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Rick's Blog

Genomic SETI

Building future worlds for science fiction requires flights of imagination tempered by knowledge about how the world really works. The optimal result is a technological world that is both dazzlingly fantastic and scientifically plausible. The Internet, of course, provides considerable opportunity to validate concepts as well as to determine their novelty.

While writing A Stand-in for Dying, I enjoyed discovering some of the stunning advances that the near future might bring. One such example, vacuum tube transport, came to me one day while driving up to the teller at my bank. As I watched my credentials whoosh through the transparent tubes, I wondered "Why can't everything travel this way...even people?" A quick Google search found that the idea was neither outrageous nor novel. A company had already been formed based upon this technology that proposed to build out a nationwide transportation network. And a year after I wrote the technology into my manuscript, Elon Musk embraced it, propelling it into the popular media. I had mixed feelings about real life catching up to my future world before my work was even in print.

Another flight of fancy led to an idea that seemed beyond all limits of credibility, yet sufficiently tantalizing to include anyway. It was so fantastic that I never tried to validate it. Perhaps our "junk DNA," the extensive sequences of nucleotide pairs on our chromosomes that do not code for any known functions, contained coded messages from an advanced civilization, put there either in the course of designing life on earth or inserted later. I had no idea whether or not these sequences were sufficiently abundant or sufficiently stable to convey an intelligible message, but was sufficiently enamored of the notion to include it on faith and hope that more knowledgeable readers would be kind. This novel form of intelligent design would become the basis of a new religious movement that based faith upon scientific discovery. And my designers hailed not just from another world, but from another universe.

A 2014 episode of Morgan Freeman's "Through the Wormhole" speculated about our first encounters with aliens. Imagine my astonishment when, toward the end of the episode, he discussed current scientific inquiry into the very idea that messages from an advanced civilization could be embedded in the non-functional sequences within our DNA. First conceived way back in the seventies and revived over the past several years, Genomic SETI (Search for ExtraTerrestrial Intelligence) is the quest for evidence of other civilizations within the code of our DNA.

Underlying the inquiry is an understanding of the structure of language and patterns of code that are compatible with communicating coherently. At least one scholarly article makes the case that our DNA contains a level of orderliness that is more consistent with deliberately constructed symbolic language than with the random effects of biology.

So as a writer, I have mixed feelings. While pleased to have validation for the most speculative of my fantasies, I'm also chagrined to have overlooked the work of others that has apparently been going on for years. If only I had a MELD chip….

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