The man who sent the first message from Earth to extraterrestrial civilizations died last Friday at the age of 92 at his home in Aptos, California. Frank Drake (Chicago, 1930) is an astrophysicist who, throughout his life, managed to transform a common subject for comics and science fiction into a subject respected by the scientific community.
When he began working as an astronomer in the late 1950s, radio astronomy was booming, and new antennas, or radio telescopes, were being built to show an unknown side of the universe. Only radio waves and light waves could penetrate the Earth’s atmosphere, and they offered scientists information about celestial objects that the only optical telescopes in use at the time could not.
The Green Bank Radio Telescope, in West Virginia (USA), two years before a young Drake discovered the strongest magnetic field around Jupiter of all the planets in the solar system, Venus’s temperature does not vary between day and night. , a probe visited the planet two decades ago. But in 1960, in his early 30s, Drake first challenged common sense. He pointed the Green Bank Telescope for several weeks at two nearby Sun-like stars, Tau Ceti and Epsilon Eridani, 12 light-years from Earth, and was convinced that it could detect radio signals from civilizations he believed to be there. Any planetary system around a star. He named this experiment Osma projectFrom the name of a queen from a fairy tale The Wizard of Oz. “No serious scientist would work in that field,” he recalled wryly.
Disappointingly, the only signal he saw was interference from a terrestrial source. However, decades later, this was the first step towards becoming this The SETI project, for the search for extraterrestrial intelligences that he helped discover. The first extrasolar planet was not observed Until 1995: Drake had no doubt at that time that there must be other planetary systems in the galaxy.
He was convinced that he had at the same time explained the most famous equation in astronomy. E=mc²: An expression for counting the number of observable civilizations in our galaxy, the Milky Way. This number is a function of the rate of star formation (the only parameter measured by observation at the time), the percentage of stars with planetary systems (today, at least half of stars are estimated to have one. ), the average number of habitable planets in each of these systems, the percentage of life developing, the percentage of life with intelligence, and the percentage of intelligent life creating a technological society. Percent, all this is multiplied by the number. This technologically advanced civilization has existed for many years.
Obviously, this is a purely speculative equation: after all, we currently only know of one example of this type of civilization. However, the imagination it provides is so powerful that it has become iconic. Thank you for the dream (and fear) that we are not alone in the universe.
Years later, Drake was given the opportunity to play the representative of one of these civilizations, Earthlings, facing the rest of the universe. At its inauguration in November 1974, the new instruments attached to the Arecibo Telescope (Ruins today), which Drake came to direct in Puerto Rico A message with 3 minutes and exactly 1,679 bits (a trifle, it’s the equivalent of less than a page of text) and fired in the direction of M13, a cluster of more than 300,000 stars. If, in 20,000 years, it were a 23 x 73 pixel matrix (23 and 73 are two prime numbers whose product is exactly 1679), anyone listening would see a simple drawing. of a double helix, the number of nucleotides and the atomic numbers of the elements that make them up (carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, nitrogen, phosphorus), the outline of a human, a number in binary code indicating our average height (based on the wavelength at which the message was sent, and another indicating how many of us there were (4,000 at the time million), a simple map of our solar system (even with the planet Pluto). He was demoted in 2006) and finally a diagram of the Arecibo telescope itself, in the form of a parabola.
He didn’t miss an opportunity to send another message in a bottle to those on the other side of the cosmic ocean: when NASA launched two twin probes Pioneer 10 Y 11 (1972 and 1973) painted a picture with Carl Sagan A gold aluminum plate For thousands of years, these probes were intended for those who could intercept them, and today they are estimated to be 110 times the distance between the Earth and the Sun. In addition to the image of a man and a woman, its route is a cosmic map to identify the Sun based on the 14 closest pulsars to our planetary system and the probe itself. Pulsars are very dense stars that emit a light signal at very regular intervals, like a cosmic lighthouse, which is exactly what radio astronomer Jocelyn Bell says. was found A few years ago (at first it was believed they could be extraterrestrial signals, something impossible given the energy involved). These stars would certainly be known to other cosmic observers, and Drake and Sagan thought that given their relative frequency and position, they could create absolute spatial references for the final recipient of the plaque.
These concerns and hypothetical vision shaped SETI, which was stymied for years by the astronomy community, concerned with securing funding for robust projects, and by politics itself, which tried (and sometimes succeeded) to cut off the project faucet for years. Famously, there was a disagreement between Drake and Wisconsin Democratic Senator William Proxmire, who vehemently opposed NASA’s waste of money on little green men. Drake, to get over him, tried to sign him up to the Flat Earth Society.
Today, SETI has established itself as a respectable organization SETI InstituteDrake was president between 1984 and 2010. The organization analyzes data from radio astronomy observations to check for artificial signals outside of the artificial signals produced by stars and galaxies, and has formed one of the first examples of citizen science (thousands of users around the world have lent their computer CPUs to analyze data provided by SETI). The organization also collaborates with NASA Planetary exploration projects People like Stephen Hawking contribute financially to its support. In one of his last works, The Listen to Project BreakthroughA million stars in our galaxies will be scanned.
Humans They have been searching for aliens for over a century (failed). And the same The Artemis mission Or the future exploration of Mars, NASA knows very well that there is nothing better than making us dream to boost research and development. No one dreamed of a wider scope than Frank Drake.
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