Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Calling All Aliens: One Man's Search for Romance

"While extraterrestrial civilizations may be rare," Peter Backus wrote in 2010, "there is something that is seemingly rarer still: a girlfriend. For me."

Backus's paper, in which he humorously applies the Drake equation to his dating prospects.
For Backus, dating and alien civilizations had a thing or two in common. "The idea occurred to me," Backus said in an interview with Today, "that you could do the same thing with any population."

Backtrack to Green Bank, WV in 1961, on the eve of the search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI), when astronomer Francis Drake came up with a ballpark estimate of the number of communicative alien civilizations in the Milky Way Galaxy.

The so-called Drake Equation estimates the number (N) of possible intelligent alien civilizations (one civilization per planet) in the galaxy by multiplying together quantities like the number of stars that are like our sun and the rate of star formation (R), the percentage of these stars that also form planets (f_p) and fraction of those planets that are earth-like (i.e. possibly inhabitable, n_e).
If you think the odds are getting slim, factor in the odds that an earth-like planet actually develops life forms (f_l), and that this life form develops the sort of intelligence (f_i) that would enable it to develop methods of interstellar communication, like radio and lasers (f_c). Drake's equation also includes the average lifetime (L) that such a civilization would have communication technology.

Astronomers estimate that there are on the order of 300 billion stars in the Milky Way Galaxy. Drake's rough (high) estimate came out to about N = 10,000 possible civilized, intelligent, radio-wielding, laser-shooting civilizations -- about 0.000003% of our stars.

Like the Howards before him, Backus applied this apt comparison to his chances of finding a match in the dating pool.

In his paper, Backus mapped Drake's variables to the civilization with whom he hoped to communicate.    In the search for the number of potential girlfriends (N), Backus factored in the population growth in the UK, the fraction of whom are women who live in London, education backgrounds, attractiveness, and age. This pool left him at about 14% of Londoners, or about 10,500 people. Smartly, he also included an estimate of the percent of these women who would be interested in him.

The result: 26. With a 1 in 285,000 chance of finding a girlfriend, Backus writes that his odds were about 100 times better than the chance we'll communicate with an alien civilization.

Turns out, it's also a great pick up line. Backus reports he is getting married this weekend -- despite all odds.

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