The Drake Equation: Still Relevant and Increasingly Useful

The Kepler Space Telescope. source:


The Drake Equation is not new.  Invented in 1961 by astronomer and SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) pioneer Frank Drake, the equation seeks to provide a framework for mathematically establishing a logical approximation for the number of advanced civilizations that may share the galaxy with us.  What is relatively new, however, is our rapidly improving ability to plug in increasingly accurate values for each of the factors, as explained in this article.  For instance, until the 1990s, the existence of exoplanets (the technical term for planets orbiting stars other than our own sun) was merely a popular theory, but in recent decades scientists have been able to definitively record hundreds upon hundreds of them — with many of them known to exist within their stars’ habitable zones.  The search is really just beginning, but for now scientists can venture increasingly accurate extrapolations of their data in order to try to get a sense of how many worlds out there may potentially harbor life.

The results produced by the equation still depend on a number of assumptions, of course, and the resulting output depends heavily on whether you input more optimistic or pessimistic values — but the staggering amount of worlds being discovered regularly would suggest that the more optimistic values for some of the important factors in the equation, favored by Drake himself, are more likely to be accurate than more pessimistic values put forth before the discovery of all those exoplanets.  Going forward, the many scientists devoted to this field will continue to narrow down the likely values for all factors of the Drake Equation.