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In the 12th episode of Cosmos, which aired on December 14, 1980, the program’s co-creator and host Carl Sagan introduced television viewers to astronomer Frank Drake’s eponymous equation. Using it, he calculated the potential number of advanced civilizations in the Milky Way that could contact us using the extraterrestrial equivalent of our modern radio-communications technology. Sagan’s estimate ranged from “a pitiful few” to millions. “If civilizations do not always destroy themselves shortly after discovering radio astronomy, then the sky may be softly humming with messages from the stars,” Sagan intoned in his inimitable way.

Sagan was pessimistic about civilizations being able to survive their own technological “adolescence”—the transitional period when a culture’s development of, say, nuclear power, bioengineering or a myriad of other powerful capabilities could easily lead to self-annihilation. In essentially all other ways, he was an optimist about the prospects for pangalactic life and intelligence. But the scientific basis for his beliefs was shaky at best. Sagan and others suspected the emergence of life on clement worlds must be a cosmic inevitability, because geologic evidence suggested it arose shockingly quickly on Earth: in excess of four billion years ago, practically as soon as our planet had sufficiently cooled from its fiery formation. And if, just as on our world, life on other planets emerged quickly and evolved to become ever more complex over time, perhaps intelligence and technology, too, could be common throughout the universe.

In recent years, however, some skeptical astronomers have tried to put more empirical heft behind such pronouncements using a sophisticated form of analysis called Bayesian statistics. They have focused on two great unknowns: the odds of life arising on Earth-like planets from abiotic conditions—a process called abiogenesis—and, from there, the odds of intelligence emerging. Even with such estimates in hand, astronomers disagree about what they mean for life elsewhere in the cosmos. That lack of consensus is because even the best Bayesian analysis can only do so much when hard evidence for extraterrestrial life and intelligence is thin on the ground.

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Category: Science