Peters argues that SETI was to the 20th century what the spritualist movement was to the 19th, with serious researchers in both fields resolutely pursuing the inner strangeness of their chosen quests, and yet missing the point that all communication is inherently strange:
SETI research reminds one of Thoreau’s quip about those who tried to measure the depths of Walden Pond: “They are paying out the rope in the vain attempt to fathom their truly immeasurable capacity for marvellousness.” (p. 257)
Curiously, he doesn’t directly reference Carl Sagan’s Murmurs of Earth, effectively the ‘sleeve notes’ for the gold-plated records launched into interstellar space on the Voyager probe. It’s an artifact of a time — the 1970s — now itself distant and alien, difficult to make contact with (both the Cold War and the unfinished sexual revolution cast shadows over the media which finally made it onto the disks). Unfortunately I don’t have the anniversary edition with the contents on CD. At the time of my rather tatty first edition, they didn’t have music clearance. Shame. I’d love to hear Laurie Spiegel‘s
…giddy whirl of tones reflecting the motions of the Sun’s planets in their orbits — a musical readout of Johannes Kepler’s Harmonia Mundi, the sixteenth-century mathematical tract whose echoes may still be found in the formulas that make Voyager possible (p. 254)
Regardless of such pleasures, there’s a sense of deep yearning and disquiet about the project:
So deep is the conviction that there must be life out there beyond the dark, one thinks that if they are more advanced than ourselves they may come across space at any moment, perhaps in our generation. Later, contemplating the infinity of time, one wonders if perchance their messages came long ago, hurtling into the swamp muck of the steaming coal forests, the bright projectile clambered over by hissing reptiles, and the delicate instruments running mindlessly down with no report. (Loren Eiseley, p. 46)
Peters would have something to say on that.