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Hello! Is Anybody Out There?

A billionaire Russian investor is offering a million dollars in prize money in an international competition to determine the content of messages sent from humans to alien civilizations. While the competition is open to everybody, we as Americans—and more specifically as citizens of Space City—deserve that prize money. After all, entitlement is an American tradition, and we must do our patriotic duty.

The competition is part of a larger initiative called Breakthrough Listen, which will survey the 100 closest galaxies, as well as the million stars in the Milky Way closest to Earth. Yuri Milner—a trained physicist who invested wisely in Silicon Valley technology—has pledged $100 million over ten years to search for intelligent life beyond our solar system, or for an artificial signal not explainable by science; if he doesn’t succeed, he plans to fund the project for another ten years. Using West Virginia’s 330-foot Green Bank Telescope and Australia’s 210-foot Parkes Telescope, scientists will be able to examine 10 billion radio channels simultaneously. Breakthrough Listen will generate massive amounts of data that will be made available to scientists as well as amateur researchers – taking advantage of the SETI [search for extraterrestrial intelligence] network of nine million personal computers.

For the $1,000,000 prize, the goal of the Breakthrough Message competition is to develop digital messages that represent “humanity and planet Earth.” They aren’t necessarily committing to sending these messages now—just the hope that they might one day be sent to other civilizations. It does seek to explore the languages of interstellar communication, and begin global conversations about ethical and philosophical issues.

As for the content of that message, a good communicator always targets his/her audience, which of course is impossible in this instance. We can, however, assume non-human qualities, and there are plenty of variances on our planet. The mantis shrimp, with its 12 color receptors (compared to the human eye's three), has better color vision and can see ultraviolet, infrared and polarized light. Whales and dolphins use echolocation or biosonar systems to find food and identify objects. The alligator uses its skin to detect changes in vibration, red wood ants use electromagnetism to predict earthquakes, elephants use seismic activity and vibrations to assess their environment, sharks rely on smell and jewel beetles can spot infrared radiation.

With all that is known and unknown, my best suggestion is the merging of math and the arts. I propose we pick our best music that contains a high degree of organization and structure and beam those rhythms out into the universe, and into the universe beyond that. Perhaps Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata?
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Susie Tommaney is a contributing writer who enjoys covering the lively arts and culture scene in Houston and surrounding areas, connecting creative makers with the Houston Press readers to make every week a great one.
Contact: Susie Tommaney