It was in Green Bank that Dr. Drake, who planned the meeting, derived his famous formula as a way of organizing the agenda. It consists of seven factors, which include all human astrological knowledge and ambition. Some are quite experimental, such as the rate at which stars are born in the Milky Way and the fraction of stars with habitable planets. Others are impossibly mystical, such as the average age of a technological civilization – from 1,000 to 100 million years was a guess. Multiply the factors together, and you get the assumed Hungarian count.
In worlds where astronomers have obtained new data, old conjectures for dolphins have held up well, said Seth Shostak, an astronomer and spokesperson for the SETI Institute. NASA’s Kepler planet-hunting satellite and ground-based telescopes have verified optimistic estimates of the abundance of potentially habitable Earth-sized planets, and scientists know from the Kepler mission that there could be 300 million of them in the Milky Way alone.
“These people were either very lucky or in amazing health,” Dr. Shostak said of the dolphins.
At the same time, scientists have discovered that life on Earth is harder and more diverse than scientists thought, thriving in such strange places as the boiling vents under the sea. “There is a lot of evidence for a lot of pathways to the origin of life,” Dr. Drake said.
After a brief stint at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, he joined Cornell University as a professor, and later became director of the National Center for Astronomy and Ionosphere, or NAIC, whose giant 300-meter antenna in Arecibo, PR, would become the first SETI instrument on the planet. In this capacity, Dr. Drake found a radiation belt around Jupiter and discovered that the fiery atmosphere of Venus was as thick as an ocean on Earth.
But SETI will remain his enduring love.
In 1971, NASA held a study on how to discover extraterrestrial life that became known as Giant Project. Her report, which took the passage quoted above from Dr. Drake’s book “Intelligent Life in Space” as its master plan, called for a group of 1,000 radio telescopes, each 100 meters in diameter, to search out into space up to 1,000 light-years away. But his expected $10 billion price tag made him one of Senator William Broxmayer’s “Golden Fleece” prizes for squandering the government budget. Although the project was never built, the report has become a bible for astronomers interested in extraterrestrial affairs.
Jill Tarter, who read the report when she was a graduate student and devoted her life to the search for extraterrestrial intelligence that results in Interview with the New York Times in 2012.