Mar 02, 2015 I Tom Head

Frank Drake on SETI: Let’s Shut Up and Listen

Harvard-educated astrophysicist Frank Drake is the father of the search for extraterrestrial intelligence, so he isn’t exactly a skeptic on the question. He speculates that as many as 10,000 extraterrestrial civilizations may thrive in the Milky Way galaxy alone, and his famous equation has helped move of the idea of alien contact out of the tabloids and into the pages of peer-reviewed journals. 


So when he says something like this, it pays to listen:

Frank Drake ... said in conversation that despite the many potential benefits of making contact with an advanced life-form, “it would be silly to send messages now.” For starters, we won’t be able to benefit from such a project for at least 50-100 years. So, it would be a waste of resources at this point in time. Our time, money, and energy would be better spent searching as “sending messages is not efficient.”

According to Drake, we should focus our resources on exploring and utilizing our own solar system as “intelligent species wouldn’t be travelling between the stars.” Why is that? Moving between stars is cost prohibitive. He went on to say that a 100 year space flight to a nearby star at one-tenth the speed of light (the fastest tolerable to the human body) would require the equivalent of the full power output of the United States for 200 years… and, that doesn’t include the power needed to stop or land.

In other words:

  • We can reasonably assume that any civilization as advanced as ours is far more advanced than ours, which means they’ll have an easier time finding us than we’ll have finding them. Intentionally sending signals only makes sense if we’re trying to reach civilizations that aren’t advanced enough to find us on their own.
  • Any receptive civilizations within 80 light years or so have probably already heard our radio broadcasts, and taken measures to respond. We need to keep our ears open for those possible responses.
  • Interstellar travel is such a beast that most of the contributions advanced extraterrestrial civilizations make to our planet are likely to come in the form of information. The signals we’re listening for could be incredibly valuable—more valuable than the entire body of scientific knowledge we’ve accumulated to date.  

None of this means that sending signals is necessarily harmful (an opinion that some people are unfairly projecting on Drake), but receiving signals is where it’s at. If we’re trying to listen out for signals from civilizations more advanced than ours, we need to be innovative about the way we do it—and keep an open mind about the form those signals might take.


Tom Head

Tom Head is an author or coauthor of 29 nonfiction books, columnist, scriptwriter, research paralegal, occasional hellraiser, and proud Jackson native. His book Possessions and Exorcisms (Fact or Fiction?) covers the recent demand for exorcists over the past 30 years and demonic possession.

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