" 'cause the mind is interstellar...."
---digable planets, "9 th Wonder," Blowout Comb (1994)
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.
(Note: After Congress and NASA cut SETI's funding in 1994, it received
money from corporations such as Hewlett Packard and Microsoft [Flam].)
|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.
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
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?
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....
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.
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....
[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.]
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