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Book Review: Life in the Universe: The Abundance of Extraterrestrial Civilizations by James N. Pierce

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Possibilities, hundreds of thousands of possibilities! To read and enjoy Life in the Universe: the Abundance of Extraterrestrial Civilizations, one must be prepared to deal in the realm of probability and possibility to an enormous degree. So often the media almost reports as fact, the alleged encounter someone had with an alien-appearing object either in space or on the ground. Movie makers with their bag of computerized tricks have produced films which are extremely convincing. These herald as truth the idea that distant space travel is somehow possible — alien beings exist not only in our own galaxy but in uncountable others — some have visited our earth.

Life in the Universe attempts to show in a logical and realistic fashion what conditions must be necessary for life — as we know it — to exist elsewhere in our galaxy. After a brief explanation of the scientific method, probability and possibility, Pierce’s book describes science’s present understanding of atoms and molecules, and the basic interaction of their chemistry to produce life. If life is to be found on distant planets, then the critical environmental attributes needed to sustain life must be present in those remote places.

Pierce then reviews what those characteristics are, here on our home planet. He describes how interrelating the dating of rocks and fossils has helped science date the origin of life on planet earth. This is necessary to pinpoint rather accurately how long it took the first primitive living creatures to adaptively evolve into thinking man. Knowing this can help science estimate how long it would take intelligent life to develop on other planets once they estimate when those planets came into existence. Obviously, only a technical civilization would be advanced enough to engineer extra terrestrial contact.

Near the middle of Life in the Universe: the Abundance of Extraterrestrial Civilizations, Pierce introduces the Drake Equation, a formula which has been accepted by science as a means of estimating civilizations within our own galaxy. The equation at first looks mean and frightening, but Pierce provides an explanation for each term that any layman could understand, along with an equally simple rationale for the possible value of each term.

N = N. • fs • Np • Fe • Fl • Fi • Fc • L ÷ t

N = number of technical civilizations possibly existing in our Milky WayGalaxy (what we are seeking).
N. = number of stars in the Milky Way = 200 – 400 billion
fs = fraction of stars sufficiently Sun-like to support a civilization = .11 – .25
Np = average number of planets per Sun-like star = 1 – 20
Fe = fraction of Earth-like planets capable of supporting life = .033 – .11
Fl = fraction of Earth-like planets on which life might develop = 0 – 1

Fi = fraction of life-bearing planets that evolve intelligent beings = 0 – 1
Fc = the number of life-bearing planets where intelligent beings develop a technical civilization = .01 – .05
L = the average lifetime of a technical civilization = 500 years – 100,000 years
t = Average time from the formation of the Milky Way before a technical civilization arose (3 billion years)

To prove to myself that solving the formula was not hard, this reviewer selected a middle value for each of the above terms except for L (the average lifetime of a technical civilization). For that term I picked 3000 years because it seemed like a more realistic time span due to present global climate changes and our race's propensity for nuclear warfare. Science continually warns us about irreversible catastrophic damage to our planet, and I believe those warnings are real. Here is my equation filled in:

N = (200,000,000,000)(.18)(10)(.08)(.5)(.5)(.3)(3000) ÷ t (3,000,000,000) = 2,133

Thus, there is the possibility that 2,133 technical civilizations currently exist within the Milky Way. One must be mentally bamboozled when thinking of multiplying this number by the billions of similar galaxies in the entire universe.

The remainder of Life in the Universe deals with the impossibility of space travel even to the closest planets outside of our solar system but still within the Milky Way Galaxy. The distances we’d have to travel, even if speed-of-light travel was possible, are unfathomable.

Pierce spends some time explaining how signals from outer space are collected and interpreted. A variety of methods are used to examine incoming signals to see if there is any decipherable message in them. In all probability, the binary number system would be used because it is the easiest to interpret. An alien only need to recognize that any given bit of information can have only one of two values. Thus, language would not be a problem. The binary system can easily transpose an off or on signal into a pictogram as shown here.

Life in the Universe: the Abundance of Extraterrestrial Civilizations is a fascinating study into the realm of possibility. Based in earth’s reality and our solar system, the book attempts to blast us out along the Milky Way searching for intelligent alien life, even though we have no realistic mode of interstellar travel and probably never will.

If you are interested in the size of the universe and our humble place in it, this book is a must for you. As I’ve shown above, its math concepts require no advanced math degree. As long as you can multiply and divide, you too can crunch your own numbers and then ponder: Are we alone in the universe? I would be interested in your comments about the book and my review. They can be left below where it says: Add Your comments; Speak Your Mind.

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About Regis Schilken

  • duane

    Drake actually ended up being embarrassed by his famous equation, which is famous largely for its ease of understanding and for the profound topic it addresses. It is useful only from a qualitative standpoint, since most of the factors can only be guessed at, with WIDE variation. Usually parametric equations of this type contain only one or two ‘ignorance parameters’, and they are usually known to within a factor of ten or better. The Fi factor, just for example, could vary by a thousand, or a million, or a billion. We just have no idea. There is hope that the first three factors will be fairly well in hand within the next few decades. The first factor is the best known at the present time. The t factor can be reasonably estimated (factor of ten), since we know the age of the universe

    Some interesting ideas have come up in recent decades, such as the Fermi paradox, von Neumann probes, Bracewell probes, detection of Dyson spheres, and so forth (all easy to find on the web). One especially interesting discussion involves the so-called Great Filter (highly recommended reading for those interested in this topic).

    On a less cosmic scale, one has to consider the Moon’s role in allowing for the evolution of life on Earth. This is a topic of current interest, and seriously lowers any estimate on the Fe factor in the Drake equation. See, for example, this article.

    Constraining the Fi factor is subject to our understanding of global cataclysms, in particular, dinosaur-killing asteroid/comet-Earth impacts. More randomness.

    etc., etc….

    I think N=1 (that would be us).

  • http://drdreadful.blogspot.com Dr Dreadful

    The problem with the Great Filter idea, along with all other speculations as to the degree of our aloneness in the universe, is that it makes, of necessity, huge assumptions about how life and civilizations develop.

    But there’s no reason to think that life at other locations in the cosmos would develop in the same way, or hit the same crisis points – such as the emergence of eukaryotic cells – as it did on Earth.

    More probable, I think, is that ‘alien species’ – for want of a better term – would have developed in such a drastically different way to ourselves that we wouldn’t (haven’t?) recognized them for what they are. Hell, there might be an alien sitting right next to me now and I’d have no idea it was there – and it wouldn’t have any awareness of me either.

    In that sense, Duane, I think you’re very probably right about the number of intelligent civilizations like ours that there are in the universe. Any others would be so unrecognizable and… well, alien that for all practical purposes they wouldn’t count.

    There is, however, another part of me that thinks I’m very probably wrong, and I wouldn’t be at all surprised if NASA/JPL confirmed tomorrow that microbial organisms, either live or fossilized, had been detected on Mars.

  • duane

    Hi Dr. D. Interesting comments. Couple o’ things.

    Yes, of course, it’s all wildly speculative. All we have as an example is our own civilization. It’s not necessarily a good idea to project our own human qualities onto hypothetical aliens, by which I mean the desire to explore and to make contact.

    There may indeed be an alien right next to you, with access to technology that allows him (?) to be invisible and silent. Best behave.

    As far as discovering microbial life out there, I think that is not so far-fetched. But the jumps to intelligence then technological then spacefaring are huge jumps. That is where the speculation really begins. Over the next few centuries, I believe that biologists will put much of the human evolution puzzle together. That’s a start — just a start– but right now there are endless uncertainties (unless you happen to believe in Genesis).

    I thought the interesting spin on the Great Filter idea was that it would be BAD news if we discover any kind of life on Mars, because that might imply that life is not so rare. Then the Fermi paradox might be taken as having frightening implications. But then we come back to your contention that the GF might not apply to an alien life form. OK. Good point.

    Where is Regis?

  • Regis Schilken

    Your comments Duane and Dr. Dreadful are well taken. However, my understanding of Pierce’s book was this: it is an attempt to estimate the number of civilizations within our Milky Way Galaxy where LIFE IS SIMILAR to life on earth.

    From the beginning of his book, Pierce uses the word alien and extraterrestrial when talking about the possibility of life other than that on earth. These terms typically suggest to me the creatures seen on Star Trek or Star Wars.

    I think his work would be less misleading if he simply referred to “alien” life as human life because that is what the Drake equation appears to estimate. Even the book title would sound different: THE ABUNDANCE OF HUMAN LIFE WITHIN THE MILKY WAY.

  • http://sites.google.com/site/socialcapital1/Home/aliens Ilya Stavinsky

    to Regis Schilken:
    “Aliens live in our Earth’s atmosphere”
    For the first time in human history, I present here incontrovertible evidence of existence of hundreds of thousands of UFO in the Earth’s atmosphere, which can be seen by any person in any part of the world at any time…

  • Regis Schilken

    I’ve read the Ilya Stavinsky “article” above on the existence of UFOs. It contains no reasonable information about aliens, or even the slightest evidence that there are “…hundreds of thousands of UFOs in the Earth’s atmosphere, which can be seen by any person in any part of the world at any time …”

    I would hope it does not deter interested people from reading Life in the Universe: The Abundance of Extraterrestrial Civilizations by James N. Pierce.

  • http://sites.google.com/site/socialcapital1/Home/aliens Ilya Stavinsky

    to Regis Schilken:
    Your negative statement about my article “Aliens live in our Earth’s atmosphere”, is completely baseless. Why don’t you come to my place and I will show you 100s of UFOs in the night sky. After that you will change your mind. This is the best way I can prove that you are wrong about my article.

  • Regis Schilken

    to Regis Schilken:
    Your negative statement about my article “Aliens live in our Earth’s atmosphere”, is completely baseless. Why don’t you come to my place and I will show you 100s of UFOs in the night sky. After that you will change your mind. This is the best way I can prove that you are wrong about my article.

    To Ilya Stavinsky from Regis!
    Sorry I appeared negative about your photos of aliens visiting our solar system. Would you send me one of those photos either in an email or as an attachment. Thank You in advance.

  • http://sites.google.com/site/socialcapital1/Home/aliens Ilya Stavinsky

    to Regis Schilken:
    I don’t have photos of aliens but I have drawings of their motherships that I see every night in the sky, these drawings have been updated recently on my web site as the result of my further observations. If You have more questions I will be glad to answer them.

  • Dean

    If “technical civilization” is defined as one with technology of the type humans have developed since the Renaissance and the Industrial Revolution, then the Drake Equation is missing some parameters. A lot of people seem to assume that intelligence somehow automatically leads to technological progress. A look at the history of civilazations on Earth is enough to make one skeptical about that. Philosophical, religious, cultural, and political factors have all had played important parts in determining where technology did or did not develop on Earth. Would that be untrue elsewhere?

  • Regis


    Your point is well taken about the influence of philosophical, religious, cultural, and political factors, on technological development.

    In his book, LIFE IN THE UNIVERSE, author Pierce does say, “Technical civilizations are almost certainly not automatic for intelligent species.”

    He devotes an interesting chapter 10 to THE RISE AND DEMISE OF TECHNICAL CIVILIZATIONS, which considers some of the factors that have had an immense impact on the development of earth’s technology.

    Because Christianity spread throughout Europe, I wonder how much sooner thinkers would have felt “mentally” free to experiment with reality without considering it sinful.

    When I think of how long the Greek atomists’ beliefs went undeveloped (2000+ years), it reminds me of how long stem-cell research in this country has been delayed due to religious doctrine.