Earth May Be a Cosmic Early Achiever

We found this at PhysOrg: Most earth-like worlds have yet to be born, according to theoretical study. Here are some excerpts, with bold font added by us for emphasis:

Earth came early to the party in the evolving universe. According to a new theoretical study, when our solar system was born 4.6 billion years ago only eight percent of the potentially habitable planets that will ever form in the universe existed. And, the party won’t be over when the sun burns out in another 6 billion years. The bulk of those planets — 92 percent — have yet to be born.

If true, that would help to explain the Fermi paradox. The story is that physicist Enrico Fermi, considering the present lack of any signs of alien intelligence, asked “Where is everybody?” PhysOrg says:

This conclusion [that Earth is early in the universe’s existence] is based on an assessment of data collected by NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope and the prolific planet-hunting Kepler space observatory.

NASA has an article on this — see Most Earth-Like Worlds Have Yet to Be Born, According to Theoretical Study. It’s pretty much the same thing we found in PhysOrg, so we’ll stay with them. They tell us:

“Our main motivation was understanding the Earth’s place in the context of the rest of the universe,” said study author Peter Behroozi of the Space Telescope Science Institute (STScI) in Baltimore, Maryland, “Compared to all the planets that will ever form in the universe, the Earth is actually quite early.”

This could be very good news. If we seize the opportunity, it means we can occupy all the habitable worlds in our galaxy with relatively little competition. We previously projected that we could do this in “only” a million years — see What Are We Learning from SETI? Let’s read on:

The data show that the universe was making stars at a fast rate 10 billion years ago, but the fraction of the universe’s hydrogen and helium gas that was involved was very low. Today, star birth is happening at a much slower rate than long ago, but there is so much leftover gas available that the universe will keep cooking up stars and planets for a very long time to come. “There is enough remaining material [after the big bang] to produce even more planets in the future, in the Milky Way and beyond,” added co-investigator Molly Peeples of STScI.

Egad — the universe will be overrun with cosmic newcomers! We continue:

Kepler’s planet survey indicates that Earth-sized planets in a star’s habitable zone, the perfect distance that could allow water to pool on the surface, are ubiquitous in our galaxy. Based on the survey, scientists predict that there should be 1 billion Earth-sized worlds in the Milky Way galaxy at present, a good portion of them presumed to be rocky. That estimate skyrockets when you include the other 100 billion galaxies in the observable universe.

This leaves plenty of opportunity for untold more Earth-sized planets in the habitable zone to arise in the future. The last star isn’t expected to burn out until 100 trillion years from now. That’s plenty of time for literally anything to happen on the planet landscape.

Time’s a-wasting — we’ve got to get going! Here’s one more excerpt:

A big advantage to our civilization arising early in the evolution of the universe is our being able to use powerful telescopes like Hubble to trace our lineage from the big bang through the early evolution of galaxies. The observational evidence for the big bang and cosmic evolution, encoded in light and other electromagnetic radiation, will be all but erased away 1 trillion years from now due to the runaway expansion of space. Any far-future civilizations that might arise will be largely clueless as to how or if the universe began and evolved.

That’s one advantage, but it’s trivial compared to the supreme advantage of occupying the galaxy before we have much competition. It’s far preferable for us to act now, so we can be the technologically superior Old Ones of the galaxy, than for us to remain on this one planet waiting for some other species to find us — and then hope that they’ll treat us benevolently. But we won’t accomplish anything if we squander our resources building silly replicas of Noah’s Ark.

Copyright © 2015. The Sensuous Curmudgeon. All rights reserved.

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9 responses to “Earth May Be a Cosmic Early Achiever

  1. Whene speaking of why we have no real evidence of alien contact In the original Cosmos series, Carl Sagan said “Perhaps we’re the first. After all some technological civilization has to be first…”

  2. I had a discussion about this some time ago. I agree that life is effectively inevitable. Evidence suggests that multicellular (or otherwise complex) life is almost inevitable. Intelligent life though…

    We’re something of an accident. The dinosaurs were a perfectly content group for over one hundred million years.

    We’ve only been a technic species for a few hundred years and a EM transmission producing species for barely 100 years. When we consider the speed of light and the low timeframe of our only sample, it’s not a wonder we never hear anything from other species. Maybe the last transmissions of a dying species hast Earth the day before we turned on the first radio telescopes. Maybe they didn’t die and just started using something we can’t sense (quantum entanglement communications)? Maybe the radio use of a technic species is rarely more than 100 years.

    Combine that with the distances and the time frame of other worlds, the chances of two technic species being able to even find one another in the same relative time-frame are minscule at best. And that’s assuming that plenty of life exists in the universe. If life is common, but intelligence is rare… it gets even worse.

  3. Our Curmudgeon appears to have succumbed to a zealous enthusiasm:

    This could be very good news. If we seize the opportunity, it means, we can occupy all the habitable worlds in our galaxy with relatively little competition.

    Maybe so, but that does rather smacks of Lebensraum: The Next Generation.

    The presumed “relatively little competition” only holds if alien civilisations are armed only with spears and bows.

    But Destiny is rarely so Manifest as we might sometimes suppose. Will we be the B-Movie Sci-Fi devouring aliens of the future to other sentient lifeforms in our galaxy? Will future Earthlings speakum with forked tongue?

  4. Megalonyx, whose comment was inexplicably delayed by the spam-catcher, reveals himself to be an alien-lover and asks: “Will we be the B-Movie Sci-Fi devouring aliens of the future to other sentient lifeforms in our galaxy?”

    Listen, bug-lover, if you like ’em, you can join ’em. It’s them or us, and I’m with humanity.

  5. Our Curmudgeon declares

    Listen, bug-lover, if you like ’em, you can join ’em. It’s them or us, and I’m with humanity.

    Hey, little blobs of protoplasm happen to be our revered ancestors!

    But you pose an interesting dilemma. Suppose, in a future distant enough that we have cracked the technology to enable interstellar travel, we came across an earth-like planet inhabited solely by alien microbes. One can certainly argue that we would have the ‘right’, by the ‘might makes right’ doctrine (I would question if it can be called a principle) to disinfect the planet and use it for our own ends.

    But I’m genuinely a little uneasy with this scenario, for several reasons. Consider a succession of such exo-planetary discovers, but with each new planet inhabited by more complex organisms: a planet of plankton-like organisms, then a planet of something like nematodes, a planet of lizard-like creatures, a planet of animals similar to mammalian rodents, on up to a planet of social aliens rather like our bonobo chimpanzees–or perhaps even something like Neanderthals. Surely we would feel there was some point at which it would be repugnant to douse such a world with a Noachic flood of Clorox. And even that is making the rather large assumption that, not only will we be able to recognise life if/when we find it, but that we will also–which is harder–be able to recognise intelligence.

    Actually, I think the real question (though hardly a pressing one, as we’re speculating about possibilities in a very distant future) might be: would we really have a need, beyond our inherent curiosity to explore and expand our knowledge (and which is of course to be encouraged), to actually colonise distant worlds? In our human history, colonisation has been driven by competition for resources–but only because the technology of the time did not allow efficient use of resources (just consider how much smaller were the populations of European nations in previous centuries from which numbers of people emmigrated in the name of seeking resources). But suppose we really did master the technology of, say, nuclear fusion (I know, I know, it’s always 30 to 50 years in the future!), and with that inexhaustable source of energy were able to effectively transform whatever matter was to hand into anything needful.

    Well, maybe I’m just being a little wary because our species has so far proved to be a lousy custodian of our planet, and the notion of turning us loose to screw up whole galaxies gives one pause…

  6. Megalonyx raises a number of issues:

    Surely we would feel there was some point at which it would be repugnant to douse such a world [a habitable one] with a Noachic flood of Clorox.

    Why? Are you stricken with conscience when you deploy insecticide in your kitchen? Do you worry about them? When technologically advanced aliens come to this part of the galaxy and decide they want our world, why wouldn’t they have the same attitude toward us?

    would we really have a need, beyond our inherent curiosity to explore and expand our knowledge (and which is of course to be encouraged), to actually colonise distant worlds?

    I always object to the word colonize in this context. As you point out, it has historically been done for political dominance and economic exploitation. The word “colony” implies political control by the mother country. That’s impossible in an interstellar scenario — the travel and communication times are too great. I prefer to speak of the “settlement” of extra-solar planets. Each newly settled world will inevitably be independent.

    We’ll want to settle on other worlds for two reasons: First, because Earth will at some point become over-populated, so additional worlds must be found and settled. Second, as Hawking and others have said, it’s risky to keep all our eggs in one basket. If we were spread out over a number of worlds, no single disaster to any one planet could destroy us all.

    Also, there’s the still theoretical risk of conquest by an expanding hoard of intelligent aliens, looking for new worlds for the same reasons we are. They may look upon us as we look upon insects in the kitchen. But if we occupy and settle the galaxy first, we won’t have to face that risk.

  7. When I wipe out a colony of cereal moths in my kitchen, I’m wiping them out in my kitchen, not in the rest of the world where, in the majority, they perform the useful task of converting inert cellulose into useful compost.

    I think we’re okay applying that same metric to lifeforms on other planets. Even if they’re hazardous to us, the real question is how useful are they to sustaining a larger environment we find habitable?

  8. SC:
    “That’s impossible in an interstellar scenario — the travel and communication times are too great.”

    Not if we master quantum entanglement.

    Megalonyx:
    “Will we be the B-Movie Sci-Fi devouring aliens of the future to other sentient lifeforms in our galaxy?”

    As in the movie Avatar?

  9. Our Curmudgeon considers the

    theoretical risk of conquest by an expanding hoard of intelligent aliens, looking for new worlds for the same reasons we are. They may look upon us as we look upon insects in the kitchen. But if we occupy and settle the galaxy first, we won’t have to face that risk.

    Such a hoard of aggressive aliens would have as much respect and regard for our prior settlement of a galaxy as the European invaders had for the prior settlement, some 10,000 years ago, of the Americas by its indigenous peoples.

    Which is to say: none whatsoever.

    But–while still in widely speculative mode here–I rather doubt, when it comes to interstellar travel, that there is much of a future for meat. We’re too fleeting and fragile, our legacy will be our machines, which may indeed achieve a kind of galactic immortality. That’s close to another one of Hawking’s ‘predictions’, who notes the potential threat of AI–a point I understand, but which I think really means that machines may be our evolutionary successors. Who knows?