14 Dec 2010

OU/BBC special explores search for alien life

Dallas at Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence Institute

Dallas at Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence Institute

The search for extraterrestrial life is officially 50 years old. Half a century on, in a 1hr special, produced in partnership with the BBC, Bang Goes The Theory’s Dallas Campbell goes on a world wide journey to discover how one of the most controversial formulae in science – the Drake Equation – is changing our view of life, the universe and our place within it. The programme also includes an in-depth investigation into the arsenic-loving bacteria recently announced by NASA as the most exciting discovery ever made in astrobiology.

In 1961 Frank Drake took everything he knew about star formation, planetary systems, the evolution of biology and the life cycle of civilisations; and from this jumble of science he formulated one of the most seminal equations in the history of science. It came to be known as the Drake Equation.

For many years, our place in the universe was the subject of theologians and philosophers, not scientists. But Drake’s Equation gave scientific credibility to the possibility of extra terrestrial life.

At the time, Dr Frank Drake was one of the leading lights in the new science of Radio Astronomy when he did something that was not only revolutionary but could have cost him his career. Working at the National Radio Astronomy Observatory in Greenback in Virginia, he pointed one of their brand new 25mtr radio telescopes at a star called Tau Ceti 12 light years from Earth. His mission, to listen for signs of extra terrestrial intelligence – quite literally to listen for ET talking.

Examining seven key elements necessary for extra terrestrial intelligence to exist; from the formation of stars to the likely length a given intelligent civilisation may survive. When Frank and his colleagues entered the figures, the equation suggested there was a staggering 50,000 civilisations capable of communicating across the galaxy at this very moment.

But in the 50 years of listening that has followed, not one single bleep has been heard from ET. So were Drake and his followers wrong? Is there no life form out there capable of communicating? No one is really sure as the search itself is so difficult. Drake’s own calculations are that we’d have to scan the entire radio spectrum of 100.00000 stars to be sure of contact.

What the equation and the search for life has done is focus science on some of the other questions about life in the universe – specifically biogenesis, the development of multi-cellular life and the development of intelligence itself.

The answers to those questions are increasingly suggesting that, far from being a one off, life may not only be common in the universe but once started will lead inevitably towards intelligent life.

The Search for Life: the Drake Equation is a 1hr special for BBC4 to be broadcast at 8.00pm tonight [Tuesday 14 December].


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Dr Dave Rothery, one of the OU academic consultants to the programme, is available for interview.

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