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Paste your essay in here…The search for extraterrestrial life, or even the question of whether it exists, has been one that has captured the imaginations of all of humankind for centuries. This pursuit for knowledge has driven its way into the fields of science, philosophy, and even art, where fictitious settings and theories have wormed their way into pop culture through the science fiction genre. In the last 60 years, with the genesis of the Space Race, this fascination with extraterrestrial life has increased significantly, and thus, the Drake Equation was conceived. The Drake Equation, first introduced by astronomer Frank Drake in 1961, was meant to identify the specific factors that are assumed to contribute to the development of civilizations outside of Earth and the solar system. Further expanded by both Drake and famous astronomer Carl Sagan, it was concluded that the Milky Way galaxy was home to at least a million intelligent civilizations. However, this interpretation was reached using a series of educated guesses, leaving a great amount of uncertainty floating around the equation. Not only does this uncertainty call into question the credibility of the equation, but the equation itself ignores various factors that are presumed to make complex life possible. The exploration of these disregarded factors is the basis of the Rare Earth Hypothesis, the subject of the book Rare Earth: Why Complex Life is Uncommon in the Universe, written by scientists Peter D. Ward and Donald Brownlee. In 2000, they proposed their hypothesis with the intent of highlighting the myriad of highly specific conditions that make
complex life possible, yet unlikely. Based on the Rare Earth hypothesis, Ward and Brownlee would argue that the values of the Drake Equation have no choice but to be exceedingly low (lower values decrease the number of intelligent civilizations), and would question the validity of the Drake and Sagan’s proposal of the existence of millions of civilizations in our galaxy and the universe as a whole.
The primary question that the Drake Equation is attempting to answer is how common or uncommon intelligent life is in the universe. The origins of the equation go back to West Virginia, where Frank Drake worked at the National Radio Astronomy Observatory’s Green Bank observatory. The observatory houses one of the greatest and most advanced radio telescopes on Earth, which enabled Drake to observe two stars similar to the Sun: Tau Ceti and Epsilon Eridani. He then tuned the telescope at around 1,420 MHz, or the frequency at which atomic hydrogen emits, assuming that extraterrestrial life might choose this frequency due to the abundance of hydrogen in the universe. This experiment, formally called Project Ozma, became the model for the future work of SETI, or the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence. Although Project Ozma did not produce much data, it did inform Drake that not every star sustains intelligent life. But what keeps SETI alive today is the suggestion that some systems might yet. The ongoing existence and work of SETI is something that Ward and Brownlee may say is a fruitless endeavor, as their hypothesis explicitly states that, “we will argue that not only intelligent life, but even the simplest of animal life, is exceedingly rare in our galaxy and in the Universe” (2000, p. xviii). Ward and Brownlee make it perfectly clear that they do not accept the existence of multiple intelligent animal civilizations. But despite this difference, it is still
important to remember that this question of the commonality of intelligent life in the universe is the exact same question that both parties had, with the only difference being the conclusions they drew from it.
Ward and Brownlee list a plethora of conditions in their hypothesis that need to be fulfilled in order for intelligent life to be formed and sustained. Some of these include an ideal distance from a star, the correct planetary mass, plate tectonics, an ocean, a large moon, a stable planetary orbit, atmospheric properties, presence of carbon and oxygen, biological evolution, and much more. These specifications are the ammunition that Ward and Brownlee use to justify their position on this subject, but they are also the same factors that the Drake Equations fails to address. The Drake Equation merely attempts to examine the number of planets that can sustain life, and then the percentage of those planets which actually harbor life that exhibits an advanced civilization. In the perspectives of Ward and Brownlee, not only would these two general components be insufficient to draw the conclusion of the existence of intelligent life, but they would also be forced to assign incredibly low numbers to these values with the restrictions imposed upon them by their own hypothesis.
The question of the existence of intelligent life is one that has, and will continue to spark fierce debate within the scientific community. Like many subjects in science, this is one that has managed to polarize scientists who all work towards finding the answer to the exact same question. The case of Drake and Sagan versus Ward and Brownlee is only one example of many. This is not necessarily a bad thing, because it makes the field of science into one that constantly checks itself. Ward and Brownlee analyzed the Drake Equation, found flaws, and managed to
generate a whole new outlook on a subject that is not very approachable. As a result of viewing the Drake Equation through the eyes of Ward and Brownlee, we may even begin to question the credibility of such an equation. Despite this, the Drake Equation still maintains an important role in the field of science, and in human society in general. This is because the equation is something that only becomes more potent with time. As we progress into a future that makes use of advanced technology, knowledge of the world outside of our own grows more plentiful. This in turn will make the numbers assigned to the variables in the equation more accurate, instead of simply using our best guesses like Drake and Sagan did. From a more current perspective, the equation is also a powerful learning tool. It has the capability to teach students of the true nature of science, and the great amount of speculation that go along with it. Ward and Brownlee’s response and hypothesis also serves as an educational tool, showing how it is acceptable to contradict and criticize another idea, given a sufficient amount of evidence. They convey that the ideas of even the greatest minds should not necessarily be readily accepted without hesitation and skepticism. Ultimately, although Ward and Brownlee are justified in their analysis of the Drake Equation, it has not lost its influence over the way we think about the origins of life and will continue to affect our perception of the world outside of our own.
I’m a freelance writer with a bachelor’s degree in Journalism from Boston University. My work has been featured in publications like the L.A. Times, U.S. News and World Report, Farther Finance, Teen Vogue, Grammarly, The Startup, Mashable, Insider, Forbes, Writer (formerly Qordoba), MarketWatch, CNBC, and USA Today, among others.