The Hive Mind Discovers AliensAugust 27, 2006 10:11 PM   Subscribe

The number of communicating alien civilizations = R* x fp x ne x fl x fi x fc x L. The formula is the Drake Equation, and modern estimates range from several thousand to none but us. You can solve it yourself. What is your estimate of the number of alien civilizations out there?
posted by blahblahblah (88 comments total) 4 users marked this as a favorite

An equation leads to hard numbers. This is an official-looking Wild Assed Guess. Calling it an equation is misleading.
posted by Malor at 10:16 PM on August 27, 2006

Huh. The solution given for my estimates is zero alien civilizations.
posted by monju_bosatsu at 10:19 PM on August 27, 2006

The values given for the f variables (incidence of life occuring, incidence of intelligence arising, incidence of intelligent life feeling communicative) all seem wildly optimistic.
posted by Iridic at 10:25 PM on August 27, 2006

I'll have to wade through these links tomorrow, but great use of the alt field!
posted by brundlefly at 10:35 PM on August 27, 2006

For those who don't want to read through my links, my estimate:

The number of new stars seems to pretty firmly be 7/year.
The fraction that have planets is usually estimated as around 50%
The number of planets on average that might support life around these worlds is generally estimated at 2.
The fraction on which life evolves can be assumed to be at least 13%.
The fraction on which intelligent life evolves is unknown, so lets say 10%.
The fraction of civilizations that might communicate is also unknown, but lets say 50% end up sending out radio waves.
And using the lifespan determined by Shermer, 420 years.

So I come up with around 23 communicating civilizations in our galaxy right now.

Incidentally, the Drake Equation is often considered at least as interesting because it serves as a guide to what we need to know to understand the potential for other intelligent life, as much as what we know. And, though I don't agree with the Scientific American piece that calls it the second most important equation of the 20th century, it is still cool.
posted by blahblahblah at 10:36 PM on August 27, 2006

But remember the most important piece of evidence about the frequency of communcative intelligent life in our observable universe, which is that they haven't communcated with us yet, despite ample opportunity. This leads me to conjecture that life is extremely rare. Of course, in a universe that may well be infinite, this does not make our existence any more miraculous.
posted by riotgrrl69 at 10:44 PM on August 27, 2006

the Scientific American piece that calls it the second most important equation of the 20th century

/vomits
posted by riotgrrl69 at 10:45 PM on August 27, 2006

So you're saying that the average star with planets has 2 planets that might potentially support life? That seems high to me somehow.
posted by gubo at 10:49 PM on August 27, 2006

But this actually calculates "the number of communicating civilizations in the Milky Way," so if you come up with zero it's clearly wrong.

Anyway, I came up with 2. Anybody else come up with 2?

The question of whether intelligence will inevitably lead to technology is an interesting one, I think people tend to assume it will but really, I don't think we are even close to being able to properly argue any estimate of it.
posted by nanojath at 10:50 PM on August 27, 2006 [1 favorite]

So you're saying that the average star with planets has 2 planets that might potentially support life? That seems high to me somehow.

I should have said planets or moons that might support life, and based on our own solar system (Earth, Mars, Europa, and Titan were all good candidates to have life at some point, at least), and the increasing number of planets we are locating around other stars (the Atlas in my second link has some cool tools, or you can see this animation), the estimate of 2 (Drake's guess) seems to be pretty solid, maybe even conservative.
posted by blahblahblah at 10:59 PM on August 27, 2006

I don't understand why communication always seems to be defined as "tossing radio waves all over the galaxy". Sound may not be universal. Intellegent aliens may not have ears, or process them like we do. Or, they may have gone on to more efficient ways to do mass communication.

But, yeah, it is important to ask and to attempt to frame such questions before we have enough data. It gives us a clue what we might be looking for.
posted by QIbHom at 11:01 PM on August 27, 2006

QIbHom writes "I don't understand why communication always seems to be defined as 'tossing radio waves all over the galaxy'. Sound may not be universal."

Radio waves are electromagnetic. Nothing to do with sound, inherently.
posted by mr_roboto at 11:06 PM on August 27, 2006

You know, my therapist brought up Drake's equation the other day. I don't know, we were talking about Jodie Foster or Sun Ra or something, and she just put it out there. She probably had a reason for bringing it up, but we just ended up talking shit about Carlos Castenada. Anyway, sorry to interrupt- it was just a funny coincidence.
posted by goisher at 11:08 PM on August 27, 2006

Pah.This is all so passe. Doesn't everyone assume that the aliens have found us and post on the net now?

Surely there are few aliens on MeFi.
posted by sien at 11:10 PM on August 27, 2006

Why does life have to be carbon based?
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 11:12 PM on August 27, 2006

but this obviously doesn't help us determine if Pluto is a planet, so what's the point? FOCUS people!
I love the stock "gigantic meteorite careening through a life supporting planet" image they show on the 'L' variable in the interactive. Seeing that artistic rendering, and you always do over at NOVA, both humbles and amuses me.
posted by wumpus at 11:20 PM on August 27, 2006

Blazecock Pileon writes "Why does life have to be carbon based?"

There are a bunch of interesting arguments about this, actually. They're basically about the fact the carbon gives you the most stable large molecules, which are necessary to get the interesting molecular properties (catalysis, self-replication) that are necessary for life.

Such arguments are mostly speculative, though.
posted by mr_roboto at 11:23 PM on August 27, 2006

/too obscure?
posted by RavinDave at 11:25 PM on August 27, 2006

Jared Diamond wrote in The Third Chimpanzee that astronomers have great estimates for the values fp, ne, fl. However, the estimates for intelligent life are too high- there is no evolutionary 'better' state, and no reason life 'should' become intelligent. In over 3 billion years of life on Earth, only a few species are intelligent. While different planets may have different experiences, intelligent life may be very rare.

Only one species on Earth has combined smarts with enough dexterity to be able to build radio devices; the bear minimum for extra-solar communication. This was not done until about a century ago.

Even if most intelligent species can keep from self-destructing for 1000 years after inventing the radio, that isn't very much time for light-speed, two-way communication.

Diamond estimates that, at any given time, our galaxy has 1 to 2 civilization with radio technology. They are likely to be so far apart that by the time Planet A's message reaches Planet B, both civilizations have imploded.
posted by spaltavian at 11:26 PM on August 27, 2006

Stability seems a question of free energy. Why wouldn't other chemistries work on other planets? I personally think restricting our definition of life is the reason why we won't find any.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 11:28 PM on August 27, 2006

I get the answer "magenta" when I fill in the Drake Equation, but I think I might be making a mistake somewhere.
posted by Justinian at 11:28 PM on August 27, 2006

RavinDave: Not obscure enough. Just remember where your towel is next time.
posted by blue_beetle at 11:30 PM on August 27, 2006

The values given for the f variables (incidence of life occuring, incidence of intelligence arising, incidence of intelligent life feeling communicative) all seem wildly optimistic.

the way I look at it is life arose here on Earth in a stupendously short amount of time.

The question of life on another planet is not a yes/no thing -- it is a question of /when/ not /if/ -- and the Earth datum is very encouraging.

As for intelligent life, it's a similar process, and the longer a planet goes the probability necessarily increase, if not approach 1.0.
posted by Heywood Mogroot at 11:54 PM on August 27, 2006

My n is 10,000, which "seems" about right.
posted by Heywood Mogroot at 12:02 AM on August 28, 2006

the way I look at it is life arose here on Earth in a stupendously short amount of time.

I like the idea that we are the to-be-ancient alien civiliation that will leave the galaxy scattered with technological artifacts to astound and confuse future races of space-faring beings.
posted by flaterik at 12:11 AM on August 28, 2006

Stability seems a question of free energy. Why wouldn't other chemistries work on other planets? I personally think restricting our definition of life is the reason why we won't find any.

The chemistry is going to be the same on any planet.
posted by delmoi at 12:14 AM on August 28, 2006

4 x 8 x 15 x 16 x 23 x 42
posted by todbot at 12:30 AM on August 28, 2006

The chemistry is going to be the same on any planet.

Not necessarily. Other types of life reactions, or "chemistries" will be favorable on other planets depending on conditions.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 12:32 AM on August 28, 2006

Malor said: An equation leads to hard numbers. This is an official-looking Wild Assed Guess. Calling it an equation is misleading.

I don't see why an equation can't be for a Wild Assed Guess. If people think equations must be for exact things then they've been misled. It's not the equations themselves that have been misleading, it's whoever has been trying to explain them to people.
posted by edd at 12:51 AM on August 28, 2006

42. What was the question?
posted by dances_with_sneetches at 6:02 AM on August 28, 2006

The fraction on which life evolves can be assumed to be at least 13%.

Yes, in the sense that it "can be assumed" to be anything at all. But this sentence is the functional equivalent of the next two:

The fraction on which intelligent life evolves is unknown, so lets say...
The fraction of civilizations that might communicate is also unknown, but lets say...

In other words, this "equation" is the functional equivalent of:
G = D x fk x fl x fm..., where
G is the number of gods in the universe,
D is the original number of gods,
fk is the number of gods killed in combat,
fl is the number of gods who left this universe in a huff,
fm is the number of gods who mutated into nondivine beings...

You get the point. Just fill in the blanks, and presto! You can come up with the answer you wanted in the first place! Mildly amusing, but I don't really get the point.
posted by languagehat at 6:06 AM on August 28, 2006

Sorry, those multiplication signs should be minus signs. It's early here on the east coast.
posted by languagehat at 6:07 AM on August 28, 2006

"/too obscure?"

Dude, this is the frickin INTERNET.

Every time I see the Drake equation, or related discussions, I think about how afraid we are that we're alone. As a species, we're just about kindergarten-aged. We like to think we're growned-up, but we're secretly still scared of the dark.
posted by Eideteker at 6:16 AM on August 28, 2006

4 8 15 16 23 ?

.. will soon be a "number sequence" question in IQ tests.

On topic: I have no idea. I currently think that in a radius of 1000 or so galaxies we really are the first.
posted by vertriebskonzept at 6:20 AM on August 28, 2006

New Light on the Drake Equation
posted by ninebelow at 6:21 AM on August 28, 2006

This is an official-looking Wild Assed Guess.

Yeah a tad misleading, fun parlour game - but in practical terms
G x G x G x G x G x G x G = whatever.
posted by scheptech at 6:23 AM on August 28, 2006

23 communicating civilizations, huh? Well, it's too bad we're made out of meat.
posted by Plutor at 7:10 AM on August 28, 2006

the way I look at it is life arose here on Earth in a stupendously short amount of time.

Huh? A billion (10^9) years to the first life on Earth, and three more billion until the first multi-cellular life? That's stupendously short? Not to mention the 5 billion years between the first Population I stars and the formation of our solar system.
posted by Plutor at 7:21 AM on August 28, 2006

The biologist Ernst Mayr once wrote that in his experience, astronomers are much more optimistic about the likelihood of life evolving to an intelligent civilization than biologists are. I remember Stephen Jay Gould was also pretty pessimistic.
posted by gubo at 7:34 AM on August 28, 2006

Douglas Adams has already been quoted, but this is far more relevant to the topic at hand:
It is known that there is an infinite number of worlds, simply because there is an infinite amount of space for them to be in. However, not every one of them is inhabited. Therefore, there must be a finite number of inhabited worlds. Any finite number divided by infinity is as near to nothing as makes no odds, so the average population of all the planets in the universe can be said to be zero. From this it follows that the population of the universe is also zero, and that any people you may meet from time to time are merely the product of a deranged imagination.
(found on rotten.com of all places)
posted by jepler at 7:41 AM on August 28, 2006

The Drake equation is bunk. The most realistic factors you add to it, the more the result approaches zero.

For example, let's assume that all of blahblahblah's estimates are correct up to "The fraction of civilizations that might communicate is also unknown, but lets say 50% end up sending out radio waves."

This number is way way too high. The real number is probably less than 1.

You can have intelligent tool making lifeforms that never advance beyond first generation technology, or more particularly, never advance beyond the perfection of the techonolgy they have. It' one thing to spend generations refining the craft of sword making. It's another cultural mindset entirely to imagine something better than the sword, and have institutions in place to explore that possibility.

You need a civilization that dedicates some group of people to figuring out how things work in a systematic fashion. You can't work on radios the way you craft a sowrd or build a house. There are maybe 100-200 people who are responsible throughout history to getting us where we are - for coming up with the big ideas, and telling the rest of us where to look, what to look for, what to expect if we do xyz. Research labs were only invented in the 20th century. Before that we needed very smart people motivated to pursue knowledge, and a structure in place that would support them doing so.

But what if newton had died of tuberculosis as an infant? What if Aristotle, Decartes, Leibniz, and others died in the various plagues wars, etc that killed so many of their contemporaries? What if the countries that fostered the growth of science, Italy, Germany, France, and England fell to any one of the various tyrants or despots that sought to drag them back to the middle ages?

Far fewer than 50% of the civilizations on this planet alone ever developed any formal understanding of electricity, let alone became sophisticated enough to understand EM radiation to build a radio.
posted by Pastabagel at 7:43 AM on August 28, 2006

Huh? A billion (10^9) years to the first life on Earth, and three more billion until the first multi-cellular life? That's stupendously short? Not to mention the 5 billion years between the first Population I stars and the formation of our solar system.
posted by Plutor at 10:21 AM EST on August 28 [+] [!]

I know this wasn't your point, but intelligent life (i.e. us) only showed up about 100,000 years ago. And most of the science that gets us to the radio was built from scratch beginning about 800 years ago. Imagine if a dinosaur-type asteriod hit then...

Also, the other 8 (yes, 7, shut up we get it) planets were forming over those same billion years, with no discernable life on them.
posted by Pastabagel at 7:46 AM on August 28, 2006

I fail to see what is misleading or self-deluding about an estimate like this. As a physicist, it is fantastically useful to make order of magnitute estimates in this fashion, since it gives you a way to break down your answer into more managable subunits. The trick of stating an equation like this well is figuring out the proper parameters that both suffice and are independently estimable. Languagehat's example is perfectly fine, except for the fact that you can't know any of the parameters involved and you would need an infinite number of terms.

The first several terms of the Drake equation, however, can be inferred from astronomy data. The next several are far less quantitative, but they still can have some basis from our limited knowledge. You are left with maybe a couple of terms you know nothing about, but you can still see how those values affect the final number of civilizations. It could have happened, for instance, that the bottleneck occured before you needed to consider the lifetime of a civilization or the desire to communicate. Breaking it down like this allows you to figure this out.

Pastabagel: And how many Einsteins and Newtons spent their life working in fields or living in a village in New Guinea? The world has seen no shortage of brilliant minds.
posted by Schismatic at 7:52 AM on August 28, 2006 [1 favorite]

And how many Einsteins and Newtons spent their life working in fields or living in a village in New Guinea? The world has seen no shortage of brilliant minds.

Very true. But the Ensteins toiling in fields are probably the vast majority of brilliant minds. But it's wasted. You need Enstein and Newton to be where they were (or someplace equivalent) in order to make their contribution. In other words, you needed a University of Oxford before you could have Newton's contribution. But to get the University of Oxford, you need someone to invent the concept of a university then you need to have a state that supports them financially, etc.

In other words, we talking about a problem that astronomers are in no way qualified to answer, as it is completely outside their expertise.
posted by Pastabagel at 8:11 AM on August 28, 2006

As for intelligent life, it's a similar process, and the longer a planet goes the probability necessarily increase, if not approach 1.0.

This is likely not true. I've never heard a solid argument for the 'inevitability' of intelligent life. More than likely, intelligence is just an extremely rare fluke. It's quite unlikely that every planet that has life will evolve intelligent life.

You get the point. Just fill in the blanks, and presto! You can come up with the answer you wanted in the first place! Mildly amusing, but I don't really get the point.

This is how science is done. Except we call a 'Wild Ass Guess' a 'hypothesis'. Sounds more respectable-like.

Far fewer than 50% of the civilizations on this planet alone ever developed any formal understanding of electricity, let alone became sophisticated enough to understand EM radiation to build a radio.

All you need is one civilization and the technology will spread itself.

Anyways, the Drake question is iffy for other reasons. The strongest objection is whether life can be subjected to a probabilistic model at all. We'd like to think so, but there's no solid argument for this case. It may just be that life is a one-time thing.
posted by nixerman at 8:21 AM on August 28, 2006

There are two big problems with Drake's equation. The first is that you can't put any kind of meaningful probability next to the terms for the evolution of life or the evolution of intelligent life. The probability of intelligent life evolving here on Earth is 1, and we have no further examples, nor do we know how it happened here. The magical lightning bolt theory is about as good as it gets for the spontaneous enlifening of inert matter, and what are the odds on that sort of thing?

The second problem with Drake's equation is that it works too well. You end up with aliens all over the place beaming out messages but somehow we haven't heard a peep.
posted by Nahum Tate at 8:34 AM on August 28, 2006

But to get the University of Oxford, you need someone to invent the concept of a university then you need to have a state that supports them financially

Right. The same way to detect alien signals requires a huge infrastructure thats well beyond the SETI project. To play this game of interstellar signal detection, one requires a motivated sender and a motivated listener. One out of two isn't going to cut it. Currently, I believe that our large dishes can only detect a very powerful signal from about 100 ly away only if that signal is purposely aimed at or near earth via an equally large or larger dish. The idea of just detecting their old tv broadcasts is just not feasible. So we may have a 'counter-earth' nearby but we couldn't detect each other.

Likewise, how many signals are we sending out from Arecibo to possibly populated parts of the galaxy? I remember reading about one and lots of 'concern' about attracting evil aliens or somesuch.

The idea of spending significant resources into alien detection all the while knowing the limitations of the speed of light may never be a popular idea anywhere in the cosmos. At least the argument for funding universities can be justified as creating common good, wealth, and learning. Alien signal detection? Not so much.

Lastly, something like 20-30% of Americans already believe in alien visitations. In a democracy it might be difficult convicing people that they need a large alien detection effort when they already believe the greys/jesus/whoever is already here. This difficulty may be universal.
posted by damn dirty ape at 8:44 AM on August 28, 2006

This is likely not true. I've never heard a solid argument for the 'inevitability' of intelligent life. More than likely, intelligence is just an extremely rare fluke. It's quite unlikely that every planet that has life will evolve intelligent life.

Strongly disagreed. Right tail of increasing complexity, dog.
posted by Optimus Chyme at 8:59 AM on August 28, 2006

The second problem with Drake's equation is that it works too well. You end up with aliens all over the place beaming out messages but somehow we haven't heard a peep.

That depends totally on the values you put into it. As I mentioned up-thread, Jared Diamond used figures biologists are more likley to find realistic and arrived at 1-2 civilizations at any time. I just messed around with it and got 4.

The problem isn't with the equation, but with the values usually put into it.

As for intelligent life, it's a similar process, and the longer a planet goes the probability necessarily increase, if not approach 1.0.

Not really though- the problem is that people still think of evolutionary forces as 'progress'. To the contrary, the data from Earth is not encouraging.

All the most sucessful species- bacteria, plants, insects- have essentially zero intelligence. The overwhelming majority of selective pressures won't lead to sapience; which is at best a risky gamble for a creature to attempt.

The species that are intelligent- cetaceans, apes- are for the most part barely hanging on. The species of ape that combined enough intelligence with enough dexterity to build a radio is the main reason why all sapient species are in trouble.
posted by spaltavian at 8:59 AM on August 28, 2006 [1 favorite]

You need Enstein and Newton to be where they were (or someplace equivalent) in order to make their contribution. In other words, you needed a University of Oxford before you could have Newton's contribution.

No, you just need a species that has curiousity as a trait. Everything you've mentioned flows from that, in whatever form a "university" would take on another planet.

It could be perfectly possible that there are tons of civilizations out there, but they don't particularly care about the rest of the universe.
posted by concreteforest at 9:19 AM on August 28, 2006

It is known that there is an infinite number of worlds, simply because there is an infinite amount of space for them to be in. However, not every one of them is inhabited. Therefore, there must be a finite number of inhabited worlds.

It's a funny quote and a great example of Adams' habit of non-sequitur chapters, but the logic is flawed. Let me give you an analogy:
There are an infinite number of integers. However, not every one of them is even. Therefore, there must be a finite number of even numbers.
That is false. A subset of an infinite set could still be infinite.
posted by Plutor at 9:22 AM on August 28, 2006

The idea of spending significant resources into alien detection all the while knowing the limitations of the speed of light may never be a popular idea anywhere in the cosmos.

Yes, for those possessed of any understanding of that little problem - meanwhile I blame Star Trek for the small-ifying of the (real) universe in the popular imagination.
posted by scheptech at 9:44 AM on August 28, 2006

The next several are far less quantitative, but they still can have some basis from our limited knowledge. You are left with maybe a couple of terms you know nothing about, but you can still see how those values affect the final number of civilizations.

I'm sorry, but to me this falls under "misleading or self-deluding." For "limited" read "nonexistent." We know nothing at all about life anywhere but earth; our "educated" guesses are nothing but speculation ("hot air" is the scientific term). I understand that people desperately want to know if We Are Not Alone, but that desire does not turn hot air into gold.

This is how science is done.

Except for it to be science, it has to involve hypotheses that can be proved or disproved. Pure speculation is not science, even if it involves scientific stuff like planets and space.
posted by languagehat at 9:48 AM on August 28, 2006

"The fraction of civilizations that might communicate is also unknown, but lets say 50% end up sending out radio waves."

This number is way way too high. The real number is probably less than 1."

This makes no sense, on an evolutionary and on a geologic time scale once Humans got intelligent, they immediately developed advanced technology. The only things that would limit technological growth would be low population densities, but there is no reason to assume that this is the norm. If there hadn't been the European enlightenment, there would have been a Chinese one 500 years later, or maybe an Indian one 5,000 years later. On a geologic time scale, those differences don't matter. Hell, with the introduction of corn to north America they probably would have had an enlightenment within several thousand years.

It's also premature to say that since aliens haven't contacted us yet, we should doubt their existence. We have only been broadcasting our existence for 100 years, so that's only a 50 light year radius that could have got signal and sent one back. Not a very big chunk of the sky.
posted by afu at 9:54 AM on August 28, 2006 [1 favorite]

I recall years back that there was another equation similar to this (or perhaps a version of it) that included the distance between stars as a factor. Considering the hugific spans between stars, unless we develop warp drive sometime soon, the equation basically stated that it doesnt matter if there's intelligent life anywhere in our galaxy. We would never have any meaningful contact because by the time even a communication on lines of "Hey there!" and "Hello yourself!" was complete, hundreds if not thousands of years would have passed and the civilizations in question would probably be dead.

It's a grim notion, but perhaps if misery loves company, if we are functionally alone in the universe, so is everyone else.

On preview, what other pessimists (or perhaps realists) have noted.
posted by elendil71 at 10:07 AM on August 28, 2006

Languaghehat: Except for it to be science, it has to involve hypotheses that can be proved or disproved.

It can be proved or disproved, it'll just take a while.
posted by Kattullus at 10:22 AM on August 28, 2006

'Intelligent' life is a misnomer. Who's to say we're intelligent? What we are looking for is social, organized life. Radio frequency transmission on earth arose not because we just happen to be intelligent; it came from our desire to communicate across longer and longer distances faster. What is "intelligence" beyond a measure of a species' ability to socially construct shared concepts? Is it a measure of a species' ability to adapt to its environment dynamically on a short timescale in comparison to the lifespan of individual members? To manipulate its environment? What is intelligence, on a galactic scale?

Lem's "Solaris" is a very good introduction into why we shouldn't really expect to be able to interface meaningfully with other life, should we even find it. People who expect a Star Trek universe think "Darmok and Jalad" is the biggest communication challenge we'll face. There's nothing to say other lifeforms will even exist on the same timescales we do. I seem to remember a sci-fi story once about a crystalline race who communicated with each other by growing into different configurations over the course of centuries or millennia.
posted by Eideteker at 10:29 AM on August 28, 2006

Eideteker, his eyebrow cocked, his mouth frowning.
posted by Optimus Chyme at 10:34 AM on August 28, 2006 [2 favorites]

The mere fact that we can debate if other forms of life exist in the universe proves how backward and narcissistic we are.

And we wonder why we're left alone. Douglas Adams was half right - we're "mostly stupid".
posted by bobbyelliott at 10:56 AM on August 28, 2006

Here in Chicago, there's no real difference between -10 below and -15 below. Some winter days are simply fucking cold regardless of thermometer value.

Should there be 10,000 advanced civilizations scattered throughout the billions of stars that make up the galaxy or 150 we're still fundamentally alone.
posted by aladfar at 11:00 AM on August 28, 2006

The universe is teeming with life just outside my light cone. (but in here it's mighty lonely!)
posted by sonofsamiam at 11:01 AM on August 28, 2006 [1 favorite]

Pure speculation is not science, even if it involves scientific stuff like planets and space.

Bayesian statistics put lie to this false assertion.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 12:10 PM on August 28, 2006

There seems to be persistant misconceptions about radio. Radio transmissions do not require a radio. Radio transmission is fundamentally a part of the processes of physics and electronics, (hence radio telescopes looking at the sky don't draw a blank, even when no civilisation is attempting to communicate).

Almost any device that involves charge, and thus almost any technological society, produces some kind of radio signals, usually noticeably non-natural, regardless of whether there was any intention to comminicate. Here on earth, significant work goes into reducing the amount of radio produced by things. We call it interference when our computer's radio broadcasts make the TV or phone fuzzy :)

(Detecting unintentional signals over light years is a different matter, but I just wanted to break that assumption that radio signals are only a product of civilisions that listen to radios :-)
posted by -harlequin- at 12:21 PM on August 28, 2006

Forgetfulness (1937), by John W. Campbell, Jr. — no matter where we go, there we are.

If we're so smart, maybe we wouldn't need all of this stuff...
posted by cenoxo at 12:21 PM on August 28, 2006

I like his coffee cakes.
posted by Smedleyman at 2:13 PM on August 28, 2006

But what if newton had died of tuberculosis as an infant? What if Aristotle, Decartes, Leibniz, and others died in the various plagues wars, etc that killed so many of their contemporaries? ...

as others have pointed out, this has happened many, many times over. newton did die of tuberculosis as an infant. s/he just wasn't named newton. for every person you can name that did something fantastic, there were probably 10 others that died prematurely, or never had the money or access to society needed to develop into genius.
posted by joeblough at 2:20 PM on August 28, 2006

It' one thing to spend generations refining the craft of sword making. It's another cultural mindset entirely to imagine something better than the sword, and have institutions in place to explore that possibility.

Technology is an extension of and subject to evolution - groups of people with better technology have conquered or eliminated groups of people with less technology again and again throughout human history.
There's no reason to believe that evolution would work differently, to the point of favouring weak technology, on other plantes.
posted by spazzm at 2:43 PM on August 28, 2006

As an apropos, the abovementioned has the side effect of ensuring that if we ever make contact with a technological civilization, it is likely to be a warlike one.
posted by spazzm at 2:45 PM on August 28, 2006

if we ever make contact with a technological civilization, it is likely to be a warlike one.

Any highly evolved species will not - cannot - be warlike. Warlike species will come and (inevitably) go - but this characteristic is not sustainable over a very long time period.
posted by bobbyelliott at 3:37 PM on August 28, 2006

Any highly evolved species will not - cannot - be warlike. Warlike species will come and (inevitably) go - but this characteristic is not sustainable over a very long time period.

And you know this... how? Humanity has sustained it for the entire length of its existence, and it happens to be the only intelligent species we know.
posted by languagehat at 5:03 PM on August 28, 2006

Humanity has sustained it for the entire length of its existence, and it happens to be the only intelligent species we know.

Edwin Harrison had a good answer to this (the full essay is linked to in the fc in the FPP), which neatly resolves the "Where is Everyone" Fermi Paradox:
In 1981, cosmologist Edward Harrison suggested a powerful self-regulating mechanism that would neatly resolve the paradox. Any civilization bent on the intensive colonization of other worlds would be driven by an expansive territorial impulse. But such an aggressive nature would be unstable in combination with the immense technological powers required for interstellar travel. Such a civilization would self-destruct long before it could reach for the stars.
posted by blahblahblah at 5:16 PM on August 28, 2006

As a working scientist, I feel very strongly that we should invade Jupiter.
posted by Sparx at 5:35 PM on August 28, 2006

I think we are too quick to dismiss the other species on Earth.

I think we are also inherently blind to the possibility that other lifeforms do not exist in the same frame of reference that we occupy, e.g., they are exceedingly tiny or excruciatingly slow when compared to us.

Alone, indeed.

Oh, and I got 504.
posted by owhydididoit at 5:46 PM on August 28, 2006

Should I be worried that plugging in what I knew and making what I felt were fairly average guesses, I arrived at one communicating civilization in the Milky Way.

That is, just us.

naaaaah... can't be... then who'd be sticking probes up human whoopsies?
posted by Kattullus at 6:50 PM on August 28, 2006

"As a working scientist, I feel very strongly that we should invade Jupiter." - posted by Sparx

I'm in, 'cause that's where all the pants come from.
posted by Smedleyman at 10:38 PM on August 28, 2006

And you know this... how?

Through pure reason. Because intelligence is superior to aggression as a survival and developmental strategy. Because aggression carries the seeds of its own destruction (as mankind may soon discover).

Humanity has sustained it for the entire length of its existence, and it happens to be the only intelligent species we know.

And I happen to be the only intelligent human I know.
posted by bobbyelliott at 1:04 AM on August 29, 2006

None within our past light cone. And we'll never have meaningful interactions with aliens. Any species we encounter will either be much more primitive, likely just apes, or so far advanced that we'll be the apes.

Heck, Kurzweil believes that biological un-augmented humans will no longer be making meaningful contributions in merely 100 years.
posted by jeffburdges at 2:18 AM on August 29, 2006

here's physics world's list of the top 20 equations of all time

1) Maxwell's Equation
2) Euler's Equation
3) Newton's 2nd Law
4) Pythagorean Theorem

Drake Equation doesn't even scratch the top 20.
posted by the theory of revolution at 4:27 AM on August 29, 2006

Heck, Kurzweil believes that biological un-augmented humans will no longer be making meaningful contributions in merely 100 years.

Interesting.
I'd say that if you consider computers to be mind-augumentations then the time of un-augumented meaningful contributions to the sciences is probably already past.
Do you have a reference, btw?
posted by spazzm at 5:33 AM on August 29, 2006

Is it just me, or are the units in the Drake Equation not consistent? First of all, n_e should be a fraction, not a number. And even then, on the left side we have a number and on the right side we have a number multiplied with time.
posted by Chomskyfied at 8:47 AM on August 29, 2006

biological un-augmented humans will no longer be making meaningful contributions in merely 100 years.

Biological evolution has certainly ended. It will/has been overtaken by technological evolution. Of course, it's a moot point if you should distinguish between the two since one (the technical) is the inevitable product of the other (the biological).

We are lucky to be alive at the time of the transition between the two. The current generation of computer systems (and their predecessors, which many of us have experienced) are the "primordial soup" of the second phase of evolution.
posted by bobbyelliott at 8:49 AM on August 29, 2006

Nevermind. It was the site that was at fault. This definition of the units makes more sense.
posted by Chomskyfied at 8:50 AM on August 29, 2006

"And you know this... how? Humanity has sustained it for the entire length of its existence, and it happens to be the only intelligent species we know."

Not really. Human history demonstrates the concept pretty conclusively.
Technological progress in humanity has been directly restricted to our ability to contain the warlike aspect of us. When tribes cannot trust tribes, technology can only develop to a level attainable by a handful of people with little time not taken up with survival (and/or war). When tribes are united into countries or empires, greatly diminishing the possibility of inter-tribe war and thus enabling trade to create a society capable of supporting dedicated researchers, great technological progress is unleashed. When countries and empires tie themselves to uniother countries (through alliances and treaties), greatly diminishing the possibility of war between those countries, it likewise allows the researchers of those nations to share findings, to collaborate, and to specialise - drilling deeply down in a very narrow area of a field is only made possible because the pool of minds focusing on the field has been enlarged by the security of supressing war between their nations.

The more advanced science becomes, the more specialisation is needed to get anywhere, which means the more minds need to be focused on it together to make progress. The more minds that need to be focused together, the larger the collective of people who do not make war upon each other needs to be.

That (short-sighted) people give science extra funding during war doesn't change this - these are the blips that dot the big picture.

Advanced technology is a direct product of the supression of war among people to create stronger societies with more powerful, united economies.

Same goes for aliens. Two alien races that choose war against two otherwise equal races that are united, are going to be weaker in sum, technologically, than the races that allied.
posted by -harlequin- at 10:42 AM on August 29, 2006

I came up with N=21 for our galaxy... choosing fairly low numbers. Assume ours is an average galaxy (??). Then, with 10^11 galaxies in the observable universe, that's 2 trillion communicating civilizations.

Alas, NOVA's script doesn't allow -very very- conservative numbers. If there's only 1 CC per billion galaxies ... a desperately egocentric point-of-view ... that's 100 CC's out there. Space being SO huge, these CC's are almost certainly eternally isolated. For all practical purposes, they don't exist.

Scientists are just now inventing ways to detect the presence of planets in our neighboring galaxy, M31. Barring unforeseen barriers, within two centuries resolution in our own galaxy will probably count Earth-sized and suitably-positioned planets.

But technology is the easy part. We're already riding on a spaceship. Are we all ... OK???

"Where are they?", Fermi asked. Global warming shows us a plausibly common scenario. Unless we do better at taking care of "the environment" ... a euphemism for the planet we all share ... we won't be going anywhere. Competitive instead of cooperative? Not going anywhere.

There's a satisfying justice in that. Lifeforms without intelligent restraint, unable to conquer superstition, out-of-touch with their inner natures, without compassion, will be unable to escape the destiny they create for themselves.
posted by Twang at 2:00 PM on August 29, 2006

Maybe I should have been clearer about what I consider 'war-like'.
Humans are a war-like species for two reasons:
1. War-like species are constantly at war. Humans have been at war with other humans somewhere on the globe since, well, before we were humans.
2. When two unequally matched factions of humans meet for the first time, the weaker/technologically inferiour one is conquered with violence by the superior one (for a classic examle, look up Chatham Islands). There are few exceptions to this in human history.

Technological progress in humanity has been directly restricted to our ability to contain the warlike aspect of us.

Not so. When WWII started, nuclear fission was a little-known and poorly understood theory, propeller planes were state-of-the art, calculations were done, at best, with hand-cranked analog mechanical devices. At the end of WWII we had nuclear power, jet planes and digital computers. More importantly in the context of this discussion, WWII took rocketry from an obscure hobby to a functioning technology and provided von Braun and others with the resources they needed in order to start perfecting the science that brought humans to the moon and space probes to ever widening parts of the solar system.

We're the most technologically advanced species we know, so it's reasonable that other technologically advanced species in the galaxy will be similar to us in behaviour, and have followed a similar evolutionary path. Thus, they will almost certainly be war-like in the sense I outlined above.

To believe in peace-loving, godlike creatures from the heavens is, at best, naive and unfounded.
posted by spazzm at 2:49 PM on August 29, 2006

“Two alien races that choose war against two otherwise equal races that are united, are going to be weaker in sum, technologically, than the races that allied.” -posted by -harlequin-

“Not so. When WWII started, nuclear fission was a little-known and poorly understood theory...” - spazzm

I was going to make a similar argument spazzm. You beat me to it. Although mine was a bit softer edged. I’d fully agree that war drives need which evokes technology, et.al advances, but I’d agree with bobbyelliott (and somewhat with harlequin) that aggression carries the seeds of its own destruction.
But yeah, there is no reason to think aliens would be benevolent.
Hell, consider the impact a culture with roughly equal (or even inferior) arms technology, but vastly more sophisticated economic systems would have on us.
Intellect is not always fully divorced from aggression, and there are many kinds and methods of aggression.
I hope we evolve past brute force, but I have no reason to believe the rarified sophisticated workings of aggression in the future will be easier. More subtle probably, but not easier to deal with. Consider a Masai warrior observing a boardroom merger. I myself prefer the straightforward methods of the spear (or bullet), but that’s because I don’t have the brains for subtler means.
“One lawyer with his briefcase can steal more money than one hundred men with guns” - Don Vito Corleone.
posted by Smedleyman at 4:40 PM on August 29, 2006

Issac Asimov already answered Drake's Equation in his work "Extra-Terrestrial Civilizations" which was a semi-nonfiction work that was also just him rambling for several hundred pages about what the Drake's Equation actually was and what it meant. His final determination was that there are in point of fact at least 30 civilizations in this galaxy right now who are at our technological level or greater, but because space is so vast, and odds of any of these civilizations being near one another are so remote, we'll probably never meet each other.

Of course this didn't stop him from writing scifi anyway.
posted by ZachsMind at 5:25 PM on August 29, 2006

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