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What are the odds of intelligent life existing outside of Earth?

Published May 19th, 2020 8:06PM EDT
odds of alien life

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  • An astronomer has calculated what he believes are the odds that life exists elsewhere in the universe, and they’re quite favorable.
  • Based on his calculations, David Kipping of Columbia University says the odds of some form of extraterrestrial life are around 9:1 in favor.
  • The odds of intelligent life, while still favorable, are lower at 3:2.
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Do you think aliens exist

? It’s a question we’ve all asked ourselves, and generally speaking, I think the majority of people think there’s something out there, even if none of us really know what it is. Scientists would love to find the answer, of course, but while they wait for E.T. to crash-land on their doorstep they’ve crunched the numbers to see how likely it is that aliens are even out there.

In a new paper published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, David Kipping, assistant professor of astronomy at Columbia University, lays out the hard and not-so-hard data.

Coming up with the odds of life and, even less likely, intelligent life existing on any random planet in the universe is tricky. We know when life first originated on Earth, more or less, and we know how long it took for intelligent life to grow out of that massive pool of organisms.

“The rapid emergence of life and the late evolution of humanity, in the context of the timeline of evolution, are certainly suggestive,” Kipping said in a statement. “But in this study it’s possible to actually quantify what the facts tell us.”

He came up with four possible realities regarding life in the universe: It’s common and intelligent life is almost equally as common, life is common but intelligent life is not, life is rare but it typically results in intelligent life, and life is both rare and rarely results in intelligence.

“The technique is akin to betting odds,” Kipping explains. “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.”

In the study, Kipping pits these different possibilities against each other using a formula that is based on our current knowledge of how life emerged and the conditions that resulted in intelligent life. The conclusion? Well, it’s complicated.

Kipping suggests that the odds of life existing elsewhere in the universe are actually quite high. Assuming that Earth-like planets (rocky, temperate, and wet) are common, Kipping says that the odds are at least 9:1 in favor of life existing elsewhere in some form.

Intelligent life, on the other hand, isn’t nearly as likely. Based on his calculations, Kipping puts the odds at around 3:2 in favor of intelligent life, but notes that even on Earth, the fact that humans evolved would have seemed unlikely.

“The analysis can’t provide certainties or guarantees, only statistical probabilities based on what happened here on Earth,” Kipping notes. “Yet encouragingly, the case for a universe teeming with life emerges as the favored bet. The search for intelligent life in worlds beyond Earth should be by no means discouraged.”