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Frank Drake
Jump to navigation Jump to search For the comic book character, see Frank Drake (comics). For the 16th century naval commander, see Francis Drake. Frank DrakeFrank Drake at Cornell, October 2017.jpgFrank Drake, speaking at Cornell University in 2017BornMay 28, 1930
Chicago, IllinoisNationalityAmericanCitizenshipUnited States of AmericaAlmamaterCornell University
Harvard UniversityKnownforSETI
Drake equationChildrenNadia Drake
Leila DrakeScientific careerFieldsAstronomy

Frank Donald Drake (born May 28, 1930) is an American astronomer and astrophysicist. He is involved in the search for extraterrestrial intelligence, including the founding of SETI,[1][2][3][4] mounting the first observational attempts at detecting extraterrestrial communications in 1960 in Project Ozma, developing the Drake equation, and as the creator of the Arecibo Message, a digital encoding of an astronomical and biological description of the Earth and its lifeforms for transmission into the cosmos.

Early life and education

Born on May 28, 1930, in Chicago, Illinois, as a youth Drake loved electronics and chemistry. He reports that he considered the possibility of life existing on other planets as an eight-year-old, but never discussed the idea with his family or teachers due to the prevalent religious ideology.

He enrolled at Cornell University on a Navy Reserve Officer Training Corps scholarship. Once there he began studying astronomy. His ideas about the possibility of extraterrestrial life were reinforced by a lecture from astrophysicist Otto Struve in 1951. After college, he served briefly as an electronics officer on the heavy cruiser USS Albany. He then went on to graduate school at Harvard to study radio astronomy.

Drake's hobbies include lapidary and the cultivation of orchids.


Although explicitly linked with modern views on the likelihood and detectability of extraterrestrial civilizations, Drake started his career undertaking radio astronomical research at the National Radio Astronomy Observatory (NRAO) in Green Bank, West Virginia, and later the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. He conducted key measurements which revealed the presence of a Jovian ionosphere and magnetosphere.

In the 1960s, Drake spearheaded the conversion of the Arecibo Observatory to a radio astronomical facility, later updated in 1974 and 1996. As a researcher, Drake was involved in the early work on pulsars. In this period, Drake was a professor at Cornell University and Director of the National Astronomy and Ionosphere Center (NAIC) the formal name for the Arecibo facility. In 1974 he wrote the Arecibo message.[5]

He is one of the pioneers of the modern field of the search for extraterrestrial intelligence with Giuseppe Cocconi, Philip Morrison, Iosif Shklovsky, and Carl Sagan.

Drake co-designed the Pioneer plaque with Carl Sagan in 1972, the first physical message sent into space. The plaque was designed to be understandable by extraterrestrials should they encounter it. He later supervised the creation of the Voyager Golden Record. He was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1974.

Drake is a member of the National Academy of Sciences where he chaired the Board of Physics and Astronomy of the National Research Council (198992). He also served as President of the Astronomical Society of the Pacific. He was a Professor of Astronomy at Cornell University (196484) and served as the Director of the Arecibo Observatory. He is currently involved in "The Carl Sagan Center for the Study of life in the Universe" at the SETI Institute.[6]

He is Emeritus Professor of Astronomy and Astrophysics [7] at the University of California at Santa Cruz where he also served as Dean of Natural Sciences (198488). He serves on the Board of Trustees of the SETI Institute.


Drake Planetarium at Norwood High School in Norwood, Ohio is named for Drake and linked to NASA.

See also

  • Lick Observatory
  • The Search for Life: The Drake Equation


^ Stone RP, Wright SA, Drake F, Munoz M, Treffers R, Werthimer D (October 2005). "Lick Observatory Optical SETI: targeted search and new directions". Astrobiology. 5 (5): 60411. Bibcode:2005AsBio...5..604S. doi:10.1089/ast.2005.5.604. cite.citation{font-style:inherit}.mw-parser-output .citation q{quotes:"\"""\"""'""'"}.mw-parser-output .citation .cs1-lock-free a{background:url("//")no-repeat;background-position:right .1em center}.mw-parser-output .citation .cs1-lock-limited a,.mw-parser-output .citation .cs1-lock-registration a{background:url("//")no-repeat;background-position:right .1em center}.mw-parser-output .citation .cs1-lock-subscription a{background:url("//")no-repeat;background-position:right .1em center}.mw-parser-output .cs1-subscription,.mw-parser-output .cs1-registration{color:#555}.mw-parser-output .cs1-subscription span,.mw-parser-output .cs1-registration span{border-bottom:1px dotted;cursor:help}.mw-parser-output .cs1-ws-icon a{background:url("//")no-repeat;background-position:right .1em center}.mw-parser-output code.cs1-code{color:inherit;background:inherit;border:inherit;padding:inherit}.mw-parser-output .cs1-hidden-error{display:none;font-size:100%}.mw-parser-output .cs1-visible-error{font-size:100%}.mw-parser-output .cs1-maint{display:none;color:#33aa33;margin-left:0.3em}.mw-parser-output .cs1-subscription,.mw-parser-output .cs1-registration,.mw-parser-output .cs1-format{font-size:95%}.mw-parser-output .cs1-kern-left,.mw-parser-output .cs1-kern-wl-left{padding-left:0.2em}.mw-parser-output .cs1-kern-right,.mw-parser-output .cs1-kern-wl-right{padding-right:0.2em} ^ Drake F (1999). "Space missions for SETI". Acta Astronautica. 44 (24): 1135. Bibcode:1999AcAau..44..113D. doi:10.1016/S0094-5765(99)00036-3. PMID11542286. ^ Drake F (April 1993). "Extraterrestrial Intelligence". Science. 260 (5107): 474475. Bibcode:1993Sci...260..474D. doi:10.1126/science.260.5107.474. PMID17830410. ^ Sagan, Carl; Sagan, Linda Salzman; Drake, Frank (February 1972). "A Message from Earth". Science. 175 (4024): 881884. Bibcode:1972Sci...175..881S. doi:10.1126/science.175.4024.881. PMID17781060. ^ David, Leonard (Summer 1980). "Putting Our Best Signal Forward". Cosmic Search. 2 (3): 27. Bibcode:1980CosSe...2....2D. ^ "SETI Institute Names New Chief Alien Life Hunter". Retrieved February 23, 2012. ^ University of California | Lick observatory retrieved 18:29 23.10.2011
  • "Estimating the Chances of Life Out There"brief biography for astrobiology workshop at the NASA Ames Research Center.

External links

Wikiquote has quotations related to: Frank Drake
  • "Finding Aliens Only a Matter of Time, Says Father of SETI" A Q&A with Frank Drake about his famous equation and the meaning of SETI, from an interview in February 2010, leading up to the 50th birthday of SETI.
  • "Estimating the Chances of Life Out There" on YouTube A public talk by Frank Drake in the Silicon Valley Astronomy Lecture Series.
  • 2012 Interview with Frank Drake looking back on his career
  • "The Drake Equation"Astronomy Cast transcript (html), Fraser Cain and Southern Illinois University Edwardsville professor, Dr. Pamela Gay, Monday 12 February 2007. (Full pdf transcript.)
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Frank Drake - Biography, Facts and Pictures

Frank Drake

Frank Drake

Born 1930.

Frank Drake is one of the principal founders of the search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI).

He is best known for devising the Drake equation, which can be used to estimate the number of intelligent civilizations in our galaxy; he is one a handful of scientists who have devised equations that have penetrated popular culture sufficiently to appear on t-shirts and other merchandise.

Drake has played a key role in composing messages sent out from Earth in the hope that one day an alien civilization will discover and read them.

In addition to his SETI work, Drake was the first person to map the center of the Milky Way galaxy, and he coined the word pulsar to describe rapidly rotating neutron stars.



Frank Donald Drake was born in Chicago, Illinois, USA on May 28, 1930.

His father was Richard Drake, a chemical engineer working for the city of Chicago. His mother was Winifred Thompson, who met Franks father when they were students at the University of Illinois.

Frank was the couples eldest child; his younger sister Alma became a biochemist, and his younger brother Robert became an economist.

As a child, Franks experiences of religion were rather negative. His parents were Baptists who lived rather austerely laughter and joy were conspicuous by their absence.

At Sunday school, Frank decided that different religions had narrow beliefs shaped mainly by whichever part of the world they had begun in, and some of these beliefs had come about by chance. This led him, at age eight, to conjecture that human civilization was the result of chance too. Elsewhere in the universe, he thought, other civilizations might be present.

Becoming ever more interested in science, Frank began making frequent visits on his bike to Chicagos Museum of Science & Industry. He came to know the museums exhibits by heart, including one revealing that our sun is an average star among billions of others in the Milky Way. This made him wonder again if alien civilizations could be here in our galaxy.

Together with a friend he began doing simple chemistry experiments and building small motors and radios. Later they graduated to messing about with car engines.

Cornell Taking Extraterrestrial Life Seriously

At age 17, Frank won a Navy scholarship that enabled him to go to Cornell University, in Ithaca, New York. He intended becoming an airplane designer, but became more interested in electronics. He eventually majored in engineering physics.

In his sophomore year he took a course in astronomy. He looked at Jupiter through a 15-inch telescope and was stunned by what he saw the beautiful planet, with its famous red spot, orbited by the four moons Galileo first saw about 337 years earlier. It was a life-changing moment for Frank Drake.

In 1951, age 21, he attended lectures by visiting professor Otto Struve. In his final lecture, Struve talked about his recent discoveries that:

  • spectroscopy can be used to measure how quickly stars are spinning
  • most stars spin more slowly than might be expected from theoretical calculations

Struve correctly deduced that stars are usually not alone: like our own solar system, a central stars is accompanied by orbiting planets. He concluded that life might very well be present elsewhere in the galaxy. So, thought Drake, here is a serious, respected scientist, talking about life on other planets; it was the first encouragement Drake received at college to consider the possibility of extraterrestrial life.

The Navy

After graduating with honors in engineering physics, Drake decided to become an astronomer. First, though, he had a debt to pay to the U.S. Navy, which had funded his education. After an electronics training course he took to the high seas, responsible for the electronics on board the Albany, the Sixth Fleets flagship.

U.S.S. Albany

Drake was responsible for the electronics on board the heavy cruiser U.S.S. Albany.


radio telescope

Radio telescope at Goldstone, California.

In the fall of 1955, Drake began as a graduate student at Harvard University.

The astronomy departments chairman Barton Bok was eager to make use of Drakes electronics expertise, so Drake was assigned to work in radio astronomy.

Radio astronomers analyze signals reaching Earth in the radio part of the electromagnetic spectrum. They can also use radar-style techniques to study planets sending out a radio signal to rebound from a planet, returning with information about the surface it bounced from.

With his Navy experience, Drake soon became an essential member of a Harvard team whose equipment, driven by unreliable vacuum-tubes and amplifiers, was always breaking down.

Milky Way

The Milky Way viewed in different parts of the electromagnetic spectrum.

During his first year as a graduate student, Drake realized that radio astronomy was probably the way we would first detect or make contact with an alien civilization.

Frank Drakes Life in Science

Project Ozma Listening to Aliens

Drakes first job after graduating from Harvard took him to the National Radio Astronomy Observatory at Green Bank, West Virginia in April 1958.

As a newly appointed staff astronomer he was impressed by Green Banks 85-foot radio telescope it was his first opportunity to work with equipment sensitive enough to detect radio transmissions from extraterrestrials. Green Banks receiver could detect an equivalent radio telescope at a distance of 12 light years good enough to listen to transmissions from about 30 star systems, including several stars similar to our sun.

In 1959, Drake secured agreement with other workers at Green Bank to begin a project he called Project Ozma, hunting for aliens radio transmissions. They agreed to keep the project secret for fear of ridicule. In September 1959, before Project Ozma had begun, Giuseppe Cocconi and Philip Morrison published a paper in Nature entitled Searching for Interstellar Communications. The authors proposed that astronomers should carry out a search similar to Drakes project Ozma. This compelled Drake to go public with his planned work.

Project Ozmas observations began on April 8, 1960. No aliens were detected, but a graduate student at Cornell by the name of Carl Sagan contacted Drake, which led to lifelong cooperation between the two astronomers.

Discoveries at Green Bank

Mapping the Milky Way

Drakes first achievement with the radio telescope at Green Bank was to map the center of the Milky Way galaxy for the first time. Until then, nobody had seen it because large amounts of dust at the galactic center block visible light. The dust does not block radio waves, so Drake was able to use radio frequencies arriving from the Milky Ways center to map it.

Milky Way

In visible light the Milky Ways center looks dark. Radio waves, however, show there is intense activity.

Jupiters Radiation Belts

Drake and Hein Hvatum discovered Jupiter has radiation belts similar to Earths Van Allen belts.

Venuss Atmosphere

Drake discovered that the high temperatures on Venus do not change between day and night, and he deduced that Venuss atmosphere is about as thick as the ocean on Earth, trapping heat. He found that winds on Venus move at just a few miles an hour. He devised a new method of analyzing the polarization of radio waves to assess the geography and topography of a planets surface, which eventually allowed Venuss surface to be mapped accurately.

The Drake Equation

In summer 1961, Drake got a phone call that changed his life. The caller was Peter Pearman, a biologist on the Space Science Board of the National Academy of Sciences. Pearman was enthusiastic about Project Ozma and wanted to work with Drake to organize a conference at Green Bank to push the search for life on other planets.

Drake and his colleagues put together a list of distinguished scientists and invited them. Drake bought a case of champagne, because he correctly anticipated that one of the attendees, Melvin Calvin, would be announced as the winner of the Nobel Prize in Chemistry while at the conference.

Drake wrote a list of conference topics and noticed something fascinating: every important topic could be expressed as a number.

He realized these numbers could be multiplied together into what has become the most famous equation in SETI (search for extraterrestrial intelligence):

The Drake Equation:

N = R* fp ne fl fi fc L


N is the number of detectable civilizations in space

R* is the rate at which new stars form

fp is the fraction of stars with planets

ne is the number of planets per star where conditions are suitable for life

fl is the fraction of planets where life actually emerges

fi is the fraction of life-containing planets where an intelligent civilization develops

fc is the fraction of intelligent civilizations that produce communications technology we can detect

L is the length of time the communicating civilization remains detectable

Frank DrakeI found I could reduce the whole agenda for the meeting to a single line [the Drake equation]. Of course, I didnt have real values for most of the factors. But I did have a compelling equation that summarized the topics to be discussed Sometimes people think the equation is highly speculative. In fact, it is just the opposite, since each phenomenon it assumes to take place in the universe is an event that has already taken place at least once.

Frank Drake

Is Anyone Out There?, 1992

The Drake equation has become an icon of science particularly astronomy, and even more particularly SETI. Drake has joined an elite group of scientists including Albert Einstein and James Clerk Maxwell whose equations have caught the public imagination (or at least the science nerd segment) enough to appear on t-shirts and other merchandise.

The equation has also spurred fierce debates, because most reasonable values inserted into the equation suggest our galaxy should be teeming with life and we should already have detected a civilization. Drake himself was over-optimistic about how soon we would detect an extraterrestrial civilization.

Frank DrakeI see a pressing need to prepare thinking adults for the outcome of the present search activity the imminent detection of signals from an extraterrestrial civilization. This discovery, which I fully expect to witness before the year 2000, will profoundly change the world.

Frank Drake

Is Anyone Out There?, 1992

The Drake Equation Revisited

More than five decades after Drake devised it, the Drake equation continues to spur fresh thinking about extraterrestrial civilizations.

In 2016, Adam Frank and Woodruff Sullivan published a paper in Astrobiology offering a fresh approach. They began by noting that improved observations of other star systems had become available, facilitating better estimates of two Drake equation factors:

  • the fraction of stars with planets, fp, is now estimated to be 1.0, meaning all stars have planets
  • the number of planets per star where conditions are suitable for life, ne, is now estimated to be 0.2, meaning one in five planets can support life

Frank & Sullivan found that if the chance of a technological species evolving on any single habitable planet is better than 1 in 60 billion, then its likely that a technological civilization has existed on another world somewhere out there in the Milky Way.

Looking at the whole observable universe, even if the probability of a technological civilization in a solar system is just one-in-a-trillion, then during the universes existence, ten billion planets will have been home to technology-producing life. We might never hear from these civilizations though. The probability of our own civilization being destroyed by nuclear war or some other factor in the next few thousand years is significantly higher than zero. Since we cannot rule out the possibility that technological civilizations find some way to destroy themselves within a few thousand years, then even if our own Milky Way galaxy has been home to a thousand extraterrestrial civilizations they are all likely to be extinct by now.

Putting reasonable numbers into the Drake equation suggests extraterrestrial civilizations have existed in the past, exist in the present, and will exist in the future. If, however, technological civilizations last for only a few thousand years, we probably are alone in the Milky Way.

On the other hand, long-lived civilizations might reach a stage where they stop leaking radio signals into space. In these circumstances, there may be no shortage of advanced civilizations in the Milky Way right now, but they cannot be detected by radio astronomy.

The Arecibo Message Talking to Aliens

Radio telescope at Arecibo

Radio telescope at Arecibo.

In 1963, Drake, who was 33 years old and already white-headed, was persuaded to leave Green Bank and become section chief of Lunar and Planetary Science at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California. He did not stay long.

Early in 1964 he resigned from JPL, because an ever-growing mountain of administrative work was preventing him doing the research he had expected to carry out. In June 1964, he returned as an astronomy professor to Cornell.

Between 1966 and 1968, Drake worked in Puerto Rico as director of Cornells enormous radio telescope at Aricebo. During this time, he coined the word pulsar for a new type of star discovered by Jocelyn Bell Burnell and Antony Hewish at the University of Cambridge in the UK.

In 1974, Drake arranged for the transmission of a message to the globular star cluster M13. The message was sent in simple binary coding consisting of zeros and ones. When decoded, the message produced the following image:

Arecibo message on left created by Arne Nordmann. The actual transmitted image was not colored, it was black and white.

If anyone is around in M13 to receive the message, we shouldnt expect a quick response M13 is about 25,000 light-years away from Earth.

The Pioneer Plaques

The Arecibo Message was not the first experience Drake had of composing messages to alien civilizations. He and Carl Sagan designed the Pioneer Plaques, which went into space attached to Pioneer 10 in 1972 and Pioneer 11 in 1973 these were the first ever spacecraft built to escape from the solar system. Scientists monitoring Pioneer 10 lost contact with it in 2003 at a distance of 80 astronomical units when its radio transmitter lost power. Contact with Pioneer 11 was lost in 1995.

The Pioneer Plaque

The Pioneer Plaque message

The Voyager Golden Record

In January 1977, Drake and Sagan teamed up again to plan the message the Voyager spacecraft would carry. They considered repeating the Pioneer Plaque, but this time Sagan wanted to send music on a phonograph record.

Drake was certain it would be a mistake not to send images, so they agreed to send both. The phonograph known as the Golden Record eventually contained over 100 photos and about 90 minutes of audio, including music, people talking, whale songs, a heart beating, and a variety of other sounds.

The Golden Record actually gold-plated copper

NASA technicians attach the
record to the spacecraft

Drake chose the photos encoded on the phonograph disc, a few of which are shown below:

Isaac Newtons Principia
the mathematics of gravity
and spacecraft trajectories

A child in a classroom
soon to understand
Newtons laws?

Children around
a globe

An adult with

taking in nourishment

a traffic jam

our planet

Jupiter our solar systems
largest planet

Leaving Earth a rocket being launched

Orbiting Earth an astronaut in space

More photos are available from NASA.

Voyager 1 is now 137 astronomical units from Earth. Voyager 2 is 113 astronomical units from Earth headed for an encounter in 296,000 years time with Sirius, the brightest star seen from Earth.

SETI First Contact

On April 8, 1960, the very first day of Project Ozma, Drakes team believed they had discovered an extraterrestrial transmission.

They pointed their 85-foot radio telescope at the star Epsilon Eridani, about 10.5 light-years from Earth. Immediately they picked up a radio signal beating at a perfectly regular 8 times a second there was huge excitement in the telescopes control room.

When they pointed the telescope away from the star the signal disappeared. When they pointed it back at the star the team were disappointed when they couldnt pick up the signal again. This left them unsure if they had made a great discovery or a great mistake.

Gossip about a hullabaloo at the observatory reached the ears of a local newspaper, and a reporter phoned Drake, who was not in a position to give definite answers to any of the questions. He could neither confirm nor deny that they had detected a signal from aliens. He said more work was needed.

After further investigations, Drake came to the conclusion that the signal was actually an airborne jamming system being tested by a nearby military airbase. A conspiracy theory then developed around the incident with believers claiming first contact had been covered up.

One thing is certain. If the search for extraterrestrial life ever does detect another civilization in the depths of space, it will totally change it is hard to imagine just how dramatically our feelings about the place of human beings and our planet in the cosmos.

Some Personal Details

Drakes first wife was the composer Elizabeth Bell, with whom he had three sons: Paul became a photographer, and Stephen and Richard both became musicians. Drake met his second wife Amahl at Cornell. They have two daughters: Nadia, who became a science journalist; and Leila, who became a ballet dancer.

After 20 years at Cornell, Drake moved to California in 1984 to become Professor of Astronomy and Dean of Natural Sciences at the University of California at Santa Cruz: he is now Emeritus Professor of Astronomy and Astrophysics.

Drake continues to serve on the Board of Trustees of the SETI Institute.

In his spare time his hobbies are horticulture and lapidary.


Author of this page: The Doc
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Further Reading
Carl Sagan
Random House, 1980

John D. Barrow and Frank J. Tipler
The Anthropic Cosmological Principle
Oxford University Press, 1986

Thomas R. McDonough
The Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence: Listening for Life in the Cosmos
John Wiley & Sons, 1987

Frank Drake and Dava Sobel
Is Anyone Out There? The Scientific Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence
Delacorte, 1992

Douglas A. Vakoch (Editor) and Albert A. Harrison (Editor)
Civilizations Beyond Earth: Extraterrestrial Life and Society
Berghahn Books, 2013

Nadia Drake
The Close of Cosmos, and Golden Voices in the Stars
National Geographic, June 12, 2014

Adam Frank and W. T. Sullivan III
A New Empirical Constraint on the Prevalence of Technological Species in the Universe
Astrobiology, Vol. 16, No. 5, pp. 359-362, May 2016


?Frank Drake plays, writes, and teach music.
The music is mostly "Americana", which includes:jazz, western swing,bluegrass, roots country, a smattering of rock and pop, and relatedvarieties traditional music.
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