Researchers Created New Message For Extraterrestrial Intelligence That Includes Human DNA

An international team of researchers published a document on the arXiv preprint server detailing the new design for a message intended for extraterrestrial intelligence.

Researchers Created New Message For Extraterrestrial Intelligence That Includes Human DNA

The 13-page cosmic epistle, titled “A Lighthouse in the Galaxy” (BITG), is intended as a basic introduction to mathematics, chemistry, and biology that relies heavily on the message design of Arecibo and other previous attempts to contact extraterrestrials.

The researchers included a detailed plan of the best time of year to deliver the message and proposed a dense ring of stars near the center of our galaxy as a promising destination. Importantly, the broadcast also features a newly designed return address that will help any alien listeners pinpoint our location in the galaxy so they can—hopefully—start an interstellar conversation.

“The motivation for the design was to deliver the maximum amount of information about our society and species in the minimum amount of message possible,” says principal investigator Jonathan Jiang of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. “With improvements in digital technology, we can do much better than the Arecibo message in 1974.”

The Conceptual System Problem With The Alien Message

Any interstellar message must address two fundamental questions: what to say and how to say it.

Nearly every message humans have transmitted into space so far begins by establishing common ground with a basic science and math lesson, two topics that are presumably familiar to both us and aliens. If a civilization beyond our planet is able to build a radio telescope to receive our message, it probably knows a thing or two about physics.

A much more complicated question is how to encode these concepts in the release. Human languages ​​are out of the question for obvious reasons, but so are our number systems. Although the concept of numbers is almost universal, the way we represent them as numbers is completely arbitrary. That’s why many attempts, including BITG, choose to design their font as a bitmap, a way of using binary code to create a pixelated image.

The bitmap design philosophy for interstellar communication dates back to the Arecibo message. It’s a logical approach: the on/off, present/absent nature of a binary seems to be recognized by any intelligent species. But the strategy is not without flaws. When pioneering SETI scientist Frank Drake developed a prototype of the Arecibo message, he sent the binary message by post to a few colleagues, including several Nobel laureates. None of them could understand its content, and only one discovered that the binary was meant to be a bitmap. If some of the more intelligent humans struggle to understand this way of encoding a message, it seems unlikely that an alien would fare better. What’s more,

“One of the key ideas is that because vision has evolved independently many times on Earth, that means aliens will have it too,” explains Douglas Vakoch, president of METI ( Messaging Extraterrestrial Intelligence), an organization nonprofit dedicated to researching how to communicate with other life forms. “But that’s a big ‘if’, and even if you can see, there’s a lot of cultures embedded in the way we represent objects. Does that mean we should discard images? Absolutely not. It means that we should not cleverly assume that our representations are going to be intelligible.

The New Alien Message

After an initial transmission of a prime number to mark the message as artificial, what is intended to be sent includes a custom bitmap “alphabet” created by physicists Yvan Dutil and Stéphane Dumas as a proto-alien language that was designed to be robust. against transmission errors. Through it, Jiang introduces our base 10 number system and basic mathematics.

Credit: Jonathan H. Jiang et al.

The message uses the transition of a hydrogen atom to explain the idea of ​​time and mark when the transmission was sent from Earth, introduce common elements from the periodic table, and reveal the structure and chemistry of DNA.

Credit: Jonathan H. Jiang et al.

The final pages are probably the most interesting for the aliens, but also the least easy to understand because they assume that the recipient represents the objects in the same way as humans. These pages feature a sketch of a human man and woman, a map of the Earth’s surface, a diagram of our solar system, the radio frequency the aliens must use to respond to the message, and the coordinates of our solar system in the galaxy referenced by the location of globular clusters—tight, stable groups of thousands of stars that would likely be familiar to an alien anywhere in the galaxy.

Credit: Jonathan H. Jiang et al.

Jiang and his colleagues propose sending their message from the Allen Telescope Array in Northern California or from the Five-hundred-meter Aperture Spherical Radio Telescope (FAST) in China.

Since the recent destruction of the Arecibo telescope in Puerto Rico, these two radio telescopes are the only ones in the world that are actively courting SETI researchers. However, at the moment, both telescopes are only capable of listening to the cosmos, not speaking to it. Jiang acknowledges that modifying any of the telescopes with the necessary equipment to transmit the message will not be trivial. But doing so is possible, and he says he is in ongoing talks with FAST researchers to make it happen.

The FAST telescope has a diameter of half a kilometer, which makes it the largest radio telescope on the planet.  Before FAST, the now-destroyed Arecibo radio telescope in Puerto Rico was the largest of its kind at 1,000 feet in diameter.
The FAST telescope has a diameter of half a kilometer, which makes it the largest radio telescope on the planet.
Before FAST, the now-destroyed Arecibo radio telescope in Puerto Rico was the largest of its kind at 1,000 feet in diameter.

Is It Wise To Send A Message To Aliens With All Our Information?

Sending messages to aliens has always held a controversial position in the SETI community, which is primarily focused on listening to alien transmissions rather than sending our own. To critics of “active SETI,” the practice is at best a waste of time and at worst an existentially dangerous gamble.

There are billions of targets to choose from, and the chances of us sending a message to the right planet at the right time are very slim. Also, we have no idea who may be listening. What if we give our address to an alien species that lives off a diet of bipedal hominins?

“I don’t live in fear of an invading horde, but other people do. And just because I don’t share their fear doesn’t make their concerns irrelevant,” says Sheri Wells-Jensen, an associate professor of English at Bowling Green State University and an expert on the linguistic and cultural issues associated with interstellar message design. “Just because it’s hard to get a global consensus on what to ship or if we should ship doesn’t mean we shouldn’t. It is our responsibility to fight with this and include as many people as possible.”

Despite the risks and odds, many insist that the potential rewards of active SETI far outweigh the risks. First contact would be one of the most momentous occasions in the history of our species, and if we just wait for someone to call us, it may never happen.

As for the risk of annihilation by an extraterrestrial race like the one in the movie Independence Day, we’ve been exposed for a long time. Any alien capable of traveling to Earth would be more than capable of detecting evidence of life in the chemical signatures of our atmosphere or the electromagnetic radiation that has been leaking from our radios, televisions, and radar systems for the last century.

“This is an invitation to all people on Earth to participate in a discussion about sending this message. We hope that by publishing this article, we can encourage people to think about this,” Jang concludes.

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