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Sons of the House of L: Superman and the Drake Equation

There's a schism between the hopefulness and wonder of science fiction, and the dry analysis of science. But sometimes if the idea is big enough, it can overcome that sociocultural schism. Sometimes all you need is Superman, or Frank Drake.

Can an equation make you cry?

Over the past 75 years, the same 75 years that have seen the Man of Steel appear in print with an unbroken publication record, we've come to understand that Superman, as an idea, is all about emotional yield. It's that sense of wonder, of taking those first steps into new possibilities, of simultaneous trepidation and hubris that Zack Snyder captures so elegantly in this summer's Man of Steel, that allows us to read ourselves into Superman. Superman, the idea of Superman, is about what dreams may yet come that will fuel us forward. Superman is about inspiration. About capital ay, the high concept for the Man of Steel is inspiration.

"Your mission is to survive," the Kryptonian AI aboard the rocketship that jetted baby Kal-El to Earth says to a distraught Superman, still uncertain about how to honor his extraterrestrial heritage. It's the scene that plays out at the very end of Superman: Earth One, after Superman has already defeated an alien invasion. The rocketship is nestled into a crevasse in the Arctic permafrost, and very shortly will begin to terraform the surrounding ice into the Fortress of Solitude. In a near blind confusion, Kal-El asks, "What is my mission," as if Krypton would have left marching orders. Instead, there's the compassion of his father, coded into the ship's AI. "Your mission is to survive."

Or a handful of years later, in the pages of Action, when the Legion of Super-Heroes, deep-time travelers from 1,000 years into the future, meet Superman for the first time. The entire Legion was built on the principles of compassion and inspiration that Superman himself fostered with the "superhero revolution". But what the Legionnaires instead encounter, is a "gawky caveman kid", nothing near the hero he will become, or the hero the teens from the future idolize. By the end of the issue, it's the Legionnaire Saturn Girl who explains. That while the day might have been a disappointment for the Legionnaires, it was the greatest day of Superman's life. Because it was the day he sensed that human potential was far greater than merely being hemmed in by the planet.

Moments like these multiply in the adventures of the Man of Steel. Because the stories are only part the way about cleverly outwitting cosmic villains and thwarting their devilish plans. The greater part of Superman stories, of Superman as a genre, is that emotional connection that is engendered when we brush up against our collective potential. It's this arc in the development of the genre of Superman storytelling that makes of the character a classic of science fiction. Superman as the story of ourselves, at our best. You really would need science fiction to enact that kind of emotional connection. Despite the actual dedicated work of elevating all of humankind, science can be boring.

Unless of course, you can see the deeper story involved. Unless the drama of the science can be unfolded, beyond simply the nature of its skirmishes. Unless of course, we can see ourselves collectively into struggles of the scientific dilemmas we face. "Can an equation make you cry?" The question becomes pressingly relevant when we think about the gulf between genuine science, and emotionally-wrenching science fiction. And the realization, that perhaps an equation can make you cry, if it is as poignantly beautiful as the moments the writers of Superman have crafted over the course of decades.

One equation that definitely fits the bill for something that might evoke an emotional response is the Drake Equation, the equation used to assess the potential number of intelligent, communicating extraterrestrial civilizations. The equation is perhaps one of the primary tools in the arsenal of SETI, the Search for Extra Terrestrial Intelligence. Don't mistake SETI for the weekenders who hang around Area 51 and mistake glimpses of nextgen stealth fighters for alien cruisers here to abduct our cattle. SETI are an institute of dedicated scientists who use radio astronomy as a tool for finding intelligent life elsewhere in the universe. The Drake Equation, named for its inventor Frank Drake, is a means of narrowing the search. It reads:

N = R* • ƒp • Ne • ƒl • ƒi • ƒc • L

N is the number of intelligent, communicating civilizations that might exist. It can be calculated as the product of the Rate of Star Formation (R*) and the Fraction of those that have Planets (ƒp) and the Number those that are Earth-like (Ne) and the Fraction of those that produce lifeforms (ƒl) and the Fraction of those that produce Intelligent life (ƒi) and the Fraction of those that are capable of interstellar Communication (ƒc) and the Lifespan of said civilization (L).

It's not really a just another equation, the Drake Equation achieves a concise record of everything we know as a species. R* speaks to astrophysics, gravitation and relativity. While ƒp and Ne speak to geology and chemistry. And the remaining variables speak to the sciences of biology, psychology, mass communication, literature to name but a few. All the remaining variables, save for L which indicates the longevity of civilization.

In many senses, L is exactly where Superman comes in. At the end of one civilization, and the birth of global aspiration of another. In our own world, the L speaks to the Man of Steel's lasting appeal, an idea so powerful that can keep us enthralled for generations. It's the same sense in which every Superman story is always an origin story, if not for the Man of Steel, then for ourselves. It is the story of perpetual renewal, of being able to take those first steps not just once, but evermore. Being able to see into the world, and open up new possibilities each time.

While L relates to the role of perpetual fiction in our lived-in, everyday world, it frames such concerns in a way that isn't entirely different from the actual concerns of Longevity of a civilization. When considering the energy base of a society, or its impact on the environment, or shifting geological conditions, the underpinning mechanics of events in question are often examined. Wonder, in science, comes at the end of a process of discovery. Wonder in fiction, is often imbued in the reader at the very beginning. It's the difference between the act of looking back, and hoping for what may come. And it's a deep psychological difference in the way humans approach reality, either as what is, or what may yet be. A psychological difference that explains much about the different attitudes between such binary opposites as political conservatives and liberals, entrepreneurs and consumers, artists and scientists.

But at some moments, the opposite is also true. That despite the fragmentary nature of human existence, despite the idea of being human hinging upon gestalt differences of neuroplasticity, there is a deeper sense in which we can all be connected to each other. Sometimes, there are breakthrough ideas that are sufficiently expansive that connects us all. Ideas like Superman, that can be found in science fiction and ideas, like the Drake Equation, that can just as easily be found in science itself.

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