# How do physicists get away with publishing this crap?

And further, why does the media give them attention for it?

As the Guardian credulously claims, New calculations come up with estimate for worlds capable of communicating with others. That number is…36. What a load of bullshit. I think I’ve finally realized what the Drake Equation is good for: it’s an arbitrary formula that allows physicists to freely tweak the parameters and get a new number that they can publish. No, really, that’s all this paper is — they came up some new numbers to plug into the cascade of bullshit numbers in the Drake Equation, and got a new number. Surprise!

GIGO. It’s all GIGO.

The Guardian does get quotes revealing some of their assumptions.

Basically, we made the assumption that intelligent life would form on other [Earth-like] planets like it has on Earth, so within a few billion years life would automatically form as a natural part of evolution, said Conselice.

Wait, what? Automatically? Every Earth-like planet is going to form intelligent life within a few billion years, as a natural part of evolution? That certainly is a simplifying assumption, I guess. It means their number is hugely inflated.

He’s not done, though!

[If intelligent life forms] in a scientific way, not just a random way or just a very unique way, then you would expect at least this many civilisations within our galaxy, he said.

Oh. If the evolution of intelligence is scientific, then it produces intelligence. If chance or unique conditions play a significant role, then it’s not scientific. I hope evolution is listening. Maybe it should take some physics courses?

He added that, while it is a speculative theory, he believes alien life would have similarities in appearance to life on Earth. We wouldn’t be super shocked by seeing them, he said.

life on Earth. Like it’s one thing that he can picture in his mind. What exactly does life on Earth look like?

Is this it?

Or this?

Maybe it’s this, which Dr Physicist wouldn’t be at all shocked to see.

I have a few new rules:

• No more papers that use the Drake equation. It’s been done to death, it can be manipulated to produce any answer you want, and most of the parameters are indeterminable fantasies. It’s like publishing horoscopes.
• Physicists don’t get to publish papers on life in the universe unless accompanied by a responsible evolutionary biologist. All these godawful cocky physicists do is demonstrate that they don’t know jack about biology — they know less than your average non-scientist, because they’re stuffed full of bogus assumptions about how it must work.
• The media can’t just gather a couple of like-minded physicists to comment on a “life in the universe” paper. Somehow, they always manage to find a creationist to give a “fair and balanced” perspective on biology, but a physics boffin is an unquestionable source, no matter how stupid his ideas are.

I still have my old rule: when a physicist opines on biology, throw overripe tomatoes.

I do wonder if physicists are even capable of feeling embarrassment or shame. Somebody should do an experiment.

1. leerudolph says

I do wonder if physicists are even capable of feeling embarrassment or shame.

A great many of them appear not to be.

The “Drake Equation” was transparently bullshit from its inception, and that it’s still being played with is as scandalous as it is unsurprising.

2. bodach says

It all started with “assume a cow is spherical” and went downhill from there.

3. weylguy says

If N is the number of intelligent civilizations in the observable universe, then the true Drake equation is just
N > 0
and one can forget all the other factors. Of course, that assumes that the human species is intelligent, which is open to question.

4. KG says

They could at least have tried a bit harder and come up with 42.

5. Mario Romero says

Ah! You beat me to it!

6. anxionnat says

Yeah, one should never underestimate the arrogance of physicists. Case in point: my brother-in-law is a mostly retired high-energy physicist who is writing a book on evolution. He’s never had even a beginning college course on biology–never mind evolutionary biology. But he thinks that, because he’s got a doctorate in physics that qualifies him to write such a book. He gave his intro and first chapter to me to read. (I’m not an evolutionary biologist either. I’ve got an MS in Ecology. But I’ve got vastly more experience in evolutionary biology than he does–which was a low bar to clear. I pointed this out to him, but he said he thought I should read the chapters anyway, and because he’s my BIL and I’m retired, and I love him, and, well, anyway…) Wouldn’t you know it–the chapters were pure, unadulturated crap, spiced up with some ambiguous quote mining from places like Scientific American, which I guess he thought sounded profound or something. I put in the trouble of correcting his most egregious errors and told him (again) that he had no business writing such a book, gently reminding him that he had zero background in the field. So he cut me off, and I haven’t seen the rest of his oeuvre. I didn’t want to get in a flame war or anything, but maybe I should’ve just kept my big mouth shut and let whatever editor he ran into do the job. So, what does high-energy physics have to do with evolutionary biology? Damned if I know!

7. ORigel says

I remember reading about combining the Copernican principle with the Fermi paradox to get 1500 civilizations…or something. What nonsense!

Let me guess this one without looking yet, it’s fiddling with the Drake equation…YEP!

I just fiddled with the Drake Equation and got 2,000,001 (the 1 is to make the result look “sciency”). Hooray! I am the best astrobiologist EVAR

8. springa73 says

Hmm – the Drake equation seems less like an equation and more like a list of the conditions necessary to create an extraterrestrial civilization that we could communicate with. Of course it’s speculative, but what do you expect when you’re dealing with something that’s a complete unknown?

If we do find evidence of life on other planets, I suspect that it will be through patient study of the chemistry of distant planets through more and more powerful telescopes rather than some sudden signal out of the blue, but speculation is fun and harmless.

9. Dunc says

My personal favourite thing is the way they always seem to elide all the steps between “intelligent life” and “intelligent life with radio communications and an interest in communicating with life on other planets”.

10. bcwebb says

Based on the one example we have, it appears that intelligent life lasts about a hundred years or less between radio communications and self-annihilation. Makes the likelihood of communication about zero.

11. Dunc says

speculation is fun and harmless

There’s a time and a place for fun, harmless speculation, and it’s not “in the pages of a respectable scientific journal”.

12. dianne says

Clearly wrong. The right answer is 42.

13. bcwebb says

I’ll be publishing my magnum opus on the relativistic quantum gravitational topological string theory of evolution as soon as I get my advance and tesla from Elsevier.

14. fossboxer says

@9
And let’s not forget the implicit, hand-wavey definition of “intelligent life.”

15. springa73 says

@Dunc #11

That’s true, speculation should not be presented as science. Having said that, I’m somewhat dumbfounded at the amount of hostility even speculating about intelligent extraterrestrial life gets from some people.

16. fossboxer says

@15
It wouldn’t be so bad if these physicists would set aside their hubris for five minutes and admit up-front, “I’m pulling this out of my ass for funsies so please don’t assume I know everything just cuz I study electrons!”

17. says

@springa73 #8: Tjenare.

I agree, that’s more or less it. The real point is that it takes a lot for it to produce 0, so logic suggests that we cannot be alone. Whether or not we have any neighbors within transmission range, well that’s anybody’s guess.

18. Rob Grigjanis says

As an ex-physicist, I find the physicist-bashing somewhat amusing. There might be a psychology paper on that somewhere…

No “obligatory xkcd” yet? This thread needs more facile generalization.

KG @4: Since their estimate is actually ${36}_{-32}^{+175}$ civilizations in our galaxy, they have 42 covered.

19. KG says

Rob Grigjanis@18,

But the “I know about physics so I know about everything” attitude does seem to be rather common. Consider Paul Davies. Or Rutherford with his “There is physics, and there is stamp collecting.” Or the people promulgating what they presume to call “sociophysics” and “econophysics”, in which spin glasses are taken to be insightful models of human societies. Of course you do get physicists who switch fields and make genuine contributions, like the recently deceased Robert May. But he was not only gobsmackingly clever, he knew that wasn’t enough, and took the trouble to actually learn about his new subject area.

20. UnknownEric the Apostate says

The Drake Equation used to call me on my cell phone
Late night when it needed love…

21. ORigel says

@17

Imagine that abiogenesis was so improbable, only a few cases happen on average in a large galaxy, and out of those, very few produce intelligent life willing to communicate so we are the only case in the Local Group.

Simple. If one or more factors in the equation is a bottleneck, civilizations may be very sparse.

Now I’m sure if the universe is infinite, there are an infinite number of civilizations including parallel Earths with clones of us.

22. birgerjohansson says

För details about why this estimate is wrong, read David Walrham’s ‘Lucky Planet’. Our world and solar system is quite extraordinary, in that we have dodged a lot of circumstances that would have hurt our chances to evolve.

23. says

Those who are dumping on physicists in general should maybe learn a bit about selection bias.

24. F.O. says

As an ex-physicist, saw the article on the Guardian, thought it was utter bullshit and moved on.

Last time PZ went so far as wishing a physicist, who sinned by harming himself, would die.
This is not ok.

25. Rob Grigjanis says

KG @19:

But the “I know about physics so I know about everything” attitude does seem to be rather common

I don’t know whether it’s more common among physicists than among other scientists. It may be, but I’ve never been fond of coming to sweeping conclusions based on anecdotes, or pointing to the occasional paper. None of the physicists I’ve known personally would fit this description, but I certainly wouldn’t draw conclusions about physicists in general from that.

As for the Rutherford epigram, a variant of that was (as far as I can tell) first attributed to him two years after his death, without quotation. And now it is gospel truth, right?

26. Matt G says

How do you get a publication out of what best serves as a tool for thinking about the subject?

27. says

I wonder if it isn’t people who are highly educated in a narrow field. Among biologists James Watson comes to mind, and he didn’t even wander outside of biology with his scientific racism.

28. says

And scientific racism is a whole other subject that should cause biologists to hang their heads in shame.

29. a_ray_in_dilbert_space says

Well, seeing as how we really don’t even have one example of a planet that has evolved truly intelligent life (and yes, I’m including Earth), kind of hard to constrain the parameters.

Personally, I blame our qualifying exams. I knew one student who was asked to guess the number of piano tuners in the Denver Yellow Pages within 10%. After pulling that one out of an alternative orifice, the Drake equation seems rather prosaic. And one of the things about being a physicist, you’re not allowed to punt on a problem and say it can’t be done. You have to at least make a start. Your start may be crap, but it might serve as a springboard for better efforts.

These guys are mainly guilty of taking their efforts too seriously and seriously underestimating their error bars.

30. says

@ORigel #21: Fair point. And the equation does have qualities other than as a “wedge of infinity” (anything not physically impossible must happen). As you yourself prove it allows us to make some, albeit rough estimates. The problem isn’t the Drake equation, it’s the idiots who abuse it.

31. Matt G says

Rob@18 – I would love to see a psychological study addressing why so many physicists seem not content to “stay in their own lane.” Can you think of any biologists who seek to correct physicists about their own field?

32. nomdeplume says

The headline “Scientists say most likely number of contactable alien civilisations is 36” was enough to stop me reading further. The “scientists” tag annoys me, the media habit of generalising about “scientists” has caused a lot of the fake news problems. Yhe question “how many times has life originated in the universe” is one that will ALWAYS be unanswerable (the number of “contactable” forms is just a subset of this impossibility). Even if we were to find that there is life on Mars and the big moons of the gas planets that takes us very little further in estimating odds, although it would help a little in how we think about it.

Another “science”/media irritation for me is the finding that some organism lives in extreme conditions on Earth (deserts, deep rocks, volcanoes, ocean trenches, mountain tops) therefore it can originate in all sorts of unlikely places in the universe. But those extremophiles on this planet only exist on the fringes of the main evolutionary pathways. I doubt that you could have abiogenesis occurring in such conditions if they were all that was available.

33. says

When I saw the title, I knew what its was about: wishful thinking.

I stand by what I’ve said before: How do we know we’re not the first planet with life? Somewhere has to be first, and there’s no evidence this isn’t.

34. says

Addendum: The worst part about the Guardian or those like Michio Cuckoo is that they create unrealistic expectations in the mind of the public. And when they’re not met, what happens? The public starts to “think” (or it reinforces the ignorant opinion) that scientists aren’t any smarter than those who never studied.

35. John Morales says

Perfect.

36. ORigel says

@Erlend Meyer The Drake Equation is supposed to start with the number of stars in our Galaxy.

37. uusuzanne says

When I was teaching gen ed astronomy I would show my students the Drake equation, pointing out the (very few) quantities that we can at least guess at (rate of formation of stars and the fraction of those stars with planetary systems). I would then have them fill out the rest of the equation with numbers of their choice, and use the results to show that you can get pretty much any answer you want.

We also had a seminar given by a Christian (don’t remember whether he was a physicist or not) who used the equation to prove that we are the only intelligent species in the universe, therefore supporting his religious beliefs. I tried to point out to him that reality might not conform to his guesses, and there might actually be intelligent life elsewhere, and inquired if that would contradict his faith or if he could accept it. He basically didn’t answer, insisting that his guesses for the completely unknown factors in the equation had to be the right ones.

Incidentally, I am also a retired high energy physicist, and would never dream of writing a textbook about any field in which I did not have appropriate training.

38. springa73 says

As far as I understand it, the Drake equation just represents the conditions that would be necessary for an extraterrestrial civilization that we could communicate with. It doesn’t say anything about how many (if any) such civilizations we can expect. To speculate about that, one needs to guess at values for the conditions in the equation. That (not the equation) is where the real problem lies – everything is still guesswork at this point. One thing that scientists do know now that used to be speculative, is the fact that planets are quite common. Based on what they’ve found, planets similar in size to earth aren’t the most common size, but there are still quite a few of them, including a few that might be the right distance from their star for liquid water. Beyond that, they don’t and won’t know much until more powerful telescopes can get data about temperature and chemical composition, which won’t definitively show presence or absence of life but could give clues, like the presence of large quantities of oxygen or methane.

39. fossboxer says

@34 Intransitive,
This point cannot be overstated. Then by reinforcing this shit out of this bias to your base, one can become president.

40. chigau (違う) says

PZ
How is your yard and garden growing?

41. leerudolph says

Intransitive @33: “Somewhere has to be first.” Only if all (>1) instances of “first appearance of life on a planet (or wherever)” lie on a single light-like curve, no? If there are 2 “somewheres” and neither one is “earlier” (or “later”) than the other, then neither of those two is “first”. And so on.

(Disclaimer: I am not a physicist, and do not claim to have necessarily gotten the relativistic terminology right. But I believe I have the key idea right.)

42. wsierichs says

While I think the Drake equation was a valid attempt to come up with some way of trying to estimate intelligent life, the first number that is impossible to fill in is: How common is life in the universe? We know of only one form of life on one planet.

If we explore the whole solar system and find that, even with favorable conditions – liquid water, heat and the minimum necessary chemicals – Earth is the only place with identifiable life, the odds of life elsewhere are probably pretty low. (I assume here that exploration includes giving Mars a reasonably thorough search and figuring out some way to test if Venus ever had life when it was much cooler.)

If we find life or evidence of life existing in the past in several places (Mars, Europa, Enceladus etc.), then life is probably pretty common. Then the question is: How common is complex life? If all we find elsewhere are single-cell micro-organisms, that limits the odds of intelligence existing elsewhere. If we find complex organisms, then the odds improve.

I’m not a biologist, so the above is speculative, but it seems logical. You can’t make an intelligent guess on the above issues until you can make at least a rough guess at the odds. Also, how do you define intelligence? I’ve seen arguments that porpoises and octopi fit at least some definitions of intelligence.

Of course, given that we know that global scorching is going to be devastating to humanity – and could possibly wipe us out – yet powerful “intelligent” leaders keep pumping global-warming gases into the atmosphere, I think the question of intelligent life on the Earth is not yet settled. It will probably be another century – when we know the outcome of global scorching – before we can make a conclusion. If there’s anyone here to reach any conclusion … (Yes, I’m quite pessimistic on this issue.)

43. dianne says

Drat it, again? How did I miss @35?

44. John Morales says

dianne, monad @36 beat you to it. But I acknowledge you came up with the perfect example quite independently. :)

(And yes, there’s a plethora of examples from xkcd)

45. cartomancer says

D = d – fd

where d is the number of ducks on the pond and fd is the number of female ducks.

46. Rob Grigjanis says

leerudolph @43:

Only if all (>1) instances of “first appearance of life on a planet (or wherever)” lie on a single light-like curve, no?

That would be a time-like curve. And strictly speaking, in a Minkowskian spacetime events with a space-like separation cannot be unambiguously assigned “earlier” and “later” because there are frames of reference in which one is earlier, and others in which the other is earlier.

But, in our expanding universe (which is only locally Minkowskian) there is a reliable sense in which one can assign earlier and later even between space-like separations, and that has to do with the observed temperature of the cosmic microwave background, and the low peculiar velocity of most baryonic matter (like us, the sun, etc). Higher temp means earlier; i.e. a shorter time-like curve since the Big Bang. See comoving coordinates.

47. John Morales says

dianne, dammit — in the time I took to look up the skit, you caught up.

On-topic:
I concur with those who hold the Drake equation to be a reasonable (first) estimate as to how to quantify the likelihood of ETs who can communicate with us, but I also concur with PZ when he notes the values of the parameters are mostly guesses (or even unknowable with the science and tech we humans have).

Or, in short, it’s not solvable yet.

That said, I don’t concur with what I believe to be PZ’s dismissal of the utility of SETI — the resources spent on it are minuscule (mostly piggybacking on other expenditures), particularly in proportion to the possible gain should it actually pay off.

Or, it’s not flawed in the same manner as Pascal’s Wager.

48. dogfightwithdogma says

“I have a few new rules:

No more papers that use the Drake equation. It’s been done to death, it can be manipulated to produce any answer you want, and most of the parameters are indeterminable fantasies. It’s like publishing horoscopes.

Physicists don’t get to publish papers on life in the universe unless accompanied by a responsible evolutionary biologist. All these godawful cocky physicists do is demonstrate that they don’t know jack about biology — they know less than your average non-scientist, because they’re stuffed full of bogus assumptions about how it must work.

The media can’t just gather a couple of like-minded physicists to comment on a “life in the universe” paper. Somehow, they always manage to find a creationist to give a “fair and balanced” perspective on biology, but a physics boffin is an unquestionable source, no matter how stupid his ideas are.”

How do you plan to enforce these rules?

As for the Drake Equation, I’ve always treated it as a tool for harmless speculation.

49. wzrd1 says

What really takes the cake is that they’re communicating intelligences. OK, where are the RF signals of astropiano music? How about the fine glow of a space ship tooling along near tau 0?
Maybe radio message traffic spilling over with thousands of years long conversations?

Made plenty of headlines, even CNN picked it up. Wrote a nice, long article about it and thankfully, didn’t bring any damned fool creationist into the mess.

Now, excuse me while I have a fine gin and tonyx.

50. Rob Curtis says

I’m a physicist. I am appalled at some others who color poorly outside the lines.

I agree the Drake equation shouldn’t be used to publish papers. It is just an order of magnitude estimate that shows that it wouldnt be surprising to find out there is other life somewhere in the cosmos. There is a lot we just don’t know yet, but the knowledge is dribbling in. When I was in grad school, we only knew of the planets in our solar system, now we know of thousands and I believe the consensus is that most stars have planets. In twenty years or so, we have gone from 8 or 9 planets to N, where N is extremely large.
I read PZ cuz I don’t know biology, and am very interested in it. I am really hoping we figure out abiogenesis soon.

51. John Morales says

wzrd1 @52:

OK, where are the RF signals of astropiano music?

Or the modulated neutrino signals?

A: one can’t know, until one looks.

(Or the smoke signals, depending on your tech level? ;) )

52. Dan Phelps says

The Drake Formula was fun when I was 12 years old. By the time I reached college I realized it was as valid as the instructions that used to come with TI-35 calculators on how to determine and use your biorhythms.

53. says

I’m surprised to see scientific publishing of what is really nothing more than a thought experiment, seeing as the equation is a multiplicative filter with a whole lot of ‘known unknowns’. Even if we have started to improve our knowledge in the last decades (for example, by having a much better knowledge of exoplanets than we had when say, Carl Sagan wrote about it in 1980) there are plenty of other numbers in the equation where we haven’t even begun to improve beyond a simple guess.

As for the question of whether physicists feel shame, I certainly would be ashamed trying to assign even as solid a guess as {36}_(-32}^{+175} which constrains the answer to two orders of magnitude (I presume those are the 95% confidence intervals?). It’s the sort of bogus answer that gives me suspicions that the confidence intervals require confidence intervals.

54. Okay, so I got two questions for PZ, one serious, the other not so much.

The serious question is, can we make any kinds of assumptions about potential alien life at all, say for example, that they would be made up of cells?

The less serious question is, why did you even check out that article? Some sort of masochism? I saw a blip about this on CNN.com, and as soon as I saw “Drake equation” I stopped reading it. Unless crank physicists are anaerobic organisms, maybe we shouldn’t give them oxygen, yuk yuk.

And it took me a second to figure out what GIGO means…

55. William George says

UnknownEric the Apostate @ 20

Call me Captain America cuz I understood that reference

56. chrislawson says

In defence of the Drake equation, it was never intended to answer the question of how many civilisations were out there. Drake himself was well aware that there were far too many uncertainties for that. At the time he concocted it, only the first value was known with any kind of reliability. It was intended to be a roadmap for further thinking and research. Whenever I have read astronomers on the Drake Equation, they make it clear that there are many unknowns (e.g. “The social parts (concerning intelligent societies, etc.) are still a priori unknowable”). Admittedly I don’t read a lot of astronomy papers, so I can’t claim wide sampling.

The problem with the Drake Equation is that it seduces people to fill in the gaps with their own biases.

We can split off the physical terms of the equation from the biological and the social. Then we end up with a Reduced Astrophysical Drake Equation: Na = R* . fp. We don’t yet have precise values for either term, but we have a good idea of the first and the second is at least foreseeably measurable. But it’s not very exciting science. “Oh, we multipled the rate of star formation with the number of planets per system to estimate the number of planets in the galaxy.” Not only is this unambitious, but the estimate can only be strengthened by…measuring the number of planets in the galaxy. Which makes the calculation moot.

As for the last four terms in the Drake Equation, let’s call it the Reduced Biosocial Drake Equation, we will never be able to estimate any of those values unless we find other other civilisations or explore a huge chunk of the galaxy without evidence of other civilisations. Neither seems likely in our lifetimes, and possibly not even in the lifetime of our species.

57. fedaykin says

This is quite the hissy fit over a thought exercise.

58. John Morales says

fedaykin:

This is quite the hissy fit over a thought exercise.

Ah, right. A thought exercise, not a published paper that’s mooted as “scientists say [blah]”. One should not expect any rigour therein.

(gotcha)

59. whywhywhy says

Excercise? This is more thought on a couch with a bag of potato chips after having a joint.

( And I’m a medical physicist who is often exasperated by the arrogance of physicists. I think it is some corollary of Dunning Kruger)

60. DanDare says

I always thought the idea of the Drake equation was to produce a series of cascading error bars, which tend to leave 0 as the main probability. Then we are supposed to plug in known data, not speculation, as we confirm it.
So far we have only fiirmed up some of the astronomy bits, stellar populations and planetary populations. Even with the planetary we are still dealing with wide error bars. Stuff about life is not even in the ball park as we have not confirmed any biological conditions, yes or no life to life, any where outside our solar system.

61. DanDare says

With the paper in the OP there is some massive circular reasoning. The Drake Equation presupposes biology and technology as we know it as a way of limiting throwing wild speculation in the mix. The papers conclusion is then just a repeat of the pressup with handwavy numbets as a way of getting then.
A better way to back load the equation is to ask how many radio emiting civs have been doing just that within range of our detecting them? The answer to that is none.

62. tacitus says

@60:It was intended to be a roadmap for further thinking and research.

It wasn’t even that. Drake created it to serve as a last minute agenda for a meeting of astronomers and astrophysicists at Green Bank Observatory, including the young Carl Sagan. It was really just to provide a framework for their discussions about the likelihood of ETI arising elsewhere in the galaxy.

I guess they must have found it useful, which is why it has since developed a life of its own, with a bunch of papers published over the years with various attempts at improving the equation and quantifying the terms, but really, out of all the astronomy, astrophysics, and cosmology research papers published since 1961, such papers represent a vanishingly small body of work on what is perhaps the most intriguing question left to be answered in astronomy. I really don’t see what all the fuss is about.

If it helps, consider these papers part of an outreach program to spark an interest in science in the jaded minds of quarantined, Fortnite-obsessed teenagers. The search for exoplanets is one of the most exciting fields in astronomy, regardless of whether you’re looking for Earth-like worlds with the potential for harboring life, and far, far more time, money, and effort is going into that research.

Also, and I’m genuinely curious, don’t other scientific fields of study have their favorite speculative subjects producing papers that are of little to no value beyond the fun and interest of speculation?

63. chrislawson says

DanDare@64–

No, it definitely wasn’t intended to deliver an N of zero. It was presented at Green Bank (a radio astronomy facility) in 1960 because Drake realised they needed an agenda for the meeting and saw this as a way of breaking the SETI conversation into useful chunks. At the time, radio astronomy was still a new science and the prevailing view of the attendees was that, just based on probabilistic thinking and the huge numbers of stars in the universe, they expected there to be ET civilisations out there waiting to be detected. That is, most of the participants in that meeting expected to find alien radio signals in a short time-frame.

64. Owlmirror says

I suspect most people were introduced to the Drake equation by Carl Sagan on the old Cosmos series. He goes from a lowball of N~10 to N~10⁶ just by changing the last factor in his version of the equation, the lifetime of a technical civilization.

Looking at it now, many years later, that last part looks like a something aimed towards the nuclear-armed superpowers. “It’s hardly out of the question that we might destroy ourselves tomorrow.”

Aren’t there journals aimed at the more speculative side of things? If this paper had been published in the journal Icarus (itself edited by Sagan, once upon a time), would PZ have been quite so pissed off about it?

[T]he frontispiece of every issue contains an extended quotation from Sir Arthur Eddington equating Icarus’ adventurousness with the scientific investigator who “strains his theories to the breaking-point till the weak joints gape.”

Heh.

65. KG says

Rob Grigjanis@25,

My “does seem to be rather common samong physicists” is hardly a “sweeping conclusion”, is it? More a casual observation. And thanks for the information about the dodgyness of the Rutherford quote – but it does appear to have been attributed to him by a physicist!

66. Rob Grigjanis says

KG @69:

More a casual observation

Weaselly crap.

it does appear to have been attributed to him by a physicist!

Ooh, snap! With italics! Must be another casual observation.

67. KG says

Rob Grigjanis@70,

You really are making yourself rather ridiculous. You’re welcome to the last word if you want to go on doing so.

68. mailliw says

Dianne @12

Clearly wrong. The right answer is 42.

There was a rounding error in Deep Thought’s algorithm, the correct answer is 42.666. The devil lies in the detail.

More and more I grow convinced that life itself is just one long rounding error.

69. leerudolph says

Rob Grigjanis @49, thanks! “Light-like” was my failing memory. “Co-moving coordinates” were entirely new to me.

70. Kagehi says

@15 springa73

The problem isn’t the “speculation”, its that their assumptions about what it would look like, act like, or its interest, never mind ability, to contact other worlds is identical to speculation about what sort of elves will appear, presuming alternative universes exist, and someone in one opens a portal to earth. Lovely if you are writing fiction/fantasy, but.. kind of useless when talking about meaningful things in the real world.

71. Kagehi says

Rob Grigjanis @25

Maybe the issue here is that there is self selection involved. The sort of physicists that are mostly like to babble about things outside their field are, to a high degree, also the same ones with no comprehension of anything in the new field they are babbling about?

72. Matt G says

garydargan@59- Quantum Biology?? I do not think that will get a warm reception here. Makes me think of the first-year psychology student who starts to diagnose everyone around them, and also the expression “when your only tool is a hammer…”.

73. stroppy says

OK, so stick your hand in boiling oil or forever be known as a sidekick to Physics Girl:

74. Owlmirror says

garydargan@59- Quantum Biology?? I do not think that will get a warm reception here. Makes me think of the first-year psychology student who starts to diagnose everyone around them, and also the expression “when your only tool is a hammer…”.

It’s at least potentially legit. Apparently, some biophysical and biochemical phenomena are best explained as being quantum mechanical effects. And the authors did manage to publish in a reasonably legitimate journal. I don’t think they’re trying to push quantum woo.

75. Rob Grigjanis says

Matt G @76:

Quantum Biology?? I do not think that will get a warm reception here.

Wouldn’t surprise me in the least. The tendency to dismiss ideas based on nothing more than the conjunction of a couple of words seems to be rather common around here. Just a casual observation, of course.

But it would ignore the serious multi-disciplinary scholarship that’s been done in the last decade or more. The question of quantum coherence in the efficiency of light-harvesting in photosynthesis seems to have been settled in the negative. See here and here. But (see second link)

The major positive outcome is the improvement of theoretical and experimental methods that have led to a deeper understanding of the system-bath interactions responsible for decoherence and dissipation in biological systems.

76. Matt G says

@78 and 79- Johnjoe, author of the book in question, has another book: Quantum Evolution. Take a look at the blurb (featuring Paul Davies!) and see if your woo sensors don’t go haywire (if they don’t, get them serviced).

Quantum Evolution presents a revolutionary new scientific theory by asking: is there a force of will behind evolution? In his astonishing first book, Johnjoe McFadden shows that there is.

`McFadden’s bold hypothesis that quantum physics plays a key role in the origin and evolution of life looks increasingly plausible. The weird behaviour of matter and information at the quantum level could be just what is needed to explain life’s astonishing properties. If these ideas are right, they will transform our understanding of the relationship between physics and biology.’ PAUL DAVIES

In this brilliant debut, Johnjoe McFadden puts forward a theory of quantum evolution. He shows how living organisms have the ability to will themselves into action. Indeed, such an ability may be life’s most fundamental attribute. This has radical implications. Evolution may not be random at all, as recent evolutionary theories have taught: rather, cells may, in certain circumstances, be able to choose to mutate particular genes that provide an advantage in the environment in which the cell finds itself. This `will' - described by McFadden as`the life force’ – has startling implications. It is at the root of consciousness and free-will and provides a new understanding of the origins of life and the purpose of death.

77. Rob Grigjanis says

Matt G @80: My comment was about what you wrote, not some bloody book.

78. Matt G says

Rob@81- Your comment was indeed about a bloody book. You specifically addressed the idea of quantum effects in biological systems. No doubt they exist (who would be surprised in the visual system?), but to the extent claimed by these nuts? Not bloody likely. It’s like the creationists. What they don’t understand, they attribute to God. What these physicists don’t understand, they attribute to “quantum biology.” Embarrassing.

Also, you wrote: The tendency to dismiss ideas based on nothing more than the conjunction of a couple of words seems to be rather common around here. Just a casual observation, of course.

Ah, no. We dismiss these ideas because they are a huge pile of nonsense. This isn’t our first rodeo – there is a long history of physicists explaining biology to biologists. Even other physicists here have acknowledged the phenomenon of physicists straying outside their field. You still haven’t given me examples of biologists lecturing physicists about physics.

79. Rob Grigjanis says

Matt G @82: You’re actually trying to claim that your #76 was specifically about the book mentioned by garydargan, and not about the term ‘Quantum Biology’? You need to be much clearer, sunshine.

And stuff your condescending “this isn’t our first rodeo” twaddle. I’ve been around long enough to see plenty of instances of knee-jerk dismissal of things that were at least worth considering, and not just things with ‘quantum’ in them.

You still haven’t given me examples of biologists lecturing physicists about physics.

Why the fuck would I waste my time looking? I’ve seen enough bullshit written about physics by non-physicists to last a lifetime, some of it on FtB (although none, as far as I know, by biologists). Note that I’m not talking about people who have mistaken ideas, but are open to constructive criticism. I enjoy interacting with them.

80. jack16 says

I think the speculation that we’re alone is reasonable. Try using Bayes theorem, carefully, to determine a probability.
jack16
(Tides, Einstein, the vastness of space. bipedalism, etc. )

81. John Morales says

jack16:

I think the speculation that we’re alone is reasonable.

I think you’re wrong, if by “we’re alone” you mean we’re the sole life in the Universe.

(Principle of mediocrity)

Of course, if you meant we’re not being visited by ETs, then, sure.

82. Owlmirror says

Matt G @82: You’re actually trying to claim that your #76 was specifically about the book mentioned by garydargan, and not about the term ‘Quantum Biology’?

Well, if you follow the link provided by garydargan, you can see that the book’s full title is “Life on the Edge : The Coming of Age of Quantum Biology”. So it certainly made sense to me that the reaction was both to the book and the term as used by the book.

Meanwhile, I tracked down McFadden’s website, and I am much less enthused about defending him.

Quantum Evolution: Life in the Multiverse (2011)

The hairiest heresy of evolutionary biology, the one most likely to get scientists figuratively burned at the stake, is the notion that any force more selective than blind chance could drive mutation. Such “directed evolution” smacks too much of a retreat into creationism for most science-minded readers to be comfortable with, but there’s no a priori reason to reject the idea. Molecular biologist Johnjoe McFadden risks the Inquisition by suggesting just such a possibility in Quantum Evolution: The New Science of Life. Directed at a general but somewhat sophisticated readership, the book covers the basics of both standard evolutionary theory and quantum-level physics, then synthesizes them in an interesting theory of made-to-order mutation that explains enough to warrant attention and is, importantly, testable.

Oh dear.

83. Rob Grigjanis says

Owlmirror @86: That there are tons of shitty books with ‘quantum’ in the title was never in doubt.

I just looked up McFadden on wikipedia, and he appears to be a biologist. Huh. So I looked for some reviews.

From a review of McFadden’s Quantum Evolution;

When McFadden moves on to describe quantum mechanics and its interpretations, I feel that his touch becomes rather less sure. However it is hardly surprising that I can tell that he is out of his primary field and into mine, and the outlines of his presentation still strike me as reasonable. Unfortunately it is the details which matter when he attempts to apply quantum theory. He is not sufficiently explicit about what is going on at the level of the quantum state. In my opinion, this eventually leads him hopelessly astray.