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Communications Space

Physicists Call For Alien Messaging Protocol 279

Posted by timothy
from the don't-they-still-use-macs? dept.
schliz writes "Researchers have called for the development of a messaging framework that could increase the probability that our interplanetary messages are detected and deciphered – assuming Orson Scott Card's vision of telepathic buggers doesn't come true. The trio of postgraduate astrophysicists suggest a Messaging to Extraterrestrial Intelligence protocol (METI — PDF) for signal encoding, message length, information content, transmission method and periodicity. The protocol could be tested via a website that allows users to create, retrieve and decrypt sample messages that conform to the protocol — which also demonstrates communication across human cultural boundaries, they say."
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Physicists Call For Alien Messaging Protocol

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  • by bronney (638318) on Friday January 28, 2011 @05:06AM (#35029718) Homepage

    Let's not get ahead of ourselves now. Before we do this alien thing, why not try to see if we can solve this problem here on Earth first? (I watched way too much MythBusters).

    For example, I am Chinese. And pretend I don't know a single English word and the alphabet, write something and make me understand. Anything at all. It can be a hello of some sort even. Not easy isn't it. How about trying it on some isolated tribes? Remember, no interaction, no eye contact, nothing. Pure pencil on paper.

  • by Rogerborg (306625) on Friday January 28, 2011 @05:45AM (#35029892) Homepage

    The galaxy should be ablaze with life. It would only take one spacefaring race to colonise the entire galaxy. It's only 100,000 light years across - that's do-able in a few million years even at sublight. Heck, Earth is primo real estate - it should have been colonised, maybe several times over, by BEMs.

    So, where are they?

    Either no spacefaring race has evolved, anywhere, ever, or they evolved and died out - across the whole galaxy.

    When you start to think about what could cause a spacefaring race to "die out" on a galactic scale, well, maybe we shouldn't be shouting out "Here we are!" into the void.

    Smarter BEMs, if they exist, have probably figured this out, and are listening, quietly. Maybe even listening to our transmissions, to see what happens to us.

    Paranoid? Yes. But the alternative is to believe that we are truly unique, which is racial solipsism of the highest order. Pick your mental poison.

  • by wdef (1050680) on Friday January 28, 2011 @05:54AM (#35029926)

    I agree with Stephen Hawking. Blasting messages willy-nilly at possible alien civilizations is foolhardy in the extreme. I have taken the liberty of anticipating and responding to the usual criticisms of this risk management approach below.

    We have absolutely no reason to assume that contact with an advanced alien intelligence will be beneficial or that such aliens will be benign. Human history has taught us that, in contact between civilizations where one is technologically advanced compared to the other, the less advanced civilization always comes off worse. Our cuddly CE3K fantasies are just anthropomorphic projections. We have no reason to assume that the contacted aliens will possess human traits like compassion or altruism - in any case, many humans suspend or don't exhibit these. Think wartime atrocities. And we have treated other species on our own planet appallingly. Why should aliens be any nicer than us? The old chestnut "oh but they wouldn't have survived technological adolescence without destroying themselves if they weren't cuddly and nice" is just bollocks and is another anthropomorphic projection.

    "Oh but they can't visit us via interstellar travel because it's impractical and too slow". Only according to our limited physics, which can't even reconcile QM with Relativity yet. It's likely there is a better physics and we don't have it yet but they do. Who knows what technology that might allow. Even our own scifi has more imagination that this.

    "And our planet/system has nothing they need. It's not economic for them". Another supposition based on - what, exactly? How do we know what they value or what power sources they have? Humans as slaves or pets or pet food or as petri dishes for biological war experiments? How do we know? Humans place high values on some quite low value things. Diamonds are in abundance but we stockpile these to keep the value high.

    If we must project onto aliens from our own psyches and earthly experiences, then to be safe we should project from the very worst of these. Our Independence Day, Twilight Zone and Borg/Dalek nightmares need to be considered seriously if we are to adopt a risk management approach. And a risk management approach is wise. It says don't contact them until we know who/what they are.

    "They can see us anyway". According to http://www.answerbag.com/q_view/1427054 [answerbag.com] background noise in space might limit the extent our radio transmissions have travelled to a 2 light year radius. Admittedly a better reference than 'Answerbag' might be good.

    It is highly possible that most of our transmission are scattered or disrupted or all but destroyed at or around 2 light years out from us.Signal strength drops - at twice a distance away you are talking about 1/4 of the power - at ten times the distance the strength of the signal would only be one hundredth as great.

    Even if this is not the case there is a very good chance we have not been spotted.

  • by AmiMoJo (196126) <mojo@woCURIErld3.net minus physicist> on Friday January 28, 2011 @06:01AM (#35029946) Homepage

    There was some serious debate about this in the 80s. People saw the potential to wipe out an entire planet with relativistic bombs and came to the conclusion that hiding is the best policy.

    A relativistic bomb is where you accelerate something to a fraction of the speed of light and slam it into a planet. Something the size of the Space Shuttle at 20% light speed would be more powerful than every nuke on the planet combined. A 1km diameter asteroid at 90% the speed of light would atomise everything on the surface of the earth and reduce it to a vast sandy wasteland with patches of glass where it had fused in the heat. The top 10m of the seas would boil off too. Such a bomb will be within our means to make in the next 100 years because basically all it needs is some kind of self-fuelling engine (ideally Bussard ramjet) and guidance system.

    If one civilisation sees another there is a risk that the other could decide they are a threat and send a reletevistic bomb, so the only seemingly logical choice when you entire planet is at risk is a pre-emptive strike.

  • by Kjella (173770) on Friday January 28, 2011 @06:12AM (#35029978) Homepage

    In theory, but then look at practical reality... our fastest space probes would take something like 70000 years to reach the nearest star. We don't have a clue how to build machinery that lasts that long, any interstellar craft is still on the highly speculative "if we get a fusion / anti-matter drive" level. It doesn't matter how long time we have on us, today's Earth tech couldn't do it even if we accepted that travel time.

    There's zero economic incentive of doing it, the chances that an interstellar colony would produce anything valuable for earth is extremely unlikely. At best it's information if we managed to establish cutting edge science somewhere, but the round trip on any communication is a decade or more.

    Seriously, ask yourself how far humanity would have to advance before we'd actually start doing it - not just in the theoretical "if we throw all our resources at it we might" but in practical terms would. I mean we haven't even been to the moon in ages. We know Mars is probably within reach if we spend billions. But we don't, and neither would we spend trillions to colonize some rock 1000 years down the road.

  • by Gaygirlie (1657131) <gaygirlie AT hotmail DOT com> on Friday January 28, 2011 @06:22AM (#35030010) Homepage

    The galaxy should be ablaze with life. It would only take one spacefaring race to colonise the entire galaxy. It's only 100,000 light years across - that's do-able in a few million years even at sublight.

    A) The Milky Way ain't the only galaxy in the universe. There most likely is life somewhere but it may or may not be in this galaxy.
    B) It takes A LOT of time, effort and resources to colonize even one country, not to mention a complete planet. A lot, lot more than it takes to just travel the distance between the two end-points.
    C) Colonizing even half a galaxy would take quite a bit more than "a few million years."

    Heck, Earth is primo real estate

    Only if you happen to breath oxygen and otherwise the atmosphere is suitable for your species. If not then no, it's not "primo real estate."

  • by Stooshie (993666) on Friday January 28, 2011 @06:22AM (#35030012) Journal
    It's not about them understanding English or whatever language we package up. It's about any alien looking at the data and realising that there is actually information here, rather than just random streams of data (not necessarily about understanding the content). Once they realise there is information then they can get to work on trying to decipher it. The protocol is a kind of flag waving saying something like "interesting stuff over here guys".
  • Re:Mostly irrelevant (Score:4, Interesting)

    by ledow (319597) on Friday January 28, 2011 @06:33AM (#35030046) Homepage

    Pictograms are all but worthless. There are a billion interpretations and mostly that's assuming a 2D system of "vision" / "interpretation". And basically boils down to trying to teach someone who doesn't know anything about your species how to write and interpret images (like trying to teach a wild dolphin to read Shakespeare or recognise pictures of fruit with ZERO feedback about their correctness - intelligent or not, writing is still new to *us* because we've only been doing it for a tiny percentage of the time that humans have existed).

    And your encoding is ambiguous - how do they know it's not length, then width? Or that it's not length then width then depth followed by a 3D representation (possibly the length might tell you that but once you get into that level of interpretation, you can "make sense" of any nonsense whatsoever)? Or that you didn't put the length/width at the end, or in the middle, or in whatever offset *they* consider logical? Yes, there may be a "pattern" of X times Y that gives us the size of the "packet" but there are probably a million other way of interpreting raw bits that would work out in the same way (i.e. if the first bit is a one, then the message is junk, so ignore it, parity, etc.)

    You're just making far too many assumptions about mathematics and interpretation. This is the problem, almost everything we try will probably be useless because we've never encountered an intelligence other than our own, so we have *no* idea how to communicate at all. Who says they are even LOOKING at EM radiation? Maybe in a thousand years we won't even bother looking at it either (because of things like light-year limits to it's readability, degradation, interference, etc.) - maybe the sign of an "intelligent" civilisation will be using (insert whatever fancy physics you like here) systems instead and not bother with "pre-quantum" civilisations, etc.

    And a thousand years in time, galactically, is nothing. And any civilisation that lasts long enough to contact others is much more likely to be millions of years more advanced than we are by sheer probability. MILLLIONS. As in CERN, the satellite systems, mainframes and the whole of civilisation would look like a fragment of fossil in the rock to them, technologically.

    Prime numbers? The numbers that occur in nature when you take out all factors (in your case, just those up to 5) and occur often in purely physical systems? (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Prime_number#Prime_numbers_in_nature) There are species of animal that come out every prime year in order to avoid predators that work on various regular intervals and being prime reduces their chances. It's not hard to imagine that such things could get lost in the noise (i.e. you can probably "see" prime numbers everywhere if you bother to look) or simply are a by-product of ordinary physics (e.g. primes pop up in the Zeta-function etc.)

    I agree the primes are simple but they won't necessarily attract attention. It's also assuming that maths is as universal as we hope (I'm a mathematician, but it's not hard to imagine somewhere where mathematics doesn't exist in a form we would understand). Carl Sagan suggests them as a way to demonstrate that an alien understand mathematics in a novel, but it's a bit far-fetched to say the least (messages from God are also hidden in pi in the book).

    The problem is that it's incredibly easy to send anything we want but we have absolutely ZERO idea about how it would ever be interpreted. Even if we found a remote hidden tribe in the Amazon that had never had human contact and were mathematically literate and we gave them the messages and after 50 years they were able to decode them, it wouldn't mean *anything* because their brains would work the same way as ours, with the same perceptions and senses. Also, it would still take thousands of years for any reply (or else we'd *probably* have been visited already).

    Finding ET is viable - it's easy to craft a "we're over here" signal just by sheer brute force and pushin

  • LINCOS...anyone? (Score:5, Interesting)

    by aaaaaaargh! (1150173) on Friday January 28, 2011 @07:05AM (#35030158)

    Instead of musing about a message protocol, they should rather spend their time learning and improving LINCOS. Freudenthal's system is still the de facto standard for communication with aliens but has only occasionally been worked on by enthusiasts and NASA employees. LINCOS is in dire need of an overhaul, including a more modern transcription notation, and the second volume has never been finished. The original book is hard to get and it takes a substantial amount of time just to get into the framework, and that's probably why they don't use LINCOS.

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