The best messages to send to intelligent life in space

Looking for life.
Looking for life.
Image: Reuters/Fred Thornhill
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Congratulations! You’ve just discovered a signal coming in hot from intelligent alien life! They are so excited to meet you, and want to establish connection with Earth as soon as possible.

You have meticulously checked your findings in your own lab before sharing them with the rest of the scientific community, per the protocol (pdf) for messaging potential intelligent alien life set by the International Academy of Astronautics. Now you just have to think of how to respond.

Technically, you need to “[seek] guidance and consent of a broadly representative international body, such as the United Nations” before doing so, according to the IAA. This way, presumably you will be able to fairly represent the entire human race’s wishes in your message. Unfortunately, this almost definitely means watering-down your excited, colorful greetings to something rather bland and official sounding, and it’ll probably take a while because, you know how bureaucratic the UN can get. But rules are rules, so you plan to oblige.

Unless you’re tempted by this one seductive detail: “There’s no way to enforce [the rules],” says Seth Shostak, the senior astronomer for the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) Institute, a nonprofit research organization based in Mountain View, California.

“Anyone can broadcast into space,” he says. As long as you have a radio transmitter, which in the US means obtaining a license from the Federal Communications Commission, you can send signals—albeit weak ones—out into the universe. Airports do it all the time with their radar, although presumably they’re not sending salutations to intelligent life.

So you could probably get away with saying whatever the heck you want! Go ahead and draft a message to your new, out-of-this-world friends.

Just consider this first: if the aliens out there can detect the relatively tiny couple-thousand megaHertz signals from our radios throughout the vastness of the universe, they undoubtedly have some extremely sensitive technology in their hands. And if that’s the case, it may be obvious to these more advanced lifeforms that they could squash us and take over Earth if they so desired. (This was exactly the premise of the first book of the Chinese science fiction trilogy called the Three Body Problem.)

So maybe, the best things you could possibly send aliens would be deterrence from trying to come out here. Consider the following prompts for inspiration:

  • Hi! So sorry, but we’ve nearly polished off our own natural resources. Haven’t got a drop of water or oil to spare, I’m afraid. Maybe try again maybe in 5 billion years or so?
  • So good to hear from you! Sadly, we’ve just about boiled and drowned ourselves over here. We weren’t quite able to kick that CO2 habit. No need to swing by to help, what’s done is done, and we’d hate to inconvenience your intergalactic travel.
  • Everyone here cracks their knuckles. A lot of them show affection by trading bodily fluids. It’s disgusting. Avoid at all costs.
  • Hi! Can I interest you in a free ticket to my Breaking Bad one-man show?
  • New phone who dis?

Shostak thinks the best thing to send back would be the internet. That way, aliens would have a complete picture of humanity—the good, the bad, and the Dogspotting. Sure, aliens would have to figure out how to read our languages, but he thinks this would be a bit like like Egyptian hieroglyphics: because they recorded everything, archeologists have been able to study how they lived.

That said, the ancient Egyptians were long gone by the time modern archeologists got around to studying their culture. Imagine if that Bronze Age civilization was discovered by, say, Industrial Age colonial powers with steam engines and guns.

Maybe when it comes to communication with intelligent aliens, silence is golden.