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Are we alone? Statistical analysis suggests that if we are typical, then the answer is probably yes

If the human race is typical, then we may be alone in the Universe
If the human race is typical, then we may be alone in the Universe
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If the human race is typical, then we may be alone in the Universe
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If the human race is typical, then we may be alone in the Universe

If there are other civilizations in the Universe, then why, after 60 years of listening and looking, haven't we found any evidence of their existence? According to Daniel Whitmire, retired astrophysicist at the University of Arkansas, this may be because there's no one out there to find. Using statistical analysis, Whitmire concludes that, if Earth is typical, then it isn't possible for any other technological civilizations to exist at the same time as us.

There are 1024 stars in the Universe with who knows how many planets revolving about them. With so many worlds where life might evolve to choose and with over 13 billion years to do the evolving, it seems reasonable that there must be many other civilizations out there that are far more advanced than ours.

The trouble is, there isn't a single piece of solid evidence that they exist. In the 1950s, the Italian physicist Enrico Fermi did some back of the envelope sums and asked, "Where is everybody?" Fermi used some extremely conservative assumptions about hypothetical ETs and calculated that even the most lackadaisical and outright lazy civilization would have long ago not only contacted, but reached and colonized every inhabitable planet in the galaxy.

For over six decades, the Fermi Paradox has puzzled scientists, with SETI researchers referring to it as the Great Silence. Why the silence? Over the years, many reasons have been given, ranging from the idea that no one is interested in contacting us to paranoid conspiracy theories that earthbound or cosmic authorities are engaged in a massive cover up.

However, the simplest explanation is that the reason we can't find other civilizations is that they aren't there. Whitmire's position that if the statistical concept called the principle of mediocrity is applied to Fermi's Paradox, this produces the reason we are alone, which is that we are a typical civilization and will go extinct soon now that we are capable of interstellar communications.

The principle of mediocrity is one of the basic assumptions of modern physics and cosmology in particular. Basically, it states that there is nothing special about our corner of the universe, our planet, or our species. This means that we can, for example, look at how gravity works here and assume that it works exactly the same 10 billion light years away.

Whitmire's argument is that the view that we are an unusually young and unusually primitive technological species is wrong. But we are the first technological species to appear on Earth, taking 60 million years to evolve from the proto-primates with no evidence of any preceding tech species. Since the Earth will be able to support life for another billion years, that means that the planet could, potentially, produce 23 more species like us.

The important point is that we've only been capable of sending messages to the stars for a little over a century after the invention of radio. Whitmire found that if he assumed that humans are typical rather than exceptional, then the bell curve produced by statistical analysis places us in the middle of 95 percent of all civilizations and that ones that are millions of years old are statistical outliers with a very low probability of existence.

In other words, if the human race is typical, then because we are a young technological species that's the first on our planet and have only been around for about a century, then the same is typical of all other civilizations. Worse, if we are to remain typical, the human race will probably die out and soon.

This means that other civilizations are biological creatures, not machines, are the first to appear on their planet, and are only around for a couple of centuries before being destroyed. Once those first civilizations die out, the planet's biosphere is so compromised that no other technological species arise to replace them. Sorry, Dr Zaius.

Since this is a statistical result, standard deviation is involved. In this case, it's about two hundred years and if the fact that the curve skews older is taken into account, it comes out to 500 years. Whitmire says that even if an assumption other than a bell curve is used, the results are similar.

Whitmire's calculations are depressing not only in regard to ETs, but also to ourselves, since they suggest that ours is a very short-lived species and we'll take out everything else on the planet as we leave. One consolation is that, since we only have a sample of one, the longer we stick around, the longer we'll stick around. If we run the numbers in a thousand years, then the predicted lifespan is 5,000 years. If we're here in a million years, then the prediction is five million years.

But Whitmire admits that there is another conclusion.

"If we're not typical then my initial observation would be correct," says Whitmire. "We would be the dumbest guys in the galaxy by the numbers."

The study was published in the International Journal of Astrobiology.

Source: University of Arkansas

40 comments
apprenticeearthwiz
This sounds a lot like all the religious concepts that the universe revolves around us. So many ludicrous assumptions.
Spod
No evidence of their existence? Holy crap, open your eyes, there's a vast repository of evidence that they are here and have been for centuries. I'm so tired of supposedly educated people having such closed minds that they ignore blatant evidence just because it doesn't fit their world view. It's sad, pathetic and it isn't in the spirit of scientific endeavour.
BobMunck
"Whitmire concludes that, if Earth is typical, then it isn't possible for any other technological civilizations to exist at the same time as us." Whitmire is a mathematician; there's no way he would have said something that stupid. Anyone trained in science or math knows there's a significant and important difference between "not possible" and "extremely unlikely." Science articles should be written by people who know science.
fen
It could be possible that once a civilization hits a certain point, they assume life exists all over the place but accept they can not travel to it without wasting enormous resources. If you are truly advanced the ethical question of not being able to reach the life in one lifetime becomes an issue. Can you force people to breed and force them children to carry out the mission? Your tech has probably become very efficient so has your food and energy use, can you bottle up such vast quantities of energy for the trip, food etc. It seems to me that if there is life out there, once they hit a certain point, they will just vanish, wont send out signals, wont look for them, and will live in self sufficient peace I could only see them traveling a vast distance if their star was going to end, and likely they would just park in a habitable zone of a near one and go no further.
PG
Okay, so we've destroyed our planet and it's looking desperately like we are going to need another one to live on. Where do we go? where do we look? Why, in our own backyard of course! So we find a planet that's not quite there yet but we can help it along with the technology we've developed to terraform a world so it happens in mere decades instead of a millenia. So we launch our ships and travel with many of our noted scientists,to a world lush and beautiful, rich in oxygen. We've erradicated any dangerous beasts and replaced them with a more docile and manageable lot, through dna encoding and production. What a beautiful place we've created, and now,millions of years later after we've totally forgotten our roots, we can look back upon the world that once was and consider terraforming that,because ,God knows,we've ruined THIS one! How many times has this happened? Who knows? And why must we PRESUME that any other race in the galaxy or Universe would be as STUPID as we are??? 60 years we've been searching...a mere speck in the eternity of the universe. Are we so ARROGANT as to assume that we have been searching for long enough,so where is everyone??? HAHAHAH AND to add insult to injury, we ASSUME that any other civilization will be using primitive RADIO waves!!! We are such an ignorant,arrogant race. With all the war,politics,famine,pestillence,pollution and just plain bad people, WHO,in their right mind would WANT to contact us???
Augure
Like anyone else, I think these are beyond idiotic pseudo-scientist claim. So because the "Fermi paradox" theory which has no-ground in actual physical science or reality, if we apply the "principle of mediocrity" which has no-ground in reality either, we can "statistically" conclude that something we don't and possibly CAN'T know anything about doesn't exist. These scientist are great cruncher but TERRIBLE and mediocre thinkers, and I'd would leave such a topic to any legitimate domain of study wether it evolutionary biology and anthropology or technological and sociological prospective who of course can easily, more rationally and logically conclude the opposite of this study.
Bob
The interesting thing about probability is the fact that it will always give an answer. Whether that answer is meaningful is another problem. First, there are so many unique things about earth that the probability of another one out there is pretty low. Then you have the problem that our most advanced science is driven by war and weaponry. This is a self canceling technology since it makes it possible to reach the point where we totally annihilate ourselves. If there is another civilization like us, they will do it too. For those that like to hang their hat on probability proving other civilizations exist consider this. There is a mathematical probability that every air molecule in the room with you will be in just one half of the room at a given moment. Does this ever really happen. No.
PaulLescault
I wish I could watch science fiction movie from other worlds. If the principle of mediocrity applies, we are all toasted !
owlbeyou
With the incredible vastness of the cosmos, how can we possibly be alone? Civilizations who haven't managed to destroy themselves (like we will) will know enough not to disturb other places and just observe (and perhaps impregnate our world with an influence). If they have been here (and they have), time has no meaning for them. A hundred and even a thousand of our years is but a blip. It is even possible that we are someone's property like a herd or science experiment. Advanced civilizations quite likely communicate with each other easily, and have witnessed that beings in other planets (like us) are possibly crazy enough to kill themselves before the advancement gets developed to the point of knowing better. It must be a fascinating pastime for them to see what others do. Anyone who believes that we are alone is navel-gazing.
watersworm
I was always thinking that, though billions of stars with zillions of planets all around the Universe, maybe none are "the same". Just look at solar system, rocky ou gaseous planets, ans no one like the other. No mmons of the planets are the same somtimes very different. I think that "Life" DO exist somewhere in the Universe, but "slightly different than on Earth. Anyway as soon as Light Speed remains the absolute maximum speed we'll probably never know !