Drake Equation and Astrobiology

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The Drake equation is one of those rare mathematical beasts that has leaked into the public consciousness. It estimates the number of extraterrestrial civilisations that we might be able to detect today or in the near future. Frank Drake attempted to quantify the number by asking what fraction of stars have planets, what fraction of these might be habitable, then the fraction of these on which life actually evolves and the fraction of these on which life becomes intelligent and so on. Many of these numbers are little more than wild guesses. For example, the number of ET civilisations we can detect now is hugely sensitive to the fraction that destroy themselves with their own technology, through nuclear war for example. Obviously we have no way of knowing this figure. Of the many uncertainties in the Drake equation, one term is traditionally thought of as relatively reliable. That is the probability of life emerging on a planet in a habitable zone. On Earth, life arose about 3.8 billion years ago, just a few million years after the planet had cooled sufficiently to allow it. Astrobiologists naturally argue that because life arose so quickly here, it must be pretty likely to emerge in other places where conditions allow.

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