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A New Model for Interstellar Communication

Communication between great distances is nearly instantaneous and is becoming faster every day. But when discussing communication with beings outside of our solar system, emails and text messages are still not fast enough to span the light-years of distance in one person’s lifetime. Civilizations Beyond Earth: Extraterrestrial Life and Society contributor Carl L. DeVito proposes that perhaps communication to the far reaches of space is about leaving a mark or a legacy, much like great civilizations of yore left for modern-day humans.




The laws of physics and the discoveries of astronomy place serious restrictions on interstellar communication.


Stars are light-years apart, and the special theory of relativity tells us that there are restrictions on the speed at which information can be exchanged. The times involved in sending and receiving messages, which may exceed many generations, rule out a dialogue.


There is another way of looking at this kind of communication, another perhaps more realistic “model.” Think of the ancient societies of Earth. They have, with the help of historians and archaeologists, passed on to us an understanding of their people’s lives, their societies, their art and philosophies. This knowledge enriches us, and to some extent, these societies live on in us. A similar model for interstellar communication is possible, and given the realities of physics and astronomy, it may be all that is possible.


In my chapter we explore ways in which the human race can pass on to the other intelligent races in the galaxy something about our astronomical environment, our biosphere, and perhaps our humanity.


In this model, the humanistic sciences—especially cross-cultural anthropology—play a key role.




Carl L. DeVito, PhD, is professor emeritus in the Department of Mathematics at the University of Arizona. He has developed one of the most widely cited proposals for interstellar messages, building on plausibly universal scientific concepts, and he has contributed to several edited volumes on interstellar message composition. His books include Harmonic Analysis: A Gentle Introduction, Functional Analysis, Linear Operator Theory, and Science, SETI, and Mathematics.


Civilizations Beyond Earth was first published in September 2011. The collection was edited by Douglas A. Vakoch and Albert Harrison. Read earlier blog posts about the collection: Life Beyond Earth? Survey Says… and Extra-Terrestrial Life: Good or Bad News?


Douglas A. Vakoch is Professor in the Department of Clinical Psychology at the California Institute of Integral Studies, as well as Director of Interstellar Message Composition at the SETI Institute. He serves as Chair of both the International Academy of Astronautics (IAA) Study Group on Interstellar Message Construction and the IAA Study Group on Active SETI: Scientific, Technical, Societal, and Legal Dimensions. His books include Communication with Extraterrestrial Intelligence (CETI), Psychology of Space Exploration: Contemporary Research in Historical Perspective, and Ecofeminism and Rhetoric: Critical Perspectives on Sex, Technology, and Discourse.


Albert A. Harrison is Professor Emeritus in the Department of Psychology at the University of California, Davis. In addition to researching the societal dimensions of astrobiology and SETI, he studies human adaptation to spaceflight and spaceflight-analogous environments. His books include After Contact: The Human Response to Extraterrestrial Life; Starstruck: Cosmic Visions in Science, Religion, and Folklore; Spacefaring: The Human Dimension; Living Aloft: Human Requirements for Extended Spaceflight; and From Antarctica to Outer Space: Life in Isolation and Confinement.