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alien planet landscape, beautiful forest the surface of an exoplanet
alien planet landscape, beautiful forest the surface of an exoplanet

The Search for Extraterrestrial Life Gets an Update

The universe appears fine-tuned for life to a dramatic degree; it’s at least reasonable to think it’s out there

California Institute of Technology, NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory and Santiago High School are updating the famous Drake Equation (1961):

Over the span of human history, many have wondered if life exists on other planets—intelligent or otherwise. As new tools have been applied to the question, many space scientists have become convinced that the likelihood of extraterrestrial civilizations developing seems more probable than not given all that has been learned. As other exoplanet systems have been found, many circling stars very similar to our sun, it has become difficult to find anything unique about our own planet to justify a belief that Earth alone ever produced life. In this new effort, the researchers have expanded on research done by Frank Drake back in 1961. He and his colleagues developed an equation (now known as the Drake equation) to calculate the odds of the existence of extraterrestrial civilizations—given all that was known about space and astronomical objects back then. The researchers factored in such variables as the number of believed exoplanets and star systems and how many of them were likely to be capable of supporting life.

Bob Yirka, “An updated way to calculate the likelihood of the existence of extraterrestrial civilizations” at Phys.org (December 22, 2020)

Here’s the open access paper.

The universe appears fine-tuned for life to a dramatic degree: “The universe’s expansion speed is said to be just right for life, the Higgs boson seems to be fine-tuned, and Earth has a “unique” iron signature, just as a few examples.”

Perhaps we should just as much wonder if there isn’t life out there than if there is.

That doesn’t, of course, mean that every bit of space junk floating by—Oumuamua, for example—is a message from space aliens, as a Harvard astronomer has suggested.

It means that we should be prepared for the reasonable possibility that we will find life on exoplanets, perhaps even intelligent life.

The big problem with the Drake Equation was that you could enter pretty much whatever variables you wanted and get the results you wanted. It’s not clear whether the new approach overcomes this problem: “The result of the team’s work is not an estimate of the likelihood of the existence of extraterrestrial civilizations, but a new formula that others can use to make their own calculations based on what they believe to be true.” (Phys.org)

That said, taking into account what we really know about exoplanets would, in principle, help refine the search by focusing on signals that we would know must represent life.

Time will tell. The scientific method, used properly, still works.

Here is physicist and philosopher Roger Penrose, testifying clearly against interest:

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Astrobiologist: Change how we search for alien life! There’s a longstanding controversy in the pursuit of extraterrestrial life as to whether life forms must be carbon-based. If ETs were too far off the scale (existing, for example, only as gases or mathematical entities), we might not recognize them as life.


Particle physicist offers 75 reasons we don’t see aliens. But Oxford’s Future of Humanity Institute gives high odds that we are the only intelligent beings in the galaxy (Lots more linked.)

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The Search for Extraterrestrial Life Gets an Update