Science: Where are the aliens?

December 23, 2010

Today, let’s look at the Drake Equation, probably the most useless formula in all of science. Essentially, through some sort of hocus-pocus bullshit, scientists “estimate” the likelihood of all the different criteria for intelligent life to evolve, and by multiplying this all together they can “calculate” the number of intelligent alien species we “should” be able to see. Typical answers range from about 10 to 1,000,000 civilizations. If I haven’t made it clear yet, I believe the whole thing is a thoroughly un-scientific exercise in futility. Without any observations to confirm these predictions, this equation will remain in the realm of religion forever. Using math doesn’t automatically make you a scientist.

This hasn’t stopped folks from trying to draw conclusions from these results, however. The “Fermi Paradox” goes something like this: if there “should” be at least 10 and possibly many more intelligent alien civilizations in our galaxy, why haven’t we picked up any extra-terrestrial signals yet?

Well, there are several things wrong with this “paradox.” In the first place, this is a bit like a slug wondering why it hasn’t ever picked up any extra-terrestrial slime trails. Our solar system is absolutely bathed in electromagnetic radiation, and there could easily be signals from thousands of different alien planets among that radiation that we simply don’t recognize as such. If aliens are at least as advanced as we are, they could easily be ten thousand times more so, and the window in which a civilization broadcasts decipherable messages (or messages that can be understood by humans) into space could easily be very short indeed, for any number of reasons.

Furthermore, there is no evidence indicating that life “should” evolve in other regions of the galaxy, as we’ve only seen it happen on one planet so far. This is partly why astrobiologists are so eager to identify life on Mars or the moons of Jupiter – without that evidence, their jobs technically don’t exist. As of right now, the idea that intelligent life has to be a “typical” case is an egregious example of anthropic bias, and until we actually make contact with an alien species there is absolutely no reason to assume something like this. It may not be a foolish belief, but it isn’t anything but a belief.

This kind of “contaminated” science bothers me a lot, and so I’ve been working on a little story that explores these issues and provides a hypothetical resolution to the Fermi Paradox. Hopefully it doesn’t take longer than a year or so to write, and it’ll be published here in full whenever it’s ready. Spoiler alert: the aliens actually do exist.

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