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Why There’s No Place Like Home

Dad pulls a scroll of paper from one of the dozens of crumpling boxes stacked in a chilly warehouse near Santa Cruz, Calif. He gently unrolls it, and a familiar reddish ink pattern appears on the delicate grid.

“Ah,” he says. “This is Ozma.”

His fingertip traces the inky magenta line, and he squints at the faded, penciled-in numbers inscribed near the line’s peaks and valleys. “Is that your handwriting?” I ask. It doesn’t look anything like his. “Nope,” he answers. “It must be the telescope operator’s.”

The scroll my father, Frank Drake, is holding is more than a half-century old. It’s part of the data he collected during an experiment known as Project Ozma. Named after a character in L. Frank Baum’s Oz series, the project was the first scientific search for extraterrestrial intelligent life. From April to July, 1960, astronomers in Green Bank, West Virginia monitored two nearby, sun-like stars for artificial radio signals—signs that an interstellar intelligence inhabited Earth’s starry skies, that humans were not adrift in an incessantly quiet cosmic ocean.

The entire endeavor cost $2,000.

Frank Drake retrieves a scroll with data on it from Project Ozma. (Nadia Drake)
Frank Drake retrieves a scroll with data on it from Project Ozma. (Nadia Drake)

Dad was in charge; at just 29 years old, he had been planning and building the necessary equipment for the last year and half. He’d determined that the Green Bank telescope should be able to detect radio transmissions coming from up to 10 light-years away, if they were at least as strong as Earth’s. So he selected two nearby stars, Tau Ceti and Epsilon Eridani, to aim the telescope at. He built antennas and receivers and amplifiers, and picked a band of radio frequencies to monitor. He came up with a plan to follow if a signal were detected.

“For all we knew at the time, almost every star had strong radio signals coming from it,” he says. “We might look at only a few stars and succeed.”

Finally, before dawn on a chilly West Virginia morning, Dad climbed up the observatory’s 85-foot telescope, fiddled with a finicky signal amplifier, and kicked off an experiment that would ignite decades of scientific discourse about extraterrestrial civilizations. Over the next four months, dozens of scrolls like the one we were staring at would come rolling out of the pen-and-ink data recorder, each bearing a bright red record of radio static from the universe.

Of course, in the end, Tau Ceti and Epsilon Eridani showed no signs of hosting intelligent life. “That was a disappointment,” Dad says. “But as time went on, we began to realize that’s the way the universe is, and it’s not our fault.”

The search is far from over. Increasingly, we’re finding that the ingredients necessary for life on Earth are abundant in the cosmos. Water, organic molecules, and even amino acids—so basic to life as we know it—have been found in space.

And the Milky Way, our home galaxy, is stuffed with planets. Even Project Ozma’s target stars have them. “Planets are plentiful,” astrophysicist Neil DeGrasse Tyson confidently stated last night in the first episode of Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey, which shows again tonight on the National Geographic Channel. “They outnumber the stars.”

It’s kind of crazy to think that when Dad was collecting the Ozma data, we knew nothing about the abundance of exoplanets—in fact, it would be another three decades before the first exoplanets were reported. Pulsars were still waiting in the wings, and the moon bore no human footprints. It was a different era in astronomy, and though Project Ozma garnered a ton of media attention, thinking about life outside the solar system was still on the fringes of traditional science. But momentum was gathering.

A newspaper story that ran shortly after Ozma. (Photograph by Nadia Drake)
A newspaper story that ran shortly after Project Ozma. (Photograph by Nadia Drake)

The next year, in 1961, dad would organize a conference at Green Bank devoted to thinking about intelligent life in the universe. It was the day before that meeting that the Drake Equation, which estimates the number of detectable intelligent civilizations in the Milky Way galaxy, would be born.

But that’s a story for another time.

We’d been rummaging through piles of my father’s papers for about an hour before the first signs of Ozma casually surfaced. Before that, we’d found a map he’d made of the galactic center. Another box held data he’d used to determine the temperature on the surface of Venus—an experiment that brought him into contact with a Ph.D. student at the University of Chicago named Carl Sagan. Another box held the results of an experiment he and Sagan would conduct at the Arecibo Observatory in the late 1970s, where they surveyed nearby galaxies for intensely bright radio transmissions. And another box has memos from the Voyager record project.

In short, these sagging boxes are filled with the evidence of a life spent exploring the cosmos. It’s this adventurous ideal that led Dad to name the first SETI search after Princess Ozma. “Oz is a land, a strange land, populated by strange and exotic creatures. Which described the sort of place I was about to search for,” he says to me, later. “If we find life out there, it’s going to be much more unearth-like than Oz.”

Nadia and Frank Drake. (Photograph courtesy Nadia Drake)
Nadia and Frank Drake.

And it’s these threads of thought that led me to the name of this blog: No Place Like Home. There are infinite worlds out there, and none of them will be exactly like ours. For millennia, humans have stared at the stars and mapped the movements of heavenly bodies, seeking to learn the mathematical language and physical laws that tell the stories of the spheres. In the last half-century, we’ve managed to launch our robotic creations from Earth’s watery shores and land them on other worlds. Maybe someday, we’ll be going along for the ride as well.

For now, though, we have the science of astronomy and the spaceships of our imagination to show us what else is out there. I’m so excited to be joining National Geographic as a space blogger for Phenomena—just as Cosmos kicks off—and am thrilled to be bringing you tales from beyond our home planet.

When two hours have gone by, it’s time to go home. We carry our folding chairs and lanterns from the warehouse and step into the sunlight. Dad pauses. “After looking at all that stuff,” he says, “For a moment I didn’t know where I was. It feels weird being in California.”

34 thoughts on “Why There’s No Place Like Home

  1. This is the first time I’ve encountered your writings; love the natural pace; looking forward to what you will produce in the future.

  2. This is a good step,one of many, needed to start travel to,1st planets then other, stars in the Milky Way. We are only threaded to this planet as long as we don’t use vision to reach farther. Just like the sailors of a 1,000 years ago sailors went out to find resources we will use a solar sail to generate the electricity to run a magnetic field thus using the solar winds/ radiation to generate a magnetic field. It interesting that although the environment may differ the laws of physic remain.

  3. A wonderful heritage for Nadia to inherit from her father. Looking forward to more articles/blogs. Looking at the constellations and milky way… we’re not in Kansas.

  4. Welcome!

    Your dad had a pretty interesting bit with Lee Billings in his book about exoplanet research. I remember his cool idea for using gravitational lensing to make a super-good space telescope.

  5. I just saw your name on a side article and had to check. It is you! Congratulations, and you do have a nice style of writing. This isn’t the right place for this, but glad to see you and your dad are doing well. I thought he was nice to meet in Ithaca and easy to talk with. Good luck in your future posts.

  6. What a great start. Good luck in the future, but you obviously don’t need luck!

    We also have a new site, though not a blog, as: Tech Astro (Georgia Tech Astrophysics) on Google+, so we know what its like to debut. All the best!


  7. I recall with such pleasure you and your sister cavorting gracefully across the beautiful floor of the Great Lick Refractor. What a wonderfully rich and varied life you have led so far!

  8. Wonderful! My favorite stuff to read about. I had a scientist/engineer father growing up. Glad I’ve had the opportunity to talk with your father on a few occasions (once about raising daughters! – I have a seven-year-old girl.) Looking forward to future blog posts.

  9. What a marvelous adventure of discovery this forebodes, and what a perfect tour guide for the journey! Thrilled and delighted to be invited on the tour group- congratulations to National Geographic too for their vision.

  10. This is fantastic! I’m so glad that I came to this blog. There is no quicker and surer way to get there than through Bright open minds. Thanks for keeping the light on.

  11. Wonderfull! I hope that very soon such information about other planets will help mankind to realise just how unique and important our own planet is to us!

  12. I once picked up an old (1954) copy of “Astounding Science Fiction” and read one of the few readable stories L.Ron Hubbard ever wrote – “To the Stars” and was “hooked” from that point forward. I so desperately hoped after Gemini and Apollo that we were but mere decades from interplanetary exploration, discovery and settlement. I don’t guess now that I’ll see it in my lifetime – but my mind loves to travel the universe with skilled writers like you, Nadia, and National Geographic – another staple in my house since 1967 – and I continue to look forward to the voyage!

  13. Great piece. I like your writing style and this topic has always fascinated me to no end. I will definitely be adding this to my rss feed. Look forward to more. National Geographic is lucky to have you. Keep up the great work!

  14. What a wonderful “capsule” of Frank’s life work. We look forward to reading more interesting stories on your blog.

  15. great article and information. i am looking forward to reading more. i believe he was onto something. just needs some tweeking and perfecting.

  16. an interesting tale, but born in futility. For life must come from life….. No amount of ingredients or sparks or anything else will produce a living thing. No, you must have another living thing. And thus SETI failed, for its premise was in the faith that life can just “start.” Life can never come about like this. And the belief that it can is utter folly.

  17. I really admire Frank Drake’s courage and dedication to the search for life outside our own tiny world. However, there are FOUR (4) words used by the scientific community that has held back these efforts to the “Nth degree”. They are said almost casually but their impact on exopolitics are stifling to say the very least. These FOUR words have been used as a measuring stick for considerations so great that their power to hinder has become immeasurable. Whenever I hear and/or read them, I am saddened by the power they’ve held on generation after generation of devoted, idealistic, and well meaning young scientists – and the FOUR words of which I am speaking: “AS WE KNOW IT”

  18. Wonderful post! Looking forward to more to come. Remembering looking for Halley’s Comet with your dad from the roof of our house in 1986.

  19. I recall donating computer time on my computer to the search for extraterrestrial life via the Arecibo laboratories. Are donations of computer time still being used in the SETI project? I enjoyed your story. Your father was an explorer, a visionary, endowed with curiosity as large as the . . . well, the universe !! Apparently, the apple didn’t fall far from the tree.

  20. Don`t stop to stare in the night sky, good job!
    We`ll definitely find life out there one day, it`s only the question of time and after
    that, there will be finally silence for human questions.

  21. I have read your wonderful and informative piece on your dad and Project Ozma. You invoke a palpable feeling of looking at the papers with him. I am filled with pride knowing you both and your knowledge, and how you impart it. You have written beautifully.

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