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New "Drake Equation" Selects Between Alien Worlds 220

Posted by CmdrTaco
from the fan-of-his-equation-and-breading dept.
An anonymous reader writes 'A mathematical equation that counts habitats suitable for alien life could complement the Drake equation, which estimates the probability of finding intelligent alien beings elsewhere in the galaxy. That equation, developed in 1960 by US astronomer Frank Drake, estimates the probability of intelligent life existing elsewhere in our galaxy by considering the number of stars with planets that could support life. The new equation, under development by planetary scientists at the Open University in Milton Keynes, England, aims to develop a single index for habitability based on the presence of energy, solvents such as water, raw materials like carbon, and whether or not there are benign environmental conditions.'
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New 'Drake Equation' Selects Between Alien Worlds

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  • way to go Slashdot (Score:3, Insightful)

    by koxkoxkox (879667) on Thursday September 17, 2009 @07:50AM (#29452465)

    "under developed" ?

    In this case, maybe they should continue working on it before we talk about it, don't you think ?

  • Seems silly (Score:5, Interesting)

    by ruiner13 (527499) on Thursday September 17, 2009 @07:53AM (#29452477) Homepage

    based on the presence of energy, solvents such as water, raw materials like carbon and whether or no there are benign environmental conditions

    Aren't there extremophiles on Earth that already lack some if not all of these attributes? Really, the presence of energy seems like the only real requirement for life here on Earth. Who knows what other extremes may lurk extra terrestrially.

    • Re:Seems silly (Score:5, Insightful)

      by Geoffrey.landis (926948) on Thursday September 17, 2009 @08:11AM (#29452619) Homepage

      based on the presence of energy, solvents such as water, raw materials like carbon and whether or no there are benign environmental conditions

      Aren't there extremophiles on Earth that already lack some if not all of these attributes?

      No.

      No life without water and raw materials. And, as for "benign environmental conditions," that's a little under-defined, but in general, the entire Earth should be called "benign" by the standards of the rest of the solar system.

      • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

        by elrous0 (869638) *
        It would be more accurate to say "No life, as we know it, without water and raw materials."
        • Re: (Score:2, Informative)

          Well, true enough; we don't know what life as we don't know it would require.

          The question I was replying to was one that began "aren't there extremophiles on Earth that...", but I should have made my reply more explicit, so if my reply was quoted without the original question, it would still be clear.

        • by kinnell (607819)

          It would be more accurate to say "No life, as we know it, without water and raw materials."

          Or maybe even "No Life, as we define it"

          • by julesh (229690)

            "No life, as we know it, without water and raw materials." [...] Or maybe even "No Life, as we define it"

            Depends on your definition of life. My personal favourite is "a self-perpetuating activity that consumes energy and results in a localised reduction of entropy," which requires only energy and some positive entropy to start with. Now, it's hard to say what form that entropy could take that wouldn't be considered "raw materials" but there are several theorised possible types of life that may plausibly w

        • by PinkyDead (862370)

          "No life, as we know it, Jim, without water and raw materials."

      • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

        by drinkypoo (153816)

        No life without water and raw materials.

        Uh, what? How do you know? No life as we know it. Life as we don't know it still might form an industrial civilization and make radios &c.

        And, as for "benign environmental conditions," that's a little under-defined, but in general, the entire Earth should be called "benign" by the standards of the rest of the solar system.

        Usually it means "within the range of temperatures and pressures we believe to be capable of supporting life" which is a useful but not inviolate metric.

      • Um, sorry, there are lifeforms on earth that do not require water to live. we even have non-carbon based lifeforms. We have lifeforms living in the volcanic vents breathing the "toxic to humans" sulfurous gas in the depths of the oceans. There appears to be life on some of Jupiter's moons. So you'd want to include them as benign. Certainly, raw materials are required, but carbon based, water based lifeforms aren't the only options. Drake's formula is lacking, but since, we really have little experience in w
        • by julesh (229690)

          Um, sorry, there are lifeforms on earth that do not require water to live. we even have non-carbon based lifeforms.

          [citation needed] for both of these statements.

          I'm pretty sure all known life on Earth is based on either RNA or DNA and the enzymes (i.e. polymerases) that are capable of replicating and otherwise manipulating these molecules. All of these things are carbon-based. And I'm led to believe that the enzymes only work when dissolved in water, and may require the DNA/RNA to be likewise dissolved.

      • by 2names (531755)
        but in general, the entire Earth should be called "benign" by the standards of the rest of the solar system.

        No, the Earth is described as Mostly Harmless. [wikipedia.org]
      • Without water? Yeah, because you know that *exactly*, for all time, and for every condition physically possible.
        Are you a medical doctor? Because you sound just as arrogant as them: "If I don't know about it, it can not possibly exist! Period! And no, it's also impossible that I just don't know certain things. After all, I'm a God." ;)

        First off all, there is by definition no planet without "raw materials". Or else it would be empty space.

        Second, I would love to see you prove (hard proof!) how life is not po

      • Ok, we know of critters that live on Sulphur and not Oxygen

        We know critters that live in deep oceans without sunlight in extreme cold.
        We know of critters that live in lava vents at high temperatures.

        Nothing we are aware of lives without solvents, carbon or raw materials. Grandparent could have been implying that Earthlike Extremeophiles might be able to live on planets similar to Mars, Venus, or Saturn's moon Enceladus.

        The new bands of benign environmental conditions between what can be tolerated by cold an

    • Re:Seems silly (Score:5, Informative)

      by RiotingPacifist (1228016) on Thursday September 17, 2009 @08:46AM (#29452881)

      A solvent (such as water) is needed as chemical reactions are too slow in the gas/solid phase. In addition water has a rare (if not unique) property in that it is the most dense at a point in its liquid phase, this means that at the bottom of a pool of water the temperature can remain pretty constant allowing living things to stay that way until they are capable of surviving at different temperatures.
      A raw material (like carbon) is needed to build the backbone of life, it has to have many properties similar to carbon. While other setups are possible the chemistry prefers carbon (its a single chemical as compared to combos and it is very reactive) and the physics does too (there is more of it than the alternatives because its a light element).

      • The V shape gives it a little asymmetry of charge. If I remember correctly, that's the cause of many interesting properties such as the fact that it doesn't mix with oil and that it dilutes things that it would not otherwise. Methane (CH4) doesn't have that property.

    • by mangu (126918)

      Aren't there extremophiles on Earth that already lack some if not all of these attributes?

      It is unlikely that life began in those conditions. Life began in the most benign habitat that existed on Earth at the time and extremophiles evolved gradually to life in their current niches.

    • Extreme environments in space are a tad different. If the actual chemical bonds in the critter and being destroyed it makes it harder to live. We have things that live at 100degrees but nothing that can survive 800. It'd have to have a body made of mostly diamond followed by some incredible insulation. DNA btw breaks down at 150C. Venus has a surface temp of 400C.
  • oblig XKCD (Score:5, Funny)

    by Arlet (29997) on Thursday September 17, 2009 @07:54AM (#29452479)
    • Re:oblig XKCD (Score:5, Insightful)

      by sakdoctor (1087155) on Thursday September 17, 2009 @08:04AM (#29452559) Homepage

      Would it be possible to use collaborative filtering, and meta data provided by xkcd to produce a "These xkcd strips may be obligatory for this article",
      for sites such as slashdot?

      • by natehoy (1608657) on Thursday September 17, 2009 @08:10AM (#29452613) Journal

        Might be fun for one person to write the code, but it would destroy the ongoing joy of dozens of slashdotters who have indexed xkcd in their heads and can instantly recall the appropriate xkcd reference.

        Some things are best left to trained artisans and handcrafters, and this is one of them. Xkcd references should be lovingly chosen from the available stock, and carefully hand-posted using only the best hand-cut-and-pasted letters in the URL. You just won't get that kind of artistry from an emotionless metadata comparison engine.

      • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

        by Thanshin (1188877)

        Would it be possible to use collaborative filtering, and meta data provided by xkcd to produce a "These xkcd strips may be obligatory for this article",
        for sites such as slashdot?

        It's an editing problem.

        The editor shouldn't have accepted the submission without the obligatory xkcd link.

      • by PinkyDead (862370)

        There's an xkcd that deals with exactly that.

        I just can't remember which it is....

    • That's always been my attitude. Some people trot out the Drake equation like it's some sort of holy writ not full of massive unknowns. Almost as bad as when people speak of Moore's "Law" taking care of something.
  • To what extent are "benign conditions" suitable to the formation of life? Without an environment that exerts selection pressure on existing organisms, there would be nothing driving the development of more complex and adapted organisms. Of course too much environmental volatility is a problem as well, but it can't just be a completely sealed biosphere or evolution could never happen.

    • Without an environment that exerts selection pressure on existing organisms, there would be nothing driving the development of more complex and adapted organisms.

      In this sense, evolution is pretty much self-driving. Any organism must use resources. Any successful organism will eventually populate an area and consume all available resources. Any area where all resources are competed for drives evolution to use different resources instead.

      • by Nadaka (224565)

        Use different resources? I would say that when all resources are used, evolutions typical answer is not to use different resources, but to take those resources from someone else that is using it. Its called predation.

      • by amplt1337 (707922)

        Or more simply, "any environment which contains another organism becomes hostile." ...man, no wonder I never had any friends in kindergarten.

  • by Thanshin (1188877) on Thursday September 17, 2009 @07:56AM (#29452503)

    Hopefully they've detailed somewhere that they're only taking into account the habitability by known possible life forms.

    There's no way of knowing whether there's an intelligent life form we've not detected yet, in this very planet. For as much as we know, Earth itself could be a "cell" of a galactic sized life form that has stars as neurons and light as nervous signals.

    • by Hognoxious (631665) on Thursday September 17, 2009 @08:17AM (#29452671) Homepage Journal
      Hey, Moonfruit, the sixties are over. If the planet was an organism it would have gone to the galactic doctor and got something to clear that nasty infection.
      • by Thanshin (1188877)

        Hey, Moonfruit, the sixties are over. If the planet was an organism it would have gone to the galactic doctor and got something to clear that nasty infection.

        It's still soon. The nasty infection only gave him some fever.

      • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

        by russotto (537200)

        Hey, Moonfruit, the sixties are over. If the planet was an organism it would have gone to the galactic doctor and got something to clear that nasty infection.

        It has, but there's a wait for the procedure. About 65 million years.

        • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

          by Chris Burke (6130)

          It has, but there's a wait for the procedure. About 65 million years.

          Ah, I see. "Take one meteor impact, call me next epoch"?

          Sounds like Earth has an HMO. I wonder if its reached its out of pocket limit for the eon? I hope not or it might start going to get a lot more treatment.

    • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

      by DriedClexler (814907)

      Right, except for that whole "speed of light" thing, puts a real damper on signal propagation between these stellar neurons.

      Given the estimated age of the universe, such a nervous system could have gone through *maybe* the equivalent of a month of thought in a biological brain, which isn't much.

      You'd be surprised how easy it is to rule out hypotheses like this.

      • by Thanshin (1188877) on Thursday September 17, 2009 @09:07AM (#29453061)

        Right, except for that whole "speed of light" thing, puts a real damper on signal propagation between these stellar neurons.

        Given the estimated age of the universe, such a nervous system could have gone through *maybe* the equivalent of a month of thought in a biological brain, which isn't much.

        You'd be surprised how easy it is to rule out hypotheses like this.

        I'd be surprised indeed.

        Will you do it?

        • I just did, but in case it wasn't clear: modeling the universe (or some mutli-stellar-level substructure) as a nervous system would at best predict that the universe has done a bio-equivalent month of thought, which tells us nothing about what we should expect to see, and therefore adds complexity to our model of physics without increasing its predictive power.

    • Re: (Score:2, Funny)

      by wwfarch (1451799)
      But if the Earth is a "cell" then Smith was right.. we ARE a virus.
      • He then went on to state being a "disease" and "cancer"

        I wish he'd choose his metaphors more carefully.
      • by Thanshin (1188877)

        But if the Earth is a "cell" then Smith was right.. we ARE a virus.

        You're doing it wrong.

        The line of reasoning should go:

        "Smith said we are a virus, adding weight to the hypotesis of Earth being a 'cell'."

        There's no need to explain the ever truthness of Smith.

    • by mcgrew (92797) *
  • by mcgrew (92797) * on Thursday September 17, 2009 @07:57AM (#29452507) Homepage Journal

    A mathematical equation that counts habitats suitable for alien life could complement the Drake equation, which estimates the probability of finding intelligent alien beings elsewhere in the galaxy

    Lets see, Peru is in a different part of the galaxy than the US, even though by galactic standards it's REAL close. I talked to an intelligent alien* [slashdot.org] on the phone yesterday -- he was looking for his ex-wife, who's been living with me lately.

    Of course, he's not a space alien, he's a human. The space aliens are in the ISS. They're human too.

    *Well, he wasn't very intelligent on the night chronicled in the linked journal, but anger never made anybody very smart.

    • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

      by Thanshin (1188877)

      I talked to an intelligent alien* on the phone yesterday -- he was looking for his ex-wife, who's been living with me lately.

      I'm interested in your services and would like to know more. Please elaborate:

      - How long was the ex-wife's stay?
      - How much do you charge per ex-wife?

    • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

      by Rogerborg (306625)
      Apropos your emo-diary, the "intelligent" drink-drive limit that sentients impose on themselves is zero.
    • by geekoid (135745)

      The would only be space aliens if they were born in the ISS.

  • by MollyB (162595) on Thursday September 17, 2009 @08:12AM (#29452633) Journal

    I'm no expert, but isn't our "planet" really a binary system, since the Moon contributes so much to the habitability of the Earth by stabilizing our rotational axis?

    I realize the precision needed to detect the tiny wobble of an exoplanet is beyond our present capacity, but shouldn't our search planning include factors like the above (if they don't already)? I'd greatly appreciate an informed opinion on this.

    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      by natehoy (1608657)

      How about an uninformed one?

      We honestly don't know the conditions under which life could form. About the only thing that is certainly required is some source of energy, and even that doesn't necessarily need to come from sources we'd recognize. Of course, finding "life as we know it" is the most efficient because we'd be the best equipped to recognize it and possibly communicate with it. Finding "life as we understand it" would be somewhat less easy and less likely to communicate with, and "life as we ca

      • The moon isn't necessarily vital to life, but it is quite important to evolution. The tidal forces from the moon are responsible for churning up the crust and increasing the level of radioactivity on the planet's surface, increasing the mutation rate. Without it, or some equivalent mechanism, evolution would happen much more slowly. Equivalent mechanisms could include increased sunspot activity, for example.
        • by natehoy (1608657)

          Or more radioactive materials in the crust, which would be undetectable from distance. Or a different basis for life than DNA, which mutates under different circumstances.

          But, yeah, point taken that a moon might be a differentiating factor when forced to choose which of a bunch of nearly-identical-looking planetary systems to commit to exploring, if we manage to develop that technology before we wipe ourselves out entirely. We'd stand a slightly better chance of understanding what we're looking at, and if

  • Without any idea of how life started HERE, we have no way of making any meaningful conjecture about how common life may be out there. Drake's equation, for all its apparent elegance, is essentially meaningless. Basically, we only know that somewhere between 1 and 10-to-the-12-power planets in the universe support life. This is all we can know now, and until we can understand conclusively how life began here, it's all just masturbation.
    • by drinkypoo (153816)

      Without any idea of how life started HERE

      We have some idea of how life could start here. That's enough to work with.

      until we can understand conclusively how life began here

      That's right, keep moving the bar. Your comment is now internally contradictory.

      it's all just masturbation.

      Next time, cover your keyboard.

    • by rubycodez (864176)

      Basically, we only know that somewhere between 1 and 10-to-the-12-power planets in the universe support life.

      No, we don't know that at all. We only know one planet in the entire universe supports life and has life. We do not know of any planets similar to ours.

    • by amplt1337 (707922)

      until we can understand conclusively how life began here, it's all just masturbation.

      ...but if there's one thing people all over seem to be pretty interested in...

    • by geekoid (135745)

      We ahvqaa pretty good idea of how life started here.

      No, the Drakes Eq isn't essentially meaningless. It's likes saying Ohm law is meaningless.

      You also make the flawed assumption that life can only start one way.

      As we learn more, it get's more accurate.

  • that lame-o Fermi Paradox.

    I love how people act like some physicist's smart-alec remark is somehow gospel.

  • by petes_PoV (912422) on Thursday September 17, 2009 @09:44AM (#29453427)
    Even if someone/thing was able to visit all the start systems and planets in our galaxy, they wouldn't come up with an answer. As the time it would take to do the measurement would be so long that civilisations would have been born, developed and vanished during the counting period. That alone would make the theory useless, and until we have the ability to detect even one other form of life: intelligent or not, there is not even one single calibration point.

    Treat this as a bit of fun, but don't spend any money on it.

  • If you add 2 + 2 and get 4, you can say that this is true in a way that almost nothing else is true. And people seem to think that this means that math means truth.

    But Frank Drake created his famous equation to organise his thoughts and get a handle on what is and isn't known. As time has moved on, we have gotten better estimates of the terms. For example, actually discovering 300+ planets around other stars gives us a handle on the fraction of stars with planets. And the Kepler mission should improve t

    • by geekoid (135745)

      Statistic are always correct*. It's the liars and damn liars that misuse them and take them out of context that's the problem.

      That quote only show Twain's weakness in mathematics.

      *assuming no mistake in the math.

  • Aliens Cause Global Warming [michaelcrichton.net] by Michael Crichton:

    "This serious-looking equation gave SETI a serious footing as a legitimate intellectual inquiry. The problem, of course, is that none of the terms can be known, and most cannot even be estimated. The only way to work the equation is to fill in with guesses. And guesses-just so we're clear-are merely expressions of prejudice. Nor can there be "informed guesses." If you need to state how many planets with life choose to communicate, there is simply no way to mak

    • by geekoid (135745)

      Michael Crichton is an idiot.

      Once again he is wrong. He needs to stick to fiction becasue he really doesn't understand science.

      Everything is is ideological opposed to is wrong and full of guesses.

      Putting informed guesses in quotes shows how limited he is.

  • The new equation aims to develop a single index for habitability based on variables totally unknown to anyone within many orders of magnitude.

    Wow! Sounds very useful... </sarcasm>

  • by Tetsujin (103070) on Thursday September 17, 2009 @10:40AM (#29454057) Homepage Journal

    Honestly, I'm not surprised people are finding fault with the Drake Equation. I mean, it was written up by Ludwig Von Drake! He's not a proper scientist at all, he's just a cartoon! You can't rely on cartoon characters to do your science for you, it's not sensible... And you've got to question the repeatability of any experiment taking place in a cartoon environment...

  • because beings light decades away are now beginning to receive early Open University Broadcasts. So presumably OU should start seeing applicants soon, attracted by a desire to wear a kipper tie and discuss differential calculus after coming home late from the pub.
  • I think simplifying something as complex as this to a formula is just asking for a failure.

    I mean if we can't even find a formula for weather... And this thing is vastly more complex. (If you don't think so, you've got no idea of the sheer number of stars or even galaxies out there.)
    Additionally, the whole thing is strongly tainted by the inside-the-box thinking of seemingly everyone in that area. They limit themselves to "only where water is, only where oxygen is, only where the planet is thisandthis far a

  • The Drake Gamble (Score:3, Insightful)

    by StikyPad (445176) on Thursday September 17, 2009 @01:50PM (#29457149) Homepage

    It's a scientific imperative, and a recurring theme on Slashdot, that a sufficient sample size is necessary to draw a meaningful conclusion. And when it comes to planets we've sufficiently explored, our sample size is somewhere between 1 and 3, including Earth. We *believe* the moon is devoid of life, which is probably accurate since it's the moon is a relatively static environment, and life tends to alter its environment. We *suspect* that life is absent from Mars, but we don't know for sure. For all we know, there are planets in our own solar system that are teeming with life. The only thing we can say with any degree of confidence is that the odds of life inhabiting a given body are less than 1 and greater than 0, and that we have yet to observe extraterrestrial life.

    Now it makes sense to extrapolate from our observations, but only when we have sufficient data, and drawing *any* conclusions from 1-3 points out of of billions is insane, no matter how rational it may *feel*. It's the very root of superstition. If we count the moon as a second data point, and that's still a leap of faith, then the incidence of life is 50/50. If we found bacteria on Mars, then we suddenly have data showing that life is more likely than not, and confirming evidence that 100% of worlds containing water also have life.

    Given the above, trying to make predictions based on the observed data is worse than useless -- it's detrimental. It limits our focus and makes us oblivious to alternatives. It's the scientific equivalent of believing that a broken mirror brings bad luck, or that angry gods cause lightning. After all, why investigate the source of lightning when we already know that it was caused by our sin? Why investigate arid worlds when we know that life requires water? Such beliefs make us oblivious to the truth, even when we're staring it in the face.

    The Drake Equation, and its variants, are nothing more than a roll of the dice or the flip of a coin at this point. Let's treat them as such, and move on.

When I left you, I was but the pupil. Now, I am the master. - Darth Vader

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