MTBF: Life

* 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?

6 thoughts on “MTBF: Life

  1. Interesting post. Maybe humanity has no MTBF per se?
    No apocalyptic disaster wiping us all. or internal destruction.
    Perhaps we adhere to a different principle.
    MTBC. (mean time between change) … just made it up … but kind of makes more sense to me. Eventually we will be elsewhere than just this planet/solar system and meet up with others.
    I know ‘mechanical’ stuff has MTBF, but isn’t there an inherent recreation in bio-chemical compositions?
    Science fixtion? Haha, more like Science Fiction, but then again …

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I would say that once life formed on Earth, it was damn hard to kill it ALL off. So, the remix of life, once formed, may be the trick that keeps new forms of higher level life continuously evolving. Failures happen, but unless a planet is destroyed (kicked out of a solar system or swallowed by the host star) then life would seem to re-create itself — I agree.
      It’s the higher levels of life that become dependent upon niche ecosystems. The Holocene is technical humanity’s. But, in a million or a billion years there may be other Holocenes which popup and provide later technologically advanced Earthlings (human or not) the opportunity to thrive.
      I used the MTBF theory to point out that windows of time for the mushroom like growth of an intelligent species are narrow — relatively speaking.


      1. The Holocene epoch certainly has seen mushroom like growth in what is a minuscule timeframe in the 13 billion years of supposed existence and extinction of species could be failures along that timeline.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Carl Sagan had a similar theory wherein he concluded the chance of intelligent life existing in the universe as infinite (impossible there is none besides us) and the chance of ever encountering such other life during the life of our own existence as nil. The vastness of time, space, and dimension is too large and the chances of two intelligent species evolving anywhere near each other in time and space far too small.

    So enjoy your fellow humans. We’re all we’ve got. 😉

    Liked by 1 person

  3. MTBF depends on user head gap. Like society. I stood at the base of a 2000 year old tree. Still hanging in there. It was a pup when Christianity was down to a suspiciously unwed pregnant girl and a big-hearted, obviously open minded carpenter. I stood at the base of the Jack London tree in the NorCal petrified forest. 3.4 million years old, felled by one of those MTBF 100,000 year volcanoes. Who the hell knows what was going on then. Whatever it was is long since gone. Sheesh, we don’t even know how Stonehenge got there. (Aliens, dude. It was aliens). This kind of thing makes my head hurt and takes away from rare moments of personal hedonism wherein I do something constructive, knowing the wood I built it with has a forty year MTBF. By then it won’t be my problem. Will the redwood know it came and went, or care? Nah. Blase things, the old trees, aren’t they?

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