The Drake equation

by Jeff Secker | Originally posted on 

I’ve provided some introductory (and some more detailed) information on the Drake equation, named after Dr. Frank Drake, on my Astronomy and Astrophysics page. However, I really enjoyed reading this National Geographic article, Why alien hunters have spent 60 years finding new solutions for the Drake Equation, from November 30, 2021, and I want to bring it to the front. It was written by the science journalist, Dr. Nadia Drake, who is indeed Dr. Frank Drake’s daughter. And as his daughter, Dr. Nadia Drake has a unique perspective on events of the past; she has both her perspective, and the perspective of her father as he describes the events to her. This helps to understand both Dr. Frank Drake and the context around his creation of the Drake equation.

Dr. Nadia Drake, the journalist, wrote in this article:

  • “Dad first started wondering whether humans are alone in the cosmos when he was growing up in Chicago in the 1930s and his dad mentioned one day that “there are other worlds out there.””

Dr. Nadia Drake then wrote:

  • “As West Virginia’s leaves withered and fell in the fall of 1961, Dad realized he had no idea how to organize several days of discussions about a topic that was still on the fringe of science. For a few months, he’d been thinking about the various factors that influence our ability to detect life in the galaxy, starting with the birth rate of the stars around which worlds revolve. He reasoned that each of his factors would provide a rich topic for discussion, so he jotted it all down—and saw that he had created a viable formula, depending, of course, on which numbers you feed into it.”

The Drake equation provides a framework for discussing the search for extraterrestrial life, and to estimate the number of intelligent alien civilizations in the Milky Way galaxy. It only includes extraterrestrial species who are able to build things like computers, telescopes and spaceships and can who communicate using radio waves (i.e., this is the technology that humans on Earth are using to look for them).

Image taken from the National Geographic article written by Dr. Nadia Drake.

Dr. Nadia Drake, the journalist, also wrote in this article:

  • “Dad has often said that the last variable in the Drake Equation, L, is the most vexing. L is the average length of time that civilizations are detectable—a definition that’s often conflated with survival or extinction, but which isn’t necessarily linked to either.”

That’s it for my introduction to and excerpts from the National Geographic article by Dr. Nadia Drake. If you are intrigued, go and read the full article. I had to provide my email address to read the full article, but I think it was a fair trade because I really did enjoy reading it!