Extra terrestrial white noise

Am I the only one that finds the reports of intermittent radio signals from outer space fascinating? There have been various projects scanning deeps space for patterns in the static, and have as it turns out, on more than one occasion, found unexplainable sequences. Both NASA and SETI have directed their dishes into the heavens in search of evidence of extra terrestrial life, all to no avail – or so we thought. There are a number of documents, now being made public, that allegedly show that there have been various signals captured over the last 35 years that cannot be explained away by random chance.

In 1977, whilst working at the Big Ear radio telescope at Ohio State University, astronomer Jerry Ehman, identified a signal from outside of the solar system that seemed to be artificially created. However, after 72 seconds the signal was gone and it has not been detected again


There has also been a disclosure more recently of a NSA technical document proposing how to decode a number of complex sequences captured during ‘radio monitoring’. This document is more of a analysis of the structure of the language used, using techniques more akin to codebreaking, it was written by a cryptoanalyst, Dr. Campaigne. The PDF has the look a scanned paper document and opens with this rather understated introduction:

Screen Shot 2015-02-18 at 10.51.34For the next 22 pages Dr Campaigne postulates on 31 different messages of various lengths as he searches for patterns and repetition in an attempt to derive some basic key to the language. This document does raise a number of issues (as well as the hairs on the back of your neck) – if this is a legitimate treatise on the decoding of an alien message, why has no-one heard of these 31 messages until they appear in this rather innocuous maths journal? The business like formality with which Campaigne details his methodologies for decrypting the messages seems to make it more legitimate as a source, but it still strikes me as odd how detached he can be when discussing the evidence of intelligent life.

It also raises the question of communication with other species. Just like many of the so-called ‘dead’ languages that still puzzle our linguists today; a message from another civilisation can only really be understood when we find some common context. Scientists have already sent a message into space, known as the Arecibo message it was devised by Dr. Frank Drake, then at Cornell University with help from Carl Sagan, among others. It was broadcast from the Arecibo radio telescope in Puerto Rico on 16 November 1974. The message consists of seven parts that encode the following:

  1. The numbers one (1) to ten (10)
  2. The atomic numbers of the elements hydrogen, carbon, nitrogen, oxygen, and phosphorus, which make up deoxyribonucleic acid(DNA)
  3. The formulas for the sugars and bases in the nucleotides of DNA
  4. The number of nucleotides in DNA, and a graphic of the double helix structure of DNA
  5. A graphic figure of a human, the dimension (physical height) of an average man, and the human population of Earth
  6. A graphic of the Solar System indicating which of the planets the message is coming from
  7. A graphic of the Arecibo radio telescope and the dimension (the physical diameter) of the transmitting antenna dish

The only downside is that it will take 25,000 years for the message to reach its intended destination, the globular star cluster M13 some 25,000 light years away, and an additional 25,000 years for any reply.  If another civilisation were to have done the same one has to wonder whether the message would outlive those that sent it, and those that did receive it have the means to decode the binary encoding, let alone find a meaning it what it described.





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