July 2, 2022

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Scientists to broadcast Earth’s location to aliens, ignoring Stephen Hawking’s warning

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Scientists have designed a radio message to be beamed into deep space that is meant to be received and, they hope, understood by an intelligent alien civilization.

The message is essentially an updated version of the famous Arecibo message, transmitted in 1974, which had the same purpose. Broadcast from the Arecibo Radio Telescope in Puerto Rico, the message consisted of 1,679 bits arranged into 73 lines of 23 characters.

The message was transmitted in binary code—ones and zeroes. Once decoded, the message forms a visual graphic consisting of a stick figure of a human as well as representations of our solar system, DNA, and the Arecibo telescope.

Now, scientists have designed a new message to improve upon the Arecibo transmission. Called the Beacon in the Galaxy (BITG) message, it contains more information about basic mathematics and science than the Arecibo message did. It is hoped that these concepts will be universally understood by life forms of at least similar intelligence to humans.

Radio telescopes seen at the Mullard Radio Astronomy Observatory in Cambridge, England, in July, 2006. Listening for radio waves is one way humans have been searching for aliens.
Damian Gillie/Construction Photography/Avalon/Getty

Matthew Chong, a physics and maths student at Cambridge University and co-author of a draft report outlining the project, told Newsweek: “Extended from the 1974 Arecibo message and the 1999/2003 Cosmic Call, the main part of this BITG Message contains a new set of graphical information in the form of images and special ‘alphabets’ to represent numbers, elements, DNA, land, ocean, and human, etc., starting by an artificial header and footer that consists of prime numbers.”

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Jonathan Jiang, project lead and scientist at NASA‘s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), said that the BITG message also depicts a group of cosmic landmarks “to indicate the location of Earth within the Milky Way galaxy.”.

The question of whether or not we are alone in the universe has tantalized scientists for decades, but efforts to find intelligent—or even microbial—life anywhere else but Earth have been unsuccessful. Some scientists think that’s a good thing.

Stephen Hawking’s Concerns About Aliens

The late physics professor Stephen Hawking expressed concern multiple times about humans calling out into the vastness of space and contacting aliens.

In 2015, Hawking appeared at an event announcing the launch of the Breakthrough Listen project, which studies radio waves in an effort to find out if any of them are artificial in origin.

Hawking showed support for efforts to find alien life by listening, but warned against actively reaching out ourselves, using humanity’s own behavior as a sign that aliens won’t necessarily be friendly.

“If you look at history, contact between humans and less intelligent organisms have often been disastrous from their point of view, and encounters between civilizations with advanced versus primitive technologies have gone badly for the less advanced,” he said.

Hawking went on to say that aliens could be vastly more powerful than us and “may not see us as any more valuable than we see bacteria.”

Later, in the 2016 online documentary series Stephen Hawking’s Favourite Places, the physicist revisited the topic in reference to the exoplanet Gliese 832 c, which is considered to be a potentially habitable world.

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“One day we might receive a signal from a planet like Gliese 832 c, but we should be wary of answering back,” he said.

Late physicist Stephen Hawking is pictured at an event in London, U.K., in January, 2007. Hawking expressed concern about coming into contact with aliens.
Bruno Vincent/Getty

Jamilah Hah is also involved in the BITG project. She thinks that the benefits of contacting aliens outweigh the potential risks.

“Stephen Hawking’s quote is absolutely inspiring and my personal conclusion was that any species capable of understanding and interpreting our message will likely be equally if not more intelligent and wary of our existence,” she told Newsweek.

“Thus, as long as contact is approached with a clear sign of peace, it can be assumed that the hopeful possibilities and discoveries that come alongside communication outweigh the risk.”

The draft report outlining the proposed BITG message was published on the arXiv pre-print archive this year. The message hasn’t been broadcast yet, but the scientists propose a potential future transmission from the Five-hundred-meter Aperture Spherical Radio Telescope in China and the SETI Institute’s Allen Telescope Array in northern California.

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