Most of the alien civilizations that ever dotted our galaxy have probably killed themselves off already.
That’s the takeaway of a new study, published Dec. 14 to the arXiv database, which used modern astronomy and statistical modeling to map the emergence and death of intelligent life in time and space across the Milky Way. Their results amount to a more precise 2020 update of a famous equation that Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence founder Frank Drake wrote in 1961. The Drake equation, popularized by physicist Carl Sagan in his “Cosmos” miniseries, relied on a number of mystery variables — like the prevalence of planets in the universe, then an open question.
This new paper, authored by three Caltech physicists and one high school student, is much more practical. It says where and when life is most likely to occur in the Milky Way, and identifies the most important factor affecting its prevalence: intelligent creatures’ tendency toward self-annihilation.