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Life: is it inevitable or just a fluke?

25 June 2012 by Nick Lane
Magazine issue 2870. Subscribe and save
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If life arises wherever conditions are right, why haven't we heard from aliens?

See gallery: "Prime locations for life in our solar system"

UNDER the intense stare of the Kepler space telescope, more and more planets similar to our own are revealing themselves to us. We haven't found one exactly like Earth yet, but so many are being discovered that it appears the galaxy must be teeming with habitable planets.

These discoveries are bringing an old paradox back into focus. As physicist Enrico Fermi asked in 1950, if there are many suitable homes for life out there and alien life forms are common, where are they all? More than half a century of searching for extraterrestrial intelligence has so far come up empty-handed.

Of course, the universe is a very big place. Even Frank Drake's famously optimistic "equation" for life's probability suggests that we will be lucky to stumble across intelligent aliens: they may be out there, but we'll never know it. That answer satisfies no one, however.

There are deeper explanations. Perhaps alien civilisations appear and disappear in a galactic blink of an eye, destroying themselves long before they become capable of colonising new planets. Or maybe life very rarely gets started even when conditions are perfect.
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