No one knows if there’s intelligent life out there. There are theories, hypotheses, simulations, and equations that tell us that there must be something more. Yet, for all their efforts, scientists haven’t identified any sign of intelligent life on another planet, only snippets of microbes possibly living in the acidic clouds of Earth’s toxic neighbour, Venus.
This isn’t through a lack of trying, however. On November 16, 1974, scientists working at the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico broadcast a coded message containing information about mathematics, humanity, the Solar System, DNA, and the Observatory itself.
The end destination was Messier 13, The Great Hercules Cluster, a star cluster located some 25,000 light-years away from Earth.
The Arecibo Message was a groundbreaking moment in human and scientific history. Not only was it humanity’s first-ever attempt at Messaging Extraterrestrial Intelligence (METI) but the only one ever made.
The content of the message was designed by Frank Drake, then at Cornell University, who wrote it with the help of other cutting-edge scientists like Carl Sagan.
When translated, it presented graphics, characters, spaces, and 1,679 bits of data.
But did the scientists really believe that an alien species would be able to translate a human-engineered message and enter a dialogue? No, they didn’t.
The whole point of the Arecibo Message was to show extraterrestrial life of our technological capabilities and achievements.
By the time the message arrives at Messier 13, the core of the star cluster will have moved position drastically.
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But because the motion of the cluster is relatively slow, the message will still arrive near the center of the cluster. Humanity will, however, be at a level unimaginable by today’s standards when that time comes.
The message consists of seven parts that encode the following images:
- The numbers one to ten in the color white;
- The atomic numbers of the elements phosphorus, carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen and oxygen—all of which make up DNA, in the color purple;
- The formulas for the chemical compounds that make the nucleotides — organic molecules — of DNA, colored green;
- The estimated number of DNA nucleotides in the human genome, and a graphic of the double helix structure of DNA colored white and blue;
- The average physical height of a man in blue and white, a graphic of a human being in red, and the human population of Earth, colored in white;
- A graphic of the Solar System, showing which of the planets the message if coming from in yellow;
- A graphic of the Arecibo telescope, and the dimension of its transmitting antenna dish in purple, white and blue.
Of course, many of these things have changed since 1974, but the basic principles remain.
A response found?
In 2001, an imprint in a crop field in Hampshire was discovered, near to where the Chilbolton telescope is located, portraying a response to the Arecibo Message.
It was dubbed the Arecibo Answer, and contained almost all of the original message, using the same 73 x 23 grid pattern, and the majority of the chemical data remained the same.
The biggest giveaway that it was a hoax came in the section concerning chemical elements: it had swapped carbon with silicon, and the diagram of DNA was completely rewritten.
And, crucially, the figure of a human was replaced with a stereotypical alien-like creature with a bulbous head.
Much controversy and criticism surrounded the method by which the Arecibo Message reached out to extraterrestrial life in the years since.
Some, including the late Stephen Hawking, have expressed concern that sending messages out and announcing humanity’s existence puts the world at great risk and poses an existential threat to Earth with the possible existence of malevolent extraterrestrials.
But its advocates say it is crucial in helping to fully understand what it is to be human, and what our place means in space and time.