The Drake Equation

The Drake equation (sometimes called the Green Bank equation or the Green Bank Formula) is an equation used to estimate the number of detectable extraterrestrial civilizations in the Milky Way galaxy. It is used in the fields of exobiology and the Search for Extra Terrestrial Intelligence (SETI). The equation was devised by Frank Drake, Emeritus Professor of Astronomy and Astrophysics at the University of California, Santa Cruz.

In 1960, Frank Drake conducted the first search for radio signals from extraterrestrial civilizations at the National Radio Astronomy Observatory in Green Bank, West Virginia. Soon thereafter, the National Academy of Sciences asked Drake to convene a meeting on detecting extraterrestrial intelligence. The meeting was held at the Green Bank facility in 1961. The equation that bears Drake’s name arose out of his preparations for the meeting:

As I planned the meeting, I realized a few day[s] ahead of time we needed an agenda. And so I wrote down all the things you needed to know to predict how hard it’s going to be to detect extraterrestrial life. And looking at them it became pretty evident that if you multiplied all these together, you got a number, N, which is the number of detectable civilizations in our galaxy. This, of course, was aimed at the radio search, and not to search for primordial or primitive life forms.

— Frank Drake

This meeting established SETI as a scientific discipline. The meeting’s dozen participants — astronomers, physicists, biologists, social scientists, and industry leaders — became known as the “Order of the Dolphin”. The Green Bank meeting has been commemorated by a plaque at the site.

The Drake equation is closely related to the Fermi paradox in that Drake suggested that a large number of extraterrestrial civilizations would form, but that the lack of evidence of such civilizations (the Fermi paradox) suggests that technological civilizations tend to disappear rather quickly. This theory often stimulates an interest in identifying and publicizing ways in which humanity could destroy itself, and then counters with hopes of avoiding such destruction and eventually becoming a space-faring species. A similar argument is the Great Filter, which notes that since there are no observed extraterrestrial civilizations, despite the vast number of stars, then some step in the process must be acting as a filter to reduce the final value. According to this view, either it is very hard for intelligent life to arise, or the lifetime of such civilizations must be relatively short.

Carl Sagan, a great proponent of SETI, quoted the formula often and as a result the formula is sometimes mislabeled as “The Sagan Equation.”

The equation

The Drake equation states that:

N = R^{\ast} \cdot f_p \cdot n_e \cdot f_{\ell} \cdot f_i \cdot f_c \cdot L \!

where:

N = the number of civilizations in our galaxy with which communication might be possible;

and

R* = the average rate of star formation per year in our galaxy
fp = the fraction of those stars that have planets
ne = the average number of planets that can potentially support life per star that has planets
f = the fraction of the above that actually go on to develop life at some point
fi = the fraction of the above that actually go on to develop intelligent life
fc = the fraction of civilizations that develop a technology that releases detectable signs of their existence into space
L = the length of time for which such civilizations release detectable signals into space
Via The Drake Equation
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