the right side of the head. The other group had four, positioned behind the head. These groups had a history of doing awful things to each other, often while involving other groups with differing amounts of ear flaps who only wanted to get back to their games of Snarf-Ball.

            Mathilda Snodwell was an excellent Snarf-Ball player, which came in quite handy during the Bluster Diplomatic Incident of Galactic Year 849387, where she won the eleventh game of Snarf-Ball for Team Earth through a series of well-planned maneuvers and thus saved the planet from annihilation.

            The Ear-Flap fleet zoomed away, leaving a faint banana scent that lingered around Finland for weeks.


800 BC

            In China, the Slow Ones blew sand, their wide mouths breathing in and out.

            The group was made up of four aliens, who we shall call Prime One, Prime Two, and so on. It is easy to get Slow Ones mixed up, for their monotone voices are difficult to distinguish, so I'll note some defining characteristics. Prime One, the leader, was fond of disco music, which had not yet been invented on Earth. Prime Two had a tendency to engage in philosophical discussions at inopportune times, Prime Three ate with all three mouths at once, and Prime Four was quite boring. Please forget about Prime Four. He is not important to this account.

            The trouble started when Prime Two stopped blowing sand long enough to say, "Excuse me, but I don't think we're getting anywhere." She spoke quickly. It only took her two months to finish the sentence. "We've been at this for quite some time, and we've had no cogent response from any of the life forms here."

            It had indeed been quite some time. About fifty million years.

            "What an insult you make to our first contact planning committee," said Prime One. "They spent ages working this all out." Secretly, Prime One had hoped the humans would have noticed the strange wind patterns earlier, so they could get on with things. On his home planet, any abnormal wind patterns would have been noted immediately.

            The other Slow Ones looked about, wondering if anyone would say anything more.

            Meanwhile, humans in China invented gunpowder.

            It was a couple decades before Prime Three said, "Perhaps we could change direction."

            "We are not changing direction," said Prime One. While he was speaking, humans in China invented fireworks. They were on a roll.

            "I think it's a good idea," said Prime Two.

            The Slow Ones all began speaking quickly, in a relative sense. Prime One insisted that he was the leader, and that the matter wasn't up for discussion. Prime Two pontificated on the meaning of life, which completely derailed the discussion. Prime Three wanted to shift position. Prime Four said something, but it was quite boring and everyone immediately forgot it.

            The conversation was interrupted when several humans came upon the Slow Ones. The humans made their way through the wilderness, closer and closer, their movements almost too quick for the Slow Ones to comprehend.

            Prime One sat up straighter. He thought, "This is the moment."

            The humans circled the Slow Ones. They set up a picnic lunch on top of Prime Four.

             "What an oddly shaped hill," said one human.

            Prime One started to introduce himself. Graciously, he opened his front mouth.

            The humans left before he could get out the first syllable.

            The Slow Ones looked around, wondering where the humans had gone.

            "Well, that went well," said Prime Two.

            "All part of the plan," said Prime One. He huffed out a huge gust, blowing sand everywhere. As the sand swirled around, he said, "It occurs to me that perhaps we ought to change direction."

            The Slow Ones turned several degrees to the left and began blowing sand again.



            Our account would not be complete without mentioning a rather smart fellow by the name of Enrico Fermi. He was a scientist who was good at experimenting and also good at thinking about things--a surprising combination among physicists. Unfortunately, he devoted much of his time to figuring out how to blow things up.

            Fermi lent his name to a particular scientific quandary.  One day, while having lunch, Fermi happened upon a cartoon depicting aliens, and remarked "Where is everyone?"

            And indeed, considering the great expanse of the universe, it seemed strange that no one had popped by Earth, even if just to ask for directions. Other humans called this idea the Fermi Paradox--the contradiction between the astoundingly high probability of extraterrestrial life in the universe, and the baffling lack of any aliens dropping by for a quick cup of tea.

            Within close proximity to Earth, there exist twenty-two alien species. Most of them have no desire to visit Earth. Let's take a look at this survey of the extraterrestrials nearest Earth, conducted by the Catalogers.

            Top Ten Reasons We Don't Want to Visit Earth

  1. Interstellar travel is expensive
  2. Earth people haven't visited us
  3. Humans remind us too much of squibels

            Editor's Note: Squibels are a yam-like food found on Metabel V, known for their offensive smell and gnarled appearance

  1. We would be really old when we got there
  2. The humans greeted members of our forward expedition by rudely screaming "cockroaches" and stomping around
  3. Really, do you have any idea how expensive interstellar travel is?
  4. Humans are not enough like squibels
  5. We've already got a perfectly good planet, thank you very much
  6. They completely ignored the invitation to our Flugealumbuff celebration. We invited the whole planet, and not even one human could be bothered to pick up the sarful-phone
  7. Do you know what isn't cheap? Interstellar travel!

            Fermi's ideas about aliens were to have a profound effect on Mathilda Snodwell, who devoted her life to the study of intelligent life in the universe.



            In 1960, the Catalogers came to update their entry on Earth.

            By now, humanity had developed transistors, vaccines, and some fabulous hats.

            The Catalogers descended toward Earth, grabbing clouds to cloak their ship. Weather camouflage, they called it. Their ship took on the appearance of an unsightly nimbostratus cloud.

             A sponge off the coast of Egypt shivered, as if channeling some ancestral memory, but the humans only said things like, "Oh bother, it looks like rain."

            Aboard the ship, the lead cataloger turned to his subordinate.

            "Let's see," said the lead cataloger. "This is planet 3-86-f57. What's our original entry for this one?"

            The junior cataloger recited from memory. "Small planet. Blue. Not very interesting."

            "Has anything changed since our last visit?"

            "The life forms seem slightly more advanced."

            The lead cataloger pulled out a hexagonal data pad and accessed a checklist. "Have they discovered Thatum's Third Theorem of Time?"

            Over the next several hours, the lead cataloger learned that the humans had not discovered the Wharchozic Model of the Sentient Mind, the Kindness Equilibrium Equation, or the proper way to make a banana bread pudding. They couldn't teleport anything, even small objects, and they had no idea that dreams were communications from the deity and government administrator Zobora, and that you could turn them off by submitting the proper form.

            However, the basic science section was the most distressing.

            "They have nuclear weapons," said the lead cataloger, "and they haven't even invented an empathy machine?"

            After they finished the questions, the lead cataloger paced across the spaceship, muttering to himself and pulling up items on his data pad.

            Finally, he updated the entry on Earth. It read: "Small planet. Greenish-blue. Not very interesting."

            As they maneuvered their ship away, scattering their cloud cover, the junior cataloger said, "We can't just leave them like this."

            "Oh yes, we can," said the lead cataloger.

            "Just one drop of our super detoxication solution would clean up their oceans. Our recipes for chocolate cake are far superior to theirs. We could help them with that pesky government problem."

            "Absolutely not."

            "You'd think with so many forms of government, they would have hit upon the right one."

            "We're not to interfere. I need not remind you of Rempklin's Folly." The lead cataloger stared out the window as if reminded of some unspeakable horror and muttered, "Pudding."

            "I wasn't suggesting giving them a replication machine."

            "Pudding in your nose. Pudding on your head. Mounds and mounds of gelatinous pudding. We had to evacuate the planet."

            "How about an empathy machine?"

            "Goodness, no. If the administration finds out, we'll surely be sacked."

            But the junior cataloger couldn't leave it at that. While the lead cataloger busied himself with a rather tricky crossword puzzle, the junior cataloger fetched her data pad. Surely, there was something she could give to the people of Earth, some insignificant benefit that would improve their lives just a small amount.

            The junior cataloger thought for some time. She wrote one interoffice memo and teleported it to the planet.

            Years later, the internet was born.



            At last, it's time for Mathilda Snodwell to enter our account. Galactic explorer, instigator of the Bluff-Muffin Tri-Galaxy Treaty, inventor of the triple-wedged Snarf-ball, and first human galactic diplomat. Yes, that same Mathilda Snodwell who saved the world.

            Even in her early years, Mathilda was never content to let the mysteries of the universe go unanswered. She was always asking, "Why?" She questioned her parents, teachers, peers, dance instructors, firefighters, and once, through correspondence, the President of the United States. She questioned anyone who would stop long enough to listen to a small child with three pigtails. (No one had been able to explain why two pigtails were preferable, although her parents insisted this was the case.) When no one could give her answers to questions like, "What's at the bottom of the ocean?" or "Why is time always going forward instead of backward?" she turned to books, academic journals, and a chemistry kit that had been banned in seven countries.

            Her interest in extraterrestrials started in 2018, when Mathilda was sixteen. She'd read all about the Fermi Paradox, calculated her own coefficients for the Drake Equation, and contacted SETI in hopes of getting an internship. She asked the same question to anyone who would listen, that same question that boggled Fermi. "Where is everyone?"

            Mathilda would look up at the stars each night, consumed with wonder. She thought, "Could we really be the only ones?" This sense of loneliness pervaded everything she did. The universe was truly vast. To think of Earth as a small orb floating within this uncaring void was too much to bear. She felt an emptiness grow inside her, vaster than space, an ache such as a religious person might feel when questioning the existence of God.

            For weeks, Mathilda was in a funk, and she couldn't explain to anyone how she felt. How could she say that the issue was the lack of evidence of alien life? There was no one to talk to about that sort of problem.

            Mathilda wasn't one to mope. She realized there was one problem she could do something about. She could find other people interested in the Fermi Paradox. She founded a club, simply called Club Hope, where scientific minds could meet and discuss such questions. At the first meeting, which was held in Mathilda's hometown in Iowa, Mathilda gave a lecture entitled, "The Fermi Loneliness Problem."

            "The universe is big. We are floating on a small orb, the third planet in a modest solar system, sandwiched into an average-sized galaxy. All of my life, I've been asking questions that no one can answer. Now, I'd like to ask a question to the group assembled here. I won't ask, 'Where is everyone?' Because I think they're out there. What I want to know is what we're missing. Why we find ourselves so alone, when the universe must be full of sentient life."

            Over the years, Club Hope grew into an international organization, boasting members in thirty-five countries. They were responsible for the Great Communication Beam Out in 2022, which spread mathematical formulas and videos of tap dancers to the far reaches of the Milky Way, as well as several projects to examine footage from galactic cameras. They also made a lot of nifty posters.

            In between getting a Master's degree in engineering and winning several robotics contests, Mathilda headed many of these projects. It was her idea to begin work on the Extraterrestrial Neurological Scanner. She traveled to China to collaborate with the brilliant neurologist Xia Chen, who also happened to be a member of Club Hope.



            By 2027, Mathilda and Xia had made great strides in the work on their scanning device, which they believed could detect intelligent, non-human brain patterns from anywhere within a three thousand kilometer radius. The ability of the scanner to reach such distances was quite a feat, although the range was sadly inadequate when compared to the entirety of the universe. They couldn't even scan all of Earth.

             The technology was based on a mixture of advanced electroencephalography techniques, sonar signals, quantum theory, and a little bit of hope and luck (that last bit, Mathilda had found, fueled most scientific discoveries.) Their scan could sort out human life from animals, although they were still having trouble with the whales, which tended to show up strangely in their results.

            "It's always the whales," Mathilda mumbled, looking at the atypical results from a newly scanned area.

            "Wait," said Xia. "This is new."

            The scientists had hit upon the camp of Slow Ones, who had come to Earth fifty million years ago, and were still waiting for someone to notice them.

            With other members of Club Hope, Mathilda and Xia planned an expedition to examine the atypical brain waves. They set up camp at the base of four lumpy hills.

            The Slow Ones, by this point, were used to humans buzzing about. They'd mostly given up on communicating and were waiting until they could go back home for the Meditation, like employees watching the clock until quitting time.

            After Club Hope had been there for eight weeks, Prime Two said, "Perhaps the humans have finally noticed us."

            The humans had noticed something strange, but they weren't having much luck figuring out what it was. The Club Hope biologists hadn't found any evidence of alien life, because the metabolism of the Slow Ones behaved in such a way that any outward signs were all but invisible. The linguists couldn't work out anything, either, since each syllable from the aliens stretched out over several days.

            The only people who made any progress were Xia and Mathilda, who were able to take the data from the brain waves and modify their scanner.

            Finally, Mathilda felt, she was close to getting answers. Could it really be that aliens had already landed on Earth? That they were just waiting for humans to make the first move?

            After a year of observation, Club Hope was no closer to communicating with the Slow Ones. They weren't even sure if the Slow Ones qualified as alien life at all.

            Officials from the government of China caught wind of a group of alien enthusiasts mucking about in an unpopulated area. They kicked out Club Hope, cordoned off the area, and then promptly forgot about it.

            Mathilda wanted to go back, but Xia said, "We had a year there, and we still couldn't get anywhere. Maybe it's time to focus on other things."

            During that time, the Slow Ones had decided to try communicating again.

            Prime One had just opened his front mouth to begin his welcoming speech when all of the humans disappeared.

            "I've had it with this planet," he said. The Slow Ones quickly packed up, extruded new travel bubbles, and within the decade were on their way home.



            The Ear-Flaps returned on a brisk day in June. Their fleet hovered above a patch of the Atlantic Ocean.

            Only Mathilda and the members of Club Hope had any idea what was happening. They'd set up the Extraterrestrial Neurological Scanners all over the Earth, set to alert members of Club Hope of any strange activity.

            Mathilda, who was in Spain for a research conference, was the closest member of Club Hope to the scene. She chartered a boat and was soon below the Ear-Flap ship.

            The boat rocked on the waves. Seagulls squawked overhead. The air smelled of the Ear-Flaps' welcoming scent.

            Mathilda turned to the captain and said, "What's that weird smell?"

            The captain shrugged. Mathilda had paid him a large sum of money to take her out in his boat, but he had no interest in aliens or anything of the sort. He only wanted the weird American to finish up her business so he could get home in time for his weekly crochet meeting.

            "It smells like banana," said Mathilda. "Quick, do we have any bananas on this ship?"

            Upon the receipt of another large sum, the captain rounded up a muffin, purportedly with some banana in it, and a container of banana-scented lotion.

            "It will have to do," said Mathilda. She fashioned a crude machine from items on the ship, shoved the muffin inside, and squirted lotion all over. She pointed the nozzle at the Ear-Flap ship, shooting the scent at them.

            On board, the Ear-Flap commander cheered. "They're projecting a version of the welcoming smell. Quick, get them aboard."

            Two sticky tentacles shot out and scooped up Mathilda. Unfortunately, the captain's jacket got stuck to the left-most tentacle. Mathilda and the captain--who felt that he had not been paid enough for this sort of thing and now would definitely miss his crochet meeting--both found themselves inside the alien ship.

            The commander struck a pose. "We welcome you," he said in his most formal tones. Of course, he was speaking his native language of Balranada, so what the humans heard was something like, "Blaraha thorna biff puff."

            Mathilda bowed her head. Here was the answer, at last, to the most important question. Proof of intelligent extraterrestrial life.

            The captain pinched himself to see if he was dreaming. He decided there wasn't enough money in the world to compensate him for this.

            "Why aren't they welcoming us back?" asked the commander.

            "I don't think they understood," said the subordinate. "Where's our translation machine?"

            The commander pointed to a jar of orange fluid. "That should do." He motioned for Mathilda to pour the liquid into her ears.

            She did so and offered some to the captain, who declined. The liquid squished in her ears, then settled. It smelled like orange sherbet.

            Once Mathilda could understand the Ear-Flaps, she read a speech prepared by the members of Club Hope. She said all of the appropriate things about peace between intelligent life forms, although she couldn't resist adding, "We have so many questions." The Ear-Flaps reciprocated, adding that their Snarf-Ball fields would always be open to the people of Earth.

            Once the formalities were over, there ensued a long and serious conversation, which mainly consisted of Mathilda asking questions about life, the universe, and everything. The Ear-Flap commander, although daunted by the deluge of questions, quickly recovered. When he didn't know the answer, he just made one up.

            The captain, who couldn't understand a word, settled down on the floor of the ship. He wished he'd brought his crochet needle and yarn.

            Finally, the commander posed a question of his own. "According to our calculations, Earth would be the perfect place for a series of Snarf-Ball fields. We could start with a medium-sized one, which would take up a mere two percent of Earth's area."

            Mathilda, showing her flare as a negotiator, instead outlined the attractions of the TRAPPIST-1 system, where no one owned real estate, making it a much cheaper option. "You could even put up all of the concession stands."

            The commander wiggled his ear flaps as he often did while thinking. He said that he would take the matter into consideration, but that at the moment their ship had to leave immediately. He muttered to his subordinate to chart a course for the TRAPPIST-1 system before the humans thought to stake a claim there.

            "Perhaps we can drop you off somewhere," he added.

            Mathilda took a breath and gambled. "How about the nearest galactic diplomat center?"

            They paused long enough for Mathilda to write an email to Club Hope, and to drop the captain back on his ship.

            As Mathilda zoomed to the stars to begin her adventures, the captain prepared to sail back to shore, away from aliens and Americans, who, he decided, were equally troublesome. He fancied he might make his crochet meeting after all.


Galactic Year 849404

            You may be asking, "Why have I never heard of Mathilda Snodwell, first human galactic diplomat, savior of Earth, and general all around excellent person?"

            The answer is that most people didn't believe that aliens had come to Earth. Although Club Hope publicized their findings, people dismissed Mathilda's story as a hoax.

            Some of the problem was that aliens had lost interest in Earth. The Ear-Flaps found a closer planet with inhabitants who had the correct number of arm joints for Snarf-Ball and have since been reluctant to fund another expedition to Earth. The Slow Ones are currently enjoying a three-millennia Mediation, and the Catalogers feel no need to update their entry, thank you very much. The other civilizations nearest Earth have no plans to engage with humans, especially as Earth was voted "most boring planet" in a recent galaxy-wide survey.

            Mathilda is diligently working behind the scenes, making deals so that Earth doesn't get destroyed to make way for an interstellar shopping mall. She is currently trying to make the empathy machine available to the people of Earth.

            There are some people, like Mathilda, who never stop asking questions, who keep on trying to figure things out, even when any sensible person would give up. The people who, when faced with a difficult question, never say, "I don't know," but instead, "Let's find out." They keep sending signals into space. They watch the sky. They wonder. They never give up hope. Perhaps they, too, are working on the Fermi loneliness problem.

            It's for those people that I've written this account. If they keep searching, perhaps they'll even find it.




This story originally appeared in Unidentified Funny Objects.