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Dallas Campbell meets Frank Drake

Updated Wednesday 4th May 2011

If there are other intelligent cultures around the universe, why haven't we met them yet? And why haven't we heard from them? Frank Drake explains.

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Frank Drake:
So here we are at this nice old building here.

Dallas Campbell:
How does it make you feel being here again? Do you feel nostalgic?

Frank Drake:
I feel as though I’m in a time warp. I’m back 50 years in time. Because it looks the same. (Yeah) It’s the same. You would walk in here. Let’s see what we’ve got in here.

Dallas Campbell:
Wow look at this.

Frank Drake:
It’s changed a lot. (Wow) This is where we did the search right here.

Dallas Campbell:
So this is the original room where you’d be looking …?

Frank Drake:
This is the original room.

Dallas Campbell:
It looks like no one’s cleaned up since about 1959.

Frank Drake:
It looks as though it’s become a store room.

Dallas Campbell:
So where would you actually, where would you actually …?

Frank Drake:
When we were observing we had a counter here, and in fact here’s the original equipment here which was used to control the telescope. This is, goes back to 1958. So that’s 50 years old and probably still works.

Dallas Campbell:
Shall we turn it on?

Frank Drake:
Is it plugged in?

Dallas Campbell:
I don’t think it is plugged in.

Frank Drake:
This is the original thing and it was before computers. It’s, this whole thing, in fact at the time of Project Ozma there were no computers. It was all done by eye and ink on paper tapes.

Dallas Campbell:
So this is the original Project Ozma? This is the consul?

Frank Drake:
Consul for the telescope control. Project Ozma itself had a separate kind of group of equipment which isn’t, I don’t see it here. It looked a lot like this, but this isn’t it.

Dallas Campbell:
And what was it like working here in 1960 and you sort of first came here as a young astronomer?

Frank Drake:
It was wonderful.

Dallas Campbell:
You had this telescope?

Frank Drake:
It was the happiest time of my life. It was, anything was possible. These were the first really big telescopes in America. There were already big ones in England and Australia. But the radio universe had hardly been explored, so you never knew from one day to the next what great discovery was going to come.

I mean, soon after I was here we used this telescope to, to discover the radiation belts of Jupiter, for example. It was done easily once we had the idea of what frequency to look at and we had to build a special antenna to capture that frequency on this telescope.

But we discovered the radiation belts. We measured the temperature of Saturn for the first time. We measured the rotation rate of Jupiter to an accuracy that’s never been improved on.

Dallas Campbell:
Is it funny being back here again?

Frank Drake:
It’s funny but it seems as though almost as though nothing has changed. You know, it looks the way it did 50 years ago. And in a way that’s a good thing. Some things last. But this is where we conducted the search, and here’s the telescope. Much as it was then, the only thing that’s changed is what’s at the focal point of the telescope.

Dallas Campbell:
So what’s changed now than, than …?

Frank Drake:
Well what is up at the very, very tip of the (yeah) support is now different because they’re using this telescope for other purposes. But the basic structure’s all the same. This is a style of telescope which is no longer made.

It’s called an equatorial telescope. It has one axis parallel with the axis of the Earth, around which you can rotate the telescope to counteract the rotation of the Earth. And then a second axis which allows the telescope, the dish to move north/south.

Dallas Campbell:
I mean, this one must have been one of the first. Well when was it built?

Frank Drake:
This was built in 1957.

Dallas Campbell:
This is one of the first radio telescopes, well the first generation of radio telescopes to go up.

Frank Drake:
It’s, well there had been others not quite this large built in Australia and England.

Dallas Campbell:
Yeah.

Frank Drake:
Right after World War II.

Dallas Campbell:
Yeah.

Frank Drake:
But this was the first attempt in the United States to get into the radio astronomy business seriously. And here in America the tradition was to use the equatorial configuration which allowed you to track things just by rotating around one axis that was parallel to the axis of the Earth. (Uh, huh)

That was traditional. It worked very well. You didn’t need computers. You just had to run a motor at a constant speed and the telescope would track.

So this was built that way and that’s why it looks the way it does. And nowadays we don’t use this mount because we can control the telescopes with computers as to where they’re pointing.

Dallas Campbell:
So presumably back then no computers, no digital technology. You’re doing, someone has to be there all the time.

Frank Drake:
Someone has to be there all the time. You have to be controlling it all the time. Driving it. Back then the situation was entirely different from today. The thoughts, particularly by serious scientists of life beyond Earth were considered taboo.

They were, it was considered below the dignity of god astronomers. And this grew out of the many false claims of seeing evidence of life on the Moon and on Mars. The work of Percival Lowe got a lot of publicity.

Dallas Campbell:
Here are the canals on …

Frank Drake:
These are the canals and the civilisation that was solving its problems with this great canal system that he thought he saw with the telescope. All of which proved to be false.

Dallas Campbell:
Do you think that’s because of back then, you know, we obviously have a sort of anthropocentric view of the universe?

Frank Drake:
Oh I think it was very anthropocentric yes.

Dallas Campbell:
And do you think sort of back then it was even more so than it is now. Perhaps in the 19, you know, certainly after the Second World War we had a sort of self-importance.

Frank Drake:
Yeah.

Dallas Campbell:
Which, when we talked about things out there or the possibility about being civilisations out there it was pooh poohed. Because I think scientists now, most scientists seem to, at least accept or pay service (yes) to the fact there, there probably is some sort of life whether its complex or …

Frank Drake:
Oh it’s almost universal that scientists believe there is life elsewhere. Oh what’s controversial is how often does that life evolve into an intelligent technology world using species.

And that is problematical and we don’t have enough evidence to really get a good handle on that. That’s going to wait until we’ve actually discovered some other civilisations.

Dallas Campbell:
I mean given that as a young scientist being here I guess you must have felt nervous about doing these kind of observations with government money.

Frank Drake:
I was too naïve to be nervous.

Dallas Campbell:
Did you always have a belief that there must be civilisations out there?

Frank Drake:
I had a belief which anybody whose really looked through a telescope at night for a long time would have. You see all those stars and you learn nowadays as you can, that most of them are like the sun. And it’s almost unthinkable that we are the only ones. And then later you find out, oh there’s another hundred billion galaxies, so there has to be life out there. And I think that’s quite certain.

What is difficult to say is what it’s going to take to find that life because their technologies may be difficulty to detect.

Dallas Campbell:
I remember reading somewhere that you kind of thought that by the year 2000 we would have made contact. And I think about our sort of science fiction and obviously 2001 (yes, yes) the famous book and the famous film by Arthur C Clarke. And then of course 2010 where we are now, which was another film, the year we made contact and here we are we still haven’t made contact.

Frank Drake:
Well we should have. What happened was people became sceptical, particularly people who are in charge of the purse strings, of the money. And we started in the mid-1980s to construct extremely powerful SETI search systems. And this was using government supported, it was government provided money.

But in the early 1990s these efforts were ceased upon by publicity seeking members of the American Congress who used it to, as what they thought were examples of the tax payers’ money being wasted. And the result was the amount of support went very far down. And so the rate of progress ground to a halt. If we had continued on the curve we were on in the 1980s we might have succeeded by now.

But we’ve been held back now for 20 years by reticence from the major funding agencies to support this kind of project in a big way.

Dallas Campbell:
You’ve got to accept that it’s a fair I wouldn’t say criticism. It’s not a criticism but it’s a different way of looking at this problem because at the end of the day we haven’t heard from anyone.

Frank Drake:
That’s right.

Dallas Campbell:
Where is everyone?

Frank Drake:
That’s a fair challenge, and of course its known as the Fermi paradox because the great physicist Enrico Fermi thought through all of the thinking which is behind all of this business and realised that at least the idea that many civilisations in space and that they’ve become very advanced and he would expect that some of them would have embarked on space travel and visited here or perhaps even colonised the Earth.

And as far as we can tell it hasn’t happened. And does this mean that this never happens? Because it only takes one to do this to perhaps colonise the whole galaxy. And it only takes tens of millions of years to colonise the whole galaxy if you are of that mind. And it hasn’t happened.

So does this say may be we are alone after all? This is the Fermi paradox.

And my answer to that is that we have been misled by what takes place in science fiction movies and books. Where it’s just assumed that the more advanced civilisation finds it easy and inexpensive to travel across space at high velocity and go from one star to another.

Well, if you actually take some serious physics and simple physics and analyse such a situation you discover it’s not easy at all. No matter how sophisticated you are. And to give you a feel for that, let’s just imagine that we had rocket propulsion engines which can get us up to say the tenth of speed of light, which by the way is about as fast as you can go without being in great danger of being destroyed because at that speed if you impact anything.

Dallas Campbell:
Yeah bits and pieces up there. It’s going to do some damage.

Frank Drake:
Yeah. Not little damage. Big damage because at the tenth of speed of light when you impact something it releases a large energy as though little piece was a nuclear bomb. It destroys your mission.

So all it takes is something a few millimetres in diameter to actually destroy your mission. So probably a tenth of speed of light is the highest that you can go without really, really being in great danger. Anyway that’s an aside so to speak.

But let’s imagine you could go that fast. And say alright we’re going to send a mission to a nearby star, say ten lights years away which is probably the closest where the star has a habitable planet. At a tenth of speed of light and it’s going to be a spacecraft about the size of an Airbus 320.

And it has 30 or 40 people on it as passengers. What’s that going to take?

Before we get to that you might ask yourself would you want to go? At a tenth the speed of light to get ten light years takes 100 years. You’re not going to get there alive. And just think of sitting on an Airbus 320 for 100 years, watching the same movies over and over.

Dallas Campbell:
I struggled coming over here actually with, and my screen was broken so I couldn’t watch any movies.

Frank Drake:
Well all the screens would be broken before 100 years.

Dallas Campbell:
I read your book so it was OK, so I had quite a nice trip.

Frank Drake:
OK. So well anyway let’s assume you can find enough somewhat mentally ill people who are willing to make this trip. What does it take in the way of energy? Now the amount of energy in a spacecraft moving at that speed, A320, can be calculated from the most simple laws of physics.

It doesn’t require you to understand the propulsion system at all. But you can calculate the total amount of energy, and the propulsion system has to provide that much energy and more to make up for inefficiencies. But how much energy is in a spacecraft, an A320 going at tenth the speed of light?

Well, it turns out to be equal to the total electric power production of Europe for 200 years. Two hundred years. You would have to shut down Europe for 200 years to launch this mission.

And by the way that only gets it up to speed. It doesn’t provide any way to stop it when it gets there.

And so the energy requirements are enormous. And they are so great that there is nothing that would be retrievable or collectable from another star system or planet that would justify that expense.

There’s no way one civilisation can exploit each other. There’s no information that would be worth all of that, particularly since you can gain that same information through radio searches presumably. And so the reason they haven’t come to us is simply that they are intelligent.

And they have worked through what I just described to you and realised that it’s a foolish, incredibly foolish enterprise to embark on. The only ones who might have tried it are ones that are foolish and stupid ,and they don’t know how to do it. So they haven’t come to us.

Dallas Campbell:
But aren’t we thinking about these in terms of our own technology now? I mean, back in 1960 when you did the original search, you know, we we’re looking for these intelligent civilisations with our current technology.

And now of course we’ve moved on and we’re thinking about it in terms of our technology now.

So in terms of explaining the Fermi paradox aren’t we thinking about it in terms of, you know, we’re talk about 200 years of electricity in Europe. Perhaps they’ve developed new forms of collecting energy, whatever that may be.

Frank Drake:
Well.

Dallas Campbell:
Exotic, exotic forms, anti-matter or Dyson spheres or …

Frank Drake:
Still it’s a great deal of energy and there’s a better way to use it. For example, to my mind the sensible thing to do if you really want to exploit space is to colonise your own planetary system.

The cost of establishing a colony in the solar system is about one one millionth the cost of establishing that on a nearby star when you take into account the transportation costs. There is enough energy coming from the sun but if you capture it all as in Dyson spheres it would support ten to the 22nd power human beings. So that is presently our population is about ten to the 10th human being.

So this would be ten to the 12th. That’s a million million times, not a million million more people but a million million times more people than we have today. That sounds like enough. And you can do it with resources that are available in our own system from the asteroids and things like that.

Dallas Campbell:
But even if we hadn’t obviously, you know, despite what people may think they see or believe happens we have, you know, other civilisations haven’t come here. Why haven’t we been able to detect them? I mean, forget about space travel but …

Frank Drake:
Why haven’t we detected them? That, that’s easy we just haven’t tried enough. We I think have again been misled by unfortunate, exuberant claims by myself and other colleagues that we’ve done a lot of searching. And we have.

We’ve looked carefully at only a few thousand stars and a very small number of the channels that are possible on the electro magnetic spectrum. And that’s just hardly even a start.

If you take perhaps reasonable or even optimistic values for the factors that go into the Equation it, it suggests that right now there may be only 10,000 civilisations we can detect in the galaxy. That’s one in ten million stars. We have to look at ten million stars before we have a good chance of succeeding, we have a long way to go.

Dallas Campbell:
So it’s a needle in a haystack?

Frank Drake:
It’s a needle in a haystack and we’ve looked at only a few little handfuls of straw.

Dallas Campbell:
But I guess the problem with the needle in a haystack, we’re not definitely sure there is a needle in there. We believe there to be a needle in the haystack.

Frank Drake:
Yes, yes.

Dallas Campbell:
And so how much of this search comes down to ultimately a degree of faith in the fact that …

Frank Drake:
Well yes. There is faith and it has, the thing that requires faith is that civilisations will remain detectable for a substantial time. We ourselves have been detectable for about 100 years.

We may or may not be typical. We are in the process of becoming less detectable through advancing technology.

On the other hand there are potential technologies which will keep us detectable such as solar power stations in space. So there’s a very important unknown future of technology for civilisations like ours, which greatly impact the length of time they are visible and we don’t have a clue as to what that is. So for the present all we can do it search. And it doesn’t cost much.

Dallas Campbell:
If we carry on searching and we make contact with another civilisation what will that do for humanity?

Frank Drake:
What that will do for humanity is probably beyond anything we can imagine. As in many things, the result of a discovery produces results which are far different from what was predicted.

What we can predict of course is that we will learn of how intelligent other creatures may be. What evolution can lead to. How far we might evolve. We will find out things such as do we develop a means to connect computers directly into our brains to become in a way, partly cyber creatures.

We will learn if other civilisations colonise space. We will learn what their art forms are. We will learn of what they enjoy. What the sources of joy are with other intelligent creatures. And we will learn perhaps what doesn’t work. What to avoid. Maybe colonising space is a bad thing.

We will find out and it will save us the trouble of learning a lesson through our own, through some very difficult and damaging enterprise. Fade to black and fade up again

Dallas Campbell:
Now obviously we are doing the same observation that was done …

Frank Drake:
Yeah.

Dallas Campbell:
… fifty years ago. How much more powerful is this telescope (oh right) just in terms of numbers of channels and that sort of thing?

Frank Drake:
The first project had one channel. This one has 120,000.

Dallas Campbell:
So it’s a little bit … fractionally, fractionally.

Frank Drake:
And this one has 160 times the sensitivity due to the larger dish and the much better receivers of today. And what that means is this is a good number to have in your show. What took two months in 1960 and which only produced data for 7,200 channels will produce data of equal quality for 120,000 channels in four tenths of a second.

Dallas Campbell:
So four tenths of a second is the same amount of work as two months’ work.

Frank Drake:
Yes.

Dallas Campbell:
So four tenths of a second and back home in time for tea and cake.

Frank Drake:
Yes, except that’s not what we’re going to do. We’re actually going observe for five minutes.

Five minutes, which is 300 seconds. That, and the sensitivity increases as the square root of that number. Is that right? Five minutes is 300 seconds. So that’s 600 times the original thing, so the sensitivity is increased by the square root of 600 which is 25. And so what the 160 becomes 25 times greater, whatever that is.

Dallas Campbell:
It’s better basically.

Frank Drake:
Lots better.

Dallas Campbell:
Can I just ask you about those stars? I mean, here we are 50 years later looking for the same two stars. Apart from obviously the sort of anniversary does it make sense to look at those two stars?

Frank Drake:
Yes, because they are very similar to the sun. I’ve got all the data here.

Dallas Campbell:
On your napkin.

Frank Drake:
But there has been studies by people who tried to identify stars which they think are likely to have habitable planets. Now that’s a dicey business, they don’t take it too seriously. But there is a catalogue called the Habcat catalogue, which is Habitable Stars Catalogue. And there are five stars in that catalogue that are considered the prime candidates and two of them are these two.

Dallas Campbell:
And did you know that at the time?

Frank Drake:
No.

Dallas Campbell:
So was that a wild guess of those sun-like stars?

Frank Drake:
Those were chosen because they are closer to the Sun than stars. Nothing to do with, this Habcat gets into things like the current age of the stars which you can judge from the intensity of the iron lines in the spectrum. The amount of dust and debris around them which we now can directly observe, and additional data like that. Technician: OK. Four seconds.

Frank Drake:
Are we looking at the star? Technician: Yeah, we’re not taking data yet because we;re balancing things again now. It will just be a few moments.

Dallas Campbell:
How do you feel sitting here looking at this, doing this again?

Frank Drake:
A lot better than I felt 60 years ago, 50 years ago. All we had then was a pen and ink.

Dallas Campbell:
So we’ve got the telescope now, it’s trained on Tau Ceti and we’re starting to get, is this data coming in? Woman: Yes.

Dallas Campbell:
We’re starting to get the first data in now from Tau Ceti. Fade to black and up again

Dallas Campbell:
Frank, so what’s, we’ve done the observing, what’s the …

Frank Drake:
We’ve done taking the observations. We still haven’t, we took a close look at the conspicuous spikes in the first three sets of data we took and saw nothing that looked like an extraterrestrial signal. We’ve got one period to look at.

Dallas Campbell:
Right.

Frank Drake:
We’re dealing with the deluge of data right now, is what’s going on.

Dallas Campbell:
How do you feel about it, are you sort of disappointed?

Frank Drake:
No. It’s like buying a ticket in the lottery. If you’re going to be disappointed that every ticket loses, you shouldn’t be in the business.

Dallas Campbell:
I know I just, only because it’s, you know, its re-doing the original search but with so much more sophisticated equipment.

Frank Drake:
Yes.

Dallas Campbell:
You know, I’m just wondering how you feel about that.

Frank Drake:
It just confirms what the original search found that there’s, from these two stars nothing coming in a very narrow 12 mega hertz piece of the radio spectrum. But that’s a small piece of the radio spectrum.

We haven’t exhausted the potentialities of these stars as sources of signals. We just, we looked at the so called magic frequencies which are very anthropomorphic choice.

Dallas Campbell:
So let’s, just, yes. So we’re looking at the so-called water hole, which is like you said anthropomorphic choice.

Frank Drake:
Yes.

Dallas Campbell:
This is where we’d like to think that people would be broadcasting.

Frank Drake:
We like to think that they think like us.

Dallas Campbell:
Yeah.

Frank Drake:
And are choosing to broadcast which we don’t do. And in fact it’s illegal for us to transmit a hydrogen line spectrum because that’s a protected frequency for radio astronomy.

Dallas Campbell:
Right.

Frank Drake:
So that’s why we look, looked at the OH because that’s also a water hole. That’s actually protected too though. By us but may be the extraterrestrials don’t protect these things.

Dallas Campbell:
Yeah. Can you ever, do you think you’ll ever get to a point where you’ll say OK this haystack it’s just too big?

Frank Drake:
No, because this particular spectrometer we were using was not designed for SETI, and so it’s quite limited. It’s limited in its overall piece of the spectrum it looks at, and also it’s limited in its bandwidth to a very, to what to us is broadband widths. We like to look with one hertz and because a very clean signal from a transmitter does occupy only one hertz.

And if you can match your receiver to the bandwidth of the transmission you have much better sensitivity.

If they were really trying to contact us they’d use very narrow signals, about one hertz. We can’t go narrower than that by the way because the galaxy is, the signal travels through the galaxy, the signal gets broadened a little bit. Thank goodness because otherwise we’d have to look for a millionth of a hertz bandwidth or something would be awful. But at one hertz is about, as minimal as the bandwidth can be just because of galactic electrons.

Dallas Campbell:
That was a really weird experience. Not at all what I imagined.

I think in my own naivety I expected people to be running around and excited and champagne corks going and listening. But it was really quite sort of utilitarian, and I was surprised by the, I guess the technology seemed to be the focus.

People fiddled with computers and computers not working. And also I noticed a real sort of change in Frank.

He seemed really quite deflated. Earlier on when we were chatting, you know, I got that infectious optimism especially when we were showing him round the old telescope and he was back in that room for the first time.

You just felt his passion still 50 years on and suddenly it just kind of went. And I guess that’s the weird thing having been doing this search for 50 years and finding nothing, keeping that faith has got to be a really difficult thing.

And it just highlights the fact that it’s more than just a science question this. It’s a question about being a human being. And it’s a question about keeping the faith. He said a really interesting thing actually. He talked about it, he said looking at Tau Ceti was like buying a lottery ticket. Looking at Epsilon Meridian was like buying a lottery ticket. Like buying two lottery tickets.

But it’s a lottery where you just assume there’s a jackpot. It’s a lottery where you don’t know whether there’s a jackpot.

Buying your lottery ticket is crazy enough as it is, but buying a lottery ticket where you don’t know where the jackpot is, takes even more faith I guess.

The interesting thing is because it’s a 50th anniversary I suddenly realised there’s another anniversary because you’ve got a birthday coming up. And I heard a really terrible thing which was that you had, you’d never read Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy which is probably certainly my favourite and most reached for book. So just to say thank you for spending this time with us I managed to source a copy for you.

Frank Drake:
Oh my goodness.

Dallas Campbell:
And I hope you enjoy it.

Frank Drake:
Oh thank you very much. Now I can find out what I’ve been doing all these years.

Dallas Campbell:
Exactly. Anyone whose searching for N I think should certainly read that. But thank you very much for sparing the time.

Frank Drake:
Thank you very much, that’s nice. It’s very nice. Oh thanks.

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