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“Where is Everybody?”: Drake, Fermi and the Search for Extraterrestrial Life


I do not have much in common with Russian billionaire Yuri Milner. I do not own a palatial estate in the hills of Los Altos. I did not invest in Facebook or Zynga or Spotify. I am not married to a high fashion model and do not drive million-dollar cars. I do not even have a girlfriend and my 2000 Nissan Pathfinder is trash. That said, this last week, I learned that we do have at least one thing in common: Yuri Milner and I both really want to know if aliens exist.

Milner, with his donation of $100 million dollars, is going to personally back the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) academic institute, kicking off their new initiative that will fund three radio telescopes to scan the Milky Way in search of intelligent life (i.e. a lifeform that is able to transmit radio waves) for an entire decade. “In an infinite Universe, there must be other life,” said Stephen Hawking at an event to mark the launch of the initiative, adding, “There is no bigger question. It is time to commit to finding the answer.”

Flickr Creative Commons image.
Flickr Creative Commons image.

This project represents an unprecedented investment for the field, somewhat reminiscent of JFK’s call to put a man on the moon by the end of the 1960’s. But, what exactly is the probability we will find anything? Why haven’t we found intelligent life already? Is it possible that there is nothing else out there? I am not the first to ask these questions. For decades they have been mulled over by prominent thinkers and more than fifty years ago, they led to the formulation of the Drake Equation.

Assuming that there is a high probability of life elsewhere, why has none been found? Is it possible that there is nothing else out there?

The Drake Equation is not the most elegant piece of work ever surmised and it is not a math problem that you would likely see on a calculus test. It is also not a hip-hop album. In 1961, to prepare for a conference held to discuss alien life in the universe—a gathering that the revered Carl Sagan attended—astrophysicist Frank Drake wrote down all of the factors that would influence the potential for life elsewhere in the universe, including the fraction of formed stars that have planets and the average number of planets per star.

Upon completing the list, Drake realized that it could tell a story. That is, if each individual component gives a little clue as to how often intelligent life occurs in our galaxy, then together they give a well-rounded estimate. Therefore, Drake did what any luminary thinker does: he multiplied them together and the Drake Equation was born.

Depending on what values you plug in, the equation can give answers ranging from 1 to 100 million planets that support intelligent life in our galaxy. Either, “We are aloneor  “There is life on Mars and they are watching us.” The reasonable estimates that have been made suggest that intelligent life should exist elsewhere in the vast constellation of our galaxy and some estimates hold a high likelihood that intelligent life has arisen many, many times.

Alas, researchers from SETI have scoured the cosmos for decades and no evidence has been found. No word from Spock. Assuming that there is a high probability of life elsewhere, why has none been found? This question, famously postulated by physicist Enrico Fermi on his way to lunch, has fueled some truly frightening speculation to explain the paradoxical difference between the expected and the observed.

The first possible answer to the Fermi Paradox is obvious. No intelligent life exists elsewhere. Fine. This may be true because the circumstances in which life can arise are SO infinitesimally rare, that even in a galaxy our size (100+ billion stars) life only arose once. Further, the chance that intelligent life could arise may be equally improbable. Fine.

Another theory is that intelligent life has already arisen, possibly many times, but is no longer around. Why not? Where did they go? The plausible answer is sobering: i.e. once intelligent life develops advanced technology, it quickly develops the ability to destroy itself… and with that ability to destroy itself, it inevitably does. Sound familiar?

Mutually assured destruction, nuclear proliferation, climate change – far from hyperbole or fear mongering, this is a reasonable speculation based on the history of our own civilization. In the short timeframe that the human race has had the capability to destroy itself, there have already been a few close calls. In a cosmic time scale, hundreds or thousands of years, is it a just matter of time before we hit the self-destruct? While most millennials have enjoyed a world without the spectre of apocalyptic hara-kiri hanging over their heads, those who grew up during the Cold War know that fear. They know that self-destruction is a distinct possibility, one that the human race has had to avoid in the past (see: Cuban Missile Crisis) and will continue to have to navigate in the future.

That said, Yuri Milner grew up during the Cold War and he seems to entertain a third possible answer to the Fermi Paradox. With his seismic donation to SETI, he has said it loud and clear— we simply haven’t looked hard enough. Somewhere in the cosmos, there may be little green men sending radio signals or blowing themselves up. We just do not yet know.

About the Author

PatGriffinPatrick Griffin is an undergraduate Genetics major at the University of Georgia. He enjoys cycling, science, and eating donuts, though not necessarily in that order, and once solved a Rubik’s Cube in under a minute. Follow him on Twitter: @patrick_griffN or contact him via email: pgriff10@uga.edu. More from Patrick Griffin.

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