Where no math has gone before

FGCU prof calculates probability of alien civilizations.
photo credit: 
Courtesy of mptvimages.com


A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away, intelligent life may have emerged from the cosmic soup.

So why haven’t aliens paid us a visit by now? After all, we do have cable. Not to mention the Kardashians.

Despite our terrestrial allure, Thomas Hair, a Florida Gulf Coast University assistant math professor, has a simple explanation: They’re just not that into us.

What could prompt a math professor to boldly go where no math professor had gone before? Elementary, Mr. Spock: He discovered a mathematical step in the search for intelligent life in the universe that others had somehow overlooked.

Hair’s space adventure began in the summer of 2010 when, faced with the prospect of six weeks of restless relaxation, he decided to write a paper that combined his innate mathematical curiosity with his boyhood fascination for space aliens and close encounters of the third kind.

“If the universe is 13.5 billion years old, has anybody ever thought about how long ago the first intelligent civilization could have evolved?” he wondered. It turned out that no one had; at least no one with an advanced math degree.

“According to astronomers, the first planets like ours formed over 9 billion years ago,” says Hair. “We’ve been around 4.5 billion years. That means that the conditions necessary to support intelligent life in the universe could have already been present for 5 billion years.”

Inspired, Hair ran computer simulations based on the age of the universe, the rate of star formation and varying numbers of civilizations, from 10 to 10,000, that could either have evolved or still be evolving in the Milky Way galaxy over billions of years.

The resulting paper, “Temporal Dispersion of the Emergence of Intelligence: An Inter-Arrival Time Analysis,” opened up a universe of possibilities. Hair’s findings were sufficiently groundbreaking to prompt an invitation to present his paper at the NASA Astrobiology Conference in April.

His work has also prompted publications from around the world – including Discovery News, The Economist and India.com – to report on his conclusions.

“We’ve only been human beings for 100,000 years at most and we’ve only had a civilization where we wrote things down for the last 4,000 to 6,000 years,” Hair says. “Just contemplating a civilization that is 1 million years old is mindboggling, but if we talk about a civilization that is 1,000 times that, a billion years old, that would completely change the way we even think about existence.”

Yes, space monsters of a sort are likely to be involved.

Pinnacle Issue Info
Where no math has gone before
Issue Date: 
July 2012
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Thomas Hair and Andrew Hedman