Arthur J. Villasanta – Fourth Estate Contributor
Oxford, United Kingdom (4E) – Get used to it. We’re the only advanced, intelligent beings in the Universe — or this Universe, at least.
A new study has dumped a ton of cold water on the eternal hope that another extra-terrestrial civilization might exist somewhere out there. It doesn’t. The study, “Dissolving the Fermi Paradox,” from the Future of Humanity Institute (FHI) at Oxford University contends that humanity is alone in the observable Universe.
The published study by Dr. Anders Sandberg, Eric Drexler and Toby Ord (all of whom work for FHI), reconsidered the famous “Drake Equation,” a probabilistic argument used to estimate the number of active, communicative extraterrestrial civilizations in the Milky Way.
The Drake Equation is a seven-term equation that attempts to look at the differing variables relevant for intelligent lifeforms. The variables include factors such as formed stars and their planets and the average number of planets that can potentially support life; the fraction of those planets that can develop life and a fraction of these civilizations that have become intelligent.
Dr. Sandberg said they came up with a probability of 30 percent that mankind is alone in the Universe based on the equation’s parameters, and by also looking at the smallest and largest values they might have.
“We found that even using the guesstimates in the literature (we took them and randomly combined the parameter estimates) one can have a situation where the mean number of civilizations in the galaxy might be fairly high — say a hundred — and yet the probability that we are alone in the galaxy is 30%!” he said. “The reason is that there is a very skew distribution of likelihood.”
“When we take account of realistic uncertainty, replacing point estimates by probability distributions that reflect current scientific understanding, we find no reason to be highly confident that the galaxy (or observable universe) contains other civilizations, and thus no longer find our observations in conflict with our prior probabilities.
“When we update this prior in light of the Fermi observation, we find a substantial probability that we are alone in our galaxy, and perhaps even in our observable universe (53%-99.6% and 39%-85% respectively). ‘Where are they?’ — probably extremely far away, and quite possibly beyond the cosmological horizon and forever unreachable,” concluded the study.
SpaceX and Tesla CEO Elon Musk reacted to this finding by tweeting “This is why we must preserve the light of consciousness by becoming a spacefaring civilization & extending life to other planets. It is unknown whether we are the only civilization currently alive in the observable universe, but any chance that we are is added impetus for extending life beyond Earth.”
The study reports that “When the (Fermi) model is recast to represent realistic distributions of uncertainty, we find a substantial ex ante probability of there being no other intelligent life in our observable universe, and thus that there should be little surprise when we fail to detect any signs of it. This result dissolves the Fermi paradox, and in doing so removes any need to invoke speculative mechanisms by which civilizations would inevitably fail to have observable effects upon the universe.”
Named after Italian physicist Enrico Fermi (1901-1954), who built the world’s first nuclear reactor, the Fermi paradox questions the apparent contradiction between the lack of evidence and high probability estimates for the existence of extraterrestrial civilizations. It concludes that the Earth should have already been visited by extraterrestrial aliens. Fermi himself was puzzled by the contradiction, leading him to ask, “Where is everybody?”
Dr. Sandberg, Drexler and Ord added chemical and genetic transitions to the equation, and said incorporating these reveals significant amounts of scientific uncertainties.
“Many parameters are very uncertain given current knowledge,” said Dr. Sandberg. “While we have learned a lot more about the astrophysical ones since Drake and Sagan in the 1960s, we are still very uncertain about the probability of life and intelligence. When people discuss the equation it is not uncommon to hear them say something like: “this parameter is uncertain, but let’s make a guess and remember that it is a guess”, finally reaching a result that they admit is based on guesses.
Dr. Sandberg said this result “will be stated as single number, and that anchors us to an *apparently* exact estimate — when it should have a proper uncertainty range. This often leads to overconfidence, and worse, the Drake equation is very sensitive to bias: if you are hopeful a small nudge upwards in several uncertain estimates will give a hopeful result, and if you are a pessimist you can easily get a low result.”
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