Astronomers Suggest Crowdsourcing Letters to Aliens
Before trying to contact aliens, maybe we should test the messages on ourselves.
In a new paper in the journal Space Policy, three alien hunters suggest designing a standard protocol for writing intelligible letters to extraterrestrials, and building a website where teams can decode candidate messages to ensure they make sense.
“The basic idea is, if you’re going to talk to aliens, you’d better have something that’s understandable to humans,” said Caltech planetary scientist Michael Busch, who has tried to design an ideal alien postcard but was not involved in the new work.
The search for extraterrestrial intelligence, colloquially known as SETI, has been attempting to eavesdrop on intelligent civilizations for the last 50 years, mostly by piggybacking on existing astronomical sky surveys. But as a species, humanity has tried to call ET only a handful of times.
These earlier messages were too complicated and human-centric to make sense to even a technologically advanced alien civilization, the researchers argue.
“If I make a presentation on the Keynote software on Mac, you won’t be able to open it on a Windows machine here on Earth,” said physicist Dimitra Atri of the University of Kansas, a coauthor of the new paper. “Forget about sending it to a distant planet.”
The first dispatch, the Arecibo message (right), was fired in 1974 at a globular cluster 25,000 light-years away. It included a pixelated graphic of a human, the numbers one through ten, and a graphic of the radio telescope used to transmit the message — though you almost can’t tell to look at it.
“It was largely just for decoration, essentially,” said astrobiologist Julia DeMarines of the International Space University in France, a coauthor of the paper. “It was cool, but it wasn’t really a directed message.”
The next four messages — the Cosmic Calls of 1999 and 2003, the Teen Age Message of 2001 and “A Message From Earth” in 2008 — were sent from a radio telescope in Evpatoria, Ukraine.
Those broadcasts went to more local stars, between 20 and 69 light-years from Earth, where we could hope to hear back from anyone listening in. But they included recordings of classical music and photographs and drawings submitted by the public — information of sentimental value to Earthlings, but gibberish to aliens who might not even have eyes or ears.
To help increase the odds that ET will hear us when we call, Atri, DeMarines and astrobiologist Jacob Haqq-Misra of The Pennsylvania State University suggest designing a standard protocol for writing SETI messages.
“The paper is really a call for unity among thinking about messaging exraterrestrials,” Haqq-Misra said. “Right now it’s messy, it’s kind of all over the place. Maybe we can increase our success chances by being more unified about this.”
The protocol would cover issues like message length (keep it short at first), signal encoding (binary is probably best), transmission method (radio, or some other frequency?) and information content (math and science, or human culture?). The main idea is to keep it simple, the researchers say.
“We want to make sure we’re not being too anthropocentric, making sure the answer can be accessible to the lowest common denominator,” Haqq-Misra said. “Until we meet one, we won’t know” how to talk to them.
This paper is just a first step. The alien-hunters are trying to round up a committee of scientists, communicators, philosophers and others who think about SETI to help design the protocol.
“It’s like fantasy football, but for SETI,” DeMarines said.
Once the rules are in place, the team will build a website where users worldwide can submit messages that fit the protocol, and try to crack each others’ codes. The team hopes to have the website up and running by this summer.
Such a game would not only refine the software used to encode the messages. It could also help reveal which concepts are specific to certain cultures, and which are human universals.
“You might be surprised at what things do and don’t translate,” Haqq-Misra said. “It might give people perspective about what is universally understood, if anything.”
“It’s certainly very useful, and potentially important,” Busch said. “But whether we’ll use this to actually talk to somebody out there, we have to find somebody to talk to first. Its true potential may not be known for a whole lot longer than I plan to be alive.”