What will happen when (although the "if" is a must) humanity finds itself in intercept and decipher the signal transmitted by an alien civilization, arrived on Earth after a journey of who knows how many tens or thousands of light years? And especially, what language will it be "written" in, if we can say so? How to decipher it? One thing is certain, all the world will try to read and interpret the missive of the extraterrestrials, and thanks to the nodes of the digital network that keeps almost all of us connected, will translate into a planetary effort. These are the dress rehearsal of a still imaginary challengetechnical but also cultural.
There is mail for us
The message is arrived at 20:15 Italian time on May 24th, captured by the antennas of four large radio telescopes. The postmark is that of Mars but, of course, it's all terrestrial. It was the one who sent it European probe Trace gas orbiter (Tgo) which has been circling the Red Planet for some years, and listened to by the antennas of the radio astronomy station of Medicina, managed by INAF, and three radio telescopes in the United States: the Allen telescope array of the Seti institute, in California, the Robert C. Byrd Green Bank telescope in West Virginia and the Very Large Array in New Mexico.
The simulation was created by Daniela de Paulis, Italian multimedia artist and radio operator based in the Netherlands, and now artist in residence at the Seti Institute and the Green Bank Observatory in the United States. The name of the initiative is "A sign in space", a quote from the story A sign in space from The Cosmicomics Of Italo Calvino. It is somewhere between a dress rehearsal of what we would do if there were a "first contact", and a spatial performance, a cultural operation.
Think like an alien
De Paulis composed the message (which is of course a closely guarded secret) along with a multidisciplinary team of experts which involves not only scientists and researchers, on the contrary. Next to physicists, engineers, astronomers and astrobiologists, there are artists, philosophers, a poet. In addition to knowledge, in fact, a lot of imagination is needed to be able to "invent" the language of those born on another world, to imagine how an alien thinks.
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"Receiving a message from an extraterrestrial civilization it would be a profoundly transformative experience for all of humanity - explained De Paulis - A Sign in Space offers an unprecedented opportunity to tangibly experience and prepare for this scenario through global collaboration, fostering an open search for meaning across all cultures and disciplines". already seen in the cinema, in Contact, for example, as well as in Arrival.
The message is uploaded to a server ready for anyone to download. But anyone who thinks they can see as clearly as Dr. Ellie Arroway (played by Jodie Foster) is wrong. I am several gigabytes of data, to be processed. It is in fact the raw signalas it would appear as soon as it was captured from deep space.
"The process of decoding and interpretation will determine both the technical and cultural content of the message" reads the website of the initiative. In short, it must try to put yourself in the shoes of the alien, or at least try to get out of those of a traditional terrestrial, change point of view. On the project website and on the Discord platform, discussion forums are hosted for anyone who wants to confront and try their hand at this puzzle (in the Faq there are instructions on how to open and manage files). And there experts, technicians and simple enthusiasts from all over the world will gather to each provide their own point of view and expertise. Anyone who thinks they have a contribution to make for coding and interpretation, or that they have the solution to the puzzle at hand, can upload the material (data, text, audio, video, graphics or interactive) through a form of Google.
Looking for an answer
In addition to theInaf and the European Space Agency (Hex), The If youthe institute founded by Carl Sagan that has been looking for evidence of extraterrestrial intelligence from the cosmos for decades, the institutions that govern the various radio telescopes and the Italian space company D-Orbit, which used one of its Ion satellites for signal transmission.
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"The main question to be answered is: 'If an alien signal arrives, would we be able to understand if it carries information? and if so, could we extract it?' It would be very difficult because we wouldn't know signal modulation, and the techniques used to do it - he reflects Stelio Montebugnoli, radio astronomer of the Medicina observatory, involved in the project - until today it was thought that if ET wanted to be heard it would transmit a monochromatic signal, such as a radio carrier or an audio analogue, a single note or a whistle".
Different was the approach, for example, of Sagan and Frank Drake, who in 1974 sent the famous Arecibo message, with a radio carrier and a frequency modulation to transmit a series of information (numbers, atomic numbers, DNA structure human being and a graph of the Solar System). To find us, in short, with the hope that a distant civilization was advanced enough to find the message hidden in those electromagnetic waves and be able to read it using mathematics, which according to Galileo is "the language with which God wrote the universe".
Since the 1990s, Montebugnoli has been dealing precisely with Seti, whose purpose, he explains, is actually much less science fiction: "Seti wants to give a yes or no answer to the question 'Are we alone?'. An answer that lies in receiving a radio or optical pulse that is unmistakably from an alien civilization. That would be a great discovery."
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