OffBeat

Figure out how many alien civilizations exist with this interactive equation

We are lovin’ all the news from space lately, and it has our collective imagination fired up about other forms of life floating around the galaxy. So naturally, this new interactive tool that uses the Drake equation to calculate whether or not we’ll find intelligent life out there piqued our interest.

The chart itself comes from the big, beautiful BBC, and it calculates a variety of statistics about alien life possibilities given a few variables, such as the number of star systems that exist in the galaxy. You can select presets for these variables, or you can come up with your own.

Then the variables get plugged into the Drake equation. Here’s what that looks like:

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The equation itself was devised in 1960 by Frank Drake, the guy who conducted the first attempt to find radio signals from alien civilizations. The equation came about when the National Academy of Sciences asked Drake to organize a meeting on extraterrestrial communication.

At that point, Drake realized the search needed a mathematical component. “I wrote down all the things you needed to know to predict how hard it’s going to be to detect extraterrestrial life,” he said later to a group of exobiologists. “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.”

So the chart uses the Drake equation to estimate our likelihood of ever finding and communicating with nonhumans in the Milky Way. For example, if you start out with a modern, skeptical estimate of 34 stars with orbiting planets in the Milky Way, with seven new stars born each year, the chart says you end up with 2 billion inhabitable planets in the galaxy, 1 million of which hold some kind of life, and just one of which holds a civilization capable of conducting radio communication with humans. In the universe, that last number balloons to 78 billion.

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