We Spoke To The Man Who Started The Hunt For Intelligent Alien Life

Seth Shostak/SETI Institute/IFLScience

Using Milner’s money, Breakthrough Listen has bought observing time on three powerful telescopes around the world – the Green Bank Radio Telescope (GBT) in West Virginia, the Lick Observatory's Automated Planet Finder on Mt. Hamilton in California, and the Parkes Radio Telescope in Australia. Just the other day, the first scientific results from this project were announced, and while they came up empty-handed, there is now a great opportunity to perform one of the most extensive SETI searches ever.

“We’re often asked, when will you succeed, how long will it take?” said Drake. “The truth is we do not know, because we have no way of estimating the number of technical civilizations there are out in space that manifest themselves in ways we can detect.”

That’s not to say Drake hasn’t tried. In 1961, he devised the famous Drake equation, a formula that he said could predict the expected number of technological civilizations in our galaxy. It hasn’t been devoid of criticism, but it does at least provide a rough guideline for finding intelligent life – and it’s been heavily referenced ever since.

“The equation has stood the test of time, which always kind of surprised me because most equations like that are modified as we learn more,” said Drake. “I get at least one suggestion a week for new factors that should be added to it or something. Some of those are sensible, but all can be subsumed into the existing factors in the equation.”

The Drake equation. University of Rochester

However, Drake noted that the advancement of technology on Earth has made us in particular less detectable. For example, the way television is delivered to people’s homes has changed from old transmitters to low-power transmissions in the form of satellite and fiber optic delivery. As such, this makes us harder to find.

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