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Fantasy, in Theory 14: Intelligent Life and Player Upside - Footballguys

The search for extraterrestrial life, projecting Josh Gordon, and why it's so important to account for uncertainty.

Intelligent Life

Are we alone in the universe? It's a question that has fascinated everyone from academia to Hollywood, one that some hope to answer with... math. Enter the Drake equation, created by Dr. Frank Drake in 1961.

N = R* x fp x ne x fl x fi x fc x L

N = the number of active, communicative, detectable extraterrestrial civilizations
R* = rate of star formation
fp = fraction of stars formed that have planets
ne = for stars with planets, the average number that could potentially support life
fl = the fraction of potentially-habitable planets that develop life
fi = the fraction of planets with life that develop intelligent, civilized life
fc = the fraction of civilized, intelligent lifeforms that develop communications
L = the length of time over which such civilizations release detectable signals

Drake originally estimated the following values for each term:

R* = 1 per year
fp = 0.2 to 0.5
ne = 1 to 5
fl = 100%
fi = 100%
fc = 10 to 20%
L = 1,000 to 100,000,000

Using all of the minimum and maximum values, Drake concluded that there should be between 20 and 50,000,000 detectable civilizations in the galaxy. After discussion, he modified that to estimate that there were probably between 1,000 and 100,000,000 civilizations in the Milky Way. And the sinister question then becomes: why can't we find them?


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