Illegal Radio Transmissions
or Million Years Old Society
A technical civilization one million years-old has descended on the planet Earth… Would we even recognize its presence?
More important question yet: Would a society a million years in advance of us be interested in colonization or interstellar spaceflight?
In fact, it may be people have a finite lifespan for a reason. Could it be that we are so interested in spaceflight because it is a way of perpetuating ourselves beyond our own lifetimes? Of course, progress in the biological and medical sciences might uncover that reason and lead to suitable remedies.
But might a civilization composed of essentially immortal beings consider interstellar exploration fundamentally childish? It may be that we have not been visited because the stars are strewn abundantly in the expanse of space, so that before a nearby civilization arrives, it has altered its exploratory motivations or evolved into forms indetectable to us.
It would be very easy for extraterrestrials to make and unambiguously artificial interstellar message (provided that they have the same logic we have and the same mathematics, which is reasonable enough if they try to make a contact with their neighbours). For example, they could first prime numbers – numbers divisible only by themselves and by one – are 1, 2, 3, 5, 7, 11, 19.
It is extremely unlikely that any natural physical process could transmit radio messages containing prime numbers only. If we received such a message we would deduce a civilization out there that was at least fond of prime numbers. But the most likely case is that interstellar communication will be a kind of palimpsest, like the palimpsests of ancient writers short of papyrus or stone who superimposed their messages on top of pre-existing messages.
Because we will share scientific and mathematical insights with any other civilization, understanding the interstellar message coming from a very advanced cosmic community will be the easiest part of the problem. Convincing the governments to fund a search for extraterrestrial intelligence is the hard part.
In fact, it may be that civilizations can be divided into two great categories: one in which the scientists are unable to convince non-scientists no authorize a search for extraplanetary intelligence, in which energies are directed exclusively inward, in which conventional perceptions remain unchallenged and society falters and retreats from the stars; and another category in which the grand vision of contact with other civilizations is shared widely, and a major search us undertaken.
This is one of the few human endeavors where even a failure is a success. If we were to carry out a rigorous search for extraterrestrial radio signals encompassing millions of stars and heard nothing, we would conclude that galactic civilizations were at best rare, a calibration of our place in the universe. It would speak eloquently of how rare are the living things of our planet, and would underscore, as nothing else in human history has, the individual worth of every human being. If we were to succeed, the history of our species and our planet would be change forever.
Perhaps at an adjacent frequency or a faster timing, there would be another message, which would turn out to be a primer, an introduction to the language of interstellar discourse. The primer would be repeated again and again because the transmitting civilization would have no way to know when we tuned in on the message. And then, deeper in the palimpsest, underneath the announcement signal and the primer, would be the real message. Radio technology permits that message to be inconceivably rich. Perhaps when we tuned in, we would find ourselves in the midst of Volume 6,511 of the Encyclopaedia Galactica.
Any messages transmitted from outer space are the responsibility of the BBC and the Post office. It is their responsibility to track down illegal broadcasts (pronouncement from a British Defense Department, the London Observer, February 26, 1978). Image : Megan Jorgensen