Radio Inspire

How To Learn Sign Language

How to Talk to Aliens

Where is everyone? We have been listening
for messages from outer space for more than half a century, and so far… silence. Why? Are we truly alone
in the universe? Or is everyone else
acting like us and just doing a lot
of listening? Maybe we need to be louder. Maybe we need to send
more messages out there. But how do you write a letter
to an extraterrestrial whose language and culture
and biology and mind we have no concept of? And what do you say? And given all of the unknowns
about what they might be, should we say
anything at all?♪♪Ever since I was a kid, I’ve wanted to design
a message that is sent
to outer space. A sort of hello from Earth
to whatever extraterrestrials might be out there. I mean, come on, to be
the author of the first thing aliens ever heard
from our entire planet would be a fantastic honor. And as it turns out, an opportunity to send
a message to space has been given to me. But it might
be a waste of time. What if there isn’t anything or
anyone out there to receive it? The fact that we still have
no evidence of intelligent alien life despite the high probability
that such life exists, is called the Fermi paradox. And there are many
entertaining theories that attempt to explain it. One explanation
is the theory that whenever two
civilizations meet, destruction always results. Which is why in 2015, several prominent experts
wrote a letter warning against making
any contact at all. [Stephen Hawking] Ideas like that suggest that
perhaps we should remain silent, send no messages to space. But Doug Vakoch
disagrees. He is the president of METI, an organization that,
despite all of these concerns, is nonetheless
actively messaging extraterrestrial
intelligence. If I want to design a message
for life out there, I should talk to him first. Why isn’t he afraid?I met up with Dougat the Chabot Observatory,home to the largest
public refractor telescope
in the Western United States.-[Douglas] So here we are.
-[Michael] Wow. [Douglas]
Yeah. This was one of the prime
telescopes of a century ago. This is really an antique. [Michael] Jeez!
I’ve seen so many observatories and so many big telescopes
in pictures. Believe it or not, I’ve never
been this close to one. [Douglas]
This is a huge instrument, and yet it’s balanced
too exquisitely. I’m like a super person.
Oh! [Douglas laughs] It had quite a bit
of momentum there. I’m scared to look. I’m telling you, I had no idea
I would have this feeling, -seeing a telescope this big.
-[Douglas] Well, it is, it is. Can I handle
what I would see? I think you can.
I think you can. You just take a look. Ah-ha. -Absolutely nothing.
-[Douglas] Not tonight. -Because of the fog.
-Because of the fog. [Michael]
Just the fog coming in
is pretty darn cool.The universe has existedlonger than we have,but we’ve only been actively
listening for life out there
for the last half century.In 1960, astronomer Frank Drake
began the search
with a 85-foot radio
He scanned for interstellar
radio waves,
but did not detect
any recognizable signals.
Soon after, SETI, or Search for
Extraterrestrial Intelligence,
was formed to continue
our search
for other life
in the universe.
[Mission Control]
Besides just listening,
we’ve also launched
physical messages
like the Golden Records
we put aboard
both Voyager spacecraft
in 1977.
The records were recordings
of images and sounds from Earth
that 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
are on a mission to send
new messages to the stars.
Thank you for taking some time
to have a conversation with me. My first question
is simply this: where is everyone? Are we alone? I don’t think so. You know, we’ve been looking for over 60 years. And so that leads some people
to say we must be alone. The reality is, though, we have just
begun the search. I mean, we’ve looked at a few
tens of thousands of stars, and there are 400 billion stars
in our galaxy alone. Billions of galaxies
in the universe. So I think we just need
to keep on looking. When you put it that way, it actually isn’t
that surprising, is it? I mean, we are still discovering
species on our own planet today. At METI, we switch the process, and instead of just listening
for signals, we send powerful, intentional
signals to other stars in the hope of getting
a reply. What do you say
to people who go, “Hold on, “we should not be alerting any
life out there to our presence. “It’s just not worth the risk. In fact, it’s irresponsible.” I would say it is too late. The horse is out of the barn. We have been announcing
our presence to the universe since the beginning of radio
and television. Any civilization
that has the ability to travel between the stars already picked up
I Love Lucy.
So maybe the aliens
have been observing us, but they’re waiting for us
to break the silence. So our goal isn’t
to let them know we’re here for the first time. It’s to really give
an indication that we want
to make contact. The one thing that’s keeping me
from being really excited and comfortable
about sending a message out is that a lot of prominent
people have said, “Don’t.” There are some group
of scientists who have said you shouldn’t be doing this. Stephen Hawking. But that’s an example
of someone very prominent who said you shouldn’t transmit, because maybe the aliens
will come to Earth. To me it’s notable that,
after his death, to commemorate his life,
his family, they transmitted his voice
out into space. Anyone and everyone can
transmit to extraterrestrials. So I think it’s an incredible
contradiction for people involved in SETI
to say we shouldn’t transmit, because the day they succeed,
everyone will be transmitting. Okay, so how do we craft
a message for E.T.? Well, it depends
what we would want to do. I would want to know something
about that civilization. And so then we try
to figure out, what is it that we have
in common with the extraterrestrials? What do you think the aliens
would know that we know? I always go to math. So that’s the natural
starting place. But how can you communicate
the idea of numbers? Like this. [both clap] -Hey, look, we’re communicating.
-Okay, okay, great, great. You could keep that up.
You could use that to count up to a million. But that doesn’t capture
what it is to be human. Right. So you want to tell
a little bit about yourself. The goal, for me, is to learn
about other civilizations if, in fact,
they’re out there. But I think
even if they’re not, simply this process
of reflecting on what stories do we want to tell
about ourselves, how do we want to represent
ourselves to the universe, forces us to look
at ourselves anew. And I think that
can only be good. One of my favorite messages that humans have ever sent
for extraterrestrials to some day receive
was written in 1974 by Frank Drake
and Carl Sagan. They sent the message to a star
cluster 25,000 light years away. It contained 1,679
binary digits that, when decoded, created an image: the famous Arecibo message. This message is full of general
information about us. Up here in the white
are numbers. Now, since math is probably
pretty universal, I feel like it’s fair to say that aliens will understand
that part. But what about some of these
other parts? This is a human figure,
but will aliens be able to tell that that is supposed to be the shape of the thing
that made this? Could an alien figure out
what all these symbols mean? For that matter, could a human
even correctly figure out what they all mean? And I bet that if you were
to ask two people to guess what all this means, you would get
two different answers. I want to give some humans
a message, and I want to see how quickly
they come up with meanings I didn’t put in there,
or conflicting interpretations, because if that happens, well it could spell trouble
for our ability to say much more than simple mathematical truths
to 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 planets.I don’t think it’s crazy that if the Arecibo message
is received, the alien civilization
that gets it will see all kinds
of meanings in it. They’re going to see things
through the lens of how they experience
their world. And I think if we received
a message from outer space, we would think of the ones
we’ve sent out, and we would look
for these pieces in it. And maybe the message
contains none of those things. I’m really curious
about this hypothesis that they will find meaning
where there isn’t any. There’s only
one way to find out. -Yeah. Let’s do it.
-Let’s do it. [Michael]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 test.I’m a sophomore engineer,
and I have a PhD in physics. I’m a game designer
and programmer. I am a professional
poker player. I’m a graphic artist
and app coder. I teach college courses
in 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 thatalthough 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 meanings
to this indecipherable message?
It was time to find out.We received a message using a radio telescope
from outer space. Not the kind of thing
that naturally happens. What we want to know
is what it says. A copy of the message
as received is on that laptop. This is an audio output
of that message. Using your individual expertise and the tools
that you have in front of you, please figure out
what this message is saying. This is not an easy task. -Okay.
-Good luck. -Okay, you ready to listen?
-Let’s hear it. Here we go. [pings]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.
[man] Is there a difference
in time between any of these? [woman]
It doesn’t look like it.
The rhythm doesn’t vary. [man]
It doesn’t vary? There’s going to be a repeating
pattern in there, probably. It seems like
there’s only two notes. Yeah, it doesn’t seem to go
any higher or lower than that. So there’s only two tones.
We’re thinking some kind of binary message,
zeros and ones, We should probably
start transcribing itand look for repeating
Right off the bat,
all right? They’re noticing two tones,
binary message. I think that’s a very
human thing to do, because we already
come to this knowing that binary is this
great way to talk, right? So we’re already seeing into it
what we expect to see. Okay, so, we have a way
to encode binary into letters. So if an alien intelligence
is sending things, we obviously wouldn’t know that, -and it wouldn’t be
the same language anyway.
-Right. So they’re probably just sending
us straight numbers. Like, there’s, you know,
universal language and all that. So we got to find out
what those numbers are. Okay, let’s have
three people do this, just so we make sure
we don’t miss anything. Let’s do zero for low,
one for high, and let’s start
writing it down. [woman]
Zero, one, zero, zero, zero… Now they are creating
a visual representation of these different tones. The key is to see how many tones
there are. -Zero, zero–
-Oh, wait, sorry. I got it. [pinging] [woman]
Do we need to play it in half
time -because I feel like
we’re scrambling.
-Yeah, we’re just scrambling. [man]
No worries, no worries. [Michael]
The message is 17 minutes long,
with 1,679 individual tones.Because this would take so long
to transcribe,
I decided to help them
speed up the process.
This thumb drive contains
a transcription of the message, pretty much just like
what you’re doing right now. -But now you’re just kind of
jumped ahead in time.
Fast forward, yeah.-Here it is.
-Thank you. -All right, we will continue.
-All right, I’ll leave
you guys to it. [man]
Okay, this is pretty long here. [woman]
It’s not repeating at all. Does it look like
an even distribution of zeros and ones? No, there’s way more zeros
than ones. -[woman] Yeah.
-[man] Okay. So, what is the total
number of–? [woman]
1,679 total. [man]
1,679. Is that divisible
by anything in particular? -It’s a prime number.
-Could be a prime number. It’s going to be hard to test
that without writing a script. Just divide, divide,
divide, divide. [man]
Let’s do a little division. [Michael]
Just like the Arecibo message,
our meaningless image contains1,679 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 image.
Ooh. Ooh! Hey, it’s– hey, yo,
this is important, guys. This number breaks down
to 23×73. Okay. Ah-ha. There it is. And that is
the only breakdown, because 23 and 73
are prime numbers. So that’s its prime
factorization. So that is very relevant. Wow. Look at the big brain
on that dude. [man]
Do you think it’s worth it
to try and straight up, like,
make a 23-by-73 grid, and then you could
say that the lows are white and the ones are black, and maybe there’s some kind
of image being sent there. I like that idea. Hey. [man]I’m strongly
with the graph idea.
What I’m doing right now is I’m
pasting it into Excel, -and then we can graph it
in Excel and see.
-Yeah, that’s good. [Bonnie]
You mean like fill the cells -Yeah.
-and make the numbers white,
and all that? Yeah. She’s going to try to make this
a little easier by coloring -all of the cells
that have a one in them.
-That’s great. We picked these people because
of their knowledge of mathematics
and physics and music. But their knowledge
of how to use Excel is 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 fast. [man]
That looks sadly random. That almost looks like it’s
going to resolve into something. [woman]
Maybe it’s a map. -Those aren’t letters, are they?
-They could be. [man]
No, they’re all back half
of the alphabet, then. Except for
little nine over here. Little nine. Look at that little
nine. -[woman] Baby nine.
-[man] That’s an “I”, right? I’m pretty sure
there’s nothing there. There’s no pattern here. Do we agree, like, this probably
looks like nothing? [woman]
Yeah, I don’t think going any
further 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, again. All right, so,
this is Steve Vance. He’s taken the day off
from JPL. Have you learned anything
about the message? What do you know? It seems very random still. Though it did have a nice prime
factorization. That did not seem
random to me. Let me show you guys
something new. [man]
What the heck? It looks like 23 across. -I see how you’re doing this.
-Oh, we were almost there! We tried arranging
these ones and zeros kind of in these blocks. [woman] But there’s some
patterns repeating there that we don’t actually have
mapped correctly here. [Michael]
Now, this is not the message
that you’re looking at. This is the famous
Arecibo message. Now, what you have been
working on is this message, but randomized. [laughs] Thanks a lot. [all laugh] Oh, I’m just going to collapse
on the ground now. In a way, you guys were
quite successful. You, first of all, recognized the semi-prime nature
of this message very quickly, and tried to build an image. I was wondering
if you would start to see things there
that weren’t. But it didn’t really happen,
did it? I think the real reason
that we weren’t interpreting anything out of that is we were looking
for clearly defined patterns. We’re looking
for something like this. This is actually
what we’re looking for. Even symmetry would have been
a big thing for me. If I’d seen any symmetry
in these patterns, I would have said,
“This is not random.” I’m also interested
in knowing the best kind
of message to send, because I have an opportunity
to send a message. You know, a marker
to where we are is kind of
the biggest thing for me, but then it’s like, do we really
want 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 messages
to outer space? [all]
Yeah, yes. [Matthew]
I don’t think we should. Every single time
any civilization encounters any other
civilization, and one is technologically
advanced, one guy gets crushed. You know, what if they’re not
more advanced than us? What if we’re at the same place, and the only way we can
communicate is like this? What if we can just exchange
the recipe for fusion? We would have so much to learn
from those people, and really nothing to lose
in that situation. You’re making an argument that we almost have
a moral imperative to send our knowledge to share
with other civilizations. -Absolutely, yes.
-It’s a really interesting
point. That’s kind of where I land. Let’s just think of this
as a way to preserve the stories
that we’ve been able to tell, which, by the way, we tell
better than the universe does. Thank you all so much.
This was a phenomenal exercise. [all]
Thanks. Thank you. You know, honestly, I thought
that the human tendency to find meaning where there is
none would more quickly emerge. But that didn’t really happen. What I also didn’t expect
was just how educational the whole challenge
would be. I mean, I saw some human flaws
and biases at work, but more generally,
I saw the human mind at work, who we are. Which kind of makes sense,
right? I mean, the Voyager
Golden Record really isn’t just a neat thing
for extraterrestrials. It’s a neat archive by,
of and for us. I don’t think we will all
ever agree about whether or not
we should be sending messages to outer space
announcing that we are here. But here’s the thing. Sending focused messages
to outer space requires technology
that not all of us have. So only those with access can say hello to
extraterrestrials if they want. But who chose them
to speak for us, for all of Earth? Well, I’ve come here,
to Vazquez Rocks State Park, to talk to a man
who is changing that. He is democratizing active SETI,
because the service he has built is allowing anyone to send
any message they want to 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 message.
Tell me about the way
you are talking to aliens and helping other
people do it. Well, I have built a website,
called And it allows people
to send a text in audio or a image message
out into space. My view is, as many people
that can reach out to aliens or the universe in general,
the better. What are you using
to transmit these messages? Radio waves. Radio waves are
just another form of photon. And once a photon is broadcast
into space, it persists. It never dies.
It never decays. A million years from now,
maybe the earth is gone, maybe the solar system is gone, but your message
is still out there, and essentially become
archaeological photons for some future generation
to see what we were about. -I want to do this.
-Absolutely, let’s do it. -Awesome.
-Great. Going to take a chair
right here. -And…
-This is it. This is the Space Speak
transmitter. This is a transmitter box here. And the antenna
is right back here. I’ve been thinking
about this a lot, and I’ve spoken
to a lot of people about what to send,
how to write the message, and whether or not
I should send anything at all. I don’t think this is something
to take as fact. It’s my personal opinion. I don’t have any fear
that this is dangerous. -Yeah.
-I spent a lot of time constructing what I believe to be a really neat,
clever idea. I was going to not send
a two-dimensional image like the Arecibo, but a three-dimensional image
made of voxels. And I got really into this. And then after talking to you
and really thinking about the point of communicating
with outer space, beyond Earth, I…I just think to decide what to say
and how to say it. is an exercise in learning
how we communicate at all. -Yes.
-It’s always coming back to who we are. My grandmother passed away
a few days ago. I’m so sorry
to hear that. I’m actually leaving tomorrow
to her funeral, and I’ll get to see
all of my family. And obviously I’m never going
to forget my grandma. And the way she, you know,
made me who I am, that will, in a way, like echo
like ripples in a pond, right? For generations to come. But this is a message
made of light that will be around forever… until the universe ends,
somehow. So I have the last photograph that was ever taken
of us together. I’d like to send
that picture out. -Let’s do it.
-Okay. This photo is her
in the hospital, using one of those, like,
grabber tools, you know, to pull my beard hairs
and hurt me. [laughs] And she was so weak,
but with that tool, she could pinch. -Oh, that’s awesome.
-It’s a great picture of who we were. She wasn’t a big fan of aliens as far as I know, but it’s us
caught in this moment that I think I want
to remember, and I want the universe
to remember. So… well, let’s do it. Yeah. Go ahead and hit “send.” Wow. It’s sent.
And look at that. -It’s already 229,435 miles
away from Earth.
-Yes. I don’t think she ever traveled
that far in her entire life. -Now she has.
-She has now, absolutely. [Michael]
And she will continue traveling. Your grandmother
will touch the universe. Yeah. Peter, thank you
very much. You are very welcome, sir.
It was a pleasure. [Michael]
And, as always,
thanks for watching.♪♪

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