78 Coins

78 Coins

I’ve been looking at pictures from the Hubble telescope lately and thinking about the huge number of stars in the universe. I found myself wondering how life on Earth fits into the context of such vastness.

At this point in history, it feels pretty lonely out here. No aliens coming to invade us, no other planets to talk to, not even a Facebook message from another galaxy. The closest thing we’ve got to a sign of neighboring life is a few trickles of water on Mars.

If Earth were truly the only planet in the universe with life, how special would that make us, exactly?

I decided to take a closer look at the question in an interactive essay.

Visit 78 Coins: Why We’re Probably Not Alone in the Universe 

2016-11-07T22:24:40+00:00 10.06.15|curious, interactive, space|19 Comments


  1. Madeleine October 7, 2015 at 4:40 pm - Reply

    what a fantastic experience! and a brilliant ending. I love these interactive essays of yours! what a healthy dose of good-natured humour and humility.

  2. Don May October 9, 2015 at 11:07 pm - Reply

    There is a big, big hole in this argument! Coin tosses are random and the author’s logic applies to that environment.

    You must use something similar to the “Drake Equation” for an educated guess as to how many stars have planets with life. In rough terms it goes like this: number of stars x percent of stars with planets x percent of stars that live long enough for biological evolution x percent of planets in habitle zones x this factor x that factor = planets with biological systems.

    Depending on your assumptions for all of the factors the answer can range from zero plants to millions of planets.


    • jworth October 10, 2015 at 5:05 am - Reply

      Thanks for reading and commenting, but it seems like maybe you weren’t really following along. I’m not speculating on how many other planets have life, just using the coin flips to point out how incredibly unlikely it would be for the answer to be 0. NASA’s estimate of stars with planets in a habitable zone was enough to illustrate the point. The Drake equation is actually a way to estimate how many intelligent lifeforms in the Milky Way might have the ability to communicate with us – which is a whole other discussion.
      P.S. Here’s your frowny face back. 🙂

  3. Don May October 10, 2015 at 10:33 pm - Reply

    I apologize if my frowny face offended tou– that was not my intent!

    For your presentation you get four stars. Well done.

    I still disagree with your example. It is great, though, we can disagree with friendly dialogue
    I wish you the best. Don

  4. Jon October 20, 2015 at 1:07 pm - Reply

    Is there another location in which this idea can be found?
    This URL seems to be on the China blocklist.

    • jworth October 22, 2015 at 6:45 pm - Reply

      Not at the moment. I’ll look into it. Thanks for letting me know.

  5. Armando November 6, 2015 at 2:14 am - Reply

    Lovelly, beutifull, smart, kind, nice, and so on.
    And your answers show how you are near of a tive stars person.
    Please, be happy.

  6. David Dryer December 5, 2015 at 6:31 am - Reply

    This is really, REALLY, well done, gave me chills, thanks.

  7. Josh Snider February 22, 2016 at 8:29 am - Reply

    Great presentation! I like the code by the way, although it would be funny if you had an easter egg in case someone managed to get all tails in the middle of it.

    • paul.asbury@airbus.com February 24, 2016 at 9:34 pm - Reply

      maybe there is…. but there’s only a one in sextillion chance of ever seeing it!

      • Dan March 1, 2016 at 6:09 am - Reply

        I checked it by editing the js code. Sadly, no easter egg 🙁

  8. Tony February 26, 2016 at 9:47 am - Reply

    Great read and creative presentation. What gives me pause is the jump from RNA to life. That’s a big ol’ jump. Calling RNA life is like ordering a hamburger for lunch and being served a photo of a hamburger. A black and white photo.

    The problem with phrases like “chances are good” is that life has only spontaneously happened once that we know of. And we weren’t there to see it. And we can’t seem to make it happen again despite having all the ingredients we need. All but one ingredient, that is. And it’s that secret ingredient that makes it impossible to determine the probability of it happening again.

    This assessment is based on the idea that “living organisms are the result of the gradual, natural movement of molecules following the basic rules of physics and chemistry…” Sure, that makes sense, but unfortunately it hasn’t been witnessed yet. There’s a big “censored” bar covering the section in between RNA and life. For all we know we still need that lightning and meteor or even that singing angel at some point along the line. As long as that variable is there, all we can do is calculate how many planets have MOST of what we need. But even that is no help when attempting to figure out the probability of life because we can’t know how often our mystery variable will show up.

    I think there is life out there. I don’t know why. Maybe the same thing that makes some people want to feel special in the universe makes others want to believe we’re not alone. But I don’t think we have enough information to make the statement “chances are good.” Not yet anyway.

  9. jworth February 26, 2016 at 6:04 pm - Reply

    Well put, Tony. Thanks for the thoughts. We certainly shouldn’t overlook the places where mysteries still exist. Even if the first steps in the life-making process aren’t particularly difficult to initiate, there are other steps that could require some x-factor that only exists here on earth.

  10. Cesar March 5, 2016 at 10:30 am - Reply

    Beautiful and brilliant essay. It is wonderful to know there are thought inspiring thinkers among us—kudos to the author and creator of this.

  11. MW March 24, 2016 at 6:11 am - Reply

    Lovely and mind-opening. Certainly there is more “intelligent” “life” in the universe than we can shake a stick at. The coins tossed subtlety enforced each statement in your argument. But you might want to check out one careless error, an extra word “be.” Thanks for this, can’t wait to share.

  12. Alexis May 15, 2016 at 6:55 pm - Reply

    I loved the ending to this, I was surprised!

  13. Jim June 6, 2016 at 10:20 am - Reply

    I flipped 77 tails on the way through……..

  14. James December 12, 2016 at 11:48 am - Reply

    It’s very tempting to imagine other life. Other intelligent life

    But if there is and it’s not unreasonable for them to have quite a head start on us.

    So where the hell are they


  15. Ashu March 23, 2017 at 7:26 am - Reply

    You might also have mentioned that you are considering just carbon based life forms. There could be other inorganic life forms out there too, couldn’t they?

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