An Interview with SETI Founder Frank Drake


Frank Drake, PhD, founder of SETI, is considered by many to be a pioneer of the scientific search for intelligent extraterrestrial life. In 1961, Drake developed an equation to estimate the number of alien societies that may be detectable, which is now called the Drake Equation ( He was elected into the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1974 for his work in detecting off-world intelligence. He’s now in his eighties, but his silver hair hasn’t stopped him; Drake is still working to find extraterrestrials. An approachable and interesting man, Drake isn’t above a joke about his work or the people with whom he interacts. While at SETIcon II in Santa Clara, California, Drake took a few minutes to answer questions about his research, the future of SETI Institute, and aliens.

The SETI Institute is not itself a UFO hunting group, nor is it associated with any. According to Drake, people used to confuse it as one. However, the public perception of SETI has changed over time. When asked how much time he spends debunking UFO myths, he smiled and said, “Zero. It used to be more. Lately, I think we are finally succeeding in discrediting all that. People are very hesitant to discuss abductions and UFOs because I think they’ve sensed that there is a growing body of conclusive conclusions that there is no substance there.”

Drake reflected on the bad old days of SETI research and continued with a light-hearted chuckle, “I used to have to debunk it in every lecture I gave and now it hasn’t happened in 1/10 lectures. But it used to be a regular standard question, ‘What is your status on UFOs?’ or what’s worse—‘Let me tell you my UFO story or let me tell you about the time I was abducted.’”

“One of them saw a UFO man in Central Park. Nobody else noticed.” Drake went on to recount another abductee story he encountered. “I was called about a guy who had a UFO experience right in a suburb of Santa Cruz [California]. He had this big story that he believed in and sounded very credible. I actually went out and investigated it.”


Written By: LaRae Meadows
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  1. BBC news recently posted a chart of the Drake Equation. Don’t know if this is new, but I like it.

    “…some say they have telepathic contact with E.T.s.”
    Did Calling Occupants of Interplanetary Craft work ?!?

    As long as they (ET) don’t give me no cookbook called ‘To Serve Man’, I’m good to go.

  2.   BBC news recently posted a chart of the Drake Equation. Don’t know if this is new, but I like it.

    Your link brings up a “not accessible from the UK as it is part of our international service and is not funded by the licence fee. ” message, but the page has further links to;

    More planets could harbour life –

  3. @OP:disqus 

    N = The number of civilizations in The Milky Way Galaxy whose electromagnetic emissions are detectable.

    The present range of our equipment is quite limited, but to date – NIL

    R* =The rate of formation of stars suitable for the development of intelligent life.

    Working on it as telescopes improve!

    fp = The fraction of those stars with planetary systems.

    Numbers of detected ones are increasing all the time.

    ne = The number of planets, per solar system, with an environment suitable for life.

    The original “Goldilocks” system probably gives the most probable planets, but life powered by internal heat sources should not be ruled out.

    fl = The fraction of suitable planets on which life actually appears.

    Only Earth to date.

    fi = The fraction of life bearing planets on which intelligent life emerges.

    Only Earth to date, and some would question that!!!

    fc = The fraction of civilizations that develop a technology that releases detectable signs of their existence into space.

    There could be a basis here, but “detection is in the eye of the beholder”!   Humans do not have much of a record in recognising intelligence on Earth.  Pulsars were notably misidentified when first discovered.

    L = The length of time such civilizations release detectable signals into space.

    This is focussed on technical communications systems and historical estimates.

    Within the limits of our existing technology, any practical search
    for distant intelligent life must necessarily be a search for some
    manifestation of a distant technology.

    This does not necessarily follow.  Spectroscopic identification of life chemistry could be more effective for simply finding “life” as distinct from “intelligent technology based life”.

    In each of its last four decadal
    reviews, the National Research Council has emphasized the relevance and
    importance of searching for evidence of the electromagnetic signature of
    distant civilizations.

    My personal view, is that spectroscopic searches for biochemical evidence in atmospheres, is a better option, with follow-up if positive results are found.

  4. I’m a pioneer in looking for a new colour. I have nothing to show for it either. My funding is much lower, however. My guess is that the Drake equation is good at arguing that there are many intelligent civilizations out there but ultimately guessing a big number is as accurate to the reality of the matter. I like the idea of SETI but until we pick up a signal, no one is pioneering anything but fundraising techniques.

  5. Waste of time & money. Nobody has explained how, even if intelligent life exists that meaningful contact could be made given the time/distance barriers. AFAIK, it’s not possible to travel at (or close to) light speed so physical contact is a practical impossibility no matter how advanced a technology. Electronic contact- very unlikely; civilizations could rise & fall in the round-trip time and the probability of co-incident evolution is minuscule. 
    All in all, a futile exercise

  6.  Because only a few centuries ago we didn’t know the earth was round, because we are explorers, because the profound reality that we are not alone may cause a few faith heads to re-evaluate their thinking, because governments spend obscene amounts of money on war and useless studies into the colour green, because $4 million dollars would mean some government office wouldn’t get refurbished one year.
    Whether or not we’re alone in the universe seems to be one of the more sensible projects embarked upon. If I was conspiratorially minded (which I’m not) I may take the opinion that they have been actively hampered by the government ( OK, four or five soulless, immoral scumbags ) by removing funding, completely derailed by the university demanding they build a scope all but useless to the SETI team and then to top it off funded and controlled by the military who hold onto the keys. Time for my meds.

  7. Here’s one young star and potential planetary system which will not form a solar system or support life!


    A young star and its planet-forming cloud are being pulled towards the huge black hole at the centre of our galaxy, astronomers say.

    Like other galaxies, the Milky Way hosts a black hole, known as Sagittarius A* (SgrA*), at its centre.

    SGrA* dislodged the star from its original orbit within a ring of young suns circling the black hole.

    The disc of gas and dust will be devoured before it can evolve into a solar system.

    The research by a team at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics in Cambridge, US, is published in Nature Communications journal.

    Earlier this year, researchers reported seeing a cloud of ionised gas and dust falling in towards SgrA*.

    They suggested that it formed when gas streaming from two nearby stars collided, like wind-blown sand gathering into a dune.

    Astronomers Ruth Murray-Clay and Abraham Loeb have come up with a different explanation: that the cloud is a proto-planetary disc surrounding a low-mass star.

    Newborn stars retain a surrounding disc of gas and dust for millions of years. If one such star were to dive toward our galaxy’s central black hole, radiation and gravitational tides would rip apart the surrounding matter in just a few years.

    The star is now hurtling towards the black hole on an elliptical orbit.

    While the star itself is too small to be directly observed,
    the proto-planetary dust cloud accompanying it is being disrupted on the way, and it is this debris that the researchers were able to detect.

    “This unfortunate star got tossed toward the central black hole. Now it’s on the ride of its life,” said Dr Murray-Clay.

    As the young sun continues to plummet towards the black hole over the next year, more of the disc’s outer material will be torn away.
    The stripped gas will swirl into the yawning black hole. Friction will heat it to high enough temperatures that it will glow in X-rays.

    But while the planetary cloud is heading for destruction, the star is likely to survive.

    “The tidal forces from the black hole are strong enough to strip gas away from the star but not strong enough to pull the star itself apart,” Dr Murray-Clay told BBC News. 

    The cloud of gas and dust was discovered using the Very Large Telescope – see image :-

  8.  The ‘S’ in SETI stands for “Search”. They are pioneering SEARCH techniques. Using radio telescopes is involved in this.

    What search techniques (for new colours) are you really pioneering?

    None, right?

    See the difference now?

  9. @aquilacane:disqus

    I’m a pioneer in looking for a new colour. I have nothing to show for it either.

    There are new colours around – it’s just that human eyes can’t see them – 

      Multispectral image
    A multispectral image is one that captures image data at specific frequencies across the electromagnetic spectrum. The wavelengths may be separated by filters or by the use of instruments that are sensitive to particular wavelengths, including light from frequencies beyond the visible light range, such as infrared. Spectral imaging can allow extraction of additional information the human eye fails to capture with its receptors for red, green and blue. It was originally developed for space-based imaging.

    It is used for surveillance analysis of crops etc from Earth satellites, for spectral analysis of the atmosphere of exoplanets to reveal their chemistry, or for archaeologists looking for faded text on ancient documents.

     Insect eyes can see some ultraviolet patterns in flowers which humans cannot.

    A bees-eye view: How insects see flowers very differently to us… as these remarkable pictures show, there is more to many flowers than meets the eye – the human eye at least. Many species, including bees, can see a broader spectrum of light than we can, opening up a whole new world.
    The images, taken by Norwegian scientist-cameraman Bjorn Roslett, present a series of flowers in both natural and ultraviolet light, revealing an insect’s eye view.

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