Alien Intelligence and the Drake Equation

I believe that we are not alone in the universe.

Mulder's Poster - "I Want To Believe"Before I say more, I assure you I’m not a crazy person. I’ve never been abducted, made the subject of experiments or contacted telepathically by little green men with large foreheads. I approach stories of cattle mutilation and crop circles with the same caution I apply to astrology, spontaneous human combustion, and organized religion. I’m a skeptic.

Like Fox Mulder, “I want to believe,” but tales of UFO encounters are fraught with fuzzy photographs and sketchy testimonials. Any sufficiently rigorous investigation of these anecdotal sightings or abductions only casts significant doubt on the veracity of the claims. Still, as beliefs go, contact with E.T. is near the “plausible” end of the spectrum, and I’m open to the possibility that my fiancée has been abducted and replaced by a pod person.

It’s just an extremely small possibility.

Late astrophysicist and science advocate Carl Sagan was fond of saying, “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.” This maxim is a general empirical rule that serves to deter fraudulent claims, and it applies to scientific professionals and members of the general public alike. The claim of first contact is certainly extraordinary and unprecedented, in fact, throughout recorded history.

Manufacturing a fantastic story of alien home invasion is easy, and there are various motivations to do so. Hoaxes are designed to attract media attention and notoriety, even profit in some circumstances, and conveniently avoid the responsibility of providing a story that might be duplicated or amenable to study. There are no detailed photographs of the innards of a spacecraft—no artifacts to prove abduction, visitation, or existence whatsoever.

The lack of evidence itself is suspicious and indicates a cultural undercurrent that has swept up a certain, excitable element into believing ideas that are improbable to the point of absurdity. This often fanatical subculture of conspiracy theorists, ghost hunters, and UFO chasers has sprouted in parts of the US and Great Britain in recent decades (although fear of alien invasion dates most dramatically back to Percival Lowell’s belief in Martian canals in the late 19th Century).  Peaking in the 1970s and ‘80s, this movement added momentum to the idea that alien civilizations dispatched emissaries through billions of light years and cold, brutal interstellar space to flatten wheat fields on Earth into geometric patterns.

Other allegations of alien contact may result from delusions, hallucinations, or drastic misunderstanding of events, such as the misinterpretation of meteor showers or artificial satellite re-entries as close encounters.

Regardless of social and psychological factors, UFO enthusiasts tend to overestimate the scope of the Earth’s presence in space. For example, radio waves have been propagating into space in every direction since the first taps on electric telegraphs in the 19th Century. The first radio transmission of significant power was made in 1901 by Guglielmo Marconi, a broadcast that marks the edge of the expanding bubble of Earth’s influence in the galaxy around it. Approximately 111 light years in every direction, humanity’s first radio broadcasts are arriving in interstellar space. “At [75] light-years away, television signals are being introduced. Star systems at a distance of [51] light-years are now entering The Twilight Zone.*

Conversely, the UFO faithful tend to underestimate the sheer, unimaginable size of the universe and the implications of so-called “deep time” for space travel. It’s tough to find fault with that; I’d argue the human brain just isn’t powerful enough to comprehend the endless enormity of our universe. Furthermore, the edge of the visible universe—the farthest objects we can see with our most sophisticated telescopes—is about 14 billion light years away. That’s only a fraction of the stuff that’s out there, since space expands from every point within itself.

It’s presently estimated the universe contains around 350 billion galaxies like our own Milky Way, cast across billions and billions of years: epochal, cosmic time for which we humans have no reference. These are realities utterly beyond the experience of our species. We represent merely the momentary flare-up of isolated intelligence in an otherwise indifferent ocean of time, space and darkness. Interstellar travel, given current technologies and theories, is generally untenable, although there is evidence that the Voyager 1 space probe became the first piece of mankind to exit our local solar system on October 4, 2012. Voyager was launched in 1977 and still sends data to NASA. The space agency says they’ll lose radio contact with the satellite around the year 2025 due to increasing radioactive interference.

The situation seems bleak for humanity. We were raised on a lovely garden planet at the edge of a quiet backwater galaxy. All science can tell us is how we came to be here, but the why is a slipperier issue.  All anyone knows for sure is we’re alone. If we’re to believe what our eyes and ears tell us, there’s nobody out there. This leads, for some, to the belief that we humans are special, somehow divine, to be singled out for existence on our beautiful world.

While I agree the Earth is beautiful, I’d rather not jump to conclusions about how we ended up here. Such assumptions are unbecoming of modern people who no longer need superstition to describe their world. For a more factual analysis, astronomer, physicist, and founding member of SETI (Search for Extra Terrestrial Intelligence) Frank Drake developed his Drake Equation as a tool to decipher just how special humanity might be in the vast universe we inhabit. It allows the E.T.-curious to calculate precise and reasonable estimates, and it provides insight into the potential for life elsewhere in the galaxy.

The Drake Equation looks like this:

Drake Equation

Here’s what it means:

N is the figure we’re calculating: how many other advanced species, like or unlike ourselves, might be searching their skies for us?

R is the rate at which stars like our own sun form in the Milky Way. This number is provided by astronomers who estimate that one solar- type star forms about every year. The size and brightness of the star are crucial factors to consider; excluding large, fast- burning goliaths and small, dim dwarf stars gives planetary systems the time necessary for complex evolution to occur.

fs is the fraction of solar-type stars that have planets.

ne is the fraction of habitable worlds per solar system. These planets must orbit within their star’s “Goldilocks zone.” Not too hot. Not too cold. Earthlike worlds’ orbits will need to be just right for the energy of their parent star.

fl is the fraction of Earthlike planets on which life actually occurs. Some otherwise Earthlike planets might have methane atmospheres like Saturn’s moon Titan, oceans of sulfuric acid, or a myriad of other conditions thought unsuitable for life.

fi is the fraction of Earthlike planets on which life arises and intelligent species evolve. This is a hotly debated figure since nobody can say for sure whether intelligence is an inevitable evolutionary state.

fc is the fraction of Earthlike planets that support life on which intelligent life arises and develops the technology to send messages into space, as we have. We hope they’re looking for us with the same sense of purpose that we feel.

L represents the estimated lifetime of an advanced, technological civilization. During the Cold War, this number was generally calculated to be very small indeed. Again, the issue here is deep time, which goes even beyond geologic timescales of hundreds of millions of years. Many civilizations may have come and gone in more than 13 billion years or have yet to evolve on alien worlds. It’s helpful to remember the age of our own civilization is measured in tens of thousands of years.

Several elements within the Drake Equation, such as the estimated life span of an alien civilization, are pure conjecture, but the equation was never intended for hard science. It was designed to encourage dialogue and introspection on the topics of alien life and humanity’s place in the cosmos. As a thought experiment, it inevitably leads to one of three big thoughts. Either we are truly alone, drifting disconsolately through the heavens. Or perhaps there’s a smattering of technical civilizations out there, but they’re so distant that contact (or even acknowledgement) is simply impossible given current technology and physics theories. The third big thought is that if criteria like evolutionary spontaneity and civilization lifetime are assigned more liberal figures (which may very well be accurate), N, or the number of advanced worlds, jumps significantly, meaning the galaxy may yet contain hundreds, thousands, or even millions of civilizations.Carl Sagan

Sagan’s own figures reflect his famous optimism. In Cosmos, he wrote, “With a third or half a trillion stars in our Milky Way alone, could ours be the only one accompanied by an inhabited planet? How much more likely it is that technical civilizations are a cosmic commonplace, that the Galaxy is pulsing and humming with advanced societies, and, therefore, that the nearest such culture is not so very far away—perhaps transmitting from antennas established on a planet of a naked-eye star just next door.”

Of course, there’s no hard evidence either way, but the application of deductive reasoning in considering the magnitude of the universe enables more thorough reflection about our time and place within it. Ignoring lack of proof is the very definition of belief.

Against my better nature, I choose to believe that humans evolved as a way for the universe to know itself, to investigate its origins, to unlock its deepest mysteries. I believe the rise of intelligence is hard-wired into the laws of nature. I believe there are (or have been) civilizations unimaginably more advanced than our own, spanning millions of years, that eventually yield to the demands of deep time.

I believe the universe is much larger than we assume during idle contemplation and our influence much smaller. However, if thousands of civilizations rise and fall in our galactic neighborhood within a given time frame, the prospect of first contact would suddenly seem plausible: an event that would fundamentally change the lives of all those spinning on this beautiful, extraordinary and miniscule world.

I believe we are not alone in the universe. Otherwise, it seems like a terrible waste of space. 

Former Mich. Governor Jennifer Granholm at DNC 2012

Weeks after the red, blue and generally vacuous spectacles that characterize modern pre-election, big party conventions, the news-obsessed, like me, have had a chance to pore over the blustering and grandstanding. I keep coming back to this video of the speech made by former Michigan governor Jennifer Granholm, whose exaggerated hand gestures and machine gun platitude delivery fired up those assembled.

On screen, I think she appears very foolish, aggressive (often pointing at members of the audience as she berates them), and chillingly disconnected with reality (see 3:35). The rhetoric itself is constructed entirely of platitude and insultingly stupid metaphor (Barack Obama’s going to “restart our engines?” D for drive, R for reverse, and so forth).
I understand the legacy of inflammatory oratory in convention speeches, where we’re safely preaching to the choir, but does oratory that’s based on an understanding mob mentality raise the level of the dialogue in America?

Wolfram|Alpha: A New Kind of Science

Stephen Wolfram is a remarkable person.  He published his first scientific paper at the age of 15 and earned a Ph.D. in physics from Cal Tech when he was 20.  Funded by the MacArthur Fellows Program, Wolfram’s early studies involved computer software known as cellular automata.  These were simple programs that could replicate themselves many times over, and, given enough time and repetition, random elements appeared and created major changes in the overall orientation of the program.  In other words, Wolfram successfully simulated the growth of complex systems from very simple ones, an accomplishment whose implications have rippled across various scientific disciplines, from biology and genetics to cosmology, meteorology, even quantum physics.

Wolfram’s fascination with interconnected mathematical systems pushed him to incorporate a wider and more varied approach. Eventually he realized the logical assumption underlying his research was that all mathematical formulas and algorithms could interconnect and give rise to a vast database, combining data and equations from every natural science into the ultimate tool for scientific research.

Stephen Wolfram’s project, Wolfram|Alpha, was created for exactly this reason.  Its user interface consists of a public website, within which is nested a variety of downloadable applications.  The site suggests which programs might be useful for the question at hand and disambiguates search information just like Wikipedia.   But the information at the user’s disposal is unlike anything else online.  If Wikipedia is the ultimate encyclopedia, Wolfram|Alpha is the ultimate calculator, and its potential for cross-referencing data from far afield is the aspect that becomes the most elemental with its use over time.

Wolfram|Alpha’s practical applications aren’t blindingly apparent when first using the site, but after further use, the possibilities become more concrete.  Wolfram|Alpha draws from more than 10 trillion (that’s twelve zeroes—a thousand billions!) primary sources and more than 50,000 equations and algorithms.  Of course, these sources may be cross-referenced again and again, often in completely novel combinations.  In terms of cultural significance, Wolfram|Alpha’s most obvious parallel might be thought of as direct access to not only a team of experts in a given discipline but a savant-level intellect that correlates and recombines the expertise of every quantifiable field of study imaginable.

Users might request something as mundane as the caloric intake of a fast food meal and then refer to the amount of exercise necessary to expend those calories for a specified height and weight.  Geographical queries yield immediately useful results such as the price of gas in a destination city, average traffic wait length, the fuel expended during wait time, the dimensions of the freeway system, complete demographics of the area, the accessibility of public transit systems, movie and theater showtimes, the time required for travel to the destination by bus, ship, or air, including the time light and sound travel the same distance, just to name a few of the data points computed.  Weather and satellite data are easily cross-referenced and draw from continually updated weather sources.


Amateur astronomers might use the database to plan out the night’s stargazing, comparing any two—or any 100—stellar objects in terms of magnitude, luminosity, distance from Earth, distance from other objects, light travel time, constellations, similar objects, etymologies, etc. This sort of applied knowledge once existed solely in the realm of the expert trained in complex physics theories. Wolfram|Alpha delivers this knowledge in response to plain English search queries and democratizes expert data by using an open-source format that anyone can access.

ServalA search for “breeds of cats” uncovers another rabbit hole to explore (and some much-needed adorableness).  Breed size, weight, description, origin, mutation, temperament, range and more are manipulable data that can be compared side-by-side with that of other breeds or other species.

The same idea can apply to wildly different parameters, such as social media. Wolfram|Alpha recently released an app that analyzes Facebook accounts if users are interested in cross-referencing all the data they’ve contributed to that social network.  Weekly and hourly distribution of posts, most often used terms, most liked and commented posts, post lengths, friend geography, gender and status reductions are only a few of the items presented in clear charts and graphs for quick study. These data provide insight into one’s own use of digital technologies in a virtual social venue that can be found nowhere else on the web.

When Wolfram|Alpha “went live” in 2009, it met with tepid reviews, primarily because many critics had difficulty locating a proper context within which to analyze the new service.

Google scoured the web for data; Wikipedia compiled and organized the data.  What was Wolfram|Alpha supposed to do again?

One major difference is the insularity of Wolfram|Alpha.  Its searches ignore the World Wide Web altogether, drawing instead from servers crammed with raw proprietary data.  Its interconnections sometimes fail, but the site expands daily, not just in terms of source updates, but in scope and vision as well. Initially derided as a tool for math whizzes and science geeks, Wolfram|Alpha has spread into other online markets, often creating new niches within existing architecture.  For example, iPhone fact-finding application Siri utilizes the Wolfram|Alpha engine for about 25 percent of its requests.

Stephen Wolfram’s ultimate goal for the project is to discover the so-called Grand Unified Theory of physics, the theorized mathematical substructure of the universe that has long eluded the most brilliant minds of the field. Perhaps it’s something of a happy accident that the engine created to plumb the depths of existence is also highly useful for us non-genius types.  As established during its first few years, Wolfram|Alpha will continue to fill in the spaces between other online services or augment them in ways yet to be conceived.  Someday an online database may have all the answers, but for now, it’s the questions we haven’t yet thought to ask that make Wolfram|Alpha so exciting to watch.

Knowledge Computation Engine

“Wolfram|Alpha’s long-term goal is to make all systematic knowledge immediately computable and accessible to everyone.

We aim to collect and curate all objective data; implement every known model, method, and algorithm; and make it possible to compute whatever can be computed about anything. Our goal is to build on the achievements of science and other systematizations of knowledge to provide a single source that can be relied on by everyone for definitive answers to factual queries.”      -Wolfram|Alpha website

A Digital Literacy Narrative

My digital life began in 1984, and the most terrifying woman I had ever known was responsible.  Her name was Marge Bisiar, and she was my kindergarten teacher.  I was five and Bisiar, in my eyes, was positively ancient.  She must have been at least thirty!  She ruled her kindergarten classrooms with an iron fist, but her students were usually productive.  If not, they met with very harsh penalties, not the least of which was Ms. Bisiar’s infamous fury.  While Bisiar was a disciplinarian, I later understood that she expected nothing less than her kids’ best effort—a worthy lesson I learned well (but may have forgotten during high school).

Apple IIe

Apple IIe: My grade school computer lab was filled with these clunkers.

Ms. Bisiar was also the local technology expert, which meant she would remain an important person in my life for the next six years and beyond. My elementary school in Casper, Wyoming, featured one of the school district’s fancy and few computer labs.  It was packed with about thirty Apple IIe’s, which had been state-of-the-art in home computing during the early ‘80s.  Into the latter part of the decade, many of the IIe’s in the school had fallen into disrepair. Gradually the lab transitioned to the more expensive and elegant Apple II-GS model, and the clunky IIe’s were distributed to the teachers to learn basic word-processing and spreadsheet software.

The computer mouse did not yet exist or was not ubiquitous enough for a Wyoming grade school.  I recall using the keyboard to program a “mouse” on the screen to do things like: Go forward 600px and reverse and turn left.  Hit Enter, and the pointer arrow on the green monochrome screen would jump at the command.  A little quick coding for pen down, and the mouse drew a line between the points.  It wasn’t quite WOPR from War Games, but I was learning basic logical reasoning at a very young age.  Ms. Bisiar soon recruited me to a junior tech squad, an elite, handpicked team of mega-geniuses from every grade.  Mostly we built things with Legos.

But they were Lego Technics, which were (and still are) awesome.  First we built a model Jeep that followed directional commands from the juiced-up II-GS in Ms. Bisiar’s office.  We also constructed a large humanoid torso with arms and head that responded to input from the computer.

A Jeep made from Lego Technics

Some of Lego’s Technic sets provide an interface for the computer that allows users to control the machines they have created.

Beyond Legos, I spent many geeky hours with a lost techno-relic of the 1980s, the Big Trak programmable tank.  Almost big enough for an eight-year-old to ride around the gymnasium, Big Traks took up to 16 commands of the kind you would expect: turn right, go ahead X.  Punch the sequence into the onboard keypad, and the beige tank trundled off at unimpressive speed to carry out your confined set of commands. All your base are belong to us, indeed.

Big Trak programmable tank

Big Traks were programmable toy tanks that allowed input of up to 16 movement commands.

Steve Jobs, public schools and Satan made a sacred pact in the ‘80s that all American children would use Apple products in school. Period. My parents were schoolteachers, and the Apple 2GS that swamped an entire wing of their modest house was devoted to their nightly grades and lesson plans.  I was more interested in my friends’ gear, namely the Commodore 64 and the original NES.  Apple only carried educational games that lacked the plumbers and princesses my attention required. The best I could hope was for my family to be spared dysentery and death along the Oregon Trail.  Other Mac “games” included Mavis Beacon, a typing game, and Number Crunchers, which was like Pac-Man plus math — subtract the fun.

There were hundreds, if not thousands, of games on the C64 platform.  Alas, I lived a somewhat sheltered childhood, and neither Commodore nor Nintendo would pass my parents’ scrutiny. (I was forbidden to play with G.I. Joes or Barbies.)


The Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) ruled the console gaming market for most of the 1980s.

“Nothing violent” was the rule in my house (yes, my folks are crazy hippies).  My only option was to geek out in overdrive on my friends’ game systems whenever I had the chance, often under the pretense we were “hanging out.” I would lie, cheat and steal to get any quality time with Excitebike or Kung-Fu on the NES.

In the early 1990s — when I was a tweenager — e-mail was the new trending technology and computers were no longer inert, isolated hardware. The idea of the Net had caught on in popular culture, and early ISP’s like Prodigy and America Online enabled computers to connect over existing phone lines.

Taking a walk or catching a quick nap were good ways to pass the time waiting for my Prodigy service to connect to the Net.  The connection speed was laughable by today’s standards, and I knew it was slow back then.  I was an adolescent.  I was impatient.  I was connected to a vast ocean of information, but damned if it didn’t require saintly patience to dip in a toe!

Commodore 64

The Commodore 64 was the ultimate desktop computer for gaming in the ’80s.

Now that dial-up web connection is no longer part of my life, I realize I miss the bizarre squawking of the old modems: the dial tone, the clicking and buzzing.  And just when I thought something had gone awry and began cursing the $20 modem from RadioShack, the key found the lock, and I was connected.  I had opened a door to limitless vaults of knowledge… but the link was fragile.  One phone call would interrupt service, and it might be days before I’d bother logging in again.

Fast-forward to the year 2012.  It’s now officially the future. “The Net” seems like a simplistic name to give the digital snarl our lives have become. The old Apple IIe’s and Commodores are relics whose processing power is dwarfed by the phones we carry nowadays. While I’m still waiting patiently for my hoverbike, I’ve tried to pass the time by becoming more educated about existing digital technologies, especially since resuming classes at the University of Wyoming.

Some tech I can handle.  I maintain a basic portfolio website.  I’m well versed in audio engineering and I’ve dabbled in video.  I’ve got some skills that I hope someday will pay the bills, but a couple high-tech courses have ironically made my own limitations clear.  If Adobe Flash is over my head, then programming in Java is… we’ll say Mars.  I’m competent in HTML, but I don’t enjoy the work.  I’m perfectly content allowing smarter people develop the tools to let me sidestep any heavy coding.  I love technology, but I’m still impatient. I am primarily a consumer, and I’m OK with that.  Besides, if I am confronted with any surprise coding, there are very few questions Google or Wolfram Alpha cannot answer.

In some ways the new digital life is like the Wild West, a frontier where the ability to communicate is such a simple task that anything goes.  Our social lives bear little resemblance to those of last decade, not to mention all the other ones.  Nevertheless, life online is full of constraints and expectations that tend to suck up cognitive space.  Social media and cell phones arguably over-connect us to one another. Facebook is the obvious example that has spawned possibly the largest “community” in history.  Personal information that was once private is now part of the public record.  Every intimate detail of people’s lives is often posted with what I assume is plain boorishness.  Now that individuals feel empowered by the ability to publish about their lives, every mundane thought and deed, spiteful instinct, and political or religious belief is let loose upon anyone bored enough to notice.  Sometimes a little mystery is a good thing.Blogger

Blogging also requires a certain level of exhibitionism that can be intimidating (or irritating when reading a blog) and humility will get you nowhere in Blogland. I’ve blogged for several classes, but I have trouble keeping up when I’m not required to do so, partly because it’s so public. The tactile presence of a pen in hand is still the most comfortable brainstorming method for this aging nerd.

My life is indelibly intertwined with technology, and I’m mostly supportive.  I read sci-fi novels and watch TED videos.  I am hopelessly addicted to video games and I tinker with website development.  Trust me, I’m on the train.  But I recognize that technology used to solve a problem can itself cause unforeseen consequences.  Our lives are increasingly devoted to cultivating our digital literacies and personas, often at the expense of other worthy experiences.  This trend will no doubt continue to simultaneously connect and isolate us in ways we can’t possibly predict.

I’m optimistic, somehow. I’m of the opinion that the promise of technology justifies the risk and sacrifice.  Could be that’s Ms. Bisiar talking.