University historian on the multi-disciplinary international team of project “A Sign in Space”
The idea of communicating with extra-terrestrial life rarely fails to trigger public interest. Hence, when people across the world learned that the SETI Institute (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence Institute) in California and the European Space Agency (ESA) were planning on transmitting a simulated extraterrestrial message on May 24, 2023, that would be open to the public to decode, they were all ears.
The message was successfully transmitted from the ESA’s Trace Gas Orbiter revolving around Mars. The signal was received by the Green Bank Telescope and the Allen Telescope Array in the United States as well as the Medicina Radio Observatory in Italy.
The coded message, part of a project called “A Sign in Space”, was created by Daniela de Paulis, an established interdisciplinary artist and licensed radio operator who currently serves as Artist in Residence at the SETI Institute and the Green Bank Observatory in the US.
For the project, de Paulis brought together a team of international experts, including SETI researchers, space scientists, and artists. One of de Paulis’s advisors was Jörg Matthias Determann, Ph.D., a historian and Associate Professor in the department of Liberal Arts & Sciences at VCUarts Qatar. He is a researcher who has penned several features, papers and books, and delivered talks and presentations on topics that connect Islam, Arab civilization and astronomy.
Explaining his role and how the project brought like-minded people, specialists and enthusiasts, together, Determann said, “I was able to share findings from my research on Islamic theology and extraterrestrial life with a team made up of physicists, engineers, designers, social scientists and artists, thus adding Muslim perspectives to our global collaboration. This was a project that truly united scientists, artists and scholars from a range of disciplines. And rightly so – communication with another planet is a very complex challenge, and we, the human race, will need to use the wisdom, knowledge and sensitivities from each and every continent and culture, to make such a dialogue successful. It was an honor and privilege to be part of such a project and share my expertise.”
He added, “So far, our project has only been a test. However, our simulated contact with aliens could one day turn out to have been useful practice for an actual encounter with an extraterrestrial intelligence. Given our increasing capabilities to detect biosignatures – or evidence for life – elsewhere in the universe, this day could come sooner than we think.”
Organizers of “A Sign in Space” project held workshops and shared recorded tutorials where people could learn to download and decode and understand the difference between a potential extra-terrestrial signal and “A Sign in Space” signal.
Determann said, “The decoding and interpretation of the signal is still ongoing. So far, a large number of people, specialists and members of the public alike, have shared their interpretations of what the message says, on the project’s dedicated web page.”