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Documentary: The Search For Life – The Drake Equation

September 13, 2012Comments No comments

In January 2012, BBC4 aired a documentary called The Search For Life – The Drake Equation. As its name would suggest, the one hour long program deals with the Drake equation — a mathematical equation used to estimate the number of detectable extraterrestrial civilizations in our galaxy, the Milky Way. The equation was devised in 1961 by Frank Drake, a professor of astronomy and astrophysics at the University of California, Santa Cruz.

For many years our place in the universe was the subject of theologians and philosophers, not scientists, but in 1960 one man changed all that.

Dr Frank Drake was one of the leading lights in the new science of radio astronomy when he did something that was not only revolutionary, but could have cost him his career. Working at the National Radio Astronomy Observatory in Greenback in Virginia, he pointed one of their new 25-metre radio telescopes at a star called Tau Ceti twelve light years from earth, hoping for signs of extra-terrestrial intelligence.

Although project Ozma resulted in silence, it did result in one of the most seminal equations in the history of science – the Drake Equation – which examined seven key elements necessary for ET intelligence to exist, from the formation of stars to the likely length a given intelligent civilisation may survive. When Frank and his colleagues entered the figures, the equation suggested there were a staggering 50,000 civilisations capable of communicating across the galaxy.

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