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  • The Art and Science of Interstellar Message Composition
  • Douglas A. Vakoch, Editorial Advisor

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Facing page: The 140-ft. telescope of the National Radio Astronomy Observatory in Green Bank, West Virginia, was used by the SETI Institute's Project Phoenix from September 1996 through April 1998.

Photo © Seth Shostak

Framing interstellar messages as art projects is a recent development. The Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence, or SETI, has largely been conducted by scientists and engineers, with minimal input from the artistic community. With advances in search technology, the chances of detecting extraterrestrial intelligence are improving rapidly, as Dan Werthimer and Mary Kate Morris discuss in their extended abstract, "Are We Alone? The Search for Extraterrestrial Civilizations." In recognition of these increasing prospects of success, the SETI Institute and Leonardo have initiated a series of workshops to encourage discussion among artists, scientists and technologists about interstellar message composition. In the event of a signal detection, this advance preparation will be especially useful as humankind decides whether to reply and, if so, what to say. This special section of Leonardo features extended abstracts of six of the 18 presentations given at the first workshop devoted specifically to the interface of art, science and technology in interstellar message design, held in Paris on 18 March 2002.

Interstellar messages have not typically been construed as works of art in themselves, but art and music have played a minor role in the theory and practice of interstellar message construction. For example, German astronomer Sebastian von Hoerner has suggested that some aspects of music may be universal [1], and two Voyager spacecraft carried samples of Earth's music [2]. Indeed, the intrinsic temporality of radio transmissions lends itself particularly well to messages that share some of the structural characteristics of music. This approach to message design, based on semiotic analyses, suggests that the form of the transmission can help convey a message's content [3]. Such a strategy stands in contrast to traditional methods of constructing interstellar messages based on classical information theory, in which there need not be a close connection between the form and the content of a message.

Although the 2002 Paris workshop was the first meeting to focus on the interface of art, science and technology, the Toulouse Workshop on Interstellar Message Composition, held 30 September-2 October 2001, also included artists' perspectives to a limited extent. At the Toulouse meeting, which covered interstellar message design more broadly, French artist Jean-Marc Philippe reviewed his project of transmitting an archive of messages from the Nançay radio telescope in 1987, and American artist Richard Clar examined the value of ambiguity and absence in interstellar messages. Clar's presentation at the Paris workshop, "The Process of Art in Interstellar Message Construction," included in this section, addresses related issues.

Several papers presented at the workshop in Paris examined whether there might be aesthetic principles that are either universal or, short of that, possibly explicable across interstellar space, even if these principles are culturally contingent. Several presenters suggested mathematics and physics as possible bridges between worlds, with interstellar languages based on these disciplines potentially also capable of expressing aesthetic sensibilities across interstellar space. For example, physicist Lui Lam, in his presentation "A Science-and-Art Interstellar Message: The Self-Similar Sierpinski Gasket," suggested sending messages incorporating a [End Page 33] simple fractal based upon a never-ending series of triangles within triangles, specifiable with a few lines of computer code and manifest in a range of terrestrial cultures. This general approach of tapping into potentially universal aspects of mathematics and physics was suggested for messages inspired both by the visual arts, such as proposed by Steve Diehl in his paper, "Constants of Art and Nature: The Rainbow Project," and by music, as in Andrew Kaiser's presentation, "Sound as Intercultural Communication: A Meta-Analysis of Music with Implications for SETI." Conversely, Dutch astronomer and theoretical computer scientist Alexander Ollongren proposed using music to help clarify an interstellar language based on principles of logic in his paper "Large-Size Message Construction for ETI: Music in Lingua Cosmica." (The above-mentioned presentations are all reproduced in this section.)

Also at the Paris...


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pp. 32-34
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