Listening to the Cosmos

The Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence, or SETI, has rediscovered its swagger after decades of muddling along in survival mode

In the end, beyond the trivialities of everyday life and beneath the freak show of contemporary culture, there are only three questions worth pondering: Is there life after death? What is the fate of humanity? Are we alone in the universe?

Frank Drake may have opinions on the first two—who doesn’t? On the third, though, he might be as close to an empirical answer as any person, living or dead, has ever been.

In the broad field of study known as the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI), Drake is the essential figure.

In fact, he’s SETI’s George Washington.

In ’61, Drake presided over a secret meeting at Green Bank featuring some of the marquee names in the field, including a young Carl Sagan, in a meeting that SETI people like to call “The Order of the Dolphin,” because the work of one of the attendees was an attempt to decode dolphin language.

From that meeting came the Drake Equation, which even today is to SETI scientists what “Stairway to Heaven” is to fans of dad rock: That One Thing Everybody Knows.

The Drake Equation is less an equation to be solved and more of a way to think about the probabilities of communicating with an alien culture. It is essentially a string of variables, each one narrowing the probabilities that any given earthling scientist on any given day might encounter a radio signal from another world. The variables include the number of stars like the sun; the number of those stars with a planetary system; number of planets in those systems in a habitable zone for life; the number of those planets where life is likely to have emerged in some way; the number of those life-friendly planets in which “intelligent” life might have evolved; the number of the intelligent-life planets that might have developed technology that could be transmitted and detected; and the length of time civilizations are likely to last.

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