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)

[Note: This is a “living” post which I update periodically as I learn about people who have done graduate work in the field. If I’m missing a name please email me.]

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 eight times:

  1. Darren Leigh (1998, Horowitz, thesis)
  2. Stephen Brown (2000, Dixon & Kraus, thesis)
  3. Charles Coldwell (2002, Horowitz, thesis)
  4. Andrew Howard (2006, Horowitz, thesis)
  5. Andrew Siemion (2012, Bower & Werthimer, thesis)
  6. Curtis Mead (2013, Horowitz, thesis)
  7. Ian Morrison (2017, Tinney, thesis)
  8. Emilio Enriquez (2019, Falcke)

Paul Horowitz, SETI PhD adviser extraordinaire.

Until 2017, Paul Horowitz was responsible for supervising 2/3 of all doctoral SETI dissertations! Thanks, Paul! Of these eight, four are professional astronomers today, Mead is at Apple, Coldwell works in a astronomy-related industry, Brown is apparently a scientist at Harris Corporation, and Darren Leigh describes his career here.

I’m also aware of some terminal master’s degrees on the topic (many are EE degrees related to the Argus SETI array):

  1. Dennis Cole (1976, Dixon & Kraus, thesis)
  2. Jim Bolinger (1988, Dixon & Kraus)
  3. Hyung Joon Kim (1999, Ellingson & Burnside)
  4. Tom Alfernik (2000, Ellingson & Burnside)
  5. Emarit Ranu (2000, Ellingson & Burnside)
  6. Amy Reines (2002, Marcy & Cool)
  7. Mikael Flodin (2019, Mattsson, thesis)
  8. Andreea Dogaru (2019, Kerins & Breton, thesis)

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
  5. Branislav Vukotic

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 and the ongoing work of Claire Webb.

I’m also aware of three 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 three more with at least a portion of their thesis about SETI:

  1. Gerry Zhang (Siemion/dePater)
  2. Maren Cosens (S. Wright)
  3. Neda Stojkovic
  4. Daniel Giles (Walkowicz)

So the number of thesis is poised to go up by at almost 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.

How You’ve Helped Me Grow

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

In 1982 Michael left the faculty at Muhlenberg and moved to New York City to work in industrty, specializing in business communication. There, he met a computer wiz named David Harkins. A New Jersey native with a thick accent and a an easy laugh, David was involved in making some of the first computer-generated television programming for public access television in New York City.

Michael and David in New York City in 1984, shortly after they met. Photo © Marcia Weinstein.

In 1984 they moved to Boston, where Michael drove a cab until he got hired at Harvard Business School teaching Management Communication, and David worked in the IT department at Brigham and Women’s Hospital. They eventually built their dream house on a vacant lot at the top of Miller Hill in Provincetown where they would spend weekends and vacations.

As they slowly relocated to Provincetown full time, and Michael got to work making the dunes bloom. This was not purely aesthetic: the roots of the plants held the sand in place, delaying the need to get a bulldozer to push the sand back up the hill to keep the house supported. Both Michael and David spent the rest of their lives in the house they built together.

Michael and David in the garden.

The twenty-second poem of Cape Cod Light is How You’ve Helped Me Grow. The title is a simple, almost corny pun, reflecting the poem’s straightforward conceit: their love has grown like the flowers in their garden. This is the second poem in the book about the garden; that and a few of the other poems of Cape Cod Light are about David, but this is the one love poem in the collection Michael wrote to David.

How You’ve Helped Me Grow

(for David)

The flowers I gave you are wilting.
They now stand for nothing but time.
Every representation of love
Changes meaning
Like diamonds locked in a drawer.

We’ve sustained
The one plant you owned when I met you:
A philodendron that hasn’t gained an inch
Over a dozen years.
It doesn’t mean we haven’t.
It’s still alive.
Nothing important we’ve sheltered has perished.

As soon as we built our home
I started filling the yard
With junipers, marigolds, petunias,
Earnest to make the dune bloom.

Some failed, or vanished into the grass and ivy:

Conventional roses, lily of the valley, delphinium.
Most thrived: bleeding hearts, daisies,
Promiscuous carpets-of-snow, rakish cosmos,
Gladioli, dahlias, and spruces,
Chrysanthemums, beach plums, peonies, seapink, and milkwood,
Even the aloe and hibiscus we take in every winter.

Every spring, we’re surprised by the early green:
Crocuses, daffodils, and tulips.
We found each other in bars and apartments.
We gravitated together over thousands of miles.
We’ve tolerated the intolerable.
It’s a lot to grow from a one night stand.

The next poem is here.

*I’ve put a comma after “conventional roses,” even though it’s a period in the book, because I think it’s a misprint: “lily of the valley” is not capitalized, and a comma is more consistent with the rest of the poem, where no other line has an internal period. The one-line stanza also seems out of place to me; it’s possible it belongs in the next stanza, but it is hard to say because it is separated in the book by a page break. In this case, I’ve given the benefit of the doubt to the typesetter.

Pink Floyd Played Berlin

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

I learned politics from Michael in the ’90’s.  The Berlin wall fell about a month before we moved to Boston, and Michael and I watched the renaissance of liberal politics under Bill Clinton on TV together; I was in grad school when it all came crashing down during the Florida recount.

Michael’s trip around the world and addiction to politics made him very well versed in world affairs and the ins and outs of domestic politics. He was a font of political wisdom and minutiae, collected across his the sources of his daily political fix—the New York Times on paper, CNN on cable, The MacNeil Lehrer News Hour on PBS. He watched the 1992 and 1996 elections like a sports fan watching a playoff run. He rooted for a contested convention just for the sheer drama of it all.

A true baby boomer, Michael’s politics were very mainstream-1990’s liberal, befitting the gay son of a WWII and Korean War veteran. He saw America as a benevolent empire, deeply flawed but constantly improving, spreading the promise of prosperity and democracy around the world through just the right balance of soft and hard power. His support of Bill Clinton never wavered, and he was elated by Obama’s rise and election.

Michael’s parents Van and Valerie, Michael, and David, picnicking on the cape.

Michael’s politics are on full display in the twenty-first poem in Cape Cod Light, Pink Floyd Played Berlin. The iconic images of the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Eastern Bloc are the people on the top of the wall cheering, the pieces coming off as they ripped it apart. Michael’s title refers to an event from eight months later, when Roger Waters performed The Wall at a huge benefit concert attended by 350,000 people where the wall once stood.

Pink Floyd Played Berlin

When they ripped down the wall and danced on it
First we wept, then we were taken aback
By a certainty crumbling or, more deeply,
A fear for America with the pressure off.

No one asked us to take charge.
Elders don’t. It happened by accident.
History needs to be made as well as read.
That’s what was frozen by the cold war.

We didn’t seek it. Neither did Rome.
The world just kept throwing itself into our arms.
What estate could resist those images on television?
Look how you pay for making rock and roll.

The next poem is here.

Music Men

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

Me, presumably on a visit of ours to see Michael (or vice versa), wearing what is presumably a gift from Michael, a not-so-subtle encouragement to aspire to attend his alma mater (I did give a talk there once!). We’re >99% sure that’s Aaron on the floor.

When I was first reading the canon of Western poetry in high school, some of my early favorites were  Ozymandias, Kubla Khan, and The Tempest; I liked the rhyme, the carefully crafted turns of phrase that stuck in your mind. Later I became of a fan of The Lovesong of J. Alfred Prufrock and Bob Dylan lyrics; I enjoyed how their words’ meanings were elusive and how their elliptical style rewarded re-readings with fresh interpretations and revelations. My senior year final English paper was on visions of cosmology in The Divine Comedy, The Wasteland, and Paradise Lost (did you know that Milton met Galileo?)

Michael was my guide, of course. We talked about the poems I read and he gave his favorite interpretations of them.

He tried to get me to appreciate the virtues of unrhymed poetry. I was happy to embrace the rich blank verse of Milton and Shakespeare, but I found most modern poetry hard to access. I struggled with The Wasteland; even with Eliot’s extensive notes, the references were too obscure to have much meaning for me, and I lost interest in “difficult” poetry.

Michael once capitulated and wrote a poem in rhyme for me: I think it was called something like For Jason, Who Likes Rhyme, At Christmas but sadly I don’t know of any existing copies. Teenage me did not have the maturity and foresight to realize how it important it would be to keep that poem safe.

The twentieth poem in Cape Cod Light is Music Men. It has the elliptical quality I enjoy in poetry, and just enough concrete imagery to keep you grounded in a mental image of what’s going on. I imagine a low-budget public music performance at the beach, with the sea in front of them, the trees behind them, rain threatening, Michael and a friend attending but not really participating or paying much attention. Or perhaps it’s all indoors, and it’s the music that sweeps them into outdoor imagery? In the final stanza, the poem dissolves into haiku.

I love the line “brings to bear more honesty than facts can support”—it’s one of those turns of phrase you wish was famous so that you could drop it into a polemic to show off both your rhetorical skill and your erudition at the same time.

Michael, his sister Vanessa, and (not-so) little baby me.

Music Men

The singers and players arrive at last
As someone adjusts the lights, and the crowd
Drifts one-by-one into the hastily assembled chairs.
What sustained us today is lounging
On the fringes, where the occasion trails off
As someone with a tray walks by saying, rain.

The tuning of the instruments brings to bear
More honesty than facts can support,
Net after net floating to the water
Just when it appeared
We would hear the single note predicted
In all the charts.

Suddenly we have been fleeing
Downhill, by air. The musicians
Are suggesting how much west there is, and
Behind the banners, the domestic trees
Clump into pathless forest.

Jim Shoulberg at Conwell Street by Bret Duback

The next poem is here.

‘Oumuamua, SETI, and the media

Avi Loeb

Avi Loeb is the chair of the astronomy department at Harvard, a distinguished and well cited astronomer (he has an h-index of 87), and the chair of the Breakthrough Starshot initiative. He’s a strong proponent of making sure that science doesn’t succumb to groupthink and champion of outré ideas.

He also has been making headlines recently for articles he has co-authored, interviews he has given, and popular media columns he has written about the possibility that fast radio bursts, and now ‘Oumuamua, are artificial in origin. This has created a great deal of buzz in popular culture and a lot of hand-wringing and criticism on social media by scientists who find his actions irresponsible. Many have asked my opinion, so I’m collecting my many thoughts on the topic in this post.

I am happy to defend Avi on these grounds:

  • He is driving us to have an important conversation about what “acceptable” SETI research looks like, and in this conversation I’m mostly on his side. He’s essentially moving the scientific equivalent of the “Overton Window” towards SETI, and that’s a good thing. These are exciting and interesting questions and we should not let the face-on-Mars/Ancient-Aliens/UFOlogy types prevent us from discussing them.
  • He is using tenure and his stature the way we all imagine it’s supposed to be used: as a shield so that he can explore potentially unpopular research avenues without fear of retribution or ostracism. We all imagine that’s what we would do in his position (I hope!) but too often it ends up just being a club to get junior scientists to conform to one’s vision for what “proper” science looks like and what “good” problems are.
  • The papers he and his postdocs are writing are important first steps in making Solar System and other forms of SETI a serious academic discipline.
  • He is being a role model for how scientists can explore outré ideas and spend an appropriate amount of their time on potential breakthroughs.
  • He is putting SETI in the public eye and doing a lot of outreach.

Avi wouldn’t be pushing the envelope hard enough if he weren’t getting some pushback, and indeed there is plenty of fair and good-faith criticism that can be made about his approach (not all of which I agree with):

  • The degree of certainty he expresses in ‘Oumuamua being artificial does seem unwarranted to me (though to be fair I’ve always been an ‘Oumuamua-might-be-artificial skeptic.)
  • Given the way we know the press (especially the yellow press) will handle any story about “aliens”, one can argue that the “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence” maxim is especially applicable to SETI (I’ve made this argument strongly when discussing my own research in the press.) Avi could hew more closely to this maxim.
  • The tone of his papers and his public comments are quite divergent. The body of the paper on ‘Oumuamua-as-lightsail, for instance, has a brief mention about the potential of the artifice of ‘Oumuamua at the end, but most of it is about the perfectly general problem of thin objects in interstellar space. Snopes highlights this divergence well pointing out that the paper is quite sober and restrained compared to some of the media coverage. (It’s true that the title and abstract of the paper are about ‘Oumuamua specifically, and that it serves as the case study for the whole analysis.) Avi’s public statements are much less conservative and equivocal.
  • He is not just quietly following the evidence; he is using his platform to have a very public and high-visibility discussion about his research. I will concede that Avi is an exception to my earlier (somewhat petulant) protest that SETI scientists are not in it for the attention. That said, I will object to anyone who would claim Avi is only in it for the attention, or that such attention is inherently a bad thing.
  • Many of his papers are de novo explorations of topics like the fate of comets in interstellar space, with little connection to the substantial amounts of work that has already been done on the topic, and his papers would be better and less naive if they had a closer connection to this prior work rather than starting from scratch.

More broadly, let’s look at two threads on Twitter criticizing Avi. I’ll start with this one by Bryan Gaensler:

Bryan makes the rather Popperian argument that if your model is too flexible then it can’t be falsified, so you’re not doing science.  The implication is that since we don’t have a good model for aliens, we can always play the “aliens of the gaps” game and so SETI isn’t good science unless it’s looking for unambiguously artificial signals like narrow-band radio waves.

This argument isn’t as tight as it seems. Most interesting new theories start without concrete predictions—General Relativity was so hard to use that even Einstein wasn’t sure what it predicted (he got the deflection of starlight wrong the first time he calculated it; he wrote a paper saying gravitational waves don’t exist). Theories don’t spring fully-formed from theorists’ heads; many important breakthroughs start with something less than quantitative or precise (“maybe we need to modify gravity”; “maybe there is a new subatomic particle involved”) and let the data guide the theories’ details.

This is the normal progression of science. SETI is no different, and so no less scientific.

Then there is this one, by Eric Mamajek, which I mostly agree with:

It’s mostly fine through tweet #9, but then he conflates things in the last tweet using an unwarranted leap of logic.

Up until then he had been criticizing the Holmesian logic of how ‘Oumuamua must be alien because we had ruled out natural explanations. I quite agree with him.

But in the last tweet he jumps to criticizing even bringing up the hypothesis of ETI’s in general, implying that scientists who do are pulling a Giorgio Tsoukalos. (There’s also the assertion at the end such anomalies will “inevitably” turn out to be not just natural, but mundane, which is obviously not strictly true.)

But Tabby and I weren’t pulling a Tsoukalos when we submitted our proposal with Andrew Siemion to NRAO to study Tabby’s Star. We really weren’t. I have clarified the actual events with Eric, so I’m pretty sure that’s not what he meant to imply here, but that is how this tweet reads.

Bryan makes a similar (but softer) implication in his final tweets:

We all would! Indeed, Avi Loeb suggested that Breakthrough Listen point Green Bank at ‘Oumuamua1 because he understands very well that the proof of alien technology is something like the bullets on Bryan’s list.

But the implications of these tweets aren’t just wrong, they’re harmful to the field of SETI. A very plausible path to SETI success will be that we will see something strange (not “Eureka!” but “That’s funny…” as the old fortune quip goes) and eventually, after lots of follow up, we might find the smoking gun, or perhaps it will just end up being a proof by exclusion.  As I wrote in 2014:

Artifact SETI can thus proceed by seeking phenomena that appear outside the range that one would expect natural mechanisms to produce. Such phenomena are inherently scientifically interesting, and worthy of further study by virtue of their extreme nature. The path from the detection of a strange object to the certain discovery of alien life is then one of exclusion of all possible naturalistic origins. While such a path might be quite long, and potentially never-ending, it may be the best we can do.

Communication SETI, on the other hand, shortcuts this path to discovery by seeking signals of such obviously engineered and intelligent origin that no naturalistic explanation could be valid. Together, artifact and communication SETI thus provide us with complementary tools: the most suspicious targets revealed by artifact SETI provide the likeliest targets for communication SETI programs that otherwise must cast an impossibly wide net, and communication SETI might provide conclusive evidence that an extreme but still potentially naturalistic source is in fact the product of extraterrestrial intelligence (Bradbury et al. 2011).

Bryan’s thread and Eric’s final tweet could easily be read to foreclose this sort of research, essentially saying “it’s not worth thinking about the aliens hypothesis until it’s so unavoidable that you’ll get no flak for it” (radio signals à la Contact, the proverbial saucer on the White House lawn, etc.). They certainly make it clear that they won’t hesitate to chastise you on Twitter for going down this road.

But if we want to get to the end of that road, we’ve got to start walking down it at some point, and when the media very reasonably asks what we’re doing so they can report on it to a very understandably curious public, we should be allowed to answer their questions without having our motives (or scientific credibility) questioned by our peers.

In short: your mileage may vary on Avi’s particular style of public communication and conclusions on ‘Oumuamua, but when making your critique please be mindful that you are not slamming the whole endeavor. SETI as a serious science will make hypotheses, explore anomalies, and discuss the possibility of alien technology as the cause, and we need to be able to do so without obloquy from our peers, and without them policing which kinds of SETI we’re “allowed” to work on or talk about in public.

If I seem touchy about this, it’s actually not because I’m smarting from these Twitter threads or anything like that (which I don’t actually disagree with much—in particular I’m friends with Eric and I know I have his respect). As I wrote at the top, I’m glad we’re having this conversation and I hope it continues!

But another purpose of this post is that Avi and I (and other SETI researchers) have advisees that work on SETI and these sorts of messages are not lost on them: these tweets imply that senior people in your field will disapprove of you because of the topic of your research, and they will police what you’re allowed to say to the press, regardless of how good a scientist you are. Keep in mind, “Avi’s” paper on ‘Oumuamua that is being criticized has a postdoc as first author.

So in closing: I pledge to keep the SETI real and well grounded in science, to be responsible in my interactions with the media about it, and to train my students to do the same.

And, I hope my peers will pledge to create a welcoming environment for my advisees as SETI (hopefully!) comes back into the astronomy fold (even when—especially when—they are complaining about Avi).

[Updates: Bryan responds in this thread (click to expand):


1= privately, Bryan clarified to me his tweet was referring to his team’s MWA search for signals, not the search by Green Bank, as I suggested in my post. I should have read Bryan’s tweet more carefully and followed link before critiquing his tweet.

Also, I’ve changed the language about who suggested that GBT observe ‘Oumuamua; Joe Lazio informs me that the observations were made with WVU time following discussions with Breakthrough Listen that preceded Avi’s recommendation. In spite of both errors on my part in the original post, my point that Avi appreciates the importance of dispositive evidence stands.

Also, Avi touches on his motives in this interview:

But the search for intelligent life remains outside the mainstream. I am trying to change that in two ways. First, by speaking out in the way that I did on ‘Oumuamua.



AstroWright Group and NEID science at #AAS233

Good morning!  Here are some abstracts at the 233rd meeting of the AAS to be sure to grab:


2pm-3:30pm Room 305: Special splinter session for NEID! Come hear all about this new facility precise RV instrument for the community.


140.27: Mark Giovinazzi of Penn presents his work with Cullen Blake on the characterization and operation of the gigantic NEID CCDs.

140.28: See my poster on the science we’ll do with our Guaranteed Time for Observations with NEID


146.02: Come see Emily Lubar’s work on the design and performance of NEID’s amazing, state-of-the-art environmental control system.



9:15am and all day:

Come to the Technosignatures Decadal Writing Workshop in room 202!

See how you can:

  • co-sign a technosignatures white paper
  • contribute to a technosignatures white paper
  • find co-signers for your white paper
  • find new science cases for your white paper
  • recommend citations to your white paper

Kickoff meeting is at 9:15am after the plenaries.


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

Michael’s understanding of the female half of the human species was shaped by competing forces. He was very close with the women in his family—his mother and his sisters. It is because of that close family bond with my mother that we came to live with him, and that his sister Vanessa lived in the mother-in-law apartment in the Provincetown house for years.

Michael and his sisters

He had great esteem for many of his women colleagues, and there were plenty of women academics, writers, and artists he admired. The political and social alliances between gay men and lesbians are complex, especially in a gay mecca like Provincetown, but he always respected lesbian activists and recognized and appreciated their common cause for equality and justice—he was the one who taught me about the Frank Kameny/Barbara Gittings partnership as an effective template for gay rights.

But his closest friends and his lovers were all men, and this meant that many aspects of women remained mysterious to him. For instance, after I started seriously dating it became clear to me that his understanding of even basic facts of women’s biology was comically underdeveloped, an ignorance which he apparently never had any particular interest in remediating.

Michael’s mother Val started showing signs of Alzheimer’s in the ’80s, and by the time we arrived in Boston it was getting obvious. She developed emphysema from a lifetime of smoking, and she had to be hospitalized for a heart condition shortly after we arrived. Alzheimer’s is a fatal illness, but despite it and all of her medical conditions she hung on until finally succumbing at age 78 in 2001, 5 years after Cape Cod Light was published and almost a year after Van died of congestive heart failure at 84.

Michael with his mother and sisters

The nineteenth poem in Cape Cod Light is Lady. The title, the reference to Lot’s wife, the phrase “across the Atlantic”, and the sense of a women losing herself make my mother and I suspect it is about Valerie. “He would have liked calling her a lady,” says Mom.


You say: you are coming apart like an old doll,
Cards scattering across the Atlantic.
We say: you are sticking and spilling on things
And rush together to preserve some surface,
But as surely another drips
Off a counter or down the drain.
What mouth is opening, what words
Like musical notes might emerge
To evaporate some cherished piece
Of furniture, or melt
The entire poised figure
Like water hitting a statue made of salt.

The Seal Pond, a drawing by John Andert. Photo by Bret Duback.

The next poem is here.

Facing The Season

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

Michael always had a Christmas tree, always invited us all up for a Christmas gathering. We would spend Christmas Eve distracted with anticipation, and Christmas Day mastering the video games we had gotten under the tree. Christmas morning, one person would get the hat and play “Santa,” passing out the gifts agonizingly slowly so we could all appreciate each one as they were opened.

Christmas at the house in Provincetown. Valerie (Michael’s mother) is laughing. That miiiight be me in the lower left sporting the mullet.

The grownups, I now realize, had a similar relationship with it all. It isn’t all fun and games when you have to erect and trim the tree, cook the food, clean the house, and so on. But especially when life is dealing you a bad hand in the background, it’s wonderful when you finally get to the good parts: that moment distant family walks through the door, sitting around the fire playing games, telling stories, singing, laughing.

The eighteenth poem in Cape Cod Light is Facing the Season, and it features my younger brother Aaron delivering containing the most quoted phrase in the book within our family: “knock me over the head” to get across to the good times.

Michael celebrating the season at his Provincetown house with his father Van, a somewhat less enthusiastic vocalist than Michael. If I had to guess, I’d say Michael is hamming up some especially religious Christmas carol playing on the CD player.

Facing the Season

The leaves are flying backwards like dead birds.
I could tune in “Morning in America”
But if I picked that up I’d crack.
Overnight a huge green object
Reared itself in our living room
Forecasting family, heavy lifting, and snow.
Last Christmas Eve
As we were hanging the stockings in our conspiracy
Aaron, twelve, said
“I wish you could knock me over the head
So I could come to and it would be Christmas.”
That’s how it is
Getting across to the good times, knock me over the head.

The next poem is here.

Provincetown, December 5, 5:00 A.M.

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

Michael was a political junkie and a weather junkie. He obsessively tracked elections and Atlantic storms on cable TV with the same enthusiasm, switching between the Weather Channel and CNN. During the day he could take the pulse of the atmosphere from the balconies of his house, overlooking Cape Cod Bay in one direction and the Atlantic in the other; and by night he would take the pulse of the polis at the Atlantic house and Commercial Street.

Michael enjoying a storm at the beach (I would guess Herring Cove) while his photographer and ride stays dry.

In 1991, Hurricane Bob was heading straight for Cape Cod. Most residents that were able heeded the warnings, boarded up, and evacuated. When it was clear Bob would be a direct hit on Provincetown, we got the call from Michael: if you leave Boston now, you can probably make it across the bridge before they close it, and be here in time for the main event.

So of course we showed up.

Hurricane Bob, 1991
Left to right: Me, Justin, my mother Victoria, Michael (top), Aaron (front), David, Vanessa. This photograph appears in Cape Cod Light after “Facing the Season”, but it belongs here.

Michael loved elections, he reveled in the Clinton victories; he was reinvigorated by Obama’s mandate. He longed for the political renewals they promised.

For my money, the seventeenth poem in Cape Cod LightProvincetown, December 5, 5:00 A.M., is the masterpiece of the book. Its dramatic, sincere optimism is something America could use right now.

Provincetown, December 5, 5:00 A.M.

Tonight I awoke, unexpectedly,
To a rainstorm turning suddenly to snow:
Not the typical transition
From sleep to remembered dreaming,
From vague, lofty possessions
To embarrassing distortions of yesterday,
Then to a reluctant acceptance of morning,
But to a bold stand.

I think it was Keats,
Reading again, twenty years later,
How the sea was a revelation
Banging against the rocky chambers at Margate
Rather than whispering as it does here,
Rising silently, stealing buildings, seeping through the sand.

Everything comes back:
The poets that haunted me in my youth,
The struggle for sensation,
The hard work of friendship,
Worry attaching itself to trivia,
The achievements: lover, family, home.

All was of a piece.
Suddenly, the language wasn’t exhausted.
So many things that cried out for poetry
Had been neglected, things
That must be incorporated, or we die.

Some of religion’s strict fantasies have caught up with us
In daily life, even
As we’ve become more comfortable without it,
Because pestilence has gilded our hours.

The wind has turned,
Southwest to north, and a depression
Struggles to form over Nantucket.
I root for it.

I long for a great storm
To move majestically into the gulf of Maine and stall,
Bludgeoning us with wall on wall of snow,
Transforming the dunes into a whitescape,
Making the day new.

Upstairs, my loved one sleeps.
History haunts him
With the inevitable success
Of a movie villain with metal fingers.

There may be too much to absorb.
I fear the snow will subside to drizzle.
But if we can fill every rift with ore, and
Fight the insistence to refuse meaning
Who’s to say we can’t take the century by the throat?

Ordinary Provincetown Winter Street by Bret Duback

The next poem is here.

David’s Day

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

We’re arrived at the emotional core of the book, the most autobiographical parts, the ones that remind us most of life with Michael and David.

He was Uncle David as long as I can remember, long before we moved to Boston.

David (top), me (left), Michael, Aaron (goofy), and Justin (right) in my grandparents’ apartment.

David was diagnosed with AIDS around the time we moved to the East Coast and into their Brookline apartment until we got our own place. He had been HIV positive for many years without knowing it, since before he and Michael got together.

They soon relocated to the Cape house in Provincetown, where David worked remotely and Michael spent long weekends around his teaching duties at Harvard (Michael stayed in our spare bedroom during the week.)

Michael and David during a birthday celebration for Michael at the Provincetown house.

The drive to P-town for Christmas, Thanksgiving, or just a long weekend became a regular feature of our lives. David’s illness fell into the background after he recovered from his initial bout with opportunistic infections.

For a few years, life was “normal”; and we began to associate trips to the Cape with endless games, feasts, family and fun.

Bret DuBack, Michael, and David in the kitchen in Provincetown.

The sixteenth poem in Cape Cod Light is David’s Day, and it was written during this period.

David’s Day

Once the inevitable happened
And we got through the first life-or-death weeks
We stepped back, and began adjusting
To the evil angel lurking constantly over our shoulders.
For a full year
You were mad at me, mad at the world,
Mad at my sisters, your doctors, your mother,
Mad at the God who retained a shred of your belief.
The recovery began with mania,
When household chores weren’t too much for you,
And you needed a project a day to keep you sane.
Games became crucial, and we turned weekends into festivals:
Bridge and Pictionary,
Trivial Pursuit, Dr. Mario, and Balderdash,
Christmas for twelve and Thanksgiving for twenty-seven,
All recorded on videotape. This is the third year
That you’ve had AIDS, and we’ve never had a better.
To see you plump and strong, wrestling
With the ordinary tasks of daily life
Reminds me of times that will come again:
The endless evenings a breath away from death at the hospital,
The trembling, step-by-step recoveries, leashed to an I.V.,
The fainting into a lug of flesh down the long stairs.
Your immune count is four, down from twelve hundred.
We worry in person and by phone over your rashes and your vision.
We organize our lives around this illness,
And we play. We play. We play.

The next poem is here.