Krauthammer, Drake, Fermi and the Copernican Principle

Charles Krauthammer wrassles with the Fermi Paradox and the Drake Equation today and declares that intelligent civilizations throughout the universe have obliterated themselves by electing Democrats. I’m paraphrasing a bit.

Charles explains the Paradox and the Drake Equation correctly, though methinks he’s being a bit melodramatic and a step or two ahead of the hard evidence.

He writes that the search for alien worlds “betrays a profound melancholy — a lonely species in a merciless universe anxiously awaits an answering voice amid utter silence.”

Actually, I’m not sure anyone’s very anxious about this. Are people in a cosmic-silence funk and I just didn’t notice? And how can you call the universe merciless when the sun has been shining steadily for FOUR BILLION YEARS with many billions of years left in the tank? (Gee, I wonder where we’ll get our energy in the future....)

Is our species really lonely? Seems to me I can’t get a minute to myself lately. There are seven billion of us, and I’m just talking about the folks currently staying at my house for the holidays.

OK, but onward. Charles writes: “Modern satellite data, applied to the Drake Equation, suggest that the number [of communicative civilizations] should be very high.” I want to see the footnotes on that. The Kepler mission, and other telescopic surveys, do suggest that the universe is chocka­block with planets, though it’s still unclear what percentage are in habitable zones, what percentage are Earth-sized and rocky, and how many of them reside in their habitable zone for the very long time periods presumably necessary for the evolution of intelligence. We do not know how likely it is that nonlife evolves into life — anything on that front is arm-waving. I’d venture that simple life, given enough time, will eventually stumble and squirm and ooze itself toward complexity, but none of the great leaps forward is inevitable or would necessarily result in what you might call garrulousness — a species that wants to be heard across the depths of space. The aliens might be circumspect.

As for radio signals, you know the answer to that: They’ve switched to cable.

[Note: Chapter 29 of my book Captured by Aliens is titled “The Mystery Constraint” and addresses this issue rather comprehensively.]

Charles writes: “It is telling us that intelligence may be the most cursed faculty in the entire universe — an endowment not just ultimately fatal but, on the scale of cosmic time, nearly instantly so.”

Wait, isn’t that Rick Perry’s campaign slogan?

It’s true that we don’t know if intelligence ultimately is an enduring trait. Bacteria have done fine for billions of years, but humans just showed up yesterday and are making a mess wherever they go. My guess is that Dr. Krauthammer is more of an optimist than he lets on here. (I associate despair with the Left. Discuss.) The Copernican Principle, as articulated by the great Richard Gott, tells us that we’re probably not at the very beginning point of a long period of human efflorescence, nor anywhere near the end. We’ve got some time left.

Just not as much as the bacteria.

Joel Achenbach writes on science and politics for the Post's national desk and on the "Achenblog."

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