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Creative Writing For Extraterrestrials

From: UFO UpDates - Toronto <ufoupdates.nul>
Date: Sat, 17 May 2008 12:55:00 -0400
Archived: Sat, 17 May 2008 12:55:00 -0400
Subject: Creative Writing For Extraterrestrials

Source: The Christian Science Monitor - Boston,
        Massachusetts, USA


May 15, 2008

Creative Writing For Extraterrestrials

A college class, funded by a NASA Space Grant Consortium,
contemplates what to say to E.T.

Laramie, WYO. - On the windswept campus of the University of
Wyoming, spring is struggling to arrive, students are fighting
their way through finals, and Jeffrey Lockwood's creative
writing class is grappling with how to talk to aliens. And
they're not kidding.

"So, what this is really about is a cosmic first date?"
Professor Lockwood teases the class. "You want to look good, but
not fake?"

His 11 students, gathered for their final meeting of the
semester, are discussing how to describe humanity to other
civilizations. Should they put our best collective foot forward,
and tell stories that illustrate altruism and romantic love?
Should they also explain lying and warfare?

There are no easy answers. "I leave here with a headache a lot,"
says graduate creative-writing student Christina Ingoglia.
"We're always constructing our audience. We can't assume a basic
understanding of language =96 we can't assume anything."

During one of the semester's first classes, Lockwood asked the
students to summarize the human condition in 250 words, then 50,
then 10. While some students chose the poetic =96 "We are an
adolescent species searching for our identity," wrote English
major Ann Stebner =96 Ms. Ingoglia stuck with the anatomical. "Two
arms, two legs, head, torso, symmetrical," she thought, would be
a safer way to introduce humanity to an unknown world. "Then I
realized that we're sending out all sorts of messages anyway,
through radio waves," Ingoglia says, and she got bolder.

One of her projects, a series of fictional eulogies, takes a
core sample of human diversity, describing the lives and deaths
of an infant, a drag queen, an American soldier, and others
through the eyes of loved ones.

English 4050/5560, otherwise known as "Interstellar Message
Composition," is the first class to enlist creative writers in a
potential cosmic conversation. Funded in part by the National
Aeronautics and Space Administration's Wyoming Space Grant
Consortium, it's designed to fill a practical =96 if extremely
theoretical =96 need. "We've thought a lot about how we might
communicate with other worlds, but we haven't thought much about
what we'd actually say," says Lockwood, a professor of natural
science and humanities.

Humans have dreamed about conversing with extraterrestrials for
centuries. We've considered lighting kerosene-filled canals in
the Sahara Desert; we've listened for radio signals from Mars;
and we've sent NASA spacecraft aloft with representations of
human beings and the solar system, and recordings of the
Brandenburg Concerto and "Johnny B. Goode."

In recent decades, while a few scientists have deliberately sent
specific radio messages skyward, most have allowed humanity's
daily buzz of signals to speak for itself. Extraterrestrial
communication, after all, has significant political
implications, and researchers have found it less controversial,
and more efficient, to simply listen to the universe. But as
powerful radiotelescopes allow astronomers to study stars in
greater numbers and at greater distances, the chances of running
into another civilization =96 while still considered infinitesimal
=96 are better than ever.

"It could be tomorrow that we'll need to be ready to decide if
we should reply," says Douglas Vakoch, director of interstellar
message composition for the nonprofit SETI (Search for
Extraterrestrial Intelligence) Institute in Mountain View,

Dr. Vakoch, who advises and has visited Lockwood's class, says
decisions about whether and how to answer shouldn't be made by
researchers alone. "I think it's really critical to have people
start thinking about it =96 and it makes sense to start with
writers," he says. "These are people who are really trying to
express the human condition."

The work of creative writers could also inspire a more
interesting conversation. "If all we end up talking about is
'Yeah, we know the Pythagorean theorem, too,' I'll be
disappointed," says Lockwood. "I want to know something that
challenges my parochial views of the universe."

In Lockwood's classroom, the questions continue. How might
extraterrestrials communicate? Would they be able to see and
hear, or only see, or have a sense completely foreign to us?
Might they have technology able to translate human language, or
would they better understand messages written in mathematical
patterns, or with an extremely limited vocabulary? Through the
semester, the students have experimented with all these
possibilities. Graduate student Dixie Thoman presents a poem
about menstruation, with syllables arranged in a Fibonacci
sequence, and a poem that describes giving birth in only four
words: pain, loud, force, breath.

The class, which includes a buffalo rancher, a university
accountant who sculpts in his spare time, and psychology and
journalism students alongside the creative writers, often
disagreed. For the first several weeks of the class, English
major Spencer Pittman argued against sending any fiction or
poetry into the cosmos, favoring encyclopedia-style entries
instead. "Why bother with another layer of cryptology?" he asks.

But in the course of the semester, he's changed his mind. "There
are some things you can't convey without art," he says now.

The students ultimately discovered more commonalities than
differences. "Birth came up a lot, death came up a lot," says
Marissa Johnson-Valenzuela, a graduate student in creative
writing. "We found out what's left when you take away all the
minor stuff." And they all came to agree that when it comes to
communicating big ideas, it's best to start small, with stories
rather than grand abstractions.

Lockwood, who trained as an entomologist before venturing into
philosophy and creative writing, found that the class drew on
all his disparate interests. "Some insects can see into the
ultraviolet spectrum, and can't see red light =96 others are
acutely sensitive to odors, while we're basically blind to
odors," he says. "Their world is not our world, and in some ways
that primed me to be very interested in what it is to think and
understand in a way that's radically different from our own."

After the close of the semester, the students will send their
writings to Vakoch and his colleagues at the SETI Institute,
where their efforts may one day inspire a message to another
world. While the chances of their stories, poems, and
reflections finding a nonhuman audience are extraordinarily
slim, Lockwood says that even the whisper of that possibility
has kept his class engaged with the problem. And if his
students' work is never heard =96 or understood =96 by its intended
recipients, they'll still have learned something about the
fundamental difficulties of interpersonal communication.

"In a sense," Lockwood says, "all writing is writing for

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