SETI: A Critical History: 3. SETI as popular science

Galaxy being in Outer Limits

Fig. 4. The humanoid ETI of "Galaxy Being" 67.

Mr. Spock

Fig. 5. Mr. Spock – the personification of SETI-ETI 68.

Chapter 3 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


With his American business sense, Sagan effectively used the 'Soviet-American book' as the springboard to a dynamic pop-science career.
– I. S. Shklovskii


SETI's architects claimed to be transforming the ETI discourse by establishing it on rigorously experimental footings for the first time. SETI did have an immediate and profound impact on the discourse, but not in the way its founders intended. Rather than making the discourse more rigorously scientific, SETI inspired two important changes in the popular culture. These remain, to date, SETI's most tangible legacy. First, SETI's vision of ETIs quickly dominated the way ETIs were depicted in films and television. Second, SETI-Science stoked a significant revival of interest in a long-standing non-fiction genre, popular expositions of ETI science. Indeed, at the same time popular fascination with the outcome of a successful SETI-style search grew, SETI's architects took a number of subtle steps that actually distanced the scientific community from the details of the search itself. As a result of these two developments, a strong pull toward the popular culture and a gentle push away from the scientific community, SETI continued the slide from institutional science toward popular science that began with the uncritical methodology its architects chose.


ETI portraiture as a rhetorical site

Americans have, for a long time, used the depiction of ETIs as a rhetorical site where widely held concerns are surfaced and negotiated. When this happens ETIs become prominent in the popular culture. Two conditions are typically associated with these spikes in interest in ETIs. First, they usually occur when there is an advance in astronomy or a related field that can be enlisted to reopen the millennia-old debate about whether ETIs exist. Then, obviously, there has to be at least one pressing societal concern. To illustrate how these twin requirements interact, consider an episode from the end of the nineteenth century. In 1877 the Italian astronomer Giovanni Schiaparelli began to report his observations of long, straight features on the surface Mars. He called them canali, or "channels," but this was translated in the popular literature as "canals."48 The possibility that these canali were of intelligent design inspired the energetic amateur American astronomer Percival Lowell to establish an observatory in Arizona and dedicate the last fifteen years of his life to observing Mars and popularizing his ideas about the ETIs that lived there.


Lowell's success in getting the public to share his enthusiasm for an inhabited Mars is palpable when browsing through contemporary issues of Scientific American. The popular magazine regularly discussed Martian contact with a casual confidence that suggested turn-of-the-century Americans assumed it to be merely a matter of time before contact occurred.


Lowell provided the first trigger – a newsworthy event in the field of astronomy – required to establish ETIs as a popular rhetorical site. There was no lack of the second requirement, troubling societal issues. The disappearance of the American frontier and the rise of European imperialism posed pressing new practical and moral questions. Marx's insights provided a framework for thinking about these, as well as about the darker sides of industrialization that were becoming apparent. To some, Darwin's theory justified the status quo, while it inspired a growing concern in others about what the evolutionary future might have in store for both the species and society. The popular culture was thus primed for ETI portraiture to serve as an easily recognizable symbol for a variety of important public concerns. The opportunity attracted a large number of novelists, but none with more success than H. G. Wells in War of the Worlds.49 Wells' mechanized Martian ETIs were bent on taking over the Earth. In the context of Victoria's confident control of her empire and Leopold's savage expansion of his, Wells' image of Martian machines feeding on fresh human blood seem more apt than shocking; and the prospect of a pure, disembodied intellect, "vast and cool and unsympathetic," housed inside a machine, seemed all-too real an evolutionary destiny for the human species.


A second example of how and why ETIs are called into service in the popular culture leads directly to the events of the SETI narrative. Robert Goddard's rockets, which initiated the Space Age, provided the scientific trigger. His claim that rockets would enable space travel met with public scorn for decades. But by December, 1952 the cover of Time magazine featured a rocket-powered lander on a strange planet and the headline, "Space Pioneer – Will man outgrow the earth." The Red Scare of the late 1940s, culminating in the McCarthyism of the early 1950s, provided the societal issue that served as the second necessary ingredient.


In a rash of movies made during the 1950s, ETIs appeared as thinly disguised metaphors for the Communists that some suspected of lurking everywhere. The moving images exerted a particularly powerful impact on a popular culture used to ETIs depicted in texts, radio broadcasts, and comic books. These movie ETIs were, like the conception of Bolsheviks they were meant to suggest, bent on evil and used mysterious means to control the minds of ordinary folks; the threat they represented spread quickly, and the American military was just as quickly ordered into action against them.


The first of these films, The Thing From Another World, appeared on screens less than a year after Senator Joseph McCarthy announced his infamous list of "205 known Communists" working for the State Department. The opening scene included film's first arrival of an ETI by flying saucer. Not very originally, this ETI fed on human blood, and what dramatic tension there was arose from the conflict between aggressive military types who wanted to destroy it and an idealistic scientist who insisted on the importance of gaining access to the ETI's superior wisdom. The film ended with a quintessential Cold War message. From a setting on a U.S. Air Force base somewhere in the arctic the narrator warned, "Tell this to everybody: watch the skies. Keep looking. Watch the skies."50


In the same year, The Man From Planet X arrived on Earth with a mind-control ray that rendered townsfolk incapable of anything except "blind, slavish movement." They feared that the ETI would make them "lose your self," and were relieved when the military arrived, announcing that it intended to "shoot first and ask questions later."51 The best known of the genre is Invasion of the Body Snatchers. The ETIs in this film were so crafty that even the audience did not see them. ETIs snatched the souls of ordinary people as they slept and replaced them with vacuous replicas who droned on about the virtues of their utopian new world where there is no ambition, faith, love, trouble, or differences.52


By 1953 the plot and its devices turned formulaic. In Invaders from Mars ETIs implanted mind-control devices that transformed familiar townspeople into mindless automatons. For the most part the ETIs were "slaves who exist only to do the will" of their leader, a disembodied brain that served as a kind of queen bee.53 Even as late as 1957, the year Sputnik flew, ETIs in The Brain from Planet Arous used a mind ray to try to enslave the world. The U.S. military turned out in force to save the day.54


SETI graphic


These images were still fresh in the minds of the American public when SETI appeared. The Red Scare and McCarthyism were embarrassing memories by then, but the Cold War remained a real and escalating concern. The American U2 spy plane incident dominated news headlines in May 1960, as Drake completed his first SETI search. The Soviet Union downed the American plane and captured its pilot, Francis Gary Powers; Khrushchev demanded that Eisenhower apologize publicly.


Americans evinced deep conflict about the Cold War life. In the same year Cocconi and Morrison published their paper, although "fear of the Soviet Union and fear of nuclear warfare showed up strongly in most surveys of American attitudes ... in a 1959 Gallup poll on Americans' view of the future, even a majority of those who believed that nuclear war was likely also believed that life would continue to improve year by year."55 Similarly, the theme chosen for the 1964 Worlds Fair, symbolized by a twelve-story high, stainless steel model of the Earth called The Unisphere, was "Peace Through Understanding." Yet the fair's most popular exhibit was the Vatican's display of Michaelangelo's Pietà, a poignant reminder of humanity's brutality and intolerance.


This same curious optimism in the face of extraordinary trial helps explain why the American public immediately embraced SETI. Its core proposition was the possibility of communication with even the radically Other, provided that one was prepared to listen hard enough and long enough. SETI quickly became a marvelously apt symbol of the hope that the United States and the Soviet Union could negotiate an end to their differences.



The SETI process fired the imagination of Cold War Americans, and so did the objects of its searches. SETI's promoters offered the public a particularly appealing vision of what it meant to be an intelligent being. "SETI-ETIs" were a far cry from the dark aliens-as-Commies ETI portraiture dominating the popular culture at the time, and the public immediately warmed to them. As we saw, SETI's pioneers were so convinced that ETIs would be humanoid that the issue of ETIs' "nature" did not even rise to the level of conscious consideration. Their published writings, however, made it clear that they believed ETIs were not simply humans like themselves; rather, SETI-ETIs represented "advanced" or "superior" or even idealized visions of what SETI's founders hoped humans would become.


Initially the idea that ETIs were "advanced" simply referred to the probability that ETIs had been around longer than humans and thus had more time to evolve. Radio astronomy was only a few decades old in the 1960s and 1970s, when SETI's pioneers published much of their thinking. They thus reasoned that any species capable of sending a radio message would have had the technology to do so longer – they usually assumed much longer – than we did, and would thus be "advanced" in the sense of having science and technology that had more time to evolve than our own.56 They assumed that ETI's greater age implied greater wisdom. SETI's promoters often held out the prospect that their project would provide answers to some of our most pressing scientific and medical questions. In the opening paragraph of their paper Cocconi and Morrison predicted that a search like the one they proposed would put us in touch with "civilizations with scientific and technical possibilities much greater than those now available to us." Morrison returned to this point frequently, occasionally showing the penchant for hyperbole that seemed to grow with his reputation. In 1970 he made the unusual claim that "either [ETIs] have completely transcended our technology, or they are still in the lemurian stage. Everything else is extremely improbable."57


For the frontispiece of Intelligent Life in the Universe Sagan chose a photograph of a star cluster near the center of our Galaxy. The caption said that, "According to the estimates of Chapter 29, a planet of one of these stars holds a technical civilization vastly in advance of our own." Inside the text, Sagan speculated that "the bulk of technical civilizations in the universe may be immensely more advanced than ours."58 Like Morrison, Sagan came to make the point more vividly. In 1970 he offered the opinion that, "There is almost certainly no civilization in the galaxy dumber than us that we can talk to."59 Outdoing even Morrison's hyperbole, Sagan eventually came to "think it possible that the Milky Way Galaxy is teeming with civilizations as far beyond our level of advance as we are beyond the ants, and paying us about as much attention as we pay to the ants."60


Drake simply asserted that "It is extremely likely that any civilization we detect would be more advanced than ours." He believed that, when we finally made contact, "very likely we would learn profound aspects of intelligent life that we as yet have not yet begun to imagine."61


From this straightforward notion of being chronologically and technologically advanced, SETI's early leaders began to develop a vision of ETI that embodied an idealized Enlightenment rationality, uncorrupted by the base emotions underpinning the Cold War. SETI-ETI gradually became, not just more advanced but morally superior. In doing so, SETI's early leaders linked their project to artificial-intelligence research, another new and exciting project that bore striking similarities to their own.


Five years before SETI's Green Bank meeting, in the Summer of 1956, a conference at Dartmouth College became to the emerging field of artificial intelligence, or AI, what Green Bank would become to SETI. A number of the figures present at the Dartmouth conference also made important contributions to the ETI discourse, including John McCarthy and Marvin Minsky. SETI and AI had much in common. New technologies developed by the military during World War II made both possible. The public quickly appreciated that, if successful, each project would exert a profound impact on society. Most importantly, AI and SETI both pursued a humanoid intelligence, although neither project managed to become particularly self-reflexive about its anthropomorphism.


One of the most important ideas circulated by the Dartmouth group was that a computer is an accurate model of the human brain.62 A year later, the year Sputnik flew, the AI pioneer Herbert Simon predicted that computers would soon be able to solve problems as well as a human brain.63 When Cocconi's and Morrison's paper launched SETI two years after that, SETI's early proponents frequently discussed the prospect of a machine ETI. For example, in Intelligent Life in the Universe Shklovskii and Sagan developed, over almost 500 pages, an elaborate case for the existence of ETI and the appeal of radio telescopy as the way to find it, yet they remained curiously silent about what the nature of that intelligence might be like. Then, in its last few pages, the text's only commentary on the possible nature of ETI suddenly appeared. "There is every reason to believe that artificial intelligence will be increasingly pervasive in the future development of our civilization. Cybernetics, molecular biology and neurophysiology together will some day very likely be able to create artificial intelligent beings which hardly differ from men, except for being significantly more advanced.... The division of intelligent life into two categories – natural and artificial – may eventually prove to be meaningless."64 Shklovskii's protégé, Nikolai Kardashev, said he believed ETI might be a being with exactly the kind of intelligence that Minsky tried to build at his M.I.T Artificial Intelligence Laboratory, and that this would be superior to human intelligence because it would be immortal and programmed with only the "positive emotions" of humans.65


For more than a decade after SETI's launch, SETI's organizers invited AI pioneers like McCarthy, Minsky and Michael Arbib to key SETI conferences. SETI scientists considered the AI researchers the reigning experts on the subject of intelligence, and actively sought their opinions about the nature of ETI's intelligence and the likelihood that it would evolve elsewhere.


SETI graphic


In a spectacular reversal of iconography from the Red Scare ETIs of 1950s movies, SETI-ETI – the "advanced" and "superior" humanoid intelligence that SETI's architects assumed they would find – dominated ETI portraiture in the popular culture, almost from the moment SETI began. It maintained its grip for the next three decades. SETI-ETI made its debut, however, not in movie theaters but even closer to home, in the still-new medium of television. The popular science fiction series The Outer Limits premiered on 16 September 1963 with an episode entitled, "The Galaxy Being."66 It could have been scripted by SETI scientists. It featured both SETI-ETI and the SETI-style search itself.


The episode opened with scenes of an imposing radio antenna. The protagonist was a lone radio enthusiast obsessed with the idea of communicating with extraterrestrial beings. Allen Maxwell listened at the 21cm frequency – the same frequency Cocconi and Morrison recommended in their SETI paper – with a dedication that threatened to cost him his business and even his marriage. Maxwell justified his monomania by claiming that "the secrets of the universe reveal themselves to the nobodies who care. The breakthroughs don't come from big labs," an apparent reference to the fact that SETI's promoters had not, at the time, secured institutional funding and could thus only conduct short one-off searches when the opportunity presented itself.


Maxwell's efforts paid off. A humanoid-looking ETI appeared on his monitor, explaining that he (he had a male voice) took a big personal risk in doing so because intergalactic rules forbid contact with earthlings, a dangerous species that experimented with nuclear weapons. Through a silly human accident, the product of vanity, the ETI then materialized on Earth. People were instinctively afraid of the ETI, and the military soon appeared with "orders to kill it using any and all means." The soldiers refused to listen when Maxwell pleaded that the ETI came for peaceful purposes. Shooting erupted and, although the bullets had no effect on the ETI, a stray bullet hit Maxwell's wife. The ETI cured her with a simple touch. The Savior symbolism continued as the ETI prepared to return to the heavens; he sadly told the humans as he departed that they had much to learn. As the ETI faded the narrator delivered the voiced-over moral of the story, a concise statement of SETI's appeal to a Cold War-weary public: "We must see the stranger in a new light. The light of understanding. Fear and rage can't help us understand ourselves and each other." The television series Star Trek, first aired in 1966, the year Sagan published Intelligent Life in the Universe, featured the most enduring SETI-ETIs. Even as Cold War tensions increased, each week on the bridge of the starship Enterprise Americans watched a resourceful, compassionate, and courageous crew that included a Russian, an Asian, an African woman, and the mulatto ETI Mr. Spock, encounter and overcome new obstacles as a team. Mr. Spock epitomized SETI-ETI, and he was humanoid to the point of being, at least in part, genetically human.


Television ETIs even became funny. The My Favorite Martian series first aired in 1963. It served as a model for Mork and Mindy in the 1970s, ALF in the 1980s, and Third Rock from the Sun in the 1990s.


SETI-ETIs joined a small list of other topics that are trusted Hollywood formulas, generating an enormous box office since they first appeared.69 Movies like Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Star Wars – Episode IV, and E.T. achieved iconic stature. With a small number of exceptions like the Alien series, most Hollywood ETIs during the period under review were SETI-ETIs, humanoid enough that we could communicate with them, technologically advanced, and usually morally superior.


Popular expositions of ETI science

SETI left an immediate and significant imprint on a second segment of the popular culture: popular texts discussing the science relevant to the debate about the existence of ETIs. Intelligent Life in the Universe was the most popular example of this non-fiction genre. Like the use of ETI portraiture as a rhetorical site, the publishing history of popular expositions of ETI science is closely tied to the appearance of significant new advances in astronomy or some other field relating to the possibility of ETIs. Publications register an up-spike when there is something new and relevant to bring to the public's attention. For example, when Galileo and Kepler first turned optical telescopes onto the Moon and the planets in our solar system in the early 17th century, Fontenelle and Christiaan Huygens published what were probably the first popular expositions of ETI science, using the new observations to buttress their arguments in favor of the existence of ETIs. Later, in the mid-19th century, when Gustav Kirchhoff first used spectroscopy to determine the chemical composition of distant parts of the universe, Camille Flammarion and Richard Proctor published hugely popular texts that incorporated Kirchhoff's findings into their discussions of the plausibility of ETIs. And when Schiaparelli recorded observations of grid-like lines on Mars, Lowell continued to refine those observations and wrote a number of very popular texts about why they supported his theories promoting Martian ETIs.70


When SETI's astronomers claimed they had a scientifically sound way to hunt for ETIs, the genre experienced another surge in popularity. Ten popular expositions of ETI science were published in the five years from Green Bank to the publication of Intelligent Life in the Universe, when the latter became "the bible."71 On average, one such text has been published each year since SETI began, albeit with a lumpy distribution. That pace continues even today, although, as we will see, the emphasis has been shifting from the search for extraterrestrial intelligence to the search for extraterrestrial life, a fact that reflects significant events in the history of SETI.


These texts from the early SETI period typically surveyed a number of topics relating to the origin and evolution of planets and life and then got to the main attraction: an argument for why SETI represented the most reasonable way to try to make contact with ETIs. The texts made little effort to raise issues that might be critical of either SETI's assumptions or of SETI-style searches themselves. Fewer than half even mention the possibility that ETIs might have non-humanoid cognitive structures, consciousnesses, or intelligences. Of those that do, a number devote a page or two to the idea; a handful focus on the single alternative case that ETI may be machine intelligence. As we saw, machine intelligence is, in any event, a proxy humanoid intelligence.


Most of the popular expositions of ETI science during the two decades following SETI's launch were about SETI. They clearly show their roots in SETI-Science, sharing thematic and structural similarities with the Green Bank conference, the Drake Equation, and Intelligent Life in the Universe. More than half, for example, are organized around a discussion of the Drake Equation's variables, and virtually all the rest discuss it. As the pioneer radio astronomer Ronald Bracewell observed, "It's hard to pick up a book or a paper that doesn't start with Drake's Equation."72


SETI and the scientific community

At the same time SETI and SETI-ETI were achieving prominence in the popular culture, SETI's architects showed the first of several signs of wanting to subtly create a distance between their project and the scientific community.


Intelligent Life in the Universe was many Americans' introduction to SETI. It was also America's introduction to Carl Sagan. Publishing the text was the first important public event in what was to become Sagan's very public career. It illustrated both the depth of his skill as a popularizer and the lengths to which he would go to promote a project. In the same way SETI-ETI movies owed part of their appeal to the implied hope for better Cold War relations, part of the attraction of Intelligent Life in the Universe lay in the implication that it was a collaborative effort between scientists from the two superpowers. One of Sagan's early mentors, the geneticist Hermann J. Muller, read the book shortly after its publication and wrote to Sagan.


It is high time for a serious study to have been made of the possibilities of intelligence elsewhere, and of us and it influencing one another. It is high time also for serious theoretical collaboration to have begun between the U.S.A. and U.S.S.R., and it is excellent to begin with an area from which today little danger could arise, but 'tomorrow' real danger. The more become the cooperative ties the less become the motivations for disharmony. That two people who have been so constructive in their complementing works should now succeed in joining


SETI pioneers were frequently outspoken about the need for better relations between the two superpowers. Sagan and Morrison, in particular, often used SETI to advance their anti-nuclear agenda. At Green Bank the SETI scientists linked the likelihood that ETIs exist to their ability to survive the advent of weapons of mass destruction characterizing a civilization's "technological adolescence."74 Superpower cooperation strengthened the case that there were ETIs to find, and the SETI scientists regularly positioned their project as a vehicle for deepening ties with the Soviet Union.75


The actual circumstances surrounding the publishing of Intelligent Life in the Universe tell a much different story. Sagan took the license Shklovskii gave him when he asked Sagan to edit his text to an extreme. Sagan doubled the size of Shklovskii's original text, going so far as to add entirely new sections. Sagan published the book under both his and Shklovskii's names, and subtitled it "Being a translation, extension, and revision of I. S. Shklovskii's Universe, Life, Mind." This was not what Shklovskii envisioned when he answered Sagan's letter asking for permission to arrange for its publication in the U.S. Shklovskii described the episode in his autobiography.


With his American business sense, Sagan effectively used the 'Soviet-American book' as the springboard to a dynamic pop-science career, the apotheosis of which was his thirteen-part TV series Cosmos. Now he's a very progressive millionaire, an active fighter against the threat of nuclear conflagration, and a scientist out on the rosily optimistic flank of the spectrum on the question of extraterrestrial civilizations. [Emphasis added.] 76


Shklovskii's scare quotes indicate that the book was not the "serious theoretical collaboration" that Muller, and presumably others, assumed. Instead, Sagan used a system of little triangles to indicate where he had added "extensions and revisions," allowing him to simply join two very different texts but give the appearance of a joint Soviet and American scientific effort. In fact, when Sagan's "extensions and revisions" are edited out of Intelligent Life in the Universe, we find that Shklovskii did not embrace SETI-Science's core assumption of mediocrity with Sagan's unreserved optimism. The fact that no reliable theories existed to support the assumptions made by the Green Bank attendees obviously bothered Shklovskii. Recall that Cocconi and Morrison also chose to begin their analysis of the SETI opportunity by referring to this same bothersome absence of theoretical support. Shklovskii wrote that, "Since we do not adequately understand the factors leading to the evolution of intelligence and technical civilizations, we cannot reliably estimate the probability that intelligence and technical civilizations will emerge."


Sagan acknowledged Shklovskii's point that "the question of the evolution of intelligence is a difficult one." But Sagan, like the other Green Bank conferees, allowed himself to be persuaded by the argument that "the adaptive value of intelligence ... is so great ... that if it is genetically feasible, natural selection seems likely to bring it forth."77


SETI graphic


Sagan presented readers of Intelligent Life in the Universe with a plausible rationale for why beings that were not radically different from humans would evolve on planets like ours, and why we should search for their radio messages. He then gave us our first glimpse into his flair for public relations. Once the reader bought into SETI-Science at a rational level, Sagan maneuvered them into becoming emotionally invested in SETI. We saw in their deliberations over the Drake Equation's L variable the Green Bank attendees' concerns about the ability of civilizations to successfully negotiate the technological phase in which they first become able to destroy themselves. Sagan acknowledged those deliberations in Intelligent Life in the Universe. Then he linked the case for a high L, i.e., the case for civilizations that last a long time, with the survival value conferred by intelligence by claiming that, "provided that we do not use our intelligence to destroy ourselves, [intelligence is] among the most significant developments in the history of life on Earth."78


In other words, SETI's founders argued that anyone believing that humans were intelligent enough to survive the Cold War would also have to conclude that a SETI-style search would be justified. Sagan first begs the question of the existence of ETIs and then challenges readers to disagree: "It seems reasonable to me that at least a few percent of the advanced technical civilizations in the Galaxy do not destroy themselves...." In Sagan's argument, only a misanthrope would fail to find SETI plausible, and anyone optimistic about the prospects for the species had to conclude that a SETI-style search would succeed.


Although Sagan regularly used SETI as a vehicle to remind readers about the dangers of the arms race, he always did so from an optimistic perspective. Their doubts about the ability of humans to successfully negotiate the nuclear phase left the Green Bank conferees no choice but to develop bimodal estimates of the likelihood that ETIs exist: it was either very unlikely or very likely. Sagan, in contrast, optimistically offered readers of Intelligent Life in the Universe a single-point estimate. When he multiplied out his assumptions about the Drake Equation variables, he calculated the number of ETI civilizations that might be trying to contact us, from our own galaxy, to be one million.79 And Sagan's optimism grew. By the time he hosted the hugely popular television series Cosmos in 1980 he reckoned there were ten times that number. His "co-author," Shklovskii, on the other hand, began with a healthy degree of skepticism and, as we will see in Chapter 5, grew increasingly pessimistic about the possibility that ETIs exist.


SETI graphic


If they had wanted SETI to become a traditional collaborative, peer-reviewed scientific enterprise the American SETI scientists would have nurtured their relationship with the Soviet CETI scientists. Sagan's appropriation of Shklovskii's text to serve SETI's public-relations purposes hardly augured for close ties between the only two groups of astronomers destined to seriously consider establishing large-scale SETI programs. Even more subtly, SETI's American organizers adopted and promoted the Drake Equation in such a way as to distance the entire scientific community from the ETI discourse, leaving themselves, at least for the time being, in a position to dominate it.


During the Green Bank conference the conferees adopted the Drake Equation as the "definition of all the problems" associated with radio searches.80 In doing so, they "establish[ed] the paradigm for SETI discussions through the end of the 20th century." We already saw how, by assigning the Drake Equation to a central place in their thinking, SETI's architects precluded any discussion of the "nature" of a being's intelligence and thus confined SETI to the traditional ETI discourse. This effectively cut SETI off from a number of scientists who had begun to expand the ETI discourse by offering insights into the possibility that an ETI might have a non-humanoid cognitive structure, consciousness, and intelligence, and the implications of that for our ability to communicate with, or even detect, them. (This is the subject of Part II.)


The Drake Equation also served as a rhetorical device that opened up another kind of space between the ETI discourse and the scientific community. Many scientists who might have been reluctant to discuss a subject like "aliens" had fewer problems discussing more conventional topics like the ones covered by the Drake Equation's variables dealing with planetary systems science or the origin and evolution of life. Rather than engaging in the uncomfortable discussion of whether ETIs exist, the Drake Equation allowed a scientist to answer the question indirectly, as the simple multiplicative product of a number of less controversial variables. Establishing this "out" for scientists who did not want to directly contribute to the ETI discourse, however, diverted their attention from it at a time when important changes to it were taking place.


SETI graphic


American popular culture suggested that the nation embraced SETI as soon as it appeared. The project's core process of patient listening seemed an apt Cold War metaphor, and SETI-ETIs embodied a reason unsullied by emotions that represented one solution to superpower conflict. Sagan capitalized on this by positioning SETI as a way to look into our own future, claiming that beings capable of successfully negotiating their nuclear phase would be sending us messages that SETI could detect. Using Sagan's logic, anyone optimistic about the prospects of our own species necessarily supported SETI. SETI-ETIs quickly dominated ETI portraiture in popular television programs and films. In addition, the publication of popular-science texts about ETIs often followed important scientific advances that could be enlisted to support the case for the existence of ETIs, and the advent of SETI-style radio searches was such a development. A predictable spike in the publication of these popular expositions of ETI science occurred, and SETI soon dominated these texts.


At the same time, and although they boasted that their project finally established the ETI discourse on firm scientific foundations, SETI's architects actually began to subtly nudge their project away from the critical gaze of the scientific community. Their relationship with the Soviets, the logical choice to serve as a peer-review group, got off to an awkward start when Sagan arrogated Shklovskii's text as a vehicle for popularizing SETI, while ignoring the significant differences between himself and Shklovskii on SETI's most important assumption, mediocrity. Also, by claiming that the variables of the Drake Equation were necessary and sufficient to explain whether ETIs exist, SETI's architects restructured access to the broader ETI discourse, effectively enabling scientists to distance themselves from the subject of ETIs.


As the focus shifted to the outcome of a successful search and away from the details of the search itself, SETI became a popular science. The goal of SETI's architects to establish SETI as a conventionally defined institutionalized science project became secondary to nurturing their project's popularity.



48. Neither Lowell nor Schiaparelli thought they saw actual canals on Mars. They believed that they were observing strips of vegetation about sixty miles wide, irrigated by a think and invisible canal. Michael J. Crowe's e-mail to the author, 25 July 2008.
49. See also, e.g., Gustavus W. Pope, A Journey to Venus, the Primeval World (1895), Kurd Lasswitz, Auf Zwei Planeten (1897), H. G. Wells, First Men in the Moon (1901), George duMaurier, The Martian (1907), Garrett P. Serviss, A Columbus in Space (1909), and Edgar R. Burroughs, Princess of Mars (1912).
50. Christian Nyby, Director, The Thing from Another World (Winchester Pictures Corporation, 1951).
51. Edgar G. Ulmer, Director, The Man from Planet X (Sherill C. Corwin Productions, 1951).
52. Don Siegel, Director, Invasion of the Body Snatchers (Walter Wanger Productions, 1955).
53. William Cameron Menzies, Director, Invaders from Mars (National Pictures Corporation, 1953).
54. Nathan Juran, Director, The Brain from Planet Arous (Marquette Productions, 1957).
55. Thomas Hine, Populuxe – From Tailfins and TV Dinners to Barbie Dolls and Fallout Shelters (New York: MJF Books, 1986), 38.
56. See, e.g., Bernard M. Oliver, "Why Search," in Donald Goldsmith, ed., The Quest for Extraterrestrials – A Book of Readings (Mill Valley, CA: University Science Books, 1980), 156.
57. Ponnamperuma and Cameron, 186. Morrison is referring to one of humans' earliest primate ancestors, the lemur.
58. Shklovskii and Sagan, 394.
59. Richard Berendzen, ed., Life Beyond Earth and the Mind of Man – A Symposium held at Boston University on November 20, 1972, NASA SP–328 (Washington, DC: NASA Scientific and Technical Information Office, 1973), 63.
60. Carl Sagan, "The Solipsist Approach to Extraterrestrial Intelligence," Quarterly Journal of the Royal Astronomical Society 24 (1983): 120.
61. Frank Drake, "On Hands and Knees in Search of Elysium," Technology Review (June 1976): 25.
62. For accounts of the Dartmouth meeting see, e.g., Daniel Crevier, AI – The Tumultuous History of the Search for Artificial Intelligence (New York: Basic Books, 1993), and James P. Hogan, Mind Matters – Exploring the World of Artificial Intelligence (New York: Ballantine Publishing, 1997).
63. Crevier, 1.
64. Shklovskii and Sagan, 486.
65. Swift, 189.
66. Leslie Stevens, Director, "The Galaxy Being" (Metro Goldwyn Mayer Home Entertainment: 1963).
67. http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/en/2/28/OL-thegalaxybeing.jpg, accessed 10 April 2009.
68. http://www.sportcartoons.co.uk/wallpaper/spock.jpg, accessed 10 April 2009.
69. Internet Movie Database, "boxoffice/business" sort, http://www.imdb.com, accessed 2 November 2006.
70. Bernard le Bovier de Fontenelle, Conversations on the Plurality of Worlds (1687), H. A. Hargreaves, trans. (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1990); Christiaan Huygens, Celestial Worlds Discover'd: or, Conjectures Concerning the Inhabitants, Plants and Productions of the Worlds in the Planets (1698) (Gryphon Editions, 1996); Camille Flammarion, La pluralité des mondes habités (Paris: Ernest Flammarion, 1873); Richard A. Proctor, Other Worlds Than Ours – The Plurality of Worlds Studied Under the Light of Recent Scientific Researches (New York: D. Appleton, 1886); and Percival Lowell, Mars (Kessinger Reprint of 1895 first edition), and Mars as the Abode of Life (Elibron Classics Replica Edition of the 1909 Macmillan Company first edition).
71. See the Bibliography section, "Popular Expositions of ETI Science."
72. Swift, 159.
73. Hermann J. Muller to Carl Sagan, 17 June 1966; Correspondence (Sagan), 1959–1966 folder, Papers, 1910–1967, of Hermann Joseph Muller at the Lilly Library, Indiana University, Bloomington, Indiana.
74. Sagan, Cosmos, Chapter XII "Encyclopedia Galactica", minute 44.
75. See, e.g., the fourth recommendation of the "Morrison Workshops" in Philip Morrison, John Billingham and John Wolfe, eds., The Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence – SETI, NASA SP–419 (NASA Scientific and Technical Information Office, 1977), 33.
76. Shklovskii, Vodka Bottles, 252.
77. Shklovskii and Sagan, 379, 411.
78. Ibid., 359.
79. Shklovskii and Sagan, 413, 359.
80. A. G. W. Cameron, "Future Research on Interstellar Communication," in Cameron, 309.
81. Dick, NASA HRMS, 104.


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