Where are they?

Evolution has no destination. Each time you push the «go» button, you end up someplace different. Start things over on Earth (or another Earth-like planet) and not only would there be different species with perceptions and intelligences that vary wildly from our own, the very chemistry of life would be altered as well!

That’s conjecture – but it’s pretty safe conjecture. To see why, let’s do a quick back-of-the-envelope calculation.

Among other things, our DNA contains instructions for building proteins out of sequences of amino acids. For simplicity, let’s assume that life always evolves that same basic molecular machinery. There are 500 or so known amino acids, of which life on Earth uses only 23. Sticking with our KISS (keep it simple, stupid) approach, let’s assume all life uses those same 23.

The average protein in an eukaryotic (nucleus-containing) cell on Earth is about 450 amino acids long. There are therefore 23^450 (=10^613) different proteins of that length that the machinery of our DNA might construct. That’s a huge number! Not surprisingly, terrestrial life has stumbled upon uses for only a small fraction of those possible proteins – about 10 million.

So now let’s take those 10^613 possible proteins and split them into planet-proportioned groups of 10 million each. With no overlap at all, there would be 10^606 of those piles! There are no more than about 10^23 habitable planets in the entire observable universe. You could spread those stacks of proteins over the planets in 10^583 similar universes without having to duplicate a single protein on any two planets!

The takeaway is this: The likelihood that any two life-bearing planets in the universe share even remotely compatible biochemistry is effectively zero.


Jeff Hester. Astronomy Magazine, September 2016

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