For a long time there was an assumption in SETI circles that when Contact came it would be through the detection of an unambiguous radio signal, a clarion call from the depths of space that would be unmistakably alien. SETI scientists and enthusiasts alike maintained that an ET signal will be both simple and easy to identify as being extraterrestrial in nature. Now we realize it might not be that straightforward. ETs might be attempting communication via lasers, or holograms, or some other way we can't even imagine. We're looking for a needle in a haystack whilst wearing a blindfold and boxing gloves.
While the best case scenario would be for our first ET signal to be a Sputnik-like beeping from the depths of space, telling us how far we have to turn the galactic radio dial before we hear the clear tones of "Voice Of the Milky Way", it's more likely that the transmission will contain a LOT of information which will be hard to decode, especially if that information wasn't created and transmitted with the purpose of making contact, but 'leaked'. Earth leaks signals out into space all the time, and the radio ripples spreading away from us carry not only entertainment programs but documentary-style factual programs too. Wildlife documentaries, natural history features, gardening shows, cookery shows, sports events, all of them carrying a wealth of accurate information for any ETIs who stumble upon them.
Might alien civilizations be "leaking" too? If they are, then we should cross our fingers that there are ET equivalents of "National Geographic" specials heading towards us, packed with useful information, instead of their versions of "Big Brother". What a disaster that would be?
But what about programs concerning art? Art contains lots of confusing and conflicting signals. Art is subjective and very personal. And although many forms of art are self explanatory, realistic and easily interpreted, so-called modern art, with its geometrical patterns, chaotic curves, random patterns and psychedelic swirls and whorls of color, take some figuring out.
The odds against us stumbling across an ET episode of "Art Today" are ridiculously high, but not impossible. Perhaps a civilization might, after millennia spent refining its sciences, value art more highly, so highly they felt a desire to share their artistic achievements with the rest of the Galaxy, (and preserve them in the process too, of course). Such a civilization might broadcast the contents of their galleries, scattering them among the stars like confetti, distributing them like a cosmic form of "shareware"...
But one civilization?s art could be mistaken by another for scientific images, graphical representations of scientific concepts, or illustrations from some advanced physics textbook, and vice versa. Would we recognize - and/or aesthetically appreciate - any incoming examples, whole or fragmented, of ET art? And it works both ways: what would an ETI make of Picasso's works, when only a very few of us here on Earth have a clue what they're meant to represent? And are we really sure that ETs will correctly interpret those pulsar maps on the sides of our Voyagers and Pioneers, or will they just think "Hmmm, interesting composition, but too abstract for me.."?
The nature of ET art will be dictated by their range of senses, their environment, their evolutionary path, psychology and physiology. Of course, they could create familiar-looking compositions and provide us with stunning landscapes and portraits of the living things they share their corner of the Galaxy with, but it's more likely that the art created by ETs might be so different to our own that it would be unrecognizable as art. What sort of art might a mechanical ET produce? Would they rejoice in perfect design, see beauty in purely functional forms and shapes, have only disdain for soft lines and subtle, soft colors?
Perhaps some ETs will be so advanced they might create art on a literally astronomical scale, manipulating astronomical objects or entire regions of space?
It seems to me that ETs centuries or even millennia ahead of us would have so much power and so much energy at their disposal that the lines between art and engineering would eventually become blurred. As their artists strove to produce bigger and better works, they would need increasingly larger "canvases" for their works. Think of the evolution of our own art. Once we painted on cave walls, then discovered canvases, and how to sculpt stone. We then moved on to illuminating the sides of buildings with lasers and carving faces in mountainsides. Where next? Laser sculptures in the sky? Sculptures in Earth orbit? Images projected onto the Moon?
Now put yourself in the shoes of an artist a thousand, ten thousand years ahead. What canvas is big enough for your ambitions and imagination...? How about deliberately crashing asteroids or comets into gas giants to create exotic and wonderful patterns in their clouds, to be enjoyed by millions watching the show from across your solar system..?
Perhaps alien artists are painting with the very light of the stars themselves. Look at those breathtaking pictures of planetary nebulae taken by the Hubble Space Telescope, with all their multi-colored, intricately-structured shells, veils and curtains of starfire swirling around them. By interfering with the stars lurking inside such a nebula, maybe by dumping material on their surfaces, alien artists might be able to change the density and "gusts" of the solar wind shaping it, and in so doing manipulate the shape of the nebula into patterns and forms of their choosing. Would advanced civilizations be able to create epic-scale light-and-gas sculptures in this way?
Think about it. How many times have you looked at a Hubble image and thought "That's a work of art?"?
Maybe you were right.
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NOTE: The views of this article are the author's and do not reflect the policies of the National Space Society.
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