SETI: A Critical History: 5. The Soviet critique of SETI

Iosef Shklovskii

Fig. 6. Iosef S. Shklovskii102.

Cover of The Princess of Mars

Fig. 7 Frank E. Schoonover's original illustration of Dejah Thoris127.

Chapter 5 of the thesis


SETI's Scope


How the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence Became Disconnected from New Ideas About Extraterrestrials


SETI graphic


Mark A. Sheridan
Drew University
May 2009


It doesn't occur to them to coldly analyze what their argument is.
– Ronald Bracewell


Let's just put up receivers.
– Frank Drake


For a variety of institutional and cultural reasons the Soviets adopted a significantly more circumspect attitude toward their CETI project than the Americans adopted toward SETI, despite a similar level of initial enthusiasm. After pausing to think about SETI-style searches the Soviets became uncomfortable with the way the Americans planned to proceed. In particular, the Soviets were troubled by the possibility that ETIs might not be humanoid and the impact this could have on their ability to understand or even detect ETIs' messages. The Americans identified these same "nature"-based issues but either failed to grasp their significance or chose to disregard them for fear that publicly acknowledging them would disrupt the process of securing an institutional home for their project. When the Soviets discussed their concerns directly with the Americans, the Americans offered some thin arguments in response but essentially ignored them. The Soviet effort began to wither soon thereafter.


SETI graphic


The Soviets held the equivalent of the American Green Bank meeting in May, 1964 at Byurakan, Armenia (see Byurakan SETI conferences).99 It was an "all-union conference," and the participants included Shklovskii, Kardashev, and Viktor S. Troitskii, an early and steadfast SETI proponent. These two seminal conferences revealed important differences between the Soviet and American approaches to the possibility of SETI-style searches. The most important of these was the Soviet propensity toward reflection and the American preference for action.


Perhaps the most striking contrast was the difference in temperament between the two teams. Frank Drake recalled that, when he organized Green Bank, there had not been "a great deal of profound thought involved in putting it together." The opening remarks at Byurakan-I, made by host Viktor A. Ambartsumyan who headed the astrophysical observatory there, suggested a very different approach. "This conference is ... a first attempt to organize a comprehensive, all-sided discussion of the subject."100


The Green Bank attendees spent most of their time discussing the likelihood that ETIs exist. They assumed that, if ETIs did exist and were trying to send us a message by radio, a SETI-style search would be able to detect that message. The Byurakan-I attendees did precisely the reverse. They assumed that ETIs exist, and discussed whether a SETI-style search was the most appropriate way to communicate with them. Note that SETI's architects situated their project solidly within the context and confines of the traditional ETI discourse. The Soviet approach, on the other hand, helped pioneer an expansion of the ETI discourse to include a consideration of the nature of ETI in addition to the traditional "whether" question.


Whereas the Americans obviously thought of SETI as an opportunity to test the ancient "whether" question, the Soviets believed SETI was, at that point, an interesting problem needing further clarification. Ambartsumyan continued his introduction by saying that "the problem under consideration is one of those which are [sic] still in the stage of formulation. The very statement of the problem unfortunately remains not clear to a considerable degree." 101


Shklovskii presented the first paper at Byurakan-I, befitting his status as the father of Soviet CETI. He chose the title, "Multiplicity of Inhabited Worlds and the Problem of Interstellar Communications," and began the paper by drawing attention to the fact that he deliberately chose as his subject "a statement of a problem." [Emphases added.] Shklovskii went on to say that, "If this conference succeeds in defining correctly at least some of the problems pertaining to [extraterrestrial civilizations] and in delineating the first steps to be taken toward the solution, or in other words if it succeeds in making the situation less amorphous than it is now, we shall be able to say that the conference has justified itself."103 [Emphases added.]


Although both of these Soviet scientists expressed obvious enthusiasm about the prospects of a SETI-style search, they wanted to make sure there were sound reasons for their excitement before rushing to their telescopes. Rather than cobbling together a justification for why they should begin searching, which was essentially the Green Bank agenda, the Soviets' first move was to identify outstanding issues and voices that might be missing from the conversation, to ensure their confidence in the conceptual foundations of the program they were designing. Shklovskii, in particular, emphasized over the years that a SETI-style search was more complicated than most radio astronomers were inclined to admit. He did not limit his criticism to the American SETI team. In his autobiography he found his own protégé Kardashev as guilty as the Americans of this urge to turn to their telescopes before fully thinking through what they were doing. He complained that Kardashev placed "exaggerated emphasis on the radio-technological prospects for extraterrestrial communication, while ignoring both the humanities and biological aspects. To my mind, this is inadmissible. In brief, from the beginning I have been convinced that the problem of extraterrestrial civilization is in essence and effect complex."104 In other words, Kardashev, like the Americans, focused only on the "whether" issue and disregarded the related "nature" issues that troubled Shklovskii.


The Drake Equation identified the information that the Americans considered both necessary and sufficient to determine by radio astronomy whether ETIs exist. They believed that if they could plausibly establish that ETIs probably exist, then, because they assumed ETIs were humanoid and communication with them would not be problematic, they could justify the searches they wanted to conduct. The Soviets, on the other hand, assumed that ETIs did exist. In his opening remarks Ambartsumyan said, "We have no doubt whatsoever that life and civilizations exist on a multitude of celestial bodies."105 Ambartsumyan broke down the Soviets' analysis of the SETI problem into three constituent questions. The first concerned the probability of life originating and then evolving into intelligent life. This was consistent with the Drake Equation variables and, thus, with SETI. The second set of issues concerned how communications with ETIs could be effected. Here, too, there were few obvious differences between the Soviets and the Americans. Both were drawn to the use of radio as a means of interstellar communication.


Ambartsumyan's third question related to "the problem of language and the transmitted information." This did not appear on the Green Bank agenda or in the Drake Equation. In concluding his remarks Ambartsumyan said that, "in practical terms, our aim is therefore to obtain rational technical and linguistic solutions for the problem of communication with [ETI]."106 [Emphases added.] The Soviets took these issues to their first meeting with the Americans, presumably because they hoped the Americans had identified the same issues and developed answers to them. The Americans had not. The Soviets ultimately failed to find the solutions they sought, and this eventually contributed to their waning interest in conducting SETI-style searches.


The Americans and the Soviets each completed one search before convening their first conference. The searches were fundamentally different, and they illustrate the different attitudes toward the "problem of language and the transmitted information." Drake's search looked for, essentially, coherent radiation: patterns amidst the sea of radio signals that move through the universe. Drake assumed he could detect a message that he could not necessarily understand. As we shall see, some of Drake's fellow Green Bank conferees were not prepared to make the same assumption. If Drake could not understand the message in the signal, skeptics questioned how he would know it was a message. In the same way Kepler mistook the "perfectly round" craters he observed on the Moon for forts and Lowell mistook the series of long lines on Mars for irrigated patches of vegetation, SETI risked misinterpreting a pattern of radio waves for a linguistic artifact of intelligent design. 107


SETI's organizers made a conscious decision to ignore this key issue. Melvin Calvin recalled that, during the Green Bank conference,


We came to a general conclusion ... that in order to make any sense out of an alien language you had to hear a conversation between two of them ... you couldn't just receive. That was one of the big problems. Frank Drake said, 'Let's just put up receivers.' But we finally decided that to understand the messages we had to put up receivers that would receive from two different directions at the same time, in order to see if there was any interaction between the two messages. I don't think that ever happened, but that sticks in my mind as one of the conclusions we came to in that November, '61 meeting. 108


Calvin's recollection was accurate; SETI's architects never acknowledged that they had to be part of a three-way conversation in order to confirm that they had intercepted an intelligent signal.


The Soviets, on the other hand, designed their first search to avoid this risk. Kardashev's strategy was to finesse the need to detect or understand messages altogether. Rather than looking for messages Kardashev looked for different signs of an advanced civilization (see Kardashev civilization). He reasoned that any such civilization would consume vast amounts of energy and thus radiate a heat signature that would identify it as being of intelligent origin.109


One of Sagan's biographers, William Poundstone, found that, at Green Bank,


The meeting touched on a shared nagging fear; that an alien message would be impossible to decipher. The linear B script of the Minoans had defeated generations of attempts to understand it. Egyptian writing had been deciphered only via the fortuitous discovery of the Rosetta stone. These were human languages. If it was, in general, impossible to understand an unknown human language stripped of its context, what hope was there for understanding a vastly more alien language from the stars?110


The role John Lilly played at the Green Bank conference is particularly revealing. For one thing, he agreed with Calvin's "general conclusion" that a message could not be translated in the absence of some link between the message and a known referent. "Lilly said that in his experience with dolphins, it was necessary to hear a two-way conversation. He had to observe the effect of one dolphin's vocabulary on others to understand what it meant."111


More importantly, the Soviets' position was essentially that important "linguistic issues" might make inter-species communication difficult. Lilly was, arguably, as close to being an expert on inter-species communication as existed at the time, and he was right there at Green Bank. Yet we know from Pearman's record of the proceedings that Lilly was not invited to raise or address the difficult issues of inter-species communication. Instead, Lilly's intelligent dolphins provided evidence of convergence. By having Lilly make the case for why dolphins should be considered a second example of intelligent life on Earth, SETI's architects hoped to establish that intelligence was an adaptation so useful that it was repeated here on Earth, and was thus likely to be repeated elsewhere. On the strength of Lilly's evidence the conferees felt justified making their, to use Shklovskii's words, "rosily optimistic" assumption that the probability of intelligence evolving on a planet where life arose was "about unity."


In any event, even if dolphins are intelligent, their intelligence is obviously not humanoid, and the Soviets identified the potential for communication difficulties existting between different types of intelligence at their first meeting, Byurakan-I. The mathematician A. V. Gladkii made the point that an ETI's nature could be so different that we might not even have mathematics in common. "We cannot exclude the possible existence of a highly advanced civilization whose mathematics is essentially different from our fundamental mathematical concepts, or which has no analogous discipline at all."112 Gladkii directly challenged SETI-Science's assumption of uniformitarianism, which held mathematics to be a recognizable commonality between all intelligences. Sagan, in particular, liked to refer to the idea of mathematics as a universal that would trump differences between humans and ETIs.113


Gladkii pointed out more generally that the field of linguistics was too immature to suggest how we could understand a message from ETIs whose natures differed radically from our own. The Byurakan-I conference ended on Gladkii's downbeat note. In the conference Resolution, the Soviets showed their inclination toward reflection rather than action. The conferees concluded that, "A systematic experimental and theoretical investigation of the problem should be begun. The corresponding research program should provide for an all-sided, comprehensive analysis." They specifically included "the development of methods for establishing communication and further improvement of cosmic linguistics on the basis of the general theory of language" in their list of follow-up tasks.114


By publishing the proceedings of their first deliberations the Soviets invited comment from the broader scientific community. The proceedings of the Green Bank meeting were not published. Unlike SETI's organizers, CETI's architects called for further reflection; they then followed through on their recommendation, widening the circle of experts looking at the "problem." Five years later they published the results of this additional reflection, in the Kaplan text that we will examine shortly.


In his article recounting the Green Bank conference Pearman reported that the participants regretted that a more profound analysis of "the dominant effects of the evolutionary and sociological factors" had not been possible. The attendees did not, however, suggest that this analysis take place after the conference. Nor did they earmark the linguistic issues raised, like the indecipherability of Linear B or the need to see the effect of language on two speakers, as issues requiring further attention, as the Soviets did. Instead, the Green Bank conferees ended by advocating action. Indeed, they even turned the weaknesses they acknowledged in their estimates about the Drake Equation variables into a rallying call to begin searching. "The compounding of uncertainties in the type of analysis attempted is so formidable that the acquisition of any additional experimental evidence [i.e., SETI observations] – including the negative – is almost certain to be useful in guiding the course of future conjectures."115


SETI graphic


At Byurakan-I the Soviets expressed the view that SETI was an interesting idea requiring more rigorous formulation. During the following five years various Soviet scientists, in accordance with the resolutions of the conference, prepared papers on a number of the key problem areas identified at Byurakan-I. S. A. Kaplan, from the Institute of Radiophysics in Gorky, edited a volume of these papers. It was a seminal text in the new and rapidly expanding portion of the ETI discourse that considered the nature of ETI and related issues. More importantly for our purposes, the Kaplan anthology offers a clear insight into how the Soviets thought about the nature-based problems of a SETI-style search.116


The Soviets believed that their Byurakan-I meeting was the first attempt to treat the problem of SETI with scientific precision, and that Kaplan's text was "the first scientific monograph in the literature on the subject of the search for signals from extraterrestrial civilizations."117 [Emphasis added.] The Soviets criticized an American anthology of SETI papers published more than five years earlier, and still the most comprehensive text on SETI available in English, for not providing "a comprehensive picture of the problem."118 They now considered Shklovskii's original text both outdated and designed for a popular, rather than a scientific, audience. Sagan published his "translation, extension, and revision" of Shklovskii's book as Intelligent Life in the Universe three years previously to a warm popular reception in the West, yet Kaplan's text does not even mention it.


Progress toward resolving the issues identified at Byurakan-I proved disappointingly elusive. Five years after being charged with finding "rational technical and linguistic solutions for the problem of communication with [ETI]," it seemed that Soviet scientists had, if anything, identified even more problems. The Soviets were keen to begin searching for ETIs but the closer they looked at the SETI-style search strategy the less convinced they became that it could do what the Americans claimed. Whereas the Americans took the Drake Equation to be the "definition of all the problems," contributors to the Kaplan text suggested that important problems remained unframed, let alone resolved. Kaplan himself wrote that "the time is ripe to formulate the problem," and that "a scientifically minded approach is possible at this stage."119 Two of the papers from this compilation are particularly relevant.


The Russian linguist B. V. Sukhotin contributed the longest paper in the anthology.120 He described a number of the general principles involved in decoding messages, using an approach that might be used to decode military signals. When it came to the possibility of decoding messages from ETIs Sukhotin was not upbeat. He concluded that, although these military-style strategies could be attempted, "It is more prudent to assume, however, that the decoding of these messages [from ETI] will present considerable difficulties, no smaller, say, than the decoding of inscriptions in ancient lost languages."121 Recall that the Green Bank conferees reached the same conclusion. This was important: texts in lost languages are not translatable unless some aide like the Rosetta Stone is available to relate the language to something we know.


Sukhotin reminded the reader that extraterrestrial beings might construct realities so different from the realities constructed by humans that we would find messages from them incomprehensible. Even if we possessed the ability to somehow identify that a message was a message, "comprehension draws on our ability to translate the message into the language of images corresponding to real situations," and there is no way of telling if any human would be able to do this.122 [Emphasis added.] Instead of disregarding the thorny problem, as the Green Bank participants did, Sukhotin called for a widening of the circle of scientists trying to solve it. He hoped that the challenge of decoding SETI messages would be a stimulus to linguists, providing them with an interesting problem that might help them expand their quickly-evolving theories.


Kaplan's contribution was a paper on "some general topics of the problem of extraterrestrial civilizations." It was a free-ranging epistemological treatise on what can be known through astronomical observation about distant objects that are, effectively, "black boxes" that admit no interaction. The paper went to the heart of the nature-based issues, suggesting that we and ETI might have cognitive structures, consciousnesses, and intelligences that construct realities so differently that communication would be difficult or impossible.


Kaplan identified four premises upon which all searches are based, including the assumption that any signals detected could be decoded. Like his colleague Sukhotin, Kaplan considered the Americans' assumption that decoding would not present a problem to be highly speculative. Kaplan offered one example of a signal that would be easily identifiable as a message: an "anthropomorphic" signal, i.e., one composed by a humanoid intelligence. Although obvious, the point is no mere tautology. Kaplan was reminding readers that there might be messages composed by non-humanoid intelligences too, and that they might be difficult or impossible to recognize as messages. Kaplan concluded by agreeing with Shklovskii that SETI represented a complicated problem. Moreover, "The great complexity of the problem stems from the fact that it is inseparably linked with even more fundamental problems," by which Kaplan referred to the problems of engaging beings with radically different natures.123


SETI graphic


The Soviets and the Americans differed along two important dimensions. First, the Soviets were more given to reflecting critically on the assumptions and methods of their search than the Americans. Second, the Soviets were pioneers in recognizing that a humanoid intelligence was only one possible kind of intelligence. In the Soviet view, success in a SETI-style search depends on serendipitously happening upon a signal that bears a message from a humanoid intelligence.


These differences soon became obvious, when the two teams met face-to-face for the first time at the Byurakan-II conference. Before turning to that, we will examine some of the possible explanations of why the American approach differed so significantly from that of the Soviets. It is tempting to speculate that that the Americans were too busy promoting their project to be self-reflexive, or that the Soviets were simply more thoughtful scientists. But the differences in the two groups' sensitivities to nature-based issues were the product of an intricate pattern woven from different attitudes toward ETIs, different temperaments, and different intellectual traditions.


Differences in attitudes toward ETIs

Most of the people associated with the U.S. SETI project first thought about ETIs as youths, when they were exposed to them in fantasy science fiction. Moreover, these early encounters involved humanoid ETIs. Morrison noted that ETIs were "a famous idea in science fiction, and I read a lot of science fiction at an early age.... I think the best works I read were the novels by H. G. Wells."124 Wells' characters were fundamentally humanoid; indeed, one of the important themes Wells explored in War of the Worlds was the consequences of a human evolutionary future in which rationality overwhelmed compassion.


Sagan admitted to a "fascination with Edgar Rice Burroughs" as a child.125 Although Burroughs is best remembered as the author of the Tarzan stories, he also wrote a series of science fiction novels that featured the adventures of the earthling John Carter and his humanoid Red Martian wife Dejah Thoris. Bracewell, too, recalled first thinking about the possibility of ETIs when he was about fifteen, after reading Burroughs.126


Both Oliver and Bracewell cited Hugo Gernsback's role in introducing them to ETIs during their youths. Gernsback published the first science fiction magazine, Amazing Stories; the annual science fiction award, the "Hugo," is named for him. Gernsback tended to publish "hard" science fiction, which appealed to the young scientists-to-be. As Oliver put it, "The science fiction I was reading in Amazing Stories was a different kind of thing. It wasn't a horse opera set in space, which is what Buck Rogers was.... We looked upon science fiction as good when it was truly correct science and led to a situation that was totally new in man's experience. And many of [Gernsback's] stories were just exactly that."128


The members on the Soviet team, on the other hand, did not have this early ETI imprint. In his book of interviews with SETI pioneers David Swift asked the three key Soviet scientists when they first began to think about ETIs; each reported doing so only after being introduced to the possibility of using radio astronomy to search for ETIs. Both Shklovskii and Kardashev recalled first thinking about ETIs after the publication of Cocconi and Morrison's paper. Troitskii apparently did not think about ETIs until he was invited to Byurakan-I in 1963.129


This is a striking and important difference. While the SETI scientists were steeped in the tradition of humanoid ETIs from youth, the Soviet CETI scientists came to the concept of ETIs as adults. Thus, not only were the Soviets unburdened by early imprinting of stereotypes, when they did first turn their attention to the possibility of ETIs it was as mature scientists who brought both intellectual curiosity and discipline to the process of constructing the new category.


In addition to these individual cultural differences, institutional attitudes toward ETIs were another important factor in determining the extent to which the scientists thinking about SETI-style searches anticipated the issues that might arise with non-humanoid ETIs. The powers-that-be in the Soviet Union never questioned the ultimate point of conducting a SETI-style search. In fact, the existence of ETIs was consistent with the state philosophy, dialectical materialism. According to the Soviet astronomer N. T. Bobrovnikoff the Soviets were "emphatic that their materialistic philosophy is in complete agreement with the idea of extraterrestrial civilizations. According to this philosophy life is a normal and inevitable consequence of the development of matter, and intelligence is a normal consequence of the existence of life."


On the other hand, many Americans were skeptical about the existence of the objects of a SETI-style search. Far from being accepted as part of an officially sanctioned philosophy, these skeptics considered ETIs the product of disparaged or discredited sources that ranged from a tradition of outright hoaxes such as the Great Moon Hoax of 1835 and the Mercury Theater's War of the Worlds radio broadcast in 1938, to fantasy science fiction, minority beliefs like the UFO visitation phenomena, and hastily contrived pseudo-science such as Von Daniken's ancient astronauts.


These institutional biases became particularly evident over the question of funding. CETI's funding came from official academic sources. Astronomical research in the Soviet Union at that time was organized and financed "under the auspices of the USSR Academy of Sciences, at the universities under the Ministry of Higher Education, and at plant laboratories under various specific government ministries." Radio astronomy was well represented within this institutional structure. Once the Soviets realized that studying various stellar processes by radio astronomy yielded insights into the same thermonuclear processes employed in making atomic weapons, the Academy of Sciences elected Ambartsumyan an academician and made several other astrophysicists corresponding members.131 Recall that, when Ambartsumyan opened the Byurakan-I conference, he began by stating for the record that "we have no doubt whatsoever" that ETIs exist.


There was little apparent incentive for the CETI scientists to conceal from potential funding sources the fact that they had identified nature-based problems with SETI-style searches. To the contrary, their behavior suggests that the institutional framework in which they operated rewarded them for surfacing issues and circulating them among the group of scientists that might best help them address those issues. They published the proceedings of their first meeting, and resolved to follow up by getting expert help in thinking through a number of issues that arose. These issues included the nature-based issues of whether they could understand or even identify a communication from a non-humanoid ETI. They then published the results of those wider deliberations, in the Kaplan text, despite the fact that they confirmed many of their original concerns about SETI-style searches.


The realities facing the American SETI scientists were quite different. For one thing, they had to play to two dissimilar audiences. One was the scientific community. Probably because ETIs were not thought to be a legitimate subject of scientific inquiry, the SETI team kept a low profile vis-à-vis other scientists. They downplayed their initial Green Bank meeting, during which they identified a number of the same issues that bothered the Soviets about SETI-style searches, calling the conference an "informal discussion." They never published its proceedings. The scientists who attended subsequent SETI conferences, like the scientists who attended Green Bank, tended to look for ways to promote the project as originally conceived, not for ways to critically assess and enhance the project. We have also seen how SETI's architects used the Drake Equation as a rhetorical device to create a safe distance between the scientific community and the unseemly topic of ETIs.


SETI's American promoters also needed to win over a second audience. As soon as they decided to try to make their home in NASA, SETI's fate became tied to the essentially political processes of Congressional oversight and appropriation and thus, ultimately, to the changing priorities of a fickle public. In effect, at the same time SETI's organizers were diverting the attention of the scientific community away from ETIs, they were engaged in an aggressive program of selling SETI to the public. Unlike their Soviet counterparts, it was not enough that the American SETI team received the endorsement of the National Academy of Sciences. Before the Americans could secure an institutional home for their project they had, in addition, to overcome long-standing public skepticism about ETIs. As we will see, they succeeded in doing so, but only temporarily.


Differences in temperament

I noted earlier the fundamental temperamental predisposition of the American SETI team toward action and of the Soviet CETI team toward reflection. This difference is attributable, at least in part, to different attitudes toward the importance of observation relative to that of theory. The Russian astronomer Vladimir Strelnitski discussed the interplay of observation, the traditional priority of astronomy, and theory as an important dialectical process – "the unity and the struggle of opposites" – in radio astronomy. He traced one source of the Soviets' relatively greater emphasis on theory to an episode that made a vivid impression on the first generation of Soviet radio astronomers. The discovery of the microwave remnant of the Big Bang was a notable early success in the field. Strelnitski believed the Soviet astronomer Tigran Shmaonov was close to making this discovery but lacked the appropriately robust theoretical framework necessary to do so. Instead, an American team that did have the necessary theoretical background succeeded in placing their observational evidence in a broader context and thereby made the discovery, for which they won a Nobel Prize.132


Having been burned in this manner, the Soviets were especially sensitive to the need to conduct their observing within a well-developed theoretical framework. Strelnitski quoted research done by J. S. Hey into the history of the scientific literature of post-war Soviet radio astronomy. Strelnitski noted a "predominance of theory and method over practical outcome (about 5:1 in this period)," and highlighted Shklovskii's role in fostering this bias toward observation that was, in effect, in service to theory.133


The episode involving Shmaonov and the Big Bang's radio signature occurred just a couple of years before the Cocconi and Morrison paper. This may help explain why the Soviet CETI team seemed more inclined than their American counterparts to take the time to construct a solid conceptual framework that would inform their observational efforts before rushing to their telescopes. Moreover, recalling that Shklovskii positioned himself toward the theoretical end of Strelnitski's dialectic, it is unsurprising that the father of CETI pushed his colleagues to complete a comprehensive analysis of the project.


The American team, on the other hand, immediately manifested an obvious bias toward action and observation over reflection and theory. Steven Dick observed that "the driving force for all SETI searches from Ozma to NASA has been the primacy of observation over theory."134 Although neither Cocconi nor Morrison was an astronomer, they ended their seminal SETI paper with an entreaty to astronomers to hasten to their radio telescopes: "The probability of success is difficult to estimate; but if we never search the chance of success is zero." Morrison later said, "We owe the issue more than mere theorizing."135


We have already seen that Melvin Calvin recalled an episode in which the Green Bank scientists introduced the possibility that SETI might be unable to understand a message from ETI. Drake's response to this issue, the core of what became the Soviet critique of SETI-style searches, was simply, "Let's just put up receivers."


The radio astronomer Ronald Bracewell attributed this impulse toward observation to a fear on the part of some of his colleagues that, if they actually stopped to think through what they were doing they might talk themselves out of a search project.


There's a psychological block, I believe, that causes [some astronomers] to resent the notion that we may be unique. The psychology of it seems to be that it undercuts their active efforts to get to work finding these other beings. If they, extraterrestrials, are not there, then the whole rationality for SETI activities is eroded somewhat.... [These are] action-oriented people who would like to do something.... It doesn't occur to them to coldly analyze what their argument is.... I've been vaguely surprised that my friends, at least five of them, have done this.136


There is some evidence that suggests Shklovskii was in the minority, even among his fellow Soviet astronomers, in wanting to put observation on hold until it could be conducted in a well-thought-out context. Drake quoted Troitskii as once saying, "Today we do not know if there are other intelligent civilizations in space. And that we will never know unless we stop talking and start doing."137 Even Kardashev, Shklovksii's protégé, questioned his mentor's deliberate approach. In their preparations for Byurakan-II, the two disagreed over who should be invited. Shklovskii stressed the "complex" nature of the problem-opportunity, and wanted to include experts "from a broad sector of the humanities" who could address its nature-based aspects. Kardashev, on the other hand, expressed little patience with such "philosophers and windbags" who stood between him and observation.138 The view of the mentor, however, prevailed: unlike the American NAS, the Soviet Academy of Sciences was reluctant to invest in an observation program lacking a soundly-established theoretical foundation.


Differences in intellectual traditions

In addition to cultural and institutional differences in their attitudes toward ETIs and differences in professional temperament, the CETI and SETI scientists came from decidedly dissimilar intellectual traditions. These traditions produced important differences in the way each approached the possibility of radio contact with ETIs.


SETI's early proponents grew up in an intellectual tradition that considered it unscientific to discuss a being's nature. During their intellectually formative years behaviorism dominated the field of psychology. Behaviorism owed its very existence to an unwillingness to discuss mind or its components like cognition, consciousness, and intelligence. As we saw, it was a sad irony that, at the very time the idea for SETI-style searches first appeared, important changes began to take place in the field of psychology that made possible the rehabilitation of the concept of mind.


The fact that the Soviet CETI scientists quickly took up the question of ETI's cognition, consciousness, and intelligence is, at first blush, a bit baffling. The prevailing Soviet philosophy of science during the period, dialectical materialism, came out squarely on the side of matter in the debate between materialists and idealists over the primacy of mind versus matter. The historian of Soviet science and philosophy Loren R. Graham explained that, in dialectical materialism "mind is secondary, derivative, since it is a reflection of matter, a reflection of being."139 In addition to being philosophically indisposed toward discussions of mind, Soviet psychologists were, if anything, even more avowedly behaviorist than their American counterparts. Well before the Russian Revolution, Ivan Sechenov steered the course of Russian psychology away from introspective methods and toward physiological "reflexes" that could explain psychological processes. Ivan Pavlov's work with conditioned and unconditioned reflexes was, of course, a pioneering contribution to the effort to establish psychology on the same firm empirical grounds that American behaviorists sought. In 1932 Pavlov's institute was raised "to All-Union status, designating it the center for the 'all-round study of man'.... [All other] schools had been labeled bourgeois, all journals in the field were ceasing publication." And by 1949, "all psychology but Pavlov's doctrine ... was condemned."140


With these well-established influences diverting attention away from mind, why, then, was it in the forefront of the CETI scientists' thinking? The explanation probably lies in the extremely rapid adoption of the new field of cybernetics in the Soviet Union. Like the information-based computer model of mind then crystallizing in the United States, cybernetics provided Soviet scientists with a vocabulary widely perceived as legitimate, which they could use to talk about concepts like cognition, consciousness, and intelligence.


Graham noted that "cybernetics enjoyed more prestige in the Soviet Union in the 1960s than in any other country in the world."141 Historians offer a variety of explanations for why this was the case. Graham points to the tight analogy between the dynamic control processes of cybernetics, directed toward fending off increasing entropy or disorder, and the way Soviet administrators envisioned their own efforts.142 Mindell, Segal, and Gerovitch argue, instead, that cybernetics gained traction rapidly after Stalin's death in 1953 because it served a primarily political function. Whereas Western scientists turned to cybernetics as a method for solving a number of theoretical and practical problems, in the Soviet Union cybernetics became a tool for "breaking administrative and disciplinary barriers and liberating Soviet science from ideological pressures." Soviet scientists used cybernetics as a "'trading zone' through which politically awkward concepts could be stripped of their offending aspects while being incorporated into Soviet sciences. E.g., a 'unit of hereditary information' sounded less anti-Lysenkoist than a 'gene.'"143


Whereas the American SETI scientists would have found it unscientific to discuss a being's mind when they began to formulate their project, and probably would have continued to do so for much of the succeeding decade, the Soviet enthusiasm for cybernetics helped create the opposite attitude in their Soviet counterparts from the very beginning of CETI. For example, during his introductory remarks at the Byurakan-I conference in 1964 Ambartsumyan almost immediately warned the conferees of the risks of assuming that ETI was humanoid. In doing so he used a discourse that drew heavily on computers, information theory, artificial intelligence, cybernetics, and ultimately the computer metaphor of mind.


Ordinarily, a carrier of civilization is a society of more or less similar individuals, each capable of receiving, accumulating, storing, processing, and transmitting information. It is further assumed that these individual members are biological organisms. [CETI] is thus regarded as communications with societies of this kind. Other ... carriers, however, can also be imagined.... In principle, an extraterrestrial civilization may be deposited in a cybernetic system.... A system consisting of autonomous, but highly specialized cybernetic machines and automata is another example of a ... carrier which is entirely different from human society. We do not propose to speculate further on the possible models of ... carriers. It suffices to observe that biological evolution will initially lead to systems consisting of individual members, but the biological stage can be succeeded by a phase favoring the arisal of new, different carriers.144


In the follow-up Kaplan text, too, Soviet cybernetics provided a vocabulary for CETI's architects to express the possibilities that ETI's nature might be non-humanoid and that ETIs with these non-humanoid natures might be difficult to contact or even detect. Kaplan identified the definition of intelligence adopted by a radio searcher as being "of paramount importance" and suggested that "the methods of cybernetics provide a means for the construction of a functional definition of 'intelligence.'" Kaplan credited cybernetics with making it at least theoretically possible for CETI's planners to consider how to detect "not only 'anthropomorphic' civilizations, but any other forms of 'intelligent' existence."145


SETI graphic


The Americans came from a popular culture that was in the midst of one of its periodic fascinations with ETIs, and from a science culture in which it was difficult to even raise the subject. Soviet scientists, on the other hand, seemed free from socio-cultural taboos that might restrain their thinking about ETIs.


As the Americans waited for a spot on NASA's agenda to open up for SETI, they tried to negotiate the fine line between generating public enthusiasm for their project while not inviting too much attention from other scientists. The Soviets who, on the other hand, were free to conduct searches, dedicated themselves to identifying and circulating the problems associated with such searches.146


Although the Americans took an early lead in promoting SETI, the Soviets pioneered an important expansion of the ETI discourse that provided context for SETI-style searches. The Soviet deliberations over the possible cognitive structure, consciousness, and intelligence of ETI are one of the important early efforts to include a consideration of "nature" in the ETI discourse. While the American SETI team conceived of its project from within the traditional ETI discourse, which asked, simply, whether humanoid ETIs exist, the Soviets, from their more robust perspective, identified a number of serious issues with the Americans' claim that SETI was a scientifically rigorous test of whether ETIs exist. The Soviets attempted to resolve these issues but, by the tenth anniversary of Green Bank, failed to do so. At Byurakan-II they raised these questions directly with their American counterparts, in a de facto peer review.



In 1971 the SETI and CETI pioneers, with the notable exception of John Billingham, met in Byurakan. The segment of the conference in which the Soviets raised their "nature"-based issues began with a session entitled, "The Evolution of Intelligence." The key presenter was a physiologist, Harvard's David Hubel. It was a short session, mostly given over to a review of what was currently understood about the functioning of neurons. Despite its title, it was not, in fact, a discussion about intelligence. Cognitive scientists were conspicuously absent. None of the speakers at this session tried to define intelligence or noted that different types of intelligence might have evolved elsewhere. The Soviets, of course, had done so, but they reserved their comments for a later session which they chaired.


In the next session the Canadian anthropologist Richard Lee made a presentation on the evolution of technical civilizations. When summarizing his presentation he made the comment that "human intelligence reduced to its essentials is synonymous with human language."147 This was relevant because it supported the Soviet idea that we could not successfully identify extraterrestrials as intelligent unless we could communicate with them.


A third session entitled "Message Contents" dealt most directly with the possible nature of ETI. No one from the American SETI project was on the panel appointed to address this topic. The Soviet astronomer B. I. Panovkin served as the lead speaker. Joining him was B. V. Sukhotin, the Soviet linguist who, as we saw, raised issues with a SETI-style search in the Kaplan text, and the Soviet communications theorist Y. I. Kuznetzov. The only American on the panel was Marvin Minsky, the founder of the Artificial Intelligence Laboratory at M.I.T. Unlike the Soviet panelists, Minsky evidenced little apparent familiarity with the topic being discussed.


In his opening remarks Panovkin laid out three conditions to be met in order for a SETI-style search to be considered successful, including that the message be understood. He cautioned that, "As far as I can see, within the framework of CETI this third problem has not received proper attention."148 The Soviets, of course, identified this as an important problem as early as their first Byurakan meeting. Moreover, Panovkin's comment was a de facto admission that, despite spending seven years thinking about the problem, the Soviet scientific community failed to produce a workable resolution.


The nub of the issue, as the Soviets saw it, was that it is impossible to translate an isolated symbol system, because it cannot be distinguished from a non-symbol system. In other words, a SETI-style search might not even be able to detect that a message was a message. The only way to decode ETI's symbol system would be to see the symbols repeated in some context that was already familiar.149


A well known illustration of what Panovkin was referring to is the "point-and-say" method of communicating between two terrestrial cultures that meet for the first time. One can imagine that, when the conquistadors first landed in the New World they pointed to what we call a rock and said, "piedra." The Native Americans responded with their word for rock, and in this way a common vocabulary gradually arose among beings from two different linguistic cultures. Panovkin made the point that the SETI literature often assumed that communication between humans and ETIs could take place using a variation of the point-and-say method. He referred to the popular idea that, by first acknowledging physical objects – typically specific stars – which we and ETI have in common, communications between us could arise and gradually become increasingly more complex. Panovkin, however, argued that even something as apparently simple as acknowledging these common objects would not, in fact, be possible unless we and ETI shared similar evolutionary histories. Unless evolution endowed the message transmitter with a cognitive system, consciousness, and intelligence that constructed reality in a manner similar to the way in which we, the receivers, did, we would be unable to understand their messages, and a SETI-style search would fail to meet this criterion of success.


The example of the conquistadors and the Native Americans does not involve inter-species communication. That entails an entirely different level of complexity, as the Americans present well knew. We already saw that they referred to the very problem Panovkin was discussing on at least three occasions during the course of the Green Bank meeting. Calvin reported that the participants "came to a general conclusion ... that in order to make any sense out of an alien language you had to hear a conversation between two of them." Lilly said that, based on his work with dolphins, one needed to see the effect of a communication on its recipient in order to begin to understand it. And Sagan's biographer Poundstone reported that the conferees likened the task of translating ETI's message to translating the lost language Linear B.


The Soviets dominated this session. This is unsurprising given that, years before this meeting, they identified "nature"-based issues as critically important and sought the advice of a wide circle of experts about how to resolve them. As we saw, the Americans either failed to appreciate the relevance of these issues or wanted to deflect attention from them.


Minsky's contribution to the discussion was the claim that it was possible to send instructions for making a computer pre-programmed to enable communication between the sender and the recipient. While he acknowledged Panovkin's point about the impossibility of translating isolated symbol systems, Minsky thought it would prove easy to understand his instructions for building a computer, "as soon as the correct interpretation of the first symbols is made." Minsky offered no insight into how this critical first step might be taken by beings with profoundly different epistemological chassis.


Although he did not acknowledge that he was doing so, Minsky disagreed with the Soviets by claiming that the latest advances in artificial-intelligence research suggested that it was possible to engage in a point-and-say kind of conversation with ETI. As evidence to support the claim, he reported that a machine, speaking English, interacted with humans to build up its knowledge base from what Minsky considered to be basic statements, such as "the box contains a blue pyramid." Panovkin's presentation obviously failed to make an impression on Minsky.150


At one point Minsky suggested that sending a picture of a cat to an ETI might be the equivalent of sending a live cat. Kuznetzov asked how Minsky would convey the idea that the cat was alive. When Minsky faltered Sagan interjected his one comment of the entire session, suggesting that we could transmit the genetic code of the cat. Kuznetzov asked him how he might do that, but Sagan did not answer. The session concluded with no American acknowledgment of the "nature"-based problems that the Soviets raised, nor even an indication that the Americans understood them. Morrison was the lead speaker at the next and last session, on the consequences of contact. He began by saying that he "wish[ed] he had time to go into the discussion of Dr. Panovkin." Instead, he briefly offered an optimistic response to the objections Panovkin raised. "I take the view that the signal itself, by its physical nature, by its intention, by other features held in common between transmitter and receiver civilizations, may be the way around the logical difficulties of which Panovkin speaks." Whereas Minsky simply begged the Soviet objections by claiming we and ETI could understand each other "as soon as the correct interpretation of the first symbols is made," Morrison identified the gap in the logic and plugged it with the assumption that the signal would contain "a language lesson."151


Although offered almost as an aside, Morrison's comment was significant. After acknowledging a potentially fatal flaw at the core of his project, Morrison's "way around the logical difficulties" was to shift responsibility for resolving them to ETI! The SETI team later formally adopted Morrison's tactic and gave it the catchy title of the "assumption of anti-cryptography," about which we shall hear more.


The one American on whom the Soviets' concerns seemed to make an impression was the University of Chicago historian William H. McNeill. Just before the conference closed he revisited the Soviets' main objections to a SETI-style search. "I am more deeply impressed than perhaps Professor Morrison is by the difficulty of deciphering the message." He questioned the SETI-Science assumption of uniformitarianism, a major source of Morrison's and the entire SETI team's optimism. "The confidence that I know many mathematicians and natural scientists have that they have a universal language seems to me a case of chauvinism.... I can't prove it, but I don't think you are justified in assuming automatically that our mathematics is commensurate with their mathematics." McNeill went so far as to call this optimism "a pseudo or scientific religion."152


Not prepared to take that lying down, Oliver countered with, "I found Doctor McNeill's remarks very interesting because they reflect opinions that we are apt to encounter in the educated person who is not intimately acquainted with science and with the problem of interstellar communication. I say that they have, then, political significance."153 It was an interesting exchange. The Soviets were certainly "intimately acquainted with science and the problem of interstellar communication" – indeed, more so than Oliver and his American SETI colleagues – and they already made the very point that McNeill made. Oliver was a bit quick in his dismissal of McNeill and, thus, the Soviets: time would prove him painfully correct about his conclusion that their concerns would have "political significance."


Bernard Oliver
Fig. 8. Bernard Oliver154


The Byurakan-II conference resolutions acknowledged the disagreements that arose. But they claimed agreement on the idea that the "promise of contact with such extraterrestrial civilizations is sufficiently high to justify" searching. It should not, perhaps, come as a surprise that the conferees ended their meeting on this ambiguous note. What, exactly, did they mean by "the promise of contact?" Given what we have seen of the Soviets' reservations, it is unlikely that the conferees meant to suggest that they agreed there was a high probability of contact. More likely they agreed that if contact was made it promised to yield such great dividends that it should be undertaken regardless of how unlikely the chance of making contact.


The conference resolutions made no reference to the "nature"-based critiques raised by the Soviets, nor did the "List of Possible Research Directions" include any follow-up related to them. In contrast, after the Byurakan-I conferees identified these same issues they both called for additional reflection on them and followed up by publishing the result of that reflection in the Kaplan text. The resolutions of Byurakan-II read as though the issues were never even raised.155 This is oddly surprising, given that the Soviets came to Byurakan prepared to discuss with their American counterparts "a very weighty objection" to the search strategy advocated in Cocconi and Morrison's paper.156 They did not pull any punches when raising the issues during the conference and the only attempt at a counter-argument was Morrison's rather thin assertion that the message itself would contain a mechanism to overcome any difficulties of communicating across different cognitive structures, consciousnesses, and intelligences. There are three possible explanations for this conspicuous omission in the conference's summary.


One is that a majority of the conferees, Soviets and Westerners alike, shared the bias toward action over reflection that we have already discussed. We saw that, at least on one previous occasion, Drake's answer to complex "nature"-based questions was, simply, "Let's just put up receivers," and that Kardashev was reluctant to invite "windbags and philosophers" like McNeill to this conference. At one point during the conference Sagan tried, without success, to get the conferees to agree that it would take some "rigorous argument" or "a convincing demonstration of a small value of N to justify not searching.157 Nor was this action-oriented temperament simply an occupational hazard of the astronomers present. At one dramatic moment in the conference the mathematical physicist Freeman Dyson expressed what a majority of the participants might have been feeling when he exasperatingly said, "To hell with philosophy. I came here to learn about observations and instruments and I hope we shall soon begin to discuss these concrete questions."158 In other words, it might simply have been the case that a majority of the attendees decided not to mention this issue again at the conclusion of the conference because it posed a threat to their observational ambitions.


It is also possible that the Americans simply did not understand the Soviets. It is likely that they understood the words the Soviets used.159 But they gave little indication that they appreciated the significance of the Soviet critique for their project. If this explanation is true, it would be ironic, indeed, that a conference convened to discuss the possibility of communicating with extraterrestrials ended with such an obvious gap in understanding separating the two groups of participants.


Finally, it is also possible that the Americans understood all-too-well what was at stake when their Soviet colleagues raised this "very weighty objection" to their project, and tried to deflect attention from the objection by refusing to be drawn into a discussion of it. Sagan, who edited the proceedings, remained uncharacteristically quiet during the "Message Contents" segment of the conference, making one minor comment that was immediately challenged by the Soviets and summarily dismissed.


SETI graphic


Although they shared important beliefs in the likelihood that ETIs exist and that radio astronomy was a logical way to communicate across interstellar distances, the Soviets probed more deeply into the merits of a SETI-style search than their American counterparts. Radio astronomy in the Soviet Union assigned relatively more importance to theory, versus observation, than the Americans did. Moreover, cybernetics gave the Soviets a vocabulary to discuss the nature of ETIs that the Americans did not have. The Americans came from a culture that imprinted stereotypes of humanoid ETIs yet was reluctant to recognize ETIs as a subject of legitimate scientific inquiry, while the popular and scientific cultures of the Soviet Union were almost the reverse.


The Soviets raised troubling issues about a SETI-style search, both in their own meetings and then directly with their American colleagues. Specifically, the Soviets questioned SETI's ability to understand a message that came from non-humanoid ETIs. The Soviets also conceptually linked understanding messages to their detection, a link the SETI effort has not acknowledged to this day. In effect the Soviets charged that the Drake Equation oversimplified the opportunity of using radio astronomy to search for ETIs.


The Americans listened politely but shifted the responsibility for addressing these issues onto ETI, suggesting that any being intelligent enough to send us a message would be intelligent enough to make it easy for us to understand.



99. Byurakan was the site of two of SETI's most important conferences. I will refer to this as Byurakan-I and to the first international SETI conference in 1971 as Byurakan-II.
100. G. M. Tovmasyan, ed., Extraterrestrial Civilizations trans. Z. Lerman (Jerusalem: Israel Program for Scientific Translations, 1967), 1.
101. Ibid.
102. http://www.phys-astro.sonoma.edu/BruceMedalists/Shklovskii/shklovskii.jpg, accessed 10 April 2009.
103. Ibid., 5.
104. Shklovskii, Vodka Bottles, 253.
105. Tovmasyan, 3. We will see later in this chapter that the existence of ETIs was consistent with the state philosophy, dialectical materialism.
106. Ibid., 1, 3.
107. Basalla, 26.
108. Swift, 130.
109. Dick, Biological Universe, 436. For discussions of this strategy see N. S. Kardashev, "Transmission of Information by Extraterrestrial Civilizations," in Tovmasyan, 1929 and Freeman J. Dyson, "Search for Artificial Stellar Sources of Infrared Radiation," reprinted in Cameron, 112.
110. Poundstone, 59.
111. William Poundstone, Carl Sagan – A Life in the Cosmos (New York: Henry Holt and Co, 1999), 59.
112. Tovmasyan, 95.
113. See, e.g., Cosmic Connection, 217 and Dragons of Eden, 2423.
114. Tovmasyan, 97, 98.
115. Pearman, 293.
116. S. A. Kaplan, ed., Extraterrestrial Civilizations – Problems of Interstellar Communication [1969], trans. IPST staff (Jerusalem: Israel Program for Scientific Translations, 1971).
117. Kaplan, 11.
118. Ibid., 10. The reference was to the Cameron anthology.
119. Ibid., 8, 238.
120. B. V. Sukhotin, "Methods of Message Decoding," in Kaplan, 133212.
121. Ibid., 133.
122. Ibid., 211.
123. Ibid., 240, 263, 264.
124. Swift, 22.
125. Ibid., 211.
126. Ibid., 140.
127. http://www.2blowhards.com/Frank%20Schoonover%20-%20smaller.jpg, accessed 10 April 2009.
128. Ibid., 89.
129. Swift, 1723, 183, 201.
130. N. T. Bobrovnikoff, "Soviet Attitudes Concerning the Existence of Life in Space," in George E. Wukelic, ed., Handbook of Soviet Space-Science Research (New York: Gordon & Breach, 1968), 456; quoted in Dick, Biological Universe, 435.
131. John Turkevich, "Soviet Science in the Post-Stalin Era," Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 303 (January 1956): 140, 142. Also see Ronald E. Doel and Robert A. McCutcheon, "Introduction, Special Issue: Astronomy Under the Soviets," Journal for the History of Astronomy 26 (November 1995): 289.
132. Vladimir S. Strelnitski, "The Early Post-War History of Soviet Radio Astronomy," Journal for the History of Astronomy 26 (November 1995): 357.
133. J. S. Hey, The Evolution of Radio Astronomy (Canton, NY: 1973), 87, 934.
134. Dick, NASA HRMS, 134.
135. Philip Morrison, "The Number N of Advanced Civilizations in our Galaxy and the Question of Galactic Colonization. An Introduction," in M. D. Papagiannis, ed., Strategies for the Search for Life in the Universe (Dordrecht, 1980), 18; quoted in Dick, The Biological Universe, 453.
136. Swift, 15051.
137. Frank D. Drake, "Will the Real SETI Please Stand Up?" Physics Today (June 1982): 71.
138. Shklovskii, Vodka Bottles, 256.
139. Loren R. Graham, Science and Philosophy in the Soviet Union (New York: Vintage, 1974), 40.
140. David Joravsky, Russian Psychology – A Critical History (Cambridge, MA: Basil Blackwell, 1989), 328, 376.
141. Graham, 324.
142. Ibid., 3267.
143. David Mindell, Jerome Segal, and Slava Gerovitch, "Cybernetics and Information Theory in the United States, France and the Soviet Union," in Mark Walker, ed., Science and Ideology: A Comparative History (London: Routledge, 2003), 88, 84.
144. Tovmasyan, 2.
145. Kaplan, 2567.
146. The Soviets undertook four searches during the period between Drake's first search and their meeting with the American SETI team at Byurakan-II. See http://seti.org/seti/seti-background/previous-searches/references, accessed 16 March 2008.
147. Sagan, CETI, 91.
148. Ibid., 316.
149. Ibid., 31820.
150. Ibid., 32832.
151. Ibid., 335.
152. Ibid., 342, 346, 344.
153. Ibid., 347.
154. http://www.seti.org/Page.aspx?pid=497, accessed 10 April 2009.
155. Ibid., 353, 355.
156. Ibid., 318.
157. Ibid., 145.
158. Ibid., 188.
159. However, Sagan did note in the "Introduction" to his English-language edition of the conference that the services of a single simultaneous English/Russian and Russian/English translator were a critical ingredient to its success. He concluded the "Introduction" by providing some details of a Russian-language version of the proceedings. It would be interesting to compare these two recountings of the "Message Contents" section.


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