Saturday, 5 March 2011

How Might We Discover We Are Not Alone? Part 1 – Equations and Paradoxes

What Do I Know?
One of my illustrations
There seem to be an ever growing number of articles lately, discussing the possibilities of alien life. Whether they're asking if it's here already, discussing the likelihood of finding it via radio signals, or everything in between (perhaps my recent resurgence of interest has simply helped me notice and search them out more).

Either way, I thought it would be interesting to discuss the pros and cons of some of the established arguments. I'm no expert and I've not spent years researching the subject in great depth, so why do I feel the need to give my opinion? Because I thought it might be of interest to read the main issues, explained (hopefully logically) with the level of knowledge and understanding that most of us standard grunts on the ground have.

I'll deal with the main cases from 'Part 2' onward, but first let me get a couple of issues off my chest. Any person interested in UFOs or even just the possibility of extraterrestrial life, will know of the Drake Equation and the Fermi Paradox. These are oft-quoted arguments in almost any discussion of alien life, and I would like to get them out of the way before delving into anything else. They can be applied both positively and negatively to many of the arguments, so rather than repeat myself or get sidetracked, I will refer to these sections instead.

The Drake Equation
Frank Drake
The Drake Equation is a pseudo-mathematical equation that many individuals love to quote. It supposedly takes a number of variables, using them to estimate the number of extraterrestrial civilisations out there (just click here to look at it).  In my opinion, it unfortunately means nothing. The Drake Equation is based upon estimates of so many unknowns that it becomes worthless. Even the few factors that could be estimated, are exactly that. Estimates that we still have very little knowledge of (e.g. 'The number of Earth-like worlds per planetary system'). I may as well ask you to use an equation to come up with a reasonable answer for the number of grains of sand on a beach you've never seen, where you do not know and can only estimate a) The size of the beach, b) the depth of the beach before hitting bedrock, c) the amount of grains per metre vs the number of rocks, d) the tidal forces on the beach, etc...

Unfortunately, the Drake Equation has become quite established and entrenched even with scientists of note, having itself been created by the respected professor of Astronomy and Astrophysics, Frank Drake. It has probably helped a lot of research programs like SETI (which I'll cover in 'Part 2'), by giving 'numbers' and 'statistics' that can be shown to the money-sources, convincing them to back projects in a way that they understand. On the flip side, it adds unjustified weight to a lot of arguments and discussions about alien life, often with sceptics who wish to invalidate the ideas proposed by those they are countering.

So in all, I will state that I don't believe the Drake Equation can be used as a pro or con argument either way. It just doesn't have enough weight. It sounds nice because it looks scientific and can provide numerical answers, but it is essentially meaningless.

The Fermi Paradox
Enrico Fermi
The Fermi Paradox was proposed in 1950 by Enrico Fermi, a renowned physicist probably best known for his work on the first nuclear reactor and atomic bomb, alongside J. Robert Oppenheimer. Put simply, the Fermi Paradox says that statistically, given the age and scale of the universe, even with the most cynical estimates it should be teeming with technologically advanced civilisations. If so, we should have discovered some sign of their existence by now.

I'll admit, I prefer the Fermi Paradox to the Drake Equation because in essence it is simply asking a viable question. It is not trying to pull an answer out of thin air. The problem is that sceptics and non-sceptics alike, tend to forget that it is essentially a very good question. Not an answer or proof.

For example, many a sceptic will say “There is no life out there. Just look at the Fermi Paradox! It's proof that if there was life, we would've heard about it by now.” Perhaps most sensible sceptics wouldn't put it so bluntly, but often that is the thrust of their argument when they refer to the Fermi Paradox.

Using that logic, imagine an ancient scientist or philosopher, let's call him Fred Bloggs (A British equivalent of John Doe, for those wondering). He puts together some anecdotal facts about his world, before there are any real proofs, and concludes that it is probably spherical or at least round. He has a paradox, though. When he looks around, it's all flat. He puzzles over this, but at least he's still smart enough to wonder why his world facts don't quite match up. It becomes known as the Bloggs Paradox. Meanwhile, a man who only likes to believe the established safe view that the world is flat, hears of this Paradox. Next thing you know, he's in a discussion with friends who wonder about the nature of the world. He says “Ahh, but it's the Bloggs Paradox! You can't prove in any way that the world is spherical, with all the evidence around you. So it must be flat. The Paradox proves it!”

So to repeat, what I'm trying to say is that the Fermi Paradox is simply an unanswered question regarding current knowledge that seemingly contradicts. It is not a proof of anything.

So with those out of the way, let's move on to the good stuff... Next, we shall discuss 'Signals From Beyond'

Click here for:
Part 1 - Equations and Paradoxes
Part 2 - Signals from Beyond
Part 3 - Something Small
Part 4 - Remnants and Arefacts

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