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What if all the alien civilizations are dead?

posted by Tim Carmody   Jun 14, 2016

This essay by astrophysicist Adam Frank in the New York Times is upbeat, confident: “Yes, There Have Been Aliens.” Basically, he argues that we’ve now observed enough Earth-like planets outside our solar system that unless the odds of life (and intelligent life, and intelligent life capable of radio communications, etc.) coming into being are much, much smaller than most scientists have believed, then alien civilizations that are at least something like our own have appeared before elsewhere in the galaxy.

But! Frank and his colleague Woodruff Sullivan get to this conclusion in a way that’s pretty distressing. They relax any assumptions about how long such a civilization might last.

See, if you’re trying to figure out the odds of contact between humans and aliens, you need to have some idea about how long alien civilizations stick around. If, in general, civilizations last a long time and keep moving up the Kardashev Scale, they’re more likely to bump into each other. If, on the other hand, they usually wipe out their own species with nuclear weapons, global climate change, gamma rays, or (insert calamity here) shortly after getting a little light industry going, then they’ll keep missing each other.

In his treatment of the Fermi Paradox, Tim Urban calls this “The Great Filter.” We don’t know if the Great Filter is ahead of us or behind us. If it’s behind us, then complex/intelligent life is super rare — much smaller than even Frank and Sullivan’s consensus low estimates. If it’s ahead of us, then we, or any other species lucky enough to make it this far, will most likely die off or (best case scenario) get stuck more or less where we are now.

In short, humanity may not be first, but it might very will be next.