How the Internet Deciphered a Fake Alien Message – The Atlantic

But the internet is as capable of sowing trouble as it is cooperation. “On the other hand, there are also weird people and there would certainly be conspiracy theories or people throwing around garbage or ‘fake news,’” he said.

The announcement of an alien transmission could also, naturally, trigger some Orson Welles-style panic. “It could funnel or focus the fears of people,” Heller said. “If you would throw out this image of our alien friend—I find it funny, and in this context it certainly has a funny meaning. But if this would be a real image of some alien creature, it might also be very creepy. It might disturb people if we, as scientists, wouldn’t prepare it or announce it in an optimal way.”

If extraterrestrial intelligent life speaks in radio waves, humanity has the technology to hear it. Telescopes in California, West Virginia, and Puerto Rico survey the night sky for radio signals from beyond Earth. The Square Kilometer Array, a proposed telescope that may begin construction next year, will be powerful enough to detect radio signals originating billions of light-years away, as far back as the early universe.

Humans haven’t heard anything promising, but they’ve been broadcasting. In 1975, Drake, with help from Carl Sagan and others in the field, used radio waves to transmit a message to a star cluster 25,000 light-years away. The cosmic communiqué, known as the Arecibo message, carried information about numerical figures, the makeup of DNA, a figure of a human, and a graphic of the solar system. Several messages have been sent since, ranging in content from basic information to “Across the Universe” by The Beatles, even as the scientific community debates whether humans should be sending messages at all. There are certain scenarios to consider: Whoever hears our call could swing by and teach us some time-bending language skills, or they could zap us out of existence.

For now, the decryption of a fake alien message is thrilling enough. When Heller walked me through the zooming in and scrolling down and I saw the alien pop against a sea of ones and zeroes, I practically yelped in excitement. “You’ve just gone through this moment when you realized the content of an—at least fake—SETI message,” Heller said. “Isn’t this nice?”

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