Tags: voyager




I left the office one evening a few weeks back, and while I was walking up the street, James Box cycled past, waving a hearty good evening to me. I didn’t see him at first. I was in a state of maximum distraction. For one thing, there was someone walking down the street with a magnificent Irish wolfhound. If that weren’t enough to dominate my brain, I also had headphones in my ears through which I was listening to an audio version of a TED talk by Donald Hoffman called Do we really see reality as it is?

It’s fascinating—if mind-bending—stuff. It sounds like the kind of thing that’s used to justify Deepak Chopra style adventures in la-la land, but Hoffman is deliberately taking a rigorous approach. He knows his claims are outrageous, but he welcomes all attempts to falsify his hypotheses.

I’m not noticing this just from a short TED talk. It’s been one of those strange examples of synchronicity where his work has been popping up on my radar multiple times. There’s an article in Quanta magazine that was also republished in The Atlantic. And there’s a really good interview on the You Are Not So Smart podcast that I huffduffed a while back.

But the most unexpected place that Hoffman popped up was when I was diving down a SETI (or METI) rabbit hole. There I was reading about the Cosmic Call project and Lincos when I came across this article: Why ‘Arrival’ Is Wrong About the Possibility of Talking with Space Aliens, with its subtitle “Human efforts to communicate with extraterrestrials are doomed to failure, expert says.” The expert in question pulling apart the numbers in the Drake equation turned out to be none other than Donald Hoffmann.

A few years ago, at a SETI Institute conference on interstellar communication, Hoffman appeared on the bill after a presentation by radio astronomer Frank Drake, who pioneered the search for alien civilizations in 1960. Drake showed the audience dozens of images that had been launched into space aboard NASA’s Voyager probes in the 1970s. Each picture was carefully chosen to be clearly and easily understood by other intelligent beings, he told the crowd.

After Drake spoke, Hoffman took the stage and “politely explained how every one of the images would be infinitely ambiguous to extraterrestrials,” he recalls.

I’m sure he’s quite right. But let’s face it, the Voyager golden record was never really about communicating with an alien intelligence …it was about how we present ourself.

Spam of the Gods

Stephen Hawking has been quoted recently urging caution about the prospect of first contact with an extra-terrestrial civilisation:

We only have to look at ourselves to see how intelligent life might develop into something we wouldn’t want to meet.

This isn’t the first time that such reservations have been raised.

Both of the Voyager spacecraft are carrying ; snapshots and time capsules of our planet’s culture—a project with such a long timeline that it makes the clock of the Long Now look like a disposable gadget in comparison. As well as carrying instructions on how to decode the record—ingeniously using the fundamental transition of a hydrogen atom as the base unit of time—the records also have a map inscribed upon them. This is the same illustration that was included with .

The map consists of fourteen lines converging on a central point. The length and angle of each line corresponds to the position of a pulsar relative to Earth. Those fourteen beacons point to one position in the galaxy: our home planet.

The responsibility for deciding the contents of the golden record fell to Carl Sagan. I highly recommend listening to this account by Sagan’s widow Ann Druyan of how the golden record may just contain the encoded patterns of love itself:

Carl Sagan And Ann Druyan’s Ultimate Mix Tape on Huffduffer

Many people at the time were upset that the pulsar map was included on the Voyager record, for the same reasons that Hawking is giving today: we are effectively hanging a sign around our neck that reads free food here.

I was talking about this with Tantek at South by Southwest this year and he had to admit that, with his Schneier-esque security hat on, those people have a point. What you really want to do, he said, is point to a drop-off box instead: a nearby uninhabited star-system that we can monitor from Earth. That way, if we ascertain that the alien civilisation is friendly, we can go and greet them but if they are hostile, we can simply lay low.

In fact, in Sagan’s book Contact—where the shoe is on the other foot and we are the alien civilisation responding to a message—this is exactly what happens. The origin point we are given is the Vega system, which turns out not to be the home of any alien civilisation but merely a way station: a routing point in the galactic network.

There may well be a galactic RFC for , which the Pioneer and Voyager probes have flagrantly disregarded. What is an alien civilisation to make of a message that effectively states:

Dear Friend,
Although you may be apprehensive as we have not met before, I come to you with great hope. I am a probe from an abundant planet that has recently acquired spacefaring technology. Please contact me at your earliest convenience so that we may transfer knowledge.
I await your response,
Third planet from an insignificant star

It’s clearly a designed to lure in the gullible of the galaxy.

Carl Sagan, my hero, looks like nothing more than a galactic .