My journey to atheism was a coming-of-age moment. I was not raised as a Christian stereotype, but I participated in my church socially. I volunteered at the church-run preschool and held church fundraisers for secular causes. Even after my conversion to atheism, I continue to volunteer in these activities, because the Christian value of charity also happens to be a human value.
The logic of church doctrine fails me, however, when it intersects with social issues. It is difficult for me to believe in a God who condemns certain kinds of love as “unnatural,” when science tells me all love is governed by the same set of neurotransmitters. When in love, high dopamine levels and low serotonin levels are universal.
My beliefs could be described as less atheism and more a belief in ‘Something’ with a capital S. Rather than a strict cause and effect relationship between actions deemed “good” or “bad”, the universe tends towards progress rather than entropy. Progress evolutionary, progress socially, even progress towards equal rights. The vindictive God I knew as a child is dwarfed by the massive and benevolent workings of a natural universe ruled by some unknown force.
"The universe tends towards progress rather than entropy."
Biology is great for answering those abstract questions like, “Will I be eternally damned for living unnaturally?” However, for more practical questions, we must turn to physics.
In April of 1960, a radio astronomer named Frank Drake began a three-month long experiment. Tucked in the mountains of West Virginia, far from any major cities, Drake embarked on a scan of radio frequencies from two nearby stars, Epsilon Eridani and Tau Ceti. His goal was to find aliens. He did not succeed. Drake pioneered the field of extraterrestrial research, and hosted the first Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) meeting, with other notable scientists, such as neuroscientist John C. Lilly, inventor Barney Oliver, astronomer Carl Sagan, and radio-astronomer Otto Struve. Out of this meeting grew the Drake Equation.
The Drake Equation measures the probability of discovering other forms of intelligent life by estimating the number of planets with species with radio capabilities. It is a “back of the napkin” summary of the main characteristics used by scientists to find extraterrestrial life. It finds by multiplying the probabilities of various events.
A similar process is behind the Tang Prom Date Probability Equation, which I invented in a fit of black humor to describe my situation. The number of prom dates, P, equals the number of people someone is regularly in contact with (the number of students in your school); multiplied by the percentage of the population with the gender someone is searching for (50%, or 100%), multiplied by the percent of people in the target age range (25% in a four-year school), multiplied by the eligible percent (50%), multiplied by an attractiveness quantification. By multiplying this attractiveness percentage with the overall number of people who are eligible dates with similar interests, we find the final number of potential dates.
The Drake Equation is the multiplication of discrete probabilities to find the composite probability to find alien life (N) rather than potential mates. At both a practical and theoretical level, it uses the same process. The equation begins with the average rate of star formation in the galaxy. As far as we know, stars like the sun are the ultimate beginning of all energy for life. About seven stars are formed in a year. The number of stars formed annually is multiplied the percentage of stars with planets in range to receive its energy. This is the famed “Goldilocks zone,” which is neither too hot nor too cold to support life. This is about 70% of all stars. This is where consensus ends in the Drake Equation.
Followers of the Rare Earth Hypothesis believe the Drake Equation proves that Earth is alone in supporting life in the endless black depths of the universe. The 200 million square miles that I, and you, and everyone else you have ever known and ever will know, call home, is only a speck of light in an otherwise dark infinity. We are a mere statistical anomaly, a chance event.
But I’d like to believe differently. I want to believe that there are other forms of life, somewhere — and I’d like to believe that that they are somehow better than us accident-prone humans; that they, against near insurmountable odds, have discovered both advanced technology and the ability to use it without killing each other.
There is little evidence to support my belief in finding life with the Drake Equation, as there is little data that the Tang Equation will yield any prom dates. The probability that any of dozens of factors has a probability greater that zero is infinitesimal. The inescapable truth of our flawed lives, maybe even fatally so, opposes my beliefs. And yet I still believe. Even when I am alone, as the sun sets on prom night.
There are some who say the Drake Equation is meaningless. The variety in its values can lead to a universe populated with billions of thriving populations, or one where Earth is alone. This ambiguity is the beauty in the Drake Equation. The essential premise of both the Drake Equation and the Tang Equation is that they can quantify the uncountable. By finding the probability of all the above factors happening simultaneously, we can gauge our chances of finding life and love in the void; we can make meaning out of the meaningless. The desire to not be alone — whether on prom night or in the universe — is irresistible.
The equations that describe the natural world empower us, either as a society or as individuals, to see the possibilities. The equations are hope, and it is upon this hope that the cornerstones of innovation are built. Astronomers will continue to search the skies for life, and I will continue to search for love. May the odds be ever in our favor.
At the writing of this article, Opal Tang was 16 years old. She lives in Alexandria, VA.
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