Thursday, December 30, 2010

Sesquicentennial, Part IX: A Point Of No Return?


Officers, as we've already discussed, do not take an oath to follow orders. They hold their commission from the President, they are sworn to defend the Constitution, and they can (and are) sacked if they flout authority. Direct orders are given great weight in their thought. But, absent orders, American soldiers have been known to draw up their own as they see fit. It's a trait that bedeviled Soviet military planners, one of whom wrote: "The difficulty in countering American military doctrine is that their officers do not feel compelled to follow it." It was just as true in 1860 as in 1980.

Major Robert Anderson woke up to one hell of a problem on Christmas Day, 1860. He had command of fewer than 100 soldiers, and held the responsibility to defend Federal property in the harbor of Charleston. Charleston, you will remember, now held itself no longer part of the Union. Four days had passed since the declaration of December 20th, and no orders had come from Washington as to what to do about it. What he needed were reinforcements, and soon. But the Secretary of War, John Floyd, was dead-set against it. Big surprise there, he said sarcastically ... Floyd's sympathies were quite plainly with the secessionists, as his deployment orders the previous summer hinted. What Floyd really wanted, but dared not commit to paper, was for Major Anderson to pack up and head North.

Major Anderson packed up, all right. On the night of the 26th, Major Anderson spiked the guns at Fort Moultrie, gathered up his garrison, and lit out for Fort Sumter. His reasoning was simple, and militarily very sound. Fort Moultrie could not be held against a determined assault, not with only 100 men. And certainly not against a landward assault. Being a harbor fort, it was never built with landward defenses. Fort Sumter, on the other hand, was surrounded by water, and very much defensible. Given provisions and ammunition, 100 men could hold Fort Sumter for months. Maybe even indefinitely, if reinforcements and provisions could be had promptly.

He had no orders from Washington to do this. But neither did he have orders to yield up his garrison unfought. In the absence of orders either way, Major Anderson took the action he deemed best, and sought out the most defensible position he could find.

Secretary Floyd was not amused. The news arrived at Washington as fast as a telegraph wire could carry it, and by nightfall on the 27th Floyd had issued a stern telegram to Major Anderson demanding explanation: Intelligence has reached here this morning that you have abandoned Fort Moultrie, spiked your guns, burned the carriages, and gone to Fort Sumter. It is not believed, because there is no order for any such movement. Explain the meaning.

Major Anderson, outnumbered easily 100-to-1, was even less amused, and his reply showed it: Answer – the telegram is correct. I abandoned Fort Moultrie because I was certain that if attacked my men must have been sacrificed and the command of the harbor lost. I spiked the guns and destroyed the carriages to keep the guns from being used against us. If attacked, the garrison would never have surrendered without a fight. Unwritten, but obviously implied: You idiot.

Now, this message traffic went directly from Secretary Floyd to Major Anderson, cutting out the man who was at least nominally Major Anderson's commanding officer, Lieutenant General Winfield Scott. At age 74, General Scott was hardly amused by anything anymore, but these shenanigans annoyed him no end. It was clear to Scott that the harbor forts, being Federal property, must be defended. He was old, and ill, and tired; but nonetheless he had a duty to perform. On the morning of December 30, a Sunday, he dictated a hasty note to President Buchanan.

Lieutenant General Scott begs the President of the United States to pardon the irregularity of this communication.

It is Sunday; the weather is bad, and General Scott is not well enough to go to church. But matters of the highest national importance seem to forbid a moment’s delay, and if misled by zeal, he hopes the President’s forgiveness.


Will the President permit General Scott, without reference to the War Department and otherwise, as secretly as possible, to send two hundred and fifty recruits from New York Harbor to re-enforce Fort Sumter, together with some extra muskets of rifles, ammunition, and subsistence stores?

It is hoped that a sloop of war and a cutter may be ordered for the same purpose as early as to-morrow.

General Scott will wait upon the President at any moment he may be called for.

The President’s most obedient servant,


These reinforcements, if done promptly, would have given Major Anderson a force of battalion strength with which to hold Fort Sumter, and provisions to last a prolonged siege. The South Carolina militia will not yet have fortified the harbor against reinforcement. Prompt action could save the fort.

Prompt action ... wasn't Buchanan's strong suit.

Nevertheless, one Union major's spontaneous act made it Federal policy that Federal property would be defended with force of arms if need be. Neither Floyd nor Buchanan could gainsay that at this point. Looking back, it seems clear that this was the point of no return. Each side had staked a position from which they would not back down. There would be no negotiation, there would be no settlement, and now it was perfectly clear where the conflagration would begin. The only remaining question was, when?

Friday, December 24, 2010

Sesquicentennial, Part VIII: The Dam Breaks


The delegates to the Convention in South Carolina held their first meetings on December 17, as scheduled. The vote for secession was 169-0 in favor. They announced the result, and consequently seceded from the Union, on December 20. Three documents resulted from this Convention. The first was the Ordinance of Secession itself, the legal document that severed the connection between South Carolina and the Union. The second was a missive directed towards the other slaveholding States, imploring them to do likewise. The third, issued on December 24, was titled the Declaration of the Immediate Causes Which Induce and Justify the Secession of South Carolina from the Federal Union, and was intended to explain to the world at large why they did what they did. I reproduce the document here, in its entirety.

The people of the State of South Carolina, in Convention assembled, on the 26th day of April, A.D., 1852, declared that the frequent violations of the Constitution of the United States, by the Federal Government, and its encroachments upon the reserved rights of the States, fully justified this State in then withdrawing from the Federal Union; but in deference to the opinions and wishes of the other slaveholding States, she forbore at that time to exercise this right. Since that time, these encroachments have continued to increase, and further forbearance ceases to be a virtue.

And now the State of South Carolina having resumed her separate and equal place among nations, deems it due to herself, to the remaining United States of America, and to the nations of the world, that she should declare the immediate causes which have led to this act.

In the year 1765, that portion of the British Empire embracing Great Britain, undertook to make laws for the government of that portion composed of the thirteen American Colonies. A struggle for the right of self-government ensued, which resulted, on the 4th of July, 1776, in a Declaration, by the Colonies, "that they are, and of right ought to be, FREE AND INDEPENDENT STATES; and that, as free and independent States, they have full power to levy war, conclude peace, contract alliances, establish commerce, and to do all other acts and things which independent States may of right do."

They further solemnly declared that whenever any "form of government becomes destructive of the ends for which it was established, it is the right of the people to alter or abolish it, and to institute a new government." Deeming the Government of Great Britain to have become destructive of these ends, they declared that the Colonies "are absolved from all allegiance to the British Crown, and that all political connection between them and the State of Great Britain is, and ought to be, totally dissolved."

In pursuance of this Declaration of Independence, each of the thirteen States proceeded to exercise its separate sovereignty; adopted for itself a Constitution, and appointed officers for the administration of government in all its departments-- Legislative, Executive and Judicial. For purposes of defense, they united their arms and their counsels; and, in 1778, they entered into a League known as the Articles of Confederation, whereby they agreed to entrust the administration of their external relations to a common agent, known as the Congress of the United States, expressly declaring, in the first Article "that each State retains its sovereignty, freedom and independence, and every power, jurisdiction and right which is not, by this Confederation, expressly delegated to the United States in Congress assembled."

Under this Confederation the war of the Revolution was carried on, and on the 3rd of September, 1783, the contest ended, and a definite Treaty was signed by Great Britain, in which she acknowledged the independence of the Colonies in the following terms: "ARTICLE 1-- His Britannic Majesty acknowledges the said United States, viz: New Hampshire, Massachusetts Bay, Rhode Island and Providence Plantations, Connecticut, New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland, Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina and Georgia, to be FREE, SOVEREIGN AND INDEPENDENT STATES; that he treats with them as such; and for himself, his heirs and successors, relinquishes all claims to the government, propriety and territorial rights of the same and every part thereof."

Thus were established the two great principles asserted by the Colonies, namely: the right of a State to govern itself; and the right of a people to abolish a Government when it becomes destructive of the ends for which it was instituted. And concurrent with the establishment of these principles, was the fact, that each Colony became and was recognized by the mother Country a FREE, SOVEREIGN AND INDEPENDENT STATE.

In 1787, Deputies were appointed by the States to revise the Articles of Confederation, and on 17th September, 1787, these Deputies recommended for the adoption of the States, the Articles of Union, known as the Constitution of the United States.

The parties to whom this Constitution was submitted, were the several sovereign States; they were to agree or disagree, and when nine of them agreed the compact was to take effect among those concurring; and the General Government, as the common agent, was then invested with their authority.

If only nine of the thirteen States had concurred, the other four would have remained as they then were-- separate, sovereign States, independent of any of the provisions of the Constitution. In fact, two of the States did not accede to the Constitution until long after it had gone into operation among the other eleven; and during that interval, they each exercised the functions of an independent nation.

By this Constitution, certain duties were imposed upon the several States, and the exercise of certain of their powers was restrained, which necessarily implied their continued existence as sovereign States. But to remove all doubt, an amendment was added, which declared that the powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States, respectively, or to the people. On the 23d May , 1788, South Carolina, by a Convention of her People, passed an Ordinance assenting to this Constitution, and afterwards altered her own Constitution, to conform herself to the obligations she had undertaken.

Thus was established, by compact between the States, a Government with definite objects and powers, limited to the express words of the grant. This limitation left the whole remaining mass of power subject to the clause reserving it to the States or to the people, and rendered unnecessary any specification of reserved rights.

We hold that the Government thus established is subject to the two great principles asserted in the Declaration of Independence; and we hold further, that the mode of its formation subjects it to a third fundamental principle, namely: the law of compact. We maintain that in every compact between two or more parties, the obligation is mutual; that the failure of one of the contracting parties to perform a material part of the agreement, entirely releases the obligation of the other; and that where no arbiter is provided, each party is remitted to his own judgment to determine the fact of failure, with all its consequences.

In the present case, that fact is established with certainty. We assert that fourteen of the States have deliberately refused, for years past, to fulfill their constitutional obligations, and we refer to their own Statutes for the proof.

The Constitution of the United States, in its fourth Article, provides as follows: "No person held to service or labor in one State, under the laws thereof, escaping into another, shall, in consequence of any law or regulation therein, be discharged from such service or labor, but shall be delivered up, on claim of the party to whom such service or labor may be due."

This stipulation was so material to the compact, that without it that compact would not have been made. The greater number of the contracting parties held slaves, and they had previously evinced their estimate of the value of such a stipulation by making it a condition in the Ordinance for the government of the territory ceded by Virginia, which now composes the States north of the Ohio River.

The same article of the Constitution stipulates also for rendition by the several States of fugitives from justice from the other States.

The General Government, as the common agent, passed laws to carry into effect these stipulations of the States. For many years these laws were executed. But an increasing hostility on the part of the non-slaveholding States to the institution of slavery, has led to a disregard of their obligations, and the laws of the General Government have ceased to effect the objects of the Constitution. The States of Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Rhode Island, New York, Pennsylvania, Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Wisconsin and Iowa, have enacted laws which either nullify the Acts of Congress or render useless any attempt to execute them. In many of these States the fugitive is discharged from service or labor claimed, and in none of them has the State Government complied with the stipulation made in the Constitution. The State of New Jersey, at an early day, passed a law in conformity with her constitutional obligation; but the current of anti-slavery feeling has led her more recently to enact laws which render inoperative the remedies provided by her own law and by the laws of Congress. In the State of New York even the right of transit for a slave has been denied by her tribunals; and the States of Ohio and Iowa have refused to surrender to justice fugitives charged with murder, and with inciting servile insurrection in the State of Virginia. Thus the constituted compact has been deliberately broken and disregarded by the non-slaveholding States, and the consequence follows that South Carolina is released from her obligation.

The ends for which the Constitution was framed are declared by itself to be "to form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity."

These ends it endeavored to accomplish by a Federal Government, in which each State was recognized as an equal, and had separate control over its own institutions. The right of property in slaves was recognized by giving to free persons distinct political rights, by giving them the right to represent, and burthening them with direct taxes for three-fifths of their slaves; by authorizing the importation of slaves for twenty years; and by stipulating for the rendition of fugitives from labor.

We affirm that these ends for which this Government was instituted have been defeated, and the Government itself has been made destructive of them by the action of the non-slaveholding States. Those States have assume the right of deciding upon the propriety of our domestic institutions; and have denied the rights of property established in fifteen of the States and recognized by the Constitution; they have denounced as sinful the institution of slavery; they have permitted open establishment among them of societies, whose avowed object is to disturb the peace and to eloign the property of the citizens of other States. They have encouraged and assisted thousands of our slaves to leave their homes; and those who remain, have been incited by emissaries, books and pictures to servile insurrection.

For twenty-five years this agitation has been steadily increasing, until it has now secured to its aid the power of the common Government. Observing the forms of the Constitution, a sectional party has found within that Article establishing the Executive Department, the means of subverting the Constitution itself. A geographical line has been drawn across the Union, and all the States north of that line have united in the election of a man to the high office of President of the United States, whose opinions and purposes are hostile to slavery. He is to be entrusted with the administration of the common Government, because he has declared that that "Government cannot endure permanently half slave, half free," and that the public mind must rest in the belief that slavery is in the course of ultimate extinction.

This sectional combination for the submersion of the Constitution, has been aided in some of the States by elevating to citizenship, persons who, by the supreme law of the land, are incapable of becoming citizens; and their votes have been used to inaugurate a new policy, hostile to the South, and destructive of its beliefs and safety.

On the 4th day of March next, this party will take possession of the Government. It has announced that the South shall be excluded from the common territory, that the judicial tribunals shall be made sectional, and that a war must be waged against slavery until it shall cease throughout the United States.

The guaranties of the Constitution will then no longer exist; the equal rights of the States will be lost. The slaveholding States will no longer have the power of self-government, or self-protection, and the Federal Government will have become their enemy.

Sectional interest and animosity will deepen the irritation, and all hope of remedy is rendered vain, by the fact that public opinion at the North has invested a great political error with the sanction of more erroneous religious belief.

We, therefore, the People of South Carolina, by our delegates in Convention assembled, appealing to the Supreme Judge of the world for the rectitude of our intentions, have solemnly declared that the Union heretofore existing between this State and the other States of North America, is dissolved, and that the State of South Carolina has resumed her position among the nations of the world, as a separate and independent State; with full power to levy war, conclude peace, contract alliances, establish commerce, and to do all other acts and things which independent States may of right do.

Adopted December 24, 1860

Some points to ponder:

(1) There can be absolutely no doubt at this juncture that the primary motivation for South Carolina's secession from the Union had damn-all to do with tariff policy, and everything to do with the continuance of the institution of slavery. The word "tariff" appears nowhere in this statement. The notion of "states' rights" are only significant as they pertain to the right to own other human beings. The one hundred and sixty nine delegates who approved this document meant precisely what they said here, and they spent easily two-thirds of the document detailing their grievances against the Northern states and their anti-slavery campaigns. The excuses of tariff policy and states' rights came later, after the Confederacy had gone down to defeat, after-the-fact justifications for starting the bloodiest war in American history. The real reasons are here in black and white, for everyone to see.

(2) That said, it's important not to absolve the North of all guilt here. If slavery was profitable, if it was sufficiently valuable for the South to risk war, it was because the North made it so. Northern mills ran on free labor, true enough, but the cotton feed-stock with which they worked was picked and ginned by slave labor. It's true that Northerners had become sick of the institution, and wished for its end, but it's also true that it enriched them almost as much as it had the Southern planters.

(3) With South Carolina's action, the dam had burst, but not yet completely. Initially, only six more states of the deep South would follow suit: Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, and Texas. Each would adopt Declarations closely similar to that issued by South Carolina. But the border states, where slavery was still legal, held their hand and would not yet commit. The status of Maryland, Kentucky, Missouri, Virginia, North Carolina, Tennessee, and Arkansas had yet to be determined. Some held out the hope that the breach was not yet fatal, and may yet be mended.

(4) Now that South Carolina has asserted its independence, the half-ton gorilla patiently sitting in their parlor that the one hundred sixty nine delegates had studiously ignored was the fact that the Federal Government owned clear legal title to significant properties within their claimed jurisdiction. How would they handle the transfer of said properties, and how would they handle the compensation of the Federal Government for the loss of its property? Furthermore, what was Major Anderson, the commanding officer of Union forces in South Carolina, going to do about this new state of affairs? By South Carolina's definition, he was now a foreign occupier; but he had no orders to treat them as the legitimate possessors of Federal property. He would receive no orders to that effect. He'd receive precious few orders of any sort. He was, in a very real sense, on his own.

Whether he realized it or not, Major Anderson had just become the most important man in the country. Much would hinge on how he handled the next few months.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Sesquicentennial, Interlude: The Long Recall

There's a new entry in the "real-time" look back at the Civil War, this one from The American Interest, called The Long Recall. (Hat tip: Andrew Sullivan.) Along with Disunion from the New York Times, it'll provide another perspective on the unfolding crisis.

It's always good to see more entries in this area, and there's always room for more.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Video Del Fuego, Part XXXVIII

There's a heck of a winter storm that's been giving the People's Elbow to the Midwest for the last week or so. Being a life-long Texan, I haven't had much personal experience with this "snow" of which Northerners speak. But water, even frozen water, is deceptively heavy, and its weight rarely gets the respect it truly deserves. Hardly anyone will believe you if you tell them that water weighs a metric ton per cubic meter, but that's the truth. Even so, some fore-sighted soul who works at the Metrodome in Minneapolis had the presence of mind to have the internal cameras turned on and recording when this happened:

As impressive as this footage is, it's not all about the spectacle. This video is pure gold for the engineers whose job it will be to design and build the replacement. Knowing precisely how the failure cascade progressed will tell them exactly where the existing structure came up short. In turn, that will tell them what needs to be made stronger for the new one. Given good information, repeat failures tend to be rare in engineering. Once repaired, and especially once upgraded, I'd be amazed if the roof failed in this same way again.

Wednesday, December 08, 2010

Video Del Fuego, Part XXXVII

Say what you want to about Elon Musk, he can sure build a rocket:

This second flight of the Falcon 9 rocket carried the first fully-functional prototype of the Dragon spacecraft into orbit. It's also the first time that a private company has actually brought anything back from orbit. After circling the Earth twice, the Dragon spacecraft executed a de-orbit burn, and splashed down in the Pacific, about 500 miles off the coast of Mexico. The next demonstration flight is scheduled for April, which may involve an unmanned rendezvous with the Space Station. Cargo deliveries will follow within a year.

Falcon 9 is now two-for-two. And at the end of today's play, the score stands at Dragon 1, Orion 0. Which means that this isn't very far off:

Monday, December 06, 2010

Sesquicentennial, Part VII: Where Were They?


One hundred fifty years ago, delegates in South Carolina were on their way to Columbia, where the legislature had voted to assemble a Convention for the purpose of considering secession from the Union in response to the election of a Republican to the Presidency. The result of this convention was almost a foregone conclusion. The only questions remaining were when, how, and codifying the reasons why. Elsewhere in the country, other men went about their daily duties, some rather ordinary, some already extraordinary. Although some of them were rather obscure at the time, we would come to know them very well indeed in the months and years to come.

Neither let us be slandered from our duty by false accusations against us, nor frightened from it by menaces of destruction to the Government nor of dungeons to ourselves. Let us have faith that right makes might, and in that faith, let us, to the end, dare to do our duty as we understand it. -- Abraham Lincoln

Abraham Lincoln spent the winter of 1860 at his home in Springfield, preparing for his Presidency to being on March 4 of the following year. Much of his time was consumed dealing with office-seekers, a task that would take up much of his time until he actually assumed the Presidency. The President-Elect not only had to assemble a team with which to govern, he also faced the prospect of governing vast territories that had no wish to be governed, at least not by him. This would be the last winter he would ever spend at his home.

One of the fruitful sources, as I hold it, of the errors which prevail in our country, is the theory that this is a government of one people; that the government of the United States was formed by a mass; and therefore it is taken that all are responsible for the institutions and policies of each. The government of the United States is a compact between the sovereign members who formed it; and if there be one feature common to all the colonies planted upon the shores of America, it was the steady assertion of, and uncompromising desire for, community independence. -- Jefferson Davis

Jefferson Davis was a United States Senator from Mississippi. He argued forcefully for the rights of the several States against those of the Federal government. Ironically, that winter, he also argued against Mississippi's secession from the Union. But like so many others of his class and time, where Mississippi went, he would follow.

He habitually wears an expression as if he had determined to drive his head through a brick wall, and was about to do it. -- Col. Theodore Lyman, describing Ulysses S. Grant

Ulysses S. Grant was a West Point man, and had a creditable record of service in the Mexican War, but had fallen on hard times. After a string of failed business ventures, he was working as an assistant in his father's leather goods store in Galena, Illinois. Somewhat ironically, considering his later life, he was a supporter of Stephen Douglas in the 1860 election.

I can anticipate no greater calamity for the country than a dissolution of the Union. -- Robert E. Lee

Robert E. Lee was second in his class at West Point, and was enjoying a promising career as one of the U.S. Army's rising stars. He had served with distinction in the Corps of Engineers, and had been Superintendent of West Point. In the winter of 1860 Lee was in Texas, but was planning to report to Washington for reassignment.

You people of the South don't know what you are doing. This country will be drenched in blood, and God only knows how it will end. It is all folly, madness, a crime against civilization! You people speak so lightly of war; you don't know what you're talking about. War is a terrible thing! You mistake, too, the people of the North. They are a peaceable people but an earnest people, and they will fight, too. They are not going to let this country be destroyed without a mighty effort to save it… Besides, where are your men and appliances of war to contend against them? The North can make a steam engine, locomotive, or railway car; hardly a yard of cloth or pair of shoes can you make. You are rushing into war with one of the most powerful, ingeniously mechanical, and determined people on Earth — right at your doors. You are bound to fail. Only in your spirit and determination are you prepared for war. In all else you are totally unprepared, with a bad cause to start with. At first you will make headway, but as your limited resources begin to fail, shut out from the markets of Europe as you will be, your cause will begin to wane. If your people will but stop and think, they must see in the end that you will surely fail. -- William Tecumseh Sherman

William Tecumseh Sherman was also a West Point man, but was assigned to administrative duties in California during the Mexican War. His lack of combat experience, and the lack of future opportunity that implied, led to his decision to resign his commission in 1853. He went through a series of jobs without much success, but found a position that fit his character when he was appointed superintendent of the Louisiana State Seminary in 1859. Many of his colleagues at this southern institution were quite openly pro-secession ... and most learned not to mention this around Sherman. Very little of what was to come came as a surprise to him.

The course of events is so rapidly hastening forward that the emergency may soon arise when you may be called upon to decide the momentous question whether you possess the power by force of arms to compel a State to remain in the Union. I should feel myself recreant to my duty were I not to express an opinion on this important subject. -- James Buchanan

It is grimly amusing that Buchanan would use the words "recreant to my duty" in a non-ironic sense. Nominally speaking, in the winter of 1860, James Buchanan was the President of the United States. Practically speaking, he was an empty suit. He believed that secession was illegal -- but he also believed he had no legal powers to do anything about it. This, quite frankly, baffles me. If something is illegal, does that not imply that there is a law? And does the Chief Executive not have, by definition, the authority -- no, the duty -- to enforce law? But no, James Buchanan would fiddle while America burned. Mark this well: Buchanan wasn't a bad President because he made bad decisions. Buchanan was a bad President because, at the most critical juncture of the nation's history, he made no decisions.

His waffling would cost his countrymen dearly.

The conventioneers were set to meet in Columbia, South Carolina, on December 17th, 1860.

Friday, December 03, 2010

All Alone In The Night

I pity doctoral candidates in liberal arts fields. Completing a Ph.D. in anything requires a dissertation, and that dissertation must be an original contribution to the state of the art. For a budding literature scholar, that's a fairly daunting prospect. There's a limit to how thin you can slice Shakespeare without getting patently silly. I admire the ingenuity it takes to do that well. On the other hand, for a scientist or engineer, it's easy. Just pick a question no one's figured out yet. No shortage of those. Even if you don't answer it, you can eliminate a few blind alleys.

So ... having been a doctoral candidate, I tend to wonder about unanswered questions. Metaphysically speaking, the biggest question still on Science's plate is, "Are we alone?" People have wondered about this for ages, but Frank Drake was the first to take up the search in earnest, at the National Radio Astronomy Observatory in Green Bank, West Virginia in 1960. In 1961, the National Academy of Sciences asked Drake to convene a meeting on the subject. In his preparations for that meeting, Drake came up with a formula to estimate the number of civilizations we might expect to talk to:

N = R* x Fp x Ne x Fl x Fi x Fc x L


N = number of civilization in the Galaxy with which communications might be possible
R* = Rate of star formation
Fp = Fraction of stars that have planets
Ne = Average number of planets that can support life per star with planets
Fl = Fraction of Ne that go on to develop life
Fi = Fraction of the above that develop intelligence
Fc = Fraction that go on to develop radio, and announce their existence
L = Lifetime of that civilization

Drake originally estimated N to be equal to 10. But most of the numbers Drake used were wild, if educated, guesses. A lot of those numbers are still wild guesses. But, we know a lot more about extrasolar planets now than we did then ... Missions like Kepler and COROT have begun to hit paydirt.

In particular, there's evidence to suggest that the nearby star Gliese 581 has a planet, Gliese 581g, that could have liquid water on its surface. It's at the right distance from its parent star, it's about the right size. Someone might just be living there. But the real point is, we now have a lower bound of sorts for the frequency of vaguely Earthlike planets: 1 in 500. Knowing that, we can have a go at recranking the numbers.

R*: The current best estimates are that seven stars are formed in our Galaxy every year.

Fp: Scientific opinion has gone back and forth on this like you wouldn't believe. At one point, I was about to make my dissertation topic a numerical study on the stability of hypothetical planetary orbits in binary star systems. At the time, many people thought that binary star systems couldn't have planets at all. Now, we've discovered several extrasolar planets in such systems. Drake originally estimated this fraction to be about one-half. Evidence suggests it's somewhere between 40% and 60%, with one-third being a fairly confident lower bound. So, going with 0.5 seems a safe enough bet.

Ne: Here's where our newest information comes in: out of eight known planets in our own solar system, and 505 known elsewhere, there is one known Earthlike world (Earth, obviously) and one suspected (Gliese 581g). So, according to our best information available, we can guess this number to be about 0.04.

Fl: Once it was thought that life was abundant in the cosmos. Then it was thought that life was rare. Now we're swinging back the other way. Everywhere we have found liquid water, nutrients, and an energy source, we've found life. Extremes of temperature don't matter. Acidity doesn't matter, neither does alkalinity. Presence or absence of salt, ditto. We've even discovered a microbe that can substitute arsenic for phosphorus. I'm fairly convinced this is as near to 1 as makes no difference.

Fi: This, on the other hand, is a trickier question. Single-cell life is probably ubiquitous. It arose on Earth almost the moment conditions allowed it. Multi-cell organisms, on the other hand ... The Rare Earth hypothesis isn't anything like proven, but I do find its reasoning fairly sound. The leap from single-cell to multi-cell life is the one big step that you probably ought not take for granted. It might require finicky conditions that are rare, or it might be easy. We just don't know. But, once you cross that barrier, evolution does tend to favor complex organisms. That complexity tends to give a creature a richer toolbox for dealing with its world. And intelligence, once it arises, is evolution's killer app. Simple life adjusts to its environment by altering its internal chemistry. Complex life adjusts to its environment by changing shape or behavior. Intelligent life adjusts to its environment by building new tools. Drake guessed 0.01, for reasons unknown. I'm going to guess 0.5, because I think that the leap to multi-cell life is the rare part. Once you clear that hurdle, the rest is gravy.

Fc: Now we devolve into hand-waving. We have no idea how to estimate this. Drake guessed 0.01, pretty much by pulling a number out of his hat. From our own history, we know of cultures that just never got around to fiddling with machines. And we also know that writing was only independently invented a handful of times. I think 0.01 might be too low, but I do think that 0.1 might be about right.

L: Marconi's experiments in radio date from approximately 1900, so we know this is at least 110 years. Frank Drake estimated this to be 10,000 years, and more recently Michael Schermer estimated this number at 420 years, based on an analysis of civilizations in our own past. I've been thinking on this myself lately, and I'm wondering if L actually measures what we think it measures. It doesn't necessarily measure how long a civilization lasts. It measures how long they use analog AM or FM signals as their primary means of communication. A civilization won't necessarily "go dark" because they blow themselves up. They'll more likely "go dark" because they move to more tightly-beamed transmissions, digital communications, fiber optics, frequency-hopping, or any of a dozen other similar technologies. Back in 1960, they thought radio was forever. It may instead be a phase civilizations go through. I'm thinking that window of opportunity is two centuries wide, at most.


N = 7 x 0.5 x 0.04 x 1 x 0.5 x 0.1 x 200 = 1.4

If these estimates are valid, it means that we're probably not alone, but we're not likely to find anyone interested in interstellar ham radio anytime real soon.

But we may as well keep looking. It's not like we have anything better to do.