Astronomy Bio...Frank Drake

Jay Bitterman

Frank Drake was born on May 28,1930 on Chicago's South Shore. His parents were Richard and Winifred Drake. He has one sister, Alma and one brother, Robert. He had a great interest in science. Both he and his friends spent many hours examining and experimenting with motors, radios, and his chemistry set.

As he began to understand astronomy and the enormous size of the universe he started to speculate about the existence other planets and the possibility that life may exist on them. Although, to him, extraterrestrial life seemed plausible he never felt easy about bring up the possibility due to the religious convictions of his parents and teachers. After high school graduation he received an ROTC scholarship to study electronics at Cornell. While there he became infatuated with astronomy and actually contacted someone else that was also pondering the possibilities of life on other planets. During his junior year, in 1951, he went to hear a lecture by Otto Struve, one of the world's preeminent astrophysicists. Near the end of the lecture Struve demonstrated that there was growing evidence that planetary systems might have formed around half of the stars in the galaxy. Struve went on to assert that life could most certainly exist on some of those planets. At last Drake had found someone that shared his ideas. In 1952 Drake received his B.A. in Engineering Physics (with honors) from Cornell University. After college he joined the Navy for next three years in order to repay his scholarship. Since he had a degree in electronics he became the electronics officer on the USS Albany and obtained invaluable experience in operating and fixing the some of the latest high tech electronic equipment.

When his navy tour ended, Drake enrolled in Harvard's graduate school to study optical astronomy. Luckily for him, the only summer position available was in radio astronomy. Since he had gained electronics experience with the Navy it was a good fit because the radio astronomy equipment needed continual tweaking and repair. Drake became addicted to radio astronomy and never regretted it. In 1956 he received his M.S. and in 1958 his Ph.D. in Astronomy from Harvard University.

After graduate school, in 1958, he started to work at the recently founded National Radio Astronomy Observatory (NRAO) in Green Bank, West Virginia. In 1960 Drake started a two week search project, named Ozma, looking for extraterrestrial life by observing the stars Tau Ceti and Epsilon Eridani. There was some exhilaration during his search that proved to be a false alarm. It was actually a terrestrial signal and no other signals were picked up. They scarcely expected to actually stumble on to proof of advanced civilizations on their first try but the searchers were not disappointed by the result but were optimistic because the great adventure was on its way.

In 1961 the first SETI conference was organized by Drake and J. Peter Pearman, an officer on the Space Science Board of the National Academy of Sciences (NRAO). This three day meeting, held at NRAO, attracted about a dozen or so scientists that were also interested in SETI. Before attending the conference Drake formulated his now famous Drake Equation for presentation and consideration. The intention of the equation was to help the attendees to focus on the questions of what must be addressed in order to make clear SETI's objective. N = N* fp ne fl fi fc fL. N is the number of communicating civilizations in the galaxy. N* represents the number of stars in the Milky Way Galaxy. fp is the fraction of stars that have planets around them. ne is the number of planets per star that are capable of sustaining life. fl is the fraction of planets in ne where life evolves. fi is the fraction of fl where intelligent life evolves. fc is the fraction of fi that communicate. fL is fraction of the planet's life during which the communicating civilizations live. You can run through the equation by plugging in your "guesses" of each variable by visiting:

In 1984 the SETI Institute received its charter and Dr. Drake has been its President since.

In 1963 Drake worked a short time as Chief of Lunar and Planetary Sciences at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. In 1964 he joined Cornell University as an Associate Director of the Center for Radio-physics and Space Research. In 1965 he accepted the directorship of the Cornell run Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico. In 1969 Drake became the Chairman of the Astronomy Department. From 1970 to 1981 he was Director of the National Astronomy and Ionosphere Center, which is part of the Arecibo Observatory. From 1976 to 1984 he was Goldwin Smith Professor of Astronomy at Cornell.

In 1986 Drake and his family returned to Cornell. In 1983 in Norwood, Ohio the Frank D. Drake Planetarium was dedicated. Presently he is Professor of Astronomy & Astrophysics at the University of California at Santa Cruz, in addition to being Dean of Natural Sciences Division (1984-88), Professor of Astronomy and Astrophysics (1984-94), and Acting Associate Vice Chancellor, University Advancement (1989-90).

Dr. Drake has authored some 150 articles and books, as well as "IS ANYONE OUT THERE"? that was co-authored with Dava Sobel. Some of his hobbies include gem stones and growing orchids. He has three sons and two daughters in college. Both of his daughters are outstanding ballet dancers.

Published in the May 2004 issue of the NightTimes