(Roughly) Daily

“Two possibilities exist: Either we are alone in the Universe or we are not. Both are equally terrifying”*…

 

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If there’s intelligent life in the cosmos, it’s probably nowhere we can get to anytime soon. At least that’s the finding of the astrobiologist who, for the first time in decades, has rendered a major update to the key formula scientists use to seek out interstellar life.

That’d be the Drake equation, which was developed over half a century ago to determine where life might lurk in the universe. Until now, the formulation that promises to pin down the number of intelligent civilizations in the cosmos has suffered one big limitation: There’s been no actual data to constrain most of its parameters.

All that’s been changing since numbers started coming in from the Kepler mission over the past few years. We now know that small, Earth-sized planets are scattered throughout the galaxy, and that many lie within the habitable zone of a Sun-like star.

Using the new Kepler data, astrobiologist Amri Wandel did some calculations to estimate the density of life-bearing worlds in our corner of the universe. The exciting news is there are probably millions to billions of biotic planets in the Milky Way.

But before we start packing our bags, a sobering reality check: Our corner of the cosmos may be dark…

Read more at “Aliens Are Probably Everywhere, Just Not Anywhere Near Humans“; and peruse Wandel’s paper on arXiv.

* Arthur C. Clarke, as quoted in Visions : How Science Will Revolutionize the Twenty-First Century (1999) by Michio Kaku, p. 295

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As we consider Calvin’s comment to Hobbes that “the surest sign that there is intelligent life out there in the universe is that none of it has tried to contact us,” we might spare a thought for Cecilia Helena Payne-Gaposchkin; she died on this date in 1979.  An astrophysicist and astronomer, she was the first– in her Radcliffe (Harvard) PhD thesis in 1927– to apply the laws of atomic physics to the study of the temperature and density of stellar bodies: the first to  conclude that hydrogen and helium are the two most common elements in the universe and the first to suggest that the Sun is primarily (99%) composed of hydrogen.  During the 1920s, the accepted explanation of the Sun’s composition was a calculation of around 65% iron and 35% hydrogen.  Her thesis adviser, astronomer Henry Norris Russell, reached a similar conclusion via his own observations several years later, and (while he made brief mention of Payne’s work) was for a time credited with the discovery.  But in 1947, astronomer Fred Hoyle confirmed her original claim.

She spent her entire career at Harvard.  In 1956 she became the first woman to be promoted to full professor from within the faculty at Harvard’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences. Later, with her appointment to the Chair of the Department of Astronomy, she also became the first woman to head a department at Harvard.

Her students included Helen Sawyer Hogg, Joseph AshbrookPaul W. Hodge, and Frank Drake (the creator of the Drake Equation, mentioned above)– all of whom made important contributions to astronomy.

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Written by LW

December 7, 2014 at 1:01 am

Posted in Uncategorized

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