Monday, December 12, 2016

Donald Zygutis doesn't know what he's talking about

        Up for two hours on Coast to Coast AM last night was author Donald Zygutis, plugging his book The Sagan Conspiracy. Since I have not actually read the book and don't intend to, I'm self-disqualified from reviewing it. However, many statements made by Zygutis last night and on his promo website were so wrong that I wish to correct them. His topic is one that I know about--it's in my wheelhouse, as they say. As a TV producer/director of science documentaries I worked closely with Sagan on three occasions.

Here's a summary of the book, in its author's own words:
"[H]ow many Carl Sagan fans know that while the renowned scientist was at Stanford University, he produced a controversial paper, funded by a NASA research grant, that concludes ancient alien intervention may have sparked human civilization?

Recently rediscovered by the author, Sagan’s lost Stanford paper is the central theme of The Sagan Conspiracy. ... I’m thrilled and honored that The Sagan Conspiracy includes the complete and unabridged text of the breakthrough scientific paper on ancient alienism that Carl wrote at Stanford University in 1962, that the United States government has gone to extreme lengths to suppress."
        The problem with that thesis is that Sagan was not at Stanford in 1962-- he was at Harvard. I don't know whether he wrote any such paper--I can find no reference to it but of course Zygutis would say that's because it's been suppressed by the PtB. Zygutis maintains that Sagan believed that extraterrestrials "may have visited Earth thousands of times in ancient history, and may have even 'terraformed' the planet to make it habitable by humans." However, I know that Sagan had no such belief. On the contrary, in the original Cosmos PBS-TV series he stated quite the opposite belief, and in his writings and lectures he firmly advocated the position that there is no evidence of extraterrestrial visitationnote 1. UFOnuts love to cite Sagan as supporting their wingnuttery, but all Sagan ever said about UFOs is that they are worth investigating.

Is Anybody There?
        Last night Zygutis and guest-host Richard Syrett spent some time discussing the Drake equationnote 2 and the Arecibo message, and revealed significant ignorance on both topics.

        Zygutis said the the Drake equation reckoned the odds of ever receiving a message from an intelligent extraterrestrial civilization, and that Frank Drake himself had solved his equation and come up with an estimate. That is not true. The equation sets out a mathematical way of estimating the number of extraterrestrial civilizations in our galaxy advanced enough to potentially communicate with us. Drake only gave an extremely wide range of possible values for his term N--from 1,000 to 100,000,000. The point about the equation was not that it could be evaluated with any precision at all, but that the value of N was probably non-zero. Sagan's estimates (see note 2 below) ranged from 0.3 to 10 million.

        Syrett asked about the Arecibo message that Sagan sent from the huge radio telescope in 1974, and Zygutis made two errors in answering. First he said that radio telescopes can only receive information, not transmit it, and then he said the experiment was an obvious failure since no answer was ever received. Well, the fact is that Arecibo did transmit the 1679-digit message, and considering that it was directed toward a globular cluster at a distance of 25,000 light years, it's more than a little premature to be saying that no answer has been received. Again, fans of the paranormal cite Sagan, incorrectly, as believing in the existence of extraterrestrial civilizations. In fact, to Sagan this was a question, not an answer, and he simply felt that the investigation of it should be led by science, not fantasy or religion.

         Well, speaking of religion, I see Donald Zygutis is a graduate of Corban University. Corban describes itself as "a gospel-driven community of scholars and leaders who seek to bring a biblical perspective to all areas of study and practice." OK, now we know.

        Ah, I found the 1962 paper after all. Its title is Direct contact among galactic civilizations by relativistic interstellar spaceflight, and 18 handwritten pages of it are in the Library of Congress here. Sagan had a brief postdoc appointment at Stanford, in the department of biology under the supervision of Joshua Lederberg. That would have been around 1962, so I may have to concede that point too.

        I found this through Jason Colavito, who covered Zygutis's ideas on 6th October this year. Well done Jason--meticulous as ever.

        Colavito thoroughly refutes the idea that Sagan's paper was ever suppressed, and writes that the meat of the paper was not nearly as optimistic as Zygutis claims. In fact, it was really just an attempt to evaluate the Drake equation--Sagan wrote "For purposes of the following discussion, we adopt N=106"--but that does not mean he thought planet Earth had had a million visits. Far from it.

       Colavito also points out that Sagan once said "The idea that we are being visited or were once visited by powerful benign beings who live in the sky is after a religious idea, the terminology is slightly different, we don't talk about angels, we talk about extra-terrestrials but the emotional significance is identical.” So we're back at religion after all.

======================/ \====================
[1] The Demon-Haunted World New York: Random House 1995  pp. 81–96, 99–104
See also Sagan's 1977 Christmas Lectures at the Royal Institution in London, esp. lecture #6

[2] N = R* fp ne fl fi fc L

Key, with Sagan's 1962 pessimistic/optimistic estimates in parentheses:

R* is the rate of formation of stars in the galaxy (1 per year / 3 per year)
fp is the fraction of stars that have planets (1/100 / 1/10)
ne is the number of planets per star that can possibly support life (3 / 3)
fl is the fraction of such planets that actually develop life (1 / 1)
fi is the fraction of such planets supporting intelligent life (1/10 / 1)
fc is the fraction of those that actually release radio communication (1/10 / 1/10)
L is the average lifetime of such radio-communicating civilizations (from 1000 to 100,000,000 years, yielding pessimistically 0.3 < N < 3 × 104 , optimistically 100 < N < 107)

NOTE THAT much more recent results have dramatically increased the probable value of fp.


vonmazur said...

When these two geniuses started the polonium poisoning motif, I had to change the tuner to all night classical...

expat said...

Yes, that was a demonstration of ignorance, too. There's no evidence I know of that polonium poisoning can cause myelodysplasia, but evidence is not what Syrett and Zygutis seek, of course. They seek audience numbers.

Chris Lopes said...

The problem with trying to solve the Drake Equation is that most of the variables are wild ass guesses. Sure, we think we know the rate of star formation, and we are getting a better idea how many of those stars have planets, best the rest are what Donald Rumsfeld would have called unknown unknowns. Anyone saying they solved the Equation is smoking stuff not even legal in Colorado.

expat said...

I agree completely, Chris. I think Frank Drake just wanted us to think about the implications of speculative thinking, and about what it would take to make ETs mathematically probable.

THE Orbs Whiperer said...

Who was it that wrote?: “The universe is a pretty big place. If it's just us, seems like an awful waste of Space.”

THE Orbs Whiperer said...

Four, Patrick. You mean to say that you worked with Sagan on four shows; or should I say, Dick?

expat said...

« Four, Patrick. »
How do you figure that?

Sorry about the namedrop, but at least I'm not claiming Carl was my best buddy, as Richard Hoagland is wont to do. Our relationship was very cordial, but professional.

expat said...

Theadora: I see. Interesting....

expat said...

I'm tempted to buy the book just to see how Zygutis got on transcribing Sagan's horrible handwriting.

gary vanstone said...

I found the paper in typed format at Nasa ,did a search on google with Carl Sagan, Direct Contact Among Galactic Civilizations by Relativistic Interstellar Spaceflight.

How does that foot taste in your mouth, do your research first than engage your comments about Zygutis

Anonymous said...

in the line of "just saying".... Ripley does change her name a lot or is it just me :-) could it be that she is suffering from some sort of identity crisis LOL. What do you think?


expat said...

To Gary Vanstone:

Thank you very much for the link to the complete Sagan 1962. This confirms Colavito's proposition that there is no truth to the claim that this paper has been actively suppressed by the US Government.

With the complete text in hand, then, we can now evaluate Zygutis's claims. While it is true that Sagan is credited as being in the Dept. of Genetics at Stanford, the acknowledgements make plain that he actually did the work at Berkeley.

I find very little support for Zygutis's statement that "ancient alien intervention may have sparked human civilization." The closest Sagan comes to such a conclusion is his reference to a book by E.R. Hodges suggesting that Sumerian civilization may have originated in the Apkallu, a "possibly extraterrestrial society." This is not very close.

Given that you found this text with ease, how would you explain Zygutis's statement that he is "thrilled and honored" to include the complete text in his book? Is he thrilled because he thereby fills 15 pages of his book without having to exert any creative effort?

I concede one very important point. Colavito and I were both wrong in downplaying Sagan's suggestion of multiple historical contacts. On page 497 he does indeed suggest a possible 10,000 contacts--a very surprising figure indeed. All I can say is that he never again made such an extravagant estimate.

Other than that, I reject your "foot in mouth" accusation. I did not write that this paper is non-existent, only that I could find no reference to it. Again I thank you for a very useful contribution.

expat said...

By the way, another advantage of having the full text is that we may easily refute Zygutis's claim that Sagan thought ETs might have terraformed the Earth. The paper makes no such assertion.

THE Orbs Whiperer said...

Think of the profile handles in the same light, as bumper music, just as Dr Carl Sagan, changed his tune.

expat said...

On his promo website, Zygutis writes that his book "... is a searing indictment of deception and abuse of power inside NASA, SETI, and the Pentagon."

Now that we have the full text to examine, that claim is revealed as baseless hyperbole.

gary vanstone said...

Hello Expat, it's grand to read a novel reply to my submission.

The document from Dr. Seagan and on file with NASA with the title Direct Contact Among Galactic Civilizations by Relativistic Interstellar Spaceflight does give reason to investigate further. That was possibly the intent of the document back around 1963. He did the math and next to prove the theorem. My case and point with regards to the flat earthers to relize the world round ... right? LoL.

As always time will tell and the game a foot.

Merry Cheers to you.