Mind Field (2017) s03e06 Episode Script

How to Talk to Aliens

1 [Michael] 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 Doug at 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.
-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 existed longer 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 telescope.
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] Liftoff.
[Michael] 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 at METI 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.
? 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.
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.
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.
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 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 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.
-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 it and look for repeating patterns.
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.
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 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 image.
Ooh! Hey, it's-- hey, yo, this is important, guys.
This number breaks down to 23x73.
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.
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.
[man] I'm strongly with the graph idea.
[woman] 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.
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 SpaceSpeak.
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.
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.
-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, II just think to decide what to say and how to say it.
is an exercise in learning how we communicate at all.
-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.
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.
Go ahead and hit "send.
" Wow.
It's sent.
And look at that.
-It's already 229,435 miles away from Earth.
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.
Peter, thank you very much.
You are very welcome, sir.
It was a pleasure.
[Michael] And, as always, thanks for watching.