No one knows if intelligent life exists. There are theories, assumptions, simulations and equations that tell us there must be something more. Yet despite their best efforts, scientists have identified no signs of intelligent life on another planet, only fragments of microbes possibly living in the acidic clouds of Earth’s toxic neighbor Venus.
It’s not for lack of trying, though. On November 16, 1974, scientists working at the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico broadcast a coded message containing information about mathematics, humanity, the solar system, DNA, and the observatory itself.
The final destination was Messier 13, the Great Hercules Cluster, a star cluster some 25,000 light-years from Earth.
The Arecibo message was a groundbreaking moment in human and scientific history. Not only was this humanity’s first-ever attempt at extraterrestrial intelligence (METI) messaging, but also the only one ever made.
The content of the message was designed by Frank Drake, then at Cornell University, who wrote it with the help of other leading scientists like Carl Sagan.
When translated, it featured graphics, characters, spaces, and 1,679 bits of data.
But did scientists really believe that an extraterrestrial species would be able to translate a man-made message and enter into a dialogue? No, they didn’t.
The whole point of the Arecibo message was to show the extraterrestrial life of our technological capabilities and achievements.
By the time the message reaches Messier 13, the star cluster’s core will have drastically shifted position.
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But because the movement of the cluster is relatively slow, the message will always arrive near the center of the cluster. Humanity, however, will be at a level unimaginable by today’s standards when that time comes.
The message consists of seven parts that encode the following images:
- The numbers one to ten in white color;
- The atomic numbers of the elements phosphorus, carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen and oxygen – which all make up DNA, colored purple;
- The formulas of the chemical compounds that make up the nucleotides – organic molecules – of DNA, colored in green;
- The estimated number of DNA nucleotides in the human genome and a graph of the DNA double helix structure colored in white and blue;
- The average physical height of a man in blue and white, a graph of a human being in red, and the human population of Earth, colored in white;
- A graph of the solar system, showing which planet the message is from in yellow;
- A graphic of the Arecibo telescope and the dimension of its parabolic antenna in purple, white and blue.
Of course, many of these things have changed since 1974, but the basic principles remain.
An answer found?
In 2001, a footprint in a cultivated field in Hampshire was discovered, near where the Chilbolton Telescope is located, representing a response to Arecibo’s message.
It was dubbed the Arecibo Response and contained nearly all of the original message, using the same 73 x 23 grid pattern, and the majority of the chemical data remained the same.
The biggest telltale that this was a hoax came in the section about the chemical elements: he had replaced carbon with silicon, and the DNA diagram was completely rewritten.
And, most importantly, the figure of a human has been replaced by a stereotypical alien creature with a bulbous head.
Much controversy and criticism has surrounded the method by which Arecibo’s message reached extraterrestrial life in the years that followed.
Some, including the late Stephen Hawking, have expressed concern that sending messages and announcing the existence of humanity puts the world in great danger and poses an existential threat to the Earth with the existence possible malevolent extraterrestrials.
But its advocates say it is crucial in helping to fully understand what it is to be human and what our place in space and time means.