Science

SETI pioneer Frank Drake, known for Drake’s Equation, dies at 92

Astronomer Frank Drake, a pioneer in the modern search for intelligent life in the universe, passed away on Friday (September 2) at the age of 92.

Drake is best known for the equation that bears his name, a formula that estimates how many detectable alien communities might exist in our Milky Way galaxy. Drake developed his famous equation in 1961, a year after he initiated Project Ozma, which used a radio telescope to look for possible signals from extraterrestrial civilizations.

The Ozma project was a milestone, bringing new technologies and a new way of thinking to the previously haphazard Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI). And this approach has stood the test of time.

Related: Father of SETI: Q&A with astronomer Frank Drake

“His strategy is still being enthusiastically applied six decades after his pioneering SETI experiment. This is a truly remarkable circumstance and almost unprecedented in research,” wrote radio astronomer Seth Szostak in a 2020 dedication to Drake. (will open in a new tab)for many years his colleague at the SETI Institute in Mountain View, California.

In this tribute, Shostak highlighted how difficult it was for Drake to make his way. Drake had to contend with the chuckle factor that kept virtually every other scientist from even showing interest in SETI.

“It was a taboo subject in astronomy,” Drake told Shostak. “No one else was looking because everyone was afraid. I was too stupid to be afraid.”

The giggle factor has faded of late, thanks in part to Drake and the people he inspired – several generations of astronomers that include Shostak and Jill Tarter. Scientific discoveries have also helped take SETI from the fringes to the mainstream, chief among which are the findings of the ongoing exoplanetary revolution.

Thanks to observations from NASA’s Kepler Space Telescope and other instruments, scientists now know that worlds like Earth are spread throughout the universe. A recent study, for example, suggests that more than half of all sun-like stars in the Milky Way may host rocky planets in their “habitable zone,” the range of orbital distances in which liquid water can exist on the world’s surface.

Given all this potentially habitable real estate and the vast age of the universe—about 13.8 billion years—it wouldn’t be crazy to suggest that civilizations could have risen beyond Earth. This awareness seeped through academia and into the wider culture. For example, the US military has taken an increased interest in unidentified flying objects (UFOs), having created several organizations over the past few years to investigate mysterious phenomena in the sky.

Of course, the Pentagon is not hunting for aliens; he is mainly interested in the potential national security threat posed by UFOs. But the relatively open dialogue on the subject these days is a big change that Drake helped to initiate.

Frank Drake was born on May 28, 1930 in Chicago. He received his bachelor’s degree in engineering physics from Cornell University and his master’s and doctoral degrees in astronomy from Harvard.

Drake was professor of astronomy at Cornell from 1964 to 1984, then held a similar position at UC Santa Cruz from 1984 to 1996. After that, he remained an honorary professor at the University of California, California. Drake also directed the Carl Sagan Center for the Study of Life in the Universe at the SETI Institute and chaired the institute’s board of trustees. In addition to many other distinctions and responsibilities, he was a member of the US National Academy of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, and chaired the Board of Physics and Astronomy of the US National Research Council from 1989 to 1992.

Drake remained active in the scientific community almost to the end of his life. For example, I recently crossed paths with him at several conferences in the Gulf of California. Each time I was amazed by his enthusiasm, warmth and friendliness. Drake certainly didn’t carry himself like someone who pioneered scientific research – and that’s a big part of his legacy, too.

“My dad D was loved by many and for many reasons, but above all, today I celebrate his humanity, his tenderness, his gentle spirit,” science journalist Nadia Drake wrote today in a eulogy to her father. (will open in a new tab) on her personal website. “A titan in life, dad leaves a titanic absence. It was special to many of you, so on behalf of everyone whose lives it touched, we love you dad. You loved us, you taught us, you led us.” Ad astra, my dear Papa D. The stars are lucky.”

Mike Wall is the author of Out There (will open in a new tab)(Grand Central Publishing, 2018; illustrations by Carl Tate), a book about the search for alien life. Follow him on Twitter @michaeldwall (will open in a new tab). Follow us on Twitter @Spacedotcom (will open in a new tab) or on facebook (will open in a new tab).

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