* Fermi Paradox topic alert
MTBF is a manufacturing term meaning Mean Time Between Failure. On average, what is the amount of time a product operates without failure.
In our analysis of the paucity of life in the universe, this concept — as applied to life — is less frequently addressed. But it’s critical to understanding why humanity is “probably” alone in the universe.
If you were an abiogenesis researcher trying to create life in the lab and one day you astound yourself and world by creating replicating, mutating life in a petri dish. You run out of the lab, shouting to your peers and head to the bar to celebrate. Meanwhile, Billy-the-janitor, runs across your ugly-smear of creation you left on the counter and tosses it in the trash headed to the incinerator. Poof. MTBF of your abiogenetically created life? About 24 hours.
As we investigate the probabilities of life in the universe, we must not only imagine the conditions that we believe are required for life to spawn spontaneously in the strange seas or tide pools of exotic planets, but we must include the MTBF of that life. If a comet smacks such a life-foundational planet every few months, wiping out Darwin’s crucible — over and over — that must be a part of our calculations.
If life gets started but the periods of prosperity are so short lived, despite the initial conditions that engendered such life, it doesn’t matter that such a place is ‘perfect’ to harbor life. A short MTBF will exclude it from our tally.
And it’s not just microbial life that we’re considering. MTBF of a society killing asteroid: 50 million years? MTBF of a super volcanoes: every 100,000 years? And my favorite the MTBF of a technologically advanced society, reliant on electricity coursing through wires, due to coronal mass ejection (CME): About 200 years.
There are dozens of other types of life erasers, each with its MTBF. Pockets of life must not only navigate such continuous disasters, but it must grow large enough so that as these calamities occur, the likelihood that any one catastrophe kills the entire genome of the planet (or the species) is reduced.
We look for the exo-conditions that we think are favorable to life. But we must remember to include the windows of opportunity life has, interstitially inserted between extinction events. What is humanity’s real MTBF?