Thoughts regarding the potential for advanced extraterrestrial civilization range from deeply considered speculation from well regarded scientists to inane comments on internet forums that turn every intelligent back-and-forth into an unfunny joke about how stupid humans are in general or, more specifically, how stupid supporters of the opposition political party are. I'm going to take a closer look at three of the most famous scientific ideas that have developed from the ongoing conversation regarding ET and sprinkle in some of my own lowbrow thoughts on the matter.

The Drake Equation is, far and away, the most famous of the three concepts I'll cover. It is a fairly straightforward formula for estimating the number of advanced civilizations in the Milky Way galaxy capable of interstellar communication and was developed by Frank Drake, a SETI pioneer and professor of Astronomy and Astrophysics at the University of California, Santa Cruz, as he was preparing for an early conference on the subject of communication with ET in 1961.

"As I planned the meeting, I realized a few day[s] ahead of time we needed an agenda. And so I wrote down all the things you needed to know to predict how hard it's going to be to detect extraterrestrial life. And looking at them it became pretty evident that if you multiplied all these together, you got a number, N, which is the number of detectable civilizations in our galaxy. This, of course, was aimed at the radio search, and not to search for primordial or primitive life forms."

R* = 10/year (10 stars formed per year, on the average over the life of the galaxy)
fp = 0.5 (half of all stars formed will have planets)
ne = 2 (stars with planets will have 2 planets capable of developing life)
fl = 1 (100% of these planets will develop life)
fi = 0.01 (1% of which will be intelligent life)
fc = 0.01 (1% of which will be able to communicate)
L = 10,000 years (which will last 10,000 years)
N = the number of civilizations in our galaxy with which communication might be possible;

Drake's initial values, listed above, resulted in N = 10.

There is certainly one key qualification I have with the equation and that's the first variable. I don't really see what value the number of stars formed per year over the life of the galaxy actually has and a team of astronomers from the University of Leiden in the Netherlands has determined that the rate of star creation in the universe peaked about 11 billion years ago and has been dropping ever since. The problem seeks to reasonably estimate a number of contemporary advanced ET civilizations in the galaxy, so let's take a closer look at the Milky Way as it is today.

Somewhere between 100 and 120 thousand light years in diameter and 1000 light years top to bottom, the Milky Way is home to an estimated, a very broad estimate I might add, 200 to 600 billion stars. I like keeping my math simple, so I'll go with the smaller diameter estimate of 100 thousand light years as I move along. Breaking the galaxy into 100 sections, we get zones 10 thousand light years side to side with the thickness, of course, staying the same. Obviously, there's nothing in those corner sections, but if scientists can give themselves 400 billion stars worth of wiggle room, I'll give myself a few empty sections of space. Regardless of the broad range of estimates, the galaxy is mind-numbingly huge.

One strength of Drake's formula is that it recognizes the obvious: not every star will
have planets, not every planet will have life, and not every planet with life will have a species on it that rises to the level of civilization builder. Of course we know there is one and that is us. How do we plug reasonable estimates into the rest of the equation? Current estimates of the number of planets in the galaxy check in as high as 160 billion, some of them part of confirmed multi-planet solar systems and the best current estimate for habitable planets comes in at around 500 million to two billion.

So let's assume all the planets in the habitable zone have life of one form or another. How do we get to the essential N number? Well, a recent survey of Earth put the number of species of animals here at 7.7 million. We know only one of them is a very smart monkey species so let's say that for every 7.7 million planets with life, there's one with a smart monkey, or smart something else, capable of building a civilization that can communicate with our's. My reason for that number? It's the Drake Equation, I can plug whatever number I want into that variable. So can you or anyone else. Looking at the problem that way give us the answer N = 65. A little more generous than Drake's. Of course, Drake's result might be generous. He may have been incredibly conservative too.

Playing with the Drake Equation is a fun little exercise whether you come up with only one other advanced ET planet or 1000, but is the Drake equation pointless? Of course not, but it was only developed as a useful device to spur conversation and while it still serves that purpose to this day that's as far as it goes. It's basically just a tool for bullshit sessions on the subject of intelligent life in the galaxy.

A confirmed answer of one would change our world forever and that brings us to the Fermi Paradox and . . . UFOs. The Fermi Paradox, as generally understood, raises the question, "If our galaxy is teeming with civilized life why haven't we discovered it?" It's certainly a valid question.

Skeptics and minimizers of an ET presence in the galaxy lean hard on the Fermi Paradox to back their position but what many folks don't know is the Fermi Paradox developed from a very casual conversation over lunch at the Los Alamos National Laboratory, in 1950 or thereabouts, and the catalyst for the conversation was a recent batch of UFO sightings.

Enrico Fermi was a Nobel Prize winning physicist whose work led to the development of the first nuclear reactor, quantum theory, nuclear and particle physics, and atomic weapons. He was joined on this day by fellow scientists Emil Konopinski, Herbert York and Edward Teller.

UFO fever had gripped the United States and the subject of flying saucers, as they were then called, came up. The scientists expressed doubt that the UFOs of the day were of ET origin and the subject quickly turned to our own ability to travel beyond light speed within the next ten years. According to Teller, Fermi thought there was a ten percent chance of that happening . . . back in 1950! Obviously, he was a little optimistic on that projection.

While the conversation shifted off to other matters, Fermi suddenly blurted out, "Where is everybody?" causing a laugh from his party. In recounting the conversation in correspondence, everyone knew Fermi was talking about advanced extraterrestrials. He went on to, according to York's account, perform some quick calculations, his own on-the-fly version of the Drake Equation a decade before the fact, and "concluded on the basis of such calculations that we ought to have been visited long ago and many times over."

Some might think, me included, that Fermi's apparent skepticism of ET visitation in his day conflicts with his own calculations of the odds, that maybe we have been visited long ago and many times over. Just because they have maintained a fairly low and ambiguous profile in their survey doesn't mean they aren't visiting. Other answers to Fermi's question over the years have included thoughts like they just aren't there, faster than light travel isn't possible, they haven't found us and so on.

The problem with finding an ET signal via listening to the sky, the method pioneered by Drake, is obviously the size of the galaxy. Let's say there are 1000 advanced civilizations in the galaxy, a very optimistic number, and they are fairly evenly distributed, which won't be the case but it makes the calculations easier, with 10 in every 1 percent of galaxy space.

You can see for yourself just how much space exists between them. That one percent block of galaxy space is 10000 light years across and 1000 light years top to bottom. Each civilization is a good two or three or four thousand light years from its' nearest neighbor. Some sort of waveform communication is going to have to be in existence a few millennia for any of them to hear each other. Also in this block are two to six billion other stars and 500 million other planets with maybe 5 million of them capable of harboring life. It's both very big and very busy.

But as time has worn on, the conversation of that crew of scientists has risen to the level of legend . . . a legend born from a lunchtime bullshit session among scientists.

Lastly, I'll discuss the Kardashev Scale, developed by Russian astronomer Nikolai Kardashev, in which he categorizes advanced ET civilizations but before I get to the details of that I must mention this paper written by Kardashev in which he suggests an alien supercivilization could build a space telescope powerful enough to see life on Earth from the center of the galaxy. The diameter of the reflector of such a device? It would need to be 0.1 light years across . . . about 586 billion miles! That's roughly 6,300 times the diameter of the Earth's orbit around the sun. The guy does not speculate conservatively!

To explain the scale in greater detail, I'll leave it to Michio Kaku, the theoretical physicist who co-founded string field theory and author from his speech at the Global Competitiveness Forum in Saudi Arabia early in 2011.

I have to wonder what value the scale really has? Why would any civilization need or even want to harness the power of the galaxy? What's the point? Kardashev didn't say. I have to think the most advanced ETs would be incredibly efficient and be able to generate whatever energy they need with surprising simplicity.

As far as categorizing intelligent ET civilizations, I think earlier steps in the process are well worth recognizing like the ability to record your own history and technological knowledge base and pass that down through the generations in a more permanent fashion than storytelling around a fire pit. Metalworking is also an important step forward. Perhaps the most important step any civilization might make is simply being able to live peacefully with each other and in accord with their home planet.

I applaud Kardashev's wild imagination but don't find his scale especially compelling in a practical sense but it is also a fine launching pad for bullshit sessions.

Kaku's comment about the European Union being the beginnings of a Type I economy is laughable just a few months after the fact considering the current debt crisis they're going through. I think a Type I, II or III civilization might be developed enough and managed by smart enough individuals to not have any economy at all.

Kaku's cliched trotting out of the martyrdom of the 16th century astronomer and friar Giordano Bruno at the hands of the Roman Inquisition more than 400 years ago seems ironic considering he gave his speech in a country that still has public beheading and dismemberment as part of its' 21st century criminal justice system.

Another cliche often repeated by scientists in general is recounting the sad tale of Galileo's mistreatment by the Catholic church as a result of his book in support of Copernican heliocentric theory. What often isn't mentioned is that when Copernicus' theory was first presented to then Pope Clement VII, about 100 years before Bruno and Galileo, the pope was incredibly excited by this new concept and Cardinal Nicholas Schonberg praised him, writing directly to Copernicus:

"I had learned that you had not merely mastered the discoveries of the ancient astronomers uncommonly well but had also formulated a new cosmology. In it you maintain that the earth moves, that the sun occupies the lowest. and thus central place, in the universe . . . I have also learned that you have written an exposition of this whole system of astronomy, and have computed the planetary motions and set them down in tables to the greatest admiration of all. Therefore with the utmost earnestness I entreat you, most learned sir, unless I inconvenience you, to communicate this discovery of yours to scholars . . . I have instructed Theodoric of Reden to have everything copied in your quarters at my expense and dispatched to me. If you gratify my desire in this matter, you will see that you are dealing with a man who is zealous for your reputation and eager to do justice to so fine a talent."

What this clearly demonstrates is a historical lesson none of us should ever forget. No human advance is safe. We can always fall back rather than move forward. But I'm sure the check for Kaku's appearance fee cleared . . . the beginnings of a Type I economy.

Of course, the very premise of such a conference, competitiveness, might very well be an anachronism to a truly advanced civilization if it has ever been embraced at all and the forum's hosts, members of the Saudi royal family, are leaders of what has long been considered by forward thinking individuals an anachronistic system here on the Earth. It's cooperation that would be needed to take a society from a level analogous to where we're all at today to the point of supercivilization. We may not be able to provide undeniable proof of ET visitation, despite compelling evidence, but we should be thinking AS IF it has been occurring. The reasons are obvious . . . look at the current condition of our world. We need to deduce how a truly advanced supercivilization manages itself and become that supercivilization. Admittedly, we've got a long way to go, but if they can do it, we can do it.

The truth is, if an alien civilization has been visiting us, quite possibly for thousands of years, it has happened and the how of it all is a fact even if we can't duplicate the feat and the why of it all must be considered. We clearly know the distances are incredible, the technology of actually accomplishing interstellar travel extraordinary are well beyond our current capacity. There can be no other conclusion . . . there must be some level of affection and admiration for us from them driving their intellectual curiosity, a characteristic shared by all higher order species here on Earth. No thinking, rational species would go through so much trouble to cover so much distance to study something they had utter contempt for. It just doesn't make any sense. Whether it is because of our past, our present or our potential, we must, we must embrace this idea if we want to move forward and not back.

They also wouldn't have pursued their own technological progress as aggressively if they had no passion for it. Quite simply, they wouldn't do it if they didn't like it. I have some sense that there is this great passion, that a really advanced society would also have fun with and even make a game of, their technological advances.

And what do they see in us? What does any Western anthropologist see when investigating primitive cultures or archeologist see when digging into the past? Being the most advanced doesn't necessarily make you the most interesting. Our science might not impress them all that much, maybe it's our art.

We can't really be sure a surveying ET would even be aware of the significance of a masterpiece hanging on a wall in a museum. Have they read Moby Dick or The Odyssey too? It seems most likely to me that they've seen some marvelous examples of human expression in many great structures spread across our planet and I really can't imagine, no matter how advanced they are, their not being admirers of them.

The Great Pyramid, Chicken Itza, the Taj Mahal, the Eiffel Tower, the Gateway Arch, the Sydney Opera House. These are the structural expressions that are most likely to attract ET attention, I think, for obvious reasons. It's hard to miss them. An advanced culture is going to be a metalworking culture. Spaceships, whatever their level of function, aren't going to be made of animal skins, stone or wood. I think they'd really like that arch.

Some less ambitious statues become more spectacular because of their placement. The Statue of Liberty and Christ The Redeemer in Rio come to mind. Perhaps the geography surrounding those statues reminds them of home. Or maybe they're really impressed by our commercial billboards. You never know.

And what of their art? The zero sum thinker wouldn't see art in the design of possible ET vehicles on a visit. Of course (if happening) they are both artistic and scientific wonders. Efficient and elegant. As far as any art in an ET world, again perhaps the binary thinking of men excludes great possibilities. Could their art fulfill both an aesthetic and practical role? Could their kinetic art, like mobiles, also generate much of the energy they need and make the idea of harnessing the power of the galaxy laughable? Could their music do the same? Or is it the other way around? Of course our own architecture and vehicle design is both a sight to behold and performs its' function to whatever extent is needed, but in an ET world have they managed to blend these concepts to a greatly advanced level? If they advanced enough to get here, you have to consider that they have.

Of course the Drake Equation, Fermi Paradox and Kardashev Scale have some value in that they drive speculative conversations about ET but there may very well be a cadre of Earthophiles on some alien planet possessing a knowledge base thousands of years old and it's not inconceivable they know us better than we know ourselves.


  1. Well thought out and presented..Gets your mind moving again..

  2. Frank, thoroughly enjoyed your article. You describe Drake's formula in terms that most should be able to grasp. I liked the way that you provided good background for both Drake and Fermi which seem to be omitted when these topics are discussed. In short, excellent article.

  3. Sorry, I'm afraid that competition and an economy are both inevitable. Two ideas, approaches or methods addressing a common need or use of a resource may not be compatible, and each will have adherents or practitioners. Competition and conflict must arise. And any group or individual's assets and skills will only stretch so far, so choices must be made; in the overlap of such choices, exchange and and economy arise.

    Assuming infinite parallel options and infinite resources is not on.

  4. PS;
    Citing and quoting Kaka should be avoided at all costs.

  5. I'm not so sure that competition, conflict and an economy are inevitable. I think there's intelligent civilization-building life out there and wouldn't pigeon-hole it into any human-based track. It could be those concepts don't exist at all, it could be there's a better balance of those ideas with a more self-sustaining altruism and efficiency and it could be "money" and competition is all that matters to ET. I wouldn't say it's a certainly though. All we can do is speculate of course.

    You seem pretty tough on Kaku. I thought he did a nice job explaining the Kardashev Scale, then went more than a little off track. The proof of the potential hazard in applying some of Kardashev's wild speculations to the more here-and-now Earth management problems is pretty apparent. I'm sure Kaku would like some of what he said there back, but I think it's an instructive piece of video.

  6. it could be that they are all REPUBLICANS!