June 17, 2016

Alien Contact May Take 1,500 Years, Cornellian’s Research Claims

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Evan Solomonides ’19 made headlines this week with research suggesting extraterrestrial civilizations may not make contact with Earth for another 1,500 years.

Solomonides — who presented his work at a meeting of the American Astronomical Society on Wednesday — used probabilistic analysis of the Fermi paradox to support his claim. The paradox seeks to address why humans have not received communications from aliens, even while many scientists speculate that billions exist in the universe.

At first glance, the Fermi paradox seems to be ‘proof’ that humanity is alone in the universe, according to Solomonides.

“There are so many stars and so many planets, if life could have arisen elsewhere, it should have happened several times,” he said. “So a lot of times, the Fermi paradox leads to [the question], ‘If we haven’t heard from them yet, does that mean we’re alone?’”

To arrive at his conclusion, Solomonides combined the Fermi paradox with the mediocrity principle, which he said states that the Earth is an average civilization.

“Because we aren’t in a place that special in the universe, we shouldn’t be anything that special,” he explained.

Working with Prof. Yervant Terzian, astronomy, his advisor on the project, Solomonides said he calculated the percent of the Milky Way that human communications — like broadcasts from television or radio — have reached at this point in time.

He estimated that contact from extraterrestrial civilizations only becomes likely when that number reaches 50 percent, or half the stars and planets in the galaxy.

Achievement of this threshold would take approximately another 1,500 years, according to Solomonides’ predictions. So far, human communications have reached 4 x 10-6 percent of the Milky Way, which he called an “insignificantly small fraction” of the expanse.

“Us not hearing anything yet does not in any way say that we’re alone,” he stressed.

Solomonides said he began discussing his project with Terzian in ‘The Search for Life in the Universe,’ a class Terzian taught. He called their work together “an incredible honor,” highlighting Terzian’s support of his efforts in endeavors from acquiring funding to finalizing project details.

“[I] needed a lot of data, and I had no idea what to use for that data,” he said. “Professor Terzian helped in large part by helping me find the right sources and information, and he also helped mostly with guidance … for what I should analyze more in depth.”

Solomonides added that “raw excitement and enthusiasm” fueled him throughout his research, helping him balance his project and schoolwork.

“Honestly, it’s just really fun,” he said. “I want to do research, I want to work on science for the rest of my life, so why not start as an undergrad?”