Did Carl Sagan play a role in the famous Arecibo message transmitted toward the Hercules Cluster in 1974? I’ve always assumed so, given Sagan’s connection with Frank Drake, who was then at Cornell University, where Sagan spent most of his career. But opinion seems to vary. Artist/scientist Joe Davis, who now has affiliations with both MIT’s Laboratory of Molecular Structure and Harvard Medical School, noted in an email this morning that Sagan’s widow, Ann Druyan, supports the connection, but according to Davis, Drake himself denied Sagan’s role in the composition or transmission of the message.

I mention all this because of Tuesday’s post on the simulated SETI signal being sent via ESO’s Mars ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter, as a kind of work of art in its own right as well as a test case in building public involvement in the decoding of an unusual message. The idea of doing that irresistibly recalled Joe Davis because in 1988 Davis performed his own act of scientific art involving SETI, one that involved the Arecibo message and raised the question of whether any recipients would recognize it, much less decode it.

Image: A color-coded version of the Arecibo message highlighting its separate parts. The binary transmission itself carried no color information. Credit: Arne Nordmann / Wikimedia Commons. CC BY-SA 3.0.

The project, called “A Message in Many Bottles,” was set up at MIT’s Hayden Library in 1988. Davis used 1679 ‘Boston round’ 16 ounce glass bottles arrayed in a set of partitioned racks that were displayed in stacks. This is remarkably clever stuff: Each of 18 aisles in the library contained racks of bottles mounted, as Davis told me, 23 across. Empty bottles served as 0s in this digital message, while bottles filled with water represented the 1s. The whole thing reproduced the 1974 Arecibo message.

Now remember, this is MIT. You would think that if there is any place where a population of scientists, academics and students might puzzle out an enigmatic artifact like this, it would be here. Davis puts it this way in his email:

Hayden Library is MIT’s science library and contains all of the information needed to decode the message, all information the message refers to, and supposedly, better-than-average terrestrial intelligence. To the best of my knowledge, nobody decoded it. Instead, there were arguments…about whether or not the racks of bottles constituted works of art.

Image: An evidently baffled student contemplates the “Message in Many Bottles.” Credit: Joe Davis.

In 1997, a year after Sagan’s death, Davis reinstalled the display at MIT’s then new biology facility (Building 68), dedicating the work to the memory of Sagan. A short article on the matter in Nature (27 March 1997) noted the project as an homage to Sagan that accurately reproduced the Arecibo signal, going on to note:

Philip Sharp, chairman of MIT’s biology department, describes the exhibit as a “fitting tribute” to Sagan’s work. “It brings the abstraction of a radar message into an accessible, physical form,” says Sharp. He says he sees “numerous benefits” in having an artist who approaches issues from an unorthodox perspective working alongside more formally trained scientists.

Labeled as a tribute to Sagan and explained so that viewers could decode the message, “A Message in Many Bottles” served as an effective exhibit inhabiting the muzzy borderland where science meets art and creative minds translate research into shapes and forms that interrogate the meaning of our experiments. For that matter, was the Arecibo message itself not a kind of art, given that with a target 25,000 light years away, there was no conceivable way to see it as an actual communication?

Back in 2009 Joe Davis wrote “RuBisCo Stars” and the Riddle of Life for Centauri Dreams, presenting his own work at Arecibo, which wound up, on the 35th anniversary of the Arecibo message, in a new message based on molecular biology that was sent to three nearby stars. How he did this using, remarkably, an analog audio file on his iPhone interfacing with Arecibo’s technology is explained in the second part of his 2009 post, “RuBisCo Stars”: Part II. These two posts are, as everything involving Joe Davis’ work continues to be, invigorating and startlingly thought-provoking.

Image: At Arecibo, Joe Davis ponders transmission options as he holds the possible answer. Credit: Ashley Clark.

In fact, Davis notes in part II, in the midst of explaining to Arecibo’s then interim director Michael Nolan what his project is about, that “projects concerned with the search for extraterrestrial intelligence are really more about a search for ourselves; that they make us look much more intensely at ourselves than we look away into space and that nobody seems to see that part of it.” Nor could the myriad well-trained minds who encountered the Arecibo message in “A Message in Many Bottles” decode its meaning.

Science is so often about asking the right question. What are we staring at right now that we are not seeing? Are we asking the right questions about SETI?