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W(h)ither the Drake equation?

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  19 September 2006

Mark J. Burchell
School of Physical Sciences, Ingram Building, University of Kent, Canterbury, Kent CT2 7NH, UK e-mail:


For over 40 years the formalism known as the Drake equation has helped guide speculation about the likelihood of intelligent extraterrestrial life contacting us. Since the equation was formulated there have been significant advances in astronomy and astrophysics, sufficient to merit a review of the significance of the Drake equation. The equation itself is as a series of terms which, when combined, allow an informed discussion of the likelihood of contact with an alien intelligence. However, whilst it has a mathematical form (i.e. a series of terms multiplied together to give an overall probability) it is best understood not as an equation in the strictly mathematical sense. Some of the terms have a physically quantifiable, numerically based meaning (e.g. obtainable from astronomy) and some are more social in content in that they describe the behaviour and evolution of societies and thus are more social science in nature and not truly estimable without observation of a set of societies. Initially, almost all the terms had to be estimated based on informed guesswork or belief. However, in the intervening period since the early 1960s, many of the a priori scientific terms which were themselves initially so uncertain as to require estimation by guess work or belief are now, or will soon be, directly measurable from current or planned astronomical projects. This leaves the non-scientific terms as a distinct class of their own, still subject to analysis only by discussion. Thus observational astronomy has nearly caught up with parts of the Drake equation and will soon quantify the purely physical science parts of the equation. The social parts (concerning intelligent societies, etc.) are still a priori unknowable. In addition, the growth of the subject called astrobiology (i.e. the study of life in the Universe) has developed so fast that communicating with intelligent life is now increasingly seen as just one small part of a much larger discipline. The knowledge as to whether there is life per se (apart from on Earth) in our galactic neighbourhood may be obtainable in the near future directly from observation. Such knowledge will have a profound impact on mankind and will be obtained without the form of communication envisaged by the Drake equation.

Research Article
2006 Cambridge University Press

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