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Creative writing for extraterrestrials

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

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"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, Calif.

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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 – 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 – 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 – or understood – 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 extraterrestrials."