≡ Menu

Alexander Zaitzev (1945-2021)

I always knew where I stood with Alexander Zaitsev. In the period 2008-2011, he was a frequent visitor on Centauri Dreams, drawn initially by an article I wrote about SETI, and in particular whether it would be wise to go beyond listening for ETI and send out directed broadcasts to interesting nearby stars. At that time, I was straddling the middle on METI — Messaging to Extraterrestrial Intelligence — but Dr. Zaitsev found plenty of discussion here on both sides, and he joined in forcefully.

Image: Alexander Leonidovich Zaitsev, METI advocate and radio astronomer, whose messages to the cosmos include the 1999 and 2003 ‘Cosmic Calls’ from Evpatoria. Credit: Seth Shostak.

The Russian astronomer, who died last week, knew where he stood, and he knew where you should stand as well. As my own views on intentional broadcasts moved toward caution in future posts, he and I would have the occasional email exchange. He was always courteous but sometimes exasperated. When I was in his good graces, his messages would always be signed ‘Sasha.’ When he was feeling combative, they would be signed ‘Alexander.’ And if I really tripped his wires, they would end with a curt ‘Zaitsev.’

I liked his forthrightness, and tweaked him a bit by always writing him back as ‘Sasha’ no matter what the signature on the current email. By 2008, he was already well established for his work on radar astronomy in planetary science and near-Earth objects, but in the public eye he was becoming known for his broadcasts from the Evpatoria Deep Space Center in the Crimea. It was from Evpatoria that he broadcast the radio messages known as Cosmic Calls in 1999 and again in 2003. The messages were made up of audio, video, image and data files. The so-called Teen-Age Message, aimed at six Sun-like stars, went out in 2001.

Inevitably, Zaitsev became the spokesman for METI, and he defended his position with vigor in online postings as well as public debate. He had little patience with those who advised proceeding carefully, pointing out that planetary radars like Arecibo and Evpatoria were already broadcasting our presence inadvertently. To me the matter is inherently multidisciplinary, and requires the collaboration of not just physicists but historians, linguists, social scientists and more before proceeding. Zaitsev argued that planetary radars, so essential for our security against stray asteroids, were already broadcasting our presence. Should we also shut these down?

Image: RT-70 radio telescope and planetary radar at the Center for Deep Space Communications in the Crimea.

METI is a highly polarizing issue, and the arguments over intentional broadcasts continue. Surely, some argue, any advanced extraterrestrial intelligence has already picked up the signature of life on Earth, if only through analysis of our atmosphere. Some argue that our technosignature in the form of electromagnetic leakage has already entertained nearby stars with our early television shows, though Jim Benford has demonstrated that these signals are too weak to be detected by our most powerful devices. Planetary radar may indeed announce our presence — it’s strong enough to be picked up — but the counter-argument is that such beams are not aimed at specific points in space, and would be perceived as occasional transients of uncertain origin.

The debate continues, and it’s not my intention to explore it further today, so I’ll just direct those interested to several differing takes on the issue. Start with METI opponent David Brin’s article SETI, METI… and Assessing Risks like Adults, which ran in these pages in 2011, as well as Nick Nielsen’s SETI, METI and Existential Risk, from the same timeframe. Larry Klaes has an excellent overview in The Pros and Cons of METI. Remember that METI goes back to 1974 and Frank Drake’s Arecibo message, aimed at the Hercules globular cluster some 25,000 light years away and obviously symbolic.

A Declaration of Principles Concerning Activities Following the Detection of Extraterrestrial Intelligence was adopted by the International Academy of Astronautics in 1989, usually referred to simply as the First Protocol. A second protocol could have tuned up our policy for sending messages from Earth, but arguments over whether it should only affect responses to received messages — or messages sent before any extraterrestrial signal was detected — complicated the picture. The situation became so controversial that Michael Michaud and John Billingham resigned from the committee that formulated it as their language calling for international consultations was deleted.

Michaud remembered Zaitsev in an email this morning:

“I met Zaitsev at a SETI-related conference in England in 2010. He struck me as a straightforward man who spoke English well enough to engage in discussions. While I disagreed with his sending messages from a radio telescope in Ukraine without prior consultations, I had the impression that he would have been willing to talk further about the issue. I sent him a copy of my book, for which he thanked me. David Brin later initiated an email debate with Zaitsev about METI. Sasha handled David’s sharp words in a good-humored way.”

That 2010 meeting brought the two sides of the METI debate together. I want to quote Jim Benford at some length on this, as he was also involved.

“I met Alexander Zaitsev at a debate sponsored by the Royal Society in October 2010 in the UK. (The debate is documented in JBIS January 2014 volume 67 No.1 which I edited. It contains the speeches and rebuttals to the speeches). The debate was on whether sending messages to ETI should be done. Advocating METI were Seth Shostak, Stephane Dumas, and Alexander Zaitsev. The opposing team, David Brin, myself and Michael Michaud, advocated that before transmitting, a public discussion should take place to deal with the questions of who speaks for Earth and what should they say?

Image: (Left to right) David Brin, Jim Benford, Michael Michaud.

“Alexander Zaitsev had already transmitted messages, such as the ‘Cosmic Call 1’ message to the stars. Zaitsev radiated in 1999 from the RT-70, Evpatoria, in Crimea, Ukraine, a 70-m dish with transmitter power up to 150 kW at frequencies about 5 GHz.

“John Billingham and I pointed out that these messages were highly unlikely to be received. We took as an example the Cosmic Call 1 message. The content ranged from simple digital signals to music. Can civilizations in the stars hear them? The stars targeted ranged between 32 ly and 70 ly, so the signals will be weak when they arrive. The question then becomes: how big an antenna and how sensitive receiver electronics needed to be to detect them?

“First, we evaluated the ability of Zaitsev’s RT-70 to detect itself, assuming ETI has the same level of capability as ourselves. For a robust signal-to-noise ratio (S/N) of 10, this is 3 ly, less than the distance to even the nearest star. So the RT-70 messages would not be detected by RT-70.

“Could an ETI SKA [Square Kilometre Array] detect Earth Radio Telescopes? Zaitsev’s assumption was that Extra-Terrestrials have SKA-like systems. But for S/N=10, R=19 ly, which is not in the range of the stars targeted. Even an ET SKA would not detect the Cosmic Call 1 message.

“I presented our argument that “Who speaks for Earth?” deserves public discussion, along with our calculations.When Alexander spoke, I realized that our arguments didn’t speak to Alexander’s beliefs. He didn’t particularly care whether the messages were received. He thought it was a matter of principle to transmit. We should send messages because they announce ourselves. Reception at the other end was not necessary.”

Image: A forceful Zaitsev makes a point at the Royal Society meeting. At left (left to right) are Seth Shostak and Stephane Dumas. Credit: Jim Benford.

I think Jim’s point is exactly right. In my own dealings with him, Dr. Zaitsev never made the argument that the messages he was sending would be received. I assume he looked upon them in something of the same spirit that Drake offered the Arecibo message, as a way of demonstrating the human desire to reach out into the cosmos (after all, no one would dream a message to the Hercules cluster would ever get there). But these first intentional steps to reach other civilizations would, presumably, be followed by further directed broadcasts until contact was achieved.

At least, I think that is how Dr. Zaitsev saw things. He would chafe at his inability to jump into this discussion if he were able to do so, and if I have misrepresented his view, I’m sure I would be getting one of his ‘Zaitsev’ emails rather than a friendly ‘Sasha’ signoff. But I hope I stayed on his good side most of the time. This was a man I liked and admired for his dedication despite how widely his views diverged from my own.

Asked for his thoughts on the 2010 meeting, Seth Shostak responded:

“I encountered Sasha Zaitsev at quite a few meetings, and always found him interesting and personable. He was promoting active SETI, and in that was somewhat of a lone wolf … there weren’t many who thought it was a worthy idea, and probably even fewer who thought that his transmission efforts – which he did without advance notice – were necessarily a good idea.

“But personally, I thought such criticism was kind of petty. I admired Alex for doing these things … But maybe it was because he was similar to the best scientists in boldly going …”

Image: The panel at the Royal Society meeting. Left to right: David Brin; Jim Benford; Michael Michaud; Seth Shostak; Stephane Dumas; Alexander Zaitsev. At podium, Martin Dominik. Credit: Jim Benford.

Alexander Zaitsev was convinced the universe held species with which we needed to engage, and I believe his purpose was to awaken the public to our potential to reach out, not in some uncertain future but right now. Given that serious METI is now joined by advertising campaigns and other private ventures, it could be said that we are not adept at presenting our best side to the cosmos, but then that too was Zaitsev’s point: It’s too late to stop this, he might have said. Let’s make our messages mean something.

David Brin, who so often engaged with him in debate, had this to say of Dr. Zaitsev:

Sasha Zaitsev was both a noted astronomer whose work in radio astronomy will long be remembered. He was also a zealous believer in a lively, beneficent cosmos. His sincere faith led him to cast forth into the heavens appeals for superior beings to offer help – or at least wisdom – to benighted (and apparently doomed) humanity. When told that it sounded a lot like ‘prayer,’ Sasha would smile. and nod. We disagreed over the wisdom or courtesy of his Yoohoo Messages, beamed from the great dish at Evpatoria, without consultation by anyone else. But if I could choose between his optimistic cosmos and the one I deem more likely, I would choose his, hands down. Perhaps – (can anyone say for sure?) – he’s finally discovered that answer.

An eloquent thought. As for me, I’ll continue to argue for informed, multidisciplinary debate and discussion in the international arena before we send further targeted messages out into the Great Silence. But in the midst of that debate, heated as it remains, I’ll miss Sasha’s voice. He probably couldn’t reach ETI even with the Evpatoria dish, but God knows he tried.

tzf_img_post

{ 18 comments… add one }
  • Mark December 7, 2021, 9:58

    “This was a man I liked and admired for his dedication despite how widely his views diverged from my own”
    Oh, if only more scientists could think in such a way as to respect opponents of different opinions and beliefs.

  • Alex Tolley December 7, 2021, 12:09

    The various METI messages might not have reached ET at the target stars, but if there is a “Lurker[s]” in our system, maybe it/they would, and its message home has been sent… (Just as the Monolith was believed to have done in 3001: The Final Odyssey.)

    • Rogerio Penna December 14, 2021, 16:00

      True, but any lurker IN OUR SYSTEM would have detected human civilization long ago, probably even before we understood the Earth was not the center of the universe.

  • Antonio December 7, 2021, 13:38

    It’s very sad to hear of his death. I of course agree with him in the need of METI and admire his boldness in doing it against the mainstream. I also think his vision on this issue (and generally how they see or position in the cosmos) is more common between Russian/Soviet astronomers than his colleagues in the West, probably due to the influence of Russian Cosmism (our the other way around, who knows, maybe Cosmism was the effect and not the cause).

    I always found the need-for-debate argument pretty disingenous. We have been debating for more than half a century now. Asking for more debate only seems an excuse to eternally postpone METI, even more so because nobody in the pro-debate side has ever presented a criterion to decide when the debate would be over.

    • Alex Tolley December 7, 2021, 15:29

      (…)nobody in the pro-debate side has ever presented a criterion to decide when the debate would be over.

      Agree 100%. Worse, as technology improves, there will be ever more reasons to try to stay “hidden” or “quiet” and to use not detectable search only. This could take 1000s of years before most (but not all) are satisfied. More likely, the search will show there are no other detectable ETIs and that we are shouting “YooHoo” into a dead, predator-free galaxy. If ETIs are out there, every new technology we develop to detect life and intelligence will indicate that ETI could have used these too and have already detected us at a time in the past when light reached them. They would know we had civilizations for at least 5-10k years, and therefore all ETI in that light cone will know of us if they have stayed on their home world, or have active probes in our system monitoring us now.

      Either away, I see no particular change in our circumstances by signaling our presence.

    • Patient Observer December 7, 2021, 19:02

      Agreed. And the signals sent that will likely never be received is a defiant assertion that we do have a place in the universe even if infinite.

  • Mike December 7, 2021, 17:11

    Should we be keeping our heads down? I would think any technologically advanced civilization would have already detected us anyway. So transmitting out a META signal was an exercise in pointlessness.

    In the chance there are hostile aliens they already know where we are.
    And if they are friendly aliens they already know where we are too. So, what difference did it make in sending out a signal? A big what if to dangle our future from.

    The nice Russian radio astronomer had to follow his beliefs, assumptions and perhaps, his wishful thinking too. Like everybody else.

    Just like I’m doing here with my assumption that aliens with advanced technology would already know about us.

    It’s mainly only speculation. More data and hard information needed.

  • Jeff Wright December 8, 2021, 2:19

    What is to become of his papers, effects?

    • Paul Gilster December 8, 2021, 7:23

      I haven’t heard anything on this. I’m assuming his papers will wind up at a university in Russia, probably coordinated through the Russian Academy of Science in Moscow.

    • ljk December 8, 2021, 12:11

      Alexander’s papers should definitely be preserved and in multiple places with open access to all who are interested.

      Here is his page with multiple articles on the subject of METI:

      http://www.cplire.ru/html/ra&sr/irm/index.html

  • ljk December 8, 2021, 11:54

    First let me give my condolences to Alexander’s family, friends, and colleagues over his passing. His ideas and voice were and are very much needed in this issue of our emergence into the wider Cosmos. I am grateful for the few times I corresponded with Dr. Zaitsev.

    Now to quote from Paul’s tribute article to Dr. Zaitsev:

    “Remember that METI goes back to 1974 and Frank Drake’s Arecibo message, aimed at the Hercules globular cluster some 25,000 light years away and obviously symbolic.”

    If you want to get technical, the first known METI took place in late 1962 from the Soviet Union. I learned of this first from Alexander himself.

    Here is his page on the details:

    http://www.cplire.ru/html/ra&sr/irm/MIR-LENIN-SSSR.html

    The transmission was part of a radar scan of the planet Venus. The difference is the signal included three Russian words in Morse code: Mir, Lenin, and USSR. Mir means both world and peace. Whether any recipients will understand Russian is debatable, but it was an interstellar message nevertheless.

    I wonder if there were other METI efforts done both before 1962 and after but before the Arecibo Message of 1974? I would not be at all surprised if they were done in secret at the time. If anyone knows something about this, I and others would love to know to add to the history of METI, thank you. Especially if we get a response, since we would not want to be left caught off guard and subsequently embarrassed.

    Just to be clear, I am not talking about the electromagnetic leakage our technological civilization has been spewing into space for well over a century now.

    • Andrei December 8, 2021, 22:40

      First let me also express my condolences to Alexander’s family, friends and colleagues.

      So while I have no information of any METI attempt, I can tell of one persistent rumour about the Soviet attempting to communicate with other civ’s which was not.
      From the mid 1960’s there were disruptions to regular radio broadcasts in many countries. (FM band). One source state that CB radio users had heard those earlier, around 1963 who called them the ‘Woodpecker’.
      It sounded like snapping of the fingers with a frequency of about 2 bursts per second, but phaze shifted over time and faded out. Then to return. It was part of Soviets warning system against intercontinental missiles. One of the installations was found between Murmansk and Lovozero on the Kola peninsula and was used both toward the west, as well as to warn against possible USA missiles launched from submarines in the arctic area. Later they built one even more powerful system called Doga which was operated into the 1980’s.

      • ljk December 9, 2021, 12:26

        Thank you, Andrei. Yes those military radars, plus the ones astronomers use to ping NEO planetoids, are some of the most powerful artificial signals we have sent into the Milky Way galaxy.

        While they contain no intelligible information, they will let anyone smart enough who detects them know that they are not natural signals.

        Conversely, civilizations that have a robust space infrastructure such as settlements and planetoid/comet mining will use even more such radars, so we should also be on the lookout for them.

        Speaking of ETI and the Soviets in the 1960s, they were obsessed for a while that CTA-102 signals were from an advanced extraterrestrial civilization, until it turned out to be a quasar.

        Here is the quote from the Wikipedia entry:

        In 1963 Nikolai Kardashev proposed that the then-unidentified radio source could be evidence of a Type II or III extraterrestrial civilization on the Kardashev scale.[3] Follow-up observations were announced in 1965 by Gennady Sholomitskii, who found that the object’s radio emission was varying;[6] a public announcement of these results on April 12, 1965, caused a worldwide sensation.[7] The idea that the emission was caused by a civilization was rejected when the radio source was later identified as one of the many varieties of a quasar.[3]

        CTA 102 is one of the two great false alarms in the history of the search for extra-terrestrial life, the other being the discovery of pulsars, specifically PSR B1919+21, which are rotating neutron stars.

        The American folk rock band The Byrds whimsically reflected the original view that CTA-102 was a sign of extraterrestrial intelligence in their song “C.T.A.-102” from their 1967 album Younger Than Yesterday.[8]

        https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/CTA-102

        Regarding how far various signals can travel into deep space, you and others may find this article quite useful:

        http://www.coseti.org/lemarch1.htm

        https://www.researchgate.net/publication/314151939_Dectectability_of_extraterrestrial_technological_activities

        https://arxiv.org/abs/0807.4518

        • Andrei December 13, 2021, 11:02

          Thank you for your nice reply sir LJK
          You are right, those radar pulses was indeed the most persistent strong signal sent from Earth ever. The signal I heard disturbing the radio in my parents kitchen went on for years. (We started to listen to other bands and frequencies.) I was curious already then and checked. We had a long antenna to that ‘transistor’ since the kitchen was located away from where the radio station was broadcasting from. So it was very good at picking that snapping signal up.

          I wrote my reply from memory, and wish we could edit our replies. Since I did remember that the announcement of a possible ET-civ came in about the same timeframe.
          Before that we had not had any ‘flying saucer’ scare, but while a few neighbours started to state they had seen something. Me and a childhood friend started observations of our own.
          It was this that led to my observation of a Russian satellite in a Molinya orbit, since it appeared to change direction. I did discuss it with none but my friend as a possible observation of one UFO, he asked and I said truthfully told that it had been all silent. He identified it for what it was, while I was just a child who barely could read at that time.
          Some time later we also observed 2 sprites, the other kids claimed it was UFO’s but again me and my friend arrived at the conclusion that it was natural. And our language actually have a word for those, which show that the phenomenon was known in traditional knowledge. I am quite certain that it was these events, and learning critical thinking and learning that exact observations without getting carried away from the ‘common view’, that set me on the path both for my space interest, as well as getting into actual research. And no surprise that I did at first aim for astronomy, though I ended up with biology instead.
          So there you got the background to why I am here in the first place. =)

  • ljk December 8, 2021, 12:41

    Regarding the idea of controlling the human race from sending more messages into the wider galaxy, I give you this quote from the film Jurassic Park released way back in 1993:

    Dr. Ian Malcolm: “John, the kind of control you’re attempting simply is… it’s not possible. If there is one thing the history of evolution has taught us it’s that life will not be contained. Life breaks free, it expands to new territories and crashes through barriers, painfully, maybe even dangerously, but, uh… well, there it is.”

    The same goes for METI. We have seen recently enough how humanity does not work as a unified whole on a particular event or subject, neither will they all agree to keep silent on an interstellar scale – especially if some self-appointed authorities tell them to. I am not just talking about some maverick individuals or small groups: China has officially declared they are doing SETI as part of their research with their giant FAST radio telescope. What if they decide that adding METI to the mix will help to potentially advance them in that goal? Anyone going to try and stop them? Good luck.

    We have already been making plenty of noise, enough to have formed an electromagnetic bubble roughly 200 light years across. Sure, it hasn’t been deliberately aimed at any particular points in space, but fire enough buckshot and you are bound to get lucky at some point in time.

    A sophisticated enough ETI won’t even need to detect our transmissions, deliberate or otherwise; they will be able to determine through such methods as spectroscopy that Earth is a world with abundant life. If they dig just a little deeper, they will determine that some of those signs are artificial in origin – I am talking pollution here, contaminants in the air and soil and such.

    So messages are going to get out there whether people want them to or not, and they already have for decades. What we need to focus on now is how we can respond to whoever might answer them. We can’t anticipate every possible response, but we can try. The ones that won’t work are the equivalents of sticking our collective heads in the sand. We no longer have the “luxury” of thinking our world and the life upon it are it in terms of cosmic existence.

    • Wojciech Jacyk December 17, 2021, 14:36

      I would like to add that not only would advanced civilizations be capable of detecting current spillage of signals and markers from our current civilization, but depending on level of sophistication of their telescopes also past cities and signs of agriculture could be observed. It’s debatable how far this would reach. Illuminated Paris would certainly be observed….

  • Henry Cordova December 8, 2021, 23:57

    Like several of my other philosophical concerns and opinions about SETI, this one has undergone some revision of late.

    Making contact with another civilization will be the single most important event in the history of the human race. Even if it is a fleeting, one-off, one-way contact, it will change everything. Sure, there are risks, but we cannot afford to delay this, not for a moment. We must not prolong our adolescence indefinitely.

    As for the down side…well, we seem to be creating enough of those on our own, without any help from the neighbors. In fact, just knowing for sure they’re out there may be just the tonic we need to get our own house in order.

    I say go for it. If we can’t survive the encounter, maybe we don’t deserve to. And I don’t think conquest or war is is what we need to fear.
    Neither do I believe our culture cannot survive the culture shock of an alien species, even if it is a benign or even (much more likely) an indifferent one.

    What we really cannot long survive is the hubris of believing we must be the only ones. That, for me, is the most dangerous opinion of all; that we cannot expect to flourish unless we our convinced we are alone in the cosmos.

  • Wojciech Jacyk December 17, 2021, 14:42

    Condolences to family and friends of Alexander Zaitzev.
    I remember him, and he was a passionate brilliant soul, one of those that bring the spark of something higher and transcendent to humanity.

Leave a Comment