Frank Drake is a world-renowned astronomer and astrophysicist who is responsible for founding the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence Institute (SETI) and inventing the Drake equation, which estimates the likelihood of finding intelligent life in the Universe.
On July 16th, Drake hosted a Reddit Ask Me Anything (AMA) and gave some interesting responses to the community’s questions, which can roughly be split into questions on Drake’s own works and theories, and more abstract questions concerning space and aliens.
Reddit user murikansk asked, “What was the main hope when creating the Golden Record and the Pioneer plaque? That is, was it simply hoping that it would be understood that it is nonrandom data and the location of the origin of the spacecraft deciphered, or did you also believe in the possibility that the extraterrestrial civilization would learn something about our cultures? How much of the plaque, record, and the Arecibo message did you believe would realistically be understood if intercepted?” The question refers to his collaboration with Carl Sagan and NASA, when he helped design the Golden Record, a record on board both Voyager 1 and Voyager 2 that contains the sounds of the diversity of life on earth, and the Pioneer Plaques, which were attached to Pioneer 10 and 11 as a universal message about Earth to extraterrestrial life.
Drake responded: “These may be the only records that we ever existed [sic], and this meant a great deal to us in a very deep and emotional way.” Responding to a question from Zaphus, he said he would update them by making “use of the much greater capabilities we now have to send huge amounts of information quickly. I would send 3-dimensional movies, I would send sounds, and in this way much more accurately show what we are like and what we are capable of.”
Drake also gave an answer to a question concerning his own Drake Equation — a formula that attempts to show the likelihood of finding intelligent life in the Universe.
Senno_Ecto_Gammat asked, “Do you think we will nail down good values for the variables in the Drake equation before we make contact with intelligent extraterrestrial civilizations, or will we only get good values for those variables after we make contact?”
Drake answered, “We’ll get good numbers for the variables except for f (sub i), and L.” These necessitate contact with other alien life. F (sub i) refers to the fraction of life bearing planets on which intelligent life emerges, while L — which he later referred to as “the most important parameter” — is the length of time over which such civilizations release detectable signals into space.
While we have suspected that we have received such signals, with the WOW! Signal being the most notable, none have, as-of-yet, proven to be genuine communications from another civilization.
He also provided responses to questions that the entire space community is asking. One of the first, from DevinDTA — which is what we would all ask to an expert on the extraterrestrial — concerned when he thinks we will meet alien life. He responded that he believes “we will detect evidence of non-intelligent life on another planet of our solar system within the next 50-70 years” and that “it’ll probably be microbial.”
YoureGratefulDead2Me asked, “If you could communicate with an alien civilization and language barrier were not an issue, what would you tell them/ask them?” Drake responded, in part, “If they are like us we would ask them what steps they take to support an ever growing population; for example is the colonization of other planets in their solar system advantageous or too costly and dangerous.” Drake, then, like Elon Musk, believes that the world’s population — which is set to hit 9.7 billion by 2050 — is one of the most challenging obstacles we face in our continued development; and that colonizing other planets could be a solution.
SailingSmitty asked where Drake sat on the spectrum of trying to contact aliens vs awaiting contact from them — essentially, whether he is currently aligned with the Messaging to Extraterrestrial Intelligence (METI) or SETI, which searches instead. In response, he stated, “I believe it is a waste of time and resources to transmit messages to alien life until we have actually detected alien life and know something about them.”
Perhaps more interestingly, though, he continued, “Also, I do not believe it is dangerous to transmit signals because there is not a very great benefit for them to attack us.” This contrasts with other expert views.
Stephen Hawking advises against first contact by predicting the meeting would be like the first encounter between Columbus and the Native Americans — which “didn’t turn out so well” for the latter party. At the other end of the spectrum is Alexander Zaitsev, founder of METI, who thinks we should “not want to live in a cocoon, in a ‘one-man island'” and therefore should take every possible opportunity to communicate with whatever (or whoever) is out there.