For the length of a lifetime learning the sky, Drake’s scientific contributions—and his namesake equation—changed into foundational to scientists’ stumble on for existence beyond Earth.
Published September 2, 2022
• 10 min read
Frank Drake, the American radio astronomer and astrophysicist who pioneered work on the stumble on for extraterrestrial existence, died on September 2 at his dwelling in Aptos, California, at the age of 92.
Drake’s contributions to science had been a gargantuan need of. A founder of the scientific discipline engaged within the stumble on for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI), he developed the Drake Equation, a framework for estimating the need of imaginable civilizations within the Milky Technique galaxy. He made the first observations of Jupiter’s radiation belts, and he was as soon as possible the most first astronomers to measure Venus’s searing ground temperature and the greenhouse make of its thick atmosphere. Drake served as the director of the Arecibo radio observatory in Puerto Rico. He was as soon as a mentor and inspiration to generations of astronomers and astrophysicists.
“When the historical previous of science is written a few hundred years from now, after now we hold made the detection of vivid existence beyond Earth—which I absolutely have in mind at some level we are able to—I have in mind Frank will employ a effect amongst the greatest scientists who ever lived,” says astrophysicist Andrew Siemion, director of the Berkeley SETI Learn Center at the College of California, Berkeley. “It was as soon as wonderful to hold the probability to know him.”
Frank Drake was as soon as born on Would possibly presumably moreover 28, 1930, in Chicago. He began his intellectual amble to the stars around the age of eight, when his father instructed him that there had been other worlds in rental. Drake’s father had supposed the different planets of the record voltaic system, but younger Drake’s solutions conjured other worlds fancy Earth strewn all the blueprint by blueprint of the galaxy: liveable planets with beings tidy ample to hold their occupy variations of cars, streets, and his hometown.
Drake nurtured his fascination with rental all the blueprint by blueprint of his education. He graduated from Cornell College in 1951 with a bachelor’s level in engineering physics. A member of Cornell’s Navy ROTC program, he served from 1952 to 1955 as an electronics officer within the U.S. Navy. Drake then studied astronomy at Harvard College from 1955 to 1958, the effect his Ph.D. adviser was as soon as Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin, the astrophysicist who first proposed that stars had been primarily made of hydrogen and helium.
While at Harvard, Drake had his first different to take a look at his childhood solutions of other Earths. One evening, he was as soon as observing the Pleiades broad name cluster with a radio telescope when he noticed a peculiar signal that perceived to pass alongside the cluster. Would possibly presumably this be remote creatures sending out a broadcast? It turned out to be a transmission from a discontinuance-by amateur radio operator, however it led Drake to calculate whether a artificial radio signal would possibly possibly presumably perchance hold come from the some distance-off broad name system.
After receiving his Ph.D., Drake went to the Nationwide Radio Astronomy Observatory (NRAO) in Green Monetary institution, West Virginia, the effect he living up unusual telescopes and made his leap forward observations of Jupiter and Venus. In 1960, the usage of the observatory’s 85-foot-extensive Tatel telescope, Drake embarked on what he known as Venture Ozma, named after the leader of the realm in L. Frank Baum’s Wizard of Oz books. The moniker was as soon as supposed to evoke a land identical to our occupy but moreover peculiar and alien.
For three months Drake noticed the sun-fancy stars Tau Ceti and Epsilon Eridani for radio indicators from planets with extraterrestrial civilizations. None had been realized, “however it was as soon as a open—and it did stimulate a great deal of other folks to open browsing,” Drake recalled in a 2012 interview.
Venture Ozma lickety-split drew public attention, and when Drake was as soon as 31, he got lend a hand from the U.S. Nationwide Academy of Sciences to guide a first-of-its-model workshop at Green Monetary institution to discuss about the stumble on for existence beyond Earth. With a just appropriate slate of scientists coming to West Virginia—including astronomer Carl Sagan and plant biochemist Melvin Calvin, who won a Nobel Prize at some level of the summit—Drake realized he wanted a formulation to prepare the assembly’s discussions.
To brainstorm, Drake descended into the basement beneath the observatory’s cafeteria and started writing down a list of things that astronomers would have to know to estimate how long-established detectable civilizations had been all the blueprint by blueprint of the Milky Technique. These quantities integrated the need of planets orbiting other stars and the probability that existence emerges on a given planet. He then realized that his clarify would possibly possibly presumably presumably be remodeled into an equation to compute the need of detectable civilizations in our galaxy in step with the values of the variables.
Thus, the Drake Equation was as soon as born: now now not as a Eureka second, but as an impossible clarify to guide discussions in a living of conferences.
“He had obviously no concept at the time what this equation was as soon as going to change into, what it was as soon as going to signify,” says Drake’s daughter Nadia, a contributing creator at Nationwide Geographic. “The actual fact that folk would even hold it tattooed on themselves, that it would possibly presumably presumably also be on the side of a U-Haul, that it would possibly presumably presumably also be robotically cited as one of primarily the most notorious equations in science is level-headed so fun to him.”
After his time at NRAO, Drake worked temporarily at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory as the chief of its lunar and planetary sciences fragment, and in 1964, he joined the astronomy school at Cornell College. He moreover served as the director of the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico from 1966 to 1968 and Cornell’s Nationwide Astronomy and Ionosphere Center, which managed Arecibo, from 1971 to 1981.
For the length of his tenure, Drake oversaw updates to Arecibo—originally constructed to show screen the upper atmosphere for missile defense study—to make the observatory greater suited to astronomy study. He presided over the set up of a unusual ground on the telescope’s broad radio dish, making the instrument a lot extra sensitive, moreover to the addition of a highly efficient unusual radar that can also detect the motions of asteroids and other planetary bodies.
Drake moreover performed a pivotal characteristic in conceptualizing how humankind would signify itself in our messages to remote worlds. He designed the 1974 “Arecibo message,” a radio signal that was as soon as beamed to a broad name cluster some 22,000 gentle-years away.
In 1972 Drake co-designed the Pioneer Plaque, a record message installed on the Pioneer 10 and Pioneer 11 spacecraft that integrated an illustration of a male and female human, our record voltaic system, and a procedure that pinpointed the sun’s effect within the galaxy. He moreover served as technical director of the Voyager Golden Account, the iconic compendium of sights and sounds of Earth that, fancy the Pioneer Plaque, is humankind’s message in a bottle upon the seas of rental.
Drake left Cornell in 1984 and moved alongside with his family to California, the effect he took up a job as the dean of the Division of Natural Sciences at the College of California, Santa Cruz. When he stepped down from that characteristic in 1988, he remained as a professor and was as soon as recruited to the only recently based SETI Institute, the effect he served as president of the board of trustees and director of its Carl Sagan Center for the Look of Lifestyles within the Universe. Drake retired from teaching in 1996.
Drake’s academic accolades are voluminous, as his UC Santa Cruz obituary attests: a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, a member of the Nationwide Academy of Sciences, president of the Colossal Society of the Pacific, chair of the Nationwide Learn Council’s Board on Physics and Astronomy, and vice president of the American Affiliation for the Advancement of Science.
But there was as soon as extra to Drake than his work. Channeling his yen for mathematical precision, Drake was as soon as moreover an amateur lapidarist, cutting and sharpening gemstones to make jewellery for family and friends. He liked cultivating orchids and at one level had a entire bunch in his dwelling greenhouses. And for a time, he made his occupy purple wine, a hit a few medals for his handiwork at the New York Mutter Pretty.
Drake moreover had a lifelong sense of mischievousness, his daughter Nadia Drake attests. When he was as soon as living in Ithaca within the early 1980s, he spent one Christmas evening jumping around within the woods outdoor his rental with a cellophane-coated flashlight—all to give Nadia and her younger sister the pleasure of seeing the gorgeous schnoz of Rudolph the Crimson-Nosed Reindeer.
His roguish budge extended to his educated existence, too. When U.S. Senator William Proxmire gave a NASA SETI proposal the “Golden Fleece” award—supposed to insult what Proxmire deemed to be wasteful authorities-funded study—Drake attempted to register Proxmire for membership within the Flat Earth Society. (Drake’s petition was as soon as rejected.)
In his later years, Drake watched as a revolution unfolded in 21st-century astronomy that can presumably perchance deepen scientific ardour in SETI and hone the parameters of his namesake equation: the invention of hundreds of planets orbiting other stars within the Milky Technique.
Nadia Drake remembers within the future in 2011, when the NASA Kepler rental telescope released a chart that plotted higher than 1,200 newfound planet candidates across the telescope’s discipline of quiz. When Nadia confirmed it to her father, “he factual paused for a beat,” she remembers, “after which he factual mentioned: ‘There are such lots of planets,’” his utter stuffed with fright.
Thanks to Kepler and other missions, astronomers now know that there are about as many planets within the Milky Technique as there are stars, some 100 to 400 billion. Of these, a entire bunch of hundreds and hundreds would possibly possibly presumably presumably be Earth-dimension rocky planets orbiting stars at the moral distance to harbor liquid water. In the end, many astronomers have in mind, we are able to also receive hints of existence on the sort of some distance-off worlds.
As a younger Frank Drake fancifully predicted higher than 80 years ago, possibly all these planets even hold their occupy model of cars, streets, and Chicago.
In addition to to his daughter Nadia, Drake is survived by his wife of 44 years, Amahl Shakhashiri Drake; his daughter Leila Drake Fossek; sons from a previous marriage Steve Drake, Richard Drake, and Paul Drake; brother Bob Drake; and a niece, a nephew, and 4 grandchildren.