back to article Fermi famously asked: 'Where is everybody?' Probably dead, says renewed Drake equation

If we ever detect signals from extraterrestrial civilisations, they are likely already dead, a somewhat downbeat update to the venerable Drake equation suggests. The original equation was devised in 1961 by astrophysicist Dr Frank Drake ahead of a meeting at the National Radio Astronomy Observatory in Green Bank, West Virginia …

Page:

  1. Milton Silver badge

    Not useful

    The Drake Equation was never remotely useful, and IMHO not even a valid starting point for discussion.

    The reason is simple: we had then and have now, absolutely no idea the probability of life arising on a planet, even one like Earth, nor the chances of its survival, nor the odds that it will develop into a radio civilisation. The odds could be 50:50. They could be 1 in 10^100. We have only a sample of one (here) which is statistically meaningless.

    Until and unless we observe some life Out There, the Drake Equation don't mean squat.

    1. Ledswinger Silver badge

      Re: Not useful

      The Drake Equation was never remotely useful, and IMHO not even a valid starting point for discussion.

      You're not familiar with the scientific method, I see. The lack of observations certainly impede the proof or refinement, but if lack of current observations were a reason to discount a hypothesis, then we'd all be living like the Amish.

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: Not useful

        " then we'd all be living like the Amish".

        That's a bad thing how exactly?

        1. fandom Silver badge

          Re: Not useful

          "That's a bad thing how exactly?"

          They get out of bed waaaaaay too early

          1. deadlockvictim Silver badge

            Amish Paradise

            '... If I finish all of my chores and you (sic) finish thine,

            then tonight we're going to party like it's 1699...'

            Wierd Al — Amish Paradise: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lOfZLb33uCg

        2. RealBigAl

          Re: Not useful

          too much interbreeding?

          1. Allan George Dyer Silver badge

            Re: Not useful

            @RealBigAl - "too much interbreeding?"

            So why isn't Amish hospitality more infamous?

            Or did you mean inbreeding?

        3. The Man Who Fell To Earth Silver badge
          FAIL

          Re: Not useful

          "That's a bad thing how exactly?"

          If we all lived like the Amish, most Reg readers would be unemployed.

          1. Paul 195

            Re: Not useful

            I think it's fair to say that if we lived like the Amish, Reg readers would be employed doing something different to whatever it is they do now. Unemployment is unlikely to be a thing if you have to grow all your food and manufacture all your goods using 17th century technology.

          2. Teiwaz Silver badge

            Re: Not useful

            "That's a bad thing how exactly?"

            If we all lived like the Amish, most Reg readers would be unemployed.

            There'd be all those barns to be built...

            Apparently a lot of IT people now work in data warehouses' (bit like a barn) or server farms - they'd fit right in...

            1. TomG

              Re: Not useful

              server farms?????

          3. dnicholas Bronze badge

            Re: Not useful

            No internet cat pics... The horror

          4. HelpfulJohn

            Re: Not useful

            "If we all lived like the Amish, most Reg readers would be unemployed."

            I wouldn't be. Without modern tech, I'd have died decades ago.

        4. Dominic Shields

          Re: Not useful

          They have the luxury of pretending to be living in the past whilst using 21st technology and medicine when it suits them

        5. LucreLout Silver badge
          Trollface

          Re: Not useful

          " then we'd all be living like the Amish".

          That's a bad thing how exactly?

          No V8 engines, no telephone pizza, and no internet porn. There's probably some other fripperies like modern medicine, rapid transit, and education opportunities to consider as well, once we've addressed the big three.

          1. Anonymous Coward
            Anonymous Coward

            Re: Not useful

            What about the lack of decent Porn?

        6. x 7 Silver badge

          Re: Not useful

          "That's a bad thing how exactly?"

          No beer

          No sex out of marriage

          Horse buggys

        7. Bent Metal
          Happy

          Re: Not useful

          ...you wouldn't be here online, posting on El Reg

        8. DocJD

          Re: Not useful

          If you lived like the Amish, you wouldn't be on the internet making comments. I suppose that's useful to the rest of us.

    2. Paul Kinsler

      Re: The Drake Equation was never remotely useful,

      I probably wouldn't go that far, but IMO Brin's approach was considerably better physics than Drake:

      http://adsabs.harvard.edu/abs/1983QJRAS..24..283B

      (there is a link to a pdf in that page).

    3. Lee D Silver badge

      Re: Not useful

      It's called an error margin.

      The equation is perfectly fine, so long as you account for your potential error.

      And when you do that, we know the number of planets quite well. The number of intelligent beings is an estimate, of course, but it has limits. We know there can't be intelligent life on every planet. We know there can't be no intelligent life. So you get a nice range of measurements of where it's MOST LIKELY to lie and you apply those to the equation.

      That gives you an answer of "what are the chances" with a nice error margin. And, fortunately, that error margin can be read as either a "most likely minimum chance" and "most likely maximum chance". The most likely minimum is basically zero. The most likely maximum is... well... tiny. So we can say, with some degree of accuracy, that the chances of finding any communicating civilisation at all are... tiny.

      It's not hard. That's GCSE science. State your units. Calculate the possible error in your measurements.

      And the Drake equation tells you that you won't observe life out there. And it only rarely gets revised up (e.g. the latest round of planet-detections in the last 20 years). And it more often than not gets revised further down (as here - even if they were around broadcasting for 10,000 years, we might never have detected them, and 10,000 years seems an oddly long time for a civilisation to be stuck on producing arbitrary and strong EM emissions).

      At the end of the day, it's statistics, so it could all be "wrong". But it's not actually wrong. It's a probability, that you can calculate. We might find an intelligent civilisation next door (in solar terms), which is a billions-upon-billions-to-one chance. But it could happen and we still wouldn't be "wrong". It just may be fluke and the next one might never happen, statistically.

      If you think statistics are wrong, you may as well never do any science at all, ever. If nothing else, they give you an indication of where it's best to focus your efforts. Sure, it may not work out. But, on average, over the age of a civilisation like ours, the statistics will win out and provide you with the best possible solution. Rather than waste billions looking for aliens and never developing space-flight, we can say "Hey, it's worth poking around, but let's spend the most money on real science that's more likely to result in something more practical."

      1. Joe Werner
        Pint

        Re: Not useful

        Good explanation, I think. But then I deal with probabilities every day (no, I am not a pro poker player ;) ). Have one of those --->

        (but remember: don't drink and derive!)

      2. Mage Silver badge

        Re: Not useful

        But we can't pick up regular broadcasts and a beamed transmission is likely to be in the noise at about 10 ly distance only, i.e. a mere handful of likely stars.

        Also WHY would anyone beam a transmission? The range of regular broadcasting would hardly reach the Oort Cloud, even if someone parked there with massive dishes.

        It's basic thermodynamics, the issue of signal to noise and the inverse square law. We can pick up radio noise emitted by stars on big dishes as that is massive!

        1. low_resolution_foxxes

          Re: Not useful

          It is possible that an intelligent being is performing intergalactic research on our data feeds, but can only find a severe fascination with reality tv, copulation and felines.

          They shall leave us alone until the hyper-intelligent dolphin species discover morse code and quantum entanglement.

        2. JohnFen Silver badge

          Re: Not useful

          " the issue of signal to noise and the inverse square law"

          True, but that ratio never actually reaches zero, so technically such transmissions would remain detectable regardless of range. Of course, in practice such detection is limited by the technology of the receiver, and since we are not infinitely advanced technologically speaking there is a (fairly high) limit for what *we* can detect.

          1. ravenviz Silver badge
            Boffin

            Re: Not useful

            that ratio never actually reaches zero

            I suspect you mean it never reaches 1.

        3. Anonymous Coward
          Anonymous Coward

          Re: Not useful

          "Also WHY would anyone beam a transmission?"

          They don't need to be beaming a transmission. SETI (as an example) wasn't looking for a transmission, it was looking for unusual EM activity. A reasonably powered radar system at a military airport was expected to be detected by SETI at a distance of several hundred light years.

          However the means of detection, be it looking at how the spectral analysis of a star changes by the planet passing by, or a deliberate beacon of "we are here", it's all travelling to us at c and can be considered the same bubble of EM distortion.

        4. HelpfulJohn

          Re: Not useful

          Why would anyone beam a transmission? Obviously, a software update to their auto-Rama which just happens to be roughly in line of sight to the Earth for a few seconds.

          "Wow!" signal neatly explained.

        5. Jaybus

          Re: Not useful

          Why beam a transmission? For the very reason stated; distance. Space agencies are already in the process of developing optical communications systems, as the amount of data being produced by deep space probes is exceeding the bandwidth capabilities of current RF systems. The shorter the wavelength, the smaller the beam divergence, given the same minimum beam width (waist). It would make more sense to limit the search to civilizations achieving interplanetary travel, since our only data source indicates a move to optical communications within 100 years. We should be looking at UV or shorter wavelengths, not radio. We ourselves have only been using radio for a bit over 100 years and already have moved to primarily optical communications for all but short distances.

      3. Prst. V.Jeltz Silver badge

        Re: Not useful

        "and 10,000 years seems an oddly long time for a civilisation to be stuck on producing arbitrary and strong EM emissions"

        What does that mean? after a while they should have moved on to some sci fi type communcation medium . Sub etha transmision? The cortex? wormhole instant messaging?

        Going off our sample survey of 1 observed radio capable civilisation, 10,000 years seems an oddly long time for a civilisation to stay alive , ours will have blown itself up or died out due to having consumed all the resources long before that.

        1. The Mole

          Re: Not useful

          Yes. Either the technology has moved on to none EM based transmissions (which may not even exist on earth). Or one can assume the EM technology would be made more and more efficient, either due to energy budget constraints, or minimising interference between a large multitude of devices. It seems to me (not an expert) inconceivable to consider that within 10,000 years (or even 1000) that the civilisation won't have reached a stage where the EM radiation is so low power to make it impossible for us to detect as a coherent signal out of the background noise. Perhaps there will be concentrated beams of higher power EM from longer distance communications (e.g. to probes/other planets) that we could detect, but not a sphere of signals.

          1. Lee D Silver badge

            Re: Not useful

            How did you send a message around the world 100 years ago?

            Spark-gap generators pushing out watts of EM power on all frequencies.

            Then?

            You moved to frequency-specific transmissions.

            Then... you moved to low-power frequency-specific transmissions.

            Then... you moved to low-power, encrypted (i.e. indistinguishable from noise), frequency-specific transmissions.

            Then... you moved to low-power, encrypted frequency-HOPPING transmissions.

            Then... you moved to fibre.

            Some huge portion of the world's communications is now entirely invisible electromagnetically. Sure, the endpoints may be converted to EM, but that's it. And now? Fibre optics to your home, to your device (USB3 anyone?), massively reduced and controlled EM emissions, and moving from broadcast technology to digital services and direct streaming. We switched off analogue TV. How long before we switch off analog radio? DVB? In favour of streamed content over IP rather than broadcast-over-the-airwaves? Not long.

            That's in the space of 100 years. 100 times that length of time? I can't imagine that what we recognise as an EM emission is even comparable to what's used by then. It's literally like having had Morse Code transmissions over a spark-gap generator at the start of the stone age, and projecting towards what you would have in the modern day.

            So... yes. I'll be amazed if any kind of detectable, recognisable, understandable (i.e. not encrypted so it stands out from random noise, etc.) EM emission from a synthetic source would still be being produced by us in 10,000 years. And we have to assume that other civilisations will be the same.

            1. jelabarre59 Silver badge

              Re: Not useful

              This has been my thought exactly. Unless you happen to catch a signal from the ~100 year broadcast leakage period, the planet will likely seem dark,

              1. Long John Brass Silver badge
                Alien

                Re: Not useful

                This has been my thought exactly. Unless you happen to catch a signal from the ~100 year broadcast leakage period, the planet will likely seem dark

                In radio fequencies yes; But as a technological civilisation increases in size and power(watts) the amount of waste heat goes up. We *should* be looking for excess IR!

                1. John Brown (no body) Silver badge

                  Re: Not useful

                  "We *should* be looking for excess IR!"

                  We can, at the moment, only infer the existence of planets in other solar systems. I doubt we could identify the miniscule amount of IR produced by a civilisation against the background of it's star.

                  Maybe we should be looking for low level IR sources with no apparent star nearby? Dyson spheres!

            2. Nolveys Silver badge
              Thumb Up

              Re: Not useful

              Then... you moved to low-power, encrypted (i.e. indistinguishable from noise), frequency-specific transmissions.

              When your comment is minimized it fades out as you list successively less easily observable EM transmission methods.

            3. Mark 85 Silver badge

              @Lee D -- Re: Not useful

              Bingo!!! Spot on!!! You just summed up the problem nicely.

            4. Randy Hudson

              Re: Not useful

              You seem to assume that EM emissions can only be unintentionally leaked into space.

            5. ecofeco Silver badge

              Re: Not useful

              And soon, quantum entanglement.

            6. bombastic bob Silver badge
              Devil

              Re: Not useful

              "How long before we switch off analog radio? DVB? In favour of streamed content over IP rather than broadcast-over-the-airwaves?"

              You can't string a fiber optic cable up to a satellite. And our transmitters send directional signals, but it makes it to deep space. Someone 'lucky enough' to be in the pattern [as earth spins around] might catch an occasional broadcast coming from our way, and every 24 hours it would repeat. That's gonna catch some attention if they're paying any attention at all.

              That, and television and FM radio signals, broadcasting at 100kwatts [or more], and especially UHF TV, which can go up to half a million watts (as I recall). OK with all of the noise with multiple transmitters on multiple frequencies competing and interfering with one another [and multiple picture standards to decode] it's LESS likely to be decodable by ETs but it might indicate "something" like 'chaos' vs 'noise'.

            7. Michael Thibault

              Re: Not useful

              "And we have to assume that other civilisations will be the same."

              So, what you're saying is that they also have the Drake equation in mind, and have figured out that the smart thing, on the cosmic scale, is to minimize the 'thickness' of the EM shell being emitted from the relevant location, in order to better hide the fact of their existence -- and that we are doing the same.

              In other words, the Drake equation's very development leads to behaviours which limit, then conceal, and -- finally -- absolutely eliminate the very signal most-likely to successfully remotely confirm the fact of intelligent life.

              Folding the Drake equation peregrinations into the Drake equation makes it go 'Poof!'. Now we know.

        2. Dodgy Geezer Silver badge

          Re: Not useful

          ...or died out due to having consumed all the resources long before that....

          Not that old hoary chestnut again!

          We will NEVER 'consume all our resources'. We have a Solar System full of them locally, and lots more elsewhere. Read Julian Simon... https://www.wired.com/1997/02/the-doomslayer-2/

          1. anonymous boring coward Silver badge

            Re: Not useful

            We will NEVER 'consume all our resources'.

            Perhaps not. But we might consume all resources that we can realistically make use of.

            And we may poison our environment while doing so to the extent that we expire as a race.

            And we may alter the climate of the planet to the extent that we expire as a race.

            We may just end up being an ultimately short-lived and not very successful experiment in large-brain creatures with dexterous forelimbs (vs. for example thick skin, sharp teeth, massive jaws, superior immune system, low metabolism).

        3. HelpfulJohn

          Re: Not useful

          Human "civilisation" has greatly moved to low-energy digital msignals and away from the megawatt giant antennae of the previous Century.

          One would expect any non-wasteful civilisation to do something similar fairly soon after discovering radio. So they would go quiet even if they survived forever.

        4. enormous c word

          Re: Not useful

          Radio signals seem like an extremely poor source of evidence for detecting intelligent life. We've been broadcasting for what about 100 years. Radio is ok for communicating within the confines of our planet earth but for inter-planetary distances way too slow to be usable to have a decent chat ...

          I'm no scientist much less a physicist, but Quantum Entanglement allows instantaneous communication over any distance (as I understand it) but requires the particles to have been located in the same space initially before being separated - but this is still point-to-point communication so there is no chance of eavesdropping on conversations between little-green-men. Seems to me that 100 years is a very narrow span of time. So Quantum Entanglement (as I understand it) solves both the transmission time problem and the security problem, so how much longer will Radio Transmissions be used for - surely not another 100 years...

          Of course the assumption has been that any planet only ever produces 1 technologically advanced civilisation or species - who is to say the dinosaurs didn't evolve and develop technology - a 1000 years is a blip in the fossil record. Maybe after human civilisation dies off hamsters or squid will evolve into a technologically advanced species.

      4. Doctor Syntax Silver badge

        Re: Not useful

        "We know there can't be no intelligent life."

        The lower bound, however, is extremely low in astronomical terms. It's one planet. Here.

        1. 's water music Silver badge
          Windows

          Re: Not useful

          The lower bound, however, is extremely low in astronomical terms. It's one planet. Here.

          Maybe not even that high if you take me into account in your averages

        2. Anonymous Coward Silver badge
          Facepalm

          Re: Not useful

          "We know there can't be no intelligent life"

          No we don't. We only believe that there is at least one incidence of a species becoming intelligent if you believe that humans (or dolphins) are that species.

          Human intelligence is debatable at best.

        3. Anonymous Coward
          Anonymous Coward

          Re: Not useful

          "We know there can be intelligent life." FTFY Double negative.

        4. Toni the terrible
          Facepalm

          Re: Not useful

          and who says there is intelligent life on this planet anyway - the evidence is against it!

Page:

POST COMMENT House rules

Not a member of The Register? Create a new account here.

  • Enter your comment

  • Add an icon

Anonymous cowards cannot choose their icon

Biting the hand that feeds IT © 1998–2019