The latest edition in this wonderful series of science-fictional typography has some truly twisty turbolift tangents.
Thursday, August 20th, 2020
Monday, November 11th, 2019
I have such fondness for this film. It’s one of those films that I love to watch on a Sunday afternoon (though that’s true of so many Spielberg films—Jaws, Raiders Of The Lost Ark, E.T.). I remember seeing it in the cinema—this would’ve been the special edition re-release—and feeling the seat under me quake with the rumbling of the musical exchange during the film’s climax.
Ariel invited Rose Eveleth and Laura Welcher on to discuss the film. They spent a lot of time discussing the depiction of first contact communication—Arrival being the other landmark film on this topic.
If we send a message into space, will extraterrestrial beings receive it? Will they understand?
You can a read an article by the author on The Guardian, where he mentions some of the wilder ideas about transmitting signals to aliens:
Minsky, widely regarded as the father of AI, suggested it would be best to send a cat as our extraterrestrial delegate.
Don’t worry. Marvin Minsky wasn’t talking about sending a real live cat. Rather, we transmit instructions for building a computer and then we can transmit information as software. Software about, say, cats.
It’s not that far removed from what happened with the Voyager golden record, although that relied on analogue technology—the phonograph—and sent the message pre-compiled on hardware; a much slower transmission rate than radio.
But it’s interesting to me that Minsky specifically mentioned cats. There’s another long-term communication puzzle that has a cat connection.
The Yukka Mountain nuclear waste repository is supposed to store nuclear waste for 10,000 years. How do we warn our descendants to stay away? We can’t use language. We probably can’t even use symbols; they’re too culturally specific. A think tank called the Human Interference Task Force was convened to agree on the message to be conveyed:
This place is a message… and part of a system of messages… pay attention to it! Sending this message was important to us. We considered ourselves to be a powerful culture.
This place is not a place of honor…no highly esteemed deed is commemorated here… nothing valued is here.
What is here is dangerous and repulsive to us. This message is a warning about danger.
A series of thorn-like threatening earthworks was deemed the most feasible solution. But there was another proposal that took a two pronged approach with genetics and folklore:
- Breed cats that change colour in the presence of radioactive material.
- Teach children nursery rhymes about staying away from cats that change colour.
This is the raycat solution.
Tuesday, January 2nd, 2018
Saturday, December 2nd, 2017
I want to build websites that perform this well.
On Tuesday, Nov. 28, 2017, Voyager engineers fired up the four TCM thrusters for the first time in 37 years and tested their ability to orient the spacecraft using 10-millisecond pulses. The team waited eagerly as the test results traveled through space, taking 19 hours and 35 minutes to reach an antenna in Goldstone, California, that is part of NASA’s Deep Space Network.
Lo and behold, on Wednesday, Nov. 29, they learned the TCM thrusters worked perfectly — and just as well as the attitude control thrusters.
Monday, January 30th, 2017
A fascinating bit of technological archeology tracing some of the oldest still-running software, from a COBOL program at the Pentagon to the firmware on the Voyager probes.
Wednesday, January 4th, 2017
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.
Sunday, January 20th, 2013
From the cave paintings at Lascaux to the Pioneer plaques and Voyager golden records to Trevor Paglen’s “The Last Pictures” project, Paul Glister examines the passage and preservation of art and information through time. Fascinating.
Or perhaps, as Paglen envisions, those who find a Pioneer Plaque, a Voyager Record, or one of our electromagnetic transmissions will be interested enough to search us out, coming upon a future Earth where all that is left of humanity are our terrestrial ruins and that artificial ring of geosynchronous satellites, with one of them having a particular golden artifact bolted to its pitted hull. In that scenario, about all that would be left for the visiting ETI to do in terms of learning about us would be grand-scale dumpster diving.
Sunday, April 25th, 2010
Spam of the Gods
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 golden records; 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 Pioneers 10 and 11.
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:
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 First Contact, which the Pioneer and Voyager probes have flagrantly disregarded. What is an alien civilisation to make of a message that effectively states:
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 honeypot designed to lure in the gullible of the galaxy.
Carl Sagan, my hero, looks like nothing more than a galactic 419 scammer.