Astronomers have long searched the sky for evidence that we’re not alone. But new research is suggesting we may be one of a kind.
There’s an old joke about Sherlock Holmes and his assistant, Watson.
“Let’s go camping,” Holmes says to Watson one day. “Jolly good!” replies Watson. So the two pack up their gear, head into the woods, set up their tent and by nightfall, are sound asleep. Hours later, Watson is awakened by a nudge from Holmes.
“Watson!” says the detective, “look up! What do you see?” “I see the sky, full of stars,” says Watson, a little annoyed. “And what do you deduce from that?” asks Holmes. Watson thinks for a moment, and replies, “Well, given the thousands of stars, it’s improbable that ours is the only planet capable of sustaining life. Therefore, other beings like ourselves are likely out there somewhere, looking back at us. Is that what it means?”
“No, you nincompoop,” replies Holmes. “It means someone has stolen our tent!”
Well, Watson may have missed an obvious clue, but scientists have long shared his conclusion about the stars. According to the famous Drake equation, a probabilistic argument designed by SETI pioneer, Frank Drake, there could be as many as 100 million thriving, communicative extraterrestrial civilizations in our galaxy—many of them more advanced than our own.
Astronomer Carl Sagan helped popularize this idea in his 1980 miniseries, “Cosmos.” “With 400 billion stars in the Milky Way Galaxy alone,” Sagan reasoned, “could ours be the only one with an inhabited planet? How much more likely it is that the galaxy is throbbing and humming with advanced societies!”
But decades later, scientists no longer share Sagan’s confidence. As one astrophysicist argues in a forthcoming paper, the old estimates vastly inflated the number of potential alien civilizations. Eric Zackrisson at Sweden’s Uppsala University suggests that modern research points not to a galaxy “throbbing and humming” with life, but to one in which Earth-like planets are exceedingly rare.
It turns out that Drake’s equation failed to take into account factors that we now know to be essential to life. For example, scientists once believed that planets orbiting a certain distance from their host stars in the so-called “Goldilocks zone” were prime real estate for creatures like us.
But not anymore. It turns out that the size and chemical composition of the host stars matters just as much as planetary orbits. And according to Zackrisson, most planets in the universe likely orbit stars that bear little resemblance to our sun. These stars are either much bigger, much smaller, or just made of the wrong stuff.
And in light of the fruitless fifty-year search for extraterrestrial radio signals, predictions of a sky buzzing with activity are sounding less like science and more like science fiction. Increasingly, it looks as if we are alone in the universe.
And just how alone? Zackrisson estimates that given all the factors that make Earth what it is, our planet may be one in 700 quintillion to host intelligent life. That’s one out of seven followed by twenty zeros, or the estimated number of planets in the entire universe.
Nathaniel Scharping at Discover Magazine writes with a straight face that Earth appears to have been dealt “a fairly lucky hand.” He makes up for this understatement later, concluding that, “from a purely statistical standpoint, Earth perhaps shouldn’t exist.”
And yet, here we are.
Intelligent Design theorists have long pointed out how improbably unique our little blue planet is. And findings like this only deepen the problem for materialists. Because if thinking creatures emerged here and nowhere else, it makes us look less like accidents and more like—dare I say it—miracles.
Of course, for those who believe in the God Who, as Isaiah wrote, “spreads [the heavens] like a tent,” it’s no surprise. In fact you might say it’s “Elementary, my dear Watson.”
Further Reading and Information
Extraordinary Earth: There May Be No Place Like Home
You can read Uppsala University astrophysicist Eric Zackrisson’s paper for yourself here. And discover more on the uniqueness of our planet by checking out the resources linked below.
One in 700 Quintillion: Exoplanet Study Confirms Terran Exceptionalism
David Klinghoffer | evolutionnews.org | February 24, 2016
Earth May Be a 1-in-700-Quintillion Kind of Place
Nathaniel Scharping | discovermagazine.com | February 22, 2016
Science Increasingly Makes the Case for God
Eric Metaxas | Wall Street Journal | December 25, 2014
Available at the online bookstore
Illustra Media | Wesscott Marketing | 2008
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