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OK, Say You're an Extraterrestrial ...
Old 07-11-2014, 05:45 PM   #1
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OK, Say You're an Extraterrestrial ...

In a subplot of my book, a highly advanced civilization has a probe that travels around the galaxy, visiting solar systems. When it detects signals from a planet, it heads over to it, and sends it a message.

The message it wants to send is: "There are many civilizations in the galaxy. Send me signals, and I will relay them at faster than light speeds."

First do you see any problems with that scenario? The advantage over just sending out signals is that primitive civilizations like ours would have trouble detecting them, and only light-speed waves can be sent out. But if a probe gets in your face, it would be hard to miss it, and a dialogue could be set up in real time.

Second, how would you design a message that could be decoded by a civilization with nothing in common with the sending species? I've looked at the arecibo message, and not been impressed, same with the Voyager plaque. I haven't found much info on how a message might look. Links?

My thought would be to have, like the arecibo message, a series of bitmapped images--essentially a movie. But it could have a much higher resolution. I don't see a problem with getting that basic message across.

Thanks for helping me brainstorm.
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Old 07-11-2014, 06:10 PM   #2
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Rule #1: This is science fiction.

Quote:
Originally Posted by TromboneAl View Post
The message it wants to send is: "There are many civilizations in the galaxy. Send me signals, and I will relay them at faster than light speeds."

First do you see any problems with that scenario?
No, see rule #1

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Originally Posted by TromboneAl View Post
Second, how would you design a message that could be decoded by a civilization with nothing in common with the sending species? I've looked at the arecibo message, and not been impressed, same with the plaque. I haven't found much info on how a message might look. Links?

My thought would be to have, like the arecibo message, a series of bitmapped images--essentially a movie. But it could have a much higher resolution. I don't see a problem with getting that basic message across.
No, see rule #1.
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Old 07-11-2014, 06:15 PM   #3
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No problem with the first, just respond in the same rf it detects.

The second, research the voyager space probe, the best minds in the world tackled this problem and put the messages on that probe in various ways. Should give you inspiration.

I want footnote credit and a b-part in the film adaptation!




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Old 07-11-2014, 07:31 PM   #4
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If the probe can send signals at light speed it will of course have a built in braking system that slows the signals just prior to 'impact'.
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Old 07-11-2014, 07:42 PM   #5
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The second, research the voyager space probe, the best minds in the world tackled this problem and put the messages on that probe in various ways. Should give you inspiration.
Yes, that plaque is interesting. I take it back about not being impressed with it.



All it says is "This is where we live, and this is what we look like," but it does that very well. The distances and directions to the pulsars is genius. I was thinking "Who would care what we look like," but I guess that would be interesting to some other civilization.
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Old 07-11-2014, 08:42 PM   #6
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Since your incoming probe can relay signals at faster than lightspeed to any number of highly advanced civilizations, why not fall back on the simpler assumption that they analyze us. We're sending all kinds of signals that can be decoded and analyzed by sufficiently advanced intelligences. Let them "learn" a few prominent Earth languages and they can just talk to us without requiring that we decode their primer. They can even transmit on the same frequencies they see us using.
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Old 07-11-2014, 09:07 PM   #7
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How did I know that a thread about extraterrestrials would include lots about a probe?
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Old 07-11-2014, 09:09 PM   #8
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How did I know that a thread about extraterrestrials would include lots about a probe?
I'm afraid to ask - what kind of probe?
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Old 07-11-2014, 09:25 PM   #9
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Originally Posted by growing_older View Post
Since your incoming probe can relay signals at faster than lightspeed to any number of highly advanced civilizations, why not fall back on the simpler assumption that they analyze us. We're sending all kinds of signals that can be decoded and analyzed by sufficiently advanced intelligences. Let them "learn" a few prominent Earth languages and they can just talk to us without requiring that we decode their primer. They can even transmit on the same frequencies they see us using.
That's a great answer!

One of my favorite contact methods was a 2D picture/video with a prime number of pixels horizontally and vertically and a clear framing signal. Fairly easy to decode. Pictures easily avoid the language problem and can contain a lot of info.
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Old 07-12-2014, 05:14 AM   #10
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What's the goal of the communication? Curiosity? Or something more sinister (as per Hawkins suggestion).


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Old 07-12-2014, 08:50 AM   #11
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Re: "What signal to send"--it's probably worth looking at how the folks doing SETI now are hoping to sort the wheat from the chaff in all the signals they intercept. Just make your signal from the spacecraft meet the requirements of the SETI filters (and this gives you a chance to mention how SETI does this right now in your book).

Regarding the premise: Isaac Asimov had a good "science fact" story that is perhaps germane, "The Rocketing Dutchmen" IIRC. He didn't put much stock in reports of extraterrestrials making contact with us--they are advanced enough to physically cross light years, but not smart enough to either 1) avoid detection if they want to or 2) make contact in an intelligent way (not with a bunch of drunk yokels in a cornfield)? Seems a bit odd. Along this line, I'd go with Growing Older's idea--and the probe communicates directly with the folks on earth who they want to speak with, not the folks at SETI.

Knowing that societies would probably be extensively altered by an external contact, the more advanced "outreach" society, especially if able to actually travel to other civilizations, would probably study the society for quite a while before deciding to alter the "target" civilization with any direct contact. Star Trek "Prime Directive" and all that . . .
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Old 07-12-2014, 09:26 AM   #12
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What's the goal of the communication? Curiosity? Or something more sinister (as per Hawkins suggestion).
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Old 07-12-2014, 09:52 AM   #13
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Originally Posted by TromboneAl View Post
Second, how would you design a message that could be decoded by a civilization with nothing in common with the sending species? I've looked at the arecibo message, and not been impressed, same with the Voyager plaque. I haven't found much info on how a message might look. Links?

My thought would be to have, like the arecibo message, a series of bitmapped images--essentially a movie. But it could have a much higher resolution. I don't see a problem with getting that basic message across.

Thanks for helping me brainstorm.

I like the 'movie' idea to communicate - either an actual digital movie, or series of pictures. Most advance species will likely be using some form of the visible band of the EM spectrum for the bulk of their communication, since that's what probably all star systems have a predominance of.

Regarding the Voyager plaque - you have to remember, this was 1977. The cost per pound to launch something into deep space was (and still is) phenomenally high. Not to mention it has to withstand all of that nasty interstellar radiation. Oh, and temperatures down to, what, like 10 Kelvin? (average deep space temp is something on the order of 3 Kelvin, if memory serves me correctly). And being able to not degrade over, say, a billion years.
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Old 07-12-2014, 10:56 AM   #14
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Originally Posted by growing_older View Post
Since your incoming probe can relay signals at faster than lightspeed to any number of highly advanced civilizations, why not fall back on the simpler assumption that they analyze us. We're sending all kinds of signals that can be decoded and analyzed by sufficiently advanced intelligences. Let them "learn" a few prominent Earth languages and they can just talk to us without requiring that we decode their primer. They can even transmit on the same frequencies they see us using.
Yes, very good point. Perhaps the civilization is impatient. Or better, they only need a few minutes of gathering and relaying all of our signals from earth before they can decode and understand our language.

OTOH, I'd prefer to deal with this issue of early communication between to completely different civilizations.

Perhaps there's a limit on the bandwidth of the faster than light transmissions.

Good points that need to be dealt with, thanks.
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Old 07-12-2014, 11:03 AM   #15
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One of my favorite contact methods was a 2D picture/video with a prime number of pixels horizontally and vertically and a clear framing signal. Fairly easy to decode. Pictures easily avoid the language problem and can contain a lot of info.
That's my plan at this point. A nice high-res B&W movie, say 1024 by 1024 pixels.

It starts with an image of the probe, showing it next to a planet. The planet shows lights, suggesting a civilization. Then the image zooms out to show the rest of the galaxy, and zooms into other planets that have similar lights.

Next, back to an image of the probe and a planet, showing slow (light-speed) signals between the two. Then it zooms out again, and should faster signals.

But here's a question: Why do the pixel width and height have to be prime numbers? I know Sagan did that, but I'm not sure it's necessary. If the first frame is a square of rectangles along the outer borders, I think that might clue in the receiving civilization.

How would it help if the image were 1009 x 1009?
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Old 07-12-2014, 11:44 AM   #16
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But here's a question: Why do the pixel width and height have to be prime numbers?
Not strictly necessary. In fact all the frame sizes for all the video systems commonly in use have never had prime width and height pixel counts. The notion made an interesting story point and supposedly made it easier to figure out when a frame started and ended, but the receiving side would still need to figure out it was a series of video frames and guess the width and height. There are plenty of other ways to provide suitable clues, such as your suggestion of some early frames containing images showing the borders, or blanking intervals between frames or between rows containing distinctive values. Likewise avoiding the use of image compression or interlaced images probably considerably simplifies the decoding possibilities.

If you wish to stick with visual communication for initial contact, we've been beaming broadcast TV in electromagnetic spectrum for decades. Assuming alien intelligences have detected those signals, they could do the same decoding you suggest and either send back modified signals or send new images using those coding standards. This has been used as a plot device in other stories, but you could stick strictly with video information (maybe use of audio for communication is rare in the cosmos) to give a unique slant on your treatment of it. Or maybe there's some kind of message formatting that is required to make the faster-than-light telegraph work, so we have to communicate in pictures. Sounds intriguing.
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Old 07-12-2014, 11:54 AM   #17
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This is a general purpose probe, not just for us, so it can't use our TV system. Why would have a prime number width or height make it easier to guess--I haven't figured that out.

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Old 07-12-2014, 12:07 PM   #18
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Just be aware, if you're not already, that Cadl Sagan (probably others too) wrapped a novel around this idea in the eighties. Check out [I]Contact (the novel is pretty excellent; the movie is only not bad).
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Old 07-12-2014, 12:42 PM   #19
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This is a general purpose probe, not just for us, so it can't use our TV system. Why would have a prime number width or height make it easier to guess--I haven't figured that out.

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Assuming an alien life form would have a numbering and mathematical system somewhat close to ours, they would presumably also have the concept of 'prime numbers'. Since prime numbers are sometimes used in mathematical/electronic equations in certain ways, a random signal with information decoded might have information that is based on a prime number being used in the formatting.

Just like code breaking in WW II. They had to assume some sequence of characters to break up sets of words into. I think they often used 4 or 6 letters per segment. If a code breaker saw one giant long string of characters, they might first assume breaking it up into segments of 4 or 6, and go from there.

Likewise, an alien might assume there might be a usage of prime numbers in the signal, and start their initial segmenting using a prime number interval. It's strictly a random guess that an alien civilization would have prime numbers - but might yield more fruit than randomly picking ANY number to base your signal decoding on.
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Old 07-12-2014, 01:28 PM   #20
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There have been a number of SF stories that used contact with an interstellar communications network as a significant element. Here are a few of the better known ones.

The Ophiuchi Hotline
, John Varley (1977)
One plot element involves a 'contact' mechanism that uses a sort of observation post, and a laser communications line which just misses the inner solar system, so space travel by the locals is required to receive the messages.

Router
, Charles Stross, Asimov's Science Fiction (Sept 2002), also as Accelerando, Chapter 5 (2005)
An automated system has installed a local router with faster-than-light connectivity elsewhere. Humanity eventually notices the router and contacts it. Hilarity ensues, including a 419 scam from outer space.

Singularity Sky, Charles Stross, 2003
An automated system designed to open (or re-open) communications with civilizations enters a solar system. Since communications implies exchange of information, potentially profitable, a variety of other commerce-oriented systems, researchers of a sort, and other hangers-on follow in the immediate wake of the telephone repairman to take advantage of new opportunities. Hilarity, and an economic singularity, ensues...

Contact, Carl Sagan (1985)
A message from a star system 25 light years away is received. The message includes a basic communications primer, and ends with plans to construct a very large machine.
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