Remembering Frank Drake, Who Listened To The Cosmos
Last week, astronomer and SETI pioneer Dr. Frank Drake died at the age of 92. Dr. Drake was a key figure in the search for extraterrestrial intelligence—from Project Ozma in 1960, to the founding of the SETI Institute. He collaborated on the ‘Golden Record’ that Earth sent to the stars on board the Voyager space probes. Drake also created a mathematical way of estimating the probability of discovering signs of intelligent life, a calculation that became known as the Drake Equation, and spent years advocating for the search for alien life.
Drake appeared on Science Friday many times over the years. Here, in excerpts from conversations recorded in 2010 and 2016, he talks with Ira about the search for extraterrestrial intelligence, and his role with the Voyager Golden Record project. Our condolences to his family, friends, and colleagues.
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Dr. Frank Drake was an astronomer and a founder of the SETI Institute.
IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow. Last week, the world lost an out-of-this-world astronomer who spent his career searching for intelligent life out in the cosmos. Not only did Dr. Frank Drake create a formula to calculate the odds of finding intelligent life, the Drake equation, but he was the first to methodically search using radio telescopes. And with Carl Sagan, Ann Druyan, and others, he designed a golden phonograph record placed on two Voyager space probes that would leave our solar system into interstellar space, a physical signpost to any intelligent life, announcing our existence.
Dr. Drake was a frequent guest on this program. And I’d like to play for you some excerpts, beginning with the time in 2010 when he talked about his first attempt to search for life out there using a radio telescope, in 1960, called Project Ozma.
FRANK DRAKE: Well, I had been fascinated with the idea that there was intelligent life in space for many, many years at that point. And I had constantly been looking for ways, reasonable ways by which we might find it. And nothing was reasonable until about 1957, when we were building the first large radio telescopes in this country. And some very much improved, more sensitive radio receivers had been invented.
And if one just did the calculations of the strength of signal that could be detected with the combination of the new telescope and the radio receiver, it turned out to be a signal no stronger than we were then ourselves transmitting into space. And so it seemed reasonable to search because we didn’t have to assume some super civilization or something like that. They just had to be like us, and we could find them. And so we proceeded.
IRA FLATOW: In fact, what you’re talking about, if I remember correctly, are signals that escape our own broadcast. I think famous– Carl Sagan, who worked with you, used to talk about I Love Lucy escaping out into space. And people would be– well, not judging us by what we watched on television, but at least tuning in on our signals. And that’s the kind of stuff you were looking for?
FRANK DRAKE: That’s the kind of stuff, although that stuff is not as easy to detect as some other things such as our radar systems. That’s what we could have detected back in 1960. Today, we still are not able to detect our own television broadcasts, but a civilization slightly more advanced than us could do that.
IRA FLATOW: And you created an equation back then which still bears your name that’s used to estimate the potential number of extraterrestrial civilizations in our galaxy, the Milky Way, known as the Frank Drake equation.
FRANK DRAKE: Yes, it’s an equation which gives us an estimate of the number of detectable civilizations that are in our galaxy. And what it does is to quantify all of our understanding about the history of a planetary system using our own system as a model– how planets form, what the variety of planets might be in a system, what planets might give rise to life– and then take into account the probability that life arises and intelligence arises and actually a detectable technology is developed.
A crucial factor in it is the length of time that a civilization remains detectable. We have been detectable for about 50 years. But that’s one of the great unknowns, which means that we can really use this equation only as a very crude guide as to how difficult our search is. But it’s a start.
IRA FLATOW: Frank Drake, there were people who had suggested years ago that we should not only be listening, but instead of just sending out our radar signals, we should be sending out our own coded intelligence signals. What’s your view on that?
FRANK DRAKE: Oh, well, I have a view on it. Those things are suggested because it seems only fair, if we’re searching for signals from them, we should be reciprocating by sending signals to them. But to me, it isn’t necessary because we already send a multitude of signals in the form of our television, our radar signals and such. We have made our presence known.
The Earth is surrounded by a huge shell full of our signals which stretches out more than 50 light years now. Thousands of stars have received our television programs, our radar signals and such. And for us to transmit something in addition to this would be simply adding a little bit of frosting on an already very large cake. And I think our resources are better spent in searching than in frosting a cake.
And more than that, we have been in a way bamboozled by science fiction. Science fiction is wonderful. It excites our imagination. But if you get serious about it and just look into the realities of what it takes to travel to another star to exploit its resources, you find out that there is nothing we have that is worth the cost that it would take to go get it and take it home. And so exploiting other civilizations, which works well on Earth, does not work in the cosmos, because the great distances between the stars creates a cosmic quarantine. We cannot harm each other, but we can help each other.
IRA FLATOW: Surely, you must have thought– put some thought to what other life might look like, right?
FRANK DRAKE: Well, there are things you can say about that. One thing is that they will not be identical to us. The course of evolution, the various steps which led to our exact anatomy, physiology will not be repeated. On the other hand, I like to say we’re a good design. And so a lot of them may resemble us.
Standing upright is very useful because you have limbs free to manipulate tools, which is necessary if you’re to have technology. The head needs to be on top for self defense, to gather food and such. The eyes need to be in the head so that there’s a short nerve pathway to the brain. And so, basically, we’re an optimized design for a creature that lives on a planet like the Earth.
IRA FLATOW: Back in 1977, I had just finished interviewing Carl Sagan about his latest book. We walked back to my office to chat, and we sat down. He asked me what projects I was working on. I mentioned in passing that I was collecting natural sounds like thunder and rain, and I even got an earthquake.
Dr. Sagan went quiet for a second and asked if I could close the door. He then went on to describe a project he was working on, creating a record like a vinyl LP. But this one would be gold plated. It would contain sounds of Earth and be placed on the Voyager spacecraft that would soon be launched and find their way out of our solar system. And could I send whatever sounds I had– send a copy of my tape to Annie, he said.
Annie is, of course, Ann Druyen, who, with Dr. Frank Drake, Carl Sagan, and a small team of artists and scientists, were rushing to create this golden record in time for the launch of the two spacecraft later that year, 1977. And after jaunts past Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune, the Voyagers would go where no spacecraft had gone before– to interstellar space. NASA asked, would Sagan and his team create a message to send to the stars for anybody or anything that might be able to pick up that record.
The result of that question is one of the most storied objects in space history, the Golden Record. Part time capsule, part interstellar greeting, the record contains the story of Earth and of us. And among its contents are a diagram of DNA, a stellar map of Earth’s position in the cosmos, and the music of Louis Armstrong, and also the sound of a kiss. In 2016, Frank Drake returned to the show to talk about the genesis of the record and the photos and the sounds on the disc.
FRANK DRAKE: The roots of this go back before the record to a previous thing we sent into space, which was a plaque on the Pioneer 10 and Pioneer 11 spacecraft. NASA asked Carl at the time those were about to be launched to think of a possibility of putting a message on it.
And he came to me, and we talked about it. We were colleagues all the time in those days. And I suggested we do a plaque with certain things drawn on it, including a map using pulsars to show the location of the Earth with respect to other places in the galaxy. The result was that plaque. And it was a very simple thing with a few crude sketches of human beings on it and other things.
But that created a great deal of interest. So a year or two later, when it came time to launch the Voyagers, NASA said, hey, we want to do that again. And they went back to Carl and said, well, can you put a message on the Voyagers?
Well, we happened to be vacationing together at the time in Hawaii. And we sat down and thought about, well, what should we do? Should we send another plaque? And I suggested that a better thing would be a phonograph record because it could contain much more information as well as sounds and music and good images. So that is how it started. And from that grew the project to create the record.
IRA FLATOW: Frank Drake, many people might not realize that there are pictures on this record, 116 of them. How do you put pictures on a phonograph record?
FRANK DRAKE: Well, you take the picture and scan it with a TV camera. A TV camera turns a picture into a long, oscillating waveform, which is what is sent to the TV set. Well, you can do the same thing with sound. Sound is done in the same way as pictures are. And so the idea was to take the pictures and put them into the form of a TV transmission and record that on the Golden Record.
Now, my original calculation told me we could only put about 10 pictures. We could only fit that many on the record in addition to all the music and the other things. It turned out that was wrong. We could put a total of about 112. And so we had the goal of picking the 112 pictures which best depicted life on Earth– our culture, our technology, our physiology, and all of that. That’s not many pictures, so it was a very hard task to do.
In addition, NASA’s asked us to add five more pictures, which were political, surprisingly. They were a list of the members of the congressional committees in the House and Senate who appropriate money to NASA. And we were to put on those pictures with the names in English text. And of course, we’ve always wondered ever since, what are the extraterrestrials going to make of that?
IRA FLATOW: Remembering the life and work of astronomer Frank Drake on Science Friday from WNYC Studios. We’re remembering SETI pioneer Frank Drake through past conversations on this show. This one from 2016, we’ll pick up where Frank Drake has trouble with NASA agreeing to put parts of the human body on their golden disc.
Now, you got a little pushback. You’ve got pictures of our anatomy on the plaque, on the record. But you had a little bit of trouble in getting the pictures you really wanted to put on there. You had to settle for something else, right?
FRANK DRAKE: Oh, that’s right. There were some very interesting challenges put to us, which was mainly not to offend anybody. So we started out wanting to give a totally realistic and comprehensive picture of life on Earth and of us, including all our physiology.
NASA got very nervous because that implied we were going to have pictures of naked people and parts of naked people on the record. And they knew that could create a big public outroar. So we were instructed to have no nudity on the record and also not to have any picture which depicted a religion because they realized that putting any religion was going to antagonize people of other religions whose picture are not included. So there were several taboos– religion, naked people.
We tried– we did, in fact, find what we thought was an acceptable picture of a naked human. It was a picture of a pregnant woman. But even that was not allowed by NASA.
And the other thing they told us was that when we put in the detailed pictures of the human anatomy, all the various parts of our body, of which there are about 12 pictures, we came to the pictures of genitals. And they told us, you may not construct a special picture for use on the record. You’ve got to take a picture out of a textbook because that way NASA can’t be blamed for transmitting pictures of nudity to the universe. They just didn’t want smut to the universe, as some people were accusing them of doing.
And so we took a picture out of a textbook and made that the picture which shows that part of human anatomy. And I’ve always thought that was going to be kind of a puzzle to the extraterrestrials, too, because all the parts on the picture are labeled in English text. And of course, they won’t know what that means. And this will be one of the great challenges to their linguists, to figure all this out.
IRA FLATOW: Do you have any idea of what the chances of any life form discovering the Voyager? I mean, it’s already entered American culture. Isn’t part of one of the Star Trek movies the V’Ger, and someone picks it up and makes a god out of it?
FRANK DRAKE: That’s right. The first Star Trek movie was about the discovery of the record. That’s what the basis of the whole movie. So yes, it’s already played a role in the construction of movies.
The chances of it ever being captured are very small, to be honest. It’s moving at about 10 kilometers a second. It’s going to take it hundreds of thousands of years to approach another star. And it will not approach it very closely. So it will only be a civilization with very sophisticated equipment, powerful radars, that might find this and perhaps go out and capture it and explore what’s on it.
So in a way, it’s our goodbye message to the universe. This is going to persist as a readable, decipherable record of us for literally billions of years, beyond the time when our sun expands and swallows up the Earth. It’s going to last beyond the lifetime of mankind as we know it now. So in a way, it’s our going away message.
At the same time, it is a message to us in that it tells us what we might find, what might come to our system, either in the form of a record or in the form of a radio message. It just alerts us to the fact that messages, meaningful messages describing other worlds and the creatures on them, can be sent across the stars, between the stars, in a form which can be captured and understood.
IRA FLATOW: Astronomer Dr. Frank Drake, dead at the age of 92. Condolences to his family and friends.