Earth May Be a 1-in-700-Quintillion Kind of Place
February 26, 2016 2:55 AM   Subscribe

 
Didn't we already find Earth-like planets when speaking of relative size and distance from the star which they orbit?
posted by I-baLL at 3:00 AM on February 26, 2016


Well, 2-in-700-quintillion is also a very small number.
posted by polymodus at 3:03 AM on February 26, 2016 [5 favorites]


I'm not convinced. As they say in the article:
Still, the model is based on what we currently understand about the universe, and if there’s one thing we have figured out so far, it’s that we still don’t know very much. The model creates exoplanets based only on the ones we have discovered, which is an extremely small sample size that probably doesn’t provide a representative cross-section of all of the planets in existence.
Create a model based on a data set with only one Earth-like planet (this one), and you get a result that says Earth-like planets are rare. Meh.
posted by Kevin Street at 3:24 AM on February 26, 2016 [17 favorites]


It's my favorite planet (among those I've visited).
posted by dances_with_sneetches at 3:26 AM on February 26, 2016 [19 favorites]


As the model is based on exo-planets already discovered, and those we have found are those easiest to detect (I.e. massive un-Earthlike planets) then I'm sceptical about inference that we are unique. (Sceptical, but no expert, happy to hear differently.)
posted by Gratishades at 3:26 AM on February 26, 2016 [8 favorites]


To quote Alexei Sayle, "My girlfriend's a model - at the moment she's an Airfix kit of a Stuka dive-bomber."
posted by pipeski at 3:28 AM on February 26, 2016 [15 favorites]


That is a super-weird reading of the actual paper, which has nothing in it that I would take as saying there is "only one like Earth." It seems like a really bad morph of an article in Scientific American, which has this (more accurate) statement: "the researchers conclude that Earth stands as a mild violation of the Copernican principle." Not a 1-in-10^20 fluke, just a "mild violation" (i.e., Earth is fairly different from the "typical" planet in their model).
posted by chalkbored at 3:47 AM on February 26, 2016 [21 favorites]


1 - in - 700 Quintillion? Yawn. I'm not buyin'. Who knows what the hell is out there, who knows if we'll even be able to understand it, or even perceive it (to be realistic), but I would not bet 'our' world is the only one out there.

Think about a sand box, or just a gravel pit. Sure, the stones are all different sizes, but they're all still stones, and they're all roughly the same shape. The laws of physics we've been using apply all over. Kind of lends to a uniformity of sorts, an inclination for things to be somewhat similar. An inclination towards a similar-ness.

Nice headline though. I clicked.
posted by From Bklyn at 3:58 AM on February 26, 2016 [2 favorites]


Astronomers work on the principle that there's never just one of anything. Our observable space, especially for anything smaller than a galaxy, is a tiny fraction of everywhere: conversely, our observable space for small things is huge enough to contain very large numbers of those small things. And we're not good enough to find all the things there anyway *. So, when an observation of a New Type Of Thing is made, the immediate assumption is that there are more - possibly many more - and we've only just this moment got good enough/lucky enough to find them.

(LIGO found those colliding black holes while it was doing its initial engineering tests - huge conicidence, or another example of 'when we're good enough, they will come'? The smart money is betting just one way on that)

The Earth is in a particularlly weird configuration - we're pretty sure about that. But the conditions it was formed out of were, as far as anyone knows, perfectly typical. The key features of the Earth that support life - liquid water. distance from the sun, size, composition - would all be available to many other proto-solar systems. The moon's bloody weird, so who knows there... but really, it's not we're hovering in some strange metastable ten-star swarm being herded by four binary black holes. (although how cool would that be...)

So I doubt we're that special.

* - dark matter, where art thou?
posted by Devonian at 4:17 AM on February 26, 2016 [5 favorites]


❄️
posted by TedW at 4:22 AM on February 26, 2016 [10 favorites]


From the actual paper, helpfully linked in the article:

"Adopting this strategy and removing super-Earths from the TP inventory would then give an estimate of ~2×10^18 habitable planets around FGK stars in the observable Universe."

Now, I'm no mathematician, but I was always under the impression that 2x10^18 is, in fact, a number that is higher than 1.
posted by kyrademon at 4:25 AM on February 26, 2016 [28 favorites]


The universe is too big (a billion trillion solar systems) and time is too long (are we there yet?) and life is too insistent (the grout around my shower) for there to be no other life in the universe. Whether we find other life while we and they are alive is another matter. The sea is wide and our boat is tiny.
posted by pracowity at 4:25 AM on February 26, 2016 [11 favorites]


Why do I feel like the only one?

Call it the Drake equation.
posted by box at 4:33 AM on February 26, 2016 [1 favorite]


Here's hoping we invent warp drive before World War 3.
posted by The White Hat at 4:34 AM on February 26, 2016 [1 favorite]


His research indicates that, from a purely statistical standpoint, Earth perhaps shouldn’t exist.

No, it doesn't. Not even with the weaselly "probably" in there, it doesn't indicate anything like that. The article seems fine, but the reporting is terrible.
posted by Wolfdog at 4:37 AM on February 26, 2016 [3 favorites]


By happy chance, my spouse is an exoplanetologist. Here's the chat session I'm having with her about this:

HER: Well, this is a dumb line: "His research indicates that, from a purely statistical standpoint, Earth perhaps shouldn’t exist."

ME: I suspect it is the reporting that is bad, not the original paper.

HER: OK, I will look at the paper too, but right off the bat, there is a big problem extrapolating known statistics for habitable zone planets because the current "habitable zone planets" are transit-discoveries, they are all around low mass stars and have very short periods (on order of days). We know VERY LITTLE still about the frequency of habitable zone planets around stars like the sun (where habitable zone planets have orbits on order a year). M star habitable zone planets have a lot of challenges (M stars are very active, lots of X-ray and gamma rays because of that, also these planets are likely tidally locked). So it's not unfair to say you need to be around a somewhat higher mass star to be habitable. And there are no statistics to extrapolate for that.
posted by kyrademon at 4:40 AM on February 26, 2016 [29 favorites]


A new study suggests that there are around 700 quintillion planets in the universe, but only one like Earth.

Okay! Which one is like Earth? Let's go see it!
posted by heyho at 4:48 AM on February 26, 2016 [12 favorites]


It's not surprising that Earth is so amazingly rare - it's the only planet that's flat.

Yeah - I didn't wanna believe it either.
posted by the quidnunc kid at 4:50 AM on February 26, 2016 [8 favorites]


This is why we really have to watch out for the baobabs
posted by iotic at 4:56 AM on February 26, 2016 [2 favorites]


This is why we really have to watch out for the baobabs

This also why we need to stop pooping in our nest...
posted by jim in austin at 5:05 AM on February 26, 2016 [1 favorite]


So the article says Earth is unique in the Universe. The paper says Earth might be very slightly unusual - it's mildly surprising we find ourselves in this kind of galaxy because unless there's some factor we haven't noticed the other kind of galaxy is probably somewhat richer in habitable planets?
posted by Segundus at 5:07 AM on February 26, 2016 [2 favorites]


His research indicates that, from a purely statistical standpoint, Earth perhaps shouldn’t exist.

Huh. I've seen a lot of bad science reporting, but it's a rare day indeed that someone manages to create an entirely new class of logical fallacy, the anti-anthropic principle.
posted by Mayor West at 5:13 AM on February 26, 2016 [7 favorites]


true story, once I briefly convinced myself that intelligent life was improbable enough that it probably didn't exist

I quickly found a problem with my reasoning
posted by vibratory manner of working at 5:18 AM on February 26, 2016 [4 favorites]


true story, once I briefly convinced myself that intelligent life was improbable enough that it probably didn't exist

I quickly found a problem with my reasoning


Oh? Do share.
posted by president of the solipsist society at 5:30 AM on February 26, 2016 [8 favorites]


The only unique thing in the cosmos was Emperor Norton.
posted by delfin at 5:44 AM on February 26, 2016 [2 favorites]


His research indicates that, from a purely statistical standpoint, Earth perhaps shouldn’t exist.

I've yet to see any compelling evidence that it does.
posted by Faint of Butt at 5:49 AM on February 26, 2016 [3 favorites]


Obviously Earth is not alone in the universe. As others have pointed out the sad thing is the paper doesn't even make the claim that the article is reporting. Too many articles are printed with bs just to get people to click

One good thing about the readers at MetaFilter - they're quick to notice and point out the spin that the article puts on the actual paper.
posted by 2manyusernames at 5:50 AM on February 26, 2016


Yes. I also went and read the paper because the article just seemed to be saying something that didn't sit right.

There is literally nothing in the paper that says anything like what's in the article.

A quick summary of what the paper actually says might look something like this:

There are probably fewer terrestrial planets (rocky planets of a size within a certain range of Earth's) in the observable universe than we previously thought (about 7% as many as previously estimated).

Very few of these are likely to be habitable (about 1 in 350).

The substantial majority of the habitable planets should be in galaxies very much unlike ours. This suggests either that humanity arising on Earth rather than on a planet in a different galaxy is a statistical anomaly, or that our assumptions about the habitability of different galaxy types are wrong.

And a quick comparison of the claims in the article, versus what the paper is actually saying:

"A new study suggests that there are around 700 quintillion planets in the universe"

No. The study suggests that there are around 700 quintiliion (7x1020) terrestrial planets in the observable universe. The total number of planets of all types will be much higher.

"but only one like Earth"

Rather, but only 2 quintillion like Earth.

Current estimates hold that there are some 100 billion galaxies in the universe containing about 10^18 stars, or a billion trillion.


What? Okay, first off, why are you calling 1018 a billion trillion when you just called 1020 a hundred quintillion? Second of all, you do realize that you have just suggested that the average star has 700 planets right? Estimates on the number of stars in the universe vary dramatically. The paper doesn't explicitly give an estimate, but based on the probabilities and total numbers of terrestrial planets they predict, they are definitely assuming a universe with at least 1021 stars.

His research indicates that, from a purely statistical standpoint, Earth perhaps shouldn’t exist.

In truth, his research suggests that, from a purely statistical standpoint, there was only a 1 in 4 chance that the planet humans evolved on would end up being in a galaxy like the Milky Way. And, if current thoughts about the relative habitability of different types of galaxies are correct, that chance gets even smaller. So maybe current thoughts about galaxy habitability are wrong. Or maybe we are a minor statistical anomaly. 1 in 4 is not much of a long shot.

Nevertheless, the researchers are confident in the broader implications of their model: Earth is more than your garden-variety planet.

Well, at least the article finishes on a point that is both true and supported by the paper, even if it is simply stating a fact everyone already knew.

caveat: I probably misread the paper myself in some ways. I am not a cosmologist. But I am confident I misread it a lot less egregiously than the authors of the article.
posted by 256 at 6:01 AM on February 26, 2016 [5 favorites]


Alternate headline: Numbers suggest there are millions of potentially habitable terrestrial planets in our galaxy, more in the rest of the universe.
posted by sfenders at 6:12 AM on February 26, 2016 [3 favorites]


>Earth May Be a 1-in-700-Quintillion Kind of Place

Headline should read "Is Earth A 1-in-700-Qunitillion Kind Of Place?" but has been rephrased to try to get around Betteridge's Law.
posted by Sing Or Swim at 6:18 AM on February 26, 2016 [5 favorites]


Just because we can't see something, that doesn't mean it's not there.
posted by freakazoid at 7:17 AM on February 26, 2016


There is only one planet in the universe like Earth, for a sufficiently narrow definition of Earth-like.
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 7:35 AM on February 26, 2016 [3 favorites]


Right, so in conclusion, we still don't know very much about the universe. Got it.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 7:53 AM on February 26, 2016 [2 favorites]


There is a dangerous tendency among those reared on science fiction to see Earth as disposable and replaceable. Here's a little cure for this attitude from a real spaceman:
After eighteen days of a space mission I was convinced that all visible space—the black emptiness, the white, unblinking stars and planets—was lifeless. The thought that life and humankind might be unique in the endless universe depressed me and brought melancholy upon me, and yet at the same time compelled me to evaluate everything differently.
Nature has been limitlessly kind to us, having helped humankind appear, stand up, and grow stronger. She has generously given us everything she has amassed over the billions of years of inanimate development. We have grown strong and powerful, yet how have we answered this goodness?--Cosmonaut Yuri Glazkov quoted in The Home Planet / Kevin W. Kelley (Editor).
It's time to stop looking to the stars as a way of evading the problems here at home.
posted by No Robots at 7:54 AM on February 26, 2016 [5 favorites]


It's time to stop looking to the stars as a way of evading the problems here at home.

To be fair, we evade those problems because we're not wired to think about the long term in a way that we really need to. SF readers, of all the categories of people you could have picked, probably spend more time thinking about the problems of a sustainable future for humanity than most, and certainly much more than the average politician.
posted by pipeski at 8:10 AM on February 26, 2016 [2 favorites]


It's time to stop looking to the stars as a way of evading the problems here at home.

Who has a supporter's subscription to Post Hoc Ergo Propter Hoc Quarterly?
posted by chimaera at 8:13 AM on February 26, 2016 [3 favorites]


Earth is the only planet with chocolate.
posted by Greg_Ace at 8:17 AM on February 26, 2016 [1 favorite]


Earth is the only planet with chocolate.

You don't know that!
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 8:29 AM on February 26, 2016 [2 favorites]


There could be a chocolate-based life form.
posted by pracowity at 8:43 AM on February 26, 2016 [5 favorites]


There could be a chocolate-based life form.

Though would bring up some really sticky ethical questions.

For some people
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 9:09 AM on February 26, 2016 [5 favorites]


Clicked on this immediately because I've often contemplated the possibility of Earth being the only planet in the universe with intelligent life. This isn't based on astrophysics or probability theory -my knowledge of both being nil- but on more of a personal and emotional feeling of my insignificance in the community/ country/ planet, now and throughout all of time. What if we are the only such planet? (What if this is the only life I'll live?) What happens when humanity ceases to exist? (What happens when I die and cease to exist?). Guess you could call this cosmically projected solipsism.

But back to the article (sorry for above). Is the "habitable zone" a fundamental requirement for life to exist? Here on Earth there are thermophilic organisms that can survive in temperatures up to 250 °F. Couldn't there be a planet out there with fire people?
posted by blairsyprofane at 9:15 AM on February 26, 2016 [1 favorite]


The Universe Is Only Habitable By This One Weird Planet - You Won't BELIEVE What Happens Next!

I see your 700 Quintillion, and I raise you Eleventy-Skillion-Gajillion! Plus one!

Uno!

posted by petebest at 9:19 AM on February 26, 2016 [2 favorites]


Earth May Be a 1-in-700-Quintillion Kind of Place...

Give or take a few quintillions.
posted by LeLiLo at 9:19 AM on February 26, 2016 [2 favorites]


Can someone explain the stuff about other galaxies being better or worse for life? We seem to be in a pretty common type of galaxy— if life can occur here, it seems like it could occur in other spirals. What factors are introduced by galaxy type? (Maybe age, so your protostar is seeded with the really good elements?)
posted by zompist at 9:20 AM on February 26, 2016 [1 favorite]


Earth is alone, 1 of 700 quintillion planets in the universe.

Two paragraphs later:

Earth appears to have been dealt a fairly lucky hand.

"Fairly lucky"????!?!?!?!? Fairly lucky is finding $20 down the back of the couch. I'd at least promote us up to "very lucky".
posted by maupuia at 9:30 AM on February 26, 2016 [3 favorites]


There could be a chocolate-based life form.

Then its doom is foreordained.
posted by Greg_Ace at 9:37 AM on February 26, 2016 [4 favorites]


As are all ethyl alcohol-based life forms.
posted by Greg_Ace at 9:38 AM on February 26, 2016 [1 favorite]


I'm an ethyl merman.
posted by pracowity at 9:47 AM on February 26, 2016 [8 favorites]


Spirals are good because they have more sustained star-forming activity than other types. This gets you more of the heavier elements that only form inside stars ("metals" in astronomy-speak) and there's additional time after all that good stuff is floating around already but before the galaxy has run out of hydrogen to do new stars with.

I'm not sure about other types, but within spirals you've also got a habitable zone that applies to the distance from the galactic center. Too close in and you're subject to higher interstellar radiation and other Bad Stuff. Too far out, and there's less activity which means less metals and that's no good either.

You also don't want to be in dense galactic clusters for similar reasons to avoiding the centers of galaxies. Too much Bad Stuff, plus all your nice good interstellar medium tends to get stripped out by gravity from other galaxies and that puts a damper on continuing star formation/higher metallicities.
posted by vibratory manner of working at 9:50 AM on February 26, 2016 [3 favorites]


SF readers, of all the categories of people you could have picked, probably spend more time thinking about the problems of a sustainable future for humanity than most, and certainly much more than the average politician.

There are many threads on this site where people have proposed seeking a new planet as a way of dealing with global warming and other ecological problems.
posted by No Robots at 10:15 AM on February 26, 2016


To paraphrase Jack Handey:

If chocolate could scream, would we still be so cavalier about eating it? We might, because god damn does it taste good.
posted by Naberius at 10:22 AM on February 26, 2016 [1 favorite]


pracowity: "I'm an ethyl merman."

Great. Now I have the picture of a half-man half-fish swimming in an ocean of vodka.
posted by Splunge at 10:46 AM on February 26, 2016 [1 favorite]


In conclusion, the Universe is a land of contrast.
posted by chavenet at 11:00 AM on February 26, 2016 [2 favorites]


Did they base their article on Douglas Adams' "The Restaurant at the End of the Universe"?

"It is known that there are 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 whole Universe is also zero, and that any people you may meet from time to time are merely the products of a deranged imagination."
posted by Hairy Lobster at 11:17 AM on February 26, 2016 [3 favorites]


It depends on how you look at time. There may be only one inhabited planet "now," but what is "now" when we are talking about billions of years and quintillions of planets?
posted by cell divide at 11:39 AM on February 26, 2016


Okay, only one other planet, then. But we have the Donald.

Now we get to sift through all the snowflakes for duplicates.
posted by mule98J at 12:02 PM on February 26, 2016


Now I have the picture of a half-man half-fish swimming in an ocean of vodka.

And belting out show tunes.
posted by Greg_Ace at 12:35 PM on February 26, 2016 [3 favorites]


FUCK IT
TAKE WHATEVER PLANET YOU WANT
EUROPA, BARSOOM, VULCAN, TATTOOINE
YOU NAME IT
SHIT, I DON'T EVEN EXIST
ALL YOURS, BABY
posted by Halloween Jack at 12:48 PM on February 26, 2016 [3 favorites]


but what is "now" when we are talking about billions of years and quintillions of planets?

Uh, about 10:40 pm. No wait - 10:41. Just changed. Hope that helps!
posted by the quidnunc kid at 2:43 PM on February 26, 2016 [3 favorites]


1-in-700-quintillion

Lottery tickets seem like a sure thing with those kinda odds.
posted by wcfields at 3:12 PM on February 26, 2016


Whether or not Earth is unique, which is something you and I may never know, the thought experiment - more of a "feelings experiment" - to imagine an entire cosmos in which Earth is the sole bastion of life ... that is, I think, interesting for a moment's pause.

Our universe, compared with that of the ancients, is vastly more vast, and humanity (let alone the Earth) has been relegated far from its once-central position to some forgettable, microscopic corner. And then to contemplate, further to that self-exile, that the whole of existence is an endless, lifeless, mindless contrivance in which all our vital joy - and that of every fellow animal, fern and bug - is a statistical nothingness, our insignificance without measure ...

Billions of light years of silence in which lumps of dumb matter churn in orbits and collisions and nothing there that ever laughs or weeps or grows. Light, far-flung light, but no eyes to see it. In accordance with modern maxims of silence, we cannot claim to occupy any special place in the universe, but what if all our wet, green, beautiful world is not even recognisable as a possibility?

And even that we can't know; we believe now the universe is mainly stocked of dark things - dark matter and dark energy. To that dark reality all our bright hearts could be darker still.

So say "fuck you!" to the universe today, by voting #1 quidnunc kid.
posted by the quidnunc kid at 3:27 PM on February 26, 2016 [1 favorite]


the quidnunc kid, you're response is what the cosmonaut I quoted was condemning. His response is more, "Say thank you to the universe today."
posted by No Robots at 3:36 PM on February 26, 2016 [1 favorite]


Wtf. Venus is right there! The closest planet to us, in our very own solar system is rocky, Earth-sized, orbits a sun-like star, and is in the Goldilocks zone. Things there didn't work out quite the same as they did here, but as far as probability, we're almost 2 for 2 out of a sample of 2.
posted by Devils Rancher at 8:22 PM on February 26, 2016 [1 favorite]


It's not surprising that Earth is so amazingly rare - it's the only planet that's flat.

"My Flat Earth Theory is now more popular than ever. People from all around the globe have come to join me here at my Flat Earth Conference!"
posted by Devils Rancher at 8:39 PM on February 26, 2016 [1 favorite]


Ok, let's push our search all the way out to Mars. Rocky, may have had liquid water, still has frozen water (a little on the small side) is in the Goldilocks zone. Damn, we're 3 for 3 out of our initial sample of 3. If I extrapolate that out for just sun-like stars, I get... (carry the 2...) Umpty bajillion possible Earth-like planets.

Am I just simple?
posted by Devils Rancher at 8:44 PM on February 26, 2016 [3 favorites]


His research indicates that, from a purely statistical standpoint, Earth perhaps shouldn’t exist.

Once again science confirms a simple truth most of us have privately suspected for some time.
posted by sebastienbailard at 11:59 PM on February 26, 2016 [2 favorites]


his response is more, "Say thank you to the universe today."

"Thank you" - to what? A vast idiot expanse of blind, blank deadness? One might as well thank a numb rock - but any Earth rock teems with more vitality that everything in the limitless heavens! No, we can't thank a wasteland for our own improbability; the very idea is to imagine an other to thank, where no such other is remotely possible. Instead, we should all thank quidnunc kid, our new President-King-God, and devote all our efforts to worshipping HIM. Don't make me build a wall around you and get you to pay for it! Vote #1.
posted by the quidnunc kid at 2:24 AM on February 27, 2016 [5 favorites]


I don't know if there are any chocolate-based lifeforms but Mars would be the first place to check.
posted by storybored at 12:02 PM on February 27, 2016


the quidnunc kid: "his response is more, "Say thank you to the universe today."

"Thank you" - to what? A vast idiot expanse of blind, blank deadness? One might as well thank a numb rock - but any Earth rock teems with more vitality that everything in the limitless heavens! No, we can't thank a wasteland for our own improbability; the very idea is to imagine an other to thank, where no such other is remotely possible. Instead, we should all thank quidnunc kid, our new President-King-God, and devote all our efforts to worshipping HIM. Don't make me build a wall around you and get you to pay for it! Vote #1.
"

Bet you're fun at parties.
posted by Splunge at 12:14 PM on February 27, 2016 [1 favorite]


Sure - both major parties, even some minors ones. I'll be anyone's candidate. I'll dance for votes, I'll do back-room deals - hell I'll do anything, no matter how degrading or disgusting. I have NO principles, I want to be very clear on that. Now - do I have your vote or not?
posted by the quidnunc kid at 12:33 PM on February 27, 2016


Donald?
posted by Splunge at 5:27 PM on February 27, 2016


*Quack!*
posted by the quidnunc kid at 9:02 AM on February 28, 2016 [1 favorite]


Fine. After years of waffling, 1-in-700 quintillion chance?
Im all in! I'm voting #1 quidnunc kid! And if you can't see the logic in that, I'll fly you to your favorite constellation! Where there may or may not be a suitable planet waiting just for you!
posted by From Bklyn at 11:01 AM on February 28, 2016 [1 favorite]


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