Intelligence in the Universe: Are We Alone?


It’s great to welcome to the program today,
Adam Frank, who’s a professor of astrophysics at the university, the city of Rochester. Also author of the book light
of the stars, Alien Worlds and the fate of the earth. Adam, so great to have you on today. Real pleasure. So just to begin with, if we want to broadly
start thinking about the idea of life in the universe, outside of earth, there are those
who make sort of mathematical probabilistic arguments. If you consider the size of the
universe, it’s mathematically likely that there is life elsewhere. There are others
who make arguments sort of along different lines. What is the best filter or frame through
which you think is most useful to think about that question of life elsewhere in the universe? Yeah, that’s a great question. And you’re,
the probabilistic arguments still, uh, are the best, especially given the a what I like
to call the exoplanet revolution of the last 20 years or so. So, you know, when people
started thinking about this via the Drake equation, you know, that’s really where the
probabilistic arguments came from. Uh, in 1960, you know, we really didn’t know much
about, uh, what was out there in terms of just the baseline for where life could form.
And now we know that every star in the sky pretty much has planets. So we did a paper
a few years ago that used the empirical data to set kind of a baseline on, um, how this
one way of framing it is how unlikely would it have to be for us to be the only, uh, um,
civilization in the universe. And it turns out to be one in 10 billion trillion, like
the odds per habitable planet would have to be less than one in 10 billion trillion in
order for us to be, the only time it’s happened. That number is so low that you’re really beginning
to stretch the bounds of credibility. So, um, you know, we know now that there are so
many planets, so many places for life to form that I think that way of understanding it
is the right way of sort of getting a handle on at least whether or not civilizations have
happened before. It doesn’t mean there’s anybody around now, but whether or not you know where
a a one off. So w how different are the questions of, is
there life elsewhere in the universe versus is there currently what we would call intelligent
life elsewhere in the universe? Cause those might sound like similar questions, but mathematically
they might be drastically different. Yeah, that’s a great point. In fact, they
could be enormously different. If you look at the history of the earth, for example,
um, microbial life seems to have appeared very rapidly after the earth formed, you know,
4 billion years ago or so. And it took intelligence intelligence, you know, literally only happened
yesterday. So if you just look at that, it seems like you can use that argument to say,
look, microbial life, you know, basic life is going to be very easy to form, but getting
intelligence may require a lot more, um, uh, accidents. So to speak, to happen, you’ve
got to pile them on, you know, so, so I think it’s, it’s, it’s reasonable to separate those
out. But when it comes to finding life, it may be that it’s more easy. It may be easier
to find us, um, uh, signatures of technological civilizations than it is, uh, finding, you
know, evidence on just in planets of just microbial life. When we think about the idea of intelligent
life now versus at some point in the past, which you alluded to, let’s dig into that
a little bit. There’s this concept of some kind of possible filter which might explain
why there, uh, we have not heard from other intelligent forms of life and that may be
that once life gets to a certain level of intelligence, something happens that destroys
it. It could be self-destruction, it could be something else. Can you talk a little bit
about that concept and how it should sort of inform our analysis of this? Sure, sure. That’s what’s called the great
filter. But if you don’t mind if we just step back a little bit, because the reason this
question, people have like, oh, we’ve been looking for so long and we haven’t seen anything
that is sometimes called the great silence and it turns out that’s not true. I mean when
people have to understand about the search for extraterrestrial intelligence is that
really NASA or anybody else has never funded a very detailed search. So recently, uh, there
was a paper that was done where, uh, basically, um, a couple of astronomers looked at how
much of the sky we’ve looked at. And so if the sky was like the ocean, we have only searched
right now through a hot tub. So, you know, if you looked at a hot tub and didn’t find
any dolphins, you wouldn’t say, oh, the ocean doesn’t have any telephones in it. So that’s something that’s very important
to know is that we haven’t looked very hard, look very hard. So we don’t know. Uh, but
the, the great filter argument is the possibility that, uh, or posits that, yeah, there’s something
that either keeps intelligent civilizations from forming or they don’t last long, right?
Because if every civilization, civilizations can be popping up all the time, but if they
all last 200 years, which may be how long we last, um, then you know, there’s not going
to be many out there to talk to. So the grade filter could be in our past. It could be that,
uh, it’s very hard to form intelligence for example. And somehow we got through hooray
or the into the great filter could be climate change. It could be that everybody triggers
climate change and very few civilizations are smart enough to get through it. So most
of them end with their climate change period. So the great filter could be hiding like a
snake in the our future or it’s in the path that we got lucky. That’s interesting. So then let’s talk about
climate change a little bit. The idea would be that dealing with climate change, that
intelligent life inevitably starts to modify their environment in such a way that it will
ultimately potentially at least cause the self destruction of, of that environment,
of that civilization. This is merely speculative at this point. Or how much, how much has that
concept caught on in the context of great filter discussions? Well, it’s, you know, this is the work that
I and my colleagues have been doing and you know, we’ve been arguing that it’s really
hard not to trigger climate change. If you are, what is a civilization? What do we, what
do we mean from a scientific point about what a civilization is? It’s basically a species
that has become very successful at harvesting energy from their planet. Now, we now know
enough about planets from studying earth’s history from Mars, Venus, the moon tightened
around Saturn that we understand climate really well. And if you’re going to harvest a huge
amount of energy to do work, which is what civilization is, um, you’re going to have
a feedback on your planet. It’s going to be hard not to have a feedback on a planet. So
I got, first of all, this totally changes how we look at climate change right there. The question now is no longer did we change
the climate. Instead, it’s like, Duh, what did you expect to happen? You built a giant
civilization. So then the next question is, does this always happen? And I think the argument
we’ve been running models we’ve been starting to do, um, starting off with simple five models
of planets and civilizations, very generic. And what we find is that you always trigger
climate change. It’s hard not to feedback on your planet. And then the question is who
gets through, right? What does it take to get you through this period and come to a
new equilibrium with your planet? And that’s very much an open question. Uh, we did find
luckily that some of the models led to a new steady state, uh, change climate, but, but
the whole idea your civilization does and die off, but also many of the models showed
collapse as well. So, you know, there’s a lot more work to be done on this, but I think
the answer is that pretty much every technological civilization triggers climate change and some
will get through and many won’t. So there’s the movement that is the search
for extraterrestrial life and or intelligence. There’s a movement, uh, that is a sort of
space exploration movement for the preservation of Homo sapiens. The idea that eventually
it could be because of climate change in 50 years, it could be because the sun expands
and engulfs the earth in much longer than that. But like eventually there will need
to be some other place for homosapiens if the species is to persist. Um, there is the
idea of exploring space for the benefit of technological development to be used here
on earth. There’s all these different areas. Question One, do these, uh, interact with
each other in substantively meaningful ways or are they relatively siloed and endeavors
and priorities? And number two, what’s your more general sense of what the relationship
should be of humans to space exploration right now and sort of over the next 10 to 20 years? Those are great questions. Well, for your
first one about the siloing, they were siloed, but what’s remarkable is that with climate
change, they can’t be siloed anymore. Right? Climate Change. We think of climate change
in terms of this, you know, we’re running around like a chicken with our heads cut off.
Half the country doesn’t even think it’s happening. The other half is, you know, is, is terrified.
And I think what we have to understand is that climate change is actually a profound
transformation. It’s a, it’s a moment. It’s like adolescence, right? When you become an
adolescent, you’ve now gained enough power over yourself. But you can have the keys to
your, a to a car. We now have the keys to a planet. We never would have learned about
this unless we were doing space exploration. Right? It’s, we only really figured out climate
change because we were looking at the earth from orbit or we were looking at other planets. Understanding Mars and Venus were instrumental
to our understanding climate change. So you know, space exploration are, are becoming
a space fairing race are becoming triggering climate change and are recognizing climate
change all fit together. And I think that’s going to be true of any civilization. So we
now have to recognize that all of these things are happening at the same time because they’re
supposed to happen at the same time you trigger climate change. You know when you become a
space bearing race. Cause that’s when you have the industrial capability and you don’t
get to know that you triggered climate change unless you’re a space bearing race. And then
hopefully you’ll learn what to do with it. Um, so at one thing also I want to point out
though there is no planet B, like there’s no way that we’re using, we’re going to get
to Mars, we’re going to be able to offload to Mars to deal with climate change. We have to deal with climate change here on
earth. Um, but here’s it for your second question. I think the W uh, what is important is that
space. We are just about to become truly a space fairing race. Like the last 50 years
we’ve taken our first tentative steps and now with the new space movement, as you’re
pointing out with Elon Musk and commercial, uh, the commercial utilization of space, we
are poised to begin settling the solar system. And I’m, I’m a big fan of this for many reasons,
but mainly it’s because in some sense the next thousand years or so of human history,
if we make it through climate change, is going to be the settlement of the solar system because
the stars are too far away. Barring a technological miracle, the solar system is really where
the next a thousand years of our history gets played out. So if we can get through climate
change and we can, you know, manage to understand how to have a, a, an eco, a thriving ecosystem
on earth, we’re going to learn enough to start building artificial ecosystems, large artificial
ecosystems elsewhere in the solar system. So it’s all very tightly coupled together
for me. Uh, when we think about, um, policy, uh, between
countries, between nation states, with regard to space, it’s sort of a wild west right now.
I mean, you’ve got the, I believe it’s the moon treaty from the 70s. Uh, and there’s
some one piece of legislation that I think is more recent, but how soon do you think
that the lack of, of legal infrastructure in space will become relevant based on what
it is that’s planned over the next 10, 20, 30 years? Yeah, we’re already in trouble. I mean, we’re
already at the end of those treaties. We have, we’re very quickly, we’re going to need to
start rethinking a best because you know, if you want to have a thriving space economy,
I am all for the, you know, economic, using space, not just exploration but beginning
to start thinking about it in terms of commercial activity cause nobody’s going there unless
there’s money to be made. Right? Um, and that’s how you will start building thriving new,
interesting communities, people trying all different kinds of experiments and democracy
and other good things, um, or you know, in these settlements. So you have to be able
to ensure both, um, the commercial viability people have to be able to invest and have
a return on their investments. But also at the same time, you’ve also got to make sure
that all of spaces open for everybody. You don’t want to have like two corporations battling
it out, uh, for a, you know, for the ownership of space. So there is, there’s a lot of very
tricky legal precedents that we’re going to have to establish, um, over the next few years.
And right now, as you said, it’s a wild west. So people need to really understand that space
is not just for, you know, heroic astronauts anymore. Very soon it’s going to be for working
people and, and be investors and, and explorers. So yeah, we’re right on the lipid that I don’t doubt that. At the same time though,
what scares me is I have this idea and maybe it’s an incredibly naive and idealistic thing,
that a progress in space would be an extremely sort of uniting process for humans on earth.
That the imaginary borders between countries would become far less relevant as we start
to become a space bearing race. And I mean imagine for a second, if we were to encounter
in intelligent life elsewhere, my ma, where I get scared is I feel as though it being
hyper commercialized from the beginning. We’ll basically just transfer all the same problems
we’re already dealing with here to space and it will sort of counteract that possible uniting
force. Is that a concern that you had that you share or my maybe missing something? No, no, I think that’s a good concern. That’s
why these treaties have to balance you. We have to learn from our mistakes, uh, in our
various periods of colonization over the last 10,000 years. You know, we have to learn from
our mistakes in the past about how to, you know, explore because that’s what we do. You
know, human beings are always going over the net or the next hill looking for a better
deal. Um, so how to both have that need to expand but also do it sensibly and do it with
some kind of a compassion, both for the environments that we’re touching, even if they’re not living,
um, as well as ourselves. And so, you know, my hope is that, uh, you know, that is, is
going to be possible. So, you know, but that’s going to be very tricky. But again, that’s
why this is so tied to climate change. Like, you know, in many ways we’re going to have
to reorganize ourselves on a pretty deep level in order to get through climate change as
well. So all of this stuff is happening at the same time and all of it poses the possibility.
Either you can go down the same, you know, and make the same mistakes or you have these
possibilities of really reconfiguring the way you do civilization in ways that will
be more free, more compassionate, um, and, and allow life of all kinds to thrive. Make sure you check out the book light of
the stars, Alien Worlds and the fate of the earth. We’ve been speaking of course with
the books there. Adam Frank, who’s a professor of astrophysics
at the University of Rochester. Uh, Adam, really a pleasure having you today. It was
really fun talking. Thank you.

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