How do we get our message across to the extraterrestrials? The answers are evolving

GJ273 star system with radio transmissionGJ273 star system with radio transmission
Astronomers and artists sent a binary-coded radio transmission in the direction of an extrasolar planet known as GJ273 b in 2017. (METI International Illustration / Danielle Futselaar)

LOS ANGELES — Last year, scientists sent a binary-coded message telling the aliens what time it was. Next year, it’ll be the periodic table of the elements. And someday, they hope to transmit a universal language that even extraterrestrials might relate to.

“I think we should treat this as a multigenerational, true experiment as opposed to an observational exercise, like archaeology,” said Doug Vakoch, a veteran of the search for extraterrestrial intelligence who is now president of METI International.

Vakoch and other researchers, including linguists, gathered here this weekend at the National Space Society’s International Space Development Conference to consider the content for future messages to E.T.

In the process, they considered the meaning of language as well.

“The ideal is, we get a reply back to the experiment,” Vakoch, who has his Ph.D. in clinical psychology, told GeekWire. “But I also think there’s a social value.”

Vakoch has spent almost two decades thinking about how to design messages for the aliens, first as director of interstellar message composition at the SETI Institute, and since 2016 as METI’s president. (You can probably guess that METI stands for “messaging extraterrestrial intelligence.”)

Some deep thinkers, including the late physicist Stephen Hawking, have said sending signals to an unknown alien civilization out there is just asking for trouble. “Meeting an advanced civilization could be like Native Americans encountering Columbus,” Hawking once said. “That didn’t turn out so well.”

But Vakoch argues that it’s already too late, because for decades we’ve been sending out signals that could be detected by civilizations more advanced than ours.

“I wish I could tell people that somehow we are going to be safer if we don’t transmit, but in good conscience, I can’t,” he said.

So, he and his fellow METI advocates figure that we might as well be intentional about what we send, and  let any alien civilizations know that we’re ready to engage.

“It’s a way of testing the zoo hypothesis,” Vakoch explains. “What happens if a zebra at the zoo turns toward us and starts pounding out prime numbers? That radically changes the dynamic. Now we’ve got to figure out how to communicate back with it.”

People have been sending messages to the aliens every few years, ranging from the digitally encoded pictograms transmitted by the Arecibo radio telescope in 1974, to the Cosmic Call radio blasts in 1999 and 2003, to the Beatles song that NASA beamed out in Polaris’ direction in 2008.

Last year Vakoch’s group worked with other scientists and artists to send out the time-code message, plus a selection of 33 short musical tunes.

This weekend, researchers delved into the nitty-gritty of linguistics to lay the groundwork for the next METI message, which Vakoch said is due to be sent by the end of 2019. Like past messages, this one will be based on scientific and mathematical concepts that the aliens are likely to understand.

“Any mathematical systems are going to have to be functionally equivalent to each other, or they’re going to be so complicated that they won’t be useful,” Vakoch said.

The Arecibo message tried to keep it simple, by sending the atomic numbers for the chemical constituents of DNA: hydrogen, carbon, nitrogen, oxygen and phosphorus. But what if alien life isn’t based on DNA?

“This next round, we’ll be unpacking it,” Vakoch said. “We’ll unpack it and describe the periodic table.”

The METI team will also be trying to incorporate principles that appear to be common to most if not all earthly languages — for example, the way words are put together to form sentences, or the recursive structure of complex expressions. The papers presented this weekend include a study that has famed linguist Noam Chomsky as author.

“This opens us up to new rounds of messages,” Vakoch said.

He doesn’t expect the message that’s readied for next year to be the perfect pitch to the aliens. And he’s not sure the world’s linguists would be as ready to respond to an alien message as the character played by Amy Adams was in the movie “Arrival.”

“I am so jealous of Amy Adams, because the aliens come to her,” Vakoch said.

But even if humans don’t hear back from faraway civilizations for 1,000 years, that’d be OK with Vakoch. The way he sees it, the important thing is that humans see the value of communicating with the cosmos, and continue to keep up the conversation.

“To me, that would be a tremendous success,” Vakoch said. “Sometimes, we become what we’re looking for.”

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