August 4, 2002


Why ET Hasn't Called : The lifetime of civilizations in the Drake equation for estimating extraterrestrial intelligences is greatly exaggerated (Michael Shermer, Scientific American)
In science there is arguably no more suppositional formula than that proposed in 1961 by radio astronomer Frank Drake for estimating the number of technological civilizations that reside in our galaxy: N = R fp ne fl fi fc L

Using a conservative Drake equation calculation, where L = 50,000 years (and R = 10, fp = 0.5, ne = 0.2, fl = 0.2, fi = 0.2, fc = 0.2), then N = 400 civilizations, or one per 4,300 light-years. Using Zubrin's optimistic (and modified) Drake equation, where L = 50,000 years, then N = five million galactic civilizations, or one per 185 light-years. (Zubrin's calculation assumes that 10 percent of all 400 billion stars are suitable G- and K-type stars that are not part of multiples, with almost all having planets, that 10 percent of these contain an active biosphere and that 50 percent of those are as old as Earth.) Estimates of N range wildly between these figures, from Planetary Society scientist Thomas R. McDonough's 4,000 to Carl Sagan's one million.

I find this inconsistency in the estimation of L perplexing because it is the one component in the Drake equation for which we have copious empirical data from the history of civilization on Earth. To compute my own value of L, I compiled the durations of 60 civilizations (years from inception to demise or the present), including Sumeria, Mesopotamia, Babylonia, the eight dynasties of Egypt, the six civilizations of Greece, the Roman Republic and Empire, and others in the ancient world, plus various civilizations since the fall of Rome, such as the nine dynasties (and two republics) of China, four in Africa, three in India, two in Japan, six in Central and South America, and six modern states of Europe and America.

The 60 civilizations in my database endured a total of 25,234 years, so L = 420.6 years. For more modern and technological societies, L became shorter, with the 28 civilizations since
the fall of Rome averaging only 304.5 years. Plugging these figures into the Drake equation goes a long way toward explaining why ET has yet to drop by or phone in. Where L = 420.6 years, N = 3.36 civilizations in our galaxy; where L = 304.5 years, N = 2.44 civilizations in our galaxy. No wonder the galactic airways have been so quiet!

From assuming that extraterrestrial civilizations will resemble ours to differentiating between Greco-Roman and modern Western Civilization to assuming that we're at a point in our own history where we can know anything about how long civilizations endure, this just seems like a massive pile of unsustainable suppositions. Posted by Orrin Judd at August 4, 2002 7:29 AM
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