Friday, 19 June 2015

We Are Not Alone ... Maybe

Dr Brian Cox is a celebrity physicist, and ex member and keyboard player for the pop band D:Ream. He is the poster boy of the BBC science output, who get him to front many science programmes, some of which might be fronted by others better qualified in the subjects e.g. the Wonders Of Life TV series, might have been better presented by a biologist?

His latest TV offering that we at PC Towers watched was Human Universe, a programme which kind of proves that letting a physicist loose on every science can have its pitfalls .... its questions or answers strayed into the area of metaphysics, and perhaps the estimable Dr Cox should have not been the man to answer these.

When faced with the question of whether we are alone in the universe, he asserted categorically that we are indeed the lone intelligence in the cosmos. His exact quote was "There is only one advanced civilisation in the cosmos and there has only ever been one. That's us, we are unique."

Of course if true, this has very profound implications for the human race, its place, and possibly its creation .... in fact it also appears to open up creationism as a 'theory' for one, and it also suggests an awful lot of redundancy in the universe for another.  

Now given all the exo-planets being discovered almost daily, and the obvious conclusion that if there are an estimated 70 thousand million million million (70 sextillion or 7 × 1022) stars in the Universe, and that the Universe probably contains more than 100 thousand million (100 billion or 1011) galaxies, and all those stars seem to have at least a couple of planets (at least that's what current discoveries suggests) ... then that's a lot of planets that have produced no 'advanced civilisations'

Its also seemingly a strange definition of  'advanced civilisations' ... being apparently only those civilisations that produce lasers, radio waves, and are close enough to us in space and time to have made their presence known to us during the lifetime of one keyboard playing physicist! Were for example the ancient Greeks, Romans, and Chinese civilisations not 'advanced' merely because they lacked a radio mast?

But most of all, it just looks like bad science to me, or perhaps more correctly I should say just bad odds given all those billions upon billions of planets that have no intelligent life ... Its also odd given on what is this statement based i.e the fact that our radio waves will only have travelled about 100 light years (and incredibly weakly ... the signal from our radio and TV broadcasts is so attenuated by that 100-light-year boundary, that they as good as to be undetectable ... its because of the *inverse square law), from Earth in all directions since we became 'advanced' i.e a 200 light year diameter.

Human Radio Noise ~ Not Much Of A Splash Is It?

*This inverse square law means that the strength of a radio signal will be only 1/4 as great, once you are twice the distance from the source. At ten times the distance, the strength of the signal would only be one hundredth as great.

If you think in terms of parsecs (and 1 parsec is about 3 light years), this radio sphere around Earth is about 30 parsecs in radius, and inside that 30 parsecs there are about 2 thousand are sun-like stars. A reasonable number of these (say about 10%) will have habitable (as we define it), planets which could mean that there are anywhere between one, to as many as five hundred habitable planets, that are within that sphere of radio noise that we've created ..... but this is a tiny figure. Even if we have made contact, it maybe another 100 years before we hear back, assuming we or they are even listening.

Because of this inverse square law, all of our terrestrial radio signals become indistinguishable from background noise at a distance of a few light-years from Earth, or if you prefer, its like listening for the sound a pebble dropped in to the Pacific ocean off the coast of California – from Japan.

ET Will Never See Our TV
To be fair, Dr Cox is not alone in this assertion of our uniqueness, other Astrobiologists and Astronomers agree with him ..... Professor Ian Morrison, the former Gresham Professor of Astronomy, and author of 'A Journey Through The Universe', also backs this idea. His given reasons for holding this opinion are that we are have not spotted Ozone (an indicator of free oxygen, which only occurs when plant life exists), on an exo-planet, but he's happy to concede that single celled organisms may well be quite common, even within our own solar system. He just thinks that the leap from single, to multicellular life, is too big for life to make normally ....  except presumably by us.

Oddly this idea also kind of suggests that evolution only works on Earth? That there is in fact no imperative for life to move from single to multicellular life, even though it gives an advantage to any form that makes the leap.

Still I am disappointed with Dr Cox's opinion and feel he should have kept his mouth shut unless he could prove his assertion ..... even if he is being handsomely paid to let his lips flap.    


  1. Brian doesn't think that we are the only intelligent life in the Cosmos, after trying to put the record straight he finally Tweeted
    "FOR LAST TIME : I think life is common in universe. We MAY be only civ. in Milky Way. There WILL be other civilisations in univ. #shutupnow"

    Some scientists say that it's a conundrum that we haven't already made contact with another civilisation, but given the extreme distances and the supposed small timescales of civilisations, I'm not at all surprised.

    1. It perhaps unfortunate for Dr Cox that the show where he said the words is constantly repeated on freeview.

  2. We are not alone. I want to beleive22 June 2015 at 14:01

    I watched that show recently as a repeat, and he most definitely did say that he believed we were alone as intelligent life. He said that the biological process which lead to intelligent life on earth was a fluke that is unlikely to have been repeated anywhere else in the universe.

    If he didn't mean that, then he should have chosen his words better. I might add that even if hes now retracted, and clarified that he means in the milkyway, then that still seems a baffling large number of planets that are excluded from having life on them. We simply have no way of examining every planet in our home galaxy (as the picture nicely illustrates) and given the laws of physics, any intelligent alien life would face the same problem. There could be many civilisations out there who are mutually unaware of each other because they are over the communication horizon of a few hundred light years.

    1. Yeah I watched it and believe that I quoted it correctly ... still as Vroomfodel says that he has rephrased what he said, we have to be generous and accept that he meant to phrase his thoughts differently. I agree with you though that even if its just our galaxy, that's still and awful lot of stars/planets to say have no intelligent life.

      Thanks for the comment ... perhaps you could use a name if you comment again?

    2. Yes, that's an awful lot of planets with no civilisations - because there's little doubt that there will be life and even intelligent life, but I think that Brian's point is that our self awareness and ability to dip our toes into the Cosmos is something even rarer. It's only happened once on this planet with all it's diversity and so it's perhaps not an inevitability. The power of the human mind goes way beyond an otherwise frugal evolutionary process which would give birds only one wing if it could get away with it - our calorie hungry brains are the equivalent of fitting a Ferrari engine into a mobility scooter, ain't nobody got time for that!

    3. Dr Cox and Robin Ince discuss this very subject in their excellent Radio4 programme The Infinite Monkey Cage :
      Are Humans Uniquely Unique? (Downloads the episode)

      More episodes here : The Infinite Monkey Cage Podcasts

    4. He didn't say ' and even intelligent life,' and used the term civilisation but intelligence implies a civilisation even if its not a radio telescope civilisation e.g. the Roman Empire was an intelligent life and a civilisation. Sematics are important in this debate. If he suggests that self awareness and ability to dip our toes into the Cosmos is something even rarer ... then that's a feature of intelligence. you can't be self aware enough to dip your toes into the Cosmos without being intelligent.

      We just have to disagree about what he actually meant by what he said. I believe he was saying no other intelligent life in our galaxy and that we were alone.

      Thanks for the links.

    5. Quite right, I'm guessing at what I think he meant.
      You can't dip your toes . . . without being intelligent, but you can be intelligent without the ability to get civilised, like monkeys and dolphins.
      The Romans is a bad example because they are us, so they're not proof of an intelligent life form without space travel.

      As well as having the nonce to conceive of leaving one's home planet, or even just communicating with others, a good stock of fuel to progress technology is another limiting factor in the equation.

    6. I have used the Romans because we don't have any other extra-terrestrial examples .... which is where we came in I believe LOL


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