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Launchpad Day 5, PM, Part the Second - Fawning on Stars and Writing for ET

We had a hands-on session which showed us how those pretty coloured pictures of stars and galaxies and nebulae which we all so love are actually MADE - because telescope cameras produce these grainy black and white shots crammed with artifacts and noise all of which need to be accounted for and dealt with before the picture is remotely ready for public viewing.

We primarily worked with the image of the Ring Nebula which the nice fellows up at WIRO took for us - it is obstinately grainy, because of very short exposures, but it was electric watching that thing metamorphose and blossom into this wonderful deep-space coloured torus hanging out in darkest space. (Perhaps this would be a good place to note that the image capture program that astronomers use is called... DS9. Yes, after Star Trek. I am immensely tickled by this.)




That one was mine. maryrobinette wound up with a better one, see below:



We also worked with some really cool images of spiral galaxies and globular clusters, playing around with the imaging programs IDL and tctools, where you combine three layers (red, green, blue) and then make a full colour image, and then you can manipulate the levels of each layer so you get more or less red, blue or green - and sometimes very small changes produce startling transformations.














In a nutshell, all telescope images are grainy B&W and they get manipulated into the beautiful colour images we have learned to know and love – need to take a dark exposure (to subtract from exposure) and a flattening image (focus on white, to even out pixel levels) and have to deal with artefacts such as cosmic rays and then you manipulate the resulting image with colour. The grainier, the shorter the exposure was.

This was SO COOL. I could have happily stayed there and juggled galaxies all afternoon.

But we had other things to do, and so we left the computers (very reluctantly in my case) and came back to the classroom for the lecture on SETI. That was the only thing in the description of the program - "SETI" - and given the hard-science focus of the rest of the workshop what I expected (and rather hoped for) was an overview of the SETI program, how it started, what it accomplished, the methods that were used, all that. Instead, we got... a lecture on how to communicate with ET. There was actually a vivid discussion on the matter both during and after class because there were differing and passionately held opinions on the matter, but down below is a summary of what we did in that class.

SETI

The five c’s that might motivate a writer to communicate with an alien

CRAFT – it would stretch the writer in ways that would possibly help in the rest of their writing (for humans) writing outside the comfort zone
CONSCIOUSNESS – deeper inquiry into explorations of themselves and the human condition – the message may never be sent, or received, or understood – but it puts across to another kind of intelligence what it means to be human
COULD HAPPEN – it COULD be sent, received, read, interpreted. Probability is very small but it is not zero – an element of immortality, influence, power, responsibility – an element of seriousness – you might well be the first ambassador to an alien culture
CULTURE – promote an appreciation of space science and space faring culture – science cradling the creative imagination of an artist
CONNECTIONS

These came from a workshop the presenter did with writers

So did exercises with the writers

Assume aliens are passing through our system at really fast but still relativistic speeds giving time for one single brief encounter, enough time for five questions to be asked of them. We were supposed to come up with five questions we would ask.

Mine:
1) what is the purpose of your journey?
2) what have you seen on your way here?
3) what do you hope to take/learn from this meeting?
4) do you dream?
5) what does “home” mean?

Then we all had to pick the best out of the five of the person next to us.

What does “home” mean?
Why?
What is the most important thing you have to tell us?
What would you like to learn from us?
What is your origin?
How does your work?
What life forms have you encountered?
Can we swap one of your beings for one of ours?
What is your biological basis?
How is your craft moved?
Is your consciousness housed in a physical body?
When will you come again?
How would you describe yourselves to us?
Will you send us images of yourselves?
Will you trade goods or information with us?

Second part of exercise – assume that as we were sending them questions they were doing the same back at us – and these were the questions WE received (with obvious omissions, concerning ship propulsion etc). So, now, choose ONE question and answer on behalf of humanity.

Here’s mine:

“What does ‘home’ mean?

We have physical senses through which we experience the world we live in, a place that is probably completely unlike anywhere else. Nowhere else will you smell the freshness of the air after a spring rain, or feel the roughness of granite beneath your hand, or hear an eagle’s cry, or see a sequoia. There may be similar things on other worlds, but “home” means the place where you instinctively know and understand the things that surround you and know yourself to be a part of something that needs to include these things and yourself in order to feel complete.

One more exercise
Complementary modalities
Two challenges

Craft a piece (poem, scene, meditation, whatever) about something about human beings that is prime, foundational – BUT you have to do it in terms of prime numbers

1,2,3,5,7,11,13,17,23

Fibonacci series

1,1,2,3,5,8,13,21,34, 55 (add two numbers to get the next one)

Or write about the importance of pattern, we are powerfully gifted at recognition of pattern

Okay.


[the prime poem]
[1,2,3,5,7,11,13,17,23, 29, 31, 33]

1 I

2 Am not

3 Alone in this

5 Huge frightening empty starlit void

7 That presses down upon us when we

11 Raise our eyes to the sky. Rather, what I see

13 are the bright eyes of our ancestors, the stars from which we
ourselves

17 first sprang. Each atom, every molecule in my body and my blood
and my bone once lived

19 deep within a sun, and sometimes in the silence of the starlit
night they remember where they came from.

23 The quiet star dreams that stir within me when I raise my eyes to
the brightness of the sky will always remind me

29 of my origins, and my destination, the places where I have been
and the places I am still to go, a road stretching out before me,
lit only by

31 the ancient light of suns remembered, living only within me, and
light that travelled far to spill itself at my feet, light from my
past that comes to light my future

(see how that compares to the one I wrote just before I came to Launchpad, minus the goad of the writing exercise...)

Other people came up with really spectacular stuff, in particular David Levine who blew me away and Mary Robinette Kowal


10 quick lessons that the presenter derived from teaching this course on extraterrestrial message composition:

“I don’t know” – in any other context I know what a “good” piece looks like, but I don’t know my audience (they are alien to us and they will not think the way we do) would a complete piece of garbage appeal to them far more than the most carefully crafted message we could come up with? I know what good writing is but what is a good message for an ET?

“Writing?” – why writing? How would we know that they even have a concept of writing as we know it, particularly of the kind of often rarefied offerings that come out of these exercises? Is there going to be a complete translation gap? Will they understand the concept of the written word? Art says something “interesting” rather than “just the facts, ma’am” about us. (Laura disagrees – she thinks that a technologically based species has to have a grasp of the fundamentals of the universe and anyone looking for us is looking for patterns of sentience and they might not recognize poetry as such)

“Absurdity” – the absurdity of writing, the notion that what I put on the page will be understood by whoever reads it? But what if stop short of aliens and write for each other – for people of different background or language group or in some other way strange – what do these people get out of a piece of writing? Is it possible to understand something even if you share nothing but the basic fact of being human? Metaphor can be divisive – the punchline of a joke can fall flat if the background culture is not shared in a common metaphor

“Alien” – alien is arguably one of the most modern concepts in modern culture. Why would communicating with an EXTRATERRESTRIAL alien be so iimpossible if we could figure out how to communicate with the aliens amongst ourselves?

“The 1st act of creation” – it’s the creation of your reader. Usually it’s a given but with the “alien” audience you cannot assume anything at all and it forces the writer to take a whole other look at ordinary (and often actively dangerous) assumptions or conclusions that might have been leaped to

“universal and particular” – what it means to be human is to experience the PARTICULAR – a philosophical treatise just doesn’t have the impact of the particular and direct – grief does not equal a philosophical treatise but one writer wrote a series of eulogies for different losses and different contexts – a newborn baby, an AIDS victim, an old man… (should try that)

“whole being” – nature of human is to be an embodied mind so you can’t leave out one of those two, being human is being integrated as mind/body

“serious play” – there’s a sense of responsibility – you might speak for humanity after all – but at the same time you’re playing with words, with concepts, with ideas, with the possibility of “translating” metaphor and what it can mean to an alien mind

“complementarity” – use modalities that complement one another – e.g. poems based on primes, or describing a scene without using vision but with all other senses – you really have to work at it

“prayerfulness” – the nature of faith. What is faith? Can our aliens be strict empiricists and have no concept of faith as we understand it?

“it’s entirely possible that the math won’t work; it’s probable that the poetry won’t work” david levine


The overarching lesson is that the challenge and discipline of communicating with the other makes people better writers by virtue of casting communication in this context.
But it ends up as a self developmental exercise. When we communicate with an alien what we say next depends on what their response was to our first communication – it will be a dialogue, not a presentation. You cannot anticipate this in any way. So any idea of “practicing” communication with aliens is absurd in the extreme because by definition we cannot possibly know anything beyond a first step and even that is often unknowable because the first step – offering up communication – does NOT mean full mutual comprehension and will start out, and probably remain, and probably remain for a long time and possibly forever, as mutual incomprehension. Is “practicing” just navel gazing?

A little disappointed in this session. I can do writing exercises any time. I wanted to know more about the SETI program or programs out there, SETI@home perhaps, what the science behind the idea of SETI is and how it is applied and where and what, if anything, has been achieved so far. I would have liked to see Arecibo data. I would have liked to see, in the context of this particular workshop of all places, a serious look at a potential alien encounter and what we are doing to look for another sentient race rather than doing arguably interesting but fundamentally overtaken in terms of importance and meaning to the writers in this room (writing exercises).

Okay, it was fun, but I wanted more from this one.

STAR PARTY

A night of amateur astronomy on the physics building roof – two nifty telescopes of differing types (one of them computerized tracking), night goggles and a pair of plain garden variety binoculars. Lots of light pollution here so the milky way not so bright and beautiful – but we did see several interesting things.

We looked at Antares. we looked at the Wild Duck cluster, and at the same Ring Nebula which we looked at when we were at WIRO. We looked at Andromeda through night goggles and binoculars. We looked at Jupiter, and saw it and three of its moons, one of which was in the process of transiting the planet and we clearly saw its shadow crossing the planet. We saw the space station transit overhead. We saw several satellites, one of which showed us what was described as an Iridium Flash, which has a story to it. Apparently Iridium was a phone company which put up a bunch of satellites to ensure that they had coverage anywhere you were on earth. The company eventually went bankrupt - but of course the satellites are still up there. At a certain point in their transit they turn at a certain angle and flash a brief and bright shaft of reflected sunlight earthwards, when the angle of the satellite and the sun and the observer are absolutely perfectly synchronised. Apparently some people make it a hobby to calculate when and where, precisely, an Iridium Flash could be observed. We also saw another couple or four shooting stars, and lots of bats (twinkle twinkle little bat…)

Then home, and bed.
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