Photo: Carlos Valdes-Lora.

The biggest pariah of the century, NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden, had a “geek to geek” hour long talk with Neil DeGrasse Tyson, part of the StarTalk radio show. The two had an interesting discussion about lots of stuff from science, to chemistry, to space. Even 9/11. It’s worth mentioning that Snowden made his presence felt through a robotic telecomm machine which he remotely controlled from Moscow, his asylum. Perhaps, the most interesting moment from the episode is their chat on encryption, a topic where Snowden is particularly an expert. It’s so obvious I’m surprised I’ve never heard this idea before: the reason why we’ve yet to pickup any messages from an intelligent extraterrestrial species might be because this data is encrypted.

“When you look at encrypted communications, if they are properly encrypted, there is no real way to tell that they are encrypted. You can’t distinguish a properly encrypted communication, at least in the theoretical sense, from random noise,” says Snowden.  “So if you have an alien civilization trying to listen for other civilizations, or our civilization trying to listen for aliens, there’s only one small period in the development of their society where all of their communications will be sent via the most primitive and most unprotected means.”

“When we think about everything we’re hearing from our satellites, or everything they’re hearing from our civilization, if there are indeed aliens out there, all of their communications are encrypted by default. So what we’re hearing — which is actually an alien television show or a phone call or a message between their planet and their own GPS constellation, whatever it happens to be — is indistinguishable to us from cosmic microwave background radiation.”

This also qualifies as a possible solution to the Fermi paradox. Confronted with a nearly limitless universe billions of years old with an almost infinitely vast number of opportunities for life, the Italian physicist Enrico Fermi, sitting for lunch at Los Alamos with three colleagues in 1950, asked a question that still perplexes everyone who looks up at the night sky: “Where is everybody”?

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The question is a valid one when considering:

  • There’s nothing special about our sun – it’s young, medium sized and similar to billions other in our galaxy.
  • It’s believed there are between 100 and 400 billion planets in the Milky Way. Considering intelligent life appeared in one of these (Earth), it’s reasonable to consider there should be at least some other kind of intelligent life elsewhere in the galaxy.
  • Millions of years of technological progress means that an intelligent species should have the capability to travel to distant stars and even other galaxies. Just look at how our worlds has changed in the past 100 years.
  • According to mathematicians Duncan Forgan and Arwen Nicholson from Edinburgh University, self-replicating spacecraft traveling at one-tenth of the speed of light — admittedly a quick speed — could traverse the entire Milky Way in a mere 10 million years. This means that a civilization could potentially colonize the whole galaxy in a mere couple million years.