On November 16, 1974, the Arecibo radio telescope in Puerto Rico sent out a message to the stars (specifically those in M13, a cluster 25000ly away). This message, in binary, was the first emission from Earth with the intent of someone else receiving it. And here it is:
Isn’t that sexy? For those of you who can’t read binary and/or have no idea how to break this code (probably most everyone on this planet), the message is decoded into groups of 23 characters, leaving 73 groups. The authors explain that because these numbers are prime, this would clearly be the right way to interpret this. Personally, I would never get there. I wouldn’t think there to be any significance in the number of characters per line, or what have you. Once you know how many characters should go into each line, this looks a little bit more like something that could be interpreted:
This personally reminds me of Christmas sweaters, nonograms, or the early Atari games, but there is meaning to it. The first line indicates the numbers 1 through 10 in binary. Apparently the numbers 8, 9, and 10 are too large, so they are written differently? I’m not sure I really understand that even with a decent explanation from the authors, which makes me believe that anyone trying to decipher this would have an even more difficult time (I suppose they could just be remarkably more clever than I).
After these numbers, there is a “description of fundamental terrestrial biochemistry.” Although I can pretend to see the 1-10 numbers, I have no idea where they biochemistry stuff is (apparently lines 12-30). First comes the numbers 1, 6, 7, 8, and 15, indicated the elements H, C, N, O, and P. These elements are required for life as we know it (although some might argue the importance of other elements). After these numbers are chemical formulae of molecules or radicals (the paper doesn’t say which ones). Included in here are the structures of the molecules that make up DNA, in the structure of a double helix, and the number 4 billion to indicate the number of molecular pairs (adenine-thymine or guanine-cytosine) in DNA in a single chromosome.
Below all this is a representation of a human! We are bipedal with arms and a head. This comes with the number 14, indicated that the human is about 14 units tall. The units are (apparently obviously) the wavelength of the original transmission.
Below the human is a schematic of the solar system; the big blob is the Sun, then all nine [at the time] planets. The length of each bar is a semi- indication of the planetary size, and the third dot from the Sun is us! It is slightly placed out of plane, in an attempt to indicate that that planet is where humans reside. I would interpret it as the planet’s inclination, but that’s okay.
Below our solar system is a drawing of Arecibo. I would never guess this, but that’s what it is. This drawing is accompanied by the size of the telescope, my guess is with the hope that any response would take into consideration our limitations and make sure that we could actually hear them.
This message was put together by numerous people, and is quite creative to say the least. That being said, I am extremely doubtful that this message could be interpreted! For starters, the only way I could make heads or tales of it was from the picture directly, and that was after the whole 27-73 thing was implemented. But what if the receivers only caught part of the transmission? It took 169 seconds to send, so it is possible that only a minute or less would be received if the receiver was not pointed at Earth for the entirety of the message. With only part of the message, there is nothing to indicate where each line starts or how long it should be. In addition to all this, it would take a lot of brain power to decipher all of it. Sure, some of it could be understood without much time, but to get all of the message would take work and prior knowledge. This all assumes that whomever receives this thinks in a way similar to how we do, and what is to say that they way we think is normal? What’s to say that clearly it is logical that the first line is just numbers, and then straight from numbers we switch to chemistry?
I do wonder, assuming that the recipient of this deciphered it, what the odds are for misinterpretation, and what the consequences of this would be. It would certainly be amusing (to read about, not to experience), if the compounds were interpreted as a cry for help, and some lovely civilization prepared them all and brought them to us in quantities large enough for our population (4 billion at the time). What if they thought that each of our chromosomes needed these compounds for each of the 4 billion people? Imagine an entire fleet of interstellar (or intergalactic) ships coming to our rescue in 50,000 years with buckets and buckets full of thymine (I don’t think you can just store that in a bucket).
I also wonder if a group of humans could decipher this. If we just gave this message in binary (we could also just send it via radio, but I’m not sure that would be picked up) to a group of intelligent, multi-disciplinary people, would they be able to pull out all of this information? This seems like an important sanity check (to me) for any METI that we do end up sending out. If we humans can’t decipher our own messages, with the culture and knowledge that went into its making, then why would anyone else out there be able to decipher it?
With all this being said, I should note that the people who sent this message did not really expect it to be received or answered, that this was just a proof of concept of the current technological capabilities. So whether or not this message is received, understood, correctly interpreted, or responded to isn’t all that important.