Astronomer calculates the odds of intelligent alien life emerging

A new study discovers the likelihood of extraterrestrial life in the universe.

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  • A Columbia University astronomer calculates the odds of extraterrestrial life emerging.
  • The probability comes out in favor of aliens existing.
  • The search for life in space should be encouraged, concludes the scientist.

    • The sheer amount of space boggles the mind and makes one wonder, where are all the aliens? Surely, we aren't the only ones who made it out onto a cosmic rock alive. Of course, there might be numerous reasons we have not encountered aliens yet, from having poor technology to the aliens not desiring to be seen. A new study tries to take a statistical approach to the question, finding out the likelihood of complex extraterrestrial life emerging on other planets.

      For his new paper, David Kipping of Columbia University's Department of Astronomy, used the statistical technique called Bayesian inference to arrive at the conclusion that there's a greater chance than not that aliens should exist. The odds he calculated come out 3 to 2 for the aliens.

      Kipping based his analysis on the chronology of life's development within 300 million years of the Earth's oceans forming and the human evolution on the planet. He wondered how often life would emerge if we were to repeat Earth's history over and over.

      To figure this out, he used the method of Bayesian statistical inference, which works by updating the probability of a hypothesis when new evidence or information appears.

      "The technique is akin to betting odds," Kipping explained. "It encourages the repeated testing of new evidence against your position, in essence a positive feedback loop of refining your estimates of likelihood of an event."

      He came up with four possible answers, as reported in the press release:

      • life is common and often develops intelligence
      • life is rare but often develops intelligence
      • life is common and rarely develops intelligence
      • life is rare and rarely develops intelligence

      Do aliens exist? If they did, would we know?

      Using Bayesian math, Kipping pitted the models against each other. According to him, the "key result here is that when one compares the rare-life versus common-life scenarios, the common-life scenario is always at least nine times more likely than the rare one."

      This means that life is 9 times more likely to emerge than not. But would this life be intelligent? The answer here is more muddled and less optimistic. Still, Kipling concluded that under similar circumstances and conditions to Earth, the odds are 3:2 that some planet out there would sport complex, intelligent life like ours.

      Why are these odds lower? Kipping thinks that as humans appeared rather late in Earth's habitable history, it's clear their existence was not a foregone conclusion. "If we played Earth's history again, the emergence of intelligence is actually somewhat unlikely," he pointed out.

      He also maintains that while the likelihood of alien life may not be overwhelming, it's still quite strong, and "the case for a universe teeming with life emerges as the favored bet."

      Check out his paper published in PNAS, Proceeding of the National Academy of Sciences.

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      Photo: Luisa Conlon , Lacy Roberts and Hanna Miller / Global Oneness Project
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      • Stories are at the heart of learning, writes Cleary Vaughan-Lee, Executive Director for the Global Oneness Project. They have always challenged us to think beyond ourselves, expanding our experience and revealing deep truths.
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      • Global Oneness Project is a free library of stories—containing short documentaries, photo essays, and essays—that each contain a companion lesson plan and learning activities for students so they can expand their experience of the world.
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      Experts are already predicting an 'active' 2020 hurricane season

      It looks like a busy hurricane season ahead. Probably.

      Image source: Shashank Sahay/unsplash
      Surprising Science
      • Before the hurricane season even started in 2020, Arthur and Bertha had already blown through, and Cristobal may be brewing right now.
      • Weather forecasters see signs of a rough season ahead, with just a couple of reasons why maybe not.
      • Where's an El Niño when you need one?

      Welcome to Hurricane Season 2020. 2020, of course, scoffs at this calendric event much as it has everything else that's normal — meteorologists have already used up the year's A and B storm names before we even got here. And while early storms don't necessarily mean a bruising season ahead, forecasters expect an active season this year. Maybe storms will blow away the murder hornets and 13-year locusts we had planned.

      NOAA expects a busy season

      According to NOAA's Climate Prediction Center, an agency of the National Weather Service, there's a 60 percent chance that we're embarking upon a season with more storms than normal. There does, however, remain a 30 percent it'll be normal. Better than usual? Unlikely: Just a 10 percent chance.

      Where a normal hurricane season has an average of 12 named storms, 6 of which become hurricanes and 3 of which are major hurricanes, the Climate Prediction Center reckons we're on track for 13 to 29 storms, 6 to 10 of which will become hurricanes, and 3 to 6 of these will be category 3, 4, or 5, packing winds of 111 mph or higher.

      What has forecasters concerned are two factors in particular.

      This year's El Niño ("Little Boy") looks to be more of a La Niña ("Little Girl"). The two conditions are part of what's called the El Niño-Southern Oscillation (ENSO) cycle, which describes temperature fluctuations between the ocean and atmosphere in the east-central Equatorial Pacific. With an El Niño, waters in the Pacific are unusually warm, whereas a La Niña means unusually cool waters. NOAA says that an El Niño can suppress hurricane formation in the Atlantic, and this year that mitigating effect is unlikely to be present.

      Second, current conditions in the Atlantic and Caribbean suggest a fertile hurricane environment:

      • The ocean there is warmer than usual.
      • There's reduced vertical wind shear.
      • Atlantic tropical trade winds are weak.
      • There have been strong West African monsoons this year.

      Here's NOAA's video laying out their forecast:

      But wait.

      ArsTechnica spoke to hurricane scientist Phil Klotzbach, who agrees generally with NOAA, saying, "All in all, signs are certainly pointing towards an active season." Still, he notes a couple of signals that contradict that worrying outlook.

      First off, Klotzbach notes that the surest sign of a rough hurricane season is when its earliest storms form in the deep tropics south of 25°N and east of the Lesser Antilles. "When you get storm formations here prior to June 1, it's typically a harbinger of an extremely active season." Fortunately, this year's hurricanes Arthur and Bertha, as well as the maybe-imminent Cristobal, formed outside this region. So there's that.

      Second, Klotzbach notes that the correlation between early storm activity and a season's number of storms and intensities, is actually slightly negative. So while statistical connections aren't strongly predictive, there's at least some reason to think these early storms may augur an easy season ahead.

      Image source: NOAA

      Batten down the hatches early

      If 2020's taught us anything, it's how to juggle multiple crises at once, and layering an active hurricane season on top of SARS-CoV-2 — not to mention everything else — poses a special challenge. Warns Treasury Secretary Wilbur Ross, "As Americans focus their attention on a safe and healthy reopening of our country, it remains critically important that we also remember to make the necessary preparations for the upcoming hurricane season." If, as many medical experts expect, we're forced back into quarantine by additional coronavirus waves, the oceanic waves slamming against our shores will best be met by storm preparations put in place in a less last-minute fashion than usual.

      Ross adds, "Just as in years past, NOAA experts will stay ahead of developing hurricanes and tropical storms and provide the forecasts and warnings we depend on to stay safe."

      Let's hope this, at least, can be counted on in this crazy year.

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