Americans intend to cast ballots in the 2040 presidential election. Japan pledges to discontinue utilizing nuclear energy. Prince George of Britain will reach the ripe old age of 27. Additionally, as the interactive up top shows, it’s conceivable that alien life will be discovered. Depending on how many civilizations can be found, it might happen even sooner. Knowing about Frank Drake can assist you comprehend why this is the case.

The least lonely person on Earth, if not the entire galaxy, is Drake. Since we haven’t even discovered bacteria yet, never alone an alien race that uses the Internet and orders takeout, the majority of us are debating whether there is sentient life on other worlds. Drake, an astronomer and emeritus chairman of the SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) Institute based in California, has no such reservations.

The Drake Equation, which determines how many advanced and detectable civilizations should exist in the Milky Way in a given year, was created by Drake in 1961 while he was working at the National Radio Astronomy Observatory in Green Bank, West Virginia. The number appears to be potentially enormous, and although though it is admittedly built on a number of Earth-centric hypotheses — the collapse of any one of which calls much of the equation into question — all of those hypotheses are backed by research that is becoming more and more reliable.

Start with the estimated 100 billion stars in our galaxy, however it is sometimes stated that there are three times as many. Between 20% and 50% of those 100 billion stars likely contain planetary systems; this estimate is becoming more and more accurate as more and more exoplanets are discovered by the Kepler Space Telescope and other ground-based telescopes.

The equation estimates that from 1 to 5 in any system could support Earth-like life because not all of those exoplanets would be able to. From 0% to 100% of those bio-friendly worlds would really go on to produce life. From 0% to 100% of those worlds would produce life forms that we would deem intelligent.

However, unless sentient life forms have the capacity to communicate with us — that is, to control radio waves and other types of electromagnetic signaling — their mere existence tells us nothing. According to Drake, between 10% and 20% of the intelligent civilizations would pass that threshold.

The equation also takes into account how long each of those semaphoring civilizations would be able to blink signals in our direction, which is likely the most anthropocentric factor. A solar like ours lasts for roughly 10 billion years, whereas life has only existed on Earth for about 3.5 billion years and people have only had access to radio since the turn of the 20th century.

Our signal will be lost if we commit mass extinction tomorrow due to a nuclear or environmental disaster. The same is true for all of the other civilizations that exist in the Milky Way. If we live for tens of thousands of years, we will continue to announce our existence to the cosmos for a much longer period of time.

When you combine all of this with a little statistical seasoning about how well we are now able to look for signals in other star systems, as the interactive above illustrates, the outcomes can vary greatly. You might find there are 1,000 identifiable civilizations out there at any given time if you play the game conservatively and underestimate all of the variables. If you play it more freely, you can win hundreds of millions. You can play the game for yourself using the interactive. Imagine there are 10,000 observable civilizations and that by 2040 we will most certainly discover alien life. By 2028, if there are a million, we will have found alien life.

No one makes the claim that the Drake Equation is the last word. Even its supporters acknowledge that it serves just to “order our stupidity.” But organized ignorance is much better than disorganized ignorance, and it nearly always serves as a springboard for wisdom.


Only a small number of thousand star systems have been explored so far by astronomers searching for alien communications. However, as senior astronomer at the SETI Institute Seth Shostak has pointed out, the rate at which scientists are able to handle the enormous volumes of data that radio telescopes collect doubles around every 18 to 2 years, or by a factor of 10 every six years or so.

According to our present assumptions, there are around 100 billion (1011) star systems in the Milky Way that might potentially support sentient life. If the galaxy has 100,000 (105) active civilizations, it translates to one civilization for every million star systems. By 2034, researchers will have analyzed one million candidates due to the exponential expansion of signal processing, increasing the likelihood that a discovery will be made. Since it takes six years to widen our search proportionally, adding or subtracting a zero from the estimate of the number of civilizations in the universe only affects the estimate by six years. Aliens, see you in 2040.


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