More musings on intelligence in the cosmos

Posted by David Eicher
on Thursday, December 13, 2012

M83. Photo credit: ESO/IDA/Danish 1.5m/R. Gendler, S. Guisard, and C. Thöne
A short essay I included in the January Astronomy focused on the possibilities of civilizations in the cosmos. How many could there be among the 50,000 billion billion possible star systems we know must exist?

Your response has been remarkable. I’ve received more than 50 written pieces sent directly to me, aside from those that have rolled in to Liz Kruesi, who handles the magazine’s letters to the editor column. A few days ago, I shared some responses in this blog. I find the range of opinion on this topic fascinating. Here’s another sampling:

“I’m taking my final for my second astronomy class in 55 minutes, and instead of studying, I’m reading your magazine,” wrote Ricky in Illinois. Uh oh. I hope that final went well, Ricky. “We just used the Drake equation a few weeks ago in class. My results gave 5,360 technologically advanced civilizations in the Milky Way. I had the highest number in the class. I feel that 5 to 10 thousand advanced civilizations is a safe bet.”

By contrast, Leo Seguin argues, “Since the dawn of our Industrial Revolution, we have been growing the carbon footprint. It’s not very likely that any other planet has survived much longer than Earth. Life is out there. But civilized life? I don’t think any other planet would have supported it for very long.”

Similarly, Jon Parker says, “I’m a believer in the premise expressed by Ward and Brownlee in their book Rare Earth. Basic life should be common based on the fact that it emerged on Earth quickly after things settled down. However, intelligent life will be rare, if it exists at all, elsewhere. Dinosaurs existed for 150 million years and were not able to create an advanced civilization. It took 65 million years after the last mass extinction for our civilization to develop. There were many ‘accidents’ that led to intelligent humans.”

Jack Berninger, a biologist, reminds us, “The universe is bathing in an ocean containing the building blocks of life such as amino acids, sugars, formaldehydes, and water. The ingredients are there, ready to be put into the cooking pots of Earth-like planets. How many Earth-like planets exist? We know of one Sun (ours) with one planet (Earth) that supports intelligent life. So the logical number to start with is 50 billion billion as stated in your article. Start counting!”

I’ll continue to share more of the many responses with you in later blogs. For now, however, Flemming Abel has the last word. “Is there intelligent life on Earth?” he asks. “Yes, my cats!”

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