Frank Drake, the legendary astronomer who pioneered the modern search for intelligent life in the Universe, passed away on September 2nd at the age of 92. Drake stayed active in the scientific community until the end of his life. He initiated the first serious and scientific search for signs of extraterrestrial life, and is best known for the equation that bears his name. The Drake Equation is a formula that can be used to estimate the number of detectable alien societies in our Milky Way galaxy. His work has left an undeniable mark on humanity.
Frank Drake was born on May 28, 1930 in Chicago. He went on to earn a bachelor’s degree in engineering physics from Cornell University, and then a master’s and a doctorate in astronomy from Harvard University. He held various positions throughout his career, spending time at many institutions: the National Radio Astronomy Observatory, Green Bank Observatory, Cornell University, the University of California, Santa Cruz, Arecibo Observatory, the National Atmospheric and Ionospheric Center, the SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) Institute.
In 1959, Drake designed an experiment to detect signals from intelligent life on planets that might be orbiting two nearby, sunlike stars: Tau Ceti and Epsilon Eridani. This project was completed well before astronomers knew for certain that other stars hosted planets, and decades before planets were discovered orbiting any star other than the Sun. He named the experiment Project Ozma – in reference to the princess in the famous books by L. Frank Baum because the princess was in a world “both wonderful and far away,” known as “Oz.” For three months, Drake aimed the 85-foot Tatel Telescope at the Green Bank Observatory at the two stars. Ultimately, his experiment did not detect any transmissions, but it did attract a lot of attention.
In 1961, the National Academy of Sciences asked Drake to hold a meeting to discuss how a scientific search for extraterrestrial intelligence could be organized. Drake devised his now famous equation as a conversation starter for the meeting. This equation is more of a thought experiment and gives us an outline for seriously considering the likelihood of other life in the cosmos. The SETI Institute, a not-for-profit research organization, was founded in 1984. Its mission is to explore, understand, and explain the origin and nature of life in the Universe, and to use this knowledge to inspire and guide present and future generations. Drake served as president of the board of trustees and director of its Carl Sagan Center for the Study of Life in the Universe after its founding.
Thus far, the search for extraterrestrial intelligence has come up empty, but we now have much better estimates for many components of the Drake Equation. Nadia Drake, a space and science journalist and Frank Drake’s daughter, had the following to say about her father’s famous equation: “If anything, the Drake Equation’s most enduring legacy is not a numerical solution, but a mirror: It asks us to think about Earth, and humankind, from a cosmic perspective – to consider the fragility of our existence in this galactic sea.”
If you would like to read more about Frank Drake’s life, he co-authored a book with Dava Sobel in 1992, which describes his career in detail: “Is Anyone Out There?”