Episode 28: Frank Drake’s cosmic road map

More than six decades after Frank Drake wrote an equation to help find out if we are alone in the universe, scientists may soon have the answer.

Frank Drake helped build the National Radio Astronomy Observatory’s first radio telescope, the 85-foot Howard E. Tatel.
Photograph by NRAO/AUI/NSF

Are we alone in the universe? It’s a question we’ve been asking for millennia. Now we’re on the cusp of learning the answer. Frank Drake—one of the most vocal (and brilliant) askers—has spent the past six decades inspiring others to join him in this quest. Now, a new generation of scientists is carrying his work forward. They’re finally being taken seriously, and they’re about to change the way we think about our place in the cosmos.

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PETER GWIN (HOST): It’s Halloween, 1961.

Ten of the world’s leading scientists have found their way to a remote spot in the Allegheny Mountains.

They’re there in secret to talk about searching for aliens.

OK, hang on. This isn’t the beginning of a Twilight Zone episode. This meeting actually happened. Not only that, this secret meeting would eventually change the way we think of our place in the cosmos.

And it’s all because of a man named Frank Drake.

FRANK DRAKE (ASTRONOMER): (Archival audio) Our best evidence would suggest that there is a very large number of planetary systems in our galaxy. Possibly some 50 percent of the stars have them. But given a planetary system, will there be life on it?

GWIN: That’s Frank Drake, a year earlier, at a different meeting in 1960 at Colgate University. He’s an impossibly young 28-year-old astronomer, speaking to a roomful of physicists. But what’s even more impossible is the question he’s asking: Are we alone in the universe?

At the time, this wasn’t a question scientists were comfortable asking. At least not out loud.

FRANK DRAKE: (Archival audio) I think I’m here to provide the comic relief to this shindig. (Laughter)

GWIN: Frank knew his audience. He knew this question would make them squirm, even giggle. But he also knew he had to ask it.

FRANK DRAKE: (Archival audio) The question as to whether there is intelligent life elsewhere in space has long fascinated people.

GWIN: Just how long people have been wondering about life out there is anyone’s guess. Looking up into the vast ocean of stars has made us wonder since, well, forever. But, as Frank addressed that group of physicists in 1960, the question still hadn’t been given any serious scientific attention.

FRANK DRAKE: (Archival audio) It has been properly left to the science fiction writers and other nonscientific groups simply because our technology was not capable of detecting any reasonable manifestation that could be expected from other civilized communities in space.

GWIN: The infinite magnitude of space that daunted—and even terrified—so many others at the time, appeared observable to Frank. What’s more, he asked others to observe it with him.

FRANK DRAKE: (Archival audio) In recent years, our astrophysical knowledge of the universe and our technology has advanced to the state where these questions can no longer be ignored by the scientists.

GWIN: And Frank Drake was one scientist who would no longer ignore it. In fact, at that very moment, he was on the cusp of the first ever scientific search for extraterrestrial intelligence— out at that remote site in the Allegheny Mountains, at a place called the National Radio Astronomy Observatory in Green Bank, West Virginia. It was a project that would challenge the boundary of what was considered unacceptable science.

FRANK DRAKE: (Archival audio) So this question of how many civilizations in space depends not only on the question of how many planets there are but on another very important question, and that is, Is there intelligent life on Earth? (Laughter)

GWIN: Fortunately, Frank Drake did find intelligent life on this planet—specifically, 10 highly educated, rarefied beings who wondered if they, too, were alone in the universe. And they would gather at that observatory in Green Bank, West Virginia, the very next year on Halloween night.

And our age-old question about our place in the universe would be given new meaning.

I’m Peter Gwin, editor at large at National Geographic magazine, and you’re listening to Overheard, a show where we eavesdrop on the wild conversations we have here at Nat Geo and follow them to the edges of our big, weird, beautiful world.

This week we’re asking the big question. You know, the one that pops into your head 
when you stare up into the night sky and wonder, Are we alone? But don’t worry, you’re in good company. Frank Drake has been giving people the tools to ponder this question for decades. Especially the people who are about to answer it.

More right after the break.

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NADIA DRAKE (NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC WRITER): The question we got the most was, “Be real, we know you have aliens buried in your basement.” (Laughs) Which, of course, we do not.

GWIN: That’s what I was getting at, Nadia, that’s really the question I wanted to ask.

NADIA DRAKE: We do not have aliens in our basement that I am aware of.

GWIN: Imagine being the daughter of not just a famous scientist, but the daughter of a famous scientist who’s looking for aliens. That’s what growing up was like for Frank Drake’s daughter Nadia Drake. She’s a science journalist who writes for National Geographic.

NADIA DRAKE: Dad loves to tell stories, and so I always loved listening. Having a dad in astronomy meant that we could do backyard observing nights and we would aim the telescope at the sky. Jupiter was always his favorite to see because of the colors.

GWIN: Nadia’s dad, who recently celebrated his 92nd birthday, grew up on the south side of Chicago. The middle of a major city might seem like an odd place to look at the stars, 
but it was actually an ideal place for a budding young astronomer like Frank.

FRANK DRAKE: We would go to the Adler Planetarium, and they had the big demonstrations that they ran in the planetarium, where they could describe the constellations and things like that. We did that by bicycle.

GWIN: It was there that he started to imagine the possibility of life outside our planet. And later, as a sophomore at Cornell, he looked into the night sky and saw it revealed everything.

FRANK DRAKE: I think the biggest thrill I ever had in all this business was the first time I looked at Jupiter through a pretty big telescope and actually saw the weather bands on Jupiter and that bright red spot. I could see the appearance of the surface of Jupiter was changing from hour to hour. It just struck me as spectacular because I had been reading descriptions of it and so on, pictures in books, but it’s actually right there. And you could see it.

GWIN: This kid from Chicago peered into the cosmos and had a revelation.

FRANK DRAKE: And it’s a lot of complicated things happening in the universe.

GWIN: The universe presented itself as more than just an inky black cloak with tiny pinpricks of light but rather as three-dimensional, and colorful, and limitless. He described it as a kind of Galilean moment.

FRANK DRAKE: And I thought that was just thrilling.

GWIN: That thrill propelled Frank forward. A stint in the Navy. Graduate school at Harvard.
And then on to begin his career in astronomy to pursue the question that had driven him since childhood.

FRANK DRAKE: Evidence for life in the universe would be found by observing the planets in the solar system.

GWIN: And that’s really been his focus ever since. But in talking to Nadia, I was curious: 
How would an out-of-the-box-thinking scientist describe such a quest to his young daughter?

(To Nadia Drake) How did your dad explain how he would go about looking for alien life?

NADIA DRAKE: He said it’s like looking for the technologies that we have. And to me that was very easy to conceptualize. Just looking for signs that other civilizations have communicative technologies that are like ours. It’s conceptually simple, right?

GWIN: Yeah, I guess, it is … but … well …

OK. You can hear my hesitation here. What’s simple for Frank and Nadia Drake—who by the way, has her own Ph.D., in genetics—is not necessarily simple for everyone. So let me break it down.

Frank’s strategy for detecting the existence of life on other planets involves picking up radio signals, which are a form of electromagnetic radiation. The idea here is that if a planet has life on it—and not just any life but intelligent life—it also may possess the capability of using technologies, like transmitting radio waves.

For example, here on Earth, we’ve been broadcasting radio for more than a century. And each radio signal, long after it’s transmitted (the baseball game, the news report, the Beatles song),
keeps traveling on an epic journey through the universe.

So Frank reasoned that if we on Earth could pick up radio signals from somewhere out there, it could indicate there’s intelligent life on another planet.

Of course, that’s easier said than done.

(To Nadia Drake) It is. But it’s also daunting. It feels like that needle-in-a-haystack kind of situation, you know?

NADIA DRAKE: Oh yeah …

GWIN: Except that haystack is the universe, you know?

NADIA DRAKE: Yeah, that’s all. (Laughs) Yeah, that is the crux of the problem, isn’t it? The haystack is massive.

GWIN: Yeah. Infinite.

NADIA DRAKE: And that’s what SETI scientists are up against all the time.

GWIN: The scientific field Nadia is referring to is known as SETI, which is shorthand for the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence. OK, so getting back to that haystack. Just how massive is it? Well, here’s one way to understand how much of it we actually know.

ADAM FRANK (ASTROPHYSICIST): So imagine somebody says to you, “Hey, man, are there fish in the ocean?” And you go out and scoop up a hot tub’s worth of the ocean. And you look, and, they’re like, “There’s like, there’s no fish in here. And so therefore, there’s no fish in the ocean. I know that for sure.” 

GWIN: This is Adam Frank. He’s an author and professor of astrophysics at the University of Rochester. And he’s referring to a paper by his colleague, Jason Wright, who figured out that, yeah, well, if the entire universe is the ocean, so far, we’ve searched a tiny fraction of it.

ADAM FRANK: So you often hear people saying, like, “We’ve been searching for aliens for 50 years, and we haven’t found anything. Therefore, we know they don’t exist.” But that is malarkey, as we would say.

GWIN: There are few areas of science that provoke such strong opinions as looking for life outside our planet. Even the ancient Greeks argued about it. Aristotle held on to the idea that we were the center of the universe, and Democritus said, No, there must be other forms of life out there.

And that was more than 2,000 years ago. But the argument continues. More recently, skeptical reactions often take the form of nervous laughter. SETI scientists have a name for it. They call it the giggle factor. It’s someone’s way of saying, “You don’t actually believe in aliens, do you? Ha ha ha.”

But then Frank Drake comes along, and he’s got this idea about radio waves.

OK, it’s 1958. The ink is barely dry on his Ph.D. when Frank gets a job as a staff astronomer and head of telescope operations at a brand-new radio observatory way out in Green Bank, West Virginia. By his account, he was only the fifth or sixth person with a Ph.D. in this field.

And that’s because radio astronomy was just taking off in the late 1950s. It was groundbreaking for its ability to reveal the unseeable characteristics of, well, almost everything that’s out there—supernovas, quasars, nebulae—and astronomers still use it today.

NADIA DRAKE: Radio waves, actually, they move differently through the cosmos than optical wavelengths do. They’re better at traveling through interstellar dust, gas—all of the stuff that tends to be a problem for optical astronomers.

GWIN: In Green Bank, Frank helped build a radio telescope with an 85-foot receiving dish. And it was a big moment for this new field. But Frank was excited for another reason as well. This thing might just be large enough for a serious search for extraterrestrial intelligence.

ADAM FRANK: And everybody’s like, Oh, we’re going to look at galaxies! No, no, no. I want to look at supernovas! And he has to convince his colleagues that, like, Well, maybe we should look for aliens, right? But what’s awesome is they were like, OK. You know, because, yeah, what Frank Drake had—and this is what makes it so important—he had a plan, right? He did the science. 

GWIN: For four months, Frank set his alarm for 3 a.m. He climbed up into the giant telescope jutting above the forests in the Allegheny Mountains, and he searched for radio signals in the vicinity of two sunlike stars, each about 11 light-years away: Tau Ceti and Epsilon Eridani.

He knew the stars were there, but he was only assuming that they had planets. And maybe—just maybe—they’d have life on them.

OK, this was the longest of long shots. But he spent six hours a day toggling a 100-hertz channel receiver up and down the dial, searching for signs of life. He called it Project Ozma, after Princess Ozma from Frank Baum’s Wizard of Oz series.

NADIA DRAKE: He was thinking of the worlds that he might find. He was imagining places like the Land of Oz that were populated by strange and exotic creatures.

GWIN: As it turned out, Frank and his colleagues didn’t pick up any broadcasts from alien creatures. They heard mostly static. But the search for life in outer space had begun.

ADAM FRANK: So it was truly the first scientific search for life outside of Earth. It was just, it was groundbreaking. It was just genius in a way and truly heroic.

GWIN: The National Academy of Sciences, which advises the U.S. government, took notice. Soon, Frank was approached by the organization, which had taken an interest in aliens since the Soviets had launched Sputnik four years earlier. The Cold War was well under way, and they wanted to gather absolutely every scientist with knowledge of this new field.

All together, there were only 10 of them.

Which brings us back to the secret Halloween meeting out at the Green Bank Observatory.

NADIA DRAKE: And that’s where in 1961, the Drake equation was unveiled for the first time.

GWIN: The Drake equation. It would prove to be one of the most influential equations in astronomy and the starting point for SETI. The group of 10 included astrophysicists, astronomers, electronics inventors, and exobiology experts. Among their ranks were a young Carl Sagan, chemist Melvin Calvin, and Otto Struve, one of the most influential astronomers of the 20th century.

So here’s super young Frank Drake, who’s now in charge of organizing this meeting with some scientific heavyweights. A meeting that poses this ginormous needle-in-the-universe challenge: How do you even start?

NADIA DRAKE: He had all these people showing up, and he realized he did not have a meeting agenda and he needed a way to organize their discussions over the next couple of days. And so that’s how he ended up writing the Drake equation completely casually. He ended up using that as his meeting agenda.

GWIN: OK, so scientific equations can feel pretty intimidating, but really they’re a way to break a complex question down to its parts. And in Frank’s case, it offered the starting point for this big meeting.

NADIA DRAKE: The equation says: N equals R star, f sub p, n sub e, f sub l, f sub i, f sub c. And then big L.

GWIN: OK, when you hear it like that, it sounds kinda like alien code. But when you put the whole thing together, it’s actually just a thought experiment to solve a straightforward question.

NADIA DRAKE: It is just looking for the number of detectable civilizations in the Milky Way galaxy.

ADAM FRANK: So he takes this impossible question, and he breaks it into seven subquestions. Each one can be addressed separately.

GWIN: It starts by asking how many stars are formed each year in our galaxy. Seems reasonable, right?

NADIA DRAKE: Planets exist around stars. And so you want to know how often these places that support planets are emerging.

GWIN: And then the equation makes its way along a string of variables, starting with exoplanets—planets outside of our solar system—which, PS, in 1961 we hadn’t even discovered a single one. Yet.

ADAM FRANK: Because if you don’t have planets, you’re not going to have life. 

How many of those planets are in the habitable zone, are in the right place for life to form? 

How many have life forming? What fraction do you get actually life started?

NADIA DRAKE: This is the number that we’re currently trying to nail down.

What is the fraction of life that …

ADAM FRANK: … evolve forward into intelligence?

NADIA DRAKE: What is the fraction of intelligent life that develops communicative technologies?

GWIN: And then the last part of the equation—which is just L—ends with a bit of a curveball. It reminds us that life out there, like life here on Earth, is probably fleeting.

NADIA DRAKE: You basically just want to know: How much time do I have to find these things?

GWIN: How long is a civilization detectable? Which also means, how long will we be around to detect it? The value of L was a heavy question for scientists who were smack-dab in the middle of the Cold War and living under the threat of nuclear Armageddon

But taken all together, the equation became a kind of cosmic road map.

ADAM FRANK: What it is really in some sense is a statement about our ignorance and how to undo that ignorance. 

GWIN: So this group of brainiacs is all gathered at Green Bank, discussing those seven variables at length. Variables that finally made the universe seem manageable, even if the answers weren’t known. They worked hard, only pausing briefly for champagne, when one of the attendees, Melvin Calvin, won the Nobel Prize for chemistry.

And they bonded.

The feeling of community, as Frank called it, was one they wanted to continue. So they gave themselves a name. Kind of like a secret society. Because, well, it was pretty secret.

NADIA DRAKE: In the 1960s, looking for aliens was super fringe. I mean, it’s still kind of fringe, but back then, it was even more so. And so I wonder too, like, if people thought they were taking a risk by being there.

GWIN: They called themselves the Order of the Dolphin. Which was a nod to a member of the group who was studying communication with intelligent nonhumans. And with their last bottle of champagne, Otto Struve made a toast: “To the value of L [the life span of civilizations].
May it prove to be a very large number.”

In the six decades since the introduction of the Drake equation, there have been monumental advances in space research and exploration—humans on the moon, deep space probes, space stations. And while SETI has seen some success, it certainly hasn’t enjoyed the same progress.

ADAM FRANK: So what’s interesting is SETI has been starved for cash almost its entire life. And that’s why, you know, we’re kind of in the state that we’re in. So one thing, let’s just step back and let’s ask, How much SETI has been done since Frank Drake? And the answer is almost none.

GWIN: You could chalk that up to a matter of priorities. Moon landings and space shuttles took up much of NASA’s attention. But two pivotal decades—the ’80s and the ’90s—saw major political objections to SETI. Aliens, as it were, were unpopular among elected officials.

The seeming impossibility of SETI—a scientific “rifle shot,” as it was described—challenged lawmakers’ political will. This was an effort that might take many decades before it found results.

Senator William Proxmire ridiculed SETI as a fruitless attempt to search for “little green men” 
and gave it his infamous Golden Fleece Award for wasteful government spending. And in 1993, budget tightening—and that giggle factor—finally caught up with SETI. And its congressional funding was canceled.

It often seems that the argument between the ancient Greeks is still going strong. But politics aside, our collective reluctance to search for life beyond our planet begs the question:

Why do you think we’re so afraid of what’s out there?

NADIA DRAKE: Oh, my gosh. I think we’ve always been afraid of what’s out there. The idea that we are the only inhabited world is actually scarier than finding out that we’re not. 

GWIN: The fear of what’s out there overrides what I think your dad sort of embodied was the optimism or the wonder, you know? But a lot of it is like, No, they’re going to eat us, you know, or they’re going to strip-mine our planet or make us slaves or whatever it is.

NADIA DRAKE: It’s interesting that in a lot of the science fiction stories, the aliens are never benevolent vegetarians. They’re always out to, in some way, exploit us.

GWIN: Our imagination—and fear— about space often has more to do with science fiction than it has to do with science. But the thing a lot of people don’t understand about the rest of the universe is that it follows the laws of science that we already understand.

ADAM FRANK: The interesting thing about science is that it is imagination constrained. Why? Because there’s these things called the laws of physics and chemistry and biology. And when I learn the laws of physics and chemistry and biology, it tells me what I can imagine—you know, what’s consistent and what is constrained by reality.

GWIN: In other words, according to Adam Frank, aliens may be weird, but they aren’t magic. They’re going to abide by the laws of science.

ADAM FRANK: So the beauty of all the science we’ve learned over the last 400 years is that it allows us to think about and predict things that we haven’t seen that we want to go look for. So that’s how this process works.

GWIN: And just as Frank Drake and so many astronomers anticipated decades ago, technological advancements have finally caught up with SETI. I’m talking about the discovery of those all-important exoplanets.

Beginning in 2010, the Kepler Space Telescope—which NASA called the Planet Hunter— began finding planets everywhere. Thanks to Kepler and TESS, a survey satellite, the number of exoplanets recently shot past 5,000.

NADIA DRAKE: We know the galaxy is stuffed with planets. So right there, you know, the probabilities, I think, are working in favor of Earth not being very lonely.

GWIN: With every new planet found, Earth has gone from being a sort of only child to being a part of a huge, ever expanding extended family.

ADAM FRANK: And we can say really confidently that every star, every stinking star you see in the sky, has a family of planets orbiting it.

GWIN: And now, as the James Webb Space Telescope and other ground telescope arrays, begin to release data, our understanding of what’s out there will reach a whole new level.

NADIA DRAKE: Who knows what these telescopes are going to see? It’s gonna be wild. It’s gonna be wild.

GWIN: So now that we know there are so many planets, the corollary question—do any of them contain life?—has become a research inevitability.

Federal funding is finally becoming available, and a private initiative called Breakthrough Listen 
is putting $100 million behind a massive search for life in the cosmos. And this is great news for the new generation of SETI scientists who are now rolling up their sleeves.

(To Sofia Sheikh) OK. All right. So let’s just get down to brass tacks. Sofia, I got to ask you this question. So how long have you been looking for aliens?

SOFIA SHEIKH (RADIO ASTRONOMER): I’d have to do some math. I don’t have that off the top of my head. About six, seven years. 

GWIN: Sofia Sheikh was the very first undergraduate researcher at Breakthrough Listen and is now a postdoctoral fellow working at the SETI Institute, a research nonprofit. She’s about the same age as Frank Drake was when he first climbed up into that radio telescope.

SHEIKH: The way that he approached it was he had a receiver that could only look at basically one channel at a time, and listen and see if there was any like super loud signal coming. And then he’d check the next frequency, just tuning through the radio dial on your car, basically, listening to see if there were any signals coming from space. Now we can do a billion channels at a time. Multiple billions of channels at a time.

GWIN: Wait a minute. A billion channels?

SHEIKH: A billion.

GWIN: Oh my God. Wow!

SHEIKH: The rate that we can search is so much faster now that even in just a single night of observing, we can cover what took years to do in the ’60s and ’70s. 

GWIN: So how do you actually leverage the technology that’s possible to do any sort of, you know, listening?

SHEIKH: And that’s the big question. You’ve hit the nail on the head there, and that OK, you get a billion channels at once. How do you pull the interesting ones out? And that’s where algorithms and big data and large computing clusters come into the problem.

GWIN: Sofia is searching for signals, which are now referred to as techno signatures,
signs that a planet has technology. Other scientists are looking for bio signatures,
which means planets that support any kind of life, no matter how primitive.

SHEIKH: And so they’re very closely related concepts. Either way, you’ve detected life in space, and that would be incredible, right?

GWIN: So, I mean, do you feel like at least, you know, statistics are on your side, like it’s out there—it’s got to be out there? You know, we just have to look and find it.

SHEIKH: For me personally, I think it would be kind of contra everything else we’ve learned about the universe for us to be the only technological civilization or the only life in our galaxy or universe. Like, that would be weird.

GWIN: Sofia isn’t alone in her thinking. And her fellow SETI researchers are no longer toiling in obscurity. The days of the giggle factor may at last be behind them. And the future? Well, that’s about to change too.

ADAM FRANK: I think what people need to understand is that, like, we are standing at the edge. Like, you think about it, with the Polynesians and their amazing voyages across the the Pacific: The boats are on the shore. We’re loading them up right now. We’ve got technologies that we’ve never had before, and we’re just pushing off. Like, people need to understand how radical a moment this is.

GWIN: Like another radical moment back in 1960, when a call went out to bring a group of scientists together, Sofia Sheikh recently reached out to her colleagues to make a connection in a field that’s dispersed all over the world.

SHEIKH: And so it started as a group with, like, maybe eight people. Now I think we’re up to around 30, 35. That really just made it feel a lot less lonely.

GWIN: Just as Frank had, Sofia brought scientists in the field together. But this time she did it via Discord, a messaging platform. And as a nod to the Order of the Dolphin, her group called themselves the Order of the Octopus.

SHEIKH: We ended up picking the octopus because in a way it’s one of the most alien forms of life that shows kind of problem-solving abilities.

GWIN: Their mascot—a nonmammal with a nonhuman form of intelligence—serves to remind them of what it might mean to make contact with what’s out there.

The basic human need to connect—either by reaching across a scientific discipline, or across the entire universe—it runs deep for Frank Drake.

NADIA DRAKE: The search for life beyond Earth is all about connection in some way, right? We don’t do well in isolation. You know, when Dad started thinking about SETI, he just really wanted to know if there were other beings like us out there that maybe we could connect with. 

GWIN: But in the evolution of the field, which now pursues a range of answers about the existence of life in the universe, the same basic question still drives the work: Is Earth the only place where life has developed? Or does it also happen elsewhere?

Frank has spent a lifetime searching for an answer.

FRANK DRAKE: We unfortunately have never captured anything from space that looked as though it had information on it about other creatures.

GWIN: But that doesn’t deter Sofia Sheikh, with whom he shares the very same goal.

SHEIKH: I do think that by the end of my career, with the speed that we’re able to search now, we should have a pretty good answer on whether anyone else has built a radio transmitter. And every time we don’t find something, that’s still information. It’s not a waste of time.  

GWIN: Frank Drake never said it would be easy, or that it would happen quickly. But continuing to ask the question has paid off in dividends. It’s yielded scientists like Nadia Drake, Adam Frank, Sofia Sheikh, and multitudes of others who’ve learned that when it comes to space, the only way to answer the biggest question of all is to do the science and to play the long game.

How do they know? Frank Drake taught them.

FRANK DRAKE: (Archival audio) Those who do feel that the goal justifies the great amount of effort that is required will be carrying on this research, and there’s a good possibility that sometime in the future—and we don’t know how long that will be, maybe one hundred years, maybe next week—the search will be successful. (Applause)

If you like what you hear, please consider a National Geographic subscription. You’ll get exclusive access to the stories published daily, curated newsletters, and 130 years of archives. Subscribe today at natgeo.com/exploremore.

For everything about exoplanets—including daily discovery updates—check out NASA’s incredibly cool website. You also don’t want to miss images arriving from the James Webb Space Telescope, which came online last month: SITE.

You can read an article by Nadia Drake about another groundbreaking radio astronomer named Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell. In 1967 she discovered the first radio emissions from a pulsar. But her adviser won the Nobel Prize for her discovery. Go figure.

Visit the observatory in Green Bank, West Virginia. You can see the Drake Lounge, where the famous equation was unveiled. For you history buffs, the cool mid-century furniture is still exactly the same.

And special thanks to the National Radio Astronomy Observatory, who provided the audio you heard of Frank Drake in 1960. The speech was part of the Sullivan Papers in the AUI archives.


This week’s episode was produced by Marcy Thompson.

Overheard is produced by Khari Douglas and Ilana Strauss.

Our senior producers are Brian Gutierrez and Jacob Pinter.

Our senior editor is Eli Chen.

Our manager of audio is Carla Wills.

Our executive producer of audio is Davar Ardalan.

Hansdale Hsu sound-designed this episode and also composed our theme music.

This podcast is a production of National Geographic Partners.

Whitney Johnson is the director of visuals and immersive experiences.

Nathan Lump is National Geographic’s editor in chief.

And I’m Peter Gwin. Thanks so much for listening, and see y’all next time.


Want more?

Space isn’t the only place to explore when scientists are looking for alien life; it’s also important to go underground—here on Earth. Find out why on another episode on another episode of Overheard.

Breakthrough Listen is reaching beyond our galaxy to determine whether or not there is life in space. The project is audacious—and worth following closely.

Frank Drake and Carl Sagan had a legendary friendship and professional relationship. One of their many projects was to create another kind of cosmic road map meant to show aliens how to find us.

Also Explore:

In 1977, NASA sent a set of Golden Records to space attached to two Voyager spacecraft; Carl Sagan, Frank Drake, and a team of inspired scientists decided what they should contain. Here’s the music that’s flying outside of our solar system right now.

Thanks to another kind of map, it’s possible to see just how far those radio signals have traveled since leaving our planet over a hundred years ago. So far, they’ve traveled about 200 light-years—and no one has heard them yet.

https://www.jwst.nasa.gov/ -- goes live on 7/12