Ducking the Drake Equation

The Drake Equation gives an estimate of the number of civilisations in our galaxy which might be able to communicate with us. The problem with it is that most of the terms in the equation are completely unknown, so different interpretations of the idea give wildly different results.

For an SF writer this is both a problem and an opportunity. On the one hand I’m sending my characters out in their “swift ships upon the wine-dark void of space” (all right, I’m misquoting) and I’ve no way of knowing how likely it is that they’ll find intelligent aliens. On the other I can guess at almost all the terms in the Drake Equation with no real fear of being contradicted.

In the thirty years since Jane came bounding into my imagination and took over the timeline there has been a rush of discoveries of exoplanets. This is something I predicted in the first story, and it’s given me the confidence to make a guess at the alien question.

My unjustified personal guess is this:

  1. Most stars have a planetary system.
  2. Many planets are at a suitable distance from their star to support life, and have all the chemicals needed.
  3. On very few of these does life arise.
  4. Where life does arise it almost always leads to intelligence and civilisation.

My guess is that planets inhabited by intelligent aliens exist, but are very rare, planets which have no life but could be seeded by humans (the process I call terraforming) are quite common. Once the human race gets around to developing faster-than-light spaceship technology we will expand out turning lifeless rocks into living, breathing worlds for a long time before we meet another race. By then I hope we’ll have learned to be polite to our neighbours.


How I found the first eighty-footer at Heathrow

It was March 1978. I was walking out to the gate to catch TW703 (odd how the flight number has stayed with me all these years) to New York. Concorde was sitting on a stand, ready to depart. I began idly calculating in my head:

Wright Brothers, 1910, 40 MPH. Concorde, 1976, 1350 MPH.

That’s over 30 times faster in less than 70 years.

Another 30 times faster is over 40,000 MPH. That’s almost escape velocity.

And in that moment the eighty-footer, the light spaceship that is the mainstay of the Confederate Space Fleet was born.

How it all began

It was a warm summer night in the middle of the 1970s. The moon landings were a recent memory.

I had been reading a textbook on astronomy, which described the star Arcturus as having a “lovely orange-red colour” under magnification. I borrowed my father’s binoculars and stood in the back garden. It took me a few seconds to get the star centred then I was suddenly entranced by the auburn glow.

In cosmic terms Arcturus is very close, almost in the next street. I found myself thinking “that would look glorious from close up”. Then I realised that there was almost no chance of anyone building a spaceship that could get there in my lifetime.

I almost cried. But then I realised that there was just one way I could travel the galaxy.

I gave my father’s binoculars back and borrowed his typewriter. And that’s how I took up science fiction.