Astronomy Without A Telescope – How To Impress An Alien (Or Not)

by Steve Nerlich on March 20, 2010

Aerial view of the 300 metre diameter Arecibo radio telescope dish

It’s about fifty years since Frank Drake sent out our first chat request to the wider universe. I say about as I think the official date is 11 April 1960 – but I notice a lot of fifty year anniversary blogs and interviews are already being published, so what the heck, I’m not waiting either.

While no-one is really concerned that we haven’t had an answer back yet, it is a little despondent to have scanned the skies for someone else’s chat request all this time and found nothing.

In a recent New Scientist interview (actually January 2010 – they were really getting in early), Drake refers to his equation delivering an answer in the order of one in 10 million stars having an advanced civilization – and he uses that statistic to indicate it’s too early to think we have done a statistically adequate scan yet.

Nonetheless, the chances of there being advanced civilizations near enough to enable a future United Federation of Planets already looks doubtful.

Drake’s initial communication efforts in Project Ozma were small scale, but his clever and carefully constructed Arecibo message out to Messier 13 (a globular cluster of approximately 300,000 stars) in 1974 aroused some criticism that telling the aliens where we are might result in an invasion.

This is a little implausible, since Messier 13 is 25,000 light years away. By the time the invasion fleet arrives we will either be long gone or have spent the intervening period developing the technology to blast them out of the sky if they don’t turn back immediately.

Actually, that’s probably an important consideration if we ever decide to invade someone. We will need to take a couple of universities along to keep our technology advancing ahead of theirs. However, if we are travelling near the speed of light, the time differential means that they will get ahead anyway. Hmm…

The Arecibo message composed of 1679 bits, being the product of two prime numbers 73 and 23 (i.e. the number of rows and columns). Impressive, huh?

Anyway, here in the 21st century, I want to suggest that more attention should be given to us just not looking stupid. There’s already all the bad TV out there. We can fairly claim that all that was never meant for alien consumption, but recently we advanced humans have quite deliberately transmitted a Beatles song to Polaris and sent a bunch of text messages to Gliese 581. I mean, huh?

Polaris, being a Cepheid variable – and in any case a short-lived and already dying supergiant – was probably never stable enough to support planets, so we probably got away with that one. However, there’s no getting around us sending text messages to Gliese 581c in 2008 (from Ukraine) and subsequently following that up with another set blasted at 581d in 2009 (from Australia, sorry…).

This was because when we recalculated, it was apparent that the exoplanet 581d was more likely to be in the habitable zone of its star than 581c. Hopefully those 20 light year distant aliens will appreciate that the inconsequential shift in the main focus of those two transmissions is an indication of our extreme cleverness.

See, it’s a bit like reading Shakespeare to a dolphin. With no comprehension of the language, you will just look like someone who is content to sit for hours making funny noises while dangling your feet in a pool. But with a bit of comprehension, the dolphin can be reasonably expected to reply – hey Brainiac, I’m a dolphin, what’s forsooth mean?

There are aliens among us who already think we’re a bit daft. How about we first check in with Frank Drake next time we feel like shouting out the window?

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