Of Arecibo and Stars

Arecibo MessageThirty-five years ago Frank Drake (of the famous Drake equation) and Carl Sagan (“billions and billions…”) came together and constructed a message to send to the stars.  They encoded it in a binary lattice whose dimensions were prime numbers.  And in the message they encoded a binary counting system, the structure of human DNA, the population of Earth at the time, and several other interesting things.

Well, last week, on the 35th anniversary of that famous message, a scientist named Joe Davis did it again (Part I, Part II). He encoded the DNA base-pair sequences of RuBisCo, the most common protein found on earth, into an audio file on his iPhone, and then interfaced his phone with the same Arecibo telescope used to send the original message and transmitted this “song” to three nearby stars.  Strangely, because the DNA sequence proved difficult to encode in good old-fashioned binary, he used a Mac to speak the base pairs in the following pattern:

  • C) space – “I” – space
  • T) space – “amthe” – space
  • A) space – “knowyourself” – space
  • G) space – “riddleoflife” – space

The words are loosely based on the inscription at Delphi, which implores passers by to know themselves.  “Space” here is a timed period of silence.  The resultant audio file was then used to modulate the powerful radio telescope.  No one would “hear” these spoken words.  The resultant signal would simply be a series of fluctuating power levels of a radio signal.

I find this endeavor both amazing and absurd and absolutely artistic.  Amazing, because I’ve always believed that there is life out there in the universe, that the Cosmos is teeming with forms like the bottom of our ocean, so these types of things fill my mind with awe.  Absurd because I cannot imagine any way in which an alien civilization might make sense of this signal.  Not only would they have to understand the biochemistry of the four base pairs of human DNA, cytosine, guanine, adenine, and thymine, they’d have to understand that collectively they make up a protein, which is responsible for this complex chemical reaction known as photosynthesis.  Consider the reverse, an alien civilization whose biochemistry was based on say silicon instead of carbon, sending along a sequence of some complicated chemical found in most species of its strange planet used to convert volcanic heat into energy.  Without understanding the chemistry involved, it might as well be a string of gibberish.

Which brings me to the last “a”, the artistic.  Here are the (abridged) “lyrics” to the song that was sent into space:

knowyourself amthe riddleoflife amthe I knowyourself I I knowyourself I knowyourself knowyourself knowyourself I knowyourself riddleoflife knowyourself riddleoflife knowyourself I amthe knowyourself knowyourself knowyourself riddleoflife I knowyourself
knowyourself riddleoflife amthe riddleoflife amthe amthe riddleoflife riddleoflife knowyourself amthe amthe I knowyourself knowyourself knowyourself riddleoflife I amthe riddleoflife riddleoflife amthe riddleoflife amthe amthe knowyourself knowyourself knowyourself riddleoflife knowyourself riddleoflife amthe knowyourself I knowyourself knowyourself knowyourself amthe amthe riddleoflife knowyourself I amthe amthe knowyourself amthe amthe knowyourself amthe knowyourself I amthe I I amthe riddleoflife knowyourself riddleoflife amthe knowyourself I I knowyourself knowyourself knowyourself I I knowyourself knowyourself riddleoflife riddleoflife knowyourself amthe knowyourself I amthe riddleoflife knowyourself amthe knowyourself amthe knowyourself amthe amthe riddleoflife riddleoflife I knowyourself riddleoflife I knowyourself amthe amthe I I riddleoflife knowyourself riddleoflife amthe knowyourself knowyourself I amthe I I amthe I knowyourself knowyourself

Now, if that’s not totally creepy and cryptic and cool, I don’t know what is.  Imagine you were a lonely SETI researcher on some alien planet and while tuning your radio across the stars you suddenly hear this creepy message whispering from your speakers?  (Never mind the mammoth translation problem).  Wouldn’t that freak you the hell out?  You might think it was God or some super-advanced civilization or some secret of the Cosmos being directed to you.

And maybe it is, you know, the secret after all, being that most life on this planet is dependent upon RuBisCo, or photosynthesis, so maybe there’s some universal truth encoded in it.  Anyway, I would love to download this track.  Joe Davis should really think about making this into an mp3.