Word Up:

on Discovering Civilizations in Outer Space

(and "Them" Discovering "Us"!)

" 'cause the mind is interstellar...."
---digable planets, "9 th Wonder," Blowout Comb (1994)

Enrico Fermi's Paradox:
"If life is common in the universe, why haven't 'they' showed up yet?"

 The Milky Way galaxy is about 100,000 light-years wide and shaped like a huge disk rotating in the universe. (A light-year is the huge distance that a photon in a wave of light would travel in an earth year, moving at 186,000 miles a second for the amount of time in an entire earth year: 186,000 miles per second, with 60 seconds per minute and 60 minutes per hour and 24 hours per day and 365 days in the year. In other words, you can't bike it.) This means that it would take approximately 100,000 light-years to trace the diameter of the galaxy.

In other words, a huge amount of time is needed for light to get to us from even the closest star, not to mention the closest star with planets and thus possible civilizations. (By 1996 scientists were beginning to discover other star-planet systems at a fairly rapid rate, though none so far have certainly turned up a planet at a distance from its star as nearly hospitable as Earth's. A dozen possibly life-sustaining planets were discovered in 1995-97 alone. As one writer put it, "It takes 35 years for our TV shows to reach 70 Virginis and 47 Ursa Majoris, two stars thought to harbor planets orbiting at about the same distance the Earth is from the sun" [

Thus despite Hollywood's fantasies (more on this
below), it's far more likely that our first contact with another civilization will come via radio waves, not flying saucers. A spaceship can't follow any of the known laws of physics and travel nearly as far and fast as the speed of light, meaning that the contacting civilization would have to be much closer to us and to have reached a high level of technological sophistication a long time ago. This greatly reduces the odds of contact, in comparison with that of radio waves: just 10 light years away would not be hard for radio waves but would require a much greater amount of time for a spaceship having to travel at less than the speed of light.

As yet our only real "contact" has been with infinitely varied fantasies of our own about what such contact will be like: flying thoughts move much faster than flying saucers.

There is an organization coordinating efforts to use the
Very Large Array and other devices to monitor radio waves to see if amidst all the cosmic noise there are recognizable messages from civilizations elsewhere in the Milky Way or in other galaxies: The SETI Institute, standing for the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence. More information about them can be found on their Home Page: http://www.seti-inst.edu/.

(Note: After Congress and NASA cut SETI's funding in 1994, it received money from corporations such as Hewlett Packard and Microsoft [Flam].)

Our own solar system is in the middle of one of the spiral galaxy's outer "arms." All the stars we can see with the naked eye are "in" the Milky Way galaxy, some closer to us, some close to 80,000 to 100,000 light-years away.

I didn't understand this very clearly until recently, but looking into the sky at night we have the illusion that the Milky Way is a "separate" part of the sky, a flowing band of stars apart from all the rest. How can it seem to be marked so separately from the rest of the stars? Is it just one of the bands or arms within the spiral galaxy that we're seeing, taking a part for the whole? Or is it that as we look directly towards the center of the galaxy, the stars suddenly appear to cluster more densely?

(An aside: Native Americans call the Milky Way various names that can be translated as "Spirit Road," as if we are seeing a long procession of spirits journeying to the next world after passing through this one. From this distance, it looks as if this procession of the dead are all carrying candles, a long line wandering from horizon to horizon, heading outward. It would do us good ("us" being everyone on this planet) to know all the names for the Milky Way that civilizations have come up with, and all the stories told about it. A Milky Way Home Page....)


As a planetary civilization, we have been emitting television signals for just over 50 years, radio signals for less than 100 years. So the electromagnetic "signs" of our civilization (the only kind that will travel so far and so fast) have gone outwards into the Milky Way only 100 light-years or so at most, just 1% of the total area of the Milky Way. And it's really only since after World War II that we've been sending out signals in a huge volume, using much of the electromagnetic spectrum, so that random searching of that spectrum would very likely "find" a message on it. Thus only approximately 1% of the Milky Way can "hear" us so far, assuming anyone is listening. We haven't even begun to have our electromagnetic signs reach any other part of the universe, such as the Andromeda galaxy.

When we do achieve "contact" it will probably not be a conscious cosmic hello organized by scientists but rather---the odds tell us---random radio or TV shows or---even more likely---fragments of them, for they occupy a far greater percentage of our outward "broadcast" than do the scientifically designed bulletins. Our first communication with another civilization will most likely be words intended only for ourselves, for our amusement, that just happened to leak out into interstellar space and then be overheard.

Would our first "message" travelling outwards be Alexander Graham Bell's first words transmitted via telephone, his comment to his assistant, "Watson, come here; I need you"? (The threshold of wattage needed for signals to escape this atmosphere is quite minimal, though obviously the stronger the signal the farther it would travel without being overwhelmed by noise.)

Perhaps the message that first arrives out "there" will be a commercial. (Many people have joked about this, I think.) In early radio, were ads and promos broadcast at a higher volume than the regular shows, as they are now on radio and TV? If so, they might travel farther and hold together better as a cosmic signal than the original shows they belonged to!

A consciously written and spoken greeting introducing our species and briefly describing our solar system, scripted by scientists, was sent out in the late 1970s, on the space ship Voyager I. It's too bad we couldn't send that cache of stuff into radio waves or holograms and send it all along that way---much more efficient.

The performance artist/musician/poet Laurie Anderson has some very comic meditations on the mixed messages embedded in what the scientists thought was a straightforward communication saying hello---a raised hand, palm outward---carried on the Voyager spacecraft. (Is a raised hand necessarily interpreted as a friendly greeting? Why isn't it equally legible as a threat?) This batch of signs of what we take to be our intelligent life also included a digitized version of the lyrical "cavatina" movement of Beethoven's string quartet # 130: Beethoven's sound waves for gut strings digitized and then forced to travel at a good deal less than the speed of light.

A letter in a bottle. The bottle spins and bobs, never resting. But its real motion is from a deeper source, as ocean currents carry it....


 The first message detected might not be the "earliest" one sent out, but one sent on a wave frequency that the other civilization just happened to be searching (or using) that day when the discovery occurs. So Ricky Ricardo's "Hi honey, I'm home!" from I Love Lucy in 1950s could be the first sign that we're home here. (Carl Sagan's speculations on this are something else again; see discussion of the 1997 movie Contact below.)

What is the signal-to-noise ratio necessary for a phrase like "Honey, I'm home" or "The Shadow knows" to cohere as a "message"? Will our words be recognized as non-randomly patterned electronic waves but still be gibberish, i.e., untranslatable, so that all the other civilization can determine was that some sort of nonrandom message was being sent using electromagnetic radiation, while the "content" of that patterning remains lost? They may be able to recognize it as a nonrandom signal but not decipher the signal itself: how could "hi honey I'm home" possibly be translated by another civilization when they have no more examples of our speech to listen to? Even Champollion needed much time to work out hieroglyphics from the Rosetta stone, which gave him a good deal of text to work with, and with two simulaneous translations in known languages.... (Perhaps Ricky Ricardo should have shouted his greeting in Spanish as well! To double our odds. But of course in the world of 1950s U.S. television he was never recorded doing that. Though he was allowed occasionally, en su idioma, to curse.)

Television's images might avoid the "translation" problem. Or maybe not? Maybe the first sign of our life will be Lucy eating chocolates off a fast-moving conveyor belt. How is this a more readable image than the Voyager's raised hand? And I'm not even making any jokes here about the relation between intelligent life and eating fast-moving chocolates....

If there are other civilizations around other solar systems discovering ways to use electromagnetic radiation for sending messages (a likely possibility, given all the planets in other solar systems discovered just in 1995-96), and if their solar systems and the civilizations that could grow within them had roughly the same starting point in time and rate of development as ours (several huge assumptions, of course)---if all of these were true, then such a civilization would have been able to send signals to just about 1% of our galaxy as well.

Chances of hearing from others---or, as seems likely, overhearing others speaking to themselves---get greater with each passing year. But the odds' growth rate here is slow, measured in a human life-time. The odds will be a good deal greater 10,000 years from now and still greater 100,000 years from now. If we humans last that long.

There are arrays of radio telescopes listening now for those signals from long ago and far away. And there are computers taught to scan the incoming data to look for anomolies---that is, patterns that seem something other than random noise. Programming computers how to look for the difference between random and nonrandom patterns is no doubt a story unto itself.


 Once they "hear" us, or we "hear" someone else, the problem of how to reply arises. What can the finder learn about the signal? How accurately can we determine where and when it was sent? If we can pinpoint that, would we immediately try to scan the whole range of the electromagnetic spectrum coming from that point in the sky, to see if other messages are filtering through?

We will need a Champollion of this point in the Milky Way, this new Rosetta way....

Replying, presumably we would choose the same frequency and "aim" it as closely as possible to the "point" or area in the sky from which we thought it came. If the source were a single light year away, then we're in luck, though the conversation will never be like a computer chat. If they are a mere 100 light years away, a far more likely statistical possibility, another 100 years times 2 might have to pass for them to receive our message and then have their reply reach us (assuming they reply immediately rather than are forced to spend an alien's lifetime deciphering things). If the other civilization is 1000 light years away, then at least 2000 more earth-years must pass before a "conversation" is really opened up. Thus:

t = light-years for message to travel between the two planets
3 t = the time needed before conversation can really begin (??)

Our UFOs are fantasies of what might happen if things were smaller than they really are. Warp speed: if only we could warp or ignore the curmudgeonly laws of physics, which seem to make any possible communication with others sort of like tapping on a thick cell wall and waiting for a response (as in The Count of Monte Christo).

What is our zodiac but a fantasy of the universe being on a single 2-D plane rather than a 3-dimensional one, not an expanding universe but a mapped catalogue of forces still rotating around "us" at the center, solely defined through their predictable "influence" on us? A comforting naïvété.


The reply to our radio or TV waves should include some of the original sound or image, yes, as proof that it had been received, so "they" can be certain it's a reply? By the same logic, when we eventually hear from others they very well may include one of our own calling cards as a sign for us that our message was heard and then replied to. But what will this random fragment of all our noise be? Louis Armstrong's music from the 1920s (definitely signs that intelligent life is syncopated and polyphonic)? World War II broadcasts? Dragnet's musical signature, now gaining an eerie new meaning? A phone call to a friend in the 1930s complaining about the price of Sudz detergent, or an ad for that very detergent?

What if what is returned to us is something of our own that we can no longer "recognize"? Isn't that really very likely? It will probably come from our distant past, distant perhaps 1000 or 10,000 years, not merely a few years. How easy will be it to recognize something as "ours" from a time so far away, unless it happens to be part of whatever archives we have made of past broadcasts, past languages, etc.? We might easily mistake what was "ours" for "theirs," and vice versa. The passage of time can do strange things to what is thought of as being from "home" and what is "alien"---it has even more power to make the familiar strange than space travel does (?). "Hi, honey, I'm home" in late 20th-century English could sound unrecognizable to Earth-dwellers in 4000 or 40,000 years from now.... The past is not just a foreign country, as someone wise once said, but an alien land.

Less depressing (is that the right word?) is a different possibility. It could be that the first reply we receive could somehow be very simple and easily decipherable (who knows how?). It will still startle us. It could be something like a quotation and commentary:

"Hello out there! We overheard you saying the following: '________.' Here's what we think you meant: '__________.' By the way, we do that too. Here are some other facts about us, plus some music we like: ________."

What would be the right way to "reply" if all we heard was a scrap of what sounds like one of "their" detergent commercials?

When we reply to their first message quoting us, we need to confirm that the quoted fragment was "ours," yes?

Depending on what they overheard of ours, this could get really embarrassing.... And depending upon we overhear, we may need a lot of tact in replying.

Maybe we should start broadcasting out all-purpose apologies now, just to show our good intentions.... followed by a reiteration of Beethoven's "cavatina" movement from string quartet # 130, just to make up for things. Or maybe we should tape whale-song and send it out.... ASAP.


It could also be very likely of course that no such back-and-forth, no such slo-mo repartee, will ever occur. Messages crossing like space-ships in the night, never knowing of each other---messages sent out into the silence just to make something sound the silence, test its depths---messages that must have a meaning that transcends any certainty that anyone will "hear" them or know what commotion they might have caused....

The bottle bobs....


 In the summer of 1997 two Hollywood movies were released dealing with contact with other civilizations, Contact and Men in Black. In the previous summer of 1996, two others had been released---The Arrival and Independence Day. The 1996 films emphasized terror and violence and invasion; the second two attempted to mix these elements with stronger doses of wonder or comedy. Quick discussions of all four movies follow below. The Array lives in the schitzophrenic mind of popular culture in ways that are even stranger than aliens.

Men in Black played for comedy the traditional paranoia and panic about "other" civilizations from outer space invading Earth, the very elements so emphasized in Independence Day and The Arrival of the year before. Now, the movie makes comedy from the bureaucratization of contact (space customs check-in, etc....) rather than the kind of extended riffs on paranoia that was Independence Day. Hollywood's fantasies of alien vengeance are dark mirrors reflecting our own self-loathing. Hollywood comedies about fears of the alien (including comic references to the Immigration and Naturalization Service and Mexican immigrants) don't mean that these fears are being played out: more movies about obliterating aliens are being planned and made now). Nor does it mean that such a view is absent from Men in Black; much of the movie is as violent as The Arrival or Independence Day (and very derivative of them), seeing the alien as reversing the "proper" hierarchies of species with mammal-devouring insects, etc. etc.


In Contact the paranoia is invested predominately in a single character who has a good deal of power to shape others' opinions but is drawn very negatively: James Woods' National Security Advisor, who is clearly fixed on applying Cold War thinking to all contact with outer space.

Hollywood thinks this is a heroic attempt to come up with a new plot---that is, to imagine that 'alien' civilizations may not want to destroy us. In place of paranoia, Contact (thanks to Carl Sagan and the director) offers sentiment, a return not to the womb but to the father's embrace and fortifying gaze for its heroine, the astronomer Ellie Arroway. The movie also makes a small space available for skepticism, for a sense that current religious truths are not the only way to know the world. Yet Ellie Arroway is not really allowed to defend her beliefs (or rather her right to be skeptical about an all-powerful deity controlling the universe); she merely comes across in the film as stubborn, even petulant; though they movie tries to cast this as a heroic form of difference it's script cannot imagine the words bywhich she might articulate her reasoning, her skepticism. The film cannot imagine an articulate agnoticism; only stubbornness. Yet no doubt even Ellie's refusal to endorse the language of religion was seen as a radical and dangerous move for a movie to make with the heroine with whom the audience is supposed to identify.

Criticizing the movie for its inarticulateness about how science might justify its ways of knowing is not a complaint about the movie's fine handling of the irony that dominates that last part of the film, where Ellie can only ask others to take on "faith" (though she never uses this word) her experiences as a scientist and a time-traveller. This ironic turn is in one of the best things about the film, and its script does know how to find language to portray it. Which makes all the more discouraging its muddle-headedness, or maybe its lack of courage, in defining why a scientist's curiosity and skepticism are not necessarily incompatible with religious experience.

Exploring alien worlds, needing to believe that there are other civilizations out there, is ultimately reduced in Contact to needing to find family connections, being embraced by what you once knew. Ellie travels light-years away to find home, not to God-the-Father but Father-as-God (or perhaps Father as God's messenger, or rather the next best thing, Advanced Civilization's messenger. ) Several billion dollars spent, simply to reunite her with her father-and, incidentally, to deliver a "message" to Earth via a congressional hearing on whether or not Earth's money had been spent wisely. (Even ET was able to "phone home" for less.) Several billion dollars-all for a few moments (or perhaps 18 minutes) of static, plus Ellie's speeches? If wiser civilizations were trying to make us feel a little less alone in the universe, perhaps there was a better way to do this?

At the end of the movie, when Ellie emerges from the congressional hearing, why is everyone cheering her? Because she's proved that we're not alone in the universe? If so, how did she do that? Was this audience listening to her testimony before an evil, badgering James Woods and was suddenly converted? Or do they just naturally have faith that great revelations happen if folks spent billions of dollars to make her fall through hoops on the other side of the world in Japan and then claim that what she did was time travel. I say "faith" because that is what it is; Ellie can present no evidence supporting her version of what happened except some videotape with static on it and her speech that it all had to mean something. Does anyone really think that a crowd of taxpayers would be cheering Ellie on, rather than rioting? What happens when we apply to the ending of the movie the same skepticism that Ellie exercises?

And what are we to make of movie's intended climactic revelation, Father's comment that "many" other earthlings have undergone time-travel like Ellie? All this without the building of the fantastically expensive Time Travel Machine's gyroscope hoops? The other time-travellers that Ellie's father mentions surely didn't travel the way Ellie did; the suggestion I think (it's implied, never stated) is that these other travelers had Visions and traveled for free. The moral: if we'd only listened to our Artists and Prophets we could have gotten relevations about Other Worlds for free.

A nice view for Artists (including, I suppose, filmmakers). Especially since it seems that for all that science and money we would only get 18 minutes of static on our video equipment without Ellie there to Give It All Meaning, whereas via Art (or at least the Movies) you can not only travel through the wormholes of Time but vividly experience those other worlds, including all the visual touch-tone, water-shimmer effects that Ellie finds in her Brave New World-the landscape of Vega as a kind of Cyber-Caribbean vacation paradise where the computer screen-like graphics are definitely touch-sensitive. The Father's message was meant no doubt to affirm the Validity of science (he was Ellie's early role model, after all), but what he really does is affirm the power of art (not to mention its cost-effectiveness) when compared to science: technicolor vs. static.

The Arrival (1996) focused on the Very Large Array and a scientist (Charlie Sheen) employed to listen for messages. He hears one. It turns out that "they" are not only out there but are also here, answering back and plotting to cause global warming to destroy us and make the planet more suitable for their species. [Some of the scenes featured glitzy modern buildings that are meant to represent the equivalent of the SETI Institute, and Sheen's character an employee of that institute.]

But the movie has a racist subplot that takes the meanings of the events in an entirely different direction. The aliens are operating out of Mexico and can assume human guises. The main alien villains are disguised as "white" Americans, but the majority of aliens disguised as humans whom we see in the movie are Mexican. Charlie Sheen invades their hidden factory in Oaxaoca were the underground technology mass-producing human disguises for aliens is also raising the earth's temperature with its waste gases. These scene portray the factory as a technological allegory for Anglo fears of a population explosion of "aliens" from the south with much higher birth rates: the factory machinery and its overall cavern-like spaces look a little like a giant, demonic womb-space for birthing threats to the planet, as least the planet that Anglos call their own.

Even stranger, Sheen at one point enters the transforming machine to escape guards and changes himself into a "Mexican." (Were the machine's dials set on South of the Border mode?) In this guise he kills someone then also has a crisis (caused by what?) and frantically rips the "alien" skin and face off of himself and washes himself in a waterfall to assume his former, "white" identity.

(This little scene is made even more grotesque by the fact that Sheen is part Irish, part Mexican---but this scene writes his "real" identity as "white.") The scene is meant to increase the suspense because now the aliens know the hero has discovered their secret. But it also introduces a very different motive for the hero's anger and violence---his fear of losing his "white" identity, which is also equated with his "human" rather than his "alien" one.

At the end of the movie, having exposed the conspiracy of aliens to cause global warming, Sheen's character makes a speech telling "them" that humans will no longer be fooled and will now will counterattack. But the movie takes on entirely different meanings when its hidden racist subplot about "aliens" from this hemisphere is taken seriously. The real "arrival" in this movie is the recycling of old Hollywood clichés that were once done well (cf. Invasion of the Body Snatchers, 1956) so that they now play on racial fears, especially in a time of anti-immigration legislation and general immigrant-bashing, especially if the immigrants happen to be people of color. Its hard to tell if the movie's makers cynically built this racist subtext into their movie in order to help it appeal to what they think will be a majority view in the U.S. audience, or whether they identified so strongly with Sheen's character's supposed heroism that they weren't really conscious of the subtext. Or perhaps they saw the subtext and didn't give a damn.

And I haven't even mentioned all the Day of the Dead symbolism in The Arrival (when Mexicans are being not superstitious they're being conspiratorial murderers); the black boy who turns out to be an alien with legs like a dog; etc. etc.

In general, The Arrival bombed in the theatres and soon vanished. A pack of white high school boys that was in the (nearly empty) theatre with me hated it and damned it loudly afterwards. No sex worth speaking of and the special-effects violence "sucked."

 Then there was the supposed blockbuster of summer `96, Independence Day. Here the arrival is even more filled with vengeance than in the Charlie Sheen movie. "They" want to destroy our civilizations in order to get our planet and its natural resources. This results in many special effects, busting blocks and throwing cars about, as well as destroying the monuments of our civilization, such as the White House and the Empire State building as well as more anonymous cities (for the filmmakers) such as Cairo.... The only blocks that couldn't be busted by the fancy special effects in this blockbuster are the large blocks of wooden dialogue and predictable characters in clichéd plot situations....

As in the 1950s, these present-day twists on the sci-fi genre flick reveal more about our own self-hate and will to destruction than they do about outsiders. (And also our concomitant need for a compensatory fantasy of how everything will turn out all right in the end and we can rebuild it all as it once was.) The added 90s twist: "aliens" is the word with great resonance, bringing with it an elaborate but repressed allegory about how illegal immigrants will somehow destroy everything that is great and that is "ours." There's also the grotesquely sad admission that the only way we can imagine an "other" civilization is to imagine it as violently destructive. And we do all this while simultaneously denying to ourselves that the very thing we accuse the "aliens" of doing---destroying the planet's natural resources---is of course not that removed from what we ourselves are in the process of doing, especially if we project current trends through the next millenium....

Meanwhile, back in the desert, the great antennae of the Very Large Array adjust their angles....

[Coda: Thanks to a friend of mine in physics, John Boccio, for answering some tech questions. He's not responsible for the meanderings and any mistakes above, of course.]



 For More Reading

"The Big Question: Giant Ears Await Alien Broadcasts"
Erik Skindrud, Science News 150.10 (Sept. 7, 1996): 152-53.
This article may be accessed via the Web and
Science News Online.

An excerpt:
"`Our capability [SETI's] is doubling every year.' The most ambitious and international of these [21st-century SETI projects] is the Square Kilometer Array Interferometer, SKAI, which would assemble a large observing area from an array of smaller dishers. It would allow detection of the kind of [signal] leakage that Earth broadcasts into space every day."

Further references

Cowen, R. 1992. "Is there anybody out there?" Science News 142(Nov. 7):317.

Eberhart, J. 1989. "Listening for ET." Science News 135(May 13):296.

Flam, Faye. "A Bit More Respect for Those Who Track ETs," Philadelphia Inquirer 7-28-97, D1, D12.

Horowitz, P., and C. Sagan. 1993. "Five years of project META: An all-sky narrow-band radio search for extraterrestrial signals." Astrophysical Journal 415 (Sept. 20): 218.