Top 5 messages sent to alien civilizations

Between Carl Sagan's laughter, the brainwaves of somebody in love, and a live theremin concert, humanity has sent a lot of data out into the stars.

  • Ever since we've had the capability, humanity has been desperately trying to make contact with other life in the universe.
  • While we've been beaming out information passively through our television and radio broadcasts, we've also sent more intentional messages.
  • Looking at these messages tells us how humanity wants to think of itself and what kind of relationship we hope to have with alien life.

We've loudly been broadcasting our presence on Earth out to the broader universe for decades. At first, these attempts were accidental. In Carl Sagan's book Contact, he speculated that any aliens watching the stars with at least as keen an interest as we do would pick up high-powered television broadcasts — the first of which would have been Hitler's Nuremberg rallies.

Fortunately, we've also been sending more intentional messages into space that E.T. may pay more attention to. These deliberate messages often contain information on our technological advancement; our understanding of mathematics, which is likely the only shared form of communication we would have with an alien species; and our culture and art. Together, they represent how humanity wants to be seen. Here's a selection of some of the most noteworthy messages we've been sending to space in the hopes that somebody is listening.

1. The Arecibo Message

Wikimedia Commons

The Arecibo Message with added color information.

On November 16th, 1974, we sent a 2,380 MHz radio message pointed at the Messier M13 globular cluster 25,000 light years away. Over the course of its 3 minutes, the radio message sent 1,679 binary digits by shifting the radio's signal frequency slightly for a 1 or a 0. When visualized, the Arecibo Message looks a little bit like discarded artwork from Space Invaders.

Like most of these messages, we tried to pack as much meaning in as little space as possible. Frank Drake (creator of the famous Drake equation) and Carl Sagan collaborated on what should go into it. From top to bottom, the message contains the numbers 1 through 10, information on the elements in our DNA, their atomic numbers, the nucleotides that constitute our DNA, and the double-helix structure. Below it, we listed the average height of a human, a simple graphic depicting our form, and our population at the time (4.3 billion). Then, there's a simple model of our solar system, and the last part contains a depiction of a telescope.

It'll take 25,000 years for the message to reach its destination, so it's unlikely that we'll ever know if it made contact. However, its intended purpose was rather to demonstrate our capability; the possibility of contact is just the cherry on top.

2. The Voyager Golden Records

NASA/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

The Voyager Golden Records prior to being affixed to the Voyager probes.

Probably the most famous communication attempt on this list, the Voyager Golden Records were contained inside the two Voyager probes launched in 1977. Once again, the contents were selected by Carl Sagan and a committee he helmed.

The records contain instructions on how they should be played. If aliens get past that step, they'll be greeted by the sounds of planet Earth, like wind, thunder, and whale and bird song. They'll also hear spoken greetings in 55 different languages, music from different cultures, footsteps, and Sagan's laughter.

The Golden Records also contain instructions for how to produce images from their contents. These depict people eating, planets in our solar system, locations on Earth, animals, insects, human evolution and physiology, and chemistry-related images.

The most interesting component, though, is the hour-long recording of a human's brainwaves; specifically, Sagan's wife, Ann Druyan. While her brain was being recorded, Druyan thought of a variety of topics, like Earth's history and — having just gotten engaged to Carl Sagan — the experience of falling in love.

The Voyager probes were primarily meant to observe our solar system as they passed through, but they will be floating through space for quite some time. Maybe some aliens will have the opportunity to see how Druyan felt about falling in love or hear the many sounds from Earth we included. You can listen to the Golden Record's audio recordings on Soundcloud here and here.

3. The Teen Age Message

The Yevpatoria Planetary Radar. Image source: Wikimedia Commons

This message was initially proposed to be sent via the Arecibo Observatory, the same radio telescope used to send the Arecibo Message, but was rejected over growing concerns that maybe it isn't such a hot idea to broadcast humanity's presence in the universe. The Dark Forest theory states that the reason why the universe appears empty is because all other alien life is hiding out fear of other, hostile civilizations — sending messages out to the stars has always been a contested proposition because of our ignorance about the friendliness of alien life.

But human perseverance and our desire to make contact with others has usually won out, and the Teen Age Message was eventually sent out from the Yevpatoria Planetary Radar in 2001. Alexander Zaitsev, the project's leader, described his conception of the message:

There are two interconnected, inverse and direct, problems in concept of extraterrestrial intelligence (ETI) — Search for ETI by terrestrial intelligence (SETI) and Messages to ETI from terrestrial intelligence (METI). The key element of SETI is the Object of search, namely [the] Universe, where we hope to detect the ETI and then to decode theirs [sic] Messages, and so the essence of SETI is Space Science. In turn, the key element of METI is the intellectual Subject, who creates new messages for potential ETI and hope that They will detect and perceive these Messages, and so the essence of METI is Space Art.

In an attempt to make "space art," the Teen Age Message contained the first live recording of a theremin concert for aliens. Seven songs were performed, and the total message was sent to six target stars, both of which were selected by teenage students (hence, the Teen Age Message). Depending on the star, the messages should reach their target destination between 2047 and 2070. (Far quicker than the 25,000 years the Arecibo Message will take!)

As an interesting side note, teenagers have played a fairly important role in our attempts at contacting alien life. When Sagan included "Johnny B. Good" on the Voyager Golden Records, critics complained that rock music was too adolescent. Sagan replied, "There are a lot of adolescents on the planet."

4. The Wow! Reply

Wikimedia Commons

The original printout of the data that prompted astronomer Jerry Ehman to write "Wow!" in the margins, giving the signal its name.

In 1977, the Big Ear radio observatory at Ohio State University picked up a signal coming from the constellation Sagittarius that was 30 times as powerful as the average background radiation of space. The signal was so striking that astronomer Jerry Ehman circled it in red ink on a printout and wrote "Wow!" in the margins, giving the signal its name.

To date, this is the strongest candidate for an intentional alien communication that we've received on Earth. For one, the signal's frequency was beamed at around 1,420 MHz. Hydrogen, the most common element in the universe, also emits radiation at 1,420 MHz, making it an easily recognizable signal to any sufficiently advanced civilization. What's more, when we studied alternative sources of the signal (i.e., an Earth-made signal reflected off of space debris, a signal emitted by distant comets), no theoretical sources matched the nature of the signal particularly well.

So, in 2012, 35 years after the first signal was detected, humanity sent a response. Ten thousand Twitter messages, including one from Stephen Colbert, were beamed back at the signal's source.

Since alien life isn't likely to be able to read Earth languages and may not even possess eyes to view the many videos and pictures included in the response, each message contained a repeating-sequence header to mark it as an intentional communication from intelligent life. The nearest sources of the Wow! signal were between 338 and 1,000 light years from Earth, however, so when the messages are finally received, both the hypothetical source civilization and humanity will be very different.

5. The New Arecibo Message

Flickr user NASA Blueshift

An aerial view of the Arecibo Observatory, which some may recognize from the 1997 film GoldenEye.

We've come along way since 1974, so it makes sense to send out more messages as we progress technologically and culturally. Currently, the Arecibo Observatory has challenged students to develop a new Arecibo Message. The observatory is asking teams of 10 students to create a message for alien civilizations, including the target stars and the energy of the signal. The Arecibo Observatory has also asked teams to in some way address the ongoing concerns over the risk of exposing humanity to unknown alien civilizations and communicate our peaceful intentions. After selecting the winners in September 2019, the new Arecibo Message will be beamed out to the broader universe in celebration of the 45th anniversary of the original message.

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Want to forge stronger social bonds? Bring beer.

New research shows that a healthy supply of locally-sourced beer helped maintain Wari civilization for 500 years.

Culture & Religion
  • A new analysis of an ancient Wari brewery suggests chicha helped maintain the civilization's social capital for hundreds of years.
  • Civilizations throughout the ancient world used alcoholic drinks to signify kinship, hospitality, and social cohesion.
  • The researchers hope their findings will remind us of the importance in reaffirming social institutions and sharing cultural practices — even if over coffee or tea.

Beer is history's happiest accident. Though the discovery probably happened much earlier, our earliest evidence for beer dates back roughly 13,000 years ago. Around this time, the people of the Fertile Crescent had begun to gather grains as a food source and learned that if they moistened them, they could release their sweetness to create a gruel much tastier than the grains themselves.

One day a curious — or perhaps tightfisted — hunter-gatherer hid his gruel away for a safekeeping. When he returned, he found the bowl giving off a tangy odor. Not one to waste a meal, he ate it anyway and enjoyed an unexpected, though not unpleasant, sensation of ease. By pure happenstance, this ancestor stumbled upon brewing.

That's one possible origin story, but we know that our ancestors learned to control the process, and beer took a central role in Fertile Crescent civilizations — so central that Professor Patrick McGovern, a biomolecular archaeologist at the University of Pennsylvania, argues that beer, not bread, incentivized hunter-gatherers to relinquish their nomadic ways.

Beer may also be proof of a God who wants us to be happy (Dionysus?), because the beverage* would be independently rediscovered by peoples across the ancient world, including those in China and South America.

One such peoples, the pre-Inca Wari Civilization, made beer, specifically chicha de molle, a critical component in their religious and cultural ceremonies. In fact, a study published in Sustainability in April argues that the role was so important that beer helped keep Wari civilization intact for 500 years.

Brewing social capital

Twenty years ago, a team of archaeologists with the Field Museum of Natural History, Chicago, discovered a brewery in Cerro Baúl, a mesa in southern Peru that served as an ancient Wari outpost. The brewery contained original equipment, clay storage vessels, and compartments for milling, boiling, and fermentation.

The team recently analyzed these on-site vessels to uncover the secrets of the Wari brewing process. Removing tiny amounts of material found in the spaces between the clay, they were able to reconstruct the molecules of the thousand-year-old drink. They then worked alongside Peruvian brewers to recreate the original brewing process.**

Their molecular analysis revealed several key features of the beer: The clay used to make the vessels came from a nearby site; many of the beer's ingredients, such as molle berries, are drought resistant; and though alcoholic, the beer only kept for about a week.

These details suggest that Cerro Baúl maintained a steady supply of chicha, limited by neither trade nor fair weather, and became a central hub for anyone wishing to partake. The Wari would likely make such trips during times of festivals and religious ceremonies. Social elites would consume chicha in vessels shaped like Wari gods and leaders as part of rituals attesting to social norms and a shared cultural mythology and heritage.

"People would have come into this site, in these festive moments, in order to recreate and reaffirm their affiliation with these Wari lords and maybe bring tribute and pledge loyalty to the Wari state," Ryan Williams, lead author and head of anthropology at the Field Museum, said in a release. "We think these institutions of brewing and then serving the beer really formed a unity among these populations. It kept people together."

The Wari civilization was spread over a vast area of rain forests and highlands. In a time when news traveled at the speed of a llama, such distinct and distant geography could easily have fractured the Wari civilization into competing locales.

Instead, the researchers argue, these festive gatherings (aided by the promise of beer) strengthened social capital enough to maintain a healthy national unity. This helped the Wari civilization last from 600 to 1100 CE, an impressive run for a historic civilization.

Bringing people together (since 10,000 BCE)

A Mesopotamian cylinder seal shows people drinking beer through long reed straws. Image source: Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Of course, the Wari weren't the first civilization to use beer to reaffirm bonds and maintain their social fabric. Returning to the Fertile Crescent, Sumerians regarded beer as a hallmark of their civilization.

The Sumerian Epic of Gilgamesh tells of the adventures of the titular hero and his friend Enkidu. Enkidu beings as a savage living in the wilderness, but a young woman introduces him to the ways of civilization. That orientation begins with food and beer:

"They placed food in front of him,
They placed beer in front of him,
Enkidu knew nothing about eating bread for food,
And of drinking beer he had not been taught.
The young woman spoke Enkidu, saying:
"Eat the food, Enkidu, it is the way one lives.
Drink the beer, as is the custom of the land."
Enkidu ate the food until he was sated,
He drank the beer — seven jugs! — and became expansive
and sang with joy.
He was elated and his face glowed.
He splashed his shaggy body with water
and rubbed himself with oil, and turned into a human
."

Tom Standage, who recounts this scene in his History of the World in 6 Glasses, writes: "The Mesopotamians regarded the consumption of bread and beer as one of the things that distinguished them from savages and made them fully human." Such civilized staples not only demarcated their orderly life from that of hunter-gatherers, they also served a key role in their culture's unifying mythology.

Furthermore, Standage notes, Sumerian iconography often shows two people sipping from waist-high jars through reed straws. The earliest beers were consumed in a similar fashion because technological limitations prevented baking individual cups or filtering the beverage. But the Sumerians had the pottery skills to make such cups and filter the dregs. That they kept the tradition suggests that they valued the camaraderie brought by the experience, a sign of communal hospitality and kinship.

The ancient Greek's similarly used alcohol as a means of maintaining social and political relationships — though their drink of choice was wine.

During symposiums, upper-class Greek men would gather for a night of drinking, entertainment, and social bonding. In Alcohol: A history, Rod Phillips notes that symposiums were serious affairs where art, politics, and philosophy were discussed throughout the night and could serve as rites of passage for young men. (Though, music, drinking games, and sex with prostitutes may also be found on the itinerary.)

Of course, we can amass social capital without resorting to alcohol, which has been known to damage social relationships as much as improve them.

In the 17th century, London's coffeehouses stimulated the minds of thinkers with their caffeine-laden drinks, but also served as social hubs. Unlike the examples we've explored already, these coffeehouses brought together people of different backgrounds and expertise, unifying them in their pursuit of ideas and truths. Thus, coffeehouses can be seen as the nurseries of the Enlightenment.

Relearning ancient lessons

The Field Museum archaeologists hope their research can help remind us the importance social institutions and cultural practices have in creating our common bonds, whether such institutions are BYOB or not.

"This research is important because it helps us understand how institutions create the binds that tie together people from very diverse constituencies and very different backgrounds," Williams said. "Without them, large political entities begin to fragment and break up into much smaller things. Brexit is an example of this fragmentation in the European Union today. We need to understand the social constructs that underpin these unifying features if we want to be able to maintain political unity in society."

So, grab a beer or coffee or tea, spend some time together, and raise a glass. Just try not focus too much on whether your friend ordered Budweiser's swill or an overpriced, virtue-signaling microbrew IPA.

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