SETI: A Critical History: Bibliographical essay

Bibliographical essay 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


This narrative sits at the intersection of two historical events: the evolution of the SETI project, and the expansion of the ETI discourse to include the "nature" of ETIs, especially non-humanoid ETIs. Before one can examine their intersection, the facts of the two events must be recovered independently, and this requires the examination of two decidedly different bodies of evidence.


The SETI sources are far fewer in number. The best entry into the SETI literature is Steven Dick's two histories of SETI. Dick is currently NASA's Chief Historian, and his accounts of the institutionalization of the project are the most robust secondary sources about the project. Those preferring a fictional introduction should read Zerwick and Brown's The Cassiopeia Affair; the authors incorporate a credible amount of detail about the history of – and the assumptions made by – SETI into their novel.


The most important primary sources about SETI are the published proceedings or other records of the SETI and CETI conferences (the latter are available in English translation). The most important of these were the first American SETI conference at Green Bank in 1961 (Pearman, 1963); the first Soviet CETI conference at Byurakan in 1964 (Tovmasyan, 1967); NASA's first SETI conference in 1970 (Ponnamperuma, 1970); the Project Cyclops design conference (Billingham, 1973), and the first joint American and Soviet conference at Byurakan (Sagan, 1973), both in 1971; the "Morrison Workshops" in 1975 (Morrison, Billingham, and Wolfe, 1977); NASA's Life in the Universe conference in 1979 (Billingham, 1981); and the triennial IAU Commission 51 conferences that began in 1984 (Papagiannis, 1984).


There are two important anthologies of SETI papers. The earlier of these, edited by A. G. W. Cameron, primarily discusses the American conceptualization of SETI. S. A. Kaplan's text fleshes out the key issues the Soviets identified with SETI-style searches.


A number of the SETI pioneers and their successors left reasonably complete written records of their assumptions as well as their rationales for making them. Swift's collection of interviews with all of the important figures involved with SETI is a unique and invaluable primary resource.


Finally, I included direct critiques of SETI-style searches among the primary SETI sources. These include essays by evolutionists such as Loren Eiseley, George Simpson, and Theodosius Dobzhansky, and the papers of SETI critics at the "Where Are They?" conference in 1979.


SETI graphic


Recovering the history of the ETI discourse from the early 1960s onward poses a significantly greater challenge than examining the events of the SETI project, for a number of reasons. For one thing, there are no secondary sources to serve as guides to the extensive ETI literature. The historians Steven Dick and Michael Crowe pioneered the historiography of the ETI discourse. Their exhaustive examinations begin in antiquity but end before the ETI discourse expanded to include the discussion of ETI's nature and, in particular, the discussion of plausible non-humanoid ETIs. This narrative is, then, an attempt to continue the work begun by Dick and Crowe.


Another reason why recovering the events of the expansion of the ETI discourse requires so much more effort than examining the history of the SETI project is that the primary sources of the ETI discourse are far less "dense" than those of SETI. Whereas most SETI documents are about SETI, the central goal of many of the sources containing important contributions to the ETI discourse is not, in fact, to make such contributions. Indeed, many of the insights these sources contain about ETIs often appear as asides. As a result, these insights must first be identified as such, within the widely varying contexts in which they are embedded, and then separated out and examined in their aggregate.


The fact that the ETI discourse "lives" in a wide variety of primary sources makes finding it all-the-more challenging. Because the discourse is defined as the universe of ideas about ETIs, contributors from different fields employ many mediums to express their views. Three types of primary sources are particularly useful. First, about one hundred non-fiction sources do, in fact, deal directly with ETIs. Those that discuss the possibility or description of non-humanoid ETIs are particularly interesting. A small number of these predate the period under review, including the writings of the first author to discuss scientifically plausible non-humanoid ETIs, Bernard le Bovier de Fontenelle, and of Johannes Kepler, Christiaan Huygens, Immanuel Kant, Camille Flammarion, Richard Proctor, and Alfred Wallace. Most primary sources that directly discuss ETIs were, however, published during or after the 1960s, by scientists, philosophers of science, or science writers. The best of these include the texts by Regis, Cohen and Stewart, the Jonases, Baird, Pickover, and Anderson.


Popular expositions of ETI science are a second important primary source of contributions to the ETI discourse. Most resemble textbooks, and discuss the contemporary science relating to the question of whether ETIs exist. The relevant variable in this genre since the rise of SETI in the early 1960s is the prominence of SETI science or, more specifically, the degree to which these texts acknowledge and discuss the "nature" of ETIs, especially non-humanoid ETIs. The approximately sixty titles in the bibliography are about equally split between those in which SETI science dominates and those in which some discussion of ETIs' "natures" occurs, although the latter are rarely substantial. The best popular expositions of ETI science include the texts by Goldsmith and Owen, Feinberg and Shapiro, MacGowan and Ordway, and Bylinsky.


The third and last important source of contributions to the ETI discourse are those found in hard science fiction, or fictional stories whose characters and plots are scientifically plausible. This has been an important vehicle for the expansion of the ETI discourse, as evidenced by the more than fifty titles included in the bibliography. Andrew Fraknoi, an astronomer at Foothill College and a trustee of the SETI Institute, compiled a list of relevant hard science fiction novels; this can be found at the Astronomical Society of the Pacific's website.


SETI graphic


The above primary sources comprising the ETI discourse represent scientifically sound, non-fiction ideas about ETIs. Two final sources are almost entirely fantasy-based fiction, and were excavated for the insights they yield into the contemporary thinking about the SETI project and the ETIs for which it searched: ETI portraiture and the depiction of SETI in American films and television. The bibliography that follows (click on the link below) represents a reasonably complete record of these sources from the 1950s through 2008.


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