About the Drake Equation...

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margeman2k3
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About the Drake Equation...

Postby margeman2k3 » Fri Apr 11, 2008 9:36 pm UTC

I have an astronomy exam tomorrow afternoon, and I have a feeling that one of the questions will be something like:
"State the Drake Equation"
And I'm debating using Bs as one of the components.
And maybe include this link.

Does this have any potential for success at all, or am I just asking to fail?
Last edited by margeman2k3 on Sun Apr 13, 2008 2:55 am UTC, edited 1 time in total.

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Re: About the Drake Equation...

Postby skeptical scientist » Fri Apr 11, 2008 11:23 pm UTC

If you know what you should know, and add that besides, I would think whoever is doing the grading would chuckle but not mark any points off, at least if it's obviously a joke. But I don't know how much of a hardass your prof is, so the real question is whether he's a good-humored guy or not.
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alterant
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Re: About the Drake Equation...

Postby alterant » Sat Apr 12, 2008 3:30 am UTC

I've wanted to ask since I saw that comic what's so silly or bad about the Drake equation. Of course it's just a long chain of guesses, but so what? Back-of-the-envelope calculations are the bread and butter of science.

I read one criticism that said that it wasn't science because it wasn't falsifiable (we can't go everywhere and everywhen in the universe to see if there's intelligence there). But surely it's falsifiability in principle that characterizes science, not just falsifiability by the methods now available. The fact that the ocean floor is hard to explore doesn't make hypotheses about life down there unscientific.

Or maybe I'm overanalyzing what was really a kind-spirited joke. /shrugs

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Re: About the Drake Equation...

Postby Charlie! » Sat Apr 12, 2008 3:57 am UTC

alterant wrote:I've wanted to ask since I saw that comic what's so silly or bad about the Drake equation. Of course it's just a long chain of guesses, but so what? Back-of-the-envelope calculations are the bread and butter of science.

Meh, the drake equation isn't really science, since it doesn't make any predictions ("somewhere between 0 and 1 trillion" is not a prediction :P). That's why people make fun of it, especially when it's held up by any news medium as some sort of key concept of cosmology (which is surprisingly often).
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Re: About the Drake Equation...

Postby alterant » Sat Apr 12, 2008 5:40 am UTC

Charlie! wrote:Meh, the drake equation isn't really science, since it doesn't make any predictions ("somewhere between 0 and 1 trillion" is not a prediction :P). That's why people make fun of it, especially when it's held up by any news medium as some sort of key concept of cosmology (which is surprisingly often).


I agree it shouldn't be presented that way. Trust news media to garble anything science-related. But surely for any combination of values of the terms in the equation, it gives a single finite number, which is a prediction. It's just a prediction based on (very) incomplete knowledge. What's the alternative? Talk in a purely qualitative way? The likelihood of intelligent life elsewhere is an interesting question.

Let's look at the terms individually:

R* = avg rate of star formation in the Milky Way --> amenable to investigation
fp = fraction with planets --> ditto
nl = fraction that could support life --> We know about the habitable zone around a star. Probably as more extrasolar planets are discovered we'll start to see some average number of habitable planets per star system
fr = fraction that go on to develop life at some point --> Hard to investigate, but not impossible. If we detected complex organic molecules on extrasolar planets, we could start talking about the observed percentage of habitable planets that have/had life.
fi = fraction that generate intelligent life --> Okay, this is getting pretty far into the realm of speculation.
fc = fraction that develop tech we can detect --> A guess.
L = length of time they transmit --> A guess as well. We may end up having at least one data point if everything goes to nucular caca on earth, but I imagine SETI would in that case become a low priority. :P

So that's three out of the seven that are very speculative - investigating the others is possible. Clearly it's no law of nature, but as a first-order approximation it still seems to me to be better than nothing.

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Re: About the Drake Equation...

Postby sdedeo » Sun Apr 13, 2008 2:21 am UTC

The Drake equation is fascinating to me because it looks like science. But once you get to the final terms in the product, it starts sounding like psychohistory. I mean, if I write down the probability that I will fall in (well, actually, given my circumstances, it's "out of") love tomorrow, I can do it, but some of those terms will look pretty odd.

And, furthermore, there's a danger with the kind of "understanding" these things give. One could have written Drake-like equations for all sorts of questions we now consider scientific problems, but they would not have given insight and would have been all wrong. e.g., for the formation of life -- "alpha is the ambient density of vitalistic fluid..."

There is a different debate about whether SETI as a whole is a "scientific" project; I think it's pretty clear that it is, but having fiddled with the wikipedia article on the question, I've seen some Popperians claim otherwise. (Interestingly, some of the people who claim it's "religion" or "not science" also now have a sideline in saying that global warming doesn't exist -- Michael Crighton, e.g.)

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Re: About the Drake Equation...

Postby margeman2k3 » Sun Apr 13, 2008 2:54 am UTC

Well, I wrote the exam, and the question was:
What are some of the significant factors in calculating the number of extraterrestrial civilizations that we can communicate with?
(Or something like that)
So I never really had a chance to use my Bs :(

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Re: About the Drake Equation...

Postby Gelsamel » Sun Apr 13, 2008 4:14 am UTC

I'm pretty sure that's a significant factor.
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Re: About the Drake Equation...

Postby Master Gunner » Sun Apr 13, 2008 8:57 pm UTC

To me, the Drake Equation is how one would calculate "N", except we need more data points...or even a single data point. So the equation looks feasible to me, just far beyond what we can calculate until we actually make contact with a sufficient number of other civilizations so we can gather the data points we need to get anywhere close to an approximation.

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Re: About the Drake Equation...

Postby Charlie! » Mon Apr 14, 2008 4:56 am UTC

Yeah. It's correct, in that if we knew all the stuff on one side we could calculate that on the other, but it's meaningless because it would take a pan-galactic empire to piece it together (and by the time you're a pan-galactic empire, what do you need the drake equation for?).
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Re: About the Drake Equation...

Postby Cycle » Mon Apr 14, 2008 8:07 am UTC

Charlie! wrote:Yeah. It's correct, in that if we knew all the stuff on one side we could calculate that on the other, but it's meaningless because it would take a pan-galactic empire to piece it together (and by the time you're a pan-galactic empire, what do you need the drake equation for?).


Exactly. The problem with the Drake equation is that it's fundamentally uninteresting. In order to even form an estimate of "fraction that generate intelligent life", we'd have to find intelligent life. And after that, who gives a crap about Drake's equation?

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Re: About the Drake Equation...

Postby Certhas » Mon Apr 14, 2008 10:45 am UTC

Exactly. Taken apart its a sequence of obvious statements: The more life there is the more likely we are to find it! Doh. No Shit Homer?
It's almost tautological. And written as an equation to make it look more subtle/clever/intelligent/meaningfull then it is. To the Degree that it is not tautological it is almost certainly wrong, because it merely states "I can't think of any limiting factors or alternative detection strategies therefore there are none."
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Re: About the Drake Equation...

Postby Minerva » Mon Apr 14, 2008 2:17 pm UTC

If you've got an astronomy exam question that you've got absolutely no idea of, and all hope seems lost, as a last resort, I propose that you write "Crumbly, but good!" on the paper. Any astronomer worth their salt ought to get a smile out of that..
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Re: About the Drake Equation...

Postby Lycur » Mon Apr 14, 2008 4:35 pm UTC

Minerva wrote:If you've got an astronomy exam question that you've got absolutely no idea of, and all hope seems lost, as a last resort, I propose that you write "Crumbly, but good!" on the paper. Any astronomer worth their salt ought to get a smile out of that..


I don't get it, explanation?


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