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 …

  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.

  2. 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.

  3. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Re: Not useful

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

    That's a bad thing how exactly?

  4. fandom Silver badge

    Re: Not useful

    "That's a bad thing how exactly?"

    They get out of bed waaaaaay too early

  5. 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).

  6. 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."

  7. 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

  8. 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!)

  9. RealBigAl

    Re: Not useful

    too much interbreeding?

  10. 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!

  11. 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.

  12. 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.

  13. 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.

  14. 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.

  15. 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.

  16. J27

    Re: Not useful

    Theoretical equations are not meant to perfectly predict reality, they provide us a simplified frame of reference to make educated conjectures. But to say the entire concept "isn't worth squat" is a gross oversimplification. It's just the first step towards understanding the mechanisms in play. You have to start somewhere.

  17. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Teledildonics

    A colleague of mine once postulated that invention of teledildonics by any sufficiently advanced civilisation is a perfect explanation of Fermi's paradox.

  18. 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

  19. '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

  20. 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.

  21. 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.

  22. PghMike

    Re: Not useful

    What's the probability that technologically competent life will arise on a planet?

  23. LucreLout Silver badge

    Re: Not useful

    We know there can't be no intelligent life.

    Do we? Aside from our own planet I mean. How do we *know* that? It may be improbable that in the evolution of intelligent life Earth stands alone in the cosmos, but it's certainly not impossible.

  24. 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,

  25. PghMike

    Re: Not useful

    You have to start somewhere, but you also have to recognize when you haven't gotten anywhere.

    Why we think we'll be broadcasting *anything* 100 years from now is a mystery to me.

  26. 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/

  27. 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.

  28. 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...

  29. Teiwaz Silver badge

    Re: Not useful

    Why we think we'll be broadcasting *anything* 100 years from now is a mystery to me.

    We aren't broadcasting *anything worthwhile* Now

  30. Alister Silver badge

    Re: Not useful

    Why we think we'll be broadcasting *anything* 100 years from now is a mystery to me.

    That's a very limited view.

    If we do start to become a space-faring civilisation, even if only within the bounds of our solar system, then we will have to begin with some form of radio communication between planets and spacecraft.

  31. x 7 Silver badge

    Re: Not useful

    "That's a bad thing how exactly?"

    No beer

    No sex out of marriage

    Horse buggys

  32. 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.

  33. 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.

  34. dnicholas Bronze badge

    Re: Not useful

    No internet cat pics... The horror

  35. Ken Hagan Gold badge

    Re: Not useful

    "If we do start to become a space-faring civilisation, even if only within the bounds of our solar system, then we will have to begin with some form of radio communication between planets and spacecraft."

    Yes, but that will be point-to-point (not spherical shells) and beam spread will be as small as engineering allows, so that as much of the input power as possible actually arrives at the recipient. (Think lasers.) Unless your planet happens to float exactly in between two such space-faring colonies, you wouldn't know there was anything going on.

  36. Mark 85 Silver badge

    @Lee D -- Re: Not useful

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

  37. asdf Silver badge

    Re: Not useful

    The answer of course to Fermi's paradox is the universe has so much space that the human mind can't comprehend how little matter to space there is as well as distances involved and that travel outside of galaxies is basically impossible. Hate to be that guy but I truly believe no human will ever be in orbit around any star but our own.

  38. Randy Hudson

    Re: Not useful

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

  39. Oh Homer Silver badge
    Trollface

    Aliens will be dead by the time we receive their transmissions

    Sounds like they're using BT Broadband.

  40. cream wobbly

    Re: Not useful

    "We have only a sample of one (here) which is statistically meaningless."

    Not really. We know roughly when proto-life emerged from spiral molecules, and for roughly how long the conditions conducive to forming those (or similar) molecular spirals were in existence prior to that. We know roughly the astronomical conditions necessary to producing the planetary surface conditions. From there we can deduce some very broad probabilities.

    Thing about broad probabilities is when you combine them, they either splounce out to infinities, or they limit themselves. It happens that these are the sort that self-limit.

    I mean, it's not like we have anything close to useful that could guide us where to look. Pretty much the best we've got is "I hope that star isn't exploding or collapsing", (but even that makes an unreasonably big assumption that stellar stability is key to life). We don't really know how old their planets are ... yet. We don't know anything at all about their surface conditions. But that's just the probability for evolving life. Life, it can be concluded, given certain pretty common conditions, is pretty much inevitable.

    When you start talking about intelligent life though [1], the probabilities start to diverge again. Add in technological intelligent life, and the divergence increases. Add in communicative technological intelligent life, and it's almost as useless trying to make predictions about that as it is to prove the existence of a soul [2].

    So it's quite possible that we could eventually make great predictions about where to look for signs of intelligent life [1] but technological and communicative? You're just going to have to keep that screensaver running and brute-force it.

    1. Yes I know, not the Whitehouse. Ell Oh Ell.

    2. Pronounced "arsehole", natch.

  41. Bent Metal
    Happy

    Re: Not useful

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

  42. 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!

  43. ecofeco Silver badge

    Re: Not useful

    And soon, quantum entanglement.

  44. 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.

  45. ronspencer314

    Re: Not useful

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

    So, you can either start with an equation that organizes all the things that stand in the way of encountering a communicating civilization there might be, or you can just wait. What if you encounter exactly one other? What more have you learned, then?

    It is certainly well understood that several of the terms in the equation are entirely unknown. But, so what? It is a useful exercise for thinking about these things that prevents thinking from going down other ratholes.

  46. bombastic bob Silver badge
    Boffin

    Re: Not useful

    "We have only a sample of one (here) which is statistically meaningless."

    Well, maybe not one [Mars bacteria fossils may have been found in a meteorite, for example]. But yeah, 2 neighboring planets, one of which could have seeded the other [since the meteor made it here], is STILL statistically meaningless.

    Now, if signs of life are found on Io or Europa or any OTHER planet/moon in our own solar system, it might be like the odds of finding planets going around any given star. Recent observations suggest that planets are EXTREMELY common, better than the Drake equation had ever suggested.

    "the fraction of formed stars that have planets" was once (1961, per wikipedia page) set at a value of 0.2 to 0.5 . Nowadays, it's a number pretty close to 1. The # of planets in the goldilocks zone was also estimated at 1-5 [similar to our solar system, actually]. That next number might need to be revised [up] as well.

  47. 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'.

  48. 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.

  49. 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?

  50. Michael Thibault Bronze badge

    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.

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