Inside the Drake Equation: A Chat with Frank Drake

The Drake Equation.

This interview with Frank Drake — sometimes called the Father of the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence – was recorded in 2012 but not released until now to celebrate the beginning of the 30th year of the SETI Institute. As interviewer Andrew Fraknoi says, “I don’t think anyone had a conversation like this that was recorded with Galileo or William Herschel or Edwin Hubble, but I get to do it with Frank Drake!”

This is a great conversation that alternates between Drake’s current work with SETI and the history of his work that led to the famous Drake Equation. Fraknoi and Drake have an interesting exchange about the value of N, which is the number of civilizations in The Milky Way Galaxy whose electromagnetic emissions would be detectable.

It was recorded in June 2012 at an event called SETICon, which featured a series of talks, panels, and events featuring scientists, authors, futurists, and film-makers.

Fraknoi is a professor of astronomy and also works with the Astronomical Society of the Pacific and they have made available a written history of Frank Drake and his equation.

Astronomy Without A Telescope – How To Impress An Alien (Or Not)

Aerial view of the 300 meter diameter Arecibo radio telescope dish

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It’s about fifty years since Frank Drake sent out our first chat request to the wider universe. I say about as I think the official date is 11 April 1960 – but I notice a lot of fifty year anniversary blogs and interviews are already being published, so what the heck, I’m not waiting either.

While no-one is really concerned that we haven’t had an answer back yet, it is a little despondent to have scanned the skies for someone else’s chat request all this time and found nothing.

In a recent New Scientist interview (actually January 2010 – they were really getting in early), Drake refers to his equation delivering an answer in the order of one in 10 million stars having an advanced civilization – and he uses that statistic to indicate it’s too early to think we have done a statistically adequate scan yet.

Nonetheless, the chances of there being advanced civilizations near enough to enable a future United Federation of Planets already looks doubtful.

Drake’s initial communication efforts in Project Ozma were small scale, but his clever and carefully constructed Arecibo message out to Messier 13 (a globular cluster of approximately 300,000 stars) in 1974 aroused some criticism that telling the aliens where we are might result in an invasion.

This is a little implausible, since Messier 13 is 25,000 light years away. By the time the invasion fleet arrives we will either be long gone or have spent the intervening period developing the technology to blast them out of the sky if they don’t turn back immediately.

Actually, that’s probably an important consideration if we ever decide to invade someone. We will need to take a couple of universities along to keep our technology advancing ahead of theirs. However, if we are travelling near the speed of light, the time differential means that they will get ahead anyway. Hmm…

The Arecibo message composed of 1679 bits, being the product of two prime numbers 73 and 23 (i.e. the number of rows and columns). Impressive, huh?

Anyway, here in the 21st century, I want to suggest that more attention should be given to us just not looking stupid. There’s already all the bad TV out there. We can fairly claim that all that was never meant for alien consumption, but recently we advanced humans have quite deliberately transmitted a Beatles song to Polaris and sent a bunch of text messages to Gliese 581. I mean, huh?

Polaris, being a Cepheid variable – and in any case a short-lived and already dying supergiant – was probably never stable enough to support planets, so we probably got away with that one. However, there’s no getting around us sending text messages to Gliese 581c in 2008 (from Ukraine) and subsequently following that up with another set blasted at 581d in 2009 (from Australia, sorry…).

This was because when we recalculated, it was apparent that the exoplanet 581d was more likely to be in the habitable zone of its star than 581c. Hopefully those 20 light year distant aliens will appreciate that the inconsequential shift in the main focus of those two transmissions is an indication of our extreme cleverness.

See, it’s a bit like reading Shakespeare to a dolphin. With no comprehension of the language, you will just look like someone who is content to sit for hours making funny noises while dangling your feet in a pool. But with a bit of comprehension, the dolphin can be reasonably expected to reply – hey Brainiac, I’m a dolphin, what’s forsooth mean?

There are aliens among us who already think we’re a bit daft. How about we first check in with Frank Drake next time we feel like shouting out the window?

A New “Drake” Equation for Potential of Life

An image showing microbes living in sandstone in Antarctica (credit: C Cockell)

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The famed Drake equation estimates the number of technologically advanced civilizations that might exist in our Galaxy. But is there a way to mathematically quantify a habitat’s potential for hosting life?
“At present, there is no easy way of directly comparing the suitability of different environments as a habitat for life” said Dr. Axel Hagermann, who is proposing a method to find a “habitability index” at the European Planetary Science Congress.

“The classical definition of a habitable environment,” said Hagermann, “is one that has the presence of a solvent, for example water, availability of the raw materials for life, clement conditions and some kind of energy source, so we tend to define a place as ‘habitable’ if it falls into the area where these criteria overlap on a Venn diagram. This is fine for specific instances, but it gives us no quantifiable way of comparing exactly how habitable one environment is in comparison with another, which I think is very important.”
Drake Equation
Hagermann and colleague Charles Cockell have the ambitious aim of developing a single, normalized indicator of habitability, mathematically describing all the variables of each of the four habitability criteria. Initially, they are focusing on describing all the qualities of an energy source that may help or hinder the development of life.

“Electromagnetic radiation may seem simple to quantify in terms of wavelengths and joules, but there are many things to consider in terms of habitability,” Hagermann said. “For instance, while visible and infrared wavelengths are important for life and processes such as photosynthesis, ultraviolet and X-rays are harmful. If you can imagine a planet with a thin atmosphere that lets through some of this harmful radiation, there must be a certain depth in the soil where the ‘bad’ radiation has been absorbed but the ‘good’ radiation can penetrate. We are looking to be able to define this optimal habitable region in a way that we can say that it is ‘as habitable’ or ‘less habitable’ than a desert in Morocco, for example.”

The pair will be presenting their initial study and asking for feedback from colleagues at the European Planetary Science Congress. “There may be good reasons why such a habitability index is not going to work and, with so many variables to consider, it is not going to be an easy task to develop. However, this kind of index has the potential to be an invaluable tool as we begin to understand more about the conditions needed for life to evolve and we find more locations in our Solar System and beyond that might be habitable.”

Source: Europlanet

The Milky Way Could have Billions of Earths

Exoplanets like the Earth might be more common than we think. Image Credit: ESO

With the upcoming launch in March of the Kepler mission to find extrasolar planets, there is quite a lot of buzz about the possibility of finding habitable planets outside of our Solar System. Kepler will be the first satellite telescope with the capability to find Earth-size and smaller planets. At the most recent meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) in Chicago, Dr. Alan Boss is quoted by numerous media outlets as saying that there could be billions of Earth-like planets in the Milky Way alone, and that we may find an Earth-like planet orbiting a large proportion of the stars in the Universe.

“There are something like a few dozen solar-type stars within something like 30 light years of the sun, and I would think that a good number of those — perhaps half of them would have Earth-like planets. So, I think there’s a very good chance that we’ll find some Earth-like planets within 10, 20, or 30 light years of the Sun,” Dr. Boss said in an AAAS podcast interview.

Dr. Boss is an astronomer at the Carnegie Institution of Washington Department of Terrestrial Magnetism, and is the author of The Crowded Universe, a book on the likelihood of finding life and habitable planets outside of our Solar System.

“Not only are they probably habitable but they probably are also going to be inhabited. But I think that most likely the nearby ‘Earths’ are going to be inhabited with things which are perhaps more common to what Earth was like three or four billion years ago,” Dr. Boss told the BBC. In other words, it’s more likely that bacteria-like lifeforms abound, rather than more advanced alien life.

This sort of postulation about the existence of extraterrestrial life (and intelligence) falls under the paradigm of the Drake Equation, named after the astronomer Frank Drake. The Drake Equation incorporates all of the variables one should take into account when trying to calculate the number of technologically advanced civilizations elsewhere in the Universe. Depending on what numbers you put into the equation, the answer ranges from zero to trillions. There is wide speculation about the existence of life elsewhere in the Universe.

To date, the closest thing to an Earth-sized planet discovered outside of our Solar System is CoRoT-Exo-7b, with a diameter of less than twice that of the Earth.

The speculation by Dr. Boss and others will be put to the test later this year when the Kepler satellite gets up and running. Set to launch on March 9th, 2009, the Kepler mission will utilize a 0.95 meter telescope to view one section of the sky containing over 100,000 stars for the entirety of the mission, which will last at least 3.5 years.

The prospect of life existing elsewhere is exciting, to be sure, and we’ll be keeping you posted here on Universe Today when any of the potentially billions of Earth-like planets are discovered!

Source: BBC, EurekAlert

The Odds of Intelligent Life in the Universe

Tropical Saturn. Image credit: Columbia University

When it comes to contemplating the state of our universe, the question likely most prevalent on people’s minds is, “Is anyone else like us out there?” The famous Drake Equation, even when worked out with fairly moderate numbers, seemingly suggests the probable amount of intelligent, communicating civilizations could be quite numerous. But a new paper published by a scientist from the University of East Anglia suggests the odds of finding new life on other Earth-like planets are low, given the time it has taken for beings such as humans to evolve combined with the remaining life span of Earth.

Professor Andrew Watson says that structurally complex and intelligent life evolved relatively late on Earth, and in looking at the probability of the difficult and critical evolutionary steps that occurred in relation to the life span of Earth, provides an improved mathematical model for the evolution of intelligent life.

According to Watson, a limit to evolution is the habitability of Earth, and any other Earth-like planets, which will end as the sun brightens. Solar models predict that the brightness of the sun is increasing, while temperature models suggest that because of this the future life span of Earth will be “only” about another billion years, a short time compared to the four billion years since life first appeared on the planet.

“The Earth’s biosphere is now in its old age and this has implications for our understanding of the likelihood of complex life and intelligence arising on any given planet,” said Watson.

Some scientists believe the extreme age of the universe and its vast number of stars suggests that if the Earth is typical, extraterrestrial life should be common. Watson, however, believes the age of the universe is working against the odds.

“At present, Earth is the only example we have of a planet with life,” he said. “If we learned the planet would be habitable for a set period and that we had evolved early in this period, then even with a sample of one, we’d suspect that evolution from simple to complex and intelligent life was quite likely to occur. By contrast, we now believe that we evolved late in the habitable period, and this suggests that our evolution is rather unlikely. In fact, the timing of events is consistent with it being very rare indeed.”

Watson, it seems, takes the Fermi Paradox to heart in his considerations. The Fermi Paradox is the apparent contradiction between high estimates of the probability of the existence of extraterrestrial civilizations and the lack of evidence for, or contact with, such civilizations.

Watson suggests the number of evolutionary steps needed to create intelligent life, in the case of humans, is four. These include the emergence of single-celled bacteria, complex cells, specialized cells allowing complex life forms, and intelligent life with an established language.

“Complex life is separated from the simplest life forms by several very unlikely steps and therefore will be much less common. Intelligence is one step further, so it is much less common still,” said Prof Watson.

Watson’s model suggests an upper limit for the probability of each step occurring is 10 per cent or less, so the chances of intelligent life emerging is low — less than 0.01 per cent over four billion years.

Each step is independent of the other and can only take place after the previous steps in the sequence have occurred. They tend to be evenly spaced through Earth’s history and this is consistent with some of the major transitions identified in the evolution of life on Earth.

Here is more about the Drake Equation.

Here is more information about the Fermi Paradox.

Original News Source: University of East Anglia Press Release