How to Respond When E.T. Says Hello

Apr 01, 2010 by Clara Moskowitz
In 1977 NASA's Voyager 1 and 2 spacecraft launched into space carrying phonographs called the Golden Records containing pictures and sounds meant to show extraterrestrials a glimpse of life on Earth. Credit: NASA

Scientists are studying the best ways to compose messages meant for alien eyes in case we ever do get the chance to communicate with extraterrestrials.

If mankind ever does receive a signal from extraterrestrials, one of our first decisions may be what to write back.

As director of Interstellar Message Composition at the SETI Institute, psychologist Douglas Vakoch has thought a lot about this question.

"The challenge of constructing any interstellar message is trying to anticipate what you and your recipient have in common," Vakoch said. "One thing we can guarantee is they won't be native speakers of English or Swahili or Chinese."

And the same problem applies to any incoming message to Earth.

"It's very reasonable to think that we will know there's an extraterrestrial out there, that we will have a message that is distinctly artificial, but that we won't be able to decipher it," Vakoch said.

So choosing a language and means to communicate is just as difficult as figuring out what you want to say. A language based on mathematics and scientific principles is a good idea, Vakoch said, because presumably if aliens are advanced enough to send or receive a signal across the abyss of space, then they'll have some scientific understanding.

Humankind already has some experience sending messages crafted for alien eyes. One of the most famous of these is the collection of sounds and images contained on the Voyager Golden Records, two phonograph records that were packed aboard the and 2 before they were launched in 1977 on trajectories that have recently taken them beyond the .

"I think the richest description of ourselves that has been sent into space is the Voyager interstellar records," Vakoch said. "They include greetings in 55 languages, over a hundred pictures describing life on Earth."

The contents of the records were chosen by a committee chaired by the late Cornell University astronomer Carl Sagan. They contained recordings of natural sounds such as thunder and bird calls, as well as music from cultures around the world. But Vakoch said these messages were largely symbolic, because most scientists admit the chances of another species intercepting these spacecraft are very slim since they have barely travelled beyond the outskirts of the solar system so far in the 33 years they've been in space.

However, even if our postcards to aliens are never received, the act of crafting them may be a worthwhile exercise.

This 1974 radio message was beamed into space by the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico. The message contains a string of 1's and 0's meant to signify the numbers from one to ten, the elements hydrogen and carbon, a representation of DNA, a picture of a human, and the basics of our solar system. The signal was broadcast toward globular star cluster M13. Credit: Frank Drake (UCSC) et al., Arecibo Observatory (Cornell, NAIC)

"Let's step aside from our daily concerns for a moment, and let's think about what we would want to say if our words are going to last a thousand years," Vakoch said.

An interesting aspect of the records, he pointed out, is that they emphasize the positive aspects of life on Earth, while ignoring bleaker realities such as war and environmental degradation.

"It really highlights our natural tendency in making contact in putting our best foot forward," he said. "It's the natural way to meet strangers. You don't typically tell them about all your problems on a first date."

Though this is an understandable inclination, he said that advanced extraterrestrials may find it very intriguing to hear about the problems that humans face on a day-to-day basis.

"We have a lot of problems as a species that we're struggling with," Vakoch said. "We're not sure if we're even going to survive as a species on our planet. I think a more informative message would be actually to talk about some of the challenges we face because I think that’s one of the defining characteristics of our civilization."

In a recent project called "Earth Speaks," the SETI Institute solicited public suggestions about what to say in a communication to aliens.

"One of the most common messages coming in to Earth Speaks is the simple 'Help,'" Vakoch said.

Or perhaps people shouldn't bother composing a message at all. Another scientist, astronomer Seth Shostak, has proposed that we just broadcast everything on the Google servers out to aliens.

"Instead of trying to think of what's fundamental, just send them a lot of data and let them sort through and find the pattern," Vakoch said.

Vakoch discussed some of the issues around interstellar message composition in a recent paper in the journal Acta Astronautica.

Explore further: Computer simulation suggests early Earth bombarded by asteroids and comets

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User comments : 37

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Doug_Huffman
not rated yet Apr 01, 2010
What about the precautionary principle? Who decides when to apply it and when not to?
Bob_B
4 / 5 (4) Apr 02, 2010
There are such a diverse set of uneducated, and believers in religions that you might as well test your ideas on that set of people.
They are truly alien to a realist.
JanDoggen
5 / 5 (1) Apr 02, 2010
Hasn't this been done already?
I remember reading "Lincos - Design of a language for cosmic intercourse" decades ago. I think it was from an (education?) institute in the Netherlands. It was a pretty detailed designed of a mathematical language. I did not finish it ;-)

O look, it is online!
http://people.csa...mic.html
http://en.wikiped...anguage)

Wow, even this old stuff (1960) is being put online!
antialias
5 / 5 (2) Apr 02, 2010
Currently, if there is contact with ET, then that means they have come to us.
It is therefore safe to assume (them being able to traverse a fair bit of sapce) that they are a bit more advanced than us.
Thus they will solve the problem of composing a message for us (i.e. by just sitting in orbit a few day, listening to our TV broadcasts and numbercrunching them into something they can understand and formulating any message they might have for us in plain readable text/speech)
jamey
1 / 5 (1) Apr 02, 2010
@antialias - doesn't that pre-supposed progress in all areas that is roughly equal? With certain types of postulated star drives, significant computer technology isn't really required. If it's a point-and-click teleport system, they can point at our star, TP, look around and find where we've moved to in the x00 or x000 years since the light left our star, TP again to get closer, and with 4 or 5 TPs, they're pretty much in orbit.
antialias
5 / 5 (3) Apr 02, 2010
With certain types of postulated star drives, significant computer technology isn't really required.

It isn't? I think that the piddly stuff we are doing right now in space requires some serious computing abilities and I'd wager that before we send manned missions to other solar systems we'll have gotten quite a bit better.

Teleporting isn't something I would bet on and is certainly not (currently) a subject for physorg.

Anyways, would you land on a planet that sends out abundant samples of language/communication before you had a clue as to what it all says? Wouldn't it be prudent to stay off until you know what kinds of folks you are dealing with?
Skeptic_Heretic
1 / 5 (1) Apr 02, 2010
Wouldn't it be prudent to stay off until you know what kinds of folks you are dealing with?


Not if the occupants of this bustling planet are technologically evolved to the point of shrub thrushes comparitively. I would however want a full biogenetic profile of the planet and it's inhabitants to determine if it's reasonably safe for me to even attempt encounter or contact.

That being said, I'm fairly sure we're going to be using math as our communication medium, the frightening part of which would be, what happens if the probe sends something that we answer and it sees our technological advancement and intellect as a potential adversary, electing to eliminate us as a competitor. The possiblities preclude an ability to answer this question.
SteveL
1.8 / 5 (5) Apr 02, 2010
I've seen enough of the nature channel to know that surviving species at the top of a food chain exist by a) the consumption of other species, b) the consumption of resources, or, c) the consumption of both. My preference is to keep our proverbial mouths shut and survive.

I used to have my computer crunching for SETI@home (They were the first distributed computing project), until I came up with that observation. Now, I don't want humanity to find any source of artificial signals. Some well-meaning bozo will want to risk our existances and try to tell them where we are. Until our species matures, in my opinion it's best to keep our heads down until we know what we are getting into. As a species we haven't really even left our cradle yet. Sheesh!
Scryer
1.5 / 5 (8) Apr 02, 2010
I realize this is a pretty rough topic for a site like Physorg, because to be honest, very few scientists really want to deal with the whole idea of ET contact, let alone that we may already be visited by people with better knowledge of the universe then we know right now.

What I find down-right distressing is the over-abundance of information out there about their very existence, and yet most main-stream scientists will dismiss it all as bunk.

When Canada, Austria, the U.K. , Brazil, and other countries recently released their "UFO" files, and stated publicly that they were investigated as real phenomena, very few people in the US took notice.

We all live in reality, but scientist are stuck in some ultra-conservative dimension, where progress moves slowly. It's too bad really.
Newbeak
3.7 / 5 (7) Apr 02, 2010
I think we are wasting our time looking for ET by monitoring radio emissions. What are the odds that any intelligent race is at the same technological level as us? More than likely,some aliens are still living in caves,and some are technologically advanced enough to look upon our culture as we look upon the culture of an anthill.When they last used radio to communicate,we were likely cave dwellers ourselves.
Newbeak
2 / 5 (4) Apr 02, 2010
I realize this is a pretty rough topic for a site like Physorg, because to be honest, very few scientists really want to deal with the whole idea of ET contact, let alone that we may already be visited by people with better knowledge of the universe then we know right now.

What I find down-right distressing is the over-abundance of information out there about their very existence, and yet most main-stream scientists will dismiss it all as bunk.

When Canada, Austria, the U.K. , Brazil, and other countries recently released their "UFO" files, and stated publicly that they were investigated as real phenomena, very few people in the US took notice.

We all live in reality, but scientist are stuck in some ultra-conservative dimension, where progress moves slowly. It's too bad really.

I believe many academics are privately interested in the UFO subject,but for professional reasons,are loathe to admit it.See:http://www.ufoskeptic.org/
Scryer
1 / 5 (1) Apr 02, 2010
Thanks for the website link, Newbeak.

I also wanted to say, with all our advances with entanglement and teleportation (of particles) and quantum theory, it's very likely advanced ET races communicate between any distance and simply have no use for traditional radio/wave communications.

The type of technology to do these things seems to flawlessly exist, if you believe the governments I've mentioned. Even without knowing their true communications system, I'd have to fathom it lets them communicate, even at great distances.

It's a good article though.
Newbeak
3.7 / 5 (3) Apr 02, 2010
Thanks for the website link, Newbeak.

I also wanted to say, with all our advances with entanglement and teleportation (of particles) and quantum theory, it's very likely advanced ET races communicate between any distance and simply have no use for traditional radio/wave communications.

The type of technology to do these things seems to flawlessly exist, if you believe the governments I've mentioned. Even without knowing their true communications system, I'd have to fathom it lets them communicate, even at great distances.

It's a good article though.

You are welcome! As far as what aliens would use for communication,it is dangerous to speculate.We have trouble accurately predicting what technologies will exist in 20 years,let alone 200,000 years.
I agree,it is a balanced and informative article.I have had Physorg.com bookmarked for some time now.You can always find something topical and interesting on the site.
HealingMindN
1 / 5 (3) Apr 02, 2010
It's an April fools joke. ET is in charge of SETI.

'If a man be bidden to look for anything by another whose will dominates, but perturbs his own and whom he fears to displease, his anxiety to find it will sometimes so confuse him that he will not see the object, though it may be under his very eyes.' Arthur Edward Waite, The Mysteries
of Magic.
rwinners
not rated yet Apr 02, 2010
Thus they will solve the problem of composing a message for us (i.e. by just sitting in orbit a few day, listening to our TV broadcasts and numbercrunching them into something they can understand and formulating any message they might have for us in plain readable text/speech)


And then they will invite us to dinner. Personally, I'd let others have this treat ... as they might just end up on the menu.
Scryer
1 / 5 (1) Apr 02, 2010
You are welcome! ... I agree,it is a balanced and informative article. I have had Physorg.com bookmarked for some time now.You can always find something topical and interesting on the site.


Yeah, I agree, Physorg often has articles up that I find in the newspaper days later. Just looking at some of the articles on Physorg gives me a pretty good idea of where we'll be in 10-20 years, or sooner.

Cheers. ^_^
sciguy59
5 / 5 (3) Apr 02, 2010
This is for a little levity. I keep thinking our first contact will be somebody handing us our Voyager's back and telling us to quit junking up the neighbourhood.
LRW
not rated yet Apr 04, 2010
If they can`t get here, they aren`t dangerous. If they can get here, they likely have already. If they are advanced enough to star travel, they have existed long enough to have been exposed to planetary level extinction threats(such as ateroid impacts)and survived-so they likely have weapons.
mauro48it
1 / 5 (1) Apr 04, 2010
First part.
I wish to enlarge the view of the possibility of existence of intelligent life in the universe.
Why should we limit the forms of life only to humanoid form? Or at least some form of life similar which our direct experience suggests?
It could be possible that in the infinite ! universe there are life forms that have a time scale much slower or faster?
Could It be possible that there are intelligences that can manipulate physical phenomena on a scale of energy and time completely different from ours?
For example intelligences that can use a black hole as transmitters of messages, of course with a time scale much lower than that with which we modulate a radio wave.
mauro48it
1 / 5 (1) Apr 04, 2010
Second part.
For example would perhaps be possible one day to put in orbit around the Sun a host of satellites consisting of huge sails that can generate shadow cones which can modulate the light received by a distant observer. A binary message may be modulated by adjusting the mutual distance between the satellites. It would certainly be a transmitter very slow, but by calculating the time it takes the message to reach their destination would not be a problem.
Newbeak
1 / 5 (2) Apr 04, 2010
First part.
I wish to enlarge the view of the possibility of existence of intelligent life in the universe.
Why should we limit the forms of life only to humanoid form? Or at least some form of life similar which our direct experience suggests?
It could be possible that in the infinite ! universe there are life forms that have a time scale much slower or faster?
Could It be possible that there are intelligences that can manipulate physical phenomena on a scale of energy and time completely different from ours?
For example intelligences that can use a black hole as transmitters of messages, of course with a time scale much lower than that with which we modulate a radio wave.

I recall reading somewhere that aliens would likely have a similar body configuration to ours,with two hands,and two legs.For tool holding,a tentacle is not as dexterous as a hand with opposable digits.Two legs offer the ability to move quickly to avoid danger.
Newbeak
3 / 5 (2) Apr 04, 2010
Second part.
For example would perhaps be possible one day to put in orbit around the Sun a host of satellites consisting of huge sails that can generate shadow cones which can modulate the light received by a distant observer. A binary message may be modulated by adjusting the mutual distance between the satellites. It would certainly be a transmitter very slow, but by calculating the time it takes the message to reach their destination would not be a problem.

What is the advantage of this method over radio transmissions? It is still limited to light speed,and far more costly to set up.Also,as I have said in previous posts,the target of these signals would either be a race of semi-intelligent beings still living in the trees,or a race that is a least hundreds of thousands of years more technically advanced.Races at our level of development would therefore be quite rare,if they existed at all.
Newbeak
1 / 5 (1) Apr 04, 2010
"If they can`t get here, they aren`t dangerous. If they can get here, they likely have already. If they are advanced enough to star travel, they have existed long enough to have been exposed to planetary level extinction threats(such as asteroid impacts)and survived-so they likely have weapons."

The universe is inconceivably large,so it is possible they haven't found us,although you are probably right,and UFO sightings could be ET observing us.Older cultures would indeed be familiar with planetary extinction events,and would undoubtedly have colonies spread far and wide.
They would also have some pretty impressive weaponry,but would be unlikely to use them.To have survived past our technological level,they would have had to suppress the passions that endanger our survival as a race in possession of nuclear weapons.The most likely way they would view us would be as a primitive culture best left to our own devices,and thus on an intergalactic quarantine list.
Skeptic_Heretic
not rated yet Apr 04, 2010
they would have had to suppress the passions that endanger our survival as a race in possession of nuclear weapons.

Says who?

When faced with a threat, violent solitary organisms will band together for mutual survival. ie: Tribal Humans

We survive despite our abilities, not because of them.
Newbeak
4 / 5 (1) Apr 04, 2010
they would have had to suppress the passions that endanger our survival as a race in possession of nuclear weapons.

Says who?

When faced with a threat, violent solitary organisms will band together for mutual survival. ie: Tribal Humans

We survive despite our abilities, not because of them.

Tribal behaviour has served us well,but with weapons of mass destruction,it may lead to our extinction,or at least reduce us to small pockets of impoverished survivors with no advanced technology. Nuclear war would wipe out most of the skilled people and institutions we depend on for our technological civilization.
Astronomers have said that one reason we haven't detected signals from other civilizations may be that once they reach our level,they destroy themselves.
jgreen
1 / 5 (1) Apr 04, 2010
I like to think of myself as a skeptic, but an open-minded one.

Crop circles have always fascinated me and they make me wonder if it is not some form of e.t. communication. If I am foolish and naive for falling for what some describe as hoaxes then shame on me. It just seems to me that some of these circles have unexplained origins and since they have not outright been dis-proven as false then it is open to further investigation.

This site appears to be conspiracy in nature but does show some interesting crop circles including an alleged response from the message referenced in this article.

https://sites.goo...-arrived

Skeptic_Heretic
not rated yet Apr 05, 2010
Astronomers have said that one reason we haven't detected signals from other civilizations may be that once they reach our level,they destroy themselves.

It's also been said that once they reach a little past our level they conclude with a technological singularity and standard EM conversations become inefficient. You're aligning yourself with the Malthusians. Humanity is far smarter than you may recognize.
Newbeak
1 / 5 (1) Apr 05, 2010
Astronomers have said that one reason we haven't detected signals from other civilizations may be that once they reach our level,they destroy themselves.

It's also been said that once they reach a little past our level they conclude with a technological singularity and standard EM conversations become inefficient. You're aligning yourself with the Malthusians. Humanity is far smarter than you may recognize.


Humanity has been lucky,not smarter. Is it smart to wipe out hundreds of millions for political reasons?
All I am saying is that our level of technological development is the most dangerous one a culture can go through.One mistake could lead to an all-out nuclear exchange.The most disturbing thing is that there HAVE been many close calls.The Cuban missile crisis springs to mind,where the fate of the world was in the hands of one person on a Soviet submarine (see: http://en.wikiped...Crisis).
Skeptic_Heretic
5 / 5 (1) Apr 05, 2010
All I am saying is that our level of technological development is the most dangerous one a culture can go through.

You mean other than the potential ability to create black holes, tears in space time or any number of other technological things we can do?

You're fearing that which you cannot quantify. Any statement on dangers of technology at this point in time are qualitative, not quantitative, ie: tantamount to your opinion as opposed to fact.
jj2009
not rated yet Apr 05, 2010
if we just broadcast everything thats on google, you can guarantee that in a few years from now the aliens will be arriving to blast us to atoms and do the universe a favour.
Newbeak
1 / 5 (1) Apr 05, 2010
All I am saying is that our level of technological development is the most dangerous one a culture can go through.

You mean other than the potential ability to create black holes, tears in space time or any number of other technological things we can do?

You're fearing that which you cannot quantify. Any statement on dangers of technology at this point in time are qualitative, not quantitative, ie: tantamount to your opinion as opposed to fact.


This is the first time in history that people have the ability to wipe themselves out.Up till WWII,it was business as usual,each side slugging it out till one side won,and then things were rebuilt and life went on.
Do a web search on the aftermath of nuclear war.Every scenario I have read projects deaths in the hundreds of millions as initial survivors succumb to burns,injury,radiation sickness,etc.
Ironically,our survival could be largely due to MAD.
If nobody does anything stupid,we will advance to a level two culture.
Skeptic_Heretic
not rated yet Apr 05, 2010
This is the first time in history that people have the ability to wipe themselves out.
Not true, there are a great many times in the past when our need to build has outdone our ability to garner resources, ie: Easter Island, The Mayan Empire, 1700's France, etc.
Up till WWII,it was business as usual,each side slugging it out till one side won,and then things were rebuilt and life went on.
Except for the fact we already had excellent means by which to poison and disease our enemies via biological and chemical warfare. The Japanese had the armaments and capability to entirely wipeout the planet with small pox during WW2.

If nobody does anything stupid,we will advance to a level two culture.
We're not even a level 1 at this time. You're making some hefty suggestions with no real basis in fact. Mankind is inherently moral otherwise our religious institutions would look quite different.
shadfurman
1 / 5 (1) Apr 05, 2010
There are such a diverse set of uneducated, and believers in religions that you might as well test your ideas on that set of people.
They are truly alien to a realist.


Thats what you want, an attitude of Superiority and stereotypical bigotry. Lets just send them that. Some of us need to work on understanding our own first.
Newbeak
1 / 5 (1) Apr 05, 2010
This is the first time in history that people have the ability to wipe themselves out.
Not true, there are a great many times in the past when our need to build has outdone our ability to garner resources, ie: Easter Island, The Mayan Empire, 1700's France, etc.


Read my post again.I am not talking about the Mayan culture decimated by the Spanish,nor the Jews being exterminated by the Nazis.I am referring to the whole world population.An atomic conflagration would leave only scattered pockets of people living in abject poverty.No more take-out!

"Except for the fact we already had excellent means by which to poison and disease our enemies via biological and chemical warfare. The Japanese had the armaments and capability to entirely wipeout the planet with small pox during WW2".

You still don't get it.Poison and disease are limited in their effectiveness.Some people are always naturally immune to otherwise fatal diseases,else we would have vanished long ago.
Skeptic_Heretic
not rated yet Apr 06, 2010
You still don't get it.Poison and disease are limited in their effectiveness.Some people are always naturally immune to otherwise fatal diseases,else we would have vanished long ago.

And this is any different from your doomsday scenario how? In the event of a full out nuclear conflagration, New Zealand and Madagascar will both be well kept, poking more holes in your utter devastation theory.
Newbeak
not rated yet Apr 06, 2010
You still don't get it.Poison and disease are limited in their effectiveness.Some people are always naturally immune to otherwise fatal diseases,else we would have vanished long ago.

And this is any different from your doomsday scenario how? In the event of a full out nuclear conflagration, New Zealand and Madagascar will both be well kept, poking more holes in your utter devastation theory.


There is a alliance between Australia and the U.S.,(New Zealand has opted out of it) called ANZUS.The U.S. has early warning ground stations in Australia,so the Aussies would be a target in a nuclear exchange.See : http://en.wikiped...ki/ANZUS
As New Zealand is allied with Australia,it is possible it might be attacked as well.
Skeptic_Heretic
not rated yet Apr 06, 2010
As New Zealand is allied with Australia,it is possible it might be attacked as well.

So Mr. Broderick, when you're done assuming doomsday based off of a NATO total exchange "War Games" scenario, (all of which were proven false by late 60's Nuclear testing), will you still fail to prove that this would eliminate the entire species?

There is no mechanism present today, that was not in our technological repitoire prior that could eliminate the entire species 100%. You have NO argument here. NONE.

And you still haven't addressed the fact that we're nowhere near a type 1 civilization.