Mark A. Carter


SETI and the Drake Equation

World famous Canadian Science Fiction novelist Mark A. Carter gives his two cents worth about the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence and the Drake Equation.

"SETI is probably the most important quest of our time, and it amazes me that governments and corporations are not supporting it sufficiently."

Arthur C. Clarke, 2006

In the early 1960s, Frank Drake, a young astronomer with the National Radio Astronomy Observatory (NRAO) in Green Bank, West Virginia, developed what is now known as the Drake Equation in an effort to determine how many intelligent, communicative civilizations our galaxy could harbor. And for forty years, the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence or SETI has combed the skies in search of signals from star systems within the galaxy.

National Radio Astronomy Observatory Green Bank, West Virginia

the Drake Equation is written as N = R* · fp · ne · fl · fi · fc · L where:

N is the number of civilizations in the Milky Way Galaxy whose electromagnetic emissions are detectable;
R* is the rate of formation of stars suitable for the development of intelligent life;
fp is the fraction of those stars with planetary systems;
ne is the number of planets per solar system with an environment suitable for life;
fl is the fraction of suitable planets on which life actually appears;
fi is the fraction of life-bearing planets on which intelligent life emerges;
fc is the fraction of civilizations that develop a technology that releases detectable signs of their existence into space; and,
L is the length of time such civilizations release detectable signals into space.

Drake equation courtesy of the SETI Institute.

Within the limits of our existing technology, any practical search for distant intelligent life must necessarily be a search for some manifestation of a distant technology. In each of its last four decadal reviews, the National Research Council has emphasized the relevance and importance of searching for evidence of the electromagnetic signature of distant civilizations.

Besides illuminating the factors involved in such a search, the Drake Equation is a simple, effective tool for stimulating intellectual curiosity about the universe around us, for helping us to understand that life as we know it is the end product of a natural, cosmic evolution, and for making us realize how much we are a part of that universe. A key goal of the SETI Institute is to further high quality research that will yield additional information related to any of the factors of this fascinating equation.

To quote Jill Tarter, the Director of the SETI Institute - Project Phoenix, "There was never a time when I didn't just absolutely assume that the stars in the sky were somebody else's suns."

While at the University of California, Berkeley, in the 1970s, Jill Tarter was recruited to work on a SETI project there because she was the only one who could program an obsolete computer. She has been with the SETI program ever since.

SETI alien janitor is copyright © Brian Zaikowski. All Rights Reserved.

In 1993, in a perfunctory if not malicious act of Congress, the SETI program was axed. Undaunted by the setback, Jill Tarter acquired private funding and resurrected SETI from the ashes of its old self as Project Phoenix. Currently, Project Phoenix listens to 1,000 sun like stars within 200 light years of Earth, for intelligent radio signals. Ellie Arroway, the character portrayed by Jodi Foster in the movie Contact, which was based on Carl Sagan's novel by the same name, was modelled after his friend Jill Tarter.

According to the Drake Equation, there are more intelligent aliens out there in our own galaxy capable of communicating with us than we ever imagined. Perhaps some of them are Angels, as I describe in Hephzibah of Heaven.

Join in the Search. Run SETI@home software on your home computer.

Now you know.

from the imagination of Mark A. Carter - novelist

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