Make up our minds for us already, would ya, doc? Some physicists out at Caltech have jumped into the game of trying to determine if there’s other intelligent life in the galaxy or we’re stuck here by ourselves. It’s a question humanity has been grappling with for ages, but if we’re being honest, everyone is just guessing. Until we have some definitive data, guessing is just about all we can do. But what did this particular group of eggheads come up with?

Well, it’s a little complicated. They clearly have no problem with the idea of multiple lifeforms arising on other worlds and even reaching the point of being technologically advanced. In fact, they think it’s happened quite a bit. But the reason we’re not detecting any of them is that the advanced civilizations that came before us eventually wiped themselves out. So the Milky Way is very likely a graveyard of failed alien civilizations. (The Debrief)

New research conducted by three Caltech physicists and one high-schooler suggests that the Milky Way galaxy may be full of self-annihilated extraterrestrial civilizations. These findings are reportedly a more up-to-date analysis of the Drake equation—a probabilistic argument intended to stimulate debate about the number of intelligent alien civilizations within our galaxy.

The researchers propose that the Milky Way is a graveyard of former civilizations that destroyed themselves upon reaching a certain technological level.

Though an intriguing idea, scientists who spoke to The Debrief expressed skepticism concerning the study’s conclusions.

This is at least a different spin on the question than some we’ve heard before. A different group of scientists recently proposed their own theory, concluding that our galaxy is probably crawling with life, some of it technologically advanced. Then there was that article from the Astrophysical Journal in which another group of scientists predicted that there are 36 alien intelligences in the Milky Way capable of interstellar communication. (That’s an oddly specific number.)

As I said above, everyone is just guessing. But the important concept I took away from this report today is the idea of unavoidable self-annihilation by intelligent species, including humans. It’s a theory that’s been around for a long time and I’ll confess to having wondered if it might not be all that far-fetched. Plenty of people have plausibly argued that humanity is continually developing a series of “existential tripwires,” one of which will eventually take us out of the game permanently.

The supposedly less intelligent animals and plants on our planet lived in what was always a “renewable” culture. The plants grew from the soil. Some animals ate the plants. Other animals ate the plant-eating animals. They all eventually died and decayed. Their remains went to renew the soil. You get the drift.

But when one group of monkeys became too clever and started using technology, we began burning up other types of resources that don’t renew themselves. We can eventually burn all of the oil that’s in the ground. Our more advanced technology relies heavily on certain rare-earth metals and elements, and they have the word “rare” in the title for a reason. We’ve used all of that science to become so dependent on our advanced technology that we couldn’t feed one-fifth of the people on the planet if it all collapsed tomorrow. Add in the possibility of a really massive war or someone unleashing a true superplague or an army of artificially intelligent nanobots and there’s no end to the list of ways we could drive ourselves to extinction in a fairly short period of time.

So if we can conceive of it happening here, does it follow that it would eventually happen to any advanced intelligence anywhere in the galaxy? I’m not so sure about that, but it’s a simultaneously creepy and fascinating question to ponder.