If you'd asked 20 years ago the
question he's heard over and over -- whether humanity will
discover extraterrestrial intelligence in his lifetime -- Frank
have shrugged and said, "sure."
Today, the renowned astronomer,
who turns 79 next month, admits the chances are slimming.
"It's going to be a close
call," he said.
But even if Drake, professor
emeritus of astronomy and astrophysics at the University of
California at Santa Cruz, doesn't see the day we learn we're
not alone, he knows it's coming. To him, it's a mathematical
He should know. He wrote the
formula. And in a decade when scientists are discovering
more extraterrestrial oceans, far away solar systems and
Earth-like masses around the galaxy, it's being taken more
seriously than ever before.
people a scientific model to start speculating about other
civilizations in the galaxy," said Brooks Peck, a curator at
Seattle's Science Fiction Museum. "It has so many variables
that we don't know what they are. But that's what makes it
an ongoing adventure."
At first glance, the nearly
50-year-old formula -- which has turned up in movies such as
"Contact," TV series such as "Star Trek" and works of
science fiction such as "Sphere" -- looks like something out
of physics class. But really, the equation isn't an equation
at all, but a way to organize the factors scientists believe
could determine how many intelligent extraterrestrial
species could come in contact with Earth, like the number of
stars with planets, the number of planets that can
potentially support life and the number of planets likely to
develop intelligent life.
On Saturday, its creator will
speak at the University of Washington about two things he's
sure of: First, that a series of recent discoveries indicate
that life -- if not necessarily intelligent life -- is "very
abundant" in the universe. And two, that even though nothing
big has turned up in the 50 years the Search for
Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI)
has had an ear to the stars, we need to keep listening.
And listen better.
"People who are not very
knowledgeable say that if we've searched and found nothing,
doesn't that mean there's nothing there? Shouldn't you give
up?" said Drake, Director of the SETI Institute's Carl
Sagan Center for the Study of Life in the Universe.
"But we've searched just a few minuscule number of stars, on
just a few limited channels. Using mathematics, we should
not have succeeded yet."
When it comes to scanning the
skies for extraterrestrial neighbors, no one has looked
longer than Drake. In 1960, as a staffer at the National
Radio Astronomy Observatory, he became the first person to
conduct a radio search for extraterrestrial intelligence.
The following year, he introduced his equation to a small
conference of scientists eager to continue the work, despite
intense skepticism from their colleagues.
Their work gained notoriety
when NASA sponsored projects through the 1970s and '80s,
beginning a formal SETI program in 1992 it had canceled by
1994. Though today the SETI Institute relies on grants and
donations from wealthy supporters like Seattle's own Paul
Allen to listen to the stars for a couple days a year, Drake
sees science going his way.
So do his colleagues.
"The idea of extraterrestrial
life has undergone a radical shift and Frank Drake has been
one of the people that over the decades has made that
happen," said Woody Sullivan, a professor of astronomy at
the University of Washington who has developed entire
courses based on the Drake equation.
The past 10 years have seen a
surge of interest in the scientific community in finding
extraterrestrial life, Sullivan said, and not just with
radios. The new field of astrobiology has risen from the
work of geologists, biologists and microbiologists who are
taking their studies out of this world, spurred on by
encouraging astronomical discoveries -- even if they don't
get the same TV ratings as putting a man on the moon.
"While there's not as much
going on with people heading up to space, going to the moon,
or going to other planets, there's so much going on with
what we're learning through telescopes and landers," Brooks
said. "It's a heyday for space exploration."
On Saturday, Drake will talk
about possible discovery of oceans on Jupiter's moon,
Europa, the recent launch of the Kepler mission
to search for habitable planets, two new Earth-like masses
found in the Milky Way and the hundreds of new solar systems
that show our corner of the universe might not be as unique
as we think.
If it were up to him, he'd
build bigger radio telescopes -- lots of them -- and turn
them on full blast.
"With 200 billion stars in the
galaxy, there are 200 billion chances to make Earth," he
said. "Everything says it had to have happened many times --
and maybe many more."
Drake will speak at 7 p.m.
on Saturday at 120 Kane Hall at the University of Washington
as part of the Department of Astronomy's open house. Tickets
must be requested in advance here.