An Interview with SETI Founder Frank Drake
September 10, 2012
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 (http://www.seti.org/drakeequation). 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.”
“He had some horses that he tended to in a pasture on the edge of town. He would go there early, around seven o’clock to feed them and water. And this one morning he came to the pasture and he found the horses very upset. They were running around. At about this time a UFO descended over him and shined a bright light on his truck, a brilliant light on his truck. It caused the engine to die on the truck and caused some burn marks on the truck. The UFO had this spotlight; it was shining around at the horses and all around the field. Then it got up and left. He had a very hard time getting the truck to run again. This was the story, bright light and all. Well, this particular field has houses all around. It was about 7:30 in the morning, people were up and about and I went and asked in the houses. Nobody had seen a bright light; they had not heard a sound; nobody had seen any of this. How could this be? It was a brilliant spotlight they were shining on the houses.”
Drake laughed and shared another story of a woman who believed she had an ongoing relationship with aliens: “She was probably thirty years old and she said that ever since she was a teenager, about one night a week, aliens came into her bedroom and did experiments on her. I said, ‘Why haven’t you set up a video camera?’ She said, ‘I never thought to do that.’ There was a guy sitting next to her. I asked, ‘Are you married?’ She said, ‘Yeah, this is my husband.’ So I asked the husband, ‘Didn’t you notice something?’ His answer was, ‘I’m a very sound sleeper.’”
Surprisingly, given the volume of UFO myths Drake has had to debunk over time and the ridiculous stories he has endured, Drake does not seem to look down too much on the people who have alien experiences. Even though there was a great deal of laughter while telling the stories, and frustration about the people’s inability to think it through, there was also a compassionate tone for people who were obviously scared by their experiences.
“They always seem sincere and in most cases are not kooky. They seem to be very normal, average people and they have these memories which they seem to truly believe them; which in most cases are patently impossible on the face of it....Some of the abductees think they [extraterrestrials] are visiting almost nightly and have experiments done on them every night.”
Drake was not above the occasional verbal eye-roll. He seemed perturbed by what he describes as a common phenomenon, “A thing we do get a lot of is people who claim they are in telepathic contact with extraterrestrials and we don’t need to bother. They are already in contact. That is a fairly common one we get. But what they report is clearly nonsensical. We always ask, you know, tell us something we can go out and find to be true. That never happens.”
The former misconceptions about SETI cost the SETI program millions of dollars in the early 1990s. Until 1992, SETI was a NASA project. Senator Richard Bryan of Nevada called SETI “The Great Martian Chase.” He said, “As of today, millions have been spent and we have yet to bag a single little green fellow. Not a single Martian has said take me to your leader, and not a single flying saucer has applied for FAA approval.”
Drake recounted the consequence to SETI when Senator Bryan took notice. “Up until 1992, the government funded SETI, it was a NASA project, was like a flight project. It was totally accepted. We were getting about twelve million dollars a year from NASA. Which was enough to build a lot of good equipment and do very high quality searching with people, attendants, doing all the right things.
“And then in 1993, a senator from Nevada [Bryan], looking for some way to get publicity for his re-election campaign, this is really what happened, decided he would attack SETI on the basis that we were kooks chasing after little green men, and wasting the taxpayers’ money. He knew anything that has to do with extraterritorial life gets in the news.” Drake continued, “So he went up to congress and started attacking SETI. Actually this had happened several years before but we had at that time champions in that blockaded it and prevented it from happening. This time he snuck it through. He waited until there was no one in the senate chamber, except him and four or five buddies, which happens you know. They made a resolution to end the SETI project at NASA and it was approved by five or six people. And overnight the SETI project was defunded....So all the government funding stopped and SETI was no longer getting twelve million dollars a year.”
The move from government project to private project was not all bad for SETI.
“We had a good project going then and we wanted to continue it. We knew without government funds, we could actually keep it running for about 4 million dollars a year. It’s much cheaper without all the bureaucracy. Fortunately we had some people in Silicon Valley who were very interested in it and said, ‘Ok, we’ll take care of this.’ Packard, Moore, Hewlett, Allen; they each chipped in a million dollars a year and continued that for another five years, so the project kept going. No government funding, now totally private. That was great. It was very efficient. We weren’t burdened with review committees.”
Unfortunately, it was only a couple of years until major philanthropists dried up and SETI was in financial trouble. “Now all our major donors have disappeared. Instead of four or five million dollars a year that used to come very easily—we were spoiled; we didn’t really have to work for it—it has shrunk down to half a million dollars a year and that’s not enough to run a proud SETI program. It’s hardly just enough about to keep the lights on, and the electric powering, and one or two people to do maintenance but really no scientific staff to analyze the data.”
Even with the funding problems, SETI was able to move forward with a new radio telescope array. The first forty-two telescopes in the Allen Array in Northern California became functional in October 2007. It was, in large part, funded by Microsoft cofounder Paul Allen at a total cost of thirty million dollars. The telescope was an affordable way to increase SETI’s search abilities. Drake explained the circumstances, “The original agreement by which this was built was a joint partnership between the SETI Institute and the University of California Berkeley. The deal was, we [SETI Institute] would pay to build the telescope, and they would provide operating funds.”
Drake outlined the other costs the relationship with UC Berkeley had on SETI and its research. “We needed their [UC Berkeley] expertise in telescope building, [and] they would only do this [partner to build the Allen Telescope Array] if the instruments were useful for radio astronomy. Regular radio astronomy wants very high resolution, sharp images. SETI on the other hand wants minimum resolution because that means looking at more stars at once. So it was a basic conflict between what is optimum for SETI and what is optimum for radio astronomy. So what we got is a telescope that serves the radio astronomers but is not optimized for SETI. It does SETI but not with the capability that we could have done with less cost if we squeezed them together.” SETI was willing to make this sacrifice for the ongoing funding promised by UC Berkeley.
Unfortunately, government funding again hampered SETI capabilities. “About the time it was finished there was this big budget crunch at the State of California and it hit the university really hard. The end result was the funding to science parts at UC Berkeley was cut so much they said, ‘Sorry, we can’t pay the operating costs of the telescope; sorry, we can’t carry out our part of it,’ and they walked away. Here we have this telescope and no money to operate it. We spent thirty million dollars and we actually had to put it in hibernation; mothballed for about six months. We did a lot of private fundraising and we raised enough money to put it back in operation for about six months—which we did. This was just last year ,” outlined Drake.
The Air Force took notice of the array and now fund its operation to track space junk. “They use it in the daytime, and we use it at night. That’s not the way it should be,” Drake explained sorrowfully.
Even though funding has been a roller coaster, Drake has not given up setting his sights high, and he continues to develop ideas for the best way to find life on other planets. “This technique of connecting together small dishes [the method used to create the Allen Telescope Array] to make one can be done indefinitely because you can keep adding dishes. The cost of the total instrument just keeps going up in proportion, which is a good thing because when trying to do this with a big dish it doesn’t. So [with] this approach, in principle, you can just add dishes indefinitely. You can fill up all of Arizona or something! That would be good.”
SETI is capable of collecting data but does not have enough staff to sift through it all. “We have essentially no staff.” Drake continued, “The data that is collected is not being processed as thoroughly as it could be.”
The funding gaps are serious enough that SETI has started to reach out to the public to pick up the slack. Drake hopes volunteers can help SETI. “We have a new program, SETI Live. Our system is called the Allen Telescope Array and data from it is being sent to ordinary people, and they search through it for signs of signals.”
Home computers are even being set to good work with the SETI@Home project. “It’s a good program. It runs all the time on the world’s largest telescope for a decade now. It has hundreds of thousands of users who process the data on their home computers, and they produce candidate signals, hundreds of candidate signals....This mode of acquiring the data and farming it out for analysis, and then going back to take a second look at a candidate, so far no candidate has ever been seen a second time.”
However, Drake was explicitly clear about the best way to help SETI: “Send money. Send money.”
A lack of success finding extraterrestrial signals has not stopped Drake from considering what might happen if we finally interact with aliens. If those aliens are more advanced than us, Drake hopes to tap into their knowledge, failures, and experience for our own advancement: “There’s technologies you could learn. How to provide clean energy or nuclear fusion. If they could teach us how to build a nuclear fusion reactor, that would be good. We have spent hundreds of millions of dollars each year trying to achieve those. If they tell us, you know, how to do it right, they’ve probably already figured out how to do it right, what doesn’t work, and what is dangerous and so forth. They could tell us other technologies that are useful. For instance, nuclear fusion but [also] does putting solar power stations in space make sense, which we have been talking about too. We would find out whether it makes sense to colonize space because they will have done it. They would have tried it and found out if it is too hazardous or too expensive. We would see how they affect their environment. To what extent have they allowed their planet to become concretized?”
Drake, with a whimsical lilt in his voice, half joked, “We may receive purchase orders of some nonterrestrial life. How do we respond to a bunch of purchase orders? ...Some people worry a reply might excite an attack on you—not likely. However, we might decide we shouldn’t say anything to them; go and hide somewhere.”
Drake was a bit more serious about what we might do if we came across a less advanced civilization. “It is not likely that we will come across a less advanced species because less advanced would not have developed radio yet so there would be no way to detect them. Almost anyone we find will be more advanced than us. In any case, to answer your question, you would not tell them anything until you knew something about them, until you knew what might make sense to tell them. So just the fact they exist isn’t good enough to send some useful message. You need to start off somehow, which may be difficult. ...We want to tell them about us and what is special about us, what we think is special about us.”
When asked about how we should present what is special about us and if it was important to be honest at first, Drake had a bit of a mixed message: “We have always felt we should be totally honest; we shouldn’t guild the lily. Although when you think about it sometimes, for instance, we all like to send pictures of humans because we think they’re interesting; we don’t send ugly humans.” Drake laughed and went on, “Well, we do send average humans but we have never sent a picture of a homeless person or a goth or other peculiar type.”
Drake says he is not covering up proof of alien life, contrary to what UFO hunters believe. He expressed some worry that someone would take any joke he said about it out of context. He threw caution to the wind, belly-laughed, and sarcastically said, “I have all kinds of frozen cadavers in my basement. People actually believe that!”
Donate to SETI Endowment: