Volume 14, No. 2
April 2002

Mercurial Matters

SHOT 2002 in Toronto

Graduate Student Bonus

Survey of Local TV History

News of Mercurians and their Projects

Citizens (Band) of France Unite!

Printing a Revolution?

The End of Books

Reading Red Ochre: Parting Thoughts on Mixed Receptions

Dishing It Up: Really Big Antennas

Journal Announcements

Communications Under the Seas

Contact Us

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Reading Red Ochre: Parting Thoughts on Mixed Receptions

There is nothing magical about shouting into a canyon. The magic occurs when the echo calls back to you. Sometimes we do talk or write primarily to express ourselves, but getting a response to an expression can amplify the rewards. We send so that others will receive; getting an e-mail is more exciting than sending one; imagining someone’s receiving our greeting cards gives purpose to our agonies of selection. These are distinctly human processes—rich with abstractions, not reflexes.

As I thought about writing this “farewell address,” message reception phenomena kept coming to my attention, from stone age technology to DSL. You may recall the excitement generated by a report about what may well be “the oldest known art” (Science, 11 January 2002). The art, two pieces of red ochre from the southernmost tip of Africa, is clearly and deliberately engraved, as the picture on our cover shows. What is not clear, of course, is what they meant to their creator. Yet, they are certainly a product of “human behavior” with no clear practical purpose other than either communication, expression, or “doodling,” as one analyst suggested. Even so, these etchings, 40,000 years earlier than the famous Late Stone Age paintings in France and Spain, tell us several things, although perhaps more about their receivers than their creators.

Antenna readers will not be surprised that the stones’ discoverers excitedly claim these to be the “earliest” known examples of humans’ non-functional designs. Their attribution of “symbolic representation” to these stones seems to reward their seven years of digging. The general excitement over these small artifacts confirms the attraction of another Mercurian passion, as well, namely studying the histories and technologies that result from the urge to communicate. How long will we speculate about whether they hold a purposeful message?

About the same time as the ochre stone story was in the news, my husband and I participated in our own contemporary drama after succumbing to the sirens’ call of DSL. Or was it the temptation of Mephistopheles? For over a month, and spending at least 30 hours with tech support, we sought the time-saving luxuries of high-speed Internet access that wouldn’t interfere with the older telephone technology. For four days the magic worked: instant access to infinite worlds. Then, nothing. Distressed and disappointed, but not ready to give up on Progress, we eagerly await the technicians who will yet bring some form of broadband to our neighborhood.

As I thought about communication’s dual pleasures, sending messages out and getting others in return, I thought about the Pioneer 10 space probe, launched in 1972 with its famous plaque outlining human forms, and the twin 1977 Voyager spacecraft, still carrying Earth’s message on their gold-plated disks beyond the solar system. [See page 10 for news of Pioneer 10.] How much faster would our hearts pump should someone answer, even if undecipherably? Would we feel fear or eagerness? Both? Imagine the turmoil receiving one small message would generate. Likewise, only the most unimaginative could not have hoped for some glimmer of success from the short-lived U. S. Search for ExtraTerrestrial Intelligence program (SETI) inaugurated Columbus Day, 1992, having been renamed the High Resolution Microwave Survey to help avoid the “giggle factor” among assorted skeptics. We can recall, also, the quite serious, even desperate, efforts a century ago by noted scientists and others to use then-new radio technologies to contact the dead. There may be no communication desire stronger than that to receive a message from a loved one eternally removed from us.

Finally, searching on a whim for websites about groups and histories of citizen band radio (CB), hoping to find some sidebar story to complement this issue’s article on French CB, I came across a curious confluence. A site that came up featured not only CB stories and information about old devices, but links to stories about CB use in a particular magazine. When I went to that magazine’s web site, what to my wondering eyes should appear but a journal on extraterrestrial contacts. Of course—messages from unknown sources in the night. I should have thought of it.
It’s not that the medium is the message, in any simple sense. But, without a medium, there is no message, or even hope of a message. As the red ochre stones have done and we hope the Voyager spacecraft will do, the very fact of a medium’s presence tells its finders that a message could exist. That was part of SETI’s lure as a communication technology—are there messages out there that we cannot receive? Listening, watching, waiting. All part of the humanity of communicating, especially on a dark road with only a CB for company.

Pamela W. Laird

lady at writing desk