January 12, 2014

Slice of PIE: Chatting With Aliens -- Part 1

Humans often times have trouble talking to each other.

Take for example a room of 20-somethings, at a party. At any one time, half of them will be checking their text messages – and be totally checked out from the “real” world of their fellow party-goers.

I was talking to an same-generation colleague the other day and together we bemoaned the world of snapchat, text messages, tweets, wechat, and all the other technology that young adults on Earth engage in. We wondered about the impact of such “distance friendship” on how they interacted with people here-and-now, talking about how things weren’t that way when we were kids.

I paused then commented, “So, you never spent three hours on the telephone talking to your boyfriend when you were sixteen?”

She looked at me and shook her head, “No, I never did that.”

I harrumphed and said, “Well I did. Uh…to my girlfriend…”

We laughed and she said, “Well, that was different. There was another person at the other end of the telephone line, and we weren’t sending...”

Our conversation ended, but it left me wondering. HOW was it different? WAS it different? To my parents, who’d grown up in the era of swing dancing and rock and roll, and were the very first generation for whom the “car” was a serious adjunct to social interactions; talking for hours on a “telephone” was a strange concept. Separating people and talking to an ephemeral voice located in a person anywhere from next door to hundreds of miles away, was the telephone of the 70s any different than the tweets of the TwentyTeens?

What does all this have to do with aliens?

All of the technology above was built to enable communication. The space age was ushered in NOT because of some obscure need to “explore”, rather it was ushered in by our very, very real need to TALK.

The first two satellites in 1957 were Sputnik 1 (we all know THAT story!) and Sputnik 2 (carried the poor dog Laika, who died in space); the third, Explorer 1 discovered the van Allen radiation belt around the Earth. The fourth, on December 18, 1958, ushered in the REAL purpose of space “exploration” – communication. The Signal Communication by Orbiting Relay Equipment (SCORE) satellite’s recorded message from the president of the United States, relayed a “Christmas greeting from President Dwight Eisenhower. ‘Peace on Earth, Goodwill to Men.’”

After that, we were hooked. Satellites poured into space until we had the spectre of a frightening end result. W e flocked to theaters to see a film that jumped off from that spectre – the movie GRAVITY. (Nominated for 14 Golden Globe Awards, as well as receiving 66 other awards and 69 more nominations – in four more days, we’ll know how many Academy Awards it will be nominated for…)

Predicated on the fact that we’ve got so much space junk, a Kessler Event has a good possibility of eventually happening. Most of that junk comes from our discarded communications satellites and THAT has happened because we can’t get enough of talking among ourselves. Did you know that “by 2014…there will be more in-use cell phones than there are people on the planet right now.”

Above all things, the Human compulsion is to communicate.

The culmination of this compulsion happened in 1974 when Humanity broadcast a message announcing ourselves to the entire UNIVERSE. With the blaring of the Arecibo Message, we let the ENTIRE UNIVERSE know that “we are here”. Sort of like the Dr. Seuss story, HORTON HEARS A WHO, in which the Whoniverse gives a shout out to all of Horton’s friends – who are ready to string him up because there is no way an entire universe could exist on a mote of dust.

Some time after we sent the message – actually about seventy years – some wisenheimers freaked out and panicked, loudly trumpeting that “We Shouldn’t Have Done That!!!!!!!!!!!!! Cuz Them Aleens Might Git Us!” (David Brin: http://www.davidbrin.com/shouldsetitransmit.html, Stephen Hawking: http://transcripts.cnn.com/TRANSCRIPTS/1004/30/lkl.01.html).

Of course their hero and even MORE popular physicist and science fiction writer was diametrically opposed to them and participated in an event that sent a: “bunch of ones and zeroes. This message originated in 1974, when it was broadcast from the Arecibo radio telescope in Puerto Rico to commemorate the facility's renovation. The authors of the message, Carl Sagan and SETI founder Frank Drake, hoped that any aliens who happened to receive it might notice that 1,679 is the product of two prime numbers, 23 and 73, and if you arrange all the zeroes and ones in a grid of 23 columns and 73 rows, you get a series of simple, ASCII-like pictures, including a double helix and a crude image of a person. Whether or not an alien civilization could crack the code, they would at least notice something funny about these FM signals. They're 10 million times stronger than the background noise from our sun.”

So whether Brin and Hawking like it or not, the message is there. We asked ET to text us a long, long time ago – November 16, 1974 and for exactly 3 minutes – though we haven’t gotten a message back.

The vast majority of Earth’s population neither knows about nor cares about that text message, but you can expect some sort of ceremony this year as we continue to wait for a text back...

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