SETI: A Critical History
Part I Constructing SETI
Chapter 3. SETI as popular science
With his American business sense, Sagan effectively
used the 'Soviet-American book' as the springboard to a dynamic pop-science
– 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
19th 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
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
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.
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
|Fig. 4. The humanoid ETI of "Galaxy
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.
|Fig. 5. Mr. Spock – the personification
of SETI-ETI 68
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
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
forces is great cause for transnational rejoicing. 73
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
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
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
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.
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.
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
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
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
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,
60. Carl Sagan, "The Solipsist Approach to Extraterrestrial Intelligence,"
Quarterly Journal of the Royal Astronomical Society 24 (1983):
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
63. Crevier, 1.
64. Shklovskii and Sagan, 486.
65. Swift, 189.
66. Leslie Stevens, Director, "The Galaxy Being" (Metro Goldwyn Mayer
Home Entertainment: 1963).
accessed 10 April 2009.
68. http://www.sportcartoons.co.uk/wallpaper/spock.jpg, accessed 10 April
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
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.
(2. SETI science) | NEXT
(Part II. Expanding the ETI Discourse: Introduction)