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X-Files: The Truth is out there... but it's up to science to find it

by Rob Lea. Published Thu 14 Mar 2019 15:33

Next Tuesday the case of a mysterious VHS will be opened and X-Files fans are invited on a VideOdyssey that will test their knowledge of the hit show. But what does science say about the likelihood of those fans being joined by visitors from much further-a-field?

The X-Files — which took the World by storm in the mid-nineties — told the story of Fox Mulder and Dana Scully searching for the truth regarding alien encounters and paranormal occurrences. Whilst Scully — played by Gillian Anderson — fulfilled the role of the scientific sceptic in the show, she became inspirational to a generation of future scientists who took the prospect of alien-life very seriously.

Played in contrast to David Duchovny's more accepting FBI agent — Fox Mulder — Scully reflected the fact that, whilst it’s generally sensible to approach stories of alien abduction with a critical mindset, the idea of life existing elsewhere in the Universe isn’t completely crazy.

In fact, statistically, it’s probably more of a stretch to say that in a universe containing billions of star systems similar to our own life only occurred on one average planet, with an average star, in an average galaxy.

Sweating the small stuff

Of course, the scientific search for extra-terrestrial life doesn’t focus on visits from the stereotypical ‘greys’ — more commonly astrobiologists and astronomers are searching for complex molecules which would provide the early starting points for life.

And 2018 and 2019 have provided some startling examples to inspire this search. First NASA announced the discovery of variations in methane concentrations on Mars, followed by the discovery of organic molecules in Martian mudstone. More recently it was revealed that the Cassini probe had observed even more massive organic molecules on Saturn’s moon Enceladus.

What made these discoveries so significant is the circumstances that surround them, the situations that we have found these carbon-rich molecules in and the patterns in those observations. When it comes to life, complexity is key and these discoveries are extremely tantalising because of that.

Whilst this search continues, scientists at the SETI Institute —comprised of three centres including the Carl Sagan Center for the Study of Life in the Universe and the Center for Education and the Center for Outreach — search for electromagnetic radiation which could possibly constitute some form of repeated signal — indicating the presence of not just simple life, but intelligent advanced civilisations.

SETI concern themselves with the search for intelligent life elsewhere in the Universe. Sadly they aren’t as well-funded as NASA and the ESA — a great deal of their computing power comes from volunteers

When considering the scientific search for extra-terrestrial life, it is useful to start with the work of one man — Frank Drake. Drake was inspired by the words of Enrico Fermi, who once famously and publicly asked one question of extra-terrestrial life over lunch:

“Well, where the hell are they?”

The Fermi Paradox and the Drake Equation. Mathematically searching for life in the Universe
This off-the-cuff question was immortalised by the Fermi Paradox — which pits the high probability of life elsewhere in the Universe against the profound lack of evidence of the same.

The first factor in the Fermi Paradox is the question of scale, similar to that hinted above — the observable Universe contains an estimated 70 sextillion stars (that’s 7 followed by 22 zeroes) — so even if life is a trillion to shot in our solar system that still leaves 10,000,000, 000 worlds that should host life.

The Fermi Paradox would also assert, given the fact that there is very little special about our star and planet, that there should also be an abundance of intelligent life. Also, when factoring in the age of the Universe — 14.8 billion years — at least some of these civilisations should have also reached the point of embarking on space exploration — just as we have.

Even if we take into account massive travel-times between galaxies which would likely preclude a physical visit — surely, we should be seeing some sign of intelligent life?

In 1961, approaching ten-years after Fermi’s lunchtime enquiry, Drake attempted to formalise the problem in the guise of an equation to predict the number of advanced civilisations in our galaxy.

N= R∗ X fp X ne X fl X fi X fc X L

The equation consists of a series of probabilities and parameters.

N = The number of civilizations in the Milky Way Galaxy whose electromagnetic emissions are detectable.
R* = The rate of formation of stars suitable for the development of intelligent life.
fp = The fraction of those stars with planetary systems.
ne = The number of planets, per solar system, with an environment suitable for life.
fl = The fraction of suitable planets on which life actually appears.
fi = The fraction of life bearing planets on which intelligent life emerges.
fc = The fraction of civilizations that develop a technology that releases detectable signs of their existence into space.
L = The length of time such civilizations release detectable signals into space.

The issue with the Drake equation that really limits how useful it actually is are those last four factors — they are just estimates. In fact, depending on how you judge those last four factors, the number of possible civilisations can range from thousands to… well… none.

Despite this, the SETI Institute has based the majority of their research and their search for extra-terrestrial life on the Drake equation.
Many people believe that the Drake equation represents something more significant than simply a mathematical determination of the existence of life elsewhere in the Universe.

It’s an appeal to curiosity. A reminder that the truth may, indeed be out there. That absence of evidence isn’t equal to evidence of absence.
It’s a sentiment that Mulder and Scully would likely both approve of.

You can test your knowledge of the X-Files at VideOdyssey, 37 -45 Windsor Street, Toxteth, Liverpool, L8 1XE on Tuesday March 19th from 19:00–22:00. All species welcome.


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