How to talk to ET

At the Astrobiology Science Conference 2010 in April, scientists working on the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) will debate whether it's a good idea to systematically start transmitting interstellar greetings into space. Of course, there have been isolated efforts to reach out to our space brothers before. For example, SETI pioneer Frank Drake created the 210 byte message seen here and transmitted it from the Arecibo telescope in 1974. It's not expected to reach its detination, the star cluster M13, for another 25,000 years though. Can we come up with communications that might be easier for an ET to grok, perhaps also using mathematics and pictures? And even if we can, should we? From New Scientist:
 Wikipedia Commons Thumb 5 55 Arecibo Message.Svg 200Px-Arecibo Message.Svg-1 (SETI Institute's head of the Interstellar Message Composition program Douglas) Vakoch, who will chair these sessions, is all in favour. "I have long held the position that after broad-based international consultation, we should be doing active SETI," he says.

It's an approach that worries ex-astronomer and science fiction author David Brin, who was a member of the International Academy of Astronautics SETI panel until 2006. He resigned when the committee backtracked on the wording of a protocol that called for discussion before deliberately broadcasting into space. "I dislike seeing my children's destiny being gambled with by a couple of dozen arrogant people who cling to one image of the alien," says Brin. Since then three other members have quit for similar reasons. Vakoch has some sympathy with Brin's point of view. "These issues are much too important and too complex to be resolved after only a few days of discussion."

If the enthusiasts for active SETI get their way and there is a real effort to send a message, the next question is: what should we say?...

"Redundancy really helps," says Shostak, as it allows a recipient to make a guess about the meaning and then check it, like in a crossword. He suspects that all the polite efforts to be understood might be unnecessary. "A lot of people wonder what we should send. Music, mathematics or pictures? My first thought is it probably doesn't matter," he says.

Instead, (SETI Institute senior astronomer Seth) Shostak suggests that we just gabble. "My conclusion is that you would just send them the Google servers. That's an enormous amount of information, much of it redundant and pictographic. Much of it is pornographic too, but I expect they could handle that." (Although it raises questions like, can Earth handle a trillion orders for Viagra?)

"Exolanguage: do you speak alien?"

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  1. Well, IF anyone is listening (we wouldn’t hear us, btw), and IF they’re hostile, and IF they’re in a position to saunter over before we tech up into space without them, we’re royally fucked regardless of whether we say “hi” or not. Plus, judging from the wikipedia Brin’s work seems to be rather self-defeating in nature, leaving me disinclined to take his alarmism at face value.

    The only message we need is a simple repeating pattern. “Here we are.”

    1. .The only message we need is a simple repeating pattern. “Here we are.”

      And what if they translate that as “Free lunch, bring your own ketchup?

    2. Beelzebuddy:
      judging from the wikipedia Brin’s work seems to be rather self-defeating in nature, leaving me disinclined to take his alarmism at face value.

      He is entitled to his personal opinions, alarmist or otherwise. Do you have anything that addresses the point he put forward for consideration?

      1. Yes. “That’s a retarded thing to worry about” is all the justification we need to answer Chicken Littles. Note he hasn’t put forth anything for consideration but science fiction-induced paranoia.

        As others here have said, there’s probably very little alien use for our complicated molecules, and plenty of other places to find simple ones. That leaves three possible scenarios for alien contact:

        a) Sector-wide harvesting operation
        b) Beneficence
        c) Curiosity

        Of these, I’d rate curiosity the most likely by a wide margin, as it’s how we’d approach alien life (on Mars, say). With the other two, the best way to ensure a favorable outcome is to sing out early and often, so we don’t get mowed/skipped over accidentally. In any case, there’s little to be gained by cowering away in fear of the bug eyed monsters who, to reiterate my first point, have such a head start in space that whether they find us now or a thousand years from now they can still screw us over without batting an eye.

        1. “pretty big assumption”

          we’re all making that assumption, every time we post. :)

          i do have a sneaking suspicion that our math is culturally constrained. witness georg cantor. not the first time i’ve referenced his work here.

  2. Hello Earthlings, we come in peace. We are here to speak to your leader h3rba1 ciA1is — v1AgaR/\, who gives so many of your Earth orders for strength and endurance.

  3. After blasting 50 years of television into space now they want to hide? Man-up, dude. You don’t deal with a bully by slinking away.

    1. timquinn:
      After blasting 50 years of television into space now they want to hide?

      It’s been a very short time at very low power. Odds are good no one noticed.

      Man-up, dude. You don’t deal with a bully by slinking away.

      How about you deal with them by growing up to something closer to your full adult strength and judgment before you go find with them?

  4. If there is life out there (which I would like to think there is) I’m sure they already know we are here, and us “yelling” more isn’t going to make them take any more notice than they already have.

    1. Alien races are not necessarily omniscient. The universe is a big place, and time is long. Suppose a civilization much like ours went through a 100-year-long phase of indiscriminate transmissions, then thought better of it and shut down or learned to mask them. If those early broadcasts reached us even 200 years ago, we’d never be know. Even now, it’s possible we’re just not looking at the right part of the sky. And anything that applies to us could apply equally well to another form of life.

      Brin raises some good points, and it’s not too late to consider them.

      1. I never said that aliens were omniscient, my point was that we’ve been broad casting into space for the last 50 years and there is a decent chance that somewhere out there an alien race is watching re-runs of the Mary Tyler Moore Show. Yes, I think we have interstellar neighbors, and I also think that we (earth) has been visited at least once (if not repeatedly). Given that, just because you call your neighbors up (or point a loudspeaker at them) doesn’t mean they want to answer your call.

  5. I keep wondering: Have people applied Shannons Theory of Communication to these transmissions? The universe is NOT a noise-free channel (due to cosmic background radiation, and probably stars in their various stages of stellar evolution splattering energy all over the spectrum) so one should be able to calculate: If I want to communicate from planet A to planet B at a distance of Z lightyears, my antennas have a directional resolution of X degrees, and I can transmit with Y Watts of power, what is my maximum bitrate to achieve a bit-error-rate of K (assuming I have a perfect channel coding algorithm to get close to the Shannon limit)? Assume that my planets are both located at 1 AU from a Sol-type sun – vary this assumption for extra credit.
    I hope someone wrote a paper about this already, before the transmission in 1974!

    1. In fact someone has applied information theory, as well as considering the energy it would take to send a signal. If you want to maximize the information you send and minimize the energy, you shouldn’t send a message with radio waves (or other forms of light). You should bundle everything we want to say onto an iPod and send it to a habitable star system on a slow rocket ship. The idea made the cover of Nature in November 2004.

      http://www.winlab.rutgers.edu/~crose/cgi-bin/cosmic4.html

  6. I’m still not sure where to stand on trying to communicate directly with alien life.

    On one hand, I feel a bit uncomfortable. It’s like inviting someone over to your place when it’s an absolute mess and you’ll have to rush like mad to clean up should they accept.

    On the other hand, I wonder what social and philosophical changes the encounter would bring. Would it push us to fix our strained relationships with members of our own species? Would it force old beliefs and ideologies to be thoroughly re-examined and revised? I can’t help but think it could be a huge incentive for advancement.

    1. Would it push us to fix our strained relationships with members of our own species?

      Of course. To borrow an old Pratchett joke, black and white will gang up on green.

      Or did you mean “Will we rejoice as our celestial brethren help us usher in a golden Age of Aquarius?” In which case, lol no. ET’s only here to use us as cheap labor, and we only want him for his delicious technology.

    1. I never understood that one. We’re only disgusted by meat because it reminds us of broken pieces of ourselves – we don’t mind similar substances like fruit. Why would mechanical aliens care so viscerally?

  7. The “Much of it is pornographic too, but I expect they could handle that” part made my day.

    On the other hand, the idea of an avatar program enveloped into a probe or laser transmission makes sense to me. It could explain all those aliens the embarrassing part of 4chan in human culture. And porn. Explain all porn.

  8. “It’s not expected to reach its destination, the star cluster M13, for another 25,000 years though”

    Technically speaking it will never reach the Hercules Cluster (M13) because it will have moved from that location by the time the message gets there.

    1. BLAST 420:
      Technically speaking it will never reach the Hercules Cluster (M13) because it will have moved from that location by the time the message gets there.

      Any football player knows to throw to where the catcher will be when the ball gets there, not where the catcher is now. You don’t think astronomers know this?

  9. As a parent, it worries me to no end that my kids might consider inviting strangers off the street to come into the yard and play with them, share knowledge and potentially virii.
    If you want to meet some stranger, would you invite them into your living room, or meet them somewhere you would be free to leave if it didn’t work out?

    @Blast420: really good point – our transmissions would be difficult to trace to our location as we are also moving thru time and space…

    1. graphicsman:
      @Blast420: really good point – our transmissions would be difficult to trace to our location as we are also moving thru time and space…

      We routinely backtrack signals that are millions of years old. We know where they were when they were emitted, and we can easily figure out where they are now. If we can do it, something else can too.

      1. @Blast420: “really good point – our transmissions would be difficult to trace to our location as we are also moving thru time and space…”

        graphicsman: “We routinely backtrack signals that are millions of years old. We know where they were when they were emitted, and we can easily figure out where they are now. If we can do it, something else can too.”

        As in: we just look in that direction because the light coming from the “signal” travels at the same speed.

  10. Given what we do to each other, let alone other Earth species, we have lots of gall imagining that anybody with an ounce of intelligent self-interest would want us to know that they exist. There are days when I don’t want to know we exist, for that matter (e.g. US military blowing up live pigs to see what happens to them).

  11. I don’t think our TV transmissions have even left the heliosphere peeps. The universe is a big place. Don’t forget that.

    1. Anonymous:
      I don’t think our TV transmissions have even left the heliosphere …

      The heliosphere is not 50 light years big. There are a number of other competing stars within that distance.

  12. The chances that our complex molecules just happen to be the sort aliens or their diseases could use are very, very, very low. Our simple molecules, sure, but if you’re just looking for methane and adenine there are a lot of easier places in the galaxy to get them.

  13. I like what the aliens did in Contact: send pulse pause pulse pause pulse pulse pause pulse pulse pulse pause pulse pulse pulse pulse pulse pause pulse pulse pulse pulse pulse pulse pulse pulse pause pulse pulse pulse pulse pulse pulse pulse pulse pulse pulse pulse pulse pulse pause for a long time, then repeat from the beginning.

    Clearly artificial, not terribly subject to misinterpretation. In the movie (haven’t read the book) each pulse contained some extremely complex information, but I don’t think there’s anything we can set up that a completely alien mind would be reasonably certain to read correctly, or even identify as text or image.

    As for the fear that if we send out signals the aliens will come and suck out our brains, I think that’s absurd. We’re too far out in the galactic boondocks for them to bother with, and if it made sense for them to come here, they’d look for us. Radio signals would tell them we have technology, but nothing else; if they have interstellar travel they can’t possibly want OUR primitive little flints arrows and slingshots.

  14. flint* arrows and slingshots

    And to clarify: I don’t think any signal we send out would have any potential to get aliens to visit us for good or ill. They might try to communicate with our distant descendants (if we don’t wipe ourselves out before then, a fate we seem unlikely to escape), but I doubt we’re useful to them as food or slaves (or anything else) given the cost of coming here, and the benevolent things they could do would work at a distance.

    Assuming they’re out there. Pretty big assumption.

  15. An alien race traveling many light years to invade us makes about as much sense as a guy from the tip of South Africa trekking overland to the tip of Kamchatka to get some sea water. Hey, there’s sea water in your own backyard.

    (Of course others have said it better)

  16. Be careful who you ping; in a Universe of infinite possibilities there MAY JUST BE real Klingons out there…..

  17. Now, mostly I like to be hopeful, like the “So beautiful and so dangerous” episode from Heavy Metal;

    Pessimistic Professor ending the Drake Equation with “…our own.”

    Then a gigantic spaceship appears, and broadcasts. “Ah, but if a civilization does learn to survive and make peace with themselves, their lifespans may grow very long in the cosmic scale.”

    The Professor goes: “This can’t be! You’re defying the formula!”

    The Alien says: “Not so! By your own equations if even ONE PERCENT of civilizations survive and make peace with themselves that gives us, let’s see; One MILLION extant technological civilizations in this galaxy alone! It really depends on whether you are a “pessimist or an optimist”…

    There are a lot of factors in the Drake Equation that are barely estimable and other factors surrounding it;

    1. Is SETI for real? Most of the time I think they are, but sometimes I feel really pessimistic.
    2. Would the government allow any communications or notification of signals received?
    3. Would the aliens governments allow any communications or notification of signals received?

    After all this time, they should have received a signal by now. Even if there’s a “Super Galactic Civilization” that is above the need for light speed communications and just due to the sheer vastness of the galaxy never contacted us yet, there should be enough “Anomalies” like mega scale engineering projects to suggest something. I was really hoping in 2000 there’d be a “Worldwide revelation” and we’d really get booted into the future… An economy so vast you could have a giant 3 mile wide “Smiley” spaceship;-) And if so, why not contact us and then eventually ‘absorb us’ to prevent a scenario I’m going to describe…? I’d plug into a “Galactic GroupThink” in exchange for a lifestyle that let me travel the stars, I’d make a good “Envoy/Relayer”…

    So, why haven’t we been contacted or found any real evidence of extraterrestrial life?

    1. Conspiracy: Our government (or theirs) is too afraid of outside corruption to their power or possible danger and so is silencing any evidence.

    2. Uniqueness/Special Creation. We are alone. The Nucking Futz Fundies will love it.

    3. StarWars/StarTrek. The “Sci-Fi Fantasy” explanation. It’s very, VERY easy to make “Hyperspace Radio” and “Warp Drives”, so there’s no need for any remotely advanced civilizations to send long distance radio signals and advanced technology allows cheap easy interstellar transport so no need for “Mega Scale” projects yet. In a few more decades of progress, we’ll figure it out too. Only due to the universe’s vastness are we not contacted yet, as much by teenagers cruising for fun (and maybe playing “ET” pranks on us) as any official diplomatic envoy.

    4. The Darkness between the stars.

    I really want to be optimistic. A grand future of exploration and wonder just over the horizon, especially if/when we contact an outside force. I do more agree with the “Optimist” argument that life is quite present in the universe and any civilization capable of star travel is very peaceful and sensible.

    However, there is another possibility; “The Blight”

    Olaf Stapledon in his book “Star Maker” went into this. In that while he thought most civilizations that were able to travel space became peaceful and enlightened, some did retain their earlier warlike states or went insane (usually religion) and set out to expand and murder their way till the cosmos had nothing but their lives in it.

    Imagine the “Necromungers” from “Chronicles of Riddick”… Or ancient war machines that survived a galaxy spanning conflict and lie in deep space sleeping forever until their sensors pick up a distant signal and then go to silence it. Perhaps a “Von Neuman” probe that adjusts it’s orbit for intelligence, reasoning it is more efficient to terraform worlds for it’s long-dead creators if it uses a place where life flourishes already.

    I’m sure, beyond any “Power” issues, plenty of Generals use that option as justification for their actions if #1 is also true. Some General looks at the “Stuffed Indian” his great-grandpappy had as a trophy from the genocide aka “Indian Wars” and goes “These dang hippie new agers don’t get it. I’m trying to save their tree huggin butts too, and it’d be real poetic justice if one of their cruddy transmitters attracts some guys who try to buy our planet for a box of beads but are ready to wipe US out sooner or later!”

  18. I think the best idea I’ve ever heard for a message was a simple steady tone.

    That’s it. The Arecibo message was incomprehensible to me as a child, and I was in good company. When it was given to several astronomers to decode, they couldn’t. They couldn’t even get the picture.

    No. Keep It Simple, Stupid. Steady tone. Broad spectrum.

    Of course, if were were to receive a message, even a stead tone, do we answer?
    I say yes. It will take way too long for them to get here anyway. I doubt it would matter.

    1. How do you tell a steady tone is a signal from an intelligence, instead of just an astronomical emitter? Especially if it’s broad spectrum?

    2. A single, steady tone could be interpreted as “natural phenomena”. The man who discovered the “Pulsar” originally thought it was a communication from an E.T. But the steady, simple pattern ruled out that option.

      Therefore, a pattern would have to be complex. Too complex it could be mistaken for ‘static’ but there are plenty of things static wouldn’t do. I’d personally start a signal with the first 7 prime numbers in binary, then a framework in binary, then some numbers, then an image. The first 7 prime numbers simply couldn’t occur in nature, or rather would be so unlikely any system would automatically look at it. And, btw, the “Prime” numbers work in ANY “Base”. If an alien has four digits on each hand, 3 and 11 are still prime numbers in whatever his mathematical language is.

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