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Is There Life Out There? Another Step Toward Its Improbability

Dr. Michael G Strauss

It seems that much of the current research in astrophysics and space science is focused on the search for extraterrestrial life. Whether we are sending probes to Mars, searching for extra-solar planets, or looking for water on moons and planets in our solar system, a major goal of these efforts is discovering environments that are suitable for life, or even finding evidence of life itself. The question of whether or not other life exists is not only an important scientific question, but maybe even a philosophical, sociological, psychological, and theological question as well.


Although the Drake equation may be a reasonable starting point for the discussion about the probability for finding extraterrestrial life, it has been widely criticized for neglecting some very important factors. In addition, many of the factors used have such a broad range of possibilities that any attempt to quantify the number of civilizations that satisfy the Drake criteria give estimates from as little as 10-11 to as high as 107 such civilizations in our galaxy.2 In 2000, Peter D. Ward and Donald Brownlee published the book Rare Earth, which addressed some of the deficiencies of the Drake equation by proposing additional terms that should be included, but they did not make an effort to calculate an accurate number using their additions.3

When I give talks on complex life in the universe I will often quote a quantitative estimate of the probability of finding such life made by the astrophysicist Hugh Ross. In 2004, Ross compiled a list of 322 parameters that are necessary for a truly "earth-like" planet to exist,4 and in 2009, he released another list of 676 parameters that are necessary to sustain uni-cellular life for 3 billion years on a planet.5 These estimates are what scientists often call "back of the envelope" or "order of magnitude" calculations. They are not meant to be exact but to give a best approximation based on known quantities. In his calculation, Ross includes correlations and the expected number of planets in the visible universe. He determines that the probability for finding any planet in the visible universe that meets the requirements to be 1 in 10282 for the first case and 1 in 10556 in the latter case. With such low probabilities it is basically impossible that any other complex life exists in the visible universe. (It should be noted that as a theist I believe that since God created at least one planet with life he could have created many planets with life despite the odds. A discovery of another planet with life may actually increase the evidence for a creator if these low odds continue to hold up to more scrutiny.)




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