High Strangeness: Alien Contact: Getting it Right the First Time

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Alien Contact: Getting it Right the First Time

A few days ago my friend Lxxxx Lxxx sent me a link to where I could download free science eBooks in honor of World Literacy Day. I was deeply flattered; first, that she considered me literate, and, second, that she thought of me when she saw the first item on the list:

NASA Releases Free eBook About Communicating With Aliens


Whoa... Seriously!?? A free eBook from NASA about communicating with aliens?? Does this mean that NASA is already getting ready for... DISCLOSURE??? Does this mean the book is really FREE??

The answers are "Yes" and "Yes."

At first I wasn't sure what to expect from this book... Was NASA going to brief me on what to say if I meet an extraterrestrial life form? Would there be more to it than "Take me to your leader?" and "Okay"?

Turns out there's waaaaaay more than that. The book, with the very not-catchy title "Archaeology, Anthropology and Interstellar Communication," was edited by the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) Institute's Director of Interstellar Message Composition, Douglas Vakoch, and is intended, in Vakoch's words, to prepare us “for contact with an extraterrestrial civilization, should that day ever come.”

I've got a tip for you Vakoch: it's coming... it's coming.

The big surprise of the book for me was not so much that NASA has been actively involved in searching for extraterrestrial life since the 1960s, but rather that so many brilliant minds at NASA and universities and space agencies around the globe have already put so much thought into the societal consequences of alien contact. These men and women were losing sleep over "Disclosure" when Richard Dolan was still in nursery school.
As the "Twilight Zone" episode "To Serve Man" taught us, we better get this contact thing right. (R.I.P. Richard Kiel)

Take a look at Mr. Vakoch's title: "Director of Interstellar Message Composition." That's really a thing. Someone's job, for which he gets paid, is to compose messages to send out into interstellar space... The mind boggles.

Why is the messaging so important? One of the book's chapters, "Constraints on Message Construction for Communications with Extraterrestrial Intelligence," points out that messages sent to us from the past -- everything from cave paintings to 16th-century manuscripts -- may be recognizable to us as messages and yet the meaning of the message might remain completely opaque to us. The same may be true for messages we send into space. For example, just because we can send old "Happy Days" reruns out into space and an alien world might recognize that there is information about another culture contained in those transmissions, they may never be able to truly work out what makes The Fonz so incredibly funny, or what he really means when he gives two thumbs up and says, "Eeeeeeeeeeeeh."

The simple question of whether our messages sent in to space should be delivered by audio signal or video signal is a truly huge deal. The author of this chapter argues that "the factors affecting the propagation of sounds could vary so much from planet to planet as to make audition an unlikely universal," and that visual communication is the only way to go... If that's true, then the gold record albums of earth sounds sent into deep space on the Voyager missions were a wasted effort. Which, if you think about it, means that "Star Trek: The Motion Picture" never could have happened!

And yes, there are chapters devoted to "Disclosure." Just look at this TOC:
  • Culture and Communications with Extraterrestrial Intelligence;
  • Inferring Intelligence: Prehistoric and Extraterrestrial;
  • The Evolution of Extraterrestrials: The Evolutionary Synthesis and Estimates of the Prevalence of Intelligence Beyond Earth; 
  • Contact Considerations: A Cross-Cultural Perspective; 
  • Speaking for Earth: Projecting Cultural Values Across Deep Space and Time; 
  • Learning To Read: Interstellar Message Decipherment from Archaeological and Anthropological Perspectives;
  • Mirrors of Our Assumptions: Lessons from an Arthritic Neanderthal.
This book is deep and dense, my friends, and I will be spending many late nights reading it so you don't have to (I, for one, am dying to learn about the arthritic neanderthal!). I will continue to report what I find in the hope that when -- not if -- we make contact, we'll all be suitably prepared...

2 comments:

Arthritic Neanderthal said...

Thank you!

Mark OC said...

I had no idea you were a reader! Welcome!