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Seth Shostak

Seth Shostak

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Sending Greeting Cards to the Aliens

Posted: 04/ 3/11 05:07 PM ET

The advertising is unabashed: "Be the first to declare intergalactic war."

If you somehow feel this is a worthy use of your time, you might wish to buy the Space Gift Box, a geeky item available for about $30 from internet retailers. It includes a small sheet of paper vaguely like a telegraph form on which to scribe your brief message. The promise is that your text will be digitally encoded and shot into the cosmos using a "laser telescope," whatever that is.

Sending greeting cards to aliens is hardly a new idea. In 2005, Craigslist solicited messages for broadcast to space by a transmitter in Florida, and in 2008, NASA beamed a Beatles song to the North Star (Polaris), on the assumption that any putative Polarians would appreciate the Fab Four's 1960s-genre compositions.

But there have actually been some serious attempts to send messages to our cosmic confreres. In addition to the plaques and records fastened to the Pioneer and Voyager space probes (snail-mail efforts designed to tell a few important facts about ourselves), we've occasionally fired up powerful radio transmitters to broadcast pictograms to stars near and far. These transmissions were also mostly quite simple, no more than a Cliff Notes guide to humanity.

It seems we might want to get away from this minimalist approach. As it turns out, I was recently called by a local artist, Trevor Paglen, who was soliciting suggestions for a project on extraterrestrial communication. It was gratifying to learn that someone other than scientists and retailers had an interest in who speaks for Earth, and so I laid out what I think are the three main considerations for anyone keen on a celestial shout-out.

First off, it's likely that the extraterrestrials are far away, which is to say many hundreds of light-years at least. Obviously, conversation's going to be slower than tax reform.

This rules out a message filled with questions or any of the usual conversational back-and-forth, and implies that communication should really be viewed as a one-way exercise. This circumstance should discourage the greeting card approach in favor of conveying everything we think aliens would want to know.

Which brings us to the second point: What would they want to know? Not our physics or astronomy. If they can pick up signals from Earth, they're sufficiently advanced to have already discovered all those things on their own. We can assume they'd have more interest in our biology (and that of the other inhabitants of the planet). DNA might be, for them, a beguiling molecule. But beyond such straightforward matters, I'd bet they'd be most interested in our culture -- the art, the history, and the general ebb and wash of our species. While intelligent life might be a cosmic commonplace, our culture is guaranteed to be unique.

Doug Vakoch, a researcher at the SETI Institute, has run an internet-based survey for the last few years called "Earth Speaks" in an effort to learn what the world's citizenry would wish to say to aliens. The most common suggestions are friendly greetings, declarations of peace, and some good-natured joking.

Fair enough. But why stop there? I'd send the Library of Congress, or better yet, the entire internet (thereby guaranteeing the aliens access to my blogs). Almost anything relevant to the current status of Homo sapiens is merely a download away. Send it all.

Which brings us to the final consideration. How should we encode the message? After all, a lot of the internet is in the HTML markup language, which is an idiom that few Klingons have mastered. Many people suggest using mathematics to talk to the aliens, and Dutch computer scientist Alexander Ollongren has developed an entire language (Lincos) based on this idea. But my personal opinion is that mathematics may be a hard way to describe ideas like love or democracy. Show me a guy who communicates only by mathematical formulae, and I'll show you someone with a social life in need of improvement.

What about musical messaging? OK, I enjoyed the dueling tubas in "Close Encounters of the Third Kind" too, but communication at audio frequencies is both slow and ambiguous.

Here's a better idea. Symbolic communication -- speech and the written word -- has been around a long time, and there's not much it can't convey (check out your bookshelf). So it's a good argument that language is the way to go. But despite the impression created by movies and television, I gauge it unlikely that many aliens will be fluent in colloquial, American English.

So what's my suggestion? Teach them English! Send a picture dictionary. These are well-known pedagogical tools for learning a foreign language. Of course, the aliens won't recognize all the pictures -- or even a majority of them. But that's OK. The decipherment of the hieroglyphics began with an understanding of only a few glyphs. Once the extraterrestrials have mastered some of our language, they can figure out much of the rest.

And yes, there's plenty of sketchy content on the internet, and tons of stuff that won't make us proud. But what would you want the aliens to have in hand? Nearly a trillion web documents on everything from soup to nuts, or a short and cheesy declaration of intergalactic war?