In January of 1990, a friend and I designed the ultimate message to an alien civilization.
Okay, admittedly, this wan’t a recognized scientific accomplishment. After all, in January of 1990, I was a freshman at Williams. The alien message we designed was part of a first-year Winter Study seminar class. Winter Study, for those not part of the Cult of the Purple Cow is the one-month January term sandwiched between the Fall and Spring semesters, and at the time, first-year students were required to take one of a handful of interdisciplinary seminar courses intended to introduce students to a range of different disciplines.
Mine was called something like “Pictured From Outside” and involved faculty from English, Art History, and Astronomy (the last of these being the reason I picked this one). We read Frankenstein, talking about the creature as an outsider to human society, looked at some faintly voyeuristic paintings of dancers by Degas, and talked about SETI (the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence, in case you’ve somehow managed to avoid that acronym).
I don’t really remember what the assignments for the art and literature portion of the course were, but the astronomy section featured a group assignment to design a message to be sent to an alien civilization. Students were put in pairs, asked to choose a message and write a paper explaining it, and then asked to swap “messages” with another group, and write a report on their choice. The definition of “message” was deliberately left vague, but specifically included both information transmitted digitally and artifacts delivered by unspecified magic technology.
My partner for this was a good friend from my “entry” (the term for the first-year residential groups at Williams), Dave Kensinger. We used to hang out a lot, and had bonded over similar tastes in pop culture and sports, shared dissatisfaction with a Political Science course in the Fall semester, and a general attitude toward the whole college thing. Which is not to say we were total slackers– I have a pretty healthy self-regard, but Dave was one of only a handful of people I met that year who made me wonder if I was out of my league academically.
Anyway, we paired up for this assignment, and quickly decided that most of the obvious options were kind of impractical. If you look at abstract messages like the famous Arecibo message, there’s a nice story about what it means, but given the raw message with no explanation, you’d be hard pressed to come up with any of that. We agreed that we could sort of babble about prime numbers and that sort of thing, but didn’t have a great deal of confidence in our ability to come up with anything that would actually be decipherable, particularly to aliens who didn’t already start with some basic knowledge of humanity.
And most of the less technical ideas were also kind of ridiculous. Sending great works of art is a hopeless muddle, requiring the recipient to somehow deduce the encoding format, and then interpret the result. It’s not clear to me that an alien species getting a radio message containing a Beethoven symphony would be able to distinguish it from a Picasso painting. And any kind of literary work runs into hopeless issues of translation.
So, we decided the whole assignment was a little ridiculous, and decided to choose something that would both be a legitimate message (we did, after all, need to pass the course) and highlight the inherent problems with this as a class assignment. We agreed that it needed to be an artifact, and eventually settled on what you see up in the “featured image” and just below: a Swiss army knife:
We found two guys in the dorm who had pocket knives they were willing to let us borrow, and spent an hour or so in the library drawing up a list of things you could learn about humans if you somehow received a Swiss army knife and no other information. This included:
- A rough sense of scale, in that the knife is made to fit a human hand, and the tweezers suggest we need help manipulating things at millimeter scale.
- A rough sense of our level of technology, from the types and quality of metal and plastic used.
- A rough sense of innate capabilities– i.e., that we don’t have razor-sharp claws, because we need to carry pocket knives.
- An idea of the range of our visual perception, from the deliberate coloring of the red plastic, and the contrasting logo.
- There are usually small bits of text cut into the metal, giving a very rough sense of our writing.
- A vague sense of the cultural value of versatility, and that kind of thing.
Knowing a bit more about physics now, I’d probably add stuff like getting a sense of the planetary environment from isotopic ratios in the materials, and that kind of thing. With a more modern model including a USB drive, you could also infer some things about our semiconductor technology and computing capability, though at the time the state of the digital storage art was the 3.5″ floppy disk, so that wasn’t an option for us. We had a great time putting it together, and writing the whole thing up in a way that walked right up to the line without openly mocking the premise.
Our counterparts during the swap-and-critique part of the assignment were a couple of women who we already knew had kind of superior attitudes– more on the basis of socioeconomic class than academic prowess– so as far as we were concerned the whole thing was totally worth it when we handed them a pocket knife and said “Here, have at it…” (Their proposal was along the lines of “Send a digital copy of a set of encyclopedias” which we had a good time poking holes in.) We were even more pleased by the professor’s comments on the paper, which started off “At first, I thought you were just being flippant, but as I read through this, I realized you raised some really good points…”
(I’ll admit that there was no small amount of relief when I read that– it took Dave a while to talk me into the knife stunt, because I was uneasy about possibly offending the professor…)
I was reminded of this incident when reading my review copy of Five Billion Years of Solitude by Lee Billings (excerpt here), which has a bit about the Arecibo message that mentions the obscurity of its contents. None of the scientists shown the message at the time of its sending, according to Billings, was able to correctly interpret everything in it, and that’s starting from the huge advantage of being the same species as the original author.
So, it seems that while our original goal was largely to be flippant, Dave and I really did have a bit of a point. There’s a level of ambiguity to any radio message, due to problems with encoding it in a way that would be compact enough to send. A physical artifact can convey a huge amount of information, even when it’s not expressly designed for that purpose.
Of course, there’s the little problem of getting it there…
(Swiss army knife photo from here.)