# Is there life on other worlds?

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4 Math Extension Calculating a number using the Drake Equation is an exercise in estimation. When estimating, we provide numbers to terms for which we have no actual values. However, we use whatever pertinent information is available to make an estimate as accurate as possible. An estimate is different from a sheer guess because, with an estimate, one constrains the possibilities by extrapolating from what one does know. Probabilities are different than estimates. Probabilities focus on how often an event will occur out of a certain number of trials (e.g., one chance in a hundred or in a million). As a result, they are expressed as percentages. Estimates are expressed as numbers. Since the Drake Equation results in a number rather than in a percentage, it is an estimate. Enrico Fermi, a Nobel Prize-winning physicist, often challenged his students with similar kinds of problems, such as estimating the number of corn flakes in the United States. Known as Fermi Problems, they rely on the same process extrapolating from what you know. Astrobiologists use the Earth in this fashion. By studying our planet and its inhabitants, scientists have learned a great deal about life and habitability. Using what we know enables us to make predictions about life in distant places. Recommended Procedure Ask students how they would estimate the number of pens and pencils in the school. To give their estimate some basis, they might count the actual number of pens and pencils in the classroom. This number together with the number of classrooms in the school can provide a rough estimate of the total number of pens and pencils. As students think more deeply about the question, they will realize that there are offices, teacher s desks, and supply rooms that have pens and pencils, too. Including these in their estimate makes it increasingly accurate. One could expand this exercise by estimating the number of pens and pencils nationwide. 52 ACTIVITY 5

5 Activity Guide Introduction Do you think there is intelligent life in our galaxy with which we can communicate? In 1961, Dr. Frank Drake identified eight terms to help people think about what would have to take place for such communication to be possible. See what you think the chances are by making your own estimate for each of the terms below. The conservative and optimistic values indicate the range of opinion among scientists with regard to each term. You can use the conservative or optimistic estimates or use another value, depending on your own intuition. What to Do To estimate the number of worlds in the Milky Way galaxy that have intelligent life that we can detect using radio technology, follow these s: 1 Make estimates for each of the eight terms listed on the Using the Drake Equation worksheet. 2 Convert percentages to decimals before multiplying. 3 Multiply the estimates you made for the eight terms. life on earth and elsewhere? Nasa astrobiology institute ACTIVITY 5 53

8 Think About It (continued) 8 If tomorrow s newspaper headline read, Message Received from Outer Space, what would it mean to you? 9 What would your reaction be if we discovered microbes on another planet? Plants? Insects? Mammals? Intelligent life? 10 If microbial life were discovered on another planet, what implications might such a discovery have? 11 How would you define extraterrestrial now? How does your current definition differ from the one that the class developed earlier in the activity? 12 What do you think is the most abundant life form on Earth? 13 If life exists elsewhere, what do you think it will look like? 56 ACTIVITY 5 life on earth and elsewhere? Nasa astrobiology institute

10 Teacher Answer Guide to the Think About It Questions (continued) 10 What are the implications of discovering microbial life? Many students express disinterest in discovering anything less than a bona fide, Hollywood-style extraterrestrial. However, no life beyond Earth has ever been found, which implies that life may be a rare accident that happened on Earth due to an extraordinary convergence of circumstances and that it is unlikely to happen elsewhere. In this context, discovering microbial life would help us understand more about how life arises and what conditions it can tolerate. Furthermore, it would help answer the question of whether life is a common process in the universe. In short, discovering microbial life beyond Earth would be a profound discovery. By multiplying Terms 1 to 5, students can make their own estimate of how many worlds in our galaxy have life of any sort. 12 What is the most abundant life form on Earth? We live in the age of bacteria. For the past three and a half billion years, bacteria have been the dominant life form in terms of numbers and biomass. They are key to many biological, geological, and chemical processes, and many scientists think that multicellular organisms became possible only after single-celled bacteria began living symbiotically within a cell membrane. 13 If life exists elsewhere, what do you think it will look like? Astrobiologists feel that most extraterrestrial life will be bacterialike, living beneath a planet s or moon s surface and using chemical energy for their needs. Animal life, and especially intelligent animal life, is probably much rarer. 58 ACTIVITY 5

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