“What do we need to know about to discover extraterrestrial life in space?”
In 1960, Dr. Frank Drake, Ph.D., pondered this question as he researched radio astronomy at the National Radio Astronomy Observatory in Green Bank.
Drake’s question led to his development of an equation – the Drake equation – which is an argument used to estimate the number of active, communicative extraterrestrial civilizations in the Milky Way Galaxy.
Fifty-three years later, actor Andrew Ballard, portraying Drake, asked the same question for a film crew with NHK, Japan’s equivalent to America’s Public Broadcasting Service (PBS).
The three-member crew was joined by Ballard and translator Tomoko Kawasumi on a four-day journey back to the 60s to recreate Drake’s “search for extraterrestrial intelligence” (SETI) meeting with Peter Pearman, Philip Morrison, Dana Atchley, Melvin Calvin, Su-Shu Huang, John C. Lilly, Barney Oliver, Carl Sagan and Otto Struve. The collective dubbed themselves “The Order of the Dolphin.”
The episode is for the TV series Cosmic Front.
“It’s a one hour series about space and space development,” Kawasumi said. “It is shown nationwide in Japan every week. It is a sixty minute show with no commercials. The episode we’re working on is about exoplanets. This is where Dr. Drake started the observation of planets.”
Drake used the 26 meter telescope for his research project which he named Project Ozma. The telescope is now known as 85-1. It is now one-third of the Green Bank Interferometer.
As well as acting as translator, Kawasumi assisted on the set and with research for the episode.
“I helped do the research for [director Kotaro] Miyake,” she said. “I contacted scientists to see if they will be willing to talk to us.”
Kawasumi also found Ballard to play the part of Drake. Kawasumi is from Alexandria, Virginia, and sent inquiries to talent agencies in the area, looking for an actor with facial features similar to Drake’s.
“I had a picture of Dr. Drake and I sent it to the agency, and said we are looking for an actor who could look like this,” she said.
Ballard, who is from Culpepper, Virginia, was contacted by his agent in Richmond, Virginia, and said “I got a picture in my email and my agent said, ‘Do you think you can make yourself look like this?’ And I said, ‘Sure,’” Ballard said. “This has been incredible spending time here on campus and being in the same space where all these innovations in astronomy occurred. Not to mention, it’s just beautiful.”
The crew returned to the site of the historical meeting and recreated that day 52 years ago when Drake explained his equation.
Located in the upstairs of the dormitory at NRAO, the conference room looked as if it had been placed in a time capsule. Except for a few lighting fixtures, a computer and a flat screen television, the room has maintained its 60s decor.
Dressed in his 60s best, complete with horn-rimmed glasses, Ballard entered the space where the SETI meeting occurred in 1961 and explained the Drake equation as he wrote it on a chalkboard.
“I came up with seven different topics that were completely interdependent and equal,” he said as Drake. “I assigned each topic a symbol – mathematician style. Here is the formula I came up with.”
The equation is used to find the number that equals the number of civilizations in the Milky Way galaxy with which communication might be possible.
The number is found by multiplying the average rate of star formation in the galaxy, by the fraction of those stars that have planets, by the average number of planets that can potentially support life per start that has planets, by the fraction of planets that could support life, by the fraction of planets with life that actually go on to develop intelligent life, by the fraction of civilizations that develop a technology that releases detectable signs of their existence into space, by the length of time for which such civilizations release detectable signals into space.
The episode will appear on NHK this winter. After it is aired, it will be shared on the NHK website at www.nhk.or.jp/space/program_e/cos mic.html
Suzanne Stewart may be contacted at email@example.com