Frank Drake, the astronomer who devised the equation to find intelligent life, dies

The search for intelligent life beyond our terrestrial borders has always been a controversial topic: most of the time these issues have been treated with little seriousness, even frivolity. But, considering that we inhabit such a vast universe, there are those who defend the real probability that we are not alone in the universe. Frank Drake (1930-2022) was one of those champions. And not just any one: he devised the equation – named after him – that identifies the specific factors that are believed to play an important role in the development of civilizations. The scientific way of searching for intelligent life elsewhere in the cosmos, accepted as the first theoretical approach to the problem.

His role did not stop there. Drake created the first message that we humans deliberately send into space so that if there are other peoples, they know we are there. Known as the ‘Arecibo message’, the missive was transmitted via radio waves from the Arecibo Observatory in 1974. Drake also participated (along with famed astronomer carl sagan and others) in the design of the plaques carried by the Pioneer 10 and 11 spacecraft and the ‘Golden Disc’ carried by the Voyager 1 and 2 probes, which already travel through the confines of our Solar System, with messages intended for any intelligent life that the spacecraft can find.

With a degree in engineering physics and astronomy, Drake served as an electronics officer in the US Navy from 1952 to 1955, at NASA, and at various universities (including dean of the Natural Sciences division at the University of He was also director of the National Astronomy and Ionospheric Center (which includes the Arecibo Observatory) from its establishment in 1971 to 1981 and was recognized by the American Astronomical Society with its first Education Award in 2001. Although he retired from After teaching in 1996, Drake continued his interest in the detection of extraterrestrial life, researching radio telescope designs that maximize the chances of success for SETI (the non-profit institute dedicated to the search for extraterrestrial life) and participating in projects in the UC Lick Observatory to search for optical signals from other civilizations.

His resume continues: A member of the National Academy of Sciences and a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, Drake has served as president of the Astronomical Society of the Pacific, vice president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, chairman of the Council National Research. Board of Physics and Astronomy, and director of the Carl Sagan Center for the Study of Life in the Universe at the SETI Institute.

A more than prolific life that ended last Friday, September 2, at his home in Aptos (California), after 92 intense years. He has not been able to witness any extraterrestrial contact, as he would have wanted; but his theories are left for future generations.


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