This is an embarrassing thing to admit, but sometimes, when I can’t sleep — and this happens a lot since I struggle with insomnia — I freak out about how big the universe is. Still! Now well into my 30s. It’s embarrassing because there’s a cultural expectation that adults get over this stuff. You’re allowed to freak out about it a few times, maybe in college, maybe when you’re high, but at a certain point you just gotta let it go. You can’t walk around eyes wide in terror or confusion at humanity’s tiny place in an unfathomably gigantic universe.
That could explain why I reacted so viscerally to the wonderful first segment of (and introduction to) this week’s This American Life. Ostensibly, the segment is about the Fermi paradox, the basic idea of which: Assuming there’s nothing that special about humanity, and intelligent life can arise relatively easily in the universe, where is everyone? Why haven’t we encountered any extraterrestrial signals? This question has spawned all sorts of responses and counter-responses and so on, and one of the reasons it’s so provocative is no one really knows how common we should expect intelligent life to be, of course — we’re very early on in understanding this stuff. So depending on how you look at the question, or, more formally, which values you plug into the seven-variable Drake equation which estimates the number of civilizations in the Milky Way we could have heard from by now, the silence ranges from very odd to not particularly interesting to somewhere in the middle.
The conceit of the segment is that David Kestenbaum, a This American Life producer, has lately found himself ruminating a bit obsessively on this question. He can’t stop worrying that we really are alone in the universe, which to him is a terrifying thought — imagine if all that stuff out there is just dead methane oceans and barren rocky wastelands, stretching out billions of light years in every direction.
So there’s some astronomical and cosmological packaging, yes, but at core Kestenbaum’s story is really a meditation on what it means to be neurotic, on how isolating an experience that can be. Over and over, the segment drives home how alone Kestenbaum feels not just at the prospect of humanity’s uniqueness, but that he also can’t elicit in other humans his same level of concern over this question.
Take this exchange with Ira Glass, the show’s host, copy-pasted from the show’s transcript:
David Kestenbaum The specific thought I was having was that this would mean that there’s nobody out there who knows more than we do, like, about science, about– there are no better songs. There are no better books. This is it, you know?
Ira Glass Yeah.
David Kestenbaum Like, what we know is it. What we are is it.
Ira Glass Why is your response to this sadness?
David Kestenbaum Why is your response not sadness? Of course that’s sad.
Ira Glass This whole thing reminds me of just a really, really old Woody Allen movie – it might be Annie Hall– where there’s a scene of him as a kid. And he’s saying to some adult– she’s saying, why didn’t you do your homework or something like that. And he’s like, well, because the universe is expanding. And then the adult is like, why, is that any of your business? And that’s my question for you. Why is it any of your business?
David Kestenbaum Oh, I totally read that the other way. I was like, he’s making a serious point. Why is no one listening to him?
Ira Glass Oh.
David Kestenbaum See, that’s the problem. I’m in his shoes and I’m not making a joke. Yeah, I feel like if you were able to really imagine it, it would make you sad.
Ira Glass Oh, really?
David Kestenbaum Yeah. When you look up at the stars, do you think about what they are, and the distances and stuff, and all that?
Ira Glass No, not in a deep way.
David Kestenbaum I mean, it’s so easy not to feel anything. But it’s a crazy thing you’re looking at, just how small we are and how big it is.
Leaving aside the fact that the producers really should have quoted the most classic line from that Annie Hall exchange — “Brooklyn is not expanding!” — this just really, really nicely captures the gap that it can feel like exists between neurotic people and everyone else. I feel like if you were able to really imagine it, it would make you sad. Kestenbaum just exhibits this real despair, both in his back-and-forth with Glass and at other points in the segment, over other people’s inability to get it, at how isolating it is to be the only person in the room who cares about this very big problem. Glass even notes that when Kestenbaum first brought up his fixation with the Fermi paradox during a staff meeting, everyone laughed at him.
And he gets laughed at some more when he goes to one of his former physics professors, who gently chides him for being so uptight about the universe when there are much more local concerns to deal with. “Compared to seeing all the polar bears die, this is not sad,” she says. “So here, the point is there were polar bears and now there aren’t any. And there, there were never anybody and we’re sad. There’s still nobody there!” Brooklyn is not expanding!
“Maybe you’re just having college thoughts when you’re 45,” she tells him. And that cuts to the core of it: Those of us who are lucky enough to go to college get a few years to have late-night conversations about this stuff, but after that? We’re supposed to get over it. We’re supposed to not let it drag us down that the universe is a giant terrifying mystery, because there’s laundry to be done and bills to be paid and polar bears to fret about. But that doesn’t work for everyone. Some people are neurotic, and can’t stop turning these questions over in their heads, and it can feel very lonely.