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According to a new study conducted by experts at the University of Nottingham, humans don’t have much alien company.
On June 15, two researchers released an article in the Astrophysical Journal claiming that the Milky Way, which contains approximately 250 billion stars, may be home to as few as 36 alien societies. That’s a modest amount and far fewer than the number of races seen in Star Trek. The authors bolster their meager tally with a second, more liberal analysis in which they claim that the number might be as high as a thousand.
In any case, their conclusion is that alien civilizations, like Michelin-starred restaurants in Wyoming, are rare and few between. The assumption is that our closest cosmic companions are at least a few thousand light-years away.
If this is the case, locating them will be difficult, and conversing with them will be impossible.
So, how did these British scientists arrive at such a gloomy figure? After all, there has been enough past research on this subject to fill a small mountain of hard drives. Some of them come to the conclusion that the Milky Way is home to millions of societies. Others argue that Earth is unique and unique in the universe.
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The Nottingham authors arrive at their low-ball estimate by modifying the Drake equation — everyone’s favorite method for estimating alien headcounts. This equation, which can be found in the last chapters of almost every astronomy textbook, is a concatenation of seven parameters that, when multiplied together, yield the number of technologically advanced societies in the galaxy. The factors include the abundance of Earth-like planets, the fraction of which can support life, and so on. Also, you must try to play this Which Alien Race Are You quiz.
The equation’s final component, however, truly rules the roost. It is the number of years it takes for a technological civilization to lose its luster. How long can a society that has mastered physics and technology keep beaming radio or light waves into space? After all, if they quit, we might never discover them.
The Nottingham researchers make a huge assumption when predicting the lifespan of a technological species. They point out that we’ve been beaming messages into space for nearly a century. That’s understandable. But then they use what they call the Astrobiological Copernican Principle (or, more modestly, the Principle of Mediocrity) and claim that the universe is a huge “Simon Says” game. Whatever we do or have done on Earth, the rest of the cosmos does or has done as well.
So, because radio has been around for approximately a century, the Nottingham duo assumes that all technical societies will employ similar equipment for a century as well. But not any longer.
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That may not be a problem for you. After all, we haven’t discovered any aliens yet. So, if we don’t know something, like how long they might stay on the air after inventing radar, the radio, or television, it’s tempting to generalize from our own experience.
But that’s like claiming that because we’ve had airplanes for a century, everyone else will have them for a century as well. This is an incredible assumption. Radio can transmit a large amount of information while using relatively little energy. It’s possible that any society would use it for far longer than 100 years.
Given the utility of radio, one could easily argue that a society’s technological lifetime is 10,000 years, not 100. If you argue for the higher figure, the total number of inhabited worlds grows by a factor of 100.
In other words, the authors’ arbitrary assumption is partly to blame for their startlingly low estimate of the number of alien societies.
But hold on, there’s more.
A second stunning premise in the Nottingham study is that every Earth-size planet in its solar system’s habitable zone will generate life, and after around 4 – 5 billion years, intelligent life. (The habitable zone is defined as the distance from a star at which an orbiting planet will not be too cold or too hot for water-based biology.)