How to Talk to Aliens

published on July 9, 2020

Where is everyone?We have been listeningfor messages from outer spacefor more than half a century,and so farsilenceWhy?Are we truly alonein the universe?

Or is everyone elseacting like usand just doing a lotof listening?Maybe we need to be louderMaybe we need to sendmore messages out thereBut how do you write a letterto an extraterrestrialwhose language and cultureand biology and mind

We have no concept of?And what do you say?And given all of the unknownsabout what they might be,should we sayanything at all? ♪♪Ever since I was a kid,

I've wanted to designa messagethat is sentto outer spaceA sort of hello from Earthto whatever extraterrestrialsmight be out thereI mean, come on, to bethe author of the first thingaliens ever heardfrom our entire planet

Would be a fantastic honorAnd as it turns out,an opportunity to senda message to spacehas been given to meBut it mightbe a waste of timeWhat if there isn't anything oranyone out there to receive it?

The fact that we still haveno evidenceof intelligent alien lifedespite the high probabilitythat such life exists,is called the Fermi paradoxAnd there are manyentertaining theoriesthat attempt to explain it

One explanationis the theorythat whenever twocivilizations meet,destruction always resultsWhich is why in 2015,several prominent expertswrote a letterwarning against makingany contact at all

Ideas like that suggest thatperhaps we should remain silent,send no messages to spaceBut Doug VakochdisagreesHe is the president of METI,an organization that,despite all of these concerns,is nonethelessactively messaging

ExtraterrestrialintelligenceIf I want to design a messagefor life out there,I should talk to him firstWhy isn't he afraid? I met up with Doug at the Chabot Observatory,

home to the largest public refractor telescope in the Western United States- So here we are- WowYeahThis was one of the primetelescopes of a century agoThis is really an antique

Jeez!I've seen so many observatoriesand so many big telescopesin picturesBelieve it or not, I've neverbeen this close to oneThis is a huge instrument,and yet it's balancedtoo exquisitelyI'm like a super personOh!

It had quite a bitof momentum thereI'm scared to lookI'm telling you, I had no ideaI would have this feeling,-seeing a telescope this big- Well, it is, it isCan I handlewhat I would see?I think you canI think you can

You just take a lookAh-ha-Absolutely nothing- Not tonight-Because of the fog-Because of the fogJust the fog coming inis pretty darn cool The universe has existed

longer than we have, but we've only been actively listening for life out there for the last half centuryIn 1960, astronomer Frank Drake began the search with a 85-foot radio telescope He scanned for interstellar radio waves,

but did not detect any recognizable signalsSoon after, SETI, or Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence, was formed to continue our search for other life in the universe Liftoff Besides just listening,

we've also launched physical messages like the Golden Records we put aboard both Voyager spacecraft in 1977 The records were recordingsof images and sounds from Earththat told a story of who we are as Earthlings, as well as coded instructions on how to play them back

Today, Doug and his team at METI are on a mission to send new messages to the starsThank you for taking some timeto have a conversation with meMy first questionis simply this:where is everyone?Are we alone?

I don't think soYou know, we've been lookingfor over 60 yearsAnd so that leads some peopleto say we must be aloneThe reality is, though,we have justbegun the search

I mean, we've looked at a fewtens of thousands of stars,and there are 400 billion starsin our galaxy aloneBillions of galaxiesin the universeSo I think we just needto keep on lookingWhen you put it that way,it actually isn'tthat surprising, is it?

I mean, we are still discoveringspecies on our own planet todayAt METI, we switch the process,and instead of just listeningfor signals,we send powerful, intentionalsignals to other starsin the hope of gettinga replyWhat do you sayto people who go, "Hold on,

"we should not be alerting anylife out there to our presence"It's just not worth the riskIn fact, it's irresponsible"I would say it is too lateThe horse is out of the barnWe have been announcingour presence to the universe

Since the beginning of radioand televisionAny civilizationthat has the abilityto travel between the starsalready picked up I Love LucySo maybe the alienshave been observing us,but they're waiting for usto break the silence

So our goal isn'tto let them knowwe're here for the first timeIt's to really givean indicationthat we wantto make contactThe one thing that's keeping mefrom being really excitedand comfortableabout sending a message out

Is that a lot of prominentpeople have said, "Don't"There are some groupof scientists who have saidyou shouldn't be doing thisStephen HawkingBut that's an exampleof someone very prominentwho said you shouldn't transmit,

Because maybe the alienswill come to EarthTo me it's notable that,after his death,to commemorate his life,his family,they transmitted his voiceout into spaceAnyone and everyone cantransmit to extraterrestrialsSo I think it's an incrediblecontradiction

For people involved in SETIto say we shouldn't transmit,because the day they succeed,everyone will be transmittingOkay, so how do we crafta message for ET?Well, it dependswhat we would want to doI would want to know somethingabout that civilizationAnd so then we tryto figure out,

What is it that we havein commonwith the extraterrestrials?What do you think the alienswould know that we know?I always go to mathSo that's the naturalstarting placeBut how can you communicatethe idea of numbers?

Like this-Hey, look, we're communicating-Okay, okay, great, greatYou could keep that upYou could use thatto count up to a millionBut that doesn't capturewhat it is to be humanRight

So you want to tella little bit about yourselfThe goal, for me, is to learnabout other civilizationsif, in fact,they're out thereBut I thinkeven if they're not,simply this processof reflecting on what storiesdo we want to tellabout ourselves,

How do we want to representourselves to the universe,forces us to lookat ourselves anewAnd I think thatcan only be goodOne of my favorite messagesthat humans have ever sentfor extraterrestrialsto some day receivewas written in 1974

By Frank Drakeand Carl SaganThey sent the message to a starcluster 25,000 light years awayIt contained 1,679binary digitsthat, when decoded,created an image:the famous Arecibo message

This message is full of generalinformation about usUp here in the whiteare numbersNow, since math is probablypretty universal,I feel like it's fair to saythat aliens will understandthat partBut what about some of theseother parts?

This is a human figure,but will aliens be able to tellthat that is supposed to bethe shape of the thingthat made this?Could an alien figure outwhat all these symbols mean?For that matter, could a humaneven correctly figure outwhat they all mean?

And I bet that if you wereto ask two peopleto guess what all this means,you would gettwo different answersI want to give some humansa message,and I want to see how quicklythey come up with meaningsI didn't put in there,or conflicting interpretations,

Because if that happens,well it could spell troublefor our ability to say much morethan simple mathematical truthsto whatever might be out there To help me answer this question, I recruited Dr Steve Vance Dr Vance leads a habitability team

for JPL's Astrobiology group, meaning it's his job to think about the possibility of life on other planetsI don't think it's crazythat if the Arecibo messageis received,the alien civilizationthat gets it

Will see all kindsof meanings in itThey're going to see thingsthrough the lensof how they experiencetheir worldAnd I think if we receiveda message from outer space,we would think of the oneswe've sent out,and we would lookfor these pieces in it

And maybe the messagecontains none of those thingsI'm really curiousabout this hypothesisthat they will find meaningwhere there isn't anyThere's onlyone way to find out-Yeah Let's do it-Let's do it To find out how individuals' own backgrounds

would influence their approach to a message from space, we sought out a veritable A-team of critical thinkers and problem solvers to put to the testI'm a sophomore engineer,and I have a PhD in physicsI'm a game designerand programmer

I am a professionalpoker playerI'm a graphic artistand app coderI teach college coursesin writing film and psychology This set of experts would be told that the message they were receiving was intercepted from outer space,

and would be asked to decode it using a variety of office supplies and computer software What they didn't know is that although similar to the original Arecibo message, our message is just noise

Would our group of experts notice that there was nothing to get, or apply their own meaningsto this indecipherable message? It was time to find outWe received a messageusing a radio telescopefrom outer space

Not the kind of thingthat naturally happensWhat we want to knowis what it saysA copy of the messageas received is on that laptopThis is an audio outputof that messageUsing your individual expertiseand the toolsthat you have in front of you,

Please figure outwhat this message is sayingThis is not an easy task-Okay-Good luck-Okay, you ready to listen?-Let's hear itHere we go Before the team can interpret

that our jumbled image is meaningless, they first have to figure out that they're supposed to decipher it visually This would be the first step for any alien civilization who received the real Arecibo message To do that, the first step is to recognize

that it's binary There are two different tones in the message Is there a differencein time between any of these?It doesn't look like itThe rhythm doesn't varyIt doesn't vary?There's going to be a repeatingpattern in there, probably

It seems likethere's only two notesYeah, it doesn't seem to goany higher or lower than thatSo there's only two tonesWe're thinking some kindof binary message,zeros and ones,We should probablystart transcribing it and look for repeating patterns

Right off the bat,all right?They're noticing two tones,binary messageI think that's a veryhuman thing to do,because we alreadycome to thisknowing that binary is thisgreat way to talk, right?So we're already seeing into itwhat we expect to see

Okay, so, we have a wayto encode binary into lettersSo if an alien intelligenceis sending things,we obviously wouldn't know that,-and it wouldn't bethe same language anyway-RightSo they're probably just sendingus straight numbersLike, there's, you know,universal language and all that

So we got to find outwhat those numbers areOkay, let's havethree people do this,just so we make surewe don't miss anythingLet's do zero for low,one for high,and let's startwriting it downZero, one, zero, zero, zero

Now they are creatinga visual representationof these different tonesThe key is to see how many tonesthere are-Zero, zero—Oh, wait, sorry I got itDo we need to play it in halftime-because I feel likewe're scrambling-Yeah, we're just scrambling

No worries, no worriesThe message is 17 minutes long, with 1,679 individual tonesBecause this would take so long to transcribe, I decided to help them speed up the processThis thumb drive containsa transcription of the message,

Pretty much just likewhat you're doing right now-But now you're just kind ofjumped ahead in time- Fast forward, yeah-Here it is-Thank you-All right, we will continue-All right, I'll leaveyou guys to itOkay, this is pretty long hereIt's not repeating at all

Does it look likean even distributionof zeros and ones?No, there's way more zerosthan ones- Yeah- OkaySo, what is the totalnumber of–?1,679 total

1,679 Is that divisibleby anything in particular?-It's a prime number-Could be a prime numberIt's going to be hard to testthat without writing a scriptJust divide, divide,divide, divideLet's do a little division Just like the Arecibo message,

our meaningless image contains 1,679 total tones The number 1,679 can only be divided into two prime numbers: 23 and 73 When you arrange the ones and zeros from the message into a 23-by-73 grid,

the jumbled image will begin to emerge If the group can discover this feature of 1,679, they may be able to start breaking down the tones of the message into an imageOoh Ooh!Hey, it's– hey, yo,this is important, guys

This number breaks downto 23x73OkayAh-ha There it isAnd that isthe only breakdown,because 23 and 73are prime numbersSo that's its primefactorization

So that is very relevantWow Look at the big brainon that dude Do you think it's worth itto try and straight up, like,make a 23-by-73 grid,and then you couldsay that the lows are whiteand the ones are black,

And maybe there's some kindof image being sent thereI like that ideaHey I'm strongly with the graph ideaWhat I'm doing right now is I'mpasting it into Excel,-and then we can graph itin Excel and see-Yeah, that's good

You mean like fill the cells-Yeah-and make the numbers white,and all that?YeahShe's going to try to make thisa little easier by coloring-all of the cellsthat have a one in them-That's greatWe picked these people becauseof their knowledge

Of mathematicsand physics and musicBut their knowledgeof how to use Excelis proving to be the best skill Amazingly, in just a couple of hours, the team figured out how to break down our fake Arecibo message into an image

Will they try to find meaning in the message, or will they realize it's just noise?Oh, I'm done!Guys, I'm done!-Oh, you did it-That was fastThat looks sadly randomThat almost looks like it'sgoing to resolve into something

Maybe it's a map-Those aren't letters, are they?-They could beNo, they're all back halfof the alphabet, thenExcept forlittle nine over hereLittle nine Look at that littlenine- Baby nine- That's an "I", right?

I'm pretty surethere's nothing thereThere's no pattern hereDo we agree, like, this probablylooks like nothing?Yeah, I don't think going anyfurther with this is really-Productive-Okay Our group had followed the clues correctly

and built out an image, even though there wasn't one that made sense And, incredibly, they didn't try to make sense of it Within a matter of minutes, they realized it was random and moved on So it was time to let them in on the ruse

Hello, againAll right, so,this is Steve VanceHe's taken the day offfrom JPLHave you learned anythingabout the message?What do you know?It seems very random still

Though it did have a nice primefactorizationThat did not seemrandom to meLet me show you guyssomething newWhat the heck?It looks like 23 across-I see how you're doing this-Oh, we were almost there!

We tried arrangingthese ones and zeroskind of in these blocks But there's somepatterns repeating therethat we don't actually havemapped correctly hereNow, this is not the messagethat you're looking atThis is the famousArecibo message

Now, what you have beenworking onis this message,but randomizedThanks a lotOh, I'm just going to collapseon the ground nowIn a way, you guys werequite successful

You, first of all,recognized the semi-prime natureof this message very quickly,and tried to build an imageI was wonderingif you would startto see things therethat weren'tBut it didn't really happen,did it?

I think the real reasonthat we weren't interpretinganything out of thatis we were lookingfor clearly defined patternsWe're lookingfor something like thisThis is actuallywhat we're looking forEven symmetry would have beena big thing for me

If I'd seen any symmetryin these patterns,I would have said,"This is not random"I'm also interestedin knowingthe best kindof message to send,because I have an opportunityto send a messageYou know, a markerto where we are

Is kind ofthe biggest thing for me,but then it's like, do we reallywant to tell them where we are?Is that something–Do we want them to come visit?-I don't know-What do you guys think?Should we be sending messagesto outer space?Yeah, yes

I don't think we shouldEvery single timeany civilizationencounters any othercivilization,and one is technologicallyadvanced, one guy gets crushedYou know, what if they're notmore advanced than us?What if we're at the same place,

And the only way we cancommunicate is like this?What if we can just exchangethe recipe for fusion?We would have so much to learnfrom those people,and really nothing to losein that situationYou're making an argumentthat we almost havea moral imperative

To send our knowledge to sharewith other civilizations-Absolutely, yes-It's a really interestingpointThat's kind of where I landLet's just think of thisas a wayto preserve the storiesthat we've been able to tell,which, by the way, we tellbetter than the universe does

Thank you all so muchThis was a phenomenal exerciseThanks Thank youYou know, honestly, I thoughtthat the human tendencyto find meaning where there isnone would more quickly emergeBut that didn't really happenWhat I also didn't expectwas just how educational

The whole challengewould beI mean, I saw some human flawsand biases at work,but more generally,I saw the human mind at work,who we areWhich kind of makes sense,right?I mean, the VoyagerGolden Record

Really isn't just a neat thingfor extraterrestrialsIt's a neat archive by,of and for usI don't think we will allever agreeabout whether or notwe should be sending messagesto outer spaceannouncing that we are hereBut here's the thing

Sending focused messagesto outer spacerequires technologythat not all of us haveSo only those with accesscan say hello toextraterrestrials if they wantBut who chose themto speak for us,for all of Earth?

Well, I've come here,to Vazquez Rocks State Park,to talk to a manwho is changing thatHe is democratizing active SETI,because the service he has builtis allowing anyone to sendany message they wantto outer space He's an expert in the field of alien communication

with a doctorate in elementary particle physics, and he's the one who's going to help me send my messageTell me about the wayyou are talking to aliensand helping otherpeople do itWell, I have built a website,called SpaceSpeakcomAnd it allows peopleto send a text in audio

Or a image messageout into spaceMy view is, as many peoplethat can reach out to aliensor the universe in general,the betterWhat are you usingto transmit these messages?Radio waves Radio waves arejust another form of photonAnd once a photon is broadcastinto space, it persists

It never diesIt never decaysA million years from now,maybe the earth is gone,maybe the solar system is gone,but your messageis still out there,and essentially becomearchaeological photonsfor some future generationto see what we were about

-I want to do this-Absolutely, let's do it-Awesome-GreatGoing to take a chairright here-And-This is itThis is the Space SpeaktransmitterThis is a transmitter box here

And the antennais right back hereI've been thinkingabout this a lot,and I've spokento a lot of peopleabout what to send,how to write the message,and whether or notI should send anything at allI don't think this is somethingto take as fact

It's my personal opinionI don't have any fearthat this is dangerous-Yeah-I spent a lot of timeconstructing what I believeto be a really neat,clever ideaI was going to not senda two-dimensional image

Like the Arecibo,but a three-dimensional imagemade of voxelsAnd I got really into thisAnd then after talking to youand really thinking aboutthe point of communicatingwith outer space,beyond Earth,

II just thinkto decide what to sayand how to say itis an exercise in learninghow we communicate at all-Yes-It's always coming backto who we areMy grandmother passed awaya few days ago

I'm so sorryto hear thatI'm actually leaving tomorrowto her funeral,and I'll get to seeall of my familyAnd obviously I'm never goingto forget my grandmaAnd the way she, you know,made me who I am,that will, in a way, like echolike ripples in a pond, right?

For generations to comeBut this is a messagemade of lightthat will be around foreveruntil the universe ends,somehowSo I have the last photographthat was ever takenof us together

I'd like to sendthat picture out-Let's do it-OkayThis photo is herin the hospital,using one of those, like,grabber tools, you know,to pull my beard hairsand hurt meAnd she was so weak,but with that tool,

She could pinch-Oh, that's awesome-It's a great pictureof who we wereShe wasn't a big fan of aliensas far as I know,but it's uscaught in this moment

That I think I wantto remember,and I want the universeto rememberSowell, let's do itYeah Go ahead and hit "send"Wow It's sentAnd look at that

-It's already 229,435 milesaway from Earth-YesI don't think she ever traveledthat far in her entire life-Now she has-She has now, absolutelyAnd she will continue travelingYour grandmotherwill touch the universe YeahPeter, thank youvery much

You are very welcome, sirIt was a pleasure And, as always, thanks for watching ♪♪

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