As I worked on this piece, I couldn't stop thinking about Ellie Arroway, the heroine of Carl Sagan's book, "Contact" (and pictured on page two). There's a scene in the 1997 movie adapted from the book in which Arroway, lying atop her car in the New Mexico desert, hears the first tentative pulses of an alien civilization's greeting. She races back to the lab, shouting directions to her colleagues as she goes, trying to make sure the array of radio telescopes stays tuned to the signal. I still argue it's one of the most exciting scenes in modern American cinema. It made alien contact seem not just plausible, but imminent.
I knew nothing of the Drake Equation when I first watched "Contact." Then I received this assignment and came to grips with a harsh reality (at least if you're craning your neck, hoping to catch a glimpse of E.T.): Our galaxy may not be crowded with alien civilizations after all. Either the conditions don't exist to allow them to evolve, or if they do evolve, they kick off before we ever get a chance to meet them. All of which makes me wonder how Arroway would react to the Drake Equation. I have a feeling she would remain as optimistic as ever, clinging to her belief that the universe would be an "awful waste of space" if we were its sole inhabitants.
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