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Douglas Vakoch and Interstellar Message-Making

If we receive a message or signal from another civilization, our response will set the tone for interstellar dialogue for thousands of years, says Douglas Vakoch. Vakoch holds the fascinating position of Director of Interstellar Message Composition at the SETI Institute.

There are lots of factors to consider while crafting our message, including how much information we should share and what kind of languages and symbols we should use. Vakoch believes a variety of people from different disciplines should have a hand in composing this message. He's gathered scientists, artists, and others to contribute their expertise. Andrew Kaiser, a composer who has worked with Vakoch, believes that there is something in music that conveys a sense of being human. Concepts like rhythm, repetition, and silence reflect physical events in our bodies and aspects of the structure of our societies.

Music is largely rooted in math, a quality that makes it a good candidate as a form of interstellar communication. Aesthetically, humans seem to seek patterns, and many of the melodies we find pleasing often contain some sort of mathematical pattern. For this reason, Vakoch has worked with Kaiser to compose draft messages based on a series of numbers called a "Fibonacci sequence." In the sequence, every third number is the sum of the two preceding numbers. The result is 0, 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21…. This sequence is related to many natural phenomena, such as the distinctive shapes of spiral galaxies and the nautilus seashell, and has applications as diverse as the architecture of the Parthenon and the musical compositions of Bartok.

Vakoch believes that many natural sounds have an underlying mathematical logic, and that through evolution, humans may have become particularly sensitive and attuned to the audio patterns that result. These mathematical relationships, like the Fibonacci sequence, could help another civilization understand not only what kinds of sounds we live with and make, but also a sense of aesthetic that goes to the very core of our experience as humans.

You can listen to draft messages composed by Douglas Vakoch and Andrew Kaiser. These sounds may someday be the basis for messages we send via radio transmitter to another civilization.

In this clip, you can hear the Fibonacci series in the number of pulses, and also in the duration between silences when the file is played backward.

Listen to the clip | See an image of the pulse pattern

In this clip, you can hear the Fibonacci series in the changing duration of pulses.

Listen to the clip | See an image of the pulse pattern

To learn more about the Fibonacci series:

"An Introduction to the Fibonacci Series":
http://library.thinkquest.org/~27890/theSeries1.html

"Fibonacci Numbers in Art, Architecture, and Music":
http://www.mcs.surrey.ac.uk/Personal/R.Knott/Fibonacci/fibInArt.html

More information about Vakoch’s composing work with Kaiser:
http://www.space.com/searchforlife/seti_music_vakoch_020912.html

"The View from a Distant Star: Challenges of Interstellar Message-Making,"
(A paper by Vakoch about the history and design of interstellar messages):
http://208.55.253.100/mercury/mercury/9902/vakoch2.html

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