Intelligent life in the Milky Way is slowly dying out

Mankind is pretty late and pretty far out. That’s the conclusion of a study that statistically examines the development of intelligent life in the Milky Way. In it, the authors look at a whole range of factors that they think influence the evolution of intelligent life, such as the frequency of Sun-like stars hosting Earth-like planets, the frequency of civilization destroying supernovas, the length of time it takes for intelligent life to evolve (if conditions are right), and the tendency of advanced civilizations to self-destruct.

The researchers incorporated these factors, with varying values, into a simulation of the Milky Way. The result: about 13,000 light-years from the galactic center and 8 billion years after the galaxy’s formation, the number of extraterrestrial civilizations has probably peaked. By comparison, Earth is about 25,000 light years from the galactic center, and human civilization did not emerge on the surface of our planet until 13.5 billion years after the Big Bang. We are therefore latecomers, and our galactic position should also make it difficult to establish contact with other civilizations, especially since their numbers have already been decreasing for 5.5 billion years.

However, this does not mean that there is no more chance of meeting at all. Rather the researchers mean that at present beside us existing civilizations are probably too young to be able to discover them. However, we should not concentrate our search on the nearest stars as we have done so far, but on the area 13,000 light-years away from the center of the Milky Way, mainly because of the sun-like stars that predominate there. In contrast, most of the civilizations that existed 5 billion years ago have already destroyed themselves.

Number of civilizations by time and distance from the Milky Way core. The star symbol is humanity. (Image: Jiang at al, CC-BY)
Age distribution of civilizations in the universe depending on the different values of the parameters used. Pann=0 means the unlikely case that civilizations would be immortal. (Image: Jiang at al, CC-BY)

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  • BrandonQMorris
  • Brandon Q. Morris is a physicist and space specialist. He has long been concerned with space issues, both professionally and privately and while he wanted to become an astronaut, he had to stay on Earth for a variety of reasons. He is particularly fascinated by the “what if” and through his books he aims to share compelling hard science fiction stories that could actually happen, and someday may happen. Morris is the author of several best-selling science fiction novels, including The Enceladus Series.

    Brandon is a proud member of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America and of the Mars Society.