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Dr. Douglas Vakoch  

Founder & President of METI—Messaging Extraterrestrial Intelligence

As a scientist searching for life in the universe and working to preserve civilization on Planet Earth, Dr. Douglas Vakoch travels between the inner space of the psyche and the outer space of the cosmos. As a leading researcher in both astrobiology and psychology, he provides unique insights into the human significance of the age-old question, “Are we alone?”

After sixteen years as part of Silicon Valley’s SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence), he broke away to create METI, a research organization whose namesake activity is Messaging Extraterrestrial Intelligence—the controversial project to send powerful, intentional radio signals to nearby stars, in the hope of provoking a response. “The New Yorker” magazine calls him “The Man Who Speaks for Earth.” In 2017 he led METI’s radio transmission to a nearby star from the European Incoherent Scatter Scientific Association (EISCAT) antenna in Tromsø, Norway, and he eagerly awaits 2043—the first year that humanity could receive a reply.

Dr. Vakoch is an elected member of the International Astronomical Union and the International Institute for Space Law, and he received the Leonardo da Vinci Space Art Award “for dedication to the language and codes for broader cosmic reception and communication and their broader cultural meanings.” He has edited fifteen books with such diverse titles as “Communication with Extraterrestrial Intelligence” (SUNY Press), “The Drake Equation: Estimating the Prevalence of Extraterrestrial Life through the Ages” (Cambridge University Press), “Psychology of Space Exploration” (NASA), and “Ecopsychology, Phenomenology, and the Environment” (Springer). He also serves as editor-in-chief of Springer’s Space and Society book series.

To sustain messaging projects across the generations, Dr. Vakoch explores the human dimensions of global warming and other threats to the long-term survival of civilizations. He emphasizes the vital importance of engaging with nature—amid our hectic urban lifestyles—to secure a greater sense of serenity and fulfillment. He is the general editor of the book series Ecocritical Theory and Practice, which has published over sixty books exploring ways that fiction can help us address today’s most critical environmental problems. As a licensed clinical psychologist, Dr. Vakoch understands that the foundation of successful psychotherapy is providing a safe space where people can be heard, understood, and accepted, with all their concerns—from relationship problems to anxieties about our climate crisis. His clinical work also draws on lessons from astronauts for dealing with stress down here on Earth.

For twelve years Dr. Vakoch taught the next generation of psychotherapists in the clinical psychology doctoral program at the California Institute of Integral Studies (CIIS). He is now professor emeritus at CIIS, as well as CEO of Green Psychotherapy, PC, a psychological practice in Northern California, with offices in Berkeley, Oakland, and San Francisco. He has been featured in monthly magazines of the American Psychological Association and the British Psychological Society.

Dr. Vakoch frequently appears in film and television documentaries, where he explores the hunt for life in the cosmos. His expertise includes space exploration, the societal impact of science, and environmental threats to humanity’s long-term survival. His work has been featured in such publications as “The New York Times,” “The Economist,” “Nature,” “Science,” and “WIRED,” and he has been interviewed for numerous radio and television broadcasts on networks ranging from the BBC to the Science Channel, with recent segments on PBS’s “NOVA Wonders” and the History Channel’s “In Search Of” with Zachary Quinto. He was featured in the films “Calling E.T.,” which had its American premiere at SXSW, and “The Visit,” which premiered at Sundance.

Speech Topics


FROM THE BIG BANG TO US: Seven Steps to a Sustainable Civilization

Over thirteen billion years ago, the universe exploded into existence, eventually yielding a species capable of reflecting on its own origins and destiny. In this whirlwind tour of the history of the cosmos, Dr. Vakoch unpacks the seven milestones needed for our modern-day human civilization to arise. From the birth of stars to the advent of writing, humankind evolved into the only species on Earth capable of communicating with our counterparts on distant exoplanets. Drawing parallels between the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) and the age-old quest to understand our place in the universe, Dr. Vakoch explores the seven variables of the Drake Equation, used to estimate how many technological civilizations exist in the Milky Way galaxy. From the violent history of the first seconds following the Big Bang, to the contemporary conflicts between warring nations here on Earth, Dr. Vakoch shows how the survival of the fittest has given rise to our remarkable intelligence, while also threatening our very future as a species. To succeed, we’ll need to reinvent who are, finally deserving of the name Homo sapiens—the wise human.

ABOUT THE SPEAKER: Dr. Vakoch is the president of METI, a San Francisco-based research organization whose namesake mission is Messaging Extraterrestrial Intelligence. His books include “The Drake Equation: Estimating the Prevalence of Extraterrestrial Life through the Ages,” published by Cambridge University Press. Dr. Vakoch is an elected member of the International Astronomical Union and the International Institute for Space Law.?

CALLING THE COSMOS: Telling Extraterrestrials We’re Here

For over fifty years, astronomers have used radio telescopes to listen for signals from advanced civilizations. So far, they have found nothing. But what if extraterrestrials are doing the same as us, simply listening and not transmitting? It would be a chillingly silent universe!

In this talk, Dr. Vakoch explains why humanity should take the initiative to make contact by launching an ambitious, ongoing project to transmit powerful, intentional signals to nearby stars, in hope of a reply. Countering concerns that it’s dangerous to reveal ourselves to malevolent aliens, he argues for facing our fears of the unknown and acting without the guarantee of success. In the process, we will learn critical lessons in audacity that will transform our everyday lives. By focusing on what we can offer to extraterrestrials and to future generations of humans, we will demonstrate that we are ready to move beyond our technological adolescence and begin growing up in the universe as a civilization and a species.

ABOUT THE SPEAKER: Dr. Vakoch is the president of METI, a San Francisco-based research organization whose namesake mission is Messaging Extraterrestrial Intelligence. “The New Yorker” magazine called him “The Man Who Speaks for Earth.” Dr. Vakoch led METI’s radio transmission to a nearby star from the European Incoherent Scatter Scientific Association (EISCAT) antenna in Tromsø, Norway. His books include “Communication with Extraterrestrial Intelligence.”

AESTHETICS FOR ALIENS: Art, Music, and Extraterrestrials

Do aliens have a sense of beauty? Could they understand ours? From Johannes Kepler’s Music of the Spheres to Hollywood’s alien symphony in “Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” we have pondered the link between the cosmos and creativity. Today scientists leading the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) point their telescopes toward the stars, seeking evidence of civilizations beyond Earth. If they find a signal from aliens, what should we say in reply? How could we let them know what it’s like to be human? Building on the language of mathematics and science, Dr. Vakoch shows how we might start telling extraterrestrials about aesthetics on Earth.

ABOUT THE SPEAKER: Prior to founding METI (Messaging Extraterrestrial Intelligence), Dr. Vakoch was Director of Interstellar Message Composition at the SETI Institute in Silicon Valley. He has chaired workshops in Paris on the art and science of interstellar message construction in collaboration with Leonardo/ISAST (The International Society for the Arts, Sciences and Technology). Dr. Vakoch is the recipient of a Leonardo da Vinci Space Art Award “for dedication to the language and codes for broader cosmic reception and communication and their broader cultural meanings.”

MORALITY AND THE FABRIC OF THE UNIVERSE

Are evolution and ethics unique to Earth, or are they built into the very structure of the cosmos? Does human morality provide a common ground for encountering life beyond Earth, or is it an instinct that is specific to our particular biology and history? In this talk, Dr. Vakoch explores a basic assumption of the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI): that aliens will be transmitting messages to us for our benefit. This question of whether extraterrestrials will be altruistic has become increasingly important in recent years with the launch of new projects to send powerful radio signals from Earth, in an effort to make first contact.

Technological civilizations that transmit signals for the benefit of others, but with no immediate gain for themselves, certainly seem to be altruistic. But does this make biological sense? Should we expect altruism to evolve throughout the cosmos, or is this only wishful thinking? Is it dangerous to send messages to other worlds, as Stephen Hawking has suggested, or might humankind benefit from an exchange with intelligence elsewhere in the galaxy? Would extraterrestrial societies be based on different ethical principles, or would we see commonalities with Earthly notions of morality? Dr. Vakoch explores topics ranging from game theories of cooperation to the biology of self-sacrifice, providing new insights into our place in the universe and our responsibilities toward other civilizations.

ABOUT THE SPEAKER: Dr. Vakoch is the president of METI, a San Francisco-based research organization whose namesake mission is Messaging Extraterrestrial Intelligence. His books include “Extraterrestrial Altruism: Evolution and Ethics in the Cosmos” and “Altruism in Cross-Cultural Perspective,” which the journal “Zygon” called “a high-quality tool for cross-cultural studies of altruism and beyond.”

ARE WE ALONE? Commitment and the Search for Life Beyond Earth

Over the past quarter of a century, astronomers have discovered that virtually all stars are orbited by exoplanets. We now know the basic building blocks of life are strewn throughout the galaxy. But we have not yet discovered any concrete evidence of life elsewhere in the universe. We find ourselves in the midst of a three-way horse race to find E.T., and our success depends on our technologies and our human commitment to the search.

In this talk, Dr. Vakoch shows that we humans cannot control whether there is life elsewhere in the universe. Either it’s there or it’s not. But we have a tremendous capacity to decide whether we will find it, if it’s out there. To search for life in the universe, we need to commit to the hard work, expense, and uncertainty of exploration. That’s true whether we are looking for radio signals from advanced civilizations, signs of life in the atmospheres of distant exoplanets, or Martian fossils just below the surface of the Red Planet.

The search for extraterrestrial life also provides lessons for all of us as we lead our own lives right here on Earth. Exoplanet hunters needed to believe that planets might orbit other stars before they could discover these exoplanets. If we are to have any chance of finding life beyond Earth, we also need to be willing to search for it, even though we don’t know yet know whether it exists.

Similarly, we encounter realities in our everyday lives that we cannot control. But we can commit to doing all within our power to understand the way things are. Once we have a better understanding of reality as it currently exists, we can then decide how to create the world that we truly want.

ABOUT THE SPEAKER: Dr. Vakoch’s research in both astrobiology and psychology gives him unique insights into the human dimensions of searching for life beyond Earth. His books include “Civilizations Beyond Earth: Extraterrestrial Life and Society,” and “Astrobiology, History, and Society,” which the review journal “Choice” described as “one of the best books on the subject; it belongs in all college libraries.”

THE QUEST FOR A COSMIC ROSETTA STONE: Understanding Intelligence in a Vast Universe

If a radio signal is detected by the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI), we could well know that alien life exists, but not know what they are saying. Even if we detect a civilization circling one of our nearest stellar neighbors, its signals will have traversed trillions of miles, reaching Earth after traveling for years. Using a more sober estimate of the prevalence of life in the universe, Dr. Vakoch shows that our closest interstellar interlocutors may be so remote from Earth that their signals would take centuries or millennia to reach us. Moreover, any civilization we contact will have arisen independently of life on Earth, in the habitable zone of a star stable enough to allow its inhabitants to evolve biologically, culturally, and technologically. The evolutionary path followed by extraterrestrial intelligence will no doubt diverge in significant ways from the one traveled by humans over the course of our history.

To move beyond the mere detection of such intelligence, and to have any realistic chance of comprehending it, Dr. Vakoch looks to the work of researchers facing similar challenges on Earth, as they provide clues for creating a “Cosmic Rosetta Stone”—similar to the engraved slab of basalt that provided the key to understanding Egyptian hieroglyphics. Like archaeologists who reconstruct long-lost civilizations from fragmentary evidence, SETI researchers will need to reconstruct distant civilizations separated from us by vast expanses of space as well as time. And like anthropologists, who attempt to understand other cultures despite differences in language and social customs, as we attempt to decode and interpret extraterrestrial messages, we will be required to comprehend the mindset of a species that is radically Other.

ABOUT THE SPEAKER: Dr. Vakoch is the president of METI, a San Francisco-based research organization whose namesake mission is Messaging Extraterrestrial Intelligence. He is the editor of “Archaeology, Anthropology, and Interstellar Communication,” the most downloaded book ever published by the NASA History Office, as well as “Astrobiology, History, and Society,” which “nicely reveals the numerous ways in which anthropological knowledge and methods can help us think about and plan for managing the cultural impact of an eventual first contact,” according to the “Journal for the History of Astronomy.”

STRESSED OUT OF THIS WORLD: Lessons from Astronauts in Coping with Major Catastrophes and Daily Hassles

Stress and conflict are part of our everyday lives. But imagine you had to deal with the pressures of overwhelming work demands and tense relationships in the hazardous environment of outer space. In this talk, Dr. Vakoch draws on the lessons learned from astronauts to provide insights into how we can all lead more contented and successful lives back here on Earth.

Dr. Vakoch uncovers secrets used by astronauts to cope with living in cramped spaces, far from friends and family back on Earth, and he explores preparations to help astronauts deal with future missions to the Moon and Mars that will be even more challenging. The practical wisdom and guidance we gain from these intrepid spacefarers helps us all deal more effectively with stresses ranging from daily hassles to major catastrophes that inevitably happen to all of us over the course of our lives.

ABOUT THE SPEAKER: Dr. Vakoch’s books include “Psychology of Space Exploration,” published by NASA, and he is a commentator on astronauts and space missions for the Science Channel’s television series “NASA’s Unexplained Files.” He is a licensed clinical psychologist in Northern California, with offices in Berkeley, San Francisco, and Oakland. Dr. Vakoch is the editor-in-chief of the book series Space and Society.

THE POWER OF LISTENING

Simply listening to others, without judging, can be transformative. We don’t always need to offer people solutions to their problems. Sometimes, just listening is enough. Drawing on his diverse experiences as a psychotherapist and a scientist searching for radio signals from civilizations in space, Dr. Vakoch explains the virtues of patience and shifting the focus away from ourselves.

The key to effective listening is understanding people from their own perspective, not ours. Simply seeing others as they see themselves, listening in a nonjudgmental way, helps people accept themselves and move toward greater authenticity. Rather than pitting our view against theirs, by committing to hear others in their own terms, and in their own time, we can create a space to overcome longstanding histories of conflict, perhaps even giving others the freedom to agree with us for the first time.

Dr. Vakoch demonstrates how we can also learn to listen to ourselves better. We have all received messages throughout our lives about who we should be and what we should do. Our true desires and dreams can remain hidden even from ourselves, underneath the expectations of others—unless we become open to surprises from within.

ABOUT THE SPEAKER: Dr. Vakoch is professor emeritus of clinical psychology at the California Institute of Integral Studies, as well as CEO of Green Psychotherapy, PC, a Northern California psychological practice with offices in Berkeley, San Francisco, and Oakland. He is also president of METI, a scientific organization whose namesake mission is Messaging Extraterrestrial Intelligence, sending radio signals to nearby stars and listening for replies far into the future.?

GREEN TRANQUILITY: Staying Sane through Moments in Nature

As we feel overwhelmed by the pressures of work, constantly slaves to the digital technologies that are supposed to make our lives better, we need a break. We feel exhausted, overburdened, with no way to escape. We might occasionally get a brief respite as we spend a weekend hiking in the mountains, but how can we bring that sense of renewal back into our daily lives?

In this talk, Dr. Vakoch will provide practical guidelines for reclaiming nature in urban environments, starting with a one-minute experiential exercise that audience members can try during the talk itself. Drawing on ecotherapy and mindfulness meditation practices, he shows how connecting with elements of nature that already surround us can increase our sense of peace and serenity, wherever we live.

ABOUT THE SPEAKER: Dr. Vakoch is a licensed clinical psychologist and CEO of Green Psychotherapy, PC, as well as professor emeritus of clinical psychology at the California Institute of Integral Studies. His books include “Ecopsychology, Phenomenology, and the Environment,” which the review journal “PsycCRITIQUES” lauded for “its mature approach to suffering and the wildness of our nature, as part of the great chain of being. There is a cogent argument that we must address our sense of separateness from the world that holds us. I believe that readers will come away with an expanded sense of identity, and with a sense of calmness about what can be done and how one might go about contributing.”

CLIMATE CHANGES: Facing Reality through Fiction

Though we are constantly bombarded with warnings about global warming, we easily become overwhelmed, feeling at a loss to do anything as individuals. The best way to face the reality of global warming is through fiction. Climate fiction, or “cli-fi,” is a literary genre that examines the human destruction of our natural environment, providing cautionary tales of future cataclysm if we don’t change course. By confronting our greatest fears directly and examining antidotes to our current practices and mindsets, cli-fi also provides a vision for a sustainable future, helping us imagine—and create—a better path forward.

ABOUT THE SPEAKER: Dr. Vakoch is general editor of the book series Ecocritical Theory and Practice, which has published over sixty books exploring ways that fiction can help us address today’s most critical environmental problems. He is the editor of five books that explore the connections between ecology and fiction through a feminist lens, including “Literature and Ecofeminism: Intersectional and International Voices” and “Feminist Ecocriticism: Environment, Women, and Literature.”

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