The Search for Life: The Drake Equation
For many years our place in the universe was the subject of theologians and philosophers, not scientists, but in 1960 one man changed all that.
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 new 25-meter radio telescopes at a star called Tau Ceti twelve light years from earth, hoping for signs of extra-terrestrial intelligence.
Although project Ozma resulted in silence, it did result in one of the most seminal equations in the history of science - the Drake Equation - which examined seven key elements necessary for ET intelligence to exist, from the formation of stars to the likely length a given intelligent civilization may survive. When Frank and his colleagues entered the figures, the equation suggested there were a staggering 50,000 civilizations capable of communicating across the galaxy.
However, 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 and is there no life form out there capable of communicating? Drake's own calculations suggest that we would have to scan the entire radio spectrum of ten million stars to be sure of contact.
But 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 suggest 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.
To find out about the equation's influence, Dallas Campbell goes on a worldwide journey to meet the scientists who have dedicated their lives to focusing on its different aspects.
Watch the full documentary now (playlist - 59 minutes)