SETI: A Critical History: 10. Inflection

Chapter 10 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


But it's not science.
– J. Billingham


SETI hit an inflection point between its twentieth and twenty-fifth anniversaries, designated by two conferences that proved to be important events in SETI's history, NASA's Life in the Universe conference in 1979, and the International Astronomical Union's first Commission 51 Bioastronomy conference in 1984. No single event sent SETI scudding off-course. Instead, the sustained and increasingly public challenges of SETI's assumptions and methods during the period gradually introduced a general sobering of expectations for the project. A number of these challenges arose directly from the emerging "nature" segment of the ETI discourse.


Even as SETI settled into its institutional home in NASA, its organizers – under pressure from the mounting "nature"-based critique – eventually had to retract their earlier proud claim that SETI established the ETI discourse on rigorous scientific grounds for the first time. Indeed, even its promoters no longer thought of SETI as institutional science in the conventional sense. SETI's pioneers tried to put a brave face on this development, but they showed signs of wearying. Sagan was the exception: he successfully leveraged SETI into a career as a pop-science icon.


SETI graphic


One of the formal recommendations made by the Morrison Workshops was to incorporate the American SETI effort into NASA. NASA accepted the recommendation and, in 1976, established a SETI Program Office. This event was, according to Steven Dick, the "first institutionalization of SETI within NASA." In its Outlook for Space report that year, NASA embraced SETI as one of the ways it executed its mandate to conduct investigations into the origin and existence of life elsewhere. This public acknowledgement came fifteen years after the NAS convened the Green Bank meeting to explore the possibility that SETI could play a role in the space agency's broader SETL mission. In 1978 the relevant subcommittees in both the House and the Senate authorized two million dollars for the initial research and design work for a SETI program within NASA.


SETI's standing in the scientific community

In 1979 a group of scientists gathered for what was, in effect, an "anti-SETI" conference. The name chosen for the conference, "Extraterrestrials – Where Are They?" is actually a statement of the Fermi Paradox, which expresses doubt over the existence of ETIs exist based on the fact that we have not seen any evidence of them. One popular idea presented at the conference was that an intelligent species would, as humans did, undertake an exploration of space at a relatively early point in its technological evolution, if only by probe. Calling on a variety of scenarios, the participants expressed the belief that if ETIs exist they would have created enough of a presence in the galaxy that we would have detected them. The fact that we had not, they argued, is evidence that we are alone.


Participants also heard arguments that the probability of life originating was small, even in earthlike conditions; and that, if life did originate, the probability that intelligent life would evolve was even smaller. Both were, in effect, challenges to key assumptions of SETI-Science since Green Bank.


A subtext that lay close to the surface of a number of the papers, and even the title of the conference, related to an issue first raised by Shklovskii: unlike conventional science, which begins with observations, SETI searches for observations. In other words, a number of the scientists at the meeting called SETI's status as conventional science into doubt.


In the second edition of the published proceedings the prominent evolutionist Ernst Mayr took up a point Dobzhansky raised seven years earlier: that those arguing for the existence of ETIs often did so on the basis of a flawed understanding of evolution as a deterministic process. Mayr directed his challenge personally at SETI's architects. He recounted the fantastically unlikely scenario that would have to be repeated in order for human intelligence to be replicated. He then asked,


Why are there nevertheless still proponents of the SETI project? When one looks at their qualifications, one finds that they are almost exclusively astronomers, physicists and engineers. They are simply unaware of the fact that the success of the SETI project is not a matter of physical laws and engineering capabilities but a matter of biologic and sociologic factors. These, quite obviously, have been entirely left out of the calculations of the possible success of the SETI project.


Mayr later elaborated on his critique.


It is interesting and rather characteristic that almost all the promoters of the thesis of extraterrestrial intelligence are physical scientists.... Why are ... biologists, who have the greatest expertise on evolutionary probabilities, so almost unanimously skeptical of the probability of extraterrestrial intelligence? It seems to me that this is to a large extent due to the tendency of physical scientists to think deterministically, while organismic biologists know how opportunistic and unpredictable evolution is.


Prompted by the same view of SETI expressed at this "anti-SETI" conference, the country's leading physics journal published an essay by the biologist Leonard Ornstein that echoed the points made by Dobzhansky and Mayr. Ornstein reasoned that "many scientists are so easily gulled by the intriguing idea of ETI [because] they simply have faith that the deterministic laws of chemistry and physics assure that all classes of macroscopic processes, including those of biological evolution, must be repeated countless times, over the multi-billion-year lives of the galaxies and the vast stretches of the universe."


SETI graphic


Support in the Soviet Union for SETI-style searches began to wither after Byurakan-II. Shklovskii's change-of-heart, from his early enthusiastic interest in SETI-style searches to one of the primary authors of the Soviet critique, played an important role in the decline. The sources of Shklovskii's skepticism, however, extended beyond the "nature"-based issues he helped identify. As early as 1960 Shklovskii expressed the view that species, like individuals, inevitably perish. When writing about ETIs for the first time he said, "It seems to us that faith in the eternity of mankind on earth (since we only may speak of faith) is just as absurd and senseless as the faith in the personal immortality of the individual. Anything that was born must unavoidably perish sooner or later. And there is no reason for intelligent life on any planet to constitute an exception." SETI's architects, of course, expressed considerably more optimism about the fate of SETI-ETI. Drake, for example, assumed that an advanced intelligence would devise a way to make itself immortal.


Shklovskii also shared the SETI organizers' Cold War concern, discussed at the Green Bank meeting, about the ability of a technological species to survive the stage in which it first learned how to destroy itself. Shklovskii once told Drake that he believed "the galaxy is full of dead societies, of radioactive ruins of civilizations...."


Shklovskii attached particular significance to a search Drake and Sagan performed in 1975. Curiously, it was the first search on which Sagan personally worked, and it was not a SETI-style search. Instead, it was similar to Kardashev's first search, which looked for the heat signature of massive astrophysical engineering that would evidence a very advanced civilization known in the ETI discourse as a "Type II" civilization. Drake and Sagan found no evidence of ETIs. Sagan was surprised and disappointed, even depressed. So, too, was Shklovskii. Shortly after Drake's and Sagan's negative result Shklovskii published an article in which he reasoned that one of the probabilities commonly assigned to the variables in the Drake Equation must be wrong – very wrong – and he settled on L, or the longevity of a communicative civilization, as the likely candidate. As evidence, he did not discuss his nuclear melancholy per se but the failure to find evidence of Type II civilizations.


Shortly after the "anti-SETI" conference discussed above Shklovskii admitted that he, too, was troubled by the Fermi Paradox. He reasoned that, if intelligent life was abundant in the universe then, statistically, much of it was technologically more advanced than terrestrial life and would have devised ways to explore the galaxy, leaving signs of having done so that should have been obvious to us. He specifically referenced the views of Michael Hart, who maintained that advanced ETIs would have dispatched probes that we would have detected. Shklovskii also argued that sending radio signals is an even easier undertaking than sending probes, so we should have at least heard from ETI, if they exist.


These issues, when combined with his unanswered questions about the assumptions of and even the logic employed in a SETI-style search, permanently dampened Shklovskii's enthusiasm. Shklovskii is the only one of the six original key figures in SETI who lost faith in the project; the American SETI team never wavered in its support.


SETI graphic


The SETI pioneers had no illusions about their project's status in the scientific community. When recounting how he obtained the funding for his first SETI search Drake attributed his success to "the fact that we weren't investing a great deal of resources.... People didn't think it was worth a very careful analysis, but since it wasn't crazy" they allowed him to spend the relatively small amount he needed. Twenty years later Drake's impression of the support his project enjoyed had not changed. In 1981 he characterized the attitude of other scientists toward SETI as a belief that it was "legitimate, important, but not worth the commitment of major resources at this time...."


Sagan agreed. "I would say the average opinion is that most scientists are happy that someone is dealing with this but they consider it such a long shot that they would not themselves want to dedicate a significant fraction of their scientific lives to what is probably, in their view, a will-o-the-wisp." David S. Hoeschen, the Director of the National Radio and Astronomy Observatory, represented this view of "most scientists." The NRAO was SETI's original home, the place where Drake conducted the first search in 1960. But by 1978 its Director testified before Congress that "SETI is a great adventure which might have tremendous ultimate consequences but presently it is and should be principally an intellectual endeavor." He went on to say that any money allocated to SETI could be better spent elsewhere.


Hoeschen's summary was telling. SETI's founders hoped that their project would establish the ancient "whether" question of the ETI discourse on firm experimental grounds, yet after almost twenty years the government's chief radio astronomer observed that SETI was, and should be, an intellectual endeavor. SETI's founders failed to convince the scientific community that their project qualified as a well-constructed experiment, and the various "nature"-based critiques of SETI explained why. While SETI's promoters tended to dismiss these critiques – when the critiques registered with them – the increasing circulation of the critiques made it difficult for the scientific community at large to ignore them.


SETI graphic


In one of the most important, if largely overlooked, events in SETI's history, NASA formally acknowledged the "nature"-based critique of SETI at its 1979 Life in the Universe conference. The form of the critique took three, now familiar, parts: humanoid ETIs are unlikely; non-humanoid ETIs might exist; but SETI was "tuned" to find only humanoid ETIs. NASA Administrator Robert A. Frosch signaled what lay in store with his opening remarks. "There are perhaps two gigantic missing pieces in this chain [essentially the Drake Equation] where I think it is fair to say we have hardly a clue. One is at the end nearest ourselves when we contemplate the nature of consciousness; the other is at the very other end where we contemplate the first instants of the universe." This degree of candor about "nature" issues like consciousness rarely occurred at SETI conferences. When the topic of ETIs' nature even made it onto the agenda, the occasion typically provided an opportunity to confirm SETI's assumption that ETIs are humanoid. Instead, NASA had now, for the first time at a SETI conference, invited a competent evolutionist to address the likelihood that ETIs with humanoid intelligence might evolve. C. Owen Lovejoy, a biological anthropologist, began by distinguishing between humanoid and non-humanoid intelligences. In Lovejoy's conception, there is an adaptation that can, generally, be called intelligence; he called the human form of this adaptation "cognition." By simply distinguishing between humanoid and non-humanoid intelligence Lovejoy significantly broadened the official discourse about SETI in a manner that soon exposed its anthropomorphic bias.


Lovejoy then reaffirmed the evolutionists' critique, saying that "cognition" – humanoid intelligence – was "not an event of even the lowest calculable probability." Finally, after distinguishing between humanoid and non-humanoid intelligence, and dismissing the possibility of humanoid intelligence evolving a second time, Lovejoy acknowledged the possibility that non-humanoid ETIs might evolve elsewhere.


Another invited speaker, the anthropologist Bernard Campbell, demonstrated why SETI's searches were "tuned" to find the very humanoid ETIs whose existence Lovejoy doubted. The philosopher Lewis White Beck first discussed this point about SETI's "tuning," a key element of the Soviets' critique since the early 1960s, in the United States eight years earlier, in 1971. At his presidential address to the American Philosophical Association Beck warned that "the feasible methods of interstellar communication [i.e., radio astronomy] are filters which will keep out evidence of the existence of beings whose logic, grammar, and technology, if they have such, are radically different from our own." NASA invited Campbell to the Life in the Universe conference to address the question of what an ETI that sent radio messages might be like. He listed thirteen characteristics that a radio-communicative ETI probably had. It becomes obvious, when considering the profile in its entirety, that Campbell described an ETI with an evolutionary history very much like that of humans. The thirteen characteristics are animal-like mobility; bilateral symmetry; heterotrophic nutrition; nervous systems; organs of manipulation; social groups; the ability to learn and communicate efficiently; play and exploration; evolved visual sense; large and structured central nervous system; flexible behavioral response capability; adaptations to rich, varied, complex environments; and an environment with seasonal variations in temperature.


Not long after the conference Jill Tarter, a key member of SETI's second-generation leadership team, acknowledged that SETI was, indeed, "tuned" to find humanoids. "Those forms that we do find in this manner [i.e., a SETI-style search] will be more similar to life as we understand it than other forms that may exist. We put a filter on the problem." When asked what she would do differently if starting over again to study ETIs, Tarter responded with an echo of Shklovskii's complaint prior to Byurakan-II, that the American SETI scientists failed to acknowledge the "complexity" of the problem they faced and, in particular, were ignoring the "humanities and biological aspects." Tarter said, "I neglected biology, and civilizations, and paleontology." In other words, she would have paid more attention to the "nature" aspects of the opportunity SETI represented.


Pascal's Wager

Why, if NASA understood the critiques of SETI's claim that it put the "whether" question on firm experimental footings, did the agency continue to offer to serve as SETI's institutional home? The titles of the most important texts in SETI's history tell an interesting story:


Intelligent Life in the Universe, the 1966 "SETI bible" by Shklovskii and Sagan.


"Communication with Extraterrestrial Intelligence," the proceedings of the 1971 Byurakan-II conference.


"Project Cyclops – A Design Study of a System for Detecting Extraterrestrial Intelligent Life," the report of NASA's 1971 project to design the "dream" SETI program.


"The Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence," the proceedings of the 1975/1976 "Morrison Workshops."


"Possibility of Intelligent Life Elsewhere in the Universe," the 1975/1977 Library of Congress research report prepared for Congress as it began to consider NASA's requests to fund SETI.


They all share a common emphasis on intelligent life, or ETIs. NASA entitled its 1979 conference "Life in the Universe." NASA's mission included the search for life; finding intelligent life was only a subset of its larger mission. Recalling the genesis of the very first SETI meeting at Green Bank eighteen years previously, the NAS and NASA always clearly defined SETI's role as a supporting one. The prominence so quickly attained by SETI-ETI and SETI-Science in the popular culture obscured the fact that the center of gravity in SETI's future institutional home lay decidedly to the left, on the Drake Equation, of SETI. Only about one-quarter of the papers presented at the Life in the Universe conference concerned SETI. The search for microbial life and, even further leftward, extrasolar planets, commanded a prior call on NASA's resources than SETI.


In his opening remarks at the Life in the Universe conference, A. Thomas Young, Deputy Director of the NASA Ames Research Center, explained that NASA now thought of its mission to search for life in space as having two thrusts. NASA's traditional approach of sending probes to other planets failed to conclusively find life in this solar system. Instead of dispatching probes, NASA now planned adopt the "indirect" approach of learning about the origin of life in various environments here on Earth and then attempting to determine if those environments might also exist elsewhere.


SETI, on the other hand, became NASA's "direct" approach. Noel Hinners, Associate Administrator for Space Science at NASA, described what this meant in Congressional testimony a few months before the conference. "The radio search for ETI is a bold attempt to leapfrog directly to an answer to one of the most important questions confronting us – are we alone in this incomprehensibly vast universe?" Steven Dick likened NASA's vision for SETI to a search for "a kind of Holy Grail." While the majority of NASA's efforts to find extraterrestrial life would continue to be the traditional sort of science in which evidence is patiently assembled, SETI swung for the fences. As Hinners described it to Congress, "I regard the proposed 'Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence' (SETI) first as an imaginative, relatively low-cost gamble that could provide immense rewards in the event of a success...."


This, of course, amounted to a reversal of its founders' original vision for SETI. Two decades earlier it had been SETI that would listen hard and long and thereby establish the ETI discourse's "whether" question on firm scientific grounds for the first time. Now SETI became a kind of Pascal's Wager.

In 1662 Blaise Pascal struggled with whether, not ETIs but God exists. Pascal constructed a four-by-four matrix whose two columns described the alternatives that he did and did not believe in God, and whose two rows described the reality God does or does not exist. Pascal reasoned that it cost him nothing to believe in God. He then thought about the consequences of each cell of the matrix and reached the famous conclusion that, "If you gain you gain all; if you lose you lose nothing." If he believed in God, which cost nothing, and God does exist, then Pascal would be eligible for an eternal reward. If, on the other hand, he did not believe in God, and God does exist, Pascal risked losing that reward, eternally. This became known as Pascal's Wager. NASA similarly reasoned that if they spent a relatively modest amount of money on SETI and found nothing, they lost little. If, on the other hand, they hit pay dirt the consequences could be enormously significant.


As mentioned, in 1978 the Subcommittee on Space Science & Applications of the House Committee on Science & Technology approved $2 million to commence the "R&D phase" of SETI, to turn the recommendations of the Morrison Workshops into concrete specifications of a search project. Early the following year, however, Senator William Proxmire saddled NASA with one of his infamous "Golden Fleece" awards "for proposing to spend $14 to $25 billion over the next seven years to try to find intelligent life in outer space." NASA had not, in fact, proposed spending anything near this sum; but the public-relations damage had been done. In 1979 the Appropriations Committees of the House and the Senate refused to provide the funding that the Subcommittee on Space Science & Applications already approved.


Despite having no appropriated funding, NASA managed to keep SETI alive "at a subsistence level" during 1980 and 1981. It formed the SETI Science Working Group to work out the details of the research and design project that NASA would undertake when funding finally became available.


In 1981 Senator Proxmire managed to cancel all funding for SETI in NASA's budget for fiscal year 1982. Then in 1982 scores of scientists added their names to an open letter, written by Sagan to the journal Science, advocating that the government fund a SETI-style search. In that same year the NAS published its outlook for astronomy and astrophysics in the 1980s. The academy recommended that SETI receive modest support. As NASA had done several years earlier, the NAS based its recommendation on the notion that SETI, if not quite up to the standards of the conventional institutional science enterprises it typically endorsed, was a kind of interesting Pascal's Wager. In other words, the NAS built its case around public, not academic, support.


These questions [whether ETIs exist] reach far beyond astronomy, and even beyond science as we currently think of it. Yet astronomers, who are in a sense commissioned by the public to keep an eye on the Universe, feel bound to ask them and to point out how we might begin to try to answer them.


Armed with the NAS endorsement NASA secured, later in 1982, a $1.5 million appropriation from Congress for SETI research and development, somewhat less than the $2 million that Congress approved in 1978.


Signs of wearying

At the end of the Life in the Universe conference, NASA's SETI team, headed by Oliver and Billingham, unveiled the plan for NASA's SETI project that emerged from the Morrison Workshops. A new humility characterized the effort. In their Project Cyclops report the two SETI pioneers confidently asserted that "universal processes" of evolution ensured that ETI is like us and, even if they are not, anti-cryptography resolved the issues the Soviets identified about communicating between beings that constructed realities in very different ways. As a consequence, Oliver and Billingham concluded that "we need not worry much over the problem of exchanging information."


Eight years later the pair sat through presentations in which NASA publicly acknowledged for the first time that their project could only detect humanoid ETIs, which were unlikely, and not the non-humanoid ETIs increasingly thought to be possible. Oliver and Billingham began their presentation on a humble note, admitting that a SETI-style search was "the only practical way we know how to do [this]." Billingham obviously felt exasperated. In an interview not long after the conference he revealed the kinds of pressure on him in and around NASA to justify continued support for SETI.


We know nothing about the other people [sic] out there. We don't know where to look. We don't know how long to look. We don't know what frequency to look on. We don't know whether to come back to the same source later on to look again. We don't know what polarization to look in. We don't know what sort of pattern of signal we're looking for. We don't know whether it has any modulation on it or not. When you get through with this list, it's no wonder people begin to balk.... Really, the bottom line is that we don't know what it takes to detect extraterrestrial intelligence.


Billingham's comments constitute a partial catalog of the practical questions that surfaced as SETI struggled to mature beyond Hoeschen's "intellectual endeavor" and become a functional project. As theoretical discussions gave way to the need to iron out operational details, the "nature"-based critiques of SETI manifested themselves in concrete terms that could not be dismissed with abstract notions like "anti-cryptography" and "quasi-ergodic theorems." Earlier in 1979, for example, NASA invited the Dartmouth psychologist John C. Baird to participate in Project Oasis, a group of twenty-five engineers, physicists, astronomers, and psychologists asked to help design the multi-channel spectrum analyzer to be used in NASA's SETI project. Baird later recalled that "what surprised many of us working on the project was that here we had a fascinating concept, alien intelligence, about which we knew absolutely nothing; and yet very detailed search plans were rapidly taking shape. As far as I can tell, the same conceptions of the search persist to this day." Baird went on to draw the increasingly obvious conclusions about a SETI-style search.


If advanced civilizations exist, but in a wildly alien form, located in effect along very different physical, biological, and psychological dimensions, then all the observation time spent at the most sophisticated telescopes will be for naught. The aliens we seek will be going about their business in an alternate universe we are forever prohibited from learning anything about. Once this truth is realized, there will remain little point in continuing the search, since the target civilization will forever lie outside the scope of human comprehension.


In his litany of exasperations quoted above, Billingham had not even mentioned the "nature"-based issues. Indeed, it is not clear that these registered with him. For example, in that same interview Billingham claimed that the origin of life is "very likely." Then,


Darwinian evolution takes over, and you gradually get an increase in complexity, and you get the formation of some sort of nervous system ... and ultimately, of course, the gradual association of individual organisms to make up a culture and cultural evolution, which is the standard story. Something like that has to happen elsewhere ... [ETIs] are going to have some of the characteristics that we have, at our stage; they must have. [Emphases added.]


The "standard story" was Billingham's and SETI's, not the scientific community's. Billingham did not need to be familiar with the evolutionists' critique to know this; if he even skimmed through his colleague Sagan's best seller, Dragons of Eden, Billingham would have known that his "standard story" was shockingly bad science.


Drake intellectually understood at least some of the critiques made of SETI; but he appeared to be unable or unwilling to either rebut the critiques or incorporate them into the framework within which he had worked for twenty years. In an interview shortly after the Life in the Universe conference Drake demonstrated a remarkable inconsistency. When asked how his thinking about ETI and SETI changed in the twenty years since Green Bank, Drake said,


When I first thought about this, I had the idea that other civilizations would follow the pattern of terrestrial civilization rather closely. Now I am of the opinion that there are probably a wide variety of paths of development, and end states, and natures of civilizations. And what we have on Earth is emulated in other places, but is probably a relatively small subset of all the civilizations. In other words, I've become more open-minded and liberal as to what form civilizations may exist in.


Unlike Billingham, Drake acknowledged the essential thrust of the "nature"-based critiques. It came as a shock, therefore, that when later asked, in the same interview, what he thought ETIs might be like, Drake answered that "They won't be too much different from us."


Like Billingham, Drake seemed to cling to early SETI tenets, despite the fact that competent authorities subsequently questioned them. For example, the Byurakan-II conferees identified and discussed the risks of analogizing from a single example. Even before that, in the first anthology of papers on SETI, astronomer A. G. W. Cameron warned that "we must always worry about the universality of the logical processes we are using." Yet in 1982 Drake still maintained that "the plan for SETI derives from the best and most effective of scientific traditions and procedures.... Nothing is required beyond what we know has happened in at least one place."


If Billingham and Drake showed signs of retreating to early SETI thinking to avoid confronting the mounting "nature"-based critiques, Morrison showed the most pronounced decline in morale. In the early 1960s Morrison predicted that doctorate degrees would soon be offered in SETI. By 1978 he gloomily reported to Congress that what SETI needed was "a professional community of people, with different means and different skills, working at the problem in some fairly serious way. At the moment there is no such thing."


NASA asked Morrison to make the closing remarks at its Life in the Universe conference the following year. This was gracious, given that its invited experts identified critical weaknesses in SETI's conceptual footings during the conference, and that NASA now defined SETI's role in its portfolio of projects as "a low cost gamble." In reflecting on the events of the two decades since his seminal paper, Morrison rued the fact that a question as important as, "Are we alone?" attracted coverage in an elementary college textbook, yet remained "hardly treated anywhere else. The further you go away from the freshman student, the less likely you are to find a colleague interested in it." Not long after that speech he shared a poignant personal perspective on SETI.


We would not ask any single scientist to spend the bulk of his time doing the search, because no single person is likely to succeed. If we recruited such a person it would be an imposition to require a lifelong duty. Imagine what it would be like if all you were doing was adding one negative result after another, day after day, month after month, year after year; perhaps decade after decade. Perhaps one great day you succeed. That's wonderful, but what if you don't succeed?... You've spent a whole lifetime just working hard at the radio telescopes. You've made no contributions to science, found nothing, nobody knows your name or your work...."


Although the general picture he painted of a life devoted to research is hardly unique to SETI researchers, Morrison's lament captures the peculiar frustrations SETI searchers confront because their project, unlike scientific experiments, searches for observations, rather than begins with them or, at least, sound theories that predict observations. By 1981 Morrison's exasperation turned to bitterness. In an interview he complained that "most people in the press and so on have not grasped the central new idea ... which is that there is an empirical road to gaining that knowledge [of whether ETI exists] ... the degree of abstraction is very hard for the public and the press to gain." Morrison mistook skepticism for unenlightenment. Rather than being perplexed by abstractions, SETI's critics grew increasingly suspicious about the efficacy of a SETI-style search as a result of doubts about SETI's assumptions about the "nature" of ETI. In the intellectual environment of the time, which admittedly differed significantly from the one in which Morrison grew up, these critiques of SETI made sense to more and more people who took the time to think about them.


Percival Lowell
Fig. 18. Percival Lowell 347


Carl Sagan
Fig. 19. Carl Sagan


Although SETI failed to live up to its progenitors' original claims, at least one of them remained unfazed. At the time of SETI's inflection Sagan was, according to the historian of science George Basalla, "the best-known scientist in the United States, if not the world." Sagan's forebears included popularizers of astronomy from the previous century. Men like Richard Proctor, Camille Flammarion and most especially Percival Lowell used the public's fascination with ETIs to underwrite prominent and lucrative careers. Lowell also leveraged popular interest in his astronomy to promote his Social Darwinist socio-political agenda. The science writer William Hoyt recounts one lecture in which Lowell's "text was astronomical but his lesson was political." As we saw, Sagan, too, liked to pepper his astronomical texts with political messages about the dangers of nuclear escalation.


Both Lowell and Sagan shared an obvious distaste of politicians. In 1895 Lowell wrote, of the "canals," that they evidenced "a mind certainly of considerably more comprehensiveness than that which presides over the various departments of our own public works. Party politics, at all events, have had no part in them; for the system is planet wide." Almost a century later Sagan wrote that the human brain consisted of three primary parts. The first of these to evolve – Sagan employed the term "reptilian complex" – plays "an important role in aggressive behavior, territoriality, ritual and the establishment of social hierarchies.... This seems to me to characterize a great deal of modern human bureaucratic and political behavior."


Building on his success with Intelligent Life in the Universe Sagan wrote Cosmic Connection in 1973 and the Pulitzer Prize winning Dragons of Eden in 1977. Sagan made the first of a number of appearances on The Johnny Carson Show in 1974. His 1980 television series Cosmos remains the most widely watched series in the history of American public television, with more than a half-billion viewers, and the accompanying book stayed on the best-seller list for seventy weeks, selling more copies than any English-language science book ever published. When he decided to write a novel about SETI and ETIs Sagan received what was, at the time, the biggest sum ever paid for a first novel that had yet to be written, $2 million. That novel, Contact, spent six months on the New York Times best-seller list when published, and became one of the ten best-selling books of 1986. The movie version grossed over $100 million upon its release in 1997, the year after Sagan's death.


Sagan's popularization of the "nuclear winter" issue shared much in common with his popularization of SETI. Nuclear winter refers to the claim that even survivors of a nuclear war eventually die from it because the dust and smoke thrown into the atmosphere subjects all terrestrial life to freezing temperatures and increased ultraviolet radiation. Like SETI, Sagan did not invent the idea of nuclear winter. Instead, using his familiarity with the relevant science obtained while working on the greenhouse effect in the atmosphere of Venus for his doctoral dissertation as a springboard, Sagan became the public face of the nuclear winter issue. Sagan wanted to believe in the "superior" and "advanced" SETI-ETIs he helped create because they provided him with a forum to promote his anti-nuclear social agenda. In the nuclear winter issue Sagan found an apocalyptic antithesis to SETI-ETIs. In the absence of any hard facts – both nuclear winters and ETIs were conveniently hypothetical – Sagan and his colleagues made assumptions about what occurred after a nuclear exchange that supported their anti-nuclear views. Other scientists eventually challenged Sagan's assumptions and found them wrong. One of his biographers, William Poundstone, described the episode.


Sagan's political opponents hold that he 'misrepresented' science (kinder voices say unconsciously) to advance a political agenda. His allies often seem to accept that conclusion privately.... There is no denying that Sagan and colleagues set out to prove something that they were not sure was true, but wanted to be true because of its potential significance.


Although the assumptions and methods underlying both SETI and nuclear winter raised questions among a growing number of scientists, Sagan used both to engage the public's interest and, in the process, to promote himself. Around the same time Cosmos aired so successfully and SETI hit its inflection point, President Carter asked Sagan to draft a portion of the anti-nuclear language for his farewell address.


Commission 51

NASA took a long time to create institutional traction for SETI and then justified doing so with the almost whimsical notion that SETI represented an inexpensive ticket in a lottery whose prize consisted of fabulous insights literally beyond description. Looking for more concrete support, SETI's proponents vigorously pursued additional institutional sanction for their project, including recognition from the International Astronomical Union. However, in the same way that NASA's support forced some of SETI's most inconvenient skeletons out of their closets, the IAU's support proved to be a painful reminder to "be careful what you wish for."


In 1982 the IAU formally acknowledged SETI when creating its Commission 51 to deal broadly with the issues of bioastronomy. This should not to be confused with the academic endorsement that eluded SETI; Bracewell reminded us that,


We ought to bear in mind that the people who got the IAU to [establish Commission 51] are the self-same people who have been involved in [SETI] all this time. It is not as though you could think of the IAU as some independent external organization which put some cachet of approval on it; it's not that way at all. The main figures in SETI have always been well-connected in the scientific hierarchy.


Commission 51 held its inaugural conference in 1984, famous both as George Orwell's dystopian date and as the twenty-fifth anniversary of Cocconi's and Morrison's seminal SETI paper. All five of SETI's principal American founders attended the conference. More than half the papers delivered dealt with SETI. The President of the Commission hailed Morrison and his co-author as "the two pioneers who ushered in the experimental era of the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence ...." The event recalled SETI's heyday. Even the session on the Fermi Paradox, established as an unavoidable part of the SETI conversation five years earlier at the "Where Are They?" conference, avoided overtly hostile references to SETI. Of the ten papers presented on this question of why, if ETIs exist, we have not yet detected them, none stridently maintained that the explanation is that ETIs do not, in fact, exist. Some of the papers even recommended SETI as a way to resolve the Fermi Paradox.


One short paper, delivered by the Belgian astrophysicists G. Bodifee and C. de Loore, served as a harbinger of the direct "nature"-based challenge to SETI that Commission 51 would come to pose. The paper began with an explanation of why we might be unable to detect an ETI signal right in front of us.


We have to discard all attempts to guess the characteristics or typical features and physical properties of extraterrestrial life. It is conceivable that at this very moment we observe phenomena that are manifestations or products of advanced extraterrestrial life forms, but that we are unable to recognize their true nature. It should be realized too that the order in a biological structure is functional and specific; one may say that it has only a subjective meaning. No regular mathematical patterns recognizable by whatever universal property have to be expected. If the polypeptide chain of a terrestrial protein had to be investigated by an extraterrestrial he would be unable to find any kind of meaningful order in the sequence of amino acids.


They went on the make the claim that any permanent thermodynamic nonequilibrium might be an ETI. Although startling, the claim was consistent with the ETI discourse's move away from SETI's anthropomorphism. The discourse already relaxed the presumption that ETI is biological, as illustrated by neutron star beings and superconductor ETIs. Commentators increasingly assumed that any local manifestation of order could be sentient.


Whereas NASA acknowledged SETI's conceptual limitations but dismissed them on the basis of a cost-benefit rationale it found acceptable, the IAU's Commission 51 appeared more focused on the possibility that plausible non-humanoids implied that SETI-style searches rested on shaky conceptual grounds.


The inflection point in popular culture

Just as the popular culture reflected the excitement about SETI when it first appeared, SETI's inflection also made an immediate imprint on the popular culture. The popular expositions of ETI science reflected the dampening enthusiasm first. This popular non-fiction genre had essentially been about SETI since the project's inception. From the inflection onward the genre showed a pronounced division of focus, bifurcating toward either SETL or SETI. For example, texts by the science writer Gene Bylinsky and the astronomer and chemist team of Robert Rood and James Trefil continued to emphasize the evolution of intelligent beings and SETI-type search strategies to look for them. On the other hand, texts by co-authors Gerald Feinberg, a physicist, and biochemist Robert Shapiro, and by Isaac Asimov show pronounced "leftward shifts" in their emphases; they barely mention the possibility of intelligent extraterrestrial life.


Giving up the ghost

Morrison obviously understood by the time of the first Commission 51 conference that his original boast for SETI – that it put the traditional "whether" question to its first rigorously scientific test – could not withstand the scrutiny of the members of the IAU, any more than it withstood the scrutiny of the Soviet CETI scientists twenty years earlier. Three years previously, a bitter Morrison blamed the inability of the public and the press to grasp the abstract details of SETI for the fact that his project failed to attract a wide audience convinced of its scientific legitimacy. That would not fly with his scientist-peers inside the IAU, and he used the relatively friendly occasion of the twenty-fifth anniversary of his own paper to both formally acknowledge that he over-promised in his original vision for SETI and to roll out his revised vision for the project.


Resorting once again to his tactic of making a virtue of necessity, Morrison attempted a rhetorical shift designed to salvage his project's prestige within the scientific community. SETI might be "unlike most of science," but he would not allow it to be thought of as a lottery ticket. Instead Morrison announced that SETI should now to be thought of as exploration rather than experimentation.


Unlike most of science, this topic [SETI] extends beyond the test of a well-framed hypothesis; here we try to test an entire view of the world, incomplete and vulnerable in a thousand ways. That has a proud name in the history of thought as well; it is called exploration. We are ... in the early ingenuous stages of a daring exploration, become real only during recent years. It is a voyage whose end we do not know, like that of science itself.... Let us try as best we can; there is no other way.


This shift from experimentation to exploration was in the making for almost a decade. As early as the Morrison Workshops, SETI's original proponents showed signs of backing down from their initial claim of being the long-awaited experimental means to answer the "whether" question. In his introduction to the Morrison Workshops, Morrison compared SETI, not to great experiments in history but to great explorations. He described SETI as "an exploration of a new kind, an exploration we think of both as uncertain and as full of meaning as any that human beings have ever undertaken. The search would be an expression of man's natural exploratory drive."


A few years later Billingham confessed that "over the years we have developed a concept that SETI is exploration more than science. It's based on science, dwells heavily on science, has an underlying philosophy which is scientific in nature, namely that there is extraterrestrial intelligent life, and SETI has lots of scientific benefits. But it's not science. It's exploration; much more like a Columbus voyage than like flying a mission to Mars."


NASA, of course, sponsors both experiments and explorations. We already saw the role that Thomas Young and Noel Hinners described for SETI in NASA after the Viking landers. When they drew the distinction between their new "indirect" approach to the question of whether life exists in outer space and SETI as a possible way to "leapfrog" that approach, they essentially distinguished the experimentation of the indirect approach from SETI's exploration.


SETI graphic


SETI's proponents waited more than a decade before NASA even began to seriously think about conducting a SETI-style search. During that time the popular culture warmly embraced their project, while the scientific community grew increasingly cool toward it. As the Soviet CETI effort withered and the range of expert critique of SETI's assumptions, methods, and mission expanded, even NASA acknowledged the "nature"-based critique that SETI looked only for humanoid ETIs while non-humanoid ETIs were more likely.


With the concurrence of the NAS and the acknowledgment of the IAU, NASA continued to plan for a significant SETI project. As the project encountered concrete problems associated with going "live," it became more difficult to dismiss the "nature"-based problems in a SETI-style search with abstractions like "anti-cryptography" and "quasi-ergodic theorems." NASA had to fashion a rationale for its support of an enterprise that enjoyed more support as popular science than as institutional science. It settled on a justification based, not on SETI's merits as a conventional scientific enterprise but on a Pascal's Wager-type of cost-benefit analysis. SETI's relatively low cost and potentially enormous pay-off trumped concerns about the soundness of the project's underlying logic.


The mounting "nature"-based critiques eventually forced SETI's organizers to relinquish their claim to be establishing the ETI discourse on sound scientific footings for the first time. SETI had become disconnected from the ETI discourse that provided its deepest context.



304. Dick, NASA HRMS, 111.
305. Ibid., 113.
306. Ben Zuckerman and Michael H. Hart, eds., Extraterrestrials – Where Are They?, 2d ed. (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1995), 156.
307. Ernst Mayr, "The Probability of Extraterrestrial Intelligent Life," in Regis, 24.
308. Leonard Ornstein, "A Biologist Looks at the Numbers," Physics Today 35 (March 1982): 27.
309. For an up-to-date list of SETI searches see seti.org/seti/seti-background/previous-searches/sort-by-year.php, accessed 17 August 07. Soviet searches dominated the activity of the 1960s and early 1970s, but quickly trailed off thereafter. See also Jill Tarter, "The Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence," Annual Review of Astronomy and Astrophysics 39 (September 2001), 535.
310. Shklovskii, Is Communication Possible, 11.
311. Drake, On Hands and Knees, 22–9.
312. Davidson, Sagan, 353.
313. www.seti.org/seti/seti-background/previous-searches/archive_70s.php#17, accessed 16 June 2008; and Poundstone, Sagan, 189.
314. Poundstone, Sagan, 190; I. S. Shklovskii, "On the Possibility of the Uniqueness of Intelligent Life in the Universe," Tatiana Mikhailova, trans., Questions of Philosophy 9 (1976): 80–93. Also see Dick, Biological Universe, 448.
315. Swift, 176. For Hart's views see Michael H. Hart, "An Explanation for the Absence of Extraterrestrials on Earth," Quarterly Journal of the Royal Astronomical Society 16 (1975): 128–35.
316. Swift, 69, 79.
317. Ibid., 220.
318. Hearings before the Subcommittee on Space Science and Applications, of the Committee on Science and Technology, topic: extraterrestrial intelligence, United States Congress, U.S. House of Representatives, 95th Congress, Second Session, September 19–20, 1978 (Washington: U. S. Government Printing Office, 1979), 75.
319. John Billingham, ed., Life in the Universe – Proceedings of a conference held at NASA Ames Research Center, Moffett Field, California, Jun 19–20, 1979, NASA Conference Publication 2156 (Washington, DC: NASA Scientific and Technical Information Branch, 1981), xiii.
320. Ibid., 327.
321. Beck, 111.
322. Billingham, Life in the Universe, 284–5.
323. Swift, 369, 366.
324. Billingham, Life in the Universe, 11.
325. Dick, Biological Universe, 400.
326. Hearings before the Subcommittee on Space Science and Applications, 47, 43.
327. www.taxpayer.net/awards/goldenfleece/1975-1980.htm, accessed 9 February 08.
328. Dick, Biological Universe, 498.
329. Drake, Will the Real SETI Please Stand Up, 71.
330. Carl Sagan, "Letter," Science 218 (October 1982): 426.
331. National Academy of Sciences, "Astronomy and Astrophysics for the 1980s, Volume 1: Report of the Astronomy Survey Committee," www.nap.edu/catalog/549.html, accessed 27 January 2008, 90.
332. One of Sagan's biographers attributes the reversal of SETI's fortunes at Congress to Sagan's ability to convince Proxmire that SETI complemented his anti-nuclear social agenda. See Davidson, Sagan, 348.
333. Billingham and Oliver, 4–5.
334. Billingham, Life in the Universe, 392.
335. Swift, 256-7.
336. NASA Technical Reports Server, ntrs.nasa.gov/search, accessed 12 February 2008.
337. Baird, xi, 99–100.
338. Swift, 272–3.
339. Swift, 74, 83.
340. Cameron, "Future Research," 314.
341. Drake, Will the Real SETI Please Stand Up, 9.
342. Cameron, 309.
343. Hearings before the Subcommittee on Space Science and Applications, 53.
344. Billingham, Life in the Universe, 433.
345. Swift, 32–3.
346. Swift, 39.
347. http://www.plutoportal.net/lowell.gif, accessed 10 April 2009.
348. http://www.phys.lsu.edu/students/brunner/images/sagan2.jpg, accessed 10 April 2009.
349. Basalla, 165.
350. William Graves Hoyt, Lowell and Mars (Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1976), 23, 288.
351. Percival Lowell, Mars (Boston: Houghton, Mifflin & Co., 1895; reprint, Kessinger Publishing, n.d.), 63.
352. Sagan, Dragons of Eden, 63.
353. Ibid., inside back cover; and Poundstone, 261–2.
354. Daniel Cohen, Carl Sagan – Superstar Scientist (New York: Dodd, Mead & Company, 1987), 139–40; and Poundstone, 268. 355. www.imdb.com/title/tt0118884/business, accessed 10 September 07.
356. Poundstone, 332–3.
357. Swift, 156.
358. Michael D. Papagiannis, ed., IAU Symposium 112 – The Search for Extraterrestrial Life: Recent Developments, Boston, June 18–21, 1984 (International Astronomical Union Commission 51 – Search For Extraterrestrial Life), xx.
359. Ibid., 258.
360. Bylinsky, Life in Darwin's Universe; Robert T. Rood and James S. Trefil, Are We Alone? The Possibility of Extraterrestrial Civilizations (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1981). Feinberg and Shapiro, Life Beyond Earth; and Isaac Asimov Extraterrestrial Civilizations (Fawcett Columbine, 1979).
361. P. Morrison, "Twenty-Five Years of the Search for Extraterrestrial Communications," in Papagiannis, 19. 362. Morrison, Billingham, and Wolfe, 6.
363. Swift, 256.


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