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Re: His Numbers Say We're Not Alone

From: Stig Agermose <Stig_Agermose@online.pol.dk>
Date: Wed, 6 Jan 1999 10:16:43 +0100
Fwd Date: Wed, 06 Jan 1999 12:43:54 -0500
Subject: Re: His Numbers Say We're Not Alone

I wrote:

>From: Stig Agermose <Stig_Agermose@online.pol.dk>
>To: updates@globalserve.net
>Date: Tue, 5 Jan 1999 01:26:07 +0100
>Subject: His Numbers Say We're Not Alone

>Source: The Seattle Times via the Bergen Record,




A more critical review of Aczel's book was sent to the Monthly
Reader, an e-mail discussion group (see below!).

Source: "alt.alien.research".





Mon Jan 04 17:08:26 1999
Newsgroups: sci.astro,alt.alien.research,sci.math
Subject: Probability 1: Why There Must Be Intelligent Life in the
From: davidkaiser@my-dejanews.com
Date: Mon, 04 Jan 1999 16:08:26 GMT

Probability 1: Why There Must Be Intelligent Life in the Universe
by Amir D. Aczel
Hardcover, 240 pages, 1997, Amazon.com price $15.40

Amir D. Aczel, a professor of statistics at a small college in
Massachusetts, provides a rudimentary review of various topics
relevant to the search for extraterrestrial life (SETI) such as
the probabilities of extrasolar planets, evolution of DNA, and
lifespan of stars. He is extremely topical, if anything, as he
discusses findings and reports from the early 90s up to 1998.
However I cannot recommend this book to anyone who knows the
Drake equation or anything about SETI going in, as this is at
best an unremarkable introductory work to SETI. I'd recommend
"Are We Alone?"  by  Paul Davies or "Is Anyone Out There?" by
Frank Drake & Dava Sobel above the current work.

Aczel writes best when he describes historical anecdotes: how
Pascal's contribution to probability emerged from a gambling
friend's request, how Gaussian receives credit for a curve that
was described 100 years earlier by an impoverished math tutor.
The history of science and mathematics is always interesting as
it provides a context within which our now-everyday concepts
developed, revealing the incremental nature of the innumerable
aspects of scientific discoveries we take for granted.

The title of the work -- Probability 1 - refers to his
conclusion that mathematically the probability of life existing
elsewhere in the universe is 100% likely, or nearly so. He
supports this claim with a dubious calculation. Essentially he
says that the probability of life out there = 1 - ((a-1)/(a))^b
where ((a-1)/(a)) is the probability of life existing anywhere
and where the power b is the number of anywheres (stars) in the
universe. The term heads toward zero as a and b approach
infinity.  b can at least be calculated with some degree of
accuracy. He uses the value 30 x 10^24 as the number of stars in
the universe. A reasonable assumption, I suppose. However the
entire equation hangs on the value of	(a-1)/a  which he sets
as 0.00000000000005, give or take a few zeros. This value is not
yet known to any degree of accuracy and thus giving it a value
and using that value concretely does not clear up the matter --
though it does provide a catchy title for a book.

And even if the probability of life elsewhere in the universe is
1, do we really care if bacteria developed in a galaxy so remote
from us (essentially meaning any galaxy outside of our own) as
we will never be able to examine it under the microscope or
communicate with its distant descendants. What we'd like to know
is the probability of life (intelligent life in particular)
within 50 or so light-years of Earth. That cannot be determined
on a slide rule. The only way we will know during our lifetime
whether life exists in the universe is through observation --
spying on planets with telescopes and listening for intersolar
radio traffic...

-David Kaiser

Recommended books on search for extraterrestrial life/intelligence

Are We Alone?: Philosophical Implications of the Discovery of
Life    by Paul Davies

Is Anyone Out There?: The Scientific Search for Extraterrestrial
by Frank Drake & Dava Sobel

Carl Sagan's Universe
Yervant Terzian, Elizabeth M. Bilson (Eds.)


Next month (February):  The Universe Unfolding -- Hermann Bondi(editor),

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most dealing with physics and astronomy, send any message to


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