ouglas Vakoch, PhD, likes to say that he spends
half of his time searching for life on other
planets and the other half trying to understand
life on this one.
Vakoch, a clinical psychologist, is perhaps the only
“director of interstellar message composition” in the world,
a position he holds at the Mountain View, California-based SETI Institute. SETI, which stands for Search for
Extraterrestrial Intelligence, is a 30-year-old nonprofit
research institution where a staff of about 90 scientists
combs the universe for signs of life. Over the years, such
luminaries as Carl Sagan and SETI pioneer Frank Drake
have been affiliated with the institute.
Vakoch, who is also a professor of clinical psychology
at the California Institute of Integral Studies, is the only
social scientist among the astronomers, physicists and
biologists there. As a child in the 1960s obsessed with space
exploration, he thought he’d grow up to be an astronomer
or physicist, too.
“But in college, I decided I was more interested in people
than stars,” he says. He majored in religion and went on to
earn his doctorate in clinical psychology.
Still, he kept up his interest in life beyond Earth.
“When I chose to get my doctorate in clinical psychology, I
wondered whether I’d become a full-blooded psychologist
or find a career in SETI,” he says. “But I chose psychology
because if we want to communicate with ETI, what better
to communicate about than what we are? And what better
The constraints of communication
While completing his psychology training, Vakoch began
to write papers and give talks to the SETI community,
using his background in psychology and behavioral and
social science to broach a new way of thinking about
the challenges of communicating with extraterrestrial