Behold the Stars

In September, 1971, the first international conference on extraterrestrial civilizations was held in Soviet Armenia. Jointly organized by the US and USSR Academies of Sciences, it brought together eminent physicists (such as James Dyson), astronomers, biologists (Francis Crick), engineers, and some social scientists. Both the importance of the subject and the scientific credentials of the participants invited attention and respect, even a certain amount of hopeful anticipation. It is, after all, a reasonable hypothesis that life may exist in other parts of the universe, though nothing is yet understood of where it resides, or of how to approach it, or of what forms it might take. To those of us who believe that man’s future resides in the whole universe rather than on earth alone, the conference held the promise of revelation and inspiration. Yet such confidence was totally misplaced. For, the mountain labored, and brought forth a

CONFERENCE RESOLUTION

List of Possible Research Directions It would be useful to concentrate efforts in two directions, both of which seem promising:

I. Searches for civilizations at a technical level comparable with our own.

II. Searches for civilizations at a technological level greatly surpassing our own.

A wide circle of specialists, from astrophysicists to historians, should participate in the planning of this research.

But this was only the last of a collection of blows designed to make those who love science weep, and those who do not, laugh.

The full account is available in an instructive book called Communication With Extraterrestrial Intelligence (CETI) (MIT Press, $10.00). The primary occupation of the conference was explained by Carl Sagan, a young astronomer and an organizer of the event. Sagan proposed a formula for the number N of other civilizations within our galaxy:

N = R* fp ne fl fi fc L.

Since the formula appears scientific (mathematical), but is in fact totally nonscientific and even meaningless, and since the formula lies at the heart of almost all the work and interest and significance of the conference, I will have to try the reader’s patience by identifying each of its terms. The definitions are all quotations from the book.

R* is the rate of star formation averaged over the lifetime of the Galaxy, in units of numbers of stars per year . . . the province of astrophysics.

fp is the fraction of stars which have planetary systems,

n,. is the mean number of planets within such planetary systems which are ecologically suitable for life ... n,. is determined at the boundary between astronomy and biology.

fl is the fraction of such planets on which life actually occurs,

fi is the fraction of such planets on which, after the origin of life, intelligence in some form arises.

fc is the fraction of such planets in which the intelligent beings develop to a communicative phase ... a topic in anthropology, archaeology, and history.

L is the mean lifetime of such technical civilizations ... it involves psychology and psychopathology, history, politics, sociology, and many other fields.

And how are these numbers to be determined? The answers, fortunately, are provided by the distinguished conferees.

[FRANCIS] CRICK: The point that I am making adds up to the following conclusion: It is not possible at the moment, with our knowledge of biochemistry, to make any reasonable estimate whatsoever of the factor fl . . . until we have further information, we cannot really guess about the matter.

[L.M.] MUKHIN: I do not quite understand how we can estimate fi when we cannot choose a ns rational approach for assessing fl think it is correct to say that a reliable estimate cannot be given

[LESLIE] ORGEL: It is our opinion, as a result of experimental and theoretical work on the subject, that our science has not yet progressed to the point where a meaningful estimate [of fl] can be made.

[CARL] SAGAN We are faced . . with sere difficult problems id’ extrapolating ... in the case of L, from no examples at alt.

[R.B.] LEE: The first tool (for determining fc] is the modern synthetic theory of evolution. . . . Hie second tool is the theory and method of historical materialism . . . pioneered by Marx and Engels. . . The third tool is the commitment shared be most of us to search for the broadest, most comprehensive generalizations that can be drawn from available facts.

The “second tool,” with its lunatic assertion that historical materialism has direct bearing on the nature of fc (the fraction of planets in which intelligence develops to a communicative phase), causes one almost to forget that the conference was dealing with questions of extraterrestrial life. The “third tool" is, if possible, an even greater intellectual pollutant. And finally, the major substantive purpose of the conference, a determination of estimates for the number N, is quite clearly a total fraud.

And yet: “Mon derriere est divise en deux parts,” said Gladstone of his own past, thus providing a fair description of the conference as well. A (lesser) part was indeed devoted to useful pursuits, to questions of message transmission, message reception, message decoding, and, finally, to the possible consequences of contact with other civilizations. On the whole these were technical exchanges of theory and experiment, with two expositions of particular general interest. One, by Philip Morrison, speculated on the possible impact on Earth of contact with extraterrestrial civilizations. The other, by Dyson, was a compassionate essay on the human dilemma, beginning with a discussion of Bernal’s three enemies of man’s rational nature (the cruelty of nature, the frailty of physical man, and the power of man’s irrational components), and closing with an invocation which almost totally defied the spirit and content of the conference that preceded it:

If we are wise, wc shall preserve intact these qualities of the human species [toughness, courage, unselfishness, foresight, common sense, and good humor] through the centuries to come, and they will see us safely through the many crises of destiny that surely await us.

A moderately intelligent and humane note. Almost at the conference’s end, yet precisely the point from which the conference should have proceeded, for the human qualities most displayed by the conferees were of another nature: those of cupidity, inanity, and triviality:

Cupidity: “Their [the components of the number N] only value is in assessing how much effort, lime, and money we are willing to devote to the problem. ... If it turns out that there is some rigorous argument to exclude extraterrestrial intelligence, a convincing demonstration of a small value of N, then a search would not be a useful allocation of resources.” (Sagan)

We have already seen that a demonstration of any value of N, let alone of a small value of N by a rigorous argument of any kind, is out of the question. The disclaimer, in short, is an exercise in cynicism.

Inanity: “I believe that the state of society characteristic of Polynesia is one that wc can look forward to in [all] the industrial nations. . . . And if their brains resembled ours . . . then all those advanced [extraterrestrial] societies would make up a galactic Polynesian archipelago.” (Gunther Stent)

Trivia: “The strategy [in our quest for other civilizations] should be organized roughly as follows: first, the energy for transmitting one bit of information should be minimized. Second, interference in the vicinity of the sending side should be minimized. Third, the cost of the receiving apparatus should be minimized, fourth, a signal-to-noise ratio greater than unity . . . is desirable. And lastly, the point I should particularly like to stress, is that the ultimate time must be minimized.” (N.S. Kardashev)

Is there absolutely nothing that these pedants could not simply take for granted?

It is almost incredible that the truly distinguished scientists among the conferees (and there were indeed several of these) could be willing, almost eager, participants in a travesty of all that is taken seriously by men and women who love and value science and intellect. Possibly some of the scientists were not quite so willing as they appeared to be. Dyson in particular was terse and belligerent almost from beginning to end. But that does not explain the behavior of those who were indeed willing participants. Plato would have understood them well:

In a stale of democratic anarchy, the master fears and flatters his scholars . . . the old men condescend to the young and are full of pleasantry and gaiety; they are loath to be thought morose and authoritative, and therefore they adopt the manners of the young. . . . (The Republic)

So now, who are these young? Fortunately, they arc not hard to find, nor shy or secretive. Carl Sagan, for one, has written a short, quite personal book of essays, in which he has disclosed much more of himself and of his peers than perhaps even he or the reader would like. Called The Cosmic Connection (Anchor/Doubleday, $7.95), it is part autobiography, part personal philosophy and speculation, part self-aggrandizement, direct and indirect. (Sagan’s wife, who provided an aesthetically offensive drawing for an intellectually offensive metal plaque sent off by NASA to greet extraterrestrial beings, is said to have created art “based on the classical models of Greek sculpture and the drawings of Leonardo da Vinci.”) This book has much to teach about the nature of the technological mind.

The modern technologist is first of all a promoter. “It [the subject of extraterrestrial life] has now reached a practical stage where it can be pursued by rigorous scientific techniques, where it has achieved scientific respectability,” writes Sagan, fully aware of the total absurdity of every part of his assertion, and having in fact participated in a conference which exhibited the emperor’s nakedness for even the most obtuse to see. The technologist, too, is gracefully immodest about his own accomplishments: “The greatest significance of the . . . plaque is not as a message to out there: it is as a message to back here.” He is the vacant and specious authority on intellect: “The deflation of some of our more common conceits is one of the practical applications of astronomy.” Whose conceits? What conceits? Today, in the second half of the twentieth century? His wit is arch and flat (chapter headings such as “Hello, Central Casting? Send Me Twenty Extraterrestrials,” or “Some of My Best Friends Are Dolphins,” or “7’he Cosmic Cheshire Cats,” are a numskull’s delight). He believes himself to be Renaissance Man, with a profound understanding of man’s creative sources: “As the results of space exploration . . . permeate our society, they must, I believe, have consequences in literature and poetry, in the visual arts and music”—a platitude that in fact provides another perfect illustration of Sherlock Holmes’s dog that did not bark. And he apparently regards himself as a master of politics and economics:

Old economic assumptions, old methods of determining political leaders ... may once have been valid . . . but today may no longer have survival value at all. ... At the same time, there are vested interests opposed to change. These include individuals . . . who are unable in middle years to change the attitudes inculcated in their youth.

The modern technologist is a gifted, highly trained, opportunistic, humorless, and unimaginative ass. Not a barbarian, certainly, and not to be feared; but not to be flattered, pampered, or praised, either. None of his fatuous pseudo-science is science; all of it is empty of intellectual content, inflated with selfimportance, and held accountable for nothing. He charges through subtleties and profundities where wise men hesitate to walk on tiptoe; he usurps domains about which he knows nothing and then proceeds to pre-empt them. He tells us that the way to roast a pig is first to find a cow. and expects to be rewarded, applauded, and honored for this genial advice.

The fundamental issues of a search for extraterrestrial civilizations are after all not so arcane or so inaccessible to the nonscientist. Reasonable hypotheses can be advanced and a few promising steps taken, even though at present, since we do not really know where we are going, almost any road will get us there. Already something is understood of how best to attempt the reception of messages from space, of how best to attempt to decode them, of where to seek them. These methods are highly technical, but not unacceptably expensive. Modest conjectures about what to expect of these efforts, and what some of their consequences might be, are also in order. Even though there is no a priori certainty that there exist any civilizations at all in the universe beyond Earth, it is reasonable to postulate that other civilizations exist, even that they exist in large numbers, and it does no harm, in any case, to proceed from such assumptions.

If, in fact, there exist civilizations in the galaxy that have attained a level of technology far beyond ours, and if there also exist those whose technologies are approximately equivalent to ours, then it is also reasonable to conjecture that the second of these will contact us long before the first. Civilizations whose development stands to ours as does ours to the grasshopper’s will either ignore us entirely or else observe us without bothering to communicate with us in any way. We would not understand most of what they had to tell us in any case. Thus the cultural shock of the first intragalaetic messages to earth might well be far less severe than we now expect. We could not even be certain that any message from space would be a call from a living civilization. The speed of light (186,000 miles per second) is a universal upper limit for the speed of messages through space, so that signals would reach us years, or centuries, or, more likely yet, millennia after their transmission, possibly arriving here long after the death of the civilization that had sent them.

Morrison, in one of the conference’s few bright spots, proposed the thesis that contrary to all superficial expectations, contact with extraterrestrial civilizations would in fact have a slow and soberly meditated impact on Earth, much like that of the Western world on nineteenth-century Japan, rather than an overpowering, even cataclysmic effect. Morrison’s argument revolves around the observation that other civilizations would be so far removed from us, both in space and (because of the great distance any message must travel) in time, that there could be no question of military dominance or technical economic competition.

A similar argument suggests that the step from reception of the first message to a two-way communication would be a long and difficult one. Each of a series of questions and replies would take (at best) a prohibitive amount of time to travel from sender to receiver, the interval between successive messages spanning many human generations. A reasonable corollary to this conclusion is the suggestion that the matter of communication with other civilizations is not now, and will not be in the future, an urgent one, requiring vast expenditures and intensive exploratory programs. The whole subject, though of great interest and importance, can be approached in patient, measured fashion. It might well, in fact, be postponed entirely for another century (although there is no objective reason for such a postponement). Human technology has only recently approached a level at which it can begin to liberate man from some of Ins terrestrial constraints; and even this accomplishment, if regarded from a slightly different perspective, indicates that human technology is still so much more primitive than that of civilizations capable today of contacting us that we could barely understand the other civilizations’ messages, or benefit from their advice.

The reception of a galactic message would be significant most of all because it would replace a human expectation with a certainty. It would prove to humanity that we are not alone in the universe, and in the proving might diminish man’s self-consciousness and self-centeredness. the consequences could only be beneficial. And that is about all the profit that can be expected. Something tangible might indeed be learned from an extraterrestrial civilization, but this would have to be within the realm of our present knowledge and capabilities, or else we could not comprehend its meaning. Being in this realm, it would be something we would sooner or later have discovered for ourselves, without outside help. It would slightly accelerate our progress, no more. Any scientist, any rational person, would reach conclusions more or less like these if ever he decided to think seriously about the matter.

And yet most of the participants at the conference on extraterrestrial life, playing by the rules of their patrons, their new technologists, chose to avoid such rational discourse. Rational, civilized man appears to have become very tired, no longer able to withstand the onslaughts of the manic young masters who promote large grants of money and influence, leave him breathless at conferences, lavish the currency of vague new ideas upon all those around them, and exhaust their weakened elders with pure, assured, unselfconscious power. The behavior of scientists is but one small indication of this syndrome. The fact, for example, that our entire culture turns to M.D.’s for an understanding of the meanings and possibilities of conjugal and erotic love (M.D.’s! Is this to be believed?) suggests that our whole humanist and intellectual tradition has become tired too. It knows better, but goes along all the same, paying obeisance to its new masters in the spirit of the Arab proverb: If the King at noonday says it is night, behold the stars.