The Empty Universe vs. Zillions of Aliens Debate

Illustration for article titled The Empty Universe vs. Zillions of Aliens Debate

It's a big, dumb, empty universe, according to a new formula that estimates our chances of meeting non-human intelligent life. The odds have been estimated before, most famously by the Drake Equation, but now a British scientist has tried to throw a wet blanket over exobiologists and scifi writers by claiming that intelligent life is vanishingly rare. Here's why he's wrong.

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The Drake Equation is a series of decreasing fractional probabilities that end up estimating the chance that there are other intelligent civilizations somewhere in the universe. The enormous scale of the universe virtually guarantees that a decent probability will come out of that equation. Professor Andrew Watson of the University of East Anglia has recalculated the odds, factoring in the age of the Earth. He claims that Earth is in the latter stages of its life as a planet, meaning that it took a long time for intelligent life to develop here. Therefore, such life doesn't happen easily, and must be quite rare.

I say bollocks. Watson fails to take into account a number of factors. For one thing, not every solar system follows the same life pattern as ours. Other planets may have far longer habitable periods than Earth, increasing the odds of intelligent life developing there. He also fails to consider that different environments could lead to very different evolutionary rates.

In the end, it comes back to the scale of the universe (how many galaxies can you spot in the Hubble image above?). It doesn't matter how improbable the odds of intelligent life evolving are. We know for a fact it happened once. It is almost inconceivable to think that among the unfathomable numbers of stars and planets scattered across the universe, it happened only once. Photo by: ESA and NASA.

Is there anybody out there? [University of East Anglia]

DISCUSSION

Corpore Metal

These discussions about SETI always break down into angels dancing on the heads of pins. We have an extremely limited set of data here and we are attempting to extrapolate from that.

That's bad science.

What's needed to remedy this is to go and look!

Perhaps the universe is totally empty of life like us. Isn't that a very compelling mystery to find the answers to? Wouldn't we want to know why the night sky is utterly dark and silent? If it's only a huge empty void we'd still want to know why it's just a void. We'd want to know how big that void is.

Remember, science is also about gathering empirical data and doing experiments. The question is are we alone? We can speculate until the stars burn out and never learn anything. That's why have to keep gathering evidence. That's why we have to keep listening with our radio telescopes, sending robots to other planets and celestial bodies and doing biological research here on Earth. Each one of these pursuits impinges on the question of whether we are alone or not.

If we face another million years of utter silence in the radio spectrum that is still no reason to stop listening. Science is serendipitous. You often discover new things in unexpected lines of research.

In short stop speculating, start putting forward concrete plans to test your ideas. That's how SETI should be done.