Are we alone in the universe? The possibility that we aren’t has preoccupied us as a species for much of recent history, and one way or another we need to know. The problem is, there is a lot of space, and only so fast you can move around in it, so popping over to our nearest neighbouring star for a quick look around is off the table. We simply don’t know how to communicate or travel faster than light. Nor have we picked up any signals which are identifiable as any sort of message from little green men.
Therefore, perhaps our best chance of making contact with an alien species is to announce ourselves to the universe. If we send out messages to promising-seeming parts of space in the hope that someone will be there to receive them, we might just get a response.
But supposing our signals reach alien ears (or freaky antenna things or whatever), what hope do we have of them being understood? Sure, we might make signals which are recognised as deliberate (and not mistaken for more literal ‘messages from the stars’), but how will they get anything across to aliens whose language is entirely unknown to us?
Scientists in the ‘70s were asking themselves these very questions, and the most promising approach they came up with to get around this problem was one which used maths. In fact, it used an ingenious trick dating back all the way to the Ancient Greeks. The fruit of their labour, broadcast in 1974, was called the Arecibo message.
So, what is it? First off, the Arecibo designers gave up on the hope of sending a written message the aliens could read. Better to stick with pictures – you have to assume aliens will be pretty low down on the reading tree. But this still leaves a conundrum.
When you’re sending a message to space, you have to send a binary signal – a series of ‘1’s and ‘0’s (aka bits) which you hope will start to mean something when it’s processed on the other end. This is precisely how sending pictures over the internet or between computers works too – your message is turned into bits, beamed to the other computer, and then turned back.
And herein lies the problem; the aliens receiving the binary signal won’t have any idea what they’re supposed to do with the bits or how to piece the message back together to make a picture again. You’ve posted them a Lego set but no instructions, and even though they’ve got the bricks there’s no way they’ll figure out whether it was supposed to be built into a race car or a yellow castle. After all, they might not even know what those are!
The way around this is to make the process for turning the message into a picture as simple as possible, so the aliens will be able to guess it. And the way you turn the bits into a picture really is very simple – just write them out in a 23×73 grid, and colour in any square with a ‘1’ in it. Below is what you get (with added colour-coding – see below for what the different parts mean).
White, top: The numbers 1 to 10, written in binary
Purple, top: The atomic numbers for the elements in DNA
Green: The nucleotides of our DNA
Blue/white, mid: A representation of the double helix of DNA. The middle column also says how may nucleotides are in it.
Red: A representation of a human with the world’s pointiest head, with the average height of a man to the left, and the population to the right.
Yellow: A representation of the solar system and the sizes of the planets, with Earth highlighted
Purple, bottom: A curved parabolic mirror like the one used to send the message, with two purple beams of light being reflected onto the mirror’s focus, and the telescope’s diameter shown in blue at the bottom.
Image credit: Arne Nordmann
But how, you might ask, are the aliens supposed to figure out the 23×73 dimensions of the grid? Here is where Ancient Greek maths comes to save us.
The Arecibo message is 1679 bits long. That sounds random, but it is anything but – 1679 is actually the product of two numbers, 23 and 73. Sound familiar? That’s the dimensions of the picture! It’s precisely the fact that 1679 equals 23 times 73 that lets you write out the 1679 bits in a 23×73 grid.
You might be wondering why we used such weird numbers for the sizing. Couldn’t we have chosen nicer, rounder numbers for the picture, like 50×100 say? No. If we did that, the aliens might make a mistake like writing out the bits in a 5×1000 grid or a 500×10 grid, and this would still work numbers-wise because 50×100 = 5×1000 = 500×10.
The key here is that unlike 50 and 100, 23 and 73 are prime numbers. Primes are numbers which can only be divided by one and themselves, like 3 and 5. And most importantly, any number can be split up into primes in a unique way – for instance, 15 is 3×5, and there is no other way to get 15 by multiplying together prime numbers. Likewise, there is no other way to get 1679 than as 23 times 73. So, it is impossible for the aliens to make a mistake when they have to draw out the grid. The Lego set you posted may have no instructions, but you were careful to include parts which can only go together the right way.
An Ancient Greek called Euclid knew this key fact, that numbers split uniquely into primes, over two thousand years ago. The Arecibo designers are banking on the aliens being at least as good with numbers as he was, to be able to decipher the message. Given these are aliens who are capable of picking up a radio signal from space, it seems like a pretty safe bet that they can manage better than an ancient society which believed women have fewer teeth than men because a . It’s a gamble, and it relies on assumptions that the maths we’re interested in is what all species will be interested in – but then what part of blindly shooting intergalactic friend requests into space in the hope someone we’d want to know finds them wasn’t going to be a gamble?