Ever since humans began observing the wider universe, we’ve been struck by how empty space can be. With all the uncountable stars out there, it seems like there should be someone looking back at us. Still, we haven’t found anyone yet—this is known as the Fermi Paradox. The Drake Equation has been used to estimate how many intelligent civilizations exist among the stars, but a new study mutates the equation in an unexpected manner. The authors conclude we’re probably alone. Although, their arguments are a bit suspect.
Frank Drake proposed the Drake Equation (see below) in 1961 at the first meeting of the search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI). It wasn’t intended as a tool to actually calculate the number of alien civilizations but to help us understand what we still don’t know. The Drake Equation takes into account things like the rate of star formation in our galaxy, the fraction of stars with planets, the fraction of stars that support life, and so on. At the end, you get the number of detectable alien civilizations in the Milky Way.
Even with advances in astronomy, we don’t actually know many of the values for the Drake Equation. We can, however, make better guesses at things like the number of stars and planets in the galaxy. The new study from Oxford University researchers incorporates probabilistic distributions and genome models into the calculation to suggest that we may be completely alone in the universe.
The team generated probability distributions for each Drake parameter based on historical estimates. And again, many of these values are still complete shot-in-the-dark guesses. The researchers don’t have any new data to offer — this is just an alternative way of organizing what we don’t know. Statistical analysis of the values showed a distribution pattern pointing toward no intelligent civilizations. Specifically, there’s a 39 to 85 percent chance we are alone, based on the analysis.
So, this is actually just a statistical analysis of estimates which are often (admittedly) unscientific. Any reports claiming the researchers have “solved” the Drake Equation or proven that alien life does not exist are misunderstanding the research. The fact is, we still don’t know enough about the universe to “solve” the Drake Equation, and nitpicking guesstimates in scientific literature doesn’t tell you more than the original guesstimate. All we can say for certain is there’s a lot of universe out there, and it’s possible someone else is out there.
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