Making Scents of Life on Earth: Embedding Olfactory Information into Multi-Channel Interstellar Messages
This talk proposes that an important goal for Active SETI will be to communicate the diversity and complexity of life and human cultures on Earth. This will best be achieved by exploring ways to embed decodable but elaborate information in signals that point to the lived experiences (e.g., embodiment) of being creatures not only living on this planet, but who are intimately of Earth. This talk will present concepts from perfumery, new findings on the organic chemistry of interstellar space, and Vladimir Vernadsky’s notions of life as a terraforming force from his groundbreaking work The Biosphere. As well, the lecture will suggest some possible technological solutions for sending multi-channel SETI signals as opposed to a stream of linear, binary information. Considerations have been put forward for communicating the periodic table in a binary signal; but what could a more complex molecular signal look like, and who would create it? How could we integrate scientific knowledge of molecular distribution in interstellar space with a creative, compositional aspect? Could this be an Earth-collaborative artwork? Suggesting as a starting point the limbic/olfactory system—the most ancient, reptilian part of our brains—the talk will connect our evolutionary inheritance as a species to a proposal for SETI signals designed not just to communicate our intelligence, but also our deep connection with other living beings, plant and animal. For it is not just the human ability to synthesize information that we should place value on, but also how we combine syntaxes into poetic forms of expression, just as we understand art not only through its technical features, but also its originality and authenticity.
How the SETI Institute Searches for Signals: The Allen Telescope Array
The SETI Institute is famous for its radio signal search efforts, yet many don't know where and how we do it. This talk will provide an overview of the SETI Institute's Allen Telescope Array in remote northern California. We scan the sky searching for radio signals from an extraterrestrial intelligence every night for 12 hours. I'll explain how we perform the search, some technical details, how we decide where to look, and our plans for the future.
Limits on Interstellar Messages
Despite the fact that major efforts have been expended on passive searches for extraterrestrial signals, few deliberate “transmissions” to potential alien recipients have occurred. These have generally taken the form of simple graphics depicting such things as our appearance, location, and biological construction. In this paper, we consider (a) the fundamental technical and astronomical limitations to interstellar messaging—in other words, how many “bits” could any society reasonably send, and (b) what might be a likely transmission strategy. These considerations suggest approaches for SETI programs, as well as giving insight into the types of messages we might construct for eventual replies to received signals.
Anthropology at a Distance: SETI and the Production of Knowledge in the Encounter with an Extraterrestrial Other
In this paper I explore one avenue through which anthropology and, more specifically, the subdiscipline of cultural or social anthropology can contribute to SETI research. I want to suggest that one of the most potent ways the social sciences in general and anthropology in particular can contribute to SETI is through analogy, using an analysis of anthropology’s own history of contact as a framework for thinking about potential contact with an extraterrestrial civilization. While it is extremely important to contemplate the content and type of interstellar message we might construct, it is equally important to consider the context of interpretation in which such a message will be conveyed and interpreted, as well as how any response might be interpreted by scientists and others on planet Earth. Rather than simply an act of discovery, initial contact with any extraterrestrial intelligence will also create a new context in which knowledge is generated and understood. The context of initial contact will be formed on the basis of very limited data and, inevitably, interpreted through the lenses of our own cultures and the theoretical frameworks that are in vogue among intellectuals and others at the time contact occurs.
In order to explicate this point, I will consider the type of “anthropology at a distance” evident in the early and, to a lesser extent, middle years of the discipline, focusing on the work of Ruth Benedict during World War II as an example of how the complex interplay between assumptions, data, and misinterpretations can become established as authoritative knowledge about and understanding of an alien civilization. The central point of this paper is that Japan, as a culture and a civilization, was not simply revealed by Benedict; it was in many respects created out of this interplay, at least as far as the American perspective is concerned (and, although not specifically relevant to this paper, to some extent the Japanese perspective as well). I will argue that the initial contact and subsequent interaction between extraterrestrials and humans (including SETI researchers, politicians, scholars outside of SETI, and the general public) will involve a similar production of knowledge about the alien other. Awareness of this hazard and the ability to reflexively think about our own role in constructing an alien culture, particularly where great distances and time delays are insurmountable with current technology, are of fundamental importance in reducing the risk of misunderstanding and misinterpretation.
Inferring Intelligence: Prehistoric and Extraterrestrial
Different as they may be in other respects—sources of data, research tools, academic training—what the fields of archaeology and the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) do have in common is at the core of their respective enterprises—the study of intelligent beings without benefit of firsthand observation. Archaeological analysis is conducted without direct contact with living beings, with few if any written communications to aid the study; and it is accomplished by constructing bridging arguments that span great distances of time, space, culture, and, in the case of our hominid ancestors, biology. While we can imagine other kinds of contact with extraterrestrial intelligence, these basic but important features of archaeology likely apply to SETI, too—at least for the time being. To the extent that approaches in archaeology uncover evidence of intelligence as a phenomenon per se, and not of humanness specifically, some insights from this discipline could be transferable to SETI.Uncovering evidence of human activity in the past is of course the primary goal of archaeology, but doing so often means inferring intelligence or some aspect of it, such as agency, purpose, design, choice, the expression of meaning, or the ability to communicate. Archaeological work can help to reveal one or another of these aspects of intelligence and, perhaps, not just human agency but agency itself. There may thus be some hope of generalizing, and these approaches may provide a basis for the development of analogous approaches in SETI.In this paper I offer a series of archaeological vignettes that illustrate some of the more promising avenues to explore and a few of the issues that may be faced. My examples are at a broad level and more in the manner of “lessons learned” than prescriptive advice. First, I consider briefly an instance in which archaeology may seem to have failed on its own terms. This is not very comforting for those of us who want to use archaeology in the service of SETI. But I also suggest a way out. My second vignette considers the equally troubling issue of ethnographic analogy. Protests to the contrary notwithstanding, I believe archaeology cannot be done at all without drawing analogies to known living human groups. This notion, too, would seem to make the relevance of archaeological approaches to SETI a very great stretch indeed—but, again, I don’t think this makes it impossible. The next vignettes, which explore the importance of intellectual context, physical context, expectations for a solid scientific argument, and the implications of symbolism for understanding communications, will perhaps help to close on a more optimistic note.
Before we can begin to hypothesize about any extraterrestrial language, we must examine our basis for understanding what language is. We should examine what we know—and, even more important, what we presume—about language.One approach linguistics has taken is to look deeply into the structure of a single language with the goal of capturing its essence in a series of descriptive principles; this approach assumes that each Earth language has within it a "universal" set of rules that characterize all potential human languages. Another approach would be to study the 7,000 or so known Earth languages to identify what all of them have in common and distill the set of descriptive principles from there.Unfortunately, both approaches are quite human-centric, and even with a dataset of 7,000 languages to work with, we still have effectively only one data point. Still, defining this single data point is useful because we can't think outside the box until we have identified the box. With this in mind, what we could do is examine those 7,000 languages to establish what is rare among them or what they all lack: That is, what presuppositions do they all make? What things are unsaid, or even unsayable, because these things are too obvious, too obscure, or somehow foreign to human cognition? We cannot know which of our assumptions about language might be natural outgrowths of intelligence and therefore truly universal, and which result from specifically human factors; the best we can do at this point is lay out the possibilities.