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The Milky Way is Probably Full of Dead Alien Civilizations

Those interested in proving the existence of alien species are no doubt familiar with Frank Drake’s Equation which estimated the number of possible alien civilizations in the Milky Way in the millions, and with Enrico Fermi’s paradox, asking “But where is everybody?”. Now we have a new calculation which, in a strange way, combines the Drake Equation and Fermi’s Paradox into a new astrobiological posit which agrees with Drake on the possibility of alien civilizations in the Milky Way and answers Fermi’s question with, ‘They’re all dead.’ What do we call this formula – the Cemetery Calculation? The Dead Didactic? The Morbid Musing?

“In the field of Astrobiology, the precise location, prevalence and age of potential extraterrestrial intelligence (ETI) have not been explicitly explored. Here, we address these inquiries using an empirical galactic simulation model to analyze the spatial-temporal variations and the prevalence of potential ETI within the Galaxy. This model estimates the occurrence of ETI, providing guidance on where to look for intelligent life in the Search for ETI (SETI) with a set of criteria, including well-established astrophysical properties of the Milky Way.”

In a new study published in the arXiv database, Jonathan H. Jiang, an astrophysicist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory at Caltech, two other Caltech physicists and one high school student, explain their quest to update calculations like Drake’s Equation with new data learned through the use of the Hubble Space Telescope and Kepler Space Telescope. That information – new numbers on stars with Earth-like planets and habitable zones, frequency of deadly radiation, etc. – along with further psychological studies on the propensity of the one so-called intelligent species we know of to destroy itself, was fed into a new model of the evolution of the Milky Way galaxy. Live Science reports on the results:

“They found that the probability of life emerging based on known factors peaked about 13,000 light-years from the galactic center and 8 billion years after the galaxy formed. Earth, by comparison, is about 25,000 light-years from the galactic center, and human civilization arose on the planet’s surface about 13.5 billion years after the Milky Way formed (though simple life emerged soon after the planet formed.)”

This means a lot of intelligent civilizations should have formed in the Milky Way before ours. And, for all of the Fermi-wannabes out there:

“Even if the galaxy reached its civilizational peak more than 5 billion years ago, most of the civilizations that were around then have likely self-annihilated.”

You may have noticed that they concluded “most” civilizations. That means a few should still be around, right?

“Even an extraordinarily low chance of a given civilization wiping itself out in any given century — say, via nuclear holocaust or runaway climate change — would mean that the overwhelming majority of peak Milky Way civilizations are already gone.”

For SETI optimists, the study concludes that the glass is microscopically full – not even enough in it to toast with in the event that another lonely intelligent civilization somehow finds us in the vastness of the Milky Way. Is that enough incentive to keep listening anyway?

Do you find yourself turning the cup over to drink the last drop of coffee? There’s your answer.


Paul Seaburn is the editor at Mysterious Universe and its most prolific writer. He’s written for TV shows such as "The Tonight Show", "Politically Incorrect" and an award-winning children’s program. He's been published in “The New York Times" and "Huffington Post” and has co-authored numerous collections of trivia, puzzles and humor. His “What in the World!” podcast is a fun look at the latest weird and paranormal news, strange sports stories and odd trivia. Paul likes to add a bit of humor to each MU post he crafts. After all, the mysterious doesn't always have to be serious.
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