Is there anybody out there? Frank Drake and Santa Cruz County’s crucial link to the search for intelligent life in the universe

The Pigeon Point lighthouse at night, with the Milky Way in the sky above
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Frank Drake, the namesake of the famous Drake Equation and a giant in the field of the search for extraterrestrial life, died last year in Aptos. On April 17 at the Rio Theatre, daughter Nadia Drake — a graduate of Aptos High and UC Santa Cruz who’s an accomplished science journalist — will host “Whispers From Other Worlds,” an event sure to be bursting with the spirit of her father’s life’s work.

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One of the great experiences of my professional life was to spend time with Frank Drake.

Frank, who died last year at the age of 92, lived in Aptos for many years with his lovely wife, Amahl. Born in Chicago, he had that familiar Midwestern authenticity about him. He was straightforward, friendly, unpretentious — not given to grandiosity or melodrama. You would walk right past him at the Safeway without noticing him. He didn’t stand out in a crowd.

Yet this humble, plain-spoken man was a pioneer — and remains today a towering figure — in a field of study that fires the public imagination perhaps like no other. If the human race is ever contacted by some other life form from some other world, we all very well might have Frank Drake to thank for it.

He is the namesake of the famous Drake Equation, and a leading force in a field of astrophysics known as SETI — the search for extraterrestrial intelligence. That doesn’t mean just a search for life in the universe; it means a search for a sophisticated and advanced life form, perhaps one more sophisticated and advanced even than humanity, a life form with the wherewithal to communicate with us.

On April 17, the Rio Theatre will host an event titled “Whispers From Other Worlds,” and though Frank won’t be able to attend, the evening will be bursting with the spirit that his life’s work inspired. “Whispers” will feature two speakers, both of whom will talk about the science of SETI and outline exactly what we know and don’t know about the possibility of an advanced life form somewhere out there.

One of those two speakers will be Nadia Drake, Frank’s daughter, an Aptos High School graduate who went on to earn a Ph.D. in genetics from Cornell University — her dad’s alma mater — and is now a science journalist working at the journal Quanta. In Santa Cruz, Nadia will interview Thomas Zurbuchen, known in the field as “Dr. Z,” the longtime director of science at NASA.

Frank Drake, a longtime friend and colleague of the much more famous Carl Sagan, is mostly remembered for the Drake Equation, which is a mathematical expression of the probability that we will eventually receive a signal or a greeting from an advanced civilization from somewhere other than Earth.

Nadia Drake — who worked with me several years ago at the Santa Cruz Sentinel when she was a college intern — has lived with the Drake Equation her entire life. She told me she has even seen it tattooed on people’s bodies.

“It’s a tattoo,” she said by phone from her home in Charlottesville, Virginia. “It’s on a U-Haul. You’ll see it surface in these random places. I’ve walked into a bar and seen it behind the bar in neon lights.”

Nadia Drake and her famous dad, astronomer Frank Drake.
(Via Nadia Drake)

The Drake Equation, said Nadia, isn’t so much an equation but a framework on how to think about the possibility of life elsewhere. It’s an attempt to come up with some kind of possible number of the civilizations in the Milky Way galaxy that might be able to communicate with us earthlings, by narrowing down the number of stars, those with planets, planets that might develop life, the possibility that life might be “intelligent,” etc.

“If we remind people that it’s a framework for thinking about how to answer that question,” said Nadia, “that’s where its power is. It really takes you through the logic of thinking about, well, what do you need to know? That’s one of the reasons why it’s so sticky. Once you go through it, and you understand the logic, it actually makes so much sense. It’s a very logical, clear way to solve a problem.”

The equation was only one of Frank Drake’s contributions to SETI. Before the Drake Equation was Project Ozma, which dates back to 1960. That project, begun by Frank and named after L. Frank Baum’s fantastical Land of Oz, was designed to use radio waves as a means to search for signals from distant civilizations.

Both of us were converging on these issues of understanding what life is. Everything from its origins to things like consciousness that we can’t even really define. I guess we can’t really define its origin, either. We don’t even know that yet.

— Nadia Drake, on the commonality between her academic pursuits and her father’s

Before Frank Drake, the idea of extraterrestrial life forms was largely the stuff of popular culture and science fiction. Drake brought a degree of scientific credibility to the issue. He also developed a crude binary means to communicate with alien civilizations, and he authored (along with Sagan) the Arecibo Message, a coded summary of human life and where you might find Earth in the cosmos. (Frank had the Arecibo Message rendered into stained glass, which he had in his Aptos home.)

Also with Sagan, he designed the Pioneer Plaques, a pair of aluminum plates with illustrations about the human race that were placed aboard the Pioneer space probes in 1972 and 1973. He was also even involved in the creation of the Golden Record, a copper-plate recording of many of the sounds of Earth, from a Chuck Berry song to a baby crying.

In short, Frank Drake spent his entire professional life trying to get the attention of some intelligent life form. But he never succumbed to the Spielbergian fantasy that he would one day meet or interact with little green men. “The idea that you’re going to communicate, that you’re going to ask questions and get answers, that’s absurd,” he told me back in 2018. “That’s not going to happen.”

On top of the unfathomable vastness of space and remoteness of our little outpost in the universe, time is the one element that makes alien contact also unlikely in the extreme. Any radio signal that we discover from some alien intelligent life might be thousands of years old.

Most of her father’s landmark work in SETI was done before Nadia was born, in 1980. As a high school student, she worked at the SETI Institute in Mountain View — one of her jobs was to answer mail. At Cornell as an undergrad, she took a class called “Search for Life in the Universe.” As Frank Drake’s daughter, she said, “I thought I better not fail this class.” That moment, she said, “was the first time that I’d actually really sat down with the Drake Equation, what the variables meant.”

Nadia Drake (right) with dad Frank, mom Amahl and fiancé Scott Ransom.
(Via Nadia Drake)

As a journalist, even with her family name, her speciality in reporting on astronomy was not a given, she said. She was hired after graduation at the journal Science News as the astronomy reporter, not because she was a Drake, but because the previous astronomy reporter had recently retired. “They told me, ‘We hope you like astronomy, because that’s what you’re going to be covering,’” she said.

Nadia went to get a Ph.D. in genetics — after which she enrolled in UCSC’s science communication program. She still covers astronomy at Quanta Magazine, at least in how it relates to SETI, she said her training and her father’s work have a strong commonality.

“I guess we’re both interested in life,” she said. “The question of life, how common is it throughout the cosmos, and what forms might it take? How can we find it? That was his work. And I was more thinking, how can we understand life on Earth? How does it work? How do brains work? How does consciousness happen? Those were the questions that I was more focused on academically. But both of us were converging on these issues of understanding what life is. Everything from its origins to things like consciousness that we can’t even really define. I guess we can’t really define its origin, either. We don’t even know that yet.”

Frank Drake died in September 2022, which was big news in the world of American astronomy. His daughter was amazed at the cascade of fond remembrances that came to her from all over the world about her dad, odes to his grounded-ness and his generosity. She said he would have been amused by all the attention he got after his passing.

“I think that’s one of the things that was so lovely about him,” said Nadia. “It’s one of the things that I’m learning about him, where his interest in these ideas came from is that he loved life on Earth so much that I think he just couldn’t help but wonder if the life that he treasured here could could evolve elsewhere, too.”

Of course, Frank died before the big breakthrough in discovering an intelligent civilization elsewhere in the universe. He didn’t expect it would happen before his own death, but, said Nadia, “he would have loved to know that Earth is not the only technological oasis in the cosmos. He didn’t actually know that. I think he would have loved knowing that.”

“Whispers from Other Worlds,” featuring Nadia Drake and Thomas Zurbuchen, takes place April 17 at the Rio Theatre in Santa Cruz.

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