by Fraser Hibbitt for the Carl Kruse Blog
Less than a week ago, astronomer and astrophysicist Frank Drake passed away in his home in California. He was one of those rare examples in which a childhood fascination directly informs their career, their pursuit, and entanglement with the world. Drake’s equation, perhaps only second in fame to Einstein’s formulation, is Drake’s childhood fantasy made concrete: a mathematical operation to tell us the number of detectable civilizations in the Milky Way.
It was his father who provoked the abandonment to believe worlds upon worlds brightened the night sky, worlds, perhaps, of creatures like ourselves, but it was the use of a radio telescope that prompted the way to realize this belief. While observing a star cluster, Drake picked up a radio signal that he thought was moving in tandem with the cluster – it was not entirely disappointing that it came from a local transmission; the thought of artificial extra-terrestrial radio signals had been planted.
Drake was not single-minded; he did not rush on, scouring indiscriminately for a sign. Being a lateral thinker, all his pursuits, however, whether directly or indirectly, did become applicable to this quest. After receiving his Ph.D. from Harvard, Drake successfully mapped the center of the Milky Way, and help to extend our understanding of the atmospheres of both Venus and Mars. Thus, in 1959, with the credentials, Drake gained the approval for ‘project Ozma’; initially kept hushed for the same reason one might hide their first drafts: fear of humiliation. Project Ozma was the first coordinated project to search for extra-terrestrial radio signals; the bridge had been crossed from science-fiction.
Nothing came of the project proper, but it did lead Drake to a life-long collaborative relationship with the then graduate student Carl Sagan, and it did place the conversation of the search for alien life into public discourse. This was, in fact, the impetus Drake needed to formulate his famous equation; groups of willing scientists ready to discuss a matter that borders the unreal needed order and direction.
How to make contact even plausible? Perhaps alien life was also scouring the galaxy for a message. Thus began the first whisperings of humanity into deep space. First, the ‘Pioneer Plaque’ that Drake co-designed; a gold-anodized aluminum sheet pictorially representing man and woman, and our position in the Milky Way. Next, Drake conceived and sent the first interstellar radio message, the ‘Arecibo signal’ from Puerto Rico; lastly, the ‘Voyager Golden Record’ which Drake directed with Carl Sagan and Ann Druyan: two phonographs representing what it means to live on earth through images and sound.
Frank Drake continued to represent the strange longing to know whether our mysterious place in our galaxy is plural. Although he retired from teaching in the mid-90’s, Drake continued to be a part of the scientific discourse he instilled: it was in 2010 that he stepped down from the Carl Sagan Center for Study of Life in the Universe at SETI – he still remained active in the board of trustees at SETI.
Drake’s career was an inspired career, and that inspiration holds fast with the research that continues to excite the possibilities of finding life; the Kepler satellite’s mission of finding exo-planets in habitable zones, for example. Drake’s symbolic gestures, the records and plaque, aboard ‘ghost ships’ in deep space have a poignancy about them that is peculiar to our lonely position in the universe, but they remind us equally of the necessary voyage that humanity must continue to take to discover if the latter is true.
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