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SETI, Drake, and Fermi


I thoroughly enjoyed reading the interviews of Dembski, Gonzalez, and Behe in the recent article here. I wanted to talk about something Gonzalez said in the interview. Specifically the transformation from ETI (Extra Terrestrial Intelligence) optimist to ETI pessimist. I’ve undergone a similar transformation for the same reasons. Indeed, when I received my monthly Scientific American in 2001 with Gonzalez’ “The Galactic Habitable Zone” featured on the cover I was delighted to see that someone was seriously working on filling in the blanks in Drake’s Equation and that the work was important enough to make the cover of my favorite and primary source of what was happening in the world of science.

As an avid reader of what’s called “hard” science fiction (science fiction which incorporates as much as possible from actual experimental sciences into the plot) for the last 40 years and counting I recognized Gonzalez work as having important implications for hard science fiction. SETI, The Drake Equation, and The Fermi Paradox have played prominent roles in formulating hard sci-fi plots for as many years as I’ve been reading them. SETI, for anyone that doesn’t know, is the “Search for Extra Terrestrial Intelligence” and began in earnest in 1960, just a few years before I was able to read and understand the contents of encyclopedias. I had a subscription to the World Book Encyclopedia science supplements in the early 1960s. Astronomy and cosmology have always been good subjects for popular science because of the breathtakingly beautiful pictures that go along with it and the sheer magnitude of what’s being explored. While my peers were reading Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn in grammar school, those of my peers that bothered to read anything at all, I was reading hard science. What I’m saying is SETI and I were born together and grew up together.

After nearly 50 years of earnest search SETI has uncovered exactly nothing in the way of ETI. A grand disappointment for many including me and evidently Gonzalez too but one must go where the evidence leads even when it leads to a place we wished it didn’t. The Drake Equation was formulated in 1960 and is:

N = rs * fp * ne * fl * fi * fc * lt


N is the number of civilizations in our galaxy with which we might hope to be able to communicate;

rs is the average rate of star formation in our galaxy
fp is the fraction of those stars that have planets
ne is the average number of planets that can potentially support life per star that has planets
fl is the fraction of the above that actually go on to develop life at some point
fi is the fraction of the above that actually go on to develop intelligent life
fc is the fraction of civilizations that develop a technology that releases detectable signs of their existence into space
lt is the length of time such civilizations release detectable signals into space.

Very little was known about the actual values of any of the variables in 1960 but what seemed to be reasonable estimations invariably yielded a large number of civilizations and this is what has kept SETI alive all these years.

The Fermi Paradox is “Why haven’t we heard from them?”. In 1950 physicist Enrico Fermi, in a lunch with colleagues, posed the question “If there are many advanced civilizations in the galaxy why haven’t we seen or heard from them?”. Back then the principle used to support the idea that there must be many ETIs is the same principle that launched the enlightenment “The Copernican Principle of Mediocrity” which states that the earth is not a special creation but rather an average planet orbiting an average star in an average location in an average galaxy and by extension nothing on the earth is out of the ordinary including intelligent life. Not surprisingly this principle, which is some 500 years old and has been a highly successful heuristic beginning with its explanation of heliocentricity, is not easily abandoned. It hasn’t been easily abandoned by me either but when the evidence becomes overwhelming then dearly held principles must be let go if one is to adhere to the nature of scientific enterprise – go where the evidence leads.

The evidence has led to an undeniably rare earth. Gonzalez didn’t expect the evidence to lead there any more than I but we both accepted it and changed our beliefs accordingly. Unlike me, Gonzalez actually pioneered some very important experimental work that helped fill in the variables in the Drake Equation and thus explain the Fermi Paradox. It looks like we’re alone. I wouldn’t have believed it had the evidence not been so convincing. Thank you, Guillermo Gonzalez. You are a shining example of scientific acheivement and integrity. What is actually true must always trump what we fervently wish to be true. It’s an unpardonable sin expelling this man from the halls of scientific inquiry. There is no doubt in mind that if he submitted the same article (“The Galactic Habitable Zone”) to Scientific American today it would be roundly rejected instead of being made the cover story. All because he associated himnself with a politically incorrect (in the politics of science) movement – Intelligent Design. What a travesty of justice and gross miscarriage of scientific integrity. It is my fervent wish those responsible are held to account for it.

Only Christianity could have given rise to Science & the modern world. The more Christianity is abandoned the more likely is the Suicide of the West and the permanent loss of spaceflight. Maybe all ETs are socialist pagans and therefore never found Science. More generally, there are numerous quite narrow probability-bottlenecks lying between the Solar Nebula and humanity today, with the Giant Impact origin of the Moon being merely one improbable step of many -- the low carbon content of the Sun and its high content of heavy elements, the just-right size and orbit of Jupiter, and the absence of a binary companion to the Sun are a few more. The early Earth had the right amount of hydrogen sulfide to save it from permanent glaciation, and the right amount of water for later continents to be unsubmerged. A multiparametrically hyper-fussy Goldilocks. Finally, once you do get that 'just right' planet and advanced animal life, the emergence of rational intelligence is so improbable as to need multiple billions of years, even counting everything within ten billion light-year radius. Forget about this Galaxy - it's all ours. God didn't need a 'miracle' to create humanity, all He needed was a Universe that is big enough and old enough, and an Immensity of Patience. Thus the only way there could be an intelligent race both nearby and contemporary would be a miracle of Divine Intervention. But then why bother with such a big Universe? NeoDualist
magnan The GHZ along with lack of success for SETI, OOL and evolution all come together to tell us: there are no aliens out there. ari-freedom
To j (#13), here's a classic "argument from authority". In this case the so-called authority merely repeated the standard mainstream dismissal of the phenomenon. This is aside from Sagan's lack of credibility being a prominent skeptic on all areas questioning the current mainstream scientific paradigm. Dismissal consists of finding any conceivable explanation for the sighting, no matter how improbable or even impossible, and claiming it must be the true explanation. Doing one's research by proclamation rather than investigation, and ignoring the actual investigations which ruled out these prosaic explanations. In other words, any published "explanation" is better than none. This isn't the place for a debate over UFO's, but as I said, there is a solid case that the phenomenon is a real, ongoing mystery despite intense efforts to find conventional explanations, and the "extraterrestrial hypothesis" serves as a good working model (though not in any simple-minded form). magnan
Dave Scott in 7,
Intelligence certainly IS mentioned in the Drake equation. The “i” in factor fi stands for intelligence. In fact the Drake Equation is all about intelligence. It was formulated to justify the search for extra terrestrial intellgence. How can you say intelligence isn’t mentioned when it’s the very thing being sought?
Guess I didn’t make myself clear. Unless I’m wrong the Drake equation deals with intelligence down the line, as an effect, not as a cause of it all. Factor in the notion that a mind sits behind the whole enterprise and that this mind decides whether life and intelligence arise sporadically here and there or just in one favored Zion and you’ve got a real wild card, for who can know the mind of God? (to plagiarize Hawking) If materialism were right then we might not need science. If everything were determined and/or statistical then maybe it could all be reasoned out a la the Platonists. But if mind is fundamental then empirical science is absolutely vital. We’ve got to open our eyes and scan the heavens because we really do not know the mind of God. Rude
j The theory of skynet http://www.sciencedirect.com/science?_ob=ArticleURL&_udi=B6TJK-4JTRM53-1&_user=10&_rdoc=1&_fmt=&_orig=search&_sort=d&view=c&_acct=C000050221&_version=1&_urlVersion=0&_userid=10&md5=ec707a57532f0f26404f655407d5f89e “Galactic gradients, postbiological evolution and the apparent failure of SETI,” We conclude that the conventional radio SETI assuming beamed broadcasts from targets – selected exclusively on the basis of the old-fashioned biological paradigm – within the vicinity of our Solar System ... is ill-founded and has minuscule chances of success on the present hypothesis. It is a clear and testable prediction of the present hypothesis that the undergoing SETI experiments using this conservative approach will yield only negative results. ... ari-freedom
Re: UFO's. Carl Sagan, The Demon-Haunted World:
Most people honestly reported what they saw, but what they saw were natural, if unfamiliar, phenomena. Some UFO sightings turned out to be unconventional aircraft, conventional aircraft with unusual lighting patterns, high-altitude balloons, luminescent insects, planets seen under unusual atmospheric conditions, optical mirages and loomings, lenticular clouds, ball lightning, sundogs, meteors including green fireballs, and satellites, nosecones, and rocket boosters spectacularly reentering the atmosphere. Just conceivably, a few might be small comets dissipating in the upper air. At least some radar reports were due to "anomalous propagation" -- radio waves traveling curved paths due to atmospheric temperature inversions...
ds: "The Copernican Principle of Mediocrity...hasn’t been easily abandoned by me either but when the evidence becomes overwhelming then dearly held principles must be let go if one is to adhere to the nature of scientific enterprise - go where the evidence leads." You are such a pushover, Dave. Following Socrates' garbage platitude. Huh. Gonzalez's work doesn't count because he's an IDiot. And who was this fool Fermi? Paradox shmaradox. Didn't you ever hear of the Zoo Hypothesis? From Ward & Brownlee's Rare Earth:
President Theodore Roosevelt closed off the Yellowstone region to development in forming the first national park in the United States. Wouldn't it be ironic if some alien equivalent had done the same thing for our planet? Astrobiologists have suggested this -- it is known as the Zoo Hypothesis. The joke would be on us: We are somebody's national park, our rare planet Earth stocked with animals for safekeeping. Perhaps that is why we have yet to hear any sisgnals from space. A big fence surrounds our solar system: "Earth Intergalactic Park. Posted: No trespassing or tampering. The only planet with animals for the next 5000 light-years."
If a T.R. could do it, do you really think it's beyond the power of E.T.? So there. We're not merely animals, like Darwin said -- we're caged animals. I predict that the Zoo Hypothesis will be enshrined in the pantheon of Great Real Scientific Ideas, right next to Darwinian Evolution and the Multiverse Hypothesis. Answering knotty Real Scientific problems is so easy. No evidence needed. All it takes is little imagination, which you obviously don't have, Dave. j
A few observations. Ward and Brownlee wrote an excellent book relating to this, "Rare Earth", where they argued I think plausibly that even if primitive unicellular or bacterial life is common in the universe, the confluence of the right conditions for complex multicellular animal and plant life to arise are so very unlikely that there may be only one or even no such planets in any given galaxy. This would essentially be saying that "fi" in the Drake equation is vanishingly small, whatever the value of "fl". Of course the authors are firmly convinced of Darwinism, but their argument is in the direction of there being few if any ETIs. This argument seems to be well substantiated by reasoning from the absence of evidence. Reasonable projections of current human technology (no breakthroughs contravening Relativity and other present physics) indicate that relatively slow sublightspeed "slowboat" journeys to the nearest stars should be achievable by humans in a couple of hundred years (unless civilization collapses). These would take hundreds to thousands of years, with some form of suspended animation or other technique (or multigeneration ships). If ETIs are common in the galaxy at least one of them could be expected to have progressed to this stage by now in the history of the galaxy. Visits to and possible colonization of the next nearest planetary systems by such currently plausible slow journeys would spread such ETIs throughout the galaxy over a space of a few tens of millions of years, a short time in the history of the galaxy.The galaxy has had main sequence stars for billions of years. But they don't seem to be here (unless Fermi was right and they are the Hungarians). So at least the most reasonable explanation is that nobody's out there. The UFO phenomenon pokes a wrench into this whole reasoning, however. Anyone unbiasedly looking into this subject will find that there is a huge and constantly growing body of credible multiwitness observations (including a lot of pilots, military and civilian) of apparently artificial craft-like "vehicles" maneuvering in the earth's atmosphere and exhibiting capabilities impossible for human technology. These are truly UFOs in that there is no credible natural explanation. There is a strong case for some of these observations being of "somebody else's hardware". So this may indicate that the "nobody's out there" theory might have to be revised. Then various theories would have to be explored explaining why they are making themselves so scarce rather than landing on the White House lawn and asking to be taken to our leader. magnan
what I'm trying to say that design suggests there is no privileged planet as the Designer could work with any planet and make it habitable and discoverable ari-freedom
Dang it Ari-freedom! :-) No ETI still observed makes ETI very unlikely which means naturalism? Did you just suggest that a privileged planet suggests naturalism? Or does a privileged planet suggest design? Q
no no no Drake assumes naturalism. That would make ETI very unlikely. That would make life here very unlikely! But if intelligence designed us then that same intelligence could make ETI more likely all over the universe. Yet ETI is still not observed. ari-freedom
Rude Intelligence certainly IS mentioned in the Drake equation. The "i" in factor fi stands for intelligence. In fact the Drake Equation is all about intelligence. It was formulated to justify the search for extra terrestrial intellgence. How can you say intelligence isn't mentioned when it's the very thing being sought? Are we to be the colonizers and developers of it all? Unless we discover a means of faster than light transportation we can't develop more than a vanishingly small fraction of the universe. It doesn't look good for FTL transport or even FTL communication. This is the one pardonable sin of hard science fiction - allowing for methods of FTL travel or communication and to a lesser degree for travel or communication backwards in time. These are considered impossible under known physical laws. These exceptions allow a much wider range of plots to be developed so an exception is made for the entertainment value. Going outside any other known laws of physics results in a classification switch away from hard science fiction to just plain science fiction or science fantasy. In my opinion FTL and backwards time travel shouldn't get a free pass anymore. DaveScot
Greetings! Guillermo Gonzalez is actually why I have become so interested in ID. I really enjoyed "The Privileged Planet." Unlettered and Ordinary
Gonzalez seems to accept the standard natural evolutionary theory of the universe. But then we throw design into everything. I'm confused. If you want to create earth in a special way then just create earth and not go through a process that won't get the result you want with any realistic chance of success without tinkering. ari-freedom
As a non-fundamentalist Christian, I can only give a biased opinion on this matter. It seems to me that Gonzalez's research about the privileged status of planet earth is corroborating one interpretation of the Biblical account of creation. In this interpretation, the creator first created planet earth outside the solar system. All plants and vegetation were created and nurtured using a special light source and artificial means of pollination. Apparently, there were other highly intelligent creatures around who assisted in this. Hundreds of millions of years later, the creator chose the Milky Way and the solar system as the ideal location for earth and placed it in a precise orbit around the sun. The moon was also added at that time. This may sound far-fetched but hey, if you have the power to create a universe, this is nothing. Much later (hundreds of millions of years) land and sea organisms were created. Mapou
The wild card in the Drake Equasion, of course, is what's not mentioned, namely Intelligence. And if Intelligence is elemental and fundamental then the Fermi Paradox is even more stark---it becomes, "Why are we here?" Are we to be the colonizers and developers of it all? Rude
I still have that issue of Scientific American, and I find myself going back to read about the GHZ often. I find it a refreshing article to read, especially since the vast majority of "popular science" articles harp on and on about life's "abundance" in the universe (more "just-so" stories, IMO). JJS P.Eng.
I admit that I'm not so familiar with Gonzalez' ideas. And the idea this planet was set up for discovery is intriguing (though I wonder how rigorous it is) But I think the real reason we don't find ETI is because 1) evolution and OOL are implausible and 2) the Designer wasn't interested. Certainly it would be possible for other forms of life to be designed to survive elsewhere. ari-freedom

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