New Model Predicts That We’re Probably the Only Advanced Civilization in the Observable Universe

The Fermi Paradox remains a stumbling block when it comes to the search for extra-terrestrial intelligence (SETI). Named in honor of the famed physicist Enrico Fermi who first proposed it, this paradox addresses the apparent disparity between the expected probability that intelligent life is plentiful in the Universe, and the apparent lack of evidence of extra-terrestrial intelligence (ETI).

In the decades since Enrico Fermi first posed the question that encapsulates this paradox (“Where is everybody?”), scientists have attempted to explain this disparity one way or another. But in a new study conducted by three famed scholars from the Future of Humanity Institute (FHI) at Oxford University, the paradox is reevaluated in such a way that it makes it seem likely that humanity is alone in the observable Universe.

The study, titled “Dissolving the Fermi Paradox“, recently appeared online. The study was jointly-conducted by Anders Sandberg, a Research Fellow at the Future of Humanity Institute and a Martin Senior Fellow at Oxford University; Eric Drexler, the famed engineer who popularized the concept of nanotechnology; and Tod Ord, the famous Australian moral philosopher at Oxford University.

The Drake Equation, a mathematical formula for the probability of finding life or advanced civilizations in the universe. Credit: University of Rochester

For the sake of their study, the team took a fresh look at the Drake Equation, the famous equation proposed by astronomer Dr. Frank Drake in the 1960s. Based on hypothetical values for a number of factors, this equation has traditionally been used to demonstrate that – even if the amount of life developing at any given site is small – the sheer multitude of possible sites should yield a large number of potentially observable civilizations.

This equation states that the number of civilizations (N) in our galaxy that we might able to communicate can be determined by multiplying the average rate of star formation in our galaxy (R*), the fraction of those stars which have planets (fp), the number of planets that can actually support life (ne), the number of planets that will develop life (fl), the number of planets that will develop intelligent life (fi),  the number civilizations that would develop transmission technologies (fc), and the length of time that these civilizations would have to transmit their signals into space (L). Mathematically, this is expressed as:

N = R* x fp x ne x fl x fi x fc x L

Dr. Sandberg is no stranger to the Fermi Paradox, nor is he shy about attempting to resolve it. In a previous study, titled “That is not dead which can eternal lie: the aestivation hypothesis for resolving Fermi’s paradox“, Sandberg and his associates proposed that the Fermi Paradox arises from the fact that ETIs are not dead, but currently in a state of hibernation – what they called “aestivation” – and awaiting better conditions in the Universe.

In a study conducted back in 2013, Sandberg and Stuart Armstrong (also a research associate with the FHI and one of the co-authors on this study) extended the Fermi Paradox to look beyond our own galaxy, addressing how more advanced civilizations would feasibly be able to launch colonization projects with relative ease (and even travel between galaxies without difficulty).

As Dr. Sandberg told Universe Today via email:

“One can answer [the Fermi Paradox] by saying intelligence is very rare, but then it needs to be tremendously rare. Another possibility is that intelligence doesn’t last very long, but it is enough that one civilization survives for it to become visible. Attempts at explaining it by having all intelligences acting in the same way (staying quiet, avoiding contact with us, transcending) fail since they require every individual belonging to every society in every civilization to behave in the same way, the strongest sociological claim ever. Claiming long-range settlement or communication are impossible requires assuming a surprisingly low technology ceiling. Whatever the answer is, it more or less has to be strange.”

In this latest study, Sandberg, Drexler and Ord reconsider the parameters of the Drake Equation by incorporating models of chemical and genetic transitions on paths to the origin of life. From this, they show that there is a considerable amount of scientific uncertainties that span multiple orders of magnitude. Or as Dr. Sandberg explained it:

“Many parameters are very uncertain given current knowledge. While we have learned a lot more about the astrophysical ones since Drake and Sagan in the 1960s, we are still very uncertain about the probability of life and intelligence. When people discuss the equation it is not uncommon to hear them say something like: “this parameter is uncertain, but let’s make a guess and remember that it is a guess”, finally reaching a result that they admit is based on guesses. But this result will be stated as single number, and that anchors us to an *apparently* exact estimate – when it should have a proper uncertainty range.  This often leads to overconfidence, and worse, the Drake equation is very sensitive to bias: if you are hopeful a small nudge upwards in several uncertain estimates will give a hopeful result, and if you are a pessimist you can easily get a low result.”

Frank Drake writing his famous equation on a white board. Credit: SETI.org

As such, Sandberg, Drexler and Ord looked at the equation’s parameters as uncertainty ranges. Instead of focusing on what value they might have, they looked at what the largest and smallest values they could have based on current knowledge. Whereas some values have become well constrained – such as the number of planets in our galaxy based on exoplanet studies and the number that exist within a star’s habitable zone – others remain far more uncertain.

When they combined these uncertainties, rather than the guesswork that often go into the Fermi Paradox, the team got a distribution as a result. Naturally, this resulted in a broad spread due to the number of uncertainties involved. But as Dr. Sandberg explained, it did provide them with an estimate of the likelihood that humanity (given what we know) is alone in the galaxy:

“We found that even using the guesstimates in the literature (we took them and randomly combined the parameter estimates) one can have a situation where the mean number of civilizations in the galaxy might be fairly high – say a hundred – and yet the probability that we are alone in the galaxy is 30%! The reason is that there is a very skew distribution of likelihood.

“If we instead try to review the scientific knowledge, things get even more extreme. This is because the probability of getting life and intelligence on a planet has an *extreme* uncertainty given what we know – we cannot rule out that it happens nearly everywhere there is the right conditions, but we cannot rule out that it is astronomically rare. This leads to an even stronger uncertainty about the number of civilizations, drawing us to conclude that there is a fairly high likelihood that we are alone. However, we *also* conclude that we shouldn’t be too surprised if we find intelligence!”

Is anybody out there? Anybody at all? Credit: UCLA SETI Group/Yuri Beletsky, Carnegie Las Campanas Observatory

In the end, the team’s conclusions do not mean that humanity is alone in the Universe, or that the odds of finding evidence of extra-terrestrial civilizations (both past and present) is unlikely. Instead, it simply means that we can say with greater confidence – based on what we know – that humanity is most likely the only intelligent species in the Milky Way Galaxy at present.

And of course, this all comes down to the uncertainties we currently have to contend with when it comes to SETI and the Drake Equation. In that respect, the study conducted by Sandberg, Drexler and Ord is an indication that much more needs to be learned before we can attempt to determine just how likely ETI is out there.

“What we are not showing is that SETI is pointless – quite the opposite!” said Dr. Sandberg. “There is a tremendous level of uncertainty to reduce. The paper shows that astrobiology and SETI can play a big role in reducing the uncertainty about some of the parameters. Even terrestrial biology may give us important information about the probability of life emerging and the conditions leading to intelligence. Finally, one important conclusion we find is that lack of observed intelligence does not strongly make us conclude that intelligence doesn’t last long: the stars are not foretelling our doom!”

So take heart, SETI enthusiasts! While the Drake Equation may not be something we can produce accurate values for anytime soon, the more we learn, the more refined the values will be. And remember, we only need to find intelligent life once in order for the Fermi Paradox to be resolved!

Further Reading: arXiv

How Many Galaxies Are There in the Universe?

How Many Galaxies Are There in the Universe?


The wonderful thing about science is that it’s constantly searching for new evidence, revising estimates, throwing out theories, and sometimes discovering aspects of the Universe that we never realized existed.

The best science is skeptical of itself, always examining its own theories to find out where they could be wrong, and seriously considering new ideas to see if they better explain the observations and data.

What this means is that whenever I state some conclusion that science has reached, you can’t come back a few years later and throw that answer in my face. Science changes, it’s not my fault.

I get it, VY Canis Majoris isn’t the biggest star any more, it’s whatever the biggest star is right now. UY Scuti? That what it is today, but I’m sure it’ll be a totally different star when you watch this in a few years.

What I’m saying is, the science changes, numbers update, and we don’t need to get concerned when it happens. Change is a good thing. And so, it’s with no big surprise that I need to update the estimate for the number of galaxies in the observable Universe. Until a couple of weeks ago, the established count for galaxies was about 200 billion galaxies.

Jacinta studies distant galaxies like those shown in this image from the Hubble Space Telescope, using the new 'stacking' technique to gather information only available through radio telescope observations. Credit: NASA, STScI, and ESA.
Jacinta studies distant galaxies like those shown in this image from the Hubble Space Telescope, using the new ‘stacking’ technique to gather information only available through radio telescope observations. Credit: NASA, STScI, and ESA.

But a new paper published in the Astrophysics Journal revised the estimate for the number of galaxies, by a factor of 10, from 200 billion to 2 trillion. 200 billion, I could wrap my head around, I say billion all the time. But 2 trillion? That’s just an incomprehensible number.

Does that throw all the previous estimates for the number of stars up as well? Actually, it doesn’t.

The observable Universe measures 13.8 billion light-years in all directions. What this means is that at the very edge of what we can see, is the light left that region 13.8 billion years ago. Furthermore, the expansion of the Universe has carried to those regions 46 billion light-years away.

Does that make sense? The light you’re seeing is 13.8 billion light-years old, but now it’s 46 billion light-years away. What this means is that the expansion of space has stretched out the light from all the photons trying to reach us.

What might have been visible or ultraviolet radiation in the past, has shifted into infrared, and even microwaves at the very edge of the observable Universe.

Since astronomers know the volume of the observable Universe, and they can calculate the density of the Universe, they know the mass of the entire Universe. 3.4 x 10^54 kilograms including regular matter and dark matter.  They also know the ratio of regular matter to dark matter, so they can calculate the total amount of regular mass in the Universe.

In the past, astronomers divided that total mass by the number of galaxies they could see in the original Hubble data and determined there were about 200 billion galaxies.

Now, astronomers used a new technique to estimate the galaxies and it’s pretty cool. Astronomers used the Hubble Space Telescope to peer into a seemingly empty part of the sky and identified all the galaxies in it. This is the Hubble Ultra Deep Field, and it’s one of the most amazing pictures Hubble has ever captured.

The Hubble Ultra Deep Field seen in ultraviolet, visible, and infrared light. Image Credit: NASA, ESA, H. Teplitz and M. Rafelski (IPAC/Caltech), A. Koekemoer (STScI), R. Windhorst (Arizona State University), and Z. Levay (STScI)
The Hubble Ultra Deep Field seen in ultraviolet, visible, and infrared light. Image Credit: NASA, ESA, H. Teplitz and M. Rafelski (IPAC/Caltech), A. Koekemoer (STScI), R. Windhorst (Arizona State University), and Z. Levay (STScI)

Astronomers painstakingly converted this image of galaxies into a 3-dimensional map of galaxy size and locations. Then, they used their knowledge of galaxy structure closer to home to provide a more accurate estimate of what the galaxies must look like, out there, at the very edge of our observational ability.

For example, the Milky Way is surrounded by about 50 satellite dwarf galaxies, each of which has a fraction of the mass of the Milky Way.

By recognizing which were the larger main galaxies, they could calculate the distribution of smaller, dimmer dwarf galaxies that weren’t visible in the Hubble images.

In other words, if the distant Universe is similar to the nearby Universe, and this is one of the principles of modern astronomy, then the distant galaxies have the same structure as nearby galaxies.

It doesn’t mean that the Universe is bigger than we thought, or that there are more stars, it just means that the Universe contains more galaxies, which have less stars in them. There are the big main galaxies, and then a smooth distribution curve of smaller and smaller galaxies down to the tiny dwarf galaxies. The total number of stars comes out to be the same number.

The Fornax dwarf galaxy is one of our Milky Way’s neighbouring dwarf galaxies. The Milky Way is, like all large galaxies, thought to have formed from smaller galaxies in the early days of the Universe. These small galaxies should also contain many very old stars, just as the Milky Way does, and a team of astronomers has now shown that this is indeed the case. This image was composed from data from the Digitized Sky Survey 2. Credit: ESO
The Fornax dwarf galaxy is one of our Milky Way’s neighbouring dwarf galaxies. Credit: ESO

The galaxies we can see are just the tip of the galactic iceberg. For every galaxy we can see, there are another 9, smaller fainter galaxies that we can’t see.

Of course, we’re just a few years away from being able to see these dimmer galaxies. When NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope launches in October, 2018, it’s going to be carrying a telescope mirror with 25 square meters of collecting surface, compared to Hubble’s 4.5 square meters.

Furthermore, James Webb is an infrared telescope, a specialized tool for looking at cooler objects, and galaxies which are billions of light-years away. The kinds of galaxies that Hubble can only hint at, James Webb will be able to see directly.

So, why don’t we see galaxies in all directions with our eyeballs?  This is actually an old conundrum, proposed by Wilhelm Olbers in the 1700, appropriately named Olber’s Paradox.  We did a whole article on it, but the basic idea is that if you look in any direction, you’ll eventually hit a star. It could be close, like the Sun, or very far away, but whatever the case, it should be stars in all directions. Which means that the entire night sky should be as bright as the surface of a star. Clearly it isn’t, but why isn’t it?

In fact, with 10 times the number of galaxies, you could restate the paradox and say that in every direction, you should be looking at a galaxy, but that’s not what you see.

A partial map of the distribution of galaxies in the SDSS, going out to a distance of 7 billion light years. The amount of galaxy clustering that we observe today is a signature of how gravity acted over cosmic time, and allows as to test whether general relativity holds over these scales. (M. Blanton, SDSS)
A partial map of the distribution of galaxies in the SDSS, going out to a distance of 7 billion light years. The amount of galaxy clustering that we observe today is a signature of how gravity acted over cosmic time, and allows as to test whether general relativity holds over these scales. (M. Blanton, SDSS)

Except you are. Everywhere you look, in all directions, you’re seeing galaxies. It’s just that those galaxies are red-shifted from the visible spectrum into the infrared spectrum, so your eyeballs can’t perceive them. But they’re there.

When you see the sky in microwaves, it does indeed glow in all directions. That’s the Cosmic Microwave Background Radiation, shining behind all those galaxies.

It turns out the Universe has 10 times more galaxies than previously estimated – 2 trillion galaxies. Not 10 times the stars or mass, those numbers have stayed the same.

And, once James Webb launches, those numbers will be fine-tuned again to be even more precise. 1.5 trillion? 3.4 trillion? Stay tuned for the better number.

What Does the Universe Do When We’re Not Looking?

If you follow some of my other shows, like Astronomy Cast and the Weekly Space Hangout. Of course you do, what a ridiculous thing to say… “if”. Anyway, since you follow those other shows, you know I’m currently obsessed with an upcoming observatory called the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope.

Obsessions are best when they’re shared. So today, I invite you to become as obsessed as I am about the LSST.

In the past, astronomers focused on building bigger telescopes at more remote locations so they could peer more deeply into the past, to resolve the faintest objects, to see right to the edge of the observable Universe.

But there’s a whole other dimension to the Universe: time. And by taking advantage of time, astronomers have made some of the most momentous discoveries in the history of astronomy.

The Large Synoptic Survey Telescope is all about time. Watching the sky over and over, night after night, watching for anything that changes.

 Credit: Large Synoptic Survey Telescope (CC-SA 4.0)
Credit: Large Synoptic Survey Telescope (CC-SA 4.0)

First, let’s talk about some of the kinds of discoveries that can be made when you’re watching the sky for changes.

Perhaps the best example of this is the Mira Variable. These are red giants at the very end of their stellar evolution, almost out of usable hydrogen to burn in their cores. As their stellar flame flickers out, the light pressure can no longer hold against the gravity pulling the star inward. The star compresses in on itself, raising the temperature and pressure, allowing more fusion. It flares up again, and brightens in our sky.

Astronomers discovered that there’s a very specific relationship to the brightness and rate that this brightening happens. In other words, if you know how often a Mira variable flares up, you know how intrinsically bright it is. And if you know how bright it is, you can calculate how far away it is. Even in other galaxies.

That’s what Edwin Hubble did when he surveyed Mira variables in other galaxies. He discovered that most galaxies are actually speeding away from us in all directions, leading to the theory of the Big Bang.

Thanks to time, we understand that we life in an expanding Universe that originated from a single point, 13.8 billion years ago.

Let me give you another example: the discovery of gamma ray bursts. In the 1960s, the US launched a group of satellites as part of the Vela Mission. They had no astronomical purpose, they were designed to watch for the specific gamma ray signature from an unauthorized nuclear weapons test. But instead of nuclear explosions, they detected massive blasts of gamma radiation coming from deep space. These blasts only last for a few seconds and then fade away, leaving a faint afterglow that also fades.

Artist’s impression of a gamma-ray burst. Credit: ESO/A. Roquette
Artist’s impression of a gamma-ray burst. Credit: ESO/A. Roquette

We now know that gamma ray bursts mark the deaths of the largest stars in the Universe, and the formations of new black holes. Other gamma ray bursts signal the collisions of exotic stellar remnants, like neutron stars and white dwarfs.

I can give you many more examples, where the dimension of time lead to a discovery in astronomy:

In 1930, Clyde Tombaugh compared pairs of photographic plates, switching back and forth over and over, looking for any object that moved position. This was how he discovered Pluto. In fact, this same technique is used by astronomers to find other dwarf planets, asteroids and comets to this day.

Astronomers return again and again to galaxies in the night sky, looking for any that have a new star in them. This is a tell tale sign of a supernova, the explosion of a star much more massive than our Sun. Some of these supernovae allowed astronomers to discover dark energy, that the expansion of the Universe is accelerating.

This is what time can help us discover.

Artist rendering of the LSST observatory (foreground) atop Cerro Pachón in Chile. Credit: Large Synoptic Survey Telescope Project Office.
Artist rendering of the LSST observatory (foreground) atop Cerro Pachón in Chile. Credit: Large Synoptic Survey Telescope Project Office.

Now, on to the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope. The observatory is currently under construction in north-central Chile, where many of the world’s most powerful telescopes are located.

Its main mirror is 8.4 meters across. Just for comparison, ESO’s Very Large Telescopes are 8.2 metres across. The Gemini Observatories are 8.1 metres across. The Keck Observatory is 10 metres wide. What I’m saying here, is that the LSST is plenty big.

But that’s not its most important feature. LSST is fast. When I say fast, I’m saying this in the astronomical sense, which means that it can gather a lot of light over a wide area on the sky in a very short amount of time. While Keck, for example, can focus incredibly deeply at a tiny spot in the sky, LSST gulps light across a huge region of the sky.

It’ll be able to see 3.5-degrees of the sky, every time it takes a picture. The Sun and the Moon are about 0.5-degrees across in the sky, so imagine a grid 7 moons across and 7 moons high.

Suzanne Jacoby with the LSST focal plane array scale model. The image of the moon (30 arcminutes) is placed there for scale of the Field of View. Credit: Large Synoptic Survey Telescope (CC-SA 4.0)
Suzanne Jacoby with the LSST focal plane array scale model. The image of the moon (30 arcminutes) is placed there for scale of the Field of View. Credit: Large Synoptic Survey Telescope (CC-SA 4.0)

It’ll take a 15-second exposure every 20 seconds. In the amount of time you’ll spend watching this video, the LSST could have taken dozens of high resolution images of the sky.

In fact, it’ll completely image the available sky every few nights. And then petabytes of data will be released onto the internet, available for astronomers to pore over.

Want to find asteroids, just look through the LSST records. Want to know how fast the Universe is expanding, dig through the data. LSST is going to look everywhere and anywhere every couple of nights, and then provide this data to scientists to make discoveries.

Assuming the construction isn’t delayed, the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope should see first light in 2019. Shortly after that, it’ll be disgorging mountains of astronomical data onto the internet.

And shortly after that, I suspect, we’ll start to hear everything the Universe was doing when we weren’t watching before. Because now, thanks to LSST, we’ll be watching all the time.