Intergalactic travel is a realistic option

Interstellar communicationWaiting for contact with foreign intelligence

The exosociologist Douglas Vakoch claims that there is a high probability that we will make contact with extraterrestrial intelligences within the next 35 years. A reply, however, is unlikely. In his essay, Frieder Butzmann thinks about it, if a message does come: Will we be able to decipher it? What does it mean for our civilization? What language do they understand out there, should we even react and possibly wake sleeping aliens?

Frieder Butzmann, born in 1954, is a composer, radio play writer, author, artist and lives in Berlin.



On August 20, 1977, the Voyager 2 space probe launched from Cape Canaveral in Florida at the tip of a Titan IIIE Centaur rocket. 16 days later, on September 5, its sister probe Voyager 1 followed The planetary system and far beyond it into interstellar space - past Saturn, Jupiter and Neptune, whose gravity fields were used to accelerate the spaceships.

However, it was not the achievement of guiding the spaceships, which astronomers and ballisticians admire to this day, that the probes have impressed themselves on our historical and cultural memory. It is the gold-anodized copper data plate that comes with the spaceships, with greetings in different languages, music and photos of the earth encoded in analog form; the size of a long-playing record.

Promotion gag from space

Perhaps the data disk was just something of a promotional gag. On the one hand, the North American taxpayer grumbled about the high government spending on NASA. On the other hand, the galactic wonder world of the first Star Wars film and Steven Spielberg's encounter of the third kind, which deals with the friendly arrival of alien beings on our earth, was the box-office hit of the season in the cinemas.

Drew Barrymore (l) as "Gertie" and the alien "E.T." in a scene from the fantasy film of the same name by Steven Spielberg. (dpa picture alliance)

And as Barney Oliver, a Master Mind from Silicon Valley and co-author of the Voyager data disc, called Badge, said so aptly, but also evocatively: "The probability that only one alien will ever see this badge is almost zero surely billions of people on earth will see them. Their real task is to make future contact with extraterrestrial intelligences a joyful expectation. "

Images fired the imagination

And maybe the correction of all of our view of the universe from "predominantly hostile to life" to "most likely to life friendly" actually began with the Voyager probes. The images sent by Voyager 1 and 2 from the planets Jupiter and Saturn to Earth are still impressive today. The surface of Jupiter as a meandering animated pattern like from a psychedelic hippie disco, the 100,000 rings around Saturn as finely chased as the ruff of a distinguished Spanish citizen of the 16th century. In addition, there were images of the moons of Jupiter and Saturn with astonishingly different appearances. Before that one only knew the round stone moon of our earth.

These images fired the imagination and found their first fulfillment in the 1990s, when other space probes found that, for example, Jupiter's moon Europa is completely covered on the outside by an ice desert, but under the ice sheet there is a water ocean with lukewarm temperatures. Life forms could well have developed there. We may find out one day.

Such fantasies have been fueled more and more in the last 20 years because space probes such as the well-known Hubble telescope discovered distant worlds: so-called exoplanets that orbit other stars beyond our solar system.

Tech industry invested in Silicon Valley

And already you start your journey to such exoplanets. Above all, Yuri Borissowitsch Milner, a Russian multi-billionaire in Silicon Valley. Under the project name "Breakthrough Starshot", Milner plans to send a swarm of nano-satellites to the Proxima Centauri B, an earth-like exoplanet four light-years away but closest in about three to five years. The breakthrough initiative is supported by other well-known players in the tech industry in Silicon Valley, including the British astrophysicist Stephen Hawking and the now 94-year-old Freeman Dyson, pioneer in astrophysics and mathematics.

The Russian tech billionaire Yuri Borisovich Milner wants to send a swarm of nano satellites to the Proxima Centauri B. (imago / Future Image)

They anticipate that humanity will receive images of an extrasolar planet for the first time - after a journey of around 25 years, made possible by laser bombardment from Earth, which accelerates its satellite to 60,000 kilometers per second, a fifth of the speed of light. Who knows what will be seen in these pictures!

But what happens when they knock! - You, the aliens, the aliens. Will we hear the knock? How will it be, how does it come to us?

It is very likely that we will make contact with extraterrestrial intelligences within the next 35 years, claims the American exosociologist Douglas Vakoch. His science is devoted to the formation conditions and possible properties of extraterrestrial civilizations.

Search for extraterrestrial intelligence

SETI has been around since the 1960s. SETI is the acronym for Search for Extraterrestial Intelligence. Behind this is a large and yet very loosely connected community of mainly American, but also European, Russian and Chinese scientists.

But since 1984 there has also been an institution SETI, an NGO, financially supported by NASA for years, then by companies from Silicon Valley, above all Hewlett Packard. And they actually listen to the sky for radio waves.

SETI searches tirelessly in the electromagnetic chaos of the cosmic background radiation at various frequencies.

Mostly with the highly sensitive Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico, built in 1963 - one of the largest radio telescopes in the world with a receiving dish 300 meters in diameter.

The SETI @ Home! flanked this search. Thousands of interested laypeople from all corners of the world form the SETI @ Home community. They have downloaded the SETI @ home Astropulse software onto their private computers, thus making computing power available to the SETI project.

Question: What does SETI hope to find? Answer: a structure! A signal that eludes pure randomness, behind which there is an intelligent intention, a message that is most likely created consciously: a sequence of numbers that cannot be random. Something you know, recognize! If aliens would like to contact us, they would be wise to send a beacon into space. Maybe a math series that everyone knows. For example prime numbers! If you send 3, 5, 7, 11, 13, ... then every amateur radio operator would immediately ask: Hello, who is sending this? Please report!

Messages from the earth

But there is also METI associated with SETI: Messaging Extraterrestrial Intelligence - messages to extraterrestrials. Impossible to list everyone who has been deliberately beamed into the sky since the 1960s. The best known is probably the Arecibo message from 1974, named after the Arecibo telescope mentioned above. It was beamed into a region of the sky where a particularly large number of stars and thus potential receivers are located, to the globular cluster M13 in the constellation Hercules. It consisted of information about the origin of the signal, about human biology, human DNA and our solar system - all very spartan in graphic symbols sent as colored patterns.

However, a project from 2008 is more popular with the audience: A Message from Earth. It was sent from the Evpatoria Telescope in Ukraine to the Earth-like exoplanet Gliese 581c. Mostly young people from all over the world uploaded photos, drawings and texts to a website, presented themselves as earth dwellers and sent greetings to the exoplanet and all foreign cultures. The message is streaming for four and a half hours and will not be received on the exoplanet until 2028. The first reactions can therefore not be expected until 2048 at the earliest!

Many such message projects are now on their way to some corners of space. Even the Franco-German television station Arte hosted a theme evening in 2006 and broadcast the film "CosmicConnexion" to a binary star system 45 light-years away - "the first intergalactic television program for Earthlings and extraterrestrials".

Looking for the right language

But let's worry: In archeology, unknown languages ​​and scripts of the past are mostly deciphered by comparison with known scripts or recorded terms. The most famous example is the Rosetta Stone, also known as the Trilingual Stone, found in Egypt in 1799, in which one and the same text is recorded in Greek, Demotic and hieroglyphics. By comparing the three texts, one could identify the hieroglyphs, which until then had been misinterpreted in Europe as allegorical representations in the context of occult secret knowledge, as phonetic characters.

The Rosetta Stone, found in Egypt in 1799, is also known as the Trilingual Stone: One and the same text is recorded in Greek, Demotic and hieroglyphics. (dpa / epa / Trustees of the Britain Museum)

In the extensive text Archeology Anthropology and Interstellar Communication published by NASA, which deals exclusively with interstellar communication and making contact with extraterrestrial beings, this stone is repeatedly used as a proxy for the search for common signs with a culture still unknown to us cited unknown location in space.

If we as humanity send shout messages into space to an extraterrestrial culture, something like a rosette stone must be set as the basis of communication.

Mathematical basics for interstellar communication?

Based on the - albeit controversial - assumption that mathematics is not just a terrestrial system of describing the world, but that the world and the cosmos even function like mathematics, mathematical and scientific foundations for interstellar communication are the best stone of Rosette.

As early as 1820, Karl Friedrich Gauß proposed to plant a triangle representing the Pythagorean theorem, including the squares above its sides, in huge cornfields on the Siberian tundra. So extraterrestrial observers of the earth could see from a distance that intelligent beings live here.

So in the 1960s - the first decade of manned space travel - the old idea of ​​a lingua cosmica was gladly adopted.

Even before 1960, the Dutch mathematician Hans Freudenthal was working on the construction of a universal language called Lincos, which is further developed on a mathematical basis until today at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Boston as Cosmic-OS.

In all of these universal languages ​​it is assumed, for example, that every intelligent being in the cosmos has a concept of "one" and of "two". If the number "one" is clearly represented by an abstract symbol, a point / line, then the number "two" can be represented as a double symbol. This also gives you a concept of development, namely from "one" to "two" and you also have a concept of "greater than" and "less than".

These are simple math things. Freudenthal developed this to such an extent that truth values ​​and even logical statements can be conveyed.

Mathematics in combination with graphic, symbolic representation

And that brings us back to the Voyager 1 and 2 space probes, which were sent into space with messages to intelligent extraterrestrial beings in 1977. Because this idea of ​​passing on more complex information through mathematics in combination with scientifically graphic, symbolic representation, was also behind the representations that are scratched on the cover of the Voyager data disks.

For every scientist, a circle with a point in the middle symbolizes Bohr's atomic model by virtue of its schematic shape. And whoever has identified and recognized it as such - so the assumption - will also clearly identify the schematic abstraction, namely a circle with a point in the middle, as a hydrogen atom: 1 proton in the nucleus and 1 electron on the surrounding orbit. Since this hydrogen atom is carved twice next to each other, almost as a twin with only slight graphical differences, in the message of 1977, every extraterrestrial scientist will associatively recognize the two states of the hydrogen atom. And: He will soon know the characteristic oscillation frequency of the hydrogen atom with a duration of 0.7 billionths of a second.

This message is only useful to the extraterrestrial observer if he uses another scientific assumption or knowledge: namely the sentence of Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz that "any information, that is any number, can be expressed in two states". In our digital world, these two "states" are known as ones and zeros, through which everything we perceive in media is known to be created, transmitted and put together.

The long series of dashes and dashes on the cover of the Voyager 1 data disk is strikingly reminiscent of this change between two states, ones and zeros. Since this is the simplest and most basic way of representing a number, it is to be hoped or assumed that the hypothetical alien will recognize the binary code. Further deciphering of the cover information leads through reflection and multiplication to the time in which the data disk rotates once on its axis. Since a scanning head, i.e. a scanning needle, was added to the data disk in addition to the meta information just described on the cover, all the technical know-how to bring the data, the images and the sounds to life is now available.

Good luck!

Bach and Beethoven alongside Chuck Berry and Blind Willie Johnson

So much for the basic pattern of an interstellar first message. It demonstrates: Using data from commonly known laws of nature and mathematics in combination with graphical representations, more complex information is generated by stringing together data blocks on data blocks.

A master copy of the data disk "Voyager Golden Record" (r.), Which was sent into space as a data disk with US space probes in 1977 - here next to the Nebra sky disk (dpa-Zentralbild / Peter Endig)

But let's take a look at the data disk itself. Their largest data set consists of 27 pieces of music with a total playing time of 87 minutes and 16 seconds.

Pieces of music? What will aliens be able to do with a string quartet movement by Beethoven or a movement from Johann Sebastian Bach's Brandenburg Concerts? Will the song Johnny B. Goode by and with Chuck Berry tell you anything? How will the Peruvian wedding chants or the spiritual of Blind Willie Johnson be received?

One wonders if it makes any sense at all to send such music to the aliens. This question was also put to the exosociologist Douglas Vakoch, whose organization METI made contact with the extraterrestrial the subject of research.

And he answered just as surprisingly as astonishingly plausible: "What better way could we send you than the most valuable and beautiful thing we have: our music !?"

It is difficult to counter this statement.

A new, artistic approach

But what will the aliens think of it? Hopefully they will first listen and ask about the purpose of this acoustic stimulus. The extraterrestrial listeners with finer ears will probably notice that all works use a certain number of oscillation frequencies within the physical quantity octave, namely 12 in number. Even if there is no idea of ​​music out there as an aesthetic perception of sounds beyond the purely physical description, one will perhaps discover an immanent, strict, structure-creating harmony sequence, whether in the absence of logical or mathematical necessity. People call it music.

In an unexpected, even strange, comical-cosmic way, the concept of music as a universal language could be given a new meaning.

And indeed, a paradigm shift seems to be on the horizon. Some of the scientists in the SETI environment are now bringing a new, artistic approach into play instead of mathematical self-evident and scientific thinking. This includes Jon Lomberg, an American science journalist and "space" artist whose art is inspired by astronomy. Lomberg and UNESCO's science policy advisor, Guillermo Lemarchand, call for the universal laws to be dealt with first instead of poking around in heavenly frequencies. To do this, they use the research term "cognitive universals", which is derived from the psychology of the "cognitive map".A cognitive map is synonymous with the knowledge stored in the head, the thoughts, images and memories that represent our immediate environment and describe it in its entirety.

The world as a constantly changing holism

Every perceiving and processing living being, human, animal, even plant and, according to these views, also extraterrestrials, has to develop problem solutions in the course of its evolution or cultural history, that is, its own techniques, perspectives of partial aspects: Cognitive universals!

They cite symmetry as an example, literally: "We have examined radial and axial symmetry, as well as other aesthetic principles such as the golden ratio, and found that they somewhat limit the search for variables in the cosmic haystack." These laws are so universal that they apply to the shape of the galaxies as well as to the sea snail Nautilus or the patterns of the cream in our stirred coffee.

The thinking and language of people between the microcosm and the macrocosm reveal a science whose series of numbers or graphic representations of the partial aspects of natural constants tend to tear apart the world rather than make it accessible as a whole.

A living being that derives its knowledge of the world from a holistic perception of atmospheres, surfaces, spaces, conditions, for example from smells or - similar to bats - almost exclusively uses sound echoes for the spatial representation of the environment, will understand the world as a constantly changing holism.

Fibonacci series instead of Pythagorean theorem

Lemarchand suggests that instead of using the Pythagorean theorem or information about the oscillation frequency of the hydrogen atom, it is better to send the first 13 numbers of the Fibonacci series into space as a binary code. This series of numbers is particularly significant among mathematicians as well as artists. It describes - in layman's terms - something like a three-dimensional golden ratio. Sent into space, it was supposed to represent not only mathematical competence, but also the aesthetic insight of human beings and, so to speak, "advertise" them.

Fractal-like streaks can be seen on the green cauliflower variety "Romanesco". They form an interlocking spiral, comparable to a so-called Fibonacci sequence from mathematics (dpa / Jan-Peter Kasper / University of Jena)

Even if we can quote Immanuel Kant from his text From the Inhabitants of the Stars in 1755: "Because one thing is certain, they are out there!", We want to be realistic in the end. The contact with extraterrestrial civilizations is not really planned at the moment. From a physical and technical point of view, direct contact, that is, the arrival of alien beings from another region of the galaxy or even from even greater distances from the universe, is still unimaginable.

What could extraterrestrial civilizations be like?

And yet, with all aspects of interstellar communication, we must take into account that there are life forms that are completely different from us. For example, what if there were intelligent beings who could live to be 1,000 or more years old. Their individuals could divert 100 years to look past the earth.

Or maybe there is a culture on an exoplanet that has decided in the course of its evolution to send descendants of their species as sperm or embryos to other planets in order to one day also reach our terrestrial biosphere - preserved for a long time to let.

After it has been found time and again in recent years that meteors are full of organic compounds, including more complex molecules and simple amino acids, it is now and then speculated that all life in space could somehow be connected with one another, that evolution was the same The starting point in different environments, i.e. on different planets, could have been analogous to each other. A consideration that would suggest that the extraterrestrial is not per se completely different from us, but could be similar to us.

But no! We do not know what these beings are like. But we know that we have been sending electromagnetic waves into space for more than 100 years: radio, television, radio signals that can be received within a radius of 100 light years. If the claim that there is no plausible argument that we as intelligent beings are a rare special case in space is true - then we can count on an astronomical number of eavesdroppers and watchers in the truest sense of the word.

The first meeting should be planned

"It's too late for us to hide in the universe. We should think about how we represent ourselves," says exosociologist Douglas Vakoch.

In a lecture at NASA about the possible consequences for humanity after contact with extraterrestrial intelligent beings, the anthropologist Ashley Montagu said as early as 1972: "I think we shouldn't just wait for the contact to happen; we should prepare ourselves consciously. We know from our history that the way in which the first meeting of different cultures takes place strongly determines the character of the relationships that follow. "

And so the question arises: How will we react when we are faced with intelligent living beings who look completely different from us, whose intentions we cannot assess at all due to a lack of experience, but who unite us at the same time through their behavior and their presence Request a response.

In our cultural memory, the clash of different cultures is more associated with conflict, confrontation, confrontation and even war, than with exchange, mutual respect and learning from one another. Think of the encounters between the white man and the Bushmen in southeast Africa, with the Incas or Indian tribes of North America.

And so there are also voices of warning who fear a disastrous scenario with the arrival of possibly superior beings. Will we be able to defend ourselves if the aliens, as shown in dozens of science fiction films, are not friendly to us, but merely see our planet as a resource to be exploited !?

Dealing with interstellar communication also provides a chance for self-observation

But what opportunities arise when this encounter and the time after it goes off peacefully and is characterized by mutual respect. The only questions that could be asked of one another are beyond the imagination. What do their organs of perception look like, what do these beings see and hear from the world? How did their evolution develop? In a Darwinian way or something completely different? Where do they draw energy from? Is there such a thing as religion, God, on their home planet? Do you know something like war? Have you overcome this once and for all at some point in history? Or is the aggression of living beings a universal necessity, a cognitive universal?

In any case, man will once again lose his self-image as the center of creation. And he will no longer be able to see himself as the lonely tip of an evolution characterized by rationality and cognitive power, but has to compare himself with others.

At the very least, dealing with interstellar communication is also an opportunity for self-observation, to pause, to relativize one's own attitudes. Because behind all the thoughts and activities described for interstellar communication, there is certainly the age-old question of one's own being.

But also the anxious question: Is there someone out there? - Why don't you answer!