Seti offers you to decode a message from extraterrestrials

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As Futura previously explained, famed and late exobiologist Carl Sagan, originally with his wife Ann Druyan from the series Cosmos and also author of the novel Contact brought to the screen by Robert Zemeckis with Jodie Foster, has repeatedly explained that one of the motivations of the Seti program to enter into communication with an advanced extraterrestrial civilization was to know if Humanity had a chance to emerge from its turbulent adolescence without suicide.

Remember that the Seti program, Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligencewhich can be translated as search for extraterrestrial intelligence “, has existed since the 1960s. It is based on the idea that in the face of the chasm separating in space and time from possible extraterrestrial civilizations of the Milky Way, listening and sending radio signals is probably the only way they have to signal and communicate with each other.

A presentation of the Seti Institute. To obtain a fairly accurate French translation, click on the white rectangle at the bottom right. The English subtitles should then appear. Then click on the nut to the right of the rectangle, then on “Subtitles” and finally on “Translate automatically”. Choose “French”. © Seti Institute

60 years of Seti program

Like many others, from the 1950s to the 1980s, Sagan feared a holocaust due to nuclear war. These days, it is mostly the consequences of global warming and resource scarcity, leading first to the collapse of civilization, and then perhaps a nuclear holocaust in conjunction with the risks of autonomous weapons with IA surpassing OpenAI’s ChatGPT, which worries us. Knowing that ET civilizations have survived the current challenges to the noosphere, and perhaps even how, is therefore still relevant for almost the same reasons as in the time of Carl Sagan.

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In September 1959, the review Nature published a visionary article by Giuseppe Cocconi, who played an important role in the start-up of CERN’s Proton Synchrotron, and by Philip Morrison, who had participated in the Manhattan project. His title, Searching for Interstellar Communications, would become famous in the form of an acronym, i.e. Seti.

The two physicists held the following reasoning: if advanced extraterrestrial civilizations exist in the Galaxy, they could communicate with each other or with their colonies using radio waves. By considering the wavelengths most conducive to the distant transmission of clear signals, despite the galactic radio background noise, they had concluded that the most suitable radio band was the narrow one, surrounding the wavelength of 21 centimeters .

Moreover, this band corresponds to a so-called hyperfine transition in the neutral hydrogen atom, the most abundant element in the Universe. It was therefore a good way to establish a standard of communication, naturally adopted by any developed civilization.

A young radio astronomer, Frank Drake, then came to similar conclusions. While stationed at the Green Bank radio telescope, he launched the Ozma project on April 8, 1960, named after a princess from the land of Oz. For two periods of two months, Drake and his colleagues listened with the Green Bank radio telescope to two Sun-like stars located less than 15 light-years away, Tau Ceti and Epsilon Eridani.

The result was negative. Sixty years after Drake, still alive, the Seti program is still relevant. In 2015, it received a major impetus via the project Breakthrough Initiative of billionaire Yuri Milner. Supported at the time by Stephen Hawking as well as Kip Thorne, the Nobel Prize in Physics and scientific advisor to the film Interstellarand Ann Druyan, the widow of Carl Sagan, he aimed to give 100 million dollars in ten years to the Seti program.

This is no doubt to continue to raise awareness of this issue and because advances in technology and artificial intelligence are giving new wings to the Seti program, but also to answer the simple question ” What would happen if we received a message from an extraterrestrial civilization? », that the famous Seti Institute has decided to collaborate with the artist Daniela de Paulis. In residence at this institute and at the Green Bank Observatory (famous radio telescope of the Seti program), she had the idea of ​​launching the project A Sign in Space. This May 24, 2023, shortly after 8 p.m. in France and in the company of the French astronomer Franck Marchis, well known to Futura readers for his involvement in the creation of the Unistellar company’s eVscope, she will host a live on YouTube at subject of this project.

Project launch live A Sign in Space. To obtain a fairly accurate French translation, click on the white rectangle at the bottom right. The English subtitles should then appear. Then click on the nut to the right of the rectangle, then on “Subtitles” and finally on “Translate automatically”. Choose “French”. © Seti Institute

A transformative ET message for the noosphere?

In the press release from the Seti Institute (SETI Institute, in English) recounting what it is all about, Daniela de Paulis explains that ” Throughout history, humanity has sought meaning from powerful and transformative phenomena. Receiving a message from an extraterrestrial civilization would be a profoundly transformative experience for all of humanity. A Sign in Space offers the unprecedented opportunity to concretely prepare by simulating this scenario through global collaboration, fostering an open search for meaning across cultures and disciplines. “.

With collaborators, she therefore designed a coded message that ESA’s ExoMars orbiter will transmit to Earth on May 24 at 19:00 (UTC), with reception on Earth 16 minutes later by three of the observatories of world-class radio astronomy located around the world and already involved for a long time in the Seti program. These include the Allen Telescope Array (ATA) of the Seti Institute, the Telescope Robert C. Byrd Green Bank (GBT) of the observatory of Green Bank (GBO) and the observatory of the Medicina radio astronomy station managed by the Italian National Institute of Astrophysics (Inaf).

The simulation of the reception of a message from an advanced civilization will continue as if it were real with the recording and processing of the signal identified as clearly not being able to come from a natural phenomenon or interference with terrestrial technology. All these operations will be carried out by the Seti Institute “ which will securely store the data processed in collaboration with Breakthrough Listen Open Data Archive and Filecoin, the largest decentralized storage network in the world “.

The signal will then be available to everyone, scientist, artist, the general public in order to decode and interpret it, as well as its meaning for Humanity in the weeks that will follow. Zoom and social media discussions will frame and accompany developments around the reception of this simulated ET signal.

Anyone working to decode and interpret the message can discuss the process on the server A Sign in Space from Discord “. Submissions of discoveries, reflections and artistic and scientific contributions can be made via the dedicated submission form on the project website. After the transmission, the team A Sign in Space will host a series of Zoom-based discussions open to the public around topics that consider the societal implications of detecting a signal from an extraterrestrial civilization. Discussions will take place six to eight weeks after transmission. A list of events with registration links is here.

A coded message, but what code for ETs?

What could this decoding look like? To get an idea of ​​this, let’s go back a few decades, when the euphoria of the Apollo program was falling and exobiology and the Seti program gave hope for an upcoming communication with a form of extraterrestrial intelligence. For many even, the ET (extraterrestrials) were already there and visiting us with flying saucers. To mark the mind of the public and probably also to attract funding from political decision-makers, Carl Sagan and Frank Drake decided to send a message to these ETs

Indeed, to illustrate the principle of interstellar communications and arouse interest, what better than to send a message ourselves? This is what was done using the large Arecibo radio telescope on November 16, 1974.

For three minutes, a radio signal was emitted in the direction of the Hercules cluster (M13), a famous globular cluster located 25,000 light years away. Based on the idea that the only universal language should be that of mathematics, the message itself consisted of a series of binary numbers, 0s and 1s, numbering 1,679 (the product of two prime numbers , 23 and 73). These numbers give the dimensions of a table in which we can represent by black and white squares the 1,679 binary numbers of the message itself.

The information arranged in 73 rows and 23 columns then gives an image. If read from right to left, it shows the numbers from 1 to 10, the atomic numbers of hydrogen, carbon, nitrogen, oxygen and phosphorus, the chemical formulas of sugars and bases in the nucleotides of DNA, the numbers of nucleotides in DNA, the double helix structure of DNA, a sketch of the human being and its size, the population of the Earth, the Solar System, and a picture of the Arecibo radio telescope with its diameter.