Observers and Theorists Being Wrong

Once upon in time, probably in graduate school, someone told me an aphorism, which went something like this:

A theorist only has to be right once to garner a reputation as a good scientist, but an observer only has to be wrong once to ruin theirs.

Photo of Alex Filippenko

Alex Filippenko—spreader of the aphorism

I asked about it on Twitter and Facebook, and multiple people pointed to Alex Filippenko as the originator (which may also be where I heard it, when I TA’d for him at Berkeley). I asked Alex, and he wrote that he heard it from other grad students at Caltech, perhaps Richard Wade. I asked Richard, and he wrote “I think it was a fairly common expression around Caltech when I was a grad student, so Alex could heard it from me. I probably heard it from other grads.”

So, I’m not sure where it comes from, but it’s a great quote!

Some of Facebook and Twitter objected to the sentiment it expresses— ” I’d say it’s best forgotten. No good comes from playing it safe the whole damn time… 😉” quipped David Kipping. Brian Metzger writes “I think one has to make an important distinction: theory that in principle is well-motivated and has a sound physical basis but just turns out to be the wrong explanation (but might still lead to progress by posing new questions), versus theory that e.g. employs bad physics or already disproven assumptions and couldn’t in principle have been correct. ”

But I think it’s got a kernel of truth worth discussing.

As I’ve drifted into theory from observation I’ve been struck by how much more comfortable theorists are being wrong than observers (sometimes I call this Steinn’s bad influence on me ;).

But it makes sense. Theorists are expected to work on hypotheses that might turn out to be wrong, and there is no discredit in one’s theory turning out to be wrong if it was interesting and spurred work that eventually turned up the right answer. There’s no real reason for an equivalent “you’re doing a good job even if you’re wrong” land for observers.

I think David Kipping and Alex Teachey’s laudable and cautious approach to their exomoon candidate illustrates the divide. As an observation project, especially a high profile one, they must be extra careful not to overstate the evidence, careful to call things “candidates” and not “discoveries”, and careful to emphasize the uncertainty inherent in the problem. Their peers, journalists, and the public will scrutinize their verbiage and they will get blowback if it turns out to not be an exomoon and their presentation of the evidence, in retrospect, was overstated.

But a theoretical analysis of the abundance of exomoons (or exoplanets!) that turns out to be off by orders of magnitude can still get cited favorably a decade later if it included novel and important components. After all, everyone understands that theory is hard and that we build theories up piece by piece, and so we’ll get it wrong many times before we get it right. And so such work rarely includes the careful hedging that Kipping and Teachey used in their work.

Or, to give a more dramatic example: If inflation turns out to be completely wrong, the theorists who dedicated their careers to it will still be considered good theorists, but the BICEP2 team that got a subtle issue with dust wrong have a whole book about the very public and embarrassing debacle that followed their (incorrect) detection of sign of inflation in the CMB.

I’m not saying this dichotomy in unfair or inappropriate—on the contrary, I think it’s appropriate!—I’m just pointing out how the aphorism resonates because it identifies something real and tacit about the way we judge science.

Freeman Dyson’s First Law of SETI Investigations

It’s come up a few times, so let me state here for the record the origin of Freeman Dyson’s First Law of SETI Investigations:

It’s from an email he sent me. We were discussing a paper of mine in anticipation of an outreach event we were planning:

and he remarked of the Ĝ strategy:

I am happy to see that your plan is consistent with the First Law of SETI investigations: every search for alien civilizations should be planned to give interesting results even when no aliens are discovered.

I asked permission to repeat this, and he agreed. It’s consistent with his general approach about SETI, searching for the physical limits of technology in a way that also generates ancillary science and makes minimal assumptions about agency.

I think Freeman himself means this as a counterpoint to radio or laser SETI, which has the benefit of working against low natural background but this apparent disadvantage that they are unlikely to discover new natural phenomena in the course of their searches. I think this perspective is often overstated—radio SETI is closely aligned with pulsar and FRB astrophysics, and generates great science along the way, and there are natural sources of very brief optical flashes, too.

Justifying Science Funding in an Unjust World

I was asked recently a stock question by interviewers about how to justify spending SETI when “some people would say” that we have so many problems needing solving , so many better places to spend the money.

There are a few answers to this.

One is that it’s a false choice: certainly if I had to choose between NSF funding for basic research, including SETI, and feeding starving people, I choose feeding the starving people every time. But that is not the choice we face: humanity produces more than enough food to feed the planet and cutting the NSF budget won’t feed any starving people.

Similarly, if I had to choose, I’d rather our government guarantee all people the basics of modern life—shelter, health care, safety, clean water and nutritious food, life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, and all that—than search the skies for technosignatures. But that’s not the choice Congress makes every year when it makes up its budget—we can easily afford all of those things.

Another answer is beautifully illustrated by classic Congressional testimony by R. R. Wilson, director of Fermilab, justifying building the lab’s first accelerator in a time when the national defense dominated the budget conversation:

R. R. Wilson

SENATOR PASTORE. Is there anything connected in the hopes of this accelerator that in any way involves the security of the country?

DR. WILSON. No, sir; I do not believe so.

SENATOR PASTORE. Nothing at all?

DR. WILSON. Nothing at all.

SENATOR PASTORE. It has no value in that respect?

DR. WILSON. It only has to do with the respect with which we regard one another, the dignity of men, our love of culture. It has to do with those things.

It has nothing to do with the military. I am sorry.

SENATOR PASTORE. Don’t be sorry for it.

DR. WILSON. I am not, but I cannot in honesty say it has any such application.

Senator John Pastore, dunkee

SENATOR PASTORE. Is there anything here that projects us in a position of being competitive with the Russians, with regard to this race?

DR. WILSON. Only from a long-range point of view, of a developing technology. Otherwise, it has to do with: Are we good painters, good sculptors, great poets? I mean all the things that we really venerate and honor in our country and are patriotic about.

In that sense, this new knowledge has all to do with honor and country but it has nothing to do directly with defending our country except to help make it worth defending.

“It helps make [America] worth defending”—quite the rhetorical dunk there.

But more broadly, basic science is an essential part of culture, civilizations, and humanity. We have more than enough labor and wealth to do SETI and be safe. Indeed, we spend hundreds of billions per year on national security—a future that President Eisenhower warned us against—and against this, basic science expenditures are a rounding error.

The third answer is: because we can easily afford it.

I once heard a figure that America spends more on doggie treats than on publicly funded science.  I threw this figure out in that interview, but worried I had it wrong.  So I looked it up.

The US pet food and treat market is almost $30 billion. Of this, dog and cat “treat” sales reached $4.39 billion in 2017. The FY17 appropriation for NASA’s science mission directorate was $5.76  billion.

So, I was wrong: NASA spent 30% more on science in 2019 than America did on dog and cat treats than. But we spend far more on dog and cat food.

But looking at some other points of comparison:

Since America spends over $2.5 billion on dog treats each year, its probably safe to say that Americans spend about twice as much on doggie treats than their federal taxes do on astronomy.

The point, obviously, is not that we spend too much on doggie treats or that there is some obviously more correct ratio between these two expenditures—it’s that America is a very, very rich country (even ignoring the “1%” that doesn’t spend much on pet treats) and the amount we spend on things as important to culture as basic science is actually quite small, comparable to niche consumer markets like pet treats.

I’m not arguing we should spend less on basic human needs, pet treats, or any of these other things that define modern life. Regardless of whether we fund science with new taxes or by cutting other expenditures like the military budget, we can easily afford to spend a lot more on a lot of those things, including SETI.


The hats astronomers wear

Once upon a time science departments in universities often had draftsmen on staff that would produce figures for scientific publications. Today, those positions are much rarer (and called “graphic designers”) except in very large institutions because scientists themselves are expected to do much of that work. Other work routinely done by administrative staff in the past—like travel reimbursements—are now done by faculty themselves.

Part of this is that computerization and other technologies have made these tasks easier and so it’s not unreasonable to expect a typical scientist to do the job quickly and competently. But it also means that the modern astronomer (queue Gilbert & Sullivan “I am the very model of a…”) has to do a wide variety of tasks outside of their training.

Today in group meeting we tried to make a list. This whole exercise was inspired by this Jonathan Fortney tweet thread about “scientists” vs. “engineers”:

and about giving yourself permission to not be interested in certain parts of the job of scientist that other people find endlessly fascinating

My punchline is that it’s fine to love and get really good at a few of the aspects of being a scientist, and that it’s OK to not be good at or enjoy other aspects.

Indeed, I sometimes chafe when people say things like “every scientist has an obligation to communicate their science to the public” or “all astronomers should learn Python” and such. I think its fine and good that astronomers specialize in different parts of the job, and that collaborations consist of a group of people that, together, have all the pieces needed to do great science.

Also, part of my definition of a good job is one where you spend most of your time doing things you both like and are good at, and a minimum of time doing things you dislike and are bad at. Enumerating the parts of the job can help you find the job you like (or turn your current job into that). So it’s OK not to be good at everything.

Here’s the list of “hats” astronomers wear that we came up with.  What did we miss?

  • Teacher / instructor
  • Science popularizer
  • Public ambassador of science
  • Salesperson
  • Writer
    •  proposals
    • research articles
    • emails
    • popular materials
    • journalism (e.g. press releases)
  • Copyeditor
  • Graphic(s) designer
  • Examiner (tests, defenses)
  • Peer reviewer
  • Mentor
  • Research adviser
  • Manager
  • Administrator
    • Travel
    • Grants administration
    • Budgeting
  • Computer programmer
    • Team coding
    • Public code
    • “Private” code
  • Computer systems administrator
  • Web developer
  • Marketer
  • Engineer
  • Physicist
  • Theorist
  • Observer
  • Data analyst
  • Statistician
  • Philosopher of Science
  • Ethicist

[Update: good suggestions from Twitter:




Atmospheric scientist and meteorologist


A Second Pleiades in the Sky

Astronomers have discovered a second Pleiades in the sky.

Wait, what?  The Pleiades are an obvious feature of the night sky, known to ancient peoples around the world and a common test of visual acuity.  In a telescope they look like this:

The Pleiades

Four or five bright stars make them obvious in even a moderately dark sky, and the nebulosity adds a nice touch that makes them interesting. Astronomers like them because they were all formed from the same birth cloud, so they share composition, age, and distance. This makes for a great stellar laboratory, since it lets us isolate and focus on the few differences among the stars, like their mass and whether they have binary companions.

So if these are so obvious, how could there be another one?  Answer: if they’re so spread out across the sky that no one noticed they were related!  Back in February Meingast et al. announced that they had spotted a group of hundreds of stars all moving in the same direction—but they were spread all out against the sky.  If you plot most of the sky out flat, here’s what they look like (in red):

The Pisces-Eridanus Stream. The Milky Way, which spans 360 degrees of the sky, appears as a circle in this projection. The stream is over 120 degrees across.

Co-moving stars like this are like clusters but more spread out. It took the precise measurements recently announced by the Gaia team to notice that these stars were all moving in the same direction.

Many of these stars, like the Pleiades are bright enough to see with the naked eye:

When Meingast et al. published, I got excited because they guessed that the stream was 1 billion years old—if correct, that would make it one of the closest older clusters in the sky. Jason Curtis had spent a whole PhD dissertation and more proving Ruprecht 147 was a true cluster, 3 billions years old and only 300 parsecs away. Eunkyu Han worked hard to check out another claimed nearby old cluster, Lodén 1.  Here was one 3 times younger and 3 times closer: another important discovery! I got excited and tweeted at Jason about it.

We started wondering what to call it, and also getting suspicious of the reported age. So we pulled in the expert on “moving groups” and stellar ages, Eric Mamajek:

Jason, Eric, and I then took the conversation offline. First, it needed a name.  Eric came up with the “right” answer:

Next, the stream seemed like it had to be younger than 1 billion years to us, but how old was it?  Then Jason Curtis went to town with TESS, the all-sky planet hunting telescope. It had already hunted for planets around many of the stream’s stars, and Jason was able to quickly measure the stars’ rotation periods.  He tells the story here:

I encourage you to read the whole tweet thread!

Basically, Jason was able to show that the stars in the stream are spinning way too fast to be 1 billion years old. In fact they were spinning just as fast as the Pleiades—so they are probably almost exactly the same age.  They’re also the same distance, and there are just as many of them!

I was actually kind of disappointed:

Chris Lintott was grumpy at my framing of the cluster as a “second Pleiades” because the public would understand that to mean “another thing I can see with my eyes in the sky that wasn’t there before”, which is misleading:

His point is well taken, but Heidi Hammel would say that good science communication means linking to things people know about.  Eric explained well what I meant and why the discovery is a big deal:

This discovery came very fast, and was only possible because of the hard work of the teams that made Gaia, Kepler, and TESS possible.  Because those are all-sky surveys committed to making data public as fast as possible, unexpected gems like this can go from tweets to papers in a matter of weeks.  Jason Curtis pointed out that most of the actual science only took him hours:

It’s a new era of stellar astronomy. So exciting!

In Defense of Magnitudes

Astronomical magnitudes get a bad rap.

Hipparchos 1.jpeg

Hipparchus, supposedly

The Greek astronomer Hipparchus famously mapped the sky and assigned each star a “magnitude” (or size) based on its apparent brightness.  The human eye is a surprisingly precise photometer (you can with just a little effort estimate brightnesses differentially to about 0.1 magnitude; I’m sure dedicated amateurs can do better) So Hipparchus could have been thorough about this, but he was actually quite general: he just lumped them into 6 categories: “stars of the first magnitude” (the brightest), “stars of the second magnitude” and so on.

But while the human eye is precise it’s not linear: it’s actually closer to being a logarithmic detector. This gives it a great dynamic range but it means that what seems to be “twice as bright” is actually much, much brighter than that.

In 1856 Norman Pogson formalized this in modern scientific terms by proposing that one magnitude be equal to a change in brightness of the fifth root of 100, with a zero point that roughly aligned with Hipparcus’s rankings so that “first magnitude stars” would have values around 1. This captured the logarithmic scale and spirit of the original system, and has frustrated astronomers ever since.

Astronomers regularly complain about this archaic system. A lot of this comes from trying to explain it in Astronomy 101 or even Astronomy 201 where our students expect a number attached to brightness to increase for brighter objects, and where we have to teach them a system literally no other discipline uses. Especially at the Astronomy 101 level, where we are loathe to use logarithms, we often skip the topic altogether.

But I think astronomers don’t realize how good we have it.

First of all, the scale increases in the direction of discovery: there are very few objects with negative magnitudes (the Sun and Moon, sometimes Venus, a few stars in certain bands) but lots of objects up in the 20’s where the biggest telescopes are discovering new things. Big numbers = bigger achievements is much better than “we’re down to -10 now!”, in my opinion.

Secondly, the numbers have a nice span. The difference between 6 and 7 is just enough to be worth another number. This is because the fifth root of 100 is only 8% larger than the natural logarithmic base e, which is the closest thing we have to a mathematically rigorous answer to the question “how much is a lot?”.

But most importantly, the system is a beautiful compromise between simplicity and precision that allows for very fast mental math and approximations for any magnitude gap.

This is because we long ago settled on base-10 for our mathematics, and the magnitude system is naturally in base 10. 15 magnitudes is a factor of 100,000, because every 5 magnitudes is exactly 100.  2.5 magnitudes is a factor of exactly 10.

It doesn’t take much practice to get very fast at this. If we used, say, e as the base instead, the 8% difference would compound with each magnitude.  exp(15) is 3.6 times larger than 100,000.

Finally, and most importantly IMO, because this interval is very close to a factor of e, we get the lovely fact that very small magnitude differences translate pretty well to fractional differences.  So, a change of 0.01 magnitudes is almost exactly 1% (only 8% off, actually). That’s so useful when trying to do quick mental estimates.  For instance: a transiting planet with a 10 mmag depth covers 1% of the star, so it has 10% of the star’s radius (since sqrt(0.01) = 0.1). A 1 mmag transit therefore corresponds to 10x less surface covered, so it has 3% of the star’s radius. Easy!

I think of it as akin to the twelfth-root-of-two intervals on an equal-tempered instrument. No interval on such an instrument produces the mathematically perfect 3:2, 4:3, or 5:4 harmonic, but they’re all close enough and in exchange you can transpose music and shift keys with ease and without loss of musical fidelity. The pedants may complain, but it’s worked great for centuries.

Do NASA and the NSF support SETI?

Does the federal government support SETI?  We usually say it does not, but in the 2019 audit of the SETI Institute, there is a letter from NASA protesting this characterization.  It contains this language:

The OIG’s statement on the absence of NASA’s funding for SETI research is misleading and the finding incorrect.1 NASA has funded the development of several instruments that enable such searches

Michael New made a similar point at the Houston NASA Technosignatures workshop: NASA has funded some SETI work since 1993 (including that workshop itself).

The footnote in the text above mentions 3 grants explicitly, but I think they missed one. Working with Jill Tarter and others I’ve tried to count every NASA and NSF grant for SETI work since 1993. I don’t know of any from the ’90’s, but, as the report states, there are some in the past 15 years.

Here’s my list:


  • “A 2 Billion Channel Multibeam Spectrometer for SETI” 2 years, $398,040 (PI: Marcy, NRA-01-OSS-01-ASTID)
  • “Arecibo Multibeam Sky Survey for Direct Detection of Inhabited Planets,” 4 years, $485,642   (PI: Korpella, Exobiology 2008 NNH08ZDA001N-EXOB) Money funded running the SERENDIP IV survey and SETI@Home
  • “Detection of Complex Electromagnetic Markers of Technology,” 3 years (+ 1 year no-cost extension), $660,079 (PI: Jill Tarter NRA-OSS-01-ASTID). Money funded studies by Cullers, Stauduhar, Harp, Messerschmitt, and Morrison on using autocorrelation and other methods for detecting broadband SETI signals.
  • “Instrumentation for the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence,” 3 years, $590,589 (PI: Werthheimer, ASTID 2011 NNH11ZDA001N-ASTID) Money funded building an instrument at Arecibo/GBT.


  • AST-0808175 :  Radio Transient and SETI Sky Surveys Using the Arecibo L-Band Feed Array  $362,624.00 (PI: Wertheimer, NSF-AST 2008 )
  • AST-0838262:  Collaborative Research: The Allen Telescope Array: Science Operations
    $310,000.00 (PI: Tarter, NSF-AST 2008 )
  • AST-0540599:  Collaborative Proposal: Science with the Allen Telescope Array
    $300,000 (PI: Tarter, NSF-AST 2005)
  • AST-0243040 :  Multipurpose Spectrometer Instrumentation for SETI and Radio Astronomy
    $704,080.00 (PI: Marcy, NSF-AST 2002)
  • OAC-0221529:  Research and Infrastructure Development for Public-Resource Scientific Computing
    $911,264.00 (PI: Anderson, NSF-OAC 2001)

Total since 1993: $2,587,968 (NASA) + $2,134,350 (NSF) = $4,722,318

Wow! $4.7 million!  That’s a lot, right?

Well, not really. That means that since 1993, the entirety of federal grant spending on the topic is about $180,000/yr, which, after indirect costs, supports 1-ish FTE (i.e. one scientist/engineer).  So one person at a time.

Now maybe that’s not fair, and we should count from 2001, when the first of these grants began.  Then it’s $262,000/yr, so we’re up to maybe 1.5 FTEs.

So, while it’s technically true that NASA has supported SETI for decades, the amount we’re talking about is so small that it’s not really a rebuttal to the reality of the situation, which is that the government doesn’t adequately fund SETI.  Why not?  The letter in the audit gives a reason:

NASA sets its priorities by following the recommendations of the National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine while simultaneously implementing national priorities established by the President and Congress. SMD will continue to evaluate technosignatures research in the context of the Directorate’s overall portfolio through its standard scientific prioritization process.

This is mealy-mouthed, but the bottom line is that SETI funding is not a high priority in the NASA authorization bills or in the 2000 or 2010 Decadal reviews, so NASA doesn’t feel that it needs to fund it.

Now, this isn’t really a great excuse—the Decadal reviews do say that SETI is good and worth pursuing (even if they don’t recommend funding), and there’s nothing preventing NASA from including SETI under the astrobiology umbrella (which is a field it’s required to pursue).

Indeed, NASA is very inconsistent about whether SETI is allowed to be funded via grants—contrast its protest above that yes it does too fund SETI with Jill Tarter’s exploration of how SETI is/isn’t allowed in various NASA calls through the years here.

The bottom line is that what SETI needs is an explicit recommendation for funding in this upcoming Decadal process and/or explicit mention of technosignatures as an authorized expenditure for NASA and the NSF by Congress.  Here’s hoping that the winds really are changes and that we’ll get both in the next couple of years!

Cape Cod Light

[This year is the 20th anniversary of Cape Cod Light by Michael Hattersley. The other parts of this series are here.]

Michael loved Cape Cod. It lighted his life and his poetry, and it was there that he felt most connected to the natural world from which we come and to which we ultimately return.

His will told us to

Cremate me, scatter a bit in the garden, and put the rest of me in the dunes and the sea.

The final poem in Cape Cod Light is the book’s eponym.

Cape Cod Light

Dawn: earth is grey.
Overhead, a seagull catches the sun,
Flames bronze, and dives behind scrub pines.
It will glide low over swamp rushes,
Bank across the dune, and settle at the water’s edge.
Crabs wait, pursed muscles and clams,
To whom the golden seagull feels like death,
A conduit from sea to soil.
It becomes something new with each motion,
Plunging out of the sky.

It is a day to rise and go out to the Cape Cod Light
To watch the water work its will on the land.
We were all led down as children to the beach,
And bound, by a mutual gesture, to the sea.
Our awe: the miracle of light,
Plant light, sand light, bark bush and fire light,
Light on the several blues, greens, and whites of the sea.

Events intervened.
Grey dune shacks crumble into the sand
And more are built, the same. The stubby sandgrass
Creeps from green through yellow into August.
We can descend the dunes only by jumping,
Printing accidental angels in the sand.
By the shore, souls claimed by ocean
Reach up through the waves to take the hands
Of the living, not at all like dead things,
More fluid than bones picked white.
We brush them aside, proceed, do their will.
We inherit what our parents didn’t know.

It grows cool at sunset in August.
The sea blows hot and cold. The stars
That glint in the corners of your eyes
Evaporate looked at straight. Still,
You can chart a true course from them.

When storms spark
And the sky shakes itself like an angry old head,
When fog rolls in over the implacable light,
We calculate our position, and chart an according way.
In time, the full night sky will be lacerated with stars.
The sea will despoil itself on the white shore.
The enormous sandbar will hook around ahead
Into a harbor, where the fishing boats rise and fall.

The cries of the dead are stirring in the surf.
Anger keeps them here, each others’ audience,
Wearing, from time to time, the bodies of the living.
Waves crack and slither on the shore,
Black, white and black. Dunes hunch,
Dark shoulders of earth in the night.
One by one, and graves slide into the sea.
The fat orange moon spills across the water
And the dead are assumed, the unbroken line of them
Moving solemnly as kings to a miracle. They remind us
How we are falling into the future, falling.

Provincetown Harbor by Bret Duback



Bournemouth, England

[This year is the 20th anniversary of Cape Cod Light by Michael Hattersley. The other parts of this series are here.]

Michael moved around a lot as a child and spent time in England, Germany and the US among other places. After the Korean War, his father’s army obligations stopped moving them around so much, my mother was born, and they eventually settled into suburban life in Connecticut.

The “army brat” life helped shape Michael, especially his relationship with his mother. He liked to tell a story about his strict German piano teacher, a professional musician indignant at having been reduced after the war to teaching American children scales.

Michael, Nessa, and my mother.

The thirty-first poem in Cape Cod Light is Bournemouth, England, about his early childhood memories of living in his mother’s hometown during his itinerant period.

Michael’s mother Valerie in the basement of the Connecticut house, listening to the kids’ music.

Bournemouth, England

Small things open to the rain
With the grace of a child
Who doesn’t know his parents watch
And absorbs a playmate’s hand into his heart.

Then I had a tail, like my water bottle, Miss Tibby,
Whom I carried each night with a candle up the dark stairs.
Inside, I draped it over my arm
Delicately, something entrusted to me for a short time.

In the garden, it reminded me of my connection to the earth
As I walked more gravely down the stepping stones to the hedge.
It worked when I climbed the apple tree
And sat tightly bound to the branch like a wise beast.

The carnival of birds
Acknowledged our kinship and ignored me at the bath
As they scattered water with their wings, wanton.
These memories work powerfully as flying swans in my dreams.

The next poem is here.

America’s Edge: Herring Cove

[This year is the 20th anniversary of Cape Cod Light by Michael Hattersley. The other parts of this series are here.]

A version of thirtieth poem in Cape Cod Light, America’s Edge: Herring Cove, first appeared in Squid with the date December, 1993 (I note the changes to the Cape Cod Light version, below).

America’s Edge is the longest poem in the book, and the most ambitious. Michael’s erudition is in full force here, connecting the full historical arc of Homo sapiens to the ancient cycles of life in the natural world; the fall of empire to the indignities of childhood discipline.

Michael was always a student, of history, of politics, of America’s place in the the world. In college his team won the College Bowl; when I knew him he was a bottomless font of facts. He delighted in the book 1,000 Years,1,000 People: Ranking the Men and Women Who Shaped the Millennium because it let him riff on the author’s choices, quibble over who deserved to be there, speculate on who would remain on the list if you expanded it back another 1,000 years. He loved to champion unjustly-forgotten historical figures, and outré ideas like the historical basis of Pope Joan or the ancient provenance of Kennewick Man and the Ainu.

Michael and the rest of the winning College Bowl team from Swarthmore. Their captain was Nancy Bekavac, who would go on to be the sixth president of Scripps College.

The action in the poem moves around, from the shores of the cove to the deck of the house, from night to morning. Michael added the subtitle Herring Cove to the poem after it appeared in Squid, emphasizing the way the poem is grounded in Provincetown. From the edge of the continent Michael looks out across the ocean, to Europe’s past.

Michael is probably using the phrase beautiful conqueror generically, but knowing him he probably had Alexander the Great in mind. Michael loved the story of Alexander, and it suited him: the brilliant, beautiful, gay, doomed and fierce general and emperor, who conquered half of Eurasia, defied convention, burned brighter than anyone before him, and died young.

America’s Edge: Herring Cove

Last night, the full moon insisted on breaking through.
It spackled the bay like jungle animal
Yearning to turn teeth on its hosts in a sea of blood;
Behind it, the slow blizzard of falling stars.

The predictable glory of a mid-summer sunrise
Rouses us from a bad dream, and the television under your hand
Crackles into anthems and Rothko paintings.
From the deck we watch the birds, and subtler animals slung to the ground,
More acute in their indifference to forging beauty,
Shake, find the first meal, and steel themselves;
They remember the safe spots.

Gradually, the insides and outsides blend
Into a language invented for today.
Scores replicate
In patterns of dried moss scriven on beech limbs.

Morning thunder
Means the life or death of tropical weather
As recent cuttings ripple across the asphalt and into the sand.
The whole world can sing;
Watch the choke cherries throw down their hair in shades of green and yellow,
Becoming, against their wills, the stalks of another summer.

When the old words change their meanings,
We adjust, in the face of grandmothers and grammarians.
Even the ancient capitals submitted
To the syllables of a beautiful conqueror, more arbitrary
Than the barriers thrown down by rivers, oceans, deserts, or mountains.
Membranes strain around every sound:
“I, too, have come further than expected”
Like the markings of Napoleon’s soldiers in Egypt,
“I’ve crossed into a new province, and forced
Guidelines down from the sky.” These dot
Our memories like heroic statues or megaliths.

Places are made sacred by work:
The work that builds a relationship or rears a home out of the dirt,
The work of a prophet against disease, or a king who secures new borders.
These are all written down into verses or laws, and result in trials,
Just as Neanderthals brooded over the end of the Ice Age,
Regretting what they had taught us, and worrying about their children,
But proud in their dying that they had never succumbed to words.

Insects in amber, reconstituted skeletons
Explain how to live in the present. They say:
Walk back into that argument with your loved one,
Muscles rigid with the knowledge that you were right,
Try the whole truth; eventually anyway,
It will erupt out of the flesh.

Nevermind. I’ve decided to confess
Memories of three decades ago: parental extortions,
Denials, dead animals, love and hatreds. All
Crossed into new territory named for the suffering conquerors.

We were supposed to forget
Dislocations, reprimands, unapproved influences;
Only then could we turn them into anger and use them.
So too the misguided affections of adolescence:

Some of the music, all of the friends,
A late dawn, even the horror movies
When the child walked out and sat trembling on the steps, believing.
We did forget, for a generation,
Until our lives became as boring as suburban lawns.

Children are right
In their urgency to get on to the next thing
Like generous puppies with their noses to the ground
Or eunuchs helping the monarch to appreciate a new toy.
Left to itself,
The living fabric will try everything.

The more willing, the more willing to believe,
A mammal, twitching on the edge of the road,
Sticking to its ideology till it dies.
In the end, the corpse cracks, and forms tiny splinters, like dust.
It’s the need to restore things to how they were.

This is the time to inhabit the village,
As if watching it made all the same world.

At the ocean, Permian remnants
Swirl around the feet of the children
Like an alphabet scrawled on the tideline.
Plenty or lack gets recorded in the ancient language.
Every interpreter has its own reading
Of how neutral the ocean can be
In its retreats and assaults,
How brutally alive the slipping of the fierce lines.

Herring Cove Tide by Bret Duback

The next poem is here.

The version in Cape Cod Light differs from the version in Squid, with many additions and some line break changes. I have corrected the lowercase i that begins the fourth line in the second to last stanza; other than than I have deferred to the Cape Cod Light version.

David’s Dead

[This year is the 20th anniversary of Cape Cod Light by Michael Hattersley. The other parts of this series are here.]

Uncle David was a computer guy, and as children we loved to play the few games he had on his PC when we visited: a simple flight simulator when we moved into their apartment in Brookline; later an old Star Wars MS-DOS port in the Provincetown house; we tried to figure out the questions at the beginning of Leisure Suit Larry so we could see what the game was about. We loved Pool of Radiance.

But it was Michael, not David, who loved computer games, and he would eventually overtake us in his obsession with Nintendo games, especially the ones we brought with us from Seattle. To keep his mind off of David’s illness he would play Kid Icarus for hours, going through the game over and over again, racking up huge scores.

David Harkins

Michael and David shared domestic duties; Michael cooked, David cleaned. David was close to his family; his parents, sister, niece, and nephew were regulars at the family gatherings in Provincetown.

David and Michael

Medication, doctors, the Provincetown AIDS Support Group, and Michael’s care kept the disease at bay for years, but it slowly took its toll on David’s body. As he grew more lean and tired, they made sure David could spend his last days in the home he loved.

David finally gave up the ghost in his chair in the living room. Michael called my mother and told her “it’s over,” and we rushed up the Cape to help him manage things.

I remember the business of the family that distracted us the day of the memorial: the hastily arranged service at the UU church downtown, the last-second scrambling to avoid the attention of the Westboro Baptist protestors, in town to cause trouble elsewhere.

Michael and David visiting the beach, towards the end.

The twenty-ninth poem in Cape Cod Light is David’s Dead. It’s about Michael’s preoccupations in the days just before and after David’s death; the memorial service; the cremation; the paperwork.

David’s Dead

The adjustment occurred
And a ghost began to rise up
That would be the business of another Sunday.

Shuffle the weightlessness of it
Still innocently stained and floppy
Into a crisp white zip-lock bag for the burning.

At the end
He wasn’t into the big picture.
Details were enough, TV or a cigarette.

Junk the chair he fouled and died in.
He never spoke directly to Death
As he slipped into it. It just fit.

Somehow he’d managed to unbundle
The complaints, the indignations.
This chemical peace could be allowed,

Almost comfortable.
Nature displayed no conspicuous shudder.
The words came later, at the gathering of lovers

Where unintended bits of him cropped up
In the stories, gestures, and absences.
The paperwork is finished.
Mix his grainy dust with the dune.

The next poem is here.


In Sight of It

[This year is the 20th anniversary of Cape Cod Light by Michael Hattersley. The other parts of this series are here.]

After he retired from Harvard to Provincetown, Michael got involved in town affairs, helping manage the community theater company, going to town meetings, running friend’s campaigns for selectman. It was a far cry from his days in New York City and Cambridge, but it’s where he wanted to be.

The view of the monument from Michael and David’s house during construction.

The twenty-eighth poem in Cape Cod Light is In Sight of It. It’s an ode to Provincetown springs, about the vacillations in the transition from the winter to summer, and about the cadence of small town life.

Michael on the deck of the house in Provincetown, surveying his domain

Lots of Provincetown characters make appearances here: his friends Robert and Ron, a local indigent, the town Moderator, and the first summer tourists, bringing the Key West party back north, surprised by the cold Atlantic water.

In Sight of It

It’s a gray dawn, and the future is filled with meetings
Where we have to pay close attention and can’t smoke.
Provincetown sleeps all around in its early spring potential
Though you can feel the bulbs plumping in the ground
And old Popeye is back out in the streets gathering his cans.
There’s no spring here;
For a couple of months it’s either summer or winter.
Robert and Ron will remember the Memorial Day
When it almost snowed as we were spilling out of the bars.

Yesterday I took my shirt off in the garden,
Today it’s a cold drizzle. One thing about meetings,
They get you out of the house in a drizzle.
You can stand up not knowing the consequences of what you will say.
Unexpected allies or opponents emerge.
People even change their minds or vote against their interests
And a shudder runs through the sand from Commercial Street to Race Point;
An entire community has been changed by wastewater management.

It’s early enough so we still really welcome the summer people
And shift our complexions like chameleons. We enjoy watching them
Shivering in swimsuits and ordering generous rounds.
At last year’s Town Meeting
A poet read a three page Ode to Affordable Housing
And our Moderator allowed as it was relevant to the discussion.
Things begin to feel like their happening in a Provincetown April.

The next poem is here.

Happening to See You Again

[This year is the 20th anniversary of Cape Cod Light by Michael Hattersley. The other parts of this series are here.]

Michael survived the AIDS epidemic without infection and died on his own terms, by his chosen vices of cigarettes and alcohol, but the toll the disease on him was inescapable. As with most gay men of his generation, Michael lived with the regular trauma of bad news, of old friends that had learned they were infected, of seeing the obituaries and funerals of friends new and old. And, of course, he lived with and helped manage David’s HIV+ status for around 8 years.

Michael and David on the beach, I would guess Key West in the ’80’s.

Harvey Milk wrote “If a bullet should enter my brain, let that bullet destroy every closet door in the country,” understanding the role tragedy played in gay liberation. AIDS had an analogous effect, forcing hundreds of thousands of gay men to reveal themselves to friends and family: soon people in every demographic group in America knew someone close to them was suffering the trauma of the disease. It was an important part of the sudden and profound shift in American attitudes towards LGBTQ people. The collective sorrow and mass outing of gay men across the country created a fraternity of common experience and grief, and an ever-shrinking group of men who had lived through it all.

The twenty-seventh poem in Cape Cod Light is Happening to See You Again, about meeting an old, pre-crisis acquaintance after many years. The title is much lighter than the content of the poem; indeed it is facetious: this man has sought Michael out for closure of traumas past, not randomly bumped into him.

Michael once told me that he got a phone call from a fan of his poem, which first appeared as Occasion for Poetry in Bay Windows (now The Rainbow Times). Michael had a long discussion about why it resonated so much with the caller. Michael was disappointed when he realized that the caller was under the misimpression that Michael was describing reconnecting with an former lover, when the poem is clearly about an old acquaintance for whom Michael had very little respect, both in their youth and upon “happening” to see them again.

The poem reminds me of a scene (which I probably misremember) in Single Lives, a play by Michael’s friend Sinan Ünel, in which an elderly gay man recounts visiting his decades-estranged wife to get her signature on divorce papers so he can marry his longtime partner. She had expected to be angry upon seeing him; to confront him with all of her grievances and to wield her power over him to have some revenge or closure for his wrongs. But instead she realizes he is not the angry, closeted man she remembers, but a completely different person: the decades have changed them both so much that the old arguments might as well be someone else’s. She signs the papers without incident, having achieved a different peace than she had imagined she would.

Happening to See You Again

When I saw you last night
The guilt fell away
For all the things I didn’t do to you twenty years ago.
So much that’s remembered never happened.
What sticks in the mind are the doubts about ourselves
We attribute to others.
As you clutched me, reaching though the layers of alcohol and Xanax,
As you knelt, weeping, between the urinals,
As you recalled the imagined treason all about you,
And pounded the tiles for justice, I remembered the same days
Gaudy with the first tastes of physical love,
Decked with lazy afternoons, and long nights festive at the bars.
Now you spend your hours washing the bodies of the dying
And dream of a world without disease on the beaches of California.
I know why you seek me out.
How many of us from those days are left alive?
Everything must be made right within the narrowing circle
As if the imagined slights happened yesterday.
How many times will you be condemned again to live,
To make sure a lover is firmly in the nest so you can betray him
Proving, once again, the world desires you,
Carefully scabbing the scars of future tears?

The next poem is here.

Snapping the Bars

[This year is the 20th anniversary of Cape Cod Light by Michael Hattersley. The other parts of this series are here.]

When Michael moved to New York City he worked on political campaigns and served as assistant director of public affairs for the New York State Urban Development Corporation.

I don’t know a lot about his work on political campaigns. A lot of his understanding and appreciation of politics came from the trenches; I know he helped manage one failed primary campaign for some minor office, in New York City perhaps, and apparently the winning opponent was so impressed with him that he took on a role in their general election campaign as well.

In 1984 there was a lot of planning to redevelop Times Square, which had fallen into disrepute (in 1978 Mick Jagger famously complained that he couldn’t “give it away on 7th avenue / This town’s been wearing tatters”). The UDC was involved in efforts to revitalize it, and also to create a major sports complex for the New York teams. These negotiations were filled with power plays and politics among the businessmen who saw opportunity for profit, power hungry politicians, and among the competing interests of New York City, New York State, and New Jersey across the river. And so Michael got to be involved in a lot of work announcing plans of great local political importance. He’s quoted in the New York times here about the UDC’s role in the Time Square development plans.

Then in January of 1985, the chair of the UDC, William J. Stern, abruptly resigned. Stern was a millionaire businessman and ally of Governor Cuomo, and it was big news. I know Michael was there at the announcement because he took pictures:

William J. Stern’s resignation press conference January 1985

William J. Stern’s resignation press conference, January 1985

I am 99% sure that’s what these pictures are of. It took a lot of sleuthing to figure it out: the date on the back of the photos is January 1985, and the framed New York Daily News article in the background is what finally clinched it. I asked Twitter to help out, and my wife Julia and others eventually were able to decipher this headline:

“City plays an ace to trump N.J. with new sportsplex”

And a tweep identified the source:

Yes, that’s Donald Trump, because of course it is.

The twenty-sixth poem in Cape Cod Light is Snapping the Bars. I’m not really sure what it’s about or what the title refers to. I can imagine that it is about notoriety, and the unsolicited opinions, flattery, and accusations that come with it, about the false self-importance that comes from being well known or powerful. The title may be a reference to snapping open prison bars, escaping from the confines of fame.

It could be about his fleeting brushes and associations with fame, perhaps about his decision to leave the high-powered political world and retreat back to the Academy at Harvard.  Or, it might be one of the few or only non-autobiographical poems in the collection. It’s possible it’s written from the perspective of one of the candidates he worked for, or perhaps even that of Bill Stern.

Snapping the Bars

Doing nothing takes the most time.
All these explanations
Dashed off at the kitchen table, that assure our fame,
Even the passionate colloquies
In which we are incredibly noble or depraved
Are the foreign parts,
What we’ve decided to become.

True, everything is evolving
Towards some distant, divine event.
But someone has recognized an infidelity
And is knocking at the door: it is not you,
He says, that was meant to know this.

The next poem is here.

Galactic Settlement and the Fermi Paradox

The Fermi Paradox is the supposed inconsistency between the ease with which a spacefaring species could settle the entire Milky Way given billions of years and the fact that they are not obviously in the Solar System right now.

This, original form of the paradox was formulated most trenchantly by Michael Hart (more on him in Section 2.2 here) who called the lack of extraterrestrial beings or artifacts on Earth today “Fact A”. He showed that most objections to his conclusion stem from a lack of appreciation for the timescales involved (it takes a small extrapolation from present human technology to get interstellar ships, and even slow ships can star-hop across the Galaxy in less than its age) or what I’ve called the monocultural fallacy (positing a common behavior to all members of all extraterrestrial species, forever).

William Newman and Carl Sagan wrote a major rebuttal to Hart’s work, in which they argued that the timescales to populate the entire Galaxy could be quite long. In particular, they noted that the colonization fronts Hart describes through the Galaxy would move much more slowly than the speed of the colonization ships. They also argue that long-lived civilizations are anti-correlated with rapidly-expanding ones, and so they conclude that civilizations with very slow population growth rates are necessarily very slowly expanding. They conclude the Galaxy could be filled with both short-lived rapidly expanding civilizations that don’t get very far and long-lived slowly expanding civilizations that haven’t gotten very far—either way, it’s not surprising that we have not been visited.

We rebutted many of these claims in our paper on the topic. In particular, we argued that one should not conflate the population growth in a single settlement with that of all settlements. In particular, there is no reason to suppose that colonization is driven by population growth, resource depletion, or overcrowding, or that a small, sustainable settlement would never launch a new settlement ship. One can easily imagine a rapidly expanding network of small sustainable settlements (indeed, the first human migrations across the globe likely looked a lot like this).

Jonathan Carroll-Nellenback

Once this constraint is lifted, a second consideration makes Newman & Sagan’s numbers smaller. Most of the prior work on this topic exploit percolation models, in which ships move about on a static substrate of stars, but real stars move. Many of these papers also assume that the entire network of settlements have a similar behavior, and some posit they all might suffer a simultaneous culture shift away from settlement.

Jonathan Carroll-Nellenback at the University of Rochester with Adam Frank, and in collaboration with Caleb Scharf and me, has just finished work on analytic and numerical models for how a realistic settlement front would behave in a real gas of stars characteristic of the Galactic disk in the Solar Neighborhood.

The big advances here are a few:

  1. Jonathan has worked out an analytic formalism for settlement expansion fronts and validated it with numerical models for a realistic gas of stars
  2. Jonathan has accounted for finite settlement lifetimes, the idea that only a small fraction of stars will be settle-able, and explored the limits of very slow and infrequent settlement ships
  3. Jonathan has not assumed that settlement lifetimes or settlement behaviors are correlated. Rather, he assumed a simple, conservative set of parameterized rules for settlement and explored settlement behavior as a function of those fixed parameters.

In particular, the idea that not all stars are settle-able is important to keep in mind. Adam calls this the Aurora effect after the Kim Stanley Robinson novel in which a system is “habitable, but not settle-able.”

The results are pretty neat. When we let the settlements behave independently, Hart’s argument looks pretty good, even when the settlement fronts are pretty slow.  In particular, one can have very limited range (no faster than our own interstellar ships but lasting a million years, or faster ships that can only travel about 1pc) and still settle the entire Galaxy in less than its lifetime because the front speed becomes limited by the speed of the stars, which carry settlements into range of new stars regularly and naturally diffuse throughout the Galaxy.

Jonathan explores a few regimes where Earth would not have been settled yet. He finds that it doesn’t take much—just a single settlement front with modest ship ranges and launch rates—to populate the entire Galaxy in much less than a Hubble time.

Also neat, is that Jonathan explores regimes where they have been here, but we just don’t notice because it was so long ago.  Adam and Gavin Schmidt explored this possibility in their Silurian Hypothesis paper, and I did something similar in my PITS paper. The idea is that “Fact A” only applies to technology that has visited very recently or visited and then stayed permanently. Any technology on Earth or the Solar System that is not actively maintained will eventually be destroyed and/or buried, so we can really only explore even Earth’s history back in time for of order millions of years, and not very well at that.

So really, the question isn’t “has the Solar System ever had a settlement” it’s “has it been settled recently”.  Jonathan shows that there is actually a pretty big region of parameter space where the Solar System is amidst many settled system but just hasn’t been visited in the last 10 million years.

Of course, there are still lots of other reasons why we might not have been permanently settled by a Galactic network of settlements—as we note in the paper:

Hart’s conclusions are also subject to the assumption that the Solar System would be considered settleable by any of the exo-civilizations it has come within range of. The most extravagant contradiction of this assumption is the Zoo Hypothesis (Ball 1973), but we need not invoke such “solipsist” positions (Sagan & Newman 1983) to point out the flaw in Hart’s reasoning here. One can imagine many reasons why the Solar System might not be settleable (i.e. not part of the fraction f in our analysis), including the Aurora effect mentioned in Section 1 or the possibility that they avoid settling the environment near the Earth exactly because it is inhabited with life.

In particular, the assumption that the Earth’s life-sustaining resources make it a particularly good target for extraterrestrial settlement projects could be a naive projection onto exo-civilizations of a particular set of human attitudes that conflate expansion and exploration with conquest of (or at least indifference towards) native populations (Wright & Oman-Reagan 2018). One might just as plausibly posit that any extremely long-lived civilization would appreciate the importance of leaving native life and its near-space environment undisturbed.

So our results are a mixed bag for SETI optimists: Hart’s argument that settlement fronts should cross the whole Galaxy—which is at the heart of the Fermi Paradox—is robust, especially because of the movements of stars themselves which should “mix” the Galaxy pretty well, preventing simply connected “empires” of settlements from forming.  If Hart is correct that this means we are alone in the Galaxy, this is actually very optimistic for extra-galactic SETI, because it means other Galaxies with even a single spacefaring species should rapidly become endemic with them. Indeed, our analysis did not even include any effects like halo stars or Galactic shear which will make settlement timescales even faster.

On the other hand, there are a lot of assumptions in Hart’s arguments that might not hold, in particular that if the Sun has ever been in range of a settled system that “they” would still be here and we would know it. Perhaps Earth life for some reason keeps the settlements at bay, either because “they” want to keep it pristine or it’s just too resilient and pernicious to permit an alien settlement from surviving here. Is Earth Aurora?

The paper is here.

Falling in Love Again

[This year is the 20th anniversary of Cape Cod Light by Michael Hattersley. The other parts of this series are here.]

Falling in love is a thrilling ride, when the real difficulties of sharing your life with someone are still invisible, irrelevant. The fall is that of a playground slide, a swimming pool springboard, a sky dive.

The twenty fifth poem in Cape Cod Light is Falling in Love Again. It’s about a different kind of fall.

The opening line, “When you’re dying” is ambiguous: at first it reads like he is using the third-person, generic you, as if what’s to follow is advice from one who is dying (so, really, the first person I).  But the later use of we makes it clear he really does mean the second person you: he’s writing about his relationship with David, living with AIDS.

Having spent a lot of time with Michael, I can’t read the phrase traveling companion without involuntarily mentally completing the line from from his favorite album Graceland (“My traveling companion is nine years old / He is the child from my first marriage.”) There, too, Simon is using the phrase to mean a companion in one’s travel through life, a constant reminder of the unintended consequences of an earlier relationship, an earlier fall.

Michael and David at Christmastime an Michael’s mother’s apartment in 1982.

Like in Provincetown, December 5, 5:00 A.M. Michael is on the deck of the house, at night, looking out at the weather, the dunes, and contemplating his place in it all. But here instead of projecting the sentiment outward, connecting stormy weather to world politics, he is introspective, connecting raindrops’ action on the dunes to the emotional pangs of confronting the hard realities of life and love.

The view at dawn of Truro across the Bay from the back deck of the Provincetown house.

The mood of the poem is one of estrangement: the mutual unanswered questions and promises; the eye as an abyss of shame to be avoided during sex.

But even as he is contemplating the aftermath of the “final argument” with its “irrevocable statements,” the title tells us how the story will end: falling into that abyss, falling into a deeper kind of love, and in the final lines Michael steels himself to make the jump.

Falling in Love Again

When you’re dying
Other tensions become trivial,
A device to remain involved in life.
We have been introduced in youth
To our traveling companion, death by sex, and
Bit by bit my substance leaks away through my eyes.
From the residue, fear flies up, flicking
Sharp notations across the dunes.

If I turn to you and open my eyes while we make love
To meet yours, spying on me in the low light,
I read a promise based on a question.
My body can answer on its own terms,
Cutting through to the calm across desire,
Stepping stone by stone down into sleep
Without entering the eye, the abyss, the answer
In a magical enchantment of shame.

After the irrevocable statements of the final argument,
The catalogue of admissions I never made to myself,
I walk out into solitude, moonshadow.
A sheath of cloud changes the climate
And the raw, surprising cold slips inside.
Big drops score the sand, and I think:
We can accommodate knowing these things about each other.
We must.

The heart bumps back together again for a moment,
The heart at the center of circles:
The night, the house, the body.

The next poem is here.

SETI is a very young field (academically) Part II

In a previous post, I discussed the five PhD dissertations focused on SETI (ever!) and mentioned that I could not track what had become of one of their authors, Darren Leigh.  Well, it turns out I should have just asked!

Darren was kind enough to email me with the details of his degree and his thoughts on the merits of a degree in SETI, Paul Horowitz as an adviser, and his career path since then.

I’ve updated my previous post to reflect his input. Below is his email to me, which he kindly allowed me to reproduce here.

Darren Leigh, the first person to write a doctoral thesis focused on their search for extraterrestrial intelligence.

Hi Jason,

A friend stumbled onto this post of yours and sent me the link.

I didn’t think I would be that hard to find. :-)

At the time I did my dissertation, I was told that it would be the world’s first on the subject of SETI. A couple of previous astronomy dissertations had contained a chapter on SETI, but did not have it as the main topic. The fact that I had done a bachelor’s and master’s in EE at MIT (with some physics background) probably made this easier than it would have been for a real physics major looking for a career track in academic astronomy. (Note that my PhD says “Applied Physics”, and is from the Division of Engineering and Applied Sciences, and not the Physics Department).

The real pull of doing SETI was working for Paul Horowitz at Harvard. I was actually in the early stages of a PhD program at MIT when I met Paul and decided to move up the street to work with him. Paul always prided himself on being a generalist, rather than a narrowly-focused academic. Note the wide range of things that he works on, including the amazing “Art of Electronics”. Those of us in the Horowitz lab were amused when Ernst Mayr complained about what a waste SETI was, both in terms of resources as well as in terms of the professional lives of Paul’s students. I think Paul’s students have all done pretty well, taking a more generalist approach than many doctoral recipients.

I’ve been doing corporate-type R&D since I defended, and my SETI background has served me well in areas from electronics to signal processing to satellite communications to marketing and public relations. [I spent a lot of time with camera crews and the press around 1995 due to the SETI work and the (then recent) discovery of 51 Pegasi b.]

Jonathan Weintroub, another of Paul’s PhD students who defended the same year that I did and also an EE, was doing actual astronomy, looking for highly red-shifted hydrogen. A lot of the work we were doing overlapped. He now works for the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics on the Submillimeter Array.

Ian Avruch was a doctoral student of Bernie Burke, but hung around the Horowitz lab a lot because he was also looking for highly-redshifted hydrogen and could actually get stuff built there. He’s a real physicist and has done a lot of professional astronomy since. I believe that he is at the European Space Agency now.

Chip Coldwell (on your list) was a physics major, but has spent most of his professional life doing software/computer stuff, and is now apparently moving into RF hardware. You can check with him yourself, but I don’t think he was doing astronomy research after his PhD, even though he has worked for such astronomers. He spent a lot of time at Red Hat and is now at MIT Lincoln Lab.

Of the other Horowitz students on your list, Andrew Howard had been a physics major and got a physics PhD and is now a professor of astronomy at CalTech. Curtis Meade was (I believe) an EE, who got his PhD in “Applied Physics” at the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, like I did. I don’t know what he’s up to now.

I can’t think of any of Paul Horowitz’s doctoral students who has had professional problems. I guess Mayr was used to narrowly-focused grad students who could be ruined if they weren’t trained exactly right for academia. Paul took in both EEs and physicists and made us all better at both of those things, as well as turning us into skilled and pragmatic researchers.

As far as wasted money and resources go, SETI is cheap. I think people believe that it is expensive because they associate it with “space” and that with NASA and it’s enormous budgets. There’s a good chance that the press spent more money covering our SETI work than we spent actually doing it.

Me? I’m currently a VP at (and one of the founders of) Tactual Labs. We do advanced human-machine interaction, especially high-performance capacitive sensing systems. I’ve been working in R&D shops for my entire professional career. After finishing my doctorate, I spent ten years at Mitsubishi Electric Research Labs, coming up with new IP and product ideas. That lab was magical and very influential, and many alumni went off to professorships at MIT, Harvard and other prestigious universities, as well as to corporate R&D labs at Microsoft and Google.

Taking the Century by the Throat

[This year is the 20th anniversary of Cape Cod Light by Michael Hattersley. The other parts of this series are here.]

Michael was a Baby Boomer.

The title of the twenty-fourth poem in Cape Cod LightTaking the Century by the Throat, comes from the final line of his masterpiece, Provincetown, December 5, 5:00 A.M.  Like that poem, this is a meditation on his generation’s role in the world and the rise of the American global dominance.

Michael and his sisters as children

Like in that poem, Michael weighs the burden of being the somewhat reluctant heirs to the empire built by his parents’ generation. As children, they absorbed the lessons of their parents, learned the heritage of their European intellectual forebears, and the canon of American myths.

Michael and his sisters a couple of decades later.

He charts his generation’s rebellious hippie phase in their twenties, and the counter-reaction that was their role in the Reagan Revolution in the 80’s. The central portion of the poem echoes the 90’s liberal perspective in Provincetown, December 5, 5:00 A.M.

Michael and his sisters in the driveway of his house in Provincetown a decade later.

The poem probably written in the mid to late ’90’s, when Fukuyama’s The End of History and the Last Man was popular. That book argues that the rise of Western Democracy might be “the end point of mankind’s ideological evolution and the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government.” The poem was probably also written as he watched his father, an officer and veteran of World War II, and his mother, a British expatriate, becoming old and frail.

In the final, hopeful stanza, Michael identifies his prodigal generation’s return to take up the mantle of the Greatest Generation and lead the world to peace and prosperity.

Taking the Century by the Throat first appeared in Poetry: A Magazine of Verse.

Taking the Century by the Throat

We swallowed it all:
The zip haircuts, the 25 cent movies, the Sunday Schools,
The education, the need to beat the Russians in space.
Most of all, we absorbed the promiscuous beauty,
The poetry our parents knew we should love,
The pantheism of converted Puritans,
The Romantic land- and sea-scapes of fairytales,
In rebellion, the leather attitudes and pop Buddhism,
The confessed self-revelation and self-awareness,
The antibiotics, psychedelics, vaccines.

We thought it all:
Classical nobility, medieval faith,
Humanism, with its glorification of the body,
Enlightenment, with its glorification of the mind.
We whispered with dark intellectuals
About anomie, and the collapse of the West.

We’ve crisscrossed America in jalopies,
Been propositioned by strangers in California,
Danced till dawn amid the sleek bodies of New York,
Retreated to Alpine glades in the Rockies,
Belonged to all parties on the great issues.
We went to bed socialists and woke up on the supply side.

We’ve seen the world and it’s seen us.
It likes what it sees.
It’s only partly the appeal of a frayed affluence.
We’ve fought for freedom, and if we flirted with bigotry,
We vote and manage with a weary tolerance
Born of being a majority in opposition,
Codified by the music and movies we still believe in.

Now that we’ve half-raised our children,
Now that we hold mortgages on some big houses,
Now that we run the Russian economy
And China only waits for a few old men to die,
We could become that gallant royalty,
The true reason two generations fought and died.

The next poem is here.

Our Loss

[This year is the 20th anniversary of Cape Cod Light by Michael Hattersley. The other parts of this series are here.]

In 1984 Michael joined the faculty at the Harvard Business School teaching Management Communication, and became cochairman of the program. The course heads taught via case study, looking at a specific communication challenge faced by a particular business and discussing them.

Michael let me sit in on a class when I visited him once (I must have been 11 or 12) and I was struck by how this graduate course (I didn’t know what a graduate course was at the time) was very different from elementary school. The entire class time was a discussion, and students were expected to come prepared having done the reading about the case, which Michael or one of the other course heads had written.There were no answers, only good and bad analysis.

Michael did not actually teach at HBS all that long; he was already transitioning to life as a writer on the Cape with David full time when we arrived in 1989. His first big project was writing a textbook with a fellow course head, containing many of the cases they had developed. The first edition was published in 1997 it was successful for a while, especially the Chinese translation. It still has its value, but it was written when email was still a novelty (there was a short, rather naïve section towards the end about how formal emails should be). It’s on the third edition now; we in the family have thought about updating it posthumously to revive it, but even revising a textbook is a lot of work.

While he lived in Boston, Michael developed a circle of friends; one of the most frequent visitors to the apartment included Robert Kent, his fellow cochairman at HBS, who became a good family friend of ours. Robert and his partner Ron were his and David’s regular bridge opponents in the evening. Michael also became friends with Richard Schneider, founder of the Gay and Lesbian Review, where Michael was a regular contributor.

The twenty-third poem in Cape Cod Light is Our Loss. It appears to be about another Harvard colleague—or at least about someone he knew for a long while, including in Cambridge—but we are not sure who it is. “You spent ten years writing about how you’d set yourself against the elements for three weeks” is a very characteristically Michael way to disparage a one-trick-phony.

Our Loss

You knew how to play. That’s what vanished over the years.
Now that you started taking yourself seriously;
You’d always done that.
I remember when you were a dancer, and, even at the end, they say,
Among strangers, you could crank yourself up to be the life of the part.
Something was denied.
Nothing could reach the essential betrayal.
When you had love, it was wrong.
When you’d thrown it away
You were the victim of a tragedy.
No more thoroughly urbanized American
Was more determined to pose as a child of nature.
You spent ten years
Writing about how you’d set yourself against the elements
For three weeks. Now you’re dead,
Crushed into the tarmac of a country road,
Now that you’ve been dead four years,
Why am I still angry at you
As if we’d just had a tense lunch in Harvard Square?
Maybe it’s the methodological determination
With which you strangled the playful child you loved and despised.


The next poem is here.

SETI is a very young field (academically)

SETI is not a field that has a large presence in academia, especially in terms of graduate education. Indeed, there are only two regularly numbered graduate courses in the world on the topic that I’m aware of (at Penn State and UCLA).

Because of this, it’s hard to get a PhD while having the primary focus of your dissertation be searching for technological extraterrestrial life. In fact, so far as I can tell (speaking with many of the people in the field) it’s only been done five six seven times:

  1. Darren Leigh (1998, Horowitz, thesis)
  2. Charles Coldwell (2002, Horowitz, thesis)
  3. Andrew Howard (2006, Horowitz, thesis)
  4. Andrew Siemion (2012, Bower & Werthimer (co-chairs), thesis)
  5. Curtis Mead (2013, Horowitz, thesis)
  6. Ian Morrison (2017, Tinney, thesis)
  7. Emilio Enriquez (2019, Falcke)

Paul Horowitz, SETI PhD adviser extraordinaire.

Until Andrew Siemion’s dissertation at Berkeley Paul Horowitz was responsible for supervising 100% of all SETI dissertations! Thanks, Paul! Of these six, three are professional astronomers today, Mead is at Apple, and Coldwell works in a astronomy-related industry (I don’t know where Darren Leigh is and Darren Leigh describes his career here).

This is not to say that no other graduate students have done work on the topic. Here are a few of the (presumably many) theses that had a significant SETI component:

  1. Maggie Turnbull
  2. Jayanth Chennamangalam
  3. Hayden Rampadarath
  4. Kimberley M. S. Cartier

And there has also been a lot of doctoral work in the social sciences studying SETI itself, for instance in this thesis by Daniel Romesberg.

I’m also aware of five current graduate students who have or have planned for major (50-100%) components of their dissertation work to be searching for intelligent life in the universe:

  1. Sofia Sheikh (J. Wright)
  2. Paul Pinchuk (Margot)
  3. Bryan Brzycki (Siemion/dePater)

And two more with at least a portion of their thesis about SETI:

  1. Gerry Zhang (Siemion/dePater)
  2. Maren Cosens (S. Wright)

So the number of thesis is poised to go up by at around 100% in the next few years! This is (weak) evidence of what certainly feels like a resurgence in the field. Still, these numbers are tiny compared to the perception of the amount of SETI work being done, and illustrate how young the field really is, despite the nearly 60 years that have elapsed since its inception.

[Update: The first SETI PhD, Darren Leigh, comments!]

[Update: I missed one! Ian Morrison points me to his thesis, which I have added to the list]

[Update: Emilio successfully defended! Moved him up.]