Scientists Update Humanity’s Message to Aliens


An international team of scientists has formulated an updated, binary-encoded message that could eventually be transmitted to extraterrestrials in our galaxy. It’s packed with details, including the chemical makeup of humans, a map of Earth, and even our precise location in the Milky Way. What could go wrong?

The Beacon in the Galaxy (BITG) message, as it is known, is an update of the 1974 Arecibo message. Indeed, it has been nearly 50 years since science popularizer Carl Sagan and SETI pioneer Frank Drake crafted their famous message to aliens, so an update makes a lot of sense, given the many advancements in digital technology since that time. A paper describing the new message was recently uploaded to arXiv, and it is currently awaiting peer review.

Arecibo’s message from 1974. (Image: SETI Institute)

The message begins by conveying basic mathematical and physical concepts to “establish a universal means of communication,” according to the researchers, a team that includes astrophysicist Jonathan Jiang of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory at the California Institute of Technology. From there, the stream of ones and zeros describes the biochemical makeup of life on Earth, our position in the Milky Way galaxy, and digitized views of our solar system, Earth’s continents, and the human form. An invitation for strangers to respond in kind was also included, among many other elements.

In their paper, Jiang and his colleagues also explain the optimal way to transmit the message and where in the Milky Way we should direct the radio signal. The team proposes that the Five Hundred Meter Aperture Spherical Radio Telescope (FAST) in China and the Allen Telescope Array at the SETI Institute in California be used for this task. Institutions involved in the new document include the SETI Institute, Cambridge University, and Beijing Normal University, among others.

BITG is a big step forward since 1974 Message from Arecibo, which was the first real attempt to make contact with extraterrestrials and alert them to our presence. The original post was clear, concise and straight to the point, but painfully basic by today’s standards. Arecibo’s message carried the numbers 1-10, atomic values ​​of key elements, a representation of DNA, a human stick figure, a diagram of the solar system (oops, Pluto was depicted as a planet) and a rudimentary representation of the Arecibo Radio Telescope.

Russian scientists did something similar in 1999 and 2003, a series of projects known as Cosmic Calls. Such efforts to contact extraterrestrials are called Active SETI or METI (messages to extraterrestrial intelligence), the latter term coined by the late Russian scientist Alexander Zaitsev. A more recent effort took place in 2017, when snippets of an electronic music festival were sent to a red dwarf about 12.4 light years away.

The BITG developers used Arecibo’s original formula as the seed from which to build their updated message. But while Arecibo’s message was like a postcard to the stars, the new missive is a true PowerPoint presentation. Indeed, a key objective was to gather as much relevant information as possible. The obvious challenge was to design a communication system in the absence of a common language.

“Although the concept of mathematics in human terms is potentially unrecognizable for ETI [extraterrestrial intelligence], binary is probably universal in all intelligences,” the scientists write. “Binary is the simplest form of mathematics because it involves only two opposite states: zero and one, yes or no, black or white, mass or empty space.”

With the binary code chosen, the scientists turned to an inalienable truth about extraterrestrials: they live in the same universe as us and are therefore subject to the same immutable laws. It’s not unreasonable to assume that extraterrestrials discovered similar things about math, physics, the basic building blocks of matter, etc.

A slide showing the human form.  (Image: JH Jiang et al., 2022)A slide showing the human form. (Image: JH Jiang et al., 2022)

Using this as a basis for dialogue, Jiang and his colleagues chose to kick off the message with a stream of prime numbers and a quick lesson on the decimal system. From there, the team transmitted common elements from the periodic table, the structure of DNA and even a timestamp for the message itself – a feat made possible by using hydrogen’s spin-flip transition. neutral. The message also conveys our location in the Milky Way by referring our position to a large group of globular clusters that would likely be known to extraterrestrial astronomers. An invitation for aliens to send back a message was also included, as was our favorite radio frequency.

All this information has been grouped into 13 parts consisting of 204,000 bits, or 25,500 bytes. For perspective, you could put the entire BITG message on an old 5.25 inch floppy and still have plenty of room to spare.

Position of the Earth in the solar system.  (Image: JH Jiang et al., 2022)Position of the Earth in the solar system. (Image: JH Jiang et al., 2022)

It’s conceivable that the message is pure extraterrestrial gibberish. They may not perceive strings of ones and zeros as we do, and it is possible that extraterrestrials, although intelligent, may not be able to interpret our pictorial representations, whether due to cognitive differences, perceptual or even cultural.

The team says the chosen radio telescopes in China and northern California will need to be modified to send the message as a radiated radio wave. They add that the best time of year to do so will be between March and October, as the angle of the Earth and the Sun will be optimal to reduce interference. The chosen target is a concentric ring located 13,000 light-years from the galactic center, a location that has recently caught the attention of SETI scientists.

The Allen Telescope array in northern California.  (Image: Allen Telescope Array)The Allen Telescope array in northern California. (Image: Allen Telescope Array)

Which brings us to the gigantic elephant in the room: should we even do such a thing, given the potential risks? We know absolutely nothing about extraterrestrials in terms of behavior, ethics and motivations, but this message would be a deliberate attempt to alert them to our presence. Here is what the authors of the article had to say on the subject:

Arguments against further communication were explored and recorded: would the ETI be peaceful and even if it were, would human nature mean that war with the ETI is inevitable, eventually causing extinction of another sentient race? However, logic suggests that a species that has reached sufficient complexity to achieve communication across the cosmos would also most likely have reached high levels of cooperation with each other and therefore experience the importance of peace and collaboration.

Here, the authors are guilty of rehashing the old trope that aliens have to be benevolent or they wouldn’t be around. The thing is, we don’t really know that’s true. My twisted imagination can conceive of a host of scenarios in which advanced ETIs continue to exist despite malevolent tendencies, from hibernating berserker probes to artificial intelligence singleton on a mission to cleanse the galaxy of any potential threats. ETIs may not be conscious and self-reflective as we would like to believe.

Smartly, Jiang and his colleagues say a public discussion is needed, the goal being the “most informed consensus possible” on the issue. How, exactly, the global community is supposed to reach this consensus is unclear, given the unknowns and the potential for METI to introduce existential risk. I’m not sure that a cost-benefit analysis would pass the detection test, but I agree that a conversation needs to take place. Detecting extraterrestrials, conversing with them, and participating in technological and cultural exchanges could elevate our civilization and our species to unimaginable heights.

It’s important to point out that human civilization has been broadcasting, albeit weakly, its presence since we started transmitting radio waves, so the cat is probably out of the bag – at least in the expanse of space. touched by our expanding radio bubble. Personally, I don’t believe that a METI signal will ever reach an ETI, as I have very pessimistic views regarding the Fermi Paradox and the Large filter.

That said, I applaud the scientists for crafting this new message to extraterrestrials, but let’s make sure we have a meaningful conversation before we do anything rash. Shouting out loud to the cosmos might not be such a smart idea.


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