Communication with Extraterrestrial Civilizations

We are not alone in the universe. 

While some still consider this far-fetched, most scientists today take the existence of extraterrestrial intelligence for granted. The National Academy of Sciences has officially stated that contact with aliens on other planets “is no longer something beyond our dreams but a natural event in the history of mankind that will perhaps occur in the lifetime of many of us. (Communication with Extraterrestrial Intelligence, 1966)
Alpha Centauri B is only 4.3 light years away. Around it orbits the closest planet that could support life. It is believed to be too young to have evolved intelligent life. The search for viable planets has been localized to six stars within fifteen light years of the sun: tau Ceti, omicron-2 Eridani, epsilon Eridani, epsilon Indi, 70 Ophiuchi, and 61 Cygni. Dr. Su-Shu Huang of the University of California suggested epsilon Eridani and tau Ceti as the best prospects, and these two are getting the most attention now. Tau Ceti is 10.8 light years away and is the closest candidate.

Even at these relatively short distances on the astronomical scale, it would be over twenty years before an exchange of communication could take place. What kinds of messages would be sent to us and how would we respond? Considering the great time lags, any message we received would most likely be lengthy and in a logical sequence independent of verbal languages.

Once the sequence had been recorded we could sit back and attempt to decipher it. One of the first things noticed would undoubtedly be that the carrier wave itself was characterized by a Doppler shift due to the orbital motion of both the earth and the other planet. The initial items of the text would contain simple statements of universal scientific truths such as pulses arranged in the prime number series according to Drs. Giuseppe Cocconi and Philip Morrison of Cornell. Also, wave forms depicting the standard arithmetic operators would appear and π, with its universal significance, might be transmitted as the series. As the message progressed, the Pythagorean Theorem might appear, as well as more involved physical constants, such as the fine structure constant, 137.039, representing several fundamental atomic ratios among which are:
  1. 1.    the ratio of the principal hydrogen wavelength (in the visible spectrum) to the circumference of the orbit of simple hydrogen’s only electron,
  2. 2.    the velocity of light to the velocity of hydrogen’s electron, and
  3. 3.    the number of uranium atoms necessary to sustain a chain reaction.

Scanning lines that could be put together in the form of a picture, like television, would emerge, and eventually clues to the nature of their language, life, and society would be revealed.
Our first response would be to send back a similar sequence with a few obvious alterations so that they would not think they were hearing an echo. We could add to their message and insert ideas of our own, like symbols for units of distance, time, and mass, for example.

As new problems are solved, the search for intelligent beings trillions of miles away quickens in pace. With each new success, though, comes a new question to be pondered. What if high exo-civilizations have had an ear turned our way for a hundred million years or so and have already decided there is no one here? What if advanced societies want no part of underdeveloped people who are just learning the fundamentals of radio? What about our own existence? Could we all have evolved from matter brought to the earth billions of years ago by a stray meteorite from a life- sustaining planet of that era? Melvin Calvin of the University of California has found nucleotide fragments in meteorite specimens. Nucleotides are substructures of desoxyribonucleic acid, better known as DNA!

There are wide areas of uncertainty, but the quest for scientific knowledge and the romantic appeal of maybe finding an equal or superior civilization in the far reaches of outer space make one want to forget that we might not find anything. Astronomer Drake himself wryly suggests, ‚We might get a better feeling for the situation if we could first answer the question: ‘Is there intelligent life on earth?’‛ The odds are uncertain, but the search continues.


Works Cited

Communication with Extraterrestrial Intelligence. (1966). NSA Technical Journal , Vol. XI.