The Drake equation is not well known outside the world of astrophysics, but it has a lot in common with the ROI calculations that motivate venture capitalists. Dr. Drake figured that half a dozen statistical variables could be neatly crunched into the number of intelligent civilizations that could share the Milky Way with us. The result? Ten thousand of them could be cohabiting our little slice of infinity.
This is exciting news, enough so that investors, like Russian billionaire Yuri Milner, are dropping millions into a SETI-like effort to communicate with those extra-terrestrial folks. What comes next is anyone’s guess.
In case the aliens we seek are too polite to speak before spoken to, there have been countless efforts to beam meaningful messages into outer space. The term “meaningful” is of course subject to interpretation – past broadcasts have included such gems as a collection of specifications (the height of the average human, the human population of Earth…) greetings in 55 different languages, music from Beethoven to Chuck Barry, photos of the various Wonders of the World, the Beatles “Across the Universe”, and even 100,000 Craigslist postings. If we get a response to “free kittens to a good home”, we may want to rethink this.
This is by no means a new endeavor. SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) has spent the past 30 years listening for something other than random noise coming from the world’s radio telescopes. Other than the infamous “Wow!” signal of 1977, they have nothing to show for their efforts.
Lurking in the shadows of all this searching and sending is a primal question – why? There is always the assumption that there will be “intelligent” life, although the odds of finding a colony of amoebas, even one that likes cats, is just as great. It is always front-page news when our probes register any hint of water on a distant body, although the link between chemistry and biology, the origin of life as it were, remains elusive.
But if humans are curious enough to spend $570 million to see 50 Shades of Grey, the sky is the limit.