Astronomers Are Asking Kids to Help Them Contact Aliens
by Sigal Samuel February 21, 2019 (vox.com)
• In 1974, scientists at Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico used the 1,000-foot-wide radio telescope to send a carefully crafted radio broadcast into outer space – a message of zeros and ones meant to alert aliens to our existence for the first time. In honor of the 45th anniversary of that transmission, researchers at the observatory are pondering how to design a follow-up dispatch. Rather than asking their fellow experts, they’ve launched a global contest inviting youth, from kindergarteners to 16-year-olds, to create the New Arecibo Message.
• Says Abe Pacini, a researcher at Arecibo, “Sometimes the scientists are so focused on their topics and they can see stuff very deep but they cannot see very broad… Students know a little bit about everything, so they can see the big picture better. For sure they can design a message that is actually much more important.” Teams composed of up to ten students plus one mentor must register by March 20th. The more diverse the team is, the more points it gets. The contest guidelines recommend using social media to find possible teammates in other countries or regions. The Arecibo scientists will determine which, if any, message will be selected to represent Earth.
• The 1974 Arecibo message was authored by Frank Drake and Carl Sagan and provided basic information about us, like the position of Earth in our solar system, the size of the human population, the shape of the human body, and the double helix structure of DNA. (The information about the nucleotides in DNA has since been shown to be false.) The message was beamed at M13, a globular star cluster 25,000 light years away. (But these primitive radio waves would take 25,000 years for the message to get there.)
• Another determination that the scientists will make is the “risks of exposure” inherent in messaging alien civilizations. Scientists like the late Stephen Hawking and technologists like Elon Musk have warned that communicating with extraterrestrials could pose an existential threat to the Earth if the message is received by hostile aliens. In 2015, SETI researchers, Elon Musk, and others released a statement saying, “We strongly encourage vigorous international debate by a broadly representative body prior to engaging further in this activity.”
• Astronomer and science fiction author David Brin, one of the most vocal critics of an Arecibo Message, says that, “[M]ost of us are much more concerned about the arrogance these zealots are displaying by presuming to speak for a civilization of 8 billion people without ever exposing their assumptions to normal debate and risk assessment.” Brin also noted, “Their instrument (the Arecibo Telescope) is funded by the taxpayers.”
• Douglas Vakoch, an astrobiologist who worked at SETI before splitting off to found his own international organization, Messaging Extraterrestrial Intelligence (METI), points out that “[A]ny civilization that could do us harm would already know we’re here from our accidental TV and radio leakage.” Vakoch says that the most important aspect of this communication may be our announcing to the galaxy that we are ready to make contact. Known as the ‘Zoo Hypothesis’, this is the idea that extraterrestrials may be keeping an eye on our planet but are waiting for us to indicate that we want to be in contact and that we’re sophisticated enough to merit attention.
• Neither a 1967 Outer Space Treaty ratified by dozens of countries and adopted by the United Nations which laid out an anti-weaponization framework for space, nor a SETI post-ET-detection protocol drafted in the 1980’s, addresses any protocol for actively sending out messages to other civilizations.
• For Brin, all this anxiety over interstellar communication seems like a reflection of our anxieties about communicating with one another. Underneath the question of how to talk to alien minds is a question that’s much closer to home: how to make ourselves understood to other minds right here on Earth.
• On a bulletin board at the Arecibo visitor center where kids were invited to post messages, one child’s misspelled missive was especially poignant: “Earth is destroying it self. Help us! Please help! Send better knowledg.”
• [Editor’s Note] Sending radio waves into space is like traveling across the American continent in horse-drawn covered wagons. This is just another example of mainstream scientists pretending to be on the cutting edge of space exploration when, in fact, our secret space programs are hundreds of years more advanced in space technology. Also, this speculation as to what kinds of extraterrestrials are out there, and the hand-wringing at what hostile ETs might do to our planet if we are “found”, is just more disinformation. We already know that many, many types of ET beings have already been here throughout our human development on Earth, and have been actively interacting with Earth humans since WWII. All of this drama about searching for intelligent life in the cosmos is simply theater to placate a mind-controlled Earth populace.
The scientists at Arecibo Observatory, a gigantic radio telescope in Puerto Rico, are some of the smartest astronomers and physicists in the world. But they need help with their next big project — and for that, they’re turning to kids.
In 1974, scientists used the 1,000-foot-wide telescope to send a carefully crafted radio broadcast into outer space, a message of zeros and ones meant to alert aliens to our existence.
It was humanity’s first interstellar message intended to be picked up by aliens. We haven’t heard back from E.T. yet. But in honor of the 45th anniversary of that transmission, the researchers at the observatory are pondering how to design a follow-up dispatch. Rather than asking their fellow experts, they’ve launched a global contest inviting youth — from kindergarteners to 16-year-olds — to create the New Arecibo Message.
The grand prize? A chance to have your message broadcast into the stars, and to potentially become the first human being ever to communicate with aliens.
I asked Alessandra Abe Pacini, a researcher at Arecibo who helped generate the idea for the contest, why kids are the best people for the job. “Sometimes the scientists are so focused on their topics and they can see stuff very deep but they cannot see very broad,” she said. “Students know a little bit about everything, so they can see the big picture better. For sure they can design a message that is actually much more important.”
But designing messages to aliens is a tricky business, on multiple levels. How do you write a missive that an alien intelligence will be able to understand? Should you avoid including sensitive information about humanity, in case that emboldens aliens to come to our planet and annihilate our species? Should you avoid transmitting messages into outer space altogether, because even just alerting aliens to our existence is too risky?
These questions are at the heart of a long-running, and sometimes very heated, debate among scientists. There’s no consensus about any of them, or even about the meta-question of who gets to decide on the answers.
One thing is clear, though: The stakes are extremely high. As scientists like the late Stephen Hawking and technologists like Elon Musk have warned, communicating with extraterrestrials could pose a catastrophic risk to humanity. In fact, if we send out a message and it’s received by less-than-friendly aliens, that could pose an existential threat not only to the human species but to every species on Earth.
The Original Arecibo Message
When space scientists wanted to celebrate a huge upgrade that had been made to the Arecibo Observatory in 1974, two of their greatest minds stepped up to draft a memo to aliens. It would be broadcast from the telescope during a public ceremony. Frank Drake, who came up with the famous “Drake Equation” for estimating the odds that intelligent life exists in our galaxy, crafted the message with help from Carl Sagan, the astronomer and popular science writer who penned Contact and popularized the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) organization.
Written in binary code — a series of ones and zeros — the message was designed with the hope of being intelligible to any aliens who might be listening. It sought to give them some basic information about us, like the position of Earth in our solar system, the size of the human population, the shape of the human body, and the double helix structure of DNA. When you look at the message in pictogram form, you can see all these components and more.
But this interstellar postcard was directed at M13, a globular star cluster 25,000 light years away, which may help explain why we haven’t heard back yet — it’ll take 25,000 years for the message to get there and the same amount of time for any reply to get back to us. The scientists chose that destination partly because the star cluster was big and relatively close, and partly just because it was within the telescope’s declination range (the part of the sky it can target) at the time of the ceremony.
In other words, the scientists weren’t really aiming to communicate with an alien civilization in their lifetimes so much as they were trying to publicly showcase the fact that their telescope could now do something incredible: For nearly three minutes, it sent a cosmic hello from humanity into the sky, as the audience assembled on site was moved to tears.
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