Monday, July 16, 2012

"One" Is the Lonliest Number....

Frank Drake, Seth Shostak, former SETI Institute director Jill Tarter, Astronaut Tom Jones, science fiction author Robert J Sawyer – these are just a few of the luminaries that were on hand for the SETI Institute's second SETIcon, held at the Santa Clara (California) Hyatt, from June 22 to 24, 2012.

I had made arrangements to sell copies of my two anthologies – Alien Contact (Night Shade Books, 2011) and Is Anybody Out There? (DAW Books, 2010) – through the SETI Institute store in the exhibitors room (actually, more like a ballroom!). So I was on hand all three days – and I mean all three days, from opening until closing – during which I chatted with attendees and, in the process, managed to sell a few copies of the books.

One of the exhibitors was the Astronomical Society of the Pacific, from whom I snagged a few back issues of their newsletter Astronomy Beat. The April 5, 2010, issue (Number 46) features a cover story entitled "The Origin of the Drake Equation."1

Having co-edited (with Nick Gevers) anthology Is Anybody Out There? – stories based on the Fermi Paradox2 – my interest in the Drake Equation is more than just a passing fancy. And to see Frank Drake up close and personal, as it were, well, it's like being in the same room with one's favorite actor, or musician.

According to Astronomy Beat, in the summer of 1961, J. Peter Pearman, a staff officer on the Space Science Board of the National Academy of Science, contacted Frank Drake about a meeting of the minds "to investigate the research potential" for "discovering life on other planets." Noteworthy scientists, researchers, and inventors were then invited to the meeting. Here's an excerpt from Frank Drake and "The Origin of the Drake Equation."
I took on the job of setting an agenda for the meeting. There was no one else to do it. So I sat down and thought, "What do we need to know about to discover life in space?" Then I began listing the relevant points as they occurred to me.


I looked at my list, thinking to arrange it somehow, perhaps in the order of relative importance of the topics. But each one seemed to carry just as much weight as another... Then it hit me: The topics were not only of equal importance, there were also utterly independent. Furthermore, multiplied together they constituted a formula for determining the number of advanced, communicative civilizations that existed in space.

The result of Frank Drake's list was, of course, the Drake Equation:

I'm not going to define each of the variables in the equation at this time, but you will see this equation again soon.

Benevolent (Close Encounters of the Third Kind) or deadly (Independence Day), contact with the alien "other" is one of the basic themes of science fiction. And we as readers and moviegoers thrive on this content. The basic premise of Is Anybody Out There? is that we are not alone, but that we haven't quite figured out ET's mode of communication. And/or we haven't yet learned what is important to ET to intrigue them enough to even want to make contact with us mere Earthlings. That is what the stories in IAOT? explore.

But the Fermi Paradox and the Drake Equation bring to mind another story by one very special author, George Alec Effinger who, alas, is no longer with us. The story is called "One." I would have loved to have included this story in Is Anybody Out There? as the antithesis of the anthology's theme, but all the included stories were written expressly for the book, and "One" was previously published in 1995.

I will leave you, for now, with this question:

What if we really are alone in the universe: How far would you go in search of that truth?

[Read the story "One" by George Alec Effinger]


1. The excerpt entitled "The Origin of the Drake Equation" was adapted and updated for Astronomy Beat from Is Anyone Out There? The Scientific Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (Delacorte Press, 1992) by Frank Drake and Dava Sobel.

2. From author Paul McAuley's Introduction to Is Anybody Out There? co-edited by Nick Gevers and Marty Halpern (Daw Books, 2010): "The galaxy contains between one hundred billion and four hundred billion stars: even if only a small fraction possess planets capable of supporting life, and technological civilisations arise on only a few of those life-bearing planets, there should still be a large number of civilisations capable of communicating with us. And although the distances between stars are very large, and even if exploration of the galaxy is limited to speeds below that of light, exponential multiplication of interstellar colonies would mean that a determined star-faring civilisation would be able to visit or colonise every star in the galaxy within 5 to 50 million years, a trivial span of time compared to the lifetime of the galaxy. From these basic assumptions and calculations, Fermi concluded that Earth should have been visited by aliens long ago, and many times since. But where was everybody?"

One additional note: Seth Shostak, the SETI Institute's senior scientist, is author of Confessions of an Alien Hunter: A Scientist's Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (National Geographic, 2009).

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