N = R* x Fp x Ne x Fl x Fi x Fc x L

No, that’s not what Elon Musk named his kid. It might have been a candidate, though, because it’s Drake’s Equation, known to outer space enthusiasts as the best attempt to estimate the number of civilizations in the Milky Way capable of interstellar communication.

I learned of Drake’s Equation more than forty years ago, when I fulfilled my college science requirement by taking a course called Intelligent Life in the Universe. (And yes, we all asked what you are now: is there even intelligent life on earth?) It was an easy course, a gentle way of introducing humanities majors swept up in the Star Wars craze to basic physical principles and scientific methodology. Most of my fellow students blew off the lectures, knowing it wouldn’t affect their grade. I attended all but one.

Frank Drake, still alive at 90, is an innovative radio astronomer. He devised the eponymous equation in 1961, years before he helped found the SETI (Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence) project. Here is what all those letters mean:

N stands for the number of intelligent, communicating civilizations in the Milky Way.

R* stands for the mean rate of star formation over the galaxy’s lifetime.

Fp stands for the fraction of those stars with planetary systems.

Ne stands for the mean number of those planets with conditions favorable to life.

Fl stands for the fraction of inhabitable planets that actually produce life.

Fi stands for the fraction of planets on which intelligent life with manipulative abilities evolves.

Fc stands for the fraction of intelligent species that develop sufficient technology to communicate across outer space.

And L is the lifetime of that technologically developed civilization.

There’s no definitive answer to N because we can only guess the values on the other side of the equal sign. But even if we guess low for each, it’s plausible there may be a million civilizations capable of communicating across the Milky Way. That sounds like a huge number, but given the size of the galaxy, if those civilizations were equally dispersed the closest one would be hundreds of light years away. And we’d be the fresh arrivals because if Drake’s Equation holds, a new civilization becomes technically proficient just once every ten thousand years, and we figured out how to transmit radio waves only a century ago.

I bring up this forty year-old knowledge because next month the federal government is scheduled to issue a report on what it calls unidentified aerial phenomena — and the rest of us call UFOs. Former Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, whose home state of Nevada includes super-secret Area 51, framed his longstanding curiosity about UFOs as a national security issue: if all these sane and sober Air Force pilots are seeing these things, and our satellites and radar are picking them up, don’t they present a potential threat we must expose? With help from other senators, he cajoled the government into disclosing what it knows — and in the equivalent of a soft opening, the Pentagon recently released footage of UFOs taken by military aircraft.

Clever gambit, Senator Reid! Because it’s almost unimaginable the UFOs present a security threat. Not from any earthly source, anyway. If the Russians, Chinese, or North Koreans possess such an enormous technological advantage, why haven’t they used it already? Why give us a chance to catch up or devise defenses? Seems to me the same logic applies exponentially to an extraterrestrial source, because we present no threat to it.

By the same token, I don’t believe the UFOs are here to help us, either. Don’t you think they’d have done so by now? How much further must we sink before they intercede?

They must be here for some other purpose, then. My guess? “This is Zorgon along with Mitripx and our color commentator Flatibo bringing to you, live, the self-destruction of an immature technological civilization.” Hope you find us entertaining, citizens of wherever!

Seriously, it wouldn’t surprise me in the least to learn that an extraterrestrial civilization is watching us and leaving us to our fate.

Nevada. (Photo by User Kvasir of wp:en)

Former Risk Manager at UC Berkeley, author of four books, ectomorphic introvert.