Humanity has sent its own simple outbound messages, like the message from Frank Drake of Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico to the M13 globular cluster containing information about our solar system and DNA, or the Golden Records on the Voyager spacecraft containing sounds and symbols contained shows the diversity of life and culture on earth. We even tried sending outgoing “music lessons”.
Still, extraterrestrials could be sending us something more complex or a message in a format that humans have never encountered before. No matter how much extraterrestrials want to be understood, their message could prove difficult to decipher as they likely have a vastly different language, culture, history, biology, and technological sophistication than humans. And of course, a real extraterrestrial signal would come from much further away than Mars, possibly many, many light years away. That means it may have been sent thousands of years ago, perhaps even by a long-lost civilization, says de Paulis.
But the Sign in Space experiment is more about us than them. De Paulis has worked with radio astronomers on art-related projects for years, including one entitled optics the images reflected off the moon’s surface and, with their distorted colors and shapes, recalled a long lunar voyage. With this new project she is trying to reach a wide global audience – and so far thousands of people from all over the world have discussed her theories on one platform Discord Channel while they work on decoding attempts. (One theory is that if some of the radio data were arranged in a certain way, it could produce a 256-by-256-pixel image, with the point clouds rendered in a way that might resemble the Pleiades or some other star cluster.)
At a small online workshop she led yesterday, de Paulis pointed out that so far people have submitted more than 100 sketches, pictures, poems and essaysThis shows the wide range of thoughts and emotions evoked by the idea of extraterrestrial contact. Many sketches are inviting, including drawings of people, a human hand, the earth, a waving alien, or the word “peace.” Others include made-up symbols or pictographs – speculation as to what might be contained in a “first contact” message.
SETI has at times vacillated uneasily between astrobiology — the study of exoplanets that could host life — and attempts to sight UFOs, claims that are difficult to verify or scientifically examine. But that could be viewed as a largely Western distinction, says Bowdoin College anthropologist William Lempert, who led a workshop last week for the project on different cultural perspectives on the heavenly realm. “This tendency to think of space as a cold void separated by material objects and maybe life forms is actually an outlier,” he said, noting that the Polynesians and Aboriginal Australians he worked with , have different perspectives. “Most people don’t think of space and extraterrestrials as either ‘alien’ or ‘alien,'” he says.
Philosopher and ethicist Chelsea Haramia, another of de Paulis’ colleagues, will lead a workshop later in June on how humans can deal with the uncertainty that comes with thinking about extraterrestrial contact. While reactions to A Sign in Space have been overwhelmingly positive, a genuine call from ET could prompt more mixed reactions, including fear, panic and an urge to take action against scientists and other experts, Haramia says. This project could help people have a subjective experience of how they would react if it actually ever happened, she says, answering the question, “What would a successful alien discovery be?” For me?” She describes the art project as a way of making the abstract real, like actually tasting a durian fruit, rather than just hearing a description of what it is like.
De Paulis believes it will be at least weeks – or possibly months – before anyone cracks the message. It’s also possible that the message will never be fully decrypted, and de Paulis is fine with that. She and her colleagues refer to other artworks about extraterrestrial contacts – like that of Italo Calvino cosmic comedythe film Arrivaland the star trek Episode “Darmok” – in which an alien race communicates confusingly through metaphors, invoking tales and stories that humans do not understand. “If we ever pick up an extraterrestrial signal, scientists don’t know where the noise ends and where the actual message begins,” she says. “So that’s pretty much what would happen if the scientific community decided to share the signal in an open-source format.”