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Speaking for Earth
by Jon Lomberg (lomberg @

There has been much discussion within the SETI community as to how Earth might reply to a verified signal from another civilization in space. Most agree that, sooner or later, a reply message would be sent. What properties should a reply from Earth have? Here are some I would think are acceptable to all: It should be truthful. It should be ecumenical or at least nondenominational. It should be well-crafted, elegant in both the artistic and scientific sense of that word (Dirac would say there is no difference).

Truthful sounds easy but is very hard. Everyone has a bias. On the Voyager record we decided to put our best foot forward and avoided depicting war, poverty or disease. For various reasons I stand by this position and would probably make the same decision today. But many people criticized us for telling a half-truth, if not an outright falsification about what Earth is like. Outright deception is easy to forbid. But the decision about which information to include also excludes. That is the hardest choice, best made in good faith by one group and judged in good faith by another.

Nondenominational is a little easier, but only a little. The message can't come from Mecca, the Vatican, or the US Congress. It must avoid endorsing any particular religion, philosophy or ideology. Again, this sounds easier than it is. Isn't belief in the scientific method a kind of ideology? Is a message that implicitly extols our scientific accomplishments but excludes our spiritual beliefs nondenominational?

Elegant. You know it when you see it, and when you don't. Here's something I find inelegant: There has been a recent trend of including CD ROMs with recorded signatures or personal messages (on Cassini, Huygens, and Stardust, for starters). While this may have some value as feel-good publicity for the missions, these artifacts are not messages, but they will inevitably be confused in the public mind with messages. We put a record on Voyager and a CD on Cassini. Must be the same thing, right? But I can't think of a worse design for a message than an unorganized collection of written messages.

Let's ignore the fact that a CD ROM is a terrible message carrier because no alien technology, no matter how advanced, could decode it. Unlike an analog record or engraved plaque, text and picture files can never be read without the correct software, which is impossible to reconstruct from first principles, even by a very smart ET. But even if it could be read, what would ET make of a species so dumb they created an artifact without any attempt to make it a comprehensible, self-extracting, anti-coded, triply redundant, graduated content message? That our message was page after page of meaningless scribble? Possibly that we were interested only in speaking to ourselves.

I mention this because designing an interstellar message is a challenge that is both awesome and fun, appealing to every mind that likes puzzles. As we begin to think of how to reply, we should have some model in mind. These free-for-all signature CD ROMs muddy the waters about what a message must be like, in exactly the same way that almond-eyed humanoid UFO aliens muddy the image of what real ETs might be like. Several other organizations are now trying to create right now even worse messages. The Sci-Fi Channel wants to send your greeting from a radio telescope, if they can find one willing to sell out to them. Another entrepreneur wants to sell space on metal plates to be launched in extrasolar orbit-- buy a plate and put anything you want on it-- philosophical rumination, poem, "favorite legal brief" (honestly, he has proposed that). It doesn't bother me that these messages are private and uncensored. It bothers me that they are so badly designed. I find written notes in English an annoyingly stupid way to present our civilization.

That is the error of the grass-roots message. Very naive messages get made by people who have not thought very hard about how utterly distinct species could say something understandable to each other.

(Prof. Doug) Vakoch's praise of the Voyager Record was gratifying, of course, to this designer. He identified the fact that our small group had been successful because it was interdisciplinary (scientists, artists, writers, and musicians). Carl Sagan and Frank Drake deserve the credit for that. They could have kept it entirely the province of astronomers but chose not to. And Vakoch acknowledges that our team made an honest attempt to rise above its own cultural biases and create message that represented all of Earth. How well we did that has been argued, but no one has disputed that we at least tried. A single incident serves to illustrate the difficulty of this when involving an organization like the United Nations to do it: For the sequence of greetings in spoken languages-- intended to suggest the variety of spoken tongues on Earth-- we asked the UN to supply us with a very short "hello" from each delegate to the General Assembly. What we got back from the UN was a few long, utterly inappropriate speeches by the members of the Committee on Outer Space. We had to create the greetings sequence ourselves, recorded by speakers from the ethnically diverse Cornell University community.

That would be the problem with messages made by bureaucracies like the UN. They just don't get it. People accustomed to issuing noncommittal press releases reduce all messages to bland pap. Large governmental and scientific bureaucracies would certainly have to approve the message after it was made, but no such organization could create a good one itself-- unless it farmed it out to its own small group.

In 1991, when Sandia Labs had to design a 10,000 year nuclear waste warning marker for the U.S. Department of Energy, they organized things in a way analogous to the Voyager record. They convened a small panel of interdisciplinary experts in fields including geology, materials science, archaeology, linguistics, cognitive psychology, architecture, and graphic design (and including four SETI veterans-- me, Frank Drake, Woody Sullivan, and Ben Finney) and had us analyze the problem and create a design for a warning marker, meant to be comprehensible to all humans for the next 10,000 years, whatever their language, culture, or technological level.

The fact that a small group was ultimately responsible for both the Record and the waste marker allowed there to be a vitality and coherence in the design that would have been much harder to achieve in any larger working group with multiple layers of review and approval.

It would be better to entrust the task of a Reply From Earth to various small groups, let them do it, and then have a panel of "experts" decide which was the best (tough to figure who is on that panel, but for starters eminent people in the creative arts, physical and social sciences, cryptography and language theory, religion -- better to have them review a message than to make one-- and, I suppose, international security and defense) rather than trying to have hundreds of people in many separate organizations try to design it together. It should be a design competition. Then you could open it up widely to submissions from individual artists, ad hoc organizations created to craft a message, universities, etc.

Who would eventually make the best message? My guess would be an interdisciplinary mix of creative people with backgrounds in a wide variety of fields, from semiotics to software design, from visual arts and music to game theory and particle physics. We don't know what the universal touchstones will be (maybe the incoming message will give some good clues). But the outgoing message should pool our particular cognitive and creative styles into a harmonious whole. How is this to be done? I think you'll recognize it when you see it. I would like the message from my planet to be both rich in content and clever in form. Lewis Thomas was right on the money when he suggested Bach as an exemplar of the characteristics our message should have.

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