Science and Tech Features
What Are the Odds of Finding Intelligent Life in Our Galaxy?

CJ Miozzi | 28 Apr 2014 12:00
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Life, the universe and everything

Running the Numbers

With our values established, let's run the math:

N = 7 • 1 • 0.2 • 0.13 • 1 • 0.15 • 10,000,000

The answer? 273,000 intelligent civilizations may be out there, broadcasting radio waves into space, just waiting to be discovered by us.

Now, as you may have noticed, the further down the equation we go, the more our values become based on guesses than facts. If we alter any of those values by a significant degree -- such as the odds of life developing into intelligent life -- we get a drastically different answer. If life isn't guaranteed to evolve intelligence, and the odds are instead one in a billion as some would suggest, then there exist 0.0003 communicative civilizations in the Milky Way -- meaning we are alone. Upper estimates that use more generous values than the ones we've plugged in here result in as many as 36.4 million civilizations.

Drake's purpose in developing his equation was never to arrive at a firm answer. It was to stir scientific inquiry. Every variable in his equation is a separate discussion point, and as new discoveries continue to be made, these blurry estimates have been coming into greater focus. While the wide range of answers to the equation have caused some to criticize it as useless, the optimistic results -- that there are possibly hundreds of thousands, even millions of civilizations out there -- have motivated research and funding into the search for extraterrestrial intelligence.

But here lies the problem. If there do exist an abundance of intelligent civilizations out there in our galaxy... where are they all? Why haven't we heard from them yet? Why haven't any more advanced civilizations revealed themselves to us? Well, these questions lead to the Fermi paradox, and that's a topic for another week.

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