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Aimee and the Drake Equation

In the prologue of this week's edition of This American Life, David Kestenbaum talks about his days as a physicis grad student at Harvard. One day he and his colleagues were discussing their lack of girlfriends. Perhaps not inevitably, they got around to adapting the Drake Equation, the formula devised by Frank Drake in 1961 in an attempt to estimate the number of alien civiliations in our galaxy. It uses the number of habitable stars, the chance that those stars have habitable planets, and the chance that those habitable planets have given rise to intelligent civilizations (that last bit seems especially tricky).

In Kestenbaum's story, the physics students used a similar series of filters to estimate the number of possible girlfriends in the Boston area, based on the population of the city, the percentage of women (in the story they were all, apparently, heterosexual men) within 10 years of their age (so 20-40), the percentage of that group that had received a college education, and so on until they had reached a frighteningly small number of chances for romance. Perhaps not as hopeless as our attempts to probe our galaxy for intelligent neighbors, but, on a personal level, pretty bleak.

Listening to the poor physics students, I couldn't help but reflect on when I met Aimee. It was the first night of rehearsal for Doctor Faustus, and I was sitting on the bleachers of the black box theater/machine shed at Luther College. Aimee was sitting one level above me and to my right. I turned and looked up at her, grabbed her combat boot, and said, "Nice boots."

In terms of finding the love of one's life, even though I wasn't consciously looking for her, I think I was pretty efficient. My own solution to the Modified Drake Equation: Start in the midwest, at a liberal arts college (Lutheran not required), at a place where there is a strong theater department that isn't rife with bitter rivalries (the odds of which, admittedly, may be as low as the likelihood of the development of intelligent civilization), at a rehearsal for a fairly obscure Elizabethan drama, with a beautiful brunette wearing combat boots (it was the 90s).

Looking back now, that moment was a great breakthrough in my life; a connection as vast in import as landing on a brave new world. I think I had an inkling even then, and I certainly know now, that I'm one lucky Earthling.

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