SETI East vs. SETI West
“Whenever possible, there must be independent confirmation of the facts.” —Carl Sagan, Baloney Detection Kit
In certain respects this book is about the long, complex, and, at times, uneasy relationship between SETI co-founders Frank Drake and Carl Sagan. Sagan passed away in 1996 of a rare disease, and Drake is nearing the end of an amazing life and career. The interactions between these two gifted astronomers and SETI pioneers, sometimes in concert and sometimes as competitors, cover the length and breadth of SETI history.
Despite the popular notion, backed by NASA and SETI, that the two men were in lockstep agreement on extraterrestrial theory, the truth is that they held stark and irreconcilable differences. Drake believed that interstellar spaceflight was nearly impossible , which, by definition, made theories of alien exploration and colonization of our galaxy, including past visits to Earth, wrongheaded. Carl Sagan believed just the opposite: that alien interstellar spaceflight and past alien visitations to Earth were the inevitable result of natural cosmic evolution. This is where Sagan showed his true depth of character. As a trained astronomer and an acknowledged expert in extraterrestrial theory, he could have, and was expected to, jump on the radio telescope bandwagon along with everyone else. But he didn’t. In fact, in his writings Sagan openly voiced doubts that a radio telescope search would be successful. Sagan was convinced that the SETI strategy had too many conceptual flaws that were being intentionally overlooked or understated. As a better option, Sagan agreed with Italian physicist Enrico Fermi: If aliens exist anywhere in the Milky Way Galaxy, they should have already been to Earth. Sagan thought that searching for evidence of alien visitations in ancient manuscripts held a lot more promise than listening for alien radio signals from space because “over large distances, starship communication will occur very nearly as rapidly as, and much more reliably than, communication by electromagnetic radiation.” That is not what NASA or Drake wanted to hear.
Drake vs. Sagan
In September 1959, Cornell physicists Giuseppe Cocconi and Philip Morrison co-authored a paper entitled “Searching for Interstellar Communication” that was published in the journal Nature. They were the first scientists to formally and publicly recommend that a search for an electronic alien signal be conducted with the recently invented radio telescope. In 1959, Frank Drake had begun implementing a search strategy using radio telescopes that was based on the assumption that alien interstellar spaceflight was impossible. The unexpected appearance of a peer-reviewed and published paper written by two prominent physicists scientifically validated what Drake was doing on the sly. The Morrison/Cocconi paper was a scientific windfall that had the effect of legitimizing his radio telescope search.
Unknown to Cocconi and Morrison at the time, a young radio astronomer, Frank Drake, was already preparing just such a telescope at the National Radio Astronomy Observatory at Green Bank (West Virginia) for that purpose. He recalls his mindset in his 1992 book Is Anyone Out There?, which he co-authored with science reporter Dava Sobel:
Suppose, I said to myself, that some alien civilization has a radio telescope just like ours. How close would they have to be to us for us to pick up their signals? I assumed their transmitters were no more powerful than our best ones. I guess I could have credited the aliens with far more advanced systems, emitting signals so strong that even the smallest telescope would hear them over interstellar distances, but that seemed like unfounded speculation to me.
His groundbreaking endeavor, Project Ozma, wasn’t successful in intercepting an alien signal, but it served to validate the Cocconi/Morrison paper by demonstrating the scientific viability of the process. Scanning space for alien signals with radio telescopes was here to stay—at least until it was proven a failure. It was about then that Carl Sagan, a young graduate student at the University of Chicago, first contacted Drake, inquiring about data that he had garnered with radio telescopes regarding the atmosphere of Venus. Though they differed greatly in appearance, style, and temperament, their common interest in extraterrestrial intelligence created a bond, sometimes strained, that was to last until Sagan’s death.
Having already concluded that extraterrestrials have been to Earth and interacted with humans in historical times, Sagan witnessed firsthand the positive and dynamic impact the Morrison/ Cocconi paper had on the Drake Model. If he hoped to compete, he knew that his model needed a published scientific paper as well.
In 1959 there were two nascent but operational SETI strategies, one that proposed using radio telescopes to search space, the other examining ancient manuscripts, in particular those related to the Sumerians. Though Sagan started his search before Frank Drake, Drake was ahead because he had the backing of the Morrison/ Cocconi paper. Sagan had some catching up to do. He needed a formal scientific paper that would serve to legitimize his model, and he knew that he was the only one capable of writing it. In contrast, all that Carl Sagan had in 1959 was the now-famous comment that Nobel Prize–winning physicist Enrico Fermi made years earlier: that if extraterrestrials exist anywhere in our galaxy, they should have already made it to Earth, so where are they?
Mathematics is the language of science, and Enrico Fermi was one of history’s great mathematicians. Fermi’s Paradox is, in essence, a mathematical construct that says given the age of the Universe (14 billion years), the age of the Milky Way Galaxy (10 billion years), and the age of Earth (4.5 billion years), it is inconceivable that aliens, if they exist, would not have been to Earth.
Drake had no idea that Carl Sagan had grasped the full significance of Fermi’s simple but elegant logic that subtly deduced that any long-lived alien species, if they exist, would be so far ahead of us in science and technology that, of course, they would have already colonized the galaxy and been to Earth. How could they not? Implicit in Fermi’s argument is that advanced aliens would, of course, have long ago developed the ability to travel to other stars. They wouldn’t be very advanced if they hadn’t. Considering the technological progress that humans have made in the brief time we have been in the Scientific Age, how would it be possible for long-lived alien civilizations millions of years into the Scientific Age not to have developed the ability to explore the Milky Way? Drake, aware of Fermi’s comment, but not seeing any indication that anyone was doing anything with it, felt comfortable ignoring it.
In 1961, 11 men, then considered the foremost authorities in the world on extraterrestrial intelligence, gathered together in conference at Green Bank, West Virginia, to discuss how best to implement the power of radio telescopes in the search for an alien signal. Caught up in the rapture of knowing they were making history, they ostentatiously named themselves the Order of the Dolphin. Sagan was appointed secretary.
Drake knew that Sagan was interested in extraterrestrials and radio telescopes, but at that time he had no idea that the young astronomer, whom he describes in his book as “dark, brash, and brilliant,” was engaged in a secret research project of his own that addressed the possibility that aliens have been to Earth. The same tight-lipped attitude that Drake had about Project Ozma, Sagan had about his suspicions that clues of past alien visitations to Earth might be located in ancient manuscripts. Had Drake known what Sagan was up to, it is doubtful that he would have invited him to the Green Bank Conference. In preparing for Green Bank, Drake developed an equation that has become one of the most famous calculations in history:
N = R fp Ne fl fi fc L
N = The number of detectable civilizations
R = Rate of star formation
fp = The fraction of stars that form planets
Ne = The number of planets hospitable to life
fl = The fraction of those planets where life actually emerges
fi = The fraction of planets where life evolves into intelligent beings
fc = The fraction of planets with intelligent creatures capable of interstellar communication
L = The length of time that such a civilization remains detectable
This equation became the guiding outline for the conference, generating vigorous discussion on all the key considerations—except one: What percentage of advanced extraterrestrial civilizations exist long enough to have developed the ability to physically explore the galaxy? Enrico Fermi’s observation and the intriguing possibility of alien interstellar spaceflight were never discussed. Drake has since admitted that this was not an oversight. It appears to me that the reason he left it out was because, if it had been included, it would have led to the inevitable conclusion that Fermi was right: that extraterrestrials could have and should have made it to Earth. Perhaps sensing the emergence of a competitive theory, Drake had good reason for ending the discussion of alien advancement with their invention of radio telescopes. To go hundreds or thousands or millions of years beyond that would have opened the door to alternative search strategies that he was determined to abort before they were conceived. But by then it was too late. The Sagan Model of ancient alienism had already been hatched.
The group at Green Bank estimated that the value of fc, the fraction of planets with aliens advanced enough to have developed radio telescopes, was 10 to 20 percent. These would be the ones that were approximately as advanced as we are, barely into the Scientific Age, and it was agreed that they were more than likely a minority. This left the majority of existing alien civilizations thousands or millions of years ahead of us in science and technology. What might they be capable of beyond sending radio signals? Incredibly, this commonsense question was never raised and, therefore, never discussed.
On Wednesday, November 1, 1961, Drake stood before the group and made an announcement: “Our best estimate is that there are somewhere between one thousand and one hundred million advanced extraterrestrial civilizations in the Milky Way.”
Sagan knew that even at the low end of this estimate there were more than enough long-lived advanced civilizations in our galaxy to almost guarantee that some of them would have developed the technology to physically come to Earth. It was as if the top SETI scientists in the world were serving up on a golden platter critical support for his unspoken thesis that Earth is a visited planet.
The Value of L
Both Drake and Sagan agreed that the calculations between N and L more or less canceled each other out. This resulted in a streamlined version of the Drake Equation: N, the number of detectable civilizations, equals L, the length of time that a civilization remains detectable.
All of the attendees at Green Bank agreed that there would be some percentage of alien civilizations that would be long-lived. The L factor distinguished those civilizations that destroy themselves within a thousand years after entering the age of science from those that manage to overcome self-annihilation. Sagan concluded that if that were true, some of those who became long-lived should have developed the ability for star travel. Of this group Sagan assumes “starship communication” would be the preferred method rather than electromagnetic signals.
“Starship communication” is Sagan-speak for alien visitations to Earth. In effect, he was saying that searching here for an alien signal in ancient manuscripts was a more hopeful and reliable strategy than searching for an electromagnetic alien signal with radio telescopes. This was a subtle way of criticizing the Drake Model while at the same time trumpeting his own strategy.
Carl Sagan wasn’t doing anything wrong in critiquing the Drake model. Scientists advancing innovative new theories routinely ask their peers to deconstruct and forensically dismember their ideas and kill them if they can. It is a solemn responsibility that all scientists not let any theory advanced by a peer have a free ride. Regardless of what the theory is or who the advocate happens to be, they are all required to pay their dues by being subjected to a brutal and relentless gauntlet of meticulous scrutiny so that only the strong survive, and precious time and resources are not wasted on the weak. In a blatant violation of this fundamental credo, the Drake Model was given a free ride, and the Sagan Model was rejected without being granted due process.
As a matter of conscience, Sagan could not go along with Frank Drake’s thinking about interstellar spaceflight. It lacked imagination and was too narrow and restrictive. It failed to credit alien species thousands of years older than ours with abilities that we are likely to have if we survive that long. In a historic breach of scientific etiquette, there were those who were artificially insulating the Drake Model from critical scrutiny, while at the same time panning the Sagan Model in the most pedestrian manner imaginable. Sagan wasn’t some wild-eyed, off-the-grid iconoclast. He was well schooled and deeply committed to the prevailing culture and standard protocols of his discipline. They are the ones who stand guilty of grossly abusing the scientific method.
In his Stanford Paper, Carl Sagan made the entirely plausible assumption that the odds that Earth has been visited by long-lived extraterrestrials in historical times is the same as the odds that a long-lived human civilization would visit other habitable planets in other star systems. Frank Drake held a position that was the polar opposite.
Sagan openly bashed the Drake Model in his writings, and he expected his model to be openly bashed in return. He anticipated and had the right to expect that blow and counter-blow would be struck in accordance with the scientific tradition of vigorous competition conducted in a spirit of fair play, transparency, and mutual respect. He got a secret kangaroo court verdict against his theory, and a coddling uncritical embrace of the Drake Model.
Of the Green Bank Conference, Drake wrote: “What bound us all together was our strange, strong conviction that the universe was widely populated. Among this group of people – and nowhere else I knew of—one could abandon oneself to the vociferous discussion of extraterrestrial life, without any hesitation, or embarrassment, or fear of ridicule.”
With all due respect to Frank Drake, I’m not sure how much “abandonment” there was at that historic gathering. Clearly, one man, Carl Sagan, was holding back. By that time, Sagan was already working on the high probability that advanced extraterrestrials would have developed the ability for interstellar spaceflight and, in all likelihood, have already been to Earth. This was all in Sagan’s head, but he obviously wasn’t comfortable bringing it up. Knowing that the theme of the conference was about radio telescopes, and thinking that he was going to be Frank Drake’s future competitor, it was neither the time nor the place to throw down the gauntlet. Maybe he didn’t want to be a party pooper.
Not only did Sagan’s ancient alien theory raise serious questions about the wisdom of trying to establish contact with aliens using radio telescopes, he may have felt that the Green Bank participants were in no mood to either appreciate or critically evaluate the considerable amount of technical research and historical analysis that he had invested in his project, calculations that were soon to appear in his Stanford Paper and then greatly expanded in Intelligent Life in the Universe.
The Sagan Model was at a further disadvantage because it couldn’t compete against the glamour of a new technology. When Sagan proposed his ancient alien theory, NASA scientists were already jumping on the radio telescope bandwagon. By any measure, astronomers thought that eavesdropping on the stars with a hot new invention that was specific to their discipline was a lot sexier than searching for a literary signal in dusty old manuscripts.
But, without question, Sagan appreciated the Drake Equation because it generated critical scientific support for his theory of past alien visitations. In fact, much of his Stanford Paper is an analysis and reaffirmation of Drake’s mathematical model. Ironically, the Drake Equation, a key component in the scientific justification for SETI’s radio telescope search, was equally applicable to the Sagan Model. It elevated Sagan’s ancient alien theory from tenuous speculation to scientific credibility. It is highly doubtful that the Stanford Paper would have survived a peer-review process without Frank Drake’s contribution. In effect, Carl Sagan used the secret energy source of the Drake Model right under Frank Drake’s nose and made it an integral part of his own model.
The Drake Equation was a robust, science-based argument for the existence of extraterrestrial intelligence. It became an effective tool that Drake and others used to persuade skeptics in science and government to open the purse strings and support a formal systematic search for alien existence. It convinced NASA to dedicate more radio telescope time to SETI to listen for an alien signal. Even the ultimate goal of having SETI officially recognized and supported with public funding by being written into the NASA budget was realized, until a penny-pinching Congress decided it was a luxury that the American taxpayer couldn’t afford.
The Launch of SETI
After the Green Bank Conference, momentum for a radio telescope search began to accelerate. Radio astronomers like Frank Drake knew that there was no limit to its potential. As radio telescopes grew more powerful and sensitive, almost every planet in every star system in the observable Universe would eventually be within reach, the only exception being the planet we live on.
Despite occasional setbacks, SETI continued to grow, and all kinds of scholars and scientists within the context of their respective disciplines began thinking about what an ETI might be like. Some wondered about their physiology, others about their art and music, still others about their technology. Drake and other radio astronomers garnered massive support by assuring everyone that an intercepted alien signal would likely answer all of their questions. Contact might even eradicate human ignorance and superstition and usher in an unprecedented Golden Age of Enlightenment.
Sagan, however, harbored serious doubts that extraterrestrials were sending electronic signals our way and had expressed his misgivings about radio telescopes in his Stanford Paper. As an alternative, Sagan knew that there was enough circumstantial historical evidence to justify an Earth-based search for evidence of past alien visitations. He also knew that NASA and his peers in the astronomy community would have absolutely no interest in it, and neither would archeologists, anthropologists, and other types of scholars who specialize in Earth-based research.
Sagan’s logic was simple: If we humans are within a few centuries of becoming star travelers, advanced aliens “aeons” [dictionary definition: an indefinite period of time] more advanced than us should have been star traveling for a very long time, surely long enough to have reached Earth. But have they been to our planet? Sagan saw compelling evidence in ancient manuscripts that they have and argued for further research that related specifically to the Sumerians, the people who developed the world’s first high civilization. Was the Sumerian Enlightenment a fluke of history, or, as Sagan envisioned, did it happen because primitive humans got a giant assist from advanced extraterrestrials who came to Earth from a distant planet in another solar system?
SETI scientists didn’t believe that extraterrestrials could get to Earth, and archeologists and historians didn’t want them here. By that time, Sagan knew that trying to get support and funding from NASA for an Earth-based search for evidence of past alien visitations would be futile because his model didn’t have military assets. But he did what he could do. He stated his claim, presented his evidence and arguments, and was prepared to continue fighting for what he believed for as long as it took, which, in his mind, would be when a consensus developed that the Drake Model was a failure.
But the Pentagon and NASA had other plans for Sagan, and they had the leverage to make it happen. Perhaps they informed him in no uncertain terms that if he wanted to remain a NASA scientist, he had to abandon his ancient alien model and support the Drake Model. What choice did he have? If he had resisted, he would have summarily been thrown out of the astronomy community and publicly disgraced as a scientist. All his hopes and dreams would have been dashed; his long years of preparation would have been for naught. Sagan capitulated, but he never surrendered. His resolve was to live to fight another day.
Frank Drake came out of the Green Bank Conference the big winner, but with success comes the pressure to produce. The systematic search for an alien signal with radio telescopes became a reality, and the goal of its proponents was nothing less than to make the greatest scientific discovery in history, to forever alter the course of human history by proving that we are not alone—that other beings of high intelligence exist and are reaching out to us from distant planets. Despite SETI astronomers trying to downplay expectations, hundreds of millions of people around the globe, including leaders in science, government, business, and popular culture, enthusiastically jumped on the SETI bandwagon, hoping for and expecting a reasonably quick intercept.
The Victor and the Spoils
In The Scientist as Rebel, physicist Freeman Dyson writes about scientific revolutions precipitated by the invention of new tools, as espoused by Peter Galison, and those brought about by paradigm changing new ideas, an opinion embraced by Thomas Kuhn:
The arguments between Kuhnian historians emphasizing ideas and the Galisonian historians emphasizing tools have continued to be vigorous. Historians trained in theoretical science tend to be Kuhnians, while those trained in experimental science tend to be Galisonians. Whether one chooses to emphasize ideas or tools is to some extent a matter of taste.
With an engineering background, Frank Drake was a Galisonian who was enthralled with an exciting new tool: the radio telescope. He thought of a way to use it to possibly achieve the most exciting discovery in human history—to have it detect an incoming alien signal.
Carl Sagan was an idea man, a true Kuhnian. He began with the extraordinary possibility of there being intelligent life in the Universe beyond Earth, and then worked his way through all the permutations of what that might imply to arrive at the conclusion that, if long-lived alien civilizations exist, they would have already been to Earth.
In the early 1960s, the Galisonians prevailed over the Kuhnians. The tool of radio telescopes trumped the theoretical idea that aliens have been to Earth. Frank Drake won, Carl Sagan lost.
Seeing that he lost, Sagan threw his support behind the radio telescope experiment, knowing that the sooner it was proven not to work, the sooner the scientific establishment could turn its attention to his Kuhnian idea of past alien visitations. It had to have been discouraging for Sagan to see decade after decade go by and NASA and SETI stand behind Frank Drake, when it was completely obvious to him that the radio telescope experiment would never succeed. Despite its failure, NASA continued to throw its support behind the tool strategy, agreeing with Frank Drake that all that was needed was more time and more sophisticated and expensive tools.
The tool experiment has now been going on for more than 50 years without success. Isn’t it time, in the interest of scientific and intellectual diversity, to let Carl Sagan and the Kuhnians have their moment in the sun, particularly because there may be evidence waiting to be tested that may confirm that aliens have been to Earth?
We know for a fact that Drake and Sagan both agreed that the Drake Equation was an effective tool that supported the concept of extraterrestrial existence, but how each man would go about using that tool was markedly different. Drake used it to argue for a radio telescope search for an electromagnetic signal from extraterrestrial civilizations who were too far away to be able to deliver their message in person. That effort was to become SETI, the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence. Sagan’s informed opinion was that the SETI search strategy was ill-conceived and misguided.
Still, to his great credit, Sagan was open to implementing the Drake Model—even enthusiastic—though in his mind the Drake Equation was proof that there are long-lived alien civilizations in our Galaxy that are sufficiently advanced to have developed the ability for interstellar spaceflight and physically come to Earth. He reasoned that if that was true, we should, along with a radio telescope search, be looking for evidence of past alien visitations in ancient manuscripts related to the people who built the world’s first civilization, the Sumerians.
Sagan was more than eager to concede that advanced extraterrestrials had radio telescopes. It was kind of a no-brainer. He simply argued that radio communication was too inefficient for hyper-advanced extraterrestrials to bother with, particularly when they had the ability to physically travel to other star systems. Yet, despite his misgivings, Sagan invested great amounts of time and energy supporting the radio telescope search and, in fact, became SETI’s global face and voice, and its most effective fundraiser.
Frank Drake, unfortunately, wasn’t prepared to reciprocate. He was adamant in his refusal to accept that aliens—any aliens— would have mastered the technological capability for star travel. On the basis of that short-sighted conviction, he vigorously objected to any Earth-based search for evidence of past extraterrestrial visits, insisting that it was bad science and would be a complete waste of time. If Drake had been like Sagan, and admitted to at least a remote possibility of alien interstellar spaceflight, we can assume that he might have welcomed competition and supported the Sagan Model of ancient alienism, particularly because the cost of studying ancient manuscripts would have been miniscule compared to the hundreds of millions of dollars that have been poured into the radio telescope search. Drake’s intransigence on this fundamental issue, and his stubborn unwillingness to allow competition, created a degree of separation between the two men that was to last throughout Sagan’s lifetime.
What transpired at Green Bank informed Sagan that he was behind in the race, not to detect an alien signal, but to convince NASA leadership that his strategy, based in Fermi’s logic, had more scientific merit than the Drake Model. He wasn’t expecting NASA to abandon the Drake Model, but with a peer-reviewed and journaled scientific paper he had hopes that NASA would honor the scientific tradition of competing hypotheses and agree that both should be pursued and supported simultaneously.
Carl Sagan and Joshua Lederberg agreed with Enrico Fermi that if extraterrestrials exist, they should have already been to Earth, and in their minds there was ample evidence in ancient manuscripts that they have been to Earth. To them it made sense to have another team of experts searching ancient manuscripts and examining ancient artifacts to see if perhaps conclusive evidence of past alien visitations could be found here on Earth. But to justify forming a competitive search team they needed more than an offhand comment from a famous mathematician. They needed the equivalent of the Morrison/Cocconi paper that was published in Nature. They needed a formal scientific paper, and that is what Sagan produced in 1962 while he was at Stanford.
It soon became obvious that what Sagan and Lederberg had up their sleeves was a collaboration that was designed to split the nascent search for extraterrestrial intelligence into two competing camps. The East Coast team, based out of Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, had the 1959 Morrison/Cocconi Paper as its foundational document. Both Morrison and Cocconi were Cornell physicists, and SETI co-founder Frank Drake was a Cornell alumnus, so it would not be inaccurate to call those who believed in a space-based search for extraterrestrials the Cornell team, or SETI East. Based on what is admittedly circumstantial evidence, I’m convinced that the Stanford Paper was intended to be a charter document that would justify the formation of a team of scholars that would launch an Earth-based search for direct evidence of extraterrestrial existence. SETI West, the Stanford Team, presumably directed by Carl Sagan, would compete against SETI East, the Cornell team, under the direction of Frank Drake, in trying to be the first to make the greatest discovery in human history, to be the first to prove the existence of advanced extraterrestrial intelligence.
My contention that Joshua Lederberg and Carl Sagan made a bold end-run attempt to establish an Earth-based SETI West that was promptly shot down by NASA, would, if true, be a sensational news story. But is it true? Although I can’t definitively prove it, every ounce of circumstantial evidence leads inevitably to that conclusion, so it’s my story and I’m sticking with it. And the reason is simple: It is extremely unlikely that Sagan and Lederberg would suddenly come together at a major research university without there being a tie-in with the search for extraterrestrial existence. Furthermore, having an Earth-based SETI to complement and compete with a space-based SETI makes too much scientific sense for it not to be true. The fact that Carl Sagan was convinced that Earth has been visited by extraterrestrials makes it hard to arrive at any other conclusion.
Battling Nobel Laureates
Each of the two sides had a Nobel Prize winner to champion its respective position. Carl Sagan had Joshua Lederberg, and Frank Drake had Edward Purcell. Unfortunately for Sagan, Lederberg’s support for the idea of past alien visitations to Earth, though it may have been vigorous in private, was muted in public. Purcell, in contrast, was quick on the attack. When first learning about the Sagan Model, he was highly vocal in his insistence that alien interstellar spaceflight, regardless of how technologically advanced any extraterrestrial civilization might be, was physically impossible, which meant that alien visitations to Earth were impossible, which meant that the Sagan Model was dead on arrival.
Sagan boldly and impiously called the elder Purcell’s thinking wrong, arguing that long-lived alien civilizations would have worked out all the technological glitches and would have long ago embarked on interstellar travel, colonizing the galaxy along the way.
Purcell could not claim to be unbiased. He had skin in the game. He won his Nobel Prize in physics by discovering the 21-centimeter line of hydrogen, which just happened to be the frequency that radio telescope aficionados thought that aliens would most likely use to transmit their signal on. Purcell had a personal interest in killing Sagan’s ancient alien theory before it got off the ground. Had radio telescope SETI successfully intercepted an alien signal on the hydrogen frequency, Purcell would have been a primary benefactor. It would have added considerable luster to his fame and legacy.
Despite his compromised position, Purcell garnered critical support opposing the Sagan Model from other leading scientists, including Stanley Miller, one of Sagan’s close friends and associates, who wrote of Sagan’s theory: “It raises the question of whether he is a serious guy.” At the same time, a young Frank Drake, sensing an opportunity to secure his own career as a SETI radio astronomer, joined in on the pile-on, calling the Sagan Model “bad science.” Carl Sagan’s stunningly simple and elegant theory never had a chance, and all the attacks against it were related in one way or another to the belief that interstellar spaceflight was impossible. Remove that one obstacle, and the Sagan Model becomes perfectly rational.
This bullying and name-calling against Sagan and his ancient alien theory made a mockery of the scientific method, which is designed to encourage competition. Did the peer harassment begin after the Pentagon issued specific orders to new NASA administrator James Webb that Sagan’s theory needed to be terminated and abandoned because there was zero chance that it would serve any useful military purpose? In secret, I’m convinced that the Pentagon never bought into Purcell’s argument that interstellar spaceflight was impossible, because, even at that early time, it was already developing long-range plans to colonize space. Through NASA, and with abject hypocrisy, it lent its support to Purcell and others who were blasting Sagan for suggesting that aliens engage in star travel.
Still, a two-team, two-model approach, if it had materialized, would have been compatible with the finest scientific tradition, when different teams of scientists, working off different sets of assumptions and methodologies, openly and knowingly compete against one another to be the first to make a major scientific breakthrough. Unfortunately, NASA leadership stepped into the fray, and unilaterally and without scientific justification decided that the Sagan Model had to go away.
A recent example of how effective competition in science can be is the remarkable story of how dark matter and dark energy were discovered. In the 1990s, an East Coast team of astronomers out of Harvard competed against a West Coast team of physicists at Berkeley to be the first to use supernova as a standard candle to measure the rate of expansion of the Universe, a dramatic, tension-filled race admirably chronicled by Richard Panek in The 4% Universe. The result was the simultaneous discovery of two mysterious substances that comprise 96 percent of the Universe. Appropriately, both teams shared the 1998 Nobel Prize in physics.
Had this approach been adopted by NASA, the United States and the world would have been treated to a scientifically rich and interactive process that would have, early on, identified the strengths and weaknesses of both models and, as an added bonus, would have prevented the void that was created that was soon to be filled in by the questionable characters who peddle tabloid ancient alienism. The fact that reputable scientists broke with tradition and emotionally and irrationally rallied against allowing the Sagan Model to compete in a fair and open forum against the Drake Model suggests that behind the scenes there were dark forces at work.
Sagan’s research resulted in an essay that laid out the blueprint for an alternative strategy for searching for an alien signal that didn’t involve radio telescopes. It was a direct challenge to SETI co-founder Frank Drake because it was based on the assumption that any advanced extraterrestrials worthy of that name would almost certainly engage in interstellar spaceflight, something that Drake and most other space scientists in that day didn’t believe was possible. Sagan’s Stanford Paper featured the stunning theory that extraterrestrials have physically been to Earth, and it included detailed information about where he thought a signal they left behind might be located.
In a brilliant example of inductive logic, Sagan blended all the key components of existent SETI theory into a single seamless proposition. Besides meticulously working his way through rocket propulsion systems and the Drake Equation, and factoring in Fermi’s Paradox, he posited that advanced alien civilizations exist, have mastered interstellar spaceflight, and have been to Earth. He went on in his paper to reference some specific legends from antiquity that he believed supported his thesis, including accounts from the Old Testament that describe meetings between humans and godlike beings.
In developing an alternative search strategy, what Sagan and Lederberg failed to realize was that NASA was (and still is) a government bureaucracy first, and a scientific establishment second. Government bureaucracies are monopolies that are intrinsically opposed to competition. Just as your state department of motor vehicles has no interest in competing against other departments of motor vehicles for your patronage, in 1963 NASA administrator James Webb—a Washington insider, not a scientist—would have had little interest or motivation in allowing an Earth-based search strategy that had no military value, to compete against a space-based model that had military assets. As a result, the Stanford Paper was not just turned down, it was crushed and intentionally hidden from public view. Under no circumstances would there ever be a SETI West at Stanford University, and Carl Sagan would never be allowed to be the director of a competitive team that would challenge the Cornell team. In the end, science and humanity lost, and the military-industrial complex won.
In defense of James Webb, he was hired to do one job: fulfill President Kennedy’s pledge to send American astronauts safely to the Moon and back by the end of the decade. Everything else was secondary. Perhaps in his mind, to succeed he had to have everyone affiliated with NASA, even if it wasn’t directly related to the Moonshot, on the same page, pulling in the same direction. Carl Sagan’s ancient alien theory had the misfortune of not fitting into the zeitgeist of the times, while the radio telescope search did. In the often-murky and conflicted world of situational ethics, Webb’s decision to abandon and suppress the Sagan Model may have been corporately right because it didn’t serve the interests of the Pentagon, but it was morally and scientifically wrong. As a result, Sagan’s theory was not only unfairly savaged on non-scientific grounds, he was denied the due process that is ordinarily afforded professional scientists who play by the rules.
And what about the scientists at Cornell? Were they celebrating the fact that they wouldn’t have to compete against Carl Sagan and a robust challenge from a Nobel Prize–winning scientist at a world class university? Were they delighting in the reality that they would be the only game in town, even though they knew that the Stanford Paper was an imposing document, and that not having a scientific Earth-based search would likely create a vacuum that would soon be filled by pseudoscientific charlatans?
You bet! Instead of being forced to play hardball against a worthy opponent, the Cornell Team could relax and play intermural softball. And Carl Sagan? After the NASA rejection of his paper, he left the West Coast and moved to the East Coast, first to become a professor at Harvard University, and then, after he was denied tenure under suspicious circumstances, to join the faculty at—you guessed it—Cornell University! The subjugation of a great scientist passionately committed to a bold new plan to make contact with ET was complete.
The reality, put bluntly, is that Carl Sagan got screwed, big time, and though there is no way to undue the personal anguish and humiliation he suffered in the vulgar way his model was rejected, his dignity can still be restored and the damage to his reputation mitigated by implementing the search strategy he first proposed in 1962 and that he planned on reintroducing in the 1990s. As a testimony to its enduring strength, the Sagan Model remains hopeful and viable today.
Most of those in the Pentagon and at NASA who conspired to bury Sagan’s ancient alien research are no longer with us. Here is hoping that the few who remain, including Frank Drake, will take the high road, step forward, and publicly confess that in 1964 there was a concerted plot by the Pentagon and NASA to stop Carl Sagan before he had a chance to implement his alternative search strategy. Later, in 1984, when SETI incorporated itself as a private entity, it established its headquarters at Mountain View, California, right next door to the Stanford campus. Presumably, it was so that it could be close to deep-pocketed Silicon Valley philanthropists who gifted it with millions of dollars, but that location also allowed it to keep tabs on any independent thinking scientists at Stanford University who may not have given up on the idea of challenging the radio telescope experiment.
One cannot possibly get more unscientific than to announce a result without benefit of an investigation, particularly when the announced result runs against the grain of scientific consensus. Yet this is what NASA and SETI have done in stating, carte blanche, that there is no evidence that extraterrestrials have been to Earth. An individual new to the discussion might assume that this strong definitive declaration has been made after an extensive search, when the truth is that there has been no search. The Earth-based search model proposed by Carl Sagan was never activated. Sagan’s ancient alien research would remain in limbo for the next 50-plus years, and is only now being reintroduced and revisited.
At the time of the Green Bank Conference, host Frank Drake clearly didn’t know about Carl Sagan’s strong belief in interstellar travel, or about his conviction that aliens had visited Earth in historic times. In his book Is Anyone Out There, Drake writes about what he mistakenly believed was the unanimous opinion among the attendees that interstellar space travel was impossible:
The possibility (of intercepting an electronic alien signal) was infinitely more plausible than the arrival of an alien spacecraft. There was absolute consensus on this point—that space was too vast to permit easy physical visitations between civilizations. Achieving speeds high enough to complete interstellar voyages in reasonable times would make energy demands that were too great, even for very advanced civilizations. “Contact” would be in the form of electromagnetic signals passing between worlds at the speed of light. (No matter how far into the realm of the fantastic our ruminations took us, we didn’t even discuss the notion of interstellar travel at Green bank, on the grounds that it was irrelevant).
This, in a nutshell, was Frank Drake’s argument against interstellar spaceflight, and it is surely one of the most convoluted analyses in the history of science. With complete disregard for the major technological advances that long-lived alien civilizations would be expected to achieve, Drake superimposes the limitations of existing human technology on extraterrestrials who could easily be many millions of years older than us, and that many years ahead of us in science and technology.
Sagan’s best estimate of the number of advanced civilizations in the Milky Way with technology beyond our own was between one and ten million, about in the middle range of what was determined at Green Bank by the Order of the Dolphin. He believed that most, if not all of them, would have developed the technology for interstellar spaceflight. His next consideration was how long it will take humans to develop that capability. Section 3 of the Stanford Paper, entitled “Feasibility of Interstellar Spaceflight,” addressed the technical difficulties of velocity, fuel, and longevity:
The purpose of this Section is to lend credence to the proposition that a combination of staged fusion boosters, large mass-ratios, ramjets working on the interstellar medium and trajectories through H II regions is capable of travel certainly to the nearest stars within a human shipboard lifetime, without appeal to as yet undiscovered principles. Especially allowing for a modicum of scientific and technological progress within the next few centuries, I believe that interstellar travel at relativistic velocities to the farthest reaches of our Galaxy is a feasible objective for humanity. And if this is the case, other civilizations, aeons more advanced than ours, must today be plying the spaces between the stars. [emphasis added]
Drake’s insistence that there was “absolute consensus” among the Green Bank conferees that interstellar travel was impossible suggests that all 11 conferees, including Carl Sagan, discussed the subject at length. Isn’t that what the word consensus means? Yet, in the same breath, Drake states that the subject of interstellar travel was never even mentioned on the grounds that it was irrelevant. It doesn’t make sense.
Sagan, however, never apologized for or retracted his research. Quite the opposite: Working against tremendous institutional pressure from NASA to keep his heretical ideas of interstellar spaceflight and past alien visitations to himself, he brazenly expounded on his theory in a 1966 book he co-authored with Russian astrophysicist I.S. Shklovskii. In Intelligent Life in the Universe, he devotes two entire chapters to the subject. The response from the astronomy community was predictable. They redoubled their efforts to censure his research by prohibiting discussion of interstellar spaceflight and past alien visitations to Earth in SETI literature (except in the form of ridicule) and at official SETI conferences. In 1964, NASA officials were insisting that neither aliens nor humans would ever, could ever, physically travel from one star to another. The NASA moratorium on interstellar spaceflight became an unmovable object that countered the irresistible force of Fermi’s Paradox that stated that if aliens exist anywhere in the galaxy, they should have been to Earth.
But the handwriting was on the wall. Seeing that there was no support for an Earth-based search strategy, Sagan went along with the radio telescope plan, knowing all the while that it was doomed to fail. Sagan would become the public image and voice for NASA, and SETI’s most effective fundraiser, yet another reason why almost everyone erroneously assumes that he was completely convinced that a radio telescope search was the best way to find evidence of extraterrestrial intelligence. The truth, which neither NASA nor SETI is willing to admit, is that Sagan knew from the beginning that the SETI experiment was a dead man walking.
NEXT: Chapter 3 SETI at Sunset