Aug 26 2011
Are We Alone In the Universe? New Analysis Says Maybe [Excerpts]
Scientists engaged in the search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI) work under the assumption that there is, in fact, intelligent life out there to be found. A new analysis may crush their optimism.
To calculate the likelihood that they'll make radio contact with extraterrestrials, SETI scientists use what's known as the Drake Equation. Formulated in the 1960s by Frank Drake of the SETI Institute in California, it approximates the number of radio-transmitting civilizations in our galaxy at any one time by multiplying a string of factors: the number of stars, the fraction that have planets, the fraction of those that are habitable, the probability of life arising on such planets, its likelihood of becoming intelligent and so on.
The values of almost all these factors are highly speculative. Nonetheless, Drake and others have plugged in their best guesses, and estimate that there are about 10,000 tech-savvy civilizations in the galaxy currently sending signals our way — a number that has led some scientists to predict that we'll detect alien signals within two decades.
But in a new paper published on arXiv.org, astrophysicist David Spiegel at Princeton University and physicist Edwin Turner at the University of Tokyo argue that this thinking is dead wrong. Using a statistical method called Bayesian reasoning, they argue that the life here on Earth could be common, or it could be extremely rare — there's no reason to prefer one conclusion over the other. With their new analysis, Spiegel and Turner say they have erased the one Drake factor scientists felt confident about and replaced it with a question mark. "Although life began on this planet fairly soon after the Earth became habitable, this fact is consistent with … life being arbitrarily rare in the Universe," the authors state. In the paper, they prove this statement mathematically.
Their result doesn't mean we're alone — only that there's no reason to think otherwise. "[A] Bayesian enthusiast of extraterrestrial life should be significantly encouraged by the rapid appearance of life on the early Earth but cannot be highly confident on that basis," the authors conclude. Our own existence implies very little about how many other times life has arisen.
[TBC: Please see: http://www.thebereancall.org/node/5840 for further information.]