transmitted a dedicated radio message to the stars at 5pm on 16th
November 1974 from a radio telescope situated in Arecibo in Puerto Rico (left),
although other radio and television transmissions had been drifting into space
for decades; the inadvertent result of normal terrestrial broadcasting. The
message sent was a three-minute signal targeted towards a group of stars 24,000
light years away and was primarily intended to be a demonstration that
terrestrial radio astronomy had reached a level that would allow interstellar
radio communication over vast distances.
The event was also significant, for by sending such a message,
the scientists involved were also signalling that they believed there was (or
is) some intelligent life ‘out there’ to receive and respond to their call. So, what is the possibility of life out there trying to make
contact with a race on this planet (I say race, as it cannot be assumed that it
is humanity that any ‘aliens’ may be wishing to contact.) Frank Drake produced a formula in 1961 that could be used to
calculate an answer:
N = R x Fp x Ne x F1 x Fi x Fc x
Actually, the formula doesn’t give an answer as such, for any
number generated can only be based on the numbers attributed to each part of the
formula. That said, essentially it works like this:
determined that N signifies the number of civilisations in our galaxy
attempting to make contact.
R stands for the average rate of star
formulation and based on observations from the Hubble telescope this is
generally accepted to be around ten stars each year. Fp is the fraction of stars
that could contain planetary systems and whilst this is much debate about this,
a figure of one in ten is not unreasonable. Next Ne signifies the number
of these planets that are Earth-like. Based on our own solar system, this could
be determined as 1.
F1 stands for the fraction of
these Earth-like planets on which life could develop. This is fairly
straightforward, either life develops or it doesn’t therefore F1 is
either 1 or 0. If 0, then the overall formula will always generate a figure of
zero as well. We will accept the view expressed by Professor Jesco Puttkamer,
former Senior Staff Scientist of Advanced Programmes of Space Flight, NASA, who,
when asked "Could you give me a clear mathematical probability of the existence
of life in outer space?" replied "One … one is certainty." (1) We also now not
only believe their might have been life on Mars, but the moons of Jupiter are
also being suggested as probable homes for possible micro-organisms) so F1 will be 1.
Fi is the fraction of these
planets where life has become intelligent. On Earth there are a number of
intelligent species, so applying this to Drake’s formula, a number between 1 and
4 could be used. Conservatively, this will be determined as 1 (representing
humanity on Earth.)
Fc refers to the number of these
species that actually want to communicate with us. We are now purely in the
realms of speculation, but for arguments sake, it will be assumed perhaps 1 in
10 of these species would want to talk generating a figure of 0.1 for Fc.
Finally L represents the
lifetime of a civilisation (in years). The first part of this book demonstrated
how civilisations can rise and fall, but we will use a figure of 5000 years –
from the founding of Egypt to the present day when we are able to transmit
signals to the stars (although hopefully mankind will survive somewhat
Using these figures,
the formula calculates that N, (the number of
advanced civilisations wanting to make contact) is 10 x 0.1 x 1 x 1 x 0.1 x
5000. This suggests that there are 500 civilisations in this galaxy alone (one
galaxy in a universe of 100 billion) who may be trying to contact us.
Having calculated the number of races that might be trying to
contact us, the next question is, how could they space travel to reach us? Albert Einstein
advises us that nothing can travel faster than the speed of light (E=MC2) and
late twentieth century space missions to the nine known planets of the Solar
System have revealed no signs of intelligent life there. Therefore, any one
visiting us must be travelling from outside the Solar System, yet the distances
involved suggest that such travel is not achievable.
Space is so infinite that it is measured in ‘light years’;
that is, the time it would take light to travel any given distance.