Ask Dr. SETI ®
by H. Paul Shuch and Daniela DePaulis
Paul: What is the purpose of A Sign in Space?
Daniela: A Sign in Space simulates one of the many possible scenarios following the reception of a con-firmed extraterrestrial signal. In the scenario I de-signed, scientists release the data of the signal in the public domain so that the general public can attempt to understand if the signal contains a message and to interpret it. The project aims at questioning communication through one of the possibly most radical scenarios, in which humankind attempts to under-stand the meaning of a message created by an extra-terrestrial intelligence.
Paul: Why did you start it?
Daniela: I started the project in 2019, after being invited by a satellite company in Italy to upload an artistic work on one of their upcoming launches. I proposed uploading a simulated extraterrestrial message onto one of their satellites, and from there the initial proposal developed thanks to the growing network of collaborators I gathered around the project. From the very start, I decided to call the project A Sign in Space, like the short story by Italian novelist Italo Calvino, published in his collection Cosmicomics. I thought the novel described the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence in a poetic and humorous way.
Paul: Is this art, or science? Or both?
Daniela: The project is very interdisciplinary and can be interpreted through different lenses. It is a combination of theatre, live performance art, electronic literature, ARG (Alternate Reality Game), science, including radio astronomy and SETI. It also crosses other disciplines, such as space studies, anthropology, semiotics, computer science and several others. The decoding and interpretation process are also very articulated and encompass many fields of research.
Paul: How many people are participating?
Daniela: There are about 5,000 people registered on Discord to participate in the decoding and interpretation process. There are between 200 and 300 people active at every single hour of the day, depending on their time zone. Some people participate outside of Discord, for example sending drawings or sounds through the tools developed on the project’s website, or by directly submitting ideas through the submission form on the website. Some people are active on social media. I wanted to make sure people had several options to engage with the project.
Paul: From how many countries?
Daniela: It is impossible to guess from the Discord platform. However, the website has been visited by 168 countries so far and we reached more than 150 million people through online press article, during the first week only. During that particular week, millions of people were imagining what it would be like to receive an extraterrestrial signal, just like with the fiction created by a play in a physical theatre setting, with the difference that the performative stage in A Sign in Space is the entire planet and even the cosmos. The project is both a performance for the global audience and a transformative experience that happens at a subjective pace.
Paul: What, if anything, do the participants have in common?
Daniela: The participants on Discord and other platforms seem to be very diverse, some of the people currently active in the decoding process have strong technical and/or artistic skills. There are people who are working on the decoding for hours a day, even losing sleep over the process. Other participants return every few days or weeks to check the progress, add some ideas, while continuing working independently on a possible solution. People collaborating on Discord have become part of a community. There is occasional frustration emerging as part of the process as the message seems to be very challenging to decode, however the Discord community manages to overcome these challenges as it is very self-motivated and self-led.
Paul: Who composed the message?
Daniela: I composed the message in collaboration with a team of international advisors. Two of these advisors, computer scientist and artist Giacomo Miceli and astronomer Roy Smits, played an equally important role in the message composition. We are the only three people in the world who know the exact content of the message. The message composition process took two years and it was very challenging. I can’t wait to share the story behind the message after it is decoded.
Paul: How was it transmitted / received?
Daniela: The message was transmitted by the Trace Gas Orbiter, a spacecraft of the European Space Agency orbiting Mars. The transmission of the message in X-band lasted 30 minutes in total. The signal was received by five ground antennas: the Green Bank Telescope and the Allen Telescope Array in the US, the Medicina Radio Astronomical Station in Italy, the Raege Radio Telescope in the Azores and the Bochum Radio Antenna in Germany.
Paul: What are some of the methods being used to decode / interpret it?
Daniela: On Discord, there have been many different attempts to decode and interpret the message. After one week only, several Discord users, including BatchDrake and HayleyStorm, managed to extract the message from the data of the signal received by the various telescopes. The message extracted looks like a B/W image.
Paul: Which have been most successful?
Daniela: So far, no thread has led to the full decoding of the message, however some of the threads look very promising. It would be great to collect all various hypothesis and meanings created around the project as part of a book in the future.
Paul: Have any of the participants proposed a reply message or strategy?
Daniela: Not yet, however some of the project’s collaborators have proposed composing a reply to the message once this is fully decoded.
Paul: Has anything happened that you failed to anticipate?
Daniela: When we launched the project, my collaborators and I had no clear idea of how the project would unfold once shared in the public domain, how many people would participate or find the project interesting. The outcome however was unexpected: the main international media outlets covered the launch of the project on May 24, making the project truly global and culturally relevant.
Paul: How will you know when the project is concluded?
Daniela: There is no specific date for the conclusion of the project. Once the message has been decoded, I will make an announcement together with the SETI Institute and the other collaborating institutions. At that point, people from all walks of life will be able to share their own interpretation of the message, continuing the process of meaning-making around it. I think the project will leave room for further analysis and interpretation long after its completion. The interpretation work on Discord might provide some very interesting content for researchers from all fields.
Paul: Is there anything that you wish you had done differently? Daniela: No, not particularly. One of the most challenging aspects of the project has been team management as the group of collaborators has grown exponentially and that can make things difficult to coordinate. On the other hand, everyone brings something very important and special to the project so I wouldn’t necessarily change the dynamic but I wish I had been more prepared for the incremental expansion of the project.
Paul: What has been learned in this project that can be applied to an actual message?
Daniela: It is probably early to assess the cultural and possibly scientific legacy of the project. For me, while creating the message, it was important to convey the many challenges that interpreting an actual ET message would entail. I wanted the message to be simple and at the same time complex, to present a scenario in which human knowledge would be radically questioned, while making sense of an ET message. The scenario that is unraveling on Discord is very interesting as participants have been testing their knowledge, embarking on an unusual and challenging journey with no certainty of success. Yet, they are attempting any possible interpretation of the simulated ET message.
Paul: Do you anticipate a follow-up project, and what would it look like?
Daniela: For now, A Sign in Space is still keeping me very busy and I am not starting a new project yet. I might be planning an online conference in collaboration with the SETI Institute, to host talks by the Discord participants, and invite them to present their various interpretations and theories. Other future outcomes might include a book, different types of publications, possibly an art exhibition in Shanghai in 2024 and other collaborative events connected to the project.
Paul: Does this project address the Fermi Paradox? How?
Daniela: The reception of an actual extraterrestrial signal is extremely challenging. A Sign in Space presents an imaginary scenario that might actually happen in the future. If we ever detected an ET signal, we might be able to understand why it is so difficult to find life or intelligent life outside of Earth.
Paul: Do you believe any of this matters? Why, or why not?
Daniela: I am optimistic there is extraterrestrial life. As human technology develops, we might be able to find life more easily in many parts of the cosmos. It might not be the kind of life we consider intelligent according to our current parameters. While searching for life outside of Earth, we would need to make progress on our understanding of intelligence and consciousness, looking at different life forms here on Earth. There might be exceptionally intelligent life living with us already that we are completely overlooking, blindsided by our secular beliefs.
Paul: And, the most difficult question: are we alone?
Daniela: Finding an extraterrestrial signal will likely not help humans answer this question. The signal might generate from a civilization now extinct. Seeing possible signatures of life on another planet through remote observing might not answer the question either. However, these findings, besides radically shifting our cultural foundations, might increase our chances to meet our cosmic cohabitants one day.
Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in editorials are those of the individual authors, and do not necessarily reflect the position of The SETI League, Inc., its Trustees, officers, Advisory Board, members, donors, or commercial sponsors.
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this page last updated 2 September 2023
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