Anybody out there?

When you have followed my blog posts, you will know that I am a supporter of the Rare Earth Hypothesis. Mind you, I will be more than happy if  proof of extraterrestrial life is found, but for the time being, I think we may well be alone in the Universe..:-(

Actually, for many years already I am participating in the SETI@home project. SETI stands for Search for ExtraTerrestrial Intelligence. The purpose of the project is to analyse radio signals for signs of intelligent life in the universe, and it is doing this by what is called distributed computing. The data to be analysed come from the Arecibo radio telescope in Puerto Rico.

More than 120.000 PC’s all over the world take part, my PC is one of them. When my computer is idle, it starts analysing a data packet received from Arecibo. Results of the analysis are sent back to SETI, I receive a new data packet and so on…:-)  Here is the Arecibo telescope (with its mirror diameter of 300 m the largest in the world) and a screenshot of my monitor while it is analysing the data. Visual output is a screen saver, moving around the screen all the time..

Arecibo_Observatory_Aerial_View_small

seti

The project has started in 1999 but until now no sign of (intelligent) life has been found.

You might describe this activity as LISTENING : is there anybody in the universe trying to communicate with us?

What about SHOUTING : is anybody out there? That is the topic of this post. Making our (human) existence known to the universe.

The first attempt to send out a signal to the universe dates back to 1972. The Pioneer 10 space probe was going to explore Jupiter and would leave the solar system after the end of its mission. Carl Sagan , who had been active already in promoting SETI, suggested  that a “plaque” should be attached to the space probe, with information about our human species. The left image gives an artist impression of the Pioneer 10, now traveling in outer space, far away from Earth. It might come close to Aldebaran, a red giant star, in about 2 million years..:-) The right image shows the Pioneer plaque, designed by Sagan and his wife.

1024px-Pioneer_10-11_spacecraft

Pioneer_plaque.svg

For more info about the meaning of the various elements, click on the link above. Here I only want to mention that there was a discussion about the naked humans. Was that acceptable of “porn”? By the way, the male genitals are shown, but the female vagina is missing, so aliens will still be in doubt how we reproduce. Would they be able to interpret the info correctly? Here is a hilarious interpretation: the Real Pioneer Plaque

Five years later the two Voyager space probes 1 and 2 were launched, again to explore the outer solar system. They have been extremely successful and are still operational, after almost 40 years! The Voyager 1 is now 19.6 billion km away from Earth, you can check the actual distance here . It has on board a phonographic(!) record containing information about Earth and about us. A kind of time capsule! The left image shows an artist impression of the Voyager 1 with the location of the golden record clearly visible. The right image shows the cover of the Voyager Golden Record.

voyager

The_Sounds_of_Earth_Record_Cover_-_GPN-2000-001978

Mind you, in 1977 digital coding was not common, no jpeg or mp3 existed yet, it was all analog!. Here is a fascinating Table of Contents of the Golden Record. Please click on this link and be surprised. A welcome message by Jimmy Carter, at that time US president! Greetings in 55 languages. One of them in Dutch (yes!), another one in Indonesian, four Chinese dialects, but no Malay, nor Tamil..:-(  Music, from classical until modern. But this time no picture of naked humans, thanks to a (still) prudish US..:-).

If ever an alien civilization would pick up this time capsule, would they be able to decipher it? Some sources doubt it,  check this funny Gizmodo report

You might compare these first attempts with throwing a bottle in the ocean. Maybe somebody will ever find it. Can we get more active?

Yes, we can. In 1974 the Arecibo telescope, mentioned above, sent out the Arecibo message to the Universe. A sequence of 1679 zero’s and one’s. Why that number? Because it is a semi-prime, product of two large prime numbers 23 and 73. When you order the message, split in a matrix of 73 x 23, you will get this (in black and white!):

320px-Arecibo_message.svg

To “explain” this, the white part represents our decimal system, the green one the  nucleotides  in our DNA, the blue one the double helix. The red human has next to it the human size (in binary) and the human population (also in binary), but probably you understood that already, didn’t you…LOL? Yellow represents our solar system, the third planet is shifted to the left with the human standing on it. Easy, right?

But would you be able to reconstruct the content from this binary sequence?

000000101010100000000000010100000101000000010010001000100010010110010
101010101010101001001000000000000000000000000000000000000011000000000
000000000011010000000000000000000110100000000000000000010101000000000
000000000111110000000000000000000000000000000011000011100011000011000
100000000000001100100001101000110001100001101011111011111011111011111
000000000000000000000000001000000000000000001000000000000000000000000
000010000000000000000011111100000000000001111100000000000000000000000
110000110000111000110001000000010000000001000011010000110001110011010
111110111110111110111110000000000000000000000000010000001100000000010
000000000011000000000000000100000110000000000111111000001100000011111
000000000011000000000000010000000010000000010000010000001100000001000
000011000011000000100000000001100010000110000000000000001100110000000
000000110001000011000000000110000110000001000000010000001000000001000
001000000011000000001000100000000110000000010001000000000100000001000
001000000010000000100000001000000000000110000000001100000000110000000
001000111010110000000000010000000100000000000000100000111110000000000
001000010111010010110110000001001110010011111110111000011100000110111
000000000101000001110110010000001010000011111100100000010100000110000
001000001101100000000000000000000000000000000000111000001000000000000
001110101000101010101010011100000000010101010000000000000000101000000
000000001111100000000000000001111111110000000000001110000000111000000
000110000000000011000000011010000000001011000001100110000000110011000
010001010000010100010000100010010001001000100000000100010100010000000
000001000010000100000000000010000000001000000000000001001010000000000
01111001111101001111000

 

These communication attempts date back quite a long time. Here is a recent one. On 9 October 2008 a high-powered digital radio signal was sent towards the Gliese 581c extrasolar planet: called A message from Earth. Followers of my blog may remember Gliese 581 as the name of a star with more than one habitable planets in orbit. Here is the blog report: New extrasolar planet has been discovered

The distance is about 20 light year, the message will reach the star in early 2029. If “they” reply immediately , we may expect a reply around 2050…:-) Here is the Ukrainian (!) telescope used to send out the message, and a sketch of the Gliese 581 planetary system.

70-м_антенна_П-2500_(РТ-70)

Gliese-581d-habitable-BEST1

Let me end this post with a question:

Is it wise for us to make our presence known to the Universe?

Stephen Hawking is not so sure about it and he is not the only one. Contact with aliens  could be risky.If aliens visit us, the outcome would be much as when Columbus landed in America, which didn’t turn out well for the Native Americans ,” he said. “We only have to look at ourselves to see how intelligent life might develop into something we wouldn’t want to meet.”

A contact with aliens might be very different from Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind, my favourite science fiction movie, released in 1977.

Close_Encounters_of_the_Third_Kind_Aliens

4 thoughts on “Anybody out there?

  1. I am very happy too to learn of extra-terrestrial life-forms, even if they are not as intelligent as homosapiens. I think that human intelligence is overrated due to our arrogance and egotism. Considering that we have not even mapped out the cosmos due to poor resolution of our telescopes and still-developing technology I do not agree that “we may well be alone in the Universe”. Even if they are simple life-forms such as extremophiles the course of evolution will enable these microorganisms to develop to a higher state and consciousness in time to come. Human life span is just too short to measure cosmological time and appreciate the power of evolution.

    • Hi Chee Weng,
      Thanks for your quick response! The worry of Hawking (and others) is that those extraterrestrial lifeforms may be not LESS but MUCH MORE “intelligent” than us! Where “intelligence” in quotes doesn’t imply compassion, empathy, etc. So, those aliens might treat us, after they have found us, as the Malaysians treat the (Penan) Orang Asli in Malaysia.
      I agree with you about the power of evolution. But probably we disagree about the bottleneck issue. How probable is it that life starts under suitable conditions? Until now we have only ONE example, in the universe: Earth, our beautiful planet.

  2. Great post, Jan! I had completely forgotten about SETI – it was on our IBM 386 computers in primary school. Still nothing, eh?

    I laughed at the Arecibo Message. What is the meaning of the purple part? The ‘M’ under a domed roof, below the person who’s leaping on the out-of-place square in the row of squares and rectangles?

  3. Don’t laugh Dave..:-) The purple part represents the Arecibo telescope mirror. When you read the white squares as binary digits, it results in 100101(/)111110x which gives (decimal) 2430. Multiply that with the wavelength of the Arecibo message (126 mm) and you find 306 meter. Easy..:-)The M apparently makes clear that the mirror is a spherical one…:-)

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