Space

Are we ahead of our time?

Life is most likely to develop in the future around smaller red dwarf stars
Life is most likely to develop in the future around smaller red dwarf stars
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Life is most likely to develop in the future around smaller red dwarf stars
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Life is most likely to develop in the future around smaller red dwarf stars

The universe contains somewhere in the vicinity of 100 billion galaxies and if we threw it a birthday party, there would be around 13.8 billion candles to blow out. That's a lot of space and time for life to evolve in the universe. The Earth has only been around for 4.5 billion of those years, however, so it seems there's a fair chance that much older lifeforms than ours are out there somewhere. That may not be the case according to a new study out of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, which suggests that, from a cosmic perspective, we may have arrived before our time.

"If you ask, 'When is life most likely to emerge?' you might naively say, 'Now,'" says lead author Avi Loeb of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics. "But we find that the chance of life grows much higher in the distant future."

Loeb and his team set out to determine the likelihood of "life as we know it" evolving between two time periods – approximately 30 million years after the Big Bang, when life first became possible thanks to the first stars seeding the cosmos with elements such as carbon and oxygen, and 10 trillion years from now, when scientists believe the last stars will flicker away and life will die.

To do this, they looked at the factor most connected to life – the lifetimes of stars. The higher a star's mass, the shorter its lifetime and the lower the likelihood that life will evolve. Conversely, the smallest stars will burn bright for trillions of years due to the fact that they burn nuclear fuel more slowly, thus providing increased opportunity for the evolution of life.

After crunching some numbers comparing star size to the likelihood of life development on surrounding habitable planets, the team found that life is most likely to develop in the future and on the common smaller red dwarf stars. These stars are set to drastically increase in numbers in the future, meaning the potential for life will continue to grow – the chances of life are 1,000 times higher in the distant future than now.

"So then you may ask, why aren't we living in the future next to a low-mass star?" says Loeb. "One possibility is we're premature. Another possibility is that the environment around a low-mass star is hazardous to life."

These hazards include ultraviolet radiation and strong flares during their youth, which would evaporate the atmospheres of any planets in their habitable zone.

As was also suggested by this NASA and Space Telescope Science Institute study, the conclusion is that the majority of Earth-like worlds that could potentially evolve over the life of the universe don't yet exist. We could simply be searching too soon.

Still, potentially habitable exoplanets are being uncovered at an accelerating pace, and the continuing search for habitable planets around red dwarf stars in particular – a search that is soon to be given a boost by the James Webb Space Telescope – will shed more light on the question of whether life on Earth is premature in a cosmic sense.

Loeb, who is also currently the chair of the advisory committee for the star-chasing initiative Breakthrough Starshot, believes that it's likely that primitive forms of life exist around other stars. "I am agnostic about intelligent life, but believe we simply have to search for it."

The findings have been accepted for publication in the Journal of Cosmology and Astroparticle Physics.

Source: Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics

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11 comments
ARocketScientist
How come we look at the 13.8 billion years when we think the big bang occurred as an absolute, a constant number. That would imply we're at the very "edge" of the universe. Isn't there anything "behind" us? Stuff that's further away from what we believe to be the center of the universe? Why do we believe to have found the center at all? Just because the oldest waves of any sort we're receiving are of this age? If there ever was a big bang, maybe the first sources of energy have ceased to exist long before we were able to direct our telescopes towards the source? The big bang theory, being our best guess, mind you, poses the obvious question of HOW and what's been there before? Emptiness? If there's nothing there can be no emptiness, as for something to be empty it must exist WITHIN something. There are so many unknown variables in everything we think we know. I sure hope to witness the day when a true piece of knowledge is discovered by somebody far smarter than myself.
Brian M
@ARocketScientist That is of course the ultimate question, what would be here if our universe didn't exist, or any universe if taking a multi universe view. Its were science meets religion as its the one question neither can answer, nor ever likely will (hope to be proved wrong!).
Brian M
The Drake equation also goes partially to explaining lack of life as well, basically they have wiped themselves (or natural disaster) out before they could make contact. Given the current state of humanity, lots of evidence to support this - unfortunately! On balance think the probability of other life out there is approaching 100% even now.
Lbrewer42
And once again fantasy is included with the new science of the Modern Dark Ages. This article SHOULD e laeled as theory - and nothing ut. theory. However, the programming of the masses would not give in to this. If a person will take the time to do an actual. scientific study of the actual mechanics, and "origins" of elements needed in our radiometric dating methods, they will see the facts are the dating methods are based on large, and flawed assumptions. If we put as much literal faith in assumption into modern engineering as we do our dating methods, cars would not run, planes would not fly, and this comment would be impossilbe b/c we would never have een able to develop modern tech. Eg. The amount and intensity of cosmic radiation and the atmospheric chemistry concentrations and ratios of elements must ave remained constant for all time over which we assume C-14 dating works. This is b/c C+14 is made y cosmic radiation acting on Nitrogen in the atmosphere. To use C-14 dating, we compare the amount of C-14 to the amount of C-12 in a sample. Since we know how long it takes for C-14 to lose its extra neutrons and turn into C-12, we ASSUME y comparing the ratios that we know how old the sample is. Assumptions: 1. The huge "wishful thinking" mentioned above that the atmosphere matirx and levels of cosmic radiation have been constant such that modern levels of C-14 generation are identical to those throughout all time we want to use the method. 2. The aive leads to needing the assumption that original C-14 amounts in samples taken over time was always the same, so current oserved ratios during testing are accurate. In other words, if you see chance upon two candles burning, one short and one long, it is easy to assume the short one has een burning longer... but what if the shorter one was manufactured at half the height of the longer one and they have been burning the same amount of time? There is no way to tell. 3. Most are unaware dating methods have their results "calirated" when they are not in line with our fallacy-based systems. If a sample does not meet expected results, then the sample is dated y the surrounding matrix it was found in. Where did the known date of the surrounding matrix come from? Why the same dating methods of course! So we date fossils y layers and layers by fossil - a good lesson in what circular reasoning means. Again, and unfortunately, PURE SCIENCE is ignored for the almighty dollar (where grant money goes). It is fact scientists trying to show true science are often even ridiculed y their peers who choose to go with the money. Welcome to the Modern Dark Ages. In the in original Dark Ages, and for the sake of wealth, the "officials" of the day called science ignorant and misleading. These "leaders" used their own flawed/fudged ideas of religion they perverted from Bible teachings to keep control and program the masses. In the modern Dark Ages, the roles are exactly reversed. However, the driving force is still wealth and power. Modern leaders of the day call the Bible ignorant and misleading. These "leaders" used their own flawed/fudged ideas of science they pervert from actual data to keep control and program the masses. And both Dark Ages had the people perpetrating their flawed ideas as fact, plus they had control of the education systems to create puppets. Do some honest homework and find out what science actually is.
phissith
Great so now we are more advanced than any other because we are here first. We might also not going to last because we will wipe ourselves out of existence. So many guessing......
Ken Brody
There is no center to the universe, anymore than there is a center on the surface of an infinite plane or the surface of a balloon. What we see out to the edge of the visible universe is less than a trillion trillionth of the whole result of the Big Bang. There are over a billion stars in this one galaxy. It is highly unlikely that none of them have life, according to the Drake equation. The only question is, how many of them have sentient life that we can potentially communicate with? So far, that number has been zero, or perhaps the alien/UFO groups are actually correct.
habakak
And so what. It's a question that cannot be answered. The Universe is to unfathomably large for us to not only discover other life, but then be able to communicate or actually interact with it. There is no fathomable technology that can cover the vast distances WHILE transporting fragile humans to these locales. Read 'The eerie silence' written by the head of the new SETI project to understand the virtual impossibility of finding extra terrestrial life. Never mind communicating with it. We think we are special and that other life will find us. Intelligent life is very improbable to evolve (how long did it take for us to evolve vs life forms that existed before us) because it does not seem to be enough of a benefit. It is very likely that we will not survive nearly as long as other species. So far the odds are against us.
CharlieSeattle
Life may indeed have started earlier on earth. Earth is a dynamic planet, not static. How many habitable planets have an over sized iron core and strong magnetic field to protect life? How many habitable planets have a gently tipping axis and regular seasons? How many habitable planets have their rotation stabilized by one large moon. How many habitable planets have large oceans, tides and mild weather? How many habitable planets have changing seasons, forcing life to evolve faster to survive and cope?
Richard Janovsky
We have had at least five mass extinctions here on earth which have set life back for millenia.It`s not too hard to imagine a earth like planet where this did not occur.One can only speculate as to how advanced a civilization on such a world might be.Had it not been for "The Big One" 65 million years ago , there might be dinosaur men traveling the stars today.
blitzzkreeg
It is my understanding that this article merely represents a point of view among many as we lack sufficient data and scientific capabilities to even begin making many of the assumptions that attempt to create a scaffolding for such reasoning. That said, I do not wish to hammer down any unrefutable certainty from such confines of current knowledge nor base myself on any specific scientific or religious claims however it is my sheer belief that we must not deny ourselves the opportunity to ponder on such fundamental yet profound matters. As an evolving species it is not only in our nature to do so, it is imminent for our own survival to reach out for the stars. We can refute or accept that we may have already been contacted and our evolution influenced to some degree by another intelligence long before humans had any legitimate grasp of such existential concepts and not merely interpreting it as divine intervention. Perhaps this has and will define us as a species ultimately in the theater of the galactic neighborhood. The inevitable conclusion here is that we are very much at the crossroads of accepting that we can choose to claim ourselves kings of the hill or find out what is really out there in all humility and awe. My current personal stand is that the immense probability of sentient life aside from our own, at the present age and within such a cold yet highly dynamic expanse is imminently evident rather than simply plausible or as some have claimed accidental. As much as the multiverse or multi-dimensional concepts cannot be completely refuted and this point in time as well, one has to admit that nothing the mind can conjure is really off limits as we have learned time and again throughout our history. Whether we are a precocious species in the observable universe yet without limiting ourselves to it is I believe aside the point, rather were in the actual space-time continuum can we claim our existence among others is the more pertinent question yet to be answered and in the hopes of a better understanding of our role in perhaps a universe striving to understand itself.