After a long and successful run as the lead of AMC’s critically acclaimed series Hell on Wheels, it would have seemed difficult for Anson Mount to live the dream any more completely. But then an entire universe opened up—and one from his childhood at that—when he won the role of Captain Christopher Pike in Season Two of Star Trek: Discovery (Pike was the captain who immediately preceded James T. Kirk as the commanding officer of the famed USS Enterprise). Not only that, but he was such a success in that role that he’ll soon be the reprising it as the lead of a new show, Star Trek: Strange New Worlds.
To complete the childhood dream, he’s become more and more involved with METI, an organization dedicated to the attempts to send messages to any extra-terrestrial life forms that may be out there in our own universe. Today the organization announced that Mount has joined its board of directors. Mount joined us, along with METI International president Doug Vacoch, to discuss the organization, its goals, and the new directions in which Mount will help them move.
Paste: Doug, I think most people know what SETI is, but maybe we should start out by explaining that. And then explain what relationship METI has to that project.
Dr. Doug Vacoch: SETI is the search for extraterrestrial intelligence, which is a project that’s been going on for 60 years now, where scientists use radio telescopes to listen for signals from advanced civilizations around other stars. METI is an outgrowth of SETI. The whole question that always nagged at me is, what happens if every civilization out there is doing what we’re doing, simply listening through a SETI program, but no one is transmitting? It’d be a very quiet universe. So METI reverses the process and sends powerful, intentional signals to other stars in the hope of making contact. So we’re sending something for SETI scientists on other planets.
Paste: How long has METI been going on?
Vacoch: METI was founded in 2015. The core mission is messaging extraterrestrial intelligence. That’s what METI stands for. But we also do work in a lot of other areas that are required in order to make meaningful contact. So it’s not enough just to let them know we’re here. We want to say something meaningful. So we have folks involved in linguistics, animal communication, mathematics, trying to find a language that the aliens will understand. And we take a step back. Always the real challenge is that we’re so embedded in our assumptions about what’s going to be obvious to an alien that we may miss something, because we can’t think in non-human enough ways. That’s one of the big advantages of science fiction. In science fiction, we learn to get a new perspective on ourselves by getting a little bit of distance and imagining ourselves in the far distant future, or on another world. It’s that kind of mindset of always examining our presuppositions that’s required simply for us to do our work, to make first contact.
Paste: If only there was a longstanding, long-running, fictional universe, spanning many television series, that was groundbreaking in its attempt to think about what that alien life might look like. Do you know where we might be able to find such a fictional universe?
Vacoch: Star Trek has been doing it since I was a kid. It helps us imagine other worlds, but it also lets us reflect on ourselves, both how we are and how we want to be. This whole project of trying to make contact with another world requires a lot of patience because unlike the Star Trek universe, we don’t have a warp drive, and I don’t know how to create that. We don’t even have a subspace communications. We’re trapped by the speed of light. That means a round trip message between us and the nearest star is eight years, but more realistically, it may take longer.
So I think Star Trek reminds us that we can always expect more of ourselves. And being able to provide that sort of a concrete vision is really essential to what we’re doing, because we are saying in order to conduct a search, we’ve got to have a kind of stability that we don’t have on our world today. You know, we need something like a United Federation of Planets.
Paste: I’m sure there are people out there that simply enjoy the show because of the characterizations of the storylines, but I find that the people that are truly passionate about Star Trek do usually have some of these thoughts rattling around in their head, like you’re talking about. How we should think about our place in the universe. Is that something that you sort of picked up on in the show from the beginning of your experience with it?
Vacoch: Absolutely. You know, I grew up so envious of the universal translator. I want one of those, but we don’t have it. And we have to kind of cobble something together with our current technology. I think for me, some of the most important lessons from Star Trek though, are about this process of grappling and exploring without guarantees, without certainty.
One of my favorite series of episodes is the beginning of Star Trek Enterprise, where Hoshi Sato, the linguist, is really having doubts. My God, can I really communicate with another world? You know, and you can’t have an engaging science fiction series where you’re always trying to establish the fundamentals of communication. That’s why it’s great, with the new series that Anson is leading, we’re going back into an earlier stage of the Star Trek universe, where people are still grappling with, you know, how did we do this first contact thing? There are a lot of unknown questions.
And so those are some of the things I resonate with in our work at METI. How do we actually go about doing this in a way that might work?
Paste: And Anson, what was your experience as a viewer with Star Trek before you started being involved as an actor, and did that contact include some of these sort of thinking about it on some of these deeper levels?
Anson Mount: It absolutely captured my imagination as a child. I think I first saw Star Trek when I was probably seven or eight years old. I was introduced to the original series when it was on syndication and my mother made me watch it with her. It kind of blew my mind. And I think that Star Trek resonates with a large audience because I do think that there’s something deeply human in our need to walk out of the circle of fire at night to see what’s in the darkness beyond. I think that the wonder and the imagination that goes with contemplating that—I think it’s one of the most beautiful things about our species. We may come to find out that that is a thing that is singular to our species. I hope not. I hope that curiosity is a universal thing. I happen to believe that it is.
And I just think it’s really, for lack of a better word, neat that all of these nations all over the planet have space programs, and they’re pretty well supported by the public. You know, when you think about it you say, okay, we’re going to spend billions and billions and billions of dollars to send probes to other planets, to just see what’s on Mars, to send these incredibly expensive pieces of equipment that are going to float away from us, and we’ll never see them again. And we may get some signals and we may not, and everybody kind of says, yeah, that’s what we should be doing. I think it’s amazing.
Paste: No doubt. You know, the great Oscar Wilde quote: “We’re all of us in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars.” And when I thought of that quote, I wasn’t even thinking about the literally looking at the stars aspect of this conversation! But that idea of reaching towards that next level of understanding and of connection. It’s just really kind of a beautiful aspect of METI and of the Star Trek universe, you know?
Mount: It’s very interesting that my role in Star Trek came after my role in Hell on Wheels. The spirit of westward expansion is the same thing as the spirit of space. As Gene Roddenberry said, it is the final frontier.
Vacoch: Yeah. I think it’s no coincidence that a lot of the major SETI organizations are based in the Bay area. The pioneers went West. And when you reach the Pacific, you’ve got nowhere to go, but up. There’s a big group in Silicon Valley, the SETI Institute, at Berkeley, and METI is headquartered in San Francisco. So I think there is something about that spirit of exploration that makes it natural here.
Mount: That’s really cool.
Paste: No doubt. So tell me how the two of you got connected to each other.
Mount: Well, I had read this very interesting article in The New York Times Magazine that was about Doug’s work and about these ongoing debates about whether or not what he’s doing is a good idea. I found it simultaneously fascinating, and kind of silly at the same time. I agreed with him on every point when I read this article. He just became a natural go-to for somebody that we wanted to have on the podcast.
: Maybe should talk a little bit too about the podcast, setting the stage for that.
Mount: Sure. It’s stories and interviews with people who have forced themselves to think outside the box. It’s about creativity, but it’s more about the person’s relationship to the creative muscle and how they use that to overcome obstacles. Doug was just the perfect guest, because as we say in the podcast, we could not think of a bigger creative problem.
Vacoch: And it was that same emphasis on understanding the creative dimensions of the science that really made Anson stand out. You know, we’re fortunate to get enough media attention that I’m interviewed by some really savvy, intelligent journalists and broadcasters, but it’s rare to find someone who can really be attuned to the spirit of the project and not get caught up in the technical details. That really stood out, with Anson. I’m always thinking about how we can expand the mission of our organization, who can help lead us as an organization. With Anson his communication skills stand out, naturally, but you know, that’s not enough. Being intelligent and being a good communicator is important, but what really matters is that a person can be attuned to the mission of an organization. Something that, you know, at first blush can look kind of silly. “Wait a second. You’re people who are sending messages off to aliens who may not even exist?” But what’s really going on here and what’s driving this is this human desire to connect, and to make efforts, even without guarantees. I think it’s difficult for us, at the start of the 21st century, where we want certainty and we want our results right now. METI denies us both of those.
Mount: I just want to clarify real quick. When I, when I said silly earlier, I wasn’t talking about my opinion of Doug’s work at the time, I was talking about my opinion of the arguments against Doug doing what he’s doing.
Vacoch: But I would say there is something at first blush kind of silly about the idea of reaching out. That’s why it’s crucial for us to have people who can reach out to the broader public. You know, we’re mainly known as a scientific organization, but one of our core priorities is education, and engagement of the broader public too. So that’s why having someone who can communicate really matters.
Paste: It strikes me too as something kind of similar to Pascal’s wager. If those aliens are not out there, the worst that we’re doing is wasting our time and money. But if they are out there, it will have been a crying shame, if we will not have done everything that we can to make that kind of contact.
Vacoch: I think so. I think actually we’re doing Pascal’s wager plus. Imagine we do go ahead. So again, that given that the nearest stars may not be populated, we may need to be sending messages for hundreds of years, maybe even thousands of years, but imagine we do that. And then there’s this long, hard process of waiting, waiting, and waiting and waiting. What happens then if all we get is this continual silence over the course of centuries or millennia?
I suspect eventually we’re going to realize that we’ve been looking for long-lived civilizations that have been around long enough to make contact, simply by virtue of having made that commitment and having followed through generation after generation, we will have become that civilization ourselves. So, you know, it may be that there are no intelligent super civilizations out there trying to make contact. But I think in the process of trying to search, we’re going to become much more of that sort of civilization. A civilization that is sustainable, that has a continuity far beyond anything we can imagine when we look around and see what we’re doing to our environment, or that we’re continually at war with one another.
And so again, the Star Trek universe provides a hopeful utopian sense of what humanity can be. And METI is trying to do its part to say, how can we take some steps toward making that happen?
Paste: Similar to how those first images of a earth from the moon had so much impact the world over, because of how literally view-expanding the image, was. That’s kind of the impact that I think you’re talking about.
Vacoch: And that’s why, Anson, when you talk about how wonder and imagination is so central, and how nowadays people look at the billions of dollars being spent by the space program and understand it. Back in the ’60s it wasn’t that way. As the Apollo missions were going, there was a lot of social strife. There was a nascent awareness of our environmental degradation. There were a lot of people saying we have to take care of my problems back here on home before we go to space.
But as you said, Michael, once we got into space and we could turn around and see this fragile blue marble floating in space in this thin environment, the atmosphere in casing our planet, that’s when we gained the perspective and realized that wonder and imagination are not nice add-ons. They’re essential to having the hope to make the kind of changes that we need.
Mount: If there’s one thing that has driven me as a human, as well as an artist, throughout my entire life, it is a healthy curiosity that my parents and my teachers instilled in me. I just find it wild, how art imitates life, and vice versa. I grew up a Star Trek fan even into my adult years and deep into my career. It never occurred to me—I mean, it just wasn’t even on my radar, even my bucket list, because it just never occurred to me—that I would end up in the captain’s chair of the USS Enterprise. And how on top of that, I am now literally sending out a Hail. You may not know that phrase. When the captain needs to make contact, he says, send out a Hail to either another ship or another civilization. And it’s a very canonized phrase.
Paste: Anson, was the belief that there is probably is some other intelligent life form out there somewhere, more of a mathematical belief that in a universe huge beyond imagination, this must have happened somewhere else? Or do you find that in yourself, it’s more of what I would call a religious belief, in that it’s essentially not irrational, but arational? Just a sense deep inside you that there’s no way we’re alone?
Mount: I can remember the day that I sat in a class in junior high and it was my English teacher of all taught us what Drake’s equation actually means. And just feeling my metaphorical head explode. The math means a lot. It backs up our instinct to imagine. But it can’t remain there. I think it’s important to remember that the math doesn’t just buoy our assumptions. It also forces us to confront our assumptions. We only perceive reality in three and a half dimensions, and there are many more. There’s a lot more to reality than we what we have confronted.
Paste: We’ve probably reached the point in the conversation where we can’t avoid the big reveal anymore. So, why don’t one or both of you talk about the big announcement that has been made today?
Vacoch: I am delighted to announce that Anson has joined the board of directors of METI. This is our governing board. This is the group that determines our direction and makes sure that we are on track with our mission. We have been fortunate to have had world-class board from the outset, but many of our people in the earliest days have come more narrowly from the sciences. And so being able to expand, especially as we want to reach out to folks who have perhaps heard of SETI, but haven’t heard of METI, finding people who can help us engage a broader public and do it in a way that really captures our mission, is essential to our long-term success. So I’m so delighted that Anson is joining the board. So welcome Anson. Thank you.
Mount: And for my part, to say that I’m honored would be a gross understatement. I look at the people on our board of directors and our advisory council, and you’re talking about NASA people, talking about physicists, linguists, biologists, just this incredible think tank. I often ask myself, what the hell am I doing here? But I appreciate that Doug recognizes that nobody’s ever tried to do this before. We’re just now at a point in history where we are finally able to map planets in the Goldilocks zone, actual planets that could harbor liquid water. So now we have targets. Now that it’s becoming active, Doug’s insight is that a diverse group of minds is the best way to tackle this problem. I agree with that, and I’m just a tremendously honored that I’m the actor.
Vacoch: We really are trying to boldly go where no one has done before, and Anson does that every week. One of the issues we’re grappling with is, how do we create a message that might be meaningful to aliens? And we’ve always said that, well, the aliens aren’t going to speak English, but maybe there’s something about the structure of language you can use to make contact. That’s one of the projects that he’ll be working on. Anson will especially be working on that project to help bring people in to contribute to this old question, what should we say? And also, related to Anson’s work as an artist, how do we communicate something about our sense of beauty to extra terrestrials?
The key is to recognize that we all perceive reality in different ways. Different species will understand the world differently than us. To me, I think that’s the big motivation for what we’re doing. It’s not just to know that there’s someone else out there, but to see how they engage the world. So in a sense, contacting an alien civilization is holding the mirror up to ourselves and seeing ourselves in a new way.
And by adding people like Anson to our board of directors, it holds a mirror up to ourselves as an organization too, so that we can say, what are we missing? What are the new possibilities we haven’t even conceived of before? So again I want to say that I am so delighted to have Anson join the board and I look forward to what we’re going to do as he sends out his Hail.