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After we came down from the trees, we evolved an upright posture; our hands were free; we possessed excellent binocular vision—we had acquired many of the preconditions for making tools. There was now a real advantage in possessing a large brain and in communicating complex thoughts. Other things being equal, it is better to be smart than to be stupid. Intelligent beings can solve problems better, live longer and leave more offspring; until the invention of nuclear weapons, intelligence powerfully aided survival. In our history it was some horde of furry little mammals who hid from the dinosaurs, colonized the treetops and later scampered down to domesticate fire, invent writing, construct observatories and launch space vehicles. If things had been a little different, it might have been some other creature whose intelligence and manipulative ability would have led to comparable accomplishments. Perhaps the smart bipedal dinosaurs, or the raccoons, or the otters, or the squid. It would be nice to know how different other intelligences can be; so we study the whales and the great apes. To learn a little about what other kinds of civilizations are possible, we can study history and cultural anthropology. But we are all of us—us whales, us apes, us people—too closely related. As long as our inquiries are limited to one or two evolutionary lines on a single planet, we will remain forever ignorant of the possible range and brilliance of other intelligences and other civilizations.
On another planet, with a different sequence of random processes to make hereditary diversity and a different environment to select particular combinations of genes, the chances of finding beings who are physically very similar to us is, I believe, near zero. The chances of finding another form of intelligence is not. Their brains may well have evolved from the inside out. They may have switching elements analogous to our neurons. But the neurons may be very different; perhaps superconductors that work at very low temperatures rather than organic devices that work at room temperature, in which case their speed of thought will be 107 times faster than ours. Or perhaps the equivalent of neurons elsewhere would not be in direct physical contact but in radio communication so that a single intelligent being could be distributed among many different organisms, or even many different planets, each with a part of the intelligence of the whole, each contributing by radio to an intelligence much greater than itself.* There may be planets where the intelligent beings have about 1014 neural connections, as we do. But there may be places where the number is 1024 or 1034. I wonder what they would know. Because we inhabit the same universe as they, we and they must share some substantial information in common. If we could make contact, there is much in their brains that would be of great interest to ours. But the opposite is also true. I think extraterrestrial intelligence—even beings substantially further evolved than we—will be interested in us, in what we know, how we think, what our brains are like, the course of our evolution, the prospects for our future.
If there are intelligent beings on the planets of fairly nearby stars, could they know about us? Might they somehow have an inkling of the long evolutionary progression from genes to brains to libraries that has occurred on the obscure planet Earth? If the extraterrestrials stay at home, there are at least two ways in which they might find out about us. One way would be to listen with large radio telescopes. For billions of years they would have heard only weak and intermittent radio static caused by lightning and the trapped electrons and protons whistling within the Earth’s magnetic field. Then, less than a century ago, the radio waves leaving the Earth would become stronger, louder, less like noise and more like signals. The inhabitants of Earth had finally stumbled upon radio communication. Today there is a vast international radio, television and radar communications traffic. At some radio frequencies the Earth has become by far the brightest object, the most powerful radio source, in the solar system—brighter than Jupiter, brighter than the Sun. An extraterrestrial civilization monitoring the radio emission from Earth and receiving such signals could not fail to conclude that something interesting had been happening here lately.
As the Earth rotates, our more powerful radio transmitters slowly sweep the sky. A radio astronomer on a planet of another star would be able to calculate the length of the day on Earth from the times of appearance and disappearance of our signals. Some of our most powerful sources are radar transmitters; a few are used for radar astronomy, to probe with radio fingers the surfaces of the nearby planets. The size of the radar beam projected against the sky is much larger than the size of the planets, and much of the signal wafts on, out of the solar system into the depths of interstellar space to any sensitive receivers that may be listening. Most radar transmissions are for military purposes; they scan the skies in constant fear of a massive launch of missiles with nuclear warheads, an augury fifteen minutes early of the end of human civilization. The information content of these pulses is negligible: a succession of simple numerical patterns coded into beeps.
Overall, the most pervasive and noticeable source of radio transmissions from the Earth is our television programming. Because the Earth is turning, some television stations will appear at one horizon of the Earth while others disappear over the other. There will be a confused jumble of programs. Even these might be sorted out and pieced together by an advanced civilization on a planet of a nearby star. The most frequently repeated messages will be station call signals and appeals to purchase detergents, deodorants, headache tablets, and automobile and petroleum products. The most noticeable messages will be those broadcast simultaneously by many transmitters in many time zones—for example, speeches in times of international crisis by the President of the United States or the Premier of the Soviet Union. The mindless contents of commercial television and the integuments of international crisis and internecine warfare within the human family are the principal messages about life on Earth that we choose to broadcast to the Cosmos. What must they think of us?
There is no calling those television programs back. There is no way of sending a faster message to overtake them and revise the previous transmission. Nothing can travel faster than light. Large-scale television transmission on the planet Earth began only in the late 1940’s. Thus, there is a spherical wave front centered on the Earth expanding at the speed of light and containing Howdy Doody, the “Checkers” speech of then Vice-President Richard M. Nixon and the televised inquisitions by Senator Joseph McCarthy. Because these transmissions were broadcast a few decades ago, they are only a few tens of light-years away from Earth. If the nearest civilization is farther away than that, then we can continue to breathe easy for a while. In any case, we can hope that they will find these programs incomprehensible.
The two Voyager spacecraft are bound for the stars. Affixed to each is a gold-plated copper phonograph record with a cartridge and stylus and, on the aluminum record jacket, instructions for use. We sent something about our genes, something about our brains, and something about our libraries to other beings who might sail the sea of interstellar space. But we did not want to send primarily scientific information. Any civilization able to intercept Voyager in the depths of interstellar space, its transmitters long dead, would know far more science than we do. Instead we wanted to tell those other beings something about what seems unique about ourselves. The interests of the cerebral cortex and limbic system are well represented; the R-complex less so. Although the recipients may not know any languages of the Earth, we included greetings in sixty human tongues, as well as the hellos of the humpback whales. We sent photographs of humans from all over the world caring for one another, learning, fabricating tools and art and responding to challenges. There is an hour and a half of exquisite music from many cultures, some of it expressing our sense of cosmic loneliness, our wish to end our isolation, our longing to make contact with other beings in the Cosmos. And we have sent recordings of the sounds that would have been heard on our planet from the earliest days before the origin of life to the evolution of the human species and our most recent burgeoning technology. It is, as much as the sounds of any baleen whale, a love so
ng cast upon the vastness of the deep. Many, perhaps most, of our messages will be indecipherable. But we have sent them because it is important to try.
In this spirit we included on the Voyager spacecraft the thoughts and feelings of one person, the electrical activity of her brain, heart, eyes and muscles, which were recorded for an hour, transcribed into sound, compressed in time and incorporated into the record. In one sense we have launched into the Cosmos a direct transcription of the thoughts and feelings of a single human being in the month of June in the year 1977 on the planet Earth. Perhaps the recipients will make nothing of it, or think it is a recording of a pulsar, which in some superficial sense it resembles. Or perhaps a civilization unimaginably more advanced than ours will be able to decipher such recorded thoughts and feelings and appreciate our efforts to share ourselves with them.
The information in our genes is very old—most of it more than millions of years old, some of it billions of years old. In contrast, the information in our books is at most thousands of years old, and that in our brains is only decades old. The long-lived information is not the characteristically human information. Because of erosion on the Earth, our monuments and artifacts will not, in the natural course of things, survive to the distant future. But the Voyager record is on its way out of the solar system. The erosion in interstellar space—chiefly cosmic rays and impacting dust grains—is so slow that the information on the record will last a billion years. Genes and brains and books encode information differently and persist through time at different rates. But the persistence of the memory of the human species will be far longer in the impressed metal grooves on the Voyager interstellar record.
The Voyager message is traveling with agonizing slowness. The fastest object ever launched by the human species, it will still take tens of thousands of years to go the distance to the nearest star. Any television program will traverse in hours the distance that Voyager has covered in years. A television transmission that has just finished being aired will, in only a few hours, overtake the Voyager spacecraft in the region of Saturn and beyond and speed outward to the stars. If it is headed that way, the signal will reach Alpha Centauri in a little more than four years. If, some decades or centuries hence, anyone out there in space hears our television broadcasts, I hope they will think well of us, a product of fifteen billion years of cosmic evolution, the local transmogrification of matter into consciousness. Our intelligence has recently provided us with awesome powers. It is not yet clear that we have the wisdom to avoid our own self-destruction. But many of us are trying very hard. We hope that very soon in the perspective of cosmic time we will have unified our planet peacefully into an organization cherishing the life of every living creature on it and will be ready to take that next great step, to become part of a galactic society of communicating civilizations.
*Thus all of the books in the world contain no more information than is broadcast as video in a single large American city in a single year. Not all bits have equal value.
†Some sequoia trees are both larger and more massive than any whale.
*There is a curious counterpoint to this story. The preferred radio channel for interstellar communication with other technical civilizations is near a frequency of 1.42 billion Hertz, marked by a radio spectral line of hydrogen, the most abundant atom in the Universe. We are just beginning to listen here for signals of intelligent origin. But the frequency band is being increasingly encroached upon by civilian and military communications traffic on Earth, and not only by the major powers. We are jamming the interstellar channel. Uncontrolled growth of terrestrial radio technology may prevent us from ready communication with intelligent beings on distant worlds. Their songs may go unanswered because we have not the will to control our radio-frequency pollution and listen.
*The arithmetic based on the number 5 or 10 seems so obvious that the ancient Greek equivalent of “to count” literally means “to five.”
*A recent analysis suggests that 96 percent of all the species in the oceans may have died at this time. With such an enormous extinction rate, the organisms of today can have evolved from only a small and unrepresentative sampling of the organisms that lived in late Mesozoic times.
*In some sense such a radio integration of separate individuals is already beginning to happen on the planet Earth.
“What are you? From where did you come? I have never seen anything like you.” The Creator Raven looked at Man and was … surprised to find that this strange new being was so much like himself.
—An Eskimo creation myth
The author of Nature … has made it impossible for us to have any communication from this earth with the other great bodies of the universe, in our present state; and it is highly possible that he has likewise cut off all communication betwixt the other planets, and betwixt the different systems.… We observe, in all of them, enough to raise our curiosity, but not to satisfy it … It does not appear to be suitable to the wisdom that shines throughout all nature, to suppose that we should see so far, and have our curiosity so much raised … only to be disappointed at the end … This, therefore, naturally leads us to consider our present state as only the dawn or beginning of our existence, and as a state of preparation or probation for farther advancement.…
—Colin Maclaurin, 1748
We have launched four ships to the stars, Pioneers 10 and 11 and Voyagers 1 and 2. They are backward and primitive craft, moving, compared to the immense interstellar distances, with the slowness of a race in a dream. But in the future we will do better. Our ships will travel faster. There will be designated interstellar objectives, and sooner or later our spacecraft will have human crews. In the Milky Way Galaxy there must be many planets millions of years older than Earth, and some that are billions of years older. Should we not have been visited? In all the billions of years since the origin of our planet, has there not been even once a strange craft from a distant civilization surveying our world from above, and slowly settling down to the surface to be observed by iridescent dragonflies, incurious reptiles, screeching primates or wondering humans? The idea is natural enough. It has occurred to everyone who has contemplated, even casually, the question of intelligent life in the universe. But has it happened in fact? The critical issue is the quality of the purported evidence, rigorously and skeptically scrutinized—not what sounds plausible, not the unsubstantiated testimony of one or two self-professed eyewitnesses. By this standard there are no compelling cases of extraterrestrial visitation, despite all the claims about UFOs and ancient astronauts which sometimes make it seem that our planet is awash in uninvited guests. I wish it were otherwise. There is something irresistible about the discovery of even a token, perhaps a complex inscription, but, best by far, a key to the understanding of an alien and exotic civilization. It is an appeal we humans have felt before.
In 1801 a physicist named Joseph Fourier* was the prefect of a departement of France called Isère. While inspecting the schools in his province, Fourier discovered an eleven-year-old boy whose remarkable intellect and flair for oriental languages had already earned him the admiring attention of scholars. Fourier invited him home for a chat. The boy was fascinated by Fourier’s collection of Egyptian artifacts, collected during the Napoleonic expedition where he had been responsible for cataloging the astronomical monuments of that ancient civilization. The hieroglyphic inscriptions roused the boy’s sense of wonder. “But what do they mean?” he asked. “Nobody knows,” was the reply. The boy’s name was Jean François Champollion. Fired by the mystery of the language no one could read, he became a superb linguist and passionately immersed himself in ancient Egyptian writing. France at that time was flooded with Egyptian artifacts, stolen by Napoleon and later made available to Western scholars. The description of the expedition was published, and devoured by the young Champollion. As an adult, Champollion succeeded; fulfilling his childhood ambition, he provided a brilliant decipherment of
the ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics. But it was not until 1828, twenty-seven years after his meeting with Fourier, that Champollion first set foot in Egypt, the land of his dreams, and sailed upstream from Cairo, following the course of the Nile, paying homage to the culture he had worked so hard to understand. It was an expedition in time, a visit to an alien civilization:
The evening of the 16th we finally arrived at Dendera. There was magnificent moonlight and we were only an hour away from the Temples: Could we resist the temptation? I ask the coldest of you mortals! To dine and leave immediately were the orders of the moment: alone and without guides, but armed to the teeth we crossed the fields … the Temple appeared to us at last … One could well measure it but to give an idea of it would be impossible. It is the union of grace and majesty in the highest degree. We stayed there two hours in ecstasy, running through the huge rooms … and trying to read the exterior inscriptions in the moonlight. We did not return to the boat until three in the morning, only to return to the Temple at seven … What had been magnificent in the moonlight was still so when the sunlight revealed to us all the details … We in Europe are only dwarfs and no nation, ancient or modern, has conceived the art of architecture on such a sublime, great, and imposing style, as the ancient Egyptians. They ordered everything to be done for people who are a hundred feet high.