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Finding Aliens: The Drake Equation

Houston, TX

Aliens. Are they real? Do they truly exist? Not the UFOs, the unexplained sightings, the suspicious shadows of life we conspiracize on Earth--a million light years away, is anything alive? And will we ever know?

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The New Yorker: Have We Already Been Visited by Aliens?

Who should we consult--a Reddit Post from 2013 ranting about the mysteries of alien life? A theorist on YouTube compiling blurry videos of even blurrier smudges? A researcher scrabbling to find a single drop of water on a deserted planet?

The answer to these questions is surprisingly simple, black-and-white, and formulaic, while simultaneously impossibly complex and unpredictable. It comes in the form of the Drake Equation.

Essentially, the Drake Equation consists of about nine constants that are multiplied together to estimate the theoretical number of alien civilizations (that humans could theoretically contact). Seems easy, right? Easy as the Pythagorean theorem or the quadratic formula. A couple of letters with subscripts multiplied by each other is nothing to bat an eye at.

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NASA's Drake Equation

Well, that’s until you examine each factor. Each constant gets more absurd than the last—how many stars are in the universe, how many stars have planets with environments suitable for life, how many of those actually develop life, how much of that life becomes intelligent enough to communicate, and how long does it take for that intelligent civilization to develop signals detectable by space. Not to mention that the consensus of exactly each constant is up for debate as well.

All to calculate how many technologically advanced (enough to reach us) civilizations there are in the galaxy. All for nothing.

It’s math. It’s numbers on a page, fractions multiplied by each other. It’s concrete and real and somehow entirely unimaginable. Let’s start at the beginning. How should we go about determining the number of stars in the universe? Can we truly consider the sliver of what we’ve seen and known as an accurate representation of all matter? We can’t exactly section the universe up into squares and multiply each by a certain number of stars. Even the most basic constant in the equation is riddled with impossibility.

If we somehow do estimate with some degree of accuracy the number of stars, we can zoom in. Stars have planets, and we at least know the conditions prerequisite for life, but by what metric can we determine if that life becomes “intelligent”? Does all life progress the same way in which it has on Earth? And perhaps there are dozens of advanced civilizations out there in the wide unknown universe, but maybe they are experiencing the equivalent of our Middle Ages, without any means to reach out across the millions of light years that separate us.

So are there aliens that we could potentially find or contact? The answer is--no answer. As it turns out, the creator of the Drake Equation, Frank Drake, only meant the formula to facilitate scientific discussion rather than truly calculate the number of active alien civilizations potentially reachable. Still, the paradox remains. Without an equation to rely upon, how can we know of intelligent alien life? I’d like to think that we are not alone in the ether, and that some undefinable day, far after my lifetime, we’ll find the answers we seek.

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