My dad launched the quest to find alien intelligence. It changed astronomy. - National Geographic
Posted: 19 Jun 2020 12:05 PM PDT
In the spring of 1960, a 29-year-old astronomer with streaks of preternaturally white hair and a devil-may-care attitude set out to tackle one of humanity's most existential questions: Are we alone in the universe?Frank Drake, then an astronomer at the National Radio Astronomy Observatory, was gearing up to search for radio whispers from faraway civilizations that might be sailing the cosmic sea. For such a grand quest, he had a budget of $2,000 and access to a radio telescope thought to be sensitive enough to detect transmissions from any potentially broadcasting extraterrestrials."Searching for intelligent life was considered bad science in those days," says Drake, who just turned 90 years old—and is better known to me as Dad.At the time, looking for evidence of alien technologies was still squarely in the camp of schlocky science fiction. But for my dad, it was worth taking a risk to find out if the cosmos is as richly populated as Earth's teeming oceans—or if humanity is adrift in a profoundly quiet interstellar expanse.Humble and curious, with a knack for quiet mischief, Dad is committed to his science, still writing research papers and serving on committees. My early memories are full of trips to observatories and conferences, and the singular pleasure of staring through telescopes at the twinkling sky. I was never bitten by the academic astronomy bug, though.
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