Dr. Douglas Vakoch

Director of Interstellar Message Composition, SETI Institute

Douglas Vakoch is the Director of Interstellar Message Composition at the SETI Institute, as well as the only social scientist employed by a SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) organization. Dr. Vakoch researches ways that different civilizations might create messages that could be transmitted across interstellar space, allowing communication between humans and extraterrestrials even without face-to-face contact. He is particularly interested in how we might compose messages that would begin to express what it's like to be human.

Dr. Vakoch leads the SETI Institute's project to compose interstellar messages of the kind that may some day be sent in reply to a signal from extraterrestrials. As a member of the International Institute of Space Law, he examines international policy issues related to sending such responses. In addition to being a clinical psychologist (Ph.D., State University of New York at Stony Brook), Dr. Vakoch has formal training in comparative religion (B.A., Carleton College) and the history and philosophy of science (M.A., University of Notre Dame). His broad background gives him unique insights into the significance of SETI as a human enterprise in deeper self-understanding. In addition to his position at the SETI Institute, Dr. Vakoch is Chair of the Faculty at the California Institute of Integral Studies, where he teaches in the Department of Clinical Psychology.

Dr. Vakoch has published widely in scholarly books and journals in psychology, anthropology, astronautics, and the relationship between the arts and sciences. He is the editor of several forthcoming books, including Between Worlds: The Art and Science of Interstellar Message Composition (The MIT Press), Psychology of Space Exploration: Contemporary Research in Historical Perspective (NASA History Series), Ecofeminism in Literature and Rhetoric (Berghahn Books), and Culture in the Cosmos: Extraterrestrial Life and Society (Berghahn Books). His work has been featured in newspapers and magazines such as the New York Times, Nature, Science, and Der Spiegel. As a spokesman on the cultural aspects of SETI, he has been interviewed on radio and television shows on the BBC, NPR, ABC, The Learning Channel, The Discovery Channel, and many others.

“If some day we detect a technological civilization around a distant star, one of our most critical decisions,” says psychologist Douglas Vakoch, “will be whether we should reply, and if so, what we should say.” As the Director of Interstellar Message Composition at the SETI Institute, Vakoch leads an international group of scientists, artists, and scholars from the humanities, as they ponder how we could communicate what it’s like to be human across the vast distances of interstellar space.

“Any civilization capable of building a radio telescope is also likely to know the basics of math and science,” he explains, “providing a universal language for interstellar communication.” By emphasizing the link between music, math, and physics, Vakoch suggests we might communicate something about our aesthetic sensibilities. Having established a vocabulary of math and science, we might even convey something about humanity’s highest ideals. “Drawing on some basic principles of game theory and genetics, we can begin to explain something as seemingly abstract as the notion of altruism.”

Rather than emphasizing our strength and wisdom in a message to more advanced civilizations, Vakoch suggests a more humble approach. “I think the most powerful message that we could send to beings on another world,” he says, “is that we are a young civilization. We are in our technological adolescence. We are struggling. We are uncertain that we’re even going to survive. And yet, we have enough hope, that we are willing to send a message and listen, maybe a hundred or a thousand years later, with the hope that we’ll get a reply.”

- SETI Institute Explorer, Special Edition 2005

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