CP-2156 Life In The Universe

 

Reflections

PHILIP MORRISON

 

Auguste Rodin, The Thinker.

(Photograph courtesy of The Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco)

Auguste Rodin, The Thinker.
(Photograph courtesy of The Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco)

 

 

[421] It would be very hard after these two days to say something original. The most I can hope to do is to lead a ceremony that may lend some perspective to what we have heard.

Looking over the schedule of these interesting and varied papers, I think it is fair to say this has been not only the largest but the most diversified meeting ever held in this general domain. In a sense it represents a milestone for SETI; but that is not its most important aspect. To isolate its importance, I want to make a few remarks about the history of the subject and about the context of the American scientific community in which it is embedded. A number of scientific points will doubtless creep in.

The first session began with the broad sweep of cosmic evolution, which has become the myth of our time for the scientist. When I say myth, of course I don't mean falsehood nor do I mean a mere tale. I mean a world view embodying substantial values of deep cultural significance, centered around efforts to explain origins. That is clearly what we begin with. Our myth today differs from those of the past in that we have a much wider series of tests for its acceptance. We expect it to transcend past experience, to go beyond language. That, in a way, distinguishes post-Renaissance mythmaking, especially at the cosmogonic level, from what went before. I would hasten to say that I think a good deal of what we have put in the myth will fall before the test, just as would fall the Ramayana if we asked to see the stance from which Hanuman leapt in order to get to Ceylon. We won't find that. We might find something like it, but we won't find the actual footprints.

Our myth is a grand cosmic myth. But there is also a style of great personal myth: a hero, his life and times, how he was chosen, what he did in [422] childhood, the difficulties he went through, the triumphs he had, the disasters he endured. The myth becomes over time a set piece, perfect in its symmetry, brooking no changes. In India, if you go to see a dramatic performance or a dance, or hear a song, 8 out of 10 times it is from the Ramayana. You know what is going to happen, but that is not a problem: novelty is not a positive value here. We now have such a personal myth growing in our culture, a very important myth that is only about a century old. Its presence has hovered over all the papers at this meeting, although we have almost never mentioned it explicitly. That is, of course, the life of Charles Darwin.

The story of evolution is the Ramayana of the scientist, and Charles Darwin is Rama, or as close as we can come in our impious and divided times. There is nothing we have done that does not have somewhere behind it the evolutionary model. We have transferred that model from self-replicating and mutating systems to a whole variety of cookery, but in the end it is the myth we are aiming at. And the outlines of the myth were not imaginable even 150-200 years ago.

I won't tell the story of the Darwin Ramayana, though it is a nice one to tell, but I will mention a few events that everybody should know about. There was, for example, the voyage of the Beagle, and the letter written by Uncle Josiah to get Charles on the Beagle. Charles's father, who was a selfassured, well-to-do man, did not like to be crossed in his opinions. He conceived that it was a very poor idea for a young man who was going to become a clergyman to go off on a trip with all those sailors for several years, to waste his time when he could be sitting in the country trying to avoid conducting too many funeral services. He told his son in no uncertain terms that he had half a dozen reasons for opposing the trip. He said: (a) It is a waste of time; it doesn't lead to your vocation. (b) It was offered to somebody else first; you're second choice; what good is that? (c) Being off with all those rude sailors can be very bad for your settling down in the future. And so on. Darwin was crushed. Here was a tremendous opportunity that had opened for him in a letter from his professor at Cambridge. Darwin said to his father, "Well, can I appeal in any way? Is there anything I can do to change your mind?" His father was a reasonable man. He was firm, but he believed he was controlled by reasonable persuasion, so he said, "Okay, find any thoughtful man of affairs, who knows the world, who agrees with you and not with me and I'll reconsider the whole thing." So Darwin went off 10-15 miles to his uncle's house, his Uncle Josiah Wedgwood, who made the pottery. (He was the second or third generation of the pottery owners. By the way, it was Josiah's daughter who became Mrs. Charles Darwin a couple of years after he came back from the Beagle. So he was obviously pretty friendly in that house.) He came over there, age 22, and talked to Uncle Josiah. Uncle Josiah wrote a wonderful letter back to the father expIaining every point. "Of course, now, it's true sailors are unsettled, but how often [423] do you hear the stories of the sailor who comes back and settles, runs a little farm, and never wants to leave home again. That's an equally likely consequence of going off to sea."

Now suppose that Charles hadn't gotten Uncle Josiah to write the letter. He would not have gone on the Beagle and would not have seen the Galapagos Islands. He would instead have been a country clergyman and would have written a brilliant journal of ornithology about the birds of some little parish. I am sure that is quite true. Of course, someone else, some Wallace, would have developed the theory of evolution in a decade or two anyhow. Because A. R. Wallace did write the first paper offered for publication which correctly described the evolution of species by the operation of natural selection. As you know, he sent this to Darwin to find help in getting it published. Darwin was disturbed, because after 10 or 12 years of closely filling his big notebooks with data on this point, here was a man he knew only slightly who had anticipated the entire story, but without any strong evidence, just a very clear logical statement of the whole story. Wallace himself was away in Indonesia, where he worked as a professional collector of animal skins, birds, eggs, and so. He traveled about the tropics on commission and sent back to the museums and to wealthy private collectors in England the things that he could get. He had malaria in Ternate, Indonesia, which took him out of the field for a few months. During that time he wrote his paper. Darwin was the only naturalist he knew who had been a traveler and was therefore likely to be sympathetic, not a bookish Cambridge professor with dusty disdain for people who traveled about far from libraries. Wallace was not a university man. He wrote to Darwin, "I think you would be interested in this general idea; I know you have some concern for the species problem." And that was the story. It is, of course, full of myth. I imagine that if we last a thousand years (and I think we will), this story will be told in movies and film, and heaven knows what three-dimensional holographic schemes I can't even foresee, in one way or another, as the great myths of the past have told about Rama, and Sita and the deceiving deer, and the jumping of the monkey army across the sea.

I tell this story to indicate that even in human events there is a kind of convergence. This, of course, argues against one of the objections to the SETI program: that evolution can never get to the same point twice. It is true that an exact retracing of a path is impossible. You cannot come from where you slept last night to this auditorium another time by exactly the same path; certainly not to the resolution of a micron, and I think not even to the resolution of a yard. When you cross the highway, for example, the traffic pattern will be different. But it does not matter if the path is not the same provided the end is the same. This is what is easily forgotten. It is improbable that you will find any second path that is close, but it does not seem so improbable that you will come to the same end, by a very different [424] path in that complex interweaving of world lines that is both human history and the history of biological structures. I am not going to talk anymore about the principle of convergence, but I think it is worthwhile to bring it forward sharply because some of the papers we have heard took a very strong view. They argued, quite correctly, that many conditions of preadaptation and so on need to exist for any big evolutionary change. When you look at those preconditions in any particular case, you may find them unrelated to the end result, and therefore you say, "How could it be that, since the essential preadaptation has nothing to do with the end result, that same end result could nevertheless happen?" Of course, the answer is just the same. Were the end result to happen, by my hypothesis, along a very different route, you would look back and say, "Aha, this is preadapted in such and such a way and therefore it could never happen any other way."

The particular case I would like to mention here, the preadaptation of human beings for speech, was probably quite real. But I would like to focus on something that has moved me very much in the past few years. One of the great new events in the human sciences relates to the development of sign language. It is now generally recognized by linguistic scholars that the large and randomly scattered deaf community has developed, without any assistance, a flexible, vigorous language of signs and gestures. This community is comprised of totally deaf persons in every country, and in our country in particular-persons who at a very early age before the onset of speech have been made totally deaf. It has taken more than a hundred years and the contributions of millions of people, but a gesture language has been developed which you can now see repeated very rapidly along with the television news. It is gradually becoming salient in the American scene. This language, when examined by the methods of grammatical analysis that, since the second World War, have revolutionized our view of languages, seems to show not only a great unity between the Chinese version and the American version (which have little historical connection, though the French and American have), but also a grammar, highly adaptive and flexible, which violates some of the principal canons of human speech. If this new work is sustained, it will demonstrate that human communication can be achieved on a complex and subtle but distinct level that shares many of the characteristics of normal speech, such as plays on words, words in bad taste, poetry, and song. All of these things have been identified and verified in American sign language in the last few years. There are lots of dirty jokes going around; teenagers giggle over them in the corner, but they won't do them in public. In the same way there are slang expressions that are not good form, but are fast. And there is an analog to song, that is, rhythmic exaggerated gestures that have the quality of music; there is also poetry marked by intricate word play, gesture play in which puns and imitations, one gesture for another, are very important. All this is gradually becoming understood by the academics.

[425] I remark on this because it is, of course, a completely different style of language. It may not connect to Broca's area or to any other of the principal compiler regions of the human cortex, where there exists our facile and rapid instrumentation for speech. One of the papers today said that it was difficult to see how speech could have evolved. Of course, I am not saying that it is just as good to do gestures as to have auditory communications; I honestly do not know. It might turn out to be better in the end. But, in any case, if you evolve with one mode and develop the other as a substitute, this is a tribute to the flexibility of the human mind, to a talent not evolutionarily built in at all; it shows that there is more going on than we imagine. It is another example of the convergence that I have talked about and tried to illuminate by the Darwin-Wallace story.

One of the most important occurrences over the 15 or 20 years that people have been thinking much about SETI has been talked about implicitly here, but not a great deal explicitly. Outside this rather rarefied atmosphere, though, it has had a big effect on public imagination, something we should not forget. The event we thought might happen, but did not, was that another form of life would be discovered on another planet. But what has occurred that we did not foresee, but that supports our general view while complicating our detailed quantitative understanding, is the finding of complex polyatomic carbon compounds in a wide variety of cosmic contexts. From studies of the molecular species in the great condensed galactic clouds and from the putative analysis of some asteroids and maybe satellites (in which we find some indication that carbonaceous compounds are important), we have derived a renewed interest in the carbonaceous chondrites themselves. As was noted today, this may represent a physical sequence or simply a set of analogies. But it also demonstrates a point on which biochemists were already very clear 50 years ago: the flexibility and peculiar subtlety of carbon compounds, as well as the high abundance of carbon, makes them preeminently the source of complex chemistry in the Universe.

I am led to another little story that I think will be familiar to many but perhaps not to all. When we seek the input of the physical sciences-astronomy (dynamical astronomy especially), geology, climatology, aeronomy- we know that their practitioners are masters of a powerful deductive structure, with quantitative possibilities. Of course, they are beset by the necessary complexity of their models. They must try to pin down from some a priori model just what the first 6 or 7 hundred million years of Earth history were like. They search for a necessary prelude for the biologists, something essential to the total picture of cosmic evolution. On the other hand, it was explicitly stated by someone at this meeting that it can be the other way around. If the biologists were to explain why they needed certain conditions, perhaps it could be determined whether these conditions were at all plausible under some existing model. It is clear to me that strong interchange must go [426] on in this domain. We clearly have to learn a more interdisciplinary way of facing such problems.

A famous 19th-century interdisciplinary dispute illustrates this point. There was a lot of dispute, even full conflict, but no resolution at all; logic was clearly on one side, but it turned out to be wrong. This is a charming story, resolved in print by the distinguished geologist T. C. Chamberlain, of the University of Chicago, about the turn of the century. It was also resolved in a lecture by Ernest Rutherford in the early years of the 20th century at the Royal Society. Many would guess what I am talking about: the famous problem of the time scale available for Darwinian evolution.

The absence of substantial observed changes in speciation in the natural world, as compared with the swift changes produced by domestic hybridization during the course of history, is a strong argument for the slowness of natural speciation. This argument was made even stronger by the fact that paleontology showed change clearly; you had to say that the time available in the geological record was very large. Darwin, while he was a man of extraordinary logical ability and in very simple ways a brilliant experimenter, often cutting right to the heart of the matter, was a bad mathematician. He could not calculate anything. He had a touching faith, however, in instrumental methods. His son writes that he discovered his father making measurements with an old paper ruler and writing these down to high accuracy. The son commented, "Well, you know that ruler probably is not right." So he got a better ruler; sure enough, his paper ruler was stretched and deficient. Darwin just fell into depression; the notion that a calibrated ruler, a thing you trust to measure with, might not be right was a breach of faith he could hardly accept from his ruler-making colleagues! That was his style. He kept saying that his study of geological records suggested that there was a great deal of time indeed. He liked to put it that biology required almost infinite time. He didn't, I think, mean what infinity means mathematically. But what he meant was very sensible. He meant a time quite long compared with all times that had been suggested so far. That is what we usually mean physically by infinite. You don't literally mean infinite, you mean a willingness to neglect the reciprocal; that was what he was prepared to do.

Now comes Lord Kelvin, armed with the most powerful physics of the 1 9th century, who was able to show with hammer blows, one after another, that the time available for Darwin's evolution could not be 100 million years, it could not be 80 million years, it could hardly be 60 million years, perhaps not even 10 million years. Because, if the Sun burns carbonaceous fuel or any similar chemical fuel, it can only last thousands of years ~ a palpably inadequate stretch of time. If it derives its energy from gravitation, we know its mass and we know its size, and we can show that it cannot last for more than a few tens of millions of years. The proposal that it catches and feeds on comets and meteors can also be excluded, though perhaps it [427] can push us into the 50-100-million-year domain. Thus there was a direct conflict. Kelvin would come to the biologists and heckle them terribly by saying, "Tell me what time you want and I'll show if it can be; I can calculate everything." He calculated cooling and so on. Of course, they couldn't name a time. They simply said, "Well, we know you're wrong. We feel it in our bones, in our fossils, but we can't prove it." So the evolutionists were regarded as people without any quantitative basis for their science, though they were, of course, on to something profound.

That was noticed by T. C. Chamberlain immediately after the discovery of radioactivity about 1900. By 1905 or so, Rutherford himself gave a famous evening talk. It was a most distinguished and formal lecture to the Royal Society of London. As a young breaker of rules, a young discoverer, he noticed that in the front row sat Lord Kelvin himself, very elderly, but very stern, trying hard to stay awake and check on this young man who was going to talk about new forms of energy. (Kelvin didn't like radioactivity either, by the way.) But Rutherford tells us that he wondered how to avoid offending Lord Kelvin. Perhaps the famous man would get up and leave when Rutherford talked about the fact that nuclear energy can keep the Sun going for a good long time. Finally Rutherford thought of the right formulation. He said that he had been able to solve an old problem, whose magnitude and importance had been shown by Lord Kelvin himself, when he pointed out that there was no known source of energy capable of keeping the Sun going. At last by experiment they had been able to find a new source, bringing out fully what Kelvin had shown all those years ago. Says Rutherford, Kelvin went immediately to sleep and the whole session was a huge success.

Let us hope that some meeting of minds among physicists and biologists will come to relieve us too of our dilemmas. Of course, there are interesting traps: we don't really know whether we have to have a strongly reducing Earth environment, whether we can find special microenvironments, or whether we can cross one or another of the bridges set before us from the physical to the biological side.

Today, for the first time in the many symposia I have attended on this our subject, adequate attention has been devoted to that great span of time from the stromatolitic microorganisms, complex as they are, to the earliest trilobites. This multicellular phase of early evolution was given us in interesting detail, from several points of view. I found it an exciting thing. I hope that gradually more nonpaleontologists will try to understand and cope with it. We begin to grasp the remarkable progress that was made during that limited time at the dawn of the Cambrian, for we are now examining fauna' assemblages from all over the world. We begin to see the richness of change emphasized by Professor Valentine. I find that a most fascinating account

[428] Of course, there goes with this progress some remarkable inventions, the inventions of life. It is dangerous to pin our view of what happened wholly on the success of this or that invention. It is very easy to do and might even be true. But it also might have been that another invention would have occurred had "invention #1 " not won the day. That is a question you must always ask. Two inventions were mentioned which I found extremely striking, worked out in detail, very appealing to a physicist. Both of them are, so to speak, structural innovations: the coming of specialized structural proteins and the first appearance of lignin. Both are elements making possible what is fashionably called a quantum jump in the behavior of two great kingdoms, plants and animals, when once they have acquired the ability to maintain large systems. Because the large living systems are showy, they are in the museums; they are like ourselves. The simple laws of scale suggest that large organisms, certainly on dry land and probably also in the ocean environment, must have stiff structures; otherwise they cannot survive easily. Mass goes up with the cube, and strength only with the square of linear dimension. You cannot survive without a pretty strong structure. Of course, we have an internal skeleton and our friends the bugs have something different, but that doesn't matter so much.

The notion that a few chemical inventions made this possible is striking. We begin to see a new power, shown by both of those papers today, to enter into the details, to try to suggest the biochemical pathways and various correlations. This should not end, it seems to me, until we have spelled out quite a number of such jumps. In population genetics and in evolutionary theories, as I see it, we have little predictive power as yet. We cannot predict rates. We cannot predict proportionalities. We have to take the evidence of change and work backward. It is unclear whether we shall ever have a profound predictive power. But at least our analysis should have a much richer texture than in the past. That is beginning to happen, and I am very encouraged to see it. I think we can expect results in terms of convergences, in terms of interacting biochemical inventions.

It is always fascinating to have the physiologist, the paleontologist, the general biologist working together, not only on the remarkable information transfer story at the DNA-RNA level, but even at the much grosser level of the engineering inventions that enable living forms to work. I want to mention one invention that is especially striking to me. The internal organization of vertebrates, including ourselves and our kin, brings many implications that do not appear on the surface. Consider one behavioral invention, if you like. It has a quality reminding us of the proteins and the lignin, but it is not at all like them.

Let us look at a strategy: the strategy for catching food as a predator does. We are, after all, predators, both on berries and on bears; we belong to the hunting-foraging creatures. Suppose you were in the position of living on [429] lobsters. That is a nice position to be in: it is achieved by some New Englanders and by all common octopi. Octopi are intelligent invertebrates-in some ways our analogs within the invertebrate kingdom.

Let us approach the octopus from the standpoint of a rational analysis of prey-seeking behavior. What is the situation? Lobsters are not as variable in behavior perhaps as some land animals, but still they are not all that uniform either. It is quite likely that any particular desirable game, like lobsters, appears in fluctuating numbers within the field of action of any carnivore. There is little likelihood of a steady flow of lobsters, one dropping down every hour. That is the Santa Claus or Big Rock Candy Mountain theory of life. Most of us hunters don't find it that easy. You've got to go out and scrabble around a little bit to get what you want.

When caribou are numerous you should of course hunt caribou. When the Eskimo or the Indian hunter, skillful person that he is, finds that caribou are unhappily in short supply, he will simply redouble his efforts, for he is hungry and back home the wife and kids are hungry. The whole situation is serious. The same tendency is found in every hunting-gathering mammalian predator activity, say for the leopard. We explain strange behavior on the part of mammals sometimes in that way: "Well, it was hungry. I forgot to feed my Siamese, so it tried to eat the curtain!"

On the other hand, an octopus has a much purer view. It behaves more like the theory of games. When lobsters become few, an octopus does not seek in a frenzy to find those few lobsters or put up with eating mere crayfish. Heaven forbid! Instead the octopus goes to sleep-a most intelligent thing to do. Every once in awhile it wakes up and looks out. "Any more lobsters around?" No. Back to sleep it goes again.

Such control over impatience, anxiety, and hunger is very hard for us to understand. Our thought is based on our design: namely, we have to generate 100 watts all the time. There is a basal metabolism, roughly 100 watts, that we expend. If we don't keep the machine fueled, we're in irreversible danger. But the octopus has no such base load demand. Cold-blooded, he is willing to relax to the ambient temperature of the warm sea environment in which he lives, provided only that every once in awhile he can scrape up a 1 00th of a watt, turn the ganglia on a little bit, open an eye. That isn't too hard to do. Once you look at it coolly, you realize that human behavior goes completely against the sound principles by which an organism would adaptively go hunting. Whenever it is hard to hunt, don't continue to hunt with greater frenzy over longer hours, as we all do. On the contrary, take it easy. If conditions are not good, there is not much use in hunting. We can't adopt that principle, though, because for a couple hundred million years conditions were generally good enough so that somehow or other it was worth paying to keep all our subtle electronics going in order to have an opportunity to hunt well. How different evolutionary structure can be! We need a special view of [430] the lives of other creatures. If you now carry this logic over to some distant world, then it gives scope to the issues we are talking about.

The strategic discussions for SETI showed in circumstantial and detailed operational terms that we have already begun to make a clear plan. Certainly, a great deal of hope emerges. Indeed we have a remarkable new opportunity: we seem to be on the threshold of finding other planets. We are setting up apparatus dedicated to the purpose of finding planets, both by interferometry and by astrometry with modern techniques. I very much hope that the entire community will support and applaud this effort, because it seems to be one of the most important auxiliary searches that could be made. It is important even if we never have a chance of getting radio signals. It can give us something else to look at than just the single Sunplanet system to which we are so well adapted.

I will conclude with some remarks of a more philosophical nature. The first is straightforward; it is a distinction I have made before, but I think it bears repeating. We can characterize attitudes toward SETI by invoking the names of two philosophers. (Perhaps they should not have to bear this burden; they are not really responsible. But as often happens, it is convenient here to use the names of famous workers of the past as labels. I ask their forgiveness.) First is the Aristotelian view, which seems quite plain: Earth is the cosmic center; the heavens revolve around it, 1 /R reaches infinity here, and here is the right place! On this view, of course, the whole outward-looking style is neither necessary nor desirable. Astronomers can hardly accept that view; at least they have not accepted it for several centuries now. They are not going to change, and I am pretty sure that most of the other sciences will follow in turn. (It was thus impressive to hear a wellknown student of fossil man give us a detached and generous view of what other worlds might contain.)

The second point of view I like to attribute to Copernicus. Everyone knows what that implies, though I don't know if he actually said it anywhere: namely, that this green and blue Earth is not all that different from the planets and the Sun and all those other things that circle and shine in the sky. They are themselves earthy or gaseous or whatever, but they are physically real objects. Nowadays men have walked upon one such object and shown that it is not different in kind from the one we inhabit. Since we know Earth is also earthy, then it is clear to us that these are only relative categories. Circular, shining, and perpetual orbits was Aristotle's view; it was Copernicus who recognized that Earth was no less circular, shining, and perpetual. We take a very different view of the cosmos post-Copernicus That has been the spirit of SETI. The radical Copernicanism of the very first efforts is still viable, though admittedly we have more judgment about where to look.

[431] I would like to mention another point of view, which seems a little curious to me. It is less developed among the general public than in the scientific community, and it seems to be based on a very grand extrapolation indeed. I would like to call it the Malthusian view. Take a piece of semilog paper and plot the growth of more or less anything in human culture (people, telescopes, cities, motorcycles, whatever you want), extrapolate, and very soon it shoots right off the page. At some point the mass will exceed the mass of Earth, or the volume exceed the volume of the Universe, or the velocity of expansion exceed the speed of light. Therefore, there must be some catastrophe ahead. This is true of every exponential, all but independent of its rate. If you change the rate by a factor of 2, you just double the time: 100 years becomes 200 years. You are talking about the long-term future, so the rate doesn't make that much difference. Therefore, this is only a statement of the transient existence of exponential fits: certainly such a fit is a good thing to notice, but it is never totally realistic.

Ecology has brought us to understand that something always turns up to put a plateau above every exponential, some necessary resource. Californians will guess that it is gasoline that limits the Universe, but if that were not true, it would turn out to be something else.

What happens when we apply exponential arguments to space travel? We have heard several discussions this afternoon of the difficulty of interstellar travel. Several recent papers, however, have taken a longer range view. The most conspicuous of them is in a book by Freeman Dyson, a very able physicist indeed. He points out that we have not reckoned with selfmultiplying systems of an artificial kind. (There are plenty of multiplying systems that are living; I am not so sure that artificiality makes a big difference, but I will accept the argument.) If you can make a self-multiplying system, put it in a spaceship, and give it an initial stock of capital resources, off it will go to find a suitable solar system. Eventually, it will be well enough ensconced that it will create replicas of itself, which will then be sent out to find other solar systems to be settled, and so on. If you make some calculations it turns out that you can cross the whole Galaxy with this scheme during a geological epoch, in a few hundred million years.

The argument goes next: since the Galaxy doesn't look as though it is densely occupied that way, since many more than 300 million years have gone by if our calculations are right, then nothing like this has ever happened. The most enthusiastic paper I have seen says that we ourselves will be able to start this process in 100 years. It is plain to that author that we must be the first ever to encounter such a possibility. No use, then, spending a lot of experimental effort on SETI; these calculations make it quite clear. Of course, they are not very robust calculations.

Nevertheless, I find it quite interesting that the mere examination of the sky should suggest that because the stars aren't arranged in tasteful [432] letters, or free form Crescent or Cross, or anything else, that the Universe has not been modified by a gardener of any sort. This seems enough for some to say we should not make our patient search through the channels and through the spatial directions to find signals. I hold that this is a semiserious problem. Serious, that is, only to the extent that it develops within the scientific community an antagonism to what seems to me an already difficult but at least an empirically based scheme. It is the one we have been talking about for these two days. I hope we can come to some meeting of the mind with persons who represent this theoretical pessimism (or is it optimism?). Let me simply suggest a mixed strategy: instead of waiting 300 hundred million years to see if the theory is right, I might try waiting only 300 years to test it by some more active procedure.

At this conference we see a merging of disciplines, a coming together of many scientific points of view. We master technicalities that can hardly be put into the same box: radio astronomy and transfer RNA, paleontology and climatology. Yet they all bear sharply on one question. This is, of course, the strength of the matter, as Alastair Cameron said beautifully at the noonhour press conference. This strength, I think, will continue. It will support the enterprise and give point and wit to the enterprise as long as it goes on.

A curious situation has arisen under the power of intense modern instrumental specialization (in the broad sense, where instrument includes method). The instrumental specialization of our science has grown steadily since the 19th century. It is sharply reflected in the institutions of our universities, which are slow to change in the face of it. For example, many universities still have a Botany Department and a Zoology Department, and if you bring in any one of a number of microorganisms that Lynn Margulis will be very happy to show you on a slide, they don't know which department ought to study it! Perhaps it doesn't make any difference. But our research structure is inherited from institutional decisions in Scottish and German universities made 100 to 150 years ago. Sooner or later this will change. For all real large-scale engineering activities, such as NASA has carried out so successfully, we know that that is not the way to do it. Such activities require mission teams and a mix of specialties. The universities are going to have to learn. Perhaps through our mixture here between the academic and the operational, in this meeting at Ames, we have begun a style that will grow.

There is a narrowness of action, though not of intent, which characterizes university departments, and scientific publications and scientists in general: if it is too popular, it is somehow vulgar and wrong. You can't really speak to those people across the street. I live next to the chemists at MIT, but I never see them. I hardly know who they are, yet between physics and chemistry it is hard to know who should study what molecule I myself am [433] guilty. We form communities not based on the problems of science, but on quite other things. This is part of the general split between the intelligent informed member of the public and the scientist who speaks in narrow focus. But the great theoretical problems which I believe the world expects will somehow be solved by science, problems close to deep philosophical issues are the very problems that find the least expertise, the least degree of organization, the least institutional support in the scientific institutions of America or indeed of the world.

Two of these, of course, are the great questions, "Are we alone?" and "How did life begin?" These questions are treated now in the elementary textbooks, because of the vigor of a few people over the last 30 years, but they are 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. This is beginning to change. Five or 10 years ago, the radio astronomers, just to name a group of people I know quite well, were pretty hard to talk to about SETI in any way. It wasn't so much that they would disagree, that's fine: they still do. But they laughed, and that was not very pleasant. Well, now at least they are only smiling; this is a kind of gain.

One cure for this ill, though a difficult one, is the pursuit of a scientific discourse on a more philosophical, more consciously aesthetic, better-illustrated style, one willing to grapple with large problems, even though only small solutions can at present be offered for them. This was demonstrated to us in two quite different tones: first by Lynn Margulis and second by William Schopf. I think that science requires this change. I expect to see an enlarging of the disciplines to form at last an interdisciplinary pool, aware of larger philosophical issues. We need not try to solve them or to prescribe their limits, but we must recognize their human importance, their intellectual existence as an increasing element within scientific thought. If that were the only positive result from the SETI investigation, I think it would still be judged by history to have proved extremely worthwhile.


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