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The Last Pictures
The collection of images included on EchoStar XVI may be easier for any extraterrestrial intelligences to find than the plaques and records flown on the Pioneer and Voyager missions. (credit: Creative Time)

The Last Pictures: Contemporary pessimism and hope for the future (part 2)

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Of optimism, pessimism, and convergences

For the most part, one can rather easily be forgiven for thinking that The Last Pictures is primarily an early 21st Century artistic response to or mirror of the Voyager records made 35 years earlier. Most of those who commented on the records in relation to Paglen’s art project, including the artist himself, portray the construction of the Golden Record, those who put it together, and even the era in which this physical Message to Extraterrestrial Intelligences (METI) was made as overly optimistic, especially towards the future in which the shining grooved disc was intended for.

They decided not to show our pollution, poverty, and warfare, no more than one who is first meeting a potential friend would start off by telling them all about their problems.

Unfortunately for us, a positive and progressive view of the future has often been seen as both naive and retro since the time of the Voyagers (and often before) in various cultural circles, thanks, ironically, to a growing awareness of the negative effects human civilization has had on our planet’s environment and society. Our cultural and technological problems have often seemed insurmountable in the past and thus the rejection of a bright and shining future and anything that goes along with this view. Whether we become the makers of our own perceived demise has always been up to us, guided by our own mental and educational limitations, biases, and fears.

Now granted, the Record was designed with the intent of putting humanity’s “best foot forward” as declared multiple times in the wonderfully detailed 1978 book about the Record authored by the key members of the creative team titled Murmurs from Earth: The Voyager Interstellar Record. While the team certainly knew that the human species and its history was hardly full of saints and noble acts of enlightenment, they decided not to show our pollution, poverty, and warfare among this earliest gesture of introduction to the rest of the Milky Way (or at least some part of it), no more than one who is first meeting a potential friend and ally would start things off by telling them all about their problems and such. There would be the chance that the other person might not be shocked and offended by such an overt act, but it is better not to risk a negative reaction.

Perhaps there are cultures and species which would consider not addressing one’s flaws and other issues up front to be an offending deception, but that, in turn, would be a deception of the culture that made and launched the Voyager Records. With these early, tentative METI efforts heading off into a galaxy with so many unknowns, it is probably best to keep the metaphorical waters as clear as seemingly possible.

As I write these words, I am also reminded of the lesson I acquired from several college anthropology professors, who said that they and other members of their field often learned more truth about other cultures by digging through their garbage dumps than any of their monuments or official records. That being said, perhaps the only access beings from other worlds will have of humanity are these few token efforts at conveying something of ourselves. The complexities and potential issues of cultural “dumpster diving” may never come up, though technically we could load every bit of information about humanity and our world onto various types of storage media that could be affixed to a space probe.

Or perhaps, as Paglen envisions, those who find a Pioneer Plaque, a Voyager Record, or one of our electromagnetic transmissions will be interested enough to search us out, coming upon a future Earth where all that is left of humanity are our terrestrial ruins and that artificial ring of geosynchronous satellites, with one of them having a particular golden artifact bolted to its pitted hull. In that scenario, about all that would be left for the visiting ETI to do in terms of learning about us would be grand-scale dumpster diving.

After all, in the case of the Voyagers, the situation will very likely involve a receiving party that is neither human nor familiar with contemporary Earth encountering a derelict and unfamiliar vessel deep in the cold and dark of interstellar space. While one might presume that intelligences that can ply the starways are sophisticated enough to recognize a probe that is ancient, comparatively primitive, and nonhostile (not to mention nonfunctional), even if both sides are otherwise quite alien to each other, why take the chance of provoking an unknown species in an unknown situation, which in our current case is the vast majority of the galaxy and beyond!

This line of reasoning is why the Voyager Record team did not include images such as the mushroom cloud from a nuclear bomb detonation. While such a display of weaponry might seem pathetically crude to an interstellar-level civilization (assuming they even understood what the artificial cloud signifies), it might still be taken as a feeble threat to be acted upon, either through avoidance or removal of the source.

In contrast, The Last Pictures does include a photograph of an ocean-based atomic weapons test from the early days of the Cold War: A huge mushroom cloud composed of seawater and other debris rises and expands over a fleet of decommissioned military ships placed there purposely to see how such vessels would fare during a nuclear attack. While this picture is primarily part of Paglen’s commentary on humanity’s self-destructive nature, I cannot help but think he also purposely included this selection as an opposing tweak to the perceived culturally “scrubbed” and optimistic framework in the Voyager Records.

Paglen indeed took more than just cues from that METI predecessor and role model in an attempt to clarify the nature and origin of the EchoStar XVI Artifact to its potential finders.

The photograph of a Vietnamese family whose children were deformed by Agent Orange is another double-edged message in regards to the Voyager Record, which showed a humanity that is racially and culturally diverse but included none of its overt flaws. However, to note, there is one photograph from the Record which does deliberately attempt to display to its finders that we are not perfect beings: a bright orange “snowcat” vehicle from a 1958 expedition to Antarctica is shown hanging precariously over an opening in the ice sheet, seemingly ready to plunge into the dark chasm with any wrong move from the team members standing just behind it. While hardly as shocking an image as the children or several other items among The Last Pictures, its sheer incongruity among the photographs on the Voyager Record has at the least given it the chance of standing out to get its own message across in the same manner as Paglen’s representations of his own species.

Now despite all of the claims and efforts by the artist to specifically contrast the messages of the one hundred images in The Last Pictures from those 118 photographs engraved in the Voyager Record—especially when it came to explaining what it all means without resorting to a straightforward scientific underpinning—it is obvious to any student of the Record that Paglen did indeed take more than just cues from that METI predecessor and role model in an attempt to clarify the nature and origin of the EchoStar XVI Artifact to its potential finders.

Similarities may be found among the first row of photographs. (A thought: Will the discoverers of the Artifact know which way to properly look at the images?) There is an image of a rocket launching at night and another of Earth in gibbous phase as seen from high above our Moon.

While the rocket, a Soyuz FG, is not exactly of the same model that did loft EchoStar XVI and its Artifact into orbit (Proton-M/Briz-M), it is of a fairly similar design and from the same country of origin (and both were sent into space at night from the same space center). Sagan and his companions included an image of a Titan-Centaur III rocket launch from Cape Canaveral (carrying a Viking lander on its way to Mars in 1975) on the Record, the same kind of booster combination that subsequently sent the twin Voyagers on their way to the outer solar system and beyond in 1977.

The basic message in both cases is to convey the type of vehicle that got the satellite to where it will most likely be found one day. I like to imagine that a chemically-fueled rocket of any make or model would seem quite crude to whoever finds their payload, be it future humanity or an extraterrestrial intelligence. Of course, this assumes that alien beings also used similar vehicles to initially venture to the stars. Perhaps they decided early on that riding a long metal tube encasing a series of controlled explosions was a barbaric and suicidal method of reaching space and started off with a space elevator, a much more sedate if more complicated means of transportation. Or maybe most everyone had to go with rockets to get out of the deep gravity wells of their home planets.

As for the images of Earth, the Voyager Records contain several photographs of our planet from space. One in particular shows our world from far away as witnessed by the astronauts of the Apollo 11 expedition, the mission that placed the first humans on the lunar surface in July of 1969 and one that closely followed Apollo 8, the mission which had placed the first people around the Moon just seven months before and whose iconic visage of humanity’s home planet is part of The Last Pictures. At the risk of being obvious, whoever does find the EchoStar XVI satellite in geosynchronous orbit and comes upon the golden disc of the Artifact and its contents will only have to look at our world from their vantage point to get a good and rather quick idea as to where this ancient relic came from.

Two other parallels between the METI disc photographs sets are the Great Wall of China and an astronaut conducting an extravehicular activity, or EVA. Whereas the Voyager Record used an image of the first spacewalk by an American astronaut, specifically Edward H. White II during the Gemini 4 mission in 1965, Paglen included one of the first Soviet cosmonaut to EVA, Alexey A. Leonov, who beat White to this task by three months during the Voskhod 2 mission. Incidentally, Leonov went on to become an accomplished artist and author, painting space themes both real and imagined.

Paglen did cop one photograph directly from the Voyager Record, the depiction of how humans consume nutrients by variously eating, drinking, and licking it. That the artist chose this image is no surprise from an artist point of view: the scene has an almost Daliesque quality to it, one the famous surrealist artist might have appreciated. While it was initially created to show how our species gets food and liquid into our bodies, the need to make this activity distinctly clear in the photograph made for somewhat bizarre and humorous results, at least from our contemporary perspective. I appreciate that Paglen’s description of this image in his book included an update on what became of at least two of the three Cornell folks who volunteered for this photograph, along with further insights on their stories and thoughts on the event.

A few more observations

I was personally pleased to see that Paglen had included one of the diagrams depicting the famous (or infamous, depending on your point of view) Canals of Mars, first noted by the Italian astronomer Giovanni Schiaparelli in 1877 and not fully accepted to be optical illusions until robotic space probes began imaging the Red Planet up close nearly a century later.

Another tribute to humanity’s ideas and hopes on alien intelligences found in the collection is the printout of the famous “Wow!” Signal.

This particular sketch of the Martian canals was made by the Boston astronomer Percival Lowell, perhaps the biggest supporter and promoter of the mysterious lines across the faces of the fourth world from the Sun. His view that astronomers were witnessing the works of a superior native race, who were trying to save themselves on a dying globe by bringing water from the Martian polar caps to their cities via this massive network of canals, would influence our perspectives on the Red Planet in many ways to this very day. This includes our continued efforts to search for life there even in its most rudimentary forms, whether still in existence or as fossils.

As a quite relevant example of how our fascination with the potential for Martian life carries on long after space science revealed Mars to be a seemingly barren world biologically, Paglen included in The Last Pictures the famous electron microscope image of one of the “microfossils” found in ALH 84001, a meteorite from the surface of Mars discovered in Antarctica in 1984 and publicly announced by NASA 12 years later as having possible evidence of past life on the Red Planet. Whether humanity holds in its possession the first recognized evidence of alien organisms is something the scientific community still debates.

I see the inclusion of Lowell’s drawing as a commentary on the current state of our understanding on extraterrestrial life on the galactic scale, which in many respects is no better or worse than how Lowell and his contemporaries viewed Mars over a century ago. Perhaps this is also Paglen’s way of saying that he thinks alien beings are no more plausible than the Martians Lowell believed were responsible for the nonexistent canals. Or, perhaps, they do exist but are not at all what humans can even imagine. Ironically, Lowell was considered to be a rather poor draftsman when it came to his canal drawings, though the books he authored on his favorite alien planet were well written.

The other tribute to humanity’s ideas and hopes on alien intelligences found in the collection is the printout of the famous “Wow!” Signal. Researchers at Ohio State University (OSU), who had been conducting radio SETI with their Big Ear radio telescope since 1973, found themselves in a potential state of good fortune on August 15, 1977, when OSU astronomer Jerry R. Ehman noted a rather strong narrow-band signal on a printout from an observing run. He circled the alphanumeric code on the paper in red pen and wrote the word “Wow!” next to it, thus giving the event its name.

Whether the Wow! Signal was an actual transmission from an ETI or just terrestrial interference has never been fully determined. The signal did not repeat and numerous searches for it in the years since have turned up empty. Nevertheless, the Wow! Signal served as a prime example of how we thought an alien civilization might attempt to communicate across the Milky Way galaxy. The image of the printout may make no more sense to the Artifact finders than the photograph of the page of randomly generated numbers; however I am still glad that Paglen decided to preserve this important piece of SETI history.

As a side note, simply because I find it interesting: Voyager 2 was launched on its way to the outer solar system on August 20, 1977, just five days after the Wow! Signal was detected. Elvis Presley died the day after the Wow! Signal appeared and Groucho Marx passed away the day before Voyager 2 was sent into deep space. I cannot help but be reminded of the comment in the 1997 science fiction film Men in Black, which tells about a super secret organization that deals with alien refugees hiding on Earth, that Elvis did not die, “he just went home.”

Nunez sees all mathematics as subjective: any mathematics on the Artifact cover would be as useless for proper interpretation as a pattern of random scratch marks to an alien species and even humans from a different culture.

Among the possible reasons that Paglen included a photograph of a dandelion flower gone to seed, I would say it is most likely a nod to Carl Sagan, the key person behind the Pioneer Plaques and Voyager Interstellar Records and the co-creator and host of the famous Cosmos science series that premiered on PBS Television in 1980. Sagan utilized a wind-transported seed (from a milkweed plant, I believe) in Cosmos to start off the series by having the seed rise up into the celestial firmament and transform into the Spaceship of the Imagination, which took Sagan and his vast audience via special effects to any place in the universe that each episode focused on. Lastly, the animated logo seen in every episode of Cosmos released on DVD by Carl Sagan Productions is of a cluster of dandelion seeds on a stem being blown to the stars.

The temporal map

Another place where the Pioneer Plaques and Voyager Records had their influence on The Last Pictures is on the outward-facing half of the gold-plated aluminum covers protecting the silicon disc with the photographs. Unlike its aforementioned predecessors, the EchoStar XVI communications satellite that the Artifact is attached to will be staying in a very wide orbit about its home planet indefinitely. Since it is considered rather obvious as to where the satellite came from, Paglen focused on attempting to inform the Artifact finders as to when EchoStar XVI was built and launched into space.

As with most serious previous efforts to communicate with ETI, Paglen opted to use the language of science as the best chance for the Artifact’s finders to comprehend the place in time where those one hundred little photographs came from, along with the big derelict satellite it is connected to. Initially, however, Paglen did not intend to go this route, as he says on page 18 of the companion book:

“I always thought the [Artifact] cover would be something deliberately surrealistic, a nonsensical image or pattern. At one point I thought the cover should be an image of a tall, goat-headed man towering over a startled child. But as the deadline for the final design got closer and closer, I started to have a dramatic change of mind. At another, I thought the cover should bear a simple inscription: ‘Please do not disturb me. Let me stay here so that I may witness the end of time.’”

Enlisting the help of astronomer and physicist Joel M. Weisberg from Carleton College, Paglen put together a temporal map. As explained in their paper on the EchoStar XVI Artifact cover etching, this map is designed “to indicate the spacecraft’s Epoch of Origin using currently measured quantities such as the South Celestial Pole location, Earth’s stellar rotation period, location of tectonic plates, orbital period of the Moon, locations of stars and extragalactic radio sources, and positions and periods of pulsars.”

Along with the pulsar maps employed on both the Pioneer Plaques and the protective cover of the Voyager Records, Paglen and Weisberg used their representation of the ground state transition of neutral atomic hydrogen as a fundamental unit of time. Not only is hydrogen easy and simple to replicate as a diagram, it also happens to be the most abundant element in the universe. It should be readily recognizable to any beings that can travel through deep space and dwell far in the future.

As the art project was under development, several people protested this method of talking to unknown intelligences in the far future. Prominent among them was Rafael E. Nunez, a cognitive scientist from the University of California at San Diego. Nunez sees all mathematics as subjective: any mathematics on the Artifact cover would be as useless for proper interpretation as a pattern of random scratch marks to an alien species and even humans from a different culture.

Nunez even gets to state his case in Chapter 4 of the book, mocking the statement made by the character of SETI scientist Ellie Arroway about “mathematics [being] the only truly universal language” in the 1997 film version of Carl Sagan’s only science fiction novel, Contact (the ETI who contact humanity in Sagan’s work use the first one hundred prime numbers, which are digits divisible only by themselves and one, to get our attention, as no known natural phenomenon makes such a signal). Nunez goes further to say that aliens themselves, because “no actual forms of extraterrestrial aliens—dead or alive—have ever been documented empirically, such beings are, scientifically, nonentities… Aliens, as we know them, are the product of human imagination.” The professor sums up his essay in the companion book that “if we want to believe that talking mathematics to aliens makes sense, we must humbly accept that we are anthropomorphizing, big time.”

Despite Nunez being “visibly annoyed” about the plan to put a star map on the EchoStar XVI Artifact cover, Paglen ultimately defended the idea thusly:

“If we make a star map, and no one ever finds it, then we’ve lost nothing. If we make a star map, and someone does find it but cannot interpret it, then we also haven’t lost anything. But if we’re wrong and they can interpret it, the star chart might make them very happy. It might truly be a treasure.”

Nunez would eventually go along with Paglen’s idea as a thought experiment, helping the artist to decide on the “calibration” shapes for the cover. They ultimately chose two geometric patterns that would hopefully teach the map notations to its potential finders: A “right triangle whose sides are 1, meaning its hypotenuse is the square root of two” and “the proportion of the area of a circle to a surrounding square—a figure chosen because, unlike transcendental numbers such as pi and e, it has absolutely zero metaphysical baggage.”

Paglen’s numerous comments to the contrary in his book and elsewhere, to me this shows that he at least hopes someone will find the Artifact some day, which in turns says that the artist thinks humanity will last long enough to perform such a feat. Either that or another more successful intelligence will fulfill his underlying agenda. Certainly Paglen wants his fellow contemporary humans to note his work and its messages, otherwise why go to all that effort, time, and money? Paglen is not quite that avant garde.

As for Nunez, while I understand why Paglen would choose this particular professor as a sort of “devil’s advocate” to again make sure he is not appearing too much like an optimistic and scientifically rational Carl Sagan of the 1970s, I found the cognitive scientist to be a bit too much of a naysayer for this kind of a project.

The odds of a properly equipped ETI or future humanity finding the Artifact are much higher than for the Voyager or Pioneer probes.

Yes, mathematics may be subjective and therefore incomprehensible to even humans too far separated by culture and time, let alone minds from another world. Yes, we know of no other actual alien beings at present via empirical science and what we think are even our best ideas on the subject are based on our experiences with other life forms strictly from a single planet, Earth. It is also a given that most professionals across the board who want to be taken seriously by their peers and relevant authority figures do not want to be too closely associated with the idea of aliens, thanks in no small part to the centuries of subpar science fiction stories on the subject and the fringe elements that have come from the UFO phenomenon and its related subcultures. Nunez makes sure to slam home his stance by twice lumping aliens in with “angels, phantoms, [and] Donald Duck” along with the dig at Sagan, the most prominent member of the Voyager Record team, via his novel and film Contact. I was a bit surprised that those old standbys, Bigfoot and the Loch Ness Monster, did not get included in his list of mythical creatures.

However, if you are going to create and send an actual message into the future either for ETI or your distant children (who may become more alien to us than we are to Homo habilis, as an example), you need to “bite the bullet” and come down on certain lines rather than stay up in the clouds of subjectivity, which are always safer in terms of potentially being wrong and ridiculed for making a particular declaration despite imperfect evidence. The same goes for conducting SETI/METI and interstellar travel: either we attempt to learn what is out there in the rest of existence by making a real effort to know using the tools we have now, or we get bogged down in a sea of philosophical ramifications and ultimately lose our momentum and drive, which will lead to us losing the reason our species is what it is and got as far as it has in the first place—even if it is that dreaded “progress” which Paglen and others keep warning us about.

No, we do not know of any real aliens or their motives yet, but for METI that are attached to spacecraft that have no long-range goals other than to drift aimlessly through space, we can define the parameters for the kinds of intelligences that will be required to find these vessels and their messages. For both the EchoStar XVI Artifact and the two Voyager Records, our ETI will need to be capable of sophisticated interstellar travel, which means knowing some form of science and technology, which includes mathematics. All that will come from a species which not only has high knowledge but actively seeks it out. This much we can reasonably guess about our recipient intelligences. Whether they do or will actually exist, of course, remains to be seen.

In fact the odds of a properly equipped ETI or future humanity finding the Artifact are much higher than for the Voyager or Pioneer probes, since EchoStar XVI will remain circling its home planet along with many other satellites for ages, while our first craft to venture into the interstellar void are few in number and will drift through galactic parts unknown beyond a light year or two, with no power and not even enough starlight to expose their existence by reflection. Anyone deliberately visiting our solar system for the purpose of investigation should find it hard to ignore Earth, a shiny rock 12,750 kilometers in diameter, whatever state its surface may be in. The same should then follow for the thousands of glittering metal objects surrounding it like a halo.