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Table of Contents:

-The Drake Equation and what it may mean for us

-Possible catastrophic events

-Ways to prevent catastrophe

-Columns

-The Survival Plan

-Possible utopias

-Possible dystopias

-Book recommendations

-Movie recommendations

-Future technology

-Free literature

-Personal survival

-Public forum

-Links


The Drake Equation:

The Drake Equation attempts to take into account all of the variables involved in our encountering intelligent life.  By inputting estimates of the values of the various variables, we can come up with an estimate for the likelihood of us having already been contacted by intelligent life.  Alternatively, since we have apparently not been contacted, we can use this information to obtain a better estimate of one of the variables - such as the expected lifespan of a technological civilization.  As a disclaimer before we start, this equation relies upon a lot of data for which we only have poor estimates.  There are many possibilities other than those presented here.  This page is only intended to provide some interesting material for further thought by laying out a reasonable argument based on reasonable estimates - it is not intended to be a comprehensive proof of anything.

The equation is N=S*P*n*d*I*C*L, where
N = the number of civilizations with whom we could theoretically communicate.
S = the rate of star formation in our galaxy.
P = the fraction of stars that have planets.
n = the number of planets that could potentially bear life around each star that has planets.
d = the fraction of planets that could bear life that actually do so.
I = the fraction of life-bearing planets that produce intelligent life.
C = the fraction of intelligent species that are capable of and interested in communication.
L = the lifespan of such technological civilizations.

Estimates on the rate of star formation range from 1 to 10 per year in the Milky Way.  For our purposes we'll use 5 as the number of stars that form each year.  This number may be high compared to modern star formation rates, but it is probably low compared to the rate when the stars that may now shine on intelligent life were formed.  .

We don't know what fraction of stars have planets around them.  That said, using very crude techniques that are only applicable in only a small percentage of possible situations, we've been able to show that several other stars in our galaxy do have planets.  Therefore it is quite reasonable to estimate that the fraction of stars with planetary systems is at least 0.5.

Obviously we don't know what fraction of planets could potentially bear life.  After all, we only can prove that life developed on Earth - and Earth can't provide statistical evidence regarding this sort of question since if life had not developed here, or had developed at a later point, we wouldn't be here asking the question.  But, based on what we know to be the necessary chemical and environmental precursors to our sort of life, it seems quite possible that bacterial life may have developed on Mars, and, potentially, several of the moons of our gas giants.  So, just in our own system there are several possible planets (or satellites) that may support or have once supported some form of life.  And, of course, it's certainly possible that life can exist that's very different from our own, in which case life might potentially be almost anywhere in the solar system.  So, while we can't claim a very high degree of certainty about number of planets (and moons) in each planetary system that could potentially bear life, 2 is an estimate that is well in line with the limited information we have.

We also don't know what fraction of the planets (and satellites) capable of bearing life actually do so.  If the Martian meteorite that made news a few years ago actually did contain fossilized life forms, then that would suggest that it's reasonably easy for simple life to form (since we may have discovered evidence of non-Earth life almost as soon as we began looking for it).  That said, our solar system might have uncommon properties that are particularly conducive to the formation of life - so it certainly wouldn't be strong proof of anything.  Furthermore, some doubt has been cast on the evidence of the Martian meteors.  So, let's say that 1/10 of the planets capable of bearing life actually do at some point.  This estimate isn't a lot better than a guess, of course, but not an unreasonable guess based on what we do know.

Of course many planets probably bear life without bearing intelligent life.  So, to be safe let's say that only 1 in a million life bearing planets produces intelligent life.

Then, there's no guarantee that an intelligent life form would also be technological and both interested in and capable of communicating with us.  That said, there's some evidence that the evolution of intelligence and technological ability may be somewhat dependent upon each other.  Our opposable thumbs created an evolutionary benefit to having a brain capable of designing simple tools, which, in turn created an evolutionary benefit to especially agile fingers.  Likewise, our ability with languages lead to us passing information between generations, which lead to technological improvements, which helped to create the necessity for an expanded vocabulary.  So it's quite reasonable to expect that many intelligent life forms would have the potential to be technological.  That said, dolphins also exhibit many signs of intelligence, yet they are certainly not capable of communicating through outer space.  And you can easily imagine other similarly limited intelligences - intelligent oceanic species, intelligent species on planets with a dearth of important elements (without metals, for example), or intelligent species in a deep gravity well - are just some examples of possible intelligent lifeforms that might not develop the technological capacity to communicate with us.  So, let's say that 1/10 intelligent species are technologically capable of communication at some point during their existence.  Furthermore, we'll also assume for now that a species that is technologically capable of communicating would choose to do so (I'll address this assumption later).

If we put those numbers into the equation, we get N = 5*0.5*2*0.1*0.000001*0.1*L, or N = 1/(20 million)*L.  So, if, for the time being we accept the estimates above, the number of intelligent species in our galaxy available for us to communicate with should depend on the lifespan of technological civilizations.  Since our current knowledge of science is nearly enough for us to expand off-world if we are willing to devote sufficient resources to the effort, it's clear that a technological society with enough time and interest in exploration and growth would be able to settle new planets.  Furthermore, exponential growth would allow a species to colonize virtually every habitable region of the galaxy within tens of millions of years.  We have not seen any evidence of such colonization, however, and it seems likely that a colonizing species would have visited our own solar system at some point.  Furthermore, there is a good chance such a species would have settled regions of space close to our own, yet we've received no attempt at communication from them. 

This implies one of a few possibilities.  First, it's possible that advanced technological species exist, but they are hiding from us.  Perhaps they are afraid of contaminating a developing civilization.  Second, an older technological species might have advanced to the point that it can't reasonably communicate with us - in this scenario we might still have seen evidence of its existence, however.  Third, that technological civilizations may lose interest in exploring and expanding.  This is a very real possibility given the unpredictable effects of rapidly increasing computing power and the possibility of bio-engineering our own species.  Fourth, technological civilizations may be very short lived.  We've been able to commit suicide as a species for about half a century now.  During the next century, advances in bio-weaponry and nano-technology will make this sort of power available to individuals.  If technological civilizations commit suicide, however, then we are likely to do so within the next century or two.  After that, we will probably have expanded off world and it will be much much harder when outposts of our civilization are protected by large buffers of empty space.  If technological civilizations survive their birthing processes and expand off-world, they probably can survive indefinitely.

The other possibility is that one of the other variables was wrong, and we are unique in our galaxy - other technological species do not, and have not existed.  In that case, all we learn from the Drake Equation is that our sort of life is very rare indeed.

The scary thing about the Drake Equation is that many of the possible implied futures are bad, or at least very uncertain.  If we're alone in the galaxy, ok.  Or, if we're being left alone while we develop, and will eventually be allowed to join the galactic community, fine.  But, one likely possibility is L is very small, and we're about to face the collapse of modern civilization, or worse, we're about to go extinct.  And, should our civilization continue, we may face a scary future where genetic engineering and ultra-intelligent computers end our interest in exploration and expansion.