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Science And Nature

Frank Drake, pioneer in the seek out alien life, dies at 92

Throughout a lifetime studying the sky, Drake’s scientific contributionsand his namesake equationbecame foundational to scientists’ seek out life beyond Earth.

Published September 2, 2022

10 min read

Frank Drake, the American radio astronomer and astrophysicist who pioneered focus on the seek out extraterrestrial life, died on September 2 at his home in Aptos, California, at age 92.

Drakes contributions to science were numerous. A founder of the scientific field engaged in the seek out extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI), he developed the Drake Equation, a framework for estimating the amount of possible civilizations in the Milky Way galaxy. He made the initial observations of Jupiters radiation belts, and he was among the first astronomers to measure Venuss searing surface temperature and the greenhouse aftereffect of its thick atmosphere. Drake served because the director of the Arecibo radio observatory in Puerto Rico. He was a mentor and inspiration to generations of astronomers and astrophysicists.

Once the history of science is written a couple of hundred years from now, directly after we have made the detection of intelligent life beyond Earthwhich I absolutely believe at some time we willI believe Frank will need a place on the list of greatest scientists who ever lived, says astrophysicist Andrew Siemion, director of the Berkeley SETI Research Center at the University of California, Berkeley. It had been amazing to really have the possiblity to know him.

Frank Drake was created on, may 28, 1930, in Chicago. He began his intellectual journey to the stars round the age of eight, when his father told him that there have been other worlds in space. Drakes father had meant another planets of the solar system, but young Drakes mind conjured other worlds like Earth strewn through the entire galaxy: habitable planets with beings smart enough to possess their very own versions of cars, streets, and his hometown.

Drake nurtured his desire for space throughout his education. He graduated from Cornell University in 1951 with a bachelors degree in engineering physics. An associate of Cornells Navy ROTC program, he served from 1952 to 1955 being an electronics officer in the U.S. Navy. Drake then studied astronomy at Harvard University from 1955 to 1958, where his Ph.D. adviser was Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin, the astrophysicist who first proposed that stars were primarily manufactured from hydrogen and helium.

While at Harvard, Drake had his first possibility to test his childhood ideas of other Earths. One night, he was observing the Pleiades star cluster with a radio telescope when he observed a curious signal that seemed to move alongside the cluster. Might this be faraway creatures sending out a broadcast? It proved to become a transmission from the nearby amateur radio operator, nonetheless it led Drake to calculate whether an artificial radio signal may have result from the distant star system.

After receiving his Ph.D., Drake visited the National Radio Astronomy Observatory (NRAO) in Green Bank, West Virginia, where he setup new telescopes and made his breakthrough observations of Jupiter and Venus. In 1960, utilizing the observatorys 85-foot-wide Tatel telescope, Drake embarked on which he called Project Ozma, named following the leader of the realm in L. Frank Baums Wizard of Ozbooks. The moniker was designed to evoke a land much like our own but additionally strange and alien.

For 90 days Drake observed the sun-like stars Tau Ceti and Epsilon Eridani for radio signals from planets with extraterrestrial civilizations. None were found, nonetheless it was a startand it did stimulate plenty of other people to start out searching, Drake recalled in a 2012 interview.

Project Ozma quickly drew public attention, so when Drake was 31, he got support from the U.S. National Academy of Sciences to lead a first-of-its-kind workshop at Green Bank to go over the seek out life beyond Earth. With an excellent slate of scientists arriving at West Virginiaincluding astronomer Carl Sagan and plant biochemist Melvin Calvin, who won a Nobel Prize through the summitDrake realized he needed a method to organize the meetings discussions.

To brainstorm, Drake descended in to the basement under the observatorys cafeteria and started recording a listing of factors that astronomers would have to know to estimate how common detectable civilizations were through the entire Milky Way. These quantities included the amount of planets orbiting other stars and the probability that life emerges on confirmed planet. Then realized that his outline could possibly be changed into an equation to compute the amount of detectable civilizations inside our galaxy in line with the values of the variables.

Thus, the Drake Equation was created: much less a Eureka moment, but as a sensible outline to steer discussions in a couple of meetings.

He previously obviously no idea at that time what this equation would become, what it had been likely to represent, says Drakes daughter Nadia, a contributing writer at National Geographic. The truth that people would already have it tattooed on themselves, that it might be privately of a U-Haul, that it might be routinely cited among the most well-known equations in science continues to be so amusing to him.

After his time at NRAO, Drake worked briefly at NASAs Jet Propulsion Laboratory because the chief of its lunar and planetary sciences section, and in 1964, he joined the astronomy faculty at Cornell University. He also served because the director of the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico from 1966 to 1968 and Cornells National Astronomy and Ionosphere Center, which managed Arecibo, from 1971 to 1981.

During his tenure, Drake oversaw updates to Arecibooriginally created to monitor top of the atmosphere for missile defense researchto make the observatory better fitted to astronomy research. He presided on the installation of a fresh surface on the telescopes massive radio dish, making the instrument a lot more sensitive, along with the addition of a robust new radar which could detect the motions of asteroids along with other planetary bodies.

Drake also played a pivotal role in conceptualizing how humankind would represent itself inside our messages to faraway worlds. He designed the 1974 Arecibo message, a radio signal that has been beamed to a star cluster some 22,000 light-years away.

In 1972 Drake co-designed the Pioneer Plaque, an image message installed on the Pioneer 10 and Pioneer 11 spacecraft that included an illustration of a male and female human, our solar system, and a map that pinpointed the suns position in the galaxy. He also served as technical director of the Voyager Golden Record, the iconic compendium of sights and sounds of Earth that, just like the Pioneer Plaque, is humankinds message in a bottle upon the seas of space.

Drake left Cornell in 1984 and moved along with his family to California, where he used a job because the dean of the Division of Natural Sciences at the University of California, Santa Cruz. When he stepped down from that role in 1988, he remained as a professor and was recruited to the recently founded SETI Institute, where he served as president of the board of trustees and director of its Carl Sagan Center for the analysis of Life in the Universe. Drake retired from teaching in 1996.

Drakes academic accolades are voluminous, as his UC Santa Cruz obituary attests: a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, an associate of the National Academy of Sciences, president of the Astronomical Society of the Pacific, chair of the National Research Councils Board on Physics and Astronomy, and vice president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

But there is more to Drake than his work. Channeling his yen for mathematical precision, Drake was also an amateur lapidarist, cutting and polishing gemstones to create jewelry for family and friends. He loved cultivating orchids and at one point had hundreds in his home greenhouses. And for a while, he made their own burgandy or merlot wine, winning several medals for his handiwork at the brand new York State Fair.

Drake also had a lifelong sense of mischievousness, his daughter Nadia Drake attests. When he was surviving in Ithaca in the first 1980s, he spent one Christmas evening jumping around in the woods outside his home with a cellophane-covered flashlightall to provide Nadia and her younger sister the joy of seeing the glowing schnoz of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.

His impish streak extended to his professional life, too. When U.S. Senator William Proxmire gave a NASA SETI proposal the Golden Fleece awarddesigned to insult what Proxmire deemed to be wasteful government-funded researchDrake attemptedto subscribe Proxmire for membership in the Flat Earth Society. (Drakes petition was rejected.)

In his old age, Drake watched as a revolution unfolded in 21st-century astronomy that could deepen scientific fascination with SETI and hone the parameters of his namesake equation: the discovery of a large number of planets orbiting other stars in the Milky Way.

Nadia Drake recalls 1 day in 2011, once the NASA Kepler space telescope released a chart that plotted a lot more than 1,200 newfound planet candidates over the telescopes field of view. When Nadia showed it to her father, he just paused for a beat, she recalls, and he just said: You can find so many planets, his voice filled up with awe.

Because of Kepler along with other missions, astronomers now understand that you can find about as much planets in the Milky Way as you can find stars, some 100 to 400 billion. Of the, vast sums could possibly be Earth-size rocky planets orbiting stars at the right distance to harbor liquid water. 1 day, many astronomers believe, we’re able to find hints of life using one of the distant worlds.

As a Frank Drake fancifully predicted a lot more than 80 years back, maybe a few of these planets have even their very own version of cars, streets, and Chicago.

Along with his daughter Nadia, Drake is survived by his wife of 44 years, Amahl Shakhashiri Drake; his daughter Leila Drake Fossek; sons from the previous marriage Steve Drake, Richard Drake, and Paul Drake; brother Bob Drake; and a niece, a nephew, and four grandchildren.

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