Article by Daniel Oberhaus January 2, 2020 (slate.com)
• Any musician will tell you, there is a deep logic inherent to music: There are equal distances between notes in a scale, notes can be combined in certain ways called harmonics, rhythm can be expressed in numerical ratios called time signatures, and so on. Music is a hybrid of logic and emotion, the yin and yang of the human experience.
• In this respect, music is an ideal medium for interstellar communication, but it must be tailored for transmission across billions of miles of empty space. The music must first be encoded into the radio wave in either an analog or digital format. Music’s inherent formalism suggests that even an ET that lacks the ability to hear could gainfully analyze various elements of music—its rhythm, pitch, and so on—by studying the way these elements are encoded in radio waves.
• The founder of the METI Institute (Messaging Extraterrestrial Intelligences) Douglas Vakoch, music composer Andrew Kaiser, and Dutch computer scientist Alexander Ollongren have all proposed unique ways for encoding musical concepts in interstellar messages. Vakoch believes that musical messages can teach ET quite a bit about human physiology. The number of notes in a scale can be used to establish how sensitive we are to differences between notes. Musical and rhythmic concepts can be readily taught to extraterrestrials.
• If the goal of METI is to convey information about Earth and the people who inhabit it, neglecting to include music would be a major oversight. Music has long played a fundamental role in the human experience. So how do we select which songs to send to ET? We’ve already sent into space Mexican folk music, early rock and roll, a Peruvian wedding song, Gershwin, and of course Beethoven and Vivaldi. Many Beatles songs have found their way to space. Until now, a small committee of Caucasian scientists have leaned toward classical music. It is simply impossible to create a corpus of music that represents every cultural group on Earth or every genre of music.
• The most promising path forward is designing music specifically for interstellar transmission. It would effectively be to create an entirely new genre of music. Not only would it avoid selection bias, but it opens the possibility of creating music that carries a maximum amount of information about the species that created it.
• Sónar is an annual three-day festival in Barcelona, Spain dedicated to electronic music, art, and design. To celebrate Sónar’s 25th anniversary in 2018, the festival partnered with the Catalonia Institute for Space Studies and the nonprofit METI International to send a series of interstellar messages directly to Luyten’s star, a red dwarf about 12 light-years from Earth. The closest potentially habitable exoplanet orbits this red dwarf.
• In late 2017 and early 2018, over the course of several nights, a radar system in Tromsø, Norway, blasted a custom message from the Sónar festival toward Luyten’s exoplanet, GJ237b. It consisted of 33 prime numbers repeated on two alternating radio frequencies. This was followed by a brief tutorial intended to teach ET to extract the music written by Sónar-affiliated musicians and embedded in the message.
• The Sónar music might only be called music in the loosest sense of the word. They are basically seconds-long noises based on a computer algorithm or random frequencies. The thinking is that even random screeches reveal our basic technology and physiology – topics that would presumably be of interest to an extraterrestrial recipient.
• An artificial language for interstellar communication called the ‘lingua cosmica’ based on logic, mathematics, and natural language syntax was actually developed in the 1960s. Dutch computer scientist Ollongren proposes to upgrade the lingua cosmica based on lambda calculus.
• When Carl Sagan set about designing the Voyager Golden Record, he recognized that “launching this bottle into the cosmic ocean says something very hopeful about life on this planet.” The same holds true for musical interstellar messages, even if our terrestrial melodies never grace an extraterrestrial ear.
Each summer for the past 25 years, tens of thousands of people have flocked to Barcelona, Spain, to witness Sónar, a three-day festival dedicated to
electronic music, art, and design. Something of a cross between a TED talk, Burning Man, and Coachella, Sónar has evolved from a small experiment into an event that the New York Times described as a “European institution” in 2017. It’s also the closest thing we have to an extraterrestrial envoy.
To celebrate Sónar’s 25th anniversary in 2018, the festival partnered with the Catalonia Institute for Space Studies and
the nonprofit METI International to send a series of interstellar messages to Luyten’s star, a red dwarf about 12 light-years from Earth. Although red dwarfs are the most common stellar objects in our galaxy, Luyten’s star is remarkable for hosting GJ237b, the closest potentially habitable planet outside of our own solar system. No one knows for sure whether GJ237b hosts life, intelligent or otherwise, but if ET does call the planet home, Sónar wants to rock its socks off.
Over the course of several nights in late 2017 and early 2018, a radar system in Tromsø, Norway, blasted a custom message from Sónar toward GJ237b. Like any good correspondence, the message began with a greeting: In this case, the first 33 prime numbers repeated on two alternating radio frequencies functioned as a stand-in for “hello.” This was followed by a brief tutorial that the message designers hoped would teach ET to extract the music written by Sónar-affiliated musicians and embedded in the message.
Each song in the Sónar messages is only a few seconds long and might only be called music in the loosest sense of the word. One track was created by feeding an algorithm music and letting it remix the notes as it saw fit, which resulted in something that sounds like a horror movie sound effect. Another
uses the atomic numbers of a handful of oxygen, silicon, and other elements as the frequencies for pure tones. These arrangements don’t make for easy listening, but that’s not the point. Instead, the artists use music as a way of conveying information, whether it’s about our aesthetic sensibilities, our technology, or our physiology—all topics that would presumably be of interest to an extraterrestrial recipient.
In many respects, the Sónar messages are on well-trodden ground. The first human-made object to make it to interstellar space, the Voyager 1 spacecraft, carries a gold-plated phonographic record that includes Mexican folk music, early rock and roll, a Peruvian wedding song, and more. In 2001, a message sent from the Evpatoria radar in Ukraine included theremin renditions of Beethoven, Vivaldi, and Gershwin; a few years later, NASA blasted a Beatles song at a star 400 light-years away.
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